Catalysts and Dogmas: Cultivating an Open Mind

When I got pregnant, it was neither a surprise nor unwelcome. I was slightly terrified, as it was clear to me that while I had the advantages of a partner and financially stable home, I was completely unprepared to have a child. I started doing what I always do – I researched, reading every parenting book I could get my hands on.

canstockphoto22961553That’s when I started buying organic food. We had the income, organics somehow seemed like a moral choice and we lived in a metro area where it was relatively easy to obtain. Twelve years later, we’re still buying some organics, but in that time the discussion surrounding our food has changed significantly.

Corporations own most of the widely known organic food lines. It has been shown repeatedly that the USDA certification of Organic has been degraded by loopholes and the use of natural pesticides, some of which are more deadly than the synthetics. Production of organic food requires more land, especially as the demand rises.

Ever since nutrition became a science, we’ve screwed up how we eat six ways to Sunday. Shopping carts have become moral edicts and just another way to judge ourselves and each other. Go to any nutrition or food forum and people are squabbling away a like political rivals. And are just as useful.

canstockphoto15362073Spring is a few months away in Minnesota and I’ve begun thinking about our garden. I’ve been a haphazard gardener for years. We have blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, grapes, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, spinach, peppers, peas, broccoli, onions and herbs each summer. It doesn’t all get eaten, because we also have a lot of rabbits, squash bugs, birds, squirrels and Japanese beetles. We don’t spray and we try to use composted soils, so our garden tends to support an ecosystem all on its own.

I’m not great at it. The food is delicious, but I have yet to master when to plant what when. I forget, when sowing all those optimistic seeds, that I’m the only one in the family who likes tomatoes and peppers and that everyone else really loves green beans (blech). Our spring weather is inconsistent and I have to approach planting with all the knowledge of a soothsayer, which is to say, I guess. Does it smell like rain or frost? Are the birds and bugs coming to life?

canstockphoto15476528The last couple of years, I’ve been trying to up my game – putting in structures and fencing, rotating where things get planted, using companion planting guides, and really working rich stuff into the soil. I’m learning, but also developing a greater appreciation for how challenging it is to grow things. The produce from our garden seems to taste better than store bought, likely because the distance from garden to table is so short – less storage time in a warehouse. Often, the food doesn’t even make it to the table, as we stand about grazing in the garden.

My feelings about food and the dogma that surrounds it is changing, not because someone bullied or lectured me into it, but because I literally and figuratively dug in – learning how food is grown and pursuing all venues of information regardless of what side of the fence it grew on. I read the research, mindful of who paid for it and why. I read opinion pieces, paying close attention to what the writers’ agenda served.

canstockphoto1569360I’m not ready to give up on finding or growing high quality food. I think our food and water supplies are critical issues. But I no longer assume government labels and price are the end-all, be-all. I don’t look at others who buy cheaper produce and think, well…anything. They might be the smarter shopper. There is a whole industry set on confusing the hell out of us. Most of us are just doing the best we can, whether it’s shopping on a shoestring budget or focusing on what might be the “best” choice for ourselves and our families.

So, this brings me back to the whole point of this post. Listening to the “March for Life” speeches from yesterday, I searched for a point of commonality. This is where dogma ends and change begins – searching for the humanity that we share.

I thought about the babies born who get discounted as adults. The homeless, gun culture victims, the people who are mentally ill, or alienated and abandoned. I began to think about how humans are locusts, devouring everything in their path and that more is definitely not better. And I remember all the hateful rhetoric about the sexuality of women and how they deserve to die if they get an illegal abortion or even use birth control.

canstockphoto28695545And then I began to think about my own daughter. How my world is so much better with her in it. How I’ve become so aware of my own choices and role in the world, because I want it and myself to be better for her. Life is, indeed, a miracle, but less so as scientists manage to recreate it in a Petri dish and we learn to care for adult humans less and less, because we are so attached to our beliefs that we dehumanize each other.

I remain pro-choice. I am not for abortion, but I am for caring about the humans who are already born, including those teenage and adult women who know what they can and cannot bear. Purity in belief systems is easily dismantled with facts. When Vice President Pence says that “Life is Winning Again in America” while his cohort promises military buildup and suggests that he might send Federal troops into American cities, I know it is a lie. Life is only winning for some. For some already born humans, violence and harm has arrived or is on the horizon.

Still,  I understand why people feel so strongly on either side of the debate. That I want to stand in between them and listen with both ears, is the best I can do at this point. That I try to read research studies and editorials is one way to cultivate an open mind. I don’t have an interest in screaming and shouting at people, nor the patience to allow them to scream at me. I do have time to listen to civil discussion, to consider, to research and to believe that we all think what we’re doing is right and good and the best choice.

canstockphoto9531862Humans aren’t all that bright. After all, we’ve been squabbling and killing each other since the beginning of time. The human brain adapts and seems to evolve at a painfully slow pace, but we can give it a boost if we do the real work of critical thinking and listening. Because the logical end game of the relentless pursuit of dogma is that we’re all dead and no one wins.

Thank you to Greg, from Almost Iowa, for providing food for thought in the comment section of past posts.

Have you changed your mind on a particular issue? What was the catalyst?

If you have softened your stance on an issue, what convinced you?

Administrative Note: This post contains 2 for the price of 1 hot button issues. It will be moderated. Please understand the subject is dogma and how we deal with our own. Any proselytizing and/or incivility will be promptly shut down. Please see my comment policy. My hope is for a discussion about how we change or soften our minds about strong beliefs. I’m curious about it. Aren’t you?

The Best Revenge: Leaping Buildings in a Single Bound

canstockphoto19248113Sometimes I imagine staring levelly at her and saying slowly, deliberately, with great enunciation, “You are a complete asshole” and then I’d walk away. It would be like a scene from Douglas Adam’s Life, the Universe and Everything when an alien, bitter about his lot as an immortal, has decided to insult the universe – one living creature at a time. He lands on a planet, confirms the creature’s identity on his clipboard, makes eye contact, says “You are a jerk” and then flies away.

In reality, my antagonist would likely look at me, mouth agape, lip quivering. Maybe she’d start to cry. Then I’d backpedal with some excuse about having a bad day and that she’s not really an asshole, but she just did an asshole-ish thing. Or maybe she’d find a few choice words of her own to describe my loathsome character. And before you know it, we’re both blubbering and falling over ourselves apologizing. She’d still be an asshole and I’d still mean it, but now we’d have to hug or something.

canstockphoto0484969There’s a skill in letting things go, in not ruminating and feeding the anger monster within, and in my case, it’s learned, not intuitive. My knee-jerk thoughts, when getting steamrolled by a domineering personality, usually involve foul language and some choice visuals of a mean straight punch, followed by a finishing cross. My brain tends to leave out the bit about being middle-aged and the likelihood of fracturing my fingers, but what’s the point of having a fantasy that puts you in the emergency room?

The revenge fantasy can take on a wide range of forms, from telling off a coworker, to property destruction after a love gone wrong, to avenging bitter teenage years. Every time I think about those popular girls pointing and laughing about my hand-me-down shoes in 9th grade, it bubbles up inside of me. It doesn’t matter that it happened 30 odd years ago. It is burned in my memory, despite the fact that for those girls, high school was the height of their power.

canstockphoto17407787I went to my five year high school reunion. All the same groups of people were in clusters. Since leaving these people, I’d been all over the US and Europe, worked in military intelligence, lost my virginity a few times, learned a language or three – I mean, things had changed for me. But not at that reunion in the hotel ballroom – I still felt like the girl with the shitty shoes. Except now I could get legally and totally drunk, and not care. Which I did.

I’ve never returned to another reunion. If I did, it would be as an MMA Featherweight Champion who had just received the National Book Award (how does she pen such beautiful words right after giving someone a serious smackdown?). If you think this all reeks of insecurity, you’d be exactly right.

When I was younger, I existed in a state of powerlessness. When the dysfunction at home reached its most volatile and dangerous phase, my fantasies of running away morphed into vengeful, violent dreams. As I matured into my twenties, I began to have vigilante dreams, protecting and defending the powerless. I had gone from being my own avenger to being a superhero.

Life began to change in imperceptible ways. Fear stopped ruling the day. I began to make choices out of a belief that I could make things better, that I had some power. I stepped out of survival mode and started helping others more in real life. The insecurity and low self-esteem that had throttled me for years began to loosen its hold.

These days, it doesn’t take much for me to recognize when I’m feeling insecure. I am, at this very moment, as insecure as I’ve been in many years. It’s easier for me to feel small, unimportant and powerless. It’s easier to get angry when I feel like someone is trying to manipulate or control me. It’s easier to imagine giving in to my anger.

Maturity seems never to be able to hold off those moments when I’m vulnerable, when I feel less than. When I’m feeling okay, I am circumspect. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe I push their buttons. Maybe we just shouldn’t be in the same room with each other. I can ruminate and try to untangle the strands of complicated human interaction, and be unflinching in acknowledging my own flaws.

When I’m not okay, say if I’m an unpaid writer with a lot of time that I can’t seem to structure productively, then I can go through an entire day seething about one little interaction. That was yesterday. I felt that rising need to do an I’ll show them and a that’s the last straw, perhaps with a side of fist fighting/ER visiting. I recognized the silliness of it all, even as I worked out scenes where I casually mentioned my Pulitzer and how I could barely move because of all the benching I’d been doing.

Power is, if anything, illusory. We all die. We all navigate and negotiate through a world that provides no guarantees. We have loved those who didn’t love us back, wanted things that weren’t attainable, felt at moments, small and powerless. It’s a big choice to make: churn in our revenge fantasies, do something constructive or laugh at our silliness. Sometimes, if you’re like me, it’s a journey through all three options. Every time this happens, though, I spend just a tad less time imagining unearned accolades and a little more time in bemused awareness of my own fallibility. My superpowers are growing. And I have cool shoes.canstockphoto3350894

The Perfect Choice

I can hear the cracks in the wall before the tidal wave lays me low. They sneak up on me – the whispers of shoulda, woulda, coulda. I am paralyzed by my imperfect perfectionism.

Before I can rally, I need a breather. I watch a movie, flip through a magazine or read a book – media filled with perfect people, perfect writing, perfect pictures of a well-adjusted life. I’d love to say I feel so self-confident that these images and words don’t push me farther under the bus of self-loathing. But it’s not true. When I’m feeling low, these are the proverbial kicks to the gut that say “See? I told you so!”

There is, as an NPR blog writer called it, a New Perfectionism. Perfect parenting, perfect workouts, perfect household hints, perfect ways to be an effective and efficient employee, perfect time management skills, perfect possibilities for every aspect of life.  I don’t doubt that there are many people out there who aren’t anxious or overwhelmed or filled with self doubt. I am not one of them.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s been recommended to me at least 20 times, so I finally cracked it open on vacation. When it comes to my own introversion, it’s not been particularly enlightening. I’m good with the fact that I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. What I found interesting were the chapters about how extroversion became the ideal in our society – the valuing of personality over character. Selling one’s self became more important than ensuring you weren’t, deep down, a complete shithead.

The idea that how we appear is more valuable than our character is designed to teach us to judge a book by its cover – to sort, categorize and label people based on first impressions. If you have perfectionist tendencies, this value system exploits that need in an endless procession of how-to articles, cults of personality and advertising standards. Perfectionism sells.

While on vacation, it struck me that I’ve been so tired over the last year – working hard, struggling against entropy, trying to be better at everything.  I’ve expended tremendous amounts of energy with very little in the way of return – or at least returns I’ve been able to recognize. I don’t want to be exhausted all the time and it’s not necessary. The New Perfectionism indeed – now I want to be the perfectly balanced person. Nice work, brain. Any more circular thinking you’d like to do?

Friends often say to me: You’re too hard on yourself.  A cliché won’t stop 40 some years of pushing myself. And like any other character trait, there’s an upside. I have worked hard to become a productive member of society, to have stable relationships, to be a decent parent. Those things have not come easily to me. The downside is that not only am I tough on myself, but I’m often tough on others and I don’t know how to relax (And don’t tell me to relax – I’ll just want to punch someone in the face).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to question this perfectionist mentality. I can’t physically sustain a driven life. Many activities, which take up vast quantities of time, aren’t really important. And lastly, I’ve moved beyond the survival and self-sufficiency stage. I’m here. I get to be a bit of a dilettante. I get to dabble and meander and be a little lazier.

I felt a huge mental harrumph after typing that last sentence. Says who? Now get back to work. Maybe it would be more honest to say that since I will likely continue to push myself, I should redirect those efforts towards fulfilling work, family time that doesn’t involve force marching everyone through chores, activities that enrich instead of deplete. There are choices to be made.


After reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the idea of choices took on a whole new meaning – and it explains much of the anxiety people feel in our modern society. By pursuing perfection, we are inundated with choices at every turn. Of course, Mr. Schwartz decided the proof was in the pudding by immediately following up with Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. With so many other volumes of What You Are Not Doing Perfectly on the shelves, I’ve resolved any paradox by choosing not to read it.

Faced with so many experts and how-to gurus, the choices are overwhelming. But these choices are only necessary if your perceived goal is perfectionism. And what is perfect? Perfect is often what you want other people to see when they look at you, your home, status, possessions, children or body. Perfection represents love, power, respect – any number of things to people, but perfectionist behavior rarely yields those results. It can be, as I’ve discovered, quite tiring and unrewarding.

If perfection is through the eyes of someone else, then perfect becomes subjective. If definitions of perfection are subjective, it can be ours to define. It may end up looking entirely different than as advertised. Contents may settle. Results may not be guaranteed. Objects might be closer than they appear. There might be unintended side effects – like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected napping, small pleasures and infinite joy.

Perfectionist thinking is hard to unravel. Letting go of the behavior sometimes involves doing a half-assed job, showing up late, putting it off until later, not ironing it, not doing a progressive number of reps, letting the picture hang crooked on the wall. The next step is figuring out what you’d like to do instead  – something rewarding, pleasurable, luxurious, frivolous. I have piles of work to do. I wrote this blog post instead.

The Paradox of Voice

canstockphoto7524142Over the last few weeks, a couple of subjects have come up that I thought I might like to write about and then decided against it.  One is gun control and the other is the ban being lifted on women in combat. These are heady, complicated and complex subjects. I am a woman, a parent and a veteran of the U.S. Army.

Last week, I became quite disheartened when reading comments on articles on both subjects, which prompted an entirely different post. I tried a couple more times, unsuccessfully, to write about these subjects and discovered that holding a multitude of beliefs, some of which are quite contradictory, means that it is nearly impossible to write a convincing argument about anything.

I carried an M-16 as a soldier for four years. I knew how to disassemble, clean and reassemble it. I knew how to “lock and load”. I fired various other weapons over the years, as required for training. When I was 19, I thought that weapons were very cool. I was an average shot. I was left-handed, and the chamber guards provided did not prevent hot shell casings from rolling down the sleeve of my BDU shirt, leaving burn streaks down my arm. My aim started to become the least of my concerns.

I understand the appeal, the adrenaline rush of firing, the drive to train to expert levels, the sense of power felt, carrying this weapon of death. But I grew up. I thought about the kind of world in which I’d like to live. I realized that no amount of training or mechanical machine would ever prepare me for the moment I’d have to defend my life or the lives of my family. But that gun would always be there, this piece of hardware designed to take the life of another living creature. So I made a conscious choice to do without and despite comment boards, I don’t feel like I am a big liberal weenie because of it.

The lifting of the ban on women in combat didn’t make me do a little dance of joy last week. I worked in military intelligence as a Russian linguist. My unit was attached to an infantry division in Europe. We spent six months out of the year in the field and the other six doing important work, like picking up cigarette butts on base, working on our vehicles in the motor pool and doing dog and pony shows for high ranking officers. I served at a time when militarily, not much was happening. It was near the end of the Cold War. The year I finished my tour, the Berlin Wall came down.

Myself and the many women I served with, were already in combat positions, working close to what used to be the front line dividing us and the Soviets. That we were not classified as being in those positions was irrelevant. We just were. There are, and have been for years, thousands of women in combat positions. 146 women have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, even while a ban on them being in combat positions was in place.

All that being said, the arguments against it rile me because they’re so nonsensical. I can address a few commonly cited reasons. Physical abilities: Test. That’s all you need to do. A person is either qualified or they are not. Sexual Assaults and POW conditions for women: Stop assaulting your fellow soldiers. And I’m guessing being a POW is not a party for men or women. Unit Cohesiveness: Good leaders at every level determine this, gender does not. And my least favorite argument is concern about the lady parts. There are 15 million things that can go wrong with the human body in combat conditions, afflicting men and women equally. There is no vaginal predisposition for chronic infection, old white men.

I was proud of how hard I worked. I was proud that I trained, carried heavy equipment, knew my vehicle inside and out. I carried my own weight, didn’t ask for special treatment, didn’t have sexual orgies with my all male field team and didn’t have magical lady part infections.  There are, like any segment of the population, women I would not want to serve with, but there were an equal number of men who were unreliable, didn’t carry their own weight, complained and whined and wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Being a jackass is an equal opportunity, military or not.

All that being said, this is the part that gets me stuck: War is horrible. The idea that it is inevitable is so embedded in our hearts and minds that we can’t imagine what real peace looks like. I don’t want men and women to die, killing each other relentlessly on the battlefield or from the sky. I don’t want to casually allow our Congress and President to send thousands off to war. I don’t want orphaned children or civilian casualties – on either side. If I should become a vocal advocate for any position – have I just become part of the machine?

It’s okay to still believe in an ideal world. It doesn’t make us fools or softies or lefties or commies or all the other names anonymous trolls like to leave in their shit-laden trail of mediocrity on comment boards. It makes us the defense against complacency and acceptance of violence. We are one of many voices of reason in a world that seems destined for self-destruction. In the face of a million options for killing and hate and violence and destruction, I choose peace – in my life, in my desire for others, in my hope for my child. If someone wants to stand there, empowered with their arsenal and call me a coward, so be it.

I would like to thank Bespectacledape for his post, The Weakness Stereotype. It inspired me to follow through on the thoughts that have been nagging at me this last week.