Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The quitting point

A few years ago, the social critic Malcolm Gladwell published, "The Tipping Point," a book that tried to explain when fads became social trends. My first reaction was jealousy and anger. I'd always wondered about such things as when "everyone" added a North Face fleece jacket to their wardrobe, when rental car companies started "upgrading" their customers for no obvious reason, or how 9 year-old visitors to my house began asking me for sushi as an after-school snack, as if it came in a box and could be ready in 10 minutes. Of course, like so many great ideas I've had over the years -- pre-mixed tuna, celery and mayonaise being my best one -- I never followed through. As false consolation, my friends tell me I wouldn't be able to manage the tax problems that would come with new found riches. "Not quite," I tell them. "My wife is a CPA. This woman knows exactly how many kernels should be in a bag of Smart Food popcorn. If the Smart Food people don't include exactly 4 servings per bag, trust me, they will hear about it." A tax problem isn't the issue. Getting distracted by the next great idea is.

Gladwell was on to something, though, and his book is fun, interesting and easy to read -- precisely the kind of thing that academics like myself would do if we hadn't been trained in graduate school to be pensive, boring and write in impenetrable prose. And although he offers no clear empirical explanation to explain social trends, Gladwell does offer the reader a lot to think about. But I find myself using the tipping point metaphor in other contexts, most recently while waiting for my almost-8-year-old teenage daughter to come bounding out of the front door of her school to tell me "this has been the worst day ever." Except the social phenomenon I see around school, around my neighborhood, indeed, almost anywhere where you find the parents of young children, is something I'll call The Quitting Point.

Sitting in the sun on some raised bricks underneath a small oak tree, something hit me as I watched mom after mom (and one other dad and an older man I hoped was a grandparent) come up the sidewalk, eagerly seeking out their social circle for gossip and chit-chat before their young charges came running out with their list of demands for the afternoon.

"Did you get the email from Ms. June about pumpkin math," asked one who must have, in her elementary school life, been the student selected to make the morning announcements over the intercom.

"Yes, I did. And I am so excited! I just love pumpkin math," said another. "I think what we should do this year is to divide . . ." and then I just checked out of the conversation. Pumpkin math? Excited? Like an aphrodesiac? How . . . why . . . for whom? Dear God.

Then I looked across the plaza and saw a relentlessly smiling young mom wearing a grey, oversized sweatshirt with "MINNIE," as in the mouse, on the front, She was talking to an equally cheerful mother wearing a Salty Dog Rehobeth Beach t-shirt, who seemed nonplussed by the other three children she was hauling around. "Yes, they're all mine!" I've heard her say on more than one occasion to disbelieving other parents. "The Lord's blessed us five times."

"No," I thought. "I think someone wasn't paying attention in sex ed class all those years ago." Then again, she strikes me as the type that attended one of those schools that banished sex ed from the curriculum and encouraged their students to write letters to Nancy Reagan supporting her Just Say No initiative or sign an Abstinence Pledge in exchange for complimentary in-class pizza parties.

The dad, of course, was standing by himself reading a magazine. Moms don't talk to dads unless there was a prior social relationship in place before their children began attending school together. Now and then, we get the gentle reminder from the Room Moms who circle the school at drop-off and pick-up like the Queen Bees they either once were in high school or are now determined to become telling us "you do know there is a PTA meeting tomorrow night, right? It's in the all-purpose room. Do you know where that is?" The dad will remind no one of George Clooney, clad as he is in his "Mets-Yankees Subway Series 2000" t-shirt that, based on the grease stains up and down the front, doubles as his lawn maintenance outfit.

So here it is: When did we just quit caring? Was the woman in the MINNIE sweatshirt, over-the-knee hemmed denim shorts, half-calf white socks with the Champion logos facing out and clunky running shoes born that way, or did something just happen one morning and she decided to throw in the towel? It couldn't always have been like that. In an earlier life, some guy had to see her from across the room, or make unnecessary trips to her cubicle pretending to need another pencil, or notice that she stopped for coffee at the same place he did every morning and work up the nerve to ask her out. A woman had to nudge her friend when she saw the guy who, by now, probably hasn't bought a new shirt in five years and said, "Do you think you could find out if he's seeing anyone?" There had to be those first few moments of infatuation, the ones where you think to yourself, "Okay, be cool, this could be it. Don't overeat; don't talk about how pissed off you are that you've been demoted from the lead-off spot on the company softball team; and DO NOT talk about your non-existent old girlfriend, even if she makes a reference to the "bad place" she was in until she wanted to go out with you. There had to be that first shiver at the first touch of their hands, the "where is this going to go" feeling after the first kiss. There had to be, right?

No, I am not excited about pumpkin math, not now, not ever. I hate Sally Foster gift wrap season and all the other beg-a-thons that go on during the school year. During my one appearance at a PTA meeting five or six years ago, when my now "this-is-how-we-do-things-in-my-society" 12 year-old son was a much more charming first or second grader, I suggested that the school simply assess a student activity fee, similar to how colleges assess their students, based on a projected budget for extracurriculars over the year. This way, we'd have no overpriced wrapping paper, unused pizza kits and disgusting popcorn cluttering up our houses.

"Your Max's dad, right," came the icy response from the PTA president. She looked at me as if I had just walked into her church and, before an outraged priest, yelled, "No, you prove God exists. I'm good where I am." "We just don't do things that way here, she said, gradually raising her voice. "If you'd come to SOME OTHER MEETINGS BEFORE THIS YOU WOULD KNOW THAT."


Many years ago, I used to wonder about my older friends who referred to things like a night out with their wife as "date night," or justified an extravagant vacation alone or with their husband as "cheaper than therapy." What is up with that, I'd think. How much fun can that be? Where's the spontenaity, the romance, the feeling of not knowing where you're going or when you'll be back? Now, I get it. Reserving time for yourself is simply a way of sticking it to Sally Foster. Putting on a clean shirt and pants that don't look like you pulled them off the clearance table at Old Navy is a way of reminding yourself that, at least once upon a time, it wasn't always like this. These are the lessons I try to remember when the quitting point tempts me. Maybe today will be the day I change out of my cargo shorts and CITY SPORTS BOSTON T-shirt after I write this and before I pick my daughter up from school.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

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