What the Bechdel Test Says about Your Favorite Movies

strong female characters

Strong female characters—or even mediocre female characters—can be in short supply in Hollywood, on both the big and small screens. It’s something I’ve become more aware of as the years go by, and it's a bit dismaying. Recently, I’ve discovered that one of the best quick-view gauges by which to determine whether a film has adequate female representation is the Bechdel Test. Named for comic strip author Alison Bechdel, who with a friend devised the criteria back in the 1980s, the test has three really simple steps. First, are there two (named) female characters? Second, do they ever have a conversation with each other? Third, is their conversation about something other than a male character?

If the answer to these three questions is yes, it passes the test.

These three incredibly simple rules, amazingly, ruled out almost every single DVD on my shelf, including some of my favorite films. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Nope. The Lord of the Rings? Not even close. (And that is in spite of the fact that they proportionally really blew up Arwen’s role from Tolkien’s original text.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? No, because apparently Jeannie and her mom only talk about her troublesome brother Ferris.

It wasn't surprising to me that some of my more man-centric favorite films---The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, In Bruges, The Lord of the Rings---wouldn't pass. But even films with seemingly more positive and more frequent portrayals of women missed the mark in that they were still, ultimately, male-centric.

Blockbusters like the Batman series and The Avengers fail with flying colors (though there’s some dispute over whether The Dark Knight passes, as there is a scene where a female detective is forced at gunpoint to call another female character. Kind of a sad excuse for passing, if so). The only sure bet that a film will pass seemed to me to be if the lead character was a woman—but even that was called into question when I looked up The Little Mermaid (come on, Disney! Not surprising, I guess, when the character's sole motivation is marrying her prince).

The conclusion is that, despite all of the forward progress we’ve made, there are still some substantial holes in our cultural fabric when it comes to diverse and frequent media representations of women. Ensemble casts tend to be “rounded out” with one major female character; all-male leads segment off the female characters into the roles of wife, co-worker, mother, where they all exist only in relation to the male(s); or, as the test rightly points out, when the women do convene they end up talking about that male character.

Does your favorite movie pass the Bechdel test? Is it important to you that it does? Obviously it’s not necessary for every film, but it would be nice to see films outside of certain genres, or outside of the “chick flick” realm of films targeted directly at women, where two female characters talk to each other about things that concern them besides men.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading arianna

On a mission to manifest ease, Ariana Pritchett works with creative entrepreneurs and change agents to get out of the overwhelm and cut the excess that is keeping them stuck.  She believes that in order to do great work and make big impact one must reduce the busy and hone the area of genius unique to you.  In her latest project, Launch Sessions she pairs up with designer and friend, Katrina McHugh, to simplify solo-preneur start-up through a four-week business launch program.   You can find her attempting to quiet the crazy all while being a mom, wife, business owner, sister, friend, urban farmer and amateur interior stylist.  For more on her and her crazy crew check out her blog.

After grad school I made a commitment to only read material that satisfied my soul and made me itch to turn the next page. Alas juggling a new child and business start-up meant that I found most of these satisfying page-turners at the magazine stand of the local grocer.

This commercial consumption continued for a few years until my friends joined forces and started a book club. At first I assumed book club would be an excuse to have dinner and chat about our lives, little did I know it would keep me on my literary toes and stimulate my mind, heart, and spirit.

What I love most about book club is that I read books I would never have thought to pick up. Our eight member group rotates hosts once a month, giving each of us an opportunity to make a book selection of our choosing.

The books have run the spectrum from fiction and non-fiction to classics and contemporary.  There has been so much food for thought, but of the over 45 books we have read these are the top 4 that are still with me long after the last page is turned.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Storytelling at its finest. An intersection of characters on the streets of 1970s New York, reminding me that above all we just want to be seen and loved.

2. We the Animals by Justin Torres – A family of boys who push the Lord of the Flies envelope of what it means to be civilized.

3. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – One of the classics following a quiet man of character as the protagonist with whom I couldn’t help but fall in love.

4. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – Poetic and profound this is a war tale that reminded me once again the line between good and evil is not clear.

The five runners up are:

1. Olive Kitteridge

2. The Sense of an Ending

3. Zeitoun

4. Born to Run

5. Freedom

Information vs. Overload

If I retained one thing from my high school economics class, it was the concept of diminishing marginal utility. Apparently, the pizza analogy really captured my attention. It went something like this (please forgive this former English major if she is totally botching it): You stop into a pizza shop for lunch and buy yourself a slice. You are really hungry, and that slice is incredible. It is worth way more to you than the three dollars you spent on it. You decide to go for a second slice, which is also pretty satisfying and worth the price. By the time you’ve gone back for a third slice, you are feeling pretty neutral about it going down the hatch. After that point, additional slices equal pain, not pleasure, and they will no longer hold value for you (until lunchtime tomorrow).

Sometimes I wonder if this concept could be applied in some way to the problem of information overload. Imagine that the product is information and the cost is the time spent consuming it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve opened a browser in search of information or inspiration, only to find later that I’ve taken in more than I really needed or wanted, or spent too much valuable time, well, “browsing.” Depending on the question I’m trying to answer or how I’m feeling on a given day, there is a certain point at which the amount of information I’m taking in is no longer worth the time I’m spending consuming it. Unfortunately, it can be such a challenge to acknowledge when I’ve hit that point and release myself from the vortex of the screen.

There’s another challenge, which has to do with the intersection of the quality of the information we encounter, the order in which we encounter it, and our energy levels at various points throughout the day. For example, if I come across an incredibly beautiful and inspiring essay—exactly the sort of essay I had been looking for—at the very end of the day, I am probably too tired to really enjoy and process it. On the other hand, if I have spent the first precious hours of the morning flipping through a near-stranger’s endless collection of vacation photos, perhaps the quality of the information consumed was not equal to the nature and quantity of the time spent on it.

Many services and applications are coming up with welcome possibilities to help us manage the fire hose of information. Increasingly powerful search engines bring us closer to finding what we’re really looking for, and various forms of curation and personalization help bring content that may have more value to our attention first. Still, I often feel as though it really comes down to me, my browser, and my will power. Even a genius search engine and a fabulous curator can’t tell me when enough is enough, those extra slices are just giving me a stomach ache, and one more article is only going to tip the scale of my time in the wrong direction. There is enough incredible information in this world to fill lifetimes; it’s up to me to decide how much of it I can really handle in this one.

American Apparel-style creeper advertising

strong female characters

A couple weeks ago, I complained about the Dove campaign and its pseudo-inspiring message of “You are more beautiful than you think.” While there are definitely merits in this message, and there are definitely some refreshing strategies that Dove employs—showcasing women of different shapes and sizes, for example; focusing on empowerment rather than sexualization—it continues to prioritize women’s looks, and their relationships with their looks, which subtly bolsters their own goal of selling beauty products. Not to mention the corporation that owns Dove also owns Axe, which has plenty of problems in its sexualized representations of women. Now I want to go to another extreme of problematic advertising. I call it: Is there anything creepier than American Apparel ads?

Gah. American Apparel ads. They make my skin crawl every time they pop up in the upper right hand corner of a Gothamist website or on the inside partition of a downtown bus stop. All of the photos of the female models look like they were taken by a ‘stached man who picked up underage girls in a windowless van and then used a low-fi camera as he posed them across a bedbug infested mattress in his roachy partly-furnished apartment, giving them the creepiest stage directions possible. (Have your mouth hang open. Spread your legs really awkwardly. Give us some armpit.) The models aren’t actually underage, of course, but they tend to be non-professionals and styled in a way that makes them look adolescent. Their hair is bedheaded, they wear no makeup, and they style the mostly innocuous American Apparel catalog (though they do tend towards the super short, and I still don’t get what a “bodysuit” is for) in the most sexed up way possible.

So the plus side of this creeptasmagoria is, I guess, the realism. In the age of Photoshop and flawless, fat-repellent models that were born without hair everywhere except the tops of their heads, it’s mildly refreshing to see the super-unretouched photos of women with a bit of back flab, child-bearing hips, the occasional unsightly mole. It really is. To the extent that it’s presenting women as they really look, it’s a good thing.

But whoa. That’s the only “good” I can come up with here. Because everything else about it is so wrong. The realism in question is ultimately employed to give the viewer the impression that there’s a semi-conscious high school teenager in their bedroom waiting to be seduced. It’s hypersexual and extraordinarily male gaze-y, and it’s a major contribution to the objectification-of-women canon that American advertising seems intent on compiling an epic volume of. Not to mention, it feels like we are seeing way more of American Apparel CEO Dov Charney’s deepest fantasies than we ever wanted to, way more than should ever be made manifest.

Which begs the question: if Dove overemphasizes a normative “beauty,” and American Apparel oversexualizes a physical “realism”—if Dove plays into the insecurities of the female gaze, while American Apparel plays into the objectification of the male gaze---where is the happy medium? What kind of advertising could possibly get it right? It’s hard to say. As it is, advertising is so much an extension of our culture’s already existing ideas about beauty, sex, and women that it’s hard to know where problems begin and end.

It's also quite the sad state of affairs when one has to go to an American Apparel ad to find "realism" in women's advertising. My ending request, the potential for compromise: could we have some of the unretouched-ness happening in ads other than Dov Charney's artistic vision of barely legal 1970s porn?

Umm Kulthum: Singer of a Nation, Star of the East

historical woman

I was thinking today—if the U.S. had a “national singer,” who would it be? You know, someone iconic and quintessentially American and a part of our history? Though I don’t particularly care for either, my mind went first to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. They conjure images of America's golden age of rock and roll and lounge singing, burgers and casinos and whatever else we're famous for. I suppose a case could also be made for Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Madonna. I don't know. It's hard to say?

Anyway. Whoever our American national singer might be—which is maybe tougher to tell when you actually live in the U.S.—I like the fact that Egypt’s is a woman.

Known as kawkab al-Sharq (Arabic for “star of the East”), Umm Kulthum is arguably the most famous Egyptian singer in history. Her life and career spanned most of the twentieth century, from circa 1900 to her death in 1975, and she was a huge influence on both her own countrymen and –women and on foreign artists as well.

She was born Fatimah Ibrahim as-Sayyid al-Bilagi in a small village in the Nile Delta. Like many successful historical women, her father treated her like she was a boy. An imam at a local mosque, young Fatimah’s father instructed her in memorizing the Quran (a mark of distinction for any young Muslim) and later disguised her in the clothes of the opposite gender so she could enter a performing troupe.

She was discovered for her singing talent early on, and by the 1920s was already one of the most famous singers in Egypt. Her music merged the stylings of classical and traditional Arabic music and the wide appeal and accessibility of popular music. Umm Kulthum songs were typically set against large orchestras, with songs that went on for hours (I’m barely exaggerating). For a very short clip of one of her songs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FX6stbbhUI

The early to mid twentieth century saw an Arab world in a strange transition. Egypt itself was under British occupation from 1882 until the 1930s, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1952 with the Free Officers coup. Then Gamal Abdel Nasser, the hero of Arab nationalism, took control of the country, nationalized the Suez Canal, joined Egypt with Syria, antagonized the West by being non-aligned (Cold War and all that), and finally lived out his days in disgrace after a crushing defeat by Israel’s armies in 1967. It was an exciting, and traumatizing, time for Egypt and the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s music didn’t stop at Egypt’s borders, just as the political turmoil described above was not particular to Egypt. She was a famous and beloved figure throughout the Arab world. Despite the Western instrumentation, her music was staunchly "Eastern," with lyrics derived from classical Arabic poetry. Most of her songs were about love and longing, though some listeners read a cultural and religious undertone in the words.

I'd like to share this funny opener from her 1975 obituary in Time magazine: "Few Westerners ever fathomed the appeal of Umm Kulthum, the buxom, handkerchief-waving Egyptian singer who was known to her Middle Eastern fans as 'the Nightingale of the Nile.' She had a stentorian contralto and a quavering wail that grated on the ears of those attuned to the trills of opera divas. But her voice was a near-perfect instrument for expressing the sinuous quarter tones of Arabic music."

What a backhanded compliment, amirite? There's definitely a qualitative difference between "Eastern" and "Western" music, and sometimes "Westerners" tend to take for granted the universality of their own chord tones and vocal stylings. "Eastern" scales and harmonies—and sometimes, "wailing," as this journalist so tactfully put it—have historically been used as symbols of difference and exoticism in Western media, and even in Western classical music. But there's no reason you shouldn't be able to appreciate it anyway, in my opinion, and not just from a "world-music" standpoint.

Throughout her illustrious career, Umm Kulthum maintained a careful self-image, espousing conservative values and emphasizing her origins in the authentic heart of Egypt—as opposed to, you know, some bourgeois city-dweller.

Her influence also extended into America and Europe. Luminaries from Bob Dylan to Bono, Maria Callas to Jean-Paul Sartre were fans. And speaking of fans—when she died in 1975, millions of people turned up for her funeral. If we’re measuring popularity by funeral attendance, she was way more popular than Egyptian national hero (though also, by that time, loser of the 1967 war) Nasser.

It’s hard to imagine that kind of love being shown for any of our singers. Maybe it’s the times—it’s hard to be a universally beloved celebrity in the age of short attention spans and exposed minutiae about celebrity’s relationships, diet habits, and up-to-the-minute Twitterized thoughts. Hence, the carefully-maintained self-image probably came in handy. Regardless, whether it was by fate or intention or some combination, Umm Kulthum became Egypt’s singer, and the Arab world’s singer, and that hasn't been forgotten to this day.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading kayla

Kayla Allen was born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, which she left behind in her teens to cultivate a life of travel and bohemianism. During those years she held many jobs including Jagermeister girl, blackjack dealer, paid game-show contestant, dental imaging software consultant and legal secretary. She also played bass in a Los Angeles band called Thunderfuck, while studying flamenco, learning to fly trapeze, and honing her skills on the fiddle, but not all at the same time.  Along the way she was awarded a PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellowship.  As an artist-in-residence at Chateau La Napoule, in France, she participated with her fellow residents one drunken evening in a spontaneous dance party.  A handsome D’Artagnan lookalike, visiting another resident, saw Ms. Allen writhing on the floor in a pathetic attempt to breakdance. A long-distance courtship followed, and she now lives in Nice with her husband and three children. 

I have nurtured a huge inclination to read ever since I stole my sister’s Barbara Cartland novels at age ten, giving rise to prepubescent fantasies of a dramatic rescue from a life-threatening situation, followed by romantic sex. Although since Cartland never wrote sex scenes, my idea of romantic sex was vague. I could only glean ideas by watching the family poodle hump the couch.

Through my teen years I immersed myself in Russian and British classics, and adopted a stoic and melancholy demeanor, proving to the world I was full of angst, just like the characters I read about. In my mind, I was a prisoner in a Siberian labor camp, eating gruel and building ice roads, even though to everyone else I was just the blonde girl on the dance team.

In my quest to be taken seriously, and to eliminate any residual traces of my Cartlandian era, I continued reading literary fiction for years.  Chic-lit was deemed unworthy. I poo poo-ed anything less than a Man Booker finalist or Pulitzer prize winning novel.

But then I had children, and the time or ability to concentrate on reading disappeared. Just like that. I went from voracious reader to brainless mommy faster than you can say “episiotomy.”

I turned to memoirs. I could pick up someone else’s life, escape through their perspective, then leave it behind at the drop of a stinky diaper. When my identity was being slowly erased by my childrens’ needs, I could latch on to someone else’s for brief increments and feel alive through their experiences. At times, reading a stranger’s truth was preferable to my reality. (Two a.m. change of vomit-splattered sheets, anyone?)

So here’s a look at what sustained me, made me laugh, cry, and reminded me I had an identity outside of stained breast pads.

Everything is Going to be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour by Rachel Shukert High raunch meets travelogue as Shukert recounts winding her way through Europe fresh out of drama school. Packed with sex, booze, humor and hangovers, she also manages to include tips for emergency room visits in foreign countries.  Amidst all the deliciously sordid stories, she proves to be a great writer, mostly for her brilliant imagery and for keeping us hooked with a powerful, emotional undercurrent.

When a potential love interest tells Shukert, “You are a beautiful child,” she writes: If ten thousand chimpanzees injected with the cloned genetic material of Casanova and Sigmund Freud were gathered in a vast laboratory and chained to typewriters, with the voice of God reading my psychiatric records over the cosmic loudspeaker, in seventy years or more they could never come up with a line that would get my clothes off faster.

Such deft expression with an irreverence that speaks straight to my heart.

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles and So-called Hospitality by Jacob Tomsky Tomsky worked his way up from valet parker to front desk manager in luxury hotels, first in New Orleans, then New York. His writing is casual, like a conversation you’d have with your bright, funny friend, and full of profanity, which this grumpy mommy found hugely appealing.  Co-workers are exalted and non-tipping customers are trounced upon with great indignation. But he never comes off as mean-spirited. Rather, he’s a keen observer of character, having dealt with his share of crazy hotel guests and odd, random crises.

The book is full of helpful hints. My personal favorites are to always lie about the minibar. Empty it and pretend like you had nothing. No one will ever contradict you. And to tip up front, before your front desk agent checks you in, which always ensures an upgrade.

Tomsky’s memoir made me nostalgic for my years in the service industry, mostly waitressing at trendy bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, and the life-saving camaraderie with co-workers that actually made dealing with assholes fun.

DRIVING THE SAUDIS: A Chauffeur’s Tale of the World’s Richest Princesses (plus their servants, nannies, and one royal hairdresser) by Jayne Amelia Larson The premise of this book was right up my alley; an out-of-work actress becomes a chauffeur and drives the female branch of a Saudi royal family during their 6-8 week stay in Beverly Hills. The desperate-for-money, taking insane jobs-to-get-by and hating-every-minute was familiar.  Larson is demeaned by her job requirements and the loss of her autonomy during the weeks she drives for the family.

But the unfamiliar part was most intriguing, for the view into Arab, Saudi culture. Larson created empathy for the gaggle of princesses, when they could’ve been completely non-empathetic. She became enough of a compassionate witness to see beyond the decadent shopping sprees and plastic surgery. She captures the essence of these women, from royalty to the servants, and renders them with compassion, trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

Even though Larson’s writing style is lackluster, the narrative is compelling enough to stick with, culminating in a final moment when we discover how much of a tip she’s rewarded at the end of the job. (Part of the impetus for Larson taking the job was the rumored tip, well into the thousands, for which the Saudis were known).

Garrison Keillor makes a guest appearance in the beautiful epilogue, a highlight of the book in which Larson shines.

MUST YOU GO?: My Life With Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser An epic love story beginning in 1975 when Antonia Fraser, biographer of Mary Queen of Scots, and Harold Pinter, Britain’s most famous playwright, met at a dinner party. Their affair was scandalous, they were married to others and had 7 children between them. The book manages to be both gossipy and highbrow, and distinctly captures the hip, literary circles of London from the ‘70s forward. Within that world, they were two creative forces that inspired each other. Lady Antonia put a very human, happy face on Pinter’s broody playwright image.

Lady Antonia is beautiful and admirable, even though at first glance I thought she’d wrecked her kids in her desire for true, passionate love. But she carefully disentangled herself from her first marriage and the kids seemed to thrive in their new arrangement.

Beyond all the fabulousness of their lives, it’s clear that Fraser and Pinter remained genuinely devoted to each other until his death, in 2008. Fortunately, their creative genius endures.

Fifty Shades of Yay

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I have a wonderful husband of 10 years and we have a good sex life.  Often, I need a little help to get me in the mood, my choice is romance novels.  Is this normal?  Should my husband take offense?  He's never complained, but I just hope I'm not hurting his feelings.

Thank You,

Romance Reader

Dear Romance Reader,

You're in good company.  The Romance novel is the bestselling fiction genre, ever.  According to Romance Writers of America's 2011 Romance Book Consumer survey, slightly more than half of survey respondents live with a spouse or significant other.  Some studies say that women who read romance novels have sex twice as often as those who don't.  Others say that a high level of romance reading is correlated with happy monogamous relationships.  So, to answer your initial question, your penchant for a little erotica fantasy reading is not only normal, it may be even helping your marriage.

The fact that you are worried about your reading habits, despite the fact that you are one of the ladies having hot married sex after reading a chapter of your romance novel of choice, makes me think you have some shame around this predilection.  Well, head on over to smartbitchestrashybooks.com, where Sarah Wendell and Carly Tan, authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, facilitate a thriving online community of fellow romance readers.  They’ll help you realize you’re not alone, and give you some great suggestions for new reads.

As for your second question, I have no idea if your husband’s feelings are hurt by your romance reading.  For that, you’ll have to ask him!  And I highly suggest that you do.  A conversation about how he feels about the paperbacks stacked on your nightstand could lead to a juicy discussion of the fantasies that most intrigue you.  You may find yourself living out a few of them, with your very own leading man!

My hope is that he does not feel threatened by your fantasies, and the fact that they are spurred by stories in romance novels, as it belies your thriving intellect and playful libido.  He should feel glad to have a partner that is inventive in her interest in all things sexual.

However, if he is threatened by it, it’s best the two of you are honest about those feelings, in order to work through them.  Perhaps you could spend a night reading him some of your favorite passages?  Next thing you know, he may be swapping books with you!  A whole world could open up for the two of you.  I hope it is one with lots of lace and fur-lined handcuffs.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

The Dove Campaign, or Why I Don't Trust Inspiring Messages

strong female characters

In the past week, somewhere between eight and ninety of my Facebook friends posted this video. And then there was the backlash, including this awesome blog post. At the risk of reiterating what has already been said: embedded in this empowering message of confident womanhood is a continued premium on beauty, for one thing—a premium that only seems to important for the female gender—and unexamined assumptions about normative beauty traits, for another. (Most of the women participating are white, blond, and blue-eyed. Most of the “positive” descriptors include the word “thin.”)

These criticisms I unquestioningly agree with—but there’s an ambivalence. Because, as a woman raised on and indoctrinated with such premiums on beauty and complacency about normative beauty traits—as someone who occasionally suffers severe crises of confidence re:said beauty traits-- I also fully understand the impact this message has. Maybe it’s a disjuncture between my intellectual and emotional selves. Or maybe the two are inextricably intertwined.

It’s the emotional response that interests me. Many women reported getting teary while watching this video. Obviously, it strikes a chord. But why? Because it so intensely matters to us what other people think of our face? Because it validates a deep-seated desire to believe that our general attractiveness quotient is between 1.5 and 2 points higher than what we rate ourselves looking in the mirror each day? (Or worse, looking at photographs? It’s the photographs that get you. Forreals.)

I’m not trying to make fun. Because I totally get it. But I think it’s worth questioning: what exactly are we crying about?

What it makes me think of is the fallibility of emotional responses. The way that a strong emotional response tends to project a validity on its trigger. Based on this Dove commercial and its response, I propose an examination of why things like this make us so emotional, rather than taking our emotional response to be proof of the commercial’s poignancy. What nerve does this touch, or heartstring does this . . . pluck? (What a terrible metaphor. I apologize.)

What this, in turn, makes me think of—and forgive me if this seems like a huge digression about horrible human beings—is a particularly hyperdramatic yet affecting John Quinones ABC News special. It was one of his “What Would You Do?” hidden camera pieces, in which he set up some actors to play a white couple, their college age daughter, and the black boyfriend she is introducing them to, and had them enact a very loud, non-PC conversation in a Utah restaurant. The gist of it is that the white father is quite vocally disapproving of the relationship, spewing forth a number of racist statements (“How did you get into my daughter’s school? Basketball scholarship?”), while the hidden cameras wait to see if anyone will intervene.

The reaction that really stuck with me was that of a middle-aged woman sitting nearby, when John Quinones questions her about what she just overheard. Tears streaming down her cheeks, a saintly, long-suffering expression on her face, she laments the plight of this beautiful young girl who is wasting her time with (as a nearby, more vocally racist old woman puts it) "that." (Clearly this special produced its own visceral emotional response in me as viewer. But that's another story.) The woman recounts talking about this "issue" with her own daughter, and seems to acknowledge, in a small way, that it’s wrong to be against interracial couples—but she can’t help how she feels, can she?

You could see it on her tear-streaked, pitiful face. She was practically heartbroken.

For me, this is proof of the absolute unreliability of visceral emotional response. We’re moved, we’re touched, we’re hurt, we’re offended, but this in and of itself means nothing. It’s not just the what, but the why—why does it make us feel this way? Is it really valid?

OK. Huge, barely relevant digression over. (And don't think that I'm comparing the women who watch/participated in this commercial to dumb old racists! It's just my way of thinking through the emotional versus the intellectual responses to issues of self and other.)

To be clear, emotion certainly serves a function in our notions of self, society, morality, and politics—I’m not saying we should be robots. But, to misquote Socrates, the unexamined emotion is not worth having. Our gut responses aren't always the best responses; trusting them keeps us from critically engaging with the thing we are responding to. And I say: if we really pondered why women seeing their faces drawn better when described by a random stranger than when they themselves described it made us, well, emotional, then maybe the underlying problem would become clearer.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading cyndi

Cyndi's first book was a children's story about mischievous kangaroos that she also illustrated. Though no more than one copy was ever produced, it received accolades from Ms. Smith, her third grade teacher, and her mother. She has been writing ever since. She's published in Ms. magazine. You can follow her adventures on her travel and lifestyle blog Travel, Hike, Eat. Repeat. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her highly energetic dog, Theodore the Bagle Hound. I called my Mom. She lives in Georgia—16 hours from D.C. by car, a 2 hour flight, an overnight train ride. We’re close, but we don’t talk very often. Instead, excited by her new iPhone, she likes to text me. She sent me a picture a few weeks ago of a crockpot my cousin got for her birthday. She accidentally made it my dedicated image, so that bright red crockpot shows up whenever I call.

So, anyway, I called my Mom. The crockpot popped up as her Verizon ringtone jingled, and she answered laughing. She has a giant, booming laugh. I got that from her.

“I want to ask what’s cookin’ whenever you call!” She’s pretty funny.

But I had serious business to discuss.

“Mom, do you remember how we fought so much when I was 16 that we could barely stand each other?”

She sighed into the phone. “I keep hoping I’ll forget, but I haven’t yet.”

“I read this book with a bunch of research in it”---the Waite family is very eloquent---“and it had a chapter on how it’s a good thing when teenagers fight with their parents.”

“I’m skeptical.”

“Research shows that when teens don’t fight back, they’re more likely to be hiding things. Fighting is a healthy way to explore your autonomy while keeping your parents in the loop. Mom, we fought because I love you.” I said this last bit with a dramatic flair.

She paused for a minute. “CYNDI? ARE YOU THERE? I THINK I PUT IT ON SPEAKERPHONE.”

I love my Mom.

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

When I joined a new book club, and I saw that the next selection was on child psychology and parenting, I balked a bit. I’m single and child-free and was very confused. I thought about skipping it and waiting to join until the next month, but I’m glad I didn’t. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s essays and insight into child psychology fascinated and captivated me.

The nonfiction book is chock full of research, studies, and analysis, and somehow it still reads as quickly and engagingly as your favorite novel. I found myself in the statistics (and occasionally outside of them), and I brought up chapters with my boyfriend and friends at every opportunity---learning about their childhood and teen years, as well as gaining new perspectives.

I loved this book, and I’m better for having read it. My favorite chapters dealt with IQ development and the gifted system in education, and, of course, those contentious, angst-filled teenage years (did you know that teenagers experience an increase in a brain chemical that keeps them up later at night?). If I do have children, this will be the most well-worn book I own.

Speaking of my Mom, she has as much directional awareness as I do, which is to say, none at all. I have gotten lost in my own neighborhood . . . multiple times. So has she. There’s this line she used to say, whenever I’d ask her if we were lost en route to any destination (inevitably, we were always lost). She used to say, “We’re not lost, we’re finding a new way.” I don’t have any tattoos, but if I were to ever get one, it would be that line, maybe with a compass, because those words have been my North Star since I was about five years old.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Henry Skrimshander is lost, but like all great heroes and heroines, he’s finding a new way. A small baseball player without any college prospects, he’s “discovered” by a tall, burly player from Westish College. Henry becomes one of the greats and is destined for the big league until one mistake unravels him. Henry’s story is the glue, the centerfold that keeps the pages together, but it’s four other characters whose nuanced stories and experiences made me well with a full range of emotion page after page. I cried when I finished the last page, in part because I cry at nearly everything, but mostly because I was devastated that I’d never get to read this book for the first time ever again. Would you hate me if I said it’s a home run?

Madam C.J. Walker: Self-Made Millionaire.

historical woman

The first female self-made millionaire in U.S. history. Not too shabby a title. But I think Madam C.J. Walker—born Sarah Breedlove—gets extra points, like exponential extra points, for also having been born the daughter of slaves in the post-Civil War deep South. And still becoming a self-made millionaire. Now that takes some chutzpah.

Sarah was born in Louisiana in 1867, not long after the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, she was the first of her siblings to be born free. Her parents had been slaves on the Madison Parish plantation. Imagine that generational divide—the brave new world that Sarah faced in the aftermath of the Civil War. She was not a slave; but what options could possibly be open to her, as a woman, let alone a businesswoman?

Well, early on, not a lot. She married at the age of 14 and had a daughter, A’Lelia (Lelia for short) at 17. Her husband died when Lelia was two years old, and Sarah moved, daughter in tow, to St. Louis.

Sarah later remarried. Her husband was one Charles Joseph Walker (see where she got the name!), a newspaper advertising salesman. It was about this time that Sarah, now Madam C.J. Walker, got her big American business idea. Taking into account her own experiences and difficulties with her hair—hair loss from an unhealthy scalp, “kinkiness” of her ethnic hair—she whipped up her own special shampoo and tonic, which she then decided to sell to the general populace. Or at least, other African-American women.

This is, I think, a really interesting point. First of all, there is an intense politics surrounding ethnic, and in particular African-American, hair. Consider the normative follicle beauty ideal in our society, which centers on lush, shiny, long, and, importantly, smooth hair. For many women, with a bit of brushing and shampooing, this is the natural state of their hair. For many others, this is something that can only be achieved through arduous styling, product usage, and manipulation. And yet it is still expected of them, somehow. How many African-American female celebrities wear their hair “au natural”? What kind of media buzz is created when they do?

This is a problem and, judging by Madam Walker’s success, not a new one. While the politics are questionable, Walker was able to smartly fill a need in an era when the African-American woman consumer was increasing her buying power. Capitalism! Free enterprise! In 1908, Walker and her husband moved to Pittsburgh and opened a college to train “hair culturists,” then resettled in Indianapolis where Madam C.J. Walker’s hair enterprise headquarters and factory were established.

Walker wasn’t just some money grubbing capitalist, even though that was clearly the vogue at the time (see: John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford). She was also interested in politics and social causes, and regularly contributed money to the NAACP, the NACW (National Association of Colored Women), the YMCA, and other organizations. Among her pet projects: making lynching a federal crime (one of those things where you look back and are like: HOW WAS THIS AN ISSUE WITH TWO SIDES), the education of young black people (she sent six students every year to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute), saving Frederick Douglass’s house (!!).

Then, like any self-respecting upwardly mobile American, she built her own estate, and moved into it. In 1917, she relocated to Villa Lewaro, designed by the first licensed black architect in New York state, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. According to her New York Times obituary, the estate was three stories and had over thirty rooms. It also had an $8,000 organ, which, after a well-stocked floor-to-ceiling mahogany library, would be the first thing I would get as a millionaire too.

Madam C.J. Walker died in 1919 at the age of 51, many more years of fabulous hair-empire-running and nouveau-riche-living before her unrealized. Her daughter Lelia took over the company upon her death. In 2010, New York City named a street (or technically, a “place”) in Manhattan after the two of them.

I love how Madam Walker resides at this fascinating intersection of race, class, and gender—capitalizing on raced and gendered products, born into the aftermath of America’s worst raced sin, giving large sums of her substantial fortune towards the advancement of its victims. I admire her gumption (synonym to chutzpah) at the same time that I recognize that her ability to navigate post-bellum America’s racist, unabashedly capitalist system was unique and exemplary. She made it. Most people didn’t.

A Post about a Book about the Internet

When I picked up a copy of The Digital Divide at a conference last fall, I didn’t realize the essays had been published elsewhere, in print and online. As I dipped into it on the plane ride home, I only wondered for a moment if I should have just waited to search for each of the essays and read them in their original contexts. By just a few pages in, I was already thankful that the collection had been curated for me in the particular form of a printed book. It seemed that simply based on my purchase and my subsequent satisfaction with it, perhaps I had already come down on one side of the debate at its core. The articles date from the nineties to 2011, when the book was published, and rather than digging deeply into current debates about the internet and its relationship to culture and social life, the collection offers a historical perspective on the way these debates have changed over the past decade or two. As we wonder about whether social media is helping or hindering our social lives, it helps to be reminded of a time---not particularly long ago, in fact---before it even existed. I have to admit that I find it difficult to remember what was different, or the same, about life before Facebook was invented in 2004.

My favorite essay in the collection is one of the last, “The End of Solitude,” by William Deresiewicz. It is wonderfully poetic in its exploration of the history and evolution of solitude and its role in art, literature, and religion. Deresiewicz begins his argument for the power of solitude this way: “In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity.”

What, you might ask, does all this business about solitude have to do with the internet? Deresiewicz argues that in some ways, our contemporary conception of loneliness—the negative side of the solitude coin—was invented with the help of the internet. He compares this phenomenon to the relationship between boredom and television. Television offers the potential to snuff out boredom and silence. If you like, you can always have a bit of background entertainment filling your living room, restaurant, or airport. But in turn, the potential for constant entertainment breeds a fear of quiet. In the same way, Deresiewicz argues, the internet provides the potential for constant connectivity, and its dark underbelly is a fear of being alone.

Certainly the feeling of loneliness has a much longer history than the internet, and the connectivity of the internet has been, in Deresiewicz’s words, “an incalculable blessing” in helping us to find and communicate with others who share our dreams, interests, and experiences. The relationship between loneliness and the internet is not a question of the chicken or the egg, but rather a shift in balance. As Deresiewicz explains, “not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

As I consume article after article urging us to get away from our screens in order to be more creative, energetic, and productive, I wonder if the underlying charge is to simply create space for solitude, an uncomfortable but valuable state which is easier now than ever to avoid.

I suppose this is part of what drew me to the book as a printed book, rather than as an interactive series of links and comments. While I love letting my curiosity carry me from one link to another, I thought it might be interesting—and it was—to read about the internet, for once, alone.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading shelley

Shelley Abreu is a freelance writer and mother to three (almost four!) children. She’s written for publications such as The Huffington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Babble.com, Mamalode, FitPregnancy.com, Family Fun, and others. She considers motherhood and writing to be the two hardest yet worthwhile endeavors of her life. She’s currently working on a collection of poetry about motherhood. You can find the poems and other writing on her blog at www.wildlittlethings.com

As I write my first young adult novel, it has become apparent that I love writing in this genre as much as I enjoy reading it. I’m currently reading Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. Not only is the story compelling, but the language itself is beautiful and evocative (I could underline at least one passage on every page). The setting is Nazi Germany, the narrator is none other than Death himself, and the protagonist is Liesel Meminger, a young girl who develops a love affair for books after her brother dies. It’s a story about the power of words and stories. It’s about friendship and life and death and everything that embodies. When I think about the genius it takes to write such a timeless and extraordinary book, I’m in awe of Markus Zusak; it’s everything a good book should be and more.

A few years ago, I started seriously writing poetry. I’ve had a copy of A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie on my bookshelf since college, and recently I started rereading it. It’s more than just a reference book. Kinzie is able to explain poetry from the perspective of a poet, which makes the reading of this book both informative and enjoyable. She describes the process of reading and writing poetry almost like a relationship. She says, “The reader follows, via the poem as a ghostly map, the paths that were not taken by the author, but whose possibility leaves shadow like crosshatching on the paths that remain. To read this way keeps a poem always provisional and still in the making, which is how the process of reading absorbs the act of writing. . .” Kinzie has helped me not only understand how each individual word choice is a deliberate decision that drives the meaning of a poem, but also how to approach the process. In this way, writing poetry is like creating a treasure map. I used to consider the conventions of poetry---such as meter---too restrictive, but in fact, after reading this book, I see how the technical form of a poem is actually the secret to its meaning.
I also have a stack of classic literature on my bedside stand right now. I’m preparing to take a licensing test to become a high school English teacher, so I’m revisiting some old and new classics. Right now I’m staring at: The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck), Lolita (Nabokov), Pride and Prejudice (Austen), The Magic Mountain (Mann), Ceremony (Marmon Silko), Love Medicine (Erdrich) and the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda. Every time I crack open one of these books, I get to share in yet another kind of human experience. Even though it’s fiction, reading a novel is similar to reading a poem. It’s a kind of roadmap for living. The only danger of reading for me is I tend to want to stay inside immersed in the stories. I must remember to put down the map and follow my own path every now and then!

TV Dinners, Game Developers, and Female Objectification

strong female characters

There’s that moment, and I’ve gotten pretty used to it, when you’re watching TV or you’re at a party or a club or you’re listening to a comedian, and you have a sudden realization: Oh. They’re not talking to me anymore. Sometimes it’s a little thing, and sometimes it’s not, but we’ve all been there—knowing, with certainty, that the tone has shifted from one of universal nature, to one that addresses solely the heterosexual male contingent of the audience. This is evidenced by the way that women are being represented, employed, talked about.

My “they’re-not-talking-to-me” senses were triggered by the most inane, the most ridiculous thing the other night—a Hot Pocket commercial—but maybe because of too much stress, maybe because of not enough sleep, I subsequently flew into a rage.

The gist: A really, really plain-looking guy and a hottified girl (makeup, voluminous hair, perpetual narrow-eyed come-hither expression, tight shirt, slinky walk) enter a room and approach a second plain-looking guy, who is holding a somewhat phallic-looking Hot Pocket, which the girl proceeds to put in her mouth in a fairly suggestive way as the guys look on, wide-eyed.

Then I flew into a rage.

That’s a slight exaggeration.

I just suddenly felt, I don’t know—fed up? “They’re just putting shit into the world,” I raved at my poor boyfriend. “Shit!” Besides for giving vent to my need to curse, I guess what I meant by that was: something extraneous, with a wholesale negative impact. This Hot Pocket commercial wasn’t doing anything that Carl’s Jr. (Hardee’s for you East Coasters) campaigns hadn’t done before, and better/worse/horrifyingly worse. Paris Hilton writhing around in a bikini, washing a car and stuffing a burger in her face. Miss Turkey strutting down a pier holding (what else) a turkey burger, with the camera squarely focused on her ass.

I’ve hated Carl’s Jr. commercials for a long time.

But those are really only the most egregious, honest, overt, self-conscious examples. Women’s bodies are regularly put on display as if that will please, titillate, enhance the experience of the average viewer. No matter how random the product. No matter how wide the audience.

Recently, at a game developers’ conference in San Francisco, outrage was had over the presence of scantily clad women dancers. Female attendees felt uncomfortable, and an IGDA chairwoman resigned in protest. This was an especially sore point because the game developers field has long been dominated by men—and instead of making efforts to include women and make them feel like respected and valued colleagues, a major professional conference instead “included” women as entertainment and decoration. This isn’t for you. We’re not talking to you.

It’s not that I have a problem with women’s bodies, or showing skin, or what have you. And it’s not that women can’t be entertained by scantily clad women. It’s more that such women, in the public sphere, in media, tend to represent a wider attitude about women, an accessibility, an empty vessel-hood, that is conceived of, produced, and enjoyed by the heterosexual male gaze. It’s this pervasive sense that, unlike men, women can be expected to provide sex, entertainment, decoration, inspiration, that they are bodies and not subjects, not actors, not people. These women are not participators in the conversation, but rather objects and symbols that sit voiceless on the sidelines while men bandy them about. And those women who do participate have to accept that they are exceptions.

This type of problem ties into wider issues of gender inequality and attitudes towards women, and, as ridiculous or harmless as it may seem, I believe it has the potential to at least indirectly promote or condone some really, you know, evil, effed up shit---misogyny, discrimination, rape culture. It’s an all-consuming, insidious problem that I don’t expect to change overnight, but that, I hope, will slowly fade as women continue to expand their influence in related fields. In the meantime, I'm dealing in two ways: I wrote this blog post, and I’m not buying any Hot Pockets.

Desperately Seeking Susan (and Ramon, and Seymour, and Chloe)

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with some beautiful friendships. They are the kinds of relationships in which I get to be more of who I am, make life feel more like a funny fun weird road trip, help me see, laugh, grow and play.  

However, with the exception of two arenas, I haven't felt truly at home and at ease in a group of friends. I have watched solid groups of friends, so I feel like I know what they look like, but I have a hard time speaking the language.

The two exceptions: one was an arts summer camp I went to as a teenager; there were only 25 of us, we did arts stuff all day and the same semi-weirdos came back year after year. The other was in a school environment where it was also a fixed group. I feel like neither are the way life is -- full of busy schedules, Facebook-like stuff (which I feel completely awkward with), and tons of different communities.

My friends are scattered from being around the corner, to the other side of the world. I have dipped my toes into groups but feel like I generally have to pretend a little bit. Can you help? I want my team to eat with, to shake things up with, to dance with, to cry with, to feel at ease with.

Love,

Lone Wolf in Search of a Pack

Dear Lone Wolf,

Let me take a moment to commend you for being intentional about your friendships.  In a culture obsessed with coupling off, with achieving the “goal” of marriage and kids, the fact that you are willing to develop these other, vitally important relationships in your life is a sign of depth.  Brava.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

On to your question.  I struggled between telling you that what you seek is a myth, a cultural creation à la Friends and Sex and the City, and simply telling you exactly how to create a meaningful group of friends.  Here is why: it is attainable---you can make yourself your very own Seinfeld, but---the more you set it up and carefully curate it, the less it will thrive.  The center will not hold.  I'm going to tell you why that is, but I'm also going to tell you how to do it anyway, and let you make your own decision about whether or not to dive in to the jungle of having a circle of friends.

There are so many amazing humans on this earth, but what fuses us together and creates a real bond between a few of them is a precarious balance of common interests, personality traits, and proximity.  Then there's that extra "oomph", that jolt of electricity when you get together, what we might call the "x factor".  Here are a few suggestions for how to gather a group of friends around you, to see if that “x factor” is there between you.

DIT: Dig In Together:  I'm sure you know several people that would vibe each other a lot, who all care about horseback riding or street art or environmentalism.  (Or perhaps all three---sounds like a fascinating group already!)  Start with a dinner party---get all these folks together at your house, bring up the latest news in the common interest they all share, and watch the magic happen.  Then, you'll need to do that very thing, consistently, for months on end, to see if it will stick.  Have the gathering rotate houses, and, hopefully, it will take on a life of its own.  People will start hanging out spontaneously, outside of the sanctioned dinners, and you will have to do less of the planning.  For your next birthday party, all you’ll have to do is show up.

Become a Regular:  Let's say you don't already have people pegged to be your very own Bloomsbury Group.  What you need to do is show up, with an incredible amount of regularity, at a place that you enjoy, and has the kind of people you want to get to know better.  This could be a Zumba class, a dive bar, a Karaokae night, a Mommy-and-Me playgroup, or even a church.  Listen, this is going to take AWHILE.  You need to be willing to stay, and to commit.  But it is the slightly less micro-managed version, since everyone has a reason to see each other every week.

Enlist:  Have you considered sneaking in to something already created?  Granted, this would work better with a loosely-formed group of friends, one that is just coming together and needs a bit of "glue" in the form of your awesome community-building skills, rather than people who have known each other since elementary, but it can work well.  Have a picnic with all those guys, ask one of them out for a drink and then suggest inviting the rest, tell them all about the pop-up store you are checking out after work---anything fun, spontaneous, and not insanely obvious.  Next thing you know, if this is the right group for you, they'll be inviting you along to Game Night or into their poetry-writing club.

Here’s the part that will be harder to hear.  These kinds of groups are ephemeral---even the Beatles broke up, even Golden Girls went off the air.  Your tight-knit, hard-won circle of buds will change over time, and probably will not last your entire life.  The most important thing to remember will be to let it go when the time is right, and appreciate the blessing of it while it lasts.

The most beautiful thing about friendship is that it is chosen.  Many times people try to subvert this, call their friends "family", and seek to guilt their friends into staying in their lives long after the time has come for them to go their separate ways.  That's the wonderful and terrible thing about friendships---as they are not family, we have no bond further than what the heart lends.  And the heart is a wily creature, rarely accepting bribes or following expected paths.

Friendship is about free choice, mutual attraction without even the bonding agent of sex to keep the intimacy level high.  It’s a bit like gardening---we can plant the seeds, water them, and prune their leaves, but we can’t make the sun shine on them, and we can’t stop them from one day drooping their little heads down, to return to the soil, fertilizing new plants in their stead.

So, Lone Wolf, I want to encourage you to cultivate this fledgling group of friends for yourself.  Watch it grow, and tend it carefully.  But also, be prepared for some hard rain, and write back to me when it’s time to till the soil.  We’ll discuss letting changes in friend groups happen with grace and grief.  I happen to know a lot about that.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading eloise
Eloise Blondiau writes about art, life and culture at her blog Walloony, (the name of which refers to her Belgian heritage). Born and bred in London she is currently studying Theology at the University of Exeter. 
I have a fascination with people that reading both nourishes and challenges. That’s actually why I study theology – what people choose to believe and how they live is revealing not only of individuals but of human nature. The books on this list have taught me about people and that’s why I love them so much. 

What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire  by Charles Bukowski Anyone considering reading one of Bukowski’s novels (e.g. Post Office) should first read his poetry; this book is easy to dip in and out of and gives a great feel for what he’s about. Bukowski baffled me when I first read him, aged about fourteen. As a sheltered girl who went to Catholic school his raw and dirty reality attracted me because it was a world away from my own. His voice is confrontational and not often likeable, but I think its honesty is beautiful. ‘The Genius of the Crowd’ is my favourite poem in What Matters is How Well You Walk Through The Fire. In this poem, Bukowski’s frightening depiction of human nature really challenged me. Although I’m not entirely convinced by his pessimism, there’s truth in the claim that the more generously you give to a person, the more power you give that same person to hurt you. Depressing, but thought provoking, which I think could be said about all of his work.

  Non-Fiction (in the UK; Stranger than Fiction in the US) by Chuck Palahniuk Non Fiction is a collection of essays that could almost be Chuck Palahniuk’s autobiography. Unlike most autobiographies, however, Palahniuk is great judge of what the reader will find interesting, never failing to intrigue. Although only one of three sections of the book is titled ‘personal’ (the others being ‘portraits’ and ‘people together’), each essay is deeply revealing of the peculiar life and mind of the author. This collection of essays cover topics of great breadth: interactions with people at the Rock Creek Lodge Testicle Festival (essentially an orgy), encounters with celebrities such as Marilyn Manson, the tragedy of his father’s murder and the transition of his novel Fight Club to Hollywood blockbuster. Palahniuk’s minimal style captivates, disgusts and amuses the reader with incredible ease, so much so that reading each essay feels like a lesson in how to write. So of course I’ve read this many times. I would recommend this as either an introduction to Palahniuk, or a way to get to know him better after reading books such as Choke, Fight Club or Invisible Monsters.

 

Why Believe  by John Cottingham  This is where the theology nerd in me comes out. I went into university quite confused about religion, not committing much to belief or non belief. Saying that you’re “religious” is sort of embarrassing today. With the rise of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, there’s a commonplace association of stupidity with religion. This is derived from an understanding of religion as a system of beliefs about the world that the religious person must subscribe to. Cottingham is interesting because he presents an understanding of religion that is about engaging in practices individually and in a community, rather than ticking boxes on a list of beliefs. His argument is that practice can improve the quality of some people’s lives, and belief is secondary to this. So, neither belief nor practice need conflict with reason, science or intelligence (as the New Atheists would have you believe). I don’t think Cottingham adequately explores the value of nonreligious practices and communities (such as those based on Buddhism), but it’s a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the role of religion today.

Slow Browsing

Window shopping was a fact of life when I lived in Boston. Since I walked everywhere or took public transportation, it was impossible not to peek at the window displays or stop in for a browse at one of the many curious shops on my way to and from work and school. The bookshops of Harvard Square—Raven Books, Harvard Book Store, Grolier Poetry, Globe, Schoenhof’s—were particularly irresistible, but anything from the watch shop on Church Street to the Anthropologie store (set mercilessly behind a three-story wall of glass) could lure me in just as easily.

There were a couple of things, though, that kept me from whiling away my whole life in those perfectly curated shops and breaking the bank on the whole lot of it. First, I was broke, so there’s only a certain amount of time you can stand to spend among small, brightly colored objects that cost more than your grocery bill for the month. Second, I had rule: love it and leave it.

If I found something I really truly absolutely loved and “needed,” I made a special point of admiring it and then promptly leaving the store without it. It was pure anguish, but it was a perfect test. I told myself that if it was still on my mind in a week, I’d come back for it, and if it was still there, well, perhaps it was meant to be.

For the most part, those things I thought I couldn’t live without disappeared within twenty-four hours into my vast mental archive of objects briefly admired but never possessed. The things that stuck were rare and sometimes unexpected. A pair of boots I wore to pieces over several years. A yellow, vintage-looking kitchen timer I never came back for because I was sure I didn’t need it. I’m still sure, but it persists in my memory years later.

I’ve been thinking lately that a similar policy might help with my internet consumption. There are so very many lovely things to read online that I could spend my whole life consuming them, never stopping to let one of them sink in, never returning to being and doing in the world. The ever-changing landscape of the internet lends a sense of urgency to all this. If I don’t read it right now, it might be gone later, I might forget about it entirely, or worse, I might not be able to retrace the winding path of links that led me to it in the first place.

In order to deal with the last fear, I’ve taken to bookmarking articles of interest in Evernote and making an effort to avoid reading every great thing I find on the spot. If it’s really worth my time, I’ll remember it later and come back for it. If not, well, I suppose it disappears then into my digital archive of things briefly admired and never possessed. For what it’s worth, at least the digital archive is searchable, and perhaps I’ve saved myself as much time as I saved money during my student days in a land of beautiful and expensive things.

Marriage Equality

equality

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing cases that will determine the constitutionality of DOMA and the legality of Prop 8. It saddens us that we have to even write this, but we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings. Love is love is love. Here are three pieces from our archives on the subject: Renee explores the difference between Civil Unions and Marriages: The Same, But Not Equal

Nora ponders what she and her wife will tell their son about marriage inequality: On Inequality

Miya argues that marriage equality is about families, and has ideas about what laws should come from this battle. Family Equality and the Legacy of the Struggle

Please read, enjoy, discuss, and share.

Dressing Like a Princess, and Other Concerns

strong female characters

I recently read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which examines the numerous sociological trends that affect the upbringing of the young American girl, from Disney Princesses to an obsession with pink to the unhealthy emphasis placed on beauty and romance. Orenstein posits that while there have always been difficulties in raising confident, not-defined-by-gender-stereotypes daughters, there has been a recent turn towards “pink power” that sees hyperfemininity as something to be celebrated and—also—commodified. She asks: what harm are we doing to our daughters by allowing them to buy into this type of girl culture? And is there even a way around it?

This got me thinking about my own childhood, and the gender stereotypes and plastic role models I was raised on. Was it better or worse than what’s available to girls today? Walking around toy and kids’ clothes aisles in Target, everything seems familiar: Barbies, Polly Pockets, Dream Phone (yeah I totally owned that). But is Orenstein correct in saying that this lifestyle, these values, are more insidiously ingrained than they were in the 1950s to early 1990s? (Yeah really—the 1950s??)

In response, I did a quick mental review of all of my Halloween costumes from childhood to high school. Halloween costumes are the one time a year that all children, and not just those attending Disney On Ice shows, exorcise their inner aspirational identities whether those are found in the professional (astronaut, cheerleader, ballerina) or the fantastical (princess, skeleton, Muppet) worlds. And it's surprising how many of these aspirational identities reflect the desire to properly align with gender conventions as displayed by both role models and peers, even in the so-called pre-"pink power" era. I realize it's a little early (late?) to be talking about Halloween, but bear with me-- let's just say I'm keeping the whole post in the strictly anti-normative mode---rejecting media---and commodity-driven holiday industries---yada yada yada.

Kindergarten: Cat. Because my parents chose my costume. I vowed never to do it again because I couldn’t deal with the face paint. Question: have you ever seen a boy dress as a cat? Why the close association between the feline and the feminine?

First grade: Princess. Really, the pinnacle of my aspirational fantasies, not duplicated in subsequent years only because I didn’t want to copy myself. My princess image was ripped straight from the pages of early ‘90s Mac kids’ computer game Storybook Weaver: a long white dress, a tall pointy damsel-in-distress hat with a delicate veil flapping from the top, loose flowing hair. I was, for that night, I think, truly happy.

Second grade: Fairy. Because I couldn’t be a princess again. Blue wings, a silver-pipecleaner-encrusted wand (something I for a brief time collected at every street fair my family took me to).

Third grade: Ballerina. I knew how to be a ballerina because I took ballet for two weeks when I was five. I actually quit because they told me we couldn’t wear tutus, which I had mistakenly thought was what ballet was about. Took the cheap route and wore my never-used tutu over my hot pink one-piece bathing suit.

Fourth grade: Witch. Major paradigmatic shift. I was getting older, and it was starting to be cool to be not-pink. Instead I went all-black.

Fifth grade: Cowgirl. My gender-based evolution led me to privilege chic fashion over ultra-femininity, and I felt like with a cowgirl costume I could show off my cute denim skirt, throw on a cute denim vest, and accessorize with a charming cow(boy) hat, Western-style kerchief, and boots. I felt pretty good about this one. I felt grown up.

Sixth grade: Gypsy. My rejection of commercialism (not wanting to call the store-bought costume an “Esmeralda” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame) led me to label it in an ethnically essentialist way instead, but what is Halloween if not a whole bunch of essentialism/racism? (I don’t do this anymore.) Same thing happened in eighth grade when I labeled my I Dream of Jeannie costume a “harem girl” (yikes).

Seventh grade: Sorceress. Honestly, I was just lazy and wanted to reuse my witch costume. I wore more makeup. My mom wouldn’t let me on normal days.

Eighth grade: See sixth grade.

Ninth grade: Geisha. Yes, I lampooned my own ancestral culture. I just happened to have an ornate kimono-style dress from my grandma lying around, and I stuck two chopsticks in my hair and called it a costume. Troubling that two of my childhood costumes involved ethnic caricatures that imply prostitution and sex work.

Tenth grade: Buffy. Finally, I got it right. . .

Who did you dress up as as a child, and what do you feel like that says about your particular upbringing? It’s kind of an interesting exercise. Especially when considering the (much thornier) question of, how did I turn out as a result?

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading magdalena

Magdalena Macinska is a dreamer, interpretor, translator, and writer---weaving words between her native language Polish and the English she lovingly adopted. She makes a home in Warsaw, but has left her heart in places around the world. The world never ceases to wonder her and she blogs about her endless questions at www.questionchest.blogspot.com. Books taught me that there is something such as love at first sight. So many times has it happened that I was wandering aimlessly around the airport waiting for my plane and ended up in the airport bookshop and there, among the bestsellers meant to ease my travel time, was the book  that could potentially change my life!

My eyes often land on self-help books, a mention of them on my favorite blogs makes me prick my ears. I am always ready to experience a moment of enlightenment. But they also have to be beautifully written. Self-help books are for me a challenging genre of non-fiction. Good advice is not enough. There needs to be captivating story behind, the author’s spirit and presence must flow through the pages.

I believe that some books are meant for us to read, just like some people are meant to be a part of our life. Maybe because they help us to connect with the more tender parts of the soul, heal the darker places. Here are some of the ones that not only helped me, but have enchanted me and made me fall in love.

Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours. You have more time than you think challenged me to rethink my relationship with time. She asks for brutal honesty in demystifying one’s o weekly planning patterns and at the same time offers an optimistic encouragement that there is indeed time to do all the things we want. She does so by beginning not with time saving techniques, but with inviting the reader to dream about they want to fill their time with. Laura has a sharp eye for myths and makes witty remarks about our obsession with perfect households and commandments of time management like “don’t work in the evenings” which do not always match the reality of our today’s working life. She balances thorough research, deep common sense and humor, which makes this book feel so down to earth and real to me in all those times I want to moan “there just isn’t enough time!”

Gretchen Rubin, the author of Happier at Home, holds a warm and simple conversation with the reader right from the start. In the first pages she recalls how her husband asked her why she wanted to write a second book on happiness if she had already done one project on happiness and was satisfied with it. She gives us an answer in another scene from her life, describing how when she was standing at the kitchen counter one day she felt a wave of  absolute contentment and at the same time a profound longing for home. Gretchen unveils the paradoxes of happiness: being grateful for what we have and believing we can always happier. She guides us through her personal journey of making the home a happy place, sharing stories and anecdotes. In the background we discover a heartwarming picture of her family where small changes make a big difference, and yet nobody is perfect. I feel gently prompted to look for my own happiness for home and at the same time don’t feel scared of impossible commitments.

Susan Jefferson speaks with a strong and passionate voice in her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. She uses the whole arsenal of expressive and exaggerated rhetoric we sometimes find in self-help books, and yet never ceases to be convincing and authentic. Susan understands how paralyzing fear can be and counter-attacks it with a language of positive self-esteem and self-power. Reading this book made me feel that the writer believes in me, and that I can do also do the same for myself. She teaches that by changing the language we speak to ourselves and trusting in our own resources and power we can tame fear and learn to live with it.

Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Should Be and Embrace Who You Really Are is written by a researcher converted into the language of the heart. With clarity and precision she redefines to the scary notion of vulnerability. She shows courageous ways to show our vulnerability and in effect create connection. Brené contemplates on the paradox of embracing darkness that leads to light in our relationships. Philosophical reflections are intertwined with touching and hilarious stories of how she experienced her “nervous breakdown” AKA “spiritual awakening”. Her honesty encourages me to experience my own.

On Reading Fiction and Ethics

akiko_paper_banner

By Carrie Anne TiptonIllustration by Akiko Kato

I have many faults; some are known fully to me, and many, I am sure, are felt more expansively by others. But this one virtue I have in spades: empathy. Such a strongly-buttressed wall of my interior house, it has, ever since I was a child, prevented me from being able to read descriptions and view depictions of people being unkind to one another; in fact it is almost impossible for me to stomach any graphic rendering of suffering at all. I enter easily into others’ pain, a trait I can only attribute not to some oustanding moral fibre, but rather to my childhood gorging on fiction—which trains the mind and soul to inhabit the skin of another in a way that little else can.

It has always been difficult for me to comprehend the willing and cognizant visitation of pain on an innocent party: given a choice, why choose to hurt? So on that bitter cold Chicago afternoon, riding the schoolbus home from fourth grade, I did not understand why the young boy a few seats ahead of me cracked his window, casually tore pages out of a paperback, and sent them lofting away on the wind. That was someone’s book, I thought to myself, aghast and angry and pained, for my little mind grasped that he had perpetrated two sins: one against the book and another against its owner. To be fair, he first held the volume up high and asked if it belonged to anyone before cheerfully ravaging it. I remember the scene now as he brandished the tattered, faded copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair above his head, whole for the last few seconds of its life while he waited in vain for its owner to claim it.

I recall thinking quite vividly, How strange that he should have found a copy of the very book that I have in my backpack (for I was once again working my way through the Chronicles of Narnia). Thought number two: I’m so glad that mine is zipped away in the outer pocket. I didn’t think to doublecheck, naively gazing on at what I thought a complete coincidence.

When a thief takes something outright, to kill or to destroy, one is chagrined. But when a thief half-steals, with the half-permission of the thing’s owner helping him along, the burden of pain doubles with a measure of shame. At home, the vision still seared into my head of great chunks of paperback hurtling against the grey winter sky, I realized the pocket was unzipped after all. It was mine. He took mine. He ripped mine. He savaged mine. It had been mine. It was still mine, in all its pieces on the sidewalk blocks away. We didn’t have much money. The copy had belonged to my mother.

I’m sure I cried. My mother also felt my pain keenly (this makes sense: another great reader of fiction, she) and sensed the book’s pain sharply too. Soon she had ordered another copy. I remember her shaking her head and asking no-one in particular, why would someone do such a thing? As I write this I turn around and see on my shelf six faded and tattered volumes of the seven-book Chronicles, tucked into a shabby old case, and a glossy fourth volume nearby that doesn’t fit into the case. And together, they make me wonder: if he had read books, if he were in the practice of walking in the roads trod by make-believe people, would he have so readily hurt a living person and a living book all at the same time?

 

I will read to my child.