The best thing I’ve ever learned


Must lists of advice from the dying all be trite? Some mishmash of “tell people you love them,” and “buy experiences, not things” and “don’t concentrate on petty things like cellulite” and “eat the cake” and some “do things for others” sprinkled in there for good measure.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not currently dying. But I can share with you the best thing I’ve ever learned. Realized. There’s a story. In 6th grade social studies, we had to do projects and present in front of the class. I watched the other students present, each of them a jumble of nerves, fumbling over their own insecurities. I watched the students in the audience. No one was paying attention to the speaker. Every last one of them had their own matters to fret about. Their own upcoming presentations, homework they need to finish for the next class, or just daydreams. I learned something liberating that day:

No one is paying attention to you.

No one cares enough to judge what you’re doing. They have their own concerns. Now you know. You don’t have to filter everything you say and do through questions like “but what will people think of me?” They aren’t thinking of you at all. Every detail you’re perfecting will register as a millisecond blip on most radars. If that.

Small caveat: a handful of people over your lifetime are paying attention. They’re paying rapt attention and every word you utter, every stray expression on your face, every imagined intention is a scrap for the starving. They can’t put it down, they can’t stop wanting more, and they will remember everything you say and do.  If you write a single word, a throwaway “hello” on a stained napkin, they will keep it forever in a box under their bed. But don’t worry, to such a person, you walk on water. With their attention they’re saying “I worship you.” This is an entirely different matter. If there is a way to gently make it clear to such a person that you can’t reciprocate without crushing them, please teach me. It’ll make the top 10 list of best things I’ve ever learned. For sure.

In all cases, don’t worry about being judged. Mostly, they’re regular people wrapped up in their own lives. They don’t see you at all. If you meet a supplicant, just try and be kind.

Don’t be a fool: designer labels

I’ve decided to do a series on the ways we’re being taken advantage of by business. Today’s post is on designer clothing and accessories, and was motivated by this article which claims that stars get paid up to $250,000 to wear a designer’s clothes on the red carpet. Note that if you get paid that much, two red carpet events is about all it takes to put you in the 1%. Yes, just for wearing a specific designer’s dress to an event a couple of times. I want that job.

Of course, it must make sense for major fashion houses to spend this kind of money — it’s a tiny part of their advertising budget and it reaches a wide audience. But what doesn’t make sense is for normal people (like most of us) to ever bother buying anything designer. I’ve heard arguments that we’re paying for quality, and while that’s partially true, I think the bigger part of the inflated price tags is advertising. Basically, when we average people buy designer, we’re using our small income (the median US income was $51,939 in 2013) to pay people who are in the top 0.001% or so. Pay them to do what? Pay them to fool more middle class/poor people like us into buying more of the designer’s overpriced goods.

Instead of being influenced by the hottest celebrity wearing a particular designer, try looking around your own town for people with accessories (most commonly, shoes, scarves, watches, handbags) from that designer. You’re not going to become a glamorous starlet like Chloe Moretz because you have a Coach bag.

More likely, you’ll still be the tired, overweight nurse in her scrubs riding the bus. Or the old Asian woman in her too-short jeans and garishly bright fleece from Old Navy. There are ways to achieve the timeless style in designer ads, but it isn’t by buying what they’re selling. Doing so would only be playing their fool.

Transgender and social norms

I wonder what percentage of cases of gender identity issues can be explained by rigid gender roles in society. For example, a boy likes playing with Barbie dolls, and his father tells him he can’t because “Barbies are for girls.” It doesn’t make him enjoy them any less, so he concludes that he must be a girl.

If someone were raised in isolation, with no notion of gender, would it be possible for them to identify as transgendered? Would they look down one day and conclude that they have the wrong parts even if they’ve never seen the “right” parts?

It’s sad that this is considered a disorder in the individual instead of a malfunctioning of society. In Leelah Alcorn’s widely published suicide note, she said “I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life.” That’s the thing — if we lived in a society where men and women didn’t look any particular way, she wouldn’t have felt the need to transition, would she? If there was nothing we could point to and say “that thing is for women” and no way to tell male from female by looking (because everyone is gender-fluid and wears whatever they want, regardless of today’s gendered clothing/makeup/hair rules) then would there be any such thing as gender identity disorder?

The other day I saw someone at the supermarket who looked to be a cute girl — long pony tails, knee high boots, a flowered sundress. Then he* turned around and was also sporting a handlebar moustache. When he was five, one of my friends got to choose any outfit he wanted from a store. He chose a flowing, sparkly princess gown and his mother bought it for him. He wasn’t trans or gay — he just happened to like that gown the best of all the clothes in the shop. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and we should stop acting like there is. People shouldn’t have to choose a team and only like/wear/do things associated with that gender. As a society, we should be more accepting of everyone’s choices, and gentler with ourselves for liking things of the “wrong” gender. Why should it matter that a boy prefers dance to football, or if a girl likes monster trucks instead of baby dolls? Even if she wants to wear boy clothes and have short hair and do boy things — why should it be necessary for her to feel like she has to surgically or hormonally change herself in order to live honestly? Can’t we just share? Let’s share. I’m a girl and I don’t like makeup. So some boy out there can take my makeup rations and doll himself up. 🙂

* I didn’t ask his pronouns, so this is an assumption

Kim Kardashian: the new American dream

If you look at the comments section of any online article featuring Kim Kardashian, you will find detractors. There are the people who deride her appearance, who call her fat, who say she’ll be nothing when she’s 50. There are people who say she’s vapid and doesn’t deserve fame. There will always be someone who asks why she’s given any attention at all, and “why can’t she just go away.”

The reason is, we won’t stop talking about her. Or clicking on articles about her new nude photos or her latest cleavage bearing, flesh colored, slit-up-to-her-netherparts vinyl dress. We can’t. I think our collective fascination with her is that she’s the new American dream. It’s got nothing to do with the old one: the one where your parents come as immigrants and you work hard every day of your life and give your children a life better than your parents ever dreamed. No, not that one.

This one is much more glamorous. The new American dream is that anyone can become rich and famous and jetset around the world. After all, Kim Kardashian did it, so what does she have that you or I don’t?* You don’t have to be particularly pretty — she’s not ugly, but she’s not exactly a supermodel either. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to have a college degree. You don’t have to have any particular talent or skill. You don’t have to be interesting. I’m not criticizing her: she’s just thoroughly average, the way that most of us are.

Who am I supposed to be impressed by? Stephen Hawking? Bill Gates? Hilary Clinton? Those people were born brilliant. I expect them to do great things. Kim was born average and she’s achieved wealth beyond what most of us can imagine. I’m impressed the way the rest of the world is impressed when someone with Down’s Syndrome writes a book.

There you have it. If you conveniently ignore that she was born into wealth, the rest of her is average. But that gives us hope. We see her and think — maybe someday, for no good reason at all, I can be the idle rich too. I can get paid $20,000 for a tweet. I can go to fashion weeks in Paris, New York, Milan and sit in the front row. I can go to the Met ball. I can fly off to Dubai on a whim. I can have any dress, any purse, any shoes, any house, anything anything anything I want. Won’t that be marvelous? We sneer over every mistake she makes and every poor fashion choice. We make fun of every tasteless misstep, but it’s really because we’re imagining how we would do it better. That’s why we can’t stop looking, clicking, talking. It’s because we’re all secretly dreaming.

* It may not sound like it, but I deeply admire Kim and of course I wish I could be just like her. That’s why I wrote this: she truly is the new American dream!

Lowered expectations

This post is in response to a couple of articles I read recently. One on how smutty fiction makes us unhappy by giving us unrealistic expectations, and the other on why I’m not married (both linked below). I have also linked my favorite response to the marriage article: it brings up the good point that expecting nothing means that we allow ourselves to be treated badly, and this is obviously not ideal.

Though the author of the marriage article, Tracy McMillan, has been called sexist, misogynist, etc, and I won’t agree or disagree. I do think she has a point. If marriage is so important that you are willing to mould yourself into an ideal of pleasant femininity, to accept any guy who will marry you, to be selfless and expect nothing in return except sexual fidelity, then yes — do that. It may really help you with your goal of being married.

However, I think it may be worthwhile to first examine why marriage is that important to you — and whether it’s really about you. Or is that that your parents expect it? That your friends are all doing it? That you’re sick of answering questions about why you aren’t married? You’re afraid to be alone? Your biological clock is ticking? There may be better solutions to all of these concerns.

The other article on fantasy boyfriends from fiction mentions the author’s parents who, at the time of publication, had been happily married for 39 years. I’m always interested to know how people manage to tolerate each other for that long. Her mother said her secret was “forgiveness and lowered expectations”.

Her response makes me sad. While articles like these are telling women they should be less selfish and more forgiving and live life “working around a man’s fear and insecurity”, they’re implicitly giving men a free pass. The other side of telling women “please lower your expectations” is telling men “you’re fine just the way you are”. In other words, men: you don’t need to work on improving yourself. You don’t have to be romantic. You don’t have to act like an adult rather than your wife’s other 5 year old son. You don’t have to deal with your emotions and your wife’s concerns in a thoughtful way. You don’t have to look good. You’re a man! That is just how you are! The only thing expected of you in a marriage is that you don’t cheat!

I think we should teach people (both genders) to raise their expectations. Unless it’s the kind of love that streaks across the heavens and lights up the night sky, it isn’t worth your time. Trust me on this one — I’ve taken the long road to verify it.

Your Fictional Fantasy Boyfriend May Be Making You Fifty Shades of Miserable

Why You’re Not Married

An Open Letter to the Women Who Are Telling Me It’s My Fault I’m Not Married

Lessons from Teen Mom

(The observations in this post are about Teen Mom 2)

“Television rots the brain”

“Reality television is trash and a waste of time”

These are common statements, especially among educated, serious grown-up types. But I contend that if you look, there are common threads to human behavior and motivation that can be observed in these types of shows. Here are a few things I have learned.

What girls want

There is just one thing: they want to feel like the #1 priority.

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Stories from childhood

I was watching the above Ted Talk from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, and she said something that struck me. She had read stories about British children when she was first learning to read, and as a result, her first stories were about the same sorts of children doing the same sorts of things as in those books — things completely foreign to her like eating apples and talking about the weather.

That made me think back to what books I read as a child. It wasn’t hard. My favorite was series about Samantha Parkington, a wealthy orphan growing up in Victorian upstate New York. I still have a tradition — when the weather gets cold enough that I start taking long baths just to keep warm, I read the entire set again. Usually over the course of just 1 or 2 baths. As you can imagine, my set (gifted to me one Christmas when I was about 7), is falling apart now.

This time, I noted with amusement that Samantha Parkington defined my taste: drop-waisted dresses, nautical theme, black watch plaid, charcoal wool school dresses, collars, lacy nightgowns, multi-layered pink dresses, intricate embroidered edges, giant hair bows, lockets and extraneous buttons on everything. Her personality had also shaped mine: fierce loyalty towards a few close friends and the inclination to make it very clear to each person whether or not they are in her favor. A cavalier disregard for rules that don’t seem to make sense. A willingness to say shocking things in the name of truth. A love of christmas trees and decorating gingerbread houses.

Here’s the question: was I just at the right age to be moulded? If I had instead been gifted a boxed set of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, would Kourtney have been my model? I think I was given Molly McIntire’s set at the same time, but that had no effect. Maybe one has to relate a little to begin with. Samantha was also an only child who liked to climb trees and get her frilly dresses dirty…

What stories did you read as an impressionable youth, and what effect do you think they had on you?

On effusive praise

In college I knew a couple who looked good on paper. The boy, we’ll call him K, was effusive in his praise for his girlfriend, whom we will call H. He frequently bought her pink roses, pearls, tea sets and things he knew she adored. They were often pictured together at formal events where she could indulge her love of dressing up.

This boy, K, was the younger brother of a boy that I was dating. I met K first, but I felt so much closer to his brother. I did watch the relationship of K & H from the beginning though, and comparing it to my own, was sometimes envious. My boyfriend did not buy me things, take me to fancy parties, or gush over me in his blog. I wondered if I had made the wrong choice. Not out of materialism, but I dangerously let myself ask whether my boyfriend felt strongly about me at all.

But I was wrong. Here is the rest of their story.

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On Beauty

I chose my first boyfriend for his attractiveness. Tall, pretty blue-green eyes, dramatic pouty lips, and soft emo hair. That was a mistake because it turned out that it was harder to hold a conversation with him than with an inanimate object. At seventeen, he still didn’t know what mathematical integration was. He also believed so strongly in the evils of GMOs that he spent a series of Saturdays designing and making a papier mâché costume of corn with a lobster head and claws to wear in an anti-GMO parade. I told him merely that if such a thing existed I’m sure it would be delicious.

Since then I’ve had many discussions on the merits of choosing a partner based on beauty. The strongest argument against has been that it shouldn’t be relevant because it is neither a lasting feature, nor indicative of anything else about the person.

I agree with the first reason, but I’m less convinced of the second. There has been research (mentioned in the article linked below) that seems to indicate a few interesting things:

1. Perception of beauty is innate: babies reliably prefer more beautiful faces long before society has a chance to tell them what they should find beautiful.

2. Beautiful children are treated better by their parents. They are looked after more carefully, and less likely to be abused.

3. Beautiful children are better adjusted, more popular, and more intelligent.

I think findings 2 and 3 need to be carefully controlled for things like socio-economic status of the parents, and I haven’t read the original papers, but I would not be surprised if they were true. I see the same bias in myself: ascribing positive traits (interesting, intelligent, kind) to people because I find them beautiful. I pay more attention to them. Confirmation bias and the Pygmalion effect are at play, but I’m not sure it matters. Just like it doesn’t matter if my headache is cured by a placebo.

Perhaps there is a reason that the French language has no notion of beauty that doesn’t also have connotations of goodness.

The Evolution of Beauty