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Saturday, September 28, 2013

12 Things I Did Instead of Write a Blog Post

I’m in one of those phases when I feel like a chicken trying to fly.  I can do it, but my flight is ungainly, bottom heavy, and awful low to the ground. I’m not a 5’8” leggy ectomorphic, um, eagle – I am a chicken. A chicken that doesn’t seem to get very far.  When I feel like a chicken, I have learned to take stock of what I’ve been doing. Take stock, I said, Readers, not make stock.

So. Here’s a baker's dozen things I did instead of writing a blog post this week.
  1. Read a lot of essays by E. B. White.
  2. Decided my blog needs video.
  3. Went out to lunch with two great friends and discussed my worries about my children.
  4. Noticed how weird and fake I sound on video, and that I purse my lips most schoolmarmlike.
  5. Deleted many, many videos of myself talking about success.
  6. Decided I need collagen in my schoolmarmlike lips.
  7. Bought a crazy wrap that can be a dress, a skirt, a vest, a cape – but will not make me a 5’8” leggy ectomorph.
  8. Obsessed over my vast expanse of forehead.
  9. Had a complementary consultation with a decorator from Calico Corners.
  10. Had delicious corn chowder with a friend and discussed our worries about our children.
  11. Listened to a terrific interview with Billy Jean King and drafted a post about it.
  12. Queried an agent with a book proposal.
  13. Attempted to pick a fight with the husband, who would have none of it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Borgen and Me: The Political Gets Personal

Do you know what Borgen is? Until a few weeks ago, neither did I. Among the husband’s side of the family we’ve become obsessed with Scandinavian television and literature. Well, "literature" may be overstating the quality of the reading material. I'm talking about the genre known as Nordic Noir*, specializing in barely functioning yet mesmerizing detectives trying to solve grisly murders without themselves becoming victims of either their own weaknesses (how Shakespearean) or of the killers they’re trailing. Some of these novels have been adapted for TV, but now we’ve discovered – and by "we" I mean my mother-in-law (MIL) – original television series on DVD. The latest one she passed along to us is a Danish show called “Borgen.” She passed it along to us, and with it, she passed along a request that I blog about it.

Borgen, for those who, like me, know zero about Denmark besides that it was the land of Hans Christian Anderson, is the locus of Denmark’s parliament. “Borgen” the TV series is about its fictional first female Prime Minister, Birgitte Nyborg, a forty-something brunette with a husband and two children. Turns out that the real Denmark also has its first female Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a forty-something blonde. There, now you know as much as I do about actual Danish politics. 

So let’s begin with this: what I think I know about Denmark. What I think I know about Denmark is  it’s one of those Scandinavian countries with a strong socialist system that fosters equality between the sexes and classes and where everyone is attractive, white, and wears burly sweaters. This is also what I think of when I think of Sweden, Finland, and Norway, but to prove that the MIL is right to expect something intelligent from me, let me also say that I do differentiate among those Northern European countries. For example, while my idea of Denmark is that it’s one of those socialist countries that fosters equality between the sexes and where everyone is attractive, white, and wears burly sweaters, I don’t stereotype everyone there as tall and blonde. That’s Sweden. Denmark has brunettes, and possibly redheads. Norway has brunettes, too. This I learned on my junior year at Oxford. And Finland? Cell phones and excellent schools.

This is the sum total of my knowledge of these countries. Wait, no, that’s incomplete. I know from Nordic Noir that there is a fine heroin trade with Asia, a sex slave situation from Eastern Europe, and racial tension with the few immigrants there. Despite the existence of poverty and junkies there, Denmark has come a long way since the Little Match Girl died of cold and starvation back in H. C. Anderson’s day.

Why am I writing about “Borgen”? Because the MIL was right. There is a lot to say about it. I’ll admit I’m feeling a smidge pressured, though. She expects I will have something interesting to say. And for the MIL, interesting is more than witty. There has to be pith there, too. Evidence of intellect. That kind of thing. This is a problem, because most of what I think about when I think about “Borgen” is that Birgitte Nyborg, the Prime Minister in the series, is not a super-skinny woman, but has some curves, and even half-heartedly despairs of them. So I think about how fat or not she thinks she is, and how fat or not I am in comparison to her – TV adds fifteen pounds, so really she is not at all fat, the actress, I mean, and how I’m not on TV so does the mirror add fifteen pounds or is that just life? - and what percent of her life she spends thinking about it – the fictional character, I mean - considering that she is the Prime Minister.

But despair not, MIL, because my point – and Readers, you know I have one - is that this show has a realistic, complex view of its characters. Furthermore, the main character and one of the key supporting characters are women, and the show explores the many roles they fulfill as educated career women with considerable nuance and realism that you don’t see on American television.

For example, in the third episode, a character has an abortion. Can you imagine that happening on American TV? Not only does she have an abortion, but her decision is dramatized. The viewer watches her learn she’s pregnant, get an ultrasound to confirm it, and hide it from her employer - because she's conflicted about being pregnant, not because she's worried she will be fired. Katrine is twenty-eight, and a rising TV political analyst with a public profile and obvious ambition. She had been having an affair with a married man, who died suddenly, after which she discovered she was pregnant. Both people she tells about the pregnancy expect she will terminate it. One is her ex-boyfriend, who assumes she will terminate. The second is her mother, who tells her to. Can you imagine that? And not only that, but also, her mother tells her to have an abortion despite being a practicing Christian. She tells Katrine she is hanging onto this pregnancy for the wrong reason – grief that the father of the baby has just died, and she wants to have some part of him. “You’re the one who believes in God,” says Katrine, who expected a different response from her mother. Her mother says, “God has nothing to do with this. You must look out for yourself.” 

God has nothing to do with this. From a Christian woman.

Not only that, but Katrine has this abortion (which is presumably covered by her health insurance, which is presumably covered by the taxes she pays to her government who then invest that money into a social safety net) without incident – though not without a few tears – and returns to work immediately. She is not maimed by the experience physically nor psychologically, and apparently her religious mother isn’t worried for her soul, either.

Can you imagine any of this on American TV? Or in American discourse in any way?

That Katrine Fønsmark in Denmark can get an abortion safely, legally, and with excellent anesthesia, apparently, in a clean and well-run health facility, on national television, shows that Denmark is way ahead of us. This very common plot point in the average professional woman’s actual life in America is kept hidden from view on US TV and in the movies. For wouldn’t I have done the same as Katrine if I were a young, single, rising professional who got knocked up by a married man? Yes, I would have, and most of the women I know would have – or did – too. The majority of abortions performed in the US are on women in their twenties. Over 90% of the abortions are performed at thirteen weeks’ gestation or less, and about 70% at under eight weeks’. There are about a million abortions performed a year. ( Only we aren’t allowed to talk about it. And while we are busy not talking about this very common solution to a very common problem, unwanted pregnancy, we are forgetting to fight for our right to it, and we are in danger of losing it.

There has been much talk lately about the dearth of female leaders in corporate and political affairs, and a renewed look at feminism and work-life balance, and at the challenges women face maintaining careers and families and returning to careers after focusing on raising children, and this is terrific. I am all for this kind of talk. But, as Deborah Spar, President of Barnard, said recently on NPR (she has a new book about feminism), the feminist agenda needs to focus on a few other things as well. It needs to return to the activist, civil-rights bent it had back before my generation thought we’d reaped the benefits of the women’s movement and were all set. Deborah Spar, like Madeleine Kunin, says we need to focus on equal pay; paid family leave; and quality childcare.

However, this agenda presupposes that women have control over their reproductive systems. This agenda steps around the edges of this right, because there is still that infuriating minority of legislators and deluded constituents who are working as hard as they possibly can to undermine it. If women can’t control their reproductive systems, then they can’t really control anything in their lives. Which is exactly how a few wildly flapping fundamentalist sexists want it, but is not how most people want it to be.

But also – and here’s where I start sounding like one of those liberal conspiracy theorists – while we are fighting to retain the right to abortion and birth control – yes, even to birth control - we are not advocating for those other three agenda items: paid family leave, equal pay, and quality childcare. These agenda items might cost a lot more government dollars overall than legal abortion. Perhaps it suits certain powerful minority voices to keep us plugging the reproductive rights dyke, because while we have our fingers over there, we aren’t lobbying over here for these other measures that would potentially fundamentally change the structure of our working lives and therefore of our society.

So I have to ask myself, who benefits from the way things are now? Who benefits if things don’t change? And what might things look like if this so-called feminist – but really just humanist – agenda came into being? Furthermore, if we don’t let ourselves get distracted by the assault on abortion, at least not entirely, and if we do return to the more civil-rights focused aspects of the women’s movement and get these family-friendly policies installed, then I imagine reproductive rights will be strengthened along with them.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. As Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.” We all do.

* For a great overview of Nordic Noir, try this.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Laura Vanderkam, Ben Franklin, Mornings & Me

Right after I finished Laura Vanderkam’s What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast I think I went on a tear. Is that a thing you say? Went on a tear? I got in a mood. A bad mood. Why? A combination of things.  My professional life is stalled. (Here I resisted enclosing professional in quotation marks to indicate irony.) School starting. Owning a teenager. (“You don’t own me,” “Yes I do, until you are Of Age.”*) That sort of thing.

Into that blah mental field fell Laura Vanderkam’s book, about which I have two brief overarching comments. 
  1. The short answer to the question, “What do the most successful people do before breakfast?” is –a heck of a lot more than I. 
  2. This book should be on your avoid list if you are afraid of contemplating your mortality. Because if there’s one thing this book made me aware of in an uncomfortable way, it is the finite number of minutes we have. Period.

Which is why I went on a tear. A bender. An irritability bender, to be specific. Nothing as fun as an actual bender. Just a bender of being totally annoyed with my family, especially with the husband, for doing anything other than making the absolute most of every available moment to do something productive and meaningful. So, the sight of his neck bent over his phone – highly irritating. The children enjoying the last days of summer indoors, drawing on the white board– aggravating. Aggravating is really the wrong word, as we all learned when we practiced for the SAT, but still, it is perfect in its misused definition for my feeling. Although, come to think of it, perhaps my new dictionary now contains this definition of the word aggravate, since many people use it to mean annoy. 

I just checked. Yes, now this usage of the word is accepted. Sorry, Dad.

Anyhoo, reading in Vanderkam’s book, for example, that a week has 168 hours, that a weekend (from 6 pm Friday to 6 am Monday) has 60, and that “You have fewer than one thousand Saturdays with each child in your care before he or she is grown up,” grabbed my attention. That doesn’t sound like a lot of hours, especially to person like me who needs her free time. And there’s this passage:

If you’ve got young kids, it doesn’t take long to realize that there won’t be many Christmas seasons when the little ones will race downstairs in the morning to see what Santa brought. They won’t always be eaeger to bake with you…Eventually they won’t care if you don’t put up a giant tree or go caroling or make hot chocolate. They’ll allow you to beg off making a snowman because you’re tired. But there are only a few winters – and only a few days each winter – that your children will ask to make snowmen with you. Someday, perhaps, you will be staring at the snow from the too-simple room of a hospital or nursing home, dreaming of the days when making snowmen with your children was an option.

Kill me now. I mean, how many times have I opted out of a kid activity for a little sanity-making mommy time? Instead, I should have been soldiering on saying, “Screw downtime. The kids will be gone before you know it, so wait until then. You’ll have nothing but downtime.” Or, as my friend Phil used to say, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” He is doing that now, poor soul, and I am glad of every minute he stayed awake for me. So you can see why coming upon the husband hunched over his smartphone playing a game makes me bonkers. Make it worthwhile, mister, or don’t do it at all!

But I digress, Readers. You want to know what successful people – the most successful people - do before breakfast. Well, look, I think you can pretty much guess it.

  1. They go to bed early and get up early. We’re talking 5 or 6 a.m. Six am is pushing it. Put it this way, if you awake after dawn you’ve overslept. 
  2. They do things that require undivided attention and willpower, but that are still appealing. LV says they use this time for things that are “important but not urgent.” Exercise. Meditation. Planning for work. Writing. The willpower thing is key. Willpower is limited. Science has proved it. Science has also proved that, like any kind of energy, it depletes through overuse. But you can also strengthen it through practice. Thus, the best time to do things requiring willpower is in the morning, because your willpower is fresh then. Later in the day, if you’ve depleted your energy on urgent tasks, you will find it hard to motivate yourself to take on the important but not urgent ones.

There’s  a lot more in this book. The book is a combination of three e-books and it covers what the most successful people do before breakfast, on the weekends, and at work. And while it did drive me to despair – in combination with several other non-related things – I found it interesting. I might even have picked up a tip or two.

Would you now like to know what I do before breakfast? Just for comparison? If I haven’t had insomnia? Which reminds me that this book assumes people just go to sleep at their nice and early Benjamin Franklin bedtimes, and wake up rested and refreshed, just like the peddler in Caps for Sale. There’s nary a mention of insomnia. I guess the most successful people don’t have it. Or they take a pill – although this option is missing from the book.

Anyhoo, I awake to the sound of the husband’s alarm. I pull myself from sleep by thinking of things I’m grateful for. Sometimes these thoughts are more coherent than others. Sometimes they blend into dreams. Next, I do fifteen minutes of yoga, so I won’t crack in half, then stumble downstairs and drink a large glass of water. Donna Karan does this too, I was delighted to learn. The water drinking, I mean. She didn’t mention the stumbling. I make eggs for the 10th grader, and lunches for both kids and the husband. I feed the dog in the manner prescribed by the $140 dollar per consultation dog trainer: To wit, I sprinkle his kibble on the lawn so that he can stimulate and satisfy his prey drive by working for his food. I check my email and the annoying Facebook while he does this. Then I call him in and dry off his paws. I drive the 6th grader to school some mornings. Some mornings she gets a ride from the neighbors. Then I eat breakfast.

Then I nap. Which only proves the obvious point: I am not one of the most successful people. But I get the job done.

 *These quotation marks do not indicate any actual conversation between my teenager and me.