One of the things about spending as much time unplugged in the woods of Maine as I have over the past half-year is that I’m not exposed to a lot of the enlightened thinking spread virally by the media. For example, I only recently heard about the University of Pennsylvania professor who made news by saying it’s not just IQ that determines success, but also “grit” — perseverance and passion for long-term goals. (She won a MacArthur “genius grant” for this theory, giving me hope my sun-blocking-while-driving invention, the Arm Dickie, might yet earn me one.)
Of course, all we have to do is look to nature to confirm the role of grit. Which critters survive? The ones that lounge around their dens, reading The New Yorker and the Mensa newsletter, or the ones that relentlessly scrounge to harvest the last of the season’s nuts, shoots and berries, flushing cover and crossing open fields regardless of what beady eyes or scopes may be trained on them? OK, bad example, but you have to acknowledge that both require dogged determination. Do you know how hard it is to explain New Yorker cartoons in squirrel-speak?
Then there’s Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s latest campaign, “Ban Bossy.” This follows her “Lean In” movement, which basically told women they had to speak up to be heard in the business world. I say, “Bully for you, Ms. Sandberg, for your illuminated thinking.” Let’s go back to nature to illustrate her findings. If a female cardinal hangs back in the brush, worried about the quality of her mate’s handiwork, and doesn’t speak up — or, worse, defers to him and says something to the effect of, “Sure, that flimsy nest with all the holes in it looks fine. Don’t worry about it. Let’s go hang out under the feeder” — what we’ll have come nesting season will be a lot of cardinal omelets. Hence, all that springtime racket. When you hear tweedle tweedle in the trees, that’s an empowered female leaning in: “You call that a nest? Don’t flick that crown at me, mister. Get back to work!”
Sandberg says that when boys take charge, they are perceived as showing leadership qualities, but when girls do the same, they risk being called bossy. She says it like it’s a bad thing.
I say, what’s wrong with bossy?
Take, for example, my friend Joyce, who has been bossing me around since the early 1980s. I comply with almost all of her demands. Why? Because when she bosses me, it’s usually to get me to do something fun (an exception being coloring my hair, which she has been telling me to do, to no avail, since my first gray appeared 25 years ago). In our youth, she never cajoled. She barked. “Stop working and come drink a beer with me. Now.” Just recalling those words makes me tremble and fumble for my car keys. These days, Joyce lives over an hour away and has a daughter, Molly, who is on the receiving end of these directives, so I don’t get barked at as often. A recent Facebook post shows a helmeted, snowy little girl on skis. Joyce’s caption: “It’s official… I can’t keep up with my 10 year old in the trees.” I could just hear Joyce’s voice: “Quit doing your chores, Molls, and come on. We’re going skiing.” And when I think of how Molly can sweetly coerce me into swimming when I’m contentedly lounging on their deck, I’m comforted to know this bossiness will thrive in future generations.
My friend Tanya is also bossy, but she’s wilier. Somehow, in the past few years, she has compelled me to not only put up a website, but also join Facebook and upgrade my phone. As resistant as I was to these tasks, I complied because, to tell you the truth, I’m a little intimidated by her. Despite the fact she is a decade-plus my junior and was once my employee (my first and only employee; I hired her to be my listings editor when I was at Casco Bay Weekly and have never had another opportunity to vocationally boss again), she has always been much more grown-up and mature than I. When she tells me to do something, I know it’s for my own good. And because she never does so overtly (Tanya does not bark), it’s even more difficult to say no. But frankly, if it weren’t for her bossy ways, I’d still be mimeographing press releases and sitting by my landline waiting for it to ring. Instead, I just stare at my iPhone, watching for “likes” on my Facebook page.
And don’t even get me started on my cat. I’m not saying she totally runs the show around our house, but if you’re wondering why I’ve been working standing up for the past two years (I tell everyone it’s for my health; yes, I read the studies about how bad sitting is for you), the truth is, someone likes to sleep during office hours in my work chair, and I can’t get it back.
I’m bossy, too, although not as much as you might think from the tone of my writing. See, I was a little late entering the bossy game. Being the last child and only girl in my family, I didn’t have a lot of bossing capital. There’s only so much satisfaction one can derive from telling stuffed animals to straighten up and fly right and wipe that look off their faces. Instead, I learned to whine and whimper, which was effective with an indulgent father, but, I later discovered, less effective with other adults. (See: “This, and Other Reasons Why I Didn’t Get Married Until I Was 40.”) If I were to lead a young-girl revolution, it would be something like: “Be bossy, not a babypants.”
I occasionally found a friend I could boss when I was growing up, but there was always another tough girl around with a new set of marching orders: “No yellow on Thursday.” “Wear Levi jeans, not Lee’s.” And, of course, there were all those teachers and coaches and actual bosses who bossed me well into adulthood. It was not until I stood facing a college classroom, in the spring of 1993, that I found my spiritual bossy home: behind a lectern. There, I could give orders to my heart’s content, establishing strictures (the lengthy classroom-etiquette lecture that started every semester was always a big hit), issuing edicts (no late work will be accepted unless I say so) and instilling in my charges a deep and abiding regard for my rule. (On the Rate My Professors website, a student said my black wardrobe “really fits her ****y personality.” They’re not my asterisks, but counting their number, I think the adjective is “funny.”)
But now that I am no longer teaching at USM (please see the several dozen references I’ve made to this in recent columns), I’ve had to find other bossing outlets. Which is why I have appointed myself the unofficial Portland Trail Marm. As someone who spends a great deal of time on our city’s walkways (an hour each morning, roughly five days per week), I have taken it upon myself to enlighten fellow users about trail etiquette and laws.
Dogs, for example. I know they can’t read, so how would they know they’re required to be on an eight-foot leash on all sidewalks and most trails? I would say at least half the dogs I encounter around town are off-leash. I’ve tried any number of tactics, from super Southern friendly (“Hey there! I’m sure you’re not from around here, but did you know your dog needs to be leashed? Have a great day!”) to subversive (I’ll jump in terror when approached by a loose pooch, as though I’d been mauled by one before) to straight-forward (“Please leash your dog”). Sometimes these exchanges result in altercations (getting flipped off, being yelled at), and yet on I bark.
Then there’s the issue of shared usage. If you do not yield to the right when approaching another person (me), you’ll hear a soft, “Stay to the right, please.” If I’m on my bike, and you are walking in front of me three astride, with dogs and strollers, I will ding my bell and chirp a friendly, “On your left, please.” If you are wearing headphones, I will creep up behind you and bark “On your left!” just to be safe.
I only do these things to help protect us out there in the wild. Call it bossy, call it grit, but it’s my way of leaning in and being heard.
Elizabeth Peavey passionately perseveres here every month.