The wonder of new words and other covfefe

I’ve been cracking up over Trump’s blooper from the other day. Just thinking about it has me in stitches. I’m talking about his tweet of course where he coined the wonderfully mysterious word ‘covfefe’. Just writing it down makes me smile.

I’ve been wondering to myself how one would pronounce such a word. Covfeef? Covfeefee? Covfayfay? Isn’t it wonderful, no one knows how to pronounce this word because no one knows where it comes from. And the reason no one knows that is because it doesn’t come from anywhere. It is a made up word, either an autocorrect blunder or just sausage fingers at a very late hour. So it has no origin and it has no correct pronunciation. We can pronounce it any way we want. We can use it in any way we want, in any number of wild and wonderful ways.

Trump is a disaster in so many ways. I’m not even going to begin to list them here; one blog post would not suffice. But the one positive thing he has done, he did without meaning to, and without even noticing until he woke up to the comic covfefe storm raging all over social media. What he unwittingly did was he coined a nonsense word that tickles our imagination. And let’s face it; we could definitely use some fun amidst all the dismal on-goings around us.

The thing about language is that it forms our understanding of ourselves and of the world around us. Language is central to the way we organize the world. We use language to communicate and to mobilize people towards a common world order. This is important and handy of course. Without the wonder and the power of words we wouldn’t be able to communicate the way we do and share our inner worlds with each other.

But language can also be problematic and limiting. Because we’re so good at labeling, once a word has been uttered we instantly have a common understanding of what it is we’re talking about. And when this happens, we effectively stay within the boundaries of what we understand to be right and true. We stay inside the box.

This means that thinking out of the box, or developing new ways of organizing, working, living, and being – to name a few – becomes difficult when we use our common and familiar language. Simple terms like work or meeting or flexible time instantly pull us back within the familiar boundaries of what we understand these things to be. So redefining work becomes difficult, as does redefining what flexible work should really entail. Or how we meet and interact with each other. This makes imagining and creating the new – the really new and innovative – challenging.

We need new words to talk about these new things so that we don’t get dragged back into our familiar but dated ways. We need to develop with the times and new language will help us do that.

And this week a new word was given to us, just like that.

Let’s create lots of new words; words that question what we know to be true, and that open our eyes and imaginations to new possibilities. Let’s covfefe!

(…she giggles as she hits the publish button.)

Be a mensch

The other day my son and I were having a conversation at bedtime, as we usually do. He asked me why there are so many awful people in the world who do such terrible things. It’s a tough question for a mother. You want to protect your children from everything evil and scary, but you also want them to be aware so that they can be safe. But still it’s hard. I find myself turning off the radio and the TV when the news comes on, because the news is absolutely horrific with color pictures of misery, death, and gore. If the same thing is shown in a movie, which is pretend, there is an age limit. But real life horror has no age limit and is broadcasted during all hours of a child’s day.

I thought for a moment lying next to my son, and then I answered his question as honestly as I could and said that I don’t know, but what I do know is that although there are many really bad people there are at least as many if not more really good people. And it is true there are a lot of good people in the world.

However, sometimes I wonder if that goodness just gets lost amidst all the egos and political rhetoric. In a time when I’m feeling quite disillusioned by the actions of my country’s leaders, it kind of makes you wonder if they are so caught up in their political power struggles that they just forgot how to be a mensch.

I saw a speech the other day by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that really touched me. As usual Adichie is intelligent and eloquent and really hits the nail on its head in her talk about the plight of the refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety. She talks about dignity, sorrow, hope, and pride, and she calls for a narrative in which we truly see those of whom we speak. No one is, after all, only a refugee. (Please watch it, it’s important, in addition to just being a great talk.)

Well anyway, I shared her speech on Facebook and a friend commented on my post, and raised a really important point. She wondered whether this thing where we don’t actually see people is a wider societal phenomenon that goes beyond the plight of the refugees. She talked about how when everything is so hectic we just don’t have the time, but that we don’t make the time either. It’s like we don’t even want to really see each other for who we really are. Think about it. Do you think that’s true?

I think she has a point. There is something about the way we live, about our culture, about the way we connect quickly and fleetingly through social media, thinking that we have kept in touch while really we grow apart if we don’t actually ever see each other or even have a real conversation every now and then. Let’s face it, we are pretty busy navel gazing much of the time as we for example document and continuously report the minutiae of our lives – minutiae, which is often also very stylized. I mean how many of you rearrange the food and cutlery on the table over and over until you get the perfect picture, or take three, five, ten selfies until you have one that is good enough to post? I admit; I’ve done it.

It’s not entirely our fault; we are very much affected by social norms and ideals, and the social structures that we are a part of, form and limit our actions. However, these structures are created and upheld by people – by us. We are also active agents involved in producing and reproducing this culture in which we live. So we can’t just shrug and say what can you do, that’s just the way it is. We not only can, we need to be reflective of what we do.

So let’s open our eyes and see each other for who we really are. And to the world leaders and politicians out there, be a mensch and make this world a more humane place for our children.

Reflections of a blogger

Today I’m celebrating my 30th blog post. It’s about seven months since I started blogging, and it both feels like yesterday and as if I’ve had this blog forever. One thing is for sure though; I never thought I would ever become a blogger. There is something about being that public, and about being publicly private, that I found both off-putting and scary. You know, while being worried that no one was going to read my blog, I was also pretty worried that someone was actually going to read my blog.

And also, I have to admit that at a certain point so many people seemed to be starting blogs that my automatic – and irrational – reaction was that if everyone else is doing it I certainly don’t want to. It’s kind of like when the movie Titanic first came out. Everyone was watching it and talking about it and gushing over all the Oscars it had gotten and I felt absolutely no urge to see it. It’s silly I know, but what do you do? I did finally see it a couple of years ago in Adelaide when they came out with a 3D version, and I did enjoy it, which I never doubted that I would, but that wasn’t the point was it. Funny this semi-conscious need to be unique, which many argue is the essence of this era of individualization in which we live. Although ironically, perhaps the joke’s on us, because it’s also been argued that individualization is just a trend that we strive towards en masse, while we like to think we’re being different.

But surprisingly, since I was so reluctant, I have really enjoyed being a blogger. Although at the same time, I’m quick to tell people that I’m not a typical blogger, that I mostly see this blog as a weekly column. Although what is a typical blogger really? I guess I need to realize that I am a blogger just like any other blogger.

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be a place where I could to talk about my opting out research and make it more accessible to a wider audience, and I also wanted more control over the publicity my research was getting, i.e. what was being said about my research and when. After receiving my PhD I got quite a bit of media attention, all of which was positive. And although nothing of what was written about my research was wrong – I was allowed to check articles for accuracy before they were published – I still felt that journalists generally seemed to choose a similar perspective of opting out to write about, which wasn’t wrong in any way, but which kind of gave a one-sided version of what opting out and my research is about. The story was mostly about how combining work and family easily becomes too much for women for whatever reason, which in turn compels them to opt out and live on their own terms. And that may be true but there is so much more to opting out than that. So I wanted to use this blog to write about and raise discussions on all the different aspects of opting out.

And then I thought, well even if no one reads my blog, it will also be a way for me to accumulate texts on my research, which I could perhaps one day rework into a book. Because although I already have plans to rework my thesis into an academic book, I’m convinced there is also material in there for a so-called trade book, a less academic book that is. And since writing takes time, I need to think about what I choose to dedicate my time to. My supervisor gave me sound advice when I graduated, saying that even though a trade book is possible, writing one is time away from academic papers or articles, which I need to write if I want an academic career. Now, whether or not I want an academic career on the terms that one is expected to have an academic career is another question, and something that I will save for another blog post, but either way I want to keep my options open, so writing and publishing academic papers is what I’m aiming at. But writing two pages every week for my blog is very doable and doesn’t take a lot of time away from my so-called day job, so this seemed like a good plan. Who cares if anyone reads your blog, right?

Well perhaps, but somewhat unexpectedly, I got readers and followers! And not only that, my readers and followers are from all corners of the globe, which is very exciting. So I guess collecting texts is fine, but it would certainly not feel this fun nor meaningful to produce these texts if it weren’t for all of you!

So my original plan was to post every other week. And being something of a risk-averse control freak, I sat down and made a list of topics I could write about before deciding on whether or not I would try blogging. I came up with about 20 topics, which I thought should keep me going for about a year. And this I was going to do whether or not anyone read my blog.

But blogging turned out to be way too energizing to stick to my original plan. Not only did I realize right after publishing my first post, that waiting two weeks to publish the next one would just be impossible. Right then, two weeks felt like a very long time, and I got so inspired by all the comments I got that my mind was bubbling with ideas for new posts. So I quickly discarded my planned timetable, as well as my list of topics, as they seemed boring compared to the ideas I get from comments and discussions.

I sometimes worry that I’m going to run out of things to say. But as my husband says, if that should ever happen, I just need to read more because reading gives me new perspectives and ideas. And it’s true; you have to read in order to be able to write. Also, if worse comes to worst, I’ll just have to set up more lunch dates with my inspirational friends and colleagues, who always give me a lot to think about.

So thank you for being my readers for these first 30 blog posts! I appreciate every question and comment I get, whether online or in person. This is what makes me want to sit down and write the next post pretty much right after I’ve posted the previous one. I truly look forward to continuing blogging, and to writing the next 30 posts, and more!

The promise and perils of social media

When I was little I had a whole bunch of pen pals and I had lots of cool stationary. My kids don’t have pen pals. They don’t have stationary either. If they did, they would never use it. They don’t ever need stamps.

It sometimes makes me a bit sad that they will never know the magic of a hand-written letter. I remember how special it was to receive a letter. They didn’t come very often, and when they did it was a wonderful and exciting surprise. I couldn’t wait to rip the envelope open. First I would read through the letter quickly and then I would go back and read slowly, savoring every word.

Writing a letter, getting a hold of a stamp, and posting it was an investment in time and effort. It wasn’t something you did for only a sentence or two, like emails or status updates. In a way it was like a diary entry for me – a bit therapeutic actually – because I had to think about what I wrote, and I wrote about my experiences and what I thought about them. I didn’t expect an instant response; that of course never occurred to me. And I still have letters saved somewhere in a box, maybe for me to read years from now, or maybe for my children and their children to read after I’m gone.

No, my kids don’t have pen pals; they have social media. Before long they will have WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or whatever else will be trending. Their messages will be short and spontaneous, and frequent. They may not contain words, only pictures, and they will be easily deleted and forgotten. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media can be pretty great. Personally, I get a lot of pleasure from being connected. I’ve been able to find friends from my past who I had lost touch with. I know what people – friends and relatives I would otherwise hear from or see very rarely – are up to, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. And I have this blog! I find that I make less of an effort to call or meet friends in person, but I do keep in touch virtually. You win some and you lose some.

A couple of years ago I came across a book by Sherry Turkle titled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which has really stayed with me. (If you don’t want to read her book you can also watch her TED talk ‘Connected, but alone?’) Turkle talks about how social networks can have an adverse effect on individuals’ identities. In their messages and updates, people present a self they want to be. They keep it short and take out the messiness that makes up a real person’s life, and as a result, they are flattened and “reduced to their profiles.” They give less of themselves, and also expect less in return, and by communicating in short sentences, abbreviations, and emoticons, there isn’t really much chance of a complex dialogue. This would be fine, except that it is through dialogues that people learn about themselves and form their identities.

But it’s not only that. It can also be a problem that communication is so fast. People post without thinking, and sometimes you see the most horrendous comments. There has recently been a discussion about WhatsApp and how it is used in my kids’ school. Kids bully other kids, perhaps without even realizing it. They may say something awful about someone, and to make matters worse, it is done publicly, and shared with everyone because it is done on social media. While this may be hurtful and have long-term effects for the person on the receiving end, for everyone else the feed may already have been filled with so much more that no one even remembers it. It’s like it never was. Maybe there’s a reason the age limit for WhatsApp is sixteen?

But I don’t believe in going back, we can never go back, only forward. I do, however, believe we need to think about what kind of a culture we want and are creating together. We need to think about what values we pass on to our children, and about the examples we set. If we are obsessed with how many likes or followers we have, they will be too. And if we don’t show respect and think first before we blurt things out, neither will they. Social media is not just a form of communication; it’s a virtual space where people hang out. We need to be there with our children and our students, showing and teaching them what is okay and what is not; what is important and what is destructive. We need to make sure social media is the positive medium it was meant to be.