Happy

There is a picture of me from when I was a very little girl – right around three years old. I’m wearing a white dress covered with red polka dots, hands on hips, grinning down at the camera from the top step of a porch. It’s the last visual image I have of myself as a fundamentally happy person.

Me, situationally happy to be where I as when this was taken. (In case it wasn't obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress).

In case it wasn’t obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress – that’s been lost to the sands of time, otherwise known as my mother’s house.

When I say “happy person”, I don’t mean “happy” in a situational or contextual sense. I have been happy many times in my life and I have many happy memories to go with them.

I was happy the first time I was cast in a play.  I was happy when I completed my MA. I am massively happy anytime something I write gets published. I was happy the day my husband proposed, and happier still the day we got married. I was over the moon the first time I held my daughter.

Sex makes me happy. Good food makes me happy. Wide-ranging, mind-opening conversations make me happy. Letters from faraway friends make me happy. A friend’s success makes me happy, as does a person being in love. I’ve been happy reading a book on a rainy day, and I’ve been happy dancing in the middle of a bar. All of these happy moments were honestly and genuinely happy, but the happiness I felt was contextual. I was happy because something made me happy. The happiness was the result of an external influence, not a state of being.

In fact, all of the happiness(es) I’ve experienced in the decades that followed the picture of me on the porch have been entirely situational. They boosted me up out of my naturally neutral state. It’s not that I was walking around being actively unhappy – it’s just that my resting state is / was fundamentally…not sad, per se, but grave.

I know why this is and the reasons for it are good – so good that I never tried to chip down the barrier between me and the little girl at the top of the porch, which is why I was kind of shocked to realize that, for the first time in decades, I’m happy for no reason. I’m happy because my resting state is happy. I’m happy just because.

This is, to put it bluntly, a literal fucking joy, all the more so because I am, and remain, a depressive. For the first time in my (remembered) life, I feel the light, fizzy, amazing physical effects of being happy, but in a more grounded, internal way than I have ever before. It’s the difference between drinking champagne and dipping your finger into it – when you dip your finger in, you feel the bubbles, but when you drink it, the bubbles are in you. At the moment, I’ve drunk the champagne.

That said, I know from experience that nothing is as stable as change. Just as my baseline shifted from melancholy to this random, self-sustaining joy, it could just as easily move back, and that’s okay. Emotions and emotional states are, by nature, fluid, and trying to hold onto a nebulous positive is as self-defeating as clinging to a negative. So, while I’m not attached (in the Buddhist sense) to this bizarre state of fundamental, non-circumstantial happiness, it is good to know that I’m capable of it – for years I thought I no longer was. That, in its own right, is a happy thing.

It’s lovely to feel that my life is good and complete, and it’s equally lovely to know that whatever happiness comes next might add to a happiness that pre-existed it, rather than act as a bump to an immobile and subdued resting state, which makes me thing that all of this has more to do with balance than anything else.

For a long time, my scales naturally tipped towards *sadness, or neutral at best. At the moment, my scales are level because the happiness I’m feeling creates a counterweight, and, rather than neutral, my resting state is, at the moment, sanguine and content. 

While it doesn’t eradicate the shadows (because those shadows are rooted deep), this happiness is equally internalized so, for the first time, happiness carries an equal weight. I’ve no doubt the scale tip one way and the other, but it’s no longer static, and that’s a strange and happy thing.

*Side Note: On a somewhat serious note, I should explicitly state that what I’m describing isn’t the difference between being depressed or not depressed. Depression isn’t as simple as happy vs. sad, nor is depression synonymous with sadness, as any depressed person can tell you. In fact, I am, at the moment, massively depressed. I just feel the essential happiness fizzing away beneath it, which should be cognitively disturbing but, happily, isn’t.

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The Joy of Catharsis

Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress lying on train tracks, for The Joy of Catharsis by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges (2011)

I’m a feelings junkie. This isn’t always a healthy thing, but it is the way I’m wired and I’ve learned to work with it. I tend to feel emotion (both mine and other people’s) really intensely and, every now and then, I like putting myself in the position of feeling to nearly painful degrees.

If a book breaks my heart, or makes me snort on the train, or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed, I will love that book, and the person who wrote it, hard. Any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect. It’s all about catharsis, and the relief that comes with it.

Living life as a functioning adult requires that I maintain an even emotional keel. This is a very good thing, but it can also be a challenge, especially when you’re a highly-feely-feeler person. My big feely-feelers tend to make a mess out of things if I don’t maintain an objective perspective, so a great deal of my energy goes into being mindful of where I am in a situation and how I feel about it.

Over the years, I’ve found ways of maintaining my emotional equilibrium that let me feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But this generally means that I experience emotions that don’t get verbally expressed as intensely as I feel them. Enter catharsis – the process of releasing (and thereby getting relief from) strong emotions.

My inner sadist would love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself at a train like Anna Karenina. While I would never actually do that (because I really want to live), I still crave the emotional catharsis that comes from those heightened emotions. So, rather than becoming one with the A-train, I read Anna Karenina and boom. I’m sobbing in bed as beautiful Anna does what my logical, even-keeled self would never do. And goddamn if it doesn’t feel good.

The truth is that I don’t care how “good” a book is so long as it makes me feel genuine emotion. Even if it doesn’t reach Russian novel levels of catharsis, I like feeling and that only happens when an author gets under my skin by over-riding my brain. I can enjoy a book without this happening, just like I can enjoy sex that doesn’t turn my world technicolor. But every now and then, I stumble over a book that digs right in and hurts. And I love it. So, if I want this, why don’t I go straight for books like The Road – books that I know will hurt to read?

Let me compare it to dating. It’s going on OkC vs. randomly meeting someone and hitting it off. There’s nothing wrong with OkC but, for me, the sparks really fly when chemistry smacks you right out of the blue. So, bringing it back to books, I know that reading Sophie’s Choice will mess me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture, and that’s not what catharsis is. It’s the release of emotions you have inside you, not poking a stick at things that already hurts.

This makes catharsis a really personal, hard-to-predict thing. It has as much to do with what I’m bringing to the table as it does with the book. In other words, it’s all about my context and how the book plays with it. I can pick up a book like The Natural Order of Things, (which I will eventually read along with A Little Life. Sophie’s Choice not so much), expecting a catharsis that doesn’t come, just like you can go on OkC, find a 99% match and find, as soon as you meet them, that the spark isn’t there. Alternatively, I could be reading an airport thriller and get punched in the face with it. You can’t make catharsis happen any more than you can force sexual chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. You’re just along for the ride.

So, cathartic books that I never saw coming….

Affinity by Sarah Waters. Holy god, I felt physically sick. It was glorious. Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons was the same thing. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Rogue Pirate’s Bride (don’t ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of them wrecked me and, after the big ol’ feelers passed, I was left with a level of emotional clarity I hadn’t had before.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. I want my foundations rocked – it’s a way of living vicariously through words. It’s why I write character driven stories. Catharsis is an earthquake that causes a shift and I want to feel (and be responsible for) that movement. I want the pain and intensity of it, along with the happiness and joy.

Catharsis in books give me a place to put all of my emotions that have nowhere healthy to go. It gives me perspective on experiences I’ve had and a window into worlds that I will never see, and those are beautiful things. I want to be affected. I want to feel. I want to live more life than I have to live. The joy of literary catharsis is that it allows me to experience emotional intensity (and feel a sliver of its aftermath) without taking the destruction on as my own.

Book Lust London

A few weeks ago, I went to London. I love London, among other things because I fucking love London. There are lots of reasons for this, some more personal than others, but high on the list is the fact that London is a book city, so much so that it makes me feel like this:

Animated GIF of Sarah's excited reaction from Sarah and Duck

-Sarah’s excited reaction. From Sarah & Duck.

It’s not that we don’t love books in the States. I was a bookseller for ten years before I became a librarian and I can tell you right now that there are lots and lots of Americans who love their books. We fundraise for libraries and champion literacy like champs. I can’t even walk down the street wearing my Reading Rainbow tee-shirt without someone asking me where I got it. (Here, in case you were wondering). But that’s not quite what I mean.

Picture of a pile of books bought on my most recent trip to London, for Book Lust London post by Malin James

Most of my recent haul.

It’s the difference between a lot of wonderful, book-loving individuals scattered across more 2,600 miles of geography and a country that televises the Man Booker Prize because there are betting pools and it’s serious. It’s the difference between book clubs discussing a summer release and two guys throwing down in a pub over whether you’re a “pretentious, fucking twat” for having read Ulysses or an “ignorant fuck” if you haven’t. (I overheard that debate, and it was awesome – super critical in the most un-bullshit way I’ve ever seen).

But even that can be found in the States (though probably not in a bar). For me, what makes London a book city is that fact that there are bookstores everywhere, from chains to tiny independents, and they are full of books – not sidelines, CD’s, toys, games and books. Just books. I like that you can ask booksellers what they’d recommend and trust that they have an informed opinion. I like that bookshops in London range from hodge-podge collections in stores smaller than my grandmother’s house to polished, muti-floor giants you could spend the whole day in.

Here’s the thing. I come from a city that is famous for its literary heritage thanks to Steinbeck and Burroughs and Kerouac. But bookselling and publishing have changed so much in the States that even a city like San Francisco can’t support more than a handful of scrappy, often struggling independents. And yes, I can order almost anything I want on Amazon and I can download everything else onto my Kindle (though my brain refuses to fully engage digital text). It’s not that I can’t get anything I want because I can. I just can get it in a way that feels real.

I can’t walk a mile and hit a couple of bookshops on my way to somewhere else. I can’t spend ages meandering sections and pulling (way too many) books off the shelves before handing a nice person money so I can take them home with me now. That sort of experience is a luxury like clotted cream and sleeping past 8am. And I’m not sure I’d want to that to change.

I say not sure because if someone told me that I could live in London I’d move. Like, yesterday. But no one is going to give me their flat anytime soon so I like enjoying the specialness of it. Because it is special to me. Books are tactile things – the massively cliched but totally distinct scent of paper and ink is a thing, and so is touching the object you’re going to buy. The real value of brick and mortar bookshops is that they foster a tactile relationship between the book and the person who buys it. And, because I’m a romantic, I want to enjoy that relationship, even if I only get to taste it now and then – especially if only now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish the book business in the States was more boom than bust, that there were more prizes and more interest in shortlists. I wish there were more independents staffed by people who hand-sell titles because they fucking love that book. I wish I could stroll down the street and come home with something random that I can’t wait to read. But I can’t, at least, not living in a suburb of a lovely city that is struggling to hold onto the few bookshops it has left.

That’s one of the reasons I love London so much. I will never get to all of the city’s bookstores let alone all of the shops in the rest of the country, but I love that they’re there, all dreamy and wonderful to think about. Books in London are a treat and I like it that way, even when it means dragging luggage that weighs 9,000 pounds through the tube, and waiting longer than I’d like to be there again.

Return of the Prodigal Writer Person

Color photograph of Malin James scowling happily in concentration for Return of the Prodigal Writer Person post

Happy Thinking Face

I set this blog aside more than 2 years ago when I decided to focus on other areas of writing. As much as I missed it, I’m glad I did because the time I spent honing in on erotica and sex writing resulted in a ton of growth, both as a person and as a writer. While my fiction is starting to skirt the edges of different genres, sex and sexuality have become the central thrust (ha!) of my creative and professional life. In fact, the past two years have helped me realize that sex is the lens through which I naturally see the world. But more about that on my other site.

Cleverboots is, and always has been, a kind of miscellany, as opposed to the dedicated focus of People. Sex. Culture. That dedicated focus is a really good thing, but it leaves some of my personal passions dangling, most especially reading. I slowly stopped reading for pleasure and only read for work (before you say “poor, baby”, figure it’s like a barista not wanting coffee at home).

Thanks to all of my work reading, gender identity, feminism, the body politic and other social concerns now flash a bright on my cultural radar. Unfortunately, a lot of my other areas of interests, like history, psychology, and non-erotic fiction, got uncomfortably dusty.

Now that things on the People. Sex. Culture. side of writing are established and slowly growing, I’m anxious to get back to basics. That’s largely reading for pleasure, but it also covers a lot of other things, like film, pop culture and current events. So, I’m rebooting Cleverboots as a personal / book blog.

So, that’s what I’m up to here. People. Sex. Culture. is still my primary site, just as the scope of my writing is naturally sex-related – nothing there is changing. More than anything, Cleverboots will function as an occasional, personal / reader’s blog. And  I can tell you right now that it’s going to be a pretty casual place.

I’m going to be pretty open with topics and write fairly off the cuff (except for reviews, which will be earnest and considered because I can’t helpt it). I’ll also end up posting the odd, occasional story that has nowhere to go. If my other site is a pair of pretty heels and a classy, black suit, Cleverboots is jeans and my favorite sweatshirt. Both are 100% me. This is just where I’m likely to rant, ramble and brood like the Super Big Book Nerd I am.

On Integrity

Woman looking into compact mirror. black and white image.

Vintage advertisement. Image courtesy favim.com

A few days ago, I was in the car listening to an interview with Tavis Smiley, an African-American social critic and all-around intellectual bad-ass. In recent years, he’s come under fire from the African-American community for holding Barack Obama publicly accountable for his failure to better address issues of poverty in America.

While knew that Smiley had become persona non grata in his own cultural community for voicing criticism of the first black President of the United States, it was only in the wake of the interview that I considered just how much intellectual integrity such a critique requires. This is a man less interested in cultural or political ideology than he is in truth. Now that is integrity. And integrity is rare.

They say that the quality you hate most in other people is the quality you hate in yourself. Conversely, I would say that the thing you admire most in others is that which you most long to have. For me, that most admired quality is integrity. Having integrity is hard. Integrity is, among other things, being willing to do the hard thing for no other reason than that it is right.

For most of my life, I had no integrity, (and no, I’m not being hard on myself). I never did the hard thing because hard things were hard – or stressful, or saddening, or difficult, or uncomfortable or, or, or…. I trafficked in excuses, both with others and myself. I was sick. I was swamped. I was stressed. I was something. Anything. Just give me an excuse, and if that excuse inspired sympathy, bonus points.

Excuses were easier than integrity. Much easier. Unfortunately, making excuses also meant that I was perpetuating a lie and creating my own mythology – a comfortable little narrative that kept me insulated from the reality of myself. And then my mythology fell apart.

Someone I know once said that if you and your self-image aren’t matching up, one of you has to change. In my case, I was nowhere near being the strong, confident, compassionate person I thought I was – a fact that became disturbingly clear after a series of painful realizations.

 

Image of Tavis Smiley

Image of Tavis Smiley, courtesy theatlantic.com. On a personal note, I love the look on Smiley’s face.

 

Once faced with an unavoidably clear picture of myself, I realized that I had three options.

1. I could accept my new, truthful self-image, disgusting warts and all.

2. I could try to delude myself back into my happy comfort zone, (no dice there, I’d already swallowed the red pill).

3. I had to change.

Now, let’s be clear. Living with the fact that I was a moody, self-absorbed stress puppy held zero appeal. I had to change, mostly because I was, (and am), too vain to settle for being less than someone I can respect.

Integrity is, for me, a hard-won import of a quality. Someone else I know is fond of saying that the danger with integrity is that you never know when you’ve lost it, and I believe this to be true. I fear the easy answer like almost nothing else. I fear my own ego and the trap of self-admiration. I fear ideologies because there is safety in belonging, even if you trade yourself in exchange. I fear spoon-fed logic because, for so long, I failed to think for myself.

Consequently, there is literally nothing more attractive to me than a person with integrity. They are what I strive to be – their own honest judge of themselves and their circumstances. That’s why I so respect Tavis Smiley, whose politics I both do and do not agree with. He is a person with towering integrity – both intellectual and personal – and that is that is the quality I most need to nurture in myself.

Books, or My Fetish

A two story gallery of books in the old library at Trinity College Dublin for Books, My Fetish by Malin James

Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin

So, let’s play a game. When I say fetish, you say…

SEX!!!

Probably. Or possible not, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume you say, SEX!! Most people, including myself, do. After all, in Western popular culture, fetish really does = sex.

And why not? There are plenty of fabulous sexual fetishes out there – feet, hands, pain, exhibitionism, voyeurism.. hell, there’s even an eyeball-licking fetish.

But not all fetishes are strictly sexual. In fact, traditionally speaking, (and by traditional I mean dating back to the early 17th century), fetishes were spiritual in nature, and were almost always objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers. If you go by the original meaning, anything from a voodoo doll to a saint’s relic is a fetish – an object used or revered for it’s spiritual power.

This made me realize something. I have a book fetish – a serious, committed, barely-restrained book fetish.

It isn’t that I literally worship books because I think they’re literally magical. It’s more that, for me, books have an inherent value and, because of that, they are the locus of my compulsion to acquire new things. In other words, some people have shoes, other people have exes, and I have books.

Nigella Lawson's private library. Image courtesy bookmania.me

Nigella Lawson’s private library. Image courtesy bookmania.me

Since I was old enough to buy my first Nancy Drew with my very own money, I have surrounded myself with books. I buy, borrow, give, and receive books with a pure, transactional joy that should be acquisitive but isn’t. Really, I just love books. I love stacking them, collecting them, rearranging and classifying them. I love holding them and writing in their margins, and of course, I love reading them.  The book, as an object, is comforting to me. It doesn’t matter if I’ve read it five times or never heard of it, books are totems. They are, quite literally, a mental escape hatch, and in that way they are an incredibly significant part of my personal growth.

I can trace my development as a person back through my reading material, from Laura Ingall Wilder’s Little House books to A.S. Byatt, Dorothy Parker and Anais Nin. Each phase in my reading reflects an emotional phase in my life, and the books that I read during those phases are, in essence, relics of the person I was. My books are a map of my past, and an indicator of future interests and selves. So yes, I have a old-fashioned fetish. I attach spiritual significance to books. I will never read every book I own, and I will never own enough… That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

 

On Burning Your Boats

When I decided to move to writing full time, I did so with the caveat that if anything really promising in librarianship came up, I would do it and write part-time again, which means that my choice to write full time was always, in some way conditional – I had a sort of mental escape hatch that allowed me to do the frightening thing and write while still feeling like I had a safety net.

About two months ago, I was approached about a contract position in a library, which definitely qualified as “something exciting”. On the surface, the opportunity made a lot of sense. It was a part-time situation that would net a decent, very stable income and replace the worry and comparative instability of freelancing. Score. I would work in the library part time and write part time. The family schedule would be “interesting” (meaning INSANE), but it overall, that would be okay because everything else would be good… except for the fact that I would lose some traction on current WIP’s and projects… and that  the idea never quite settled right with me. At all.

Last week interviews and phone meetings were scheduled for the position. This week would basically be spent talking to people and deterring the terms of the contract. Should have been exciting, right? But it wasn’t. I just felt vaguely sick. I couldn’t focus on the writing I had to do – I was too preoccupied by the fact that soon I would have far less time to work.. meaning write.

So, after much debate, I just sent a series of very nice emails saying thanks but no thanks to the contract. You’d think that torching that safe little boat would be empowering or, at the very least, kind of fun. It wasn’t not. It was very gently terrifying, because it meant that now I’m doing this. No safety net. No back-up. This is it. I’m a writer – not a writer on condition – and that means I need to up my game and kick some serious ass. Seriously.

On the flip side, it feels good to have a challenge to rise to. I’ve never done the safe thing, though it’s never been from lack of trying – safe was always a siren song, even as I auditioned for play after play, all while trying to figure out how to be an actor *and* have a stable, routine life. Ha.

It was that trying to be safe that kept the risks I took from paying off. Now, for the first time in my life, I’m taking an unabashed, no-holding back risk. And I’m free – from myself and the little demon that whispered in my ear. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe. 

Sometimes, safe isn’t really that safe, not if it isn’t honestly safe, and my pursuit of safety, and my inability to see a risk through was never honest. It was always based in fear. So now, my boats are finally burning and that little safety demon can go straight to hell. In declining the contract position, I finally sent it there, and that does feel good.

The Places That Draw You

The Met scale drawing image for The Places that Draw You post by Malin James

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There are certain places that draw you. It could be the diner where you fell in love or the beach where you said good-bye; the house where you grew up or the park where you sat, journal in hand, sorting through yourself and your place in the world.

These places represent tiny shards of memory, or experience, that lodge themselves inside you. They get internalized, and through that process, become resonant, like tiny bells only you can hear. The associations with that place might be happy, sad or complicated, but they become a part of you, and they tend to draw you back.

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to New York. It’s a special city for me, one I lived in, briefly, as a much younger person, but it made an indelible mark. There are a lot of places that resonate with me in New York, like Washington Square Park. In my mind’s eye, it will always be black and white – wrought iron covered in pristine snow, lit by a gray, January dawn. There’s the coffee house on Avenue A where my friends and I trekked to get tea and chat when we should have been studying. There’s the blues bar on Second Ave., where I ordered my first gin and tonic, and the pizza place on Spring that still makes the best pizza I’ve ever had.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

There are a lot of little places like that for me in New York, but the biggest one, the one that is lodged most deeply inside me, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was eighteen the first time I walked up the wide front steps. Even then, I knew that the massive museum was going to be a special place. I’ve been back countless times since – most recently two days ago, when I wandered around with a good friend – and still, there was that same familiar feeling. It still felt like my place.

There was a period during my freshman year at NYU that I went to the Met once a week. I should have been studying or rehearsing, but I needed to think. I was foggy about everything, from what I wanted and needed to who the hell I was. The only place I could think was in the Met, with it’s hushed galleries and wooden floors that creak and stretch forever. Over fifteen years later, I’m still drawn it, even though I know exactly who I am now. Every trip to NY means a trip to the Met.

I’ve changed, but it hasn’t. And yet, there’s always room for me in it. It’s a comforting, comfortable place. Walking through the front doors feels like slipping my hand into a well-worn pocket. It’s just one of those places for me. It just keeps drawing me back.

Border Patrol

Big Ben through barbed wire c. 1945

This began as a post about Russia and what’s happening in Crimea, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it rapidly became a bit of a self-centered musing about myself. What’s happening in the Crimean Peninsula right now is legitimately interesting, as is the West’s response, (or lack thereof). Apparently, however, it’s not as interesting to me as myself. For this, I apologize. And yet, I forge on….

Recently, I’ve been thinking about boundaries, specifically my own, and how they are both uncompromising and quite flexible – though not universally so.

I’ve always been aware that I have some pretty serious boundaries, which I tend to defend with equal seriousness . In fact, someone very close to me refers to this tendency as my “border patrol”, calling to mind barbed wire fences and armed guards patrolling with guns and large dogs. And as much as I’d like for this to not be the case, it really is true. I have a border patrol and they are always on guard. The black and white bottom line is that some people naturally skirt the barbed wire fence and find themselves inside, while others don’t and are relegated to some portion of the perimeter… some quite close, other’s very far away.

The mechanism by which a person gets past my border patrol used to be a bit of a mystery to me. Most of the time, it happens quite quickly, though not very often – which is why I have a lovely handful of extremely close friends, (most of whom slipped through immediately), and a nice, healthy number of good, friendly acquaintances with whom I enjoy varying degrees of emotional intimacy.

So, there are the people who slip right through the perimeter, and the people with access cards who come and go fairly freely. Call is chemistry or affinity or sympathy or connection, but something between that person and I subconsciously sorts out where they end up in relation to my boundaries. The only thing I know for certain is that the people who sense my perimeters and respect them, are the people who tend to slip through.

Now, the people who really fascinate me are the ones who occupy a strange middle ground. While they don’t kick me into full alert, they inspire a serious, immovable guardedness in me – a sort of instinctive distrust that often translates to dislike.

When full alert happens, I don’t tend to care why. I generally run on the instinct that the person is a psychopath or some sort of son-of-a-bitch and keep them at arms length. Sure, it’s reactionary, but better safe than sorry. The grey area people are different though. It’s not psychopathy or son-of-a-bitchness that I’m cuing to with them. It’s an inherent lack of respect – for my boundaries, in general, and, therefore, for me.

Awhile back, I wrote a post on dominance, or rather, on women and submission. I think that, buried beneath my rabid hierarchical awareness, is the issue of boundaries and respect. I respect other people’s boundaries, and I have an absolute antipathy for people who try to test mine.

This very well may mean that I can’t take a joke, or that I take myself too seriously, but it’s always been the case. At this point in my life, it’s a fundamental part of my personality. So, I suppose that my border patrol is, more than anything, a response – one that can be supple and flexible or cold and hard – and that response, while being an accurate reflection of me, is also a reflection of how I perceive others. While it’s not a perfect lens, it’s the only one I’ve got. The least I can do is understand how it works. I want to be sure that I’m the one paying the guards.

Blind Spots

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Last week-end I had lunch with a friend and, as always, the conversation was great, ranging over everything from books and education to politics and religion. It was a fabulous time, full of recreational thinking and awesome insights, including one that I hadn’t known to expect: My blind spots are back.

I’ve got cultural blind spots so big that I often get lost in them  before I even know I’m off the map.

This isn’t a new realization. I get it every so often, usually when I stop thinking on autopilot and encounter something contextually unexpected. In this case, it was a Coke ad, or rather, the response to a Coke ad.

During the Superbowl, Coca-Cola ran an ad featuring Americans from different cultural backgrounds doing normal people things, like dancing and swimming and laughing, while the song, “America the Beautiful” played in the background. It was nicely done and inclusive. Honestly, I barely thought about it. But a lot of people did and here’s why:

“America the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages. Apparently, this wasn’t ok, because the response on Twitter was, shall we say, vitriolic. You can see both the ad and a selection of vitriolic tweets over at Public Shaming, (a site that does, I must admit, have a left-leaning slant).

So, all of this goes down and I’m mostly unaware. I’d seen the ad but, like I said, I didn’t really think about it, mostly because I don’t drink soda. So when my friend referenced the openly racist nature of the Twitter response, it took me a second to process it, because it honestly didn’t make sense. I mean, what kind of problem could people have? Right? It’s Coke. Whatever.

See? Blind Spot.

Here’s the thing. I live in California. I grew up in San Francisco  and, for the most part, the only other places I’ve lived were New York City and West Hollywood. In short, I have always occupied a socially liberal bubble. (There was a brief, nine month stint outside of Dallas but, in that time, the bubble ceased to exist, which was interesting. It re-inflated after I moved back to California).

Without imposing a value-judgement one way or the other, let’s just say that I’m not often forced to process differing cultural views. Sure, I went to Catholic high school, but it was in 1990’s San Francisco, so all five teen pregnancies were accommodated without judgement or fuss (right down to special desks) and not one, but two gay male couples went to prom (without getting killed with sticks) in the four years that I was there. Homosexuality, multiculturalism and sex where just part of my landscape and, to a great degree, they remain so.

Which is why when I encounter a response like the one on Twitter, I get thrown off. Because, due to social self-selection (i.e.: having friends with similar cultural beliefs) and geographic location, I’m essentially insulated from opposing beliefs, which is why the media – both social and otherwise – is so valuable.

The Internet is essentially my safety net. Through regular news scrapes and general browsing, it ensures that I’m exposed to the world beyond my ideological nose. I just can’t get lazy – it doesn’t work if I only read my favorites (sorry Slate, Salon and Nerve). My surprise during lunch with my friend was a wake-up call, one that I periodically need, because, for all my talk about discourse, I’ve been getting mentally lazy and complacent. Apparently, to paraphrase Doc Holliday, my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

So, more than anything, this post is a reminder for me to get off my mental ass and see what’s going on beyond my comfort zone. Because blind spots are scary. They’re a weakness. Blind spots are where things hide. As someone who hates surprises, I need to reclaim a bit of that territory before something unexpected bites me on the ass. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’d prefer to be the mountain lion, and not the deer.