Monday, November 17, 2014

The Difference Between Catcalls and "Being Polite"

I had the great good fortune to spend five days in NYC last week, walking some of the same streets that the woman from this Hollaback video walked while she videotaped the response. If you haven't seen the video, it is essentially the distillation of ten hours of footage as she walked around Manhattan in jeans and a t-shirt. The reason it is worth watching is because of how she is treated by strangers as she strolls the streets alone. Some of the unsolicited attention is very disturbing.

Like I said, I walked those same streets last weekend and, with the exception of street vendors trying to sell me something or hand me a flyer for a bus tour, nobody talked to me at all.  Because I'm patently unattractive? I don't think so. Because I was walking with a man. 

He happened to be my husband, but he could have been my brother or my uncle or just a friend. And that is what I think makes all the difference.  The two of us witnessed many incidents of street harassment of other women as they walked alone or in groups and I may or may not have told one man as he repeatedly increased his volume and pled for one woman to respond to his "compliments" that I thought he was an ass and he should just shut up.  Bubba may or may not have squeezed my hand and started walking faster.

Since this video was posted, there has been much debate on the subject of catcalling and street harassment and many of the usual players have cried foul. On Fox's show "The Five," host Eric Bolling said he didn't see anything wrong with most of what happened in the video and his co-host agreed so wholeheartedly that he catcalled her from the set of the show. In addition to the more famous folks weighing in, there have been scores of others who have defended catcalling as "polite," and a legitimate way of greeting people on the street.  It is this notion of 'people' that I take issue with.

If you are a straight guy on the sidewalk and a couple walks by, are you likely to greet them both with "good morning," or a leering "God Bless You" if they are a particularly handsome couple? When a single guy walks by, would you look him up and down and say hello or comment on his choice of clothing? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you might live in the Pacific Northwest or some other locality known for its neighborliness or polite culture. But if you are in a big city and the only people you "greet politely" on the street are young women, either walking alone or in a group, then you are likely giving them unwanted attention.  If you persist by asking them for something (a phone number, an enthusiastic response, acknowledgment of your physical prowess or simple glee that you noticed them), you have crossed the line into creepy and aggressive and inappropriate.

If you, like men's rights activist Paul Elam, believe that men who catcall are simply as "innocuous" as "panhandlers, strangers who talk too much...salespeople, survey takers and even officious video makers," you might want to realize that these obnoxious folks on the sidewalk are Equal Opportunity Offenders. These folks are starting unwanted conversations with people of all ages and genders. Their motive is generally to make money and, occasionally, to incite discomfort. Folks who catcall are not neighbors simply trying to connect with other human beings. I cannot say exactly what their motives are and I suspect they are complicated and not necessarily universal, but the fact that most of the remarks are sexualized in nature or tone adds an insidious element to them that is not present when a shiny pamphlet or petition is being shoved in your face.

There are already too many situations where a woman can be uncomfortable in public given the culture of objectification in this country. I fully admit to being very nervous in an elevator by myself with a man I don't know or walking down a dimly lit street alone when a man or two is coming toward me. That may be unwarranted, but the balance of power is shifted such that I, as a female, feel vulnerable in those instances. Add in comments such as the ones Shoshana Roberts heard in her daytime stroll through a crowded city, and I don't think you can fault women for crying foul. If it isn't something you would say to someone you aren't sexually attracted to, it isn't something you should say at all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dialogues in My Head

Often, as I wrestle with a parenting dilemma, the ghostly voices of my parents come to me. Often, we have entire conversations in my head. Most of the time, I win. That is a function of age and defiance and some therapy over the years, I think.

Today I pondered the role of punishment and consequences versus empathy and compassion. I thought about whether the most important thing is to STOP a particular behavior or to let my children know that I used to act the same way because I used to feel the same way. I wondered whether acknowledging the intense emotions raging inside my girls might help to decrease their effect or at least provide a balm. I recalled learning that my strongest feelings were to be hidden and not used as an excuse for bad behavior and also that it was very important not to get caught doing something your parents didn't want you to do. I learned that hiding both my emotions and my actions was better for everyone involved unless I was feeling giddy or euphoric. I think I decided that I would rather tolerate some minor bad behavior that "could lead to something more" in my father's words and commiserate with my children, let them know that I see what they're up to and that I think I know why. Give them an opening to acknowledge and air their feelings instead of poking them down that deep, dark hole. When I came to this resolution, the silent dialogue Dad and I were having while I brushed my teeth this morning abruptly ended. I think he saw my point and decided it was silly to argue.



Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Sweeping Without a Broom


"Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.” Josiah Charles Stamp

Ahh, personal responsibility. We are a nation enamored with the concept. We are also enamored with the notion of individuality; individual freedoms (to a certain extent), individual rights, individual responsibility. We expect people to clean up their messes if, for some reason they haven't managed to avoid making them in the first place. Unfortunately, we don't always provide them with the tools they need to do either of these things. And therein lies the rub.

We are a nation that loves instant gratification and thrives on the ability to "keep up with the Joneses." Hallelujah for credit! Visa and MasterCard give us the opportunity to spend money we don't have on things we want now. Sub-prime mortgages and "zero down" financing offer us chances to spend money we won't likely ever have. Our children and grandchildren see the economy collapsing under the weight of such ridiculousness, and hear every day on the news that the economy would rebound more quickly if we just went out and spent more money. Huh? Is it any wonder they're confused? And how many of them will learn about money management in school? How many of their classes will educate them about saving money and contingency planning? If these classes aren't available, how many of their parents will be able to talk to them about these things? I remember two of the "life skills" classes I took in high school: Personal Finance and home economics. We talked about calculating interest rates and were taught the proper way to write a personal check in Personal Finance class. In Home Ec, we did a little sewing, a little meal preparation, and one very memorable day, a cosmetics expert came in to teach us the proper way to apply our makeup without creating wrinkles around our eyes. I didn't feel precisely qualified to manage the finances of a household upon graduation. I'm certain I'm not qualified to teach my kids money management skills based on those two "practical life" classes.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another bill that is aimed at blocking access to reproductive healthcare for millions of American women. They claim that their intent is to reduce the number of abortions (hopefully to zero) in our nation. If this is an attempt to force women to live up to the consequences of their mistakes (ie. premarital or unprotected sexual activity?), I fear that they are asking women to sweep up a mess without providing them a broom or proper instruction on its use. Defunding Planned Parenthood and making access to other facilities where women can get objective, non-biased information about their own bodies is worse than that. It is actively denying them access to the broom and the class on sweeping. How can we expect people to avoid mistakes or learn from them when we don't offer them information? If we fight against sexual education classes in our schools and rail against birth control, we are expecting people to gain this vital education by what, osmosis? If we don't teach each other what we know about the more difficult things in life, we can't expect any change. You can't hold someone responsible for making a mistake they had no way of preventing.

Individuality is important. Differences are often what creates color and vibrancy in life. But not enough can be made of the power of tapping into a collective base of information. There will always be people who learn best by making mistakes over and over again, but for those who could benefit from the wisdom of others, isn't it our responsibility to pass that information on?

Albert Einstein once characterized insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." This applies to entire cultures as much as it does to individuals. We can't keep telling generation after generation that we expect them to clean up their own messes if we don't provide them with the tools to either do so, or avoid those messes in the first place. Rebuilding our economy by asking people to spend more money only props it up for the next generation to overspend again. We will find ourselves right back in the same position, just as we have so many times before. And telling women and girls that they ought not to get pregnant without giving them ways to prevent pregnancy won't affect the rate of unwanted pregnancy in our country. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but it is impossible to sustain without knowledge.

“Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life.” Dalai Lama

Monday, November 03, 2014

Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning in Our Schools

         The fact that the phrase “school shooting” exists is clear evidence of how we are failing our children. The fact that we have systems in place to mobilize grief counselors within our communities, that there are protocols and sample dialogues to help parents talk to their children about gun violence in their schools tells us we are doing something wrong.  That a “popular,” “happy” high school student from a “prominent” family could post his anguished feelings multiple times over a period of weeks on Twitter prior to shooting his friends and turning his weapon on himself and the media headlines read “Motive Still Unknown” is shocking to me.
            I am not blaming the family and friends of school shooters for not intervening, not anticipating that they will react this way to their deep sadness. I am saying that we as a society are failing our kids in an elemental way by waiting until something horrific happens to talk publicly about difficult emotions instead of teaching our kids how to recognize and process those emotions throughout their lives.
            Two vital things we know are at play here. First, adolescent brains are literally wired differently than adult brains. The brain of a teenager is subject to emotional storms that are not yet mitigated by logic, primarily because that portion of their brain is not yet fully developed. When a teenager is feeling strong emotions, they are not being ‘dramatic’ or ‘over-reacting,’ they are simply responding to the chemical reactions swirling around in their heads. To expect them to push aside or disregard those biochemical impulses is simply unrealistic. Instead, we have to teach them to mitigate those responses, to acknowledge their feelings and process them appropriately, but all to often we expect them to “get over it” or we feel uncomfortable when they are upset and we minimize their feelings to make ourselves feel better.
            We spend billions of dollars each year teaching our children to read and write, to apply mathematical formulas to complicated problems, to find patterns in history and science, and we neglect to talk to them about what it means to be human. While it is vitally important to have these kinds of conversations within family systems, it is equally as important to acknowledge these emotional challenges within a wider audience, to normalize them as much as we can.  If we continue to send the message that learning to identify and process deeply painful feelings is a private endeavor, we are missing the opportunity to show our children that they are supported within a wider community, that they are not alone.
            The second thing that we know is that violence is often rooted in disconnection. People harm others when they feel powerless, often because they are struggling with ideas of their own worth or their place within the community. When an individual does not feel part of the system or supported by it, they are more likely to objectify and dehumanize the other people around them. It is through that objectification that the threshold for violent acts is lowered – it is much easier to harm someone you don’t feel connected to, that you have demonized. Our educational system emphasizes individual accomplishments and competition, values independence, and isolates students who are ‘different,’ both academically and socially. Without some sort of social-emotional education that acknowledges the developmental stages of teens and tweens within the context of the demands placed on them, we cannot expect them to flourish. We may be raising a generation of students who can compete in the global economy, but without teaching them what it is to be human, to experience pain and rejection, to accept discomfort and work through it, we are treading a dangerous path. Every time our children cry out in pain we are presented with an opportunity to listen, to validate those feelings, to model empathy and compassion and to teach them how to navigate those difficult times. This isn’t about individual or family therapy, this isn’t about mental health treatment, this is about acknowledging that our children are whole human beings who are developing physically, mentally and emotionally and ignoring their social-emotional development is creating a problem for all of us.  Our children are killing each other to get our attention. What is it going to take for us to start listening to them?


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hang in There, Baby, Change is Coming

I know a lot of folks who have been feeling what I call "churn." For me, that is the sensation of being in the middle of a giant wave as it curls, completely underwater and surrounded by movement and sound and sand rolling all around you.  So much turmoil - not all of it bad - and the only thing to do is wait it out, sit tight until the water and debris have crashed over the top of you and you can see clearly once again.  I have heard it attributed to Mercury in retrograde, and I know folks that subscribe to that belief. I honestly don't know what it is, but I do know that in the last year or so people I know and love have experienced a lot of big changes in their lives, felt huge emotional swings as they follow uprisings in other countries, outbreaks of illness, seeming epidemics of gun and sexual violence, and giant leaps forward for social justice like the swell of marriage equality laws and folks like Wendy Davis and Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders standing up to speak their truth loudly.  I have watched loved ones experience big ups and downs in their personal lives and sometimes it feels as though this wave will never break on the shore, but I think it is imminent.  I have felt optimistic for a long time that all of this churn is heading toward something monumental, some sort of breakthrough for all of us that will eventually offer a clean slate of beachfront upon which we can begin to rebuild. I see strong, smart people working hard to create peace in ways big and small, parents having difficult conversations with their kids and kids stepping up to the challenge.  I see a genuine openness to have lively debates about personal freedoms and community values.  The pushback is fierce from those who are comfortable with the status quo, but that is to be expected and I think it's a good sign.

Last week when Gloria Steinem spoke to the group at Ghost Ranch, she put it in a way I had never considered before, but I quickly copied her words down in my notebook. They have been bouncing off the walls of my skull ever since like that little pixelated square in the video game of my childhood, Pong.

Gloria said that she thinks it is informative to look at our civilizations in the context of growing up, that if we are afraid to look back historically and have honest conversations about what happened to us in our 'childhood,' we are doomed to repeat the same patterns over and over again in the future. In my opinion, we are at a crucial time in our country's history where we are confronting those patterns and really talking about those things. We are speaking up about campus domestic violence, recognizing the toll that gun violence is taking on our families and communities, looking at the ways that we have marginalized and oppressed entire groups of people over the last hundred years. This churn is stirring up every grain of sand and holding it to the light for examination and the result is messy.  Perhaps the most powerful part of Gloria's observation concerns the research that shows that women who are victims of domestic violence are most likely to be killed or seriously injured just as they are escaping or just after they have escaped.  She likened this recent uprising of conversation and activism around domestic violence and women's rights in the United States to our culture readying itself to break free. We are sitting in a precarious spot, in the middle of this giant wave, and we have to remain very aware as we wait for it to break.  We cannot stop now, even though we may be afraid, because we are about to shift into a new place of liberation.  I hope you'll hang in there for the ride with me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Gloria Steinem is Still My Hero

It is not often that we get to spend time with our childhood heroes, if at all, but I was lucky enough to do that last week.  Thanks to folks at the Women's Funding Alliance, I had the opportunity to head to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and steep myself in the deep knowledge and energy of three iconic feminist leaders.

Gloria Steinem


Alice Walker

Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung


It was a 'conference' like no other I have ever attended for so many reasons, chief among them the fact that all three women stayed for three full days. They spoke individually and came together to discuss ideas and answer questions. They were available during free time for us to approach them for autographs and photos as well as conversation and it all felt very intimate, especially given that these three women have known each other for years, and worked together on important projects and ideas. Their collective Q&A sessions had an air of ease and camaraderie that extended to the audience.

Alice Walker kicked off the week by talking about fear and mindfulness and transitions. She has a fiery edge to her that raises passions, points out injustice and prejudice and stirs up deep emotions. She is a brilliant orator and it is clear that she is always thinking, answering spontaneous questions with a deliberate message. She read poetry and expressed strong opinions and stood on the stage looking slightly regal.  She was that fiery grandmother who is not about to keep quiet.

Gloria's presence was anchoring. When Alice sent us up into the sky with her talk of war and politics and race, Gloria grounded us all back in our own skin. She was calm and clear, offered concrete examples, and urged us all to decide what was important to us in our own communities. At the age of 80, she continues to travel the world listening to people, reading books and essays, constantly deepening her understanding of the patterns and connections that are both healing and harmful. She possesses a historical and global knowledge of gender violence and was careful to bring it full circle, reminding us that taking the 20,000 foot view is paralyzing, that we must all strive to find the thing we can do that is right next to us.  She urged us to be aware and active, to use the power we have right now (our dollars, our votes, our openness to connecting with others), and to really listen to others.  She was funny and irreverent and consistent in her message.

And just when we were all feeling quietly inspired to go and be change agents in our own communities, Dr. Chung came up and offered us joy. I had never heard of her before this week, but the first time I saw her I couldn't help but break into a grin. This woman absolutely radiates love and warmth. Her smile is luminous and crackles with energy and she seems entirely undaunted by anger or doubt despite the hard work she does every day to liberate women and create peace. She talked about compassion and empathy, about connecting with others on the most basic levels in order to crate a sense of shared humanity, and she offered astonishing examples of how this has played out in her own life. She laughed and danced and brought us all along on her wave of optimism, cracking jokes about orgasms and kicking butt.

With the addition of a large group of folks from the Women's Funding Alliance, the week was perfect. We hiked and talked, turning the ideas over and over again. We sat and drank wine in the evenings, discussing ways to implement the most salient pieces in our own part of the world. We felt inspired every morning as we awoke to the prospect of another fascinating exchange. I came home floating, my brain absolutely overflowing with plans, quotes from these three powerful women bubbling up here and there.  I know that I haven't yet fully integrated all of the wisdom I received last week and I expect I will continue to turn it all over in my brain for weeks to come, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes from the week.

"Hope to be imperfect in all of the ways that keep you growing." Alice Walker

"Where love exists, it is hard for jealousy to sprout." Alice Walker

"Mothering is an art AND a practice." Alice Walker

"Religion is politics in the sky." Gloria Steinem

"As long as God looks like the ruling class, we are all in deep shit."  Gloria Steinem

"Our children only know they have something to say if someone is listening to them." Gloria Steinem

"If you want 'x' at the end (ie. joy, laughter), you have to have it along the way." Gloria Steinem

"Who wants the Golden Rule administered by a masochist?" Gloria Steinem

"Hope is a form of planning." Gloria Steinem

"If you connect, there is peace. Disconnection leads to violence." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"All the things we do not want to confront within ourselves, we project those onto others and we call them terrorists." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"There are two ways of being broken - being broken apart so you lose your soul or you are broken open, wider, bigger, fuller. So you become a container for suffering, an alchemist who can change your suffering into joy. Don't be afraid of being broken. Surrender into brokenness but don't be broken apart." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

"I am a theologian because I have to save God from patriarchy." Dr. Hyun Kyung Chung

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Around and Around We Go

I've got something stuck in my craw. And ironically, the song that has been going around and around in my head for the past two days is "Pompeii" by Bastille. Specifically, the following lyrics:

  • But if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    Nothing changed at all?
    And if you close your eyes,
    Does it almost feel like
    You've been here before?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
    How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
Yeah, I've been here before. And, yeah, I'm asking myself how I'm going to be positive and forward-thinking about all of it.  Bubba is on board, as are several other folks. We all agree the situation is untenable and something has to change, but the wheels are moving very slowly and if history is any indication, they will stop the vehicle well short of a solution.  Several times in the past week I have noticed my jaw set, my breathing shallow, my thoughts rotating in the same old pattern, wearing a path in my brain.  While we were making dinner together on Sunday night, I told Bubba, "I'm trying really hard not to get emotionally tied to a specific outcome."

"Why not?" he stopped what he was doing and turned to me. "I think you SHOULD be."

I was surprised. He is usually the guy who knows exactly what his boundaries are and how to engage with things he can control and disengage from things he can't. He is always cautioning me that I'll make myself crazy if I get too connected to one particular scenario in my mind.  His reaction this time only served as a reminder of how long this has gone on without any resolution, that he is just as frustrated as I am that we have acted in all the ways we know how with mindfulness and honesty and concern to no avail.

And yet, I am making myself crazy. His passion and the passion of other folks who have heretofore been quiet and complacent is only serving to reignite my commitment to sparking change. While it feels good to know that I'm not alone, that something is really wrong here, ultimately I have no say in whether things change, and I'm not willing to quit being part of the institution that so desperately needs to change. The person who has the power is a dear friend of mine and I can't understand why he won't do what needs to be done, but I can't force him to do it. I have my suspicions that he is acting (or not acting) out of fear, and my intuition about these things is generally pretty clear. I know what a powerful motivator fear is and I truly understand why he would feel that way. I also have to acknowledge that, despite assurances that the wheels are turning, my faith is quickly eroding.

This lack of power to effect important change in someone else's life is definitely a theme in my world right now. I had to laugh this morning as it occurred to me that perhaps this is a training ground for dealing with my girls and the life choices they will make without (or despite) input from me or Bubba. Right now, my boundaries are nearly nonexistent and I'm struggling to imagine what they might look like. I am certainly in need of some sort of buffer as I figure out how to be involved with the parts of this organization that are doing amazing work without feeding the part that is toxic and destructive. I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the realm of love and acceptance but the cloud of frustration that is hanging over my head is pretty vast right now.
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