Friday, June 20, 2014

Executive Power

Over the last few weeks, I have fallen prey to the talons of instant-streaming-induced binge-watching, in particular, becoming a living stereotype of the so honest it is hilarious Portlandia sketch: I am addicted to popular science-fiction drama Battlestar Galactica. Literature, film, television with a streak of fantasy, of futuristic speculation, has always interested me; from my first foray into dystopian possibilities with The Giver to the mesmerizing tales from the Tripod trilogy, a fundamental reading assignment for my fifth grade class that really captured a similar mankind will to survive and thrive. While humanity battling against machines, while hurtling through the far reaches of space, is an immediate draw to me, Battlestar Galactica has also garnered the love and respect of those who would never admit, or never even though, speculative fiction would appeal to them. In parallel to the war against morally ambiguous, and conscience-ambiguous, super-cybernetic-robots, the show hinges on political and military conflicts and intrigues, as the few thousand remaining humans attempt to maintain some semblance of their former civilization, culturally and sociopolitically. So, the show has been a favorite among those who relish in the narrative trajectories of the triumphs, weaknesses, failures, and betrayals of our leaders.

In the first season, President Laura Roslin, executive leader of the roaming colonies, banished from their home planets, discusses with the commander of their military ship, the Battlestar Galactica, the difficult decisions the fleet has made, and particularly the burden of the decisions she, as president, has made. Decisions to attack, to retreat. Decisions to defuse and disable opponents, machine and man alike. A lower government official before the watershed nuclear attack that destroys most of humanity, the government included, she recounts a bit of counsel the late President Adar imparted: "One of the most interesting things about being president is you don't have to explain yourself, to anyone." Maybe more so than any other situation so far presented on the show, this encapsulates so accurately our current milieu. 

Earlier this week, President Obama deployed more troops in Iraq, to support the Iraqi military in suppressing rebel groups who have taken control of territory in the north of the country. Continuing in the rich heritage of other former United States presidents to directly and physically intervene, with vehement and powerful military force and resources, in the politics of the Middle East, this comes on the end of the interesting, debated prisoner swap, a seemingly unilateral command that leaves many here and abroad confused about the implications on duty to fellow citizens as well as on the elegant checks-and-balances of our democratic system. When he was first elected, I was elated; after enduring eight years of unnecessary war during the Bush era, propagated by contorted patriotic propaganda and the vested interests of various corporations, globally, the de-militarize, dis-engage platform promoted by President Obama was hopeful. It was, or could have been, true change. Throughout his first term, and now consistent into the second, I have hardened to disappointment.

Perhaps the evolution of an instant and, hopefully, transparent global communication environment, fueled by a vibrant, ever-churning behemoth media industry and the technological-social platforms to facilitate these transactions on a massive scale, has fostered a sense among the public that, indeed, explanation and justification and rationale is required, is demanded, for the choices and behaviors of our political and economic leaders. In recent decades, scrutiny has heightened and the details surrounding even sensitive decisions can, and often does, become available for broad consumption, interpretation, manipulation, and, ultimately, propagation. In tandem to this path, the desire to side-step accountability, to act unilaterally, to adopt that attitude summarized by the fictional President Adar, seems to also grow in potency. There could be a pretense that restraining from public discourse for certain situations is protection. A sort of paternal authority: I know best. These repelling movements seem at such odds, seem that they would oppose one another, cause a system to collapse. 

It would be silly to assume that the Founding Fathers, that every president from Washington on, did not adopt a similar stance. Memory is always flawed, subjective; the history books have a funny way of capturing details, choosing their portraits.  

(image taken from National Park Service)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Coco Chanel and Change

"A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life." 
-- Coco Chanel

We took our project into the living room, among the cheap vinyl and faux-wood couches of our pre-furnished apartment; the light here was stronger than that in the cavern bathroom. My hair was dry, which probably made some type of difference. We decided on a thick, straight, blunt bang, solid hair across my forehead, above my eyes. Scrunching my eyes shut tight, for protection, she slowly snipped the strands of hair, hands and fingers manipulating the scissors in an unsure but steady confidence. Occasionally growing long and cumbersome from my delinquency in grooming, the bangs have, essentially, been my staple style ever since that evening at university, mildly bored with one of my best friends, when an idle discussion about a new hair cut turned into action. I have not changed since; sometimes, the hair is longer, the layers or the angles more dramatically trimmed, but the same general shape, same feel, ultimately maintained. 

I have never taken a true risk, a risk of the magnitude that create icons, whether heroic or tragic, a risk where success means an empire, a legacy, when coupled with a healthy dose of chance and hard work, a heavy dose of passion and dedication. A woman, like Coco, does not become a bit of history, without such willingness and openness to catalyzing her own change. I am not seeking to become a grand historical figure, but to make impact, to build something beyond the ordinary, against the grain, to instigate some greater downstream effect from one's own contained sense of self, there must be some risk, some impetus for uncertainty. Despite an intellectual and philosophical curiosity, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, of some crash and burn from which I cannot recover, keep me fettered to a known and tried path, to habit and comfort. This quality in myself, this fear or lack of courage, as a type of meta-problem, is a quality I want to change and cannot seem to.

(image taken from Visionary Artistry Magazine)  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Girl Boss

At my previous position, my first formal job following completion of my formal university education, three men originally stood at the helm, partners in the small, privately-owned business; during my tenure there, two of the partners bought out the third, resulting in a rather tumultuous cascade of organizational and financial chaos. An instance of rather cosmic symmetry, my current position is within an advertising agency led by two women; before my time, both of whom had allied to remove their original third partner, also a woman. Operating a successful small business is arduous and not for everyone, as my experience illustrates; and while, traditionally and mathematically, triads can offer greater balance and support than a dual system, in practice, the two-against-one strategy often results in remove the one, particularly when issues of differences in vision, or division of labor and profits, enter into the equation.

As a young professional woman, I was intrigued and attracted to an organization that prided itself on fostering the leadership development of other young professional women. My former company was, indeed, predominantly women, as were our clients; however, possibly due to their arcane, and ineffective, methods for business development, the practice of schedule lunches with those in the Rolodex and draw up some project on the back of a cocktail napkin, and to their myopic and narcissistic personalities, the partners, my bosses, always seemed to evoke some entrenched patriarchal authority, both condescending and manipulative when necessary.  For most employees, there was a persistent tension of playing and being played; every comment, every maneuver, seemed perfectly calculated and imbued with some meaning. There was a sense of being semi-autonomous pawns; intelligent, hard working, but ultimately malleable, pieces to be moved, to be convinced.

Naively, while interviewing for my current position, I was hopeful that female leaders would offer a refreshing and near total alternative to this management style, which, in my experience, had proven destructive, from a business returns perspective as well as a personal satisfaction perspective. Business is business, and certain traits that blend together to alchemize an ideal business leader, while evolving with broader cultural and economic trends, have not changed drastically, whether that leader is a man or a woman. The ability to act both selfishly and altruistically; the ability to take and to hold an aggressive stance, or an unpopular one; the ability to inspire, to instill courage or hope or a tenacious work ethic in others; the ability to craft a vision, to believe it, to mold other believers. Specific industries will require specific knowledge, skills, nuances in personality, but, I believe some overarching tenets will hold true. Starting my first day, I was optimistic that a more strategically holistic approach to problem solving, to business development, would be engendered by our oft-proclaimed fairer sex. That listening would precede speaking; that jargon and double-speak would be replaced with genuine, honest dialogue. A year in of keen observation, the politics that can entangle any organization, of any size, obviously still exist and prevail; there is still a sense of a lack of personal connection, which, for me, has seemed to generally form the foundation for respect and value of the unique skills and contributions of another. It is, and was, foolish to conflate this onto gender alone, that a swapping of some chromosomes, and the lived experiences that such a swap confers, would result in a drastic difference between the two sets of leaders. Optimism, a rare bout, clouded my pragmatism. Perhaps, in my search for a great change, I inflated and contorted my expectations; in finding a minor change, I was sharply disappointed, but, worse, quickly complacent.

After a few months at the new office, I learned that there was an extracurricular women's development group, individuals invited by one of the partners to meet after-hours, aptly named the Lean In Group. Time passed, and I was not extended an invitation to participate, which unnerved the Type A fibers in me, while the bohemian, romantic, artistic bits scattered in between sighed with relief. I would be lying, though, if I did not admit that I felt hurt and a bit inadequate. These have since contributed to a consistent vacillation between a "work harder, work better" and a "screw this" mentality. From what I can glean through brief conversations with a few friends in the office, the events typically involve drinking wine and listening to the partner lecture, with some discussion here and there. Without having attended, it seems not particularly useful, but rather benign as well; the greatest advantage, likely, appears to be those moments of "face time" with the boss, a sort of widely accepted and practiced display of deference and positive, subtle veneration, of some quick quips, in hopes of staying in good graces come promotion time. While certainly not above partaking in these traditional office rituals, they can be both tiring and uncomfortable; additional free time, liberated from these affectations, is never unwelcome.

The Lean In Group is obviously named after the behemoth, popular pseudo-feminist cultural movement catalyzed by Sheryl Sandberg's book of the same name, which rippled from the business sector to the broader cultural realm. I have not read her book, and am not sure I intend to, with so many other books of interest piling around my shelves, but the general points and the impact her words are inescapable, with the various media dialogue, tangential influences, and branching projects, such as the Lean In collection of contemporary, progressive stock photography of women. While heightened attention and conversation surrounding the many, many barriers and challenges women continue to face on a daily basis in our society is commendable and helpful, what I have found problematic about this particular breed of current pop-feminist rhetoric is that the lessons promote or explain overcoming within the current patriarchal institution. Essentially, how to play by the rules of the system or break the rules of the system to succeed, as a woman. What lacks are critical dialogues surrounding how to fundamentally change or adjust these norms, such that women do not have to swerve or bend or accommodate to the current system, but rather our goals, priorities, perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses are integrated and assimilated.

In a similar vein to Sandberg, though offering a decidedly anti-hero kind of approach to the memoir-style business book, Nasty Gal CEO Sophia Amoruso's #GIRLBOSS has sky-rocketed, following a similarly steep upward trajectory as her retail brand. I, also, have not yet read this book, and while I am a bit skeptical as to how much of her unique life experience and work in the fashion and merchandising business will translate directly to some of current situation, I am curious and do admire her against the grain attitude. I respect that she rolls up her sleeves, gets her hands dirty in her business, wants the best and brightest getting dirty along with her, and, seemingly, loves what she has created. Funnily enough, in addition to commercial, consumable, pre-packaged feminism, the anti-hero is having a strong cultural moment as well. Though likely not delving into any academic discourse territory on how best to fundamentally subvert and overthrow patriarchy to create an actual equal space for women, it seems Amoruso's walk-to-the-beat-of-your-drum problem-solving and leadership style would speak to some of my frustrations in the seemingly robotic, replicable veneer of leadership qualities I have come to accept over the past few years, from men and women alike. 

When I was younger, growing up, I always felt I would, or should, ultimately be my own captain. I have never envisioned myself at the top of a large, impersonal heap; even in terms of friendships, those types of relationships and those dynamics have been unnatural and undesirable to me. I have always veered too close to utter independence to care too deeply for what the masses think, which ends up being a bit of a detriment in the case of a large and broad organization; again, that balance of selfish and self-conscious is not easily struck by most. But leading something intimate, something true and unadulterated, with a few, close others who care as deeply as I; this is something that seems reasonable and honest to my strengths.  

(image taken from The Indie Source)

Monday, June 2, 2014

Mermaid Fantasies, Revisited

In the dank corners of our partially finished basements, amidst water-heater tanks and mutating crickets, our mothers stowed plastic bins, stuffed with discarded cocktail dresses, dance costumes, loose suits, brazen ties, and more, our prized dress-up boxes. Sometimes, we draped beads over our thin necks, cascades of beads, streams, so many bits of tawdry metallic plastic they covered our flat nipples, some crass bit of fanciful armor. Sometimes, we wore old eyeglasses, lens thick and growing opaque, distorting the cracked tile ground, warping our steps, making us dizzy with disorientation. Mostly, we stepped gingerly into old swim suits, tied sashes around our nascent breasts, and became mermaids.

One summer, large, bronze men descended upon the house, crawled onto the roof, peeled away bits of black tile like black scales, the house an exposed and raw carcass, clean. As they filed into the kitchen to gulp water, we giggled and waved. Ignored, we donned sequins and bizarre tassels, and before the bedroom windows, which faced the hot roof, we undulated. Our bellies were bellies still, that purgatory between the fat collected as a baby in the womb and stomachs taut from running wild and fast. Bellies round, limbs loose and flaying, we undulated, mimicking seductive creatures we had observed somewhere but whose artful displays remained enigmatically elusive. Sideways glances, shaking heads, the occasional pitiful smile. At the end of the day, our mothers hollered our names, those shouts plucking us cruelly from the depths of our oceans back to this dry world; sashes, sequins discarded, we ran to the dinner table.

(image taken from Rebloggy)