I’m a University Success Story, and I Think Undergraduate Education is Completely Broken

I’m an unlikely person to be writing this article.

In many ways, I could be considered a university success story: I used co-op to break into the job market, became bilingual, made great contacts, and earned a degree that (combined with experience) has seen me steadily employed since graduation.

What’s not to love, right? Results as advertised.

But the system that helped me achieve these things is deeply, deeply flawed. It fails students every single day, and despite the fact I came out armed with a half-decent education, it failed me on the regular as well.

One of the things my BA taught me is how to write an essay. And while that is not so useful in the “real world,” I think it could be useful here. So here we go.

My thesis is “Undergraduate Education is Broken.”

My proof is:

1)      Students don’t give a shit.

2)      Professors don’t give a shit.

3)      The return on investment just isn’t there.

If you’ve been to University recently, you probably can see where some of these arguments are going. If not, please join me on a journey into the land of postsecondary education. Keep in mind this is all based on getting a Bachelor of Arts at a middle-of-the-road Canadian University. I’m sure students from other faculties and institutions have different experiences.

(I hope they do, anyways. Maybe you’re doing it right, and can help us fix this.)

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There are a few reasons students don’t give a shit.

It starts in high school, where we’re all told we need to go to University because that’s just what you do. Students who aren’t particularly cut out for academia, or who are unsure of their true interests and goals, apply. They get in.

Why do they get in, you wonder? Because it’s a fucking business transaction, that’s why.  Schools spend tons of money on recruitment, piggybacking on the university=job security myth. Once they convince kids to apply (because what else are they gonna do?), they squeeze as many students as possible into the freshman class. Admission decisions are usually based on grade 11 and 12 grades, which mean very little. Case in point: My grade 12 English teacher was a total hardass who (rightfully, in my opinion) gave me lower grades because she knew I could do better. Meanwhile, I met plenty of people in University who had high English marks but couldn’t string a written sentence together.

This truly sucked for both parties. Overprepared and underprepared kids generously admitted on the basis of super subjective grades is not a great start.

Here’s what happens after that:

Students who aren’t academically inclined go into crazy debt pursuing a half-interested “education” when they should be pursuing jobs or entrepreneurial ventures which actually match their young talent.

Students who are academically inclined have their passion stifled as they sit through (and pay for) required basic essay writing classes.

We all lose here.

This, combined with coddling in high school and cynicism about education in general, means a good chunk of students don’t give a shit from day one.

It may take a while, but (most of) the rest will stop caring, too.

Maybe they’ll stop caring when they first watch an employer scan their resume and realize that coursework doesn’t cut it. Maybe they’ll be focused on hustling through 3 jobs to make their tuition payments. Maybe they’ll have a mental health issue and be discouraged with the lack of support.

Personally, my breaking point was when I was repeatedly forced to choose between the challenging courses I truly wanted to take and the bird courses that would allow me to keep my scholarship or get into grad school. Sure, trial & error may be an important step in learning, but GPAs don’t really make room for that. Higher education is often sabotaged by the pursuit of good grades (or, if you get jaded enough, the pursuit of a passing mark).

You know how this story ends. By the end of their education, many students just don’t care about school and quite probably haven’t learned a whole lot. The power of the degree is weakened by the low standards needed to achieve it (sing it with me–Cs and Ds get degrees!), and once passionate learners are now serious cynics.

I can only imagine how much that sucks for professors.

Unfortunately, some of them don’t care either.

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There’s a story I sometimes tell about first year University, one that always makes people smile. During a 5:30 pm intermediate-advanced French grammar class, some fellow students and I started bringing long island iced teas in coffee tumblers to class. It was a perfect solution–our professor spoke terrible French, and the booze made us giggle at the many “etre” and “avoir” mixups on his powerpoint slides. When he didn’t show up, we would have a drink together and chat. He was late to nearly every class and missed a couple with no warning, so this was an important bonus.

I tell that story in a way that makes people laugh, but the reality is that it wasn’t funny. We each spent almost $800 on that course. Many of us had moved to this city and attended this school specifically to improve our French. It was my first semester at University, and this experience set the tone for how seriously I was going to take my education moving forward. We discussed making a formal complaint, but a couple senior students in the class were worried about losing the credit. All we could do was give him a bad review on our student evaluation forms. Following this experience, I dropped the French class I had signed up for the following semester.

Another particularly memorable communications prof often searched random theories from the textbook on YouTube, selecting the first relevant-seeming video that came up and treating the auditorium of students to what was definitely a high school student project lazily thrown together on Windows Movie Maker. A few other classes featured slides directly plagiarized from a textbook. Many students saw this as a “good thing” since they could skip the class. Personally, I wish I could have skipped paying the tuition and just bought the book.

To be fair, these were outliers. What was perhaps more common and unfortunate were the professors who were good researchers and terrible teachers–who had written great books and had stunning resumes, but had no interest in teaching and certainly no talent for it. Whether it was a heavily credentialed professor from afar who barely spoke English or a disinterested book smart scholar, we met a host of characters at the front of the classroom who were not overly interested in our education.

I should stipulate here that most of my professors were wonderful, though I’m sure a few struggled with the system themselves. A system which often keeps profs perpetually part-time, regardless of their teaching talents. A system which sees teaching as a side project. A system which churns out apathetic students who thwart any effort to be innovative. A system which often overlooks its obligation to undergrad students, focusing instead on graduate programs and research grants.

In so many ways, we are ripping both kids and their teachers off and fumbling a valuable piece of continuing education.

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The graduation face.

Now we come to the part about ROI (return on investment). I know corporate buzzwords suck, but I think this is the way we need to frame the conversation for it to make sense.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is a simple one: Does education need to be correlated with employability to be valuable?

My answer is no, education is valuable in and of itself.

Whew. I can already hear every dad at every University Open House loudly crossing their arms at me.

“If we’re going to be sinking 30k into this institution, my kid sure as hell better come out more employable than they went in.”

Guess what, worried parent #52? You’re right. Of course you’re right. We’ve already established that students are often apathetic, that solid course content and professors’ attention is a gamble, and now you’re telling me that the kid is going to graduate with shitty job prospects. How is that worth an average debtload of 26k?!

It isn’t. Unless you’re super dedicated to your field of study, it just isn’t.

And here’s where ROI comes into play: Education is worth an investment of time and money. But it just isn’t worth that much, not when students don’t even have that much to give and they need to create a life afterwards. Not when online and experiential learning offer plentiful alternatives to the University stream. Not when so many of the students aren’t even interested in a job in their field.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Once, during a Q & A, I asked a class of second year History majors how many of them wanted to pursue a career in a History-related field.

Only two people in that classroom raised their hands.

Now, I think it’s awesome that people want to learn about History even if they don’t want to make it a career. I think that’s great news for democracy and society. It promises us more knowledgeable lawyers, politicians, and citizens in general.

But the price those kids are being forced to pay for their curiousity is way, way too high.

…Oh, right, this is an essay. I guess this is the conclusion. In University, I would have copy and pasted my intro to the bottom, reworded it, and made it punchy. But honestly, I don’t want to drive these points home. I don’t want to “reaffirm my thesis.”

I just want this shit to change.

I’ve written about why undergraduate education is broken, because it’s a subject I know well. But what I wish I could write is why, and how, we should fix it.

As someone who wholeheartedly adores education in all its forms, I just want this to get better. Ideas welcome.

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Why We Should Care About Paris. Yes, Especially With Everything Else Going On In the World.

I want to write about Paris.

I want to write in particular about the discomfort some feel with the attention this tragedy is getting, at least compared to other larger-scale violence in the world. Aren’t people dying violently every day? Isn’t there a refugee crisis on our hands? Where’s the outrage there?

I hear you. And while I don’t agree with all the discourse, here is what I hope we can all agree on.

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First: A human life is a human life is a human life. Country of origin does not make your life more or less valuable.

Second: Death is, excuse the word, total shit. As someone who has dealt with her fair share of it in the last month, I know the heartbreaking ripple of pain any death leaves. And deaths which are particularly senseless, or violent, or bred out of hatred? They’re the worst. They’re so bad, we have laws and systems in place to stop people from causing those deaths.

Third: In some places, you can count on those don’t-kill-each-other laws to make things a little safer. In other places, not so much. The system in place to protect citizens from brutal, unnecessary violence is a little more dependable in some countries than others. That’s one of the reasons we have a refugee crisis right now; people would prefer to live in a country where they have chance to survive, thankyouverymuch.

The fact of the matter is, the whole “law” thing isn’t really working in every country. In many places, there are broken governments, really bad neighbours, powerful extremist groups, and all sorts of corruption standing in the way of peoples’ safety.

Now, I can’t speak for how individuals feel when they hear about people dying in these less-than-safe countries, but here are two things we probably don’t feel: We don’t feel overly surprised. And most of us don’t feel like there is a whole lot we can do.

It’s a little different when people die violently and senselessly in countries that are supposed to be safe. A shock pulses through the world because it is, well, shocking. There is confusion and horror and, oh yes, headlines and hashtags. If that country is democratic and has a decent economy, there is an increased urgency from the general population; a feeling that we can do something, that we should do something, that we have both the responsibility and the resources to keep this country safe.

And if we don’t? Well, then, the fear is that there is no such thing as safety, or law and order. If this brutality can penetrate Paris, where does it stop?

These might seem like hyperbolic questions. I get that. But this is where the outpouring of coverage and discourse is coming from. Everyone feels a little less safe in a place where they are supposed to feel safe. A place sought by refugees because it was perceived to be free of the violence they tried to escape.

After all, if the whole world becomes unsafe, where would these refugees go?

NOW, let’s get back to those things we agree on.

1) Every life is valuable;
2) Death is shit;
3) Some places are, sadly, safer than others. 

With that in mind, it is appalling to me that anyone would use this as an opportunity to keep innocent people out of safer places.

There are serious questions facing our governments right now: How do we separate the victims from the perpetrators when they knock on our doors? When we take people from a place suffering from chaos and hatred, how do we keep them from bringing some of that chaos and hatred with them? Safe countries, after all, have an obligation to keep their current citizens safe. And so I understand temporary measures put in place to find answers to these questions before accepting more refugees.

I understand them, but I do not accept them as a long-term “solution.” Letting countless innocent people die by permanently locking down borders is not the answer. That only adds to the already devastating number of victims.

Let us mourn the deaths of the Paris attack.

Let us work together to keep our countries safe and secure.

But let us not allow our fear to unnecessarily raise the headcount.

Saying “I Have A Boyfriend” Isn’t A Good Move…But We’re Wrong About Why.

It’s always scary to question something that people appear to be passionate about, but…if we didn’t, nothing would ever get done. Nothing would ever get better. I would never learn if I’m dead wrong, and neither would you.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to talk about THIS:

boyfriend1 boyfriend2

There is a very well-written article that explains this thinking, and on some level, I get where it comes from. I see the arguments, and I don’t even disagree that lying to people so they leave us alone is something we should change. But look at that tweet. Look at how over-simplified that is.

“Yep, it’s the patriarchy. That’s it. That’s all.”

Really? No mention of peoples’ feelings, or egos. Of our cultural norms. Of, say, the fact that the word “boyfriend” is actually a relatively new term.

Yeah, that. Let’s talk about that.

The very concept of being able to have a boyfriend comes out of the feminist era. When you say you have a “boyfriend,” you are not referring to some ancient tradition of men-owning-women. You are referring to a relatively new tradition of people-being-committed-to-people.

This chart shows when the terms “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” entered our vocabulary (based on the contents of Google’s digitized books).

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This may sound strange, but in some ways, it’s actually progress that people accept the “boyfriend” excuse. Today, we generally respect peoples’ commitments to one another, whether they’re gay/straight/young/old/married/dating. We are past the days where an unmarried woman was considered fair game. Now having a boyfriend or a different sexual orientation are very legitimate reasons to reject someone.

Of course, “I’m not interested” or “nope” should also be considered legitimate reasons to reject someone. And I think they usually are. But I get that it isn’t always perfect. I just think we’re wrong about why.

“I have a boyfriend” is more likely to get a guy to back off than “no,” because they respect relationship structures more than individual opinion/attraction. Not because you’re a woman. Not because your so-called “boyfriend” is a man. But because you claim to have a commitment that can’t be moved. Because people respect monogamous relationships a lot, and they respect peoples’ personal judgment less. Simply, it’s a lot more likely for someone to change their mind or their level of attraction as the night goes on than for them to change their relationship status. Attraction is considered nuanced; relationship status is clear-cut.  That’s why it works.

(Not to mention that this rejection is not personal, so no egos get caught in the conversation.)

I’m not saying it’s a good thing. People should back off if they are asked to, and you shouldn’t need to give them a reason to do so. But if we’re going to talk about a problem, we have to talk about the actual problem. I really don’t feel like the male-female dynamic is at the root of this one. I think “not respecting peoples’ jurisdiction over their own bodies/time” is more the issue.

And yes, I’m using the word “people.” I have also seen men use “I have a girlfriend” as an escape maneuver. Hell, I pretended to be a buddy’s girlfriend when a woman was coming on too strong once. It does happen on both sides.

I have always believed that feminism shouldn’t be about battle cries and blame games. It should be about questioning everything you see, looking at it from all angles, considering whether the patriarchy has seeped in, and responding to that.

Let’s be smart. Let’s think with a little more complexity here. Let’s dig deeper.

And then, then, let’s fix this shit.

Why #BringBackOurGirls is not just about Nigeria–it’s about all of us. (Yes, Canada, especially you.)

I’m glad we’re responding to this. But I’m not surprised by it, not at all.

It took us long enough to care about the devastating kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. When we finally did start paying attention (two weeks later), the incident created a media firestorm. Of course it did. It has all the ingredients, really: A villain, who provides shocking media of his villain-ness. Heroes, complete with moral outrage and relatable heartbreak. We even created a catchy hashtag–hello, 2014 activism.

This kidnapping story is a simple, engaging, and heart-wrenching narrative. It allows us to point at someone specific and say “HIM. BAD.” It gives us the opportunity to talk about overwhelming topics. It lets us connect because, regardless of how you feel about oil/abortion/Jesus/Harper/Wall Street/capitalism/Congress, we all know stealing and selling people is not cool.

We don’t know that because we’re morally superior, by the way. We know that because, through our brutal histories (‘sup, slavery?) we’ve learned it the hard way.

…or so we think.

The problem is we haven’t properly learned it, not really. This isn’t a freak incident with one crazy guy and a few unlucky girls. This isn’t something that happened in poor little underdeveloped Africa. This is systematic. This is global. This is in our backyard.

If we look past the narrative and see what’s really happening here, we are forced to realize that the #BringBackOurGirls conversation is, rightfully, about so many things. It’s about education. It’s about violence against women. It’s about human trafficking, it’s about international pressure, it’s about radicalism, it’s about human rights.

The hard truth is this: If we are calling the victims “our girls,” we should also call the perpetrators “our human traffickers.” We should fight, we should talk, we should care, we should demand action, but we should not feel like our governments and our people are somehow “better” than this. We don’t get to claim the hero role, not while we are still part of human trafficking and violent repression incidents all over the world, every day.

Not while Canada has failed to address over 1,000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Not while “sex tourism” is a bustling international industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with children making up an upwards of 40% of active prostitutes in India and Thailand.

Not while sex trafficking brings an estimated 800,000 women and girls (about half of whom are children) across borders every year, including an estimated 50,000 to the United States.

Not while American media coverage focuses primarily on missing middle-class white women, while persons of colour, runaways, and sex workers go missing far more often.

Not while there are over 64 million child brides worldwide .

Not while approximately 140 million women and girls living in the world today have undergone female circumcision.

Not while harassment against women in schools is internationally widespread, including statistics of up to 83% of women in the United States experiencing sexual harassment in public schools.

Not while the high majority of sex workers in Western Europe are undocumented immigrants with nowhere else to turn.

When we say #BringBackOurGirls, we have a lot more girls to think about. A lot more governments to hold responsible. A lot more conversations to have.

It’s not just about Nigeria. It’s about all of us.

While international efforts to get these girls back are amazing, it doesn’t mean the countries helping are paragons of virtue in the human trafficking field. Not even a little bit. From many angles, the response is downright hypocritical. That doesn’t mean countries like Canada should stop helping. It means that they should keep helping–just don’t stop with these two hundred girls.

Don’t stop until your citizens aren’t flying to other countries to have sex with children. Don’t stop until you accept responsibility for the safety and well-being of our sisters who are Aboriginal, vulnerable, poor, and sex workers. Don’t stop until you investigate all cases of missing and murdered women. Don’t stop until every woman feels comfortable walking home (or, say, walking through the hallways at school).

Don’t stop until you #BringBackOurGirls–every single one of them.

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The #nomakeupselfie is still a beauty contest. And I’m not playing.

I was nominated three or four times for the #nomakeupselfie. The women who nominated me are wonderful people (this has nothing to do with them), but I have to be honest: for the first time in a long time, I felt insecure about my face. 

This was weird for me. I like my face–it’s not perfect, but it’s mine. I like sometimes dressing it up with makeup. I like washing it off before bed. And I’m usually on board with the idea that “everyone is beautiful just the way they are.”

But suddenly, uncomfortably, my face needed to “get naked” to prove it.

What’s worse, I would have to “get naked” online, plastered alongside everyone else. They looked so pretty in their well-posed no makeup selfies–good lighting, good angle, right time of day. Meanwhile, I was sleep deprived and had a couple massive chin breakouts. If I supported “natural beauty” (and cancer research, apparently?), I needed to find a way to take an attractive looking picture of myself without makeup. In fact, I needed to do it within 24 hours. My typical confidence, my knowledge that skin clears up, my comfort with and without makeup–it all buckled once the expectation hit me.

Just like that, a well-intended “natural beauty” project quickly became an intimidating unofficial “natural beauty” contest.

Being free of makeup doesn’t free us of our desire to be beautiful on society’s terms–if it did, we wouldn’t care about the “likes” on our #nomakeupselfies. We wouldn’t be complimenting each other’s naked faces, we wouldn’t have taken 40 snapshots before finding a so-called natural photo that makes us feel pretty. Creating a “go naked or go home” regulation doesn’t really do much but suggest that if you don’t look and feel good without makeup, something is wrong with you and your self-perception. It doesn’t remove expectations of “beauty,” but adds to them: now you have to achieve these standards au naturel or you’re not “real.”

That seems wrong to me.

It’s easy for a healthy, attractive 20-something girl with flowing hair to take a #nomakeupselfie and claim that she’s promoting natural beauty. But we’re totally kidding ourselves if we think that posting pictures of these women being beautiful without any “aids” will in any way encourage those who are truly overwhelmed by society’s expectations.

Like, say, the transgendered woman who uses makeup to express her identity. Or the burn victim who prefers to cover up scars. Or even the cancer patients so unwittingly tied up in this trend–cancer patients whose treatments radically change their appearance, and who are often helped astronomically in the morale department by tools like wigs, makeovers, spa treatments, and friendships in the “beauty” community.  People shouldn’t be demeaned for finding comfort in these therapies. Who decided that beauty is only “real” if it’s “natural”?

I call bullshit. Beauty is “real” if you say it is. If, for you, that involves walking around with no makeup on, completely embracing physical signs and symptoms of whatever you have going on, then mad respect. But if that involves a little lipstick, or a post-chemo wig…who am I to judge that?

Perhaps my friend Niki said it best in her post on the subject: “The challenge we should be issuing isn’t “Real women” or “no make-up” (because that also assumes that only women face appearance pressures), the challenge we should be issuing is “What Makes You Happy.” Nevermind changing society, change you – do what makes you happy.”

A high majority of women (upwards of 97%) say that looking good makes them feel good. I’m not going to argue that this is wrong or bad, and I’m certainly not going to deny this to people who are struggling with their health. It is not up to us to judge or police how someone looks or feels good. People should be allowed to reject or conform to “normalized” concepts of beauty and gender if they so choose.

And either way, I don’t see how the #nomakeupselfie challenges any of those conceptions by replacing lipstick with good lighting and suggesting that it is “different” or “abnormal” to take a picture of yourself without makeup. As an example, here’s a selfie I took on a completely unrelated occassion:

 

nomakeup

If this is beautifulit’s probably partially because I was happy/excited/exhausted…but also because the angle was good, because my hair was styled in a messy ponytail, and because I took like 20 pictures before finding one I liked. There are other pictures that could be considered “beautiful” because I decided to use my face as canvas, and still others which aren’t particularly “beautiful” at all, depending on your definition. That’s okay. My pictures aren’t me. They are 2 dimensional pieces of art that I create to capture a moment. They don’t define my worth.

And I won’t be entering them in any beauty contest.

The Biggest Mistake We Make With Each Other.

I have a challenge for you.

I want you to think about the industrialized world (you know, the one you live in, where you use money for stuff) in two categories:

The first is services. The second is products.

Think about what you spend money on. Think about what you do for work. Think about that really awesome business idea you and your buddies came up with around last call that would totally make you millionaires.

I want you to close your eyes (actually don’t do that, then you can’t read) and think about the difference between the products and the services involved in all those industries.

A product “is anything that can be offered to a market that might satisfy a want or need.” Anything. Products are things. Products can be owned.

A service is an action or process that a person or business provides to another. A service cannot be owned. Providing a service is something a person does, not something they are.  Here, we are selling an non-tangible action, not an object.

For example: In music, a service would be performing a concert; a product would be the recorded CD of that concert. In finance, a product would be a bank account while a service would be a personal tax consultation. In education, teaching is a service while learning software and textbooks are products.

Human beings, fundamentally, are service providers. People may provide services that result in products, but they should never be products themselves. It would be offensive for us to treat them that way, wouldn’t it?

As such, any industry which appears to be selling people as a product deserves serious scrutiny.

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paris hilton

picked

Picked. Traded. Owned. Branded.

We use a lot of “product” words to talk about certain people in our society.

It isn’t surprising that we do this. We seem to think we’re some highly evolved society, that we have somehow figured out how to properly humanize people. We haven’t. Only a few centuries ago, we were explicitly buying and selling people as slaves.  This means that our capitalist system has a major history of people-as-products, one which persists in ways which are obvious (human trafficking, for example) and not-so-obvious (celebrity culture, college sports, the deifying of religious leaders, etc).

I’m sure there are also hundreds of human nature-y reasons why we might objectify people. Sometimes, we look up to someone (or the idea of someone) so much that we almost literally want to own a piece of them. Other times, we recognize that people can serve a purpose in our lives and “use” them in that way.

But when objectification becomes the cornerstone of entire industries, when we turn people into sellable products, wow. 

That’s really bad.

Perhaps the worst part is that we have created a world where becoming a product is glamourizedThat’s success, right? Isn’t being contractually tied to a company a good thing, a secure thing? Isn’t being a cover girl, a professional athlete, or a figurehead something to be sought after?

As long as those are jobs, as long as they are services that a human being is providing in good faith, then fine. Fine. But when being owned becomes our definition of success, something is terribly wrong. When people are becoming products because it’s the only way they feel like they can be seen (and hey, don’t we all want to be seen sometimes?) or loved or wanted, something is terribly wrong.

So keep your eyes open, friends. Keep looking for people who are being treated as products, for human beings who are being bought, sold, and owned.  Watch out for that product-centric language that we use so often when talking about people, especially those in the spotlight or who “serve a purpose” (yuck).

It happens more frequently than we think and, in my opinion, it’s the biggest mistake we make with each other.

In Defence of Playing Dress Up

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my makeup habits a lot.

Why do I wear this stuff? How I justify hauling a “mask” of sorts around town? What am I trying to prove? What am I trying to hide? 

While sometimes the answer is “Um, obviously you’re trying to hide that pimple, Shauna,” I have realized that these questions as a whole are flawed. My makeup isn’t really a mask.

IMG_8802Story time.

Growing up, my mother rarely wore makeup. She was a low-maintenance country girl and, perhaps more importantly, she had four little people to look after. I was the oldest of these, and the only girl.

On very special occasions, my mother would unleash the mystical cosmetics bag. I would watch, fascinated, as she expertly curled her lashes and powdered her face with whatever-that-stuff-was. She would share her eye shadow with me (just a little bit, just for fun) and I would giggle as I buried my little feet in her size-8 shoes.

Dress up was one of my favourite games.

My day-to-day makeup free momma was no more or less beautiful than the date night version, and she was certainly no more or less my momma. Still, I really dug the special-occasions grooming process. I loved watching my mother ceremonially draw on her face before leaving us with the babysitter. Once, in one of my most embarrassing moments ever, I even stole red nail polish from my her bathroom and tried to use it as lipstick.

(Wait. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on how stupid that was.)

Fast forward through a few face paint faux pas and the turtleneck-centric middle school years, and I found myself in the dress up big leagues. High school meant my choices were endless and personal. It also meant that the factors influencing those choices were complicated. I had more self to express, more peers to please, more categories and clothes and I finally got my ears pierced. 

So I shaved my head, then dyed my hair brown for awhile. I went through everything from au naturel months, to questionably bold colours, earthy tones, pinkish glows, red lipsticks. I wore cowboy boots. I wore sneakers. I wore huge hoop earrings and tiny necklaces. I stole (borrowed?) my mother’s nail polish once again, and actually managed to finally use it right.

This was dress up. This was the same game my mother played when she got ready for a night on the town. The same game I played as a giggly little kid, stumbling around in mom’s shoes with 20 different barrettes falling out of my hair. 

…and it’s the game I play now, as I try on my third outfit and rush through my current eyeliner-infused routine each morning.

And so the questions follow:

Why do I keep playing this game? Am I trying to be something I’m not?

Hardly.

Actually, as I look back on my life, it appears to be quite the opposite: Dress up isn’t about denying who I am. It is a part of who I am.

Is part of the motive to look pretty? Of course it is. I felt pretty in my twenty barrettes when I was five, in my vintage earrings and cowboy boots at 16, and in my big-kid makeup yesterday. No, I don’t believe I owe it to anyone to be consistently attractive (though for some people that’s a thing, and it shouldn’t be). I just believe that feeling pretty feels good. work really freakin’ hard to be beautiful on the inside (not sure if that’s a weird/vain thing to say), so sometimes it’s nice to feel like my face is a part of that. 

Do I try to look pretty for other people sometimes? Of course I do (‘sup, hormones?). But I also try to act nice and be funnier and listen better. Highlighting your best qualities isn’t a bad thing. And getting your game face on (literally) isn’t a bad thing either, not really.

Dress up doesn’t have to be about changing who we are. It can be about expressing and highlighting who we are, where we are, how we are. We just have to own the game.

You’re allowed to wear whatever makes you most comfortable. If that means sweat pants (helloooo Thursday night Netflix!), then great. If that means covering blemishes and highlighting features with a so-called mask of colours and chemicals, then cool.

As for me? Well, I’m just going to stick with what dress up means to me today: Reddish lipstick, blue jeans, and unmatching socks.

IMG_0793(2)Classy is as classy does, folks.

You Don’t Have to Finish That Book. Really.

Twenty pages left, and I can’t finish this book.

This is deep and psychological, you guys. I’m sure it is. I was fine with reading it—20, 30, 100 pages at a time. I almost missed a bus or two, completely engrossed. Yet here I am, barely making it through a paragraph of the last couple chapters. I even considered returning the borrowed book to my best friend’s shelf because ‘oh, I’ll be back to finish it.’

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But I won’t. I know I won’t, because I did the same thing with that biography this summer. With almost every Stephen King book I’ve ever started. Nearly with 1984, though I finally finished that one on my third try.

So here I am. My friend is showering, and I’m staring at the familiar blue cover. Twenty pages. Not even. You loved this book. It’s almost done. What’s the hold up?

Because I don’t want it to be done?

Because I know, I know, it’s one of those content-y books, where the juice is in the middle and I’m avoiding disappointment?

Because my attention span SUCKS?

As I opened the book and attempted a way-too-conclusive-sounding paragraph (last night, and the night before, and just now before writing this), I couldn’t make myself care. After a couple sentences, I just closed the darned thing altogether with a sigh of oh, this isn’t any fun anymore.

Cue massive wave of guilt:

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What I find interesting about this isn’t my inability to finish the book—like I said, my attention span SUCKS (in all caps). It’s the fact that this so-called failure bothers me so much. Like I’m doing a disservice to the author by not letting them finish their 300 page point. Like I’m abandoning something. And what if the book is like Of Mice and Men? What if it doesn’t hit you until the end?

(Of Mice and Men is only 100 pages. Mostly dialogue. Not a fair comparison.)

Still: Guilt, guilt, guilt.

But this guilt is all nonsense. Not finishing a book doesn’t hurt anyone, not really. It’s okay to skim articles, to fall asleep during a movie, to only watch the last period of the game, to not finish a book. It’s okay. This is playtime. This is you trying to be enlightened, or entertained, and you have a right to that.

On his productivity blog, Chris Bailey wrote a similar simple but honest story:

“In my second year of University, I decided to subscribe to The New York Times (Sunday delivery). Every Sunday morning, before my roommates woke up, I would wake up early, press a fresh cup of coffee, and sit down with the paper, skimming the week’s articles. This continued for a couple of months, until May, when my roommates went home for the summer.

That’s when I realized something. I didn’t actually enjoy reading The New York Times. In my head, I liked the idea of being a guy that reads The New York Times every Sunday.

Like Chris, I want to be a person who reads things. Important things. And of course, I want to care about and finish those things.

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If only.

But I’m not that person. I’m a hyper-interested person, emphasis on the “hyper.” I play the field, sampling a chapter or two of every book that catches my eye. Then I feel bad about it, because isn’t that, like, literary promiscuity?

But there’s nothing to feel bad about. Really. And I would much rather be a person who is honest with myself then a person who finishes every. single. book. out of pride.

So give yourself a little permission, bloggy friends. Permission to read when you have something to read, to write when you have something to say, to go to the party when you have someone to see…but also, permission to not finish the book, to not force words that you don’t care about, to leave the party early.

(…unless you’re reading Of Mice and Men. You should really finish that shit.)

Living with No Regrets (is bullshit)

This is going to shake some people up. I think it will, anyways, based on the number of people who claim “NO REGRETS!” as their mantra (hashtag YOLO?).

I’ll disclaimer this by saying that I’m not picking on the sentiment behind the “no regrets” claim. I just feel the need to tear the literal concept apart. “No regrets! ” sounds increasingly like a thin veil of optimism, rather than a genuine way to live. Because, honestly, can you really be an emotionally healthy human being without a little bit of this?

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Basically, regret is what happens when empathy meets taking responsibility. “I feel bad that you’re feeling bad. I feel worse because I played a role in the situation. I’m going to apologize and move forward with my life now, but I will remember this so I don’t repeat it in the future because that’s what a genuine apology looks like, guys.”

Every time you apologize sincerely, you express regret. Every time you feel a little guilty, the lessons from that (constructively) become a part of who you are. Even if you have to cancel on a friend, the regret that it was necessary (again, empathy meets responsibility) is probably a genuine sentiment.

So where does this concept of living with “no regrets” stem from? I think it boils down to two basic principals:

  1. You should move forward with your life, instead of dwelling on the past.
  2. Everything you have been through got you where you are today, so…God bless the broken road, amiright?

These both sound great in theory, but I don’t think you have to completely abandon healthy regret to value these imperfect ideas.

You should move forward with your life, instead of dwelling on the past: Okay, yes. Dwelling is not a good scene in any case–dwelling on future worries, on past loss, on that zit you can’t get rid of. I think aiming for “no dwelling” is a good call. But regret doesn’t have to be debilitating. It doesn’t have to be obsessive. It just has to be genuine and, hopefully, constructive. Maybe this is my history major talking, but completely tossing out the past seems like a dangerous game to me. Healthy regret doesn’t mean wishing moments or people back from the dead. But it does mean conducting a fair autopsy.

Everything you have been through got you where you are today: “But but, crazy blogger lady, ‘no regrets’ just means we value those mistakes instead of feeling bad about them!” I hear you. I get it. Especially on the “moving forward” front, this is a decent attitude. But I truly believe that when you have done something bad, “feeling bad” about it is healthy. It shouldn’t be a guilt that consumes your future, but it should affect you somewhat. It should make you take pause.

Sometimes we make bad decisions. You can marvel at the way “everything worked out in the end,” or see the silver lining, but you are still allowed to feel negatively about certain consequences and take responsibility for your role. You’re allowed to regret making a mess. You’re also allowed to feel proud when you clean it up, or build something new. It’s all part of the same game. Healthy regret helps you learn from your past, and to see those lessons fabricate.

Yes, I think there is such a thing as healthy regret. And while “NO REGRETS!!!” is a pretty ridiculous idea, it’s fair to say that there’s an ugly side of the sentiment that should be actively avoided.

Healthy regret should:

  • Be forgiving and constructive
  • Motivate you to apologize sincerely
  • Allow you to recognize when you are inconveniencing another person
  • Allow you to recognize when you have made bad decisions
  • Help you make better decisions
  • Force you to challenge yourself and find solutions in the future
  • Make you more forgiving of other peoples’ mistakes
  • Make you more grateful for the positive things in your life, as they stand in contrast to those regrets

Healthy regret should NOT:

  • Force you to live in the past
  • Fuel victim mentality
  • Be applied to something that happened to you, which you never had control over
  • Assign blame outside of loving self-reflection
  • Work against forgiveness
  • Create debilitating guilt or fear
  • Lower your self-worth
  • Make you less grateful for your life because of past pain and mistakes

This is totally achievable. It has to be. Regrets are natural, and it’s hard to control when they come up. Instead of denying them, we should learn to process our regrets in a constructive way. And if we don’t…

Our apologies are going to really suck.

What Does it Mean to be a “Woman with Values,” Exactly?

“I’m looking for a woman with values.”

Whenever I hear these words, I cringe.

I thumb the crosses on my bracelet and clutch my beer.  I talk about charity, then I tell a dirty joke.  Do these things cancel each other out?

Those words are powerful. They transform me into a little, obedient, people-pleasing ladytype. It doesn’t matter whether I’m actually interested in the person who wants a “woman with values” (usually, I’m not).  It doesn’t matter how confident I am in what I stand for or what I do on any other day. There is a person in the room ready to judge if I am a good woman. If I would be a good mother. If I would be a good wife. And I don’t like that I respond to that by melting into conformity, but I do. I drip with semi-sweet small talk. I rarely seek approval, but the “woman with values” thing always hits me hard.  No, I don’t want to have your babies. Yes, I do want you to think I would be “worthy” of that.

So I sit up straight. I make jokes that are edgy, but not too edgy. I remain mysterious and unspecific with the topics of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. If my guitar comes out, I strum a G-rated country song. Save the vulgar rapping for another day; this person wants “values.”

Isn’t that disturbing?

Even if I don’t know a single thing about the person judging (let alone their personal “values”), I know exactly what they mean by “woman with values.”  And what they mean, frankly, has very little to do with what actually makes me a good or interesting person.  They don’t want to hear about my internship in DC, read my blog, or discuss my half-serious plans to buy a ukelele.  They couldn’t care less about what makes my eyes light up.

Instead, the concerns are simple, and in many ways stupid: Does this girl do one night stands, or make out with strangers, or watch porn? Does she drink or smoke? Does she “take care of herself”? Did she grow up in a nice home?

In other words, the universal definition of “woman with values” is almost entirely based on what a Lady consumes, or lets into herself, rather than what she creates. 

How weird is that? After all, women are born with epically creative bodies (see also: having babies).  Women’s brains are typically wired for articulation, so we certainly have a lot of great things to say.  It seems peculiar that to prove my worthiness to create (read: to be a good mother-and-wife), I need to prove the worthiness of what I consume.

The definition of a “man with values” is far less universal, as far as I can tell.  It’s also quite different.  Usually, when I seek a “man with values,” I am looking for the opposite–not what he consumes, but what he produces. What he offers to the world and its people, and how he offers it. How actively he loves and cares about things.

Now, I can totally understand wanting a partner who has a similar worldview and value system as you. If drug consumption or diet or sexuality enter your personal value system, I think you’re allowed to consider it with partner-choosing (though, pretty please, don’t use sexstuff to judge a person’s human value outside of that).  You’re allowed to prefer partners with lots of experience, or prefer partners who have chosen to wait for marriage.  You are also allowed to have a thing for blondes or Catholics or tattooed arms or, you know, “people I have things in common with.”  I don’t see having preferences in partners, even silly ones, as overly oppressive.

I do, however, see the cross-your-legs-and-smile definition of “women with values” as oppressive.  I don’t like that I immediately know “woman with values” means purity, or consumption control, rather than what I have to offer the world.   I don’t like how it makes me act: Smile nicely. Share more about what you don’t do than what you do do.  Sip slowly.  Mention that you go to church, but don’t actually get into theology or make a smart historical reference.

“Girls with values” can read the Bible and teach Sunday school, but they shouldn’t be thinking too hard about it.

Of course, some people I know would have the opposite response to a person “looking for a woman with values.” They would not people-please.  They would make it clear that they don’t fit into this box, loudly joking about their liquored up love affairs. They would swear. They would proudly pronounce their feminism because, well, fuck the system.

But that’s messed up, too. It’s messed up that they could be categorized as “women without values” for that.  These friends do have values–values that are perhaps stronger mine, since I apparently hardcore crumble under the pressure of judgement. They’re women of valour. They answer the phone when someone calls, they care about their fellow human beings–whether or not they end up in bed with them. They respect relationships, their families, and themselves (though, like all of us, they fall down occasionally).  They vote, pay taxes, recycle and help people. Most of all, they try not to judge others, which is a HUGE deal.

I think it’s time to redefine the term “woman with values.”  Let’s try this out, shall we?

I am a woman with values not because I am chaste, but because I respect peoples’ bodies and emotions, regardless of the relationship we have.

I am a woman with values not because I am quiet or docile, but because I speak up when I see injustice.

I am a woman with values not because I go to church, but because I use the brain God gave me to consider the big questions in life.

I am a woman with values not because I “know what I stand for,” but because I recognize gray areas and am compassionate.

I am a woman with values not because I don’t drink or smoke, but because I respect peoples’ autonomy over their own bodies.  Because I act in moderation, and pray for those suffering from addiction.

I am a woman with values not because I eat well or work out, but because I don’t make anyone else responsible for my happiness and I care about my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

I am a woman with values not because I “don’t swear,” but because I speak honestly and with respect to those around me.

Yes, that is what a “woman with values” should be. Occasional f-bomb and all.