A Letter From A Reader

A while back I posted an article on passive aggressive behavior and manipulation: its symptoms, its effects, and how to cope. One reader responded with her own situation, and we have since had long discussions on how to change the situation she is in. I am sharing her initial letter here (with some edits, for privacy) and my response, in the hopes it might help another who shares the same problem.

Here is what she wrote:

“So interesting to read your own personal take on pa [passive aggressive behavior].  I have been dealing with this for 4 years now and I am mentally exhausted, feel alone a lot and tired of him always trying to prove me wrong so he can claim victim. He buys me things and then gets mad that he did so he slowly punishes me for it and when I question him about it he says it’s my attitude. It’s extremely frustrating and tiresome. Childlike. I always have to run back to him and call first. He will ignore me until the end of time. He is shut down constantly, shows no emotion but is aggressive in the bedroom. And when I show emotion he is like a stiff board. When I am crying he does not even ask why. He told me as a kid he never got any recognition. You did as you were told, end of story. He uses his money as a control mechanism. If he doesn’t like what I do or say he withdraws his financial support for me and he also withdraws himself. And once again I have to crawl back to him. He’s pathetic. If I tell him I like something he will say he doesn’t and say he likes something else. And his tone is nasty. I am always on eggshells when I want to discuss something with him. He charms the world, but those closest to him he treats like dirt. It sickens me to watch him turn on the charm to others and then turn around to me and have a different tone or barely speak to me. If I make suggestions he will never be accepting but may attempt them later on and then tell me he tried something and claim it as his. He doesn’t trust anyone. I always wonder if I am being taped or on a camera or my computer is bugged. It’s a horrible way to live. He only tells me select information and doesn’t give much details. His communication is close to zero. He punishes me all the time by ignoring me and I cannot ask him for anything for thou shall not receive. It’s bizarre. Very confusing life.”

Here is what I wrote in return:

Oh honey, I can’t help but think you must be feeling so very trapped. Thank you for sharing your burden with me. I don’t know your man, but from what you’ve written here, it sounds like he craves power and control. Maybe because he never felt he had any as a child; that his needs went unrecognized, even at times most important to him. And so he turns that on others because he feels it is owed to him. But of course that is just misdirecting his anger, and turning him from victim to perpetrator.

But I truly believe that everyone has a right to two basic things in a relationship: honesty and to be treated with basic human decency. Maybe that really just comes down to one thing. And it sounds like the kind of relationship you’re in as it stands right now is just not sustainable. It will only wear you down more and build greater resentment in you, changing who you are. Then you have to think: is that the person you want to become?

If the answer is no, you have two options. You can cut your losses and run (which I imagine others close to you have already suggested). Or you can try to make something better of it. I imagine you probably love this man a lot (or else you wouldn’t have hung around for 4 years, right?), so there must be some good you see in him. But here’s the kicker: NO ONE CAN CHANGE A MAN WITHOUT HIS CONSENT. We women love to try. But it must be his decision to change. You can change a relationship. You can change yourself. But only he can decide to be a better man; a stronger man. And strength doesn’t come from power over others; it comes from power over one’s own demons. And in his case, if he is to change, he has to decide that love and happiness is more important than power and control. It’s not an easy decision. If you’re going to change this relationship, you have to make it clear to him that he cannot have both. It’s already true: the more power he tries to exert, the less love and happiness there is in the relationship. But he clearly doesn’t see that. To him, that little bit of power gives him a thrill that makes it difficult to see how little true and pure happiness there is. And to communicate this to him properly, you really do have to be prepared to leave and be prepared to accept the possibility that he might choose power instead. You can’t issue an ultimatum: that will only play into his power games. It really just has to be a simple truth: that you are done with the way things are. And that you would rather be on your own than be abused. For that is what it is: abuse.

If you choose this road, I’m not going to lie: it’s not going to be easy. It takes time and commitment. He might beg forgiveness and try all kinds of ploys to get you back. But trust must be earned, and he must earn your trust that you are more important to him than anything else in this world, even himself. He must be willing to face everything it is that he does to try to assert power and control, and he must be willing to give each and every one of them up. You both have to come to terms with what things you do (i.e. what he does to assert power, and what you do that gives him that power) that have allowed the relationship to get to this state and both must commit to changing that. Maybe you can do this on your own, maybe a therapist might help. And remember, actions always speak louder than words. He can say whatever he likes to you: the true test is how he acts. Trust your gut: it knows how to protect you if you listen to it.

I’m sorry to put this in such stark terms. But if you take a step back from the day to day and look at the grand picture, relationships really do come down to some very basic things. But I know (oh my god, trust me on this, I really do deep-in-my-bones KNOW) how painful and difficult this is. If I were with you in person, I’d take you in my arms and give you the deepest hug I could, treat you to your favorite dessert, and just listen to everything you had to say until you ran out. And then I’d hug you some more. In lieu of all that, I hope these words help, for whatever they’re worth.

I wish you strength and courage and hope. And most of all, love.



Stay or go, the choice is never easy. In our culture, we focus a lot of our empathy on the person who gets left behind. But leaving is painful and takes courage too. If you are in an abusive, or just plain dead-end relationship, and decide it is time to leave, please check back in tomorrow. I will have a post on having the courage to say good-bye.

a weekend away, away

This weekend, T and I went up to the Bay area to visit friends. Well, okay, it’s a longer story than that. A couple of our very closest of friends, Nuala and Garren, have been living in Marrakech (yes that is Morocco!) for the better part of a year. (Wait, hold on, I think I have photos of them. Oh yes, here they are.) But they’re back in the States for a couple of weeks for a graduation and a wedding and so we went up to visit them at a BBQ they were holding. I LOVE both Nuala and Garren’s families to pieces (and I’m including friends who have been friends so long they have become family in the word “families”). Oh, the stories! (And oh the cream puffs! I think I must have eaten about 6 of those…) And long after the BBQ was over, we were still there, even though everyone’s eyes were drooping like melted ice cream, because, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to say good bye again.

Through the weekend, we stayed with T’s boss…which is another interesting story. For, how often does your boss live 300-some-odd miles away? But we stayed with him and his girlfriend and I really enjoyed that. Not only are they both really nice and interesting people who introduced us to more kind and interesting people, I really enjoyed seeing his office and their amazing home space, for I felt like I got to know them a little bit, in a really nice way. Plus the bonus of seeing him embark on a new enterprise – it’s exciting! I’m happy for him and gives me the vicarious little thrill of feeling like I’ve brushed up close to greatness. (I’ll just say, it’s the film industry sort of greatness.)

I had planned to take a lot of photos for this week’s You Capture (the theme is fun) – and really with such a fun weekend, how could I miss that opportunity? But…miss it I did. Because we were having so much fun I was totally absorbed in really special moments, I couldn’t even think about hiding behind a camera. So I’m hobbling together something a little silly with what few photos I do have.

The weekend was filled with special moments like hugging friends who have been a year and a world away.

Like meeting an old friend’s new baby.

Like exploring new sites and living new experiences.

And rediscovering old ones.

Like stumbling across vintage suitcases in a thrift store:

Complete with old tags!

And silk scalloped lining

And falling in love with all their nooks, crannies, and corners

And sweet old vintage stickers

Oh, and by the way…can I just say? $3.99 each.

It’s the bees’ knees, baby!

But now we are home, with lots to do, for it is my 30th birthday in less than a week! And…did you see my sidebar, just to the top on the right there?

We’re up to 76% of the way to my goal! I’m nearly brought to tears with the amazing people in my life, with their generosity, their love, and their support. It’s the thirtieth year of my life, and I feel I have so much.

I have so much.

On Passive Aggressive Behavior & Manipulation

Cch! Gawd, what a jerk!I was browsing around my stat reports for my blog – it’s always fun to see what Google search words bring people to my site. I was a little surprised to see a lot of people come across my blog through some variation of key words that involve passive aggressive behavior and manipulation. But then I guess it makes sense because I know I have mentioned passive aggressiveness on my blog before. It is one of my pet peeves, most especially because I, myself, am prone to it and have worked hard to change that about myself. We hate most in others that which we despise in ourselves, right?

Upon seeing how many people find me through those key words, I began to realize it’s probably an issue a lot of people struggle to cope with, most often because they have a loved one who is passive aggressive and they don’t know how to deal with them. I know when I faced this issue, there are a lot of sources online that voice complaints about the behavior, but offer little practical advice on how to cope. So I thought I would put together my own article on passive aggressive behavior.

Why Passive Aggressiveness Sucks:
Passive aggressive behavior is problematic for two reasons. First, it is dishonest. It allows the aggressor to hide instead of confronting problems with courage and integrity. Second, because it is dishonest, it is also impractical. Rather than dealing with problems honestly, it ends up either creating more problems, escalating current problems, or hiding problems until they get too big to handle. Or all of the above. It therefore makes it nearly impossible to resolve issues. Meanwhile bad feelings fester. Fester, fester, fester. Rot, rot, rot. (Ten points for naming what movie that comes from.)

Signs You’re Dealing With Passive Aggressiveness:
So assuming we all prefer not to fester and rot, the next step is to figure out how to identify passive aggressiveness – either in ourselves or in those we love. Because it is by nature passive, it is often disguised as something else, so it can be hard to identify. But once you’re aware of how it operates, it can become pretty easy to spot.

I think there are two principle characteristics that guide passive aggressive behavior. 1) It seeks to deflect attention away from the real issue because the aggressor fears direct confrontation about the real problem, and 2) It seeks to deflect blame away from the aggressor so they can tell themselves it is not their fault.

What does this look like? Passive aggressive manipulation can manifest itself in many ways. Here are some of the most common ones:

Tit for tat scoring: This looks something along the lines of “Look at everything I’ve done for you. You owe me this in return.” Of course people should give equally in love and one should be wary not be taken advantage of. But I’m talking about a particular attitude here. If you approach love in a way where you keep a tally sheet of brownie points and who owes whom what, chances are you’re not approaching love in an honest, open and giving way. This behavior hides the fact that the aggressor does not feel comfortable simply asking for love. Instead they resort to a power dynamic where they give first, so they feel they have the right to make a claim in return. That way, if the other person does not give in, he or she becomes the ungrateful party and the aggressor can feel comfortable in the myth that they have the moral upper hand.

Self-martyrdom: This is the one I’m most prone to doing because I grew up around people who use this a lot. But there came a day when I discovered how toxic it is and I vowed to myself I would try everything I could to not do this. Self-martyrdom is when you don’t want to do something, but go along with it anyway – but you pretend it’s because you’re doing it for the other person. Usually it’s accompanied by a statement like “Whatever you want to do” or “If that’s what you want, fine by me” – except that it’s not fine by you. It deflects attention away from the fact that you are unwilling or unable to simply state what you want, but it absolves you of responsibility because you tell yourself you’re doing it to make the other person happy, you’re being accommodating, you’re not rocking the boat. Meanwhile, you do things to sabotage the situation. You might drag your feet or put up barriers so what the person wanted doesn’t actually happen. Or you might put on an air of suffering to send the other person the message that you’re doing this for them even though you don’t want to, so you try to make them feel guilty for being so selfish. Really, it is the self-martyr who is being selfish, for though they are giving, they are not giving openly and with love. If the giving is genuine, then you genuinely are pleased just to see the other person happy. You do not carry any hard feelings about it.

- Smoke and mirrors: This tactic is a particularly difficult beast to deal with. When this happens, the aggressor actually creates a problem that really isn’t a problem to direct attention away from the true problem. Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, I have a real, true life example to illustrate (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent):
Sally’s mother always loved horseback riding and she wanted her daughter to share that love. Ever since Sally was little, her mother got her lessons to ride. But as Sally became a teenager, she decided she didn’t want to ride anymore and she was tired of always being pushed by her mom to ride horses. So one day when Sally was supposed to go to a lesson after school, she went with a friend, Jessica, to play by a creek. She missed her bus home and therefore was too late to catch her lesson. She lied about missing the bus and told her mother the bus had been late. She asked Jessica to confirm the lie. When Jessica got home, she told her own mother the truth, but asked her to lie to Sally’s mom if she called to check with her about Sally’s story.
So you can see, the lies just escalate. Now look at the problem from Sally’s mom’s perspective. Clearly she is facing a problem with her daughter where she wants her daughter to do something, but Sally doesn’t want to do it. But the problem is, she has no idea that this is the real problem. She just is upset her daughter missed a costly lesson. Even if she discovers the lie, then she is going to be focused on the fact that her daughter is lying to her, but she won’t know why. In truth, Sally simply lacks the courage to honestly tell her mother how she feels. So she creates a different problem—showing up too late to go to her riding lesson: a problem that she may find less daunting to confront so that she doesn’t have to face the real issue—that she doesn’t share the dream her mother has for her, something she probably feels both angry and guilty about. But what is the result? Total confusion. Not problem solved.

- The Hapless Victim: This card is most often played by the incredibly insecure. This is the “I can never do anything right” card. This person is constantly waiting for someone else to do for them what they are too afraid to do for themselves, usually because they fear failure. And yet, they almost invite failure because it provides further evidence they need help. They can point to it and say, “See? I was never capable in the first place. You should never have made me do that.” It gives them an excuse to fall on their sword and it absolves them of responsibility for themselves. But the truth is, they did not put in an honest effort. Meanwhile, you are tempted to do for them because it would be easier, faster, and invite less trouble. But the more you give in to this manipulation, the more you end up feeding their comfort in the insecurity blanket.

So What Do You Do?
If you are dealing with someone who is behaving in a passive aggressive way, there is really only one thing you can do: refuse to be manipulated. If they behave in a way that you can tell in your gut is just not honest (and I think our guts are pretty reliable when it comes to these things, especially with repeated offenses), the only thing you can do is to call them out on it. Try really hard not to get angry with them. Most often, the aggressor does not even realize they are acting in a manipulative way. Remember principle #2? They are busy convincing themselves that they are the victim here. They’re not only lying to you; they’re lying to themselves. Just try to calmly point out what they are doing and ask them to tell you what it is they really want. Understanding them can at least help build tolerance. But honestly? You’ll probably be lucky if they can take a step back, reflect, and tell you openly what they want. Still, you can refuse to let them have power over you. You are the captain and steward of your own emotions. Take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to insist on speaking honestly. After enough times of this strategy not working, the aggressor will have to find some other way to behave to get results they want. Hopefully, they’ll come to honesty sooner rather than later.

What if you recognize these tendencies in yourself? Well, for one, congratulations for being willing to be honest with yourself! That is an incredibly difficult thing to do! But as hard as it is to break old habits, having the courage to face your own faults is probably the hardest part. Once you realize what you’re doing, it becomes incredibly easy to spot when you do it again. And you know what? It’s okay if you slip up – as long as you face up to it when you do. It is okay to come back and say, “Wait, I’m sorry, I didn’t say what I wanted to say. This is what I really meant.”

One Last Point:
One of the keyword searches I came across in my stats was asking something to the effect of: can two naturally passive-aggressive people be compatible? Well, yes, they can be compatible. The question is: can they have an honest, open and healthy relationship; one that strengthens and supports, rather than weakens and undermines? The answer there is yes too. It is possible to change your behavior. It is possible to overcome your natural tendencies. But it does require commitment. If you can recognize these symptoms in each other, you can agree to be committed to helping each other move past your fears. You can agree to help each other face problems with courage, knowing you are doing it together. You can commit to helping each other find true happiness. It’s not about acting perfectly wisely all the time. It’s about just being honest, even when you are afraid.

Facing problems in relationships is tough (Oh my god, is it tough). And it gets even more difficult when we become hijacked by fear or pride. But when it does get tough, all you have to do is focus on this one thought: I would rather be happy.

Have you dealt with passive aggressiveness in your life? How did you cope with it?

*Image courtesy of http://www.marieclaire.com/sex-love/advice/tips/giving-a-relationship-ultimatum

i thought it was just me

As expected, the book on male brains is indeed shorter. :)“The quality and longevity of a marriage could be measured by the number of bite marks on a woman’s tongue.” – Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain

For the longest time, I’ve always thought I had a personal deficiency when it came to arguing with others. When someone says something offensive or something that makes me hurt or angry, I have a tendency to shut down. I would love to be able to defend myself or to call them out on the hurtful or undermining comment they made, but I am often physically incapable of doing so. My body shuts down on me and I am unable to process. And it often isn’t until hours – or even days – later that I figure out precisely why I was so angry and how I would have like to have responded.

Turns out, the female brain is hardwired this way. As Brizendine explains, “even if a woman wanted to express her anger right away, often her brain circuits would attempt to hijack the response, to reflect on it first out of fear and anticipation of retaliation.” The female brain is extremely averse to conflict, due to fear of angering others and losing relationships. Though women may be slower to act out of anger than are men, once aroused, they can “unleash a barrage of angry words that a man can’t match.”

This little tidbit is but one morsel of fascinating information I’ve come across in reading these two books: The Male Brain and The Female Brain. In both books, the author culls together analysis from all kinds of neuropsychiatry, biology, and cognitive psychology to explain what it is scientists have learned about the human brain – all in language that is witty, fun, and easy accessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with big scientific words (my hand is in the air). In a lot of ways, these books begin to answer the nature versus nurture questions…but often we discover it works in ways we didn’t quite expect.

I think, a lot more than we anticipate, human behavior begins with our hormones and chemicals in the brain. And more often than not, our behavior and how we even perceive the world is gender specific. Plus it changes as we go through different parts of our life cycle.

Here are just a few other interesting morsels to whet your appetite:

- By seven months, a boy can tell by his mother’s face when she’s angry or afraid, but by 12 months, he becomes so immune to them, he can easily ignore her expressions. But a subtle expression of fear on a mother’s face would stop a baby girl in her tracks.

- There is a gene called the vasopressin receptor gene. In men, a longer version of this gene tends to produce monogamy, whereas shorter versions of this gene produce philanderers. So when it comes to fidelity, longer actually is better – at least if you’re talking about the vasopressin receptor gene!

- Apparently, the way that daddies play with their children tends to be more creative and unpredictable – and thus more stimulating, making their kids more curious and improving their ability to learn. Children whose fathers play more roughly with them tend to be the most self-confident by adolescence. But the sweet spot: dads bond with daughters by helping to solve their problems – and this is true whether the daughter is 4 or 44, whether the problem is a broken doll or a financial portfolio.

- Girls are years ahead of boys in their ability to observe and mirror gestures, expressions, postures, gazes, and breathing rates as a way of intuiting how others are feeling. This is the secret of female intuition or a woman’s ability to read others’ minds. Imagining another’s emotional state actually triggers similar brain patterns in the observer and females are really good at this kind of emotional mirroring. They are sometimes able to intuit how a man is feeling before the man himself is able to figure it out.

- Women’s brains are smaller than men’s in size, but they have the same number of brain cells. When women become pregnant, their brain size actually shrinks more as the brain circuitry rewires itself for motherhood and some country roads in the brain become superhighways. But by six months after childbirth, the brain returns to its usual size. The sweet smell of a baby’s head carries pheremones that stimulate a deep hunger to have a child. The pheremones produced by a pregnant woman may actually cause neurochemical changes in her mate, preparing him to be a doting father and equipping him – through smell! – with some of the special nurturing mechanisms of the mommy brain.

- Dads might be slower to figure out how to respond to their baby’s cries, but the ways that they interact and bond with their children is vital – and different – from mothers. Having daily hands-on contact is critical in developing parent-child synchrony AND when moms encourage the dad’s interactions with the child, it actually tends to strengthen the marriage.

So really, a lot of male and female behavior we might think are due to personality differences or societal influences actually have at least some basis in the makeup of our brains. However, a lot of these things are probably natural tendencies, but like anything else you learn in life, practice and repetition is important too. So, even though girls may be hardwired to act like girls and boys will be boys (sometimes regardless of socialization), certain traits are enforced and reinforced through parenting and practice.

If you ever feel there is something you just don’t understand about yourself or about the other sex, chances are, you’ll find an answer within these pages. These books are a must-read for, well…everybody!

“Educate a girl and she will do the rest.”

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post expressing my deep sense of helplessness and futility when I look at the government and prominent leaders who are so completely out of touch with the reality of life their people face every day. And I expressed my sense that the real movement is the movement of people. Ordinary citizens started making statements with their words, their actions, and often their dollars, either through donations or financial endorsements. They are choosing to live a different way and reclaiming their right to do so. This was my sense in just looking at the world around me in communities supporting local or urban farming, women reaching out and reinvesting in midwives, mothers deciding to home school, neighbors donating their meager wages to Haiti relief, or people turning away from corporate greed and choosing instead to run their own businesses. My sense was people were taking a moment to look at their lives and ask: what is my legacy? What will I contribute to this world? And in multitudes of different ways, they were choosing a road of progress. This was my sense.

This weekend, I found proof. In New York City this weekend, the Women In the World Conference harnessed the power of women the likes of Sec. Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Queen Rania of Jordan, Meryl Streep, Christiane Amanpour, Barbara Walters, Christine Lagarde…and oh God, so many more. CEOs and top managers of companies like Morgan Stanley and HP, and so many amazing and inspiring women activists from all around the world who have made enormous contributions ranging from sex strikes to protest civil war and the use of rape as a weapon of war (in countries where 92% of women had been raped or sexually abused), raiding brothels to rescue sex slaves, organizing women’s prisons as sanctuaries from prostitution and gendercide, educating and organizing African villages against the practice of female genital mutilation, and doing everything they can to provide women and communities with the resources they need to gain access to knowledge, information and power. These words have become so cliché to our ears, but when you hear their stories you feel how real this is. How millions of women are gang raped, mutilated, and oppressed every day, often multiple and multiple times a day.

But what came out of the conference is not a sense of powerlessness. These women were living proof that it is possible to reach out to the powerless and emancipate them. And not only could they do it, but we here in the U.S. can too. What came from this conference was the message over and over again that government-to-government solutions are not always the most effective way. Yes, government solutions, laws, and enforcement of those laws help. But often times it is the most simple of ideas and tiniest of investments that reap the biggest dividends.

The Girl Effect
Economists worldwide are finding more and more evidence everywhere they look that educating women has such far-reaching implications as to be the literal saving grace of a state. Indeed, educating women has been the linchpin, the key to East Asia’s most recent economic successes and development. It not only hugely increases the labor force, it also delays marriage and reduces childbearing. The women finance the education of younger relatives (and future generations) and save enough to boost national savings rates. Not only does it combat poverty and reduce instances that come along with poverty (like families selling their children into slavery – a $36 billion a year black market, second only to weapons and drugs), it helps reduce infant mortality, improves societal health and nutrition. And security experts now are suggesting that empowering girls disempowers terrorists. Educating women, helping them participate more, enables them to be a more powerful voice in their households and in their countries. For we find that the countries that nurture terrorism are disproportionately those that marginalize women. (Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn)

And the saddest part is that it is often the girls who dreamed, who dreamed they could have a job, bring money home to the family, who had goals in the name of love and marriage and family, who often have that dream betrayed. They are sold, beaten, drugged and pushed into a four-walled room with no doors. When asked what they wanted to do, if they could leave the brothels, if they could do anything else, what would they do…they respond, “Madam, how can we use these hands for something else?” (Kiran Bedi) For if they did leave, they would be so shamed and reviled by their families and communities. They carry such burdens of shame and guilt they DO NOT DESERVE, it often leads to suicide or return to the brothels.

So what are these simple solutions? For one, we can invest in these girls, in their rehabilitation and help them become entrepreneurial members of society. Many have dreams to open shops or salons or to turn a craft skill into a business. Micro-lending and other forms of support – $100 to us, the price of a couple of dinners out or a day shopping, except it gets paid back with interest – can literally be the difference between life and death for these women. Some women are talking about programs in countries life Afghanistan and Pakistan to help women work from home, sewing or doing whatever, but that allows them to support their families both by being home with the kids and bring home money and by keeping them safe from the deadly violence of the streets of Kabul. It also changes the power dynamic in the household, for once a woman starts contributing financially to the household she begins to gain the respect of the men in the home. Individuals and corporations can also make small investments in infrastructure like wells, bus routes, and bathrooms in schools that suddenly make education for girls possible where it was not possible before.

But above all the answer is education. Here the work of so many NGOs provides powerful relief and access to education (though we should be reminded that NGOs cannot be the substitute actors of government – they can help where governments fail, but we must still pressure government into action where we can). And volunteering for or donating to NGOs can be a powerful way to help. But education is critical because it gives women and girls knowledge and know-how for careers, yes. But it also allows them to even just know what their rights are and to learn how to speak up against practices like female genital mutilation and how and why to say no when there is talk of sending their children away to “work”, because sending children away often leads condemns them to abduction into slavery.

This is not just political. This IS personal. In a globalized world such as ours has become, we can no longer pretend that the problems of these women are not our problems. We can no longer pretend that our actions – both the ones we take and the ones we don’t – do not have massive repercussions in the lives of so many people who live on under $2 a day. When the CIA estimates 50,000 slaves are trafficked into the U.S. annually, we cannot pretend the problem is not here at our doorstep.

The question isn’t “Can we afford to help?” or “Do they deserve it?” The question is “In what ways can we innovate to engineer other simple solutions?” If you don’t think the victims of oppression living and dying every day deserve our attention, then at least realize we owe it to the victims and families of victims of 9/11 and troops fighting terrorists every day.

“I realized the price of being silent is higher than the price of doing something.”
– Leymah Gbowee, the woman who organized a sex strike to bring an end to civil war in Liberia, Women in the World Conference 2010

Here are a couple of powerful clips. Click here to see more memorable moments.

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on the nature of being human

banner_social_policyThe story we are told about human nature is that man is inherently self-interested, pleasure-seeking, sinning and utilitarian – doing the minimum to get the maximum benefits for oneself, and that this nature is driven by a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Indeed, all we have to do is take a cursory glance over history, and we’ll see the world stricken with crime, wars, genocide, power games, and greedy, greedy people taking advantage for themselves, to the detriment of everyone else (*cough* Bernie Madoff *cough*).

But maybe we are overlooking something. I heard an interview with Jeremy Rifkin, which you can listen to here, in which he discusses his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. You can read the first chapter of it here. I haven’t read the book yet, but the interview alone blew me away. Rifkin talks about evolutionary biology and a wealth of science coming out now that suggests that human beings may not naturally be so self-interested. In fact, what really drives humans is our need for social contact. We are social beings and we engage with others through our ability to empathize. (This makes sense right? Why else would we love literature and movies so much except by our ability to empathize with the main characters for example? Why else would we need love and affection, friends and family in our lives if that weren’t so? But that is not our view of ourselves, especially not where politics or religion is concerned.) What we see when we look at history is not actually the norm of human behavior, but rather the product of historians who are interested in power games and struggles, in wars and who has power and who doesn’t. In short, historians are interested not in the norm of human nature, but in the aberrations. People helping each other with their daily survival needs, people talking kindly to each other, people working together…none of this is interesting.

If you are unconvinced, think for a moment about our news. Our news is filled with the Iraq War, Afghanistan, political scandals, intrigues, anything that involves sex, blood or mayhem. Saying hello to your neighbor and giving money to the homeless is not newsworthy. So if you consider what is deemed “interesting”, you see it is the stuff that is different, outside the norm of accepted behavior. Thus what we have of recorded history is what was “news” of the time. In the historical research I’ve done, (looking into ancient Greece and ancient Persia for example) it is far easier to find records of warfare, technology, and kings and their courts than it is to find out the social ceremonies when people invited guests into their homes. We might have records of what they ate and how they worked, but it’s harder to find out how they greeted each other and how often they had time to socialize. As it was put in the interview, “history is made by the pathological”. It’s not normal human behavior that gets recorded, nor is it normal people who usually lead nations. That turn of phrase really made me think just how much of human history might have been lost to the fascination with the pathological.

The interview goes on to discuss how young babies are not inherently scheming, self-interested utilitarians. What they want most is social connectedness. They yearn for the connection with their mothers, and when they do not get it, that’s when we begin to see narcissism, selfishness, and a very slow erosion of the ability to connect. This insight really caught me because I recall earlier parenting advice often advocated letting babies cry themselves out, instead of going to pick them up every time they cried. But, if I understand correctly, there has been a shift in thinking (for example, with advocates of babywearing) that suggests babies should in fact be picked up when they need attention because that need is very real and very important for their development.

Towards the end of the interview, Rifkin discusses the different ages man has gone through and how technological development has shifted man’s consciousness and ability to empathize with others, moving from blood kin through religious associations, national affiliation…to where we are now on the precipice of a global age, aided by digital technology that puts us in touch with people all over the globe. He warns we must be clear about what we want from this technology and how we apply it, in our ability to empathize with others.

If it is true that humans are naturally social, empathetic beings, that has powerful implications for the possibilities of our entire world order, how we engage in politics, and how we understand ourselves. I’m sure Rifkin’s book explores this angle much more fully. But what I find fascinating is the possibility that we assume man to be self-interested utilitarians and that this frame of reference actually shapes how we interact with each other. If we can take empathy as the status quo, how differently would we behave? If we assumed others merely wanted our love, how would we treat them?

It also strikes me that this view of human nature has a decidedly feminine bent. By feminine, I don’t mean female in the sense that only women have this trait. Rather, I mean, if humans have both masculine and feminine traits, with each individual (and maybe each society) falling somewhere along a spectrum between extreme masculinity and extreme femininity…this worldview has a feminine quality to it, with its emphasis on social connectivity and emotive needs and desires. And the view we have had before has had more of a masculine quality to it, as it has been written primarily by men and about men. Now I want to be careful here. I’m not saying masculinity is pathological. Obviously not. Both sides of the spectrum have important and valuable contributions to a functioning society. But I’m suggesting that our view of mankind might have been skewed by a suppression of the feminine voice. And what I find most interesting is that so much of scientific, psychological, sociological, and literary pursuits (among a wealth of others) are starting to reflect the feminine voice more – and this coincides with research that suggests women are beginning to move more into positions of power. They are graduating at greater rates than men, they are scoring higher on exams and getting higher degrees and beginning to take up greater proportions of typically “male” fields. Now it is no where near parity and equality has not been achieved in a lot of areas. But it is happening at a rate that educators are beginning to fear there is a gender gap crisis – with boys being the ones who are falling behind.

I know I’m connected in meaningful ways with people with whom I’d never have been able to in any other time before this. And all of that is due to the wonders of the digital age. But can the digital age really fuel greater connectivity? And can it really provide a means for helping us change our basic assumptions about those with whom we connect?

* Photo courtesy of: http://thenewwriters.wordpress.com/2009/07/02/a-possible-vision-social-harmony/

women unbound – queen bees and wannabes

queenbeesWhat? Two posts in one day? Two Women Unbound posts in one week? What’s going on here? Actually, this post is totally impromptu – I just finished reading a book I happened to come across a reference of, had to read it asap, and was SO ENTHRALLED by it the entire time reading it, I just had to post about it immediately.  And I would say any parent with a daughter over the age of about 7 MUST READ THIS BOOK.

Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman is a parent’s guide, but it is a perfect candidate for Women Unbound because it is all about empowerment: empowering young girls to navigate the murky, dramatic, and sometimes crippling waters of adolescent life and still learn how to treat herself and others with decency and respect.

I say this book is a must read because, quite honestly, and as the book makes clear, the world of adolescents today is a different beast than even in my day and most certainly in my parent’s generation. Adolescence, as much as we might cringe to acknowledge, is starting at younger and younger ages because kids have all kinds of social and media pressures to act older – which is problematic because they’re still just learning moral guideposts, but they’re faced with more and more situations where they have to figure out for themselves what the right course of action is within the confines of the very rigid and demanding framework of rules of their social world. And nothing has had more of an impact on their world than technology. When we were kids, if rumors were spread about us, it was by word of mouth. Now, when kids spread gossip about each other, it’s across the school and on the internet in seconds. If a girl takes a picture of her breasts with her cell phone and sends it to a boy she likes, hoping it’ll make him like her, there’s little stopping him from sending it to all his friends or for any of them from emailing it to all the other kids in school, who can all then call her a slut as they pass her in hallways. These kids are on Facebook or other social media sites, often with multiple accounts knowing their parents check one, and they’re very susceptible to “trolling” and acting online in ways you never would in person.

And it’s frustrating for parents or others who are trying to be good role models for these kids because it’s an age when the kids are trying to pull away from their parents. They alternate, sometimes without any apparent rhyme or reason, between being insecure and needing your hugs and rolling their eyes at you and treating you like you’re the biggest jerk ever. Ironically, I found it actually comforting that it’s completely normal to have moments where you really just DO NOT LIKE this kid and wonder how your sweet, wonderful daughter turned into this crazy person overnight. And it’s not just your kid…it’s pretty much every kid. Because whether they’re the Queen Bee, the Torn Bystander, or the socially outcast Target, they all have some role to play in their world. They all do something that maintains or challenges the social order and their actions affect their relationships with other kids AND what they learn about intimate relationships that can have repercussions throughout their lives. Even if their daily actions don’t, they will almost inevitably face moments where they will have to make critical decisions. And they bring that baggage home with them and it affects their moods and how they deal with family and others.

We’re all familiar with this because we all lived through this before too. But I think the reason this book is so helpful is because Wiseman (who is an educator who spent over a decade compiling observations and talking to a wide range of girls and boys and having them look over her drafts to ensure accuracy) helps explain things in the framework of the logic of the girl’s world. We, as adults, usually forget how this logic works because we’ve grown up. We see things with an adult perspective and respond in kind. In a certain sense, having an adult perspective means you see some things more clearly than your daughter does – and so you wonder why she puts up with it when others treat her like crap, or when she is the one being bossy or judgmental when you certainly didn’t raise her to be that kind of person. But sometimes our knee-jerk reactions (like when we say “Just ignore it” or “They’re just jealous of you”) don’t make sense in the framework of their logic and so are ineffective strategies.

And what is extra amazing about this book is that at the end of each section, Wisemen takes a moment to have parents reflect on their own experiences as adolescents and whether those experiences are informing how parents are acting as role models. It made me really reflect on some of my more formative experiences. For example, I think one of the biggest experiences happened to me in high school – and I didn’t even really recognize how big of an impact it had on me at the time; only with hindsight do I see its effects. In my junior year, I developed a crush on a friend (we’ll call him Daniel) and I found out he liked me too. But before anything happened between us, I went to Washington, DC for a week (it’s amazing how much can happen in a week when you’re a teenager) through an extracurricular school program, and when I came back I discovered after much drama and a flurry of back-and-forth phone calls that my friend (we’ll call her Alice) had gotten jealous and decided she liked Daniel too. And Daniel liked her back. And Daniel (oh, aren’t boys so sweet?), caught in the middle, came up and told me he liked both of us and wanted to date both of us simultaneously.

I was like, “Fuuuuuuuck no.” (Pardon my French.) Actually, I didn’t cuss him out. I just told him that if that was how he felt, he and Alice could just have each other. I was NOT going to be involved in that. I’m glad I stood up for myself and didn’t let him use me that way. But the whole experience did have a very dramatic impact on my ability to trust girl friends after that. And it was a long time before I could really develop female friendships with other girls that were really based on equality, trust, and mutual respect.

So it helps to think through what our own emotional baggage might be, to see how that might color the kind of guidance we give as role models.

And the key, fundamental guidepost behind the strategies Wiseman offers (that have been checked and approved by adolescents themselves as being helpful) is a core commitment to decency and respect – and giving kids the tools they need to act with that commitment in mind in a way that makes sense to them.

Does this meet any of your experiences? For those of you with adolescent daughters, have you had times where you were just at your wits’ end about how to guide her? Have you found her or her friends doing mean things over text message or the internet? Or has she been a target of such meanness? Do you have grade school experiences that have shaped you?

rabbits, tears, vampires & werewolves

I had a whirlwind of a weekend and it seems there’s so much I want to tell you about it all, but they’re little disparate thoughts that I can’t quite wrap my head around, so we’re going a little stream-of-consciousness today and hopefully some order will emerge from the madness by the end of it.

On Friday, my husband and I went to see this play performed at UCSB:
Rabbit-F09The Rabbit Hole was an amazing production. We were a bit leery before seeing it because we had heard that it wasn’t very good. By intermission, we were sure we had been had. It was funny, it was raw, it was real, and in many ways, very touching. The story was about a husband and wife suffering with the loss of their little boy who had been killed in a tragic accident. The boy had been playing with the dog, when suddenly the dog ran out into the street, the boy chased after the dog and got hit by a car driven by a young high school-age boy. The play deals with the aftermath of their grief: how the husband and wife lose touch with each other, the feelings of guilt of all the things they could have, should have done, the feelings of blame that they try to tamp down because it was an accident and no one is to blame, feelings of jealousy seeing the irresponsible sister get pregnant when the bereaved one was clearly the better (i.e. more deserving) mother, and the struggle of negotiating a way between holding on and letting go. Holding on to their son’s memory and their grief, and letting go of him and moving on with their lives.

Also, the set design was absolutely brilliant. It was set up in an arrangement I understand is called something like “tennis court seating”, where the set is constructed in the middle of the room and there is audience seating on two opposite sides. So as the play went on, I could see the faces of the other audience members reacting to what was happening in the play. Somehow it made the whole thing more intimate as the lines between stage and audience blurred and audience became part of the stage.

What I loved most about this production actually comes from a line of insight written in the program. The playwright explained in his bio that a teacher of his had told him that to write a good play, one must write about something they fear. He said he didn’t understand this immediately, and it was only after his son was born that he finally really got it: his worst fear was the loss of a son. And I love that he didn’t just make a play about being scared to lose a child, what he did was play that fear out. What would happen if one lost a child? What are the consequences and repercussions of that loss? What does that fear really consist of? So his play did not deal so much with the act of losing a child as it did with all the subsidiary feelings and relationship dynamics that occur as a result of that loss.

It makes me see my own work in a new light, and gives me ideas for some direction to take in the future.

On Saturday, we attended another performance that dealt with a particular kind of loss: this time, it was suicide. NECTAR performance company produced a collection of dance, spoken word, video, and music all centered around alchemy: turning lead into gold, taking pain and making it something positive, powerful and uplifting. Proceeds went to benefit families who have been affected by suicide. It ended with a moment of silence, where people collected together and spoke softly the names of people this performance had stirred up for them. It was an intense moment, and tears were shed. I found myself remarking on my weekend being steeped in death: both accidental and intentional. It made for a heady weekend.

I could probably say something weighty here about how we foist off death, doing so many things to stave it off and pretend it doesn’t exist, instead of recognizing it as part of life, or about how sometimes we go through life so unthinkingly, on autopilot, and how we might look and wonder what about our lives is so very different from death. But instead, I’m just ending with an observation that something I was told I wouldn’t like was something I found profoundly moving and important, while something by all means I was supposed to enjoy, I found less satisfying.

Sunday ended with a trip to see New Moon, which really…I have to say was crap. I was entertained, but it was crap. It sort of dragged, but thankfully being only 130 minutes long, did not drag as long as the books did. There were moments when I cried, but only because I have been in a dark place like that before. There were moments when I laughed, but it was mostly due to the cheese, like when Robert Pattinson ran Baywatch-style, through the woods. The part I found most entertaining, honestly, was the audience, who sighed, and swooned and gasped every time some dark, muscled man ripped off his shirt. Ladies, I’m sorry, but y’all need ta get laid. And after spending two hours looking at dark, muscled men, it is a bit of an unpleasant shock to go back to thin, pasty white vampire. Makes the whole Team Edward thing a little difficult. I would say I’d be Team Edward, but given the choice between snuggling up to a warm man versus a cold one…I’d probably chose the furnace. There are some parts of my body that just would not abide a cold one. I’m just sayin’. Shrivel, dry up and wince are words that come to mind. I did read all the books and found them addictive, but mostly because I just HAD to know how it ended. Everything in the middle was just one long drag of puff. I know how it ends, so I’m not clinging to the movies, desperate to find out anything (and really, how she resolves the whole love triangle thing is just weird). So the next two…it’s all about the Netflix. The first movie (which shock of all shocks as I’ve never said this before about any movie-book translation) was better than the book and shall remain my favorite purely for entertainment purposes.

Grand takeaway from all this? Man, I’m pooped.

addressed to anonymous

sidewalksceneHave you ever left things unsaid? Is there anything you wish you could say, but haven’t, or someone you wish you could talk to, but can’t? What if you had the chance to change that?

There is a new blog called “Addressed to Anonymous” that tries to deal with this very thing. As the blog author explains:
“Yesterday I had a lot of emotions I wanted to purge. I wrote them and sealed them in a letter, but had no where to send it to. So I got to thinking…what if there was somewhere to send that letter anonymously. Some place to put it out into the universe and maybe even to get response (not from the intended recipient, but from someone who could relate or just wanted to provide comfort and wisdom). Out of this I started a new idea/blog/community share site. Addressed to Anonymous. What do you have to say that you can’t or just haven’t? Who would you write a letter to if it could be anonymous? Don’t tell me on here…start writing the letter.”

Do you have something to purge? If so, maybe it would help to send an anonymous letter out into the ether. You never know. Even the process of writing the letter alone can be profoundly cathartic.

trip to the zoo – a photo essay

Animals don’t speak our language…or perhaps I should say we don’t speak theirs. Yet somehow they still communicate so much, through a look, through body language, through posture, even in their silence.











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