Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Examining Cute Poison

An editorial, The Single Majority, was written recently by Gina Barreca and published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 19, 2007 in response to a recent survey that found that 51% of women were living without a spouse.

I’ll let other writers question the veracity and methodology of the survey. My interest in the editorial is that Gina Barreca uses this survey as a springboard to express her flippancy in regard to the serious task of helping men and women relate to each other. It is a sign of the times when such poisonous dreck makes past the net of news editors and finds its way into mass print media.

So here is the link to her article. If you read it first, you’ll understand what I’m commenting on. It’s not long. I would post all of it right here for the sake of convenience, but I’m trying to respect copyright laws.

The Single Majority

Now that you’ve read it, allow me to put it’s flippancy under a microscope and explain why it matters. These flippant remarks listed below are by no means an exhaustive list, they are just some choice flippant remarks that I want to examine specifically before looking at the editorial as a whole.

Flippant remark #1: The question, far as I can see, isn't why more women aren't marrying; the question is why they marry at all.

Why do women marry" could be an honest question if it were couched within a larger context of honestly questioning why people marry, including why men marry. In the absence of this context, Barreca intends the question, “…why they marry at all” rhetorically. In English, “…why (pronoun) (verb) at all” is an idiom that is intended to disparage what is being questioned. “…why they marry at all” has a conclusion encoded into it: that marriage is a drag, and why would women want to bother with such a drag?

Flippant remark #2: Fact is, there are better gigs than marriage out there for women these days

If you treat marriage as merely a gig, then, yes, there are better gigs than marriage. Barreca has a view of marriage that it is a disposable thing when it is uprooted from the realm of financial dependence.

Flippant remark #3: Maybe that's because women grew up singing, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" while men grew up singing, "We've Got Tonight (Why Don't You Stay)."

Notice this line, “…while men grew up…” Again, while many men may have operated like this, or still do, it is in no way representative of all men. Barreca could make the distinction between the zeitgeist and the realm of all men but chooses not to.

Flippant remark #4: (either a red gravy for pasta, which they refer to as a "Bolognese" sauce, or a stir fry made in a wok they got from their last girlfriend)

Who are the “they” in her parenthetical comment on cooking, all men or some men? Again, Barreca is too busy being cute to make a distinction. I’ll explain in more detail why this is a problem.

Flippant remark #5: Once the culture at large accepts this - that we marry, and stay in marriages, only if we wish to - perhaps husbands will once again get out the woks and work to woo their wives.

Here Barreca is trying to confront the premise that women need to be married to men to be socially accepted more than men need to be married to women, and, therefore concludes that men as a group have taken womens' commitment to them for granted after the men have wooed the women into marriage. While the cultural idea of marriage and social acceptance may have been true in the past, and while many men may have used this cultural idea as an excuse to be lazy husbands, Barreca is drawing a sweeping conclusion about what is at the root of people's relationship/marriage failures that is based on a mis-understanding of the actual relationship that exists between real people in marriage and the fashionable cultural ideas of marriage that surround them. Of course there are some men who need to "get out the woks" to help their marriage, but in the absense of any perspective or balance in regard to all men and all marriages, "get out the woks" is Barreca's jab at men and not a serious effort to help people in their marriages.

Of course, we men stay in marriages only if we “wish” to. And now here’s the problem with the word “wish”. While it is true that it is possible for one to have a meaningful and fulfilling life as a single person, we humans are compelled to seek marriage and deep relationships with the opposite sex to meet deep needs that both sexes have for each other. While it is true that marriage is, and should be, a choice, the idea that the drive to bond deeply with opposite sex is merely a “wish” makes the drive seem weaker than it actually is.

Flippant remark #6: Marriage, like dessert, is wonderful if you choose to indulge, but it isn't essential. Remember, too, that when the Bible declared it "not good for man to be alone," it didn't say anything about woman.

The Bible reference here is cute. It is part of a false idea of men and women, that men are the needy ones and that women aren’t, and therefore since women don’t need men financially in the way that they used to, women are the less needy ones in a relationship, and therefore women are more powerful and can call the shots and get men to jump through hoops if men want to be graced with the companionship of women. In sum, Barreca is saying that men are stuck in need, while women have graduated to “wish".

Now allow me to react to some anticipated reactions to my comments to these flippant remarks.

If I give Barreca the benefit of the doubt, she is trying to say that those men who are inclined to use past cultural ideas in regard to a woman's need for a man as an excuse to be a bad husband no longer have those cultural ideas available as a premise to base their behavior on. She is trying to say that the statistic of 51% is an indicator of this cultural change.

The problem is that the tone of Barreca’s article is both cute and triumphalist. Here, Barreca wants to be both fun and serious. That way, if the reader takes her seriously and disagrees with her, he can be dismissed as being humorless. Here, cuteness and triumphalism are being alloyed together to create smugness to reinforce the smugness of those who are already inclined to agree and quell those who disagree. I can almost hear Barreca responding to these comments in the same flippant manner that she has written the editorial. “Oh come on don’t be so serious. It’s just a little editorial! Surely you don’t think that I’m advocating GPS devices”.

I can hear another response to my comments, “My readers are smart enough to know that I’m not talking about all men”. In regard to a topic as sensitive as gender, one needs to carefully separate real men and women from the fashionable “zeitgeist” notions about men and women come and go. Each zeitgeist, taken in whole cloth, is a distorted caricature of men and of women. In any given zeitgeist, men are noble warriors or lazy slobs and women are fragile flowers or man-killers. Each zeitgeist notion has some claim to some piece of truth about men and women, but no zeitgeist can be confused with the essence of real men and women or even necessarily the behavior of most men and women. While it is often true that culture notions hold sway over many people's thought and behavior, sometimes the cultural zeitgeist is merely a loud, vocal minority, while the quiet majority wait for it to pass.

Any serious attempt to arrive at a prescription to help people in their relationships needs to work backward from a serious attempt to understand the essence of men and women, and not work backward from caricatures. While Barreca has identified some of the caricatures of women in the past in regard to marriage that have had serious consequences on women, she is glad to embrace a fashionable “Homer Simpson” and/or “Don Juan” caricature of men. It is this caricature of men that is complimented by her promotion of another caricature of women – the "You Go Girl!" caricature that women, unlike men, are the smart, powerful and independent ones who have the right to call the shots in a relationship. It is operating from these caricatures that Barreca tosses out her flippant prescriptions for keeping marriages together.

And no, the reference to “high fives” isn’t just cute editorial fun either. Barreca doesn’t think that the Homer Simpson/Don Juan caricature of all men and the Homer Simpson/Don Juan behavior of some men is cause for any alarm or sober mourning. If this editorial is any indication, Barreca does not arrive at “high fives” from a deep longing for men and women to actually reconcile, nor does Barreca arrive at "high fives" out a valid need to celebrate the end of an problematic cultural system. If this editorial is any indication, Barreca arrives at “high fives” because it is an opportunity for her to encourage women to feel superior to men. She might respond. "Ah" but my quip about the Bible was all in good fun". Actually it is part of a string of flippant remarks in her editorial that has consequences beyond "good fun", because it is “fun” that has its roots in cynicism.

As an anticipated response to my criticism, “My readers are smart enough to know that I’m not talking about all men” seems on the surface to be trying to protect the readers from having their intelligence questioned. What it actually does is avoid the uncomfortable reality that the people who make a zeitgeist powerful are those who are not committed enough to the quest for intellectual honesty and precision to try to carefully sort out distortions from reality. If they were, there wouldn’t be all those pesky zeitgeists. The truth is that many people absorb what they hear directly into their bloodstreams, especially when they are itching to hear it. It is the responsibility of writers to try to guide people beyond this tendency and into a higher realm of understanding.

The current “You Go Girl!” zeitgeist is real, pervasive and destructive. By eschewing precision and trying to be cutely provocative, the tone of Barreca's editorial feeds this zeitgeist and is a part of this zeitgeist. The "You Go Girl!" attitude is the female counterpart to ways that men have hurt women. “You Go Girl!” is an attitude of turning the tables on men, not of inviting men and women into serious relationships. As with the “You Go Stud!” attitudes that do not invite men to reckon with the depth of their needs for women and manage those needs well, “You Go Girl!” does not call women to reckon with the depth of their needs for men (not to mention the needs that children have for adults in covenanted relationship). “You Go Girl!” seeks to give women a phony sense of emotional independence from men that is based on a phony idea of strength and non-need in regard to men and an over-all flawed idea of human nature, both male and female.

The “You Go Girl!” is based on the simplistic narrative: that we women are the victims, but now we have the power. It is this “You Go Girl!” narrative that confuses the just cause of overcoming some specific oppressive clich├ęs of women in our society in regard to marriage with the idea that women have been the lesser participants in the failure of marriages and relationships. This confusion is based on the phony feminist-originated idea that women are not capable of evil in the way that men are, and that evil originates from bad men and is merely imitated by the nobler sex who will return to being noble when they are freed from bad men and can operate with the power balance tilted toward them. This mis-apportionment of the capacity for evil across gender lines is the result of a feminist tendency to downplay the differences between men and women to where women are only allowed to be recognized as being distinct from men when women are seen as being better than men. Barreca’s "You Go Girl!" editorial is the part of the dross that has risen to the surface from this overall viewpoint.

Specifically in regard to marriage, women have always been just as capable and just as culpable of wrecking relationships as men. Even as the culture has changed and the zeitgeists have come and gone and will continue to, in the intimate spaces where men and women interact with their needs for each other, there have always been ways in which women and men have hurt and used each other and loved each other and profoundly blessed each other. A “You Go Girl!” attitude toward marriage and relationships does not invite women into a truly adult and clear understanding of relationships with real men but, rather, coddles women into remaining resentful toward men and relationally stunted, just as much as “You Go Stud!” causes men to be relationally and emotionally stunted. The truth is that both men and women can be lazy, bullying and manipulative in a relationship, and that there are some uniquely feminine and masculine ways to be destructive, and that men and women both need to learn to avoid destructive behavior in all the forms en route to better relationships.

Since Barreca is willing to be prompted by a dubious statistic to peak outside the zeitgeist on TV to try to find a clearer view of women, maybe she can also be on the look out for a clearer view of men. Then she might have a clearer view of the potential that men and women have to live in mature relationship with each other, and of the sad mess that our society is now in, in that regard.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

"I'm fine. How are you?"

Today, I was in the grocery store and the checkout lady said, “How are you doing today?” with a chipper smile. This is typical of what is currently fashionable in customer service. There are really only two answers to this greeting/question that will not make one come across as a curmudgeon, which are “I’m fine. How are you?” or “Doing just fine, thank you”. There are slight variations on the acceptable reply (“I’m doing fine, how ‘bout yourself?” has a bit of a Southern flavor), but they are slight variations on what is the same basic reply.

Of course, there is slacker way of saying “’Tsup?”, which is short for “What’s up?”. The different between “’Tsup?” and “How are you today?” is that “’Tsup?” has become just another word for “Hi” and doesn’t demand a response. (Those from older generations might not know this and respond to “’Tsup?” with “Oh, I’m doing just fine how ‘bout yourself?”)

My problem with someone asking me “How are you doing today?” when I am in motion and therefore not able to sit still with them, is that I am a person who is often melancholy and ruminating on sundry problems in life and in the world. As such, I always feel that I am being dishonest by saying “I’m fine” without being able to elaborate on how I’m actually doing. Each thing that I write about is the product of having spent a great deal of time ruminating about it, and I have organized my life around the need to ruminate, and I go to great lengths to give myself the time and space to ruminate. When I am placed in a social situation where the only acceptable reply is “I’m fine. How are you?” or “Doing just fine, thank you”, I feel boxed into a situation where I am required to be less authentic than I want to be. I feel that a one-size-fits all idea of politeness is being foisted upon me that doesn’t allow me a gracious way to avoid having to reciprocate.

While some people will know exactly what I’m talking about, there are many people, including some Christians, who will read this and think that I’m being ungracious for feeling this way, and that I am being rude and un-curteous, or worse, un-Christian when I do not respond to "How are you doing?" when I am being asked while in motion by a stranger. For the Christians in this category, they have a high value for a particular idea of Christian hospitality that they have projected into what they consider to be polite social practice. It is these Christians who consider it an essential act of hospitality to ask someone how they are doing, even if it is being asked “on the run” where the only possible non-rude reply from the other person is “I’m fine. How are you?” or “I’m doing fine, thank you”. For these Christians, someone who does not reply with one of these two replies is being anti-social, and from a Christian perspective, is expressing inhospitality and ingratitude toward the other’s hospitality.

I have known Christians who take it a step further, who consider it a mark of ingratitude to God to not be able to say “I’m doing great!” when asked. To these Christians, if one is truly living in the knowledge of all the blessings that the Gospel has endowed him with, he should be able say “I’m blessed!” anytime, anywhere. Furthermore, “I’m great!” is supposed to elicit a reply from another person, “Great? Why are you great?” as a way to invite him into an evangelistic conversation.

Needless to say that I am not among that group of Christians. While our need to be grateful to God is a very important truth that we Christians must meditate on, it is by no means an aspect of truth that we must dwell on to the exclusion of other aspects of truth. Turning one’s gratitude toward God into a code of politeness can be used to question the gratitude of those Christians who have a different rhythm of relating to God that does not fit the social code. While I don’t begrudge Christians for their practice of expressing their gratitude toward God in the context of a code of social politeness, I am wary of it.

I have a supreme value for being totally honest to a degree that can offend the sensibilities of certain Christians who have a premium on being nice. As for being polite, I do value politeness and courteousness, but I don’t believe that love, truth and politeness are necessarily the same thing all the time, though they do overlap. I hold that politeness must be balanced with the need to be totally honest and constantly reckoning with all truth. It is from this value system that I have a looser idea of how “politeness” fits in with Christian love. For me, I have a value for being polite, but it needs to be flexible construct for different people and situations, and cannot be done in a formulaic, one-size-fits-all sort of way.

I am a person who wants to make sure there is room for people to be melancholy. I am convinced that joy is the union of truth and pleasure, and that one must frequently go through the difficult process of grappling with truth in order to get to the pleasure that is joined with truth at the other end. I am convinced that this is part of what it means for one to “pick up one’s cross daily” to find joy that lies on the other side of the cross. Even as I believe that this is true, I need to be mindful of not wanting to shame Christians into being melancholy and more than I want un-melancholy Christians to shame me out of being melancholy. I recognize that delving into the realm of the melancholy is a different journey for every person.

This puts me at odds with a culture wherein “happiness” is not understood as being something related with the task of coming to terms with difficult truth. The “pursuit of happiness” as “happiness” is understood by many in our culture is a pursuit that does not have room for melancholy. The pursuit of joy, however, does involve the experience of the melancholy. In the context of continually seeking the union of truth and pleasure, joy and melancholy are like two halves of an oscillating sine wave one giving way to the other continually. By my reckoning, the act of placing another person in a situation where the only socially acceptable reply is "I'm fine" is an act of prosecuting a particular view of the nature of happiness that is at odds with the rhythm of being melancholy. This is true quite apart from whether the person asking "How are you doing?" as good intentions.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish conservative talk show host who I frequently listen to, says that we have a moral obligation to be happy. To Dennis, projecting unhappiness into the world is equivalent to having bad breath. While I accept this idea in regard to one who is cronically complaining, I don’t accept this idea in regard to one who is not smiling or not replying “I’mfinehowareyou?” while being asked on the run. Having written a book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, Dennis Prager presents an idea of happiness that is much more in the realm of joy as I have defined it than the idea of “happiness” that most people harbor. Dennis’ idea of happiness is one that recognizes the role that squarely facing difficulty has in ultimately being happy.

That said, I am not capable of projecting a smile everywhere I go. Perhaps this is a matter of personality. Some people ruminate less that others and some can keep their ruminations more hidden. Perhaps Dennis Prager is among those who can operate publicly with a smile much of the time. As for me, I am an introverted person who needs room for melancholy and I wear my ruminations on my sleeve.

When I am around certain chipper people I feel as though I have stepped into a “melancholy free zone” where I feel that claims are being made on my emotions. When someone at the check-out line asks “So how are you doing today?”, I often feel as though I am being presented with an imposing form of peppiness that is openly challenging me to match that peppiness, putting my melancholy on the spot and challenging me to reply properly, lest I be exposed as a shmuck who responds with a shrug of silence. I also know that the checkout lady doesn’t intend her question to be taken in this way, but her intent on the matter does not negate the effect – my melancholy is still being put on the spot.

One could argue that I need to be kind to the people who need to perform those tough custormer service jobs and honor the good intentions of the check-out lady, even if I don't agree with the philosophy of happiness from which "How are you doing?" emanates. I, however, do work a day job that requires customer service, so I know it from the inside. Whenever I see the "high beams" presented to me when I am the customer, I can hear the echoes of the same customer relations seminar that I had to listen to as an employee. It is for this reason that there is a strong inclination in me, when I am operating a customer, to affect the climate that I must operate in as an employee. As an employee and as a person, I’m a fan of being professional and courteous, but I dislike the practice of what I feel is the act of imposing peppiness on others.

There is also a slightly sinister element that I sense when employer is trying to create an environment that demands grinning smiles and that judges employees on how well they turn on the “high beams” when they greet and smile. At work, I went through a seminar recently where they emphasized projecting happiness and smiles and the practice of asking “how are you doing to today?” type questions to people as they entered and exited. Needless to say, this seminar made me queasy. As a person inclined to melancholy, I am acutely aware that it takes an extra level of emotional organization for me to produce a smile – I must first believe that everything is right with the world. Sometimes I really believe it and I’m able to smile. However, most of the time I can’t put out of my mind all that I see that is wrong with the world. When I feel the pressure to smile against my melancholic inclinations, I’m feel that I am being made to force my thoughts into the “happy worldview” in order to produce the “happy emotions” in order to produce the smile. As this happens, I feel a pressure to ignore/suppress the part of my consciousness that is ruminating on difficult things. That is where my conscience steps in, and will not allow me to have those difficult things shoved out of my mind.

I can understand the therapeutic benefit that suppressing dark thoughts and imposing a “happy worldview” on one’s psyche can have for some people some of the time. In the best sense of this idea, having a “happy worldview” is the practice of putting a positive spin on things and looking at the bright side. While this can be a good practice, it would violate me to have to do it apart from the rhythm of dealing with the melancholy side of life. Maybe this sounds a tad strong, but as a melancholy person who needs to ruminate on difficult things, I feel that being made to smile against the inclinations of my conscience is like being subjected to a form of brainwashing. I feel that I am being forced to organize my emotions into the “happy worldview” at the threat of losing my livelihood.

So as a consumer buying groceries at the check out line, my act of not replying “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” is my attempt to using my power – albeit in a very small way -- as a consumer to thwart a system that is built on a one-size-fits-all view of politeness, which is based on a view of happiness that I am at odds with. I feel that I if I can help establish different expectations of management in favor of melancholy while I am a consumer, I can affect the expectations of management in favor of melancholy as an employee. Perhaps the checkout lady thinks that I am being a curmudgeon and that I’m being militant in my melancholy. I’m not trying to be rude to her, rather I’m trying to make a statement against a system that is pressuring her to behave in a certain way to conform to a certain idea that is in vogue in the frantic effort to attract customers. Perhaps she doesn’t feel this instruction from management as “pressure” because she doesn’t have a melancholic personality, but I do.

I can understand the point that enforcing a code of over-achieving peppiness among employees is a way to prevent employees from being overly rude and obnoxious (as in karate, one must aim beyond the brick to break the brick). I can also understand the argument that the majority of the culture is not melancholy and enjoys being asked “how are you doing today” by strangers. I can also understand the point that asking an un-melancholy person to be aware of when they are in the presence of a melancholy person and “tone down” the peppiness is often asking too much. However, I react to over-achieving peppiness because underneath it is the whiff of economics-induced conformity, and I don’t want the marketplace to make conformist demands on my emotions. I want to at least try to influence the management trend of promoting over-achieving peppiness in customer service towards something that is a little more subdued and that more openly recognizes diversity in personalities.

As for my job, I do an impeccable job in every other way so that I can get away with out having to gush and smile all the time. For me, I must convert the pressure that exists in my workplace to not be overly melancholy into an impetus to aggressively think and process my thoughts and observations so that they do not continue to weigh on me. For me, being able to organize what I am feeling and observing is the path to emotional freedom—it is the “half of the sine wave” of joy that comes out of embracing the melancholy in a disciplined way. As I’m able to do this, I am able to find the joy that is necessary to project an air of quiet confidence as an alternative to a grinning smile.

While I recognize that a certain amount of this pressure is unavoidable at work, it is this pressure that my introverted, melancholic self needs to be free from on my day off while at the grocery store. So to the checkout lady out there who asks “How are you doing today?” you will understand where I come from when I don’t respond.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Greg's aphorisms

Here is a sampling of my proverbs and aphorisms for your amusement while I work on more stuff.


You grow old the day you lose your ability to dream.

Cut off circulation to one part of your soul and
you risk spreading gangrene to the rest.

Art is a sweet nectar to wash down harsh truths.

Money won't buy you happiness, it'll just get you to heaven or hell faster.

Sanity is an ephemeral place between desire and reality.

If people ridicule you, remember that morally
obtuse people often have short memories.

Real revolutionaries are those who live lives
of beautiful, stark and uncompromising balance.

Art is that which unveils the world you’ve always known but never noticed.

An emotion is a thought embryo.

Insensible people feel oppressed when compelled to do sensible things.

If you distilled the hard lessons from cautionary tales
in the storytelling arts you would arrive at most of the ten commandments.

What some call being “deep” I call being awake.

People who are chronically bored are also chronically boring.

An idle mind is the devil’s handiwork.

Mundanity is an illusion for those numbed out of their ability to be observant.

There are two kinds of people in the world: the people who
successfully execute their visions and those who work for them.

People who can’t “do” criticize.

Hope is for those who don’t have the luxury of being cynical.

“Don’t get defensive!” Sure. As long as you are not offensive.

Cleverness is the ability to get what you want.
Wisdom is the ability to want the right things.

Fashion is fierce politics cloaked in mundanity.

There is an extent to which you become like that which you attack.

Finding joy in life is the precursor to being thankful.

A life of peace is one spent dancing with extremes but not succumbing to them.

When contracted to do tasks for you, many humans (though they may have adult bodies, experience, and degrees) require baby-sitting on your part.

A life well lived requires both a sense of mission and a sense of journey.

A life lesson from white water rafting: when headed toward a rock,
lean into it – if you lean away you will likely flip over.

The spirit of the law is a Van Gogh painting that
the letter of the law tries to reproduce with a dot-matrix printer.

Common sense is a ridge that lies at the top of two slippery slopes.

Questioning can be a path to new knowledge.
It can also be a tactic to make a fool or a scoundrel seem wise.

Markets often go where ideologies fear to tread.

Being calm can often inspire more fear than being bombastic.

Insensitivity can, at times, mimic strength.

Among intellectuals, irony is over-rated and sentimentality is under-rated.

Victory favors the just.