Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Stranger in a Spartan Land

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At home in Berkeley, California, it's my husband, Daddy Sparta, the soldier/policeman, who is the outsider. On the days when he works at the Army Reserves, I can't ask him to pick up some milk on his way home. He doesn't want to be seen in Berkeley in an Army uniform. He is afraid of the reaction he might get in the land where "Kill your Television" bumper stickers are outnumbered only by those that say "Question Authority." Where tie-dyed, dread-locked canvassers regularly stop by our house asking for our support to "tear down the military-industrial complex."

But recently we moved to an Army base in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, so that Daddy Sparta could attend the Army War College. It was time for me, humanist artsy liberal Mommy Athens, to be the square peg. I thought, No problem. I'm multi-cultural. I'm open-minded. So I'll have to tuck my favorite t-shirt -- which advertises a lesbian bar in San Francisco ("The G(irl)- Spot: If you can't find it, you can't come") -- into the back of my drawer. No biggie. I looked forward to a lively exchange of opinions.

Yet, the first odd thing I noticed about these Spartans is that they don't like to debate. Evidently, people agree about the important things. Here is one metaphor that spells it all out clearly: There is a little place here where you can borrow lawn mowers, and the lawn mowers are all soldered into one position so that they all mow at the exact same height. This reminded me that there was no agora in ancient Sparta.

I might have anticipated a generally taciturn quality to these Spartans, given that Daddy Sparta himself detests superfluous speech. Daddy Sparta is so opposed to repeating himself that he has developed a set of hand signals to comment on my driving. A swooping hand arc to the right means he thinks I should move into the right lane. A flat hand up and down means I need to slow down. Then his all-time favorite, the right fist pulling out of his grasping left hand. The meaning? Putting it nicely: You need to be more alert. But a more literal translation is: Get your head out of your ass.

It's not that people here are particularly reticent. They discuss the weather, weekend plans, health, recipes, restaurants, children, all sorts of topics. Just nothing controversial.

Shortly after we arrived, a new babysitter asked, "Are you Protestant or Catholic?" then added hurriedly, "Not that it matters." I had to think for a moment. The last time I'd been asked about our religion was on a medical form. For Sparta, I'd written, "Second Amendment." For me, I'd chosen "Pantheism." But somehow I didn't think that would go over well with this youngster. I thought of saying, Can I get back to you? But, remembering that Sparta was baptized an Episcopalian, I settled for that.

My next surprise was a big, imposing sign at the fitness center check-in desk that read, "Ladies, t-shirts must be worn over sports bras. No spandex, please." I read it over and over again and finally asked the gal at the desk, "I'm sorry, but is this serious? You can't wear a sports bra?"

She saw that I was shocked and said, "Well, for someone like you, it could be okay . . . " (Umm, thank you?) "But there are other women who really shouldn't be seen in a sports bra, and we have to make the same rules for everyone."

I flashed on my gym at home, where on a good day, one patron will sport a wrist-to-ankle orange unitard while getting busy on the Stairmaster. She is a lovely, sweaty sight, but no one stares or makes comments. I think we all just say a little mental Thank you for the visual treat. I know I do.

For the next few weeks, I sputtered to Sparta about injustice and misogyny, but finally I went out and bought a sport top: a bra/tank-top combo that comes to my waist. No unseemly skin showing. Paired with long, black yoga pants, I had my new gym uniform. A little warm, but I could live with it.

Then one day, as I was putting my MP3 player away in my gym bag, an employee sidled up to me. He was short, shiny-faced, bulbous.

"Um. Excuse me," the Frog said.

Another employee joined him. He was burly, wide, like an unfriendly Bullwinkle. Both Bullwinkle and Frog were making studious examinations of the floor. I could tell I had done something wrong and tried to figure out what. I felt sorry for their discomfiture and wanted to help. It was true that I had wiped the machine down with the corner of my sweat towel, but the wiping towels were all out. As I readied this explanation, Frog said, "It's . . . it's . . . it's . . . well. Your attire."

"My attire?"

"Yes. We need you to wear proper fitness attire."

"Ummm . . . I am wearing proper fitness attire."

"No, we need you to wear proper fitness attire."

Seeing that Frog was faltering here, Bullwinkle offered, "We've had some complaints."

Absurdity has a way of turning time to molasses. I slow-motioned my way to an incredulous out-breath. Then I squinted and grimaced through indignation, wondering, What is there to complain about? Finally, a hot cocktail of hurt and anger rouged my face. But hovering above the emotions was a pure intellectual curiosity. I really did not understand.

"Who's complaining, men or women?" I asked.

Moose paused, considering his answer. "Men."

I finally just laughed. "Okay. Whatever." And I got the hell out of there. When I got home, I stared at myself in the mirror from various angles. I marched up and down while pumping my arms back and forth, pretending I was on the cross-trainer, and watched my breasts carefully. Could my offense have been that hint of a jiggle? That shadow of a nipple? I never found out.

Word of the "attire incident" got around among the other spouses of Seminar 12, the small group that Daddy Sparta was assigned for both study and social purposes. At one of our monthly Seminar 12 brunches for spouses, someone teased me about it. And lo! We had a discussion. Some people shared my indignation, while another person described a gym in Houston where many of the women wore thong leotards. She said, "I didn't like taking my teenage son there. I like the atmosphere here more." I hadn't thought of it that way.

After that discussion, I felt closer to the people here. For me, sharing opinions does that. But Spartans have taught me that sharing experiences and sacrifices may be an even better way. When my son (and I) spent a week in the hospital because of an infection in his neck, the folks here rallied around us. A neighbor went in the house and sifted through our papers to get our insurance information. Others called the hospital regularly. Many brought Daddy Sparta meals while we were gone.

I'm becoming accustomed to the rhythm of life here, to the bugle calls six times daily. After a couple of pointed ahems from my 11-year old neighbor, I learned to stand at attention at the 5 p.m. lowering of the colors. And that moment of communal stillness has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

I'm still looking for someone to wear a burkha to the gym with me. It would be more fun than wearing Sparta's baggy tank tops. So far no takers, but I haven't given up yet.

Sophia Raday is the author of Love In Condition Yellow: A Memoir of an Unlikely Marriage (Beacon Press, 2009). She lives in Berkeley, California with her Oakland police officer/Army Reserve colonel husband, their two children, a bipartisan dog, and assorted firearms. A founding editor of Literary Mama, Raday’s work has appeared here and in various anthologies, Stanford magazine, and the New York Times.

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