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It’s All Good…A Work in Progress.

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I have always been a judge-y kind of person. Although I was raised by people who were fundamentally kind and charitable, I picked up early on, the difference between “us” and “them.” We were readers, went to college, listened to classical music, voted for Democratic candidates, appreciated art (and never said things like “my five-year old could have made that”), listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturdays, read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, and eschewed Hamburger Helper and Velveeta. My professor  father went to Harvard, my teacher  mother to Wellesley, and among their circle of friends, old and new, there were few who exposed to us to anything that would shake the divisions and categories forming in my mind. The familial hard-wiring included fierce support for minorities, “those less fortunate,” and the disabled; the only inherent human characteristic that was openly criticized was being “dumb” when one possessed the necessary intellect not to be.

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Going to school in a very upper class middle and high school added an entirely new set of things to judge, including myself. Like a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, although I was personally neither attractive nor popular, I took on the prejudices of my more popular peers. It was important to be clear-skinned, slender, athletic, and, if one was a girl, to have hair that could easily be curled back in the Farrah Fawcett wings of the 70s. I met none of those requirements, and so I began not only to judge others who did not meet the standard, but to judge myself in ways guaranteed to lead me straight to a giant can of Neurosis Whoop Ass.

The Beautiful People  lived in subdivisions with Indian names; I lived in a neighborhood on the wrong side of the District’s tracks, which was just…a neighborhood. They went to Fort Lauderdale on Spring Break and drank, made out a lot, had sex, smoked pot, went to parties and drank, and generally seemed to me to be living the lives of sophisticated and stunning adult film stars while I was stuck practicing the cello and conjugating French verbs. To this day, unless I exert a great deal of mental effort, and even though I know that some of them have aged, gained weight, and lost their youthful looks, those people live on in my mind as the standard bearers of beauty and cool, and I am still “less” everything in comparison. Don’t imagine for a moment that the irony of judging the world based on the casual cruelty of my social social “superiors” has escaped me.

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As soon as I graduated and left that particular hotbed of exclusion, I went to college where I  wore black from ancient tweed overcoat to pointy boots from Trash & Vaudeville, took up smoking, hung out with speed-addled studio art majors,  and generated a whole new set of ways to slice and dice the world into “good” and “bad.” A full-time cynic, I rejected anything that was  cute (“a four letter word”), tacky, conventional, or trying too hard. I recall making fun of “Flyover” with friends from New York, despite the fact that a) I had grown up in Flyover, and b) we were all attending a college in Flyover. I did not watch TV, I listened to Butthole Surfers (sneaking in a little Madonna or Culture Club when I was alone), and I sat through endless Bergman films, feeling that my personal worth was cheapened by the fact that I hated all of them except “Fanny & Alexander,” which was the “easy one.” I was happier and more comfortable at college than I had ever been in high school, surrounded, as I was, by peers for whom quirkiness and neurosis were not only acceptable but the secret handshake. I was, however, adding to all of that baggage about what was “good” and what was “bad,” accepting once again the standards of the “cool kids,” and viewing the world and everything in it through the solipsistic lense of a pretentious, immature and ridiculously jaded college student.

I don’t imagine that anything that happened to me during my formative years was unique; I know literally hundreds of people who were raised in families like mine, or attended the same high school, or went through a period of black-wearing, Faux Urban Cool during college in the 80s. It was probably not the experiences themselves, but something about the way I think that made it so critical for me to assess what was “good” and “bad,” and to view the world through judge-y colored glasses. It could take years of therapy to Figure It Out, but I am far more interested in the process of Cutting It Out. Judging necessarily makes divisions and expresses preferences for “this” over “that,” a process which leads to separation from people, ideas and things that don’t make the cut. It is this kind of process, even when it is intended to be positive and supportive, which leads to division, alienation and conflict.  When I  write about the wonderfulness of something, like gay male friends, I am (as my husband kindly pointed out) inadvertently criticizing  straight men because they are not gay, and probably won’t be. I meant only to be kind and helpful, but it’s still true that deciding what is “good” invariably results in the categorization of other things as “not good.”

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This may all seem excessively dramatic and philosophical, but I know for certain that it has never given me a moment’s peace or happiness to reject, accept or classify anything based on my own personal world view. As an adult, I still make an astronomical number of judgments every day, and I am trying to learn to recognize and correct them. I reflexively judge on appearances, quickly assessing everything from hair color (Natural? Roots?) to clothing (Tacky stretch pants? Sweater with reindeer faces?) and find myself, unless I stop the process, deciding on whether I prefer, or do not prefer that stranger. I judge negatively people who don’t read, people who are bigots, people who drive giant gas guzzlers, people who use incorrect grammar,  people who raise boys with long, braided “tails” of hair, and people who talk on cell phones in the library. I judge positively people who drive Priuses (bonus for liberal bumper stickers), shop at the Farmers Market, dress beautifully, order their drinks dry, and have children with lovely manners.

yin-yang[1]I have perhaps failed to mention that despite being extremely and unrepentantly liberal, I have, for twelve years, been married to man who is…not. There has been no greater impetus for me to stop the constant calculus of “good” and “bad” than the dailiness of living with someone with whom I cannot watch the news, but who I love dearly and respect, and with whom I agree with on most things other than politics.  He is, to use my traditional labeling, a “good” person with “bad” political beliefs, but from years of living with him, I have learned that while our ideas about means may differ, we share common goals of justice, peace and prosperity. I have also, in my adult life, found much in common with people I would previously have rejected as “tacky,” “dumb” or “wrong,” and observed that humans are, in general, more alike than different. It makes me wonder what might be accomplished on a global scale if more people could see all that they rejected morally, intellectually, stylistically or politically, embodied in a person that they loved, or at least liked a lot.

It is hard, and sometimes painful for me to stop and see that I am judging someone or something that is not in any way “bad,” only different from an entirely artificial standard in my brain. It is also increasingly difficult for me not to notice how often those near and dear to me articulate militant, one-sided opinions with which I can no longer agree. I am neither amoral nor opinionless; I still make choices about what is right or wrong to do in a given situation, but my choices are neither static nor applied as a universal standard. I am hoping that there will come a time when I see everything and everyone (myself included) as nothing more than…what is, without judgment. In the meantime, if you see me in the grocery store standing next to the Greek Yogurt and staring into space, you may safely assume that I have just seen a reindeer sweater, and that I am in the process of convincing myself that it’s all good, even if it has jingling bells and little tufts of Santa beard….

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

12 responses »

  1. Boy do I know how that goes, living with judgmental people! And isn’t it amazing how it makes us judge ourselves just as harshly?

    I went through the same self-image thing, the same self-doubt, the same dissatisfaction with my appearance, and the really sick thing was that I was a good-looking kid! I was in my fifties before I could look at a yearbook picture and admit, whoa!, that guy was O….K.

    I’ve spoken to women who were in high school with me who told me that I was the most frustrating guy they every met. They’d make passes at me, and I’d totally ignore them. (Actually, I wasn’t ignoring a thing, but I thought they were kidding.) I truly understand the body image aberrations that lead to eating disorders, etc., although (thank heavens) I never went that route.

    Our parents tried so hard, but they were victims of their own childhoods, too.

    “And so we sail on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

    Reply
    • Bill, it’s interesting that you had the same experiences; I have thought for many years that my high school issues were unique to my psyche, my gender, and my school. I wasn’t hideous, but I now know that when one believes oneself to be hideous, one sends that message out to all comers, and it’s like krptonite.

      I’d like to think I can sail forward, Gatsby notwithstanding. 🙂

      Reply
  2. My dear mother, one of the “good” people, wears those reindeer sweaters, usually votes in a way that would cause both of us to have the vapors and sometimes refers to groups of people using terminology that would have been vaguely offensive fifty years ago. And yet, she’s my mother who loves me unconditionally and I her.

    As much as I love the Chef Annie posts, I’m beginning to think that the Deep Thoughts Annie posts are the ones that will stick with me all the days of my life.

    Reply
    • My mother wears them too, although she is a Stone Democrat. I’m sure you are a better, more empathetic person with a greater world view for loving your mother and forgiving her trespasses, as it were.

      Thanks for the kind words about the blog. This feels good, and natural, and I can’t imagine ever regretting the change in direction.

      Reply
  3. I cringed when I read what you judge people about…because my car makes me self-conscious sometimes, and I often wish it had a large disclaimer across the back that read, “This gas guzzler is the only one that fits my family of 6 (formerly 7 – Jorge’s elderly aunt used to live with us) and our 115 pound dog. Please note that this vehicle is now 6 years old and we plan to drive it into the ground rather than trade it in, so please cut us some slack.” Who doesn’t need to remind themselves to stop just looking at the surface and look a little deeper? Isn’t it intriguing when the two don’t quite match up or things weren’t quite what you thought at first glance?

    I am a very visual person. I often like the pictures that you use every bit as much as the text. Yes, even the Precious Moments figurine had its place. But the sweater, that sweater! Loved it.

    And finally, there it was….Whoop Ass! I was trying to think of some clever twist on the phrase to relate to your being married to a man so different from yourself. And all I could come up with was, “ass whipped.” Which is a little weird. But a little funny. Perhaps Mr. Annie is just ass whipped. But being married to someone you have some differences with is what makes life interesting, don’t you think?

    Reply
    • I would never judge anybody based on their car; actually, I might, but I have a kind of perverse tendency to admire the battered, the ancient and the tiny.

      Of course I had “Whoop Ass” in my head because of you. Mr. Annie is not really whipped any more than I am; I think we’re having kind of a mutual whip, which is probably an essential part of a good marriage. (My goodness that sounds bizarre. “Mutual Whip.” a new bread spread from Kraft…).

      Reply
  4. Ann,

    While I appreciated (and still do) the education we received at OHS, it came at a cost. My perception of reality back then was the students were either “jocks and cheerleaders–the popular ones” “brainiacs and musicians-to which we belonged” or “burnouts who smoked”. Add to that that Okemos was an affulent community, so most people lived in houses while I lived in an apartment and had divorced parents. I remember buying a ski-jacket because everyone had them, replete with the lift tickets from Aspen or some ski resort at Christmas break. Everyone could tell I didn’t really ski because, well, no lift ticket. I had a job at 7-11 to pay for things most kids got from their parents and had to work three times as hard during the fund-raisers for musical field trips or the German exchange program (I couldn’t even afford to go with the OHS group that went to Germany, even though I hosted a student when the Germans came to Okemos). College meant freedom from all that peer pressure and I look back at it now and am happy with the person I was, even though it was hard.

    “Judge not lest ye be judged” is a good mantra for me.

    Reply
    • Ah, the ski jackets with lift tickets. We probably could have afforded that, but we just weren’t that kind of family. We didn’t go “up north,” or have a cottage, either.

      I think we turned out okay, despite our respective misfit-hood and social pigeon-holing. I just have to remind myself (quite often) to use high school for a “learning by opposites” project, and not cling to it as something with any validity as a way of life.

      Reply
  5. I like Elizabeth’s Suburban disclaimer! It’s true, what are they supposed to drive?

    This goes along with the post I recently wrote about being judged about autism. When Daniel is in public acting in a way that is, ahem, head turning, I am the first to explain why. Is it an excuse for his behavior? Maybe, but I like to think I’m helping people understand that their may be a REASON (like the Suburban) and not to come to judgement too quickly. Daniel has definitely taught me to be less judgemental…

    And while, you read it here, I will NEVER wear one of those sweaters, is that judgemental? But who knows, maybe that person in the grocery store just got that sweater from her favorite aunt who is in town and she’s trying not to hurt her feelings 🙂 Ya never know. . .

    Reply
    • Michelle, you do deal with the judging issue on a regular basis, and I imagine that people who don’t know the whole story feel that they are actually entitled to judge if they think he is “behaving badly.” Those are the same folks who will give the evil eye to some poor woman in Meijer’s who has a baby that won’t stop crying, because…sometimes babies won’t stop crying.

      As for the sweaters, teachers wear them – that’s why my mother has them, and she says kids love them. That doesn’t mean we have to wear them, though.

      Reply
  6. I’m wondering if we grew up in the same town. You, of course, would’ve ignored me, given that I’m vertically challenged. But your parents would’ve approved of my pedigree. As for all black, it works. Everywhere. Except maybe South Florida and the South of France.

    Reindeer sweaters? Yep. I’m with you. Except Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy looked rather cute in theirs.

    This says it all: my choices are neither static nor applied as a universal standard.

    Not one for being judgmental (having been judged for most of my life), I nonetheless believe that opinions and judgments are a “good” thing. They reflect that we are thinking, assessing, reflecting on an object or situation or person within a particular context.

    And the above – that your choices (and judgments) are no longer static or absolute – that’s the pleasure of growing up, isn’t it. Hell, there has to be some compensation, right?

    Reply
    • I probably wouldn’t have ignored you; you seem to be smart, and that was my thing. If you also played a musical instrument or acted in plays, you would have been a sure thing in my book.

      I agree that some degree of discernment is important for all kinds of reasons – I have to decide, for example, whether a certain person or group is a safe one for my son, which necessarily involves making judgments. My objection to judging comes when it is inflexible or, as I said, static or universal – if you can’t allow for change, and see something differently on another look, you are just clinging to your own biased vision, regardless of what’s really in front of you.

      Reply

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