Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Opposite of Weltschmerz

I love the internet. I love having a question and then getting to answer it as soon as I reach a computer (which these days means as soon as I ask a friend to get out their phone. I’m the only one on the planet still without a smartphone). I love getting to stream videos and subscribe to stuff like Amazon Prime and Netflix instead of having to hunt through Blockbuster. I love writing this blog. But my absolute favorite thing is all the happy people.

Interesting writing tends to dwell a lot on the sad moments of life. I think there are some good reasons for this. One is that tragedy provides room for conflict and change, which are interesting to read about. It’s harder to use joy in the same way. Also, I think there is a greater need to reflect on the sad moments in life than the happy ones. We either need to understand why they happened and how to avoid them, or we need to relive them to numb ourselves to their sting. As a result, it’s a lot easier to write a thousand words on sadness than on happiness.

But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and there’s nothing like the internet for happy pictures. And happy music, free of charge. Or even just people being cheerful dorks on their vlogs.

I was reminded of this yesterday when the dance video competition at  When You Work At a Museum kicked off. I got a little bit of a real-life peek at the happiness here; my best friend RJ works on the Historic Ships at Baltimore (obligatory plug; please vote for their video!). I got to hear all the making-of stories and watch RJ put the video together. There’s no prize at stake for winning the competition. It isn’t an educational endeavor (although, serious props the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology for sneaking a little engineering physics into “What Does the Pump Say?”) or part of a promotion. It’s just an excuse for people to dance at work and then display their dorkery for the whole world to see. And that’s a beautiful thing.

I’m an Epicurean. I think the ultimate point of life is simply to enjoy it. In common language the word epicurean has evolved to mean focused on luxury or self-indulgence, which I don’t think is the point of life. I think those things are half-pleasures, things that fill up but don’t satisfy. In the classic sense of Epicureanism, the real pleasures are to be found in community, not objects. There’s no point in eating caviar and canapes alone if eating mac and cheese with your best friend would make you happier, and doesn’t it always? Isn’t joy shared doubled? That’s the beauty of the internet. I don’t have to meet you to share in the joy of that time you built an enormous sand castle, or welcomed your baby brother home. I still care that you, person who I will never see again, had a really happy moment. I’m really happy you chose to share it. It’s like being handed your second-hand blanket that has already been worn down just to it’s ideal level of fuzziness. I love that people at the Historic Ships in Baltimore got to pause their ordinary work day and dance. I love how that experience isn’t confined to their museum, but shared by people from Canada to Singapore. I love that yesterday’s pairs of videos got 12,742 votes, which means literally thousands of people get to share in the fun.  And I hope you go take a look and enjoy them, because I enjoy sharing the fun.


How to Write Gender; a Trans Man’s Perspective

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender binary, and mucked about in the murky swamp of the genderqueer, here is my carefully considered, foolproof, all-encompassing and patent-pending method for writing a character who is not your own gender; write a well rounded character, and then supply the appropriate pronouns.

Yeah, on second thoughts I can’t actually patent that, now can I?

Writers get hung up on gender a lot. Women assume they can’t write men, men assume they can’t write women, and if you even consider writing a non-binary character you’re a very rare breed (a breed so rare I’m going to ignore it for the rest of this post. I do so not without guilt, and will probably do a follow-up on how to write outside the gender binary). For the most part, though, writers who are worried are over-complicating what they have to do. They’ve heard that men don’t cry, that women can’t stop talking, that one gender is obsessed with cars and the other is obsessed with shoes, and they feel they have to shoehorn every stereotype into this character. At the same time, they don’t want to seem to be writing a stereotype. Their creativity is blocked by these contradictory intents, and as artists they want to be creating compelling, vivid characters, which neither cliches nor social obligations to be PC can inspire them to create.

How many people never defy any gender stereotypes? I can’t think of anyone. The most feminine person I can think of, my mother, likes action movies more than almost anyone else in my family. The most masculine person I can think of is my boyfriend. As the previous sentence indicates, he’s gay. When I think of well written male and characters, the same thing is true. Penny from The Big Bang Theory is a gossipy, emotional shopaholic, who also loves beer and football games and prioritizes her career over romance. Marshall Erikson from How I Met Your Mother is a big softy who harbors a secret love of fruity cocktails. Boys are supposed to be brave and stalwart, particularly around the creepy crawlies, so they can come rescue their girlfriends from the snake on the porch and the spider in the bathroom. Indiana Jones loses his shit around snakes.

As a trans person I tend to think of your gender as your core identity, and not any of the traits or biology conventionally associated with it. I came to this conclusion because for years, I was studying gender, trying to find a way to justify my feeling that I was a boy. I tried doing it by finding a checklist of gendered traits and putting all checks on the male side. The checklist failed because not only couldn’t I do it, but nobody I knew could. Everybody I knew deviated from what men and women were supposed to be by at least one trait. Then I tried making it a game of averages. I was male because I had a crucial level of masculine traits. Again, I failed, because I knew of both women who were more masculine than me, and men who were more feminine than me, none of them uncomfortable with their birth sex. Then I tried to find some cluster of essential traits that made somebody a boy or a girl. Again, I failed. Even biology doesn’t work, and not just because of trans people. Is a woman who has had a double mastectomy less female? Even at the level of hormones and chromosomes, some people have intersex conditions with very subtle external effects, so they live most of their lives unaware they are XXY, or that their bodies produce an unusual amount of estrogen or testosterone. Are you going to tell them they are wrong to keep on considering themselves male or female? As far as I’m concerned, all you need to be male is to say you are male, and all you need to be female is to say you are female. That goes for real people, and fictional characters.

Are there differences between the genders? It’s a controversial question, but I’m going to say yes. Studies show measurable differences. Are they biological or cultural? I’m not going to touch this one, as scientists contradict each other wildly, and both can produce evidence supporting their claims. What is consistent, however, is that the differences measured, whatever their origin, are overlapping bell curves, not distinct columns. Your aim isn’t to write only characters who exist at the exact peak of the bell curve, but to write human beings, and human beings exist in every gendery combination imaginable. So if you feel like you know about a rough, masculine sort of person, don’t worry about your inability to write convincing dialog about manicures. Write a rough, masculine, wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress girl, and tell an interesting story about what it’s like to be her.

Now, I have been a little bit disingenuous. There is one important difference between men and women that is absolutely relevant to your writing. They live with different social expectations. Imagine two characters, one male and one female, who are both attracted to women, majored in physics and teach high school science, are quiet around people they don’t know well but chatty with their friends, shun makeup but think they look good in purple, prefer cats over dogs and enjoy mysteries and classical music. I can continue to list similarities, and go on to cover every gendered trait and not list a single difference between them, and you will still perceive them differently, based on their gender. A trait that is surprising for one will be presumed for the other. If one was picked on for being too feminine, the bullying will look very different from how the other was picked on for not being feminine enough. One might feel self conscious about a trait that the other barely notices. If they are equally competent at fixing a car, the woman probably had to fight harder to learn. If they can both knit, there’s probably an interesting story behind why the man can, perhaps involving an abundance of sisters.

I can’t tell you how to write that social pressure into your story. The social rules of gender change by time, culture, class and family, and every individual responds differently to their society. Scout Finch is not Scarlett O’Hara. Jane Eyre is not Mina Harker. Dean Winchester is not Sam Winchester. The only advice I can give is to be aware of it. Research if you are writing an environment outside of your experience, and if you are writing in a familiar environment, practice your observational skills. The only tools you need to write a good character of any gender are the ones you need to write any character, and the most essential one is seeing your character not as a collection of traits, but as a person.

Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Seven

In Chapters 8 and 9, Screwtape explains to Wormwood the law of undulation; a fancy way to say humans go through highs and lows. Both times it came up I got excited about it, but he never took it in a direction that interested me. In the previous chapter, Screwtape got wrapped up in the psychology of God. See my earlier post for my thoughts on that. In Chapter 9, he starts with interesting points about pleasure (which I’ll hold for now because I remember that they come up later), but then abandons that point to teach Wormwood how to use The Patient’s period of undulation to convince him his earlier religiosity was merely a phase.

There’s a recurring problem in this book. Lewis talks a lot about bad reasons to be an atheist. He never has Screwtape raise doubts via, say, the problem of evil, even though the Patient seems to be intellectually curious enough to have puzzled over these kinds of thoughts. He only has Screwtape set up strawmen, which he himself knocks down. “Of course there is no conceivable way of getting by reason from the proposition ‘I am losing interest in this’ to the proposition ‘this is false.’ But as I said before, it is jargon, not reason, you must rely on.” Why not reason? It worked for me and my sister and my brother-in-law and Richard Dawkins and any number of other atheists. Of course, Lewis himself was an intelligent man who was a believer, but he must have known many atheists who came to disbelief via reason, so why not take this opportunity to explain why he disagrees with them?

I don’t know the answer, but in Chapter 10, he introduces the first non-believers this book has seen, except for The Patient at the beginning of the book, and their characterization is troubling. They are a married couple, “rich, smart, superficially intellectual, and brightly skeptical about everything in the world. I gather they are even vaguely pacifist, not on moral grounds but from an engrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men and from a dash of purely fashionable and literary communism.” Now, I know a great many skeptical, intellectual people. The vast majority of them are not in the least like the couple he describes. Their convictions come from deep honesty and concern. I will give Lewis this, however; among every group of idealists there’s always that one who is just parroting the ideas that seem to be popular among their friends. What bothers me is not that he has characterized two of his characters this way, but that, as far as I recall, these are the only atheists we will see in the entire book.

Screwtape is gratified by these friends, because of the ways he and Wormwood can use their company to make The Patient into a hypocrite. “There is a subtle play of looks and tones and laughs by which a mortal can imply that he is of the same party as those to whom he is speaking… He will be silent when he ought to speak and laugh when he ought to be silent. He will assume, at first only by his manner, but presently by his words, all sorts of cynical and skeptical attitudes which are not really his. But if you play him well, they may become his. All mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.” I’ll give this to Lewis; this is one of the many times when his observational skills are eerily accurate. We like to believe our opinions are all born out of rational thought and conscious will, but with frightening accuracy we come to think not what we really think ourselves but what those around us think, or what we think they want us to think.

My first education on this was in the Christian community. I was surrounded by hardcore right-wingers, and although I did not like everything I heard, I mimicked the people around me. As a result, when I swung to the left I became wary of becoming too engrained in ideas I had not personally examined. I will not say I am immune to wanting to agree with my friends to fit in with them, but I am at least aware of it. I don’t pretend this weakness is the domain of the religious or the conservative alone, either. It’s human nature and will appear in all communities.

Lewis has a solution to this infectiousness of opinions. Screwtape rejoices over the reduction, in recent years, of religious leaders preaching the dangers of The World, and the remedy of retreating from it. “In modern Christian writings, though I see much (indeed more than I like) about Mammon, I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’.” Clearly Lewis was living in a very different world from mine. Warnings about The World were abundant. Don’t associate with nonbelievers. Don’t read their books, listen to their music or watch their TV shows. Go to Bible camp and live in houses where every wall has a cross or sampler of Bible verses. Be as out of touch with the outside world as possible; that way you protect your precious beliefs from being challenged, and you will get to go to heaven.

Screwtape describes what will happen if The Patient continues his association with his friends. He will become a split person; acting one way when he is in church and another way when he is with his friends. The hypocrisy will affect the way he thinks and pave the way for future apostasy. He gives Wormwood some strategies for helping The Patient maintain the relationship; the only danger he sees to their cause is The Patient ceasing the acquaintance. The solution Lewis is pushing on the readers is obvious. Don’t associate with liberal nonbelievers. Cloister yourself away to keep your mind free from temptation.

Here’s what that kind of living did for me. It kept me lonely, because every time someone made a dirty joke or talked about a book I wasn’t supposed to read, I felt like I was doing something wrong by being friends with them. The group of friends I felt were approved was small, and the overlap between my interests and theirs even smaller. It shut off my mind from science and philosophy and the richness that real study brings. It made me closeted and dysphoric and miserably depressed. It burdened twelve, fourteen, sixteen year old me with guilt over things like feeling aroused, enjoying the beat of a hip-hop song, or admiring someone’s tattoo. Goodness became wholly divorced from ideas like kindness, patience and generosity, and became a competition of who could live the most alienatingly Christian life.

Nowhere does Screwtape suggest that Wormwood guard against The Patient saving himself from hypocrisy by honestly engaging his new friends in a discussion of their differences. An honest discussion could allow him to maintain his friendship and his faith with none of the hypocrisy that could be so useful to Screwtape. It might even change the minds of his friends, and if not convert them outright, make them more honest in their convictions. This makes it an incredibly dangerous possibility for Screwtape and Wormwood. Surely Screwtape has some advice on how to avoid it, or at least on how to use such conversations, if they come up, to deconvert The Patient. It makes no sense for his character to ignore the possibility that the mounting hypocrisy might cause The Patient to say, “actually, I’m a Christian, and here’s what I think.”

I can, however, think of a reason for Lewis to keep Screwtape mute on this subject. Raising the possibility that these friends might have a healthy friendship with The Patient, particularly one based on mutual understanding and respectful dissent, muddies the moral picture he has painted. The same goes for the possibility of The Patient deconverting based not on moods and trends and fuzzy logic, but honestly, intensively reflective thought and conversation. For this story to work, The Patient and his friends cannot be condemned for thoughtful, rational work. It takes the hidden problem I wrote about last time, and puts it in plain sight for all readers to contemplate.

My best friend is a Christian. They (they use gender neutral pronouns) recently emailed me this article. It came with the comment, “his teachers and friends sound like you, and his brand of Christianity sounds like mine.” I believe the first part was intended as a compliment, as his teachers and friends were people who challenged him, but in ways that made him feel he grew as both a believer and as a person. I certainly take it as one. I, for my part, am glad to no longer be the person who hides in a world where everyone agrees with me. I am happy to be reminded daily that I can be disagreed with by a person who is kind and intelligent and great company. Companionship should not be dependent on consensus. People aren’t meant to be cloistered away where they are never challenged. And it disturbs me that Lewis is so willing to point out the infectiousness of the thoughts of others when it comes to The World, but not when it comes to the community he happens to belong to.

My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 2; the Nitpicker’s Edition

As I said previously, this is directly a response to this blog. Part one had my overview with what was wrong with what she said, so now it’s time to break Kimes’ advice down point by point, because I am nothing if not thorough in my overthinking.

“1.  Have a hot meal ready for your man when he gets home from work. Let’s face it, I’m a busy woman, and I don’t always have time to cook. But if I don’t think I’ll have the time that night, I’ll have my cook prepare something, or I will pick something up.”

There are two issues with this advice. First, she assumes that a hot meal is going to mean the same thing to everyone as it does to herself and her husband. Second, she assumes everyone has the capacity to have a hot meal every night. It’s almost hilarious how she casually mentions her cook, like “oh, you don’t have one? You should go talk to your friends at the yacht club; they’re bound to have a good recommendation.” Meanwhile, on planet Teacher’s Salary, we find spouses who can live with leftover lasange tonight.

Probably the best advice I have ever heard for any kind of close relationship, friend, family or significant other, is to first out what makes the other person feel loved. Don’t rely on the cliched “nice things.” Those are for the coworkers who you don’t know that well but who you need to do something nice for because it’s their birthday/retirement/their mother just died. If you’re in a close, personal relationship with someone, you should be basing your nice things on what works for the relationship between the two of you. For some people, a warm meal ready is the nicest gesture possible. Other people don’t care if it’s PBJ on paper plates tonight, so long as the two of you can snuggle on the couch and watch How I Met Your Mother on the Netflix account.

Hot on the heels of that advice is that one of the first steps in taking care of others is taking care of yourself. I don’t care how nice the meal is, I want to have it with someone who is happy and healthy, not someone stressed out by the pressure of working two jobs while still rushing home to cook three courses and clean up, every single day. That will absolutely break a marriage, especially if the work starts to be taken for granted and the cook feels unappreciated for their effort. I’m glad Dr. Kimes and her husband found a gesture of love that works for everyone. For everyone else out there; find your own. Don’t feel like you need to do what someone else is doing to have a successful relationship.

“2. Don’t be a prude in the bedroom. Of course, I am not encouraging you to go out and have a threesome, BUT keep an open mind to the new things that your husband wants to try. Don’t be so quick to say “no.” Take pleasure in pleasing your man. And please try not to ever go to sleep angry.”

Oh god, no. Okay, there is the seed of a good thought in this idea. For a lot of people, opening up and trying new things in the bedroom is a great way to stay connected and happy. Sex is awesome and you and your partner should enjoy it without worrying about what outsiders might think of it. That said, sexual boundaries are also very personal. I know someone who is intellectually accepting of kink and alternative sexualities, but has also had some bad experiences and anything but the vanilla-est of vanilla sex can be emotionally triggering for her. There’s enough out there about how women have a duty to please their men, and it’s a really gross kind of pressure to put on anyone. Bottom line, nobody should make you feel like you should try a type of sex you aren’t comfortable trying. Sometimes couples split because their desires and libidos are mismatched in those areas, and that’s okay.

Also, it bothers me how the first thing she says is that of course you shouldn’t go have a threesome. Why not? Assuming it’s consensual and everyone is using appropriate protection, what business is it of hers to decide that’s the line you shouldn’t cross? It’s like she’s saying, “ignore society’s narrow ideas about what is and isn’t okay for a consenting couple to do in bed; follow mine instead!”

“3. Don’t be a nag. You don’t always have to have response. As women, we like to give our opinions, often times, unwarranted. It’s OK to not have a comment. Pick and choose your battles if it’s not that important…let it go!  Your husband does not want to hear your opinion 24/7, especially when using a loud, high-pitched tone (that some of us like to use).”

There are times in a relationship when you have to let it go. Everybody has lots of opinions and nobody can get their way one hundred percent of the time. So long as you both feel like the big things are being handled in a mutually satisfying way, you don’t have to worry about losing some of the smaller battles.

There, was that so hard to say? Notice how I phrased it in a way that made it sound like this was advice that anyone of any gender could follow, and that both people in a relationship have a responsibility to follow it? When you phrase it like it’s an issue of women having stupid little issues that bother men, you reinforce the outdated idea that women like to whine over tiny little issues. And often they do, because they are human beings and human beings like to complain. Whining just means complaining while possessing a high-pitched voice. Characterizing women specifically as the nags just encourages men to either not take the women in their lives seriously, or to just give in because “women, amirite? Can’t reason with them, and you’ll never hear the end of it until they get their way.” Which is ironic, because as a trans man who has seen both sides, a lot of the time the nagging attitude I saw in women came from the feeling that the men in their lives didn’t take them seriously unless they nagged.

There will always be irrational, immature people of all genders who can’t keep their needs in perspective relative to the needs of others. Try to be one of the ones who grew out of it, and try to avoid the individuals who did not grow out of it. Don’t pretend gender determines anything but the pronouns of the person doing the complaining.

“4. Show him your appreciation. You can catch more bees with honey than you can with vinegar. Be kind, and polite to your husband, and he will reciprocate. Show him that you are thankful for all that he does. Make your words soft and sweet. You won’t be disappointed with the results you’ll get.”

This advice isn’t bad, but it’s also annoyingly vague. How do you show appreciation? How are you kind and polite and thankful? The vagueness could be a feature rather than a bug, if she talked about how every couple develops a unique way of showing appreciation over time, whether it is leaving notes for each other or a quick “can you get the trash for me?” “sure” “you rock,” and maybe had some suggestions for how to find the best way to show appreciation (I’m thinking it would start with “comm-” and end with “-unication”). As it sits, it’s just fluffy aphorisms with a heavy salting of cliche. It bothers me that she doesn’t have actual suggestions here, but she has a very definite idea of which gender is being thankful and which one is receiving the thanks.

But other than that, yes, appreciation is good. Do that thing.

“5. Follow his lead. You married your husband for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust him enough to make the important decisions in your household. Again, don’t go with things that are immoral, or wrong, but definitely always remember to make him feel like he wears the pants.”

You married your wife for a reason, right? Hopefully you trust her enough to make the important decisions in your household. Just let her make all the calls, and trust they will be in your best interest as well. Remember, women like to feel like they wear the pants in the household.

Just because you trust someone, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for discussion and joint decision making. That said, some people do have personality types that are naturally inclined to strong leadership roles, or supporting roles. For people who happen to be a natural supporter in a relationship with a natural leader, this is great advice. In fact, in any relationship there is likely to be one person who is a little more dominant than the other. The trouble is when you tack those leader/supporter roles into people based solely on their gender. I’ve known women who would be more suited to the leader role, men who would be more suited to supporting roles. Furthermore, what works when one person is a happy leader and the other is a happy follower might not work if you have a leader and a slightly more assertive leader, or a follower and someone who is more comfortable holding the reins but doesn’t want to micromanage. Power is a reality of relationships, so talk about what kind of dynamic makes everyone happiest, and don’t assume that testosterone or estrogen alone are going to decide the issue.

“6. Your career does NOT come first. I have a super busy schedule, especially now that I am a cast member on Bravo’s “Married to Medicine.” However, when I get home from work, I turn my phone off. I am there to get my kids off the bus. Family time is very important to me. I cherish those moments.”

I was going to go into a rant about how it’s so unfair that it’s always the wife who has to make this sacrifice and not the husband, but come to think of it, this is actually one of the few tips where she doesn’t say it. Maybe her husband does hold himself to the same standard. I’m tempted to assume he doesn’t, because of the tone of the rest of the tips, but it would still be an assumption. So good for her; for once she just talked about something she does as a person without being all gender role-y about it.

I also think she’s mostly right. People don’t talk about holding down a family to provide for their jobs, after all. Careers are an important part of life and what you leave behind you, but if you’ve taken on the responsibility of children they had better be a big priority. They are also one of the biggest things you will leave behind you when you’ve gone, so get them right.

Of course, there may be circumstances when your job trumps your children, like when you’re president of the United States and someone kidnapped your kids to blackmail you into starting a nuclear war. If that every happens, I highly recommend that you immediately resign and let it be the vice president’s problem. If you neglect to do this, you are probably in a Michael Bay movie and have nothing to worry about.

7. Look sexy for him. It is so important to look good for your man. Know what your man likes, and what he thinks is attractive. I realized recently that this is MOST important! Try to keep yourself in shape and put together.”

And we are back to the gender double standard. See if you can spot it.

When I started dating my boyfriend, I started trimming some of my body hair, because that was more attractive to him. Often I shower before I see him because I like to smell nice around him. If he told me there was a shirt he thought looked good on me I would wear it around him more often. All of these are small things. They make me feel attractive around him, and they don’t make me feel any less like myself, so I am happy to do them.

If, on the other hand, he thought the nerdy T-shirts I wear were childish and pressured me to get rid of them, that would suck. I wear them because they make me feel comfy and Lane-ish. If he thought I should lose weight, when I’m already on the small side, that would suck even more. How we look is a huge part of our sense of self, taking care of our bodies is part of nurturing that sense of identity. There is  a line between looking nice for a partner and changing yourself for a partner.

She says she’s recently realized looking sexy is the most important thing, with capital letters and everything, which makes me worry about her husband’s priorities. I don’t know her or her husband, so I don’t know what was going on that made her say that. Maybe it’s entirely social pressure that has nothing to do with what her husband actually thinks of her appearance. In any case, whenever I’ve been in love with someone, he cannot look bad to me. However he looks, he is handsome, because it’s his face, right there, being all him-ish. If fulfilling this “MOST important” item is something that actually requires a lot of deviation from how you would want to look anyway, you should really question whether you are with somebody who loves the real you.

“8. Let him know it’s OK for him to be stressed. Because he is the man and is expected to take on a lot of things and it can sometimes get stressful for him. Men aren’t always good at expressing themselves when they are stressed or depressed. Let him know that it’s OK to feel that way, and make yourself emotionally available.”

Good advice. Let’s apply it to wives and girlfriends and friends and siblings and parents and coworkers and bosses and people who look like they’re having a bad day on the street. Except maybe that last one would be creepy. I dunno, some people can pull it off. I’ve had people approach me randomly on the street and say something along the lines of, “You look like you’re having a bad day. Hang in there.” It’s made me feel good, even if I was mostly okay. I wish they taught classes on how to be able to go up to random people and say nice things to them. If everybody could do that, all of us with our stressful lives would just have random people coming up to us all the time and giving hugs and the world would be full of hugs all the time and everything would be awesome.

Where was I? Oh yes, this is good advice, except for the weird sexist spin she puts on it. Husbands get “appreciate him” and “let him know it’s okay to be stressed.” Women get “don’t be a nag.” There’s something terribly unbalanced about that.

“9. Marry someone you genuinely admire and find east (sic) to respect. When you admire the man you chose to marry, it doesn’t feel like a chore when you’re accommodating him. It will be something you want to do. You’ll want to give him the respect he deserves.”

Actually, I think everybody should marry someone they genuinely dislike and find difficult to respect. It’s all a part of my evil gay agenda to destroy traditional marriage and bring on the international communist plot.

Again, this isn’t bad advice, as far as it goes. But where is the advice about how to bring up your issues diplomatically and maturely? I get the sense that she thinks if you marry a good enough guy, you can just let him take the lead in everything and not have to bring up your own issues ever. You won’t have any issues because he will read your mind, and all of your problems are stupid little whiny woman problems anyways so you should just live with them. She says pick someone you admire and respect so you can accommodate him. I say pick someone you admire and respect because odds are that’s someone you can have a healthy respectful conversation with and you can both accommodate each other really maturely.

“10. Get a support system. Surround yourself with people who are like you, or people who support your lifestyle. There is nothing worse than a friend who doesn’t agree with your lifestyle trying to give you advice. There is nothing wrong with being a submissive wife, and your closest friends should be people who aren’t judging you for it!”

Absolutely right. Being surrounded by a world that judges you for who you are really sucks. And I’ll be honest, I have met women who feel judged for their femininity by the feminist mainstream, and I feel for them. See my boxes analogy at the end of part one.

In the end, though, it’s kind of annoying getting that advice from someone whose big point of controversy is that she lets her husband run the household. Last weekend, I visited my boyfriend, who is working every weekend this month in Philly. As I said goodbye to him on Sunday in the hotel lobby, I didn’t give him a kiss. I wanted to so badly, and I think it would have been safe to, but he’s fairly cautious and I would never do anything that made him feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Instead I hugged him and kissed his shoulder, where nobody else could see. Unless Kimes is married to a white guy and they got together back in the sixties, I don’t think she has any idea what that’s like. I don’t want people to sneer at her for having a relationship that makes her happy, but I’d have a lot more sympathy if I got a sense that she had respect for queer marriages or straight couples who don’t want a patriarchal structure to their relationship.

How to Give Good Advice; My Response to the Lady Who Thinks All Marriages are Between Traditional Straight Couples, Part 1

I’ve been working on taking a look at the blogs of people who read my own work, and this one from The Editor’s Journal intrigued me. It’s a very neutral reposting of the matrimonial tips of someone named Dr. Heavenly Kimes. The intent of the post is less to criticize her directly and more to start a conversation in the comments. The tips are fairly provocative, in that they assume a traditional, patriarchal structure is the ideal marriage. This is one of those rare times where I’ve fully enjoyed reading the comment section. Reactions varied, but on the whole they were thoughtful and respectfully phrased, even if they were fairly vehement and opposed at times.

My own response was too lengthy to be a comment. I had something to say about every one of the tips Kimes gave, because all of them were their own mixture of good and bad. There was at least the grain of a good thought in all of them, but phrased in such a way that following it verbatim would be likely be a terrible for many couples. Now, the fact that she is apparently in a husband-is-the-head-of-the-family marriage doesn’t bother me. If that’s what makes her happy, it’s her right to live that way. What bothers me is her assumption that what makes her happy will make everyone else happy; that her relationship is the kind everyone else should have. Her advice doesn’t read like she thoughtfully looked at what made her marriage work and which elements can be generalized for just about anyone. It looks like she slapped down a list of things that happened to work for her and called it a day.

For an analogy, let’s pretend that I found a great way for me to get over writer’s block was to have a beer while I write my first draft. It makes a certain amount of sense; alcohol helps many people relax and stop overthinking, so it might shut up that annoying, overly critical inner editor, at least until I’m ready for a rewrite. All that is fine. However, if I were to put “have a beer while you write” up on the internet, say as item four on my list of top ten ways to beat writer’s block, that would be a problem. My decision may have been informed by the fact that I am  not an alcoholic and don’t have any other health issues that would make a drink a day an issue, but that’s not something I can assume about all my readers. Medical issues aside, for some writers it really is important to write a great first draft, so they need their heads clear to do their best writing the first time around. For some people, alcohol can make them feel more anxious or depressed, so it might make their writer’s block worse. Of course, whether my readers actually follow my advice or not is up to them, but it would still be fair to judge the advice I just gave as bad. When I was trying to decide what to do for myself, the only standard was whether or not it worked for me. When I started giving advice, now a new set of standards apply. If my suggestion would have adverse effects on a substantial number of the people I’m advising, that is practically the definition of bad advice.

That’s not to say that I can’t draw on my experience to give advice; I just need to phrase it in a way that is likely to be actually helpful for the audience at large. For example; “If there’s an inner editor who won’t shut up, find things you can physically do to help distract yourself from it. I like to have a beer while I write. For other people, going to another setting helps them focus. Some people take a walk and talk into a recorder, and then transcribe their thoughts later. Some people even like having some music or the TV on in the background.” Now the advice is better. I’ve given a good guideline, and some concrete examples of how to apply it. For some readers none of the suggestions will work, and that’s okay. Where a single inapplicable suggestion is unhelpful, a series can still provide material from which the reader can begin to brainstorm.

The other issue I have with her tips is that many of them play into sexist double standards. That issue could have disappeared if she had prefaced her article with something like; “I’m a straight woman in a traditional the-man-is-the-head-of-the-family relationship, and we both like it that way. It might not work as well for everybody, but if you are the same way, or think you might want to be, here’s what has worked for us.” The issue with sexism is that it forces gender roles onto people who don’t want them, or under circumstances they don’t want. For people who happen to be fairly traditionally masculine men or feminine women, it is all right to still be that way. You are not betraying the whole of feminism by staying home and cooking for your family. I know masculine men and feminine men, tomboys and girly women, trans people and cis people and people who zig zag over the gender lines like a crayon in the hand of a two year old. My goal is not to take people out of one set of boxes and put them into another. It’s to demolish the boxes, and if some people drift over to space that happened to once be encompassed by a box, that’s fine. So long as it is an open space, rather than a crammed corner full of miserable people who didn’t want to be there, I say mission accomplished.

In a boxless world, I might be able to read Kimes’ presuming good intentions and say no harm done. As someone who doesn’t fit in the boxes, however, I can attest that we are not in a boxless world. We are in a world where the boxes have gotten badly dented and often there is a hole you can escape out of. There is still a lot of social pressure to stay in the box, and within that context, I can’t help reading her advice as a part of that pressure, whether she intended it that way or not. This is the other issue with the thoughtlessness of her advice. In my made up example, there isn’t a lot of social pressure to be a drink-while-you-draft writer. If you read it and know drinking that much would be bad for you, that can make it fairly easy to ignore. For a married woman struggling to build a good career for herself, hearing for the twelve thousandth time that no husband wants a wife who puts her career first, the effect is different. There probably is some harm done. So even though I will acknowledge several places where Kimes has makings of a good point, on the whole her approach is badly flawed.

Coming up next; a blow by blow analysis of all her points, because overthinking is fun!