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Sexual Harassment Isn’t Funny, and it’s Time We Shut it Down

Recently, I was sitting in a local coffee shop grading papers, trying to mind my own business. Two young women were working behind the counter of this intimate little shop, and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. It began with casual talk of guys—cute guys, flirting with guys, which guys had hit on them recently, and what Halloween costumes they wanted to wear when they went out partying with guys (Sexy Baseball Player was mentioned). It was innocent enough, just two young women sharing their thoughts about the attention they were getting, or wanted to get, from men.  But then the conversation, while remaining light hearted and full of giggles, took a turn I never expected.

They started telling tales of sexual harassment they had experienced at work.

I grew furious-not at them, but at the realization that for all the advancements women have made, some things still haven’t changed.

Like women being sexually harassed at work and standing for it.

This was a public establishment, and these women had to know their words would reach the patrons’ ears. But they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, their tone did not change—the exchange did not become conspiratorial, their voices didn’t become hushed. They spoke about it as if it were completely normal, completely acceptable, and maybe even welcomed. They joked about it as if their shared experience was nothing but harmless workplace antics. I was confused, and my heart was breaking.

It started with the recounting of something the manager had said to one of them: “You know, you shouldn’t come to work so clean, it makes me want to taste you.”

“Oh my God, he said that?” responded the other woman, with a hearty laugh.

They laughed together. My stomach dropped.

And then: “Remember that time he had me pinned up against the register? It was all I could do not to gag and push him off of me.” The laughter continued, no trace of them being indignant.  I kept waiting for them to begin a discussion about what they were going to do to address the unwelcome and inappropriate behavior.

They didn’t.

I was completely distracted, torn between angry disbelief at their acceptance of this behavior, and the protective instinct to tell them it wasn’t their fault. I wanted to say, “You know, you don’t have to put up with that kind of treatment. You don’t deserve that.”

No woman does.

But I kept quiet. What if they enjoy it, I wondered. Maybe I am taking this too seriously. Maybe they encourage these advances and I should just keep my nose out of their business.

But here’s the thing: convincing ourselves that it is no big deal allows men to think they can behave this way. It is what leads to pussy grabbing and forced kisses and uninvited groping and comments about our bodies.

It’s what leads to sexual assault.

I don’t think there is a woman alive who hasn’t experienced this in some form. In 1989, I worked with a man who was flirtatious. He was more than twice my age. He fed me tidbits about his sex life, and sometimes asked me questions about mine. I was fifteen, I had no sex life, and I didn’t know that I was being harassed. I enjoyed this attention from an older man. It made me feel grown up. He never touched me and I never spoke up. But looking back, I know that it was harassment, and he should have known better.

Has nothing changed in twenty-seven years?

Women, young or old, should never have to accept harassment. So why did the young baristas laugh it off? Maybe their laughter was a way for them to cope with an infuriating situation without the risk of losing their jobs. Maybe their shared laughter was a way of saying, “I hear you.” Maybe it is because it is still so pervasive and so acceptable to treat women this way that we don’t even see it when it is happening to us. Maybe it’s simply easier to convince ourselves that it isn’t a big deal.

It is a big deal.

As women, we have a responsibility to say no to this nonsense.  It devalues us as equal human beings. We cannot make light of it anymore. As a mother of boys, I will work tirelessly to teach my sons to respect women, but it’s not enough. We all need to empower our daughters to reject harassment. In a time when our country is on the brink of a women’s revolution we, as women, have a critical role to play. We have to demonstrate to our daughters what we will and won’t stand for. We have to say enough is enough.

Sexual harassment isn’t funny.  It isn’t cute.  It isn’t something we can afford to be quiet about any longer.  If we want to be valued as equal creatures to men, and we want to be paid equally for equal work, we cannot simply laugh it off when we are treated as objects to be toyed with.

We have to take control of our own worth, and set the bar for how we expect to be treated.

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Midlife Crisis II – What Does Your Midlife Crisis Look Like?

Okay folks, I want to know…what does your midlife crisis look like? My last blog post was all about my midlife crisis, and the things I do to deal with the angst. I spoke of the power of writing about it, exposing my own insecurities with words and fictional characters. I spoke about running, something I have done since high school but only really fell in love with in my late thirties. I spoke of guitar playing, a challenge that is both frustrating and totally exhilarating. And I even sang the praises of red wine, a lovely crimson companion that helps me settle in at night and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I suspect that many of you out there have either experienced something like this or are going through it right now, and I want to hear about it! Did you discover a new hobby? Throw yourself into a new career? Have another kid (gasp!)? Get all cougar-y and take a younger lover? Maybe an older lover? Buy a revved up sports car? Take an amazing adventure? Start a deep and meaningful relationship with ice cream? Or maybe you just kept those feelings of angst at bay and went about your business, not really giving in to the midlife madness. Now that is a feat I would love to hear about.

Whatever way you dealt with it, I want to hear about it! Maybe your “crisis” wasn’t at mid life – that’s ok! I still want to hear about how you dealt with a tricky time in your life when perhaps you doubted your direction, your path, or your worth. I think it is inspirational to hear how people get past these feelings of self-doubt and move forward in some way, whether that be in a new direction or a familiar one.

Let’s get a dialogue going, instead of me doing all the talking. How about sharing some of your wisdom and perspective in the comments below! Any advice for those who have not yet come to the scary hilltop that is mid life? Anything you wish you had done differently, or would do if you could go back? Anything you are still planning on doing? If you want to share something anonymously, you can send me an email at jess@jesskapp.com and tell me you would like your story to be anonymous. I swear I will not reveal your identity if you don’t want me to. It is really scary to share, I know, but we all have something valuable to contribute to the conversation.

My younger readers, I am not trying to leave you out, and your comments are welcome too! Maybe those of you whose asses have yet to droop, faces have yet to wrinkle, and whose upper arms don’t flap like wings when you wave hello can chime in with your hopes and/or fears about where you will be at midlife. Or maybe you just want to tell us crazy older ladies to shut the hell up already and be thankful that we finally feel comfortable in our own skin and don’t give a crap what people think of us. Maybe you want to share what some of your fears and doubts are as a young woman who has not reached midlife yet. That would be fair. We forty somethings don’t have the market cornered on angst and anxiety.  Feel free to stir some shit up, girls!

Come on, ladies…get in on the convo. What does your midlife crisis look like? What might it look like? I bet it’s pretty. I bet it’s interesting. And I bet you aren’t the only one who’s been there, done that. Let’s rock the midlife crises like the strong, diverse women we are! Let’s make that midlife crisis our bitch and do something truly amazing with it.

And then, have a glass of wine, maybe a scoop of ice cream and be thankful for all of the wonderful adventures yet to come.

 

 

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All the Single Ladies (and I DON’T mean your status)!

Recently I read a piece in which the author, a woman, was discussing the notion that she, as a woman, had to be, “everything to everyone.” She was reflecting on the idea that the roles that are central to her existence are defined by how they relate to other people. Mother to her children, wife to her husband, and so on. It got me thinking about the roles I fill and how the vast majority of them are indeed centered on the needs and feelings of others. A mother, which often requires complete selflessness.   A wife, through which I have learned that of key importance, is learning how to negotiate another human being’s needs and feelings. Add to the list daughter, friend, employee, and teacher and there are few, if any, roles I play that are purely for my own hedonistic desires. Even writing, which is something I do because I truly love it, has to happen around the schedule of my children’s sleep habits and my work commitments.

This reminded me of an incident that happened several years ago in which I introduced a female colleague to another colleague as someone’s wife. I used her name first, as in, “This is Jane, Dr. Jones’s wife.” (Note: names have been changed) Immediately after I said it, I could feel her energy change next to me. I knew as soon as we were alone, she would gently but firmly chide me for calling her someone’s wife by way of introduction. She is an accomplished woman, with a career of her own, and I absolutely recognize and respect her in that way. But the person I was introducing her to knew of her husband and his work, so it seemed natural to relay their connection. At the time I didn’t think much of her strong reaction to my referring to her as this man’s wife. After all, she IS his wife. I know she is proud of her husband and have heard her speak extremely highly of him on many occasions, so why is it such a big deal to highlight the fact that she is married to him?

Years later, thinking about my own roles as a woman, and how hard it can be for women to carve out their own identity in a world of motherhood, wifehood, and all the rest of it, I totally get it. I mean, I sincerely get it. I have fallen into the habit of trying to be all things to all people, and quite frankly it sucks. Why should I have to be everything to anyone (my kids included)? Why should I not be singularly concerned with being everything to myself? Why are women so quick to label themselves as someone’s mother, or wife? Ask yourself this: How many men have you met, say at a work function or in a professional setting, who have introduced themselves by saying, “Hi, I am Joe, Jennifer’s husband.”  It doesn’t count if you are meeting a girlfriend’s husband or boyfriend for the first time.  I mean, meeting men who have no connection to you through a woman.  Those of you who are married or in a relationship, ask your significant other (if the significant other is of the male variety) to go one week only introducing himself to others as your husband or boyfriend or cabana boy, or whatever it is they are to you. Ask them if they would be willing to do it. If not, ask them why? (I know, I am stirring up some trouble now).   I bet it has something to do with the natural desire to put our own accomplishments, or career title, or other self-defining characteristic on display when meeting someone for the first time. I get it. But it seems to me it is rare for a man to put those personal accomplishments on the back burner when meeting new people, and very common for women to do so. Is it just because we women so love to gush about our sweeties that it feels more important to recognize that bond when meeting new people than to toot our own horns?

So I propose this: All of us ladies, married or not, mothers or not, are really single ladies in the sense that we are individuals. We are separate from our spouses, our children, and everyone else who wants a piece of us. That is not to suggest that we should abandon our roles as mothers and wives and friends and say, “screw you,” to the whole damn world and spend the rest of our lives alone, drinking cosmopolitans, binge watching Downton Abbey, and shoe shopping. Wait…that sounds pretty freaking amazing, maybe I should reconsider….No, no, no. We don’t need to completely disconnect ourselves from those we love. But I for one spent over 30 years feeling like I was defined by my usefulness to other people.   I dedicated a lot of time to thinking about things such as, 1) Am I a good enough girlfriend? 2) Am I a good enough wife? 3) Am I a good enough teacher? 4) Am I a good enough mother? And so on and so on. Never did I ask myself, am I getting enough from my husband? My friends? Are the people around me recognizing me for who I am, not for what I can do for them? If all of these people were to disappear, how would I define myself? I don’t say this to elicit any, “Aw, poor baby, you are such a martyr,” type feelings or comments. I am simply observing that being a woman is often synonymous with being a giver, and with defining ourselves as satellites to someone else’s planetary being. Floating around them, providing gravitational stability, influencing the ebb and flow of their tides, but never really asserting our own independent significance in the system.

OK, this is the part where women who love their men and love being introduced as so and so’s wife or girlfriend or old lady are going to tear into me and accuse me of being a man hating bitch and a detached mother. But quite the opposite is true! I love my kids, I love my husband, and I love nothing more than sharing their accomplishments with those around me. All I am suggesting is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be introduced as something other than someone’s wife. Wanting someone’s first impression of you to be of YOU as a single person. As an individual. As a woman with value, and worth, and kick ass accomplishments all your own that don’t necessarily include pushing small, screaming humans out of your lady parts. That’s what I mean by “single.” I am not connected to any other human being inseparably, whom I rely on for my very existence and belong to completely. No. I am a single, solitary woman who happens to have a lovely husband, two beautiful, clever kids, and family and friends. They are very important to me, but they do not define me. It might seem like being the best mothers we can be requires us to drop everything at any given moment and bow down to the whims of our children. Sometimes it does, like when your child is puking his guts out in the middle of the night. But other times, it is perfectly appropriate, and I would argue preferable, to let your kids know that you are involved in something else and cannot be their everything right now. It is perfectly appropriate to tell your spouse the same damn thing, and you should probably start doing that sooner rather than later. The truth is, the day will come when my kids want nothing more than to get the hell out of my life and build lives of their own, and I will survive because I am a fully functioning human with or without them. I relish the thought of that day, because if I am doing a decent job as a mother, they will be fully functioning humans too, and will go forth into this world and tear it up! It will be so much fun to watch them discover their true selves. So why shouldn’t I discover mine?  Why shouldn’t we all?

And so, all you single ladies, married or not, what defines you? What do you love about yourself? If someone asked you to describe your single most valuable asset, and it cannot have anything to do with another person, what would it be? How would you want people to remember you after you are gone? Good wife and mother are not bad things to include. But after 40 years of getting to know myself, if that is all I can assert about myself, and all others can assert about me, then I haven’t done enough to promote my single SELF! I haven’t examined my own personal strengths, passions, and uniqueness enough. I haven’t shouted loudly enough, “Hey, I am not just someone else’s. I don’t belong to anyone but me.” Do we really want our children, our spouses, or our friends, to see us as everything to everyone…but ourselves?

Relationship status be damned. I am a single lady. An individual. A woman. A writer. A runner. A teacher. A geologist. A music lover. And if that ain’t enough…a wife and mother too.

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Women of Science, Speak Up!

A couple of years ago I launched an informal campaign on my personal Facebook page to celebrate influential people in science and their amazing contributions to advance our understanding of the world. My inspiration was a book I had picked up called The Scientific 100 by John Galbraith Simmons, which is his ranking of the most influential scientists from the past and present.   He researched over 2,000 years of incredible scientific work and came up with this veritable “Who’s Who” of science. At the time I was so in awe of all of the stories in that book that I posted wantonly about these influential figures and the unfathomable things they had done to move forth progress in fields such as medicine, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. ButI failed to notice the lack of scientific women who were recognized in the ranking.

One person I took the time to write about, who didn’t make the list, was Henrietta Leavitt, an American astronomer whom almost nobody knows about. Even if you’re not an astronomer, I bet you have heard of Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble telescope, no? Of course you have heard of Hubble. Hubble is famous. Maybe not, like, Madonna famous, or Brad Pitt famous, but most of us have heard, at some point in our lives, something about the Hubble telescope. Hubble’s biggest contribution to science, arguably, was his determination of the age of the universe. He suggested that the universe had a beginning, and it was about 14 billion years ago. Yes, that is billion with a B. The universe is really freaking old, okay. Wrap your head around that one if you can! Prior to 14 billion years ago, the idea is, there was nothing. No space. No time. No matter. Nothing. This is remarkable, but what most of us did not know was that Hubble could not have ascertained the age of the universe without the work of Henrietta Leavitt that was going on behind the scenes.

Here’s some interesting stuff about Henrietta. She lost her hearing when she was about 25 years old. She loved astronomy. She volunteered as a research assistant in the Harvard College Observatory for seven years before being hired for $0.30 an hour. Edward Pickering, an astronomer, who was the director of the observatory, hired her and he kept her from doing much more than caring for the telescopes, as he didn’t think women should pursue the rigorous theoretical work that he was directing. But did that hold Ms. Leavitt back? Not really. One of her duties was to peruse the photographic plates collection of the observatory, and she figured some shit out. First, she devised a way to gage a star’s brightness, something none of the men had been able to do. Her method became the international standard, yo. She also discovered that by studying a type of stars called variable stars (stars that basically expand and contract), she could determine the distance to stars. This is what ultimately led Hubble to be able to calculate the age of the universe, by knowing something about how far away different stars are from us (and a few other things such as how fast they are moving away from us). In a very simplistic view, he basically ran the movie of the expansion of our universe backward to a point in time at which everything was in the same place, and thus determined how long our universe has been expanding. This was only possible because of Leavitt’s work on variable stars. When she died from cancer at the age of 53, she had discovered half of all the variable stars that were known about at the time.

Now, why doesn’t anybody know about the work of Henrietta Leavitt, but everyone knows about good ol’ Edwin Hubble? Why isn’t there a Leavitt telescope flying around Earth taking images of deep space? I don’t know. Being part of the scientific community, I suspect it is related to the fact that science has long been a male dominated field, one in which many women have been reluctant to be outwardly vocal about their ideas and findings. The good news is, that is starting to change. Over 50% of the students in my geology department are women, so a day is coming when the research findings of women will be commonly discussed in every media venue known to man. But another interesting thing about The Scientific 100 is the percentage of this 100 that are women. It’s three. The single digit…3. Three women out of 100 scientists. Three percent. I understand that the ranking was based on a review of actual groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and it just so happens that the majority of them have been made by men, or have at least been accredited to men. I don’t blame the author for featuring fewer women. It is clear that men have dominated the history of scientific advancement. I also realize that it wasn’t as common for women to pursue careers in scientific fields as men until quite recently, so that skews the numbers. But the story of Henrietta Leavitt makes me wonder how many other women have been behind the scenes, in laboratories and observatories all over the world, making astute, important observations that get swept into the pile of important observations used to bolster the credibility of a male scientist’s research findings. That is not to say that I doubt the abilities of male scientists, nor the importance of their work. But we have all heard the statement, “Behind every good man there’s a good woman.” Hmmmm. How many great male scientists have had women behind them, doing the dirty work so to speak, grinding through the nitty gritty of the scientific method day after day, only to be lost in the shuffle when it is time to expose extraordinary discoveries? If Henrietta is a virtual unknown, how many more are there? And is it a function of women being less apt to claim ownership of their scientific work than men? Are women just better at sharing? Are we less prone to pissing on our territory, figuratively speaking? Or are we just less accomplished in science than men?

So who are the three women who graced the line up of The Scientific 100? Can you guess? The first is someone I am sure you have heard of, Marie Curie, queen bee of radioactivity. She is number 26 on the list which is pretty damn good. Listen, this woman had all sorts of shit to fight through, including growing up in a place (Poland) and at a time (the late 1800s) when women were often denied access to higher education. Regardless, Marie was the first woman to receive a degree in physics from the Sorbonne and got a degree in math a year later. This woman was unstoppable. She won two Nobel Prizes. She was an unapologetic feminist. Her notebooks are still highly radioactive to this day due to the excessive amount of time she spent studying her radioactive samples.  She died of cancer associated with radiation poisoning, something that wasn’t understood prior to her work. She was no less accomplished than any of the higher-ranking men on the list.

The other two are women I had never heard of before reading the book. Lynn Margulis, and Gertrude Belle Elion. Lynn Margulis, number 80, first proposed the symbiotic theory of the origin of the cell in 1967. Symbiosis is defined as a relationship of mutual dependence or benefit. She was an extremely controversial figure for many reasons, including her contention that all organisms larger than bacteria are symbiotic systems, which had implications for how evolution is thought to occur. She was also a proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, which describes the Earth as a whole to be a living system, and made grand statements about the species Homo sapiens (that’s us) being arrogant and ignorant! I think I would have liked her.

Gertrude Belle Elion, number 85, was instrumental in developing one of the first effective drugs to combat leukemia. Too bad she was only 16 when Marie Curie was dying of leukemia in 1934. She, too, fought adversity before finding great success, and was once passed over for a job because her physical attractiveness might distract other workers. In the late 1970s she developed acyclovir, the first antiviral medication safe and potent enough to combat herpes infections. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988, in spite of her distracting physical attractiveness. That employer that passed her over was likely one of the stupidest human beings on the planet, who clearly underestimated her abilities. I bet this still happens today.

So three there are, and fierce they be! They live on forever among the ranks of the likes of Isaac Newton (ranked number 1), Albert Einstein (2), Charles Darwin (4), Sigmund Freud (6), Galileo (7), Stephen Hawking (54), Noam Chomsky (71), Archimedes (100), and many others. I admire all of these men and women and the mind-boggling work they did. But the work of these three women is strong evidence that women have just as much potential as men to do revolutionary work in science. I suspect, as time rolls on and women continue to find their voices and their strength, more of them will push beyond the traditional, the accepted, and the sometimes male dominated, and we will see a day when a ranking of The Scientific 100 will have to be expanded to The Scientific 200. And more than 50% of that list will be the names of smart, plucky women who refused to twiddle the knobs or categorize the photos or organize the data for brilliant men, but led the rigorous intellectual work that brought us scientific advancements for a new, ever changing world.

A world in which groundbreaking scientists can rock red lipstick!

 

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Journeying Beyond Your Comfort Zone

This is me after a four-day excursion, on foot, up a steep walled, snowy valley in Tibet.  I was sunburned, bloated, exhausted, and could barely stand up, but damn was I feeling amazing!

This is me after a four-day excursion, on foot, up a steep walled, snowy valley in Tibet. I was sunburned, bloated, exhausted, and could barely stand up, but damn was I feeling amazing!

Welcome to my blog, where I will explore anything and everything related to journeying beyond your comfort zone. I write about topics such as pushing your limits, trying new things, being independent, adventure, the outdoors, scientific discoveries and advancements, women in science, women in the arts, womanhood, finding your true self, education, amazing things women are doing or have done, and how we are affected by the things we choose to do. While I consider myself a LOUD and PROUD advocate of all things womanly, I am not a man hater. This is not a place where I will rant uncontrollably about the evils of men, and implore women to rise up against them. I love men. I have been privileged enough to have exceptional men in my life. In fact, I may dedicate an entire blog post in the future to waxing poetic about the fabulous men I have had in my life. In this blog, I want to promote the ideals and experiences that make us, as women, stronger and more confident humans. I want to explore what it means to get off our asses, get out of our comfortable, sometimes mediocre existences, and try something that seems scary, or unusual, or impossible. I want to inspire women of all ages to live unabashedly the lives they want to live, and to explore possibilities that fall outside their norm.   Believe it or not, there are possibilities that may not even be on your radar yet, but they will present themselves when you least expect them. Take notice! You never know what waits just around the corner.

Let me be clear about what I mean when I say, “journey beyond your comfort zone.” Inevitably there will be someone, somewhere, who reads this and begins to rave about the fact that I am advocating for women to be pushed into situations that make them uncomfortable. That is absolutely NOT what I am advocating. There are things in life that each of us is completely uncomfortable with, for good reason. We all have individual boundaries that cannot be crossed, and things we would never do. Things that cause us to be less than our authentic selves. Things that we have tried before and had horrible experiences with. Things that cause us pain. I would never encourage anyone to do something that feels fundamentally wrong or uncomfortable. By journeying beyond our comfort zones I don’t mean we should do things that make us sacrifice our personal beliefs or lose our true selves. What I am suggesting is that there are places to go, experiences to have, which might seem off the beaten path of our normal lives, and that is exactly where we should go. I know some of these things are easier said than done. That is the whole freaking point!

I also want to put right out there that this blog is not a place where I wish to shame or judge anyone for the choices they have made and the lives they choose to live. I have read countless articles and blog posts, often written by women, that criticize stay-at-home moms, working moms, women who didn’t breast feed, women who cook dinner for their husbands, curvy women, skinny women, women who dress sexy, single women, women who home school, women who don’t indulge their child’s every whim, and so on. Look, I suspect all of us women are just trying to do the best we can do with the lives we are living. None of us knows what another woman’s life is all about. But no matter who we are, we don’t have to limit ourselves to things that are familiar, or usual, or easy. Housewife, hippie, CEO, artist, doctor, teacher, astronaut, porn star, scientist…we all deserve to take the journeys that will shape our human experience and make us better women.

I hope you will be entertained, and possibly inspired, by my words and experiences. My stories are often embarrassing, brutal, and outrageous, and I am happy to put my vulnerability on display for the sake of a good laugh and maybe an, “I’ve been there,” moment for a reader.   If you read something here you can relate to, please get in touch! I love connecting with other women and hearing about their experiences. If you have journeyed beyond your comfort zone, tell me about it! I am always looking for guest bloggers to add to the conversation.

Ultimately, nothing I have ever done that was life changing was easy. At the same time, I realize I have been fortunate in my opportunities. But there are all different forms of journeying beyond a comfort zone, and I believe everyone can find one. It doesn’t have to be a grand adventure. All it has to be is something that, when it is over, you look back on it and say, “I cannot believe I did that. I kick ass.” And you do. You will. So lace up your boots. Saddle up your horse. Pick up that microphone. Enroll in that class. Book that trip. Start your engines. Kick up your heels and put down your self-doubt. It’s time to take a journey beyond your comfort zone!