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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Does the Medium Matter?

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Not to get too ecclesiastical about it, but there is a time and a place for everything.  A bridal shower is no place to discuss marital woes.  Lunch with coworkers is no place to discuss your child’s bout of stomach flu.  We all know these things and take great care (or at least we should) to tailor our content to our audience.  But what of our platform?

If we are amongst friends does it matter if a conversation happens in person, versus over the phone, versus via text, versus email?  These are all usually 1:1 conversations in which the platform is relevant only to the participants.  Nevertheless, there are some conversations that we tend to believe warrant a particular communication vehicle.  As an example, Russell Brand was roundly admonished by the general public for asking Katy Perry for a divorce via text.  So we have some standard for propriety in play within private exchanges, whether or not they involve us.   What about Facebook, then, where private-ish conversations spring out of public-ish posts?  If a conversation starts as an exchange of posts and comments is there a point at which it should be taken out of the group forum?  Further still, what about Twitter, whose purpose from the beginning is to cast a wide net?  Is there a threshold at which a given topic has crossed the line of propriety for a given medium?  Or does the medium matter at all?

I ask these questions because apparently NPR host Scott Simon raised eyebrows last month when tweeting extensively about his mother’s failing health and, ultimately, her death.  Simon has 1.2 million Twitter followers, meaning that he was tweeting to a sizable audience.  The content of the tweets is perhaps what anyone might expect when facing the loss of a parent, his tweets having covered, “Gratitude for her life and love. Nostalgia for her wit and aphorisms. Stress and confusion at the logistics of last-minute flights, paperwork, the interment. Awe at how quickly it all comes and goes,” as explained by the Huffington Post.  But while some (many? most?) of his followers were happy to be included in this chapter of the Simon family’s life, the tweets were also met with naysayers.

“Simon has also caused controversy. Should the end of life, grief and the details of after-death arrangements be tweeted? Was he violating his mother’s privacy? … The reaction from his fans and those who work with the dying for a living, has been varied,” explains HuffPo again.  Yet at the same time grief counselors, hospice workers, and others who work in and study the end of life are crediting Simon with starting a national conversation about a subject that is often taboo.  One hospice blog commented that, “Talking about death is difficult for many. Any mention of death and dying causes some people to cover their eyes and ears. We applaud Scott Simon for telling the story of his mother and her final days in such a public way.”

So which is it?  Is it causing a stir because he wrote about it, or because he wrote about it on Twitter, the same platform that was the venue for Ashton and Demi’s foreplay pics, countless celeb spats,  and myraid other banal minutiae of daily life?  Clearly we don’t find it unilaterally off-putting to write about death.  Joan Dideon’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which explores in depth the death of her husband, John Dunne, was celebrated both in its print and stage versions.  So why the uproar over tweeting a comparable event?  What if Simon had waited six months and documented the experience in a thoughtful essay in Salon or The Atlantic?  Would that have sat better with us?

I wonder if the immediacy of a tweet changes the way we perceive both the message and the person giving it.  Perhaps the real-time nature of Twitter forces us closer to death than if Simon had gained some distance from his mother’s passing.  The feelings he was expressing were the emotions he felt in that exact moment.  The temporal nature of Twitter carries with it, in certain circumstances, a real intimacy that some people may not be comfortable with.  (By contrast, Dideon’s memoir was published nearly two years after Dunne’s passing.)  The thoughts that come in such a moment are raw, fleeting, and rather disorganized.  Sharing that experience with a grieving person is not a light burden to shoulder.

A few months back a friend of mine posted on Facebook a link to this article in the LA Times that explains to people who are prone to foot-in-mouth incidents, how to talk with people who are suffering from illness.  The not-quite-lyrical mantra of the article is this: comfort in, dump out.  The mantra is embodied by an illustration of rings, with the sick person at the center and each ring around it representing people in the life of the sick person.  The sick person should only find love and comfort from those around him or her, should be allowed to vent any pain, sadness, or anger to anyone at any time, and should never be asked to shoulder someone else’s grief over their illness.  Those in the first ring out (spouse, child, parent, etc.) can “dump” on those in a more outer ring, but never on the sick person.  Those in the second ring can only comfort those in the first ring, but can vent their sadness and fears to someone in the third ring.*  It’s so simple it seems obvious, but by virtue of the fact that it is needed, I know that it isn’t.

I bring this up because I think the same goes for death.  Scott Simon is in the first ring outside of his mother.  The loss is principally his and that of any siblings of hers or his.  He should be able (without public outcry) to express his grief in whatever manner suits him.  Given the public forum he chose I think he has to expect that it will generate conversation.  Twitter is not the platform of those seeking privacy.  But I think something can spark discussion without also eliciting denunciation.

Grief is highly personal, but that doesn’t always mean it is highly private.  And we should have the tolerance – especially of a person in grief –  to get right with that.

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*In this case a picture is worth 136 words.

Haggling While Female

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Back in April I walked into a car dealership to buy a minivan.  My crossover SUV and GAP’s sedan were no longer big enough to transport our now-three children, and we needed something that would hold everyone.  Nanny also needed something to get everyone around during the week, and there was no choice but to add a third car to our family.

After test driving several and finally zeroing in on the one I thought was a winner (“winner” of course being a relative term when you’re talking about used minivans – none of them is too exciting) I started to haggle with the sales guy.

“Is there anyone else you need to make a decision today?” he asked me.

In retrospect I wish I’d asked him then and there if he’d ever posed that question to a man, and then walked off the lot.  I didn’t, only out of necessity.  I was scheduled to go back to work in a handful of days and was running out of time to get a van purchased.  I needed to buy this car.  When the whole affair was over I promised myself that I’d do it differently next time.  And I will.

Apparently, though, the prejudice that women and minorities face in the car buying process can now be circumvented by haggling and purchasing online.  As described by Libby Copeland over at Slate, when the buyer becomes anonymous the power dynamic shifts significantly, and the whole process becomes much more democratic.  At first blush I counted this as a good thing.  Perhaps even at second blush I still saw it as a good thing.  But after some further thought I began to wonder how much of an advancement it actually is.

I know that we don’t live in a perfect world.  But the ideal is what we aim for.  It is both the goal we hope to achieve and the guidepost by which we measure our progress.  So in the evaluation of ridding the world of sexism – even something as seemingly minuscule as  used-car-purchase sexism – we should be evaluating our progress against the ideal situation of a woman walking into a dealership and being treated throughout a negotiation just as a man would.  Not by her ability to achieve better results by obfuscating the fact that she is a woman in the first place.

I recognize that there is value in upending stereotypes and preconceptions.  When the tough-as-nails online car haggler walks into the dealership and reveals herself to be a woman she perhaps chips away at a salesman’s biases.  Perhaps after a handful of such experiences he will change the way he (or she – women aren’t precluded from bias against other women) does business with women in the future.

In fact, anonymity has been proven to significantly improve the standing of women in other areas – perhaps most notably in the membership of symphony orchestras.  In 1970 only 5% of the musicians in the top five symphonies in the United States were women.  Then, throughout the ’70s and ’80s the practice of so-called “blind” auditions – where musicians auditioned from behind a screen – was adopted by much of the orchestral world.  And by 1997 the presence of women in the top five symphonies had grown by 500%.  It was through the anonymous audition process that these women were awarded slots previously given to men.  And I would be surprised if today women’s musical talent and physical stamina weren’t regarded as being much more on part with that of men.  Going for near term gains has advanced the overall cause.

So which is the right way to go about it?  I bristle at the idea of having to hide my womanhood to get a fair shake at something.  But the reality of the situation is that I probably cannot singlehandedly knock down the existing prejudices that people I encounter may hold.  If I shun the opportunity to improve my own outcomes merely because I find the process insulting do I spite anyone other than myself?

I wish I could go back and haggle the minivan guy down another thousand dollars.  But if I were given the choice between winning that thousand dollars back via an online negotiation or failing in my attempt to do so via a face-to-face encounter I’d be crazy to leave the money on the table just to satisfy my pride.

In the ideal world we would chip away at these biases without apology or anonymity.  But the fact may be that we are better off with the shortcuts available to us, because the ground we gain in the short run may also be ground gained in the long run.  Perhaps there’s no reason or need to go the long way round the barn in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wish we didn’t have to game the system just to be treated fairly by it.

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.

Tell Me a Story

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Steven Spielberg is predicting the end of movies

Actually, if we want to be slightly less inflammatory about things, he’s predicting the unsustainability of the current film business model.  Apparently, we – the movie-going public – are a fickle lot, and it’s hard for studios to predict what we’re going to like.  This makes it difficult for them to determine which projects they should spend $200 million to make (like the Iron Man franchise), and which ones they should not (ahem, cough, John Carter).  At the other end of the spectrum, it’s also hard to foretell which smaller films are worth making.  As an example, Lincoln, which was a huge hit with both audiences and critics last winter, nearly ended up on HBO because studios weren’t sure what audiences would think of it. 

Spielberg believes it’s inevitable that one of these years the studios will release their big spring/summer high-budget films and they will all flop.  And the studios will be forced to change their paradigm.  As The Huffington Post explains, “Hollywood has waded into increasingly tumultuous financial waters in recent years, as an explosion of competing media options has divided consumers’ attentions — and their wallets. Movies themselves, meanwhile, have become more expensive to produce.”  Given the fickle nature of movie-goers studios are only willing to spend big money on films they think will draw big crowds, and comparatively small sums on films they are less sure of.   So we’ve ended up with a vast chasm on the movie continuum – high-dollar action films and shoestring indy films with almost nothing in the middle ground.

Call me crazy, but I think I have a solution to this problem:  just tell me a story.   

Yes, we love to shovel popcorn into our mouths at break-neck speed while watching things blow up in front of us on a giant screen.  But if we don’t walk out of the theatre feeling connected in any way to what we just watched then it probably wasn’t worth our time (and definitely not worth our word of mouth).  Perhaps they are fun, diverting, and ooh- and ahh-worthy, but we don’t need stunts and explosions and aliens and high speed chases to make it worth our while to go to a movie in droves.  We just need a good story.

This doesn’t mean that movies have to be slow and moody and indy-ish.  Three of the biggest hits of past few years were Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, and Bridesmaids and they were all raucous, off-color, and hilarious.  They didn’t involve big special effects or otherwise huge production budgets.  But we loved them anyway because they told great stories.  And if your taste leans more toward the, well, tasteful, then the same goes for Lincoln and Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.  The value of a story holds true for action films as well – we wanted more and more of Jason Bourne because he was interesting in addition to being a bad-ass.  (Even 007 has become more interesting in the post-Bourne Identity Daniel Craig era.)

In looking at the some of the most-loved movies of all time, very few of them hinged on special effects alone.  Citizen Kane, The Godfather, A Few Good Men, and The Shawshank Redemption still captivate us because we care about their characters and what happens to them, not because they are eye candy.  And even the ones that are – Indiana Jones, Titanic, and The Dark Knight – gave us both action and plot. 

I’m not campaigning for a wholesale industry transformation to Merchant Ivory films.  But please tell me a story that I will care about.  A happy one, a sad one, a funny one, or even a (slightly) scary one.  If you tell me a good story I will happily pay $15 for a ticket, $9.75 for a box of Milk Duds and a fountain Coke, and $40 for a babysitter.  But you have to tell me a really great story.  Otherwise I’m headed straight to whatever book is on my nightstand.

The Last-Timers

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

We haven't seen at least 5 of these people since that day.

Sometimes it makes me sad how few of my best friends today were not at our wedding.  This group includes all but one of my wonderful girlfriends from graduate school, all of our great friends from GAP’s work, spouses of old friends who have become beloved in their own rite, and many others.  Either because we had not yet met or because the relationship wasn’t fully formed at the time, they were not there.

At the same time, there are people who were invited to our wedding – a couple who were even included in it – whose presence there was a vestige of a phase of life that was winding down.  They had played a role of some significance in our lives up to that point, but their scene was almost up.  Some were childhood friends whose lives have since gone in very different directions from our own.  Others were sorority sisters and fraternity brothers with whom we’d never been that close, but whom we felt obliged by etiquette to invite.  For a few of them our wedding day was the last time we would see them.

I’d been thinking about this recently for a few reasons, and then stumbled across this post on Slate which encapsulates nearly to a T what I’d been mulling over in my mind.  In it author David Plotz discusses the two varieties of last-timers.  There are the obvious ones, the ones you probably know on the day of the wedding are last-timers – parents’ friends from back when you were in diapers, former co-workers, and a sea of plus-ones.  If you could retroactively take them off the guest list, you probably would.  But then there are those whom you would never have guessed at the time were about to fade out of your life.

Plotz comments that extreme pragmatists suggest not inviting those whom you think won’t be a part of your life moving forward, but that such an approach is both unrealistic and misguided.  For starters, oftentimes we just don’t know that someone is a last-timer.  More importantly, perhaps the fact that they are is the very best reason to invite them.  For so many of us our wedding is the moment that ushered us out of the life of an overgrown adolescent and into the life of an adult.  As our lives turn that corner, some of our friendships don’t make the turn with us.  But sharing your wedding with the people who have brought you that far might just be the perfect ending to that chapter of your life.

All of this, though, makes me especially thankful for the weddings that have come after we’ve turned such corners in life.  Some of our very best friends (IEP’s godparents, as it would turn out) had just started dating when we got married, and our wedding was the first out-of-town trip they took together.  A few years later we attended their wedding and it makes me happy to know that our weddings caught our friendship on the upswing.  Similarly, in looking back at the friendships that have fallen away over time I am especially thankful for those childhood and college friendships that have stayed a part of our life in spite of the different paths we’ve taken.

Some good friends of ours recently got engaged and it makes me so happy.  I’m happy for all of the obvious reasons – they are a wonderful match and will have a wonderful life together.  But I’m also happy that we met each other after that fateful adolescent/adult conversion was behind us.  That we will be able to sit at their wedding and comfortably predict years and years of shared moments together.

Perhaps one day my girlfriends and I who married before we met each other will sit around with a bottle of wine and a pot of fondue and tell each other about our weddings.  The dresses, the toasts, what went right, what went wrong, and all that we missed when our lives had not yet intertwined.  But of course what matters most is that we had then, and have now, friends whom we want to include in life’s biggest moments.

Oklahoma

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

When I wrote and scheduled Tuesday’s post the tornadoes that gripped central Oklahoma on Monday afternoon had not yet hit.  We had no idea what was to come.  When my post went live on Tuesday morning and I gave it one final proofreading it felt inappropriate to be discussing such things as happiness when so many in my home state were completely devastated.  But the post was already written and at that point I wasn’t really able to process the magnitude of the catastrophe anyway.  I let the post stand.  And as I think about it now that a few days have passed all I can think is, “How lucky I am that I have the option to choose when I will fully process this catastrophe.”  The people who would most like to turn a blind eye to it are exactly the ones who must face it head on.

As I have intermittently followed the coverage of the tornado aftermath I came across this post by Jennifer Rowe Walters in which she candidly admits that Oklahoma is not known for much – one Broadway musical, one bombing of a federal building, a couple of Senators who are currently eating crow, and – for the truly ignorant – the impression of oil rigs and teepees on every corner.*  Having spent several years on the East coast Rowe Walters is all too familiar with the fact that people outside the region see her (my) home state as a collection of archetypes and disasters.  She knowingly foretells that this tornado will likely be added to that list.

I suspect that the accuracy of her prediction will be uncanny.  New Orleans is still known today predominantly for its post-Katrina existence, and it had a rich identity to begin with.  Oklahoma, which to many people who live elsewhere is quintessential flyover country, will forever struggle to be known outside of the region for more than the major moments (largely negative) which have periodically brought it to the forefront of the national conversation.**  The thing is, though, that Oklahoma does in fact have a culture all its own.  It is a culture that doesn’t really fit me as a person anymore, but there is a culture there.  And it is a culture that is valued and treasured by the people who live there.

Unfortunately, tornadoes are a big part of that culture.  Rowe Walters comments that there are no better armchair meteorologists in the world than in Oklahoma, and she’s right.  I know a wall cloud when I see one, and what does and does not classify as green and when talking about the color of a storm front.  She recalls, as I can, hunkering down in interior school hallways with our hands folded behind our heads during tornado drills.  I recall, as I’m sure she can, hearing sirens blare at noon on sunny Saturdays as the tornado alert system was tested.  I was carried to our basement in the middle of the night dozens of times as a little girl.  And somehow I’ve never truly been impacted by a tornado.

Perhaps this is why I’m having such a hard time coming face to face with the aftermath of this storm.  (Given the level of devastation it seems somehow dismissive that tornadoes aren’t named as hurricanes are.)  I have some guilt about it.  I have an incredible amount of gratitude – no one I know personally was impacted (although one more degree of separation changes that).  But I left Oklahoma more than a dozen years ago and in moments like this I feel a bit like a defector.

Absent the ability to go down and reconstruct buildings with my bare hands, I am doing what I can.  I changed my Facebook profile pic to the image above (largely irrelevant).  And I will make a donation to charitable organizations who are supporting the disaster relief (much more meaningful).  And if you have the means I would encourage you to do the same.  The following organizations (among others) are all taking donations:

Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma

Red Cross Disaster Relief

Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma

Salvation Army

Most of the time I have mixed emotions about my home state.  But right now I feel nothing but sadness and sympathy for it.

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*When I was a little girl my father once hosted a business client from the East coast.  While in Oklahoma he wanted to see two things, an Indian (his term…) and an oil rig.  Lovely.

**It’s too bad the Thunder are out of the NBA playoffs.  A national title, while trivial in the grand scheme of things, might do a lot to lift spirits.

Bright, Shiny Moments

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Yesterday morning I boarded a flight for my first business trip in more than two-and-a-half years.  And while I was sad to leave my boys behind for a couple of days, there was a certain excitement about the fresh start implicit in this trip.  As I neared the end of the jetway I saw the sun glinting off of the silver body of the airplane, through the dingy window of the jetway, and straight into my eyes.  It seemed fitting for the moment.  I felt bright and shiny.

It made me think about my first flight.  I was eleven years old and we were flying to Southern California to visit my aunt and uncle, go to Disneyland, drive up the coast, and experience the wilds of  the coast.  My excitment for the trip was huge as there were near countless things to look forward to.  But my excitment for the flight was particularly intense.  Most of my friends had flown somehwere before, so there was the eagerness to shed my self-consciousness at not having done.  But in my mind, whether from movies or books or stories from somewhere, flying was a glamorous thing to do.  I wore a dress because I couldn’t stomach the thought of not dressing up for my flight.  And when we reached the gate area I ran into a friend from summer camp, making me feel very worldly, and our parents swapped seats so that she and I could sit together.  It was a big day.

As I made this little trip back in time it dawned on me that none of my sons will have any recollection of their first flight.  IEP and SSP were both roughly 10 weeks old when we flew to visit my parents during my maternity leaves.  JDP was just shy of his second birthday when he flew home from Korea.  They will never remember those moments.  Further, they will never remember a time when boarding a flight was something exciting (the flight itself, that is - not just the destination at the other end).  It made me a little sad.  But then, why should it?

I don’t remember my first ride in a car, and I feel no nostagic hole where that memory should go.  I’m sure that when I was about two days old I was loaded up into a car and driven home from the hospital.  And I’m sure that I’ve ridden in a car nearly every day since.  A car ride doesn’t need to be something exciting for me.  Perhaps the same is true of my kids and air travel.  Perhaps my sense of loss over a memory that will never exist for them is a bit like someone much older feeling regret that I don’t have memories of my first call on a touch-tone phone.  Some things don’t hold the same meaning for one generation as they did for an earlier geneartion.

When you get down to it I think the thing that matters is not the excitement for boarding a plane.  What matters is the excitement at a big moment in your life.  For me, because I was old enough to have built up a great amount of anticipation around that flight it was a big moment.  This morning, because I’m excited about my new job and the opportunity it holds, my first trip with this company was a big moment.  As long as my kids still get excited about big moments – anticipate them, relish in them, and never take them for granted –  then I think we’re probably doing okay.  For me, my first flight was a big moment.  For them it wasn’t.  But something else will be.

A Legitimate Question

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Only recently have I begun to lie about my age.  I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m 35.  But when I reach the end of a Boden product review entry and am asked to categorize my age I just can’t bring myself to check the 35-44 box.  I always check the 25-34 box.  Thirty-five is one thing.  But I’m not yet ready to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m part of an age category that includes 44-year-olds.  I’m pretty sure that it’s okay for me to avoid unpleasantries about my age, though, because I am not the House Minority Leader.

Yesterday, as she announced that she intends to keep her current post as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi grew offended when NBC reporter Luke Russert asked her about whether that decision damaged the Democratic party by preventing younger leadership from taking the reins.  As soon as the question was out of his mouth the congregation of women standing behind Pelosi cried foul.  ”Age discrimination!” they shouted.  Russert (bully for him) held his ground, though, repeating the question and pressing for an answer.  Pelosi then remarked. “Let’s for a moment honor it as a legitimate question, although it’s quite offensive. You don’t realize that, I guess.”

Now I know the old saying goes that a lady never reveals her age,* but I’m here to say that I think that women (at least women in public service) shouldn’t get a pass on this issue any more.  Once upon a time there was a much thicker glass ceiling than there is today.  Women didn’t serve in houses of Congress, on boards of directors, or on the United States Supreme Court.  Slowly, though, we’ve chipped away at that glass and today women fill all sorts of leadership roles.  This progress is both wonderful and warranted.  But just as women’s merits should be held in as much esteem as men’s, so should our accountability be challenged as persistently.

By asserting that Russert’s question was offensive Pelosi tried to give herself a pass, to move on without answering it.  It sort of pains me to say it, but no man would have done that.  The ages of Reagan and McCain were widely discussed during their presidential administrations and campaigns.  I wasn’t following politics very closely in the early ’80s, but I followed the 2008 presidential race energetically and never once did I see McCain avoid a question about his age.  He consistently responded that he was in excellent physical and mental health, and that his age had provided him a full set of life experiences that would guide his leadership of the country.  These are fair questions in the political arena, and if women want to go toe-to-toe with men in elected office we can’t ask for special treatment on certain topics.  Part of shedding the sexist limitations of our nation’s past is also shedding some of the chivalrous protections that went along with it.  Russert’s question was a legitimate one, even if women of Pelosi’s generation don’t like to think so.

In retrospect what surprised me most about Pelosi’s initial “How dare you!” response was that once she got past it and gave a real answer, it was a good one.  She talked about not having entered Congress until much later in life than her male counterparts and her resulting awareness of the need to elect young women to the House.  She talked about her efforts to shepherd younger representatives into positions of leadership.  She made it clear that her maintenance of her current role is in no way detrimental to the grooming of younger leadership.  (Whether or not you agree with that is a different question altogether.  My point here is that she had an eloquent answer.)

In a way I think Mrs. Pelosi weakened herself with her knee-jerk rejection of Russert’s question.  She should have embraced it.  In doing so she would have conveyed confidence in her tenure and her experience.  Her eventual answer about working to facilitate younger leadership would have rung true.  And the headlines following the press conference would have focused more on her leadership and less on her age.

No elder statesman has ever apologized for his age.  No elder stateswoman should either.

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*To this day the age of cosmetics legend Mary Kay Ash is only an estimate.