Thinking Critically Is Hard

There has been a lot of writing about the downside of the digital echo chamber, the tendency for the Internet (social media, search engines, etc.) to feed us information that reinforces our natural views. I’ve tried to fight it by staying connected with individuals from across as many spectrums as I can think of: politics, economic status, geography, race and religious practice. It may not be a perfect solution, but it’s my small attempt to pop my own bubble — to remind myself that my lived experiences are unique and have created a belief structure that is all my own.

An individualized world of what’s right, just like everyone else.

But lately I have felt that passive awareness is just not enough. I’ve been compelled and challenged to try to push beyond uncomfortable statements and assertions to try to understand where the thinking is coming from and to find the grain of truth that lives inside it. Not necessary an objective truth, like gravity, but the subjective truth of a lived perspective.

It hasn’t been easy.

The hardest article I have read in a long time is How to Make Women Happy: Uninvent the Washing Machine and the Pill. Written by a young man named Milo Yiannopoulos the central argument is that women were happier before technical innovation offered choices that inherently made women less happy. He concludes that when women had to focus on homemaking and childrearing they were able to do those things well and that the simplicity in goals led them to be more content. Hearing another person systematically invalidate my life and each of my carefully considered choices was painful and as I read his treatise I wondered aloud how he could possibly write such wide and sweeping statements with so little life experience and none of it as a woman.

I could lay out those points and counter points in an attempt to try convince you that I am right, but that is not the point of this post.

The point of this post is reinforce the idea that it is possible to hear ideas that are personally repugnant, to push beyond the visceral feeling and to think critically about them. And putting myself in that frame I took a deep breath and thought about it again. I considered the basic tenant of the argument that he was making — namely that fewer choices and a simpler definition of good would lead women to be happier — and asked two questions: Would I be happier if my life choices had been constrained? Would other women?

I am a naturally optimistic person and if I am honest with myself I have to agree that there are a great many circumstances in which I could be happy. However, my greatest moments of joy have come from weighing the opportunities and options available to me and making the choice best matched to my capabilities. Pursuing my academic goals, marrying my husband, having my children and choosing the various steps on my career path have each brought struggles, but in every struggle I have been reminded of the choice that got me there. I hear the voice in my head say, “this is what you signed up for” and I have the strength to persevere or in some cases to make a new choice.

No, I don’t think that I would be happier in a world of constrained choices.

But the harder question is what about other women? Some people of both genders believe that supporting women how have career aspirations means rejecting women who want to focus on family. In that framework it is possible that some women feel that there is no real choice to forgo a career — that they feel forced to do it all? And faced with that pressure would some women long for a simpler time when there was only one path for women to take? Yes, I have to admit that is possible.

That’s the hard thing, isn’t it? Change and choice bring opportunity to some and loss to others. Considering that, the choice I make is to continue to reinforce the right for everyone to make the choices most likely to lead to their own happiness. I have and will continue to support women who choose to focus on creating a comfortable home and raising well-adjusted children.

And, just for the record, I support the men who choose to do it, too.

No Passion for Fashion

Many years ago I found myself driving alone on a snow-covered highway. I was scheduled to interview candidates for an executive level position and even though the county had closed the road, it was strongly suggested that I find a way to get there. The journey was agonizing, I inched along white-knuckled in four-wheel drive watching the odometer show progress toward my destination 32 miles away. I was about halfway there when I realized that bundled in winter gear I had failed to bring a pair of dress shoes. Fortunately, there was a 24-hour big box superstore on my way so I pulled in, quickly found a $25 pair of black pumps and was out the door in minutes. Emergency solved.

Five years later I was still wearing those “emergency” shoes nearly every day.

Growing up I realized that I was supposed to enjoy the feminine arts of fashion and make-up. Movies and tv shows focused on girls on mall pilgrimages or in a pink bedroom oohing and aahing over a new outfit or eye shadow pallet. I understood it was supposed to be fun, but for me clothes shopping was a horrible excruciating event and the idea of spending any of my hard-earned money on fashion was crazy. I had books to buy.

But because I knew I was supposed to like it, I had hope that my switch would flip sometime later in life — maybe during college. I did have a brief stint when nail polish was fun, but it was quickly abandoned for other more useful pursuits. My wardrobe was a combination of jeans, sweats, t-shirts and a gray ‘interview appropriate’ pant suit from Petite Sophisticate. It changed a bit as I moved into the working world, but clothing was only a daily necessity and make-up was something for rare special events (like your wedding day). And that was how it went, day after day, week after week until a couple of years ago.

My company was in the midst of merger negotiations and the new leadership team was being vetted. I tried to consider myself from the outside, assessing years of feedback and taking a long, hard look at my candidacy. What characteristics did I need to work on? What might lead someone to evaluate me and then say, “Nah, not Mel. She’s not right for that.” I thought as critically as I could and the only thing I came up with was a sinking feeling that someone might say that I didn’t look like a leader. Unfortunately, I had made it to my forties without any magical fashion switch being flipped.

The idea of being passed over for an opportunity for which I was well-suited because I wasn’t well, well-suited, spurred me to action. I did some research and found a style consultant nearby. We talked for nearly an hour and scheduled a follow-up at my home. She assessed my best colors and over a three-hour period, looked at every piece of clothing I owned and rejected most of it because it was the wrong fit, wrong color or just too darn old and worn to be appropriate. She made me promise that if I was serious about this that I would give it to charity within the week. I took five large bags to goodwill and ended up with barely enough to cover my nakedness until our upcoming shopping session.

The eleven hour marathon that followed was everything that I dreaded it would be. Rack after rack of clothes, fitting rooms and awkwardness. But at least this time I wasn’t alone — I was with someone who knew her job, who pushed from store to store filling up a checklist of things I needed to have to hit the objectives I had given her. She knew I was hating every minute of it and yet she reminded me why we were here, she kept me focused on the goal. 

I survived and got stronger for it.

Since then, I’ve made incremental improvements. I’ve added pieces along the way, using the fundamentals I’ve gained to invest in the places I need to invest. I know I need to do another purge — there are things that I got that never fit right and I know I won’t take the time to get altered, shoes that I love that are now worn out. I understand it and I will take care of it. Last weekend I even went to the salon and had a real, honest conversation with the stylist about how incompetent I am about hair. She gave me a cut that has led to compliments all week, including from an executive that did a double take and called it ‘sassy’.

No, I will never love the idea of buying a new blazer, slipping on a designer pair of shoes or finding the perfect bronzer. That’s ok. I understand it now and I’ve built up enough capability, competence and support to do what has to be done. I can walk into a store and assess what is right for me — and for the harder asks I can make a phone call or send an email and get someone who really does love it to do it for me. But, switch or no switch, my lack of passion for fashion isn’t an obstacle anymore.

And that feels almost as good as finishing a new book. Almost.

Your Feelings Are Valid

During a particularly challenging time I found myself sobbing hysterically in my kitchen. Between racking gasps of breath with snot sliding from my nose I could barely make out the uttered words. Straining desperately I heard, “You need to stop crying, you’re overreacting.”

I know it was coming from a place of love but my heart broke a little.

That moment was filled with strong emotions, among them fear, embarrassment and worry. I felt weak because I was unable to pull myself together. I felt hurt because I was being judged. But nowhere in my heart did I feel like I was overreacting; I knew my reaction was exactly right-sized for my emotions. And standing there in my raw authenticity I wasn’t prepared to hear someone tell me that what I felt was wrong.

It hurt…a lot.

As I’ve watched people express their emotions throughout this presidential election cycle I have been reminded of that day. I remember what it felt like when someone I cared about told me that my feelings were wrong and so I’ve decided to do one thing: keep quiet and let everyone feel their own emotions without my judgement.

To be honest it doesn’t mean that I understand what people are feeling; I can’t wrap my head around the diversity of emotions that are out in the world right now. I’ve read as many articles as I can, listened to podcasts and engaged in conversations and still not everyone’s response makes sense. And why would it? Our country is large and diverse and I am reminded of the narrowness of my own worldview before I journeyed away from my hometown. This whole cycle has taught me that perhaps I need to journey some more.

The only sense I can make is within the context of my own experience. The experience of the white heterosexual middle-aged professional woman who grew to adulthood in an upper-middle class home in a bedroom community in the rust belt, who left home to go to a prestigious women’s college and who came home and married the boy next door. In my zeal to understand who I am and my reactions to the world I constantly piece together the thousands of experiences that created my framework of beliefs. Putting that thinking online as part of this blog is what makes me Too Much Mel.

But I don’t know as much about you and I won’t pretend I do.

So, I won’t be writing any Facebook posts telling people to feel more or feel less. I won’t be demanding that you get angry or that you get sad. I won’t be asserting that the world should make you hopeful or hopeless. People I love and respect are feeling every emotion in the whole spectrum of human existence and I am certain of only one thing.

Your feelings are valid, no matter what they are.

Be the Heroine

Over the last year I have struggled to watch the news reports of violence against women. Like many my heart cries a little bit each time. I cry both for the women who are the victims and for myself. For each and every one of the ordinary moments when — always smaller and weaker than the men and boys in my circle — I could have been harmed.

When I think about what could have been I try to ground myself. I take a deep breath and focus on being thankful. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the voices that criticize how she was dressed, question her alcohol level or observe how long it took her to come forward. I feel compelled to convince those voices that empathy and not blame is the right response when we listen to the women who come forward. That compulsion comes not from any generosity on my part, but from a certainty that those women could have been me and that it is not some strength of character that has saved me from harm but simple luck. Circumstances not skill.

I grew up as a strong-willed but physically unimpressive person. I was acutely aware of the fact that I would not get myself out of situations through brute force and that if I wanted to achieve my ambitions it would be through influence not imposition. I could boss around my two younger brothers, but if I tried to boss around the rest of the world they would surely laugh. You know, like the way people laugh at an angrily yipping chihuahua.

Awww how cute. Totally ineffective, but soooo cute.

And that awareness of my own inability to win in any physical fight frames my entire world view. It has led me to a leadership style that is collaborative and inclusive and not authoritarian and command and control. It has led me to reject the idea that power should lead to position and that bullying is just the law of the jungle. So when I read today about a 30-year old woman that was found chained in a shipping container my first thought was not, “Wow, how did she let that happen to her?” It was, “Crap, that could have been me. What if that was me? Why would any human being feel like it was their right to do that to her?”

I don’t have any answers. I do have two things that I do to move beyond the paralyzing fear and back to a life of possibility.

I listen to the stories of women who were not as lucky as I am. They do not apologize for the violence against them. Instead, they speak of their experiences as testimony to their capacity to survive and ultimately thrive. I listen to the stories of women I know personally and countless others who I will likely never meet. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could find the strength to push beyond it.

I watch the actions of the men who live with respect for all. They reject the narrative of might as right and the idea that human nature means that the less powerful will always be victims of the more powerful. They don’t make wide-sweeping assertions, they ask questions. They listen to stories with interest not judgement. It is in their example that I find comfort. I choose to believe that yes it could happen to me but if it did I could trust that good men with power would reject the violence and not me.

As I get older the stories of violence are really less and less about me and more and more about the next generation. They are about young girls in high school and college growing up in a world of always on media. The stories are reflected in my amazing teenage daughter who is ready to head out into the world without the constant protection of her father and I. Unlike me, she has a classic beauty that some will see as an invitation — I worry that will increase the odds that she will be harmed. But I can’t lock her away any more than my parents could have locked me away; any more than I would lock myself away now. So instead I tell her the stories of strength and I show her what respect looks like. I am focused on making her as capable of surviving whatever the world throws at her as I can.

And someday when the time comes to pass the world onto her daughter I hope we can both worry less.

The Magic of Music

I really enjoy the Barenaked Ladies. I have a soft spot for cerebral songwriters whose songs have thoughtful and complicated lyrics. I like to tease out the meaning, understand the story and wonder what the artist was thinking during the song writing process. It plays to my love of words and language.

Even cooler, as BNL has aged I find that their lyrics continue to resonate with me. On every new album I can find at least one song that makes me smile and think, “Man, how did they get into my head?” On their last album, it was “Odds Are” an upbeat jam that pokes a bit of fun at the fear of low-probability, high-impact events. On their most recent album “Get Back up” is all about getting older and living through the speed bumps of life — we may not win, but that’s not the point. The album is called Silverball and the title song is an homage to pinball, the hobby my husband loves.

To me, the variety of music is a lot like literature. There isn’t a bad genre, even if there are some genres I like better than others. I may not lean toward rap, but I can appreciate it’s historical context and enjoy the elements of the best examples. Country music is not a favorite, but my toe taps just like the next person when a perfect line dancing song comes on the radio. I rarely listen to opera, but the strength of a soprano aria is bewitching. Whenever a new artist comes out, I try to be open to the possibility, even though at this age I find myself going more and more back to the artists that fit me best: smooth upbeat rockers who tell a story.

The truth is, all musicians are amazing to me. Music can instantly change my mood. Once I was in a deplorable mood, sniping at my husband and kids. My husband said, “Why don’t you take a drive?” Whatever, I thought resentfully, like that will do any good. But I listened and stomped out of the house seething. I jumped into my little red convertible and started driving. About 10 minutes in, Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ came on the radio. As I started singing out loud and tapping my fingers on the steering wheel, the pent up tension flowed away and I found myself in a new place. The underlying issues hadn’t changed one iota, but my ability to deal with them was 100% improved.

And, that’s not music my friends, that’s magic.

At various points of time in my life I have bemoaned my lack of music ability. During a summer as a camp counselor at Interlochen Arts Camp, I was surrounded by talented young people. Each of them had more talent and musical ability then than I would ever have and some of them were in elementary school. One of those young people later went on to found and lead an ensemble music company and win a prestigious national fellowship. Ahhh, the talent. Talent that you can demonstrate to adoring fans and family at a reunion. Talent that has the potential to take one cranky person and give them back their humanity.

So, I respect musicians and the talented people who create music and lyrics out of nothing but imagination. I appreciate it and I envy it. Most importantly, I pay for it because I recognize that every craftsman should be paid for his labor.

A dollar feels like so little to pay for a moment of magic.