The Business of Writing…

This blog, like many creative things, has evolved since I started it 6 years ago. (Six years! Did that happen? You’d think I’d have more followers. Maybe I need to post more kitten and puppy pictures. Here’s one:)

kittens and puppies
awwwww

Anyway…I’ve found having a journal of sorts lets me work out all kinds of bumps and wiggly bits clattering inside my head. It’s sort of a mental massage; occasionally it’s of the soft, fluffy Swedish type – other times it’s a full-on deep tissue-come-rolfing battering session. What results from this written free-association sometimes helps me organize my ideas, other times process complicated emotions, and occasionally make avant-garde garbage. I don’t claim to be an amazing artist (which is probably good if we get back to that lack of followers thing). But writing, in general, helps me do stuff, whether it is providing a simple creative outlet or a sounding board for generating ideas that turn into other things. And yes, it has also been a place for me to rant on about crap because if I didn’t do that here, I’d be screaming in the middle of a bridge on a pretty regular basis.

My intent at this point is to use this platform to maintain some sort of personal accountability as I’m embarking on my first book. I’ve always had a creative writing streak; as such I have stacks of incomplete short stories littering my home office (and basement, attic, bookshelves, and just about anywhere else writers store their half-baked creations. Are there others out there who can’t seem to find a way to end the story they started, but also couldn’t dream of throwing it away?). But now I have an official contract, one that says at a specified date I am to deliver a finished book some 70,000 words long.

70,000 words?!? Am I insane? Why did I sign up for this. What was I thinking – now I have to write and FINISH the damn thing. Giant OMG in supercaps, what have I gotten into?

This is exciting, and it means a publisher and hopefully others want to read it. Yet in the middle of exciting sits scary, because 1) I have to get it done and 2) once it is done, all the critics will get a chance to rip it apart. It may seem premature to fear rejection before the book is completed, but it is likely because I’ve been down the rejection road that fear looms in the background. I’ve had my share of bad critiques and I can accept that criticism can make your work better. However, that doesn’t mean I like going through it; you don’t really want your partner to tell you how fat you are when the clothes come off.

I do believe I will learn a lot about this process, and likely myself, before this is all over. That’s part of the motivation to do it; I grew tired of asking myself if I could and decided to just do. So in some ways, I can live with it if the book flops. But I don’t want to find myself years from now asking why I never finished it, or worse, why I never started it. In that way, I’m already on this journey, and I don’t know where it ends.

So back to writing and this blog – I hope to chronicle the process (that’s so meta, to write about writing) so later on when I feel discouraged I can look back and remember what I’ve done. Plus, it’s an old trick – invite others into the process so it’s no longer me alone with my thoughts; the project is in the open for others to be aware of and ask questions about. And I’m sure I’ll write about other things as well since my brain will continue to fill up with clutter and need some occasional clearing out. But for now –  on to the business of writing. First – I should make a list of what to do. I should make a list of what not to do. I should make a list of lists about what to do and not to do. Oh look, puppies. What was I saying? What am I supposed to –

(I suppose if any other fellow story-makers, book-writers, or general project-embarkers happen to be out there and want to know someone else is out here freaking out with them, feel free to “follow,” or drop a comment from time to time. )

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Diving into Parts Unknown

(https://www.instagram.com/anthonybourdain/?hl=en)

Dear Anthony Bourdain,

You’re gone. You already knew that, but I found out this morning. I am sad and angry, and I’m writing to you when it is too late. Maybe you have a way of knowing what is in my thoughts, or maybe you’re cosmic dust. Regardless, I’m writing down what I never had a chance to say and what you will never hear because this is the reality I am left with.

You never knew the impact you had on me. I “met” you through watching A Cook’s Tour, in the days long before you swam in Top Chef-style cash. Since then I have watched, read, listened to your words and found comfort – yes, comfort – in the brutal honesty you threw around. Why? Your version of honesty wasn’t about showing the ugliness of others. Instead, you invited us to look at the honesty of yourself, including all your uncertainties, unpleasantness, awkwardness, and absurdities.

That’s some beautiful shit, man.

I know a lot of people were drawn in by the “coolness” of hard-talking swagger (although I don’t think I ever saw you really swagger – people just think they saw you swagger). But it wasn’t the Ramones t-shirts and tattoos, the fountain of alcohol, or the reckless 4-wheel driving that made you stand out. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was fun and made for much more interesting TV than say, a meals-in-5-minutes cooking program. But it was your words that caught me, every time. You saw things and you said things, and many times you spoke what someone like me needs to hear.

You were excelling at the one thing so many people have such a hard time doing: you were living as yourself. And that means you irritated people, you ruffled feathers, you put your foot (as well as other things) in your mouth. But you didn’t stop there – you let us see how that affected you, how you made sense your fuck-ups, and how you learned so you could do better next time. And you did keep getting better – better at being you.

I need people who do this, who work to be only themselves. Most people try to be someone else. Even when the facade gets pulled away, many still try to get us to ignore the fact that they wear no clothes. Being someone else is easier; becoming yourself is the harder, less chosen path. Authenticity is difficult because it takes you into the parts truly unknown. The mirrors that flash up on that journey will sometimes reveal the nasty bits, especially when we would prefer to see greatness.

Which is why, when I encounter someone who by all reckoning shouldn’t be excelling the way you were, someone who knows their success is based on a pure second chance at life – I cling to them, because knowing someone else out there is embracing the struggle gives me some sense that I can struggle too.

I am angry at you, Anthony Bourdain (can I call you Tony, yet?). I am angry that you leave me with this, forcing me yet again to confront the existential dilemma of isolation and connection. The void you have left implies the tie I had, even though we never shared a face-to-face conversation.

I’m also angry that I have to listen to the multitude of platitudes expressed whenever someone dies in this way. I get that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to say. But eventually, you would think people would at least stop saying some of the dumb things. Are you in a better place? Who knows. I don’t even know if you would say a better place exists. Maybe you’re stuck in a perpetual line, waiting forever behind some guy trying to order a latte at McDonald’s. Did depression overtake you? Who cares. It is like suggesting this is all just a character flaw – oh look at poor tony – which really just becomes a great way to pretend the rest of us have no pain. And if depression did play a role in this – then fuck depression and everyone who thinks depression picks on a select few to inhabit. That’s bullshit all the way – especially when we live in a time when depression might be the healthiest response we’ve got to all the ridiculousness going on.

I don’t know why you did what you did. No one will ever have that answer, except you. I would like to think that if I could’ve done something to stop you, I would have, but I also know that sentiment is only meant to make me feel as though I have control over something like this.  I don’t. And in some ways, neither did you.

I’m sad, Anthony Bourdain. I’m hurt that I’m now left trying to make sense of this and I won’t have your poetic ranting to provide that beacon of light in the chaotic darkness. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – you called it what it was and when it got crazier, you got louder. And in those moments I knew I wasn’t nuts because at least you saw it too.

I was inspired by you, Anthony Bourdain. There were several times I used clips from your shows in my courses. I didn’t use them to gross people out or show how “weird” other cultures can be, which is where a lot of travel/food shows gets it wrong. And that’s why your work wasn’t just a travel or food show – you were doing something that I have been encouraging my students to do for years. You moved outside of what is comfortable for you and tried to step into the world of someone else. Someone you may never truly understand but you will attempt to, even if it means making a fool of yourself. You could recognize that the repulsive to you was appetizing to someone else; you knew that it wasn’t the custom that was “backward” or uncivilized, but rather you were too clumsy to get it right. You embraced what you did not know, and you allowed yourself to be affected by the people you met.

You did what hundreds of highly educated, trained, even seasoned professionals in my line of work struggle with. Some can’t even begin to approach the kind of generosity and curiosity you demonstrated just by being you. Being yourself can make a difference, and you showed us that. Damn you for taking that away from us, from me. Damn you for making me face again just how bad we can be.

Look, now I’m ranting. Do you see what you bring out in me? Do you know how much I loved the fact that you bring this out in me? Do you know how much I will miss you bringing this out in me?

I’ll close my letter by telling you one more little thing. For about 10 years, I kept having a reoccurring dream where you would appear. I don’t know what it meant because I’m not that kind of therapist. Anyway, the only other person who knew about this dream was my husband, who laughed every time it happened, prompting me to convince him that it wasn’t a sex dream. Really, it wasn’t a sex dream (I’m not that kind of therapist either). But you would just show up, and we would talk, and laugh. And I woke up, and would feel better. You made a difference to me.

See you in my dreams, Tony. And you’d better have a fucking good story to tell.

Updates sprinkled with social justice…

Hey, check it out – it’s not a weird experimental writing blog post. Just a quick note to say I’m going to be changing the look and feel of this blog. Time for new and different things.

Clearly, I’ve been going weeks, or in some cases months, between posts. Life has been throwing a lot of — life! at me. Moves, job changes, and the regular evolution of family life have overwhelmed me. I declare myself exhausted, and simplification is in order. So, new site, new blog focus, new projects all to help this compass find its true north.

In the meantime, watch these cool things (social justice-themed public service announcements) my students made:

Intimacy vs. isolation…

Imagine all you have done – every accomplishment achieved, badge earned, failure absorbed, challenge undertaken, battles lost and wars won – imagine the sum total of all your experiences that have led to you knowing who you are at this point in time.

Now erase it. Wipe it away with one broad sweep. See the mural of your work disappear under one, two, maybe three strokes of paint, leaving nothing more than a bland white wall.

Next, try to convince everyone who stops by this wall that this amazing tapestry, this colorful landscape, this eye-popping abstraction used to live under that nothingness. Initially your enthusiasm catches a few passers-by. Maybe a few stop to listen; you gain momentum with the hope that someone wants to know and maybe even see the picture that has vanished.

Then the questions come: How did you know it was there? Are you sure that’s what it looked like? But why did it have such color? Did it have enough shapes? Did it have too many shapes? What made you put it there in the first place? Did it even belong there?

If it was so good, why is it gone?

You leave the questions unanswered, or more likely you realize your answers can’t satisfy the requirements. It is like describing the taste of an apple to someone who has never eaten fruit. The desert doesn’t imagine the damp of the forest, because the desert knows no need for rain.

How long this pursuit continues depends on how long the memory of the colors, lines, and contrasts persists. Our memories are not nearly as good as we would like them to be. Perhaps the wall was always white. Perhaps what you imagined was really just a dream.

Perhaps reality is just a big, blank, white, empty wall.

Do you stay and keep looking? Or do you walk away? Something inside you sheds a tear because it becomes clear that both leave you alone.

This is the fear, the angst that if nothing is left we will disappear. To be seen is to be known, and to be known is to be alive. But if I only live to be seen, I will never notice the picture of the other I so desperately need to recognize me.

Vanish…were we ever there to begin with?

 

 

Busy business

It’s April and I’ve yet to make a proper post this 2018. “Life is busy” is too normal a state to be an excuse. Or wait, maybe the problem isn’t life is busy, but business is life…

There’s too much of both these days, too much business and too much life. Not enough time. Not enough of me in that limited time. I’ve always said I don’t need an assistant, I need a clone – someone who can carry on being me when I don’t want to. “But what if the clone is better than you?” Great! Let them carry on, I’ll lie on the couch and watch stupid reality tv shows about how people don’t clean while I drape my junk food wrappers over the carpet.

Work supports Life is supposed to be my mantra. Over the last few years, the balance between the two has slowly shifted to where work and life are running neck and neck for the lead position in a marathon I never signed up for in the first place. We talk about learning how to say “no”; I don’t think the problem now is that I take on too much, rather each area I attend to requires a lot of attention. This is the ‘middle career’ passage, where you now do know a great deal about how to do your work, and that means you have a great deal to do.

And my other job – you know, the one where I’m raising little people who keep turning into bigger people – that doesn’t get any easier. Ignore those lies, all the “it’ll all change when they learn how to…” When they learn how to what? Cease being people and turn into houseplants? Each shift, each developmental change brings a new set of adventures…and children’s independence doesn’t mean you worry less. Instead, you worry more – because you find out just how much you can’t do for them at all. The parent business evolves; my employees become shareholders and that means lots of board meetings full of conversation, complaints, and compromising.

I’m not really complaining about it, though. True, it’s not joyous; I do need to renegotiate my schedule. I have to consider the reality that my body is older and will go on strike when I force it to work overtime. My priorities have changed, and I’d like to think I’m mature enough to accept that many people won’t agree with whatever my priority list looks like unless it happens to match theirs. (Ok, I think I am mature enough to intellectually accept it, but I’m not mature enough keep from getting cranky when others get critical.) But more of what I do now reflects who I want to be as I do this work. And the lesson that has taken me a long time to learn is that who I am becoming continues on even when there is no work.

One of these days this work-life boat will steer towards a horizon composed of soft clouds and blue skies. But in the meantime, there will still be storms, sharks, an occasional talking volleyball, and hopefully a few stops on some gorgeous beaches. I like what I do, even though I sometimes hate my work.

This all reminds me of a conversation between my daughter and myself:

Me- “Do we have enough time to finish this?”

Her – “I’m fine, but for you, mom, every breath is an exercise of faith.”

Excuse me while I go lie down….

Nonsense poem…

 

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rhizomin’ the night away…

Threat. Who works well under threat? No one, really. Every action becomes extreme because the situation pushes at the seams. Threat. Duress. Pressure. Tension. Tension? I don’t think tension gets at it. Pressure is also not quite it. Pressure can produce interesting things. But too much makes things break.

 

Do we need pressure to thrive? I get that we need a degree of stress or anxiety. I need the fright before being on stage, the bolt of energy that makes you invent and elevate into someone else. It can be fun, like the thrill of figuring out a “whodunit”. It can be inspiring, validating, exhilarating…when it works. It’s a pretty big crush when it doesn’t.

I guess I have to admit to a wee extent that those of us who are prone to existential angst also need that charge to remind us we’re alive.

But how much is enough? Truthfully I’m not asking a philosophical question. Even with all the bad things I am aware people are capable of doing, I still just don’t quite get why we tend to be bafflingly, predictably, unabashedly, mean and petty towards each other.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” Is it really such a whiny thing to say…and yet it also seems dismissive to reduce our everyday experiences of injury into a childish sandbox fantasy. I’m not really expecting people to get along. I do expect people to convey a degree of respect, act with a smidgen of decency, and maybe – just maybe – treat each other with some sliver of courtesy.

For fuck’s sake, we do all live together. For one moment in time, it would be refreshing to see people remember that fact and treat each other as though we actually want each other to be there, instead of perpetuating all our Freudian envies and drives toward replicating our impotencies.

I am angry, I am sad. I don’t really need to be recognized. I would occasionally like to be noticed. I wager most people want to be noticed. It is so easy to do, and yet we so often refuse. Why is it so hard?

Do we really think if we stop paying attention to ourselves we will just disappear into nothing?

Is nothing so bad?

Misanthrope, curmudgeon. Bake me a cake or go away.*

 

*yes i stole that line. or maybe I noticed it.

Having a Past…

December brings the end of the semester and the end of the year. Therefore, I’m usually doubled-over with reflection, neck twisting backward like an owl into the near and far past. This year has been piled high with change and my cup has runneth over about 378 times.

Brace yourself: I’m ready to not change. Not forever, but at least for a little while. Even just a couple days of sameness would be nice.

Odd that considering the past would bring me to this present point. Or not odd. I can’t tell yet. What does strike me is how the last semester has made me wonder what it means to even have a past. I suppose that means I’ve lived enough to have an experience of something called, “the Past,” but I couldn’t really say what all that is. Or was. Or what verb tense fits.

Three years ago the presence of a Past hit me when we moved across-country. But then I was more consumed by discovering how much familiarity I had lost and would need to rebuild. Those simple comforts like favorite hang-out spots, walking paths, even parking spots revealed their significance after they were gone. My brain’s security void demanded I fill it as quickly as possible with whatever substitute would come close. But like most incomplete gestalts, any puzzle piece that didn’t fit properly created more angst, not less. That first year became largely a balance between stability and chaos, with chaos winning out most of the time.  The awkward Present sometimes hit like an electrical shock, and I missed my Past.

They say you know yourself through the reflections of others; if this is true, then after I moved I was no-one, a foreign shoot sprouted up overnight which others couldn’t decide to prune or weed. I had to remind myself I existed before, that my Past had occurred. But I also got caught in the trap of proving my potential, a path that usually leads to disappointment. Eventually, I quit proving and decided to just be, which alleviated some of the identity pressure but left me still unsettled.

I realize moving again sounds like the opposite of what was needed to resolve this instability. But, in this case, diving once more unto the breach became the essential injection of sanity so desperately needed to breathe. And breath has come, bringing with it the luxury of introspection. Even though this last semester threw more curve balls at me than my two arms could ever hope to juggle, I could refocus on who this person is who makes a living from standing in front of a room and talking to people.

I wanted my Past to be seen, acknowledged, valued. I am not sure why, other than perhaps I thought I wouldn’t have much else to offer. Maybe I needed them to know that I wasn’t a “rookie.” But what does it matter if I am? Would that make me more susceptible to pranks? Will my stupid words sound stupider? Do my mismatched clothes look more ridiculous?

Now that the term is over, I realize the Past clung to certain vanities, like recognition or approval. But this is not to say the Past only lingers on perceived greatness. I do have a Past, and that is somewhat unnerving to admit. It includes success and failure, joy and pain; it includes the many faces I’ve had as I regenerate from one iteration of myself to the next. My Past has already taught me that I can be liked, feared, loved, hated, admired, criticised, ostracized, welcomed, respected, honored, ignored, and remembered. I suspect the Past wanted to be noticed to remind me I am human, which means I can be hurt. Ironically, this also means my Past wanted to defend myself, and that is not always a useful thing. Sometimes the dark is just the absence of light, not a nightmare.

flat900x900070f-u2What, then, is the purpose of the Past? It reminds me where I’ve been and thus where I could go, but its presence is not necessary for someone to know me in the Present. My psychodynamic brothers and sisters will argue that point, but my social constructionist crew will fist-pump the air. I am as I am, composed of all the “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey goo” that is unchanging while never staying the same. Relationships not only reflect the old but reverberate towards the new.

There is a kind of freedom in allowing myself to be no-one because I can also be anyone. The yet-to-be me is a work in progress. As I write that, I chuckle, because the truth of this statement is obvious. I’ve always been a work in progress, so why stop now?

(on a side note: here’s Dylan Moran’s – a comedian who’s “work in progress” is well worth seeing –  take on having a past…)

Rise…

Doubt has been following me for a while, it seems. I say that as though this is an unusual occurrence. It isn’t; doubt comes around regularly and usually has something important to say when it shows up. What strikes me is this version of doubt has been creeping around in the background, slowly rumbling into my belly without being noticed.

The last couple of years has been like running a marathon uphill – no, not uphill, up a mountain, a towering Everest that leaves one limping oxygen-deprived for the last three miles. I suffocated more than once, and I don’t really remember how I managed to breathe again. But I did, and it would seem that would be enough to restore confidence.

Yet here I am, realizing that my confidence is indeed, shaken. Daily living continues; breakfast is made, work is attended to, sleep appears (sometimes)…so it doesn’t seem as though doubt has been hanging around too much. Thus, I am surprised to notice that I am not as sure of myself as I have been before. I would like to tell myself that these hesitations are simply connected to being yet-again new, to learning the unknown, to meeting the unfamiliar. But I know intuitively there is more to it than that.

What catches me is how this feeling hisses in the background. I was expecting doubt to be as it had been before – loud, irritating, shouting in my face to sit down and be quiet. I suppose I have learned a thing or two about telling doubt to knock it off. Doubt doesn’t tantrum as it once did because there’s enough of me to know better.

So this lurking presence, this tone that hums like white noise, is mildly startling. I am not knocked off my feet or blown into submission. But I do hesitate, and I realize it is because I am fearful of steeling myself for criticism, rejection, abject humiliation.

I get the oddity of that phrase. I’m afraid to prepare myself. What it really means is I’m afraid of the possibility that situations could arise where I need to prepare myself. I wish it were an irrational fear, but the conditions of the kind of work I do mean other people’s opinions will be foisted upon you regularly.

It sounds rough – I’ve blogged about it before. If you write, you will face readers who hate your papers. If you talk, you will face an audience who hates your words. If you do something, someone will tell you it is wrong. If you do nothing, someone will point and laugh. I do accept this is what you sign up for if you’re going to do this work; of course, I also think this is sort of what happens if you’re going to live at all. I had to prepare myself long ago for the unkind gaze offered by so many ill-mannered critics, and I’ve even learned how to take some of that and learn from it.

But right now, the prospect of stepping into that again makes me want to go back to bed. And in truth, I don’t really think I’m walking into the same level of vitriol I lived in for the last couple of years, or any vitriol for that matter. I think I’m back living in “normal.”

Trauma has a way of making all your gauges run slightly askew. That’s what I’m figuring out now, that my meter is a little off. Doubt slinks around the way it usually would, and probably should, but the part of me that can usually recognize the extent of doubt’s threat is seeing a rattlesnake instead of a length of rope.

So fuck off, rope. Yep, I’ll make more mistakes, and someone will complain about something I’ve done or said. I will remind myself that “safe” ideas are also bland and often untrue. Eventually, confidence will show me that when I fall, I learn to pick myself up again.

Damn you, Batman.IMG_6644

#MeToo, too…

Returning after a few months away from the blogosphere to write a piece about sexual assault is not exactly “easing” one’s way back into the public sphere. I had been preparing to write about my recent cross-country move, throwing me into chaos and another round of saying goodbyes to many lovely people I didn’t get to know long enough. My heart and mind, shoved yet again into vats of existential loneliness, drifted to strange spaces in an attempt to grasp the need to be seen while accepting the inevitability of being misunderstood. Yup, I was going to write about that sort of thing, scary, prickly, ivory-tower navel-gazing which would become a long-form approach to saying, “I miss my friends.”

And then Harvey Weinstein happened.

Well, he didn’t really “happen.” He had been happening, to be more accurate. This time he had been found out, and society has shifted just enough to say, “this is bullshit.” Oh sure, there have been a few to speak on his behalf, and I’m sure he has a story. But instead of resorting to the typical headline excuses of, “he’s a sex addict” or “he’s just one person” or even “some men can’t help themselves,” more people, more influential people, are calling this out as the abuse and harassment that it is, and are placing Weinstein in a larger context of sexism and misogyny that, frankly, a whole bunch of us are just fed up with. The Hollywood story is not news – the undercurrent of powerful people (yes, many of whom are and have been men) exploiting more vulnerable and less powerful newcomers (yes, many of whom are women) for their own personal gratification is unfortunately not a new story at all. It is old, tired, repetitive, and disgusting, so much so that many accept this story as a cold hard truth of life. “Boys will be boys” has two meanings: the first excuses men as base creatures who simply “can’t help themselves,” and the second tells society that no woman can expect to be safe.

It’s a bullshit message from a bullshit tagline stemming from a bullshit narrative. Who would ever want a definition of self to be so narrow, so ridiculously limiting, so utterly reductionistic as to put you on par with the emotional and intellectual level of say, a jellyfish? “Well, you can’t really blame Roger, after all, he only knows how to be a blob and sting things.” Why would anyone ever want to go along with such a description?

Because the Weinsteins of the world want the power that comes with such a position. And the rest of the world want to believe that Weinsteins are rare. And most of us don’t want to think we are capable of abusing another human being.

But we are capable, and every time we look the other way we make it more possible for abuse, assault, and exploitation to occur. We find ways to dehumanize each other, to justify why our worth becomes more important than another’s. And soon enough we come up with remarkably stupid sayings, like “boys will be boys” to justify aberrant, hurtful, unjust behavior while simultaneously rendering victims invisible.

That invisibility is why right now there are thousands of people taking to social media to say, #MeToo. People (women and men) who have taken up a call to show just how widespread the problem of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation is. And spreading the message that this is not supposed to be a victim’s problem, but society and a perpetrator’s problem. You’re not supposed to stop abuse after it occurs – you’re supposed to create a new condition, a new social consciousness, that prevents people from buying into all those excuses that permit one to enact it. Questions like, “is ‘no’ ever a ‘yes'” get erased because society can recognize the absurdity of such a position, can recognize how our continued portrayal of sexual interaction as some perverted Tom and Jerry escapade resulting in Jerry adoring the fact that he’s been beheaded by the cat boxes everyone into inescapably demeaning corners.

I see something new in the current movement: more people, particularly men, who are also speaking up to say they do not support a discourse that promotes men’s superiority over women. Okay, on twitter that specific phrase hasn’t appeared but the message is there. Men expressing support for the many women who have shared #MeToo, men stating they don’t want men to be defined as overactive genitals, and men acknowledging the courage #MeToos’ have, which suggests an implicit understanding of just how unsupportive the culture is in accepting stories of abuse and assault.

And then there’s another piece, the one that rattles in me during all this…the idea that #MeToo can inadvertently have the effect of a double negative. Speaking up can be an act of freedom, of liberation; but for so many, not speaking up was also an act of courage, a path to survival that society tends to dismiss. Because we still place the responsibility on the victim to “prove” experiences of abuse, it is the victim who also becomes responsible to stop it. Thus someone who doesn’t “speak up” gets the added accusation of “going along,” or get their motives questioned for not coming forward sooner. These challenges support the misguided perception that rape and abuse are rare. Ironically though, if rape were truly rare, then shouldn’t just one occurrence of it be enough to set society into a rage, to get to the bottom of the problem and make sure it never happens again? Wouldn’t society ask the perpetrator, “why did you think this was ok?” “Why didn’t you stop?”

So – the movement also is becoming more mindful of how the pressure to speak up can actually put people back into a status of victimhood. “Speak up or you deserved it” can be the unintended push. Thus it is also a time to remember that the act of speaking up does not define one as a survivor. Surviving defines one as a survivor. Rape and abuse try to rob people of their personhood.  The fact that one is here, that one has persisted beyond the experience of rape is enough. “Surviving” doesn’t mean merely existing; it means the person who was forced into this experience remembers they are a person worth holding on to. And that person does not have to be sacrificed just so some others can finally get enlightened to the realities of sexual assault. The story of rape or abuse belongs to the person who experienced it; thus they have all the right in the world to tell it or not, in whatever form of their choosing. Rape does not have the power to take that from us.

Bravo to those who are pressing home the point that society needs to change. The message of the current movement matters. But really, what #MeToo should mean is: “I will actively work against supporting a culture that normalizes rape.”

#MeToo.

 

 

 

Theory is not my God

“What are they keeping in there…”

Definitions should, by definition, describe what something is as opposed to what something isn’t. But whereas some ideas become beautiful creatures, others morph into monsters. A little perspective on just how “big” an idea is might help tame the beast.

Note: This is gonna be one of those posts that likely pisses off some of my fellow academics. C’est la vie.

I was facilitating a workshop when the title of this post fell out of my mouth, a half-thought joke made in response to a question about the compatibility of various psychological theories with religious or spiritual beliefs. I stumbled out a phrase that captured more than I realized. Like most simple things, it summarized a complex debate by putting forth a basic premise that shot straight to the heart of the problem.

Here’s the thing: on two fronts I had confronted the “theory debate.” To be field-specific for a moment: the world of psychology, counseling, and mental health likes to argue endlessly about which theory is the best. To add another layer, each theory camp likes to argue about the best way to practice said theory. While there are some valid points regarding the areas in which any particular theory is adept or blind, the fight for alpha-dog in the theory world is largely academic, and often profit-driven. In other words, I want my theory to be king, because then I’ll get all the goodies that go with being king.

It’s a cynical view, but not inaccurate. If you’re thinking that my faith in academia is lacking, you’re spot on.

Don’t get me wrong – I revel in the world of ideas. It was one of the reasons I became a professor; I get to think about stuff and get paid to do it. It’s the ultimate geek-out: playing with ideas, stretching them, seeing how far they can go until they break. And they will break, they always do, and then you get to pick up what is left and see what else can be made. Or toss out the whole lot, start over with what you’ve learned and develop something more efficient, elegant, unexpected. It is a creative process that pushes the creator as much as the creation, and it’s crack for someone like me.

So arguing about theories is not in and of itself a pointless endeavor. Argument can reveal the limitations, address problems, expand the undeveloped territories. Challenges to theory also remind us that no theory is ever truly “complete;” the quest for the theory of everything is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit. But it’s also like charting the universe; if we ever manage to map the entire thing, will we just run out of space?

The other part of the theory equation that can’t be overlooked though, is the human element. People are very good at coming up with good ideas; we are also very good at having not so good motivations. I won’t lay claim as to whether or not “evil” exists, or to the innate “goodness” of people. But is it fair to say we are flawed, limited, often short-sighted beings who will act in our own self-interest? Yup. Even the best of us will slip, fall down the slope and gobble up the fat-ridden, gut-busting, heart-stopping yet utterly scrumptious forbidden jelly donut.

How does one then remove ego from the creation of ideas? Not easily. Thus we do get into some remarkably tedious arguments about which theoretical approach is supreme, or rather debates that veil the real purpose which is to determine who is supreme. Who gets to rule the profession, who gets to own all the business, who gets to make all the decisions. Somewhere along the way, the idea got tangled in with the value of the person making it. I become only as good as my theory will last, and if it doesn’t last then I no longer exist.

Following theory becomes a religious expression in such circumstances. We begin to worship our theorist’s icons and practice based on blind faith. We admonish those who don’t “do what we do.” We cast out those who don’t fit the increasingly narrow-definition of who belongs. The tithes demanded grow larger, eventually taking more than what we have, and in the end we are left waiting at the steps, begging for our bishops to deem us worthy of their scraps.

That presents a pretty bleak view of religion, I realize. But it is not a criticism of what religion could be any more than it is a criticism of what theory could be. Rather it is a charge against what we are turning theory (and perhaps religion?) into – an oppressive mechanism that serves and elevates a few while forgetting its ultimate obligation and purpose to the many. A theoretician who always has the correct answer, who holds a student as simply a replicator of what has been done, has fallen into the trap of self-perpetuation. And like all mechanisms that become too specialized, it will die out. Differentiation is necessary to evolution.

While I don’t think I’m qualified to assert what or who God is, I can make a statement about the nature of theory. Theory is an idea. Theory is a concept. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it no longer stands the test of time and context, it is time to write a new one. Everyone contributes to theory; those who made significant developments to formation of theory did remarkable things. But they did not do it alone, and they are not saints.

Theory is not my God.