A New York Times opinion piece about work/life balance (“A Toxic Work World“) is making the rounds and stirring up a storm of comments. The author points out, among other things, that the culture of  overwork is not a gender issue but a work issue where equity will mean we value care giving.

We have a definite bias towards exhaustion and “110%” as proof of value in our culture. Its a system that benefits men overwhelmingly as Joan Williams brilliantly explains in her book and in nice bite sized video bits.

My reaction to the piece was colored by a conversation I had a few days before it came out. I was in a salon getting a service and chatting as you do about kids and current events and the nice for a change weather.

The woman waiting on me has a daughter a year older than mine and is deep in the college selection process that we’ve been nibbling around the edges. She was telling me her daughter wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and was working with the guidance counselor trying to find the right school in their price range.

But she was convincing her daughter to drop law because no one can have a family with that kind of lifestyle. If she goes into the health field she doesn’t have to be a doctor, she can be something where she can go part time for a while when she has kids.

I understand that every family is different. I understand that we all have our own values.

But I don’t understand why a 17 year old girl should make life choices today to accommodate possible future children that she may or may not want or need to stay home while they’re young.

I tried a few examples, anecdotes and facts to shake the mothers view. But she would not be persuaded her daughter could have it all. She knew better.

Our culture limits us and we limit ourselves.

Lets try not to limit our children.

“Waiting your time, dreaming of a better life
Waiting your time, you’re more than just a wife
You don’t want to do what your mother has done…”

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The power to define yourself rather than allowing society to define you by your gender or sexuality is the foundation of feminism. Mean people wear tie dye too.

Attention Cranky Hippie Ladies: you are promoting the wrong kind of feminism.

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Labels are important.

They tell you whats inside the can, they list the ingredients and they warn about potential danger. Labels can also be limiting.images

Labeling people by their socio-economic class, religion, sexual orientation, race, marital status or political party usually reduces rather than enhances what you know about a person.

Here’s my rundown:

  • Middle-class, whatever that means
  • Atheist, despite the heroic efforts of my Catholic mother
  • Heterosexual
  • Caucasian
  • Married
  • Progressive Democrat

From that list you may think you can now predict how I will vote, where I will shop, and what media I will consume. That’s why we like the shorthand of labels. And that’s why most people resist being slapped with a label.

Once again in an un-named media source a famous young woman felt it necessary to state that contrary to everything she had just said, she was not in fact a Feminist. The way people run from being called feminist makes it seem like racism, pedophilia, murder and mayhem all rolled into one.

I grow very weary of this narrative.

I can’t believe it’s still necessary to tell people that Feminism doesn’t mean you hate men, or refuse to shave, or want women to run the world. The negative stereotyping goes hand in hand with the false belief that sexism no longer exists.

Sexism is a current and serious problem in our society just like racism. Neither of these problems are going away. Too many people benefit from the status quo.

I am a Feminist. I call myself a Feminist because if I only get one label to tell you what you will get when you open this can, Feminist does the job. I invite you to use that label to describe me, my writing, my point of view, whatever.

I’m stopping now because I’m feeling the urge to rant about the misogynistic hegemony and its impact on girl singers of the 21st century and I dont have time for 5,000 words. If you are a feminist, or even vaguely support the idea that women should have the right to vote, own property, have bank accounts, divorce their husbands, have access to reproductive health care…then have the guts to claim to be a feminist.

I just realized I wrote practically this same blog in 2012 – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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Anyone who knows me knows that I am Pro-Choice, Pro-Abortion and Pro-Reproductive Justice. The objections people raise about other people having an abortion don’t move me. I find it ludicrous that a stranger can disagree with, and try to influence, a medical procedure I elect to have.

Given this is an issue I have been championing for 30+ years, I thought I had read and/or heard all possible arguments for and against abortion. I was wrong.

I recently found myself listening to a broadcast called “Station of the Cross” while driving through a rural area. A project I am working on is requiring a bit of driving and when I am alone in the car I tend to cruise the radio stations rather than listen to music or pod casts.

Station of the Cross is a Catholic station that alternates call in talk shows with liturgy and religious music. The talk show I came in on was talking about a demonic possession in Gary, Indiana. A reporter, and supposed eye-witness, was relating the exorcism preformed on two boys under ten who it turned out were being infected by a demon that was actually possessing their mother.

The possession, with its details of children talking in demonic voices and floating to the ceiling at the pediatricians office was bizarre enough, but the explanation the talk show folks gave for the cause of the possession was even more bizarre.

The host asked the reporter how the priest discovered that the mother was the conduit for the “The Evil One” and she related the following story.

The mother had been engaging in extramarital sex with a boyfriend who was not the father of her children. This created a moral crack in her soul that allowed “The Evil One” to come in. It was this kind of sin that the demons were looking for when they were flying around trying to find a host.

The host went on to discuss at length how “The Evil One” especially hates and targets women for possession because the Virgin Mary defied him. Because he hates Mary he goes after women and tells them its okay to kill their children. He sets traps for women by making them think that killing your baby while its inside you is okay. He uses the so called Women’s Movement as a way to create cracks in women’s souls.

Women have to fight “The Evil One” by refusing to use birth control or having abortions, which lets him into your body.

That was a neat trick getting from possessed children to don’t have an abortion.

What really struck me about the discussion was their matter of fact acceptance of the existence of devils juxtaposed with feminism being a tool of Lucifer. I knew in theory that people literally believed in these things but I had never heard anyone in real-time admit it.

There is no space for rational discussion of reproductive rights if your belief system supports sins as means for the devil to enter your body and steal your soul.

That, my friends, is the ultimate reason that abortion must be protected by law.

Happy Valentines Day.

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My daughter asked the other day if I thought that being a mom was a big sacrifice because you have to do everything for your kid. I said I didn’t because I never felt “selfless”  and didn’t considered having a child to be the ultimate accomplishment of my life.

She was a bit insulted by that information.

My daughter (along with my husband) is one of the most important and interesting parts of my life. But she is not my whole life. Nor am I hers.

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of my identity being tied to being a Mom. Not because I have anything against my child or actual parenting, but because the tradition of dismissing other relevant information about a woman once her mother status is revealed is disturbing.

Membership in the Mom Club is automatic and accompanied by a million rules. It seems to be a Club full of clichés, assumptions and ideals designed to highlight my inadequacies. For instance, I am not a crafty Mom. I didn’t make my own baby food, knit things, or do kitchen science experiments.

Nor was I the fun Mom. I didn’t make blanket forts, pack the van full of kids for sledding or throw fabulous birthday parties. Ditto for Sports Mom and Classroom-Volunteer-Mom-that-all-the-teachers-adore. And I certainly didn’t qualify for Doing-whatever-it-takes-Mom, being lucky enough to enjoy a decent income and husband who co-parents.

I’m not sure what prompted my daughter’s question about the self-sacrifice involved in parenting.  To my mind, it’s not a sacrifice if it’s what you want to be doing. Anything I gave up I chose to give up. We chose to have a child and I chose to work full-time rather than stay home. I hope every member of this club enjoys the same choices.

Good days, better days and all the tough ones in between add up to living your life as a parent. Although I am now fifteen years in, I may never reach advanced membership in the Mom Club.

And I wouldn’t change a thing.

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The other night I watched a movie about lateterm abortion. It was a documentary called “After Tiller” that followed four doctors who were colleagues of Dr. George Tiller the abortion provider that was murdered by an anti-abortion activist in May 2009. These four doctors perform abortions at 25 weeks and later.

The procedure is controversial because a baby might be considered “viable”, or able to survive outside of the uterus, after about 27 weeks. But viable is a word with a lot of room for interpretation.

The movie showed the women, often with their baby’s father, seeking this procedure because their baby had horrific fetal anomalies discovered through testing. I remember from when I was pregnant that bone-deep fear during scans if the technician hesitated a moment too long.

These women were living that nightmare fear.

They were grieving and distraught and very relieved there was a clinic and a doctor that could help them. Everyone who knows me knows that I am not just Pro-Choice, I’m Pro-Abortion. This movie reinforced those beliefs and made me notice where and when my judgement kicked in. When I thought a woman was making a bad choice, or a doctor should have been more authoritative, or what I would have done.

That’s what the question always comes down to when we cut through the rhetoric. What would I do in that situation? My answer won’t be the same as yours. My decision today may be different than what my decision would have been 10 years ago.

And why exactly should my decision about my life and my baby have any impact on your decision? I will never understand that bit.

The thing that really struck me about what I saw going on in those clinics was the mercy and compassion offered to these women in profound need. A stark contrast to the judgement and ugliness they passed through on the sidewalks outside the clinic.

You hear people say sometimes “No one wants an abortion” but I think that’s backward. What no one wants is an unplanned pregnancy. What no one wants is a baby with profound complications. Lots of women want an abortion.

And when they do want an abortion, for whatever reason or no reason at all, having a kind, compassionate doctor trust that they can make their own decision is a mercy.

See “After Tiller” if you can.

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The other day I attended a lecture hosted by the ACLU where Connie Schultz and her husband Senator Sherrod Brown were the speakers. Many interesting things were said about government, civil liberties and their life shared in the public eye. The most interesting comment to me by far was when the Senator answered a question about why the GOP hate people so much. I am paraphrasing as I don’t remember the actual question, but it was fairly mildly stated, even if it was provocative for a politician to answer.

What was interesting was that his response could have been self-aggrandizing or pointed up the differences between the party platforms, but instead he stated the ways that his GOP colleagues believe they are doing the right thing, even while we think they are wrong. And then he explained how he can get up and face it every day – he thinks about who he is working for and what he is working against.

An elegant reminder to keep your priorities straight.

Language is important to me. What we say and think we become. Being for something is infinitely more satisfying to me than being against. But its easy to forget, to get twisted.

My politics are pretty clear and consistent. I fall heavily to the left of center making me either a social progressive, liberal democrat, pinko commie, or socialist agitator depending where one stands on the political spectrum.  For instance, I am for women’s rights and reproductive choice, which might make me “against” a whole host of ideas, initiatives and traditions to some people. But there is a very important distinction in my mind. From my perspective the world I want to live in, the things I am working for, doesn’t exclude or obliterate the opposition. In my mind its not progress to restrict or limit others rights in order to assert your own. So as awful and abusive as protestors outside abortion clinics are, I support their right to be there exercising their free speech, as long as they don’t stop anyone from getting access to an abortion.

Its hard to not be resentful knowing that while I will defend and protect the protesters rights, they would likely strip me of me of the same rights if they had the chance. That’s when its useful to remember what you are for rather than what you are against.

I learned one other very useful thing at this lecture. I had stopped reading Connie Shultz a while ago even though I had admired and followed her for years in the local paper. Her columns became all about human interest stuff – her kids, her dog, her life being “The Senator’s lovely wife” – and I wasn’t much interested. Turns out she has been writing the same political, liberal, timely columns but they were syndicated and not being carried locally. Shame on me for not finding out sooner.

A plug for her book to atone. lovely_wife_200-s6-c30

As it gets harder and harder to cobble together the time I need to put coherent thoughts in a blog post I am reminded of what a friend says about her writing – “I write a blog post every day in my head.” From head to page (or post) can be a big leap some days. So my new tag line is “Sent from my head, please pardon any typos.”

I was recently in a group of women who were talking about how women constantly judge each other. I could have pointed out that we should substitute “humans” for women, because men judge themselves and each other as well, but that would have derailed the topic. Another time.

People brought up how we judge how other women raise their children, or where they send them to to school, or if they are a stay-at-home mom, or a working mom. This landscape is so familiar that someone piped up immediately “As if a stay-at-home-mom is not a working mom!” The problem, an older woman postulated, is that women are their own worst enemy, tearing each other down when they should be supporting each other.

Now I am all for sisterhood, but that just sounded like one more freakin thing to add to my to-do list. Maybe I was just tired. Luckily someone else raised the level of discourse away from its-our-own-damn-fault to how women being unsure of their choices allows them to be more manipulable by society, media etc. The conversation swirled for a while but what caught my attention was someone naively asking, “How do we make it safe for women to talk about topics without judgment?”

The context for this was how do we talk publicly about abortion so that it is de-stigmatized. A simplistic answer was offered: “Wear a button that says I live in a glass house and I don’t throw stones.” I’m thinking I would not be inclined to talk about the weather to someone wearing that button, let alone abortion.

The question of safety included an unacknowledged shift from the visible to the invisible. We can judge a woman’s choices in child rearing and work because they are visible, we can only judge her choice to have an abortion if it is revealed. Hence the de-stigmatization efforts. I wholeheartedly agree having an abortion is nothing to be ashamed of, and most women experience relief rather than shame. So what else is behind the silence? I think we are back at judgment.

Judgment influences behavior because of its complexity. Whether it is internally or externally imposed it can be a verdict (You are a bad person), or an opinion (You are that kind of person), or a statement (This is who I am). We make choices every day about what we make visible because we know we are judged. Revealing information is like pouring Kool-Aid into water –  it can’t be unmixed. So to talk about your abortion in our society calls for either a whole lotta trust or a whole lotta nerve.

As one woman said the fear of judgment is less about her feeling bad about the abortion than about what crap is going to blow back from the other person –  “I don’t feel like dealing with their 92 different feelings about my choice.” Interestingly, as the conversation continued, people revealed other seemingly taboo information kept invisible because of its potential to shape how we will be viewed:

  • I had an abortion and didn’t feel bad (the implication being you should feel bad)
  • I don’t have children because I can’t have children (the implication being you are a failed woman without children)
  • I don’t want children (see above)
  • I am an atheist (too many implications of bad badness to list here)
  • I was sexually molested (the implication being you are a victim)

The list could go on and on, especially around less political but still volatile issues like “I slept with a married man.” How many currently married suburban women do you know that will reveal that to their currently married friends?

I think we all live in glass houses and we all throw stones. So to the question, “How do we make it safe for women to talk about topics without judgment?”, my answer is we need to find ways to build trust into casual friendships so the invisible can be visible. Invisible parts revealed are not a burden, they are the bits that turn a casual friend into a true friend. So we need to trust first, reveal first. I need to trust first. Hmmm. Lot more to think about.

I was reading an article the other day on the “new trend” of dads being primary caregivers which is trotted out as a new trend in the news cycle every couple years. I have yet to figured out why this happens. Someday I will do a longitudinal study of the timing of the articles and see if it correlates to season (its slow around here so lets throw in more human interest stories) or national events like a woman getting a glass-ceiling breaking job (see Yahoo, pregnant CEO.)

The story kept referring to the dads as “at home dads” which struck me as wrong somehow. It took reading it twice, and asking my husband to remind me whats the term for women who don’t work, to figure it out.  Women who’s sole job is to care for the children are called “stay-at-home moms” but in this article about the dads they had dropped the “stay”.

Is this a signal that its only a temporary choice for these dads to do the child care? Is this the lens that is necessary so as to view the 5 – 7 year career break (until the last kid is in all-day kindergarten) as neutral or positive? Maybe dropping the “stay” will create the halo effect necessary to make daddy child care a feasible choice for more men. But they still have to explain the gap in work record – will that be perceived as a positive or negative?

Usually men get bonus points for things that ding women. A married man gets a career bump as a “breadwinner” and will be offered a higher salary than a single woman, a married woman and even a single mother. (And I am sick of having to prove this junk over and over so kindly look up the articles & studies yourself if you don’t believe me.)

Men get gold stars for leaving work to attend a child’s performance or sport event, women sneak out or use personal/sick time because they will be perceived as “less committed to their jobs”. Its not fair, or 100% universal behavior, or even visible, which is why there are always backlash reactions (from women and men) about how ‘my work place is not like that’, but it probably is. These are cultural and institutional biases and attitudes not policy in an HR handbook.

Will men using FMLA start to shift the “mommy biases” that work against career women? Or will stay-at-home dad be frowned upon once the economy picks up again. I don’t think there are enough of them to start making a difference yet. The article I read quoted increases based on census numbers. When you say “32% of men with working wives took care of a child at least one day a week in 2010” its sounds impressive.  When you say “3.4% of all stay-at-home parents nationwide are dads”, it puts it more in perspective.

The reason the article about dads got me thinking was I had just read a Forbes piece about how 65% of the women in a new study rejected the idea of being a Supermom. Sounds like good news if you forget about that 35% of Enjoli women still out there. The article, “Forget Supermoms – Its All About Smart Moms”, says todays moms are smart, comfortable, confident, in control, empowered and are not “overwhelmed victims”. Problem solved.

But then I got to the last paragraph that showcased and reinforced the cultural bias and expectations:

“That’s not to say there still isn’t tremendous pressure on both working and nonworking moms to do right by their children; navigate a deluge of information, advice and opinion spawned by the social web; and simultaneously keep their households, relationships, and work lives intact. They just have more resources now to tap to ultimately make decisions that are right for them and for their families”

So its still your fault if you feel overwhelmed – We gave you all the resources dammit!

No matter how much I dug I could not come up with the methods of the “study”. It was done by McCann Truth Central, an arm of the McCann worldwide advertising agency.  They have a facebook page, a blog, a website and a tumblr but no additional information about their “global thought leadership” methods or purpose. Seems to me that a “truth study” about Moms generated by an ad agency is probably to help clients market products to moms.

That’s fine, market away. But being in Forbes makes it news, which means it will get repeated, like the telephone game, and no longer be attributed to an ad agency. And we wonder where the pressure and mommy myths come from.

I continue to be fascinated by how society shapes the narrative about the roles of men and women. What is acceptable, what is an anomaly, what is the gold standard at this very moment. Because you know it will change. These two stories – “at home dads” and smart & competent moms who are so beyond the “Super” label – are the latest threads I am following.

Someday (in 2042?) I will read a paragraph like this in Forbes

“That’s not to say there still isn’t tremendous pressure on both working and nonworking dads to do right by their children; navigate a deluge of information, advice and opinion spawned by the social web; and simultaneously keep their households, relationships, and work lives intact.”

I work with a lot of highly accomplished women scientists who are invested in promoting gender equity in some traditionally male dominated areas. So I often hear lectures about new research, or meta-analysis of old research, searching for the elusive, persuasive evidence that

a) women and men are equally capable intellectually,
b) that women continue to experience discrimination in myriad forms, and
c) we should do something about it.

Almost all of these are accompanied by “d” the what and how to do it, but its easy to ignore that when you get hung up on “a”. There is a point where some women will get uncomfortable in these discussions and its usually around motherhood. This is a very stylized skirmish in the Mommy Wars that is often akin to Hari Kari.

Recently I was at a talk where the speaker was discussing the history of marriage (why this was the topic for a science crowd is too convoluted to go into) and how women’s work became almost exclusively house & child related and then devalued. How we define traditional marriage (and why) became secondary to the heated discussion around parenting choices.

The evidence that the stay-at-home mom was a phenomena limited to the 1945 – 1970 “boomer” years and TV reruns did nothing to reduce the outpouring of mommy guilt and frustration.

A lot of the women in the audience were “firsts” – first woman to attend that university, first to get that degree, first female in that department – and so on. I categorize them (not to their faces) as The Tough Old Broads. These are women who lived their lives as “Super-Women” with a marriage, a kid, a successful career and four hours of sleep a night for the last 30 years.

The 50 and under crowd was a mixed bag of married and unmarried (mostly with children), second-wave feminists, and some who don’t use the F-word about themselves.

One woman, a very senior administrator & researcher, described how she was held hostage (my words not hers) by her two children who refused to eat any food she did not prepare from scratch. She even hired a chef service for a while and they would not eat the meals.

Now I would have been very sad to watch those children get scurvy and starve to death, but I can’t imagine the depth of guilt that allowed her to put up with that.

Other women joked about husbands who didn’t know how to pack a lunch or run a washing machine, comments you often hear from working women. A few were outraged that the term “working mother” still existed when “working dad” never has.

One or two trotted out their Utopian same sex relationships where all child care and housework was split 50/50. I didn’t buy that for a minute – even the best relationship would be 60/40 most days and those are ever shifting numbers in either direction IMHO.

The real drag was that there was so much “Bad Mommy” vibe even in this rarefied atmosphere where everyone knows (intellectually at least) that we have a societal problem rather than a personal problem when it comes to parenting and work. There was such undercurrent of guilt over sacrifices made or not made as people compared choices and actions, but at least it exposed the lie that everyone but you has it all together.

When do we collectively give up the June Cleaver model and define “Good Mommy” on our own terms? I am as guilty as the next person about setting ridiculous standards and self-flagellating over what I “should” be doing. There has to be some middle ground between Roseanne, June Cleaver and the  24-hour Enjoli woman.

I jokingly made a logic model to capture my theory of parenting. Maybe I should work on a Mommy Logic Model next.  As always suggestions welcome.

I have a black eye.

I woke up the other morning with a shiner like I caught a softball with my nose. No trauma, no injury, no logical explanation. I went to see an internist who had no idea what it was, who sent me to an ophthalmologist who had no idea what it was.

After extensive questioning they could tell me what it wasn’t – it wasn’t a sinus infection, an “allergy shiner”, or related to vision, optic nerve or glaucoma. Nor was it related to any vitamins or medicine I take. They also asked if there was any domestic violence in my home. There is no violence in my home and I told them so, but I also said I appreciated that they asked.

This has been an odd experience for me, to say the least. It has also been hard on my husband to know that strangers think he hit me. Even though he doesn’t know them and isn’t with me every moment, he knows the world has judged him.

The eye looks nasty, and even after careful application of makeup, it is clearly visible. Reactions have been interesting. Some glance at my face and look away. Some stare fixedly. Some see the black eye and then give me a once over. What people are clearly doing is creating a story about how I got a black eye. Yet no one looked me in the eye or asked me how I got it.

Why wouldn’t anyone say anything? I am sure the majority of look-away-quickly people assumed my husband hit me. Some of the long stares were probably looking to see if I had work done. Some of the once-over folks were clearly judging me as someone who “allows themselves to be hit”.

While I would have been appalled at the assumption I would also have been pleased if any stranger (or the mild acquaintances like the women at my gym) had asked about my eye or even said “I hope you are OK.” But so far there has been four days of silence.

I remember when my sister was living with her (physically and mentally) abusive husband. Knowing how he treated her, and being profoundly upset by it, I once talked to people at the local domestic violence shelter and found out what to say and how to say it.

“You do not deserve this. It is not your fault. He does not have the right to hurt you or make you feel bad. I will help you if you chose to leave.”

It took almost fifteen years for her to separate from him. She left and went back to him a dozen times, and I have no idea what her situation is now.

I started to wonder what I would say if I saw someone with a black eye. Now. In my current crunchy, suburban life where things like that are not supposed to happen. But they do. We know women (and some men) are physically and emotionally abused everyday. The statistics are awful – One in four women and one in nine men are physically abused by an intimate partner during their lives.

We need to ask ourselves tough questions. ‘What would I say and how would I say it?’ And ‘When is it my responsibility to say something?’ Or more importantly, why isn’t it everyone’s business to end domestic violence?

Just finished Penn Jillette’s book “God, No!: Signs you May Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales“, a rambly, often funny interpretation of the ten commandments. This is not a book review, but some editor should have persuaded him against the constant swearing. Swearing in comedy or conversation doesn’t bother me but after twenty pages of reading “f*****g” every other sentence it interfered with the ideas.

He really started to lose my interest when he got to his hard core atheist arguments. I don’t care that he is an atheist, but how he goes about it.

I am an atheist, no bones about it, but I find fundamentalism in any form hard to take. I see no reason to proselytize or try to shake anyone’s belief system around religion. Sometimes life is so shitty the best someone can hope for is life after death, so why mess with their faith even if you think its all fairy stories?

I know organized religion was the catalyst for a tremendous amount of historical atrocities as well as a boatload of current strife and misery. It is a social construct simultaneously responsible for preserving ancient books and knowledge as well as burning the library at Alexandria. I just don’t see how proselytizing about atheism is any better than proselytizing about Jehovah.

At our house we discuss which conversations are appropriate to have at home and which you have in public and believe me saying you are an atheist freaks people out more than anything.

When my daughter was around four she decided that Santa Claus didn’t make sense and that it must be me and her father. We never pushed Santa, she never sat on his lap and we didn’t contradict her when she told us what she thought. We did say she was not to share this information with her friends.

When she was five and decided that the idea of God didn’t make any sense either, we did not contradict her, but we did say she was not to share this opinion with her friends. The idea that you don’t have to tell everything you know is new to children and many adults.

When she was eight and asked what abortion was, we told her about the medical procedure and why it was important for women to have access to this procedure, and to not share with her friends. We learned a lesson about specifying “at home” when she shared with her five year old cousin. No harm done as he couldn’t really follow it.

Are we wrong to not declare our atheism when ever others speak about God? I don’t think so. I never back down from it when someone asks, but I don’t feel the need to discuss my moral compass or belief system casually. When possible I will err on the side of social politeness even when not provided the same courtesy by the faithful.

My husband and I talk to our daughter about why its important to know what you value and what you find intolerable and why. What comments or behaviors are unacceptable to you no matter what the circumstances. Seems like if you know “why” its easier to know when to stand up and when to sit down.

Our “why” stems from a habit of rational thinking (+ emotions, experience & a little Socratic dialogue) rather than scripture. Its hard to raise a child who understands how to make decisions about when to be vocal about beliefs and opinions. Its not just choosing your fights (the implication being ones you can win), but also understanding that your own good opinion of yourself is at stake.

Unfortunately, I lack Penn Jillette’s certainty that this approach is not equally dogmatic.

Sometimes I am a sucker for design.

I recently tossed out an ancient tin of Durkee dry mustard that I think I borrowed from my mother years ago. And, while Durkee spices seem to last generations, this mustard had flavored its last soup. Its shelf mate, the Cream of Tartar was sad, but it had to be done.

I was dismayed at the grocery selection because I know I will be looking at that new mustard for the next five years, minimum. There was quite an array of plastic jars with plastic lids and identical labels and then, near the bottom with other obscure items like organic stevia, there was the Coleman’s double super-fine Mustard powder.

A lovely golden tin with red script lettering. SOLD! for double the price of the plastic Durkee.

In my decision making for purchases practicality wins most often, but sometimes design wins. With mundane objects I usually lean toward design for two reasons: first, why shouldn’t lowly things be beautiful as well as useful, and second, somebody spent time and effort thinking about the design of the thing.

Without going all Franny and Zooey, that anonymous person may have started out wanting to be a visual artist and ended up in industrial design. We benefit because the mug we are holding is elegant and balanced as well as useful. Victor Schreckengost was a designer whose objects I always love. The lawn chair is an excellent example. And his art wasn’t bad either. He thought everything he designed – even his sculpture – should be beautiful and useful.

The person that designed the Coleman’s tin may be long dead, but I still appreciate that their tin is lovely.

As much as it is on the tip of my tongue to rant about the idiotic and infuriating brinkmanship playing out in Congress today, I will refrain. Hearing the announcement that “Boehner balks at the Senate deal” immediately made my head start to throb. Try googling “Congress balks at deal” and have fun reviewing the 1,500,000 results (0.23 seconds).

So I will save what will surely be a Congress rant for later in the week. Consider it part of the War on Christmas.

Instead I am compelled to write about a deeply personal choice that has come up in conversation four times in the last week. Whether or not women should color their hair.

The most recent discussion was a mini-rant by a craggy old woman at my gym. She does not wear a bra while working out, does not color her steel gray hair and looks as if she never understood all the fuss about moisturizer.

She was hectoring some of the middle aged women that they should just let nature take its course and not bother with hair dye. Her tone and her “pioneer woman” appearance was having the opposite effect on her audience. From the look on their faces I imagine they dialed the salon as soon as they got in their cars.

I was just contemplating some highlights to subtly blend the increasing gray in my dark hair. My husband says he likes the gray and he is the one who has to look at me after all, but…we will see. Having spent 10 or so years as a bleached blond, which was fun when I was 22 and clubbing, I wouldn’t do total color again.

For me hair dye is in the category of personal choice. Like abortion or keeping your name after marriage. It is easy for folks to forget that it is current societal norms that determine if a personal choice will be condoned or condemned. And those norms become shorthand for categorizing people.

Single pieces of information that seem to make people think they now know Everything About You:

  • If I say I have had an abortion
  • If I wear makeup, dye my hair or paint my nails
  • If I say I like historical romance novels
  • If I say I am a feminist
  • If I say I like Harold & Kumar movies
  • If I keep my “maiden” name
  • If I say I like The Red Green Show

There are endless examples – if there weren’t who would need Marketing Executives?

I know that personal choices help define us, but its a shame they are also the boxes we use to sort people. I really don’t care if crabby Jackie at the gym has never worn a bra or dyed her hair. I do care that her choices make her judge my choices as wrong.

Now if I could only work up some tolerance for the choices of people who keep trying to shut down the government, outlaw abortion and teach creationism in school, well then I would be a saint wouldn’t I?