Friday, February 24, 2006

The Anti Anti-Bride

It was not only my 'medical leave' that kept me from this blog for so long. Oh, no. I hesitated to 'fess up before, but I got married in January and most of the latter part of 2005 was taken up with the planning of said event.

Now, this blog is meant to be a forum to discuss my reading on social justice, simple living, and other matters I find important or interesting. Though it may not seem intuitive at first, planning our wedding was a conscious attempt by my now-husband and me to live our values. So many people have been interested in the choices we made and how we came to make them, that I decided to post a bit about the topic.

I call this post the Anti Anti-Bride Guide because I had looked to that book, by Carolyn Gerin and Stephanie Rosenbaum, to provide some inspiration and support for the unconventional decisions E and I knew we would be making. Ha! Though the book counseled brides to stay away from the Jordan almonds if they really didn't like them, it did not speak to the kind of intentions we had about our nuptial event. I was so pleased that I had followed my usual strategy and checked it out from the library rather than spend any money on it. (In fact, I am--absurdly? stubbornly?--proud that I did not look at one bridal magazine during the entire course of our engagement.) My co-worker, who got married a few months before me, quipped that I was the anti, anti-bride because I simply didn't give a shit about any of the things mentioned in Gerin's and Rosenbaum's book. I laughed and filed the comment away for later.

So what does characterise the anti anti-bride? Rejection of the traditional wedding industry is the main thing, of course. But what does that entail? For us, there were four major components:

Being Intentional about What Is Important (and What Is Not)
This may seem obvious, but all we've read the horror stories of brides railroaded into making decisions because of family pressure. Being a bit older, E and I had the luxury of not caring about convention. Our goal was to make the wedding into a true reflection of our personalities and beliefs. Anything that fell outside of that goal was eliminated from the wedding, such as favors, ring bearer and flower girl, and the garter/bouquet toss. We were also lucky in that our families helped financially without demanding anything in return, not the guest list (much), not the apparel, not the venue.
For us, making the wedding a true reflection of our beliefs meant not spending huge wads of cash, and making sure we felt good about the money we did spend. So, we got married at my local church and had the reception in the hall, which fostered the community spirit we were hoping for. We spent more than 50% of our budget on the food, because we're both passionate about good food. We spent about 20% of the budget on the photography, because we love having good photos of loved ones around the house. Nothing else even came close to costing that much. Some people genuinely want a bigger splash than we made with our wedding; the most important thing is to be intentional about decisions and ensure they fit your values and beliefs.
When the focus is on the overall intention, compromise is easier because there is bound to be more than one way of living out that intention.

Using the Time and Talent of Family and Friends
Our willingness to ask our friends and family to share their gifts of time and talent with us, instead of their treasure (in the form of an expensive wedding present) is the aspect of the wedding most often commented-upon by our guests. It's obvious to have talented friends and family members do readings or sing at weddings. We wanted to go further than this. I knew that wedding planning was going to be overwhelming no matter what, so my goal was to spread out the tasks among as many people as I could, especially since those we asked to participate could do a better job than we could. Friends and family did the flower arranging, sang and read at the ceremony, designed and executed the reception hall decoration and clean-up, baked and decorated the wedding cakes, designed the program, developed the website, created a map to get to the wedding, and made the invitations. This involvement cut costs for us, made everything less stressful, but most of all, made our guests feel more a part of the whole thing. Every person we asked to help us said yes and told us that they were glad to be involved.

Bringing a Focus on Others to the Wedding
Weddings often demand one, two or even three gifts for the couple. E and I felt uncomfortable about this, since our reason for having a large-ish wedding was simply to celebrate with people we love, not to extort presents from them. So, when E's mom asked to throw a shower for me, we turned it into a charity shower: all of the guests brought food for a local food bank and instead of playing silly games, we made scarves for the homeless. E and I did register at a store, since we knew that some people would want to give us traditional gifts, but we also put a list of 10 charities on our website and suggested that guests could donate to those on our behalf. To our delight, people did donate for us. Many also generously gave us the gifts we'd registered for, but by doing so, they supported a local, independent business because that's where we'd chosen to register. Finally, I knew our caterer because I've worked with him at his restaurant since 2002, where he leads a monthly event to cook food for 200 homeless persons. I had to miss January's event, but E and I were able to donate our leftovers instead.
In these ways, E and I felt that our wedding allowed us to use the gift of our love for the benefit of others.

Spending Lots of Time with Guests
E and I were utterly exhausted during the wedding weekend, but it was absolutely worth it. Why were we so tired? Because we turned our wedding into a weekend series of parties to give guests the chance to spend time with us. There was a cocktail party on the Friday, a family-friendly open house on Saturday afternoon, followed by a more grown-up party on Saturday night, and mellow hanging-out time at our local pub on the night before the wedding. By the time we got married on Monday (yes, Monday), we felt that we'd had at least some quality time with guests who had traveled so far to celebrate with us. We didn't provide much at the open house, but we provided our time and attention.

Our wedding day was extremely joyful. E and I were exactly where we wanted to be and everything went beautifully. Even if things had gone wrong, we would have laughed because we'd long ago decided that, though the wedding merited our attention, it's really all about the marriage. Our themes were love and community and by bringing these to every decision, we created a wedding that was perfect for us and which guests time and again told us was special. It was a wonderful start to our marriage.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Loving Kindness

I've been on 'medical leave' from this blog for a while--my hands were burning when I typed, so I stopped any voluntary typing activity to let myself heal. I'm still working on the healing part, but it seemed like a good time to post another entry.

Since my last post, I've been thinking a lot about loving kindness. I read several books that renewed this focus for me. There was Isabel Losada's The Beginner's Guide to Changing the World about her decision to become an activist on behalf of Tibet and the Dalai Lama and Anne Lamott's new book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and Good Catholic Girls: How Women are Leading the Fight to Change the Church by Angela Bonavoglia.

I wasn't in love with the writing of Losada's book, but I was moved by her journey to try to make a difference in the world by choosing the side of non-violence. Her account of her meeting with the Dalai Lama awakened my interest in him, though my way of promoting (or sometimes managing to express a tiny bit of) compassion in the world does not have Buddhism as its source.

Anne Lamott's voice, however, is one that consistently brings me to tears and fills me with hope. Her non-fiction writing about her own journey is an inspiration to me because she is so honest about her failings and her feelings. She understands in a way that I sometimes do not that one can still be a 'good' person and express rage. Reading Plan B reminded me that I do better in my own struggles for loving kindness when I am encountering others' stories and experiences. I think that's one of the reasons I go to Church; it is a place where I can be broken open to love and pain and the expression of the divine through fellow humans.

This feeling of being broken open, for which I am profoundly grateful, makes the pain I felt at some of the things I learned from Good Catholic Girls all the more intense. The senselessness of the Church bureaucracy is made more acute when reading of the sacrifices made by women of faith. It would be so easy to leave the Church, as I did once before, when the hierarchy does not in any way speak for me. But I think that the choice of most integrity (for me) is actually to stay and to work for change in the ways I can.

Loving kindness. Most days I fail utterly at achieving this simple practice, at least in any difficult situation. Sometimes the knowledge of my failure discourages me from even trying. I will never achieve what the Dalai Lama has achieved, probably not in several lifetimes. Yet I try to take for my inspiration the tactics of Brother Lawrence: 'He said he was very aware of his faults, but not discouraged by them. He confessed them to God and made no excuses. Then, he peaceably resumed his usual practice of love and adoration'. I strive for the ability to do the same.

The Practice of the Presence of God may be found at

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Bell Curve or Why the Shit Stick Doesn't Work

In the old days, raises and bonuses were an entitlement and unlinked to how a person actually did in the job. Left-leaning though I am, I see the inherent problem in such a system. It's not simply that people will not be motivated to excel if they won't be financially rewarded for it, it's also that to do well, I believe, people need to feel that their work is being noticed and their development facilitated.

Sadly, the heyday of simple performance-related pay seems to have been short-lived and there's a new game in town, the mandatory performance rating curve or, as I like to call it, the shit stick. In a move I assume to cut costs, company leaders have decided that the performance of employees will fall into certain percentages. Imagine a rating scale goes from 0 to 5, 5 being the unattainable 'outstanding' that no one ever gets, 0 being the lowest rating that not even the worst slacker could aspire to, and 3 being the 'meets expectations' rating. Now imagine a mandate that, say, 12% of employees must receive a 2 or below, 42% must receive a 3 and 45% must receive 4 or 5.

A happier-go-luckier soul than myself might choose to focus on the 45% that gets an 'exceeds expectations' rating. I find myself instead fixated on the 12% and musing on the needless tragedy of it.

My fiance ranks companies on two main axes: evilness and stupidness. He theorises that if a company does evil that is 'smart' (good for the company), one may not agree but one can intellectually understand the decision. If the company does 'stupid' with a good heart, then one can rail against it but have pity nonetheless. However, if the company does evil and stupid simultaneously, there is no respect possible. The shit stick is a shining example of evil and stupid.

Let's say that the two-fold motive of the ratings curve is to cut costs and to encourage strong performance. The ratings curve fails on both counts (though please keep in mind that I'm not an economist so my number-crunching isn't too sophisticated). I'll start with the latter.

Mandatory rating ranges will encourage strong performance. Hmm. Now, call me crazy, but this seems like a step back in time to the bad old days when pay was not linked to performance at all. Why? Because employees aren't stupid and they realise that only so many people can get a good rating. Instead of feeling like they need to work harder so they don't get the shit stick, they start to feel that the shit stick is arbitrary and nothing they do will ensure that the baton is not passed to them. Employees feel powerless and fearful. This does not tend to bring out their best. Additionally, let's say an employee is given a bad rating. What kind of accountability is really likely? Isn't it much more likely that the employee will say, 'Well, I know they have to give some bad ratings; that's the reason I got one'? This is without even considering the terrible effect on morale in a 'shit stick' world. Employees begin to look at their fellow colleagues, sizing them up, hoping that another team member will be the chosen this go around. To top it all off, an employee who gets the shit stick is ineligible for transfer, so they are trapped in their situation until the baton goes to another.

Let us ponder a moment, as well, the choice of who will get the shit stick in a given review cycle. It would be delightful to think that all the lazy lay-abouts and troublemakers would be given bad reviews. In practice, though, isn't it much more likely that the nice people will be chosen, as they are the least likely to go to HR and stir up a fuss? Or, even worse, isn't there a real risk that a person who does good work will be chosen to protect an under-performing colleague who needs the job more?

Where does this leave us? In a situation where the nice people are given the shaft, the bad employee scrape by and the really good employees, disgusted by the injustice of what they see around them get the hell out. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a 'high performance team'!

A mandatory ratings curve will cut costs. Would this were so! You would think that this scheme would lead to employees getting the boot, wouldn't you? It's a brilliant plan for a passive-aggressive layoff. Attrition rates soar and the ranks get leaner, meaner and more productive. In practice, this isn't the case. Yes, you save money on giving out bonuses and merit raises that you might otherwise be 'forced' to give out if soft-hearted managers were given their way. But the fact is, these 'low performers' are not being shown the door. Why? Because you need them around to fill your quota of low ratings. If you get rid of your whipping-boys, you might be required to give the shit stick to the ones who will go to HR or who really do perform too well for you to get away with it. So instead of giving the low-rated employees a dignified exit, you keep them on the payroll for as long as possible. Surely it would be cheaper just to lay them off in the first place--besides, that would make your stock go up (nauseating as that is to some).

And not only this, but you are opening yourself up to a massive lawsuit. These days the focus is on measurable performance goals. Gone are the times of touchy-feely subjectivity. This laudable focus on objective goals aims to level the playing field across different parts of an organisation to ensure fairness to the employee. Brilliant! But think about it in relation to the mandatory ratings distribution. You and your employees write up the goals that are specific and measurable. When your employees meet all of the criteria and they have the evidence to prove it (after all, the goals are measurable), how can you get away with giving them a bad review? Furthermore, many companies rightly have a midyear review that lets the employee know how they are doing in relation to their goals. This ensures that no one is surprised at the end of the year and that employees have the opportunity to change their wicked ways before it's too late. And yet managers the company over are praying that their badly-rated employees do not take the hint and do better, for if they were to improve and no one else worsened, how on earth are managers going to make their shit stick quotas?

So what's my point here? Well, to the company leaders that use this practice (and there are many of you, I am depressed to state), I ask you to think long and hard about how this mandatory distribution curve is really playing out in your company. Ask your managers and employees how they feel about it and what alternatives they could recommend that would achieve the same goals of cost-cutting and higher performance. They would undoubtedly surprise you with their creativity and their willingness to make some sacrifices for the good of the whole. To employees and managers, I say if you are asked for honest feedback, please give it. I know that jobs could be on the line and I admit that I have not always spoken in situations where I could have. Not everyone is able to make a grand gesture. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is ethically and morally wrong and that I cannot stand by in silence. This topic needs to be discussed openly and often in various settings so that it becomes an issue to be analysed, dissected and questioned rather than just accepted as a solid business practice in an uncertain world. The excuse that 'other companies are doing it' is simply not good enough, particularly for those companies that build a brand image on their ethics.

Finally, I encourage all of us to live less out of scarcity and more out of abundance. You may ask what that has to do with performance ratings: what I mean is that if we remain silent out of fear that we will lose our jobs and never get a new one, then we tacitly accept the status quo. To live out of abundance means to risk when it comes from our core and to trust that we will find a way. Living with an attitude of abundance means not assuming that we're trapped, but looking for a completely different way of approaching a situation that will reveal undiscovered escape routes. It means an unwillingness to look at our co-workers (and others) as competitors and a readiness to act against injustice toward anyone instead of merely to feel furtive relief if someone else gets the shit stick this year. If anyone is hurt by this system, we are all hurt by it.

Goodness knows that I fail repeatedly to live out of abundance, but that's one of the big reasons I am so passionate about discussing it. I also know that I come from a position of privilege, but I've learned not to be ashamed of that. Instead I try to use it for good, good that is roomy enough to include everyone.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Charitable Giving

As a child, I found it great fun to be the person to put our weekly envelope (check enclosed) in the collection basket at Church. Though I knew there was money inside, it was more the thrill of being trusted with the envelope and getting to drop it safely in the basket that lured me.

I know now that my dad was very serious about contributing to the Church and that they gave regularly even when we didn't have a whole lot of money ourselves. That said, my parents never really talked to us about charitable giving. Instead, the message was that life is uncertain and we needed to save all of our money for the future.

I am the youngest by quite a few years in our family of three kids. My brother and sister appeared to my solemn young self as 'reckless' or 'irresponsible' with money; this is what I heard my parents saying at any rate. So I decided when I was about 10 that I wasn't going to repeat their mistakes: I was going to start saving for the future when I hit my early teens. I was quite serious about this, tragic as it seems to me now. I made my own envelopes with titles like 'Rent' and 'Car' on them so that I could stop asking for presents (for the present) and start asking for money to fill these envelopes instead.

I never ended up using these envelopes, and my fear of the future has subsided over the years as I have earned and spent and saved money of my own. But I never gave much thought to charitable giving. Frankly, I had so little money that it didn't seem possible to give any of it away.

This began to change in late 2000 as one aspect of my spiritual journey. I was learning to surrender control and to trust that 'all would be well'. What a relief! When I came back to the States, I felt ready to start putting my own envelopes in that collection basket. But I didn't do much more than that and I wasn't wholly satisfied.

The most significant development happened when my parents generously gave me several thousand dollars from my grandmother's estate. I had many places to put that money: a large student loan and an upcoming trip to Europe being the biggest contenders. However, I decided to try something new. I would take 10% of that money and give it away.

Giving away this money was incredibly rewarding. The whole experience of choosing the beneficiaries, writing out the checks and making sure I filled out a matching gift application so my sum would be doubled was delightful.

Having been someone who hoarded, who had been taught to hoard because the future was uncertain, scary and menacing, it was liberating to break from this habit, make an act of trust, and reach out to others.

As time has gone on, I have strived to give more and more money away and I have never regretted it. Sure, if I felt guilted or manipulated, I would rebel. But when it is my choice to give freely, I find great joy in doing so.

This brings me to another of my recent reads. I found out about Prodigal Sons and Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child's ATM by Nathan Dungan in the Simple Living Newsletter. Though I don't have kids yet, I'm really interested in how parents can prepare their children for the world and the lure of consumerism. And given the attitude my parents conveyed about money (fear not having enough of it), I was interested in alternatives.

Dungan used to work for Thrivant Financial for Lutherans and started developing workshops about how to talk to kids about money. I like how he talks about examining our culture and modeling good choices to our children. For example, he advocates an approach to money called Share-Save-Spend, where you think about using money in that order (though he talks about the importance of sharing time and talents as well as treasure). So if you give a child an allowance, 1/3 would be devoted to each category.

Not only did the concept of Share-Save-Spend deeply resonate with me in relation to my own spending, I loved the idea of speaking openly with children about money instead of making fear of insufficient money the ruling sentiment. In addition, Dungan talks about involving children in financial decisions early, and encouraging them to question the forces that are pushing them to consume more. For instance, instead of telling your child that you cannot afford the plasma TV (which risks causing a fear reaction), you discuss with your child the fact that buying such an expensive luxury does not fit with your values and the values you wish to have as a family.

Share-Save-Spend encourages balance and is a great tangible manifestation of the idea of living in accordance with one's values. I cannot imagine that kids would be anything but excited at the fun of choosing whom to help with their 'share' allocation.

This simple idea was so provocative that I examined my own finances in these terms. Apparently most Americans give away less than 3% of their net income and save something similar (if they are not already spending beyond their means). When I learned that my Share percentage was a bit lower than I thought it was, I was gratified that I immediately wanted to start giving more--not out of guilt, but out of joy and thankfulness. I didn't want to decrease my Save percentage, so I decided to take money out of my Spend 'allowance' and put it to Share instead. I have been having a good time deciding where to put this extra money.

I have a profound sense of gratitude that my small risk of tithing that money from my parents has paid off so handsomely. I am proud to feel that generosity is finally more prevalent in my character than hoarding. I hadn't realised before that taking action to become a better person would also make me a happier one.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


It was the feeling of being deeply known that brought me to tears. How a thirty-minute chair massage could do this was a mystery. It wasn't even about the person, skilled though he is, performing the massage: it was something working through his hands. What a comfort and a delight to have the sore spots found, old wounds discovered without me having to point them out. And then to have them honoured, respected for what they are, and soothed. I stood up feeling renewed, once again ready to open myself to the world.

Slow, slow, slow

One of the most interesting books I've read lately is In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honore. It's a look at the many aspects of the Slow movement from Slow food to Slow cities to Slow sex. I particularly loved this book because I cracked the cover at the airport right after I'd tried and failed to get more than five pages into Citizen Girl.

I had thought that CG would be perfect for me--the review from had been good and made it seem like chick-lit with a brain. This relates to that poem I posted the other day. Though I am surprised that someone with my scholarly training prefers her fiction light, this tends to be the case. Now that I no longer analyse fiction for a profession, I find myself getting bored or annoyed with fiction that makes me work to read it. (One could argue that this fiction to which I'm referring could not be that good if it makes me work, but these are novels of wide repute. I am ready to admit that the fault lies not with the books but with me). Or, and this is the worst confession, perhaps, if the fiction does not make me work, it does make me unbearably sad. There are enough troubles in this world that I try to educate myself about and take action to remedy in the small ways that I can: putting myself through emotional torture for a novel or a movie is just not life-giving to me. (An interesting exception is theatre, where I actually can feel catharsis). I feel that many intellectuals would insist that tragedy is more worthy, but the fact is, I like a happy ending.

Back to Citizen Girl. I had thought that this might be a step up from some of the books I read--better written, more clever, more satisfying somehow. Ha! Even in the few pages I read, I sensed neither a brain nor a soul (or a heart or courage, to put it in Wizard of Oz terms). Oh, it was snide, this book. Now, I've been told that I have a Dorothy Parker-esque quality from time to time, but I hope I am not snide like this. Admittedly, my distaste may have been first inspired by the photo of the authors on the back inside jacket. It may be frightfully bourgeois of me to believe that photos should be flattering, but believe it I do. I suppose what is more alarming is that these women felt that this photo did, indeed, flatter them. What vacant, superior faces!

After the aforementioned five pages, I shoved the book deep into my carry-on, never to be opened again. So much for light fiction setting a nice, relaxed tone for the flight; I was thankful I hadn't actually bought it--the library was welcome to it. I turned to my potentially more-weighty non-fiction choice, In Praise of Slowness and felt cleansed by its preface alone. I had heard of Slow food, of course, but I hadn't known of all of the other ways that people were seeking slowness. I loved the honesty of Honore's tone throughout the book. He clearly had a sense of irony and approached situations with a similar skepticism that I might feel (his description of the Tantra workshop was a particular gem). This made it all the more delightful to read about how these experiences mostly did not conform to his expectations and were, in fact, meaningful and profound. It was also thrilling to read about yet more groups of people that seemed to feel about the world the way I do and who had the courage to pursue those ideals. And, much as what I have discovered about the simple living movement, slow livers do not propose that we all live in huts in the wilderness; they embrace technology for its benefits, but explore ways to say no to the demand to be always in reach. What a concept, the idea of slowness as a political act! It reminds me of my friend who suggested that I and my fiance are engaging in a political act (as it were) by creating a wedding that is a true expression of the two of us rather than some wedding industry bullshit designed to make us feel like failures if the day isn't perfect, perfection being defined by the massive amount of money we've spent on everything.

In Praise of Slowness is going on my list of books that I'd like to have in my own library, a reference I will turn to many times, and something to share with interested friends. Another great thing about this book was its extensive bibliography. As a result of reading it, I've ordered at least three other books from the library and there may be more to come. I'll be talking about those books in future posts.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Truth be told

Memoirs and Confessions of an Unrepentant PhD Student

I have been leading a double life
Evidenced in my two library affiliations.

The respectable university card grants me access to the tomes of my trade or morally uplifting prose,
Whilst the quaint paper town tickets feed my childhood habit, my taste for (a hush befalls the room)
popular fiction.

Until today no humiliation worse than being caught in the town library and asked,
'So, what are you reading?'
Frantically obscuring the glossy paperbacks in my grasp,
I shift my weight from side to side and hedge,
unwilling to confess my crimes against the Canon,
dreading the quirked brow of surprise and dismay from my
inquisitive interlocutor.

But now my shuttered bookcases are thrown wide,
My once-hidden world exposed.
Poetic rehabilitation for the incorrigible:
'Hi, my name is _______, and I've read Bridget Jones' Diary'
August 2000, revised June 2005

Saturday, June 18, 2005

For the Record

Just in case you're curious, I will not be including Real Simple in my survey of literature about simple living. Every time I think about this magazine (not often, I am happy to say), I feel a jolt of fury. How dare they try to make a bunch of money on the concept of simple living by peddling super-expensive ways to 'simplify' our lives by buying more crap?

Here's another disgust-inducing example. I have to replace the 'closet system' where I keep my clothes because the one that's already there is falling apart dangerously. Ironically, my closet is too small to fit any of the ready-made closet organisers (and trust me, I do likes me some organising). So while we were at Costco I picked up the California Closets brochure, thinking that though it would still be too expensive, it might be within my price range, if they even bother making closet systems for tiny closets like mine. Anyway, California Closets tells me, 'We believe that when you organize your home, you Simplify Your Life (R).' A registered fucking trademark on the phrase 'Simplify Your Life' in relation to closets?! I just don't know if I can call them now, despite the fact that my closet is in a truly perilous state. Assholes.

The idea of simple living becoming a status symbol, well, it's absurd. It's also not worth my rage, of course, because people who are in touch with their values and who are truly trying to simplify will see through the garbage that is Real Simple and Simplify Your Life TM. But it's gross to think of simple living being 'trendy' and people looking at these things and thinking that more consumption of overpriced goods by the elite and those who want to be elite is what the movement is all about.

Well, just shows it's a good thing I'm keeping this blog now; I really told them!

Your voice of reason on the simple living frontlines--