The Rude Avenger

The movie theater lights darkened following the previews and the main attraction, The Avengers in 3D, had begun when the distractions started.

My husband and I and our two youngest sons had been out to dinner and were settled into our seats for an entertaining family movie when the girl sitting next to my husband began coughing and sneezing like a tuberculosis patient, spraying snot on my husband’s shoulder with every sneeze. My husband wanted to change seats, but the movie was in full swing and the theater was packed on a Saturday night. I – for some unknown reason – was worried about hurting the unseen girl’s feelings if we moved, but at last our sense of health prevailed. My husband stood up and headed toward the aisle to search for two seats elsewhere. Our kids, at the young teen stage, were happily sitting a few rows away from us, so we only needed two empty spots.

My husband’s search was successful and he motioned me to join him in what seemed like the last two seats in the house. We jostled our way over and my husband took his seat. I was about to plant my bottom when I noticed the very large purse that was occupying my chair. I looked at the woman next to the seat, figuring it was hers, and asked her to move it so I could sit down.

Wearing her 3D glasses, she was engrossed in the movie and did not notice my request right away. I asked again, and she promptly removed her bag and I hurriedly sat. A few minutes later her oversized airplane carry-on-sized bag came slamming down onto the armrest between us, but mostly into my lap. I was already absorbed in the action flick and was startled by the aggressive act. Nonetheless, I politely asked her to move it over to her side rather than resting it on my left leg. She said,”Well, I don’t want it on the floor and I don’t have anywhere else to put it.  Everything was fine until you sat down.” Huh?

I responded sharply, “Everyone buys one ticket and that entitles you to one seat; that is yours and this is mine.” She told me to be quiet so she could watch the movie and only nudged her purse a little. I shoved the purse back and employed my left elbow and some wriggling to carve out my space. I was pleased with my response as I usually don’t think of a clever retort until days later. At that point however, I just really wanted to shove her, not the purse, and tell her to stop being a b#@ch.

Somehow, I managed to summon up the calm part of my brain and reason that I am a middle-aged mom at a movie with my family, and that my preferred response would be a tad inappropriate under the circumstances. At that point I noted the irony of being at a movie watching the character of Bruce Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk) attempt to control his temper. If I had exploded, I would have been the other big green thing in the theater making a scene. I sat fuming for the next several minutes at the rude behavior of this woman and missed several lines of snappy dialogue. She did eventually place her entire purse on her own lap. Perhaps she was having second thoughts about her actions.

The darkened theater may have made the woman feel anonymous, allowing her to behave like a deviant commenter on the internet. She did not need to make eye contact or reveal her identity, which might have tempered her actions. As the conclusion of the movie was approaching I was looking forward to seeing her in the light and in the very least having a good stare down. However, she scattered like a cockroach as soon as the credits rolled.

Although I was not able to completely “avenge” the wrong, it was tiny transgression in the scheme of life. I was not fighting aliens or evil against mankind. I was just asserting my right against rudeness and to a mucus-free space. I sincerely hope the woman was just having a bad day rather than a bad life.

As Chris Evan’s character, Captain America Steve Rogers said in the movie, “At this point I doubt anything would surprise me.”

Carol Lewis Gullstad

May 28, 2012

50 Shades of Embarrassment

After the plane reached its cruising altitude last week, I fired up the iPad and dove into my book club’s current selection. I had started the novel poolside the prior day, so knew the direction it was heading, but when I reached the potential “contract” between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, I started feeling a bit uncomfortable.

My unease was heightened by the fact that I was seated next to an elderly couple that was – along with their friends across the aisle, one of whom was breathing oxygen through a nasal tube – headed to the Northwest for an Alaskan cruise. The very sensibly dressed husband and wife at my side were eating sandwiches they had packed for the flight, and both were rushing to finish James Michener’s Alaska before landing in Seattle.

I’m not one for small talk on planes – I see them as mini vacations in themselves – so I generally give myself permission to keep my nose in whatever book I’m devouring. This time, as I read Ana’s thoughts on hard and soft limits with Mr. Grey, I was grateful that I hadn’t brought along a paperback with a tell-tale cover. However, just in case, every time the sweet woman next to me turned to take in the view out the window, I tilted my e-reader just a little to the right.

Those who know me well, and even those who know me just a little, will understand my discomfort and note the irony of my reading Fifty Shades of Grey. One of my college majors was literature – you know, writing papers on Chaucer, DeFoe and Hardy – and I’ve never opened anything by Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele, or with Fabio on the cover.

During my adult life, I’ve participated in several book clubs, and have always looked forward to monthly discussions of “real” literature (oh, and also the food, wine, gossip and general girlfriend time). Most of my friends and colleagues probably consider me a serious reader.

And yet, in the past few years, I’ve raced through the Twilight, Hunger Games and Stieg Larsson series, so I guess that even in my rapidly advancing age, I’m capable of change – or at least flexibility. Apparently, by relishing these popular, decidedly un-literary tomes, I’ve joined a new breed of “mommy readers.” And, like millions of others in this new demographic, I’m enjoying a book that’s widely considered “mommy porn.”

To enlighten the handful of you who have not heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s the story of a virginal, soon-to-graduate college student who strikes up a relationship with a late-20s gazillionaire, who has a taste for eroticism and contracts the sexual novice to become his “submissive” for a three-month period. The troubled, yet handsome and very adept protagonist has a penchant for BDSM – a term that’s not part of my everyday vernacular.

Apparently segments of British author E. L. James’ book started appearing with the title Master of the Universe on a Twilight-related “fan-fiction” website a while back. After concerns of copyright infringement and the book’s sexual nature, James started publishing the series on her own site, FiftyShades.com.

About a year ago, an Australian “virtual publisher” released the trilogy’s first volume, Fifty Shades of Grey, as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback. Through word of mouth and “viral marketing,” the book’s popularity snowballed, and this spring, Vantage Books reportedly paid James a seven-figure advance for the publishing rights.

In April, TIME Magazine listed James as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and as of this week, James’ trilogy holds the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller lists for “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction,” “Paperback Trade Fiction,” “E-Book Fiction” and “Combined Hardcover & Paperback Fiction.”

The series is being translated into some 30 languages, a movie is in the works and it has provided fodder for Dr. Drew on The Today Show and the 82-year-old Barbara Walters on The View. It even received the popular-culture stamp of approval via a Saturday Night Live parody.

To be clear, the book is not for the faint of heart or sexually reserved. It is very graphic and steps well beyond the bedroom boundaries most of us keep. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey has been banned – so far – by public libraries in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, but perhaps that only adds to its allure.

And while the content is titillating, to say the least, the writing is far from high brow. I’ve heard many women voice the same assessment as Huffington Post writer Julie Gerstenblatt, who recently noted, “I thought it was awfully written and yet I couldn’t put it down.”

The good news is that adult women who rarely pick up books are now reading voraciously. And, as someone who would love to write a novel someday, I’m all for the publishing industry’s survival.

Here in the Seattle area – where much of the books’ activity takes place – Shades of Grey has become Topic A among moms at the gym, the grocery store, charity league meetings and dinner parties.

The phenomenon has spread across the nation. In fact, last week an LA-area friend posted a Facebook photo indicating that a dozen or so of her book club members tackled a 50 Shades discussion with cold beverages in a hot tub. Now that’s a meeting I would have liked.

As for my own book club, our tastes have recently ranged from The Help to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We advocate a low-pressure approach – understanding that most of us juggle zillions of obligations – and stress attendance and fun over book completion. And so, over the past few weeks, when I have run into my fellow book clubbers in public, conversations have taken place in hushed tones: “Are you reading it?”; “How far are you?”; and “I couldn’t put it down, and now I’m finishing the third book.”

In truth, I haven’t found much inspiration from the book. I am, and always will be, a somewhat prude Midwesterner at heart (just ask some of my former boyfriends). I don’t dream about Christian Grey, and I certainly don’t fantasize about cheating on my husband of 21 years.

And, yet, I’m still reading – mostly on the elliptical at the gym – and I’m determined to finish the book before my club’s meeting.  Maybe that’s the point: because my book club and just about every other 30-plus woman in America is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve given myself permission to do so, too. And, really, what’s the harm in that?

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 21 May 2012
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Wings to Fly

“Darn her for growing up and going off in the world,” my husband said after bidding goodbye to our eldest child at the airport on Sunday. It was a misty-eyed departure, at least for the parents. Granted our daughter is not leaving for good. But, after she had already spent a year across the country from us at college we weren’t entirely prepared for her to spend the summer away as well.

Yes, we are immensely proud that she found a great job at a cannery in Alaska. It will be hard work with long hours, but as she said, “It’s worth it, it will be great experience and I’ll be making bank.” The internet connection is spotty, which impacts her ability to stay in touch with friends and my wish to Skype once per week. This is a small price to pay, I assured myself.

After dropping her off, my husband and I headed to a local park to walk our dog on an unusual sunny Seattle day. We were starting to experience life as a twosome again, as our older kids were happily sleeping in. The contrast seemed quite sharp as we passed by an endless parade of moms pushing baby strollers. While I wouldn’t want to go back to that life-stage now, I admit to looking at the closeness of the families together with a little bit of wistfulness and perhaps a bit of envy. There could be no doubt, my baby was all grown up.

When my daughter was young, my social-worker mother counseled me, “Your job as a mom, unfortunately, is to put yourself out of business.” I really don’t wish that I had raised a dependent child, and if anything parenting has taught me, it is humility. Things change and I do still have three kids at home, so I will not declare game over, just yet.

My situation seems like a complete juxtaposition to the cover story of Time Magazine’s new issue, which asks, “Are You Mom Enough?”  The article is about “Attachment” parenting philosophy championed by pediatrician Dr. William Sears. The headline may not grab you, but certainly the picture will. A model-looking blonde mother is breast-feeding her 3-year-old son, whose mouth is firmly affixed to his mother’s boob while staring into the camera. I understand why they chose this picture; no one would be talking about the story if the photo had been of the 74-year-old physician. The cover is intended to be sexual and sell magazines.

Attachment parenting advocates a strong physical and emotional connection with a child. It encourages practices such as co-sleeping and “wearing” your child as much as possible. Supposedly by keeping them close they will be secure, empathetic and ultimately independent. I worked full-time so did not “wear my child” and I was really tired when I went to sleep so I went with the sleep-by-yourself-in-the-room-next-door style of parenting.  If I had known about Attachment theory at the time I was raising babies, I am not so sure I would have bought in anyways. It seems that catering to a child’s every mood and need might create very demanding kids and lead to an “intensive parenting” style.

I definitely could have used a little more attachment to my daughter this summer but that is about me, not her.  As a mom, perhaps my style is more aligned with the theory of “Unattachment parenting.”  Ultimately, I am pleased to see a young, independent woman who has the confidence to spread her wings and fly into the unknown. While I am a little startled by how quickly I put myself “out of business,”  I would do it the same way again.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

May 14, 2012

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Sugar and Spice?

Do you ever get tired of acting nice? When it’s “one of those days” and you just want to tell it like it is?

Whether from motherhood-induced exhaustion, hormones, stress, excessive caffeine or a craving for chocolate, we all find ourselves on edge from time to time. However, most of us were raised to keep a smile on our faces and continue to act polite, conciliatory and helpful, no matter what.

Sometimes, I just want to wallow in it; to sulk and let off steam. Back in my single days, I could take myself to a “romantic comedy” to provide respite and provoke a good cry, or join a few girlfriends over half a dozen margaritas to slam the boys who “done me wrong” or the supervisor at work who was stalling my career.

Now, for an outlet on bad days, sometimes I try a little retail therapy. While I’m too frugal to find pleasure in an overpriced and unnecessary pair of four-inch heels, I do enjoy perusing the aisles in peace. And, as Greta Garbo famously said in Grand Hotel, I just want to be alone.

So, when an aggressive, commission-seeking salesclerk starts following me around, telling me what looks good, what’s trendy or what he’s going to eat for lunch, I feel like saying, “Don’t bother me.” But, I know that if I do so, he’ll turn around and mouth to a colleague, “Wow, she’s a b#*%!” (And why do I care what he thinks?)

Many of us have felt rage towards line-jumpers, especially while suffering long lines on ramps joining two highways. You’re late for a meeting, need to rush home to relieve the nanny or you have a hungry, dirty-diapered baby screaming in the back seat, and your car is barely moving. And then, someone quickly approaches in the adjacent lane, and that car angles to cut in front of you. Your inclination is to nose towards the car in front of you, so the interloper has no room to jump in, but you know that if you don’t allow it, someone else will. So, instead of provoking road rage, you smile and signal, “Sure, come on in!”

I think we all need to give ourselves permission to speak the truth; to shush the rude GNO group in the movie theater, to stop someone in the middle of a long, self-aggrandizing story, to deny a Facebook “friend request” from someone we’d rather not have contact with, to tell a friend, colleague or family member that they have hurt our feelings…

According to author Rachel Simmons, women – and especially middle- and high-school girls – must learn to speak their minds, instead of subjugating their emotions. In fact, she theorizes that the main culprit for girl-on-girl bullying is the fact that women are trained to suppress negative feelings and to try to please those who annoy or hurt them the most.

In her 2002 book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and the follow-up The Curse of the Good Girl, Simmons notes that for young girls – just as for grown women – the pressure for perfection causes undue stress and can lead to passive-aggressive behavior. In fact, it’s very common for “frenemies” to tease and point out faults, then laugh and say, “just kidding.”

Instead of telling others how they really feel about such hurtful behavior, super-stressed and, yes, hormonal young ladies resort to dirty looks, cold shoulders, exclusionary behavior and behind-the-back talk and “stabbings.”

Simmons’ wisely suggests that girls of all ages should “cut themselves some slack” and voice their true feelings. Girls must realize that “being nice” doesn’t mean they can’t stand up for themselves.

For their part, it seems boys and men always been encouraged to show their rough sides. They grow up knowing that, for the most part, it’s okay to “solve it on the playground” (or in an alley behind a bar), to tell or show each other that they’re pissed off, and then to move on. Men are not trained to be sweet and compliant partly because, as the unforgettable baseball manager Leo Durocher quipped in 1948, they believe that “nice guys finish last.”

In truth, several recent studies bear that out. A study summarized in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology last winter found that men who described themselves as “agreeable” fared worse than their more-aggressive colleagues.

Over the course of a decade, researchers Beth A. Livingston of Cornell, Timothy A. Judge of Notre Dame, and Charlice Hurst of the University of Western Ontario, assessed levels of “agreeableness” among 9,000 workers. They found that self-described “agreeable” men earned, on average, nearly $7,000 less than peers who didn’t act so kindly. At the same time, the impact of “agreeableness” wasn’t as severe among women; nice gals earned just $1,100 less than their tough-as-nails co-workers.

It’s really a double-standard; we’ve all heard the “b” word used to describe female executives who take no prisoners, while the world’s Steve Jobs or Gordon Gekkos are rarely criticized for being “bast%@#s.”

In fact, I had to chuckle last year when the only flaw noted in my husband’s otherwise stellar work performance review was that he was “too nice.” Would society really suffer if men used a little more honey, and women a little more vinegar?

Linda Williams Rorem, 7 May 2012
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