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Archive for July, 2013

In Defense of Our Dogs

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Scout - Summer 2009

Much like many young couples do, when GAP and I had been married about two years and bought a house, we got a dog.  His name is Scout, and I can promise you that he is the best dog in the world.  I say this with, yes, some bias.  But my opinion is backed by many people who know Scout and are marginally less biased than I am.

I can also substantiate Scout’s superiority among all canines with such stories as how he once staked out a burrow dug in our back yard by a mama rabbit, sniffed it each day for more than a week, and when the baby bunnies finally emerged actually played with them in the gentlest way possible.  He crouched to the ground making himself as small as 100 pounds can become, gently pawing near – but not at – them, never once even inadvertently hurting the tiny mouse-sized creatures.  (We have it on video.)  When I was reading Book 7 in the Harry Potter series and (spoiler alert!) got to the scene where Dobby dies, I lay on the couch crying silently as I read and Scout walked over from our foyer and started licking the tears from my cheeks.  He changed his morning routine for the entirety of my first pregnancy, not going downstairs* to go outside until I came down myself.  He walks at our sides without a leash.  He supervised SSP’s tummy time.  He barks only on command.  And he loves everyone.  One of these days he will leave us, and I will cry for days.  (I tear up just typing those words.)

I feel the need to proclaim the magnificence of Scout (and his brother Jasper) because of this article on Slate that basically decries all pre-child pet ownership.  Author Allison Benedikt spends the better part of a thousand words complaining about how the dog she once loved and doted on is now merely a blight on her home life.  The whole thing just made me sad.  I’m sure it’s true for most parents that the time and attention they gave to their pets before becoming parents dropped off significantly after they first carried a pumpkin seat into the house.  (I know it is for us.)  And I’m sure that for many of those parents the arrival of children into the family renders the earlier decision to purchase of a pet a mistake not easily corrected.  But I’m here to say that’s not always the case.

Balancing life with kids and life with pets is hard.  We have two 100-ish-pound dogs and a tiny back yard.  This means I have to walk our dogs two miles every morning to keep them exercised and free from cabin fever.  They shed mountains of hair weekly, which means that sweeping is a never-ending task.  Sometimes they get skin infections and require antibiotics twice a day for weeks at a time.  And every time we want to leave town we have to make arrangements for a house sitter.  I’m not saying I’m the perfect pet owner.  Their monthly flea medications usually get administered a few days late (and sometimes missed altogether).  Their daily walks often get pushed aside on weekends.  And we don’t brush them as often as we should.  But we do our best to keep up with it all because of the incredible joy they bring to our family.

But there is more to pet ownership than a collection of touching anecdotes.  Scout and Jasper were also wonderful preludes to kids in a number of ways.  They taught us many of our early lessons about caring for someone else.  About praise and discipline and devotion.  About cleaning up messes.  About regular checkups and maintenance medications.  Many things that come into play (on a much larger scale, obviously) with children we first experienced with our dogs.  Over and above that, both the CDC and WebMD document the health benefits of pets.  They have the ability to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides.  They stimulate the exercise levels of their owners.  And they provide companionship to people living alone.

I’m not saying pets are for everyone.  They are a long-term commitment and a lot of work, and the decision to get one shouldn’t be made simply because it seems like it’s the next step in life or because the puppy at the pet store is cute.  But I am saying that, contrary to the perspective on Slate, pets can enrich your life after you have children every bit as much as they did before you had kids.

In one of my favorite Louis CK bits (I couldn’t find a clip) he bemoans the day that someone gave his kids a puppy.  To paraphrase, he says something along the lines of, “I don’t know why anyone would ever give another person a puppy.  It’s just about the meanest present you could ever give.  It’s like saying, ‘Here you go.  Here’s a broken heart in eight to ten years.’”

As for me, I’ll take the broken heart, because I wouldn’t wish away my dogs for the world.

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*Until I was pregnant he went downstairs with GAP and our other dog, Jasper (who is also wonderful, but is no Scout), first thing in the morning.  From week 10 to week 39 of my pregnancy Scout wouldn’t start his day until I started mine.  In my second pregnancy he went downstairs before me to be close to IEP.

What’s in a Name?

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

It’s a funny thing watching your positions change over time.  But time does change our perspective, and with shifted perspective come shifted viewpoints.  This, apparently, is true of my views on feminism.

A couple of weeks ago as we drove home from dinner the radio station in the car aired an ad for Beyoncé’s current string of tour dates.  Her current tour is named “The Mrs. Carter World Tour,” to which I took exception.  GAP pointed out that this bristling on my part ran counter to what my position would have been just a few years ago.

It wasn’t that long ago that I subscribed to the belief that the purpose of feminism was to allow every woman to decide for herself which path is right for her life:  To follow a career passion.  To stay home with children.  To dial back the career, work part time, and spend additional time with her kids.  To join Green Peace.  To live in a yurt.  And I still believe that every woman should be able to make that choice… with one caveat.

I believe that women, no matter their chosen path, should not allow themselves to be disempowered by men.

They should not allow it for their own sakes, for the sakes of their fellow women, and for the sakes of the generations of women who will follow them.  For the corporate woman this might mean fighting for equal promotion opportunities and special projects.  For the stay at home mom this might mean standing up to an overbearing school principal.  For part-time workers this might mean fiercely negotiating for her work-life balance.  For yurt dwellers it might mean having equal say in where to move the yurt.  And so on.

For Beyoncé, I think it means not naming your entire world tour after your husband.

There is power in being known by a single name.  Not many people can pull it off, and there are two major prerequisites to doing so.  1) You must have a pretty unique name in the first place.  2) You must be a big damn deal.  (Cher.  Bono.  Barack.  Oprah.  Beyoncé.)  If you are known by a single name and you sacrifice that name in order to be known in terms of someone else – as in belonging to someone else – you sacrifice some of the power too.

Perhaps in Beyoncé’s case she’s not actually sacrificing any power.  The fact of a world tour in the first place suggests that she is on an impressive trajectory (as if we didn’t all know that).  Perhaps Beyoncé can afford to go around referring to herself as Mrs. Carter without the risk of being rendered impotent in any way.  But we haven’t come so far that this is true of all women.  And until such time as it is true of all women, I wish that Beyoncé would save the Mrs. Carter stuff for her private life and stay aboard the power train in her public and professional life.

As we drove home from dinner that night and I explained to GAP my rationale on this topic to him he asked what made me change my tune.  I gave pause for a moment or two and told him that it is in part life as a working mother that altered my perspective, but also just additional years in the workforce.  Having to fight for maternity leave benenfits.  Watching a former employer hire almost exclusively male MBA grads for its fast-track program.  Looking at the list of C-level executives in multiple companies and not seeing nearly enough women.  We still have a lot to work for.  And I believe that women in positions of power (whether known by one name or two) owe it to women in general to continue that work.  They are the beneficiaries of an incredible amount of chipping at the proverbial glass ceiling that was done by the generations before them.  They owe it to the generations that will follow not to settle for “equal enough.”

And this isn’t a burden to be borne only by corporate executives and entertainment moguls.  We all have a role to play here.  Any time I let myself be disempowered by a man it negatively affects all women.  We each have to stand up for ourselves, because in doing so we stand up for each other.

Access and Advice

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

Who’s at the top of your phone tree when you need advice?  Especially when it comes to matters of parenting, where do you go?  To your mother or sister?  Perhaps an aunt or grandmother?  Maybe your mother-in-law or a kind older neighbor?  Or do you go to Gwyneth Paltrow or Jessica Alba?

I got to thinking about this question after reading this blog post by Kate Spencer over at HuffPo.  It is mostly about how our culture focuses too much on regaining your “post-baby body” at the expense of much more important aspects of motherhood.  And Spencer makes some very worthwhile points on that score.  However, it was the issue of mentorship that struck me most.

Spencer comments, “Not that celebrity culture is the only way we stay informed. But while women a hundred years and fifty ago got answers from elder women around them, it seems like we now look more toward public figures for instructions on how to live our lives.”  Why is that?  I suspect it’s something to do with access.

Much as we like to believe that our country and culture are fully democratic, they are far from it.  Attorneys jump to the front of courthouse lines to get their speeding tickets waved away.  Huge corporations with deep pockets wield disproportionate amounts of political power.  So called “legacy” offspring of alumns of prestigious universities are admitted with lesser qualifications than unconnected applicants.  Throughout our culture the well-heeled and well-connected have access to “better” of almost everything.

And so this leads us to look to the Paltrows and Albas for advice.  Aside from the whole affiliative desire that celebrities spark in us, we believe (and rightly so) that the routines and regimes they follow are reflective of better inputs than most of us have access to.  We want to know what they know.  Whether it’s a skincare regimen, a meal plan, a bedtime routine, or a time management tip – we want in on the secret, which isn’t necessarily a bad approach.

The catch, of course, is that these women’s lives are strikingly different from the lives of most American women.  They do not work in an office for eight hours a day.  They do not clean their own homes.  They may not even do their own grocery shopping.  This isn’t to say that their lives are charmed and free from the often-mundane aspects of normal family life (toddler tantrums, shedding dogs, picky eating, favorite pants are at the cleaners when you need them, etc.).  But it is to say that the parts of life where they have the resources and bandwidth to achieve the ideal, probably don’t align with mine.*  And for the parts of life where they are subject to the same trivialities of life that I am, their advice is probably no better than that of my best girlfriends.

This current celebrity fixation wasn’t always the case, of course.  I wonder what it would be like to live in a bygone era – an era when we didn’t have 24-hour access to (and obsession with) what Celebrity A wore to put gas in her car and what Celebrity B ate for breakfast.  I wonder what it would be like to live in an era when we looked primarily, or even exclusively, to women around us who have walked these paths before.

My mother participates in a group at her church called Project Day.  Once a month women gather together and sew shirts, receiving blankets, and other baby essentials for the church’s mission in Africa.  My mother is in her mid-60s and is, by at least ten years, the youngest member of the group.  She loves participating in Project Day because of the perspective these women provide.  She marvels at all that they’ve been through.  “There is nothing this group hasn’t experienced,” she has told me.  The loss of a spouse or a child.  The birth of a grandchild or great-grandchild.  Cancer.  Conquering a long-standing fear.  Remarriage.  The betrayal of a friend.  Arthritis.  Cataracts.  70th, 80th, and 90th birthdays.  Some of their advice may be dated, but their perspective is not.  They have traveled through the forests of younger years and can see those trees clearly now from the meadow on the other side.

There is value in a shared experience.  There is a comfort and a bond from going through something together.  This is why my closest girlfriends and I relish in the opportunity to trade war stories (both the ones where we win and the ones where we lose).  We know that we are not going it alone.  But there is also value in the perspective of someone who traveled this path before you and can warn you of the places where you might trip, and assure you that the bloody scrape on your knee right now will heal soon and be nothing more than a memory in due time.

In a way, women who have gone before us have a level of access that no amount of money or privilege can buy.  They have access to a lifetime’s worth of experiences.  And the value of that is immeasurable.

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*The flip side of this coin, of course, is scrutiny.  These women have to pursue the ideal when it comes to their appearances because their livelihood depends on it.  I am sure there are many days when women who have to maintain unreasonable levels of perfection all the time wish that they could go for a week without someone judging their value based on their looks alone.

Poor Miranda Kerr

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

It’s true.  I’m feeling sorry for Miranda Kerr these days.  Not because I think her life is especially hard.  But because she’s out there doing the best she can – just like all the rest of us – and she’s getting dumped on left and right these days.  She’s a short blog post away from Gwyneth Paltrow-level hatred, and I think that’s too bad.

The backdrop is this:  Kerr (a Victoria’s Secret lingerie and swimsuit model) was recently signed by Net-a-Porter to star in a series of web videos titled The Body Beautiful discussing her diet and exercise regimen.  The first video was just released and in it she gives the recipe for her morning smoothie.  And I will level with you on this one – it’s a little over the top.  The recipe includes the following: water from a fresh coconut, cold pressed coconut milk, acai powder, goji berries, spirulina, cacao powder, maca powder, chia seeds, and vegan rice protein powder.  Not exactly things most of us have lying around the kitchen.  Actually, they’re not exactly things that many of us could track down if we wanted to.  So of course the media have jumped all over Kerr for being out of touch.

I have to cry foul, though.  Miranda Kerr is supposed to be aspirational.  Her whole job is to look like most of us will never look so that we will buy the products she models/endorses in the hopes of inching our way closer to that ideal.  She won the genetic lottery, and she’s making the most of it.  I don’t blame her a bit.

Further, and more importantly, it wasn’t that long ago that supermodels were more likely to be known for their drug habits than their health habits.  As someone who clearly remembers idolizing the figure of Kate Moss, I would much rather today’s young women follow the example set by Miranda Kerr.  Perhaps her example is an unattainable one for most people, but it is still a good one.  Smoothies and yoga are far from the worst advice she could give.

It’s easy poking fun at people like Kerr and Paltrow.  And I will be the first to admit that they bring it on themselves a bit.  It wouldn’t kill their aspirational vibe to throw in a few mainstream recommendations.  (“And if you don’t have access to acai powder, blueberries are also a great source of antioxidants.”)  Nevertheless, I’m here to take up for them.  There are far worse ways to leverage your celebrity than by sharing your (freakishly healthy) smoothie recipe, or writing a blog with your favorite lifestyle tips.

We have to remember that these people live in a bubble of privilege.* We can’t expect them to share such personal details of their lives as their diet and exercise habits and come across as relatable.  Of course Miranda Kerr isn’t going to spill the secrets of her amazing physique and disclose a freezer full of Lean Cuisines and a punch card for the spin class at the Y.  And that’s okay!  I’m thrilled to know what Kerr eats for breakfast every day.  Perhaps she has some ideas that will help me up my own game, even if I don’t have the time, money, or inclination to adopt her regimen in its entirety.

I applaud anyone who has a public and aspirational life and is willing to be candid about what she does to achieve her health, beauty, or life balance.  Many of her suggestions may be out of my grasp, but if I take that personally then it’s on me.  If her best is better than my best I have to accept that.  And besides, of course Miranda Kerr and Gwyneth Paltrow have set a bar that is higher than I can reach – they’ve both got at least four inches on me.

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*That is their own doing to a certain extent – there are certainly ways to remain more connected to the mainstream.  But I also understand the desire to stay in that bubble.  We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture and if I lived a life that required a body guard for me to step out the door with my son I might limit myself to the upper echelons as well.