Monday, November 21, 2011

Think About the Over-Commercialization of Christmas

About 12 years ago I was working at a job where 25 or 30 of us sat in a large room cataloging library books. Several of my co-workers repeatedly requested to have music play in the background, but this request was refused over and over again.

Except at Christmastime.

Much to my dismay, at some point around Thanksgiving, Christmas music started pouring out of the stereo in the corner. Some of you who know me personally are aware that I don't like Christmas music. At least not in every setting or all of the time. Listening to the radio makes it seem as though only a few songs exist and that most pop artists can only sing those tunes. So, in an eight-hour shift, one might hear the same song--albeit different versions--at least a dozen times. And, worse, they're all peppy little numbers with happy, unimaginative lyrics. The exceptions are the actual religious Christmas carols, which have meaning and purpose and, therefore, seem out of place in a retail or other basically secular environment. And, perhaps, these should be reserved for a private (home) or religious (church) setting? If you're going to throw Christmas music at me in a public setting, at least give me something creative like, say, the Kinks' "Father Christmas."

So, when the Christmas music started at the aforementioned workplace, I told my "supervisor" [she was not my actual boss, but she spot-checked my work] that I was offended by it. She replied, "No, you're not; you just want to cause trouble." Well, she was mostly right (she knew me well). But I asked her, "What if I were Jewish?" She just rolled her eyes.

The fact remains, though: I do not think Christmas music should be broadcast ruthlessly on the radio. And certainly not in November. What is this obsession with Christmas music? With Christmas, in general?

And, lest I seem bitter and Scrooge-like, I must add that Christmas is actually my favorite holiday, but I like it for its true meaning. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward all. Sound familiar? The commercialization of the holiday has gotten completely out of control. The true holiday spirit comes from giving something of yourself to others, and not necessarily in the form of a material object. It should come from the heart; it should have meaning.

And the true holiday spirit lasts all year.

Which is why one Christmas song I don't mind hearing all year round (as long as it's not played ten times a day on one tired radio station) is John Lennon's "Happy Christmas (War Is Over)." Because, really, wouldn't it be a merry Christmas for everyone if there wasn't fear in this world, if there wasn't fighting, if war really was over?

Isn't that what's meant by "Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward all"?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Think About Marketing

Each year, Christmas comes too early.

It's supposed to be a joyful holiday, a celebration of Jesus's birth; but, instead, marketers create a depressing collage of commercialism. And like pawns in a board game, people fall for it, going to malls and superstores and spending money they don't have for things they don't need (and, often, don't even want). I avoid superstores, and I've been to a mall about twice in the last two years. I avoid shopping at all (except for groceries and other necessities), although I will support local/independent stores--if I have a need to buy anything, that is.

The day after Thanksgiving is the day I do the opposite of what many people do. Instead of buying anything, I give stuff away. I'm currently in the process of sorting through my clothes, books, and other items. While I clean out my closets and shelves a few times each year, November is when I do my major "Spring cleaning" (I know...wrong time of year). Donating to a good cause (I usually take my items to the American Cancer Society's local Discovery [resale] shop) feels to be more in the "spirit" of the season than buying things. It's my mini-protest against the commercialism of Christmas.

The marketing department at the company I work for sends out an e-newsletter every two weeks with what they deem note-worthy or interesting information. A couple of weeks ago one of these items was about retail giant Nordstrom and how it "will not be decorating its stores for this holiday season until the very end of November..." in order "to give its customers a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families first." The newsletter blurb continues: "Whether this is truly the spirit of Thanksgiving in action or simply a genius marketing tactic is up for you to decide." (Note: I have not confirmed that this information is actually true. If I knew where a Nordstrom was, I might be curious enough to actually visit; but I'd rather hear from my readers. That way I don't have to go near a mall or shopping center--I break out in hives if I get too close....)

The cynic in me wonders why Nordstrom customers can't celebrate Thanksgiving with their families anyway, regardless of how the store is decorated. How would a store's decor affect that?

Is it a marketing ploy? Is it a tactic to get customers in the store to see if it's decorated or not? If so, I don't want to fall for it.

Even without shopping (at Nordstrom or anywhere else), I'm bombarded with Christmas everywhere I turn. Instead of putting me in a joyous spirit, it depresses me. I don't want to hear Christmas music yet. I don't want to see Christmas trees or festive decor. I'll be sick of it by the time Christmas actually arrives.

Call me Scrooge, but it's marketers who have ruined this holiday for me.

Bah-hum-bug. Pass the eggnog.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Think About Education, Part 3

Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker had an interesting piece on October 4, 2011. In the Toledo Blade, the heading for the article was "It's time to put 'education' back in higher education." Naturally, my interest was piqued.

Everyday at work I see college students who lack the motivation and necessary thinking skills to complete their education. But the "problem" is that they do graduate. Parker writes: "A study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 87 percent of employers believe that higher education institutions have to raise student achievement if the United States is to be competitive in the global market. Sixty-three percent say recent college grads don't have the skills they need to succeed. And, according to a separate survey, more than a quarter of employers say entry-level writing skills are deficient [my emphasis]." None of this surprises me. What surprises me is that it is taking other people so long to realize it. But, actually, that doesn't surprise me much either--we're talking about critical thinking skills here, skills which many Americans don't possess.

Ah, yes, critical thinking skills. My final research paper for one of my grad classes this semester is about the education system and critical thinking skills (Are you surprised?). Parker states, "...the consensus is growing that young adults aren't being taught the basic skills that lead to critical thinking."


Parker is only concentrating on higher education though. While it's true that higher education needs some work, the problem starts much earlier than that. Poor higher education is inevitably a result of poor primary and secondary education. Colleges have had to lower their standards in order to accommodate students who have graduated from high school without the basic reading, writing, and thinking skills.

I link reading, writing, and critical thinking together. Students aren't reading or writing at high enough levels. Teachers are teaching at them and testing them, but the teachers are not giving the students the time to actually learn and apply what they've learned. English is a subject that crosses all disciplines. While grammar and language mechanics can be taught as a separate subject, reading and writing are part of every subject. Students learn best when they can research a topic of interest, write about it, and apply it to their own lives. That way their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills are challenged. Unfortunately, though, their learning is stunted when they are pushed through subjects, tested, and moved quickly on to something else, memorized facts soon forgotten.

So, while Kathleen Parker makes some valid points about higher education, she's missing the mark. The problem is in the K-12 grade levels. And, if those problems get resolved, perhaps higher education will begin to fix itself. Instead of searching for ways to "dumb down" the curriculum, professors will be able to challenge their students.

What a wonderful world that would be.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Think About Education, Part 2

Graduate school takes up a lot of time.

That is not a complaint.

(It is, however, an excuse for why I haven't posted in a long while. And, if this post seems a bit simplistic, lopsided, or disjointed, it's only because my brain is taking a break from analyzing and synthesizing sources for a research paper--I've sifted through and skimmed over 50 articles and books in the last three days.)

So, yes, I'm having to work hard to maintain "A's" in my classes, but I love the challenge. In fact, this is how I thought undergrad would be. But, really, the last time I had to work this hard was in high school.

So, what does that mean? Does it mean I went to "easy" colleges (I attended several before graduating)? Does it mean I went to an academically competitive high school? (I didn't.)

Perhaps it just means that my teachers in high school adequately prepared me for the college environment, as teachers should. Granted, I was in "honors" and "college prep" classes. One of my English teachers, in particular, pushed and challenged me for most of my high school career. (Maybe it's no surprise that I'm an English major?)

College is not difficult to get in (depending on the institution, of course; there are always exceptions). But didn't it used to be? Colleges used to have standards. Kids spent weeks fretting over essays; they spent years making sure their names were on the honor roll. For some--at least at my high school--it seemed that they spent 12 years studying, just to get into college.

Online college classes (how I ultimately earned my bachelor's and the way I'm taking my master's classes) work great for me. A student takes the educational reins and, in some ways, teaches herself in an online class--you can learn as much or as little as you want; the instructor merely guides you, gives you deadlines, and grades your papers. I've been able to learn more in an online "classroom" than I ever did listening to a typical college lecture. Now a little over halfway through my first semester of grad school, I've realized that the greater expectations and the higher caliber of student I've encountered this time around is what I always expected--but rarely, if ever, saw--in an undergrad class, online or otherwise.

Which leads me to a question I've thought about many times: is college meant for everyone?

Should colleges "dumb down" their standards and curriculum so that they can let more students in?

In doing research for a paper a couple of months ago, I was reading articles in an online journal called OPEN WORDS: Access and English Studies. The journal is intended for higher education English instructors and, in particular, those who work with students with disabilities. The articles talked about ways instructors can work with/address these students. When I started reading OPEN WORDS, I assumed "disabilities" was referring to learning disabilities. In at least one article, though, the authors stated that the term can refer to a variety of things--it could be a physical handicap or an "invisible" disability--a psychological or mental disorder, for instance. It could be a chronic illness. It could be a language barrier. Anyone who strays from the norm.

Which leads to another question: what is the "norm"?

Not everyone should go to college. Not everyone needs to. But anyone who has the desire to learn should have the opportunity to do so, regardless of any disabilities. (I'm not talking financially here; I'm strictly referring to skill and drive.) Working in a university bookstore, I'm privy to some of the ins and outs of certain students' skills, and I've seen a number of students in college who are there merely because somebody else is paying for them to be there. They are unable (or unwilling?) to string basic sentences together, they are unaware of what is expected of them, and--perhaps, worst of all--they don't care.

While all students who want to attend college should have the opportunity, there still need to be standards of some sort. Students ("disability" or not) may need to consult a tutor or work with the professor out-of-class. Otherwise it can be disruptive for students who have been academically prepared for college to sit alongside other students (whether they're "differently-abled" or not) who cannot follow directions or listen, and who do not care.

I know the United States' public education system is broken. It works for some but not for others. Colleges have to cater to a wide variety of abilities and preparedness in their students. But standards tests are not the answer; it is clear that they do not work as intended.

If the system ever gets mended, perhaps colleges can challenge students in a different way? Maybe the colleges will stand for education and learning once again. Maybe they will stop emphasizing sports over education (maybe, but not likely...). Maybe they will stop following the dollar signs and look to the future of this country. This country--the world, actually--needs thinkers. If they aren't challenged in a meaningful way, students will not think. I've mentioned critical thinking in several posts before, but it can't be emphasized enough.

Many Americans' deep thinking abilities have begun to stagnate. Students should come out of an educational setting raring to think and do--to make a difference. College or not, it doesn't matter.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Think About Peace

Do you think about what's going on in the world?

Or do you live in a comfortable, safe place--white picket fence, blue sky, sunshine, cheap beer?

I'll be honest with you: I'm guilty--guilty of living in my own little world (and in my own little head). Right now I have so many personal issues to deal with that it's especially hard for me to even remember that there's a larger world that exists outside of myself. It's sad. And I know this. I need to be reminded. Not all of us do, but I do.

I am part of an online community called Twitter (you may have heard of it...? :-D). Today, like every Tuesday, is #AfghanistanTuesday. To me, it's a reminder to get out of my comfortable (or, in my case, uncomfortable) shell and think about what's going on in the rest of the world. What I especially like about Twitter is the connections I've made with people all over the world--I get perspectives from individuals from many other countries and read blogs and articles that my "tweeps" deem important or, at the very least, worthwhile. For me, #AfghanistanTuesday is not just about Afghanistan. It's about peace worldwide. It's about building a community of people from different backgrounds and cultures (albeit virtually) to share thoughts and ideas--to discuss and debate.

I don't understand why--and I'm paraphrasing a bumper sticker I once saw--people kill people to show that killing people is wrong. One of my tweeps remarked that fighting occurs because of greed. Government. Money. Oil. Corporations. Corruption. Greed. War.

I am not agreeing or disagreeing. I have too little knowledge to expand on the reasons for national and international conflict. I speak solely from a humanistic point of view. One of my favorite poems is "Norman Morrison" by Adrian Mitchell (if you go to the link, it's the second poem on the page). It was written in protest of the Vietnam War/Conflict, and it's a hauntingly powerful poem. I first read the poem nearly 18 years ago, and the lines I've never forgotten are "He burned. He suffered. / He died." I'm not making a judgment as to whether Norman Morrison was right or wrong to do what he did, but the poem draws awareness, even decades later, to what was happening in Vietnam--that burning women and children was wrong, that burning anybody is wrong. It seems to me that if we could all adopt a more humanistic approach to the world and those with differences, we could get closer--instead of further--from peace. Obviously that's a little too simplistic, but isn't it a start to acknowledge and value each other as human beings? To value each person's differences? Is it too much to ask?

In high school I had to write an essay with the following theme for a contest: "Peace Is More Than the Absence of War." I don't remember what I wrote (I know I didn't win); but I could add now that, yes, peace is more than the absence of war, but eliminating war would be a good place to start.

Wouldn't it?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Think About Libraries, Part 2

You've probably heard this phrase (or similar wording) before: If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

There are a lot of people not paying attention.

In the latest Toledo-Lucas County Public Library e-newsletter, the library director writes that the Toledo [Ohio] Public Library system "continues to see major increases in customer use. Last year, nearly 3 million visitors, more than any other Lucas County institution, visited one or more of our 19 library locations, while checking out over 6.9 million items." Access to books, computers, information in general, is essential to human development. Not all households have computers or internet access. Not all households have books.

Children who do not have early access to books start falling behind in their formal education before they even start school. According to the National Institute for Literacy: The Partnership for Reading, by age three, children should be able to recognize books by their covers, they should pretend to read books, and they should understand how to hold books and how to turn their pages ("print awareness"). They should understand what words are. Even when children are only a few weeks old, they benefit from being read aloud to. Those first few years of a child's life are critical for learning to read. When children are read to often and in a positive environment, reading becomes a pleasant experience. Children learn about print, words, "book language," and the world. It's also important for young children to see others reading--newspapers, magazines, books. It helps them grasp the significance of reading. And reading IS significant.

If parents or guardians do not have access to books or if they cannot read, the children are the ones who suffer. Many libraries offer programs that can help. Or, at the very least, it costs nothing for a parent to take a child to the library. For this reason, libraries are one of the most important public institutions in this country.

But here's the thing: "Although demand and usage is high, unfortunately since 2001 state funding for public libraries has continued to drop, prompting TLCPL [Toledo-Lucas County Public Library] to spend less on materials...."

The TLCPL e-newsletter goes on to tell about the job search and computer skills programs that are available for FREE at the main branch library. This career service is highlighted with one patron's personal story. Read her story, and you'll see that public libraries clearly make a difference.

And if we're not doing something to make a positive difference (directly or indirectly) in someone's life, what are we here for?

Are you outraged yet?

On a semi-related note, I highly recommend the book Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. I read it a couple of years ago and consider it one of the most important books I've ever read. Check it out at your local library!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Think About Libraries

There are a number of problems in the United States: dysfunctional governments, failing public education programs, problematic justice systems, and an unmanageable national name just a few. These aren't new issues.

We Americans have gotten cocky, thinking that because we were once the "greatest" country, we always will be. Writes poet Charles Simic in a May, 2011, article, A Country Without Libraries: "[Our nation] no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend." He's referring to the large number of public libraries that have been closed down all over the country. When I was visiting Pasadena (CA) earlier this summer, I was saddened to see the large empty building that used to be a Borders bookstore. But Borders Group, Inc. is a corporation--I have very little sympathy for corporations. Libraries, on the other hand, are a public necessity. A closed-down empty building is sad, but an empty library is a crime. Not illegal, but it should be.

Libraries are part of many of my fondest childhood memories. Whenever I picture my elementary school, my mind's eye goes directly to the library. I remember it as the most well-lit and friendliest place in the school. Rainy days made the rest of the school seem dreary. Not the library though.

In the summers, it seemed like I spent much of my time at public libraries, in my own city and in the towns in Iowa and Indiana where either set of grandparents lived. I inhaled books, sometimes several "chapter books" a day. Encyclopedia Brown. Nancy Drew. The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Aldo Applesauce. And Ramona Quimby, of course. And that's just off the top of my head.

I was in awe when Stan and Jan Berenstain (of Berenstain Bears fame) came to our public library when I was five or six. These were the writers/artists who created the bears that I felt I knew as though they were my real friends! Brother Bear and Sister Bear went through the same things--first days of school, new friends, etc.--as I did. Meeting their creators was inspiring. A couple of years later, author Daniel Pinkwater came to the library. Another year, it was author Marc Brown.

My first semester in college was a disaster. I was several states away from home and had a roommate who disliked me to the point of making my world as miserable as possible. I spent almost all of my time in the college library, only returning to the dorm to sleep. I read constantly--it was my only means of escape. (As a result, I also aced that semester!)

Fast-forward to the late '90s, living on my own, after college. I had an apartment that was freezing in the winter and way too hot in the summer, but I could walk the three blocks or so to the public library. And that's exactly what I did almost every other day after work. I decided right then that I always had to live within walking distance to a library (and, except for one lone year, I always have).

When I read Simic's article, I realized I was not alone in my sentiments. He states: "Like many other Americans of my generation, I owe much of my knowledge to thousands of books I withdrew from public libraries over a lifetime." I am not of Simic's generation, but I concur with his statement. If libraries continue to close due to lack of funding, what will happen to current and future generations' wealth (or poverty?) of knowledge?

As I've mentioned in previous entries, I started this blog in part because I have observed that people (in general; Americans, in particular) are getting stupider. It seems as though we've let the generations before us do all the work, and now we are coasting along as if everything is peachy--never bothering to analyze situations, think independently, take a stand, or act ethically. Obviously I'm generalizing, and I'll never claim to know the way to correct our broken systems. All I know is that we need to think about what is wrong, take a stand against unethical practices, and do something to make a change.

Writing and thinking are what I know how to do.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Think About Advertisements

A few weeks ago I read Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Consumer Binge--And Why We Must by Kalle Lasn (founder of Adbusters). I had picked the book up in a used bookstore about five or six years ago, and it was already "old" (as far as books go) then. But what I found amazing was that, even though this book was published in 1999, it was not outdated in its content. In fact, it is even more applicable now--in 2011.

We have become a society of consumers who think their electronic gadgets need to be updated yearly (or even more often), their cars need to be replaced every two or three years, and their clothes need to jive with the latest fashion magazines. We're a throwaway society (also called "planned obsolescence"), a society heavily influenced by advertisements. We're a society that is not made up primarily of individuals but, instead, a bunch of robotic people who dress, talk, and think the same thoughts. (See previous post, Think About Thinking.)

This may sound obvious, but the big problem with the conformity in our society is its resulting lack of diversity. As self-evident as it sounds, those of us who fall for the marketing schemes do not seem to realize the potentially devastating outcome(s). Lasn writes: "Cultural homogenization has graver consequences than the same hairstyles, catchphrases, music and action-hero antics perpetrated ad nauseum around the world. In all systems, homogenization is poison. Lack of diversity leads to inefficiency and failure. The loss of language, tradition or heritage--or the forgetting of one good idea--is as big a loss to future generations as a biological species going extinct" (p. 26). If we all try to look alike, dress alike, and talk alike, where are new ideas going to come from?

For my part, I do my best to say "no" to "planned obsolescence." About three years ago I got rid of my 1989 Ford Tempo, a car I had been driving since high school. I literally drove it as long as I safely could. Now I drive a 1996 Taurus, which feels like a luxury to me. It's a good car, and I also plan to drive it as long as I can. Personally, I'm not impressed by people who drive new cars. I'm impressed by people who stray from the norm. If "everyone" has something, I admire the person who doesn't. Of course, I also have to be realistic: I could not be posting this blog if I were using a typewriter, and I might even have trouble if I were still using a dial-up connection. It's true that sometimes we have to change as the world changes. I'm trying to retain some semblance of individual thought, though, and it's often not easy to do.

To show how swayed our American culture is by media, Lasn compares an audience of a sitcom to Pavlov's dogs: "[Y]ou laughed because some network executive in a corner office in Burbank gets paid $500,000 a year to make sure you do. You laughed in the same places that the live studio audience laughed, give or take a little after-the-fact digital modification. The bell rang and you salivated" (p. 38).

Do you like being manipulated like that?

As a society, we are indeed being manipulated, and the marketing is, literally, everywhere we turn. Corporations are deciding our lives with their advertisements. If you want to be an individual and think for yourself, you have to fight back. Writes Lasn, "America, the great liberator, is in desperate need of being liberated from itself--from its own excesses and arrogance. And the world needs to be liberated from American values and culture, spreading across the planet as if by divine providence" (p. 61).

I've gotten into the habit lately of dissecting television and radio commercials and newspaper/magazine ads. For the most part, what I've found is appalling and, while there is always a lot of focus on the negative portrayals of women (and still nothing seems to change...see the post Think About Images of Women), the advertisements aren't just negatively stereotyping women. Nobody is immune to the pigeonholing.

I urge you to think about what advertisements are telling you. Look at how people are portrayed (men, women, children, different ethnic groups). Think about turning the TV off, reading a book, and making your own decisions.

Think about starting a revolution of individual thought.

And that's what "culture jamming" is: a revolution of sorts. To me, it's a revolution to take back individuality. Check out the Adbusters web site to learn more.

Also fascinating is the article/video, This is Your Brain on Ads, which explores the science behind advertisements (neuromarketing) and shows just how aware a person needs to be in order to not get sucked into the consumerism game.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Think About Thinking

I started this blog, Inciting Thought, in part because, based on many (but certainly not all) of my interactions with people, I've come to the conclusion that society (generally speaking) has lost--or, is losing--the ability to think. Some possible contributing factors: the United States' education system, the influence of mass media, and a general narcissistic attitude.

When I read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (which I also referred to in Think About Solitude, Part 2), I realized that the problem runs much deeper than I had originally thought, and much of our thinking problem has to do with internet and technology usage. Our brains are literally changing, and there's no easy way to reverse what's happening. Carr writes: "Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect.... The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain. When it comes to the quality of our thought, our neurons and synapses are entirely indifferent. The possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains... [T]he farther we proceed down [the paths of least resistance], the more difficult it becomes to turn back" (p. 35).


Terrifying, actually.

The more time and energy that we spend on the internet or using our i-gadgets--checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and/or texting, etc., the less time we spend in a quiet space reading (or writing) for an extended amount of time. According to Carr, in the "undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply" (p. 65). Now, even when we do read deeply, "we do so in the busy shadow of the Internet." Already in 1997, literary critic George Steiner noted that "the silences, the arts of concentration and memorization, the luxuries of time on which 'high reading' depended are largely disposed" (pp. 110-111). Carr states that, while it's possible to think critically while reading on the Internet, it's "not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards" (p. 116).

Carr further cites how reading and writing skills are declining. Between 1992 and 2005, literary reading aptitude dropped twelve percent (p. 146). And, as our reading and writing skills decline, so do our critical thinking skills.

And, then, as our critical thinking skills decline, we become more and more a society of robots...or cookie-cutter cookies, whichever metaphor you prefer. I would argue that self-actualized people know how to think deeply, but when I see so many young people (it's not just young people, but they are the most susceptible) wearing the same clothes, sporting the same hair-styles, talking in the same manner, listening to the same music, etc., I question how self-actualized they really are. It is difficult for one to have a healthy and successful relationship or marriage without truly knowing and loving oneself first. I would even argue that these lack of critical thinking skills are partly responsible for the high divorce rate in this country.

Ever since our reading, writing, and thinking skills have waned--most notably, since the mid-'90s--I've also been aware of a decline in "feminist" (I use the term loosely) thought. I'm not talking about a "men are scum" mindset; I'm talking about women and equality. I'm talking about women feeling good about being women and about women being independent people (not dependent on men). I'm talking about making sexist remarks and stereotypes of women disappear.

If any of you are familiar with author Peggy Orenstein/her blog, PBG, or Hardy Girls Healthy Women, you are familiar with what we--meaning: the above people/groups and any other woman who thinks deeply about the images and issues surrounding her--thinking women are up against. People and organizations such as those three, which try to combat the disgraceful commercial images that stereotype and/or degrade women, are few and far between.

Encourage the females (I'm focusing on females, but, actually, this applies to males as well) you know to think critically and deeply, to read deeply and often, to learn about themselves and the world, to be unique and independent individuals. I see so many young (let's say under 25, give or take a few years) women who "relationship-hop," thinking they always need to have a boyfriend. But one cannot easily learn about herself when she's always connected to another person. People change. I know with certainty that I am not the same person I was when I was 25. I thought I knew what I wanted back then, and, yes, some of my goals have remained the same. But many are different. And, in many cases, the reasons and the processes have changed. I've matured; I've grown. I've read and thought and learned.

And, because of all this deep reading and thinking, I know who I am.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Think About Haiku

writing good haiku:
climbing a tree and reaching
to the highest branch

Haiku are fascinating. They look simple, but, much like the moments and thoughts they represent, are deceptively so. Although my haiku attempt above has several elements of a true haiku, I'm not sure if it would actually count as one; I am, by no means, an expert.

I became interested in haiku about eight years ago when I came across (and subsequently bought) the book How to Haiku: A Writer's Guide to Haiku and Related Forms by Bruce Ross. But, as sometimes happens, my interest waned. Life went on. A few times throughout the years I tried writing haiku, but, getting frustrated or bored, I'd go back to other forms of writing that I was more comfortable with.

My interest in haiku was renewed, though, when I received the book, Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart by Patricia Donegan, as a Christmas gift this past year. Maybe it was because I was older (more mature? wiser?!), but writing and reading haiku (and about it) felt more natural to me, less exasperating.

Haiku Mind is a book that you can pick up, read for a couple minutes, set back down, read another book, then come back to, without losing your place or having to backtrack several paragraphs or pages. Each poem and explanation is independent of all the others. Consequently, I was reading it slowly, two or three pages at a time, taking time for many other books in between.

Then, a couple weeks ago, my dad ended up in the hospital after a heart attack and open heart surgery. I found myself doing a lot of sitting at the hospital that week, which, ordinarily, would be a perfect time to read. I was between books at the time, though, and didn't have the concentration to start something new. So, a bit absentmindedly, I grabbed Haiku Mind to take with me to the hospital. It ended up being the perfect book to read there. Throughout the week I read two-hundred pages while my dad slept, ate, or just sat. It was a book I could easily stop, start, and stop again, if my dad wanted to talk or if the doctor or nurses came in.

Not only that, but haiku poems are excellent reminders of the preciousness of life and the value of each moment. Haiku Mind inspired me to write a number of hospital poems (although not necessarily haiku). The hours I spent at the hospital with my dad were the clearest moments of that week for me. I was living in a haiku state of in the moment...cherishing the present. In the book, author Patricia Donegan states that "[w]e are so caught up in hope and fear about the future or rethinking the past, that we are rarely in this present moment" (p. 197). How true! The combination of reading haiku, writing "in" the moment, and praying gave me clarity, understanding, and peace of mind. And, I was thankful. Very thankful. Of life. Of each moment. Of being in each moment.

One of the days, I spent several hours reading while my dad just slept. It was important to him that someone was there, though, and being there was equally important to me. Even though he was sleeping. Even though there was silence. Donegan tells us, though, that "[m]ost of our deepest moments occur when we are alone in silence or with others in silence. It is a gateway of nurturing, of healing, of renewal, and sometimes of revelation" (p. 151).

As a society, we tend to move so quickly that we forget the little moments that make up our lives. Donegan writes: "If we could but stop for a moment, if we could turn off the TV, computer, iPhone, or whatever gadget we are using, feel our breath moving through our lungs, smell the air, and see around us, we might be amazed by what we find" (p. 47). It is precisely that mindset that helped me really "feel" the moments with my dad at the hospital. Those moments led to poems. To thoughts. To lucidity and understanding of the situation.

I have a new awareness of haiku now, a new passion for it. I'll keep practicing being in a moment, valuing it; and I'll keep practicing recording that moment as well, even if it's in the form of an imperfect haiku.
(For more of my thoughts on being aware/being in a moment, see the post, Think About Being Present.)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Think About Solitude, Part 2

(If you haven't read my original post, Think About Solitude, I encourage you to do so--but you do not need to have read it to make sense of Part 2.)

I recently read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (which I mentioned briefly in Think About Books, Part 2). It was a fascinating book and I will probably refer to it in several upcoming posts. It's one of those books that I keep pondering, even though I finished it two days ago. That seems an appropriate reaction, too, since thinking deeply (or, critically) is one of the main ideas that Carr discusses in the book.

As Carr demonstrates, the internet is changing our brains in such a way that one might say it's creating, generally speaking, a society with technology-induced ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The internet limits one's ability to really contemplate and understand the information one reads and how it might apply to his or her life. Carr writes that "[t]he development of a well-rounded mind requires both [my emphasis] an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and [my emphasis] a capacity for open-ended reflection.... We need to work in Google's 'world of numbers,' but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind" (p. 168).

Carr later quotes novelist David Foster Wallace: "Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience" (pp. 194-5).

In other words, we need to "unplug" every so often. We need solitude, nature, and some form of silence. We need time and space to think.

This evening I rollerbladed a little over 11 miles. A lot of people like to listen to music when they exercise; but, when I exercise, I like to just think about things--in the way that constantly "connected" people might not be able to.

Me, unplugged.

While I rollerbladed I thought about Carr's book, and that is when the idea for this blog post came to me. I also pondered my career/job options. I wrote poetry in my head while I rolled along. I thought about my friends and family. I listened to my wheels against the pavement and enjoyed the sound they made. I delighted in the little noises of nature and watched bunnies hop through the reeds along the path. I thought about how, at 90+ degrees (even in the evening), there was no way I could do the full 15.8 miles I've done the last few times I've been out.

And every thought took me back to Carr's book and our society's reliance on technology and the distractedness it creates. I am certainly not immune to this technology-induced ADD; and, as I thought about Carr's book, I realized that I don't want to lose my capacity to read deeply and think critically. Therefore, I think that in order to hold on to this ability, I need to make time to read, write, or do any other activity uninterrupted--time when I'm not texting or checking email, Facebook, or Twitter.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Think About Money

 "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

 I think that's the only thing that I remember from my high school Economics class. It seems to be a pretty ubiquitous phrase, and most people are familiar with it. I wonder, though, if many people really understand what it means.

Perhaps I'm in the minority in the way I view money. I don't see it as a goal in life. For example, I see (for the most part, at least) designer labels, fancy cars, and huge houses as crass and gaudy. And, to me, a diamond ring doesn't mean love; love comes from the heart.

Suffice it to say, I'm constantly surprised at how other people seem to see and treat money. I've worked in retail for a number of years, but it's at my current job in a college bookstore where I've seen the most blatant abuse of funds, especially funds that come from other sources (i.e. government). As someone who was taught from an early age how to save money and make wise purchases/investments, I find it disenchanting to see how careless many college students are with their money. While I chock up many of these financial choices to immaturity and materialistic selfishness, it's what they do with government money and other aids and scholarships that irks me the most. Some students even brag about how they will avoid paying it back.

One student who had a bookstore stipend that she didn't have to pay back just started tossing items on to the counter, barely looking at what she was buying. "It doesn't matter," she said. "It's free." I had to stop myself from replying, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Another student was buying something with money other people had given him to make the purchase. When given the choice between a less expensive and more expensive item, he grabbed the more expensive one, saying, "I don't care; it's not my money."

"I don't care; it's not my money."

That statement denotes precisely what is wrong with so much in this country. Government programs; federal, state, and local governments; educational programs; school districts; corporations....

In most cases, it's not so much that the money doesn't exist (for various institutions and programs); instead, it's that the people in charge of handling the money don't allocate it smartly. In actuality, a lot can be done with a little.

Think about it; how do you view money?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Think About Reading

I'll proudly wear the title of Literary Snob. I'm okay with that, I admit it. There are some authors that I won't read because their books don't contain what I think of as "good" writing. They may be engaging stories, but their writing is simplistic and basic. Their characters are flat. No depth.

So, yes, I'm a Literary Snob. I'd rather stay a more-or-less unpublished writer than be an author of a flatly written book. That's just me. I value good literature. Likewise, it's what I strive to write.

However, I also believe that if millions of people are reading a poorly written book, that is far better than not reading any book at all.

Think about everything you might read in a day, words you read without even thinking about it. When I became a tutor for a local literacy organization, I realized just how much I take my reading ability for granted. Twice a week I meet with a student who managed to graduate from high school without knowing how to read fluently. Every day she faces struggles that the average adult knows nothing about. Menus, prescription bottles, recipes, receipts, billboard signs, ingredients on a box of cereal, and on and on.

Although poor writing, grammar, and proofreading skills irk me, having poor reading and reading comprehension skills sadden me. It saddens me because it is often under-privileged children who are the victims of poor reading skills. Through no fault of their own, these children may start school already academically behind their peers, simply because nobody has ever read to them or taken them to a library or even showed them a book.

But what about the children who are not under-privileged? I don't want to make this an issue about the public education system in the United States; that's only part of the problem.

A larger part of the problem in this country has to do with our society's values (or lack thereof?). A large chunk of people in our society put emphasis on the wrong things: money, status, fashion, outer beauty..., to name a few. An enlightening article from the April 18th Publishers Weekly articulated this idea nicely for me. In "The Light at the End of the Publishing Tunnel? On finding fans, not formats," Rudy Shur writes that "[i]nstead of focusing on how our books are going to be delivered to the reading public, we ought to be concerned with who will be left to read books."

Think about that for a moment.

Additionally, he cites that video game sales surpass book sales. Twenty years ago, books were a common form of entertainment. Now, though, a lot of people look for ways to BE entertained, as opposed to finding a way to entertain themselves. To that point, Shur writes: "While other countries focus on educating their children, we seem more focused on amusing them.... However, the responsibility of raising children who value education, and hence read, in any form, is no longer a priority. Without a vibrant and growing reading public to buy e-books or tree-books, who are we going to sell our titles to in the future?"

I will counter Shur here and suggest that many people will still buy books (e-books or otherwise); for some, it's about status--a way to show off their e-gadget--or a way of appearing intellectual. Whether they will read them or not...?

Perhaps the people who have earbuds fused to their brains, ipods sutured to their pockets, and cell phones superglued to their hands actually take e-breaks when they are alone. Turn off the tunes, switch off the television, and power down the laptop. And, then, maybe they simply sit on the couch with a book (or an e-reader).

Ahhh.... Simple pleasures. When I learned to read, my mom told me that a book could transport me anywhere, that I could do anything or be anyone by reading. Not only that, but I soon discovered all sorts of stuff I could learn by reading!

Think about reading. Actually, don't just think about it. Read to yourself or read to someone else. Read to a child!

But, mostly...READ.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Think About Books, Part 2

Back in October, I posted "Think About Books." After reading an article in the April 11th Publishers Weekly just now, I felt compelled to write on this subject again.

The article is "Books Without Batteries: the negative impacts of technology," written by Bill Henderson. (I read it in the print version, by the way.) Henderson's thoughts echo many of my own, although he has different reasons for them. He refers to the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, a book I was not familiar with (but have just requested from the library). Henderson states that Carr's premise is that people cannot read in depth anymore, that people can't think anymore, in general. "They are becoming 'chronic scatterbrains...even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb.'"

I have to agree that many people can't (or, at least, don't) think anymore. Working in retail, I witness this scatterbrain-ness on a regular basis, though I think "scatterbrain" may be too nice of a term. I am not sure if it's due to technology, as Henderson and Carr state, but it's definitely out there. I tend to think that it stems from our superficial materialistic society, in general, and our public education system. But, whatever is causing the problem, it has created a society of people who read poorly, write poorly, and, as a result, think poorly. They just don't take the time to do those things anymore. I regularly see Facebook posts where people use your instead of you're (and vice versa). (It's just Facebook, I know...not a big deal. But it works toward my point anyway. See my post "Think About Professional Communication.")

I'm sure there are many reasons that people love their e-readers, and I have no issue with that. Some people like gadgets, and that's fine. Some adamant proponents of e-readers, though, think that they're good for the environment. Of all the things Americans are wasteful with, print books and the paper they use are probably the least of the problem. One does not usually read a book and trash it. Library books can be re-read for decades. A person who buys a book often loans it to other people or, at the very least, ends up selling it at a garage sale or donating it to Goodwill. In any case, most books get read more than once, usually multiple times, by different people. Even textbooks that go into new editions every couple of years (which is a problem in itself, one that I won't address here) get used more than a couple of times.

E-readers, on the other hand, are like any other gadget in that they become outmoded, sometimes within a few months. Not only does that feed American society's heavy consumerism (which is problematic in itself), but it isn't as "green" of an option as those who rationalize it that way might think. According to Henderson: "To make one e-reader requires 33 pounds of minerals, plus 79 gallons of water to refine the minerals and produce the battery and printed writing. 'The adverse health impacts...from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those for making a single book,' says [a recent New York Times article]. Then you figure that the 100 million e-readers will be outmoded in short order, to be replaced by 100 million new and improved devices..., and you realize an environmental disaster is at hand."

Henderson goes on to say: "Here's what it takes to make a book, which...will be shared by many readers and preserved and appreciated in personal, public, and university libraries that survive the gigantic digital book burning: recycled paper, a dash of minerals, and two gallons of water. Batteries not necessary. If trees are harvested, they can be replanted."

As both an avid reader and avid writer, I can't help but love books. As though they are my own kin, I want to protect them. And, if anyone chooses to read on an e-reader, that is his or her choice, which I respect. But, please, PLEASE, please, don't drag the printed book and all that it encompasses down with you. According to Henderson, "Books are our history and our future. If they survive, we will, too."

So, if you made it through this blog entry and understood what you read: Congratulations, your brain has not yet been stunted by digital society! The world needs more like you! And, if you really understood what you just read, you'll pass this link on to others to read because knowledge is power, and knowledge comes from words. And maybe, just maybe, knowledge can start to displace the ignorance and apathy which are all too prevalent in American society.

(And, trust me, the irony of my platform here--the internet--is not lost on me. However, if someone offered me a book deal right now, I'd willingly put my blog on hold to write for the printed page.)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Think About Poetry

Happy National Poetry Month!

I'm not necessarily a fan of "special" months (and it's my understanding that April is the "special" month for several other issues/subjects besides poetry), but poetry is a subject that tends to be underestimated by the general public. Most poets cannot make a living by their art alone. Creative writing, in general, does not usually pay the bills; but fiction writers can, at least, dream of a bestseller. Poets...not so much. That has to tell you something about poets: we write because we enjoy it, because we are compelled to, and/or because reading a well-crafted poem gives us pleasure, so we are constantly attempting to write that poem. Of course, there are other reasons too (I am not speaking for all poets--I'm just speaking for me).

I've been writing poetry regularly for about 15 years. I had dabbled with it before that (mostly in elementary school), but my original (read: childhood) plan was to become a murder mystery author. Because I was born the year Agatha Christie died, I thought it was my "destiny." (Apparently, I thought I'd be as well-known as she was, too.) But figuring out the intricacies of a good mystery plot is quite the task; figuring out the intricacies of ANY plot is quite the task. On the other hand, coming up with a plot isn't really necessary in poetry (and, bingo...a poet is born!).

I write poetry that I hope will be read by others. I write poetry because I want to get it published. Even so, I write from the heart. It's rare that I write a poem that is just for me. However, that's what I've been doing lately. A few months ago I experienced a sort of "trauma" (for lack of a better word) that left me struggling with a lot of "issues" (again...for lack of a better word). I blamed myself for what had happened, my emotions ran awry, and I quickly ran out of coping mechanisms. My instinct told me to write, which I did; but I was still writing for other readers. A number of years ago I used to journal incessantly--and the thought to do this crossed my mind--but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I made little notes to myself, but that was pretty much the extent of it. Finally, somebody recommended I write "journal-like" poetry (not to be read by others), and this is what I've been doing. It's a pretty obvious solution, but perhaps I just wasn't to the point where I could do that before. Interestingly, the woman who suggested this to me was not a writer, but she had gone through a similar "trauma" as I had and had found that writing poetry (she used the term "poetry" loosely, but poetry has a loose definition anyway, so I'm calling it--definitively--poetry for her!) really helped her through it.

So,...yet another reason to write poetry: it's therapeutic! Of course, it doesn't have to be just poetry. Any creative writing can be therapeutic; any creative endeavor can be, for that matter! Drawing, painting, crafting, etc.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, I'm encouraging you to read some poetry, write some poetry, attend a poetry reading, or just take a moment to think about poetry. If you're not writing poetry, at least do something creative. Support the arts in your community; or, just as importantly, be a part of the arts in your community!

And, like a circular poem, I will end this entry the way I began (but with a minor font adjustment):

Happy National Poetry Month!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Think About Spiritual Gifts

I grew up, as they say, "in the church," meaning that it (church) has always been a part of my life. Church services, Sunday School, Bible School, church camp, and youth group: these were all activities that were part of my routine growing up. Not only that, but they were activities that I was expected to be involved in. No, I wasn't forced; it was just what I was supposed to do. It was what most of my friends did, too. And most of the people I knew, in fact.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise (but, really, not a huge shock) to me--about four or five years ago--when I realized that I don't really know very much about the Bible. For having grown up "in the church," I'm pretty dumb about church things. After coming to this realization, I began reading and attending what--at my church--is called Gathering Space (adult Christian education). I still don't know a lot (because, face it, there is A LOT to learn), but I do know a lot more than I did five years ago.

A couple of weeks ago I took a Spiritual Gifts class at my church. This was a wonderful class that has inspired me to learn more about Spiritual Gifts. Those of you who know me are well aware that when I find a subject I want to learn more about, I immediately invest a lot of time and energy (and, sometimes, money--depending on whether or not the books are available from the library) in reading whatever I can on the particular subject. My current quest, though, is not so much about the Spiritual Gifts themselves, but it is about figuring out how I can use mine.

In the class, we took an assessment to figure out what our strongest gifts are. My Spiritual Gifts weren't what I was expecting them to be...until I thought about it (and I'm still thinking about it); then, it made sense. My strongest gifts were assessed to be Faith, Mercy, and Discernment. (This doesn't mean these are my only gifts; it just means that they are, most likely, my strongest ones.)

(Not surprising to me was that my weakest gift was Evangelism. I was also relieved to know that this was okay (phew...) because we all have different gifts; God gave us each different gifts. It is necessary that we all have different gifts.)
"There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit." I Corinthians 12: 4-7.

We are to use our gifts with love: this is easy for me to understand. But, finding ways to use them is a little trickier for me. I think I use several of my gifts (including ones that I didn't rate as high on) when I tutor my adult student in reading and writing. Perhaps that explains why the two sessions per week of tutoring are often the high points of those days for me. It's when I'm tutoring that I know I'm doing something useful, something I'm excited about, and, better yet,...I'm doing something with joy and love, something I know I was meant to do.

(Now, I just have to work on doing something like that (making a difference, doing something useful and important, using my gifts) more than just two hours a week...!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Think About Professional Communication

There's a book called I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar. I haven't read it, but it's one of those books with fun English language gaffes and flubs. I've read several of these kinds of books and enjoy them. However, I can find enough of these kinds of errors without buying a book or even looking too hard.

Let me back up a second though and assure you that I personally don't judge people based on their grammatical goofs--that's just the name of that book. It certainly does make me sad, though, when educated people make obvious errors; and I think it says something about our country's education system. Communication is one of the most important skills to have in today's world.

It's understandable when people write un-grammatically in a text message, in an informal email, on Facebook, etc., but too many times this informality carries over into the professional world (which seems to be gradually getting smaller and smaller). Proofreading what you write before hitting "send" is an important step to consider. Last week I received an email from a buyer at the corporate office of the company I work for. I was the only recipient and I knew she had been writing it in a hurry, so the error had minimal consequences. She wrote that she "defiantly need[ed] a second pair of eyes." It was apparent that she meant she definitely needed a second pair of eyes. (And, she obviously proved her point!) No harm done.

However, this same company regularly sends out "professional" communications to upwards of 1000 recipients at a time. Not only are these riddled with vague directions and poor organization, they also often contain sentences that are just plain painful to read. For instance: "We are giving store management the opportunity to review the list of patrons who our systems show should be sent to collections before they are sent." Or, "...the PSC will be putting together a patch that will that will update all store's flash plug-in." No, I didn't accidentally write that will twice; that's how it was published. And "all store's flash plug-in"? Ugh. That should be "all stores' flash plug-ins." In these cases, yes, I DO judge the company I work for. I don't judge the actual individual who wrote the sentences though. Not everybody is a grammar guru; not everybody has to be. We all excel at different things. But, for crying out loud, there should be somebody looking over these communications before they are sent out for 1000+ people to read.

Think about the image you want to project when you write something, whether it is personal or professional. Although someone might not be "judging" you, per se, for writing it, he or she just might end up using it as an example in a blog or a book of English errors.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Think About Images of Women

It's Women's History Month, but I'm sure you already knew that.

You may know it, but you probably aren't thinking much about it. I'm pretty indifferent to these "special" months myself (except for National Poetry Month). I mean, it's nice to take the time and focus on a group of people and their history, but women's history--just like African-American history--is part of history, period. The reason for these "special" months is that these histories tend to get skimmed over in primary school. In fact, most of what I learned about either subject (women's history, African-American history), I learned on my own. By reading--which I do a lot of.

If women were to know their history, they might understand that the fight for equality is not over. Yes, we've come a long way; but, as technology changes, so do the pressures on women. The younger generation--the kids who have grown up with internet--is most susceptible.

What somebody said to me last week has stuck with me. Not necessarily in a bad way, but not really in a good way either. More like in a befuddled way.... A woman--probably in her 40s, but I'm a bad judge of age--picked up a pink sweatshirt and said, "I'm going to get the pink one, of course, 'cause I'm a girl. I love pink!" I really don't care that she likes pink (each to his or her own), but the way that she said it--implying that she was going to get the pink one, of course, because she was a girl, got me seriously stirred up.

I doubt that the woman meant anything by it. But, when you take those same sort of slipshod comments and put them in the media or otherwise surround young people with them, you're influencing people. And, with such a prevalence of media, young women are surrounded more than ever before by this kind of persuasion.

I was fortunate to have grown up when I did and where I did and, luckily, I was raised in a family of people who, in some aspects, went against the grain. My mom's favorite color was always navy blue (I think she's branched out into greens now); I don't recall her ever wearing pink (or ever trying to persuade me to wear it). Additionally, my television exposure was limited and I was encouraged to read--and allowed to pick out my own books from the library. (Interestingly, I loved the chapter books with Sebastian the dog sleuth [this was in the early '80s]--those of you who know me personally know that I love dogs and that I'm a true crime buff. Some things never change. Go ahead, ask me some serial killer trivia....) 

And, being the youngest of four, I had all sorts of toys to play with, and my siblings gave me a diverse education. My oldest brother taught me some basic (literally, BASIC) computer programming when I was eight or nine. My other brother taught me how to shoot a basketball, how to play ping-pong, and how to build with Legos. My sister taught me how to draw. On top of that, life was very different in the '80s. We didn't have internet; and, until the mid/late '80s, my family didn't even have cable or a VCR. We weren't bombarded with marketing images 24/7. We listened to the radio, and my friends and I made mix tapes of the music we liked. Life was, well, simpler.

I recently heard someone say that girls naturally go through a "princess" phase. I didn't. Most other girls I knew didn't. Maybe twenty-first century girls do, but that's because there are people out there creating the "phases" a child will go through. And, because people are surrounded virtually non-stop by these images, the problem is WORSE than it was ten, 15, or 20 years ago. That's right, we're going backwards.

I read a fascinating book a few years ago called Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes by Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown (Brown is a co-founder of Hardy Girls Healthy Women). It made me angry--at marketers, partly, but they're just doing their job, and what they're I was also angry at the women who let themselves be objectified and at the parents who fall for it and at the girls who don't resist it. Yet, I know my anger is misplaced. As with most things, education is key.

Check out this short trailer for Killing Us Softly 4. Jean Kilbourne is the phenomenal woman behind the film (and many others). She has worked hard to educate everyone (not just women) about the power of media and, specifically, how it affects how society views women and how women view themselves.

After you view the trailer for Killing Us Softly 4, check out this video (from Peggy Orenstein's blog), which apparently is for a new show (with a complete line of toys and other products too, of course) aimed at young girls: Monster High. Definitely a horror show but not the good kind. If it wasn't aimed at young girls, it might actually be funny (in a "South Park" kind of way) but only for self-actualized girls (which 8-year-olds certainly are not!).

Think about the images you see of women--what are they telling you? Earlier tonight I saw a TV commercial for some sort of acne medicine, obviously aimed at teen-aged (and pre-teen) girls. The woman was flawless, but nevertheless she was complaining about one pimple, which she referred to as the "worst thing." I'm sorry, but not even when I was a teenager with raging acne (it was certainly never just one pimple) did I think of a pimple as the "worst thing." Teenagers have so much on their minds that the last thing they need to hear is that it's horrible to have just one pimple.

Some Things to Remember:
--It's okay to have a pimple (it's okay to have more than one!)
--Not all girls like pink (and it's okay for guys to like pink)
--Not all smart girls drool or wear glasses (now you'll have to watch the Monster High video!)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Think About Re-Creating

Recycling is an over-used word that gets, uh, "recycled" too often, so I've been trying to think of a different word that might describe a creative way of reusing items. How about re-creating? I am particularly inspired by Sylvania's (OH) own Dragonfly Artisan Tea Cottage, one of my favorite local businesses. The crafts and artwork for sale there are the epitome of re-creations--journals made of old books, tie-dyed fabrics/clothes, jewelry made of buttons, and many other handmade items. (The food and tea are delicious there as well.)

My minimalist philosophy heartily supports re-creation. I hate to wastefully keep items that I'm not going to use, and I hate to see perfectly good items go to waste. So, I'm at it again--cleaning out my closets, sorting through books, and, essentially, getting rid of items that are not, well, essential to my life. I regularly donate my old clothes and household items to the American Cancer Society's Discovery Shop in Saxon Square in Sylvania. Other items I simply give to Goodwill. Either way, I am excited when my discarded items can be re-created in any way in which someone else can use them.

But, there are other ways to re-create. Check out Feeding Body & Mind, a place to donate books for distribution to food banks around the country. (No, people will not be eating the books; but while food nourishes the body, books nourish the mind. Both healthy bodies and minds are necessary for life.)

Get that creativity flowing and think about what new things you can do with old items. I've seen (neck)ties made into decorative pillows; I've seen t-shirts made into pillows as well. When your jeans have worn out in the knees, re-create them into shorts. When you spill on your t-shirts, re-create them by tie-dying them (I've had to do this to a number of shirts; I finally just stopped buying any clothes that were light-colored).

If you're not using any arts and crafts supplies (of any kind), support Shared Lives Studio (Toledo, OH, area) by donating the supplies to them. At Shared Lives, adults with disabilities make artwork that is available for sale.

While garage/yard sales can bring in some extra spending money, donating the items to worthy causes can feel so much better. Re-create your life by helping others re-create theirs with re-created items! (And how about we start using the word re-create instead of recycle?!)

If you have any other ideas for re-creating, please leave a comment (because I have a lot of "stuff" that needs re-creating!). Thanks!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Think About Valentine's Day

So, last week I read a blog entry titled "100 Reasons Not To Be In A Relationship" (which I arrived at via Peter Jurich's blog...thanks, Peter!). Referring to it seemed apropos for a Valentine's post.

I'm single partly by choice...because I'm picky. And partly because apparently a lot of guys out there are picky also. (In my own defense, I think some of them are picky about the wrong things; but, then again, they might think the same of me). I don't need to be in a relationship to be complete; I am defined by who I am, not by who I'm with. So, while I agree with many of Alica's 100+ reasons not to be in a relationship, I'd still prefer not to be single...but I do have some caveats to go with that statement (did I say I was picky...?).

Maybe I see relationships differently than a lot of people do. I'm not really into labels like "boyfriend" or "girlfriend"; I prefer to see a relationship as a deep friendship between two equals, perhaps something bordering on "soul-mates" (though that's probably too general of a term).

I ventured out to the...*gasp*...mall yesterday, something I usually don't do. I can pretty much see everything I dislike about relationships at the mall. I hate malls, and I dislike shopping; my main objective for going on the excursion was to visit Borders. It was as bad as the rest of the mall though. One would never guess that Borders is on the brink of bankruptcy. Since I've been using the library a lot lately, I hadn't been to Borders in a very long time. It was immediately obvious that I shouldn't have chosen a Saturday--much less the Saturday before Valentine's Day--to go there. For someone who doesn't shop (except online), the crowds were overwhelming. Everywhere I walked I saw people who appeared to have been dragged (not literally...for the most part) there by their significant others (SO's). Or, I saw men (mostly) buying inane gifts for their SO's. It seemed silly. I would never (and I never have) drag my SO shopping against his will (though it could be because I hate shopping). I might drag him to a poetry reading or other such literary event, but if he were my SO, most likely that would be the kind of event he would enjoy anyway.

I like Valentine's Day actually. I know I am loved by a number of people (and a few dogs). I don't need a significant other to feel loved. Greeting cards are nice (my dogs already gave me theirs; their handwriting looks suspiciously like my mom's...), but I'm not much into flowers or chocolates; I don't care for chick flicks, and I definitely try to avoid anything that's needlessly pink. To me, frivolity doesn't show love; sharing laughter and conversation and time together does. And since I'm trying to be a minimalist; material things don't mean a lot to me. That being said...

...I'd love an air hockey table for my basement. Now that would be the perfect Valentine's Day gift.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Think About Corporations

If you work for a local or small (or even medium-sized?) company, I'm envious. I once (over 15 years ago) worked at a family-owned grocery store. It was a low-paying job, but it was a satisfying place to work. It was a large store, but the management made sure we employees all felt as though we were part of a community. There was a monthly (or quarterly?) newsletter, an annual Christmas party, and an annual summer picnic. It was a family-friendly and happy place.

People keep telling me that I should be thankful to have a job. And, I know they're right, and I am thankful. At the same time, though, I wish I worked at a place more like that grocery store, a place where the "head honchos" were not just names people drop (as a reason or a threat) but real people who worked hard and also actually knew what their employees did.

Instead, though, I work for a large corporation that, at one time, was a small family business. The business thrived, so the company decided to grow. And then they grew and grew and grew and grew. Much of this expansion and change has taken place in the last 10 or 15 years. I've been with the company for nearly 8 years, long enough to see that they are not the same company I started working for. Instead, they've become like many large corporations--cold and inefficient, with a large disconnect between the people who do the work and the people who assign the work.

I can only speak for retail corporations, mind you, and I've only been a part of two of them, so yes, my knowledge and experience is limited.

In the first big corporation I worked for, Borders Group, Inc. (you may have heard of it), I was the manager of one of their Waldenbooks stores. Even with the limited communication we had at that time (no email or internet access in the store), as the manager I didn't feel like I was alone or out of any sort of loop; my job was simple, in fact, to the point that it became monotonous. As manager, I had little control over the business--no say in the books we carried, no say in book-signings, no say in...well, pretty much anything. We had specific directions to follow, specific promotions to advertise, specific bestsellers to display. Most Waldenbooks stores would look the same (to some extent, at least). The main thing that managers had to do was to produce Preferred Reader numbers. This was the main evidence to me that the "big bosses" (who set these goals) were out of touch with how our particular store worked. When you have regular and faithful customers who already have Preferred Reader cards, you can't make them buy another card (especially after raising the price of the card!). Likewise, international customers (our second biggest clientele at my particular store) had no use for one. As far as I know, the Preferred Reader program was discontinued shortly after I left the company. And, I don't think Waldenbooks even exists anymore now (?), possibly due to the inability of the corporation to change with the times. That may have involved individualizing each store and, *gasp*, listening to the store managers.

The job I have now as a retail store manager is much more complicated. I have a lot more responsibility, and this responsibility gets added to almost daily. At the same time that I (and my dear dear employees...who are wonderful, even though they are as underpaid and overworked as I am) have more and more work to do (dictated by people who have not worked as store managers in this company), we get less and less support from the corporate office. My guess is that this is because every other department is equally overworked and underpaid. That's most likely because the people in charge come up with ideas and policies (and implement these ideas and policies) without trying them out or running them by the people who will have to actually bear the brunt of these ideas and policies. Additionally, they usually do not allow the hiring of additional people in these various departments; in fact, in the stores, they ask us to keep cutting employee hours. So, the average response time from my corporate office (for an urgent situation) is three weeks; that's IF we get a response at all. Ironically, one of this corporation's values is accountability. They also, supposedly, value each and every associate.

I have ideas on how to bridge this disconnect between the overpaid bosses and the underpaid workers; namely, communication. I have made multiple (non-anonymous) suggestions over the years (via an e-suggestion box) regarding both communication and efficiency in this corporation, and each time I have received a reply for why the suggestion is not possible. These were mostly meager excuses, defensive in nature--asinine refutations. Sometimes the replies went in circles so many times that I was dizzy after reading them. Once I received the reply that I had a great suggestion and it "was already being worked on." That was four years ago; they apparently never finished "working on" it. Oh, and this corporation also says that it values innovation.

(Yes, I'm thankful I have a job. That's why I didn't name the corporation I work for.)

I'd love to hear your comments; please leave them below!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Think About the Self

I am only myself;
I cannot be
anybody else.

Lately, I've been consumed in my research on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, studying her life and her writing in order to write the 10+ page critical essay that I need to submit as part of my grad school application. I originally picked her for a subject because I wrote a paper on her a couple of years ago; I thought I could merely expand on my previous research. That sounds fairly simple, doesn't it?

There certainly is a wealth of information about Gilman, and I've become so fascinated by her that I want to read as much of it as I can. I've taken many pages of notes and marked up and highlighted several books (the ones I own). But, as I was sitting down at my computer yesterday to finally compose a rough draft of the essay, I was suddenly overwhelmed at the largeness of this project. So many possibilities.... But, as I tell the student I tutor at Read For Literacy, "Don't look at the whole [word, story, newspaper] all at once; just take one part at a time." My student often forgets to do this, and so do I.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman was known in her time (late 1800s/early 1900s) as a writer, poet, and lecturer. In the twenty-first century, she is best known for her story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," and her book, Women and Economics, the latter sometimes referred to as a culmination of her life's work, as it contains most of her ideas regarding society, education, and work that she most often lectured about.

Looking at the overwhelming "whole" of Gilman, one might say that she had a lot of "issues." But, in following my own advice, I will explore just one "part" of her here.

Much of Gilman's struggle throughout her life focused on her sense of self. When she married the first time, she felt that she had lost who she was as a person. This was partly because of the pressures of that particular era, which required many women to choose between having a career or getting married. In general, wives were expected to be docile and submissive. Gilman was not these things; still, she tried to be somewhat of the person her husband expected her to be. But, she could not be who she was not. When she left her husband after just a few years of marriage, she felt relieved.

On her own (and with a young daughter to support), she finally became who she had been becoming before she married. She re-found the important things in [her] life--exercise, both physical and mental; writing; reading; art; and expressing her thoughts of social reform (which she did via the lecture circuit).

When she married the second (and final) time, the result was much happier. Her second husband was sensitive to her needs, which included letting her support herself after they were married (one of her stipulations of marriage). The two of them were intellectual equals as well, which was possibly what Gilman considered the most important aspect of a marriage. They pursued their hobbies and careers in a bliss of equality. She loved and respected him; he loved and respected her. They were the dearest sort of friends and lovers, which seems to me the best sort of marital union. That kind of union, though, can rarely be met if each partner has not realized his/her true sense of self. One needs to know who she is and what she wants to do before entering into a relationship where she will, hopefully, be allowed to continue to be who she is: herself.

Although I think Charlotte Perkins Gilman would be pleased at how some aspects of our society have changed since her death in 1935, I think she would be appalled at other aspects. Among the things I think she would be pleased about is this organization: Hardy Girls Healthy Women. Not only does this organization stress physical activity for girls (which Gilman was a major proponent of), it also lets girls be themselves and discover who they are in healthy ways.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Think About Slowing Down

I debated with myself about what to call this post. There are so many ideas and thoughts in my head, and I've been so busy this week that I haven't been able to get them down in blog form--and, in my mind, I kept trying to figure out how to get them all out in one post.

But, wait. Why the rush?

At one point, I wanted to call this "Think About Rudeness," but that sounded too negative. So, I thought, what about "...Manners"? My brain went off on a long tangent on that one--when you work retail, you tend to wonder sometimes why other people weren't brought up as well as you were (thanks, Mom!). But, I forget my manners at times. I'm rude at times. I don't always do it purposely; there are so many factors that can affect a moment. But, without a doubt, one of these factors is rushing. When we're in a hurry, we tend to do disrespectful things (flip off another driver, cut in line, cut someone off in mid-sentence, etc.) that we wouldn't ordinarily mean to do.

So, really...what's the rush?

About fifteen years ago I wrote a poem about a scene I witnessed while I was working as a cashier in a grocery store. I will save you from my early poetic efforts and just summarize the poem here. It was about the impatience of customers in line. A retired man was testy because two people were ahead of him in line. A mother and a young child were right behind him. The child was moseying behind his mother, looking at either the toy train running on a track hanging from the ceiling or a curious spot on the floor, I'm not sure which--maybe both. In any case, the child was enjoying his time in line, taking in the sights and sounds around him. When the grumpy man was through the line and the woman stepped up, her boy tried to show her something. The woman dismissed him with a nod, quickly made her purchase, and headed for the door. "Hurry, hurry!" she said to her son, without noting his enjoyment of his surroundings, his enjoyment of the moment, of life. Obediently, he ran up to her, and, as they walked out the door, he repeated (without irony), "Hurry, hurry!"

I know there are times when we're all in legitimate rushes, but sometimes things just don't move any faster. When there's nothing you can do about it, why not stop? Stop. Think. Observe. Relax. Take the time to write a blog entry!

Slow down.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Think About Solitude

lonely haiku 
a star lost in the night
even while many surround her

One of my favorite activities is going to a coffee house or cafe (Biggby's or Chandler's usually) to drink coffee, possibly nibble a treat, and read or write. I love being in a cafe full of people who are talking, laughing, studying, or reading. I watch them, smile and nod at them (they're often the same people I see time and again), maybe even small-talk (though I'm not much good at small talk).

I usually go to these places alone (although I've tried to recruit others before). I think sitting and reading with another who is sitting and reading is a great way to spend time together. Alone but not alone. But, this is also a concept I've struggled with. While I enjoy solitude, I also crave being around others. I often wish I had a good friend to sit and read with me--not because I mind being alone--but because I want to share my "story"--the story that unfolds as Life--with someone else, so that it is not just my story. Experiencing something--whether it be reading or traveling--with another person makes the activity even more special.

I'm not the type of person who longs for a lot of friends. I'd rather have just a few true and close friends to spend my time with. Like a lot of writers, I'm not a "social butterfly." Think Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger--though I'm not (and hope never to be) as reclusive as those two are (Lee)/were (Salinger).

It is natural for humans to need others. When one is alone, she can get lost in her own mind. I know that when I think too much, for too long, I can see how easy it would be for one's mind to unravel. I think of the Unabomber, in his alone-ness in his cabin.

Yet too many people and too much noise can be distracting. We live in a fast-paced world--too fast sometimes. We need to savor moments. A few years ago I started reading about the art of haiku poetry. It's not easy to write, but it's beautiful to read. I struggled with expressing my thoughts so succinctly and put the book away. Recently, though, I've tried again. Although I'm still learning, it is my understanding that haiku is used to express a single ordinary moment or thought. It's meant to cause us to explore our surroundings and our relationships with nature or people. We need time to think, to look inside, to see who we are, and who we want to be, in order to then look outside of ourselves and see who we can help and how we can make a difference. Since I started reading about haiku, I jot down notes constantly--anything I think of--to go back to later and form into a stanza. It helps me notice things I might not ordinarily notice. Solitude does this as well. This is why it's important to have time to ourselves periodically.

I think I would go crazy with too much solitude, too much silence. If something happened and all computer networks and phone lines shut down indefinitely, I would feel utterly cut off from the rest of the world. Still, there has to be a "happy-medium" (pardon the cliche). I once overheard two girls at a coffee house--they were talking so fast that it was like listening to a verbal ping-pong game. Although I could understand their words, I couldn't keep up with their conversation. It was too overwhelming.

Me--I want to enjoy another person's company, not be stressed by it. After all, there is a "time for everything," solitude and loneliness included.