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Monday, March 24, 2014

Target Size, Progress, and Jeggings

Readers, I think I may have bought jeggings.

Before you condemn me for trying to dress like my daughters, let me assure you that I bought them from a store the fifteen year old would never shop in.  In fact, I’m pretty sure her gag reflex would trigger just looking at the window display. So even though they are denim, and have some stretch, and skinny legs, and a wide waistband – read “girdle” waist - I think maybe they wouldn’t actually qualify as jeggings, more as skinny jeans for the, uh, mature woman.

But I’m not entirely sure. I was trying to be a little French, and I may have gone astray. You see, I just read French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, which dispenses many hints on how to be stylish, and I’m in the middle of French Women Don’t Get Fat. In attempting to implement the secrets of those French women I may have been very hungry when I entered the store. Luckily, I have such body dysmorphia I’ll simply pull on this item of sartorial distinction and have no real idea whether I look good or bad. Those who love me will support me. As, indeed, will my jeggings.

Two steps forward, one step back. Still, that’s progress. And in comfortable shoes. That’s right. Since last I wrote, I have managed to focus on my upcoming Italian “vacation” and buy shoes. The shoes are definitely comfortable. And age appropriate. I know this because the fifteen year old wouldn’t even look at, much less try on anything in the shoe store.

Here is more progress. Despite being down in the dumps, I managed to revise my proposal. Hurrah. I’ve sent it off to a couple of trusted readers, and now I await comments.

I happened to pick up a new book on success and happiness at the library called Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor. He is, according to the book jacket, an expert on happiness, a TED talker, and world famous, though I’d never heard of him. He also has a connection to Harvard, which he mentions on almost every page of his book. He went there, he advised students there, something or other. Harvard, Harvard, Harvard. I get it.

I offer that tidbit as proof of his expertise – since so does Shawn Achor, apparently.

Anyhoo. There was an element of serendipity to the timing of my discovery of this book. In it I did come across a section that seems applicable to my current state of feeling failed. To wit, amidst the exhortations to be positive and to combat anxiety with counter-waves of positive statements and so forth, Achor talks about increasing your likelihood of success at something by increasing the size of the target at which you are aiming. The bigger the target, the easier it is to reach it.

However, if you can’t actually make your target bigger, what can you do to make it seem bigger? Achor refers to a famous experiment with golf holes that proved that golfers performed better when the hole they were putting for was surrounded by several holes smaller than it. The smaller holes made the real one seem bigger. I’ve written about this before.

I really started paying attention when Achor started talking about a related study involving the SATs. This study has shown that the fewer people in the room, the higher their SAT scores were. My first thought on reading this was, Oh, great. My child goes to an industrial strength public high school. Just the other week she took a national French exam and she said the room was so crowed her desk was jammed up against the wall. How’m I going to find her a small room to take that SAT next year?

Bridges to cross, bridges to cross.

The idea behind this SAT phenomenon, according to Shawn Achor, is that when students take the exam surrounded by billions of their competitors, they feel discouraged by the number of them, and their scores reflect that. If they have fewer obvious competitors, they are fooled into feeling less outnumbered, and that confidence helps them perform better. It's like smaller versus bigger golf holes.

How does this apply to my life, and not just to the life I’m living through my children? Thankfully, I do not have to take the SAT myself. Perish the thought.

Well, it does relate. It relates to my down-in-the-dumps-ness. I am feeling like the target for my proposal is very small. There are so many writers out there, so many proposals, that mine seems like a minnow in the ocean. A minnow looking for an agent. This sort of thinking is discouraging. It’s almost enough to make one give up and look for a real job where one could accrue a paycheck and thereby some self-respect.

But I didn’t give up, did I, Readers? No. I revised my proposal. So what I need to do is find a way to make that target look bigger. I’m not really sure what that way is. If you have any ideas, let me know.
Or if you have a good idea for a job, I’d love to hear about that, too.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


Fifty. Readers, this number has rung up on the cash register of my life. In ten days I’ll be 50. In celebration of this event, our family is planning a vacation to Italy. It’s our first vacation, just the four of us, ever. It’s the first time I’ve been to Europe since 1988. I am scared. Yes, I am scared. In fact, the trip, while being a great idea, in theory, has totally stressed me out. I can barely bring myself to read the guide books. I can’t bring myself to shop for things I need like comfortable shoes.

Is it the trip? Or turning 50? Or both?

50 is of course a highly symbolic birthday. On the other hand, as others remind me, it’s just a day. It’s not as if I’m going to change radically on that day. In fact, in anticipation of it, I’m having my breakdown ahead of time. I already feel fifty, if fifty has a feeling, in that I think of myself as fifty already. Then I realize I’m cheating myself out of the last dregs of forty-nine. My forties. As if they were so great. They started out well, but oy, the muffin top. Among other problems. 

On the plus side, in my overeagerness I got that right-of-passage colonoscopy out of the way. As many told me, the worst part was the anticipation and the prep for the procedure. That didn't stop me from practically hyperventilating until they put the nice medicine in my arm and I went into zombieland. Afterwards, I felt great, and I left with photos of my healthy colon and proceeded to tell several people that all was well and then to tell them again the next day, not remembering that I'd already told them. This had nothing to do with age, and everything to do with that nice medicine.

So what about fifty is so scary? Well, it reeks of mortality. It seems like a big doorway to another phase of life – real, incontrovertible adulthood. Fifty is the place where things can start to go wrong physically and be terminal. At least that’s how my brain is playing it. I realize that’s kind of silly. Things can go wrong at any time. Indeed, in my own life, things went wrong once at 29. I survived. But I have the sense that things don’t usually really go terribly wrong, physically, until the fifties. It’s no longer easy for me to magically think, Oh, that won’t happen to me, when I hear of some illness or tragedy befalling someone else. I personally have always managed to have a sense that I’m going to be fine until I grow very, very old; at which time I will drop off peacefully in my sleep one night. This may surprise some of you who know what a hypochondriac I am; but these two strains, the hypochondria and the inner conviction of being protected from early death, have kept me in balance for quite a while.

The balance is skewed right now. Fifty is pushing the fact in my face that there is a lot of randomness to life and that is frankly scaring me. I suppose that’s just me having the typical midlife crisis. Indeed, as I think about it, I see it. Fifty arrives, and fear of death comes to the fore. Along with that, comes the reappraisal of one’s life. Inevitable regrets.

I feel kinda bad writing glumly about reappraising my life. After all, for quite a long time now, I’ve been all about success, success, success. I have to admit that at this moment, the success feels buried by these other worries. Also, I have been struggling with a book proposal, and as the husband astutely pointed out, the struggle has undermined my sense of achievement over the last umpteen months. It's hard to write about overcoming a sense of failure when once again I'm feeling like one. So the cycle continues. I’ve mentioned it before. System breakdown being part of the system. There are periods of frustration and fallowness even for the most productive, positive, go-getting types – so I’ve heard.

I’m continuing to write the proposal, albeit at a painfully slow pace, and I’m trusting the cycle will turn again, from frustration, from winter, to new creativity, to spring.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why Am I Not Danish?

It’s not that I long to talk about TV shows, but this one has been so interesting that I can’t resist. I’m
Maybe on a good day.....
speaking of a Danish drama called “Borgen,” which is about the Prime Minister (PM) of Denmark, who happens to be a woman. We watched the last episode of the second season of Borgen yesterday and I dreamed about the PM, Birgitte Nyborg, off and on all night.

Spoiler alert! But, as my Shakespeare professor once said, if you’re upset to discover that Romeo and Juliet die at the end of the play, you’ve lost the point of literature. Okay, maybe I’ve lost the point of it, by now, eons later, Professor Finkelpearl long retired; but his message was that knowing the ending of the story doesn’t lessen its impact, it makes the story richer. So, I am performing due diligence in warning you of spoilers; but I’m telling you, Readers, a spoiler doesn’t matter in this case.

This season found Birgitte pinioned by the demands of her job and her desire to be available to her children. One of her children had an acute mental health crisis, and following the shrink’s injunction that her recovery would require big changes in the family, the PM decided she had to take a leave from work. Naturally, this made big news. Other (male) politicians, of course, took advantage of her absence to build themselves up while running her down. Predictably, they turned her gender into an issue. Questions about her mothering, and whether a mother could handle the job of PM dominated the press. She was a bad mother, because her daughter was struggling; and she was a bad politician, because she was distracted by her child. Eventually, even though she wasn’t quite ready to return to work, she did return, because her advisors suggested the situation was getting out of hand, and policy implementation was foundering in a perceived power vacuum.

The PM’s instinct was to ignore the press. She refused to respond to the insinuations that her gender affected her ability to lead. She told her aides that responding was beneath her. She was happy to talk politics, she said, not gender. It would have been easy to get on the TV and angrily ask if journalists would be asking these questions of a man. And of course it would have been easy to say that a man would probably not take a leave to be there for a child - because men assume the women will do it. Women have to shoulder more roles. That doesn’t mean they do inferior work, by any means. But Birgitte didn’t go that route.

The PM had been struggling all season as a single mom, by the way. After her first year in office, her husband Philip left, feeling frustrated, neglected, and probably emasculated when she took on the demanding job of PM.


Finally, in the last episode, she told him off – thank goodness – and said he’d given up too fast and hadn’t been understanding enough of the demands of her new job and how long it would take to adjust to them. When a former male PM got on the news and talked about how hard it had been on his wife, how neglected she had felt, and how inevitable that neglect had been when he was PM, it seemed to strike a new chord with Philip. While he didn’t say so, one can hope the realization had begun to penetrate that he’d been an ass. I believe that’s the technical term. He’d applied a double standard to Birgitte. I thought it was a nice touch to show Philip getting driven around by his new girlfriend, a busy pediatrician, another strong woman; the suggestion being that he was entirely too passive about his life choices and didn’t know how to fight. Also, that he both enjoyed and was immobilized by the powerful women in his life.

When the PM returned, she gave a short speech to the legislature. It was marvelous. She pointed out that the first four women in Danish politics were elected in 1918, therefore, the debate about gender was about a hundred years too late. That ship has sailed, she said, in different words. Danish words. Her point was, here I am, I am PM, and I am doing what I have to do, so shut up about my gender and get back to work. It was great.

This was all entirely diverting and engrossing, and there was added pleasure, too, that the husband said the actress who plays the PM looks like me. But it was an uncomfortable feeling, too, when I consider how mired and stuck I sometimes feel in my own life, and how unfledged I am professionally, and when I see how much she does in her life. In fact all the women in the show are professionals, and it makes me feel like I haven’t done enough.

There’s been a whispered, provocative question circulating among feminists and sociologists that it’s awfully interesting that our society discovered, just at the time when women were getting into the professions seriously and moving out of the home, that mothering is a fulltime job requiring 100% attendance at home to provide a solid base for the children. Mom can go back to work, the suggestion is, but her kids may turn out sociopaths. So go ahead and take away some deserving man’s job, but watch what you reap.

The implication, I suppose, is that my generation grew up to be a bunch of miserable degenerates (slackers, anyone?), because a lot of us had parents who worked - and who, by the way, practiced a more hands-off style of parenting. Therefore, we try to give our children what we think we missed.

Yet now there’s a move away from “helicopter parenting” and a yearning for the freedom kids experienced in the latchkey kid days. Or was it the fifties and sixties when kids were outside all day long, roaming freely, while their moms were home suffering from the problem with no name? It’s all so confusing. What’s a feminist mother to do?

I can’t help wondering if I’ve been hooked by some line cast by the feminist backlash. Because I surely felt my attendance at home was preferred. I felt that my kids needed me home, at least when they were little. However, now that they are older, and feminism has moved back into the mainstream, I want to earn money and show them a “productive” role model. Unfortunately, now it’s much harder to build a meaningful career because I’m, well, older. So I flop around on the deck, regretting my choice.

After all, I am not a degenerate, even though my parents worked. My stepmother stayed home with my sister for a while, but the honest truth is that I was happier when she wasn’t there. We had a housekeeper, so I was not a latchkey kid, though several of my friends were – and it was fun to go to their houses after school. But I did manage to grow up and attend college and graduate school and get married, have children, and become the neurotic, anxiety-riven overthinker that I am today, without winning a lot of ribbons for participation in soccer, without Mom being There for me. On the other hand, the minute my first child was born, I was all in. I wanted to be there for all of it. I don’t regret that.

Ah, the pendulum. Back and forth, back and forth. We are all getting sleepy. I relate to Birgitte Nyborg in this: the push-pull conflict over women’s roles needs to end. Cease the discussion about qualifications. We need to move to a new understanding of women’s needs, of children’s needs, and of men’s needs, too. The line between working at paid work and caring for family needs porosity. It’s still too rigid. A mom who needs or wants paying work, needs places to go. Let’s talk about that.