Life Lessons from Parks and Rec

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Over the last few weeks I have gone through 6 seasons of Parks and Recreation. That sounds like a lot and it is, but I’ve had a lot of time on my hands and also I am capable of watching an incredible amount of a show when the mood strikes me. There is one (short) season remaining and I could watch it on Hulu but probably I’ll wait till it comes to Netflix so I can pretend for a while longer that I’m not done.

I seriously love this show. It makes me feel good about life. It is a show that is primarily sweet instead of cynical and there are not many of those. Especially not many that I watch. I also love how many women it has and amazing female friendships and just… everything is great. It is all awesome.

But I did not decide to write a blog entry just generally praising Parks and Rec. I’m pretty sure that most people are on that train already. What I’ve been thinking about is Leslie Knope.

Leslie is the lead character in Parks and Rec, played amazingly by Amy Poehler. She is goofy and zany and perhaps a little bit crazy. She is also incredibly loyal and smart and ridiculously talented at her job and one of the best gift givers I have ever seen. I love Leslie. She makes me feel good to watch because she is amazing but also because watching her makes me feel like you can be amazing and also not perfect.

Leslie is absolutely not perfect. She freezes when she’s nervous and says stupid things (although of course her stupid things are much funnier than those of us who are NOT comedians ever get to say); she gets so excited about her ideas that she sometimes steamrolls right over her best friend Ann, just because Ann is too sweet to say no; she cannot let things go EVER; she is so fiercely competitive that she has sometimes hurt her own causes or people she loves just because she needs to win; and sometimes because she loves presents so much, she completely overwhelms people and ignores what they might really want or need to drown them in presents.

I do not relate to all of those flaws, but I relate to some of them. Honestly, even if Leslie was not much like me at all, I would still feel better watching her character. The point is not her specific flaws but the fact that she has them at all. Generally female characters who are “crazy” are only crazy. That is their entire personality trait. They are insane and useless in the midst of that. Leslie has weird quirks that are arguably a bit crazy, and sometimes make her hard to be around. Just like the rest of us. But to the people who love her, they know that she is an amazing friend and that all the rest of it is just part of the package. She grows and she changes, she learns to mitigate her stronger destructive impulses and, as she does, more of her constructive impulses come through.

I grew up with a lot of destructive impulses. It has taken a lot of years to sort through and discover what even was destructive and what was important. I’ve made a lot of progress. But one of the things that can make me feel the most hopeless is feeling like I need to get rid of all of it to be lovable. Like I am never going to not be a little bit crazy. I am always going to be a bit high maintenance of a friend or lover. I will never be able to be just completely chill about things. I wish I could be and I work really hard on that but I always fail.

But when I see a character like Leslie Knope, I feel better about myself. Maybe it’s not important to be perfect. Maybe the point isn’t to make sure that no one else has to deal with your mess. Maybe the goal is to just be as awesome as you can possibly be and keep working on the rest. The people who love you will love all of you, even if some of it is still a little messy.

So thank you, Amy Poehler! I will now proceed to maybe just watch through Parks and Rec over and over again for the rest of my life. I may or may not be joking.

Using My Voice

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I wrote a post today that was all wrong. It was disjointed and confused and I think the reason is that I was trying to turn it into something it wasn’t. I’ve noticed that is often the case.

Here’s the thing. I am worried that I don’t use my voice. I am worried about my fear and passivity, about my inclination to be quiet and not push back. I think this is something that was trained into me, by my upbringing, by culture, by all sorts of things. Possibly some of it is just personality. I’m a people pleaser by nature and I always have been.

I am not a quiet person, I talk constantly. I have ideas and opinions about most things and I don’t think I come across as a passive person generally. But I am afraid of frustrating people, I’m barely learning how to deal with conflict. I hear things at work all the time that are sexist or racist or other kinds of discriminatory and they are often said by people that I really dolike in general and I do not know how to say something without alienating them or just making them annoyed with me. I feel like what is the point? If I make them annoyed, they won’t rethink anything and I will have accomplished nothing. But I don’t feel good about it. I don’t know if I’m making excuses for being afraid.

I’m learning to say no. There was a time that was not so very long ago when I didn’t know how to tell someone I didn’t want to have sex with them or when I felt like once certain things had been put into play, I was absolutely obligated. I am learning that’s not true, I’m learning to say how I feel. I’m slowly learning to talk in safe places and explain how I feel. But it is slow and it is hard and I am worried that I use caution as an excuse for silence.

I was in my last class on Monday and my teacher had us go around the room to talk about our practicum, talk about what we would remember, what had stuck out to us. The vast majority of the women in my class said directly or implied how they were realizing they had value in their jobs, how for the first time they felt like their voice could be heard and it mattered. (For whatever it’s worth, none of the men mentioned this.) I’m not sure if I’m there.

I’ve done well in my practicum. I have become an okay advocate, I think. I’ve learned a lot. There have definitely been moments where I’ve realized that I can do this and maybe even do it well. Those were good days. But still, when my supervisor said how much they’d valued me at my site visit, I was surprised. I am not to the point of feeling like I’ve come far enough, like I am doing enough, like my voice is meaningful here. I don’t know if that’s because I haven’t reached high enough or because my feeling of never being enough just runs extremely deep. In other words, I’m not sure if I need to challenge myself more or if I need to learn to appreciate more of where I’m at. Maybe it’s some weird combination of the two.

I don’t know if I say enough or fight hard enough. I don’t know if I’m making excuses sometimes because I’m afraid. I know I don’t want to be passive, I want to be a participant in what happens around me. But how do you know when you’re doing enough? How do you know when being quiet is actually the right thing to do? I haven’t figured out the lesson yet. I don’t actually know the answer. Being brave is a confusing series of steps.

Dylan Farrow Thoughts

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Can I just say I’m tired? I don’t just mean physically, although I’m totally that too because I’m a college student taking 20 credits and doing just way too many things. But no, I’m talking about a different thing. This week I read Dylan Farrow’s heart-breakingly honest and brave open letter about what happened to her, what Woody Allen did to her as a child. And then I started seeing the very, very predictable response. People who knew her, people who didn’t. Suddenly people were coming forward, claiming she just wanted attention, attacking her mother, attacking her. It was blood in the water and the sharks descended.

And I’m just… guys, I’m just tired. See, I have to admit that there is some part of me that just cannot fully understand, cannot wrap my mind around why we can’t just agree to agree on this one thing. I understand there are so few things we can agree on. Politics and religion and so many things get in our way but surely it is not such a stretch as a society to come together and say, “You know what? This is it. We are going to come together and say that rape and sexual assault is where we are going to draw a line in the sand. We will agree on this thing.” Especially when it involves children. Because surely there can’t be anything that controversial about saying hey, you should not have sex with children. Ever. You should not force children to have sexual acts with you. Ever. And if you do that, there is no excuse or justification. It doesn’t matter if you are a great artist. It doesn’t matter if you make really wonderful movies. There is not something, there is not anything you can do in the rest of your life that will balance out your sexual assault of children, no matter how masterful at it you may be. This seems like one of the most common sense things I can imagine, and yet it isn’t. I know that it isn’t because I keep reading things telling me that this is not the common sense. I’m not seeking them out, because I’m not that masochistic yet, but I keep running across them and I see the same things. It is apparently easier for our society at large to blame this very strong girl than it is for us to accept that a cultural icon may have raped her. And as long as we are willing to do that, it’s never going to stop.

I am so tired, you guys. I’m tired and confused. I really, truly believe this is not the world we have to live in. I really think it’s possible that there’s a reality we can live in where, when we find out that coaches have been covering up the rape of children for 10+ years like at Penn State, if there’s a riot on campus it’s not because the coach has been fired. I really believe it’s possible to live in a world where child rapists don’t win Oscars, where they don’t get Lifetime Achievement Awards and where the survivors are not passed off as deluded or attention whores. Woody Allen is throwing a fit about how she is trying to ruin his career, his life but we all know it won’t. It didn’t when she was 7 and it’s not going to now. If there was any justice, it would. But at the end of the day, people are going to care more about staying on the good side of Woody Allen than what happened to Dylan Farrow. People will keep watching his movies. If he survives another ten years, people will have forgotten this even happened. Our attention spans are not so good.

I truly believe in a better world. I believe we’ve made progress. I believe we’ll make more. I believe that someday, when an intelligent, brave young woman like Dylan Farrow steps forward and says “This is what happened to me,” we will believe her and there will be genuine consequences to pay. But we’re not there yet and it hurts me for her and for every other survivor I know who wasn’t believed. Abusers will happily keep exploiting this system we have created, where powerful men are given immunity because they are powerful men. Dylan Farrow is a rich, white, intelligent, well-educated woman. But it’s not enough. What about for those who have none of her advantages? We have so far to go, guys. I just wish we were moving faster.

Feeling Old

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So, here’s the thing. I’m not old. No, really. I am not. I am only 29 years of age. I will be 30 in March. I am super excited about this, actually. My 20’s have overall been rather on the downer side. They’ve definitely improved dramatically in the last couple of years but if you are going to look at the whole decade, I would say it has not been a win. I am of the opinion that my 30’s will be awesome. Anyway. Back to my point. I’m not old. Despite that, for a number of years now, my friends in my age bracket have started saying “OMG, I feel so old!” to things. Usually it’s things like “You learned how to spell banana because of that No Doubt song??” or “You don’t remember when Jurassic Park came out???” I’ll admit those things are odd to me but they don’t really make me feel old. I love pop culture but I prefer to use it as a connecting point. Most of the time I don’t really even feel like a grown-up, much less old.

However. I have realized in the last few months that there is one thing that makes me notice my age – when I find myself wanting to tell earnest 21-year-olds to just chill out*, or I just get bored of the conversation. I am in this training with some of the sweetest girls. A number of them are quite a bit younger than me and let me make very clear that they are bright and motivated girls and I have a lot of respect for them. When I was their age, I was definitely not volunteering anywhere and I had not made my way anywhere near the opinions that they have arrived at. I was much more unhealthy in probably many ways. Even so. There are times when I am sitting in this room, full of girls saying things I totally agree with that I just want to ask, “Do you get tired of the echo chamber? Because I get tired of the echo chamber.”

Look, it’s not that I disagree with any of these people most of the time. We’re sitting in a room talking about violence against women (primarily), talking about sexual assault. These are easy topics to come together on here (sadly not everywhere but here they are). It is also not that I don’t think these topics are important. It’s the opposite. I think these things are so important that we can be having better conversations, that we can actually have a conversation instead of just going around the room agreeing with each other. Don’t get me wrong, I think validation can be powerful and there’s a time and a place for that. Maybe I’m just not in that place right now? Right now I want to have a conversation that goes beyond “yeah, you’re so right, I totally agree, that’s so messed up and your feelings are totally valid.” I mean, I appreciate that and there was a time in my life when I needed to hear exactly that thing to move forward but what comes next?

I’m going to use a concrete example of this because it’s something that bothers me a lot. The concrete example is Twilight. Twilight comes up a lot in these discussions. It’s become shorthand for all kinds of things. It’s a way that we talk about how pop culture influences young teenagers in bad ways, how screwed up messages turn into best sellers, how abusive relationships are marketed as romantic, how stupid sparkling vampires are and, I think if we’re really honest, how we’re so much smarter than other people because we understand these things. “Look how terrible pop culture is!” we can say. (Let’s leave out the chicken/egg debate of where pop culture comes from.) “Look how I recognize it!”

I will not argue that Stephanie Meyer created a series of books which turned into a series of films, with incredibly disturbing messages in them. What I will argue is that it isn’t the True Believers that made those books or films worldwide sensations. Are there young girls who read and/or watched Twilight and absolutely believed that it was the most romantic thing they had ever encountered? Absolutely. Is Twilight responsible for breaking their brains somehow? Absolutely not. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we live in a time with some pretty screwed up messages about gender and sex and relationships. I was in a much different place in my life when these books came out but let me tell you, if I had read them at 14, I would have been absolutely in love. You know why? Because I already had really disturbed ideas on what relationships and love and sex should look like. Is it a problem when huge pop culture reinforces those things? Absolutely. But it’s also an opportunity. It means that suddenly we have cultural shorthand. We have something that almost everyone has read or seen, we have something we can talk about, we have a conversation we can start. We can talk about relationships, healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships. Except do you know what no good conversation has ever started with?

“This is the stupidest, most repulsive thing ever. How could you like this?”

I think our conversations about Twilight (and many other things) diminish the complexity of people. They assume that everyone who likes it is a 15 year old girl who doesn’t understand it’s bad for her and is just fawning over Edward. Let me assure you that 15 year old girls didn’t make this a billion dollar franchise. Can I tell you a secret?

I sort-of love Twilight.

Okay, now you can decide you have lost all respect for me, that’s cool. Look, I understand all of the reasons to hate them and I don’t disagree. I have about equal measures of love and hate. They’re badly written books. I’ve read the first 3 twice and the last one once. I saw all the movies in theaters, a couple of them more than once, a couple of them at midnight showings. Am I there partly because I love to mock bad movies? Sure. They’re not great movies anymore than they’re great books. But I would be lying to you if I said that my interest was purely ironic; it’s absolutely not. There was a part of me that was genuinely sad when the last film came out. And I am not the only person who feels this way. There are plenty of other people in the world who have mixed feelings on Twilight, who maybe love it and hate themselves a bit for it. I don’t hate myself for it anymore because I have a really strong opposition to the idea of guilty pleasures. Love what you love and learn to be okay with it because there’s nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make you a stupid person to love Twilight. It doesn’t make you a smart person to hate it. What I’m saying is that however you feel about them? There are better conversations we could be having with it. I know because I’ve had some really genuinely fantastic conversations about Twilight. And that’s not even getting into 50 Shades of Grey, which is a whole different post. 😛

So here I am, in the basement of this building, surrounded by earnest, young girls who are smart and driven and really want to help people and I think they are all just wonderful and I adore them. And I guess what I find myself wanting to say is hey, stick around a while. I know it seems like this is so important right now and it is. It’s so important that you’re going to find your way to more nuance and more places that are less black and white. I’m sure you’re going to because you’re great and you’re already so much further than I was at your age and somehow I stumbled this far. You’ll realize people are really complex and that that is kind-of wonderful (except when it’s horrible). You may even realize that liking Twilight doesn’t automatically mean that someone has been anesthetized by the terrible cultural messages and needs saving. Sometimes we’re just feeding our inner teenagers and we’ve made peace with that. They get cranky. And in 10 years, I may feel exactly the way about myself at 29 and 29-year-old people that I see as I do now about these girls. Hopefully that’ll mean I’ve grown. I don’t know if it makes me feel old, exactly. But it definitely makes me notice that I’ve grown up.

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* For the record, this technically isn’t strictly tied to age. I have a few friends who are younger who I pretty much never have this moment with and there are people who are older than me that I have these feelings with fairly frequently. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to age because of this training but of course chronological age is only one factor in growing up.