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I had a friend in college who had a dilemma. She was in charge of the placement of students in her progressive non-profit. It was part of a great program where students could earn a real college credit by doing real work for real student orgs.

One of the people my progressive friend interviewed was really excited about the work, had some relevant experience and a lot of energy. The problem? She was wearing a pink, crew neck, shetland sweater monogrammed with her initials and, even if not actually wearing a string of pearls, she sure seemed to be. She was preppy or, at least, she looked it.

We fighters for right derided the fraternities and sororities. They were experiencing a resurgence after a decade of withering at a very progressive campus. Folks working on economic and environmental justice, consumer choice and fairness literally had nothing to do with the Greeks on the hill. We didn’t go to the same parties. Didn’t hang at the same bars. Ate from different troughs. I’m sure that they were in some of our classes, but there was an unspoken demarcation in the classroom. Defined by their uniforms.

So the preppy young woman didn’t belong in our organizations. And my friend, from an eastern boarding school background, was torn. She wondered if Pinkie was worth the risk. I remember looking down at myself. Plaid flannel shirt, worn Levi’s and hiking boots with fat lugged soles. My friend had the same garb. Men and women on the reformist left, all wearing the same uniform.

What we wear, our hair, jewelry and makeup choices, is part of our identity and part of our communities. It can help us find other members of our tribe. And it can also shut us out from others who we don’t recognize, or worse, folks we assume we won’t like.

There was a discussion spawned by a piece that Barnard College president, Debora Spar, wrote in the NYTimes about her tribe,

a particular subset of the city’s elite — the powerful women of a certain age, mostly from the news media and politics. The men wore Hermès ties and as much hair as they could muster. The women were uniformly thin and dressed in short dresses, usually black. A Clinton was spotted and appropriately fawned over…”Every…woman there was over 60 and yet there wasn’t a wrinkle to be found. They all looked great, but so similar!”

Spar writes how she fights with herself to be herself and not fall into the trap of chasing youth through hair colouring, botox, nips and tucks. The discussion part included women who belong to a different tribe, like this 72-year-old retired pediatrician,

I don’t know what circles she moves in, but the wonderful, talented women that I know and work with do NOT go in for tummy tucks and Botox. A few colored their hair for a while (I did not), but most have realized that hair with no gray looks pretty silly on someone with significant wrinkles.

It is clear that Dr. Retired does not know Spar’s circles. She clearly moves in another. And is quick to judge from her spiral of natural hair. I bet some in those NY elite circles would think her frumpy or wonder why a woman of her caliber just let herself go.

Another commenter, Ms. Seventy from near Harvard, actually nails the issue, albeit backwards and inadvertently.

Ms. Spar’s is a problem, perhaps, for folks who go to white wine kiss-kiss parties. For many of the rest of us, age brings a welcome opportunity to opt out of the youth-oriented, body-perfection vision of beauty. When I go to the theater in Santa Monica, Calif., I’m the only woman of my age with gray hair. In Cambridge, Mass., at 70, I look pretty much like the rest of my age mates.

Yes, Ms. Seventy, you are correct. As you note, there are different tribes and different standards. But then you go and get all judgey, too. Lemme ask you this, why do you think that looking the way that YOU want to look is better than how your buddies in Santa Monica or Spar’s elite NYC colleagues want to look?

It’s just different.  Go ahead, wear your uniform with pride, but don’t deride the other team’s.

And for those of you who got this far and were wondering, whatever happened to Pinkie? My smart friend selected her. Pinkie turned out to be a most excellent contributor to the cause and a recruiter for others in her home tribe. She taught us all. A lot.

Judgement In Love

A typewriter with a paper that has "My New Life, Chapter 1" typed on it.

Have you been in love? Have you had that flush and rush when you see the perpetrator of your condition?

Have you lost your breath? Have you sat looking at the phone–no willing the phone–to announce an encounter? Have you traded texts into the wee hours of the night to wake up with a groggy smile a few short hours later?

Have you cancelled plans, blown off friends, contorted your calendar to be with someone? Have you felt deliciously guilty, while feeling delicious, too?

Love is not the most rational of feelings. It may just be one of the least rational. Deciding that you want to be with just one person permanently precipitates a headlong jump off a cliff for some. For others it’s an agonizing decision, because, how can you know? What if you’re wrong? How do you figure out if this is the one? And even after soul searching and angst, when you decide “yes, this is the one,” you find that you hurled yourself off a cliff, just like the other guy. It just took you a little longer. That’s what love does.

Love requires you to give at least a little part of yourself away. You give some of you to someone else to hold for safekeeping. It makes you think the best of your partner, because you have committed to trusting. And in committing you become loyal.

Your commitment isn’t just to the loved one. It’s to the relationship you share. It’s to that part where you’re holding a bit of each other. The wedding ring isn’t my ring. It’s The Spouse’s ring. It’s a symbol of the love and loyalty promised to me, to our family and to the meta-us.

And hells no!, this is not rational. It’s risky. It’s dangerous. It’s crazy.

So the love thing has to be somewhat pliant, like a green twig. It has to be strong to support change and growth, but still able to bend without breaking.

Overtime, the twig grows into a trunk with branches. The tree has to bend in a storm. Some branches might get brittle and break. But by growing more branches, more chances, it may survive.

Unless it gets hollowed out. And you sometimes can’t see that coming. Or you see it weakening so you add more water and fertilizer until you realize that you are just piling manure higher and higher on a tree with sap that’s no longer flowing. It’s just dried out. And it’s sad. And you maybe did or maybe didn’t lie to yourself.

Anyway, don’t blame someone for loving. Don’t blame them for hoping. Don’t blame them for forgiving and giving–yet another chance. Nobody wants to see their beautiful beginnings turned into a shit pile.

There is flawed judgement in love, but let’s not be quick to judge those in love. Bottom line, be kind.

never would i ever

Mary Poppins, who is practically perfect in every way, delivers a perfectly sarcastic slow clap.
Mary Poppins, who is practically perfect in every way, delivers a perfectly sarcastic slow clap.

Never would I ever let my kid accidently fall into a gorilla habitat at the zoo.

  • Because I am always vigilant.
  • Because I don’t get distracted by my other children or someone else’s other children.
  • Because I had just told him to step away from the fence because he might fall in.
  • Because I had just told him that, again.
  • Because I have never seen that impish face where he wants to push the envelope too far, and I didn’t realize just how far that little pea brain would go.
  • Because I’ve never egged him on, saying, “Go ahead and let’s see what happens,” as he was testing me.
  • Because I’ve never assumed that a well-established public place would have the barriers to stop a headlong plunge into a moat, or onto a track or whatever the unspeakable.
  • Because I’ve never looked around and experienced that moment of pure terror when you have no idea where your child is.

Oh wait. I have had my heart drop to my stomach and my blood turn to ice as it coarsed through my wicked veins. I have spent seconds, minutes or days in terror, wondering how I could have been so stupid, how I could have been so neglectful, how I could be so horrible. I have donned the sackcloth of recrimination. I have dropped to my knees asking God, Mary and the universe to help undo my error.

Maybe you don’t know that. Maybe you weren’t in a position to see my failure. Or in a position to judge me as an unacceptable, good-for-nothing parent. And maybe you haven’t, yet, put yourself in a most awfully human crisis.

I’m thankful that a child was kept safe. I’m saddened that an amazing animal was killed to keep that child safe. I’m sorry that the family is being castigated for the death of the innocent, captive gorilla.

I’m not judging, though. There but for the grace of god, go I.

Valor in Discretion

question authority

When I was but a wisp of a person, maybe all of 116 pounds soaking wet while wearing a heavy wet towel, I had this shirt. It was a black tee. It was a present. I forgot who gave it to me, but they thought it captured my essence well. It said “QUESTION AUTHORITY” in big white block letters. That wasn’t all, though.

The “QUESTION” part was X’d out and printed on top in a screaming red scrawl was a four-letter word that began with an Eff and completed with a Kay. You figure it out.

I wore it in public.

My world was a college campus populated primarily by 18-24 year olds. I don’t think that I would recognize old people or families with kids. If professors walked across campus, they didn’t register to me. I would buy my coffee from a student or maybe a recent student. The bar patrons were reflections of me. People in the library didn’t look up. If somebody thought that my shirt was an affront, I didn’t recognize it.

I told my kids about that shirt. And I told them I was sorry that I wore it.

Sure, it was my right to speech. Sure, I liked being provocative in a crude and danger-loving kind of way. Sure, nobody ever said anything to me. But I’m also sure that someone was upset or hurt or shocked. There was really no value to parading around in that shirt–other than to display my immaturity and self-absorption. Nope, not much value there.

But at that time, I was trying things out and was foolishly proud that I didn’t shirk from being on the wrong side of people who weren’t me and my narrow tribe. I was all id in formation of a grown-up ego.

It makes me think about that scene in a movie where the woman is trying to get someone to attend to her sick child and finally gets the attention of the insensitive doctor via tirade. Or the scene where the snooty sales clerk humiliates a shopper and the friend tears the clerk up one side and down the other. Or when the mild-mannered mom stands up against book burning at the PTA meeting of neanderthals. Or when a character finally and publicly tells off his boss in a most clever and profanity peppered speech. And there’s always the guy screaming out the window that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

All of us cheered for each one of them. We were all on the side of the person who pushed through polite mores and let loose. We were relieved by these moments when someone is not holding back, when they act free from the constraints of civilized society and when they are being righteous!

Civilized society, though, stops us from screaming at strangers when wronged. Mostly because screaming and giving in to our lizard brains feel good, but only for that minute. Mostly because our perceived slights are more slight than not. Mostly because we risk substituting our lack of control for being truly righteous.

Grown ups know that we damage our relationships with others when we act outrageously. Usually the goal is to come to a resolution versus stage an excellent colloquy in which the character we play “wins.”

I learned to measure my foot-stomping child-self. I sometimes fail, but I know that there is good reason to avoid most fights. It’s to make sure when you do fight, it’s worth fighting for.

Post #82

An "F" grade written in red pencil. Ugh! Scary!

There are two kinds of people. Those who get good grades and think grades are decent measures, and those who do not get good grades and think that grades are stupid.

Alright, maybe there’s more kinds of people, but I think that when we’re being judged, or graded, most people prefer to sit near the top end of the scale.

Think about grades. There’s USDA Prime beef. Given a choice, who would eat not-such-prime beef? Same with Grade AA eggs. When you get to C you’ve been through A’s and B’s. Cotton, another good that is graded. It’s judged on a scale from 1 (the most pima-est) to 7 which is inferior to Grade No. 6 cotton which is inferior to Grade No. 5 which is inferior to Grade No. 4, you get it. Also, after learning about cotton grades,  Grade No. 1 sounds as if it will be soft against your skin. Grade No. 7 sounds scratchy.

Greyhounds that are graded E are disqualified from racing–obviously a Grade A dog is a winner. Coins have grades, too. I think most people would prefer to be classified as “mint” condition rather than basal. The latter grade is given to lumps of metal that can be identified as having once been a coin. Booze is graded as well, call and top-shelf. Which do you think is the quality choice? The one you stretch to reach, Johnny Walker Blue. (Please note that JW nonsensically uses a color scheme to grade its whiskey. Grades are everywhere!)

When you grade your backyard prep to put in a new deck, it’s evened out. I don’t want to be “evened out.” Sounds a bit like what happened to Randle Patrick McMurphy near the end of Cuckoo’s Nest.

So, you can see why some people think good grades are better than not-so-good grades. It’s not too big a leap to see that some people might equate good grades with the quality of the grad-ee. And it’s easy to see that many people aren’t really happy about being graded at all, especially if a poor grade makes some people view them poorly.

That’s too bad. Grades as a tool to guide the evaluation of skills or knowledge are different than the grade of maple syrup. Maple syrup can’t improve itself into a better grade. It’s just stuck.

Evaluations can help identify where someone is on a road to mastery. Grades are a signal, albeit sometimes a clumsy one, to distinguish ability or grasp of a subject or competency. The grader has an obligation to explain the difference in the grades and, most importantly, what it will take to get from one grade to the next.

Grades are a shorthand. You know what you’re getting. And, in the case of assessing–or judging–a person’s attainment of a milestone or proficiency, it provides some type of measure against a standard of some type.

But nobody wants a big fat red F. Nobody.

Loyal Reader, I am sorry for this post. It’s definitely not my best, but I am nearly out of gas. I have a headache. So I’ll give myself, and dutifully accept, a low grade today.

Not every day is Grade A or even B. Not even for the Doc. Tomorrow is another day.