Pointing to advice maven Ann Landers’s divorce, he said I should consider the future – I might be writing a personal essay now about my perspectives on a healthy marriage, but who knows? In ten years, I might be in the middle of a divorce, and then, a reader might dig up this article to mock me.
Could I handle that?
I told him that I preferred to live in the present, and if I end up getting divorced, I will deal with it when it happens, instead of letting that unpleasant hypothetical notion hinder what I publish now. I also said that while I strive to write in good taste and not bare anything that’s too personal, I feel that if readers give their attention to my essays, I should be willing to give them my honest self in relatable terms.
My editor listened and nodded and said that was wise. Then he chuckled and shook his head.
“It’d be funny, though, if it happened,” he said of my supposed future divorce.
I share all this with you now because, as the US Supreme Court hears landmark cases this week about marriage equality, I think my gay pals have been resting easy for far too long – it’s high time their unions were as legal as mine, so they can shoulder their share of rude comments like this.
Gay pals have been getting a lot of press recently, as this nugget from the Stephen Colbert show sums up pretty well:
Some people lauded Portman for his courageous stance, given the current state of America’s Republican Party, and others scoffed that politicians should support equality because it’s the right thing to do, not because the issue suddenly becomes personal to you.
Many speculate that the Portman Effect will be at work in the Supreme Court chamber itself, because apparently a gay cousin of conservative Chief Justice John Roberts will attend the oral arguments.
In general, I sympathize with those who find the Portman Effect a lousy reason to support equality – one based on personal experience rather than a larger, more rational acceptance on principle. It reminds me of this fabulous article by Anne Theriault, who argues that a common piece of rape-combating rhetoric is “reductive as hell.”
Pundits and politicians often beg would-be harassers or attackers of women to imagine how they’d feel if their own mother, sister or daughter was battered this way.
Theriault lobs back that this “defines women by their relationships to other people, rather than as people themselves. It says that women are only important when they are married to, have given birth to, or have been fathered by other people.”
Rape isn’t wrong because women are wives, sisters and daughters. Women are people and rape is just wrong.
Maybe a man who would refrain from attacking women because he doesn’t like to think of his own family members being attacked is sort of like a politician who doesn’t support equality until he realizes that anti-gay laws affect a member of his own family.
But the plain truth is that humans are primarily emotional creatures. We can call for high-minded, objective, rational ideals, but things must touch us personally before we can process them.
Count me in on the Portman Effect club – I grew up in an insular Christian atmosphere that didn’t exactly heap bile on gays, but did make it clear that theirs was a sad and disordered lifestyle. Gay schoolmates were well and truly closeted and I didn’t know any better than to oppose gay marriage, declaring I had nothing against gays themselves (should I ever meet any), but I didn’t think they had a legal right to marry.
That lasted about as long as it took me to make some friends who were gay, as soon as I hit college and moved outside the sphere of my family’s church.
The personal is the last bastion between acceptance and prejudice. A family member who opposes gay rights once asked me, in a tone that was meant to end the argument, once and for all,
“Well, how would you feel if someone gay was your children’s teacher?”
The answer I think she expected was that of course, in that case, I would be opposed. However, by that time I had already had a gay teacher and turned out just fine. I bet my future kids would, too.
I admit my own investment in equality probably has as much to do with my own personal universe as it does my civic principles. My own marriage would’ve been illegal just a few decades ago – back when people were arguing that Jesus wouldn’t want the races to mix. I imagine what it would feel like if people were protesting my relationship with signs like “God hates interracial couples” and “Marriage = two people of the same race.”
I think the Portman affect applies to racial attitudes as well. I remember sitting around a holiday table with someone who referred to African-American people collectively as “the blacks.”
But in subsequent years, my African husband joined the table, and I was interested to note this dinner guest change her tune ever so slightly the next time she shared an anecdote about an African-American person.
“He was a black…person,” the speaker faltered, eyes dodging ever so slightly – or did I imagine it? – at my husband.
In an ideal world, we’d all sit up and cast out our prejudices on principle, before they looked us in the eye and made us sweat.
Until then, we legally married heterosexual people are just going to have to bear the brunt of other people’s odd comments about our marriages – but I sure hope gay people can get their share soon.
From “Borderless News and Views,” where Monica A. Gamble asks, “how do we cement the idea that Black history is American history?”
Chris Menning wants to blow your mind. All you have to do is tune into his site, Modernprimate.com, and watch his talking-head video “examining the concepts of equality, privilege, and economic class in terms that even the most ignorant should be able to understand.”
“You’re welcome, fellow white people,” he declares before he’s even made any of his points.
Menning is annoyed because, just like they do every February, there are white people complaining that Black History Month is a needless, biased institution. Menning explains why we do not, in fact, need to institute White History Month: the pervasive white privilege that is often invisible to those who benefit most from it.
He makes several good points, including scrapping the concept of “reverse racism” (i.e., blacks’ racism against whites). That’s not reverse racism: “It’s just racism.” Plus, Menning demonstrates the true and troubling racial disparities in America’s poverty rates, and the originally intended meaning of “all men are created equal”: that was actually “white men of English descent who owned a certain amount of property.”
But Menning’s own story, and, apparently, his qualification to expound on the topic of racial injustice, begins when he went shopping, somehow set off a shoplifting alarm, and was allowed to walk out of the store without the clerk so much as checking his bags because (as Menning surmises in the video) he is white.
“Being a white guy has its perks,” he says, waving a half-eaten chocolate bar.
Menning points out that he’s made an awesome video.
“Now what I’m about to say is going to be a no-brainer for a lot of you, and it will mind-blowing for some others,” he says.
(Is there a third option? Like, irked by his slightly narcissistic expressions and non-diversifying insights?)
I guess you could boil my beef down to the fact that in the guise of addressing racial inequality, a white man is talking expressly to white people about white people’s internal troubles.
Yes, it is important to shine a light on white privilege. But too often, the obsession with examining our privilege becomes a way of turning the spotlight back on ourselves and shifting the conversation away from the voices of people of color, as if combating your own “privilege” is a drama on par with the struggle of those who suffer under racism.
Menning has lots more to say about what he’s learned from his own privileges:
“I’ve never been turned down for a job that I’ve interviewed for. Every single time that I’m called in for an interview, do you know what happens? When I walk in there, I meet a white guy, much like myself…I answer some questions about why I want to work there, and I almost always walk out of there with a job.”
A 100% job-nabbing rate in this shitty economy is quite a feat – though Menning does admit that maybe it’s not all due to his skin tone: “The fact that I’m six feet tall helps, or the bass-y undertones in my voice,” he adds.
Or maybe the subtext of this career revelation is that, as a person, Menning is just as mind-blowing as his videos. (“You’re welcome.”)
But let’s get off the ad hominem wagon.
Bear with me while I set my own quick scene.
This week, I was heading towards a city transit entrance when I noticed a middle-aged man loitering by the doors. He was hollering at a pair of young women half a block away, about how they were so pretty they had to stay and talk to him. They linked arms as they hurried away. I saw the taut, rueful expression on their faces and I swerved towards another entrance, walking an extra two blocks in the freezing weather because I wasn’t in the mood to be bothered, as long experience has taught me I probably would’ve been.
Now imagine that a silent male bystander witnessed this scene and then went home to expound online, pointing out to his intended audience of fellow men how well he recognizes his male privilege – blowing his viewers’ minds on the problem of sexism with his profound experience of…using whatever door he wants without fearing harassment.
Menning says a lot of white people don’t recognize their own privilege simply because they’ve never been in a position to really observe and think about it.
“Every now and then when I stop to look around, I realize that I’m not constantly surrounded by other white men,” Menning says.
Fascinating – when did you first notice this phenomenon?
When this video popped up in my Facebook feed via Upworthy, billed as “The Definitive Response to Jerks Asking, “But What About White History Month?”, it was hard to put my finger on what bothered me about it. Shouldn’t we just applaud anyone who disdains racism and candidly discusses white privilege?
Part of the problem is that despite his apparent goal of a nuanced, modern discussion, Menning holds up an easy stereotype of prejudice. In his video, he’s the lanky, lucid New York hipster versus the bellowing, finger-jabbing, middle-aged Rush Limbaugh type.
I wish racist attitudes were really that easy to indicate and externalize.
Listening to Menning, I hear that a world dominated by one race is a pretty poisonous proposition – at the same time that he perpetuates an image of an all-white professional and social world.
“He probably sees me as someone he’d like to hang out with in some capacity,” Menning says of all those white male interviewers.
Yes, statistics tell us that you won’t find non-white, non-male managers in every building. But given my experience as journalist, in which I’ve interviewed many non-white (and female) executives, directors and researchers in fields from medicine to filmmaking, I’m surprised that Menning’s work experience has been so racially limited – especially since we’re both in major mid-Atlantic cities.
Menning recognizes his shortcomings. “My attitudes toward other people are largely affected by how much interaction I’ve had with them,” he says. “I can see my own ignorance. It’s not actually that hard.”
The trouble is, I don’t think you should rest on your laurels (or pontificate) for simply realizing that your attitude towards people of other races is affected by how little time you spend with them, patting yourself on the back for admitting what you don’t know and easily landing all those plum jobs in the meantime.
I know times are tough. But, “fellow white people,” you don’t have to work in a place where you sense that accolades come easily because of your white skin.
When a colleague’s boss once advised me to remove my married name, “Mabaso,” from my resume because hiring managers would assume I was black and throw my application in the trash, my first response was why would I want to work for someone who would trash a person’s resume just because of his or her race?
To borrow Menning’s phrase, “It’s not that hard” to get out of your own head and live an inclusive life in the 21st century.
I choose diversity in my professional life by writing for publications which hire and feature all voices – not just white male ones – where I can pitch stories that feature these voices.
And if you really haven’t got friends or family members of a different race (the 2010 US Census found that 10 percent of hetero married couples – a stat that grew 28% in the last decade – are interracial or interethnic, and 18 percent of non-married hetero partners and 21 percent of gay unmarried partners are interracial/interethnic) I honestly wonder what century you’re in.
My sister-in-law and I. The world has gone global. Get over it.
Of course the world needs more racial harmony. But it’s not the anomaly that Menning implies it is. And recognizing your privilege, or simply noticing, as Menning puts it, that “there are people of every race, gender and class all around me,” should not be a goal in itself. It should be the first step in the active work of not just noticing others, but understanding them.
Does that mean Menning’s points about white privilege aren’t worthwhile, that he isn’t a cool smart guy, or that I’m always aware of my own white privilege?
He comes from his own perspective. This is my take. No-one can make a comprehensive or “definitive” survey of racial problems in one web post – especially if he or she is white.
“So white people, this Black History Month, instead of wondering why black people get their own history month, let’s just take a little time to reflect on how good it is to be white,” Menning finishes, while text flashes on the bottom of the screen: “Clarification: How good we have it. NOT how good we are.”
Or, instead of generating another white-initiated, white-centered discussion about thoughts and attitudes instead of action (“Black History Month for White People”), ignore the dolts who whine about Black History Month, be they Limbaugh or the hot girl down the hall, and just appreciate some black history, preferably more than one month out of the year.
High school and college freshmen should all get a party. The night before their first classes, they should celebrate with a big cake, gifts and gift-cards, toasts and a dance party for all their friends. Their intention to finish their diploma or degree merits a big bash.
And why should anyone have to wait until they’re 65 to enjoy the professional accolades of all their friends and colleagues over a catered dinner and plenty of cocktails? If they intend to give a career their best shot, we should encourage them with a lavish celebration before their first day on the job.
If all that actually sounds foolish to you, then why don’t extravagant weddings seem equally unwise?
I don’t want to minimize the boundless suffering of badly-clad bridesmaids, slighted mothers-in-law, and the aftermath of champagne-induced sexual debaucheries. But a recent New York Times article examines one of the true plagues engendered by our cultural wedding fetish. It’s called “Married to the Plan. Still Looking for a Possible Groom.” It’s about young American women who have their weddings planned all the way down the napkins – even though they don’t even have a boyfriend.
In a stroke of truly incisive and creative reporting, this NYT piece reveals that there are drawbacks to planning your wedding as if the groom is a last-minute prop stitched into a tux.
“First, what some single women imagine may not be feasible and may actually be a waste of effort,” writer Alyson Krueger explains. She turns to the owner of a wedding trade show company, who says that brides, for example, might dream of guests sipping pumpkin soup. But then, if they get married in, say, Miami, in, say, February, the chef might announce, “I know you love pumpkin soup, but it’s not in season right now.”
“Another problem [as bad as the soup debacle, d’you think?] is the not-quite-bride is not taking into account a future partner and what his needs and considerations might be.”
The trade-show maven goes on.
“‘Even though you have all these ideas and you’ve done your homework and you are prepared as a single girl,’ she said, ‘you have to understand that marriage is a union and you have to take your other half into consideration.’”
But the single girls obsessed with their as-yet-unscheduled weddings weren’t worried.
As one woman explained, “if she met someone she wanted to marry, she doesn’t think his input would matter.”
Krueger does her homework and quotes a clinical psychologist:
“‘I think for anybody it’s much easier to plan a wedding than it is to form a meaningful relationship that is going to lead to a fulfilling marriage.’”
Stop the world, I want to get off.
Not only are women spending untold hours of their lives planning weddings to non-existent grooms. The New York Times finds it necessary to inform us that this one-sided, superficial obsession does not prepare anyone for a real partnership.
I’d like to shake the hand of whoever came up with that angle. I mean, really, thank God for clear-eyed psychologists.
Image from Postsecret.
It seems to me that lavish weddings are an irresistible incentive for people who have no business embarking on a lifelong emotional, sexual, reproductive, practical and financial partnership.
Imagine a world of marriages, but no weddings.
We would have been spared the whole Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries fiasco: without the promise of a televised fairy-tale netting millions, these two probably would have forgotten the meaning of the word “marriage” altogether.
Picture it: no Katy Perry/Russell Brand shambles. The world was a grayer place when we all learned that two elephants on a red carpet at a luxe Indian resort does not a marriage make. No acres of tabloids speculating on the wedding of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, when they already have forty-two children together. No millions of pounds for security measures for the wedding of William and Kate when the rest of Europe is rioting over austerity measures.
True, if we abandoned big weddings, it’s not only the wedding industry that would suffer – advice columnists would see a 75% drop in their mail volume, as all those questions about bridesmaids who dare to get pregnant, guests who demand vegan dinners, and deplorably late thank-you cards would cease to exist.
But if, as the American Psychological Association says, 40-50% of all married couples in the US end up divorced, shouldn’t we consider de-incentivizing marriage itself?
My home church produces a pamphlet about the importance of marriage, and it irks me, because the picture on the cover is of a beautiful young couple in a wedding gown and a tux scampering away together on an idyllic beach.
To avoid giving the wrong impression to those who are selfish enough to believe that their future spouse should have no say in what his own wedding is like, I vote for a different wedding pamphlet image.
I could volunteer the image of my husband and me on the morning we had to get up together before dawn so that we could both go to the insurance-mandated mechanic to hand over our totaled car and sign for a supremely ugly rental before we had to be at work. Or the time my husband got raging tonsillitis while we were on our only vacation of the year. Or the time we bought a couch and then realized it wouldn’t fit in the narrow, angled stairwell to our second-floor apartment.
Sorry, you dewy-eyed lovers, but once the last dance is over, the last congealed canapé is scraped into the caterer’s trash bags, and that new Waterford crystal pitcher is stashed in the closet, that’s marriage.
Did I say I regret it? Of course not. I love my husband and we’ve had many good times. But as the years go by, from coping with grief together to disputes over household chores, marriage can be a mammoth challenge.
And I worry that legions of young people are getting duped into it because of lifelong bridal-gown fantasies.
I don’t want to you think that my own wedding wasn’t lovely. I argued with my mom about the live goldfish centerpieces, the outdoor July ceremony was wiltingly hot, and I didn’t have time to eat anything during the reception, but it was a wonderful day.
However, it seems that the only thing to match our culture’s divorce rate is our obsession with weddings. At what other time do we lavishly reward people for beginning what is meant to be a difficult lifelong endeavor? (Baby showers, maybe, but giving birth is an even bigger commitment than getting married – you can’t divorce your child and pick a new one.)
The problem with weddings is that they affirm the easiest part of your union (no, that consuming drama over what kind of shrimp you’ll serve or whose estranged aunt should be excluded from the list does not mark the most stressful time of your relationship). You’re young (for the most part – I do realize a greater number of folks are getting married later in life) and you may still be in the giddy infatuation phase of your relationship, when you just can’t get enough of each other. And this – when it all looks so simple and rosy – is when we launch websites to showcase our romance (and disseminate material wish-lists), and spend ourselves into oblivion so all our friends can bear witness to the fantasy.
Maybe we should clear away the sequined gowns, the cummerbunds, the towering cakes with their tasteless marzipan mortar, the lavish gift registries, and the rented parquet, and let marriage stand for what it truly is.
I know many folks from my own family’s church and maybe yours would protest that the beginning of a marriage should be marked with public celebrations, to uphold the value of marriage and help others aspire to it.
But it seems to me that the US at least is already rife with incentives to marry. In fact, countless government benefits bestowed on married couples are a major reason that American gays are still truly second-class citizens in a majority of states.
From taxes, immigration and insurance to inheritance and adoption proceedings, government, social and business policies often favor married couples and their children.
Do we really need fancy weddings, too?
I’m in my late twenties, so of course our fridge is dotted with save-the-date magnets, and I’m happy for my friends. But I’d love to go to a big party for a couple who married modestly and then successfully weathered ten, fifteen, or twenty-five years together. I’d like to toast their love, and, instead of listening to speeches about how much they will mean to each other all their lives (fingers crossed), applaud what the couple has actually achieved and the example they’ve set.
But the reality of marriage is not nearly as sexy and romantic as what we imagine over a new diamond ring. So I fear we’ll continue to wallow in weddings, and hope the rest works out.
Have you been to a wedding (or watched a marriage) that convinced you, one way or the other?
You’ve heard them all, right? Ban adverbs. Show, don’t tell. Be concise. Avoid the passive voice.
After last week’s Freshly Pressed bonanza on my tips for building your freelance writing career, I thought I should follow up with some practical, non-threadbare tips on the actual writing – without telling you how you should put your words together.
(A warm welcome, by the way, to all the new subscribers. I loved your comments. It’s great to have you on board.)
1) Mingle with the Mortals.
Enjoying life up there in your ivory tower?
I didn’t think so. Because real writers are collaborators.
Of course writing will always require a lot of focused solo work: my long-suffering husband knows I’m checking out for a few hours whenever I say, “Babe, I have to write.”
The writer protagonists in Stephen King novels are always departing for deserted cabins in Maine or secluded hotels to pen their works with no distractions – but look what happens to them.
Good writing needs good cooperation.
A quality editor is not trouncing all over your toils when he or she requests changes. They are working with you to bring your piece in line with the publication’s needs.
Collaboration over ego is also essential when you’re working as a copywriter – not only must you tailor the content to the client’s often unpredictable feedback, you are just one member of a team that may include other writers, designers, and creative directors.
As an added bonus, you can enjoy controversies like the one that came up last month, while I was writing copy about a ritzy farmers market and became embroiled in a discussion with a designer and an account executive about the correct spelling of “pierogi.”
Whenever you see your words as the sole province of your own mind, you’re not working as well as you could be. Don’t see others’ suggestions as infringements. See it as playtime for the brain and an opportunity for you to strengthen your work.
It’s not criticism. It’s a brain park.
Last spring, I wrote about a production of “The Island,” an Athol Fugard play. Because my in-laws are from South Africa, I added a hint of their experience to my perspective on the production, but not too much – a review shouldn’t be about the critic. However, when I turned the piece in, my editor made an unusual request. He wanted me to increase the personal perspective. So I re-worked the piece, adding in some of my in-laws’ experiences to demonstrate real life under Apartheid. The final article was much better for my editor’s suggestion.
2) Get good at gab.
You might think putting together a first-class story or profile is all about your writing skills.
If you want to write a good story, you need to do a good interview.
This is especially true if you’re dealing with someone who’s already a public figure, or who is used to giving media interviews. Be prepared to get past responses that have been vetted or canned by PR handlers, or just ossified in lots of other interviews – unless you want to write a story with the same stuff that every other writer got.
But your interpersonal skills also apply to the other end of the spectrum – ordinary folks who are not accustomed to talking to press. It’s nerve-wracking, giving your words to a stranger and trusting her to understand your story and tell it with accuracy and professionalism.
When I have time, I start with small talk in the interest of tuning into my subjects and mirroring their mood and demeanor. If they’re effervescent and friendly, I match their energy. If they razz me, I zing them right back. If they’re formal and serious, I take a similar tone. When the subject feels comfortable with me, they’re more likely to share.
If you can’t strike up an engaging conversation with a stranger, how can you get the information that will make a great story? And the beauty of this skill is that you don’t have to wait until you have an assignment to practice it. Go out of your way to speak with strangers at parties or events, because everyone has a story. Practice asking questions and listening in a way that draws others out.
I don’t care what kind of writer you are. Any time life gives you an opportunity to practice interacting effectively with other people, you are building the skills that make you a good communicator on the page as well as off.
It might sound strange, but a lot of my interview skills were actually built during my years at my former day job, as a tour guide at a large historic site. Interacting with hundreds of people every day, and giving tours with the goal of having an hour-long conversation with tour groups, instead of talking at them, was the best possible practice for building quick and effective rapport with strangers, and encouraging them to speak up.
If you want an example of an interview that I particularly enjoyed doing and that I think turned out well, check out my chat with Christopher Ryan, author of the controversial bestseller Sex at Dawn.
3) Bury “yes” and “no.”
Part of giving a good interview (and therefore writing a good story) is adequate research and preparation of your questions in advance.
But don’t just bombard your subject with concrete questions. In most interviews I do, just as the person thinks we’re finishing, I make a completely open-ended inquiry.
I ask if there is anything important we haven’t talked about, or anything extra they want to tell me. For people accustomed to speaking with the press, I ask if there’s something reporters never ask about.
Be patient and don’t be afraid of a few moments of dead air while your subjects think. You wouldn’t believe the stuff you can get when you open the floor like that, including great anecdotes for your lede.
Earlier this year, I worked on a feature about the growth of entrepreneurship in my home state of Pennsylvania. I went into my interviews assuming that a lot of that growth has to do with the visibility of icons like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, but a flexible approach in my questions let one expert give me a whole other perspective on the topic that turned out to be the uniting theme of the whole piece.
4) Quit Writing.
You heard me. Knock it off.
How many times have I been slogging through a complicated feature telling myself that the world is going to end if I don’t finish this @#$%er today?
When you can’t seem to tap those ideas, tell a good story or integrate your research with your interviews, and you’re considering telling your editor that you were insane to accept this assignment, walk away for awhile. Preferably overnight.
Often, the key to writing a good piece is knowing when to give yourself a break.
Last winter I sat down to write a magazine feature about Canadian innovations in helicopter safety. But it was all too much. I couldn’t tell the pilots’ stories, describe my flights, incorporate the statistics and explain the regulations. No writer alive could do it. It was ridiculous.
So I put the horrible thing aside and messed around for the rest of the day, cooking and blogging.
Then I got up the next morning and wrote it easily.
That’s why I almost always work at least one day ahead of my deadlines on major features. I am amazed at the number of times a story has seemed impossible to finish one day, and a breeze the next.
5) Listen to what you’ve written.
If you want to see if you’ve written a good piece, make sure to experience it with your ears instead of just your eyes.
Some of my writer pals love to work in coffee shops. I can’t do it, because before I send a piece in to an editor, any editor, I read it aloud to myself beforehand, and damned if I’m going to do that in a crowded Starbucks.
Hearing the words, instead of simply reading them, will do wonders for catching repetitive phrases, choppy transitions and awkward sentences that slide right past your brain when you don’t try your work out on your vocal cords.
Since I do this to every single piece I publish, I have nothing for you except the assurance that reading my pieces out loud to myself has caught truckloads of groan-inducing missteps. Of course the work still isn’t perfect. But it’s a hell of a lot better.
6) Polish Your Armor.
Keep your attitude strong and your writing will follow suit.
Did you think being a published writer would be all warm fuzzies for your genius? If so, feel free to leave something snippy in the comments and bounce.
I’ve had a cornucopia of criticisms from my editors. My lede doesn’t make sense. My argument is unoriginal. There’s no compelling narrative. My stuff is boring.
Editors are not always correct because they’re editors. Sometimes you brush off the criticism and try a different market. Other times, you admit they’re right and get to work. Either way, you can’t let the negative comments sap your inspiration.
And that’s even before you get to your audience.
Through online comments, letters to the editor and social media, I’ve heard from readers who think that pieces I’ve written are foolish, pointless or outright lies. Others are simply out to insult me personally.
“You can’t draw. Your drawings are awful. Either try harder or stop trying. Actually, your writing is also terrible, your attitude is so self-congratulatory and smug it almost defies belief. Get off the internet and as far away from the rest of the human race as you can manage. We don’t want you and we sure as hell don’t need you.”
During last year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival, I gave a positive review to an unconventional art/theater mash-up called the Art Anti-Gallery that questioned the genesis and ownership of art itself. The piece garnered two letters to the editor.
One said “Gosh, this was fun to read! And provocative: ‘whose art is it, anyway?’ What is it we writers/artists need to protect?”
Another wrote, “The trouble with Modernism’s free license for any or everything is that it appeals to the lowest possible denoms.” He went on to call me a “mindless” critic encouraging “inanities.”
Who is right?
I have no idea. I will be over here, writing some more.
As a person whose apartment would probably draw casting agents if anyone ever develops a TV show about book hoarding, I never thought I’d feel this way.
I’ve probably said it hundreds of times in my adult life, and heard it just as many times from friends (especially since I added a whole new layer of awkwardness to my social life by publishing a book that only a few people have actually read).
Sure, you could look at the phrase “it’s on my reading list!” as a harmless way to deal with the author in your high school class. It works great on anyone who loved the latest treatise on epidemiology, genetics, or the future of cloud computing, and you can also keep it on hand for folks obsessed with the newest dystopian young adult novel, guide to spirituality, or food-based memoir.
But face it. The one thing “it’s on my reading list” almost never means is “I intend to read that book.” Never before did one little phrase incorporate such an interesting array of self-serving lies.
Here are five things I believe we really mean when we say “it’s on my reading list.”
1) “I have zero interest in that book, but to avoid offending you, I’m going to pretend otherwise.”
It’s just a book, for God’s sake. And if someone’s going to give you the cold shoulder for not promising to read some book he or she recommended, remind me why you’re friends?
2) “That book does not appeal to me, but I’d rather not admit my real interests.”
Implying that you’re just about to download that particular title onto your Kindle can be an attempt to make other people think you care about things that you really don’t give a hoot about – but who made them the boss of your professed interests?
3) “I’ve never even heard of that book, but I don’t want you to think I’m a huge ignoramus who doesn’t read the New York Times Book Review or listen to Terry Gross.”
Sure, what someone’s wearing or eating can give us clues to who they are, but glimpsing what someone else is reading is probably the closest we can get to peeking right inside a stranger’s mind without saying a word, and we’d all probably rather be heard raving about Steven Pinker than Stephenie Meyer. Making all sorts of wild claims about what’s on our reading list is one way to build ourselves up in the eyes of others, because when it comes to symbols of intellect – or lack thereof – it’s hard to beat a book (or a mention of your “reading list”).
4) “Funny you should mention that famous, famous book – I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t read it.”
This is one that I’m guilty of. I have read hundreds of books. But I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (read The Hobbit and that was enough), any Dickens except for A Christmas Carol and part of David Copperfield (I couldn’t take all the weeping), Little Women, Don Quixote, The Grapes of Wrath, Silent Spring or The Kite Runner and I have only the merest smattering of Dostoyevsky and absolutely no Jonathan Franzen, Michiko Kakutani, or David Foster Wallace. I may read some of them one day. I may not. But I’m going to quit claiming they’re “on my list” any time somebody brings them up.
5) “Of course I have top-flight literary tastes, but I’m too busy and important to have any time for reading.”
Sometimes, pleading the “reading list” isn’t just an attempt to placate someone else, hide your true self or alert the world to your intellect. It’s also a heavy clue about your high-powered lifestyle to anyone who asks (or doesn’t). Here, I must give credit to Tim Kreider’s excellent New York Times essay, “The Busy Trap,” which skewers our self-imposed human hamster wheels and explains why we actually love complaining that we’re busy. Somehow, grousing about our packed schedules has become more fun than reading.
But the book-suggesting masses aren’t going anywhere (and I say this as a person who probably devotes an hour a week to convincing friends, family and co-workers that they’ve got to read whatever book I just finished). How do we cope? I have a few suggestions.
You can always give someone else the impression of a sparkling conversation without saying anything at all about yourself or your intentions. It’s called asking questions. If the other person enjoyed the book, just ask him about it. There is no need to guide the conversation with announcements about reading the book yourself.
Stand up for what you really like. If you’d rather not read books about forestry, politics or sexuality, but you love wizards, parenting tips or naval history, say so (politely). It’s not a crime to have your own interests.
Be nice without actually implying anything about what you’re going to do. Just trade “it’s on my reading list” for “thanks for the recommendation.” It’s friendly and it’s not a lie.
Forget the reading list altogether. Reading doesn’t need to be regimented and curated by you or anyone else. Just read a book. When it’s done, find another one that looks groovy. Repeat.
If someone recommends a book you don’t think you’d like, why not expand your horizons? Don’t tell the person that the book is “on your list.” Borrow it and read it. (I tried this at the office recently and am now reading a book with a picture of a horse running through the ocean surf on the cover. The Untethered Soul is actually pretty interesting.)
Enjoying a book is a bit like letting someone else inhabit your mind for awhile – or vice versa. Our taste in books is an intimate part of who we are and what we love. Since our library reveals so much about ourselves, maybe that’s why we tread so carefully when talking about books – and why a statement as innocuous as “it’s on my reading list” can be so many things, from a way to keep the peace to a subtle dispatch on your own importance.
I admit that at heart, the “it’s on my list” syndrome is probably just a harmlessly polite affirmation to dole out to others without inconveniencing yourself.
But I’ve decided to quit saying it, unless the title is truly on my shelf or on my wish-list. And I absolve everyone else of the need to say it to me, even if I wrote the book in question (read it if you want to, or don’t, but don’t feel obligated to bring it up). I won’t hold it against you if you and I have different tastes in books, and I won’t conceal my true interests or feign fascination with yours, so let’s get down to a real conversation about books or anything else that brings some honesty to our social and intellectual world.
An image from “Untitled Feminist Show,” courtesy of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival website.
For a long time, my favorite borderline-inappropriate message from a public relations rep (and believe me, there are plenty to choose from; I don’t know how some people get into this field) was an e-mail I got asking for my weight in pounds the night before a magazine assignment in New York City.
To be fair, the communications staffer was asking because the story involved helicopter flights, and the pilots had decided at the last moment to make sure that all the journalists would fit.
But this year’s Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, an annual juried theater festival I have been covering for the past few years, afforded me a new favorite e-mail from a public relations staffer. This was because I had requested press tickets to a performance called “Untitled Feminist Show,” which featured a cast of six completely naked people dancing in one of the city’s premier theaters for one hour. But I was still unprepared for how tickled I’d be by an e-mail from the Festival press rep titled “Important Info for ‘Untitled Feminist Show’.”
“Please be aware of the following information as you write your features and reviews,” my press colleague wrote, introducing a message from Young Jean Lee, Artistic Director of Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company.
“Dear Critic:” it began. I am still trying to figure out whether I like being called, simply, “Critic”, even if I am a theater critic, among other things. Must I be so pigeonholed? As it turned out, I’m not the only one who dislikes a misapplied label.
“One of the cast members of Untitled Feminist Show, Becca Blackwell, identifies as ‘gender-non-conforming’ as opposed to female or male,” Lee wrote. She went on to “respectfully” warn me against referring to the show’s cast as “all-female” or, collectively, as “women,” and remember not to refer to Becca as “she” or “her.”
Performer Becca Blackwell. Image courtesy of Theateronline.com.
Lee had entire sentences ready for me to use.
Instead of referencing the cast as female, “you could say, ‘All of the performers were assigned the female sex at birth, but not all continue to identify as female.’ Or you could say, ‘The cast consists of five women and one trans person’ or “The cast consists of five women and one gender-non-conforming person.’”
To make sure I got the point, Lee continued,
“Instead of writing, ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, she embodies a range of characters,’ you could say, ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, Becca embodies a range of characters.’ Or ‘In Becca Blackwell’s solo, they [sic] embody a range of characters.’”
It’s a grammar lesson, non-traditional-gender awareness PSA, and a weird intrusion into the professional writing process, all in one.
If we can declare ourselves free from traditional categories of gender (as long as theater critics will word it properly), in the face of a world that sees a vulva or penis and labels a person “girl” or “boy” as soon as said genitals are detectable on an ultrasound, are there other ways we could publicly contradict what the world assumes about our bodies?
For example, a special irritation nags at me every time I fill out forms for my spouse and me which demand I check a box for race. With blond hair, blue eyes and sunburns every summer, I am easily accommodated by the usual options. But my husband isn’t Caucasian or Asian or Native American or Latino or Pacific Islander or any of the usual or even the unusual choices you find on US forms, and despite his dark skin, he doesn’t identify as African-American, either.
As a woman of Norwegian descent married to a Shangaan man of southern Africa, I wonder how hard it will be for our future kids to define their race – and how others will try to define them.
I guess it’s progress that an “interracial” option is beginning to creep into the language of official American demographics. Not a moment too soon, it seems – this article claims that given the erasing boundaries between modern countries, races and cultures, it’s only a matter of time before we all look like Brazilians, our petty differences in skin tone, facial features and hair texture smoothed into one lightly-brown version of humanity.
And I was charmed by a recent essay on volunteering for voter registration by my friend and colleague Susan Perloff, in which she reports that some Philadelphians are now writing “American” in answer to the question about race. It makes perfect sense – we now know that there’s really no biological basis at all for the concept of separate races (so the term “interracial” doesn’t cut it, unless you’re applying it to everyone on the face of the earth).
I think it would be great if my future kids – and any kid who wants to buck that stupid box on demographic forms – could say, “I’m a racial non-conformist.”
But if my future kids’ teachers tacitly or officially classify them as “black,” does that change the fact that they have a peachy-skinned mother? If their census forms call my kids “interracial,” does that change the fact that they’re actually no more of a genetic mash-up than you, me or anyone else alive? If I referred to Blackwell as a woman, would it change anything about who this performer actually is?
What does my language have to do with the full-bodied existence of Blackwell’s identity? Plenty, apparently. Whoever said “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” should probably put that one to bed. Words matter.
“I felt incredibly opinionated about the fact that I didn’t identify as ‘female,’” the bold and talented Blackwell says in a Village Voice interview about exploring gender identity through dance in the show. “To say that with no words felt impossible.”
Perhaps the “Untitled Feminist Show” communiqué could simply be seen as a request for accuracy and sensitivity. But I think it’s also a snapshot of the question of how much others’ language shapes who or what we actually are.
When I first got that message from Young Jean Lee, I felt a squirm of injustice at her trying to tamper in advance with what I would write, and then had a long, refreshing giggle at the message’s uppity earnestness. If the message had simply informed me that Blackwell is gender-non-conforming, I might have considered it a little superfluous, but I wouldn’t have laughed or raised an eyebrow (I don’t care if your cast is male, female, or neither. I am attending the show to see the merits of your work). It’s the “we respectfully request that when writing about the show, you don’t…” part that got to me, along with the descriptive sentence suggestions.
Because my new favorite press release implies that true non-conformity has three steps:
1) Stop conforming.
2) Inform others that you are not conforming.
3) Require that others accept your non-conformity, and dictate the terms on which they speak of you.
I can see encouraging my future “interracial” family to try steps one and two. But that last one seems pretty tricky. To Lee, Blackwell, and everyone else marching to the beat of their own drum: good luck with step three.
On coming to the US for the first time over a decade ago, my husband quickly noticed something about Americans.
Our flag is everywhere.
Not only does it hang at many offices and businesses – many homes have their own small flagpole on the porch. Decor and clothing emblazoned with the stars and stripes are a common sight year-round.
This is not something that every country does.
But we’ve been slacking of late, according to US conservative media giant Fox News.
Under the screen banner of “New Concerns About American Patriotism at Olympics“, Fox News commentators Alisyn Camerota and David Webb congratulate history-making gymnast Gabby Douglas (cherubic nemesis of stone-faced Russian silver and bronze winners) while questioning her devotion to her home country.
“Gabby had that great moment, everyone was so excited,” Camerota says of Gabby’s win in the women’s all-around gymnastics final, “and she’s in hot pink.”
Photo from UsMagazine.com.
What should Gabby have been wearing? Three colors. I’ll let you guess which ones.
“We’re not as vociferous as we once were about shouting ‘USA’ and draping ourselves in the flag,” Camerota mourns. Why couldn’t Gabby have shown her love of America by performing in a star-spangled suit?
The two commentators tut sorrowfully over Gabby’s lack of nationalistic pride.
“What we’re seeing is this kind of soft anti-American feeling that Americans can’t show our exceptionalism,” Webb says.
Camerota wonders if Americans have become wary of appearing too vain in the eyes of the world.
She wonders if Americans like Gabby are saying, “we know we’re great, but let’s be great quietly.” If so, shame on them.
Camerota and Webb applaud the Chinese gymnasts for wearing red – how patriotic of them. If only the American Olympians could have followed that example.
“I never won any athletic trophies,” Camerota chuckles in the segment. But she and Gabby do have something in common. While Camerota laments Americans’ modern failure to “drape themselves in the flag”, it’s clear that she doesn’t see wearing red, white and blue as a primary responsibility of conservative news anchors – Camerota wears a pink dress in the segment.
I wrote a story recently about a Philadelphia youth soccer team that traveled to Sweden for an international tournament including 70 countries. When they arrived, the US boys got special recognition not because they wrapped themselves in the flag and set about declaring their nationalist pride in America as the best country in the world, but because of all the teams in the tournament, the US team was the most diverse. It included not only players whose families were from North and South America, but Europe and Africa as well.
When it comes to the Olympics, let’s harp less on the fact that not every athlete turns herself into a US flag burrito, and perhaps celebrate the fact that few other nations bring a team so full of athletes of every color.
Speaking of all our lovely colors, Camerota is white and Webb is black. But there’s still something a bit fishy about how they criticize Gabby for wearing pink.
Not only is Camerota herself in pink. As Bleacherreport.com points out, 2008 US gymnastics gold medalist Nastia Liukin won in pink as well.
Any whaddaya know, here’s the gold-medal-winning Rebecca Soni, Captain of the 2012 US Women’s Olympic Swim Team:
Image from OpenWaterSwimming.com
Did those Fox pundits give a peep about Liukin or Soni? No.
“I’ve Got My Own Religion” read a small pamphlet left on the bus I boarded. According to my best guess, it has a rabbi (or a Greek Orthodox priest?), a woman in a burqa, a Buddhist monk, and a woman with some kind of cross wrapped in twine (is she Wiccan or something? Forgive my ignorance). Anyway, they all have the friendliest expressions (except the Muslim lady, it’s hard to tell what her face looks like). Somehow, their innocent smiles – especially in the case of the beatific expression of the elderly Buddhist – make the part about the lake of fire, featured inside the pamphlet, all that much more painful.
“It is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value,” the tract explains. “Jesus Christ claims to be the truth. He did not say ‘I am a way,’ but rather, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me’ (John 14:6).”
To me, tracts like this have a glaring rhetorical flaw. Expecting them to convert devout non-Christians seems a bit like believing that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would clamor for American citizenship if we could just get him a booklet declaring that the US Constitution is the source of all truth.
“Dear Soul,” says a pamphlet ominously titled “Where Are You Going To Spend Eternity?”
“If you have chosen not to admit your guilt and to trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour, please read what the Bible says ‘…he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’ (John 3:18)”. The bizarre underlying assumption here is that even if you don’t believe in Jesus, you do believe in the authority of the Bible.
I think it’s safe to say that devout non-Christians and atheists are comfortable with their beliefs (or lack thereof) at least in part because, for them, the Bible has a bit of a credibility problem. People who don’t believe in Jesus Christ probably don’t put great stock in the Bible, so it stands to reason that biblically-based threats may not be effective.
I know, pointing out the intellectual fallacies of the faithful, or faith itself, isn’t that productive (or original). I admit, since my own upbringing in an insular Christian denomination (briefly explained here), I have long failed to focus exclusively on the sermon. Instead, the child of Sunday school lessons featuring Jesus as a young shepherd with soft brown hair, I used to sit in the pews and wonder how we knew what Jesus looked like. For example, how did we know that Jesus was white?
For years, I secretly wondered what it was like for non-white Christians to have Jesus resolutely represented as a member of another race. But I recently realized that I know exactly what it feels like to have your own image conspicuously separated from your image of God.
My parents’ church refuses to ordain women. Perhaps because of an awareness of how this appears to the modern world, the webpage for its theological school is couched in carefully gender-neutral terms, but any woman who attempted to apply to the program would quickly discover the males-only policy.
A clergy procession at the dedication of the cathedral in my parents' hometown in 1919. It'd look the same today: no women.
Many strident opponents of female clergy declare that over all other doctrinal or cultural factors, priests should be men because maleness is essential to our understanding of God. As some ministers of my home church insist, the Bible does not have a single mention of God as a mother or a woman, and references to God’s power are couched in exclusively male terms. Therefore, a woman could never represent Him on the chancel.
The cathedral's chancel today. Except for the annual Christmas pageant (someone has to be Mary), it's a no-woman zone during services.
After about twenty-five years of parroting what I’d learned about God, I began to consider the effects of systematically separating the image of my own body from my image of God. I began to wish I had a spiritual role model whom I could better relate to. I began to think that there’s no good reason women should be barred from spiritual leadership.
It may be the echoing drumbeat of my male-centric childhood faith that sometimes makes me fear that my seeking a female spiritual inspiration is like saying, “tell me when God looks like me, and I’ll tune in,” as if what I really want to worship is an image of myself. Am I setting my own self up as some kind of false idol in opposition to the Ten Commandments?
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the Commandments – or the lesson in any religion that promotes love to the neighbor by avoiding things like lying, coveting, infidelity and murder. I’ve clung to my faith in the value of moral behavior as I’ve grappled with my image of God.
As a pragmatic person, I like consistent principles even if the deeper reasons for some things are unknown. For example, my body is affected by a chronic illness. Nobody knows what caused the illness, but I take daily steps to combat the symptoms and continue working. Speaking of work, nobody knows what’s going to happen to journalists in the digital world. But I take things a week at a time and do the work that exists.
I don’t know what I believe about God – I have no desire to deny God, but I also don’t see proof that God exists. Just as I manage my illness without knowing its cause, and pursue my career without knowing its future, I decided that I’m not going to wait until I’m sure of God and God’s image to live life as charitably as I can. Some people have a glowing surety of God’s role in their lives. I take crude comfort in knowing that if the faithful are right and my soul is un-evolved, at least I’m being kind to others.
I always thought that my home faith, sometimes known as the New Church or Swedenborgianism for the 18th-century philosopher whose writings inform its Bible-based doctrine, took a lenient view of my agnostic state: Swedenborgians usually don’t spout the lake-of-fire stuff. Rather, they believe that anyone who lives a charitable life according to the precepts he or she knows can go to heaven, regardless of denomination.
But wait. Not so fast. Apparently I’m on the wrong track here.
My long-time friend and high-school classmate, Coleman, grew more certain of his faith as fast as I got confused. I published a book criticizing the teaching methods of Swedenborgian clergy. Coleman enrolled in their theological school. Now he’s a pastor, while I seldom go to church but continue to agitate the community with pro-woman articles.
We rarely agree on anything, but it doesn’t really matter. We met for breakfast yesterday.
He’s a young, social media-savvy pastor. “I want this blog post to be a challenge,” he began a recent online offering about the importance of acknowledging God as Jesus Christ, despite Swedenborgians’ penchant for tolerance. He posits that this tolerance should extend to people who have had no contact with Christianity, but for those who have had access to the Bible and therefore had the chance to know Christ, it’s a different story.
He presented a series of biblical and Swedenborgian passages that demonstrate the importance of envisioning and acknowledging Jesus Christ to make it into heaven.
When I needled him in the comments, he responded at length.
“I don’t think a person can ever really be transformed unless they allow the Lord in,” he says. “Although other religions do present some concept of God, I believe the picture of God as the Lord Jesus Christ is the fullest one. So, if a person rejects Jesus as God, he’s rejecting something in God.”
Coleman deals kindly with me. “Agnostic people can repent too,” he says. He calls my agnosticism “a good starting point” since it’s not an outright rejection of Jesus Christ, and I can still journey to acceptance by praying to God to “help my unbelief”. He advises me to love the idea of Jesus and the idea of Jesus’s reality, and to “want Him to be real.” But I sense the same flaw that rankled me in the bus pamphlets. Just as those Christian propagandists assume that excerpted passages of the Bible will be meaningful to non-Christians, my friend seems to expect that my doubts can be excavated by prayer to reveal a native, underlying certainty in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m still troubled. The guilty truth, now made public online, is that in the broader context of my life, my agnosticism isn’t a starting point. Rather, the solid faith in God’s form that Coleman enjoys now was actually my own starting point. But through a lot of study and thought and living, my perspective began to change.
Coleman seems to be saying that even if people like me are acting in a moral way, our spiritual insides are still fatally unmoored as long as we don’t consciously pin our faith on Jesus Christ.
No-one but Jesus Christ allows us to fully uproot the sin in our lives: “I think that only happens when we shun evil as a sin against the Lord.” Unless we view repentance this way, “we can and WILL justify living selfishly.” People like me might “MOSTLY not embrace evil”, but since they don’t have a bedrock (i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ) for their moral convictions, they’ll always end up with “wiggle room” to excuse sin, thinking, for example, that “it’s OK to hate THIS person” if somebody wrongs them.
Perhaps if I could do a better job of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ, it would temper my hatred for Rush Limbaugh.
Slut: Noun. 1) an immoral or dissolute woman; prostitute 2) A woman who speaks publicly on political opinions that are opposed to Rush's.
In the gentlest terms possible, Coleman is advising me on my shot of getting into heaven. Ostensibly, Swedenborgians object to what they call “the doctrine of faith alone”, which is ably demonstrated by these words of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “Realize that you cannot do anything to earn or help earn your way into heaven. Jesus already completely paid for it when He died on the cross.” (And you thought going to the amusement park was expensive.)
Swedenborgians claim to believe that, for salvation, good works are just as important as faith. But it seems the take-home point of my friend’s blog is that ultimately, it matters little that I’ve lived a good life if I haven’t based everything on the correct image of the biblical God Coleman emphasizes as a “Man”.
Which, frankly, reminds me of this passage of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “The question is not if you are a member of a church, but are you saved? It is not if you are leading a good life, but are you saved?” In my own case, my salvation lies in accepting the proper image of God.
Even the most literalistic of Bible-based faiths give a certain leeway when it comes to images of God. The back of the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower magazine provides three images and asks, “How Do You View Jesus?” The choices are “newborn baby”, “dying man”, or “exalted King”.
Courtesy of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The same publication carries another perspective on accepting Jesus that stopped me in my tracks. Some of Jesus’s contemporaries were “humble enough” to accept that he was God: “included among these were several of Jesus’ family members, who at first had not taken seriously the possibility that one of their relatives could be the Messiah.”
It’s hard enough to accept that a man (Man?) born 2,000 years ago was God or God’s son. But imagine the difficulties of believing that your own brother, cousin or uncle – he of the sly childhood pinches, promising singer/songwriter career or vaguely inappropriate wedding toasts – was the Messiah.
So God can come in at least a few different forms. My home church emphasized Jesus as a grown-up shepherd or a shining bearded man in a white-and-gold robe, but come to think of it, sometimes God was a lamb. I also remember something about a burning bush, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. At Christmas, of course, we all took a time-out to worship Jesus as an infant. Someone’s newborn baby was always cast to lie in a manger on the cathedral chancel during our annual Christmas pageant.
(Last year my cousin married a Ghanaian woman and their baby was cast as Jesus. It was definitely the first time Jesus was ever portrayed by a black girl at my church.)
Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn king!
But acceptable images of God in the Christian tradition are a drop in the bucket compared to the altars of a Buddhist temple.
I recently made a new friend who’s been a Buddhist nun for almost thirty years. We discussed life and death and faith over bowls of Pho, and then she took me to visit her temple. There, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of stunning images – people, animals and trees, demigods, bodhisattvas and the Buddha – I got a lesson from Geshe Sonam, a Buddhist teacher who studied in Tibet for 20 years.
(He seemed so nice that I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to bring up the lake of fire.)
I lingered in front of one image in particular. Tara, a bright-blue female Bodhisattva, perched in the lotus position on a cushion, but with one foot touching the ground. My friend explained that this goddess was portrayed this way because just soon as you call for her, she’s there, like a mother who hears her child cry in the night.
Comparing Tara to Mary in the Christian tradition, my friend explained that whether or not Tara is visible to you, she protects against evil and danger, and is always there whenever you need her. Tara has many images and colors – up to twenty-one, depending on what branch of Buddhism you’re in – all representing different aspects of her nature.
If God does exist and does love the human race, somehow that goddess’s poised foot tells me everything I need to know.
I realize that, contrary to my pastor friend’s blog post or the Christian magazines and pamphlets I’ve collected, my essay is long on personal conjecture and short on doctrinal references. Coleman definitely has the advantage here – though, since because of my sex I’m officially barred from earning the degree that he did, my lesser knowledge may not be entirely my own fault.
I’m prepared to admit that the religious scholars may be right. Perhaps, if I can’t force myself to accept the Lord Jesus Christ (shepherd/king/baby/lamb/flaming bush/crucified Man), there really is a lake burning merrily in hell for me, Geshe Sonam, and everyone else who didn’t repent in time. Even without violent images of damnation, I am prepared to admit that the world may in fact have an objective spiritual foundation of right and wrong.
But I still ask why people insist on pressing certain images of God upon others. I think that in the case of my home church, lessons on God’s image have become bound up, whether consciously or not, with the maintenance of patriarchal leadership. There are probably as many reasons to promote a certain image of God as there are congregations in the world. Somehow, after twenty-odd years of lessons on the “true” image of God, I’m completely content to say to anyone who asks that it’s not for me to declare who God is inside of you, simply because no human being is ever fully qualified to define God for another human being.
Some recent graduates of the Swedenborgian theological school. Kind, auspicious gentlemen. But has three years of doctrinal study qualified them to define God for all of us?
“Man’s confused religions stand in opposition to God’s simple way of life,” the lake of fire pamphlet insists, explaining that man’s views are “wide” and “tolerant”, while God’s view is narrow. Does the idea that God takes a constricted view while humans take a larger view seem backward to anyone else? Insisting on one image of God for everyone probably has more do with the smallness of the human mind than with absolute truth. At the risk of lingering forever outside heaven’s gates, I will say that such a homogeneous world would bore me to death.
If concepts of God are so innate and widely varied, and yet are as crucial to our souls as every denomination keeps insisting, it seems to me that promoting the same image of God for everyone – whether with threats of eternal torture or with gentle scriptural analysis – is like expecting that everyone should be able to adopt the same internal landscape. In that case, you aren’t really saying “it is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value.” It seems to me you’re saying, “it is not true that all people are of equal value.”
My acquaintances are always curious. How should I answer?
“Well, things I write get published and then publications send me money. I then apply this money toward my bills. Is that having a job? I’m sort of like an artist, so I wouldn’t know.”
But mostly I smile politely and say that I’m a freelancer. In the last few years I’ve published maybe a couple hundred articles in eleven or twelve venues (if that makes me a total amateur, keep it to yourself – I was working a “real” job full-time until a year ago). That doesn’t include my book or over 100 (unpaid) pieces I’ve written for this blog – let’s not discuss the cost-effectiveness of this.
The challenge of explaining (and sometimes defending) my work to others makes me think of more writing-related problems.
First, there’s the awful and mysterious matter of the snafus that often arise when I work with a new editor.
In late 2009, I landed my first magazine assignment. The event I was covering, outside of Philadelphia, was scheduled for the day after I returned from a vacation on the West Coast. However, my flight out of the tiny Oregon airport was inexplicably delayed. I then missed my connecting flight out of San Francisco by a few minutes. Not only were there no available flights to Philadelphia until the next day: there were no available flights to Newark, Boston, New York, Washington or Baltimore.
In early 2011, I got an opportunity with a news website. My first assignment was to write a preview piece about a local theater company’s show. I proceeded in the usual way, contacting the PR department and scheduling a visit with the show’s director and artists. The PR guy was cordial at first, but the night before the interview was to take place, an e-mail which I wrote alerted him to a horrendous miscommunication.
He had assumed that a “preview on the show” meant a lengthy feature, for which I would visit the theater over a series of months and delve into all aspects of the company’s art. Since I had actually intended one visit for a 700-word article, he wrote me a terse e-mail rescinding my invitation, telling me that in fact no-one involved in the production had any time to meet with a writer.
This was followed by a longer, similarly unprovoked communication in which he declared that all proposed media articles should be preceded by a written and signed contract between the writer and the theater company, so that no-one would ever have disappointed expectations.
(This, I think, is a hazard of theater artists who find themselves in professional external relations roles for which they have not been trained.)
Anyway, I had to go back to my new editor and explain why I could no longer write the piece he was expecting. I felt like an ass and wondered how I could have bungled the kind of assignment I’ve been writing for years.
In both of the above situations, the editors somehow recognized some particle of redeeming professionalism me, and gave me another chance. (That PR guy recently invited me to review his latest show – I did not reply, as I’m not sure who would be responsible for writing the contract beforehand).
This week, I finished my first assignment for another magazine. Especially when I am dealing with an editor for the first time, I work hard to polish my article and submit it early. Monday morning, ahead of a noon deadline, I was doing a few tweaks on a piece I’d worked on for over a week.
My computer screen flashed a jagged blue-and-black jumble, and then it went black.
The pain is still too fresh to impart what happened over the next few hours. Insert your happy tale of how all your files have been backed up online for years, instead of just a few crucial things on disk (this is what people have been telling me, ostensibly to comfort me with their own peace of mind). Suffice it to say that a computer expert estimates that he may have been able to save “30-50%” of my files, but the damage was “pretty extensive”.
I had to tell my new editor that I wouldn’t be able to make the deadline. Then I spent the day re-writing the article from memory on my husband’s computer before delivering my machine, like a little black corpse, to a data salvage expert. I sent the re-written article on Tuesday morning.
I don’t know yet how things will work out with this new magazine. But I’m sufficiently spooked: what is it about landing new assignments that brings disaster upon my professional efforts?
I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s a bit melodramatic. When you routinely put pieces of yourself out in the world in the form of written work, perhaps your sense of world’s stakes are slightly aggravated.
The frustrations of being a writer aren’t limited to assignment catastrophes. Sometimes the challenges of seeing your work filtered through an editor’s keyboard are almost as bad.
Scary as the Paranormal Activity movies are (and yes, they are constant goosebump-fests), the idea that heightened surveillance would provoke a paranormal presence is somehow oddly comforting. Perhaps it’s because it implies that if a ghost ever bothered us, we could minimize its manifestations by making different choices than Paranormal Activity’s fatally inquisitive boyfriends. Like the proverbial playground bully, perhaps, in a logical reversal of the Paranormal Activity formula, spirits go away if you ignore them.
So what if my bedroom door sometimes opens by itself just a little bit? I don’t look at it, and then I attribute it to the draft. Perhaps if I set up a camera in my apartment, things would be different. But I never, ever will.
Here is the ending my editor published:
“But the idea that heightened surveillance would provoke a paranormal presence is somehow oddly comforting, because it suggests a practical solution: Perhaps paranormal spirits, like playground bullies and Kim Jong-Il, go away if you just ignore them.”
I never mind when my stuff needs to be edited for space or flow – given my verbose tendencies, it’s a common problem that makes me grateful to editors. But I do object when I feel that an editor has taken out my style in favor of his or her own – rewritten the piece, instead of edited it.
If I had wanted to allude to the mysteries of Kim Jong-Il, I would have. It’s a distracting reference, in my opinion. I explained all this in a brief e-mail to my editor that I hope was not unnecessarily querulous. He replied that the edits were not for space considerations, but to make the review more interesting. He agreed to take Kim Jong-Il out, but said that he’d put him in there to hold the readers’ attention, because Kim Jong-Il is “an example that a reader can easily relate to, as opposed to simply dry theory.”
Now, after braving delayed flights, bizarre PR staff, missed deadlines and the loss of 50-70% of my computer files, I am faced with a new, constantly unfolding writer’s Armageddon.
If my review of Paranormal Activity 3 was too full of “dry theory” to be interesting to readers, tell me again – why I am in this job?
Yesterday I received the coveted Versatile Blogger Award from Sandra over at She Can’t Be Serious. For those unfamiliar with this particular WordPress honor, it’s a way for avid WordPress bloggers to pat each other on the back while generating more hits. Recipients are supposed to list seven little-known facts about themselves and then spread the award around by providing links to twelve or fifteen (I’m not sure which it is) other bloggers’ sites.
I think my primary responsibility as a blogger is to deliver engaging original content to my readers, be they one-time visitors or long-time subscribers. To be honest, I am not sure that simply accepting the award, and then giving links to other bloggers, makes the grade. Other bloggers whom I read have received the award, and frankly, the resulting posts aren’t that interesting (especially if they haven’t forwarded the award to me).
The time involved in properly accepting and executing the Versatile Blogger Award makes me think about the three full-time jobs that I have as a freelance writer. The first job is to write. The second job is to track down the payments that are due to me for what I have written. These payments go awry for every possible reason: invoices are lost or mislaid or misfiled or delayed, checks arrive unsigned or are sent through the wrong damn processing center, and the supposed convenience of electronic payments just leads to a whole new labyrinth of delayed processing and missing or mistaken bank codes. But I digress.
The third full-time job is promoting my work. While writing quality stuff attracts an audience like nothing else can, this is different from the public relations and networking operations that also build and maintain your audience. I fear that using a post to celebrate my Versatile Blogger Award is dangerously like straight PR instead of writing – and it’s PR for other bloggers as much as for me. Is that fair to my readers? Sorry if that rings distastefully to anyone, especially fellow bloggers, but I always try to tell the truth on this blog.
That being said, I recognize that all us bloggers are in this together and it’s worthwhile to help each other out. I’m always grateful for the chance to get my work in front of new readers. Perhaps the most appropriate thing to do, to avoid rubbing anyone the wrong way, is to crack a mild, self-deprecating joke about awards and graciously thank the one who awarded me.
So thank you to everyone who made this day possible, especially in light of yesterday’s blog about how I never win any contests. And thank you to Sandra. I’m so glad you found my blog and that you enjoyed it. Alaina Mabaso’s Blog readers are hereby encouraged to check out the humorous, easy-to-relate-to She Can’t Be Serious. And I will now follow through with seven things about myself.
After two years of writing this blog you might already know more about me than you ever wanted to. But here goes.
1) When I was a kid, I thought I could communicate with the people on TV by stuffing my crayon drawings into the VCR.
2) I love sweet-n-salty treats over any other food.
3) I work pretty well with editors generally, but I loathe it when they take a notion to add in adjectives that I didn’t write or imply.
4) I hate going to the mall, but my husband loves it.
5) I have never learned how to drive a manual transmission.
6) I surreptitiously try to smell all food before I take a bite.
7) Once a parent told me that I would have more friends if I was less opinionated.
In light of my total lifelong failure to become less opinionated (thankfully, my friends don’t seem to mind), before I move on to nominate more bloggers, I have a few suggestions for the Versatile Blogger Award.
How about a smaller list of awardees? What with my three jobs listed above, in addition to writing, illustrating and promoting my own blog (my family and my highly needy goldfish also fall in there somewhere too), I don’t have time to go read twelve other blogs just because you suggested them. Can we narrow it down, perhaps concentrating the honor of the award even further for those worthy enough to be chosen, and making it more likely that potential new readers won’t be overwhelmed by the list?
What is the meaning of the Versatile Blogger Award? Does it simply mean “blogs I like”? I’d like to take it in a more literal sense and honor bloggers that I not only enjoy, but who truly are versatile: showcasing a range of knowledge, topics and tone. Let’s face it: being prolific or hilarious isn’t always the same as whetting an intellectual appetite or inviting new perspectives. By the way, if your blog doesn’t appear here, that doesn’t mean I do not (or would not) enjoy reading your stuff in my (very limited) free time.
Let’s be sure to make the pay-it-forward list more than a column of links. In the spirit of comradeship and effective mutual PR, let’s say a few words about why readers should visit those blogs.
So I’m going to go ahead and follow my own rules now.
Please visit Renee at Life in the Boomer Lane, if you haven’t already. Most of the posts deal with the perils of aging, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something for everyone to enjoy there, and Renee often plays with different formats and tones, so that her blog is not merely a humorous slice-of-life site.
Why not try Thomas at Middle of the Freakin Road? I name him versatile because unlike everyone else in America these days, he makes of point of commenting on political issues from a centrist position that does not favor one side or the other.
I also like Gideon’s Golden Way, an unassuming little blog written by a thoughtful woman about training her service dog, Gideon. I am partly a sucker for this blog because I love golden retrievers and the human-animal bond in general, but I also bestow the Versatile award because some blog posts are written by Gideon himself, and I admire this depth of interspecies teamwork.
If you’re still ready for more, you could check out Merry Farmer – not only does she write in a genuine, enjoyable style on a variety of topics, her first book is coming out soon! I’m looking forward to reading it.
So that’s it for today, folks. Thanks for sticking around.