Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir - Wednesday Martin Ph.D.

Wednesday Martin intersperses the chapters with a faux academic essay on her 'subjects' and that basically sets the tone for the whole book. Reminds me of that short story that satirized routine human behaviors as the strange rituals of an alien species (
"scraping teeth with stiff hog bristles tied to the end of sticks in a rhythmic motion" comes to mind) and I love the combination of ironic observations and poignant on-the-outside-looking-in truths about the lifestyles and sociological niches she describes.


Trigger warning - chapter 7 deals with child loss on both the macro and micro (personal anecdotes) level.


A lot of comparisons between humans and primates and humans and birds, which are quite apt in context. Some things are truly interesting, such as the sex segregation and groupthink that reminds me very strongly of domestic lives of women in the 50s described in The Feminine Mystique; highly educated women with masters degrees who are career housewives and earn social rather than monetary compensation for their skills. A good trade off? I wonder, too, about the prevalence of large families among the uber rich, as if the quantity of children being able to lavish resources on them is in itself a status symbol. Contrast to large families in lower economic brackets and the social/cultural implications thereof.


 -- "Before you could say "millet," women were transformed from gatherers - with all the clout, influence, and freedom that came with supplying their bands with nearly all their daily calories - into keepers of the hearth and home, with little say beyond what time the dinner they had spent the day making would be served, and little prestige other than as baby vessels." Was it really such a dramatic change? I'm unfamiliar with relationship dynamics in the family units pre-medieval history...


-- "In a huge town, knowing whether and how you might be connected to someone, whether they know someone you know or want to know - the Chinese call it being guanxi, a system of connectedness in a country of billions - makes a certain amount of sense. Even if it seems a little (or a lot) mercenary."


-- "Everything was so honeyed and moneyed and immaculate that it made me dizzy sometimes." The land of milk and honey.


-- "Maybe childhood evolved not for children but for adults, and was beneficial for them." / "In most cultures, children are net contributors to their households by age seven." Interesting... Recent change in America? Although more rural and impoverished areas still have the dynamic of kids having to help out the family more so than in families living in the city.


-- "In traditional Mayan villages in Mexico, for example, kids essentially run households and market stalls. These children, anthropologist Karen Kramer found, have high levels of self-confidence: they know exactly what they're supposed to do, master it, and feel important. And their parents do not report stress, depression, or fatigue as so many parents in the industrialized West do."


-- "Deprived of a group of older relatives who can teach them practical skills and impart language simply by speaking all around them all day long, they have to learn it in a labor-intensive dyad ("Da da da da" we say, and "cat cat cat," over and over)." I noticed this a bit with ESL students of mine; they had a tendency to pick up a lot of the slang and casual speech the teachers used around them, and then we had to teach them formal English to use for their written essays. The vocabulary they had to take weekly tests on and learned the through repetition almost never stuck in their heads after the tests were over. Noticeable regardless of age between 5 and 15 years old.


-- "Meredith Small famously observed that children of... our current geological era, are "priceless but useless." Not true! They are great investments for your retirement. :P Maybe.


"One night, after I had been cooped up there literally for hours, my husband came into my "office" - the former maid's room, off our kitchen - and I quickly, shamefacedly logged off a site. "What was that?" he wanted to know as my computer screen swallowed an image of a Blue Jean 35-cm Birkin. "What were you looking at?" I answered him honestly: "Sorry. It's porn." This piqued his interest, until he realized I meant handbag pornography."

Should anyone ask, this is the defining tone and a great example of Martin's voice throughout the story.


-- "...women act as if their finances and financial well-being have nothing to do with their husbands', as if these baubles don't cost the couple as a unit." Good point, something I've seen mentioned on a lot of personal finance blogs over the years.


-- "Because aggression is potentially dangerous and competitive signaling is costly, it is now believed, female mammals, including primates, have learned over the eons to compete "under the radar." Which is to explain social rather than physical violence in girl world. See: Mean Girls, both the movie and the book it was based on.


-- "Worldwide, the ethnographic data tells another story: the more stratified and hierarchical the society, and the more sex segregated, the lower the status of women." Related to the point in chapter 8 (?) about whether or not the Upper East Side women are really that privileged and enviable.


-- "If you don't bring home tubers and sha roots, if you don't earn money, your power is diminished in your marriage. And in the world. Period." / "But the comparative study of human society and our primate relatives shows that such access can't buy you the power you get by being the one who earns it. And knowing this, or even having an inkling of it, just sensing the disequilibrium, the abyss that separates your version of power from your man's could keep a thinking woman up at night." Related quotes re: independence.


-- "Anxiety and stress are diseases of the West, afflictions of the WEIRD - anthropologist Jared Diamond's acronym for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic peoples." Note to self: look this guy up.


-- "For the average mammal... stress is three minutes of terror on the savanna, after which the stress is over - or you are."


-- "Wives were their husbands' expensive baubles and bottles of wine, proof of their awesomeness, and husbands were their wives' meal tickets." Again, callback to Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Not a disagreeable arrangement if both parties involved choose it though. One thing that is touched on in relation to this bit is that these women can leave or choose to work or whatever they want to do, but they would have to give up a lot of the special perks of their high maintenance lives. A lot of them are motivated by fear of divorce and/or losing their husbands (money) and being forced to work, etc. Can't have the cake and eat it too, it seems.