30 March 2012

Listening

When I was about ten years old, my dad bought a CB radio and installed it in his car.

In case you are under thirty, and you have never heard of a CB radio, let me explain.  CB stands for "citizens' band."  A CB radio is a type of short-wave radio used for two-way communications between civilians.  Its use does not require a license in the United States, and for that reason it was popular among motorists, particularly truckers, in the 1970s.  In the days before smart phones and GPS systems, a CB radio was a great way to get traffic and weather reports, directions, diner recommendations, and updates on road conditions from other motorists.  It was a quick way to get in touch with emergency services from the road, when necessary; one channel was monitored by the police and reserved for emergencies.  And it was a great source of entertainment - a means for chatting with others - when the long road got boring.

CB users had a lingo all their own, and I had to learn the basics of this mysterious language when my dad bought his radio.  First, you needed an alias, because no one used their real name.  (It was widely considered unsafe to do so.)  My dad, with his excellent sense of humor, called himself the Padre.  I gave my new appellation a lot of thought before deciding on Snow White.

Once you had a name, you needed to master the basics of using the radio.  You tuned to a station that had people chatting on it and tried to get into a conversation.  You did this by speaking into the radio and trying to sound grown-up and savvy.  "Breaker one-seven, this is Snow White.  Does anyone have the ten-twelve?"  Ten-twelve was code for the time.  It was more fun to try to find a trucker who would tell me what time it was than, for example, to look at the clock on the dashboard.

My dad watched my CB usage very closely, because he was concerned about safety.  On the way in and out of the city, he sometimes let me ask the truckers what the traffic was like on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.  Once, I humiliated myself by butting in and asking, "Breaker one-nine, this is Snow White, looking for a northbounder on the George Washington Bridge."

That's the day I learned, from the unmuffled laughter of the truckers and the rolling of my dad's eyes, that the George Washington Bridge runs from east to west.

Interestingly, my dad did not talk much on the radio.  He spent a lot of time listening while he drove, though.  He had to drive long distances - an hour each way down the Turnpike to his church on Sunday mornings, and at least an hour back and forth to his civilian job on weekdays.  He became great at decoding the trucker lingo, and he understood just about everything that was said.  He sometimes asked about speed traps, or traffic conditions, or local gas stations with good prices, but I almost never heard him chat on the radio.

I, as you can imagine, always had a lot to say, even when I was just ten years old, and so I spent a lot of time trying to get my dad to let me use his radio.  I drove him crazy with my constant wheedling.  Sometimes he would give up and let me sit in the car in our driveway and use the radio while he raked leaves or shoveled snow, or performed some other task that allowed him to keep one eye and ear on my activities.  I nattered on with the truckers, surely making them cringe as much as I made my dad cringe.  "I'm learning," I told my dad.  "Talking to these people is one of the ways I like to learn.  About all kinds of things."

And that's when my dad leaned over, switched off the radio, and delivered to me one of the most important lessons of my life.

"You learn much more by listening," he told me, "than you will ever learn by talking."

My dad, as a clergyman, was a professional listener.  He knew that the best way to identify a problem and to figure out a way to solve it was to listen to the concerns of the people who owned the problem.  He was also (and still is) a gifted violinist.  He always listened closely before he picked up his bow to participate.  Listening, he said, was the very best way to learn anything.  If you listen well, you are halfway there.

I heard this lesson again in my head when, as a college student, I tried to pick up the cadences of German and Spanish conversation.  I listened closely to the anti-apartheid demonstrators on my college's campus.  I went to activist group meetings and - yes - listened.  My dad's voice echoed in my head as I listened to lectures and moot court arguments in law school.  I sat in the back of the federal appellate courtroom as a young lawyer, listening closely to what the lawyers and judges said.  I chatted with my colleagues, but I mostly listened to my superiors.  As a mother of learning-disabled students, I spent hours and hours talking to experts. Not talking, really, but listening.  And I learned an awful lot.

I'm still a talker and a writer.  I'm still a communicator and a storyteller.  I still interrupt people and jump in on their conversations.  I still make people close to me cringe with the personal nature of the stories I tell.  I embarrass the teenagers by chatting them up when they'd really rather be left to their own devices.  I can't help it; it's in my nature.  My brain is wired that way.

The CB radio culture is a little bit passé in this age of Pinterest and Siri and Google Maps, but it left an indelible mark on my development.  Listening is a valuable skill - and perhaps one of the most important skills we can give our children.  I'm glad my dad gave it to me.

16 March 2012

Women

Women are definitely not as smart as men.

If we were, we would have figured out a way, by now, to blame them for the basic facts of biology, which are, of course, not their fault.  We would have thought up some really excellent derogatory names to call them when they want to have sex but are not ready to have children.  By now, we would have been successful in making them feel ashamed of the very fact that they are male - making them tiptoe around the grocery store and avoid the clerk's eyes when they need to buy basic hygiene items, blaming their moods on their body chemistry and still asking them to get control of themselves, and forcing them to feel that every extra ounce of flesh on their body is a sign of weakness and lack of control.

If we were as smart as men, we would rally entire political parties around the subjugation of men.  We would deny them basic healthcare on the grounds that just wanting to earn a livelihood and support their families is against the grand plan of the universe.  We'd mandate medical tests that they don't want or need, just to make sure they know that their role in society is secondary to ours. We'd invoke the tenets of the major religions (which tenets we would have written, mind you) in support of our positions. We'd control the capital, and leave them to tend to the menial but necessary tasks of everyday life. They would stand behind us as we pontificated, clapping politely even as we robbed them of their integrity.

We'd constantly make fun of them for pursuing hobbies that are just in their nature, like watching sports, hunting, and playing competitive games.  It would be more societally acceptable, and less laughable, when we spend our time making clothing, beautifying our living spaces, and creating food for them to enjoy. Our empathy for the hungry and downtrodden of the world, that gut-wrenching feeling that makes us want to (a) spread the word about African warlords who torture children, (b) adopt homeless pets, and (c) spend our Saturdays at the soup kitchen, would be celebrated in society and the media rather than mocked.

The highest-paid professions would be those dominated by women because of their instinct to nurture: teachers, nurses, midwives, house cleaners, babysitters, and, yes, stay-at-home parents.  Men would scratch and claw their way into these professions, only to be told they're not dedicated enough when they want to take some time off to engage in manly pursuits.  Paid professional sports teams would be unheard of - at least, those where only men play.  Enthusiasts would watch the Super Bowl in private, on a laptop with headphones, feeling guilty and hoping no one minded their sneaking away for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon.

The world would be a very different place.

In all seriousness, I do not believe that there is any gender difference in intellectual ability.  I have known smart and stupid people of both genders, and people's intellectual ability generally has to do with factors other than their sex. That's not to say that men and women are the same; they are different, for sure.  Their sexual anatomy and urges are complementary and designed to perpetuate the species.  And though some of the stereotypes I mentioned above, mostly tongue-in-cheek, do not necessarily hold up under close inspection, I believe it is important for us to realize that we are all in this together. Some of us prefer male companions, some female. Some of us like to watch football, and some of us like to knit. Some of us want to have or be around children, and some of us don't. Discriminating against a large portion of the population because of an immutable trait - such as gender - does no one any good.

As I read the current news in law and politics, I hope with all my heart that the women of the world understand that the world belongs to them, too. I hope they will use the brains they have - which are every bit as good as any man's - to stand up for their bodies, their choices, and their lifestyles. The movement to restrict women's rights in the United States is gaining ground, and it uses religious tenets (mostly written by men) to justify it.  Do not be complacent. Stand up for what you believe; our daughters are watching.