Life in Balance

Writing has been an ever-changing experience for me. Early in my career I was an editor, and speechwriter, for a very large county-schools system: 48 separate districts under one superintendent. I wrote articles that were published in the WSJ, that someone else attached their name to:  standard-practice, but so annoying. The speeches I wrote for the CEO? Same thing. Still, I was having my ‘voice’ heard, and I liked it.

prima.co.uk

Other kinds of professional writing – proposals and grants – not so much love there. By the time I entered a doctoral program and faced the challenge of a writing my dissertation, the only real struggle I had was with the ‘structure’ required of an ‘academic’ publication. Why so resistant to (APA) guidelines? Because I felt they interfered with my creative process. Because I felt the ‘guidelines’ were meant to create a kind of template for how scholarly-writing should look. Because someone, somewhere, decided that Readers really do pay attention to things like how References appear on a page. (I remain unconvinced.) Because I’ve always questioned, and frequently disregarded inexplicable Rules. Rules for writing; rules for creating; rules for living.

Over the weekend I had a discussion with a younger adult about this very topic:  how the desire to live an inspired, free and creative (how happiness and fulfillment unfolds for you) life gets tangled-up with largely unwritten Rules. “Say you’re part of a team function,” he said; “you’re expected to participate in group activities outside of ‘the work’:  lunch together, drinks, sharing aspects of your life with strangers. If you don’t, people start calling you weird.”

Is this a chicken-egg thing, I wondered? Which comes first:  our own need to fit-in and be accepted, or the influence of others telegraphing that we might be ostracized by the group if we don’t conform to its norms? What’s the real challenge, in being authentic – in proclaiming who we are, what we enjoy and what we want for ourselves, ultimately? I think the answer to that is, ‘depends on how high the stakes are and what the goal is’. I freely share (only when asked, of course) with (mostly younger) people how I’ve vigorously ‘bucked’ the Rules, but also ‘played by’ the Rules when necessary:  when I’ve wanted something (like a Ph.D.) that just wasn’t going to happen if I acted the maverick (read: true to my nature). If the task at hand is situational and of a certain time limit – with an end in sight – it’s easier.

But a full life of going-along-to-get-along, to me, represents inertia, then coma, then death of spirit. How many people are swept-up in the life-long engagement of trying to please, wanting to conform, needing acceptance from as many people as possible? Sometimes it can feel, especially when we’re writing, painting, sculpting, dancing – or just preferring to brown-bag it in the park, instead of joining The Team for lunch – that we’re struggling against something important, and possibly even  risking “being alone forever”.

Quite a few notable people, as it turns out, have asked, and addressed this struggle…

George Carlin

 “I like it when a flower, or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so   f***in’ heroic.”― George Carlin

John Lennon

 “It’s weird, not to be weird”.  – John Lennon

Hermann Hesse

“I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I’m beginning to hear the teachings of my own blood, pulsing within me.” – Hermann Hesse

My Take on “Toxic Masculinity”

I grew up in a household full of males – no sisters, just my mother. But she was six feet tall, and had been pretty much been raised as the “boy” her father (a serious outdoorsman) so desperately wanted. My mother learned to hunt, fish, climb trees, drive a tractor, smoke, drink and cuss right along with my grandfather’s Spanish and Portuguese farm hands. Much to the dismay of my rather proper grandmother who wore corsets, powder, perfume and rouge, and who never in her life wore a pair of trousers. My mother occasionally used makeup and liked to have her hair “done”, but she never let anyone forget her full persona. After leaving her father’s farm, she became a college professor and also wrote dense, sad poetry. The happiest I ever saw her, when I was a child, was when she was fly-fishing:  bouncing in her rubber boots over slick oval rocks, flicking her line, with a Black Gnat attached, like a matador teasing a bull. She always caught her limit of gigantic Rainbow trout.

I came into womanhood about the time that the Women’s Liberation Movement was gathering momentum. The term “male chauvinism” was on almost every girl’s lips. For me, as early as the eighth grade in school (as I wrote in a previous Post), chauvinism was the ‘thing’ that prevented me from wearing pants to school. (Try riding a bicycle, climbing a tree or Jungle Gym in a skirt and petticoat. No boy would do that, exposing his bloomers, am I right?). Social conventions created exclusively for females were being targeted and obliterated by the Feminists of my day. But, and I can recall this very clearly – the goal of our ‘liberation’ at that time was equity. If I chose to wear pants, I could. If I wanted to become a welder or enlist in military service, I could. And, if I did the very same work that a man did, I wanted and expected equal pay. Anything that a man was allowed to do in our society, women of my time wanted the option (which was always the only point of the Movement) to do the same. Of course, that created a Big Scare among men.

Outcries about crazed women trying to emasculate men on a global scale proliferated; coming from both men and more conservative (as in Biblical- framework) women. As with any Movement, things can go out of control. You begin your crusade with ideas that seem reasonable; but as others get involved and exert their own visions and influence, you lose control of the original mission. As a Liberated Woman (which I always felt was my birthright, by the way – despite rampant sexism in my workplace), I’m utterly dismayed by the left-turn in feminist attitudes (I’m inclined to call it a “one-eighty”) that has given traction to the phrase “Toxic Masculinity”.

Kudos to Christina Hoff Sommers – almost exactly four years my senior – who opened a dialogue out about the feminist “detour” (my word) we started to take in the early 1990’s, in her book “Who Stole Feminism?”. Simply stated, Sommers speaks to what the Women’s Liberation Movement was originally about:  Equity. She makes a really important distinction between “gender feminists” versus “equity feminists”. On the most recent HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Sommers was the lead-off guest on the show.

Sommers

Sommers declares that Toxic Masculinity is suspiciously similar to the divisive extremism we’re seeing in our entire current political and social atmosphere. I wholeheartedly agree with her:  unity through equity was always the primary mission of the original Women’s Movement. I know, because I was there. I listened to Steinem, Friedan, Wolf and others. I read their books and even had discussions with men who generally agreed with our goals.

Women have come a long way in fighting for equal rights, but there’s still a long way to go – especially for women of color and for those wanting to experience Female and Femininity in their own ways. Wherever the struggle takes us next, I’m not willing to draw-lines-in-the-sand, adding to the bellicose atmosphere with negatively-charged epithets. I may not know who “Stole” Feminism; but the “Why” of the theft seems the more important question, and one that’s part of a much bigger disaster-in-progress.

[All images courtesy of gettyimages.com]

Thumbs-Up, Thumbs-Down

gettyimages

In the past few weeks I’ve had multiple experiences – first a trickle, then a steady daily stream – that’ve revealed a heartbreakingly common theme of being human. Many Readers are familiar with the thought experiment that shows the Law of Attraction at work:  holding an image in your mind during a normal day (a butterfly, for example) and noticing how many times you see images, or the real thing, from sun-up until sundown. It’s pretty remarkable – if you can maintain playful focus on whatever you decide you want to ‘see’.

The thought experiment I’ve been living recently first started (maybe 3 weeks ago) when a dozen or so of my colleagues were tasked with choosing teams for a project. Anyone could start the process of choosing – it began, and ended via email. But as those who were anxious to pick competent and capable friends began sending out Invites, others were left unchosen.  Memories from grade school athletics:  the unsparingly-cruel team captains selecting the best, or most skilled, players so as to avoid getting stuck with ‘losers’.

If you were in the small group of misfits no captain wanted (as I was, in most sports competitions), the lesson was unmistakable and painfully poignant:  no one wants you. In my colleague-teaming situation, this played out (via groupmail) in a very public way:  who was invited to join, and who was left asking to join. Yes, we’re all adults and this is Life, but still; it didn’t feel good. After all, we all want and need to be well-regarded; to be chosen; to be Liked.

In the 26 August “New Yorker” magazine, there’s an article titled “Trouble in Paradise” by Andrew Marantz. The piece focuses on the Tech industry’s efforts to confront its ‘demons’, in terms of its perceived (and fact-based) lack of ethics. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple and several others are being called-out for tactics that are now collectively referred to as “Human Downgrading:  …a reduction of human capacity…and human sensitivities” (p. 63).

There’s a ton of ‘psychology’, as it turns out, behind what these platforms do, and how they do it, in their quest for more and more presence in our lives. Turns out (many Readers might already know this), for example, an individual (not a Think Tank) came up with the idea of the ‘Like’ button. The button’s designed to gather data about our preferences, but also feeds our dopamine-hungry bodies in the same way that video games do:  by zapping our receptors with alternating challenges, rewards, defeats and punishments.

But what happens when we put ourselves ‘out there’, in the arena of social scrutiny, and we are not chosen? Or, we don’t get the number of ‘Likes’ we want and think we deserve? Studies are now showing that we grow panicky and anxious, sad and even despondent. Combatting the Awful Truth of the phrase “If It’s Not Insta, It Didn’t Happen”, Instagram in Canada has removed the ‘Like’ button entirely from its application, knowing full well what this means to the company’s bottom-line.

So after my “teambuilding” (a deliberate oxymoron, here) experience, I continued to encounter friends and family members who were feeling invisible, neglected, unloved and even shamed in their experiences and relationships. I’m not trying to imply that all of these outcomes are the result of being “on” Social Media, or, Under the Influence of Social Media, but the New Yorker article presents pretty compelling evidence of a connection. The Tech Giants (the humans running this industry) themselves seem to be in growing realization that much of their money-making relies on promoting and maintaining human emotions such as apprehension, uncertainty, insecurity and a sense of inclusion or exclusion.

gettyimages

Who are these people Liking and Following us, and why does this even matter so much? What might Likes and Follows be a substitute for? I note the symbolism of a simple ‘button’, like Roman Emperors of ancient times:  “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as to whether or not a gladiator’s life should be spared. Wait – did you think that ‘Thumbs-Up’ was invented by Tech? (smiley emoji)

Ride at Your Own Risk

I gave up experimenting with Dating Sites a really long time ago. As in years ago. Turns out, the Interweb isn’t quite done with me in that regard. I used to take it somewhat seriously, scrolling through pages of pictures and profiles – especially after hearing about Real Life Success Stories within my own circle of single, divorced or widowed female friends.

dreamstime.com

But my own experience brought me  a lot of really lonely, sad men (as in clinically depressed); really angry men; really young men who had clear mommy issues; and men who seemed to be shopping for a woman exactly like they would a piece of furniture. None of this truly important stuff gets revealed in a person’s Profile – intentionally. I get it. But, seriously? The Truth is going to come out during the first meeting, so…why go through coffee, or drinks and dinner and strained conversation that has to end with an awkward handshake? No thank you.

Even though I’m no longer on any of these sites, the Internet Jackals have found, and have been circling me, regardless. I’m thinking that there must be an algorithm for my gender and age, education and marital status, so that what little is actually there in cyberspace flags me as “prey”. If the men now reaching out to me (via Twitter, lately) weren’t so immediately obvious in their gushing compliments in limited English (I’m referring to two apparently Eastern European “Engineers”, living and working on “oil rigs out in the Baltic” that latched on to me about two weeks apart), I might be more amused, than irritated.  

thetimes.co.uk

But the typical inference that I must be vulnerable to, and desperate for over-the-top seduction ( really bad poetry, in some cases) makes me want to respond back with expletives. I want to take some kind of action to defend and protect myself from these Internet Lotharios (bottom line, wanting cash, I’m sure). Whatever that might be. I’m still spit-balling ideas at the moment, since I’m expanding (not shrinking) my Interweb Presence.

One of the last “social-networking” sites I visited really had me feeling hopeful. Its purpose was to connect people actively engaged in what used to be called New Age pursuits:  what we might refer to today as Conscious , or Mindful Living.  Unfortunately, this was and still is one of those sites – Readers might know of others – that, even though you delete your account, actually keeps your information in a vault somewhere in cyberspace. Every now and then unsuspecting former members might receive the message:  “Hello! Look Who Likes You!”

OG Romantic Icon, Olivier as Heathcliff

And so it was, (yesterday) that a completely fabricated ‘person’ was delivered to my Inbox. This time, the “Engineer” (how is this career a ‘thing’ now??) lived less than 20 miles from me (supposedly), instead of on a rig in the Baltic. I decided to read his ‘message’…which was an Ode to my picture (still visible, apparently) and profile (how the hell was he still seeing something I’d deleted ?). He ended his Ode by asking me to text him (a New York number, 2,500 miles away from where I live) so that we’d have a “private and intimate way of getting to know each other”.  Of course:  ‘private’ and ‘intimate’ – the stuff of romance novels.

Curiosity got the better of me. I’ll admit:   I wanted to know if this guy was a “Dimitri’ or an ‘Alek’, so I asked him to share his real name. As though my question had cast a magic spell, complete with fairy dust, the man, the profile, and the internet presence was gone in mere seconds. Feeling satisfied that I’d outed yet another scam, I decided that “Ma” (a pretty bizarre nickname, right?) was actually an AI bot. His photo was too ‘Perfect Man’:  like the enemy-android (in his chiseled-face human form) from the Terminator I film.

metro.co.uk

The point of all of this thinking about fake Internet Lotharios and their motives is not to alarm myself or any Reader. It’s just a reminder of how complex the Interweb experience can be. Some people enjoy a good game of ‘cat and mouse’:  they expect such weirdness and deception  and resolve to have fun with it.(I’m thinking about all of the people on YouTube who’ve taken the time to record and then call back ‘fake’ debt-collectors in the hope of ‘besting’ them.) It’s one thing when you go seeking It – whatever that edgy Cyber Thrill is. But it’s another feeling entirely when It comes prowling for you, disguised as a human being.

Time for me to Level Up, once again:  revisit my Privacy settings and bolster my sense of humor. Aside from all of the really good things it can be, cyberspace is also an amusement park “ride” that’s not for the faint at heart. As the signs always say, Ride at Your Own Risk.

Knowing the Difference

I’ve learned to practice — more and more as I relax into it — Gratitude, as part of my daily ritual:  thinking about and offering it – even for minor ‘pluses’ in a given day. Sometimes, in periods of off-the-charts stress, finding something to be happy about and grateful for – even something small – brings relief. It might be, that after a night of restless sleep worrying about an important choice I need to make, the neighbor across the street chooses to carpool, instead of firing up his Monster Truck at 4 a.m. (rattling my windows and catapulting me out of bed). Yes. Thank You.

One of the most amazing aspects of growing older and wiser (there are so many, really, but this one is Big) is the way that Perspective becomes one of the easiest life-skills to appreciate. The kind of Perspective I’m referring to here can only be gained (earned, actually), through time and experience on the planet. The highs and lows — celebrations and tragedies, successes and failures — allow me to understand what’s truly important, and what’s either a distraction, or totally meaningless in my experience.

By the time that penicillin was discovered in 1928, my grandmother had lost 6 of her siblings to bacterial infections that could have easily been treated with this medication. From her mid-30’s on, she had a belief in doctors and medicine that went far beyond rational. While pregnant with her first child, a doctor told her she was anemic. She agreed to be given oral doses of a liquid that made all of her teeth fall out and caused, so she later learned, her first daughter to be stillborn.

I’m definitely grateful for living in a time of so much advanced scientific information, technology and innovation in general. But lately I’ve also been thinking, adjusting my perspective, about how many innovations are a tricky balance of benefit and detriment.

A lot is being said (and studied) about the ways in which personal technology is impacting our lives. When Television came on the scene (our family’s first was a black and white model – hard to imagine, now), it was quickly decried as The Idiot Box, and The Boob Tube. The end of Reading; the end of Conversation; meals eaten on “tv trays” instead of at a table; and networks subtly shaping our buying and spending habits through advertising.

It’s an escalating addiction, Technology. The more I incorporate it into my life, the more my life seems to demand the latest versions of ‘whatever’;  so that Having is way better than Not Having. I get the big picture; I see the inevitable way that innovations will continue to improve our lives, but also make us more dependent on them (and less so, on one another).  I’m not exactly embracing it unilaterally (the way that my grandmother did the wisdom of the medical field); but I’m not rejecting it either. It’s an uneasy communion, for sure.

I’m at the age now where I can appreciate Knowing the Difference. Life before television; before the Internet, computers, smart phones, smart speakers and smart homes; virtual experiences that  might feel preferable to reality. We’re all transitioning – along with the technology of our time – and I am right there with those anticipating The Next Upgrade.

So, this  isn’t a dystopian rant. It’s an expression of extreme gratitude for Knowing the Difference, in the experiencing of Life. What it was before, and what it is now. “It’s all good,” we tell ourselves. Actually, it’s going to be exactly what we choose to make it:  Choice being the operative word. I’m feeling thankful, to have the ‘age’ and experience to know what the choices actually are, and how profoundly meaningful they will be.

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