My underwhelming return to Facebook ….

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I made it through Lent without Facebook. 40 days without social media. I accidentally clicked on the Facebook link a time or two, but then I walked my trespassing ass right back out of there. It’s been nearly two weeks since I came back to the fold – just after Easter began, in fact. “Began” you say? Yes, began. According to Catholicism, this past Sunday was the 7th Sunday of Easter. Easter is not just a weekend – apparently, it’s 50 days long!

Theology aside, I thought it would be difficult to be away from Facebook. I was wrong. It was peaceful. I didn’t have to subject myself to the boredom of being party to the minutiae of people’s lives. No fascinating updates like “traffic was so bad today” or “painting our kitchen” or “my little kid said insert totally-predictable-little-kid-statement here“. No pictures of what people ate for lunch. No political hoopla or look-you-guys-my-life-is-so-awesome staged pictures. Nobody felt the burning need to reassure me that they are #soblessed. No love-me-love-me-love-me selfies posted for the sole purpose of receiving compliments. I didn’t have to read the same ungrateful statuses from the same collection of whiners every day. The acronym FML fell off my radar. When crazy things happened, I didn’t have to listen to the analysis and processing of 50 different people. I could just quietly think the event through, maybe talk about it with a pal. And there was no pressure to craft and post exactly the right response.

Sure, it was strange not to wish Ryan a happy birthday on Facebook, or create a tribute to my father on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. I missed some people with whom I only communicate via Facebook. I was taking pictures, but I wasn’t able to share them with my dozens of Facebook friends. I just had to enjoy them myself, then print them for our family albums. Like people used to do with pictures. It was frustrating not to be able to share links to my blog posts. I kept writing through Lent – in fact, I published five posts. They didn’t get nearly as much attention as they usually do. Ten readers at most. However, this caused me to consider just why I feel like I need lots of people to read my blog.  Maybe I don’t. After a couple of weeks, the pleasure and satisfaction of simply composing a blog post was the same as if I were about to hook 100 readers.

I thought I would be excited to return to Facebook. Wrong again. After a few weeks away from it, social media looks more ridiculous than ever. I feel increasingly alienated from Facebook. I don’t bother to post nearly as much as I once did. I didn’t even share with the Facebook world that Ryan and I were going to New Orleans until I assembled an album a week after our return. I didn’t post a drippy Mother’s Day salute, either. Another precious little soul is going to be calling me Auntie Beth some day. I didn’t share that news. Occasionally, I think of things that could be fun to share – and then I don’t bother. It just isn’t as important as I once thought it was to give a digital audience a breathless update of my everything all the time. Moment of shameless honesty here: I love attention. Good, bad, laughing, shocked – I don’t care. One of my biggest fears is oblivion. But the price one pays for the kind of attention social media dishes up is starting to look rather steep.

Many days, I scroll joylessly, waiting in vain for something – anything – that cuts through the banality. Advertisements. Quizzes. Do you actually think you’re brilliant because you got 9 out of 10 right in the quiz-of-the-moment? Do you really believe that by sharing the result of four minutes of multiple-choice questions you will establish yourself as a genius in the minds of your digital acquaintances? Most of us are rolling our eyes so hard we have to stop scrolling until we can see again. Drama. Oversharing. If you took eight pictures of the same baby in the same clothes with the same background, we only need to see one. Maybe not even one if we saw a shot of the same baby yesterday.

Bullying. You can be anything you want on Facebook and nobody will bother you about it. Unless you’re religious. Or conservative. Or pro-life. Whatever you do, do not be openly pro-life. It will be a matter of minutes before people start piling up on your page, ferociously defending their right to kill their babies under any and all circumstances. You will get called names that would make a sailor blush.

And the ignorance …. Good gravy. A while ago, I fought openly with a blatant racist on Facebook. He is convinced that Islam is a religion of murder, and Muslims are inherently evil – and that one Muslim in Canada is one too many. Never mind that he is a redneck jackass from the arse-end of nowhere who’s never even met a Muslim – he is determined to make sure he never will, either. Sadly, he’s from my home town, and we used to be friends. Many people from Robert’s Arm are lovely, but not him. He is so hateful his Facebook account was shut down. I found out this week that he started another one under a new name, because he showed up on my “people you may know” list. The new account has been suspended multiple times. Apparently, he doesn’t care. He continues to spout evil and – much to my dismay – the asshole has 155 friends. How?

I was guilty of a few of the things I just complained about. I shared things that no one would – or should – care about. I said things that would only be entertaining for me and a handful of my friends. I posted three pictures where one would have done. I got a kick out of compliments on my pictures, even when I knew the compliments were knee-jerk reactions to my pictures by sycophants who just wanted me to notice them – and maybe compliment them back. I eagerly participated in drama (I loves me a good throw-down sometimes), and maybe there are people out there who feel I have bullied them. I thought this was all fine for the most part until I pulled away from it for a while. Surveying it all from the sidelines changed my take.

I don’t really know where this is going. Maybe I’ll quit Facebook altogether. Maybe I’ll go along with it for a little while longer, trying to find my groove. Maybe a thousand words is too much to spend on this subject. Either way, thanks for reading. I love it when you look my way.

Sleeping with the enemy: reading “The Feminine Mystique”

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Ok, so the title of this post is a tad dramatic. I wasn’t sleeping with Betty Friedan – it was more like serious flirting. And I’ve never thought of feminists or feminism as the enemy – though I’ve been mightily irked by them at times. I have often thought that many feminists claim to support the choices women make, but only if they are the right ones. Women fixing their own cars, renovating their own homes, breaking sporting records, building careers, getting political? That’s great! Generations of feminists are behind you every step of the way! Women enjoying traditionally feminine pursuits such as cleaning, cooking, tending flowers, crafting? Dialing back their dedication to their professional life to pay a little more attention to their children? Spending money and time to look nice not only for themselves – but possibly for a date? That’s setting back the cause of feminism – being a traitor to women! You are underachieving, and you’re a man’s dupe, to boot. I have also taken issue with the fact that, for some feminists, feminism means more than equality – it means putting men down to lift women up. And, of course, we’ve all heard the irritating stories of feminists actually becoming angry with men over offers to give up a bus seat or hold a door open.

However, I am a reader – anyone who’s spent more than five minutes getting to know me knows I love reading. And how could I resist a book that was labelled one of the “ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries”? My inner child has always made an effort to touch what she’s been told to stay away from. So, I bought Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, and dove into it. I assumed I’d disagree with Friedan on nearly everything, but a good reader suspends judgement – so I tried to keep an open mind. I found, to my surprise, that the book was well-written and contained some solid food for thought.

I had to get around a few things to really embrace the book. Friedan writes with a poorly concealed angry edge. There’s an exhausting amount of talk about sexuality and the ability (or inability, as the case may be) to achieve orgasm. She uses examples that seem extreme. Vast numbers of women who really can’t think of anything to do with themselves after their youngest child no longer needs them, so they dye their hair blonde and have another baby. Women who coddle their children so much that their boys (though they hate their mothers) can’t ever leave them and their girls have no one to look up to. Women who do their children’s homework for them so as to satisfy the academic itch they never dared scratch during their own education. Women who use the time saved by all the modern appliances to think of more housework to do. Women who have no outlet other than sex – and, sex being the only excitement, seek it everywhere, all the time. Women so shallow and insipid that, when asked about their lives, thank God for things like “two cars, two TVs and two fireplaces”. Friedan claims that she, herself, gave up academics to become a wife and mother because her date said “nothing can come of this [their relationship], because I’ll never win a fellowship like yours”. This seems like a very small thing on which to base such a drastic decision.

She shockingly compares the plight of housewives to that of concentration camp inmates in the twelfth chapter, entitled “Progressive Dehumanization: the Comfortable Concentration Camp”. She is careful to say that, of course, being a housewife is not as bad as being a concentration camp victim – but she lost me at the first mention that there could be any comparison between the two.

She seems to think that the answer to every woman’s problems is a career. In the final chapter, “A New Life Plan for Women”, many of the solutions offered to women trying to balance career and family and the home are contingent on money. Many women cannot splash out on a maid or a cook or a nanny, and higher education is financially beyond them, too – but Friedan leans heavily on these things as supports for broadening the minds and lives of women.

In spite of the hyperbole and hysterics, Friedan is generally aware of the various phases of women’s lives and how our needs change in response to these phases. She doesn’t push women to live grim, sexless, solitary lives – she offers ideas for balancing education, careers, children, husband and self. She does not suggest that only one kind of lifestyle is acceptable for women, she is advocating for choices –  for women to have the opportunity to live life whatever way they wish. She doesn’t put men down. She censures women who do, lamenting that the “man-haters” distract from the true purpose of feminism and stir public sentiment against feminists. In several parts of the book, she mentions the role of men in women’s lives as a positive thing, and thanks men for supporting feminism and the women they love. She raises the idea of a masculine mystique that affects men as negatively as the feminine mystique affects women, and calls them “the other half” of what feminists are doing. She encourages women and men to come together in the common struggle for everyone’s rights.

Friedan makes some interesting points about how the concept of women’s liberation was stronger before and during the two world wars. Then, a shell-shocked world longed for the comfort of home and tradition – and women retreated from the progress that had been made to make homes for the returning soldiers. She brings together a number of threads, everything from the education of women to become wives and mothers to what she calls “the sexual sell” – the dependence of advertisers on perpetuating the feminine mystique. Think of all the ads we now laugh at, for everything from coffee to carpet sweepers –  the ads featuring the doe-eyed (usually blonde) housewife with her finger in the eureka position and her face all lit up because now she knows how to get her silverware truly shiny or how to get rid of that ring around the bathtub. We think these ads are funny because it seems ridiculous to suggest that you are not living up to some standard if you aren’t taking care of your family in this way by using this product. Well, once upon a time, these ads were real – new ones being generated daily – and real women were reading them, thinking what they were being told to think, and subconsciously using consumption to become the womanly ideal these companies relied on to stay in the black.

As I was reading the book, a memory came back to me. I was working for my home town, one of those employ-a-student projects that many small towns run every summer. I was making a little under $5 per hour, as that was the minimum wage at the time, for doing a variety of jobs. Everything from cleaning the fire hall to running the community channel bingo to painting the playground to tidying up the cemetery to chopping a mountain of squid into rings to deep fry and sell by the plateful at the town fair. Only in Newfoundland …. Well, one of the things I ended up doing was helping to lay the foundation for a new building. This was hard work. Lifting heavy bags of cement, mixing it, pouring it. Even though I – and the other girls – were side-by-side with the guys every step of the way, doing everything they were doing, we took alot of teasing. The guys minced about, talking in high voices, pretending they couldn’t do this or that because “it’s a girl thing”. About halfway through the day, they switched to teasing us about being manly and asking us if they could see the hair that just had to be on our burly chests because we were doing “a man’s job”. We were concentrating on our work, not goofing off, and accomplished more than they did. They grudgingly admitted that we did a decent job before we all went home. That evening, I wrote in my journal: “It’s unfair. Being a girl working with guys on a manual labour project, you have to be twice as good as they are to be considered half as good.” This was a revelation to me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the fact that I was allowed to give this job a try was due to the efforts of previous generations of crusaders. And the fact that all the guys could do about it was tease the girls, and the fact that I was being paid just as much as the guys were …. Also, the fact that I was saving this pay to fund the science degree I was about to obtain.

Though I don’t agree with everything Betty Friedan wrote, her book reminded me that I owe a debt of gratitude to generations of feminists. For better and sometimes for worse, I am (and have always been) fiercely independent – I like doing whatever I damn well please, and heaven help the person who tries to tell me I can’t. I may not choose to do all that I can do, but I have a choice. I can vote. I can marry and divorce whomever I please. There is no career path out of my reach simply because I am female. I can be as girly (or masculine) as I want, and so can Fiona and Bridget. Ryan doesn’t have to hunt, fight or do the heavy-lifting to be called a man and respected as such. We can all be ourselves, and this is partially due to the barriers feminists – female and male – knocked down.

Your children need sex education – so get over your ick factor and let them have it.

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Because we are never out-of-reach of noise and fuss, I’m sure that you’re all aware of the province-wide flap over the new sex education program being rolled out in schools all over Ontario come September 2015. A whole lot of parents have shrugged and gotten on with their day. A sizable number of parents, though concerned about some of the program’s content, have somehow managed to keep cleaning their home and themselves, making food and participating in gainful employment. A small-but-very-vocal segment of parents are using this change in their children’s curriculum as the impetus to hop on the Crazy Train, and they’re riding it all the way to the end of the line …. Phrases like “nobody’s gonna teach my six-year-old about anal sex” and “teach math, not masturbation” and “what’s next, sex with animals” are appearing in angry letters-to-the-editor, and on placards and picket signs. I’ve read up on the new program, and given the whole issue considerable thought – and I honestly can’t understand why people are so upset about it.

In grade one, students will be taught to identify body parts – including genitalia – using correct terminology. Well, why not? Both Fiona and Bridget knew, long before they started school, that they have a vagina and boys have a penis. I remember drawing people complete with genitals when I was five (and fibbing about it, when questioned) . From a health perspective, if something’s wrong physically, they need to be able to make their guardian, and possibly their doctor, understand where it itches or hurts. To prevent inappropriate situations with other children – or worse, adults – they need to know that they own their body, and nobody else has a right to handle them in ways they don’t like. Part of taking ownership is a complete knowledge of what you own. Giving genitalia cutesy nicknames can teach children that these particular body parts are embarrassing, and therefore should not be talked about.

In grade two, the notion of respecting your body is expanded to encourage children to stand up for themselves against bullies, and to say “no” if they’re feeling uncomfortable about something. How could there be anything wrong with this? Teachers will build upon their knowledge of body part names to talk about how your body changes as you grow from an embryo to an adult. Children are observant. They see their siblings, both younger and older, growing and changing in various ways. They see how pregnancy changes their mother or aunts or neighbours. Why keep it a mystery?

Grade three discussions will center around the characteristics of healthy relationships, and how each unique personality contributes to these relationships. There will be some focus on the different kinds of relationships. At which, of course, some parents are already in a tizzy because their eight-year-olds might find out about gay people …. Know what? Your third-grader probably knows about them already. They probably have friends who have two daddies or two mommies. Fiona, when she was four, noticed two guys holding hands while walking their dog. We stopped to pat the dog. As we were walking away, she wanted to know why two men were holding hands. I said “because they love each other, like Daddy and me”. People who love each other are all over the place, and they don’t all look the same. Why not give our kids a foundation of appreciation for love in all its forms, and a language to describe it?

In grade four, children will learn about puberty and personal care. Again, I am confused as to why this could be anything but good for the kids. Kids reach puberty younger now than ever. There will be some girls in grade four classrooms who have already started menstruating – and some of them may not have anybody who will give them straight talk about it. Kids in grade four who have not reached puberty will be there any day now. Puberty can be a confusing and frightening time. Information is power.

Grade five students will see diagrams of the reproductive system, and learn to describe the processes of menstruation and spermatogenesis. Long words. Anatomy. Biology. Hardly subjects that will have the kids making out at their desks ….

In grade six, the students will have a chance to discuss things that happen to them during puberty, like wet dreams. I have never forgotten a moment from my year in grade five, sharing a classroom with sixth graders. We were learning about what our bodies were going through and our teacher mentioned wet dreams. Just to set the scene, she was so old she had taught my father when he was in grade five or six. She kept her money in her bra. She took her false teeth out and laid them on her desk to eat lunch. In other words, if anyone had every right to be a prude, it was her. But she wasn’t. This was a good thing for a sixth grader who worriedly confessed, with his face flaming, to having wet dreams. She put an arm around his shoulders and told him it was nothing to worry about, it happened to lots of boys, and if he ever had any questions he could talk to her any time. He relaxed visibly. Her frank, fearless manner took away his anxiety and made him feel normal. Sixth graders will also touch on masturbation. (See what I did there? Who says there’s nothing funny about sex education?) Any parent who’s ever caught their baby with his hand deep in his diaper can tell you that masturbation is not new ground for a sixth grader. There will also be some talk about the assumptions surrounding gender roles and expression, and sexual orientation – and how to challenge stereotypes. Learning to see others as fellow human beings, despite our differences, is crucial in a world filled with – well, differences! It’s not easy being different – but it’s alot harder if your differences are misunderstood or denigrated. Why shouldn’t we try to make classrooms as accepting as possible for all students?

Grades seven and eight cover establishing personal sexual boundaries and communicating those limits and comfort levels to potential partners, as well as the need for solid communication in sexual relationships. Also discussed are the risks of various sexual behaviours, symptoms of STIs, and the importance of using condoms and other forms of contraception if you become sexually active. Students are encouraged to consider the physical, emotional and social factors that impact their sexual decisions. The concept of sexual consent will be explored, as well.

For those who are squeamish at the thought of these sensitive discussions being held in the classroom, a reminder: thirteen-year-olds are the ones we hear about having rainbow parties, sexting, experimenting with alcohol and drugs. They are the ones who are trying anything and everything because, as adolescents, their brains are wired for pushing boundaries and risky business. Fifth and sixth graders are deep in the throes of puberty, and nature is happening to them, ready or not. Anyone who’s ever watched a group of third- or fourth-grade girls swing their hair and strut their stuff knows that these kids eagerly emulate what they see and hear, and they don’t have the personal discernment to help them choose the right role models – the right role models must come to them. Many of them have cell phones or tablets – or both. They have older siblings and cousins. Children who are confused about their gender identity or sexual orientation exist, whether parents want to talk to them about it or not – and if we’re not communicating with them, we’re not helping them.

We need to let go of the notion that we are spoiling children’s innocence by talking to them about sex – because, in most cases, that innocence is already being breached daily. Sexual messages get through to them, no matter how tight the parental controls. They see ads for perfumes, clothing and shoes that feature sexy models in sexy scenarios. They listen in on adults’ conversation. They listen to pop music, which often features explicit lyrics and is accompanied by explicit videos. Even if you keep everything PG all day every day, you have no say about the radio station their bus driver plays or what their friends show them or what they see on the street. I ended up in a birds-and-bees conversation for which I was completely unprepared just last year because Fiona and Bridget rode the bus with some foul-mouthed sixth graders who were asking all the girls (yes, all the girls – even the little ones) if they’d like to have sex. Last summer, I had to answer an exhausting collection of questions about sex-as-entertainment because we used a washroom in a gas station, which contained a vending machine selling coloured condoms and cherry-flavoured lube. Klassy. It’s a dirty world. There’s nothing I could have done about those incidents, and there’s nothing you can do, either – except control the conversation when you are given the chance. So take it!

On love and loving ….

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And now for the post I meant to write on Valentine’s Day …. Not long ago, a friend of mine tossed one of those questions that makes for a fascinating discussion at me, and some of our mutual friends. “What is love?” People have been trying to define and describe love time out of mind. While I had to admit that I really don’t know what love is, attempting to answer her question gave me a better idea of what I think it is. Two quotations immediately came to mind.

“Love is not a feeling; it’s an act of your will.” For a while, I had forgotten the source of this line – but it came back to me just yesterday. It’s from a song by Christian folk singer Don Francisco. In the eighties, my parents had a tape by him – may even have had more than one – and this song stood out to me, even as a child. Here’s the song, with lyrics …. If you can get beyond the cheesy line about Jesus not dying for you because it was fun, you will find that the song has a deep meaning. As Christians (that is, Christ-followers), we are called to love as Jesus loved. Jesus didn’t just say “I love you”, he lived and died it. He bled it. He wrote it in the invisible but powerful ink of excruciating, dehumanizing pain, large and loud enough that we still hear the echoes more than two thousand years later. (Whether you believe that Jesus Christ was real and did what the Bible says he did, or you think it’s a myth, the beauty of the story is undeniable.)

Jesus’ version of love is doing, whether you feel it or not. This is a concept that helps me daily. No, I don’t always feel love. Sometimes, I feel nearly its opposite – even for the three people I believe I love dearly, and for whom I would take any number of bullets. Love, in hard times, becomes my choice. My choosing to respond with kindness when someone is being a jerk. My choosing to show patience when someone is leaning on my last nerve. My choosing to give hour number two of listening when I maxed out during hour number one and I’ve heard it before anyway. My choosing to sacrifice what I desire in order to help someone else, when what I’d really like to do is tell that person to go play in traffic, and sit on my ass with a glass of wine and a good book …. That, to me, is my love in action. Yes, I say all the right words, because I feel them and because I believe my family needs to hear them – but anyone can do that. It is in those rubber-meets-the-road moments, those times when the feeling of love is losing its glow – that’s when love ceases to be feelings and words, and solidifies.

The other quotation is this one: “You have had too much therapy. Or not enough. God knows how to love, Kiddo. The rest of us are only good actors.” This comes from a wonderful book I have read about a dozen times, “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” by Rebecca Wells. When we say we love someone, and we do all the things we believe love requires, and we commit to that person for a lifetime …. We are still incapable of the perfect mercy, kindness, empathy – and endless forgiveness – of God. Because we are only human. We will say and do the wrong things – and sometimes we won’t even know what the right things are. Sometimes, our resolve to choose love will falter, and we will act in ways that are unkind, ungenerous and even cruel. If we understand that about ourselves and others, we will be more gentle with ourselves and others. We will offer forgiveness instead of resentment. And, in the absence of the bitterness that hardens us, love will be able to grow and mature.

So, I love Ryan, Fiona and Bridget – and many others – by choice. It is an act of my will to give these people the gift of my imperfect attention and service and care – and I have the best of intentions, I really do. But I will fail them again and again, because I’m so far from being God, the perfect lover. My friends and family, though they know this, return their imperfect love to me. And, somehow, it keeps the wheels turning in the vast and beautiful mill that is life ….

And then there’s the picture at the top of this post …. I went searching for images of love, and Google came up with this one (along with hundreds of others, of course).Two snowmen, so small that they would go unnoticed by most larger creatures, lumpy-headed and cock-eyed and wobbly-grinned, reaching out to each other with the gift of love …. They know, deep in their frozen little hearts, that they’re not getting out of this alive – because none of their kind does. They know that someday they’ll be nothing but a damp spot on the ground, and the little paper heart will be trampled or blown away or both. But they’re doing it anyway. And so are we.