Showing posts with label Reality Checking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reality Checking. Show all posts

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Piece of Advice #75: Do not define yourself by what you own

Or, perhaps more to the point: do not congratulate yourself on how cool and together you are because you have stuff that other people would like to have or would really like to have right now.

I've already given the advice to opt out of consumerism. Buying things won't make you happy and, given the empty pocketbooks of most Americans today, will push you toward debt slavery.

But beyond this falling into a pattern of consumerism generally also builds an attitude of bizarre elitism based on the possession of whatever hip plastic piece of crap is now all the rage.  See: fanatically loyal Apple customers.

It doesn't matter if you have an iPod or an iPad, a Kindle, a Louis Vuitton purse.  It doesn't matter what kind of cosmetics you wear, or what kind of sunglasses, or if your closet is full of designer clothes.  Owning things does not make you smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or better in any meaningful way.  The transient coolness of your stuff does not migrate to you via osmosis.  You are you with your things or without.  This goes for houses, cars, furniture, art, china, crystal - all of it.  The qualities about you that really matter: your kindness, your character, your humor, your intelligence, your attitude cannot be bought or flaunted.  But buying and flaunting may in fact degrade those qualities because valuing things leads eventually to devaluing people, and that is an ugly trait.

One other thing: if you hang with people who define you and themselves by their things, you will find yourself in competition with them and will constantly cycle from one state of dissatisfaction to another; so avoid those people.  They can only bring you and your credit card down...down...down.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The non-demand for androgyny in women's fantasies

Last week I commented on Newsweek's piece "Why We Need to Reimagine Masculinity."  The authors nod at the trends putting women into formerly masculine spheres and tell men that to balance things out and remain relevant and contributing they need to retreat to more traditionally women's jobs and chores.  An androgynous utopia lies at the end of this path, or so the authors and the feminists they cite suggest: a place where men and women are more or less interchangeable except for their reproductive parts.  Peace, harmony, good will, prosperity, and plenty of love and sex because everyone will be so happy.

This is of interest to me because it conflicts entirely with the most obvious trends in women's fiction and romance which are essentially women's fantasies written by women, for women, and consumed by a overwhelmingly female audience.  If you are at all familiar with romance novels, you will have noticed that in the past decade the heroes of these novels have not been written as more androgynous, but instead hyper-masculine.  Readers have gobbled up Navy SEAL books by Suzanne Brockmann and Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series.  The men these authors write aren't just strong and manly, they meet an unbelievably high standard of macho, and in some cases simply can't be killed or suffer harm.  They could render their heroines harmless (or dead) with their pinky fingers if they so desired.  Physically, experientially, and frequently financially, they are their heroines' superiors in every way.

Take the extremely popular In Death/Eve Dallas mystery series written by Nora Roberts (writing under the pseudonym J.D. Robb) and set in the future.*  The latest book is #38.   Roberts's hero, Roarke, is highly alpha.  Here is the wikipedia description:
"Roarke is in his mid-thirties; he is an immigrant from Dublin, Ireland; in NYC, he is the CEO of Roarke Industries, and one of the richest men in the world, possibly the richest. He owns an old mansion off of Central Park that he remodeled to his specifications with very high tech security. Also in the home is his own personal collection of firearms, which are illegal in 2058 unless one possesses a collector's license. Roarke also owns maces, swords, daggers, medieval armor, and other assorted weapons. He is quite skilled in electronics and can dismantle any type of security, lock, or coding, as well as hacking into any electronic database—including but not limited to the FBI, Interpol, and Homeland Security.

He convinces Eve to move in with him in Glory in Death and then proposes at the end of the book. Roarke's house officially becomes a home once Eve moves in, and after this, Roarke is happiest at home rather than traveling. He also enjoys helping Eve with her cases, finding the role reversal quite entertaining." [My emphasis.]
Eve, the series' heroine, is a tough cop, fiercely committed to her job and to finding justice for victims of crime.  She is damaged emotionally from a childhood filled with extreme abuse.  She is not beautiful, and can be brusque and distant.  She doesn't like dealing with children and eschews feminine behavior as weakness.  Before Roarke her relationships with men were limited to one-night stands.

So basically she's a guy.  Nearly all of her behaviors are traditionally male.  But notice that in this fantasy, Eve's romantic partner is not more androgynous.  He's not at home taking care of the kids she's uncomfortable around and making dinner for her to eat when she comes home tired from fighting crime.  Oh no.  He's the unimaginably wealthy, hyper-alpha former criminal who parleyed his knowledge to become the richest man in the world.  

And in 2058 the richest man in the world, the man who can have literally anything on the planet, wants a mannish, emotionally damaged, average looking thirty-year-old woman who is obsessed with her job.  In fact he finds the role reversal quite entertaining.

Eve Dallas's androgyny and the utter inequality of status between her husband and her is a new direction in romance.  In 1972 a novel called The Flame and the Flower kickstarted the modern romance genre, moving it from the tamer very subtly sexy Mills and Boone/Harlequin short novels to historicals with longer longer word counts and love scenes.  It was wildly popular, but its heroine was about as different from Eve Dallas as can be.  Heather was a beautiful English virgin, 18, who met her hero (Brandon, an American ship captain and plantation owner) under inauspicious circumstances when he mistook her for a prostitute and raped her.  When she becomes pregnant, her relatives force him to marry her and her takes her with him to South Carolina.  Hijinks ensue.  What is interesting about The Flame and Flower, especially in comparison with the above, is that while the details of their meeting are fantastic, their pairing is actually pretty uncontroversial.  Brandon is wealthy, handsome, and very alpha, but it is not outside the realm of possibility for him to marry a young, very beautiful English girl of good birth.  Also notable is Heather's extreme submissiveness.  She is 18 years younger than her husband and still quite childlike.  Also interesting: one of the villains who who makes mischief for Heather and Brandon is an older woman, still handsome, but not in the first blush of youth.  She is sexually experienced and adventurous and wants Brandon for herself, but he is not interested even though she owns a nearby plantation and the alliance would be perhaps financially beneficial. No, Brandon has eyes only for the lovely, innocent, docile Heather.

Remember: scores of women ate this up in 1972 and the book is still in print.

As time passed, however, romance novels changed.  Heroines began to have premarital sex that wasn't rape or coerced, and love scenes got longer and more detailed.  Heroines were written as older and more worldly, smarter.  They had careers, they smoked and drank, and the age difference between them and their lovers shrank.  Readers made it clear that they did not want to read about the love lives of teenagers who had yet to experience life.  They wanted sexually experienced heroines and ones that were tough and successful on their own merits - heroines who were, in other words, more like the readers themselves.

Also, while the heroes stayed handsome and rich and alpha - getting richer and more ripped and super alpha in some sub-genres - the heroines got less beautiful, significantly less beautiful than Heather, and older.  The fantasy was no longer just finding an alpha to love, but became snagging one so far out of your league as to be conspicuous.  In the Navy SEAL books Suzanne Brockmann writes the heroes are supermen, and the heroines are, at best, pretty, and frequently have physical trouble spots or figure flaws.  Often they are older than the men they snag.  In Twilight Edward is physically stunning, a perfect looking man.  Bella is nothing special.  Literally nothing special.  Ordinary.  Yet he pines for her.  In the 2010 version of The Flame and the Flower, the villainess would be the heroine, and Heather would be a murder victim or perhaps a secondary character.  There is no room for very young, very beautiful, docile virgin heroines in romance novels today.  They do not exist.

So the romance novel changes, reflecting women more truthfully and men more fantastically.  The gulf in status and desirability may widen further even because - as the genre makes clear - women don't desire feminine men.  Bad news for all those men who take the advice of Andrew Romano and Tony Dokoupil and "Man up!"  Chicks don't dig other chicks.  Unless they're lesbians.  And lesbians aren't who most men are trying to attract.  All of which means men who take that advice can expect to be less successful to the women whose feminist dreams and aspirations they further with their modified domestic and career choices.  Win-win.  Er, wait.  No.

*I did not select this series randomly.  Roberts is a prolific writer and publishes at least one addition to the In Death series annually, and readers regularly vote for Eve and Roarke as favorite heroine, favorite hero, and favorite couple in the All About Romance annual poll.  They are long established characters, but often win or place.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Piece of Advice #59: Opt out of consumerism

A very simple experiment: take your credit card statement from one year ago, run through the charges, and see if you can remember what items you purchased for the money you spent.  Then ask yourself if any of those purchases added even a teeny bit to your happiness today.  I'd be willing to bet whatever sum of money you still owe from that month's credit revolution, that it hasn't.

Stuff won't make you happy.

Yes, spending money can be fun.  It can be an entertaining way to while away the hours or give yourself a momentary boost, but outside of the temporary buying high, it will not add anything to your contentment in life.

Additionally, the little upgrades we all crave - the newer car, the bigger house, the better wardrobe - will not affect your happiness either, because human beings tend toward dissatisfaction, a trait advertising manipulates to amazing effect.  Let's say you want a new purse, and you do the smart thing and save your money over time and buy it when you can afford it.  You will have that initial excitement of the purchase and the satisfied feeling of having something of value, but in a week or two, after you've carried it around with you and slammed it in your car door or spilled a drink on it - or your friend gets an even nicer one - it'll just be another something you own, and you will find that your real happiness has not changed a bit.  Because we are or aren't happy - independently of what we own.

My ancestry is, in significant part, Scottish and Dutch, so thriftiness comes naturally to me.  I think about what I'm buying and whether or not it will end up in a closet a year from now, and in the Goodwill bin in two.  I buy used if possible.  I never go to the mall.  I do have a weakness for two things: books and fabric.  The extraneous book and fabric stashes in my basement will testify, however, that they have not made me any happier when I gave into temptation and splurged.  I now have piles of books and fabric I feel I must read or use because I spent good money to own them.

You can make yourself unhappy by comparing your stuff to the better stuff others have, so it's best to not go there.  Also realize that you don't know how financially healthy your conspicuously consumptive friends are.  All that glitters is not gold.  It's better to live in a small house you can afford and be able to sleep at night than to be drowning in debt to impress your friends and neighbors.

Recently I reminded myself of the above advice.  One of my little daydreams is to someday own an older farmhouse with a little land.  Something charming with a porch swing and a barn and garden space.  My sister found a house like this nearby where she lives, and we drove out to see it.  It was lovely.  The house was a brick Victorian surrounded by mature walnut trees and neatly trimmed lawn.  There was a garden and a tire swing and a big red barn.  It reminded me of my grandparents' house and, oh, I could see myself there puttering around the lawn, putting in a flower garden in summer and adding a log to the woodstove in winter.  It had a pantry I'd kill for.  I made up a whole little story about the life I could live there and how great it would be.  Then we did the math, and even given dropping home prices, it was still out of our reach without a sudden inheritance.  I had to take out a figurative eraser and rub out the little story I'd mentally written.  The end.

But, you know, the thing is, no matter how great that story was, it was still just a story.  The things that irritate me about my house  now - the toy clutter, the dirty dishes, the dog hair, the stuff that breaks and needs repair - would all be present at my new house.  The background image would be different, and the joys and annoyances would change a bit, but my overall happiness is dependent on me - on whether I can be satisfied and grateful with what I have now.  And I can.  So I don't need a new house.

Our society runs on product consumption, and the messages thrown at you say you will be happier, thinner, richer, sexier, if you buy, buy, buy - but if you skip the retail therapy and opt out of keeping up with the Joneses, you might find you are just as happy.  Your finances will be easier to manage as well.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Piece of Advice # 9: Take a sabbatical to a third world country

If you are feeling like your life is "lacking something" or your job is just not "fulfilling," book a flight to somewhere where they have earthquakes, drought, dysentery, tuberculosis, rampant inflation, or civil unrest.  Find a job and stay there for a bare minimum of six months.  I guarantee that when you return to your normal life, it will look shinier and happier than you ever thought it was.  You will be grateful for your central heating and the plethora of choices of fresh fruits and vegetables in the produce section.  You will love how stores are open and closed for business when they state they are.  If you stay long enough in your foreign clime, you will acquire a permanent reality check - an endlessly useful thing to have.

The majority of the West has a pretty shallow understanding of want and need and a very skewed version of inherent individual "rights." If you live in a country where you are not a citizen and have literally no rights and no one is at all concerned about what happens to you, you start to appreciate the value of your own citizenship and realize that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are different than, say, the "right" to open your mouth up and be as obnoxious as possible just because you can.  Or the "right" to be sheltered from every sort of difficulty life throws at you or any consequence of your own actions, irresponsibility or obnoxious behavior by threatening a lawsuit or claiming entitlement benefits from a government reallocation-of-wealth program.

Okay, that's pretty snarky.  I'm feeling that way tonight.  But seriously, if you live somewhere else, somewhere where the government collaborates with or ignores mafia thuggery, somewhere where you have to make your own food from real scratch, from bland and sometimes hard-to-locate materials, somewhere where transportation may or may not be available on a given day, somewhere where doing laundry means washing it by hand in a tub or stream, somewhere where the rules of everyday life are not immediately apparent or understandable, somewhere with broken roads, epidemics, or currency instability, picketing for the right to free abortion suddenly doesn't seem like the most pressing issue facing the world today. 

I'm not sure people learn this lesson without actually living it and living it day in and day out for some significant period of time.  So, seriously, next time you think life has dumped all over you and you can't imagine what you did to deserve this terrible bad fortune, look up volunteer opportunities in the Third World.

One added benefit: living this life is a far more efficient way to lose weight than any Jenny Craig program, and way cheaper.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Piece of Advice #8: Lose the weight

There is no way to pussyfoot around this one: if you are fat and you want a decent future, you have to lose the weight.  Visceral fat is just death on the body.  It will make you slower, it will make moving more painful, and both of these will just compound the problem.  If you want to avoid diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, joint pain, and respiratory issues, you must lose the weight.  No, 10 pounds won't make you an invalid, but let's not kid ourselves.  It's 10 pounds now.  It'll be 10 more pounds next year if you do not address the problem - your overeating and lack of exercise.

The tone of this blog is somewhat no nonsense, I realize, but I do have sympathy for women fighting the weight battle because I fight the weight battle and I've been fighting it for over a decade.  Every day.  I exercise more than any other person my age that I know.  Every day, rain or shine, I go out into the weather and walk for at least and hour and fifteen minutes.  Where I live this is not always pleasant.  In fact, for 5 months of the year it's either unpleasant or extremely unpleasant (as in freeze-your-ass-off cold and risk slipping on treacherous sidewalks at all times).  Yet I do it - every day.  Rain or shine, cold or hot, sick or healthy, I go out there and walk the good walk with my dogs, or my son or my husband.  I walk because 11 years ago I realized that I was putting on weight faster than what I'd previously thought possible and was afraid of where it was going.  I started walking 30 minutes a day which staved off further weight gain, but didn't cause me to lose anything.  Then it was 45 minutes, then an hour, and now most of the time it's an hour and a half.  I lost the weight.

I walked when I worked full-time - on my lunch hour or after work.  I walked with an infant, with a toddler, with a preschooler.  My son can easily walk for 45 minutes with me with minimal complaint and does so fairly often.  I've played more games of "What kind of pirate do you think is hiding behind that tree?" and "What does your pig have in his lunchbox?" [answer: a  sloppy joe and a slopsicle] than I can count because he won't trudge on without entertainment but he's a little walker now like his mom.  And we've spent plenty of one-on-one together because of it.

If doing it for your health isn't enough motivation, I'll give you one more: neither men nor women respect women who are overweight.  And all of the fat positive propaganda in the world isn't going to change that.  Women like to feel superior to each other, and nothing makes that easier than having a fat friend.  Men are repulsed by fat on women, especially on young women who should still retain a girlish figure.  If you are looking for a relationship, being fat will be a huge barrier for you.  Most men just do not dig fat girls.  Period.  Skinny average looking girls will do better in the dating market than fat pretty ones.  If you are pretty and you are fat you have sabotaged your chances for finding a really good long term relationship.  Reverse that.  Lose the weight.

Now, I know this isn't fair.  There are plenty of guys out there that are fat and they can still get dates.  There are also guys who can eat anything they like and not gain weight.  My husband is one of them, and it is kind of infuriating.  And it isn't that a women's value is or should be only exterior.  Also, your food options work against you.  Fast food is cheap and tasty, but it is death in a bag - death for your body and death for your social life.

Unfortunately, none of this negates the fact that being fat will destroy opportunity after opportunity for you - chances for health and love and career success.  So knuckle down and lose the weight.