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The Name Escapes Me

My grade school tormenter reached me through Facebook. Actually, he located me on Facebook via some site called Classmates. I don’t protect-your-child-from-the-dangers-of-cyber-bullyingremember registering on Classmates but who knows? I might have hit the wrong button at some point. The bottom line is: he found me.

“Hi Nikki,” his e-mail read (he’d also asked to “friend” me). “Remember me? P—? I went to Richards School; I was two years ahead of you.”

I barely remember anyone from grade school; I have enough trouble recalling high school. Still, I thought: What would be the harm in friending him? Yet something made me hesitate. I couldn’t recognize him from his picture, obviously; nor could I place him by name. He still apparently lived in the small suburb where I grew up; he may or may not have gone to college. Nothing else gave me any indication as to how he had once fit into my life.

I e-mailed: “Hey P—another ghost from the past. How are you? What have you been up to?” I was hoping those innocuous couple of sentences would prod him into opening up; most people love to talk about themselves.

Instead, he wrote, “Congratulations on all your successes. It sounds as if you’re doing really well in life.” And then, changing the subject abruptly: “I really had a hard time tracking you down, you know, because you changed your name.” He continued. “When did you do that? I’m just curious. Why did you do that?”

Now I was puzzled. I didn’t change my name when I got married. As much as I loved my husband, the idea of becoming Nikki Potorti somehow didn’t work for me (“It sounds like the name of a small-time mobster,” I remarked to my patient fiance as we were standing in line to get our marriage license in Manhattan. Thankfully, he agreed).

What I had done is adopted the name “Nikki” (albeit with a different spelling)right after eighth grade graduation  because I liked the Haley Mills character in “The Moon-Spinners”  It became my legal name when I turned twenty-one.

No one had ever questioned me about it and honestly, I never thought about it. Who was this person from grade school who was inquiring about my name, or rather, my identity?

Instead of answering him directly, I wrote back, “What year did you graduate?” I needed more information.

“You don’t remember me, do you? Tall, thin, brown eyes?”

I didn’t remember…and then I did: P–was briefly my childhood tormenter.

The year I started fourth grade, P–walked home from school when I did and taunted me. He sang out vaguely scatological rhymes that involved my name and a body part. Sometimes he’d make comments about how I thought I was so smart; then he’d go back to making fun of my name again. This went on nearly every day for several months, and while I wasn’t really afraid for my safety, his words hurt more than any stick or brick ever could.

I was a timid nine; afraid of loud noises, dark shadows and confrontation. Yet I didn’t want to tell my parents or my big brother, even though I knew they’d rush to my defense in ways appropriate to a respected lawyer or a pugilistic teenager. There was nothing in place at my school or in my community to help victims of bullying; no support groups or services to which the picked-on could turn. I could have gone to the principal but that would have involved a call to my parents and some sort of notation in my permanent file and I didn’t want either. I briefly considered recruiting my friend’s brother, our local juvenile delinquent, who would have enjoyed administering a beating, I suspect. But I didn’t want him to get in trouble either.  I suffered in silence.

One day, P—was across the street as I walked home, teasing and taunting as usual. I’d had a bad day at school and suddenly, I’d had it. I stopped right where I was and yelled out, “You know what, P–?  You’re a stupid little ninny! That’s all you are; that’s all you’ll ever be! Leave me alone, you stupid ninny, you stupid little…twit!” I practically spat out that last word.

I’m not sure how I came up with “ninny” and “twit”; maybe I was having a Julie Andrews moment. But the words had their desired effect.

P—stopped walking and stood rooted to his spot, staring at me. I stared back at him for a minute, my heart racing wildly. Then I tossed my head in my best princess imitation and walked home. He never bothered me again.

Fifty years later, here he was, my tormentor; the mean little boy who nearly ruined my autumn that year. Here was my opportunity. I could admit I remembered him and I could make sure he understood how miserable he made my nine-year-old self. I wondered fleetingly if he even remembered; maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.

I realized I didn’t care. My nine-year-old self had taken care of my tormenter long before MySpace and Facebook and texting, true; but also before anti-bullying laws and YouTube messages of support, and awareness groups. I had confronted my bully then and I hadn’t thought about him since. No need for a rematch, a reckoning, or a reconciliation.

“Sorry,” I wrote back. “I don’t remember you.”

The Tao of Hair

Shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there mama
Everywhere daddy, daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it
Long as God can grow it
My hair
© 1967 James Rado & Gerome Ragni (lyrics); Galt MacDermot (music)


So many things to worry about in the world and yet I find myself thinking about my hair–and why not? We are our hair. More than eye color or height or weight, hair seems to be how we humans make a statement. Some of this is evolutionary: healthy hair indicates youth and well-being, two desirable traits when it comes to the propagation of the species.  Hair is a distinguishing characteristic of mammals, providing both temperature control and, for many animals, camouflage. As most of us (but clearly not all of us) understand, our animal friends don’t really care how they wear their hair as long as it does what their instincts tell them it’s supposed to do: namely, protect and serve.

But we humans are different. We care about our hair (or lack of it)…and we experiment.

While there is ample evidence that men are attentive to styling (the early Greeks, the upper-class Renaissance, the Chinese warriors, fans of Elvis’ pompadour and even—shudder—the mullet), men generally seem to have two styles available to them: long and short. Oh sure, we may go through periods of mutton-chops or fringe bangs (heaven forbid) but at the end of the day, most men stay with short hair, with a few hold-outs opting for shaved heads or the less than inspiring ponytail.

Women, on the other hand, have infinite permutations, notwithstanding they’ve often followed the lead of their leaders—monarchs, movie stars and various trend-setters. In any given decade, you could find a pleasing variety of straight and curly, waist-length and bob, flip and page-boy, worn up, worn down, decorated with beads and feathers or worn unadorned. If you had a little money, you went to a fancy hairdresser and chose a style that suited you; if not, you flipped through pages of hairstyle magazines and selected something and had your mom or your best friend cut it.

So what’s with all the long hair?

I mean long, below the shoulder, tendrils gently brushing one’s breasts or tickling that spot on the back it’s so hard to reach when showering. These days, I feel surrounded by women who look as if they’re auditioning for roles on “Gossip Girls,” women of all ages whose tresses fall far below the shoulder. Some of them sport the super-straight look, apparently ignoring the recent reports about the dangers of formaldehyde in the most popular straightening formulas. More recently, I’ve seen an explosion of the gentle tendrils that make the wearer look like an aspiring fairy princess. A surprising number of women (including a close friend of mine, a financially comfortable woman with great clothes) have long hair that simply sits on the head, as if the wearer had absentmindedly allowed her hair to grow without benefit of cutting or conditioning. It’s not unusual to see three generations of women out on the town with identical hairstyles, tossing back stray strands while they munch on Waldorf salads or scour Target for matching T-shirts.

Popular culture shoulders part of the blame, especially television. These past seasons, we’ve seen a raft of smart, funny, capable women, most between thirty and fifty. Their independent spirit seems to extend to all parts of their lives save their hairstyle choice. Doctors, lawyers, detectives, coroners, therapists, operatives, mothers, U.S. marshals, drug dealers: everyone wears prom-ready do’s, showing up in the operating room, in the courtroom, or at the scene of a crime with locks akimbo. Wouldn’t a flowing mane obstruct a clean shot or a brilliant summation? Isn’t anyone worried about contaminating evidence or interfering with a crime scene?

Maybe it starts with the ads for the latest shampoo, conditioner, coloring or balm, all of which feature attractive young people cavorting under sunny skies swinging great masses of gleaming tresses back and forth without getting whiplash. It’s hair you want to sleep in, dress in, bathe in; who wouldn’t want some of that?

Long hair conveys sensuality and pre or post-menopausal women these days are particularly sensitive about competing for attention in a society that still doesn’t know where to put or how to treat its older women (we can’t all be Betty White).

My own hair has hovered between my chin and my shoulders for years now, occasionally retreating back towards the ear. If the base of the neck is my wire-fenced, heavily-patrolled, “may I see your passport, please” border, then the area to the collarbone is a no-fly zone. Part of the issue relates to sheer volume: as my hair gets longer, it becomes fuller, threatening to engulf my small face in sweeping waves and errant curls. There’s also my ongoing struggle to stay relevant yet also “appropriate.” I mean, as much as I approve of cross-generational pollinating, some fashions, like some behavior, are better worn by the young.

Still, I hear the siren song—or maybe it’s the swan song—of Samson, at least before Delilah got to him. Push the envelope, it sings; go long one time before you’re eligible for Medicaid. Embrace your freedom; who cares if it suits you? This is America. You have the right to look just like everyone else.

Like This or Like That

We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.

Oh Canada!

A survey conducted post-apocalyptic debt ceiling kerfuffle indicates 82%  of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Congress. In Canada, it appears many people think at least that many Americans are off their rockers.

I’ve just returned from eleven days on the road, traveling by car with my  sister throughout Canada’s Maritime province, Nova Scotia. It’s a place of  breathtaking scenery, moderate climate, pockets of poverty, and smaller pockets of wealth. The locals are dependent on tourists who may not show up and crops and catches that may not materialize. On the other hand, lobster is plentiful.

The Nova Scotians–Acadians, Fundians and residents of the Eastern and Southern shores–are friendly and forthcoming, with little of the anxiety that permeates our current culture. Perhaps they’ve become more adjusted to an unpredictable life, along with the unpredictable weather that produced an unprecedented amount of rain this summer. They seem to like Americans on an individual basis, at least the far fewer number they’ve apparently seen this summer. Blame our economy or our aforementioned anxiety or maybe the lousy weather—or maybe the fact that ferry service from Portland, Maine to Halifax was suspended two years ago—but we state-siders are on the endangered list this year.

My sister, who habitually rises with the dawn, went searching for coffee every morning at Tim Horton’s, Canada’s ubiquitous version of Dunkin’ Donuts, where she sat amongst and eavesdropped on the local fishermen, loggers, long haulers and itinerant workers. I was frequently chatted up by shop clerks and desk clerks eager for conversation during the slow summer. The most common topic, aside from the weather was politics: not politics as practiced in Halifax or Toronto, but further south, in Washington, DC.

There’s plenty to talk about at home, mind you. Toronto, Canada’s largest and presumably most liberal city, just last year overwhelmingly elected a mayor who in both girth and taste for  political bullying has it all over our own Chris Christie. Rob Ford is a member of the Progressive Conservative party (is there really such a thing?) and is virulently anti-tax and anti-waste.  Among the wasteful programs he’s targeted are anything having to do with the environment or mass transit. He voted to close several prominent bike lanes, calling cyclists “a pain in the ass to motorists” and claims he respects the environment because he turns out the lights.

Nova Scotia has experienced its own political scandals. The province where bribes have for years been a way of life has seen a number of its legislators indicted over the past year. Furthermore, the province has, according to a recent economic report, lost 4,000 jobs over the past year.

Up in Cape Breton, I saw much in the way of single issue signage in support of the unborn and little in the way of diversity—ethnic, political or religious. More than 80% of the residents trace their origins wholly or partly to Great Britain (including Scotland and Ireland), with ancestral ties to France accounting for another 18% of the population. A fair number in this tourist-heavy community take seasonal unemployment in stride by drinking, sleeping and “jumping on the dole” during the winter, according to my Chéticamp guide.

Why are these people so interested in U.S politics, eh?

What struck me about our northern brethren’s questions and observations was that they came with an undercurrent of concern–about the bitterness and pessimism that seems to define our national mood these days. “Does anyone in your country feel hopeful about anything?” one woman queried after asking me to rate Obama’s job performance. “I used to think of Americans as optimistic types,” ventured a traveler from British Columbia, “but no more.”

It’s not surprising to realize we still matter to people outside our country. In fact, those candidates who aren’t suggesting we pull up the moat will insist that America must regain its “super-power status” without, of course, suggesting a viable plan for making that happen.

I don’t know that most of the citizens of the world expect us (or want us) to flex our military, economic or even philanthropic muscles as we once did. They know we’re on the same austerity diet they are. But what I’ve noticed, and others have as well, is that the US is suffering from a character deficit. The mix of optimism, courage, generosity and determination that used to define America has deserted us. True, we have often overstated the argument pertaining to American exceptionalism. On the other hand, the uniquely open-minded, open-hearted, questing American spirit is exceptional. It’s the one resource we can’t afford to lose.

It’s been a long time since we were number one—in education, affordable health care; in several other measures pertaining to well-being and quality of life. We should be focused on making gains in those areas, even as we get used to our slipped position in terms of economic clout. Whether we need to maintain some semblance of superiority in matters of warfare is something we have to reassess. But we shouldn’t, we needn’t surrender our spirit. That’s something Americans have always been able to count on. It turns out to be something the rest of the world counts on as well.

My Circles/Myself

Although I have friinternet-addictedends in the town where I live, I spend more of my free time online, socializing with people, many of whom I haven’t met in person. This is the new normal, where we can morph into hunky superheroes or meet and “marry” our soul mate and start a Second Life that’s much more interesting than the first one. It’s possible to spend too much time online,but most of us know when to sit back and look up…most of us.

“I need to get out more”

Thanks to social networking, the word “friend” has acquired a new fluidity. What is a friend anyway? Someone whose interests you share? With whom you can swap stories or exchange confidences? Someone who’ll lend you money,  take you to the airport, water your plants or show up at your funeral? At some point, the only people we can count on for those sorts of things are either family or people we pay, and the latter group is often more reliable.

Online friendship is relatively easy: I like you; your sensibility or sensitivity or sense of humor; you seem like “good” people;  we have friends in common—boom! You’re my friend. Many social networking circle-of-people sites don’t even require that you be acquainted with someone you embrace as a comrade. I have “friended” the comedian Lewis Black and the journalist Charles Blow. Of course, that the creepy guy who used to follow me home in high school can ask to “friend” me, but I can always virtually run in the other direction via the “ignore” button.

Just as I get used to this loosey-goosey, all-inclusive buddy system, along comes Google+ to throw all my choices into question.

google-plus-logoGoogle + is a new social networking site who some people think (and others hope) will knock Facebook back on its heels. Thanks to a few tech-forward friends, I’ve been invited to poke around on the site.  There are many cool-looking features I’ve yet to try, but Google’s big selling point is that it solves the “too much information seen by too many people” problem by creating a classification system. This theoretically allows you to organize your networking by organizing your network; sorting out friends from family (some of whom might or might not be considered friends, but never your mother or your crazy brother) and from acquaintances, people you don’t really know except through someone else. Then there are people you’re “following” (a nod to Twitter): people you only wish you had as friends who in truth don’t know you from Adam. You can customize your circles:  you might have a professional circle (very LinkedIn), or a common interests circle ( like a bunch of, say, writers).

Circles are supposed to be good. They represent strength, unity, connection, community; commonality, unbroken and everlasting. Yet the very act of separating everyone out is giving  me agita.

240px-Bartolomeo_Di_Fruosino_-_Inferno,_from_the_Divine_Comedy_by_Dante_(Folio_1v)_-_WGA01339

I get that someone might want to share professional or technical  information only with people she thinks might be interested. But as far as privacy is concerned, let’s not fool ourselves: if it’s on the ‘Net, it’s absolutely, irretrievably public. Maybe not instantly but eventually. Forget circles or squares or compartments or e-mails marked “private” or password-protected sites. If there’s anything you don’t want anyone to know—ever—your best course of action is not to type it out—ever.

“Hell really is other people.”

The truth is, I don’t want Google or anyone else to help me sort out my relationships. I feel I’ve earned the right to be vague or uncertain. At the same time, my maturity doesn’t protect me from re-experiencing those painful high school-era feelings about belonging. It’s bad enough to invite someone to “friend” you and get ignored. On Google+, you can add someone to your friends’ circle and learn they’ve tagged you as a mere acquaintance or worse:  they haven’t included you in any of their circles. That’s harsh. And must I be denied the thrill of claiming Lewis Black as one of my peeps?

friends Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture; Google+, please,  help me out.  Why can’t we all be just friends? Even if we’re not in real life.

 

 

images:
healthadal
parenting support circles
Google
Bartolomeo Di Fruosino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Past Perfect

images

In an attempt to unclutter my life. I’ve been throwing out papers, giving away clothes and sorting through boxes.  I seem determined to keep my memories consigned to mental cubbyholes. Too much looking back  feels  unsettling.

But the past is never really past, though it may be discreetly tucked away. It seems to find me in misplaced boxes, odd phone calls,  Facebook invitations and even in neglected e-mail accounts–which is how I found myself time-traveling.

* * * * *

Fred was my first serious relationship. I was 26 and stuck in a cycle of failed connections. He was 29 and a working musician, something I was pursuing after jumping my career track (not for the last time) to pursue a career as a songwriter. I met him during a recording session in Washington DC.  Fred was playing guitar, one of several instruments he handled quite well. A big man, a member of the Marine Corps Jazz Band, he was something of an old-school musician: well-trained, versatile, capable, and completely reliable. He was never without a gig. He also bought, traded and sold guitars, maintaining one of the most impressive collection of “axes” imaginable.

I fell for him. He was my mentor, my muse, my main squeeze. I loved him, my friends loved him; even my parents loved him.

Over the next five years, we dated and then lived together in Washington and then in New York, where he hooked up with Harry Belafonte’s world tour and went on the road for two six-month periods. From there it was all downhill. A couple of outside hook-ups (his) later, he met the woman he would eventually marry instead of me and broke my heart. He played Broadway shows for awhile but eventually became a computer specialist for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation System (MTA). He had a daughter, I’d heard, and still took gigs for fun.

Several years later, I met Michael.

Michael was an aspiring playwright and lyricist. We’d been put together by a mutual acquaintance to write the score for a musical the friend wanted to produce. Michael lived in a tiny, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, overflowing with books, folders, scripts and, oddly enough, medical textbooks. I found out later that he came from money and had gone to medical school but decided to try his hand at theater. Apparently the parents didn’t approve. Maybe they cut him off or maybe he refused their offers of help; I was never clear about that. Michael played it pretty close to the vest. I’m pretty sure he’d served as a medic in Vietnam. was forty-five or so when I met him, had a teenage son. Other details were vague.

We weren’t romantically involved; he seemed to be from a different generation; a cool cat, a Rat Packer among left-over disco divas and punk aspirants. His Scotch was neat, his cigarettes unfiltered. Women came and went and came again; some of them wanted to keep him, some wanted him to keep them. He never did. Michael was his own man.

But man, did he write: plays, poems, essays, scripts, short stories, books, lyrics—some of it pitch-perfect, some of it mundane, all of it cycled through a prolific consciousness that refused to give up. He worked mostly at night, after finishing whatever temp job he toiled at for minimum wage. He often overwrote, in the manner of someone with a large vocabulary who was a bit of a showoff. But when he led with his heart instead of his head, his lyrics were brilliant: poignant, incisive, and brave, as in this song we wrote together (my music, his lyrics).  In it, a father is trying to explain to his young son what the upside of divorce might be:

You’ll have more, I told him
Than many boys your age
And you’ll have more

I added
To help to calm the rage in you…

For all my cool, I knew I lied right through my teeth
My mouth as dry as last year’s Christmas wreath

And still the platitudes, the worn-out phrases flowed
“Your mommy’s still your mommy

I’m your dad, that never ends”
And then (get this) the capper

“You’ll be just like all your friends…”

©1985 Michael Greer and Nikki Stern

 * * * * * *

These latest e-mail communications were, strangely enough, precipitated by housecleaning: someone going through boxes came across something that reminded them of my connection to their friends and they wrote.

Fred is not dead, his brother told me. But he is not where any of us want to be. A slow-growing tumor put too much pressure on his brain and so he had surgery with what his brother calls “mixed results”–alive but with complications from a stroke; paralyzed on the left side; no more guitar playing, assisted living in Florida (to save money; his wife  stays in New York and visits every six weeks), memory loss, diabetes, morbidly obese…

Fred+NikkicOh god! I don’t want this image of an old man I once loved trapped by his own body and kept from the things he loved. I run to the basement and yank down a box to search for a picture I can use instead.  I find it: the very essence of bittersweet. Yes, we were once that young, that crazy for each other, that happy.  He was my first serious relationship.

Im unsettled but I can handle it.

Michael is gone: lung cancer; not surprising.  New York too is hard on older folks who live with stars in their eyes and little in their pockets. His friend, a woman I suspect got close to him, writes that he went quickly, but who knows? Michael always played it close to the vest. She asked me for any sheet music I might have from our musical. His friends are considering mounting a review of Michael’s work. So I head back to the boxes and find a copy of the complete score. Time-traveling again, I’m back at rehearsals.  My stomach tightens again as the bitter and the sweet have their way with me, but against all odds, I stay on my feet.

Pace, gentlemen: Peace to you. I loved you both, in different ways. Our lives intersected, then diverged. But while we were connected, didn’t we make beautiful music together?

We’re So Vain

Baby-Kissing-on-Mirror

Once upon a time, when Carly Simon sang her hit song, “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Song is about You)”, fans tried to guess which of her former lovers she was essentially calling a pompous, self-regarding ass (Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Kris Kristofferson?).

The current crop of performers are singing their own tunes, thank you very much, reminding their audiences just how hot, how sexy, how empowered and yes, how pissed off they are. Now three psychologists who’ve been checking out Billboard’s Top 100 have made a discovery: in 2011, we’re all so vain.

image: baby pictures.org

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The three—Nathan DeWall, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge—conducted a study of song lyrics over the last thirty years and noted an evolution (or devolution) in pop music. Where in the 1980s, most singers sang about love, togetherness and peace, today’s tunes are ego-driven. The doctors cite lyrics from performers like Beyoncé and Fergie of Black-Eyed Peas. They claim the self-absorption manifest by the singers is reflected in the generation of fans (primarily college age). “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” says Dr. DeWall. Adds his colleague, Dr. Twenge, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”

Twenge, who along with Campbell also published a book a few years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic, sees the current crop of young people as far more narcissistic than previous generations. The authors take as evidence the results of an annual survey—The Narcissism Personality Inventory—that’s been administered to college students over the past several decades.

Narcissism has been in the news lately. Last winter’s recommendation from an advisory board to leave out Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the upcoming version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychotherapy’s diagnostic Holy Grail) was met with outrage by many in the psychiatric community. A Boston Globe article at the time noted that “narcissism has been done in by its own success. Because so many narcissists are thriving—at the expense of the rest of us—it’s hard to classify ‘narcissism’ as a disability.”

Small wonder in the age of “Brand Me.”

If certain levels of vanity, selfishness, entitlement and an exaggerated self-regard are becoming more acceptable, the implications for society are profound—and not just because we are confronted with the likes of Donald Trump, the man who would be king of the world. An increase in ego-centric behavior is bound to affect (if it hasn’t already) the way we conduct business, make policy, view social services–or communal activities or charity—and build and sustain relationships.

As a certified amateur/armchair psychologist, I’ve joined many others in writing about (and worrying about) our national predilection for self-absorption. A great many of our fellow citizens young and old seem to have difficulty separating what they need from what they think they ought to have. We talk about what we deserve or we are owed. We demand not just our rights but also attention. We get angry when we’re denied our due. It’s all about us, each and every one of us.

On the other hand…

Maybe we’re not suffering from mass narcissism, or at least not to any degree greater than previous age groups. Each generation has something to say about the one that came before and certainly the one that came after. As a baby boomer, I’m beginning to take umbrage with the spate of articles castigating me and my fellow boomers for our selfishness. Meanwhile, we are not without suggestions for ways to curb our self-regard. In recent weeks, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both proposed that we Americans add back a little hellfire into our religion. We’ve apparently got it too easy with our relaxed acceptance of a benign Supreme Being. Brooks and Douthat suggest we need the threat of eternal damnation. Nothing like cosmic intimidation to keep us humble.

As for college kids, that they’re self-serving and self-regarding and prone to posturing should be no surprise to anyone. Perhaps it’s become more socially acceptable to flaunt your hotness or sexiness or to tell people you don’t like to go f-ck themselves. Maybe it’s more permissible, or even necessary in this hyper-competitive age, to let people know how important you are—even when you’re taking a survey that measures your self-regard.

The students are also angrier and more depressed, according to the results of a survey last January I reviewed at the time. Like the study of song lyrics, the survey is one that takes into consideration only the past twenty-five year period. Since my memory extends back twice that far, I can’t help but suspect that we are in some kind of cycle wherein our nation mood coincides with our recent history.

Moreover, we’ve always been entertained by large personalities, as long as we don’t have to hang out with (or live with) them. Performers may have “come out” in terms of broadcasting their fabulousness but ego has long been a staple of the entertainment industry. The word “diva” has morphed from being a female opera singer of surpassing skill to a female vocalist with a big voice to a woman with an outsized ego—a bitch. Lyrics that express pride in being a bitch (or a bad-ass) among female singers are more common, but again, no surprise. After years of singing about busted promises and broken hearts, the women have been kicking back for at least a decade. Somehow the message seems less about self-centeredness than about empowerment. Who wouldn’t want to take a Louisville slugger to the beloved car of a low-life two timer as Cary Underwood does? These days, though, I prefer Sara Bareilles’ approach. If “King of Everything” were what my daughter listened to, I wouldn’t worry a bit about whether she thought the song was about her.