Beyond the Picket Fence
Life Outside the Middle Class Bubble
Edited by Marc MacYoung
Reviewed by Gila Hayes
Many years ago, I heard Marc MacYoung speak about a book he had outlined, intended to help middle class people operate effectively and with reasonable safety outside their familiar environment. Even way back then, Picket Fence figured into the title, so it was with considerable anticipation that I ordered an electronic copy from Amazon when it was first released. MacYoung encourages readers to take the book in small bites, and I confess that while I originally violated that advice, I promise to return and reread it more thoughtfully.
“This is a book about unspoken rules and how you can keep from being burned by them” are MacYoung’s introductory words to Beyond The Picket Fence, in which he observes that the fact that a book about rules of behavior is even needed shows the seriousness of today’s behavioral problems. Initiated as a project to show “how middle class people could move smoothly and safely through subcultures and lower social classes,” the finished product is an anthology with chapters by a variety of authors that coaches “about functioning in different situations, including places you might not think are different, but are–like college, the workplace and abroad.” While originally addressed to young adults newly out on their own, I found that it contained a lot to ponder for readers of all ages.
MacYoung compares a well-functioning society’s rules to fences, commenting that past generations tore down “fences” with little to no understanding of why the rules were important. “Instead of it being freeing, these missing fences mostly left us stressed, confused and floundering,” he observes. Beyond the Picket Fence proposes to explain why “those fences were there,” as well as helping the reader understand how and when we unintentionally offend. After all, if your Mom, Dad, teachers and other mentors didn’t teach good behavior, how are you supposed to know how to act?
Although the world has indeed changed, the reasons those “fences” existed remain valid, MacYoung observes, adding that having not learned the rules “leaves you not only facing problems you don’t know how to fix, but you have no idea where they’re coming from.” In addition, definitions of acceptable behavior are generally tied to location, so the rules you grew up with “aren’t universal.” Besides, your parents and mentors taught from their own experience, so they literally did not know what you would need to know once you left the neighborhood.
The damage from violating cultural rules occurs whether you’re aware of the rule or not: “Rocks are thrown over your words and behaviors–whether you think what you’re doing is wrong or not,” MacYoung illustrates. “Rights” have little influence over the visceral way people react to violations of their culture’s unwritten rules. In discussing the disconnect between rights and rules, MacYoung spotlights how we justify our own bad behavior, noting that sometimes offenders genuinely do not know that what they did was offensive. The key is recognizing that justifications–”why you’re doing it”–are a lot less important than what you said or did.
The solution, which MacYoung proposes to outline in Beyond the Picket Fence, is not about how others should behave, but about functioning both in and outside your own neighborhood. This he does in a thoroughly engaging style, through chapters that intersperse MacYoung’s observations with contributions from folks who have lived their lessons, sometimes the hard way. Be warned, the language is often coarse and if vulgarity offends, the reader would be well advised to put aside his or her sensitivities long enough to learn the lessons from Beyond The Picket Fence. It is that important.
After a chapter by a world traveler outlines “the art of being an acceptable stranger,” moving through foreign cultures and unfamiliar societies while attracting a minimum of attention, a follow up teaches the value of authentic niceness, or perhaps more accurately, “Give respect, get respect.” When others fail in that regard, let the offense pass, another contributor advises. MacYoung then weighs in to identify how various cultures assign different value judgments about violence, who performs the violence, or as MacYoung explains, “who is responsible for protecting your rights, honor, dignity, and status.”
Americans talk much about “inalienable rights,” but MacYoung stresses that what we dub rights, “are beliefs and ideals that guide our behavior and treatment of others,” not “physical realities.” Rights and ideals change when you cross cultural borders, he warns. Question the validity of assumptions, by yourself and others, adds a contributor. “If you encounter violence in the first place either your fundamental assumptions are dead wrong or you aren’t paying attention. Both are symptomatic of the failure to ask questions.”
MacYoung explores the “whys” behind values and how they differ from one person to another. Values drive actions and decisions, but while “values dictate huge chunks of a person’s behavior and decision-making paradigms, they are very seldom actually spoken about in direct, meaningful ways. They are...something called ‘assumed knowledge.’” He challenges the reader to identify the “things that you’ve assigned value to. Things you’re willing to fight over. It’s useful to be aware of what those are and in control over your fighting reactions.”
A good amount of MacYoung’s advice addresses conscious decisions we try to excuse by claiming ignorance or inattention. He offers a fair number of admonitions about getting drunk or stoned, not so much from the basic vulnerability of being unaware, but from the increased likelihood of offending or misreading the cues. If you’re a MacYoung fan, you already know the phrase that violence comes with instructions like “Stop that or I’ll kick your...” and if you’re tuned in, you can hear and act on the instructions before the violence starts. Altered states hinder perceptiveness.
Quite a lot of what we do starts with unconscious reactions, patterns or drives. MacYoung explains that you don’t have to be a slave to your unconscious, illustrating the gap between impulse and action. “Mind the gap,” he urges, calling that personal awareness “a pretty big life question. In a more immediate situation, however, it can keep you out of serious trouble when everyone’s amped up and the booze and drugs are flowing.”
In MacYoung’s opinion, we have raised a generation that insists on their own boundaries, but honors no one else’s. “That may not be what is taught, but it’s usually how it’s interpreted. At the very least, that’s how a whole lot of selfish people act. Their approach is they get a free pass and you don’t. You have to put up with their bad behavior, but you can’t say or do anything that encroaches on their ‘right’ to behave that way.”
Little wonder boundary setting confuses people. “Where are you supposed to get these skills, much less understanding of the very idea?” MacYoung observes. How does one learn to defend boundary encroachments without causing offense? He notes that without “being taught–or allowed to–stand up for yourself” many over-react and become offensive or abusive themselves. Now what feels like protecting yourself turns into a dust up that observers perceive as a mutual fight, instead of one person telling another to back off.
Bullies are quite skilled at identifying who will stand up to them, MacYoung continues, explaining that some test by huffing and puffing to read the reaction. When told no, some get loud and demanding, he continues, and still others skillfully push you into reaction mode. If you want to learn about boundaries, watch people who are NOT bullied, he advises. “If you’re serious, ‘I said no’ is often enough. You don’t have to be hostile, rude, insulting or threatening—if you can back it up.”
This short synopsis does not do justice to MacYoung’s chapter on boundaries, and if the reader has time for nothing else, this is must-know information for people of all ages. I’ve focused on it to whet the reader’s appetite for getting and digesting the entire book, because it is unusual to find the topic discussed in such practical terms.
But Wait, There’s More
The value of a sincere apology and de-escalation resurfaces time and again in the various chapters of this book, as does effective de-escalation. On that topic, one contributor explains that just as fire requires oxygen and combustion, violence requires “the physical capability of inflicting harm...rational or emotional decision...and a target.” The most manageable factor is the aggressor’s decision to inflict harm, he observes. Objective assessment is the key when facing danger, he continues, “assigning importance to observed details and focusing on that which is most pertinent.” You might think that prioritization would worry that the assailant is really big or armed with dangerous weapons, but in reality, neither is within your ability to change, so that’s merely distracting from what is important. You may be able to change the tension level (de-escalate), or retreat, or “When you employ what is within your grasp for your benefit, it’s surprising how fast what isn’t [within your grasp] becomes less of a problem,” he notes.
What follows is an important discussion of separating perceptions from what actually is, and how the mind filters the intel we take in based on our beliefs, preconceived notions, and prior experiences, further colored by situational factors like fatigue, inebriation, and emotion. MacYoung revisits this lesson in a later chapter when he emphasizes that “your reality” is rarely if ever in complete congruence with the actual situation. “Your reality is the sum of your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and interpretation of what is happening. Actuality is what appears on the video camera,” he illustrates.
This is revisited again when MacYoung explains that verbally blowing off steam, “self-soothing,” getting the last dig in, and not walking away when given the chance is usually the product of self-justification. “When you’re angry and defensive, you’re way more likely to say things that are hostile, insulting, threatening, and attacking–all the while ‘thinking’ you're defending yourself.” In this, as in much of the rest of Beyond The Picket Fence, the advice applies to a much wider demographic than just young people living on their own for the first time.
Avoiding sexual assault is addressed multiple times in Beyond The Picket Fence, but certainly not in the ways the subject is most commonly presented. These lessons are tied together at the very end of the book when MacYoung advises, “Recognizing when things are starting to go wrong can get you out of there before you have to hit him,” or use deadly force to stop the threat, or as he comments, “Using–but especially initiating–ineffective violence against a larger and stronger person is the fastest way I know to be successfully counter attacked.”
MacYoung cites research about the stages of bonding applied to sexual encounters as he teaches stopping interactions that begin to feel unsafe. “You don’t have to wait. It’s over when you decide it’s over. When you start getting wrong answers is the time to withdraw. And guess what? You don’t have to explain or justify the decision...The longer you stick around, the harder it’s going to be to get out without using violence.”
Many Voices on Many Topics
Assessing crowds especially groups from different cultures or ethnicities, recognizing and knowing when to use informal and formal speech, interacting effectively with law enforcement, dealing with a stalker, thriving at work, finding equilibrium with employers and coworkers, deescalating both verbal and physical assault, and intervening to stop a crime of violence are vital topics that each receive a chapter. While much of Beyond the Picket Fence focuses on how we bring aggression upon ourselves, we also need strategies to get out of coercive social situations. Know what your hot buttons are, advises one contributor, to disengage before you’re emotional and hooked into an argument.
MacYoung follows this with a long segment on the pernicious result of what he calls “victim culture,” which ostensibly puts human dignity and human rights above all else. Taken beyond reasonable limits, the victim culture produces abusers who cling to past wrongs against them–be that a travesty perpetrated against them in childhood or done against others with whom they identify via race, gender, class or sexual orientation–as an “excuse for all the bad things they do,” MacYoung observes. “Once you are adjudged this way, it’s okay to verbally and emotionally abuse you, and in some extremes to even physically attack you,” he writes. “The speed they go from pretending to be reasonable to hostile is intimidating. That’s why they do it—and so fast,” he adds. “Although they can and will get into your face and even physically assault you, in their minds you are prohibited from responding. As such, they have no hesitation to fly off the handle.”
MacYoung’s real world advice is not to attempt to handle formal grievances of self-proclaimed victims without legal counsel. In today’s world, business and organizational entities go into full defensive mode, and if scapegoating the accused gets them out from under a complaint, “You get fired, chewed out, and put on restrictions whether or not the incident complained about really happened,” he warns, and goes on to discuss how to defend yourself against false charges.
While I essentially devoured the book from cover to cover, I suggest that there may be merit in sitting down with your young adults and discussing select chapters to be sure they learn specific lessons. There is so much material in Beyond The Picket Fence that I fear a 20-something might quit reading before discovering the advice that may literally mean life or death for her or him. I foresee that this book may serve best as a library from which parents and mentors select and expose young adults about whom they care to the knowledge they need to know at one stage or another of life.
Beyond The Picket Fence contains so many jewels that choosing what to discuss proved nearly impossible. Let me close with the comment that in language and subject matter, it is a little rough, but it is very authentic, it challenges you to self-examination and open mindedness, and in keeping with its intention of giving assistance to those who need it most it is extremely affordable at $3.99 for the eBook. Find it on Amazon by searching “MacYoung Picket Fence.”
MacYoung indicates that a print version as well as an audio version is currently in the works, although actual release dates are not known. Until then, the electronic version is affordable, and the Kindle app allows reading on computers, smart phones and tablets.
Note: As I’ve admitted already, I had a very hard time stopping talking about Marc’s new book. His ideas and those of the other contributors were far more important than anything I might hold forth about in an editorial, so I’ll take a break from Editor’s Notebook and cede that space to the foregoing review, which has much more of pertinence to our day to day well-being!
To read more of this month's journal, please click here.