Thursday, April 24, 2014

Take the Compliment, Doctor

I have been diagnosed with several chronic illnesses. Over the past four years, I have lived in doctor’s offices and hospitals. Rather than bemoan my bad luck, I’ve tried to use the experience for my own behalf and my own enlightenment. In particular, I’ve sought to observe the behavior and attitudes of medical professionals in a therapeutic setting. This is something of a sociological experiment for me, and a way to turn lemons into lemonade.  

Half of my doctors are male, but the other half are female. Quite by accident, I’ve had the opportunity to observe the gender confidence gap for myself.

Feminist writer and Feministing founder Jessica Valenti has written a recent piece on the subject.
Despite an ongoing, glaring lack of equality for women in culture and in policy, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman's new book, The Confidence Code, argues that what's truly holding women back is their own self-doubt. In fact, Kay and Shipman dismiss the importance of institutional barriers upfront, writing in the introduction that, while there's truth behind concerns about sexism, the "more profound" issue is women's "lack of self-belief".

It's true that there's a gendered disparity in confidence – American men overestimate their abilities and skills while women underestimate them. In fact, we've known this for some time: "imposter syndrome" – a phenomenon in which high-achieving women believe "they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise" – was first written about in 1978.

My urologist is a shining star in the field. She’s been interviewed for the Discovery Channel as an on-camera expert. She projects complete confidence, a command of her discipline, and total professionalism. But even high achievers like her have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. In March of last year, she flawlessly performed a surgical procedure meant to address my troublesome bladder. A month later, we followed up to see how I had healed.

“I want to thank you for doing such a great job,” I said. Instead of the expected “Thank you”, her facial expression changed to a pained look. I wasn’t expecting it, so I reinforced what I had already said.

“Take the compliment, doctor.”

That gesture did not produce the desired effect. She did not smile with satisfaction, instead deflecting the question and quickly changed the subject. I know now how difficult it is for many women to accept praise, even heartfelt, sincere praise like my own. This was an unexpectedly visible sign, and since then I have wondered what latent insecurities exist within other female doctors. Even so, anecdotal evidence has its limitations. If I wasn’t sure what signs to look for, I might feel that no problem existed.

I’ve learned slowly how to peer underneath the surface for clues. The example I have noted, that of an unexpectedly strong showing of insecurity, has been a minority view. A female neurologist I consulted recently had an excellent bedside manner, one that was reassuring and sympathetic. I saw no problem there. I only viewed a young doctor not far out of med school working hard, seeking to be present and available to her patients.

My cardiologist is a crusty, energetic soul who doesn’t mince words. She has the stamina of a woman twice her age, tumbling out of patient rooms, bouncing around like a pinball. Once a nurse, she got tired of bureaucracy and went back to school in order to call her own shots. I’m not dismissing the problem because it might appear to be a minority view. Each of us have our own tender points and I may never be privy to anyone’s internal dialogue. As a man, I recognize I don’t always know what to observe, and these are the times I know to listen rather than react.

Valenti continues.

While encouraging women to have more self-esteem is not a bad idea generally, there's no evidence that being more assertive will change the way women are perceived in the workplace. Confident women at work are still labeled "bossy" and "bitchy", to their own detriment – unless they can "turn it off". And despite all the gains women have made, most Americans – men and women – would still prefer a male boss. While Kay and Shipman give a nod to ambitious women who are judged more harshly than their male peers, they seem to have no solution – other than putting the onus on women to change.

I may be unusual. Due to my own baggage, I prefer women to treat me. I have made appointments with female doctors with great purpose. At the same time, the male providers assigned to my care have never given me direct evidence of the flip side of this problem. I wonder how many Americans prefer a male doctor over a female one, and even more importantly, how many women believe that their own gender is somehow intrinsically inferior.

Without clear cut evidence, we have to connect the dots to make our argument. Confounding a new crop of feminists is the widely held perception that women’s emancipation has arrived and that no additional work needs to be done. Like with racism and homophobia, evidence of discrimination has gone undercover, but it remains. The best thing we can do is diagnosis the problem with surgical precision, in ways that are compelling but also difficult to refute. Otherwise, the issues will be consigned to the shadows, and little progress will be made.

The problem has a name, at long last, but simple knowledge of it is unhelpful. I return to the concept of privilege. Those with the odds in their favor have no compelling societal or cultural reason to examine their status. A few believe enough in equality to acknowledge that they benefit at the expense of others. To mobilize the masses, it takes a huge, glaringly obvious injustice. Until that day, we speak to ourselves and our small circle of confidantes more than we speak to others, but not for lack of trying. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Art of Bluffing

Suppose you should be walking down Broadway after dinner, with ten minutes allotted to the consummation of your cigar while you are choosing between a diverting tragedy and something serious in the way of vaudeville. Suddenly a hand is laid upon your arm. You turn to look into the thrilling eyes of a beautiful woman, wonderful in diamonds and Russian sables.

She thrusts hurriedly into your hand an extremely hot buttered roll, flashes out a tiny pair of scissors, snips off the second button of your overcoat, meaningfully ejaculates the one word, "parallelogram!" and swiftly flies down a cross street, looking back fearfully over her shoulder.

O.Henry, “The Green Door”

Working with the public is a mixed bag. If I were in charge, I’d make it mandatory for everyone to work retail or food service for a minimum of one year, if only to take a step back and recognize the common humanity of everyone. Each person deserves respect but some prioritize, acting as though there is less humanity within some, and more in others. For myself, I will say that I have never been treated as cruelly or as kindly. The store where I worked was always packed, which created impatience in customers and exasperation with the workers.

The coffee stop was attached to a large shopping mall, which drew an impressive cross section of very different people. Our regular clientele were workers in adjacent stores and those who worked in the office tower nearby. Like soldiers besieged by wave after wave of enemy troops, we banded together for protection. The same obnoxious teenagers invaded their shores, too.  

Occasionally, I was propositioned by strange people. One Saturday evening, a man a few years older than me came in with a woman in tow. It was close to closing time and I’d already taken out the tenaciously sticky plastic wrap with which we used to wrap pastries. He didn’t know me from Adam, but invited me to his place two nights later anyway. Without my asking, he wrote down his number in ballpoint pen on a corner of the cardboard. I wondered how many other stores and establishments with whom he’d spontaneously advertised this get together.

I have an impulsive streak and crusading spirit at times. What had been thrust before me was pure adventure. Even though I already detected a multitude of red flags great and small, I was very intrigued. At worst, as I told myself, this will be a gathering of eccentrics. He had mumbled something women in a hot tub, which interested me far less. I think in his mind he must have felt that I might automatically be interested in a parade of bikini-clad women first and foremost.

I wasn’t even going to go, but after a typically stressful day at work, I decided to give it a try. I could always leave if it didn’t interest me. First, I needed to call Jeff. He had thoughtfully left his first name alongside his phone number.

“Is this Jeff?”  I said this pensively.

“This is the guy wearing his underwear. You’re late. The girls are just getting out of the hot tub.”

I had a thirty minute drive ahead of me. Notoriously bad with directions, I managed by luck to arrive without getting lost once. I’d been promised free pot for my troubles. Jeff had made that part crystal clear.  I was ushered in to a fairly unremarkable living room, in a fairly unremarkable house, where I took a seat and waited. There were no other women present aside from the one I’d seen at the store. I wasn’t sure if the scenario he had painted for me had been little more than a figment of his imagination.

In time, I realized I had walked into a domestic disturbance. His girlfriend looked very different with a change of scenery. She was blonde and superficially pretty, but rough around the edges. She must have been something of a trophy for him, even though the bonds that united them were visibly strained.

It was a low-grade grievance, one waged with words, not fists or elbows. She wanted out and said as much, repeatedly. Most couples would prefer to do their fighting without company present, but not them. She emerged from the kitchen and sat down next to me on the sofa, as though events like these were a routine occurrence. Tears or confessions were nowhere to be found.

What was present was a kind of vindictiveness, along with a desire to wound him severely. She had a small amount of pot in a small, circular Tupperware container. He staked sole claim to it. This was the focal point of their disagreement. When he stalked off to another part of the house, in a huff, she tried to share it with me. He arrived unexpectedly early, catching us in the act, recognizing immediately what she was about to do.

“You’re going to need to leave,” he said to me, nastily.

I departed, disappointed, but glad I had avoided fisticuffs.

Memory is a series of recollections being constantly stored and cast aside for another day. I frequently think in vignettes, snapshots in time like these. They make for good stories, with the right audience. God must have been looking out for me, because situations like these could have ended up in a violent, physical fight. Before I had the right medication in my system, I possessed the kind of insane courage that could only come from mania. Lacking fear of censure or reproach, I must have seemed confident and tough.

If this had been a poker game, one could say I’d been bluffing the whole time. Bluffing is an effective tactic if you don’t reveal your insecurities or tip your hand. I learned that playing crazy was my best defense. Only the roughest bad guy goes after the unpredictable, the loose cannons like I was. As tough as men try to be, insecurities and vulnerabilities exist in spite of their efforts to conceal them. The most successful exploit their knowledge and insight, then use it to their own advantage.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hangin' Round

Harry was a rich young man who would become a priest
He dug up his dear father who was recently deceased
He did it with tarot cards and a mystically attuned mind
And shortly there and after he did find

Jeanny was a spoiled young brat, she thought she knew it all
She smoked mentholated cigarettes and she had sex in the hall
But she was not my kind or even of my sign
The kind of animal that I would be about

Oh oh oh, you keep hangin' 'round me
And I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things that I gave up years ago

Oh oh oh, you keep hangin' 'round me
And I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things that I gave up years ago
Hangin' 'round, hangin' 'round

Cathy was a bit surreal, she painted all her toes
And on her face she wore dentures clamped tightly to her nose
And when she finally spoke her twang her glasses broke
And no one else could smoke while she was in the room

Hark the herald angels sang and reached out for a phone
And plucking it with ivory hand dialed long distance home
But it was all too much sprinkling angel dust to A.T. and T.
Who didn't wish you well

Oh oh oh, you keep hangin' 'round me
And I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things that I gave up years ago

Oh oh oh, you keep hangin' 'round me
And I'm not so glad you found me
You're still doing things that I gave up years ago
Hangin' 'round, hangin' 'round

Monday, April 21, 2014

When Purity Destroys Movements

I entered feminism as an autodidact does, by fits and starts. When I was in college, I saw no need to take women’s studies classes. I didn’t harbor any ire towards women, but it seemed like a discipline that wouldn't interest me much, no different in that regard from Anthropology or Biology. It wasn’t until one of my sisters departed for the West Coast that I discovered the books she’d left behind. Those were my primary training and self-taught as I was, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for never having had any formal education. This is how I somewhat cautiously began my tentative engagement with the feminist blosophere.

It wasn’t easy. Though I usually didn’t mind being called out, some of the comments were unfair and entirely below the belt. It was fortunate for me that I absorbed the internal discourse and the terminology quickly, otherwise I’m not sure if I would have stayed around for long. In saying this, I want to note that I’ve had many experiences in that community which are uplifting and enlightening, not mortifying and painful. I have learned much in the past several years and continue to try to challenge myself and others.

The problem with all arguments based on purity is that they are not given equal weight. The priority of an issue held by a particular person conforms to their own passionate opinion. Passionate opinions are the backbone of every activist movement, but among some, they can become ravenously destructive. Feminists are understandably touchy with the notion of themselves as quick to judge and quick to anger. Nevertheless, there are instances when the stereotype seems justified.

Earlier this year, writer Michelle Goldberg wrote a column in The Nation about the wars and fissures within the movement. #Femfuture, to cite only one example, was a proposed program meant to boost the profile of online feminism.

The women involved with #Femfuture knew that many would contest at least some of their conclusions. They weren’t prepared, though, for the wave of coruscating anger and contempt that greeted their work. Online, the Barnard group—nine of whom were women of color—was savaged as a cabal of white opportunists. People were upset that the meeting had excluded those who don’t live in New York.

There was fury expressed on behalf of everyone—indigenous women, feminist mothers, veterans—whose concerns were not explicitly addressed. Some were outraged that tweets were quoted without the explicit permission of the tweeters. Others were incensed that a report about online feminism left out women who aren’t online.

[Activist Courtney] Martin was floored. She’s long believed that it’s incumbent on feminists to be open to critique—but the response was so vitriolic, so full of bad faith and stubborn misinformation, that it felt like some sort of Maoist hazing.

Feminism is not beholden to a strict orthodoxy with rules set in stone. If it was, there might be less confusion and potentially fewer vitriolic responses. Liberal thought is supposed to be predicated upon in the individual’s right to free expression. The intention is not to rate one grandstanding cause as superior to another, though at times this happens unconsciously. Without a specific set of standards in which everyone believes, the forcefulness and persuasiveness of argument, especially if it implies discrimination, can be more effective in conveying and directing thought than absolute truth itself.

Certain feminists place a greater priority upon favored aspects of feminist thought, usually the ones that resonate most prominently with them. This is where healthy dialogue should start, but often is when counter-productive discussions begin. Unproductive intellectual exercises like these have ended up going horribly, horribly wrong. No one seems willing to take the high road, seeming to enjoy knife-fighting in the comment section or from Tweet to Tweet.

Appearances can be deceiving. These discussions are usually framed by white liberals, who have particularly complex relationships with people of color and other minority groups. Writing in 1966, the noted historian C. Vann Woodward penned an influential essay entitled “What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement.” In it, he discussed consistently troublesome concerns that have never been fully resolved.

An incidental dividend that the philanthropist sometimes demanded of the freedom march or the jail-in was an ennobling catharsis. So promiscuous was the resulting role confusion that it was hard to say at times whether the actor was playing redeemer or redeemed, or whether the underlying purpose of a particular march or freedom school was black salvation or white.

The picture was further complicated by the exalted roles the white romantics assigned their black partners. In effect, they turned the tables of racial dogma and opted for Negro supremacy. But it was a dubious brand of supremacy, and the flattery, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, was shot through with the condescension implicit in the eighteenth-century adoration of the Noble Savage.

They embraced the Negro with an impulsiveness that and fervor that must have proved uncomfortable to the Negro at the time. Another turning of the tables seems to have endowed the whites with the gift for imitation traditionally attributed to the blacks, and made the latter the object of the most abject cultural imitation of modern times.

Regardless of the multitude of forces threatening to rip it apart, feminism, online or otherwise, must get its collective act together. Its culture can be toxic to everyone, especially visitors and online pilgrims that might be its long-term members. The more it turns on itself, the more every person engaged in the great post-modern debate loses. Woodward's words reveal the source of discomfort, but not the solution.

Insisting on being the single person with the most correct answer has been the undoing of many movements and pointless internet jousts. This unfortunate side effect is always on display. Wisdom, maturity, and common sense, not intelligence alone is what is needed most. We must think with our hearts, not just our heads.

Goldberg concludes her column with some caustic commentary.
[Some] are disengaging from online feminism. Holmes, who left Jezebel in 2010 and is now a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, says she would never start a women’s website today. “Hell, no,” she says. The women’s blogosphere “feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It’s really depressing,” she adds. “It makes me think I got out at the right time.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Quote of the Week

A radical is a man with both feet firmly planted — in the air. A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward. A reactionary is a somnambulist walking backwards. A liberal is a man who uses his legs and his hands at the behest — at the command — of his head.-Franklin Roosevelt

Saturday, April 19, 2014


I do not remember my Grandfather, my mother’s father, as much as I would like. Of my two younger sisters, I’m the only child old enough to retain any trace of him. He died when I was nearly seven. I have faint memories of him being well, but I mostly know him when he was in a terminally ill state. At times, I have wished that I was born years earlier and could have developed a real rapport with him. This was the case with my cousins, who are now in their forties.

Grandfather doted upon me and my mother. She was his youngest child by far. Sixteen years separate my oldest uncle and my mother. My mother does not remember her brother living at home. Grandfather was forty-five when my mother was born. Mom was influenced by the fact that her parents were much older than those of most of the kids her age. My father had been raised in similar circumstances, and I imagine that shared fact often drew them together.

The cancer had taken its toll. It was terminal and progressed swiftly. My parents believed that his gaunt, haggard appearance would only upset myself and my two sisters. We were never allowed to see him at his sickbed. Towards the end, my parents inexplicably changed their minds one day. I’d been eager to see him after months apart and leapt at the opportunity.

I saw a weak, pale figure propped up on pillows. He had just enough strength left in his body to address me. Grandfather often quizzed me informally on topics of history. He knew I had an interest in it and enjoyed teaching me new facts and ideas.

Did Harry Truman go to college?

His voice was little more than a resigned, sad whisper by then. My first instinct was to say no, but then I changed my mind. He looked disappointed at my response.

No, he did not.

I felt as though I’d failed him somehow. I was quickly ushered from the room, a place I would never again return. It was clear that my parents had arranged only a momentary visit and that I would not tarry there long. He passed away a couple months later.

Now to the matter of the question asked of me. I was called bright and gifted beyond my years. Older people seemed to always want to ask me trivia. I acted the part of the boy genius, providing the correct answer. About the same time, an elderly man offered me ten dollars if I could recite the alphabet backwards in his presence. My mind does not work in such a fashion, but ten dollars was a lot of money in those days. I felt a bit like a trained animal in a sideshow, but appreciated the opportunity to flex my intellectual muscles.

With my Grandfather, there were different motives for this game of teacher and pupil. To him, I was not a curiosity, not a novelty. This line of questioning about Presidents and colleges was due to my Grandfather’s own upbringing. Though more than capable enough intellectually for college, the Great Depression left his family without the money to afford it.

The whole of his life, he felt inferior to those who’d had the opportunity to go. He was an autodidact with an amazing recall and had taught himself as much as any professor could, but still the deficiency nagged away at him. Education was important to him. He read the newspaper front to cover every day and sometimes two or three.

It is a stock cliche of a sort to introduce the specter of death at a young age. It happens frequency and from that perspective it has resonance. The pomp and circumstance of dearly departed does make a powerful impression upon a child. I recall the slow procession of black cars pulling alongside the roadway of the cemetery. I remember taking shade under the tree he’d planted years before with his own hands. The family plot was a reverent destination we would visit for years afterwards.

I think the dead deserve our respect. Not only do they remind us that someday we ourselves will die, but we ought to take time from our busy lives to remember the memory of those who influenced us. Every time I visited the graveside I was always struck by a sense of loss. I felt that he’d been taken from me prematurely, but I trust that God had a greater purpose for him. If I get to Heaven, I hope I get a chance to speak at length to him.

My mother was, quite understandably, utterly devastated. At thirty-one, she was younger than I am today when she lost her father. I remember she entered into a period of deep grieving that lasted for over a year. My Grandfather’s name could not be mentioned in her company, or she would begin sobbing. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a parent, though I know I will experience this same feeling eventually. That eventuality beckons sooner than I feel comfortable contemplating.

The death didn’t haunt me the way it could have, if I’d been a little older. There were a few scary moments here and there, but I was deliberately insulated from most of them. I remember the paramedics arriving, taking him from his bedroom to the hospital. My Grandparents had moved to a retirement community in Birmingham from the family home so that Grandfather could be closer to his doctors.

There was a tense energy in the air that I picked up on, but I said nothing. I didn’t know what was going on and, in any case, everyone was too busy and preoccupied to explain it to me. It must have been close to the end by then. In my mind, the events are scattered, but I was very young. I suppose it must appear this way to any young child.

The class assignments for a new school year were posted on the outside doors to the front entrance of my elementary school. Having passed Kindergarten, First Grade now beckoned. Had Mom been less preoccupied, she would have intervened in my behalf. I was assigned to a teacher who genuinely hated children. Why she’d decided to take up the profession is beyond me. I imagine she could have been extremely burned out. Her reputation preceded her and no child looked forward to nine full months with her.

Mom made one last desperate, in-person appeal to the principal, but received a lecture instead of any sympathy. The next school year, he’d be sent to transportation, which in some public schools is the equivalent of being sent to Coventry. In the school year to follow, I would contract a severe case of chicken pox that kept me out of school for nearly a month. My teacher didn’t call even once.

Saturday Video

Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Poetic Contribution

On behalf of National Poetry Month, I submit the following. I am a born prose writer and poetry is a discipline I have never mastered, but hard work made my work passable, at least.

The Death of the Party

At evening’s end

motivated by restlessness

like an itch unscratched
leading directly to the door

these remain when all else
has long passed away

In those last waning moments
Conversation competition commences

cleverest victory can
circumvent the social hierarchy

Yet, age and experience
trumps youth’s insecurity

the wild card

The catalyst
for our brand
of social mobility

Older party-goers
establish the rules

Remember similar

Inadvertent misinterpretation
Often reflects intention