Discovering the memshaib* in me: my ah-ha moment and its impact on my behavior

ah-ha-momentA recent tussle with a cell phone provider revealed an unexpected emotional response in me. A series of contacts to try to resolve some problems, all with non-native-English-speaking customer service personnel (aka NNES) pushed my patience to its limits. I found myself thinking, “Why doesn’t the company hire people who speak English better?” With each successive and enunciated apology, “I am so sorry you are experiencing this problem” and similar phrases, my temper simply got hotter. Worse, my speech got louder, more clipped, forceful.

Nothing shook the responders. I finally said (could I have yelled?), “You’re all very polite, but I need answers!” I may even have cut the conversation off a time or two.

After I hung up, I wondered why on earth I let the standard routine bother me so much. I knew I’d be connected with NNESs and there would be challenges. Having visited countries where English isn’t spoken, I knew the struggle of trying to communicate in another language.

“Well, it’s their job. They’re paid to do it,” I thought. “They should learn the language better. They should know the solutions quickly.” Then an ah-ha moment swamped me.

I was over-reacting precisely because they’d been so polite. Without thinking, I’d internalized a superior social position, a kind of kiss-my-ass attitude that seems to accompany a structure like colonialism or caste or slavery, in which responses of the “inferior” class are standardized and required. I was stereotyping.

It’s easy to castigate people in other times, other countries for what now is labeled racist or classist, to fling accusations of suppression and discrimination at others. But my ah-ha moment warned me to slow down. Take more care with how I act and react. Temper my judgments of others, whether they’re providing a service on the phone or spouting off in a news interview to advocate opinions different from mine.

I wonder how the people on the other end of the line stereotype me?

* memshab

East, West, Home Is Best, But Where?

When I walk to the Y to exercise, I sometimes pass people on a corner next to a church. By and large male, they are also scruffy, stinky, poorly dressed. They block the sidewalk with their duffels, backpacks, bikes, grocery carts. They gather on this particular corner because the church distributes free sandwiches at lunch. These are the homeless in Denver, but they could be anywhere (

My initial feeling whenever I pass, or try to pass, is one of annoyance, for they block access to the sidewalk, spill over to the parking strip, perch on stairs, walls and courtyards, blow cigarette smoke hither and yon. Some have dogs as mangy as themselves, many tote items that should be in junkyards—a frayed and torn sleeping bag, a shower head, a battered water jug, rope, a small ironing board. I wonder why the church officials or city authorities don’t demand compliance with public nuisance ordinances or common courtesy.

Then I question when and how I moved from sympathy or even mere apathy to hostility. These are people with no roof over their heads, few resources for health care or decent food, little access to opportunities for learning and entertainment. They don’t ask me for money or any sort of help. All I have to do is side-step them.

I don’t categorize myself as a “bootstrapper,” those who claim the homeless should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps, as if they even had boots with straps on them. Perhaps I’m getting numb to social problems. Perhaps I’ve seen too many programs to help the indigent and ill that fail, or I’ve listened to too many leaders claim they have the solution, and that never happens. Perhaps I’m tired of even thinking about the issue of homelessness. Perhaps I’m sick to my stomach at the thought that a country as blessed as this one cannot and will not care for those who can’t manage on their own.

As I sit in my home and consider, I realize what I feel is remorse that I can’t fix the problem. When I pass a homeless person, I can’t avoid the collective guilt we all share, whether we admit this or not. So I choose to be annoyed, not accountable.

(One group trying to do something is the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless,

Battle of Sexes Moves to Books

books The battle of the sexes is fun, challenging, and never-ending. A recent combatant, perhaps fighting with a bent lance or a broken sword, is David Gilmour, a Canadian author and professor at the University of Toronto, who refuses to teach women authors. Despite Alice Munroe’s Noble Prize for literature ( and the presence of talents like Margaret Atwood (, he feels there’s a lack of excellence in the majority gender.

He said he “teach[es] only the best” writers, which does not include women. “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys.”

As a writer and book lover, searching for excellence myself, I’ve spent my life, book open on my lap, desk, table, under or over the covers, entranced and entertained and educated by volumes of all types. I never distinguished between male and female authors, perhaps because I was assured repeatedly by teachers that English uses “he” and “everyone” as general terms for BOTH sexes in the collective. So if someone says, “Every great writer uses his talents,” I take this to include men and women.

When a child and teen I tended toward male writers because their work seemed more complex and interesting to me. As I grew older, I veered more and more toward women. The distinction I see now is that women writers seem to be somewhat more interested in character and internal, psychological growth, than many male writers.

I do admit I feel some questioning, some slight resentment when a male author has a strong, central female character. Just because book reviewers, publications, editors have a bias for male writers and provide much more attention to them than to women. Although most readers and book buyers are women, those in charge (still strongly male) emphasize men.

Gilmour continues to try to explain his remarks, saying they were tossed over his shoulder while conducting another conversation in French and they were meant “jokingly.” Gilmour has a new novel out called Extraordinary, and in his apology, Gilmour notes that the book’s protagonist is a woman, and he hopes his apology will help smooth over any hard feelings.

My theory, having heard a remark at any number of seminars and conferences recently, is that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Certainly Gilmour must be sincere when he says you must teach what you love. But perhaps he and his publisher quickly realized his public profile is strengthened by the controversy. That women, like me, who have never heard of him, now will read his new novel, if simply out of curiosity.

Unfortunately for him, his book will have to go on the bottom of my list, which, at last count, included 13 titles by women and 12 by men, not counting the 24 stacked up on a table, again, fairly evenly divided by gender. Some are even collections or co-authored by women and men. Imagine that.

To see The Atlantic’s take on the discussion, go to
To see some of the original interview, go to Hazlitt online,
To see a follow-up interview on the topic, go to National Post online,

Do Clothes Make the Man (Woman)?

Tee shirt webI used to think that clothes weren’t important. Labels meant nothing to me, and I prided myself on this attitude. I was superior to physical distinctions of wealth or status.

I’ve changed my mind gradually over the years. Clothes provide cues and clues to their wearer’s interests, education level, age, and social groups. This is important to writers because we have to be able to evoke all kinds of messages through people’s dress in our work. It’s also important to humans in general because it can be used, for better or worse, to categorize people and give us advance warning about how to respond to them.

But I still figured I was exempt from bias based on attire. Until I went to the doctor’s a few days ago. I was finishing up my appointment when a woman stepped into the exam room. My doc had mentioned consulting with another physician. But when I saw the newcomer, I was flabbergasted. Leaving aside the question of what a “flabber” is and how you “gast” it, I was taken aback because she wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a casual t-shirt.

Immediately I became uncomfortable. I couldn’t tell if she was a health care provider (Nurse? Doctor? Physician’s assistant?), or someone who’d wandered into the facility from the very urban streets nearby. Should I greet her? Duck behind the door? Scream for help? No clues about her job or level of responsibility. Did she report to my doctor or vice versa?

After my doctor asked the woman to locate some equipment, I realized she must be some sort of assistant. But I still was uneasy. I began to realize that how others dress has a major impact on me, and her lack of any professional signals established an initial level of distrust that she’d have to work hard to overcome. Her appearance obfuscated* her role.

I’m trying to take this knowledge as an insight into human behavior. I want to guard against, compensate for, this instantaneous prejudice when I meet strangers. But mostly what I want to do is alert my doctor and the assistant that she should dress in a manner to make patients comfortable, not ill at ease.

*obfuscate: render incomprehensible