I’ve spent most of my life — basically until 2018 — behaving in ways that start with the letter B: bold, brazen, brash, ballsy, bumptious.
I was, or looked, fearless. At 25, I jumped into a truck in Perpignan with a French driver 10 years my senior and spent eight (amazing!) days crossing southern Europe to Istanbul with him, for a story. I’ve interviewed people across the U.S. who own a lot of guns. Have traveled alone in some funky places.
Not so much.
My health, as far as we know, is fine — after completing 20 days’ radiation treatment November 15, 2018 for very early stage breast cancer, no chemo — I’m now taking medication for five years.
But I feel so much more fragile.
Like, oh yeah, I can be broken and weak, My body can/did surprise me and not in a good way.
It’s a challenge to manage fragility — as anyone (not me) who has had and cared for very small children or very old/ill people or animals.
We live in a culture of haste and acquisition and competition and relentless shows of strength and prowess. There’s little useful discussion of how to be slow and gentle and take very good care of ourselves and others. The lack of compassionate American public policy makes brutally clear that being ill and “unproductive” are taboo.
So we don’t talk much publicly about what it’s like to be fragile and to navigate life and work and friendship and family when we feel like wet bits of paper instead of big strong ferocious creatures.
I don’t like feeling vulnerable. I suspect others don’t like that feeling too much at all.
But my new MO is to tell people —- hey, I just can’t do X right now. I don’t explain. I just withdraw from demands, social and professional, even for a few hours or days until I can bring my A game and respond fully.
I grew up in a family that had little interest in my times of need and weakness and fragility — so I learned to suppress and ignore and deny those feelings.
But those needs were always there and are now, Jaws-like, re-surfacing with some serious insistence.
If my European journey taught me anything — or reminded me more powerfully than ever before — it’s to live, and savor, an unmediated life.
By which I mean, one experienced firsthand, feet-first, immersed in all of it.
Not, as has become normal/affordable/easy for me — and so many of us — a world and its wonders seen and heard only through a screen or scrim, whether social media or explained by the traditional mass media of newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
The soft, smooth cobblestones of Rovinj — a small seaside town in Croatia — were silky beneath my bare feet, the light snaking around corners as the sun moved through the sky, every hour offering a different tableau.
I’d have known none of this without my (grateful!) physical presence.
Ironically, I follow several cool, adventurous people on Twitter whose lives are devoted to professional exploration, including aviation and wildlife photographers and three archeologists.
I love seeing what they find, but this is also, I realize, a little weird.
I need to go find this stuff myself!
Sadly, it’s now considered normal — starting in infancy — to spend hours consuming others’ visions and impressions and analysis of the world, instead of gathering every sense impression ourselves. (As I write this on our balcony in the early morning, I hear traffic on the bridge, a passing train and birds in the trees. The air is fresh and cool, the sun gilding the balcony’s outer edge.)
I work alone at home in the suburbs of New York, with no kids or pets to distract me. I work full-time freelance, which means I have no boss or coworkers with whom to share ideas or jokes or talk about our weekends.
Most of my friends here are too busy to actually get together in person, which all combines to create isolation, and so I’ve slipped into the tempting bad habit of feeling connected to the world through consuming social media — instead of socializing face to face.
If I want to actually be with someone, it takes me an hour each way, and up to $25 in train fare or parking fees, to go into Manhattan.
But if I don’t, I’m essentially a self-imposed shut-in, which is — my six supersocial weeks in Europe reminded me — a terrible choice for mental health.
My time in Europe, literally, exposed me to hundreds of strangers, some of whom became new friends, like an archeologist and travel blogger and translator, all of whom live in Berlin, all of whom had only been Twitter and blog pals before they became real, corporeal human beings sharing space with me, laughing and joking and hugging hello.
I was also struck by people’s gentleness with me, like the man on the busy, crowded Tube stairs in London, watching me slowly and painfully climb beside him, who asked: “Are you OK?”
People can be perfectly nice on social media, but they’re not beside you.
They’re not — as two young men did — ready to carry your heavy suitcase up (!) three flights of stairs.
In Croatia, I sat for hours in a cafe with three new friends, talking and talking and talking.
No one stared into their phones.
No one stared into their laptop.
No one was rushing off to something more important.
What we were doing — just being together, enjoying one another’s company and conversation — was more important.
The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.
He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.
He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.
He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.
There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.
What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?
Been there, lived it and hated it.
I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.
Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.
How to cope:
We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.
We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.
We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!
The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.
Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist.
The C.D.C. reported last year that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the nation, almost 30 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, far above the national average of 12.6 per 100,000. Not far behind were Alaska, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, all states where isolation can be common. The village of Hooper Bay, Alaska, recently recorded four suicides in two weeks.
In one telephone survey of 1,000 Wyoming residents, half of those who responded said someone close to them had attempted or died by suicide.
In September, mental health experts, community volunteers and law enforcement officers gathered in Casper to discuss possible solutions. Among the participants was Bobbi Barrasso, the wife of Senator John Barrasso, who has made suicide prevention a personal and political mission.
“Wyoming is a beautiful state,” she told the crowd. “We have great open spaces. We are a state of small population. We care about one another. We’re resourceful, we’re resilient, we cowboy up.”
…The realities of small-town life can take an outsize toll on the vulnerable. A combination of lower incomes, greater isolation, family issues and health problems can lead people to be consumed by day-to-day struggles, said Emily Selby-Nelson, a psychologist at Cabin Creek Health Systems, which provides health care in the rural hills of West Virginia.
This story hit home for me.
In 1988-89, I spent 18 months living in Lebanon, New Hampshire (now, shockingly, plagued by an epidemic of heroin addiction), a small town of about 10,000 close to the much more affluent town of Hanover, NH, home to Dartmouth College. I moved there to follow my then boyfriend (later husband) in his medical residency at Dartmouth, a four-year commitment.
I was excited. I had only lived downtown, and/or in large cities like Toronto, Montreal and Paris. I was really curious about small-town life and looked forward to trying it — but barely lasted a year before I was really in fear of losing my mental health. No exaggeration.
It was the worst time of my life.
We were broke, trying to live (and own two cars) on his salary of $22,000, the nation’s poorest-paying medical residency and my savings. I had no job and there were none to be found.
There was no Internet then. The winter was brutally long and cold. We had no friends or family nearby and every social overture I made was ignored or went unreciprocated.
Everyone was married or pregnant and/or had kids. We were “only” living together, not yet even engaged, which (!?) seemed scandalous to others our age, even students who’d moved there from other large cities.
The only time our phone rang, a voice would say “I need a windshield” — we had inherited the former number for Upper Valley Glass.
I know. That sounds funny.
I became almost agoraphobic because everywhere we went, alone or together, we were socially invisible. Plus, ambitious as hell, I was professionally dying on the vine. Journalism is incredibly competitive and staying out of it for even a year or two is never a great idea.
I had left my country, close friends, a well-paid newspaper job and a gorgeous apartment.
The stifling pressure to conform to some really weird 1950s-era ideal of behavior was crazy. I was criticized — by a friend! — for choosing bright green rubber boots instead of sensible brown or black. And coming from Montreal, a vibrant, bilingual, sophisticated city, the region’s dominant ethos of Yankee self-denial was alien, all these women wearing no makeup or perfume or anything with a visible shape to it.
I had never felt so out of place, not even when I lived in France or Mexico.
Yes, we had a nice apartment. Yes, the countryside was gorgeous. Yes, I actually enjoyed attending the local auction every Friday and learned a lot about antiques.
But I fled to New York within 18 months of arriving there; I would never have made it through another three years there.
For the past 25 years I’ve lived in a small town, but one only 25 miles from Manhattan. It gives me the best of both worlds, easy, quick access to one of the busiest and most challenging cities in the world — with the beauty and silence that also recharges and refreshes me. I know enough people here now I’m always seeing someone I know at the gym or the post office or the grocery stores. but without feeling stifled or excluded.
Do you live in a rural or isolated area or small town?
But there’s another problem – a more insidious problem – with lying. Every time you tell someone you are ‘fine’ – when you’re not – you buy into the belief that it’s not acceptable to be depressed. In other words, the act of concealing your true mood, sends a subconscious message that it needs concealing, that it’s something to be ashamed of.
It’s a very sad indictment of our emotionally-illiterate society that those or us who are suffering the most have to hide our feelings to protect the sensibilities of everyone else. One in four of the seven billion human beings on this earth will experience poor mental health at some point in their life. That’s 1.75 billion people. And over 10 billion in the history of humankind. The only shame would be if all those people lived their lives feeling ashamed of something that is clearly such a common part of the human experience.
I consider myself incredibly blessed and lucky. For nearly a quarter of a century Lisa has been the center of my universe … and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But we are people, with kids as well as all of the normal stresses and pressures.
Here are some of the things we have had a fight of some type or other about: money, sex, having children, buying a car, how to spend a work bonus, having more children, using credit cards, buying a house, our jobs, who is cooking, technology, raising our children, shopping for groceries, stopping having children before Lisa died (which was what the doctor more or less said after #2), moving after my layoff, my parents, her parents, my brother, her sister, my sister, my friends, her friends, the woman (my friend) who stood in line at our wedding and pretty much said she couldn’t believe I was getting married (apparently I was more than one person’s ‘back-up plan’), pretty much every one of our nieces and nephews, computer games, TV, sleep, running, the gym, the kids’ friends, our neighbors at every house, trash, dogs, cats, food … and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.
According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.
For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.
For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.
I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.
Depending which culture you live in, some being far more discreet and emotionally buttoned-up than others, expressing your true feelings can create havoc, socially and professionally.
The United States values emotional self-expression and directness, (albeit with regional differences.) This can be quite unsettling if you come from a quieter and more discreet culture, where only your true intimates know how you really feel.
Being “honest” can outweigh being diplomatic or tactful.
Even with friends, I hesitate to reveal a lot.
And yet, a candid Skype conversation with one Broadside’s followers, who lives overseas and is also a nervous flyer, led to a kind and comforting email to me — as I prepared for three flights in one direction to rural Nicaragua. (One of them was really bumpy. Shriek.)
A young friend, 23, came for lunch recently and we talked at length, discovering, to our mutual surprise, we had both been bullied in high school, even as (because?) we assumed leadership roles there. We both blossomed, socially and professionally, while in college.
But many people see (only) who we are today — bright, attractive, super-confident women. They don’t know, (and nor would we be likely to discuss), the more painful and private backstory.
I’ve been told I’m intimidating in my self-confidence. My young friend sends off a similar vibe: assertive, comfortable in all sorts of new situations, willing and able to take charge…
No one would suspect, (and I had no idea about my friend’s experience until recently), that, when younger we’d both been so mistreated. We hide it well!
Not surprisingly, she’s also from a more reticent cultural background (British) , as am I (Canadian.)
But it felt good to discover that someone I admire and enjoy has endured, and thrived beyond, similar challenges.
Only if someone knows how we truly feel can intimacy and friendship root and blossom.
Over dinner with a young news photographer, he summed up a pathological issue for many news journalists:
“You can’t be a normal human being.”
By which he meant: for our work, we witness poverty and violence and death and listen to terrible tales of rape and incest and fiscal malfeasance. We cover fires and floods and the aftermath of landslides and car crashes and earthquakes.
Yet we can’t — at least in the moment — afford to feel much of anything, or we just can’t stay focused on doing our jobs. Nor can we cry or let our emotions show.
But then, to the people we meet and speak to and photograph, we often appear heartless and callous, because we’re not visibly reacting to what we hear and see. Some of us do have very deep feelings about our stories, but weeping at work is really not an option.
Then, later, maybe you sort out your feelings and process them.
I’ve cried at my desk only a few times over the decades of my journalism career; once when interviewing a dead soldier’s father, once when listening to the most unbearable of all — 911 tapes from 9/11 and again after interviewing someone who volunteered to help in the morgue after 9/11.
How about you?
Do you tell the people in your life how you really feel about things?
Do you share your private feelings in your blog posts?
“The experience of bullying in childhood can have profound effects on mental health in adulthood, particularly among youths involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim,” she added.
The study followed 1,420 subjects from Western North Carolina who were assessed four to six times between the ages of 9 and 16. Researchers asked both the children and their primary caregivers if they had been bullied or had bullied others in the three months before each assessment. Participants were divided into four groups: bullies, victims, bullies who also were victims, and children who were not exposed to bullying at all.
Participants were assessed again in young adulthood — at 19, 21 and between 24 and 26 — using structured diagnostic interviews.
I read this story, which my husband chose to highlight for me, because I was badly bullied for more than two years when I was a high school student in Toronto. I arrived halfway through Grade 10, into a school where everyone had attended the same local schools since kindergarten. I was pimply, socially awkward and had been attending single-sex schools and camps since fourth grade. Boys were an alien species.
Worse than acne, I had confidence, the kind that often is deeply nurtured by single-sex environments, where every teacher and student leader is female. Deferring to male authority? Why would I do that?
And so a small gang of boys made sure to teach me a lesson. They called me Doglin, barked at me down the echoing hallways, even brought a dog biscuit and laid it on my desk. I walked home every day alone, in tears, often getting into bed with all my clothes on to cry and sleep and recover before it all started again the next day.
Hell. School was hell.
I eventually managed to turn it around, snagging a cute boyfriend, starting a school newspaper and — score! — was even named Prom Queen. It taught me that a shitty situation can, sometimes, be transformed.
But there are days I feel like there’s still a target on my back. I’ve experienced much bullying since then, mostly in work settings where casual cruelty is considered normal. I also come from a family of people with explosive, nasty tempers — being the recipient of verbal abuse will set me back for days, even weeks.
I know why people bully. I get it. I don’t care.
And far too many of those who see it choose to turn a bind eye: “Suck it up. Man up! Kids will be kids.”
My husband, who was small and slight as a boy, was also tormented by bullies. We both know what this does to you, then and later. There is no excuse for verbal abuse or physical harassment — we all refuse to tolerate physical assault and know it’s against the law.
It’s been one year since Jose and I got married, on an island in the harbor of Toronto, in a church from 1888, by a minister with a ponytail and Birkenstocks. It was a lovely day, a small affair of only 25 close friends and family.
Unlike my first marriage, which I knew was pretty much doomed from the start, I was relaxed and happy on my second wedding day. I was marrying someone I knew well, who had nursed me through three surgeries (soon to be four.) We had already weathered the loss of jobs, the illness and deaths of loved ones, professional disappointments, (and triumphs), two recessions…
We were each marrying someone who’d already stayed the course.
Jose and I met, on-line, in March 2000, so we’ve been together almost 13 years.
I was working on a magazine piece for Mademoiselle, to compare and contrast a variety of dating sites. Back then, no one admitted to using them; as a single, lonely gal in the suburbs, with no kids, meeting men was proving sadly difficult.
Jose saw my photo and profile, with the truthful headline Catch Me If You Can, wrote me, and that was the start. Our first date was at a gorgeous, now-gone midtown French bistro, Le Madeleine. He wore a gray wool vintage coat and a bright red silk Buddhist prayer shawl as his muffler.
At the end of the evening, he took off the shawl, warm and fragrant with 1881, his cologne, and wrapped me in it.
A few things we’ve since learned along the way:
— Don’t be afraid to be yourself, even on your first few dates. I think some people are scared to get it wrong, and so they play it too safe, or try too hard to be…something. The right person will love you as you are. Before we met, during one of our phone conversations, he made me laugh so hard I snorted. Sexy! I thought for sure he’d cancel our first date. He loved it. Still does.
— Make an effort. I see a lot of guys these days dressed and groomed like they’re going to the gym when they’re heading out on a date. Seriously? The way we present ourselves sends powerful messages to people who don’t yet know much about us.
— As you get to know one another, see how s/he handles a disaster or two: the car breaks down, you get caught in a snowstorm, the kid and/or dog gets sick. How they handle stress and crisis will tell you a lot about whether you want them around long-term. When my mother was found to have a very large brain tumor (she’s fine), he didn’t hesitate to fly across the country with me to help sort out her house/dog/diagnosis. And because I was broke, he paid for it.
— Fights won’t necessarily kill a new/growing relationship. They might even save it. It took many years before Jose finally understood that just because we had a loud disagreement didn’t mean I hated him. It just meant I was really pissed off. We’re both stubborn as hell, so we were bound to disagree. I learned that he’s blessedly quick to forgive and won’t bail when things get heated.
— When you fight, look beneath the words. Every fight has an underlying driver, often unspoken, often not even well understood, like surtitles at the opera. There’s always a meta-fight behind what’s actually being said. Sometimes your emotional ghosts are really the target, not one another.
— Your relationships needs protection. It took many years before my father and Jose got along. Both are proud, prickly high achievers. Until my mother and I just gave up on one another last year, her neediness often drained us emotionally and financially. Sometimes distancing yourself from family is the wiser choice to nurture one another instead.
— Laugh long, loud and often. We speak a few times a day, even with his six daily meetings and our laughter heals a lot of stress. Knowing your partner is going to lighten your day means you’ll keep turning to them first.
— Hold hands often. Same for kissing. Jose and I smooch (discreetly) when I drop him off at the train station to head to work. The local cabbies waiting there, most of them fellow Hispanics, get a kick out of it.
— Say thank you often. Say please. Tidy up after yourself. Buy her flowers and him a gorgeous new shirt, or vice versa, for no apparent reason. Delight your sweetie whenever possible.
— Listen to them attentively. Turn off the TV, tech and other distractions. Look your sweetie in the eye. Give them the precious gift of your full and undivided attention. It’s so rare these days.
— Take good care of them. Bring an umbrella. Pick up their dry-cleaning. Drive them to the doctor’s office even if they say it’s OK not to. Make them lovely meals.
— Share values, not preferences. My first husband and I liked the same sorts of music, food, books. We loved to travel. On the surface, we looked like a good match. We weren’t. If you don’t share basic moral, spiritual and ethical values, (spending versus saving, a strong work ethic, loyalty to friends, whatever), your odds of long-term success aren’t great.
— Aretha Franklin sang it, baby. R-E-S-P-E-C-T! The day you stop seeing your spouse as someone worthy of respect, yours and others’, is the day your marriage is in trouble. Define what matters most to you and stick to it. Diana Vreeland, in her wonderful autobiography “DV”, said she always stood up a little straighter when her husband entered the room, even after decades together.
— Brag about them. We don’t have kids, so whatever family pride we share is in one another’s achievements and talents. Jose and I tend to be pretty modest, so I have to be the one (brag alert!) to tell people he has a Pulitzer and has photographed three Presidents. I’m flattered when he tells people nice things about me.
— Help them grow. Whenever I get wobbly and lose confidence and am scared to take a risk, Jose says, “Now is not the time to be Canadian!” His grandfather, who fled Mexico and started a chile powder company (still going) in Topeka, Kansas, was a tough old dude. “Pedro up, man!” I tell him.
— We’re always still three or five or fifteen, sometimes all on the same day. No matter your chronological age, our inner child still needs a hug, reassurance or the freedom to just play. Being a responsible adult all the time is exhausting!
— You will face sexual dry spells, sometimes for a lot longer than any magazine or media vision of marriage dares suggest. It’s normal for many people, but if you look at how sex is publicly portrayed/ discussed, you’d think we were all-rabbits-all-the-time. Nope! Injury, illness, surgery and recovery, depression, job loss, death of a loved one (let alone small kids!) and the Big M of menopause will all likely conspire to remove sexual intimacy from your life. Which is why affection, respect and paying attention in every other way will, ideally, steer you through those shoals.
— Reading wise self-help books, like this one, and a great, tough marriage therapist can really help. There were a few times we were really ready to give up. Marc, our marriage therapist, told us at our first meeting: “You each own 50 percent of any problem. If not, we’re not going to work well together.” He was really expensive, but paying so much for someone we liked and trusted sure focused our attention on getting on with it.
What’s keeping your love relationship or marriage in terrific shape?
I grew up in a family of people with six-guns for tongues, and it wasn’t a great education. I certainly learned how to shout, rail and rant. I can slam a door with the best of them.
But…resolve conflict? Discuss an issue in a civil tone? Negotiate?
So when Jose and I recently finally had a fight, after wayyyyyy too many weeks of peaceful, loving cooperation, it actually felt a little more normal.
We both agreed it felt a bit more “us” than all the (lovely) sentimentality we’d been living for a while. Because, like many people, there are still some unresolved issues driving us both crazy that just get buried under the day-to-day stuff. They’re still there and, until we have the time or energy to unearth them, they fester.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not wild about arguing, or shouting, or angry words. But having survived a first marriage where we never seemed to resolve anything, (hence the words first marriage), at least in this one, 12 years in, we actually try to wrangle our demons, both shared and individual.
One of the toughest parts of an intimate relationship of any duration is figuring out how (when, if) to fight. What do you say and what’s taboo? Who apologizes first and who really means it? What happens if you just can’t find common ground or a compromise?
It took us several grim years for him to accept that you can love the hell out of someone and still be really angry at them. Our first fights were at least 30 percent worse because of the added catalyst of disbelief and dismay on his part that we even were fighting. In my family, it was pretty standard operating procedure.
Now, maybe because we’re been together for so long and have mellowed and/or matured and/or accepted some of the behaviors we once railed against in one another — or maybe we’re just pooped — we don’t fight much at all.
I found this recent report interesting, if unsurprising — that today’s freshmen are more stressed than ever.
What I really found intriguing, though, was how important to women’s mental health it is for their professors to take them seriously.
From The New York Times:
Linda Sax, a professor of education at U.C.L.A. and former director of the freshman study who uses the data in research about college gender gaps, said the gap between men and women on emotional well-being was one of the largest in the survey.
“One aspect of it is how women and men spent their leisure time,” she said. “Men tend to find more time for leisure and activities that relieve stress, like exercise and sports, while women tend to take on more responsibilities, like volunteer work and helping out with their family, that don’t relieve stress.”
In addition, Professor Sax has explored the role of the faculty in college students’ emotional health, and found that interactions with faculty members were particularly salient for women. Negative interactions had a greater impact on their mental health.
“Women’s sense of emotional well-being was more closely tied to how they felt the faculty treated them,” she said. “It wasn’t so much the level of contact as whether they felt they were being taken seriously by the professor. If not, it was more detrimental to women than to men.”
She added: “And while men who challenged their professor’s ideas in class had a decline in stress, for women it was associated with a decline in well-being.”
For many young women, college is their first experience of being taken seriously by an adult teacher, and one whose personal and subjective ranking of them can affect their future career — certainly for anyone hoping to enter medicine, law or other professions.
Yet those professors aren’t subject to parental interference or suasion, sometimes thousands of miles distant from any intervening influence.
It’s then up to young women to stand up for their own ideas and opinions, fighting for them verbally and in writing. Alone.
If you’ve been raised, as many young women still are, to defer to authority and especially male authority, challenging it can feel terrifying or even impossible. But any woman with serious intellectual or political ambitions must acquire this essential skill.
One reason women still shy away from STEM work (science, technology, engineering and math) is the paucity of female professors whose own behavior, and intellectual confidence, serve as powerful models. I’ve had young w0men write to me personally in despair after having male classmates, or professors, scoff or sneer at them in these male-dominated classrooms. The easiest choice is to flee, a choice that only deprives us all of terrific talent and diversity down the road.
Look at a Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi or Indra Nooyi or Carol Tome or Angela Merkel. Every woman who hopes to attain and exercise power and authority must become comfortable expressing her ideas publicly — which often includes hearing them torn to pieces — and figuring out the next step after that.
Bright, confident women scare the hell out of many people.
The other night Omar Thornton led the national news, shooting eight co-workers and then himself at a Connecticut beer distributorship. He was about to be fired. I blogged about it here at theopencase.com, but think there is more to it than that.
The second big news item, pun intended, was how rates of obesity are rising. Still.
Yes, Thornton was being fired for cause, stealing beer. But his feelings of rage, despair and desperation are in no way unique to the man who shoots and kills in a murderous rampage. Millions of us feel them, over work, family, illness, grief, job loss, unemployment. A new sub-category of misery are the “99ers”, people who have used up every bit of their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and have not yet found a job.
From The New York Times:
In June, with long-term unemployment at record levels, about 1.4 million people were out of work for 99 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not all of them received unemployment benefits, but for many of those who did, the modest payments were a lifeline that enabled them to maintain at least a veneer of normalcy, keeping a roof over their heads, putting gas in their cars, paying electric and phone bills.
Without the checks, many like Ms. Jarrin, who lost her job as director of client services at a small technology company in March 2008, are beginning to tumble over the economic cliff. The last vestiges of their former working-class or middle-class lives are gone; it is inescapable now that they are indigent.
Ms. Jarrin said she wept as she drove away from her old life last month, wondering if she would ever be able to reclaim it.
“At one point, I thought, you know, what if I turned the wheel in my car and wrecked my car?” she said.
Nevertheless, the political appetite to help people like Ms. Jarrin appears limited.
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We are dying by inches — adding them to our bellies and asses and thighs by consuming the wrong food and drink in enormous quantities. Every time we stuff too much of something greasy, fatty, sugary and/or salty into our mouths, we are often really desperately reaching for comfort, for ease, for a quick, cheap way to feel better. If we were truly joyful and at ease in our lives, would we behave thus? I think not.
We are dying by inches — of homes and dreams and degrees and graduate degrees and years of experience, training and skill worth nothing to an indifferent job market. I see a very clear correlation between these two forms of despair.
Every time someone goes on a rampage in their workplace and kills co-workers, there is such surprise, such shock. What exactly, people demand, pushed him over the edge? As if you can parse lethality so tidily. You can’t. The sub-text? If it was X, then we’ll make sure X isn’t part our our lives or workplace. It is never that simple.
We forget how many people, millions of us now, already live on the edge. We are terrified of losing our partners, kids, homes, jobs, status, cars, bank accounts, retirement savings, our physical and mental health.
It can take a mere zephyr of a breeze to send someone hurtling over the edge if that has been their neighborhood for weeks, months or years.
Whether you reach for a handgun or a doughnut, the choices are ultimately self-destructive, devastating, lethal. One is faster, bloodier, criminal and public.