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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Annals of Failure: Bystander Alert

I’m feeling bad, Readers. Just the other day, I had so much wisdom to dispense to you, but then something happened and I realized - I got nothing.

What happened was this. I was at the gym on a recent Saturday. The Y gym. On a Saturday. A January Saturday. New Year’s resolutions. People with regrets and resolutions. Crowded. You get the picture. I was on the weight machines, maintaining muscle mass, so I can, I hope, live well and independently into my 90s, like my dad, and also, maybe, look hot for a nonagenarian. Looking hot being a gender nonspecific aesthetic goal and therefore not a reflection of being crushed by the patriarchy….. 

I was minding my own business when a large, muscular, young man strode past the chest press machine. He was muscular muscular. Like the kind of gym-made muscular that prevents any of his limbs from touching one another. He was wearing a loose muscle shirt and one of those weight lifting belts made of leather so thick it could be a saddle, and long, droopy shorts. He had dark hair hanging out of a red knit cap. He was noticeable. I noticed him. 

He strode by me and over to the triceps machine and spoke to the person on that machine. I couldn’t hear what he said, since it was several machines away from me, but I thought it started out as, “I was on that” or something. My ears prickled. That was bullshit. I had been in the area for twenty minutes and I hadn’t seen him on any machines, although I had noticed him dead lifting huge barbells, or whatever you call those things, in the free weight area. But that person on the machine was a little, skinny, blonde, teenaged girl, and she hopped up like a jack-in-box, and walked away, an expression of embarrassment on her face. 

An older man on a different machine a few away from mine said something to her. I figured it was her father, or maybe her grandfather. I figured he would say something to the guy. But, no, the red hat guy did his reps, then strode back out of the machine area. Like he had to do some other weight thing in another area of the gym, probably with free weights. I shot him an evil look, but he didn’t notice. The guy never came back. He had only needed that one machine, apparently, and he needed it that very second. He couldn’t wait for her to finish. In fact, he didn’t think he had to wait for her to finish. He felt he could just tell her to let him use the machine. He felt he had more right to it than she did. 

The girl went on hopping nimbly from machine to machine, but she never went back to the one she'd been booted off. I wanted to say something. I wanted to say something to her like, "You had every right to be on that machine, and I’ve been bullied by these weight lifters before," which is true. They like to drop their giant weights with a lot of fuss and then pace around and so forth, so everybody knows how muscular they are. If you’re not aware of their habits, you might think a machine is empty, because in fact, the guy has crossed the room to parade his gigantic muscles around, and it is empty, but he thinks he owns the machine and is just resting between sets. That happened to me, once, and let me just say, the episode did not end prettily, nor did the guy think he had done anything wrong. 

I am filled with rage as I write this. I'm mad because I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. I’m mad at myself. I’m mad at the older guy who spoke to the girl, her father or not her father, who didn’t say anything to red hat guy, either. And of course, I am mad at that guy with the red hat. Why would he wear a red wool hat in the gym? His head muscle was the only one he didn't want us to see, apparently. 

Basically, it’s about guys—men—who just don’t see young girls. Or older women. Or women at all. Who just look past them, or think they can intimidate them to get them out of the way. And it works. They take what they want. They believe what they want is more important that what some young girl wants. Goddammit. That’s the worst thing about it. That dude scared that girl, and no one stepped in. I’m assuming the older guy who spoke to her said something somewhat reassuring to her, but he didn’t confront the bully. I didn’t confront the bully. Oh, I had fantasies about confronting the bully. They started with me saying, ‘You know, that girl was in the middle of her reps. Couldn’t you have waited a minute or two, instead of kicking her off the machine?” And they ended with me punched in the head by Mr. Beefy. 

But I was going to say something until that other man spoke to her. Then I felt it wasn’t my place. If he was her father, then I would be stepping on his role, and it would embarrass her. I would be implicitly criticizing her father for not stepping in, and that would not be good. She already looked humiliated. She wouldn’t want extra attention at that time. 

Or maybe that was just an excuse. 

So we were both bystanders. It feels terrible. And Mr. Beefy went on with his day, and he’ll go on with his bullying. Maybe he’ll be President of the United States one day. That girl will probably vote for him. 


Hoo, boy, was that negative. Well, it’s hard to get around it. I don’t want to leave you thinking I’m defeated. I am not. I didn’t step up at that moment, but I have defended myself in the past, and I will again. There were mitigating features in this situation. Meaning, my respect for the putative father mitigated my impulse to say something to the bully. I’m not sure he deserved my respect, but that’s another issue. 

It seems like a good time to pivot to a very empowered woman, Caroline Adams Miller. My interview with her continues with a discussion about feminism and how women’s backs are to the wall, but we are fighters. Click here to read Part 2 of my Q & A with her on Psychology Today. 

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Problem of Advice

Ahhhh, it’s good to settle down after the holiday season. My computer and notebook are back on my desk. My study has returned to its former condition (study and meditation room), after being a guest room. The dog has returned to the floor at my feet—thanks to bribery with a delicious looking cheddar flavor treat. 

Oops, the dog is off, now. More enticing things elsewhere than stale cheddar flavored treats, I guess. The college student has gone away, too. More enticements in Cambridge, where she is working in a lab at MIT — and living off of ramen. Add some peas, I suggested. And an egg. (Thanks for that one, old friend Leif). To the ramen, not to the lab, of course. I don’t really need to say that. Then again, you can’t be too thorough with instructions and advice, can you? I’m thinking of the instructions my mother would leave for us to cook something or other. She always started with, TURN ON THE OVEN. 

Which, if you think about it, is insulting, but all too often, also embarrassing because necessary. 

So, no peas or egg in the lab. Unless instructed by the professor. 

The college student is right now not appreciating me at all, if she is reading my blog. But she was much more tolerant the other night when I experienced an uncontrollable need to text her about washing sweaters. This must be a phase of parenthood. I don’t know what to call this phase, but its characteristic is an unnerved sense that one’s child has escaped one’s clutches without all the proper instructions one thought one would be able to give her, in time. Instructions about washing sweaters, for example. 

Do you want to know what I told her? No, you don’t, do you? You already know it. My advice is useless. 

Meanwhile, the 10th grader cut her hair. I've done that. I stopped when, after one cut, my hair was distinctly lopsided and to even it out had to be made much shorter than I wanted. After that, it was special treatment for Hope’s hair all the way.

I figured the 10th grader deserved her own natural consequences. She invited over a friend who had cut her own hair a little shorter than she intended, and asked her to help. The result, after a part adjustment I suggested, is actually quite good. Advice: center parts are not for most people a flattering look. 

But you already knew that, too. 

I feel superfluous. Fortunately, I have banded together with a bunch of women from my high school class to form an accountability/support/what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life group. We started this month via video conference. We’re reading and doing the exercises in Designing Your Life: How to Build A Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. The book is based on a very popular course at Stanford, taught by these guys. The most popular course, apparently. It applies principles of design to the subject of living well. It was designed for undergraduates, but we're hoping it works well for those of us at midlife who are feeling a little, well, superfluous. 

The basic premise is that life can be considered a design problem. A design problem is solvable, but it  can have multiple solutions. "A well-designed life is a life that is generative -- it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise." (Burnett & Evans)

To look at life as a design problem means adopting the designer's mindset. This is characterized by five elements: 
  1. curiosity
  2. bias to action-willingness to try stuff without attachment to a particular outcome
  3. reframing problems - to get unstuck
  4. awareness - of the process
  5. radical collaboration - connecting with others from various disciplines

I’m going to be honest. I’m reading this book for me, but also because I hope the daughters (and the husband) will read it, too. However, I know how advice from mom (and spouse) goes over. Lead balloon, anyone? So, if I’m the only one in the family who manages to design a joyful life and live it well, so be it. Readers, I invite you to read it, too. I’m sure to be writing about it in the coming months, and would love to hear your thoughts.