Is it really "A Scary Time to be a Man?"

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This meme has been bouncing around my Facebook for the last week or two. I am a mother of sons, and I am often terrified, because my boys are full of terrible ideas. Ideas like: sledding down the stairs in Amazon boxes, putting our kittens in the baby stroller, sticking marbles into their orifices. Whenever it gets quiet in my house, I know trouble is brewing.

I am not scared that someday a woman will make a false rape allegation against them. The odds are ridiculously small, even smaller than them being kidnapped by a stranger, or being drafted into the NFL.

Mostly, I feel (very selfishly) relieved that I do not have a daughter. Because, as much as I hope that the #metoo movement has changed things, I still see a lot of evidence of how scary it is to be a girl or a woman.

Growing up, there was this story. Yes, rape and harrassment happened, but not to “good” girls. All I had to be was good and I’d be safe. And I was very good. I went to parties in college and spent the whole evening nursing a single Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I started dating my husband when I was 19, got married at 22. I didn’t hang around bars or go home with strangers. I protected myself.

And yet, I’ve been sexually harassed more times than I can count.

When I tried to summon all the instances to mind, it started to sound like a Dr. Seuss book. In the rain, on a train, in a bus, on a Christian college camp-us. Once while I was pushing my babies in a double stroller. In one terrifying instance I was in the changing cubicle at a tailor’s shop. In all these instances, my immediate urge was to minimize what had just happened, to tell myself I was overreacting. I hadn’t been raped, so I was just scared for no reason, right?

This impulse to minimize was matched by those around me. Once, on a subway, a man followed me through the car. I took a seat next to one man and across from another, thinking the harasser would leave me alone. Instead he took the seat across from me, and spent the rest of the ride faux-masturbating and making kissy faces at me. The men next to me said nothing. When I finally asked the masturbator what the hell his problem was, he just said “Nothing,” and kept on with this intimidating display until I left the train. Everyone on that train ignored what was happening. I felt disgusted and afraid and also wondered if I was crazy. Did the mad masturbator just have some kind of strange form of Turretts? If no one else had been bothered, why had I?

I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just went to work and carried on with my day. This is what it’s like to be a woman. I have put up with harassment in many forms through the years, beginning as soon as I hit puberty. It doesn’t get easier, but I have to carry on. That’s what women do, we swallow down our anger again and again until we can’t take it anymore.

The Kavanaugh confirmation feels like a breaking point.

If our politicians think the women of America are going to forget about this, they’re dead wrong. We’ve been collectively disbelieved, minimized, and called liars often enough. These incidents are branded on our psyches. We will not forget.

The Robots Know Who We Really Are

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I’m old enough to remember Facebook before ads, and then the first several years of ads. The most common ads I saw were for Israeli Mossad t-shirts—I have no idea why. After Mossad, I got ads for t-shirts that said, “I’m just a Montana Girl in a Canada World.” Isn’t our AI better than this? I wondered.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now most of my Facebook ads are things I’d actually consider clicking on—high-end bras and fair trade subscription boxes. The other day I Google image searched “mahogany four poster bed” for a short story I’m working on, now my browser is filled with ads for $10,000 beds.

After Cambridge Analytica, a lot of people are concerned about privacy. Can I concede that they understand more about this than I do, but I’m not particularly worried? I didn’t click on anything stupid, I don’t spend my money willy-nilly, I feel like I retain control over my online presence for the most part. I like getting ads that are specific to my interests.

But after reading Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, I’m having a few second thoughts. This literary sci-fi adventure deals extensively with AI avatars and online dating. The book posits that in the near future we will be online dating avatars animated by computers and voiced by actors, deceived into staying on platforms where no one is actually interested in us because we are valuable eyeballs for ad dollars. (Mostly the book is about time travel. It’s probably the best book I’ve read all year, go read it!)

The invasiveness of technology was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I installed the Marco Polo app. My friend, Jessica, recommended it to me as a way to keep in touch. Users send each other video messages, so it acts like a delayed FaceTime. I was impressed and immediately “invited” several friends. One friend texted me a Reddit thread which discussed how the app texts your contacts without your consent. Reddit users suggested boycotting the app and giving it a 1-star rating.

I had noticed the pushy texts. Did my Dad really text me three times to let me know that he’d sent me a video message? No, it was the app. I was annoyed and unnerved, but ultimately not enough to stop using the app. I’ve reconnected with two friends and spoken more to them in the past two weeks than we’d talked in years.

But, as the saying goes, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.” What is Marco Polo getting out of hours of me looking into a selfie cam and detailing the mundanities of my life to friends across the country? Are the robots learning how to better imitate human speech? (Perhaps we must start inventing strange words to teach them, as a kind of shibboleth.) Are they memorizing the way facial muscles move? Is it bad to say that I don’t know, and for the moment anyway, I don’t really care?

The Case for Dressing Like a Weirdo

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My best friend, Taelor, was probably what pushed me over the edge into dressing like a weirdo. Shortly after we met in World History sophomore year, we agreed to attend the Fall dance together, him in devil horns and a flame shirt, me in a giant white tutu, halo, and wings.

From then on, it was go-go boots, pleated skirts, 70’s polyester for days. I only shopped at thrift stores and wore things that were interesting. Most of the kids in our high school bought striped sweaters from the Gap and flared jeans. Taelor, me, and our gaggle of friends just dressed however we wanted. Every so often, one of my more conventionally-attired classmates would walk up to me and say, “I love your ____, I wish I could pull that off.”

I always felt sad for them. It was like they assumed I had some kind of secret well of confidence that would allow me to wear whatever I wanted. The secret is that dressing weird makes you more confident.

That may sound backwards. But I was listening to an old episode of the Hidden Brain podcast this weekend where Francesco Gino of Harvard Business Review talked about people who practiced “positive deviance.” These people succeed by breaking the rules. In one experiment, students were made to perform karaoke in front of their classmates. Some had to wear a silly bandana while doing it and some didn’t. Those who wore the bandana actually performed better and stayed on key more than those who didn’t.

Think about it this way. If I walk into a meeting dressed in normal business wear, I code myself as just one of the group. If I walk into a meeting with something slightly off—dressed too casually or too formally, wearing sneakers or something, it’s kind of a power move. I can break the rules.

Reclaiming my old sense of fashion has been difficult for me in adulthood. The stakes seem higher than in high school. But every time I put on a bright lipstick, a weird legging, or a bold shoe, I feel more confident. I feel more myself.

Waiting for My Pitch

 Photo by QEi/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by QEi/iStock / Getty Images

I am a theater nerd, and sports metaphors make me nervous. I always wonder to myself did I use that correctly? But I did play some backyard baseball growing up, and so my advice to writers this week (and let's be honest, to myself) is to wait for your pitch.

I'm a goal-oriented, type A person. I set goals, I break those goals down into smaller steps, I make a plan and schedule it and I finish my projects ON DEADLINE. That is who I am, I can be no other way. Maybe it's my theater background--it's a "the show must go on" mentality.

And yet...writing doesn't always work on deadlines. Yes, I can aim for a daily or weekly word count. I can make sure to write my morning pages everyday. I can turn out drafts and even finished articles on time, but with my novel things are different.

The biggest struggle I've had with the book is deciding when it's done. I want it to be, if not perfect, then pretty darn close to what I originally envisioned. I've written probably 4-5 complete drafts at this point, it's been read by a dozen helpful beta-readers and I've revised, and revised, and revised until I've become sick of it! But it's not DONE.

I started querying the book last Spring under the guise that I needed to practice querying and wasn't likely to get any responses anyway. WRONG. The FIRST AGENT I emailed requested a full manuscript THE NEXT DAY. I sent off a complete, shoddy draft, rife with typos and even a few embarrassing continuity errors. (GAH!) I did another revision and queried a few more agents after that, getting several requests but no offers.

My gut told me that the book didn't hold up all the way through.

I rewrote more this summer and in August entered the illustrious Pitch Wars competition. The "prize" in this comp is a mentor relationship with an agented author who can help you revise and pitch your book. I don't know if I will get a mentor out of this competition, but either way, I'm determined to finish revising before I query the book again. I want to "wait for my pitch" rather than swinging wildly.

To that end, one of my writing buddies recommended an outlining book Take Off Your Pants. I am generally more of a free-spirited "pantser" than a "plotter" and I rarely outline, but this book has been super helpful and has made me rethink the actual goal of my main character. If you are writing or revising, I definitely recommend it! (Plus it's SHORT!) 

Whether it comes to writing or other creative projects, it's good practice to wait for your pitch. It means letting go of control, letting life (and inspiration) happen at it's own pace. I am waiting for my pitch and hoping I used that sports metaphor correctly :)

Long Live the Multi-Cultural Rom-Com

 

 

My fascination with love stories was probably inevitable; I was raised on Disney. I knew from an early age I wanted a love that could overcome all obstacles. As I grew, so did my interest in love stories. But by the time I was finally allowed to watch PG-13, I found most romcoms dismal. A clumsy, attractive heroine falls for a bland-but-hunky hero, but there is a very minor obstacle (usually A BIG SECRET) which is inevitably resolved with a sprint through the airport and an embarrassing proclamation.

The problem with most of these stories is that they are so broad: Kate Hudson could be replaced by Meg Ryan who could replace Rachel McAdams without much difference. They are meant to stand in for the “every woman” which is a fallacy in itself. We are all very specific, interesting humans. We have real flaws and real obstacles in our lives, but, traditionally, the American romcom has not been very interested in dealing with that.

Luckily, as our films have become more diverse, our romcoms have markedly improved. This perhaps started with with Nia Vardalos’ fantastic “My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” but came more into full bloom with last year’s “Meet the Patels” and “The Big Sick,” about an Indian-American and a Pakistani-American man, respectively, who fall for White American women. The romantic conflict echoes their inner struggles to reconcile their multiple identities, as both Americans and 2nd generation immigrants. Big questions arise: Who am I? Who will I marry? How will my family deal with that?

As impressive as those previous films were, “Crazy Rich Asians” goes one better. As American-born Chinese (ABC) Rachel Chu meets her Chinese-Singaporean boyfriend’s friends and family, she must not only struggle through these identity issues, but the impact of romance on her intersectional identity as an Asian-American woman. Who is Rachel? Asian or American or both? Can she be ambitious and get her happily ever after? Or will she be cornered into a supporting role, like Nick’s mom, Eleanor? Will she hide a part of herself so as not to “emasculate” her husband, like Astrid chose to do?

“Crazy Rich Asians” is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination—the film glamorizes conspicuous consumption ($1.2 million earrings, anyone?) and pushes darker-skinned Malays and Indians to the margins. It does not represent THE Asian-American experience (there is no such thing), but by centering the stories of Rachel, her mom, Eleanor, and Astrid, it places intersectional identity at the heart of the film.

So long live the multicultural romcom! Give me storied traditions, give me families who stuck together to overcome racism and poverty. Give me fish-out-of-water heroines who don’t fall for Matthew McConaughey, but rather the Pakistani-American standup. Give me laughs and love and Singaporean food porn. Give me characters that don’t reflect some bland imagined American experience but rather real characters who represent a wide range of real experiences. These characters may not reflect my personal experience, but through their eyes I gain a new lens on the world. And isn’t that what stories are for?

 

Overcoming my Literary Snobbery

 Photo by percds/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by percds/iStock / Getty Images

In 6th grade I traded in middle-grade fiction for the likes of Jane Austen and Shakespeare. I even lugged a Complete Works of William Shakespeare with me on a family trip to Florida the following year. It weighed almost as much as I did, and it was abridged! Classics and "literary fiction" has always been my jam. I liked to tell myself that classics were classics for a reason and that any genre fiction was beneath me.

I avoided Harry Potter because it was "children's literature," The Hunger Games because it featured a teenage love triangle. I have openly laughed at people reading Nicholas Sparks novels. I thought that these books, and many, many more, weren't worth a second look. Or perhaps I was just so worried people wouldn't think I was smart that I needed to slog my way through Anna Karenina to prove it.  

And I was totally wrong. At a friend's insistence, I started reading The Hunger Games and I couldn't put it down. I devoured the Outlander series (all eleventy billion pages of it), and worst of all, this summer I started reading romance. And I liked it!

Romance and women's fiction are typically looked down on by Serious Literary Types. Even Iowa Writer's Workshop authors like Curtis Sittenfeld are critiqued ruthlessly for concerning themselves with romantic relationships in their work. If you aren't convinced that the Literary Canon is sexist, think of how many classics actually deal with the experience of motherhood. This incredibly common human experience is so rarely depicted on the page that every time I find a decent book about motherhood I add it to my list (Afterbirth, The Ten Year Nap, The Sunshine When She's Gone, anything by Maria Semple)

Some classics are great. A lot of literary fiction is interesting. Some classics are boring AF. Some literary fiction makes me want to claw my eyes out. There is value any genre. The only limitation we should place on our reading list is what brings us pleasure and what helps us grow.

Here's what I've read so far this summer:
-Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
-Assassination Nation
-The Female Persuasion
-The Kiss Quotient

Plus some great yet-to-be-published books from my critique partners, which were both romance! 

What's your summer reading list? Do you have any genres you refuse to read?

Fair-Trade Back-to-School Shopping

 Abraham models his new favorite outfit: second-hand t-shirt and Beru sweatpants

Abraham models his new favorite outfit: second-hand t-shirt and Beru sweatpants

I'm really passionate about Fair Trade shopping. There are a plethora of cheap, fast fashion clothes on the market that are bad for the environment and bad for workers. Several years ago I started a blogging project Life's Not Fair Trade as I researched different products I buy and their impact. When I started that project, finding fair trade clothing was next to impossible. I found one shop in Vancouver and there was American Apparel, which had its own problems.

Thankfully, a lot has changed since then. It's now easier than ever to find Fair Trade clothing. This summer I set myself a challenge to only get second-hand or Fair Trade clothing for myself and my kids. 

How did we do? I started with the fantastic blog, Style Wise. This is a great directory which breaks down companies by what they sell. Part of sustainable fashion to me is only buying what you need rather than anything that pops into your brain, so I bought underwear and a bra from Pact. When they sent me a coupon for free socks, I bought some socks, too. I really like them! Their clothing seems to be high-quality, very comfortable, and reasonably priced. On vacation I hit up some second-hand stores for a blazer, a top, and a super adorbs British sun hat.

 

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Shopping for the kids was tougher. I have successfully second-hand shopped for them before (pajama pants are the best 2nd hand--does anyone else's kids blow out the knees of their pjs???) but I'll be honest, sometimes you luck out and sometimes you don't. And shopping with kids is trying at the best of times, so I decided to try online Fair Trade. 

I downloaded an app, even though I hate apps, called "Good On You" which is pretty helpful in rating conventional and Fair Trade clothing brands. I could see it being very helpful if you're headed to the mall anytime soon. Unfortunately, most of the kids' Fair Trade sites I found were geared toward ridiculously cute baby clothes or little girls' clothing, neither of which I was looking for. I basically just needed boys' pants and socks.

I hit pay dirt when I spotted a blog that mentioned Beru. This is organic cotton clothing made in Los Angeles AND it's reasonably priced?!?!? What kind of witchcraft is this???? I loaded up on chinos and sweat pants (my 3yo ONLY wears sweatpants). They arrived quickly and are very comfy. PLUS they came with cool silver tattoos! I only wish they did denim.

All that being said, I did cave and get the kids some jeans and one t-shirt at Uniqlo, and I will have to buy them some probably non-Fair Trade socks pretty soon. Progress not perfection, right?

Do you have a Fair Trade tip? What kinds of things are important to you in a clothing brand? Leave a comment below!

One Thing Must Change After the Hijacking at SeaTac

Content warning: suicide.

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Last Friday night a SeaTac Airport ground crew employee named Richard Russell stole an empty Horizon Air plane and flew it around the Puget Sound before crashing it on Ketron Island. 

In the wake of this incident, officials are meeting at SeaTac to discuss how to prevent incidences like this in the future. You can bet there will be new waves of security measures just as there were after 9/11 and the "shoe bombers" a few years after. This will lead to more delays, fewer flights, and heightened security theater at our nation's airports. Meanwhile, Americans are many times more likely to die falling out of bed than being killed by a terrorist.

 

 

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It strikes me as ridiculous that we keep enacting security measures at airports. There will always be flaws. Our airports can never be made 100% safe and the odds of airplanes being used for terrorism is incredibly low. 

What, then, could have prevented this hijacking and the death of Richard Russell? Better mental health care. Listening to the cockpit audio of Russell's flight, it seems clear to me that he was suicidal. Profiles of Russell have painted him as a quiet, religious guy, who was very kind. He was a Young Life leader. In case you are unfamiliar, Young Life is a high school youth group-type organization. Russell was not some isolated loner, he had community.

I didn't know Russell. I don't know what his mental health was like and whether he made attempts to get help. But I do know that churches far too often fail to identify people who are struggling with mental illness. In many churches things like depression and anxiety are treated more like sins to be prayed away than serious illnesses. If a parishioner is brave enough to tell a pastor that they are struggling, they are often offered counseling by pastoral staff, who rarely have any background in clinical psychology. In many churches taking psychiatric medication is seen as a sin.

 

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We have a long way to go in recognizing and treating mental illness. People do not have to die of their mental illnesses. We need churches and communities that recognize that mental illness is an illness just like diabetes is an illness. We need a healthcare system in which EVERYONE can access therapists and psychiatrists. Until then, no amount of airport security will prevent hijackings like this from taking place.

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

 all dressed up at Sterling Castle in Sterling, Scotland

all dressed up at Sterling Castle in Sterling, Scotland

I found myself surprisingly anxious before we left on our four-week trip to Europe. Maybe I had good reason: a 6-year-old, a 3-year-old, jet-lag, eating in restaurants, sleeping in strange beds, and no hope of a peanut butter sandwich anywhere.

Traveling with children rarely feels like a vacation.  What to an adult looks like a plush hotel room feels unfamiliar and uncomfortable to kids. Even if you do manage to get them to sleep there, odds are good they'll be up before sunrise. Young kids, especially preschoolers, love routine and must therefore hate travel where everything is so different. But we weren't doing this trip for the kids, we were doing it for ourselves my husband and I would periodically remind each other. 

This was a selfish trip. Yes, we took our kids to many playgrounds and even Lego Land in Windsor, but this trip wasn't fundamentally for them. If it were up them we would've just stayed home and visited the Lego store every few days. 

I have no regrets about taking this completely selfish trip. We reconnected with old friends. We overindulged in delicious food and drinks. My husband and I reminisced endlessly. Our kids came along with us, and we tried to share things with them, but like all kids, their interest is random and therefore almost impossible to satisfy. The Tower of London was meh, the double decker bus was amazing. The Deutsches Museum (possibly the world's largest science museum) was OK but "the wave" on the Isar River where surfers practice was spellbinding

There were tantrums in picturesque piazzas, there were many requests to "go back to Seattle," and there were two incidences where we had to physically remove them from restaurants; but for the most part the kids adapted well. Even though they complained, I think they did enjoy the trip, as did my husband and I. My only regret? Not being even more selfish.

Before we left, I told my husband that I thought it would be a good idea for us each to take some time to ourselves during the trip, to be able to go the more boring sites sans kids. He was genius enough to plan a date night for us in London's West End, complete with babysitter he found online, and I asked a friend to babysit one night for us while we were in Frankfurt so we could go wine tasting with friends, but other than that, we forgot to take time for ourselves until our last two days.

In fact it was the very last day of vacation that I relinquished some family time (a visit to yet another "dino museum") to go to City Beach, a rooftop beach bar in downtown Frankfurt. 

 City Beach Frankfurt

City Beach Frankfurt

It was heavenly. I ate lunch without worrying about anyone else's behavior. I ordered an outrageously priced raspberry mojito and finished my vacation read. The whole time I was thinking why didn't I do this sooner? After a few hours, Ryan and the kids joined me on the roof and I felt relaxed and happy to see them.

If I learned one thing on my summer vacation it's this: it's OK to be selfish. It's good to take time away from being a parent. Not everything needs to revolve around the kids all the time. 

I'm hoping to be more selfish in the future. I've started by taking advantage of our preschool's parents night out this week to go on another date with my husband! (That's 3 in 5 weeks, look at us!) And right now I'm making my children do "quiet independent play time" in separate rooms. It's good for them and me.

Our current culture of paranoid perfectionist parenting, admitting to not centering my children's desires feels scary. But it also feels right that they learn they are not the center of the universe. By "taking turns" doing things I want to do, I'm teaching my kids to be considerate of my needs, just as I am considerate of theirs. 

Fashion File: Packing for a Month in Europe

My husband and I have made the (possibly insane) decision to battle jet lag with small children and take our family to Europe this summer. If you know me at all, you know I am an obsessive list-maker, so it comes as no surprise that I've started packing already. But since I have some experience in this arena, I decided to share some of my vacation packing tips.

 

1. Ditch the sneakers. The "American tourist" uniform goes something like this: sneakers, visible socks, shorts, sweatshirt, baseball cap. Europeans tend to be dressier. I'm swapping out sneakers for some comfortable Birkenstocks and these Alice & Whittles ankle-height rain boots (because, Scotland.) If I weren't going to be spending so much time at the playground on this trip, I'd be going more skirts and dresses rather than shorts, too.

2. Pack light! When I first started traveling, I'd bring enormous suitcases filled with outfits for every possible occasion. But schlepping suitcases is no fun, and it turned out I didn't even wear a lot of the things I brought. This trip each member of the family is limited to one carry-on. The photos above are pretty much all of the outfits I'm bringing. Mixing and matching is fun, and since we're staying mostly in VRBOs or with friends, I can do laundry once a week and save myself a lot of hassle. Another good rule of thumb is: Europe has stores. I don't need to bring giant bottles of shampoo or whatever, because if I don't pack it I can always pick it up in Europe.

3. Mix, match, layer. Packing light is a lot easier if you keep your patterns in one area of your clothing. I picked two pairs of patterned shorts and a polka dotted dress while keeping my tops solid colors. I'll probably also pack a polka dotted scarf to jazz up some of these outfits and for an added layer in Scotland. I also made sure to pack layering pieces, like the denim shirt which can double as a beach cover up. I'll be bringing a compact rain jacket too. 

 

 packing list...what am I forgetting?

packing list...what am I forgetting?

Can Makeover Shows Be Feminist?

 from Barbie to Real Housewife: Jade, contestant on episode 1 of "100% Hotter"

from Barbie to Real Housewife: Jade, contestant on episode 1 of "100% Hotter"

I love a good makeover. In fact, I just had my own hair makeover yesterday! I think playing with fashion is really fun, and I'm intrigued by the way our appearances influence how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Back in the day I'd gladly binge hours of shows like "What Not to Wear" and its ilk. So when "100% Hotter" popped onto my Netflix recommendations, I was STOKED. Not only is it a makeover show, but a BRITISH one. When I lived in the UK I really admired how put together British women tended to look (at least more so than the average Seattleite). But as I watched, a knot began forming in my stomach. I began to realize that my evolution has a feminist may very well have ruined makeover shows for me.

The premise of "100% Hotter" is that women are selected for looking "too extreme." Three stylists show their picture to a bunch of strangers who rank them on a scale of 1-10 for "hotness." Then they are set a series of fairly embarrassing tasks, before being madeover, revealed, and re-ranked. It's like the show was dreamed up by all the mean jocks in your high school.  

The judges attempt to soften this bullying by assuring these women that they are actually "quite pretty" but that they currently look slutty, fat & trashy. Yes, it's the unholy trinity of slut-shaming, body-shaming, and class-ism. Why did Jade have a cheap DIY bleach job instead of a "classy" blond bayalage? Probably because she can't afford it. 

The judges often mock the contestants for wanting to emulate beauty standards like Barbie or Alice in Wonderland while shoe-horning them into other, equally restrictive beauty standards. The judges treat fashion as if there were a morally correct way to dress.

If fashion is an art (as I'm sure these judges would say) then why isn't there room for people to express themselves in unconventional ways? In the whole makeover process all of the emphasis is on impressing others, not on what the women themselves actually want. It all feels very regressive, like "these young women must be brought in line."

I can't help but contrast shows like this to "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," which provides not just fashion and hair advice, but also helps its contestants accomplish a personal goal. The men's interactions are framed in a funny but loving way, with far less bullying, and they use their advice as a means to an end. The assumption of women's makeover shows seems to be that looking good is the goal; perhaps the only and ultimate goal for any woman.

The final straw for me was that the hairdresser clearly put Jade in a wig for her final reveal (see above) but pretended like it was her own hair. I enjoy a wig as much as the next gal, but seriously, does they think we're stupid?  

I hope that someday we can have a makeover show where the contestants are in the driver's seat rather than the object of ridicule. Fashion should be fun, it should be a means of self-expression, not some way of forcing women into the narrow confines of someone else's standards. Until then, I will be giving "100% Hotter" and its ilk a pass.

Saint Samantha

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We didn't have HBO growing up, but when by the time I started attending Christian university, Sex and the City reruns were playing on basic cable, albeit heavily edited. My roommates and I would occasionally gather to watch it, me with a certain feeling of nervousness. While our Evangelical culture told us "modest is hottest" and "true love waits" and that even the most innocuous things (hammocks, slow dancing, pajama pants) could lead to impurity and ruination, Sex and the City was shocking. These four women seemed to be happy, although I secretly suspected they were wrong. Surely happiness came from being a wife, mother, and good Christian?

Most of them seemed redeemable (particularly Charlotte) but Samantha was beyond help. She was brazen in her desires, slept around without shame. In one iconic episode, she breaks up with a guy by telling him: "I love you. But I love me more."

And that is what was so transgressive and fascinating about Samantha. She was the antidote to the image of the martyred wife/mother that seemed to be held up as the Evangelical ideal. She loved herself the most. Samantha never had children, but if she did, I imagine her being the type of mom who wouldn't feel guilty about parking her kids with the ipad so she could work out. She wouldn't feel compelled to sacrifice her identity in order to be a mom. 

Last week I had my tarot cards read for an upcoming Fundamentally Free post. The tarot card reader talked a lot to me about boundaries (something I'm also working on in my support group). She said to me, "Relationships require compromise, but not sacrifice. Do you know the difference?" I nodded, but she kept pressing me, "Do you? Do you?" While I don't believe in the magic of tarot (spoiler alert) I do think it's something worth considering. How we draw these boundaries matters. After all, Jesus commanded us to "love our neighbors as ourselves" not more than, not less than, but equally.

That is a surprisingly difficult line to walk. But maybe I need a little less Mother Theresa and a little more Samantha.

Jesus & Perfectionism

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Christians have come up with a variety of ways to discount the things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I've heard sermons that talk about how Jesus' words were not actual commands but rather an illustration of how human beings could never measure up, and therefore are in need of grace. (Maybe that's true, how are we supposed to know? Jesus didn't offer additional explanation.) Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the Sermon on the Mount that are really beautiful and amazing (I'm looking at you, Beatitudes) but, if you take Jesus' words at face value (as we were taught to do as Evangelicals) then there are a lot of problems.

In this sermon, Jesus equates being angry with someone with murder (Matt 5:22), lust with the act of adultery (Matt 5:28), advises people to self-mutilate rather than sin (5:29-30), advises us to turn the other cheek, without asterisk for abusive situations (5:39), and sums up this whole series by commanding us to be as perfect as God is.

Perhaps the well-adjusted among us can read this chapter and ignore the parts they find unrealistic and simply get on with their lives, but this command to "be perfect" was a huge problem for me. I am a perfectionist, and here in the Bible, was justification for it.

Perfectionism is one of those quirks that tends to get laughed at, or even secretly admired, by those not afflicted with it. But, I've learned in the past year what perfectionism really is: a dysfunctional behavior that is the result of intense anxiety. Perfectionism is the driving fear that if something is not perfect, there will be trouble. It's the belief that if I can just control everything, make everything just right, then I won't get in to trouble and people will like me. It goes hand-in-hand with people-pleasing and being controlling. While others may look on in admiration at the amount of things I'm able to accomplish, how clean my house is, how much I read, or do x, y, or z, I know that this is an unhealthy behavior that doesn't lead to happiness.

I'm working now on letting go of control. It's very scary. A friend of mine who also struggles with perfectionism has started a new ritual. Each day she aims to make one mistake, and when she does it, she announces it, and her family have to applaud her. I thought this was silly, until the other week at breakfast, I spilled Cheerios all over the floor and was huffing and puffing in irritation. My three-year-old son looked at me sweeping and muttering and said, "Mommy, you made a mistake."

He said it without judgment, just as an observation. And then I realized that I need to treat myself the way I treat my kids. I need to allow myself to make mistakes, even applaud them. Maybe that's not Biblical, but it certainly feels healthier.

The Church of Daniel Tiger

 the pieta

the pieta

As the parent of two small kids, I watch a lot of cartoons. Most of them are terrible, but some of them are truly great. Daniel Tiger, a PBS show for preschoolers, teaches children (and parents) emotional intelligence through a series of bizarrely auto-tuned yet irresistibly catchy jingles.

It was one such jingle that prompted me to rethink the Christian doctrine of sin.

Sin is a complex and depressing topic. In the Evangelicalism I was raised in, sin is of the utmost importance. ALL people sin, and therefore "fall short of the glory of God." We have "sinful natures" that we cannot overcome no matter how hard we try. The idea is that God created us to have free will, but once Eve ate the forbidden fruit, our natures became sinful. Not only do we sin constantly, but sin is defined in ever-increasing ways as the Bible progresses. Jesus tells us that even thinking about adultery or murder is sin. Christian doctrine draws on the gospels and epistles to say that all sins are equal before God. Telling a lie is as bad as committing mass murder. We are "slaves to sin" and the only solution is the Atonement of Christ.

This bothers me. I disagree that all sins are equal. And it seems to me that "sin" is not a bug, but a feature of humanity. Babies care only for themselves. But hopefully, as they grow into children and then adults they learn to put the needs of others as at least equal to their own. But how can you learn this without ever messing it up?

Which is why I prefer the doctrine of Daniel Tiger to the Bible here. Thus spake the Tiger:

It's OK to make mistakes
Try to fix them
And learn from them, too

The tiger offers no shame. The tiger doesn't threaten us with eternal damnation. The tiger requires no bloody sacrifice to blot out the mistake. The tiger acknowledges the mistake and tries to go forth and do better. Instead of the Bible's all-or-nothing, perfectionist thinking, the Tiger offers us nuance and space to mess up.

This is the big problem with the Bible, or at least how we most of us were taught to interpret it. Two thousand years ago it was truly progressive (parts of it still are). But many parts of that book no longer are. We don't stone adulteresses, that's good. But many churches still ostracize divorced people even though our entire model for marriage AND our concept of women's rights have changed radically in the last 2,000 years. So instead of pulling us forward, the Bible holds us back. We try to apply first-century rules to modern life and continually butt up against science, reason, and empathy. 

I don't know what the solution is, if there's a way to sift through the scripture and retain the useful while disregarding the parts that are bizarre and barbaric. But I do know that Daniel Tiger has never let me down! At this point in my faith deconstruction, I feel a bit like Gretchen on the first episode of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, when she escapes the bunker and then thinks Matt Lauer of The Today Show is her new cult leader, "I go with you now, yes? I'm married to you?" It's strange to walk away from an institution that has been your home for your entire life.

So, what say you, loyal readers? Do we start our own Tiger-based cult? Ideas? Locations?

The Gospel According to Hedwig

hedwig.jpg

The first time I saw the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I thought I would probably be sick. It was the early 2000s and I was an uptight Evangelical teen. I had never heard the words transgender or genderqueer. Hedwig's graphic talk of sex acts and the gory description of how a "sex-change operation got botched" was scary and probably evil, I feared. But there was something else, there. Hedwig was a compelling character, part philosopher and part diva-off-her rocker. She was the opposite of everything I was raised to believe was good and right, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

That was many years ago. I've changed a lot since then. I've had the opportunity to see the movie and the stage production several times. Watching the film as an Evangelical teen, all I could think about were the sexual aspects. Looking at the film now, as an #exvangelical, is how intertwined Hedwig's story is with the gospel.

At first glance, Hedwig seems much more concerned with Platonic philosophy, particularly The Myth of Aristophenes, wherein Plato describes the origin of love. But there's a certain amount of Evangelical theology hidden there. One of awkward teenage Tommy Gnosis' first questions to Hedwig is whether she'd accepted Jesus into her heart. 

But the central theme of the show is power and its use, as discussed in the following scene:

HEDWIG: Jesus said the darndest things!
HEDWIG'S MOTHER: Don't you ever mention that name to me again.
HEDWIG: but He died for our sins.
MOTHER: so did Hitler
HEDWIG: huh?
MOTHER: absolute power corrupts
HEDWIG: absolutely
MOTHER: better to be powerless, my son.

The theme that is repeated throughout the play is that those in power hurt those without power. Those who are abused pass on their pain to others. Hedwig's parents hurt her, Luther hurts her, Tommy Gnosis hurts her, and so she abuses her bandmates and her spouse, Yitzhak. Hedwig's mother posits that it is better to be powerless, to be the one absorbing the pain than the one inflicting it. 

This is an idea taken up by rebel theologian Rob Bell. He posits that the power of the crucifixion is that rather than passing on the pain inflicted upon him, the all-powerful Jesus absorbed it. Jesus was stronger than those who killed him because he chose to absorb the violence and turn it into redemption and forgiveness. Forgiving people is infinitely harder than getting revenge or passing on abuse to those weaker than us.

Hedwig is a deeply flawed character, but she's also lovable and compelling. We care about her because she undergoes a transformation, from hostile, revenge-focused, toward forgiveness. The climax of the play comes in an intense, crucifixion-like moment, when we see Hedwig stripping off her wig and costume, transforming herself before our eyes into Tommy Gnosis, her former love and the object of her ire. Hedwig/Tommy performs a reprise of "Wicked Little Town" (a song Hedwig used to help Tommy transcend his small-town imprisonment).

But this time, Tommy sings

"Forgive me for I did not know
I was just a boy, you were so much more
Than any god could ever plan
More than a woman, or a man
And now I understand
How much I took from you
That when everything starts breaking down
You take the pieces off the ground
And show this wicked town
Something beautiful and new

The play feels ambiguous at this point. Is the actor now playing Tommy, offering a real apology? Or is it Hedwig pretending to be Tommy, imagining what she'd want him to say to her? Did she have the answer to her own problems all along? Does an imagined apology work as well as the real thing? 

Either way, Hedwig's next action is to pass her wig on to Yitzhak, a symbolic moment that shows her sharing her power rather than using it to abuse any longer. She gives up her power, fading into the background. Is it better to be powerless?

Trolling Myself

 look into these dead ceramic eyes and know that you are mortal.

look into these dead ceramic eyes and know that you are mortal.

One of the hardest things about improving your mental health is recognizing the way you talk to yourself. It's so much background noise that it's hard to hear it. Why do we do the things we do? What are the hidden beliefs that motivate our behavior? This shit is hard to figure out. 

After my first son was born, something wasn't right. I was incredibly anxious, worried that something terrible would happen to him or that someone would take him away from me. Unbidden, horrific images came to mind; I imagined myself intentionally or unintentionally hurting him. I thought that these thoughts were a sign that I wanted to hurt him. I kept them private because I was ashamed. When I finally went to counseling a year after his birth and confessed all to a therapist, she told me that actually this wasn't the case. What I was describing was a classic symptom of OCD. These images were a manifestation of my anxious feelings. 

What I learned in therapy is to listen to my thoughts and to separate myself from them. It's still challenging, but I work on it by journaling, saying affirmations (even though they sounds stupid), and trying to re-frame ways of thinking these things. One thing I noticed: my insecurities sound less intimidating coming from someone else. If someone else was half as mean to me as I am to myself, I'd tell them to fuck right off. Which is why I gave a ceramic fairy figurine her own Twitter account.

I think someone gave this fairy to me for a birthday one year? My mother recently evicted it from her china cabinet, and I thought about tossing it, but instead I made her an evil fairy who torments me about my writing. I try to remember my negative self-talk around writing and have the fairy troll me. Then I can tell her to burn in hell. I can separate myself from this negative self-talk and not let it define me.

Blubel can troll you, too, if you're on Twitter. @blubelnanofairy

Here's a great Invisibilia podcast about OCD: https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/375927143/the-secret-history-of-thoughts

And here's a By the Book podcast about self-talk: https://player.fm/series/by-the-book/what-to-say-when-you-talk-to-yourself

#amreading "Educated" and my Year to Date So Far

educated.jpg

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I have a bit of a problem when it comes to Peak Picks. Peak Picks is a new-ish program of the Seattle Public Library. They take several copies of the hottest new books and stash them at random libraries all over town. You can look online and see where they are, but YOU CANNOT PUT THEM ON HOLD. Moreover, you CANNOT RENEW THEM. They are 2-week check outs only. This beautiful, terrible program turns bookworms into addicts. A friend of mine drove across town twice to get a copy of Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere only to find it was gone by the time she arrived. 

So when I was in the Central Library 2 weeks ago and saw Educated, I knew it was now or maybe never. I grabbed it, hoping I could finish it and my other library books before the two weeks were up. It was no problem. This book is phenomenal. It's everything you want from a memoir: Westover doesn't hold back. She doesn't sugarcoat her past. She reaches back through the past and channels the feelings of being a girl trapped in an abusive, fundamentalist home. She translates the indescribable feelings of a mental breakdown into something lucid and understandable. Her story itself, that of a Mormon fundamentalist girl who was never allowed to go to school and somehow managed to earn a PhD from Cambridge, is astonishing, but it's how she tells it that really sets it apart.

Westover's most difficult feat is perhaps how she portrays a family in denial. Denial is a funny place to be, because when you're in it, you never realize it. To the reader, as to an outsider, Westover's father is clearly mentally ill. But Westover illustrates how she could be raised under this man's thumb and never be sure that anything was wrong. That's the nature of denial: you'd sooner question your own sanity than the words of your abuser. This is what so many people get wrong about abuse and manipulation. They scold people who stay in relationships with abusers or addicts, never realizing how that ecosystem looks completely different to those inside it.

There were many quotations in this book that I would've underlined if it hadn't been from the library, but my favorite was this:

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father and to use those truths to construct my own mind.

I think a lot of us coming out of Evangelicalism can relate.

In other #amreading news, here's my year to date thus far:

BOOKS I LOVED:
The Disaster Artist
The Artist's Way
Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud
God: A Human History
The Bell Jar
Little Fires Everywhere

DECENT BOOKS:
Love & Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning
What is the Bible?
Healing Spiritual Wounds
The Very Worst Missionary

What are you reading? Have you read Educated yet? Why not? 

Is It All in My Head?

 "that's what  I  was saying! So glad I'm not the only one who thinks so."

"that's what I was saying! So glad I'm not the only one who thinks so."

One of the tenets that simultaneously baffled and comforted me in Evangelical Christianity was the idea that the Holy Spirit talks to people. Usually not audibly, but somehow you would feel an impulse and know that it was God communicating to you, helping you know which decision to make. I've experienced this! It's led me to make really good decisions, decisions I look back on and think, "Wow, God was really looking out for me." And it's also led me to make terrible decisions, ones that make me scratch my head and think that I must not have heard God right after all, because, of course, God is always looking out for me, right? (RIGHT?)

When I was a teenager I was certain God was calling me to be an actress. Reading scripts, I knew intuitively how words were meant. I easily entered into stories and understood the motivation of the characters involved. I had loved being onstage since my first role in a church play at age 5. (I played Jezebel) When I was onstage, everyone listened to me.

The trouble was, I wasn't very good at it. I was...OK, but in a profession where only 10% of people doing it actually make a living at it, OK was not enough. Even my personal brand of superhuman perseverance and German work ethic could not make me a spectacular actress. My failure in my chosen field hurt worse because I had thrown everything I had into it. There was no backup plan, because I was certain that if God called me to do this, He would surely provide a way for me to do it.

This weekend I started reading The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever (which is a great read BTW) and I've reached the part where Jamie arrives in a Costa Rican Spanish language school and she's surrounded by rando missionaries. How do you get to become a missionary? You just decide that God has called you to do this. And that's a problem, because a lot of those people should've really been doing something else. Anything else. 

It's probably a problem we can chalk up to the Reformation. We now believe we all have a direct line to God and that God's going to tell us all these things. And we're wrong A LOT. But people rarely question these things, because we expect God to work miracles. And a lot of the time, that just does not happen.

It's likely enough that these instances of "God" speaking to people can be chalked up to things like confirmation bias. When you hear a similar message from several different sources, it can feel like synchronicity. So we could dismiss this phenomena entirely. But I don't.

I want to believe that there is a benign force of good in the universe that can help steer us toward a more just society. I want to believe in a loving God who looks out for all my stupid, insignificant problems and everyone's problems, big or small. I think, most of the time, this is harmless and perhaps even hope-giving. But I also think that taking these "whispers" or intuitions and running wild with them can lead to some pretty bad outcomes. Perhaps what we need most is to temper all this with humility and the knowledge that we could be wrong.