Monthly Archives: April 2012

I have nothing to offer but my own confusion…

So what happens when an achievement-oriented, depressive and addictive personality takes an extensive leave from work? She goes crazy.

It’s officially happened, people. I’ve reached my limit. My breaking point. Living without the structure and steady feedback – positive or negative – of a job has left me lost, confused and unsure of how I measure up in the world. If it weren’t such a miserable experience and happening to me – I’d say this is fascinating! But being your own guinea pig is not always fun.

It’s so odd, because I think of myself as being pretty self-directed. I can set goals and achieve them. But it’s a whole lot easier when there is a clear system I’m playing in. Like in soccer, actually. I loved playing in a “system.” When it came to pick-up or goofing around, I was never as good as when I was on the field, playing within a structured 4-4-2.

Well, dear structure, I MISS YOU! COME SAVE ME!

The sad reality of the twisted world in my head – the thought that I was trying to destroy during this “Spring of Sara” – is that without accomplishing anything, my life means nothing. Without a star on the board or crossing a task off a list, I have to convince myself that I mean something. I have to make that determination myself in a vacuum. And sure, every Yoga instructor and therapist will tell you that learning out to determine your own worth is the key to lifelong happiness. But waking up every morning and deciding that I have value – that I have a reason for being – is really fucking hard after a while.

When you have a job, just showing up in the morning is some sort of accomplishment. Good for you, Sara! You made it into the office by 9! You win!  And how many mornings when I was working did I groan and complain as I headed, eyes half-shut, to the office? Plenty. Yet here I am, with nothing to wake up early for, and I feel insanely guilty sleeping past 7:15.

I wanted to take time off between jobs to pretend to be a writer for three months and see how it felt. To figure out if that is “what I’m meant to do” in this world. And, if it’s not, find out what is. Turns out “finding your passion” isn’t just some workshop you participate in. It’s not a book you read. It’s not a few long days in the mountains thinking really hard about it. You have to live your life and let your driving passion reveal itself to you, slowly and who-knows-when. Putting life on pause to figure it out has made it even more confusing. The harder I try to find it the more frustrated I get because I haven’t found it. And, frankly, the harder I try the less likely I probably am to find it.

Right now, I just want someone to tell me what to do. To send me an annoying bitchy email at 6:45 pm asking me to revise an entire proposal ASAP or asking for clarification on something I’ve already clarified a gazillion times. Or just ask me to schedule a stupid check-in meeting. Oh, Outlook how I miss you!

I’m realizing when it comes to “finding your passion,” there’s also the trick of finding one that still allows you to live a happy life. And on this point, right now I want to call bullshit on the incredibly frustrating and elusive aspiration that every life coach throws out there: do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Bull. Shit. Do what you love and you might just lose the life you love – the full life that makes you happy. Don’t just do what you love. Do what makes you happy. A happy life is a passionate life!

If I were to become a full-time writer, the parts of my life that actually keep me from walking into oncoming traffic – the parts that matter – would suffer enormously. I’d get obsessive, dark, and reclusive. I’d get really heady. I’d think deeply all the time – which means I’d think about sad things. The kind of thoughts that make you feel completely insignificant as you come to realize just how big and impossible the world is.

Were any of the “great writers” happy? No. They were frustrated. Riddled with anxiety. Lost. They were pissed that they were burdened with the gift of writing — that they had to sacrifice their personal happiness for the greater good; to enlighten an ignorant public. It’s an incredibly egocentric mentality, but it’s true. The great writers thought they were saying what nobody else could say. And, truth be told, they probably were saying it in a way that nobody else could. But at what cost?

Of all possible careers, writing is apparently ranked 10th in terms of likelihood for depression. Delving into the scary recesses of the soul is not a journey for the faint of heart. Nor, it seems, for those who want to enjoy life. A depressed life is great literary material. But it can land you six feet under.

Let’s see…

  • Hunter S. Thompson – suicide.
  • Anne Sexton – suicide.
  • Virginia Woolf – suicide.
  • Ernest Hemingway – suicide.
  • Sylvia Plath – suicide.
  • David Foster Wallace – suicide.
  • Yukio Mishima – suicide.
  • Primo Levi – suicide.
  • Jack London – suicide.

I am keenly aware that depression/bi-polar/mania and creative prowess often go hand in hand. It is, well, In My Blood.

But don’t just take the Sedgwick word for it. According to an old NY Times article, “Exploring the Links Between Depression, Writers and Suicide,” writers tend to love sad threesomes with depression and suicide. Here are a few excerpts:

  • Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” said writers were 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which lead to suicide more often than any other mental disorders do.
  • The novelist William Styron recounted his own battle with depression, told in his book “Darkness Visible,” and pointed to the warning signs of his illness in his novels. “I now realize that depression and thoughts of suicide have been an integral part of my creative personality throughout my life,” he said.
  • It is not surprising that these mood disorders seem most at home in the artistic mind. “The cognitive style of manic-depression overlaps with the creative temperament,” Ms. Jamison said. Researchers have found that in a mildly manic state, subjects think more quickly, fluidly and originally. In a depressed state, subjects are self-critical and obsessive, an ideal frame of mind for revision and editing. “When we think of creative writers,” Ms. Jamison said, “we think of boldness, sensitivity, restlessness, discontent; this is the manic-depressive temperament.”
  • Perhaps more than other artists, writers can be seduced by the attractiveness of suicide as a means of controlling their life story. Several speakers pointed out the tendency of suicide to become a powerful image or metaphor, one that takes root in the mind and flourishes. “Both Sylvia Plath and Sexton shared the notion that a great artist’s life must end in death,” Ms. Middlebrook said. “You stop before you write more bad stuff. Sexton applauded Hemingway’s suicide. She said ‘Good for him.'”

GOOD FOR HIM!?

At this moment, I choose happiness. Even if it’s meaningless. What makes me happy is getting shit done for other people. Whether it saves the world or just gives me an answer to “what did you do today?” – I have a similar feeling of satisfaction. The best I can say right now is that my passion is working with other people to achieve something – whether that’s my own dream or someone else’s. Being alone with my thoughts for too long is no bueno.

The inherent challenge, though, is deciding that’s enough – that happiness is the goal. And letting the chips fall where they may.

As always, there’s a great TED talk on this from psychologist Shawn Achor. Check it out. And have a happy day today.

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The Daring Adventure of Moving Home

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets
 

Five years ago I left Boston and never wanted to come back. Not even a little bit.

Five days from now I’ll be moving back to Boston – or “shipping up to Boston,” I should say. And I couldn’t be happier.

Plenty has happened in this half-decade. I finished a soccer career in Germany; moved to San Francisco; met my husband; got my first “real” job; went to Paris; cohabited; changed apartments – four times; got engaged; went to Rome; went to Vegas – three times; moved to New York City; got married; switched jobs; switched jobs again. But the activities of life are less important than the understanding they can bring. And in many ways I feel that I left Boston as someone else. And I’m coming home as me.

From a certain vantage point, you could say I’ve made a life out of leaving. Leaving Boston, leaving Harvard permanently and to study abroad, leaving Germany, leaving San Francisco, leaving New York City, leaving one job for another. Transience is a common state of being for a 20-something, I suppose. There’s something exhilarating about starting somewhere new as someone new, exploring, and then packing up to leave it all behind and begin again. But it can get lonely. Even if you have a partner in nomadic crime.

Eventually you want to be able to answer the question “Where are you from?” without running through a laundry list of cities. You want to recognize the strangers on your street. You want to be able to give directions without referring to your iPhone. You want to build a life and traditions with friends. After all this time spent running from home, eventually you want to create your own.

This is a very different tune than the one I used to sing. I was so relieved when I touched down on the West Coast and escaped the burden of the East Coast’s eat-or-be-eaten mentality. Living in San Francisco, Jason and I thought we had gamed the system, figured it all out, seen the light. But turns out paradise can get boring.

When Jason and I were experiencing the 3 year San Francisco itch, we finally conceded that no matter how hard we tried to conquer or ignore it, there was a New Englander in us desperate to get out. But as much as we wanted to go east, the idea of moving back to Boston was pregnant with a permanence that we weren’t quite ready for. New York City would be the glamorous truck-stop on the way home. We left the door open to the possibility of  making a life in the Big Apple. But four seasons later, our Apple had rotted. It was time to go home.

This will be the first time I’m “returning.” And as ready as I am, there’s some apprehension. Without the shiny distraction of “new” – life is a lot more real. You have to rely on yourself to create the feeling of adventure that is part and parcel of exploring new places. When you land somewhere new, the expectations are different, too. Surviving, in any capacity, is an achievement. Coming home, surviving isn’t as easily “enough.” And in the same way that we tend to revert to our childhood roles during family get-togethers, there’s the threat of reverting to who you were before you left, and forgetting who you’ve become since.

I suppose this next move is a bit of a test. A challenge to see if all this “growing” has been permanent or just a way of coping with new environments. I do believe that on some level a person is a person is a person, so to speak. We are who we are. But living in new places gives us a chance to see what parts of our personality are reactive and which are fundamental. To weed out the bad and nurture the good. Maybe we don’t really know how far we’ve come until we go back to where we started.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “home is where one starts from.” In this case it may also be where I end. But, to lean on Eliot a bit more, “In my end is my beginning.” Moving home is a new chapter. A new adventure. I may not be conquering a new place in the world, but I am certainly exploring a new place in life — boarding a flight to local-ville just outside wife-dom with a stop-over in car ownership, home ownership, and the possibility of a relocation to the suburb of mother-land.

In the end, though, if traveling has taught me one thing, it’s that a place is just a place. The people you share it with are what bring it to life. They are what change you – help you grow, if you let them. They are the adventure. Boston has no shortage of people – and some of my favorite people, at that.

“Coming back” may be the greatest adventure of all.

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There Is No Joy In Cooking

Yesterday’s attempt at culinary bliss wound up with me, in tears, staring at undercooked, egg-coated chicken clinging – with every fiber of its too-pink being – to what turned out not to be a non-stick pan. Pan – destroyed. Chicken – lethal. Integrity – lost. I should have photographed the event. I did everything right. I followed the recipe to a tee. I prepped. I diced what I was supposed to dice. I preheated. I tossed, marinated and oiled. I separated the egg whites. But I still fucked it up.

I suppose there’s a life lesson in there. You can follow directions. Do as you’re told. Do “all the right things” and still not get the result you want.

But as I stared at the milky-brown diced chicken carcass I had no interest in life lessons. I just wanted to cry, please. Thanks. Angry tears. Because…

  • This wasn’t fair. I’d done everything right!
  • I screwed up, yet again.
  • The chicken was not just ugly looking and not fried to a golden crisp. It was undercooked. It could’ve killed someone.
  • This was supposed to be a divine occasion during which I communed with Julia Child, Ina Garten and Alice Waters – not Gordon Ramsay and the Devil.
  • A chicken had died for this disaster.
  • All the stupid reviewers of this stupid recipe said how easy this dish was to cook. And I couldn’t even get the damn chicken off the pan. It’s still soaking.
  • I wanted to be able to do this so bad!

I’ll try again someday. Maybe not tonight. I think I’ll drink tonight and eat out. But I wanted to share this cooking catastrophe with the World Wide Web because I think there is a serious lack of honesty about culinary incompetency.

It is not easy. All the cooking websites, shows and recipes I see out there show a perfect, Martha Stewart-esque person cooking in a perfect sunlit kitchen – probably in the Hamptons – producing perfectly fried chicken on the first try by combining perfectly chopped, stirred and whisked ingredients. They open the oven and pull out their immaculate conception with such pride. They wave the aroma into their freshly de-haired nostrils. They serve dinner – with the greatest of ease – to their 2.5 beautiful Ivy League-educated children and devoted husband, George Clooney.

Compared to me, these women (typically) are like Victoria’s Secret models. Aliens. Sent to this earth to make me feel inadequate.

I’m just here to stand up for the culinarily-challenged, cowering in shame after tossing yet another over-cooked, over-salted and otherwise inedible chunk of meat in the garbage. Just because we can’t cook, doesn’t mean we’re lesser beings. Just because we can’t do it now, doesn’t mean we can’t do it eventually. And just because we may never do it perfectly, we can try. We can pretend not to be shocked when the food is edible. We can smile and laugh when we fuck up. And we can order Chinese better than anyone.

So cook on, my friends. And remember it’s the journey, not the plated destination.

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Finding the Joy in Cooking

The kitchen and I have never gotten along particularly well. I stumble around, move my fingers awkwardly, drop things. I’m a fish out of water. I focus too much on the recipe yet still forget details. Forget timers. Forget ingredients. For instance, last week I tried to make brownies from a mix and when I removed the final product from the oven, I realized I had a perfectly measured cup of oil still sitting on the table.

Growing up I’d eat what was put in front of me without much thought or fuss. I was hungry. I ate. I moved on. When it came to feeding myself by myself, I happily resorted to canned soup, meal bars, take-out or pasta. In fact, in the 6 months that I lived in Italy – the mecca of food appreciation – I cooked a real meal twice. Otherwise I ate yogurt in the morning, a meal bar in the afternoon, canned soup in the evening, and random fruit or snacks from a shop if I got hungry during the day. I’m ashamed of this fact. But I think it aptly exemplifies the realization that smacked me across the face this weekend while Jason and I were in the middle of a professional cooking lesson (thanks to a sweet wedding gift). I’ve never found any joy in food.

Food was fuel. A means to an end. A solution to hunger. An expense. Something to moderate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In a basic way I appreciate a good meal. I notice when food is good or fundamentally bad. I love going out to great restaurants. But at the end of the day, unless I overpaid for a crummy meal or wound up with food poisoning, it doesn’t particularly matter to me.

However, our cooking lesson whipped up some life lessons that made me finally want to care.

As our teacher casually fried a fish, diced and sautéed beats, folded chocolate into heavy cream, chopped tomatoes, separated eggs and squeezed lemon juice (all at the same time), she also shared her philosophy about food and cooking – which was really her philosophy about love and life. Hosted in our tiny kitchen, I had a little bit of a therapy session.

Food, she explained, is the foundation of a home. It is where happiness starts from. Sitting around a table and enjoying a meal is fundamental to a healthy, full family and life. Food is not fuel. Food should be sexual. Food is an experience to be enjoyed, shared, savored.

Not that it was the best movie ever created, but it made me think of Spanglish with Adam Sandler (chef husband, John), Tea Leoni (over-exercising, joyless wife, Deborah), and Paz Vega (their housekeeper and first generation Mexican immigrant, Flor). Deborah’s life (meant to represent the life of many a well-to-do white American housewife) was built on restriction and controlling human emotions/sexuality while Flor’s was built on love and embracing human emotions/sexuality – tasting and savoring life. Sitting at our kitchen table this weekend, I felt like Deborah. A prude, Puritan, American white girl.

People eat at least three times a day. Potentially share a home-cooked meal seven nights a week. How much joy have I missed out on by just dumping condensed tomato soup into a pot and stirring occasionally for 5 minutes? How much more joy could I bring to my world, myself, my husband, our future family if I could cook?

In America’s micro-apartments without a fireplace, the TV has become the hearth. But the kitchen needs to regain control of life’s focal point. Some of my favorite memories are sitting around the island in the kitchen at Jason’s family’s house while food is prepared and corks are popped. Someday Jason and I will be the conductors of the family’s food symphony (too much? yes). We’ll be the ones cobbling together a meal from today’s groceries and extraneous left-overs. We’ll be the ones who need to smile while we do it.

And so, my new life goal is to find the joy in cooking which I hope will open me up further to the joy of food – a wonderful symbiotic relationship. The fact that my culinary skills should land me on the short bus is an easy barrier to entry. But I think if I can work on shifting my larger philosophy about food, the actual cooking ability will come. Eventually. With practice. And a healthy glass of wine.

Bon appétit!

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Training to Be Thin: Female Athletes Join “The Conversation”

“I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

– Amanda Beard

The world has been aTwitter with Ashley Judd and #TheConversation after Judd’s op-ed in the Daily Beast on the objectification of women. The discourse has been impressive and – as even Judd admits – the fact that it has continued beyond a 24 hour celeb news cycle seems to indicate that “The Conversation” is bigger than her. There has been an outpouring of support from women (and men) around the world – with many sharing their personal struggles with body image. One I found particularly touching was this piece from a 22-year-old Australian biomedical engineer. Worth a gander.

And then Amanda Beard joined in. Beard, for the few that may not know, is a 7-time Olympic medalist and has been put forward as the sexy face/body of female Olympians (including spreads in Playboy and Maxim). Her memoir, In The Water They Can’t See You Cry, hit bookshelves this week. And it turns out the woman who looked like she had it all (and all together) is no different from the rest of us – riddled with insecurity.

Her story struck a particular chord with me having grown up as an elite female athlete. This is sad to say and admit, but I often think about how much different or longer my soccer career could have been had I never become aware of my body as an object – and remained content with my body as an instrument.

Growing up I was a tomboy. Happily. I played every sport imaginable and loved being physically active. Never occurred to me that my hair was a knotted or that sweatpants, umbros and sambas were not appropriate school attire. I never once thought about how I looked while I was competing. I never noticed whether my uniform fit snug or loose. I just played.

Until high school. Junior year.

Suddenly “diet” entered the lexicon of my teammates. And not just any teammates – the skinnier-than-me ones. We’d have team dinners and girls who previously boasted about how many plates of spaghetti they could eat made a conscious (and vocal) effort to stick to a small portion and skip dessert.

Somehow, in that moment, the world shifted under my feet.

I became aware of what I was eating and how much. I was conscious of how my uniform fit. Whether tucking my shirt in made me look slim or bulky. Whether I wore my hair the way the pretty girls did. These voices were screaming in my head all the time. At first I could put them on mute once the whistle blew or practice began. But they became more and more difficult to ignore.

That summer I wound up at a National Camp as part of the Olympic Development Program (ODP), playing with and against a hand-picked group of girls from around the country. I was sort of the newbie. Everyone else had been “in the system” for years, but I showed up from the unlikely state of Massachusetts. The ODP program is frankly full of a lot of bullshit and politics. There are “reasons” why certain people “make it” and others don’t. They tended to be from certain states, or from certain club teams, or were trained by certain coaches. But despite the BS, it was sort of the pinnacle and meant – at least on paper – that you were legit.

When I was called on to participate, I was thrilled, excited, intimidated and plenty surprised. This was a significant step toward my childhood dream of playing for the national team.

But once I arrived? All I felt was fat.

All the girls around me were skinny, toned, fit super-athletes. Next to them I felt like a chubby scrub. I trained as much as they did. I was in great shape. I was a fitness junky! But I just didn’t look like them. Years ago, this comparison wouldn’t have even occurred to me. But now, it was all I could think, see and hear. This running loop in my head: I’m fat, they’re skinnier than me, why don’t I look like them, I need to look like them. I barely remember anything else from the experience.

And so began my confused quest to be a skinny elite athlete.

A few weeks later I traveled to Europe with the same group of girls to compete against the Italian National Team. I worked my way onto the starting squad. I felt more comfortable and confident on the field. I felt good and was playing well.

At the end of the trip, the coaches held 1:1 sessions with each player to give feedback on our performance. They praised me, said I’d played really well and that the “veteran stars” of the squad wanted me on the field.

But then they told me I should work on my fitness.

The truth is that every athlete could always work on their fitness. Being fit is essential to soccer. So yes, could I have been fitter? Sure. Did I feel like my fitness held me back from performing at my best? Not at all.

To me, this confirmed my worst fears – I wasn’t thin enough. Because in my head, the only difference between my fitness and that of the other players was my body size.

And this is where Beard’s story really hits home for me. She was/is one of the greatest swimmers in the world. She’s blessed with phenomenal talent. She could dominate the world of swimming. All she should have cared about was training to win. But no. As she said: “I wanted to be a great swimmer, but more than that, I wanted to be pretty, skinny, and perfect.”

A few years later in college, after going through various cycles and types of self-abuse in order to attain “peak physical form,” I showed up at pre-season – a much smaller version of myself. How I got there was not the stuff of champions. But the stuff of the disordered. Eating just enough to avoid fainting mid-stride. Running for calories, not distance. Training to be thin. All my coach saw was “fit.” He pointed me out in front of the whole team as an example of diligent training. He told me my legs looked completely different, stronger than they’d ever been. In reality, I was relying on caffeine, not muscle, to stand.

In her memoir, Beard describes a similar experience after starving herself for a photo-shoot. Just reading this makes my stomach turn.

“Shaky, starving and exhausted, I was desperate to know what they were thinking. I read lots of meaning into the littlest details, paranoid from too little food and too much caffeine.

“Halfway through the shoot, while we were on break, a representative, whose job it was to make sure the photo shoot stayed on message and produced the images the company wanted for the campaign approached me.

“‘You are looking really good,’ he said with a smile. ‘Really fit.’

“I represented the ideal athlete, super slim and defined. Only, this type of definition came from lack of muscle as well as lack of body fat. My look was completely unrealistic for anyone truly competing in a sport. It put me in an impossible situation: be skinny and be strong.”

What breaks my heart is that I know Beard and I are far from the exception. I fear that this struggle is the norm. Eating disorders among female athletes are incredibly common (particularly when you consider the un-reported) as we struggle to meet at least two different physical standards – being an athlete and being a woman – set by at least two different groups – men and women, not to mention coaches and peers.

I wasted so much time and energy training to be thin instead of training to be a better player. How different would my experience have been had I not been distracted by this? How much further would I have gone? How much better would I have been? Would I still be playing now? These issues plagued me for the rest of my career and I know I’m not alone.

Sport and competition are supposed to be liberating and empowering experiences for women (and men). Supposed to give the body a physical function – a purpose beyond just looking a certain way and fitting into certain clothes. Yet for many of us, it’s no longer an escape. It’s the lucky few who can stay above the fray and not be pulled down by societal expectations – not let their bodies be hijacked. The ones who can find a way to keep playing for the love of the game – bodies be damned.

How different would it be if we could compete with the lights off? How many more stars would we find?

I want to personally thank Beard for sharing her story so honestly. And Judd for facilitating such a powerful discussion. And everyone else who has opened up so bravely. By being honest about our experiences, we’re making millions of women feel a bit less alone and a bit less insane.

Looking at athletes like Beard used to make me so angry and frustrated. How could she be so strong and yet so thin? Why did I have to starve myself to get her “fit” body, yet she could eat a full, balanced, nutritionist-recommended meal? Now I know why. She didn’t. And most of them don’t.

But we should. And we can. And we will.

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Ashley Judd Bitch-Slaps Media and Women. I Say Thank You.

Dear Ashley and the Puffy Face Brigade…

Before I go a sentence further, I have to first confess that I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Ashley Judd. I actually find her fairly pretentious – championing a “holier than thou” affect commonly encountered among the “saved.” Just look at the design of her website.

Now, I would like to say Ashley is not “holier than us,” she is “just an actress” – but her (no doubt) self-written bio would prove that a lie. Just to give you a taste:

At present, Ashley serves on the Board of Directors of Population Services International, Defenders of Wildlife, and Shaker Village. She has traveled, literally, around the world, visiting grassroots programs that focus on poverty alleviation, public health, human rights, and social justice. Entrusted with the sacred stories shared with her by the vulnerable, and often exploited yet remarkably resilient populations to whom she has dedicated much of her life, Ashley then speaks truth to power, carrying the message of empowerment and equality to heads of state, donors, the private sector, and the media. A small sampling of her advocacy work includes: Giving the keynote address on the modern slave trade to the 2008 General Assembly of the United Nations, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the urgent need to prevent the spread of HIV to girls and women, speaking to the National Press Club, appearing on major news programs, and filming 3 documentaries seen by over a billion people worldwide. She has served as an expert panelist/moderator at conferences such as the Clinton Global Initiative, the Women Deliver Conference, the International AIDS conference, and the Global Business Coalition to stop HIV, TB, and Malaria, and the National Press Club.

There’s a lot more where that came from. And, lest we forget, she is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School!

Unfortunately, for all this good-doing, Ashley is the type of humanitarian/advocate that makes me want to vomit. She’s right up there with almost every happy-hour loving non-profiteer I’ve encountered in DC. They want to save the world for the same reason Manhattan bankers want to make money. For themselves.

(deep breath)

Putting my prejudices aside, I was intrigued by Ashley’s response to recent criticism of her appearance. In case you missed it/have a life, in the last few weeks, the media/internet world has lambasted Ashley for her puffy face, which she claims is a side-effect of steroids she’d been using to treat an illness (not due to plastic surgery or weight gain).

Ashley didn’t like this.

On Monday – coincidentally the day after Jesus’ own post-crucifixion resurrection – Ashley felt she’d had JLo-style “enough.” She published an op-ed in the Daily Beast in which she laddered up to the larger issue at hand (or face, as the case may be). Objectification of women.

Don’t get me started on the fact that front. and. center. of this op-ed is a larger than life portrait of Ashley’s face. But if I can ignore the messenger (despite the fact that she’s staring right at me) and focus on the (unnecessarily magniloquent – see Ashley? I can use big words too!) message, I like what she’s trying to do here.

Actually – I love it.

Like virtually every female I’ve grown up with, I’ve gone through my own bouts with physical insecurity – some casual and some far more serious. In college, it was at its peak. Owen Wilson lost a few good men out there with the Yankees. I lost so many good ladies in college.

Girls left and right were either bulimic, anorexic or both. Female athletes, supposedly beaming with self-esteem, were no exception.

I became obsessed with how/why this issue was so rampant that some ridiculous number of toilets on college campuses have to be closed every week because they are clogged with puke. I even dedicated my senior year to writing a thesis on the subject of women and eating disorders – in this case using the lens of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the “problem that has no name.”

Women, it seemed to me, were slaving over their bodies in the way that 50s housewives slaved over the home. The house was never clean enough, the yard was never green enough, the kids were never smart enough, the dinner was never good enough, the wife was never social enough. Now a woman’s body is never good enough. It’s always too thin, too fat, too muscular, too flabby, too blond, too butch, too athletic, too old, too young, too, too, too, too, too.

A woman’s work is never done.

Friedan’s women described a lack of feeling full. So, too, do today’s women. Literally. Not only a lack of feeling full but, in a society focused on either indulging or dieting, fear and confusion about how to even reach “full.”

Ashley’s diatribe is wonderful in many respects and has some very powerful passages. (You should actually read it). But what made me scream “thank you for saying this!” the loudest was the fact that she called out women for being participants in and catalysts for the “problem that has no name” or, in this instance, “the Conversation.” As she writes, “A case in point is that this conversation [about Ashley’s appearance] was initially promulgated largely by women; a sad and disturbing fact.”

As I alluded to in an earlier post – it’s not men. It’s women. And this is a problem.

I remember getting ready for nights out in college. I dreaded these evenings to the point of avoiding them entirely. Girls would spend hours getting ready. Primping and prepping. Trying things on and asking roommates if they looked good. Then on to the pre-gaming portion of the evening, which is really drinking while comparing yourself to the other girls in the room – trying desperately to find that one aspect of that one girl who made you feel prettier/skinnier/hotter (take your pick) and therefore good enough to be seen in public. Drinking at this point becomes a necessity. The drunker you are, the faster you feel physically superior (beer goggles aren’t just for looking at other people). Then, finally, you’d exit the building to join some party somewhere. An entourage of drunk girls all thinking “at least I look better than her” or “shit, I feel so fat.”

No men were involved in the making of this scenario.

This sort of comparison is not reserved exclusively for college. As Ashley writes, “the conversation [about her appearance] was pointedly nasty, gendered, and misogynistic and embodies what all girls and women in our culture, to a greater or lesser degree, endure every day, in ways both outrageous and subtle.”

And even better:

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia*, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.

*Inter alia means “among other things.” You’re welcome.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve tried – and often failed – to be “the change I wish to see in the world.” Tried to rise above the comparisons and act (notice I say “act,” not necessarily “be”) comfortable in my own body, no matter what other women are around. I can’t begin to tell you how hard this is. It’s a choice. A conscious decision not to care – which I can’t always make. Girls tend to find it threatening or confusing at first – but then appealing. Comforting. A huge relief. Guys tend to love it. They probably also find it to be a huge relief.

I have moments of real weakness. I’ve learned to avoid certain social situations that will trigger intense insecurity. (I’ve also learned to drink heavily before/during/after said situations.) I’ve carefully cultivated a group of wonderful friends who are comfortable enough in their bodies not to make me feel uncomfortable in mine. I’ve also realized that the people who make me feel this way aren’t the point. The point is my experience. And that’s something only I can control. It’s a battle, but a battle worth fighting – and winning.

So, thank you Ashley for reframing this micro-criticism as the macro issue it really is. And thank you for taking those steroids. Hopefully this issue about your face can force an about-face (wah wahhhh) among women – who really are so much better than this.

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Should You Change Your Name?

I was married on July 8, 2011. The third best day of my life. The second best day was the day I met Jason. And the very best day has been every day since.

We have a magical, other-wordly, empowering, true soulmate kind of love. Teammates. Better together than ever apart (though not too shabby apart – which I think is important).

From the moment we first crossed paths, we shared everything: life ambitions, attitudes, perspectives. Everything except a last name.

I was never the girl who fantasized about her wedding. I fantasized about falling in love and having a family, sure, but never my wedding day. I also never put much thought into changing my last name. Like the cut of my wedding dress, it wasn’t really high on my list of things that were all that important.

Turns out it is.

In the months after getting engaged, the question was always there: So, are you going to change your name?

I googled “why you should change your last name,” “should I change my last name?” “women who changed their last name” and found a great collection of impassioned stories and articles. I scanned Facebook for examples of friends who had/hadn’t changed their last name. I made note of successful public figures who had/hadn’t taken their husband’s last name. Did you know Elizabeth Cady took her husband’s name to become Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Me neither. (Though apparently not going by “Mrs. Henry B. Stanton” was a significant choice at the time.) I even dropped by the Lucy Stone League: lucystoneleague.org.

I asked my friends for their opinions and got a collection of responses:

  • My recently married friend said she didn’t feel like a family until she and her husband shared a last name.
  • That same friend told me to keep my name; she thought it was strong.
  • My Asian colleague said there was no way she was going to take her American husband’s name because “that would just be weird; I’m not a Smith.” Similarly, my American colleague decided not to take the last name of her French husband.
  • Another friend said changing your last name can signify a new chapter in life – the start of a new journey and a new family.

But I didn’t get any closer to my answer.

I was frustrated by the fact that this decision was even necessary. Why are societal conventions forcing me to make a decision about something that symbolizes so much? Why couldn’t I just keep my name as it was and not state anything by doing so?

Wrapped up in a last name are all sorts of heavy topics: family, identity, loyalty, children, marital roles. Somehow dealing with this “problem about a name” meant putting a stake in the ground on issues that I suppose Jason and I hadn’t quite figured out yet – but were also very comfortable discussing and allowing to evolve. Weighty subjects like these don’t often follow black-or-white logic.

I was very happily committed to Jason. Saying “yes” was a no-brainer. Why was committing to his last name any different?

To help me grapple with this question (and make it impossible to come to a clear answer), I seemed to have a full panel of experts in my head – each with different, completely valid, points of view. Lucky me.

You like your last name, why change it? You’re an independent thinker (or try to be), why follow convention? You really want to be connected to his family, but you don’t want to lose your own. He wouldn’t change his last name, why should you? Your last name is practically your first name, particularly around sports, why close the book on that part of your life? You want to have the same name as your children, so just make the change. Does taking his last name make you submissive somehow? You want to be a family unit. Will you lose the history of who you are? You want to create a new life. You love him!

By the time it came to signing a marriage license (and even before that, deciding on monograms — equally important, apparently), I had decided to bump my last name to my middle name and take Jason’s last name as my own. And I’ve all but legally made that change.

In this digital age, the legal side of a name-change is almost irrelevant. First step? Change Facebook name. Then gmail address. Then twitter handle. Etc. Etc. DMV can wait.

It was startling to see my brand new name in writing. Who is this Sara Brown character? So I adjusted email settings to include my maiden-turned-middle name. Whenever possible, I go by all three names. I little bit of the old mixed with a wonderful amount of new.

When you’re born, you have no choice about your name. And there’s certainly no “before” to move on from; there’s just that first moment. But when you change your name as a 20-something, there are many years of you (20-something, to be exact) to look in the eye and say: “It’s been great, but mama’s got a brand new bag.”

That can be incredibly hard to do.

It’s taken time to get used to my new name. And I think that’s something people don’t talk about enough. You don’t just wake up after your wedding and say, without hesitation, “I’m Mrs. [INSERT NEW NAME HERE]!” It’s an adjustment – a process. And that’s okay! It doesn’t mean you don’t love your spouse.

In a happy/healthy way, I’ve gone through some version of the five stages of grief.

  1. Shock & Denial: I didn’t instinctively respond to Mrs. Brown. Completing forms or signing letters as “Brown” felt like a lie. When “Sara Brown” popped up in office emails, I did not believe they were from me. Who was this mythical character sending emails from my account?
  2. Anger, Pain & Guilt: Angry that societal conventions required me to make a choice in the first place. Guilty that I didn’t run without question to my husband’s name. Guilty that I was leaving my original family name behind. Guilty that I would be dropping my mother’s maiden name (previously my middle name). And the pain of not being sure about any of it.
  3. Bargaining: I’d say adding my newly-middle name to my email signature counts. Jokingly asking if Jason would take my last name. Scouring the internet to see if there was any precedence for avoiding this decision completely.
  4. Depression, Reflection & Loneliness: Depression is a serious stretch. But there was certainly TONS of reflection. And a bit of loneliness. It was ultimately my own decision – so I had to be alone in the final choice. I also felt a little lonely as Sara Brown. I’d spent years becoming Sara Sedgwick. Now here I am, Sara Brown. Nobody. Yet.
  5. Acceptance: After months of airing my grievances, researching the history of name changes, getting used to seeing and being called by my new name, introducing myself as “Sara Brown,” moving into and decorating the walls of this wonderful marriage, I was finally comfortable assuming (and starting to build) the identity of Mrs. Sara Sedgwick Brown.

It’s important to note that changing or not changing your name is a very personal decision. There’s no right answer. But I would encourage everyone to be open about the emotions behind the process.

For a while I didn’t want Jason to know I wasn’t sure about it. I didn’t want to hurt him. Understandably, not taking his name could make him think I wasn’t committed, or that I didn’t hold his name in high regard, or that I somehow didn’t really want to be his wife. None of which was remotely true. But it would be hard to explain that it wasn’t about him – it was about me.

Eventually I let him know. “It’s hard and confusing… and just kind of weird,” I explained.

He probably went through his own five stages of grief as he came to terms with the possibility that I might not take his last name. However the fifth stage led us both to the same, larger conclusion: a marriage isn’t built on a name; a marriage is built on love and a strong, enduring relationship.

In the end, deciding to change my name was a matter of faith. Like marriage, we leap. We leap because we believe that the unknown life ahead will be better than the well-known life we’re leaving behind.

And to that I say “I do.”

Deciding to be Decisive

“Decision making is about making a choice; about taking charge of our life; about feeling in control of our own destiny; about self-empowerment.”

– Neerja Raman

Last week, my sister took me to a screening of Jodie Mack’s latest handmade films (read more about Jodie here. She’s da bomb.) It’s not hard to fall in love with Jodie. At just 29 she’s made her way onto Dartmouth’s faculty through a dogged pursuit of her unbridled passion for experimental film. The best part about her is that she wears her genuine enthusiasm for her work the way that the typical professor often wears her accolades. There’s no name-dropping. Just joy-sharing.

Without a wall of pretension, the post-screening Q&A session was authentic and rife with hearty nuggets of wisdom. One that stuck with me in particular was about decision making.

The creative process – whether pertaining to writing, art, or otherwise – is a landmine of micro and macro decisions. What material do I use? What do I want to explore? What color should I use? What story do I want to tell? What tone? What paper should I use? Thick line or thin? Etc. Etc. Etc. The possibilities and therefore decisions are endless. At a certain point, you just have to go with one – which can often result in post-decision stress syndrome. Did I make the right choice!?

Jodie is not immune to this anguish. But she did tell us about an epiphanic moment that helped bring her some peace of mind. She had the opportunity to ask an experimental film idol of hers how he managed to make decisions with his work. His response: I assume that every decision I make is the right decision.

This was a serious “aha!” moment for Jodie. And for me too.

Can I just do that? Is it that simple? Can I just decide I’m always right? Do I really have that power?

I guess so!

This philosophy is a close cousin of the bigger-picture mantra that “everything works out as it should.” But I think it’s superior because it can be applied directly in the moment of decision. It’s a little more proactive and involved – dare I say empowering.

“Everything works out as it should” is akin to throwing your hands up in the air and admitting that you ultimately have very little control over what happens in your life. On the contrary, “Assume you made the right decision” means you took control, made a choice and it’s the right one!

When the emotional and rational sides of my brain align, I can usually make a choice without losing much sleep. Thankfully this is generally the case for me when it comes to the bigger decisions in my life. But on the smaller decisions that don’t really matter (e.g., what color to paint the bedroom wall), I tend to be somewhat indecisive. The rational side of my brain runs through all the practical concerns (cost, labor, time, ease, etc.) but ultimately turns to my emotional side for a final decision. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the emotional side of my brain isn’t all that invested in a sunshine yellow vs. a mustard room.

I’m great at narrowing down options. But I tend to leave the final choice to my husband. I don’t think this is inherently problematic. We play to our strengths. Research? That’s me. Decision making? That’s Jason. But I do wish I could be more decisive about the little things. Which seem to be the decisions that whisper my name in the middle of the night.

I’m hoping this “assume you’re right” mentality will go a long way. But here are a few more decision-making insights I’ve found that may help us all sleep a little better at night:

  • Less is more (satisfying). “Satisficers” (who look until they find an option that is good enough) tend to be more satisfied in their ultimate decision than “maximizers” (who consider every possible option). Why? “Maybe because a world of possibilities is also a world of missed opportunities. After surveying every option, a person is more acutely aware of the opportunities they had to turn down to pursue just one [option].” Source: Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice
  • Avoid over-thinking. Over-thinking a decision can lead you to make the wrong decision. Researchers at the University of Amsterdam found that thinking hard about what car to buy leads you to make a poor choice, or not the best choice. When given no time limit or distractions, people identified the best car of four ~25% of the time. When the researchers distracted the participants with puzzles before asking them to make their choices. More than half of them managed to pick the best car. According to Dr. Li Zhaoping of University College London, “The conscious or top level function of the brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision – even when it is correct – leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts.” Translation: think too much and you literally forget your initial instinct – which is usually the right one.
  • Your gut is usually right. In a study published in Current Biology, people were asked to pick the odd one out on a screen covered with more than 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the same symbol. People with less time to choose performed better than those who had endless time to analyze.
  • Know who you are. Striving to understand who you are and what you stand for can simplify future decision-making by giving you a “decision compass” of sorts. According to self-help author/speaker Steve Pavlina, “When we look at choices as being more than just paths — as being creative statements of self-expression — certain decisions become much easier to make.”
  • Wrong action can be better than no action. “Recognize that the risks of not making decisions are generally higher than the risks of making the wrong one, and then learn to move forward,” according to Liz Reyer, life coach/workplace consultant.
  • Dwell in ambiguity. As Neerja Raman writes in The Practice and Philosophy of Decision Making: A Seven Step Spiritual Guide, “Decision making is not a linear, precise, mathematical process. It is complex, ambiguous and often, a compromise of reason and emotion. Having a philosophical understanding of the universe and our role in it for the short time that we live in it, can be a way to reduce tension and conflict.”
  • There’s a loop for that.Stuck in circular thinking? Try the OODA Loop:
    1. Observe – collect current information from as many sources as practically possible.
    2. Orient – analyze this information, and use it to update your current reality.
    3. Decide – determine a course of action.
    4. Act – follow through on your decision.

And remember, in the end…

“The greatness is not what we do, but unavoidably it is always in how we do what we do.”

– Swami Chinmayananda

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Brutally Honest Tips for Being a Better Employee

In pretty much any industry, we are, at some point, in the position of working for and/or managing someone else. My anal-retentive, compulsive people-pleaser personality makes me a bit more naturally inclined to make sure all T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted – thinking seven steps ahead to avoid a client freak-out. It’s probably not all that dissimilar to the mindset the child of an alcoholic/abusive parent might have – keenly aware of what to do/not do in order to avoid a violent outburst. It’s twisted, but it is effective. Learning how to cultivate but control your ultra-paranoia and use it for good – not evil – can be a great skill in corporate America.

And so, in the spirit of eco-entrepreneur/writer Shea Gunther’s no-holds-barred email response to 900 job applicants, “42 Job Application Do’s and Don’ts,” I wanted to share my personal list of no-holds-barred, balls to the wall, brutally honest account management do’s and don’ts with the hope that it can help someone out there climb the slippery corporate ladder. Godspeed.

Brutally Honest Account Management Tips

Managing the client

  • Constantly assume the client thinks you’re not doing anything they’ve asked you to do or that you said you would: so check in regularly, follow-up regularly, close the loop – always
  • If you’re pushing out a specific initiative, make sure to give the client a recap daily and weekly (or ask what frequency they want)
  • In every communication, remind them of the strategy/why you’re doing what you’re doing or suggesting what you’re suggesting
  • Be clear, direct, and kind in your emails. Don’t use 10 words when you can use 5. And use bullets rather than paragraphs
  • Be buttoned up in meetings and on calls:
    • Always have an agenda – and send it IN ADVANCE of the meeting
    • Have copies of everything for everyone – even things you may not expect to reference
    • Reserve a conference room!
    • Arrive 15 minutes early; get on the conference line 2 minutes early
    • Decide ahead of time who will speak to what and make sure you’re on the same page in terms of recommendations
    • Always send a “next steps” email within 1 hour of the meeting/call
  • Do not deliver important documents after 5 pm before a call the next day; give the client at least 24 hours to review something before you expect them to discuss it
  • Be transparent – but only when it makes you look good; the client does not need to know  how the sausage is made
  • If you’re going to miss a deadline, let them know ahead of time and have a legitimate reason why
  • Acknowledge client emails within a reasonable period of time (15 minutes) – even if just to say you received their note and you’re working on it
  • Clients want answers; they don’t want questions
  • Be efficient and quick in your turnaround on projects, but do not over-promise. If you need more time, set a comfortable deadline at the outset – factoring in development and review time
  • When emailing clients, use “we” instead of “I” – it covers your butt but also shows a united front
  • Don’t do anything alone
  • Don’t automatically say yes to larger projects/new tasks that are a bit beyond scope – check with your team first and then respond
  • Don’t get sucked into a heated back-and-forth with a client over email; pick up the phone and talk it out
  • While the client is always right, it’s important to make them realize when they’re wrong – and why
  • Don’t be afraid to defend your team to the client when warranted; clients ultimately respect this
  • Do not deliver documents after 6 pm
  • If a client is the one sending check-in emails/asking for updates, something’s wrong. You should always be the one checking in or touching base with them first
  • Clients are people too

Managing your team

  • Be exceptionally clear on tasks and deadlines
  • When setting deadlines, suggest a deadline and ask if it’s reasonable
  • Assume your team will forget deadlines; remember to follow-up on items before they’re due, particularly those with longer lead-times (they’ll usually be forgotten) – something like “you all set with the monthly report for today?” or “need any help with the recap?” are nice ways to do so
  • Set up reminders for your team in outlook (e.g., “Reminder: Deliver draft proposal to Jane by noon”)
  • If a mistake is made, talk to the person about it and make sure he/she understands why it’s a mistake. Get them to understand where you’re coming from. Do not scold – this just makes everyone feel worthless
  • Don’t be afraid to give strong, critical feedback if the same mistake has been made on multiple occasions – but make sure it happens in real time, in private. If the error is not acceptable, say so and why. But approach it with a “you’re better than this” attitude. Ask what more you can do to help them succeed
  • Be flexible with colleagues that have proven themselves and earned your trust; be stern with those who haven’t
  • Make sure your team knows the scope of work
  • Make sure your team knows the hours they’re expected to work on the account
  • Make sure your team feels comfortable asking questions
  • Make sure your team knows to tell you ahead of time if a deadline will be missed
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate: it improves account efficiency, it’s more profitable and it helps everyone learn to do their job better. Don’t be afraid to have a more junior staffer take a first stab at a more “senior level” document; it’s great for employee growth and it’s incredibly helpful to have a draft to start with, rather than a blank document
  • Have weekly internal check-ins at the beginning of the week to make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them that week; have an agenda and assignments for that meeting
  • Build in time between meetings
  • Block off travel time for meetings
  • Ask for a draft of documents at least 24 hours before it’s due to the client – more time the better
  • Ask to review all emails to the client before they are sent
  • Make sure the full team is copied on email exchanges
  • Flag email requests to your team to make sure they know who is handling; set a deadline
  • Make sure your team understands that you don’t expect the content to be perfect in a first draft, but that there are certain errors that are not acceptable: spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, formatting mistakes, URL mistakes, title mistakes, date mistakes, logo mistakes, etc.
  • Have a clean folder on the server – and ALWAYS SAVE DOCUMENTS TO THE SERVER; make sure folder names make sense, and include an “Old drafts” folder for old versions and avoid clutter
  • Establish a file-naming system. For example:
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 1
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 1 SB EDITS
    • DESCRIPTOR – DRAFT 2
    • DESCRIPTOR – DATE (always include the date on the version submitted to the client)
    • DESCRIPTOR – DATE FINAL (always make it clear when a doc is finalized)
  • Always be quick with praise when it’s deserved; and always look for opportunities to give positive feedback in front of senior colleagues (on email or in person) – it will matter more to the recipient
  • If you wouldn’t say it to your boss’s face, don’t put it in an email
  • Don’t be condescending; you’re not that smart and they’re not that dumb
  • Be empathetic, but don’t complain down
  • Your job is to make the team look good by making sure they have the tools to succeed; it’s the team’s job to make you look good
  • Colleagues are people too

Miscellaneous

  • Do the small things first; then the big things – otherwise you’ll forget the little things
  • Perfection is the enemy of done. Constantly strive to find a balance between perfection and efficiency
  • Set up your email to auto spellcheck when you hit send
  • Block off time on your calendar to get big projects done
  • Always include page numbers on a document
  • Set up reminders on your calendar; particularly when it comes to recurring deliverables (agendas) or items you’ll need to follow-up on weeks down the line
  • Good, smart content is obviously critical, but it means nothing if the document looks ugly or cluttered
  • Politics are an inherent part of corporate America. Don’t try to play someone else’s game. Learn what your game is and stick to it. And remember that not playing the game is still playing the game. That said, the best way to stay above it is to make sure your work speaks for yourself
  • Make sure you have something in your life that is more important to you than work

Confessions of an Ivy League Frat-Hater

I read with childlike excitement Rolling Stone’s review of Confessions of an Ivy League [Dartmouth] Frat Boy. Maybe someday I’ll read the book too. I can’t tell you how giddy it made me to see someone else tear down the atrocity that is Greek life (in my opinion).

The title of this post was initially going to be “I hate exclusivity – unless I’m included.” But I’m not sure that’s true.

As my husband can attest, I have issues with “better than you” groups – however I subjectively choose to define “better.” Usually it means cooler, prettier, smarter, stronger, wealthier, more important and successful – even if I’m not quite convinced that behind the pearly gates are cooler, prettier, smarter, stronger, smarter, wealthier, more important and successful people.

The hypocrisy of this feeling is not lost on me. I went to an elitist school. I played on a sports team, which can be exclusive. My defense has usually been that these are things that are earned through good behaviors, available to anyone and have a positive impact on society. But that’s also not really true. It’s not a level playing field. It’s not fair. And we’re not all saving the world.

I definitely have my issues with being a Harvard graduate. I felt – and still feel – uncomfortable in any position other than under dog. I don’t feel proud of my alma mater. I squirm when people ask where I went to school. I hate giving an evasive answer. I hate that, by avoiding the question, I’m assuming that saying “I went to Harvard” would be bragging. Which in turn means that I think everyone sees Harvard as “super awesome.” Which makes me an arrogant – if not conflicted – prick. Answering that question is lose-lose.

I love that I went to a public high school. I bring that up in every conversation possible – in great detail. But college? I went to school in Boston. Next question?

Anyways, what does this have to do with frat culture?

Here’s the thing. When I was in high school and looking at colleges, frat/sorority/Greek life meant nothing to me except what I saw in the movies. Which was drinking. And I was terrified of drinking. I seriously thought one sip of alcohol would ruin my life. So as far as I was concerned, sororities were something intimidating and somehow dangerous that I’d rather avoid. Something I wasn’t cool enough to even be comfortable enough to try to join. And, sure, in some way that probably made me feel like a loser. (single tear)

Once I got to college, alcohol and I became better friends. But Harvard’s frat-equivalent “Finals Clubs” and the few female versions (without real estate – no female social clubs at Harvard have a house) remained at arm’s length.

At the core of this distancing, was there an element of social anxiety and insecurity? Absolutely. Did I not feel pretty enough, social enough, outgoing enough to join? Yes. Is that where my fundamental disdain for such groups came from? Probably. But I think it’s matured from the reaction of a scorned loser to thoughts of a relatively confident, stable individual.

From this vantage point of oh-so-clear maturity, here’s what, like, bugs me about social clubs (and admittedly these apply more to frats than sororities):

  • You have to pay to be a member
  • One of the main points is to binge drink
  • As a girl, you often risk rape by entering a frat
  • They help the people who don’t really need help – whether that’s in terms of connections and future employment or answers to a final exam
  • They foster a blindness to reality, a sense of being above the law
  • They make you think things that are not okay, are okay
  • They’re exclusive for the sake of being exclusive
  • Hazing is wrong. In any way shape or form. If you want real bonding, join the military. Don’t swim in poop.
  • They can dominate the social landscape, in a negative way
  • They’re governed by an unquestioning belief in tradition: “we do it this way because it’s always been done this way.” Which leaves little room for anyone to stand up to the establishment.
  • They encourage cultish, group-think

Am I aware of the benefits of frats and sororities? I think so. Camaraderie is an incredibly important thing especially in a new environment like college. Feeling like you belong or are “part of something” is another. Friendships in general. Stress relief. The “play hard” of the “work hard/play hard” mentality. College memories. Many support charities and engage in community outreach. I’m certainly not above alcohol-induced deep “life” talks. Maybe brilliant, world-changing/saving ideas have been born over a pong table. But I guess I’d prefer that these positives came from something that had a better impact on those in and outside of it in the short and long term. Late nights at the paper, perhaps. Or road trips with your sports team (though yes, I know hazing happens in sports). Rehearsals. Drinks at a bar or in the privacy of your own dorm room.

I know it’s human nature to self-segregate – to find the people “like you” and create a group that’s “not them.” But by institutionalizing it (as Greek life does) and making it exclusive (as Greek life also does), we’re (a) saying it’s okay if not even a good thing and (b) putting too much power in the hands of kids. Who are motivated by kid things. And who are using the power to do harm rather than good.

Based on poor internet research, looks like we’ve strayed significantly from the origins of Greek life. Apparently the first frat, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded in 1776 at William & Mary. Membership was generally restricted to upperclassmen, if not seniors; and men initiated as students remained active in the society after becoming members of the faculty of the host university. They held regular meetings and emphasized “rhetoric, composition, and acting in a gentlemanly manner.”

If we could turn back time…

I guess ultimately I don’t blame the frat and sorority kids, who don’t know any better (though perhaps they should). I blame the institutions that condone it by looking the other way and largely doing nothing. It’s their job – is it not? – to provide a safe environment for learning – about academics and life. And maybe sharing a brooski or two.

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