Day: June 11, 2015

On Positivity, Vulnerability, and Culture (with a Touch of the Coriolis Effect)

Cloud, who blogs over as Wandering Scientist, posted a review of Laura Vanderkam’s “I Know How She Does It“. I have not read Vanderkam’s book and I have to say it is unlikely that I will. I occasionally read her blog, I have read a couple of her previous books, and I think I have a pretty good idea as to what I might find in the book.

What I want to discuss here stems from one of Cloud’s comments about the book. Namely, Cloud says that Vanderkam’s book gives a nice counterbalance to all the stories of gloom and doom that accompany a woman’s choice to have it all (family and a satisfying job) in that it shows, on a number of examples of high-earning women, that the time requirements of raising a family and keeping a career going are not incompatible with one another, and that people don’t actually work as much as they say they do. In essence, Cloud feels Vanderkam’s book counters a lot of negativity surrounding the talk of balancing career and family.

Lefou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking… A dangerous passtime! I know…

I have been thinking about what the positive and negative really mean in our lived experiences and in how we choose to present them to others.

As someone who didn’t grow up in this culture, I think I have a much higher threshold  than the US mainstream for what constitutes annoying whining and complaining, and a much lower threshold for what constitutes unfounded optimism or bragging or drumming up what are essentially non-achievements. So much of what is considered whining in the blogosphere, for instance, simply registers as relieving pressure or being honest on my radar. But optimistic and clean definitely trumps honest or messy in the culture that the middle class consumes; even after having lived here for 15+ years, this is one of the cultural aspects that I can only deal with intellectually, while every fiber of my being wants to scream “Bullshit!”

Most books that I have read in recent years and that were published in the US completely fail to elicit any emotional response from me, except annoyance. They don’t make me think or feel anything, they don’t dazzle with the beauty of the writing, they just kill time, and not very effectively at that. At this point, I think I am almost entirely lost to contemporary fiction as a genre, as a majority of even critically acclaimed books I find just… disappointing. I have become a very timid reader, deciding on getting a book as if I am approaching a hornet’s nest.

So I have found myself gravitating towards the books where I am at least guaranteed to be entertained: science fiction (I don’t care for fantasy) and when I travel I often pick up what I would call comedic autobiographies. It turns out, when I strive to be entertained, I sometimes end up being surprisingly moved or led to think. It goes to show that sometimes the best writing comes from the people who do not take themselves too seriously. (Or, as with many things in life, the key to happiness is low expectations.)

I read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” a few years ago, and I didn’t dislike it. Recently, I read Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman,” and I really liked it. On the surface, the two books are very similar — funny women talk about growing up and how they developed into the feminists they are today. And the two books, to me, show a stark contrast between what I would consider a vcoice that is marketable in the US versus what is a more European (specifically British) take on the same topics. I am not going to speculate how much of the difference comes from the writers versus the editorial process. I will just say that Tina Fey is a celebrity, and “Bossypants” was meant to be a big seller. Caitlin Moran is a virtual unknown in the US, so “How to Be a Woman” would, I am sure, not be expected to appeal to nearly as large of an audience. I think these considerations probably play the roles of importance comparable to each woman’s facility with the metaphorical pen. 

Put simply, “Bossypants” has been sanitized for your protection. While she writes about growing up and all the trials and tribulations that accompany it, there is really no emotional component to the writing. It feels very much removed from the experiences, as if someone else’s story was being written. The words are there, the stories are there, the connection… is not there. 

In contrast, Caitlin Moran’s “How to Be a Woman” is messier. Sure, there is profanity, but I don’t think that’s all of it. “How to Be a Woman” actually manages to stir up memories of teenage years, the writing feels very real, it makes you laugh and reminisce and nod in recognition. For instance, when you are a teenager, you do all sorts of things because you are totally convinced that you know what you’re doing. Of course, you don’t, but they feel urgent and important and right. Moran manages to powerfully convey that sense of importance and urgency that colors much of teenage years, and I felt I could completely be there with her, really and truly in her teenage shoes. Fey, in contrast, never lets you forget that she is all grown up now, and the mess is downplayed; some vulnerability is shown, but it’s really only in retrospect, so you almost pity the poor soul. I was a teen once and did things that in hindsight were ridiculous or degrading, but only in hindsight; then, the actions were fueled by curiosity, lust, and lots of energy that just needed to channeled somewhere. Moran reminds you of how the hurricane of teenage emotions feels. Fey tells you how it all looks to a mildly concerned adult who is shadowing the teenager.

Which brings me back to the comment that Vanderkam’s book is a good counterbalance to all the negative messages young women receive today about how hard it is to have work and family.

I actually think there is not enough genuine whining about this topic, or any other. I am drawn to blogs and articles where the authors sound like real people, warts and all. That means joy sounds like joy (rather than as a commercial for antihistamines, with families in pastels frolicking through the meadows) and where sadness/anger/irritation sound like those emotions (rather than as the Hayden Christensen Star Wars attempts at portraying them). Because I absolutely do not believe that there are perfect people, but I do believe that there are some people who lack in self-awareness, there are some people who are control-freaks and who do not believe in letting even a sliver of genuine vulnerability show through, and there are simply many people who have firm boundaries between their presentation to the world and their genuine selves and are extremely careful about whom they allow to peek into their inner sanctum. However, I feel that there is no real friendship until and unless you have shared some of your vulnerabilities with another person (I would say that Brené Brown agrees). Everyone else is just a friendly acquaintance.

A colleague from another department, whom I considered a friend (he and wife have been our dinner guests many times), asked a few weeks ago how my semester was going, and it was truly going awfully; I was exhausted, with way too much service, too large of a class I was teaching, conflicting deadlines, and generally just being stretched too thin. For a moment, I forgot he’s a born-and-bred WASP and instead told him, as I would a friend, that I was very tired and briefly why. He retorted with the sarcastic “Wow, why don’t you tell me how you really feel.” I was very close to telling him to fu*k off. Later I wrote him an email faux apologizing for the negativity and pledging to endeavor to be unfailingly sunny in the future (in overly bombastic language), but he seems to have taken it seriously.

Maybe I am just a curmudgeon, by nature or by how I grew up, but it boils down to this: while my colleague finds negativity off-putting, I can’t help but find unrelenting positivity to be disingenuous. Of course, people who are happy and positive are nice to be around, but if you are too positive all the time around me, I assume I am irrelevant to you, i.e., you choose not to actually have a meaningful relationship with me.

My point is that what I feel we need — in real life, in books, and the blogosphere — is more people talking and writing in their genuine voices, rather than simply more people being relentlessly upbeat or even blandly non-negative about things. If people are genuine, then you see the good and the bad, which is the spice of life, but I suppose being genuine is scary, bad for business, and potentially dangerous (yes, you bet I blog under a pseudonym).

Barring a revolutionary cultural shift (ha-ha), I will keep working on suppressing my inner curmudgeon, so I can be a fountain of joy the next time I run into my so-called friend and not ruin his day. As an example of this upbeat attitude that is stereotypically American (indeed, I have never met anyone who grew up in Europe or Asia to be so happy and exuberant all the time) I shall endeavor to emulate Destin of “Smarter Every Day“: this great two-video project on the Coriolis effect can cheer up even the grumpiest of nerds.