grain-free stereotypes

I meant for the title of this post to be a joke, not clickbait, but if you did click on this hoping for a discussion of grain-free diets, I sincerely apologize. (I can, however, recommend Garden of Eatin’ grain-free cassava tortilla chips, which I tried for the first time today.) My title refers to the commonplace that there’s “a grain of truth in every stereotype.” I’ve recently had several conversations about whether this is true. One such discussion was about the stereotype that people who identify with nerd cultures tend to have poor personal hygiene habits. Apparently, though I would never want to make it a generalization, this stereotype is at least anecdotally true, on average, in certain nerd cultures, as expressed to me by a person involved in these cultures (or “by a person close to the situation” as they say in news articles). But what I want to talk about right now is those baseless, irrational stereotypes that we nevertheless sometimes allow to shape how we live our lives. You might want to grab some tortilla chips–this could be intense.

I’ll start with a story. Today after getting my hair cut, I sent a selfie to my boyfriend with the accompanying text, “Just so you wouldn’t worry that I changed my hair too much.” Somewhere during the course of my life, I had heard and practically, if not intellectually, accepted the truth of two related stereotypes: 1. guys freak out if their partners change their physical appearance and 2. guys don’t like short hair. (I have rather short hair, and I know my boyfriend likes it or at least doesn’t have a problem with it, but the looming presence of this belief causes me to be more cautious about #1 and more meticulous about looking feminine than I perhaps would be otherwise.) I am a little bit disgusted with myself now that I’ve stated all this in such matter-of-fact terms. I like to think I’m liberated from what others, especially men, think of the way I look, but I’m not, and I could list countless more stories as evidence.

Here are some other stereotypes I’ve encountered or thought about recently:

  • Yesterday, I heard people talking about the “conventional wisdom” (more like conventional foolishness) that two firstborns shouldn’t marry each other. I mentioned this to my hairstylist today, and her response was a snappy rhetorical question: “Is that in the Bible?”
  • On Friends (by the way, I’m on Season Three now), frequent use is made of the trope that men are afraid of commitment in relationships. In my own experience, I’ve found that tend to be the one who balks at commitment (but only if it’s not a good relationship). I know this truism is based on faulty generalization, yet it makes me anxious.
  • After I started thinking about this post, I remembered another completely nonsensical stereotype that actually did briefly affect some decisions I made during a formative period of my life: Smart people shouldn’t become teachers. (I know! This would be a good time to throw those tortilla chips across the room.) It was a high school classmate who said this to me, and she framed it as a compliment (“Oh, you’re too smart to be a teacher”). Even though I’m pretty sure I identified it as hogwash even at the time, it was powerful enough to prevent me from declaring myself an education major, at least at first, even though I had enjoyed envisioning myself as a teacher since early childhood. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to overcome this false belief, but clearly, I haven’t forgotten it.

I know my examples are laughably mild compared to stories that some people could share of, for example, racial stereotypes that are far less rational and more damaging.

My overall point is this: Be careful what you say, because you never know who will hear it and take it to heart. And generalizing groups of people, whether there’s a grain of truth or not, is lazy. Instead, get to know people as individuals, and when you speak about them, speak of them as individuals. Does this sound like something you’ve already learned in a teen afterschool special or even on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? The thing is that I’m afraid a lot of people have heard all this hundreds of times but haven’t actually learned it. I’m saying this to myself as well. Everyone is different, and everyone is worth getting to know. Don’t mess up somebody’s life with your careless words.

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a pep talk for me

I’ve been feeling a little down the past week or so, and while I think there are several reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that my much-anticipated first summer of freedom (since college, that is, and with “freedom” defined as not having to report to work) has come to a close. I spent basically the whole summer going from one trip to the next, with people I enjoy being around and with something to constantly look forward to. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping or mow my lawn or take out the trash–all tasks that I don’t mind (sometimes even enjoy) when I’m home but that it feels exciting and slightly transgressive to be able to ditch for weeks at a time. Now that I’m back home but not yet back into the rhythm of the school year, I feel let down, broke from all the money I spent on my travels (I’m not, but it feels that way), and a little lonely. This last part has surprised me–normally, I’m all about my independence and totally capable of entertaining myself, but the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I’m suddenly not an introvert anymore.

I’m sharing all this not to whine but because I think this particular brand of mild seasonal depression may be more common among adults than we realize. It might not be an end-of-summer thing for everyone; I think it happens after Christmas for many people. But it’s something we should talk about so we know that we’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’d be happy to listen to your story in the comments. (Or, if we know each other, let’s chat off the blog!)

Because it’s started off so poorly, I’ve been dreading the remainder of August, so I’m going to spend the remainder of this post listing reasons I have to be optimistic–if not manically excited like I was at the beginning of the summer–about what’s to come. I realize this is a totally self-indulgent use of my blog, but maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

  1. School starts in 21 days, and classroom teaching (NOT meetings or assessment or filling out forms, though I understand why those are important) is the part of my job that I really love. I’m looking forward to meeting the freshmen in my composition classes and seeing some former students again in my literature class. I’m also teaching my first-ever independent study, on dystopian literature, with a really great, motivated student. And I’m excited to restart the creative writing group that meets at my house. I can’t wait to make food for this little community and share stories with them.
  2. I have a new boyfriend! He’s the sweetest, and that’s all I’m going to say about him here because, frankly, it’s none of your business, blogosphere. 🙂 (Yes, I tend to overshare, but I do have boundaries.) I’m excited about the adventures we have planned, such as Hippie Fest in Angola, Indiana, next month (I already know what I’m going to wear)–as well as the less adventurous but no less precious times we will be able to take walks, share meals, and keep getting to know each other. (I like what I know so far.)
  3. Fall in West Michigan is beautiful, but I didn’t maximize my enjoyment of it last year because I was still getting used to my new job and home (actually, I was still renting and home shopping last fall) and generally getting on my feet. This fall, I intend to hike, pick apples, go to festivals, and be outdoors as much as possible. As my siblings and I ironically-but-secretly-unironically like to say, it’s almost time for hayrides, hoedowns, and all things pumpkin spice.

Next year, I’ll probably spend my summer a little more quietly (then again, who knows?). But although I’m feeling the crash right now, I don’t regret my summer of carpe diem. (I know that’s grammatically incorrect in Latin.) And, especially now that I’ve written this post, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

rebranding the blog–Let’s try this again.

In spring 2018, I talked a lot about rebranding my blog as a Hufflepuff leadership blog–i.e., a leadership blog for people who are emotionally intelligent and perceptive but don’t feel like natural leaders and maybe don’t feel comfortable in the spotlight at all. I went so far as to come up with a new logo, a badger in a business suit (how cute is that?). I wrote a number of posts related to the proposed focus, which you can read if you look back at February through May 2018, or just search “Hufflepuff leadership.” But right before I was going to make the transition, I left my job, in which I had a leadership role, and took a new position that does not involve leadership except insofar as teachers are leaders in their classrooms. So I didn’t see the point of going through with the rebranding.

Now, I’m once again considering the possibility of giving my blog a facelift and a narrower focus. This time, I am thinking of using the blog as part of my strategy for marketing my zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town, which I would like to release later this year. The rebranding would probably mean a new name and address and a new look, but it would probably not mean that I would only ever post about my novel and/or about zombies–just that these topics would appear more often. I don’t want to alienate readers who aren’t interested in zombies, and I certainly don’t want this blog to become nothing more than a self-promotion instrument (that would be boring for me, too), but I do think it’s smart to “leverage my platform” (did I just write that?) so that my blog can help promote my book, and vice versa.

I’d love to hear your feedback. As always, thank you for reading!

What am I going to do this summer?

I just walked home from meeting with my supervisor to go over my first annual evaluation in my new job. This should be the last time I have to go on campus until August–not that I don’t want to be there. It’s just that this is my first summer since starting college that I haven’t been working a job that has regular hours. I’ll be teaching online throughout the summer, which is real work, but it’s work that I can do anywhere (such as looking out at the Atlantic Ocean, which I may do while at Myrtle Beach next week) and anytime (including on BST, British Summer Time, which I’ll be observing while in the UK the following week). So I’m determined not to set foot in my office until my contractual obligations begin again in August.

My summer is almost comically full. For most of June and July, I will be making periodic stops at home just long enough to repack my suitcase, mow my lawn so that it doesn’t look like a jungle, and get the chiropractic adjustments I’ll need after all the flying and driving I’m going to do. Oh, and somewhere in there, I’m getting a haircut. Besides the trips mentioned in the previous paragraph, I will be visiting family in Pennsylvania and friends in Virginia. I also have tentative plans to visit the famed Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the short sliver of the year in which it’s not covered in snow, and I may combine this with a pilgrimage/research trip to northern Minnesota to see the town (Hibbing) in which I set my zombie apocalypse novel but which I’ve never visited. I’m a little nervous to see the real Hibbing, but if I find that my portrayal is wildly inaccurate, I can always change the name to Unspecified Northern Midwestern Town–or chalk the differences up to zombies.

I almost just typed the sentence, “But I don’t want to waste this summer,” and then the smarter and kinder part of my brain was like, “You know that resting, spending time with the people you love, and seeing more of this beautiful world is not ‘wasting’ the summer.” This is true. However, there are a few things I’d like to accomplish besides traveling and teaching online. One is to continue the dent I am making in my reading list. Last fall, I took inventory of the books I had been buying over the past few years and realized that my to-read list was out of control. So I divided the books into categories and have been making my way through a selection of them each month. In my suitcase for the beach trip, I have packed Roald Dahl’s The BFG, which, in the form of a small mass-market paperback, even looks like a light beach read. But I’m also probably going to bring along the massive hardcover biography of Thomas Hardy that might take me into July.

In addition to reading, I would like to start writing the sequel to my zombie novel. I’m still trying to decide what to do with the first one, Sam’s Town (yes, that’s an intentional reference to The Killers’ album), though I’m leaning toward self-publishing it as an e-book. (My reasoning, in short: I want some people to read it, but I don’t have any expectation, need, or desire to make an income from it, so I might as well send it out into the world in the quickest and most straightforward way possible so that the few people who are going to read it can get started on it.) And I plan to make some more revisions to it after my beta readers are finished with it. But in the meantime, I want to start working on the sequel, Sam’s Home. (It’s a pun! “The home of Sam” or “Sam is home.”) I wrote a 200-word scene last week, and I want to keep going while I have the momentum. I know it will involve another road trip, some romance, and probably the death of one of the main characters. But more on that later.

So that’s what I’m going to do this summer. I’m not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing, but I won’t go completely off the radar. Do you have any big plans for the summer?

my best Friend

I promise I’m not turning this into a Friends blog, but I also promised that I would write an occasional Friends post while working my way through all ten seasons for the first time, so now that I’m finished with Season One and a few episodes into Two, I thought I’d share some of my observations thus far.

I’ve been surprised by how smart the humor is and by my unexpected liking for all the main characters. I’ve been frustrated by the failures the show gets itself into because it’s trying to be two things: both a snappy, hilarious, almost sketch-based comedy and a realistic dramedy with relatable characters. Sometimes the combination just doesn’t work. For example, the running joke about how critical Monica’s mother is toward her (and how gamely Monica, though annoyed, puts up with this) is really off-putting to me. I think it would be a funny SNL sketch, but there’s no way this relationship would look this way in real life. In general, I dislike all the parents I’ve met so far; though I appreciate that the show portrays young adults having relationships with their parents, I feel like the parent characters are mostly guest-star vehicles who come across as less mature than their kids, who aren’t terribly mature themselves. An extreme eye-rolling example: the one where Joey’s mom is not only okay with his dad having an affair but actually tells him to go back to his mistress because he’s supposedly (or “supposably,” as Joey would say) easier to live with when he’s got a woman on the side. Please. But on a more positive note regarding guest stars and secondary characters, I really liked Phoebe’s sweet physicist boyfriend David (played by Hank Azaria), and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him when he gets back from Minsk.

The funniest gag I’ve seen on Friends so far? While I laugh out loud almost every episode, for this, I have to go with the scene in which Chandler convinces Joey to use “Joseph Stalin” as his stage name. (Joey, later: “Apparently there’s already a Josef Stalin. You’d think you’d have known that.”)

And this brings me to the main topic of my post today: Chandler. I really like him, and I think I’m a lot like him. I started to realize this last night when I watched The One Where Heckles Dies, early in Season Two. Mr. Heckles, the cranky downstairs neighbor, dies and leaves all his possessions–basically a pile of hoarder junk–to “the loud girls upstairs” (Monica and Rachel). While the gang is going through his stuff, Chandler starts to realize he resembles Heckles not only in harmless ways, such as the geeky clubs he belonged to in high school, but also in more serious ones, like the petty criticisms he comes up with as excuses to break up with women. He starts to worry that he will die alone like Heckles and resolves to change his ways. Although this awakening is played for laughs like nearly everything on Friends (as it should be–the show gets clunky when it tries to be serious), while watching it, I felt a strong sadness and empathy for Chandler.

Because, you see, I’ve broken up with guys for stupid reasons. I worry about driving people away with my critical spirit–not just potential romantic partners, but potential friends and other potentially important people. I have a fear of commitment (which, on Friends, is portrayed as a male trait but I think is more related to personality than gender). And do I use humor as a coping mechanism? Have you read this blog? (See, I even emphasize words like Chandler.) If the blog isn’t enough to convince you, my students and colleagues think I’m hilarious because I go straight to humor when I’m feeling uncomfortable or don’t know how to present myself to new people. It’s also a great way to keep people at arm’s length (back to that fear of commitment).

The show typically offers pretty realistic, if overly simplified, psychological reasons for why the characters do the things they do (kind of like that jerk psychiatrist Phoebe dated for one episode), and the reason given for why Chandler does all the things in the above paragraph is that his parents got divorced when he was a kid. That didn’t happen to me, so there must be some other reason why I have trouble getting close to people, and this blog is not the place to explore it. In fact, I’m going to stop here before this gets too personal. Did I make you laugh? Good. That’s what I do.

 

watching Friends

I have some good friends who are constantly quoting Friends in my presence, and I hate the sense of alienation, however small, that my lack of Friends knowledge creates, so I borrowed all the seasons on DVD from my mom, and I’m embarking on this considerable project this summer. I’m now five episodes into Season 1. I’ve seen a few episodes over the years, so the basic storyline and characters aren’t completely unfamiliar to me, but there have been some revelations–for example, I didn’t know that Rachel was the newcomer, in the pilot, into an already established group of f(F)riends, and I also was surprised by her hair, which, in the beginning, is thick and unpretentious and a little frizzy. (I like that.) There are also some sitcom conventions that I’m having to get used to again after many years of watching mockumentaries like The Office and Parks and Recreation and realist dramas like The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey. For example, I have to suspend my disbelief when the main characters start having personal conversations at really loud volumes in the middle of Central Perk and acting like they’re the only people in the coffee shop. Basically, they are. The people in the background are set decorations.

It’s also weird watching Friends at my age. The show was on during my pre-adolescent and teenage years, so to the extent that I was aware of these characters (and everyone was; Friends was part of the fabric of our culture), I thought of them as old. Now, they seem startlingly young, but a lot of the issues they discuss regularly–career, relationships, wondering when you’ll ever begin feeling like an adult–are still relevant to me. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve missed the adult boat, because people of my generation are dealing with these issues for longer periods of time now, or because (and I think this is most likely) most people don’t ever stop dealing with these issues. So although there are things about Friends I find wildly far-fetched and hard to relate to, I understand why this show resonated with so many people, because, ultimately, it resonates with me too.

Expect more Friends posts–it’s going to be a long summer.

more musical observations

My posts have been taking a musical turn of late, not necessarily by design. Here are two more semi-profound musings I had about songs this past weekend.

  1. In a post several years ago, I grouped together three movies that came out in 1999 and summarized them all with the famous line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (1998): “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” I found myself thinking about this lyric again while listening to a song from just two years later, “Pinch Me” by the Barenaked Ladies (2000). I realize now that I’ve typed it out that this is a really unfortunate convergence of song title and band name (well, let’s just say a really unfortunate band name, period), but the title simply refers to the song protagonist’s feeling that he is asleep and needs to be (but is not sure if he wants to be) awakened in order to face the real world. (By the way, you may know this song better as the one with the line, “I could hide out under there/I just made you say ‘underwear.’”) The song could be read as a plea from a depressed person who can’t muster the courage to even go outside his door. I have a feeling that many cultural critics read it, along with “Iris,” as an anthem of the malaise of late Gen X-ers and early Millennials—people my own age, who grew up hearing these songs as background music—and perhaps some of them connect this malaise with the sense of entitlement that they are so fond of attributing to people in that age range. I prefer to think of true interpretation of these songs as somewhere in between: they’re not only about people with diagnosable mental health conditions, but neither should they be dismissed as the whines of bored young people who have to manufacture problems in order to help themselves feel validated. I would submit that the world has gotten more overwhelming and that people my age and younger are less equipped to deal with it than those who came before us, and these songs are just evidence of that. I’ll leave you with that to ponder.
  2. Now, something more uplifting. While running on Saturday, I listened to one of my favorite songs of all time, Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” and maybe it was all the adrenaline or the fact that my institution has graduation in less than two weeks, but in any case, I came up with a brief commencement address on the theme of this song. Here it is: Have you ever wondered why we use the term “commencement” for something that we usually talk about as an ending? Also, have you ever wondered why the song says, “We are the champions,” implying that we’ve already won, but then goes on to say, “We’ll keep on fighting to the end?” The answer to both these questions is the same: it’s that the struggle is never over in this life, is it? You’re celebrating the end of college, and indeed you should. You are a champion. But you still face the fight of career, relationships, and just getting through life. You can “go the distance” like Rocky, but then you still have Rocky II, II, IV, IV, and Rocky Balboa and Creed and Creed II—you see what I mean. The Queen song goes on to include several more of these “already and not yet” constructions (to borrow a term from theology): for example, the speaker of the song talks about taking his bows and his curtain calls, but just a few lines later he uses future tense: “I consider it a challenge before the whole human race/And I ain’t gonna lose.” So remember, the fight goes on. But don’t let that discourage you. [And I teach at a Christian college, so this next part applies to my students and is crucial.] Remember that you serve a God who does have time for losers. He gave his life for losers like us, and he makes us champions. The End.