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Archive for September, 2011

Taking the Moral Out of the Story

Friday, September 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across this editorial by Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern Show fame) about how the popularity of the movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” doesn’t actually accomplish anything beyond mere entertainment because the story is fiction.  Specifically, she comments:

In a nutshell, that is my problem with The Help. People are acting as if the events in the movie really happened.

Kathryn Stockton [sic] is a novelist. She writes fiction. There was no defiant Skeeter. There were no courageous maids and no bad white women got their comeuppance. The movie offers only broad stereotypes. We know just who to root for and who to hate. We all get to identify with the heroines and everything works out in the end when everyone realizes that Jim Crow segregation is wrong.

I read her comments and upon some initial reflection I thought – well, she’s right and she’s wrong.  Technically, she’s right.  No, there was no Skeeter, or Minnie, or Aibilene.  But there was a Rosa Parks.  And there were the Little Rock Nine.  And there were many whites who risked alienation, physical abuse, or death to do right by persecuted blacks.  So in that vein, no, “The Help” didn’t do anything to change civil rights.  But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point is that there’s a lesson there.  That’s the purpose of any work of fiction with a point of view.  The author tells a story in a certain time and place to illustrate a particular perspective; to make us think about how the principles of that time and place might apply to our own here and now.  The tortoise and the hare never actually raced either, but that doesn’t mean that the implicit message of the story isn’t still legitimate.

The problem with “The Help” is that for whatever reason people don’t seem to be taking the moral of the story out of the story.  We aren’t applying it to our own lives.  I actually struggled with this same issue in a post I published last year when I wrote:

I enjoyed the book.  But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago.  The discussion prompts at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions.  But they are all local to the book.  They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc.  And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same. …

It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment.  It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was.  And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.

But we are not perfect.  We are not fully evolved.  We are not immune to the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes.  There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe.  There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”

But what are those things?  That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help.  What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong?  What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?

Is it something environmental?  Is it the way we manage our food supply?  … Is it fuel-injection automobiles?  Is it prejudice against the obese?  What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t?  What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road?  What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?

The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But yet we have changed over time.  We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs.  And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers.  At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic.  At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.

So, it’s not that Ms. Quivers doesn’t have a fair point.  She just didn’t fully identify the problem.  Her article got my wheels spinning on this topic once again and I thought it worthwhile to explore it here one more time.

I hope you saw “The Help.”  It was a great movie and a mostly-authentic representation of the book.  (As is frequently the case in movie adaptations substantial nuance was lost with the translation to the screen, although the major plot points survived.)  Nevertheless, the larger point of the story is lost if we don’t apply it to ourselves.  Heavy stuff for a Friday, I realize, but important to reiterate from time to time nevertheless.

When Thinking Is Overrated

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

How much thinking do you do on a daily basis?  And how much reacting do you do?

According to Russel Bishop’s article on The Huffington Post our brains are often on autopilot as we react to circumstances around us and we do little actual thinking.  His premise is that this is a bad thing – that “mindless and emotional” responses are somehow inferior to the active processes of observation, assessment, and course correction.

You don’t have look beyond the title of this blog to realize that I’m an advocate of thinking.  I believe there is value in exploring new topics and our beliefs and opinions about them.  However, I’m also an advocate of efficiency and economy of thought.  It seems to me that  this “mindless” reaction saves us a lot of time and effort.  I think that most of our reactions may be mindless in the moment, but only because we are relying on prior earnest legitimate thoughts.

When I drive to work each morning I don’t think about my route because I’ve already thought it through.  When I hear a political pundit say something I know nearly instantly what my response is.  This isn’t because I’m too lazy to truly consider my position, but because I’ve already done so and am leveraging prior mental work.  And when I react in a crisis I believe that my instinctive response is much more valuable in its timeliness than an exhaustive contemplation of the situation would have been in its thoroughness.*

As we make our way throughout a week or a month or a year we encounter many of the same situations over and over.  We see the same people, go to the same places, and confront the same problems.  There is no reason to approach each instance as though it were the first; that would be an incredible waste of time and energy.

So while I will continue to wave the flag of Ten Dollar Thoughts, I’m also here to say that there are plenty of times when thinking is overrated, and when our mindless and cursory reactions serve us just fine.

*To this end, I found the author’s example of first responders to be completely off-point.

We’re All to Blame

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I get a lot of pop culture second hand.  For whatever reason most of “reality”-inspired entertainment doesn’t do much for me.  So it is via water cooler talk and magazines that I have, over the years, learned about who got voted off the island, which American Idol contestant was known for his crazy hair, and the fact that “real” housewives exist in various cities.

In this vein, I have never seen an episode of “The Hills.”  My understanding of it is that it is somewhat scripted, but still a reality show.  I see its stars pictured in red carpet photos, but don’t really know who they are or what they do.  I learned from a recent article though, that the answer to that is, “not much.”  Apparently I was missing very little.  Nevertheless, I wrapped up reading this article from The Daily Beast feeling sorry for two of them.

Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, I learned, were victims of both the reality television industry and their own stupidity.  If you have ever watched even one episode of their show then you know more about their exploits than I do.  But after reading The Daily Beast’s piece I can’t help but think that perhaps the couple’s current situation (out of work, unemployable, living off their parents, and with a mountain of debt) isn’t entirely their fault.

Today’s cult of celebrity has created the opportunity to become famous for nothing.  This is especially true of people who are young, dramatic, and attractive.  We tune in to see what antics they’ll put on each week.  We sit on our couches in pajama pants and cheer or jeer them, and they laugh all the way to the bank while we fast forward through commercials for Herbal Essences and Lean Cuisine.  The problem, though, is that we are a fickle lot.  The characters (for that is what these people are to us) that entertain us for a season or two become dull thereafter.  (What else do you expect when their fame is not tied to anything of substance.)  And yet they are led to believe – per Pratt and Montag’s 20/20 hindsight – that what they have is sustainable.

If the most glamorous and volatile of the human race were those people in their 30s or 40s perhaps the reality television industry never would have gotten off the ground.  By then we have more street smarts about us, more life experience, and more to lose.  For many (most?) of us, fame and fortune just aren’t big enough carrots to justify the sacrifice of one’s privacy and dignity.  Lucky, though, for the fast-talking Hollywood producers of the world, newly minted adults in their early twenties are much more captivating, and also much more gullible.

Montag and Pratt tell a sad tale.  They tell of cranking the publicity machine nonstop for several years, each year being required to generate more drama than the year before in order to keep us captivated.  Like any drug addict, the public needs more and more of a good thing until no amount can sate us.  At that point, instead of mortgaging our futures for one last hit we go cold turkey.  We walk away and say to Reality Star X, “Sorry, but you’re just not doing it for me anymore.  I’m on to the next Kardashian now.”  And the sad irony of it, at least in the case of these two starlets, is that it was their future we mortgaged, not our own.

It is at this point that I have to stop and point out that Montag and Pratt walked into this life with their eyes open.  Lots of people their age would have had more sense than to make the decisions they made.  They would have made some lasting investments in themselves (education and/or connections).  They would have saved a dollar or two.  And they wouldn’t have built a life of lies in order to keep a flighty audience engaged.  But I go back to the fact that they were young, largely stupid, and sold a very appealing bill of goods.

So I wonder about the larger cost of reality television.  I believe that the ultimate responsibility lies with the person who decides to walk in front of the camera and put his or her life on display.  No one forced these people to make this choice.  And if the end result is a life in shambles, well, it isn’t like the reality television landscape isn’t littered with warning tales.  Nevertheless, it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that we are a society that finds someone else’s personal implosion adequate fodder for our own entertainment; that we created this market in the first place.  And it also makes me sad that so many people are willing to sacrifice themselves for us, to lie down on the altar of a prime time air slot without regard for the damage that may ultimately be done.  Yes the stars are the most culpable.  But we are enablers of their bad decisions.  And I wonder why that doesn’t weigh more heavily on us.

The Open Letter Fallacy

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week Jamie Oliver posted an open letter to the United Nations Secretary General regarding the global health risks associated with obesity and obesity-related illnesses.  After reading his letter, something about it didn’t sit right with me.  It’s not that I didn’t agree with his position.  I’ve stated quite plainly on this blog that I believe that education is a key and missing component of our nation’s obesity epidemic.  Rather than the content, it was the delivery mechanism that gave me pause.

The open letter.  Somehow it strikes me as passive aggressive.  It takes a dialogue that was presumably between two parties and makes it public, the sole intention of which can only ever be to bring public opinion into the fold.  If I have wronged you and I apologize in an open letter, then it seems I care more about redeeming my good name in the public eye than I do about expressing genuine contrition.  If I want to persuade you of something (as was the case in the Jamie Oliver letter) and I do it in an open letter, then I am likely trying to subject you to a much greater pressure than I can exert on my own, rather than to merely make you aware of my concerns.  Something about the open letter reeks of ulterior motives.

And yet, I suspect it is an effective means of communication.  Nevertheless, I wonder if there are situations where such a public vehicle undermines the message it carries.  (There must be.)  It would have required much more effort and finagling to get a letter like Mr. Oliver’s into the hands of the UN Secretary General exclusively.  By comparison publishing such a letter on a website is a slapdash affair.  Were I the UN Secretary General I think I might be inclined to take Mr. Oliver’s position more seriously had he gone to more effort and used more discretion in getting it to me privately.

I don’t question Jamie Oliver’s motives.  I think he truly cares about the long-term benefits of a healthy diet and the cultural supports required to sustain one.  But as I look at his tactics I see the influence of modern technology.  Lately we seem to believe that the widest net we can cast is the most effective one.  We deploy Facebook and Twitter and websites.  We seem to believe that merely by exposing our message to the largest number of people possible we will make the most progress.  But I can’t help but fear that the signal to noise ratio is getting smaller and smaller.  Had Jamie Oliver managed to secure a private 15-minute meeting with the UN Secretary General would it have done more to further his cause than to post an open letter and expect public pressure to do the heavy lifting for him?

So much communication these days is scatter shot.  We throw things at the wall, watch them stick, and assume that our job is done.  But not every message is best communicated on a  billboard.  Sometimes (likely more often than we think) a message comes through stronger and clearer when communicated with specific focus to a small number of people who have the means and interest to act on it.  The thing about this approach, though, is that it is much harder.  Twenty years ago it was easier to reach a couple of key people than millions of people with cursory interest.  Today the inverse is true.  We have so many types of information competing for our attention that it’s difficult for anything to cut through the din.  And that is why I think that far too often we overlook the impact of face-to-face communication.  We forget how compelling it is to hear another person’s perspective directly from his mouth.  It is easy to deliver a strong message from behind the shield of a computer screen.  It is much harder to deliver that message in person, without edit and proofreading capabilities, and with the risk of rejection on the table.  Live and in-person communication is frequently not easy, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also frequently the best choice.

Tell Me Your Story

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

There is all sorts of conflict in this world.  And there are all sorts of philosophies about how to resolve that conflict.  We debate.  We fight.  We go to war.  We stage sit-ins.  We write op-eds.  We kill.  The human race has tried everything we can think of to either bridge or eliminate the gaps we find between our beliefs and those of people who disagree with us.  But I wonder how often we try to understand and really take to heart the experiences and beliefs of the person standing opposite us.

I think the answer is: not often enough.

Story Swap International agrees with me.  Last night while perusing headlines I came across this post by Reza Aslan.  In it he explains that , “as the Palestinian Authority heads to New York this week to confront the Israeli government at the United Nations with a declaration of statehood, back in Israel a group of Jewish and Arab kids are laying the foundations for a more hopeful future through the art of storytelling.”

Story Swap was born out of the Aspen Writers Workshop in 2007 and has been used in various environments worldwide to help resolve conflict.  It calls upon us merely to listen – to hear the whole story of someone on the other side of a divide – and to consider their point of view.  It does not ask us to solve a problem.  It does not ask us to bless or sanction or approve.  It does not ask us to forgive.  It asks only that we listen to another person’s story.  And, perhaps amazingly (or perhaps not), we find that when we’ve heard another person’s story we respond to them differently.

These kids in the Middle East will hear each other out.  They will open their ears and their minds and perhaps even their hearts.  And as they watch the Montagues and Capulets of their lives continue to battle each other they may be some of the first to view their counterparts with empathy instead of enmity.

I can’t speak for you, but I suspect that my life will never know the kind of cultural conflict that generations of Israelis and Palestinians have known for generations.  It is nearly beyond my comprehension.  And yet I know that I could better exemplify tolerance and acceptance on a daily basis.  Despite my best efforts, I sometimes fail.  I evaluate.  I compare.  I judge.  I recognize that some of this is human.  How else can I understand and fortify my own values and beliefs without recognizing how the world around me stacks up against the various lines I have drawn?  Nevertheless, I fail.

How much more accepting might I be if I stopped to listen to the story of someone I might otherwise judge?  If teenagers in the Middle East can set aside their prejudices and cultural barriers to listen to each other’s stories, why couldn’t I do the same?  Better yet, why couldn’t I just assume a position of tolerance without having to hear the story?  Ideally wouldn’t that be my default position?  Or is our tolerance and accepted enhanced in untold ways by hearing the story?  While a default position of tolerance is certainly an admirable approach to take, I wonder if our empathy is truer, more heartfelt, and longer lasting when we understand what our tolerance might actually mean to that person.

Perhaps this approach is naive.  But it seems to me that the world has enough cynicism.  Perhaps a little bit of innocent hope accompanied by open minds and hearts would carry us further than various peace summits and political treaties ever have.

A Little Bit About Myself – Part 2

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Last year on my birthday I broke away from my usual M.O. and instead of writing about my thoughts and reflections on some topic that had been on my mind, I wrote about myself.  Given the introspection afforded by pregnancy, I’ve been writing about myself more than usual lately.  Nevertheless, I thought I’d carry the tradition forward this year and provide a few more fun facts about myself.

So, without further ado, here is a little list of things about me, which you may not have already known.

  1. As a rule my hair isn’t thick enough to let it get very long.  However, it gets very thick when I’m pregnant, so I’m currently growing it out because this is my one chance for it to get long enough to donate.  I’ll chop it all off right after the baby is born.
  2. Because I plan to donate it, I haven’t colored my hair in almost a year.  I’ve been surprised at how much I like my natural color, but also surprised at the number of grey hairs I’ve had to pluck.
  3. I can’t wait for the weather to cool off enough for me to start roasting marshmallows over the stove after dinner each night.
  4. When I was pregnant with IEP we found out that we had a colony of bats living in our attic.  It was one of the creepiest experiences I’ve ever had.  I don’t recommend it.  (Thankfully none ever got into the house.)
  5. When I was a kid my favorite birthday dinner menu was macaroni and cheese with little smokies.  I still love macaroni and cheese, although my penchant for tiny sausages has faded.
  6. Lately it isn’t uncommon for me to go to work with stickers of Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, or sporting equipment stuck to my body.  They are IEP’s rewards for successfully using the toilet and when the novelty of the poster on the back of his door wore off he decided that it was fun to stick them on me.  I love looking down and seeing his little imprint on me all day at work.
  7. I haven’t read a single book since June.  I find it highly embarrassing, but I just don’t have it in me right now.
  8. All summer long I’ve resisted the temptation to try McDonald’s swirly frozen lemonade concoction because I feared I’d get addicted and didn’t want to worry myself with all the extra calories and sugar.  But now that fall is setting in I think it’s safe to try it because I suspect it will be going off the menu soon anyway.
  9. Over the summer I replaced loose powder and pressed blush with tinted moisturizer and cream rouge and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
  10. I am incredibly curious about this baby, what kind of a kid he’ll be, and how he’ll be similar to or different from his brother.
  11. The picture above was taken as part of a larger family photo shoot in May.  By the end of it IEP’s face was completely covered in red dye.  Those pictures of him are some of my all-time favorites.
  12. Every day on my right hand I wear a white gold and diamond ring from Tiffany that I won in a classical radio station raffle drawing when I was 25.  I actually won a watch, but I was able to exchange it for the ring.  I get complimented on it a fair amount and I love telling the story of how I got it.
  13. I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself lately because people keep telling me that I’m a cute pregnant person.  But I always have to confess that they haven’t watched me try to put on socks.
  14. My favorite Jewish holiday (I’m not Jewish) is Sukkot.  I love going for walks in the evening and seeing all the Jewish families out enjoying one another’s company.  It makes me feel good about things even though it’s not a part of my own culture.
  15. I have no idea how I came up with 33 entries for this list last year.  I’m calling it quits for now and will add to the list throughout the day.
  16. Was one of my favorite birthdays.  Getting my drivers license was great, but I have especially fond memories of my birthday party.  My dad took me and several girlfriends on a camping trip and it was one of the most fun parties I had as a kid.
  17. I haven’t ridden a horse in more than a year and that makes me kind of sad. 
  18. I still have all of my wisdom teeth, but I’ve only ever had three.  The fourth never came in.
  19. Not usually one for extensive retail therapy, since I was about five months pregnant I’ve had the insatiable urge to go shopping.  I think there’s something about not being able to shop that’s making me want it.  I’ve mostly placated myself with shoes, but I think I may go on a little bit of a bender come spring.   
  20. When eating out I almost always order dessert, and I almost never order a chocolate option.  I will go for something caramel or fruit based over something chocolate every time.  Bread pudding, tarte tatin, berry cobbler, here I come.  Flourless chocolate cake, you do nothing for me.
  21. The one exception to my general disinterest in chocolate is a chocolate bundt cake that is made from a spruced up devil’s food cake mix that other people go nuts for, and which I never grow tired of.
  22. I worry that lists like this are completely indulgent and self-absorbed, but I make them anyway because I love reading them about other people.

The Second Chance of Retrospection

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

I really should get out the door on time in the morning.  When I’m not running late I catch more of NPR’s Morning Edition than just the business news.  And – you’ll be shocked to learn this – they cover some really interesting topics.  On Monday I had an earlier-than-usual meeting and left at what should be considered “on time” but actually registers as “early” for me.  As I drove I listened to this story about “Dignity Therapy” for dying people, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The long and short of it is that impending death – not surprisingly - changes our outlook on things, particularly our own lives.  A psychiatrist named Harvey Chochinov who counsels the dying took particular note of this and wanted to explore what about death caused such a shift in our vantage points.  According to the NPR piece, “[w]hat he found was that what people found most assaulting and annihilating was this idea that who they were would completely cease to exist after their death.  And so Chochinov decided to do something about it.”

The solution was to work with his clients to document their lives.  This documentation provided his clients the assurance that something about themselves will live on beyond their deaths.  For some of his clients they were assuaged by the mere knowledge that their stories would continue.  Others – those whose lives were troubled – told their stories to serve as a warning to younger friends or family members.

NPR’s recount of Chochinov’s work mentions that, “[t]he stories we tell about ourselves at the end of our lives are often very different than the stories that we tell about ourselves at other points.”  We remember things differently when faced with death, and this quite normal.  What fascinates me about this is not that we do it in the first place, but that whether or not we look back over our lives with accuracy has no bearing on how therapeutic the retrospective exercise is.

Apparently when it comes to evaluating the whole of our lives we may reframe many parts of them.  We may choose to remember only the good or only the bad, and this is okay.  When we look back over an entire life we have the benefit of seeing how a particular event played out, and what light best to cast it in for others.  Much like an author crafting a story, dying people can see the whole picture, understand how each of the moving parts interacts, and emphasize or downplay various events based on their ultimate significance to the larger narrative.  This isn’t something we can do with such events as they play out in real time.

I think someday (hopefully not for a very long while) I will find peace in such retrospection.  But I wonder if it isn’t a good thing not to have such context in the present moment.  We live our lives as though nearly everything is important.  Even in situations where we can see that something good or bad going on really doesn’t carry significant weight in the long run, we don’t stop experiencing it because of that.  I’m inclined to think it is beneficial to our lives that each moment is lived on roughly equal footing – that is, with comparable significance ascribed to it in the present tense.  Otherwise we might be inclined to behave lazily toward moments we know to hold no long-term meaning, or to overly stress about those we know will live with us for a long time.

The most comforting thing about these little rewrites that we make in the face of death, though, is that we can ultimately render any moment in any light we choose.  The successes can be painted with humility, the failures with grace.  Our hindsight is nearly always nearly perfect.  It is a balm to me to know that even my foibles will be salvaged in some way when I look back on them.  And in the meantime I don’t have to concern myself with which moments may or may not be “major” in the long run, but just live my life as best I can in the present moment, and count on seeing the larger portrait of my life only after it is complete.

A Carnivore’s Conscience

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Much has been made in recent years of the costs of factory farming.  The antibiotics.  The sewage.  The animals who die of illness before they can be slaughtered.  Because of these things it is now reasonably easy to find grass fed beef, free range eggs, pastured hens, and so on.  But there is another cost of factory farming that I hadn’t really contemplated until I read this article from The Atlantic on the psychology of factory farming.

Author James McWilliams posits that large scale animal husbandry divorces humans from the unique welfare of individual animals; that commoditizing them eliminates the unhappy business of seeing an animal you carefully raised be slaughtered because the rancher no longer has any kind of relationship with each animal whose demise might cause him guilt or remorse.  McWilliams comments that in the bluntest terms, factory farming allows the rancher “to kill thousands of animals a year and remain a happy person.”

As I pondered the implications of that statement I surprised myself.  I thought that, upon reflection, I would reach the conclusion that the bond between animal and rancher should exist for its own sake; that animals have a right to such a relationship.  Interestingly, though (at least to me…) that’s not where I landed.  I think the psychology of factory farming is dangerous not because the animals are deprived of any relationship.  I find it more important that they are deprived of the byproducts of such a relationship.

When we have a relationship with an animal we treat it accordingly.  We ensure that it is healthy.  We ensure that it isn’t overly stressed.  We ensure that its life is reasonably comfortable.  These qualities translate differently for steers than for lap dogs, naturally.  But they still exist in some measure in both situations.  When our level of concern for an animal relates to its ability to produce a profit, and not to our personal relationship to it we treat it much differently.  We don’t worry about its levels of stress or comfort.  We worry about its health only to the extent that such health affects profit margins.  We allow ourselves to get away with behavior which under any other circumstances we would find abusive.

I believe that in the long run we only hurt ourselves with this approach to animal husbandry.  We poison our land with petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that grow the grain that feeds the animals.  We increase the strength and drug resistance of various bacteria by pumping animal feed full of antibiotics.  We increase the saturated fat content and decrease the omega-3 and omega-6 content of the meat we consume.  And, by supporting an industry that produces meat so cheaply we ultimately consume more meat and animal fat than is healthy.  We lose on every count.

Don’t mistake me, though.  It’s not only about the human fallout for me.  I don’t view livestock as pets, but I still believe that animals deserve some base level of care that is not met by factory farming.  Further still, as humans I believe it is innate to us to develop relationships – with each other, with pets, with working animals, and with food animals.  In the case of food animals our ability and desire to bond with those animals in some sense protects us from ourselves.

With factory farming we have managed to turn a blind eye to one of our basic human predilections and many people think that it’s a win-win situation because hamburger meat costs $1.49/pound.  But the fact remains, we pay the price somewhere, even if it isn’t at the grocery store checkout line.

Many thanks to loyal reader Rebecca at It’s Kili Time for recommending this article to me.  I love getting blog fodder from readers!

Health vs. Beauty

Friday, September 9th, 2011

Sometimes we women just don’t do ourselves any favors.

That was the thought that coursed through my mind as I read this article entitled “Do Women Choose Beauty Over Health?”  According to the United States Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, women are inclined to forego exercise on any given day because they don’t want their hair to get sweaty or to have to wash it.

Really?  We need the Surgeon General to tell us that fitness is more important than good hair?  Unfortunately the answer is Yes.

I suppose when you get into the heart of the issue it’s a little more understandable than it sounds on its face.  Dr. Benjamin explained that lots of women (especially African American women such as herself) spend a great deal of time and money achieving a certain hairstyle.  The thought of going to that time and expense again is a big disincentive to exercise.  She also commented that this is particularly true when we are looking for reasons not to work out in the first place.

What breaks my heart about this phenomenon is that it points to how little we actually count health in our estimation of beauty.  When we see a beautiful woman with glowing skin, white teeth, and shiny hair we immediately want to know about her daily personal care routine and what products she uses.  We don’t wonder about whether whole grains and lots of produce are key components of her diet.  We don’t readily consider what she does to keep her stress levels low and get enough sleep.  We don’t ask if exercise is a regular part of her life.  And yet when we get down to it the things that we find most attractive in ourselves and others are typically the byproducts of a healthy lifestyle.

This outlook holds true on the new website YouBeauty which works to inspire women to live healthy lifestyles through the incentives of improved appearances.  However, in spite of its basic premise the site’s CEO commented that the best way to get women to do anything healthy is to tell them it will make them more beautiful – eat broccoli, work up a good sweat, you name it.

I’ve addressed the issue of vanity in a couple of different posts recently (here and here), and I’m not quite sure why it’s resonating with me so much right now.  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that at 31 weeks pregnant I’ve had to sacrifice much of my vanity and focus much more heavily on my health.  My baby needs me to be healthy, not beautiful.  What interests me about this is that it’s not at all uncommon for pregnant women to find renewed energy for a healthy lifestyle.  When we are growing another life we take great care of ourselves.  We eat balanced diets.  We are willing to gain weight.  We go organic.  We drink more water and rest more.  We give up caffeine.  These changes and sacrifices are not insignificant.  We do all of these things for our babies, yet we are disinclined to do them for ourselves.

This makes me sad because it means that what effort we go to is always for someone else.  Whether it’s a husband or a job interview or a 20th high school reunion, the fact remains that we are certainly willing to jump through all sorts of hoops for our looks.  But by and large those hoops don’t benefit us.  In a perfect world we would all eat nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day, sleep eight hours each night, exercise for an hour five days a week, and drink 64 ounces of water daily.  We would do these things for ourselves – to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

I’m not here to say that superficial indulgences aren’t perfectly acceptable from time to time.  (This is the part where I confess that the zippered makeup case in my purse contains at least 20 different seasonally updated shades of lipstick, gloss, and liner at any given time…)  But those indulgences should be the frosting, not the foundation.

Ladies, healthy is beautiful.  If we’re going to go through contortions for our appearances, let’s at least go about it in ways that benefit our health.  I’ll go to the gym if you will.  Deal?

Good Boy Room

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Several weeks ago, in an effort to begin preparing IEP for big brotherhood and to keep him excited about being a little boy after the baby arrives on the scene, I started talking to him periodically about all the things that ”big boys” get to do that babies can’t do.  (Think: go down slides, eat ice cream, play with trains, tickle Daddy, go to gymnastics class, etc.).  However, after months and months of telling him after various outings and adventures that he behaved well and was a good boy, when I started regaling him with the glories of being a big boy he corrected me.  “No, no, Mommy.  No big boy.  IEP good boy!”  (Note: he doesn’t actually refer to himself by his initials…)  And so it was in that vein that this past weekend’s major project was not moving IEP into his Big Boy Room, but rather into his Good Boy Room.

The process was bigger than GAP and I anticipated at the outset and ended up absorbing the entire holiday weekend.  Tasks included:  Select and purchase furniture.  Select and purchase bedding.  Select and purchase family meal from KFC.  Move all adult office furniture out of heretofore home office and into heretofore guest bedroom.  Reroute all computer, phone, and internet cables.  Realize cell phone is missing.  Vacuum many dust bunnies.  Select and purchase wall paint.  Paint bedroom walls.  Go out to breakfast because the house is completely devoid of any basic provisions.  Unsuccessfully shop for draperies.  Successfully shop for drapery hardware.  Select and purchase two file cabinets.  Drive to two different warehouses to collect said file cabinets.  Realize cell phone was left at first furniture store two days prior.  And on, and on, and on.  It was an incredible drain.

Nevertheless, the weekend contained some significant bright spots.  I always enjoy weekends at home with my boys, but weekends like this one remind me of how much I appreciate them.  I appreciate that even in exhausting and stressful circumstances GAP and I navigate life together without snapping or fighting.  I appreciate that IEP is a trooper, happy to tag along on errands and (for the most part) keep himself occupied and out of trouble.  And somehow, it is during trying times as often as happy ones that I recognize how truly thankful I am for the life that I have.

As for the Good Boy Room project itself, we got it all done.  The office was successfully relocated.  The new bedroom furniture will be delivered tomorrow.  The walls are painted.  The bedding is washed.  And IEP has slept on his Good Boy Bed every night since Saturday (we were able to bring the mattress home without the rest of the set).  Drapes have been ordered.  I’m still looking for a rug, but other than that we’re very close.  I’ve been amazed and impressed with how easily my baby has handled this big change, and I find myself quite proud of the little boy he’s become.  Each night when I tuck him in he goes down with a smile and I’m sometimes taken aback at how much he simply isn’t a baby anymore.

As for babies, IEP’s move into the Good Boy Room means that the nursery is once again vacant.  And somehow – as if being seven months pregnant weren’t tangible enough – seeing that room sit empty has made it quite real to me that we have another baby on the way.  I am easily transported to the weeks leading up to IEP’s birth, when the nursery was complete but the pregnancy wasn’t.  Many evenings I would walk in, sit in the glider, and stare at the space that had been so carefully filled with the stuff of a baby, but was yet so empty for lack of an actual tiny person.  I thought to myself, “There’s going to be a baby living in here soon.”  But no matter how many times I tried to envision it I really had precious little conception of what it would be like when that statement came true.  Now, with our second go around, I make the same statement in my head with much more knowledge of what the future holds.  What I don’t know, though, is who this baby is.  Is he a good sleeper and a good eater?  Will he nurse quickly like his brother or slowly?  Does he like to be swaddled?  Are the hours from 5:00pm to 7:00pm hard for him?  Much like meeting any new person for the first time I know both much and little of what to expect.

What I know for now, though, is that IEP is a Good Boy, with a Good Boy Bed, in a Good Boy Room.  For the past nearly-three years he has been as good a boy as I could ever have dreamt of.  I can’t imagine loving anything else as I much as I love him.  But then again, before he was born I never could have imagined loving him this much either.

My life is stuffed with blessings.