Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Wicked Happy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Happiness has been on my mind a great deal lately.  It was one of Momalom’s Five for Ten themes.  It is the sole subject matter of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I’m currently devouring.  And it comes up on track 12 of the soundtrack from Wicked which has gotten significant airtime in my car since we returned from New York nearly three weeks ago.  While all three of these venues have addressed the topic admirably, it is the last one which has crawled into my mind and been poking at me with irritating regularity.

I’ll spare you the context for track 12 (which is properly entitled “Thank Goodness”) because for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that Glinda (“the good witch” as most of us know her) hits on an uncomfortable truth.  Gretchen Rubin would probably tell us that these lyrics address the “arrival fallacy” of happiness (p. 84 in THP, for those of you following along at home).  And she would be right.  But for me these lyrics hit me at more of a gut level than an academic one.  I care less about why they scare me, and more about the fact that they do so in the first place.

That’s why I couldn’t be happier
No, I couldn’t be happier
Though it is, I admit
The tiniest bit
Unlike I anticipated
But I couldn’t be happier
Simply couldn’t be happier
(spoken) Well – not “simply”:
’Cause getting your dreams
It’s strange, but it seems
A little – well – complicated
There’s a kind of a sort of… cost
There’s a couple of things get… lost
There are bridges you cross
You didn’t know you crossed
Until you’ve crossed
And if that joy, that thrill
Doesn’t thrill you like you think it will
Still – With this perfect finale
The cheers and ballyhoo
Who wouldn’t be happier?
So I couldn’t be happier
Because happy is what happens
When all your dreams come true
Well, isn’t it?
Happy is what happens
When your dreams come true!

So there you have it: the one minute of a four-ish-minute song that I’ve listened to over and over and over again for three weeks, trying to understand why it’s plaguing me.  After much head scratching I’ve come to the conclusion that these lyrics bother me because they are true.  Glinda addresses the fact that when we get what it is that we think we want, we may be surprised at how the experience isn’t just as we pictured it.  More bothersome still, Glinda’s approach to this truth – skittish and furtive – almost says more than the words themselves.  She almost goes there – to that place of full-bore disappointment – but stops short of it, not treading past the allusion.

This is a frightening truth to broach.  We want to believe that when we achieve whatever goal we have set for ourselves that happiness, pure and unadulterated, will pour forth into our lives.  Yet rarely is this the case.  My friend Aidan touched on this very phenomenon in a post of hers just last week, causing me to contemplate it further.  This whole premise feels much more frightening when someone you know personally (rather than a witch in a musical…) is experiencing it in real time.

I have goals and dreams and ideas about my future.  Naturally, in my head the attainment of said goals and dreams comes equipped with clouds parting, angels singing, cartoon birds sitting on my shoulder (a la (500) Days of Summer), and sickeningly sweet bliss at every turn.  With a finish line like that on the horizon, why wouldn’t I run full speed ahead toward my goals?  But understanding that actual finish line may be something more bittersweet I pause to think carefully about the goals I have set.

I turn back to Gretchen Rubin for a life-line.  She writes:

The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present.  … the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness.  To the contrary.  The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal.  Friedrich Nietzshce explained it well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the meolody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either.  A parable.”

And so it turns out that the means is the end.  Leave it to Nietzsche and Gretchen Rubin to explain this fearful premise in a way that makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a gift with a bow on top.  Now someone just needs to explain this to Glinda.  Perhaps it is the kind of philosophy that would resonate better with Elphaba.


GAP and I saw a traveling production of Wicked last night which got me thinking about this post which was originally published in June 2010.  Amidst all of the stress I’ve intermittently mentioned lately I’ve been giving thought to my goals and dreams, and thought this post was worth revisiting.  I will have one more new post to cap off the year sometime between now and Christmas, and will then take a bit of a break for the holidays.

A Long Time Coming

Friday, February 17th, 2012

About a year before I launched this blog I started a private, family blog to keep out-of-town relatives abreast of what the Family P was up to.  Nearly all of the posts on that blog are about the boys.  But prior to having another venue to explore other topics I would sometimes post about subjects other than the mind-boggling genius and adorability of IEP.  The post below was one such entry.

As I was killing time on Pinterest yesterday I created a board of my favorite books. The Grapes of Wrath is one of them, and I was reminded of this post and thought it might be worth posting here.  Note that it was originally written in August 2009, when IEP was about nine months old.

It is with great relief that I’m here to tell you that over the weekend I finally finished The Grapes of Wrath. For those who have been keeping track, I started it about a year ago. Now don’t judge. In my own defense I’d like the record to reflect that in that time I’ve also read all ofWhat to Expect When You’re ExpectingYour Pregnancy Week by Week, and the first nine months of What to Expect the First Year (sense a theme here?). I’ve also had a baby and started a new job. So it’s not like I’ve just been on the couch since last August. Well, not the whole time. Wouldn’t that be nice, though?

Anyway, this has been a long time coming (Gone with the Wind didn’t take half this long). I thought I would finish it before “the baby” was born (this was back before IEP was IEP). I even took it to the hospital with me in November. (In retrospect, that’s hilarious.) Then I thought I’d finish it by the end of the year. (In my first six weeks of motherhood? Even more hilarious!) I thought I’d finish it before I went back to work. Before vacation. Before IEP goes to college. … That last one, as it turns out, was realistic.

For much of the book I wasn’t really all that into it. Poverty, hunger, sickness, death, oppression – not the kind of things that add up to a real page-turner. Many evenings I’d get in bed, give a big “ho hum” as I picked it up off the nightstand and GAP would say, “Why don’t you just put it down?” But I couldn’t do it. I think I figured that I have it much better than the poor Joads and the least I could do was show them the respect of not ditching them altogether. And now my perseverance has paid off. I’ve finished it, and I’m very satisfied. And, partly to justify to myself that the endeavor was worthwhile, here’s what I learned from this book:

  1. Even preachers have their sins. One doesn’t actually have to read The Grapes of Wrath to learn that (thank you Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, etc.), but Jim Casy is thoughtful and penitent about his in a way that makes you respect him.
  2. Unions may be a huge hassle for business owners, but it’s a darn good thing we have them.
  3. Eating too many peaches will give your kids “the skitters.”
  4. I should be more charitable. The hardest sentence of the book to read was when Ma Joad was asking a store clerk to give her 10 cents worth of sugar on credit. He grudgingly obliged and she commented that in their travels she’d learned was that when you need charity, ask poor people, because rich people won’t ever help you. Ouch! I almost never give to panhandlers, and I think that ought to change.
  5. Ma Joad could get anyone through anything.
  6. Don’t write off the silver lining. For 617 pages I was utterly convinced that Rose of Sharon (“Rosasharn” in Joad vernacular) was as worthless a character as I’d ever read. And then, on page 618 (of 619) she did the most touching, selfless thing. (I won’t say what it was, in case you haven’t read it.) It was her gesture at the end of the book that made the whole book worthwhile and really hit home the most important “lesson learned,” which is…
  7. No matter how bad things get – ever – there is always someone with less, and we always have something left to give.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Friday, May 13th, 2011

I take my vitamins.  I walk my dogs every morning.  I go to the gym about three times each week.  I don’t drink coffee and rarely drink soda.  I eat my vegetables.  I get regular checkups.  And yet, the best thing I’ve done for my health in the past six months may have been the decision to stop eating lunch alone in my office and start eating in the company cafeteria with three coworkers.

As it turns out, our health is the product of a much greater combination of factors than merely what we eat and how often we exercise.

While trolling The Huffington Post yesterday I came across this article about how the Mediterranean diet isn’t just about food.  As a longtime disciple of fish, vegetables, and olive oil I was intrigued.   After World War II a group of researchers began the Seven Countries Study, which evaluated the health of more than 12,000 participants.  According to the article’s author, Georgianna Donadio, the study accurately identified that “certain Mediterranean lifestyles and dietary patterns were connected with good health.”  But the study failed to look beyond the food-based components of the Mediterranean Diet and further evaluate the lifestyle as a whole.

“…the Mediterranean Diet is not just about what people eat. It is about the values, habits, relationships, quality of how food is grown and the quantity of how food consumed by these particular groups — not just how or what they eat. … The whole health of an individual is about the physical, emotional, nutritional, environmental and even spiritual components that create our overall state of health. Our dietary choices and habits can be seen as a metaphor of what the overall or whole picture of that individual’s health is expressing. We eat how we think, feel, work and behave, all of which are influenced by our environment, values, age, financial and education levels and even by our gender.”

This explanation got me to thinking about a passage I read nearly a year ago in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  Gladwell begins the book with a description of an Italian immigrant community in Pennsylvania in the mid-1900s.  The first generation immigrants in the late 19th century kept many of the old country’s culinary ways, but as their roots grew deeper in America they adopted many of their new home’s tastes.  A young physician was alerted to the strikingly low incidence of heart disease and other comorbid conditions and began to study the community.  What this physician found was a dietary and exercise culture like that of any other Pennsylvania community, as was their genetic makeup.  A thorough analysis of the community pointed to the town itself as the source of such good health.  Gladwell points out that it was the transplant of the paesani culture of Southern Italy – the intergenerational families, the civic organizations, the unifying effects of the church, and the neighborly culture – that insulated these people from the pressures (and ailments) of modern life.

These kinds of studies fascinate me.  It seems we are always looking for the short answer or the quick fix.  How easy it would be if the silver bullet to good health were contained in some tiny pill.  How easy it would be (relative to the truth, that is) just to adhere to a regimented diet and exercise plan.  But in today’s world, you know what is hard?  Participating in a community.  (And I’m not talking about Facebook or the blogosphere here!)  It’s hard to reach out to people all the time.  It’s hard to let other people reach out to you.  It’s hard to carve out time and effort for your friends, neighbors, and relatives.

We constantly bemoan the busyness of our lives.  As a working mother this genuinely resonates with me.  But studies and anecdotes like these always grab my attention.  There are incredible health benefits to friendship and community.  We may think that we are just fine going it alone – or even going it only with our immediate family.  But we are likely wrong.

I’ve yet to read a study indicating that strong friendships and strong communities are overrated and not worth the work.  If I ever do, I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, I think I have some reaching out to do.  Or at the very least, I should go eat lunch with my work friends.  I have to look out for my health, you know.

On Roast Chicken and Moral Failings

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Around this time last year I was wrapping up a month-long vegetarian experiment.  Its purpose was not only to challenge my dietary boundaries, but to learn about the nature of our food supply, so I augmented my vegetarian practices with some educational reading.  By the end of the month I had determined that I would reintroduce meat into my diet, but that I would be more selective about the sources of the meat.  And for a long time I lived up to that commitment.  But I’m here to confess to you today that lately I have backslid.

See that roast chicken?  The one right up there?  It looks delicious, doesn’t it?  Well, I can assure you it was.  That very chicken was served for supper in our house last night.  I served it with orzo pasta and roasted vegetables.  Yum yum.  However, in spite of its deliciousness, I have some major ambivalence about it.

You see, that chicken – the delicious one up there – represents a moral failing on my part.  When I purchased that chicken I stood in the butcher section of my grocery store and looked at it.  Then I looked at the free range, organic, air chilled one next to it.  The second one truly did look better.  Then I looked at the price tags.  My chicken (about 4.6 pounds, for those who keep track of such things) cost $3.23.  The guilt-free bird (of comparable size)?  It was a little more than $16.  Sixteen dollars!  For one chicken!  I just couldn’t do it.  So I picked up the cheaper chicken (or, the “chipper chicken” for those who have watched Father of the Bride too many times), and slinked away.

People like Michael Pollan would tell me that a chicken should cost about $16; that factory farming has artificially created an economy that allows me to purchase a chicken for $3.23; and that while I may not be paying for my chicken at the cash register I am paying for it in other ways (such as filth in our food system, environmental damage, and the moral degradation that results from supporting shameful animal husbandry practices).  And they would be right.

So why, then, do I find it so hard to pay what Pollan types would argue is a fair price for a chicken?  And why am I still worrying about it days later?  And why am I fessing up here in this blog post?

I guess I’m here writing these words because I feel like it’s the honest thing to do.  This?  Having integrity about the source of the food we eat?  It’s hard.  Factory-farmed food is easy.  It’s cheap.  And it’s highly convenient.  I’ve read books and newspaper columns and magazine articles and blog posts about our food system.  Most of it sickens me.  And yet, in spite of all my knowledge, when faced with two chickens and a $13 price difference, I made a choice I’m not proud of.

During my vegetarian experiment last March I never did watch Food, Inc.  I think my conscience could use a jump start in this department, so I’m vowing here to watch it soon.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that by coming clean in this post I’ll be able to shame myself into being more conscientious in my shopping habits.

I’m not perfect.  And while I’ve never claimed to be, there for a while I had some pride about my dietary morality.  So I’m here confessing my shortcomings, and hoping that a dose of humility will serve its purpose.

The Playground Hypothesis

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I’m testing a hypothesis here. 

A couple of weeks ago I went on a research bender in preparation for one of my posts on children and achievement.  As a part of that bender I read an article from Psychology Today entitled “A Nation of Wimps” wherein the author posits that “parental hyperconcern has the net effect of making kids more fragile.”  The article is long and covers a lot of ground about parenting young kids and how our parenting decisions influence the kind of adults they become.  Touching on topics from playgrounds to binge drinking to cell phones it sheds light on a many parenting dilemmas.  I highly recommend it.

One of the topics covered by the article that most intrigued me (but which did not dovetail with my prior posts referencing it) was free play.  I have explored the topic of free play in the past, but the “Wimpy Kids” article prompted me to consider it afresh.  It begins by describing a hypothetical-but-realistic playground scene in which the parents do not chat on park benches, but rather stand right next to their kids, “co-playing” and coaching them through the playground.  When I was a kid any snapshot of a playground outing pictured all of the parents on park benches, chatting away and keeping half an eye on their kids while they enjoyed some adult conversation.  Apparently this is no longer the case.

The article goes on to describe the larger implications of the decline in free play: 

“In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees. … Kids are having a hard time even playing neighborhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. ‘They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what color socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.’”

So there it is, plain as day: free play is really good for our kids.  Or, perhaps more pointed, a lack of free play is really bad for our kids.  Given this, why have we as parents, coaches, and educators let this vital part of childhood die off?  If we know it is good for our kids, and we know that constantly hovering around them – whether it’s to ensure matching socks or to encourage them to pick the big slide – is damaging, then why do we do it?

This brings me to my hypothesis.  If we sit back and are uninvolved in our kids’ play we feel neglectful.  If we let them work the puzzle alone while we respond to an e-mail; if we let them dig in the dirt outside on their own while we flip through a magazine or fold laundry; if we are not actively cultivating their minds at all times then we think we are lazy, indulgent, and selfish parents.  We positively swim in the guilt of it. 

Yet the research shows that our parenting would be improved by a longer leash.  Our kids will end up more balanced and capable if we get out of their faces a little bit.  Psychology Today tells us, “The less time children spend in free play, the less socially competent they’ll be as adults. It’s in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of others and how to negotiate conflicts.”

So I ask you, do you let your kids play on their own?  Or do you feel the pull to involve yourself in their play, encouraging learning and guiding their interactions?  The research is unequivocal – we need to back off.  But the cultural pressures to hover are strong.  We feel like slackers when we take a step back.  But I think we owe it to our kids to quit trying so hard.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter (and she’s coming for yours…)

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter* reads a little bit like a post-feminist woman’s anthem: We are facilitating the indoctrination of our young girls to the detriment of our entire culture.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  That said, I’ve never heard our national anthem performed at the start of an event and thought, “Is this really necessary?  Can’t we just skip this part?”  The answer is obviously No.  We can’t skip this part.  We go over it and over it and over it because it is important; too important to ignore.

I plunged into this book from a place of unsure footing.  Was I reading it as a former girl?  Was I reading it as the possibly-future mother of a girl?  (Right now I have one son, although we plan to have more kids.)  Or was I just reading it as a curious adult who likes to keep her finger on the pulse of our culture?  I didn’t know.  But by the end of the book I realized, it really didn’t matter.  The cultural tidal wave presented in Cinderella ultimately affects us all – whether parents, teachers, hiring managers, or anyone else.  If you know a woman or girl under the age of 25, you have come face to face with Princess culture whether you realized it or not.

To grossly over summarize the premise of the book, it is about how American adults (with the power of the purse) have allowed a marketing bonanza to preordain for their daughters how they play.  And permitting that preordination of play weaves a complex web of side effects that can, if left unchecked, trap our girls (and eventually our young women) into the worst possible versions of themselves.

Synergy! That business school buzzword bounced around my brain as I read Orenstein’s book.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is not any one aspect of Princess culture that will become our young girls’ undoing.  It is the aggregate effect that scares me.

Each of these things accounts for just a drop in the bucket.  But take a look at the bucket and you’ll realize how significant each drop is.  The onslaught of pink clothes and toys since 2000 at some level tells girls that they must love pink in order to be a girl.  The generic princess fairy tale tells them that they must be beautiful and well mannered and patient and helpless (and that all there is to wait for in life is a man to rescue you).  The pint-sized pageant set sends most parents running scared (while smugly congratulating ourselves that our girls don’t participate in such warped worlds).  Yet what exactly is the pageant circuit if not merely an exaggerated version of the princess culture that most girls live and breathe day in and day out.  Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez teach girls to whore out their virginity as badge of honor.  And online social networking sites further entrench the idea that the self is not something carefully cultivated from within, but rather a brand to be marketed to people she may or may not actually know in real life.

It starts with a plastic tiara.  But it ends someplace much more sinister.

This isn’t to say that if I have girls I won’t let a Sleeping Beauty costume cross the threshold of my home.  As I said, no single component of the Princess culture can take down an adolescent girl alone.  This means that I don’t have to be the princess police.  But it also means that I do have to take care in deciding what to permit and what to deny.  I will have to talk with my daughters about the culture they participate in.  I will have to know them well, understand to what extent they are internalizing their entertainment, and rein things in when necessary.  Orenstein herself confesses multiple moments of confusion and misstep.  I don’t expect to be any different.  Like many things, my own awareness will be an important first line of defense.

This whole world is still an arm’s length away from me.  But even if my family turns out to be all boys, I’ll still be glad I’ve read this book.  I might have come to this conclusion on my own, but one line toward the end of the book made the point obvious to me.  In the ninth chapter about the influence of the online world (which was probably the freakiest chapter in the book) Orenstein tells the story of a friend who found on her 14-year-old son’s computer topless photos of one of his classmates.  The parent commented, “We’re trying to teach our son that women are not playthings. … How are we supposed to do that if a girl sends him something like this?”

And that, my friends, is why this matters to everyone.

As I reviewed all of my margin notes after finishing the book a passage in the chapter on pageants caught my attention.  Orenstein tells the story of a young pageant heavyweight (figuratively, not literally, of course) whose home life is complicated by a severely handicapped brother.  She explains that the pageant world perhaps gives this girl a time and place in which she can pretend that her life is as perfect as it looks.  Orenstein continues:

And isn’t that, at its core, what the princess fantasy is about for all of us?  “Princess” is how we tell little girls that they are special, precious.  “Princess” is how we express our aspirations, hopes, and dreams for them.  “Princess” is the wish that we could protect them from pain, that they would never know sorrow, that they will live happily ever after ensconced in lace and innocence.

Written like that I might sign up for a powder pink ball gown myself.  But that’s not the end of it, is it?  Because even within the confines of a Disney movie there’s more to the story, isn’t there?  The great irony here is that the description above doesn’t even reflect the fairy tale.  Their lives are not so rosy as this.  These princesses are not valued for any of their abilities or intelligence.  They are frequently embattled against evil queens, step-sisters, or other enemies.  They are usually trapped in some way until a man can rescue them.  They are given two choices for vocation – life as a maid or life on a pedestal.  And they are condemned to an eternity of wearing a dress in which you cannot reasonably sit down.

On its surface Princess may seem like the innocent, utopian vision of what we want for our girls.  But when you look under all the tulle you see that it’s probably the last kind of life you’d want for your daughter.

Orenstein casts a bright light on something that has become so commonplace most of us didn’t realize it was worth discussing.  I’m glad she called us out on our oblivion.

*Disclosure – complimentary copy provided by publisher Harper Collins.

An Unfinished Product

Friday, October 1st, 2010

There are many reasons why I find Julia Child inspiring.  Her passion for good food is foremost among them.  But as I’ve been making my way through her posthumously-published memoir My Life in France I’ve fallen in love with her for many other reasons.

She was nervy and determined.  She was a bit of a bohemian.  She was an intrepid rookie with the French language.  She was a beloved misfit in a nation of prim and tiny women.  She was staggeringly in love with her husband.  She didn’t take herself too seriously. 

These are all both laudable and endearing in the same breath. 

But on pages 71-72 of her book she makes the following confession:

But I was bothered by my lack of emotional and intellectual development.  I was not as quick and confident and verbally adept as I aspired to be.  … Upon reflection I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which caused me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful “scientific” thought.  I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.

It is well-known that Julia Child didn’t discover her passion and talent for cooking until she was in her late thirties, and her famous cooking show “The French Chef” didn’t debut until she was 50.  But the quote above resonated with me even more than her late-blooming career.  For her struggles in this vein are highly similar to demons I’ve battled many times myself.

I am thirty-three now.  I am a wife, mother, and professional.  I have a graduate degree.  I should be able to defend any position I have, right?  I’m not so sure.  What I do know with certainty is that I continue to struggle with many of the same issues that our beloved Julia describes.  When challenged I sometimes become nervous and emotional, rather than confident and knowledgeable.  I have become comfortable with many of my beliefs without first really questioning why they are so.  And when situations arise that call for me to explain or defend myself I rarely find myself short of words, but often find myself short of well-formed thoughts.  When I am flummoxed I get quiet.  And for any of you who know me in person you know that “quiet” is a highly out-of-character state for me. 

But it seems I am in good company.  I’m learning from her memoir that Julia Child was a work in progress – an unfinished product – throughout most of her adult life.  I find this heartening on a number of levels.  First, it spares me the shame of not having it all worked out yet.  Second, it means that I have a lot of living yet to do.  (How sad and dull life would be if by the age of 33 there were no mental gymnastics left for me to attempt.)  And lastly, it reminds me that no matter how much of my world view I am able to articulate, there is always more to learn.

Fear Factors

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

With apologies to Dr. King, we all have dreams.  Our dreams may not be as noble as his (likely not), but they are our own and they are meaningful to us.  Perhaps we dream about becoming a writer.  Or having the time to take a vacation for two full weeks.  Or becoming an Olympic athlete.  Or not living paycheck to paycheck.  Or finding a spouse.  Or not being overweight.  Or owning a lavish apartment on 5th Avenue. 

Sometimes our dreams are well within our control.  We know we have the power to harness our futures and transform them to match our vision.  But sometimes we look at the horizon in front of us and watch it remain out of our reach, no matter how quickly we move toward it.

We doubt ourselves, or our circumstances, or our ability to change our lives.  We believe that in spite of our most ardent hopes and efforts we will never make it to the destination we so earnestly (and oftentimes secretly) desire.  So we find faults with our dreams.  We convince ourselves that we don’t really want the things that we want. 

“A two week vacation is so long that I’d just get homesick and not really enjoy it.”

“Freelance writing provides such spotty income.  If I ever made a career of it, I’d probably end up wishing for my regular salary back.”

“Olympic athletes spend every waking moment training.  They really don’t have lives outside of their sport.  And once the Olympics are over, then what?”

When your reach exceeds your grasp sometimes it is easier to rein in your reach than to extend your grasp.  And that is how we come to settle. 

But why do we do this?  Whatever does it accomplish to move the finish line in order to spare our egos?  Why don’t we all indulge our big dreams, mull them over, strategize around them, and find ways to realize them?  We get one life on this big rock.  We have no choice in how we enter it.  But we have a great deal of influence over how we live it and how we leave it.  So why accept your own status quo, when you know something bigger could be yours if you were willing to take the risk?

As part of a New Year’s resolution I’ve been reading nonfiction almost exclusively this year.  From Jeanette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, to Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, I am encountering one after another story of people who have pursued a big dream and realized it.  In some cases they were fortuitous enough to stumble into astoundingly lucky circumstances.  In others they overcame astounding odds and were successful in spite of their circumstances.  But either way, at some level each of the people profiled in these books chose to pursue the dream – to risk the dream – rather than to settle for the well traveled and familiar path.

And so I am prone to wonder to what extent the well traveled and familiar path is a sabotage of your dreams disguised as something more palatable.  In some cases, I suspect it’s a great deal.

So why this little pep talk?  Is it for you?  Maybe.  Is it for me?  Probably.  My head is all over the map these days, but I keep coming back to the parameters of success.  What does it look like on an absolute scale?  What does it look like relative to me?  What are my fear factors?  How much do they govern me?  How much often do I conquer them?

I have no answers today.  But as long as my head is spinning with these questions I figured I’d might as well have some company on the ride.

You Can’t Handle the Truth!

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Do you know your own health history?  Do you know your parents’ health history?  Do you know your cholesterol levels?  Do you know if you’re predisposed to heart disease, or alcoholism, or diabetes?  Do you know if you have the breast cancer gene?  If you do, I hope you had a doctor holding your hand, speaking slowly, and using small words when you found out.  Because, apparently that’s what the FDA thinks is necessary in order for “regular” people to come into contact with their own health information.

I was alarmed to learn last week that Walgreen’s had attempted to sell over-the-counter DNA tests to their customers, only to have their efforts squashed by the FDA.  After flexing their federal muscles the FDA explained that ordinary citizens “should not be making important medical and lifestyle decisions without first consulting a health care professional.” 

Yikes!  So every time I go for a run, which is part of my health and my lifestyle, I should call up the exchange at my internist’s office first?  Or every time I indulge in a corn dog and nachos and peanuts and Dippin’ Dots and a giant fountain Coke at a baseball game (don’t judge, sometimes nine innings takes a long time!) I should just check in with a doctor first?  Because I think I’m a big enough girl to handle these things.

Yes, I realize I took my indignation a bit far.  Perhaps the FDA has a point.  Perhaps finding out alone in your bathroom that you do in fact have the breast cancer gene would not be the ideal circumstance. Perhaps such life-altering information should come followed quickly by answers to the questions that will undoubtedly flood your mind, along with comfort and reassurance.  (Although an untold number of women have found out that they were pregnant – equally life altering – under those exact circumstances and it hasn’t become a social epidemic of any kind.)

I suppose the reason I have such a strong reaction to this particular bit of news is not the data point itself, but what came after it in the article referenced above.  Apparently the protocol of keeping patients in the dark dates back to the 1847 founding charter of the AMA which states that, “a patient’s obedience should be prompt and explicit.  He should never permit his own crude opinions… to influence his attention.”  So there you have it:  institutionalized condescension.    Further still, as recently as the 1950s physicians commonly wrote medical notes and prescriptions in Latin, in order to prevent their patients from understanding exactly what their conditions were.  And if that doesn’t make your head pop, a 1960s survey of cancer surgeons revealed that 90 percent of them would not tell their patients whether or not they had cancer in the first place. 

I thank my lucky stars that such bedside methodologies leave me slack-jawed today.  I cannot imagine being denied information about my own health under any circumstances.  So clearly the medical profession has come a long way since its founding.  But jumping back to the question of at-home DNA tests, I can’t help but wonder what, if any, merit such a restrictive policy might have.  Clearly the 1847 document quoted takes things much too far.  But is there an appropriate middle ground somewhere?

Let’s walk through this.  Suppose that the Walgreen’s tests go on the market.  Suppose they are verified to be accurate.  Suppose I take one and find that I am BRCA2 positive.  (Breast cancer does run in my family, so it’s not altogether out of the question.)  I am an intelligent, stable, and reasonable person.  What would I do with this information?  Cry?  Maybe.  Sit silently shell-shocked?  Also highly possible.  Call my primary care doctor first thing the next day?  Yes.  Call my sister to tell her to take the test too?  Yes.  Hit Web-MD and Google with a vengeance?  Clearly.  Slice off my breasts myself in some Van Gogh-esque frenzy of demented prevention?  Highly unlikely.    But it seems that this kind of response is exactly the kind of thing the FDA is worried about.  Or, perhaps more realistically, that people would ignore the data, slip into depression, or become self-flagellating in some other, less dramatic way.

I will concede that under the best circumstances devastating health news would be delivered by a doctor, armed with information about the prognosis, available treatment options, and support resources.  That’s the most perfect scenario for an imperfect situation.  But if we’re being realistic about things the fact of the matter is that a lot of people find doctors intimidating.  A lot of doctors, while brilliant, have miserable bedside manners prompting people to avoid them as frequently as possible.  And a lot of people will run the risk of letting serious conditions go unchecked just to prevent a trip to the doctor. 

So riddle me this:  What if people could get the keys to the medical kingdom, as it were, without the dreaded trip to the doctor?  What if they could find out about their DNA profile easily and privately, and then seek professional help when they knew it was necessary?  This wish came true in 1996 when the FDA reversed its 1990 ruling against at-home HIV tests.  And I don’t know, but I suspect, that many more people have been tested because of its availability than would have been in its absence.  HIV is about as dire a diagnosis as can be handed down.  If we are equipped to handle that dreaded news, how can we not be trusted to appropriately digest a broader range of risk factors? 

I am eager to see how this ordeal pans out.  I may not like it, but I’m pretty sure I could handle the truth.  Could you?

Not What We Bargained For

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

When our most recent issue of The Atlantic arrived in the mail the other day I was excited to read it.  The cover story is entitled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control – of Everything.”  I felt empowered just by reading the title.  I couldn’t wait to see what feminist conquest awaited my eager eyes inside. 

For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.  The article (which is long, but absolutely worth reading in full) dropped frequent statistics about how the ascent of women in the workplace positively correlates to increase economic success nationally; how women will earn three bachelor’s degrees for every two earned by men; how women dominate all but two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade; and so on.  Bring on the girl power, right?  Well, maybe not.

As I made my way through the article I began feeling less empowered and more depressed.  While there is a certain vindication in knowing that we’ve finally arrived at a place where brains are valued over brawn, reading about the degradation this has caused in the male workforce brought a twinge of sadness with it.  Those feelings of regret were compounded when I learned that this phenomenon disproportionately affects blue-collar male workers, who lose not only their incomes, but their entire identities, when the economy no longer requires their services. 

Apparently part of the reason for this growing gender gap (for the first time in America’s history, women now make up more than 50% of the workforce) is that women have proved more adaptable than men. 

Over the course of the past century, feminism has pushed women to do things once considered against their nature—first enter the workforce as singles, then continue to work while married, then work even with small children at home. Many professions that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women—secretary and teacher come to mind. Yet I’m not aware of any that have gone the opposite way.

The article goes on to trace this gender gap back to education.  Women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.  They earn half of all medical and law degrees.  And they earn 42% of all MBAs.  Women in undergraduate programs interviewed for the article commented on their male counterparts’ lack of commitment to a major, and confessed that they fully expected to be the primary – or in some cases only – breadwinner in their marriages.  One of the many reasons for the classroom gender gap seems to be that traditional classroom settings, beginning at the elementary age, focus largely on sustained periods of sitting still and focusing on highly verbal curricula.  This environment is, evidently, much more conducive to girls’ learning style than boys’.

And so it is that we’ve arrived at a place where women are finally surpassing men in achievements both academic and professional.  But the sadness sets in when I stop to think that this wasn’t ever the goal of feminism, was it?  Of course there have been moments of the past 40 years in which women secretly or overtly wished to dominate their male counterparts.  But I count such sentiments as the natural over-correction resulting from generations of marginalization.  The true aim of feminism was equality.  What women have always wanted was equal opportunity, equal pay, and equal value. 

I find this recent turning of the tables to be every bit as problematic as the trials faced by the women of my mother’s generation and every generation before her.  Perhaps the idea of wielding power over men is captivating for a moment.  But it is no more a solution for women to be disproportionately valued by the workforce today than it was for men to have been valued yesterday. 

The one caveat to all of this is that men are not being denied opportunities today in the way that women were in the past.  We all have the same choices on the table in front of us.  Adapting to a changing economy is a challenge for anyone.  Raising a family while working one job and attending night school is a nightmare scenario in the best of circumstances.  But women have signed up for that very nightmare time after time.

A 2005 survey of lower-income adults in college revealed that:

Men, it turned out, had a harder time committing to school, even when they desperately needed to retool. They tended to start out behind academically, and many felt intimidated by the schoolwork. They reported feeling isolated and were much worse at seeking out fellow students, study groups, or counselors to help them adjust. Mothers going back to school described themselves as good role models for their children. Fathers worried that they were abrogating their responsibilities as breadwinner.

So what do we do now?  It seems incumbent upon us as a society to harness the intelligence and productivity of a complete workforce.  But how do solve the problems of insecurity, fear, initiative, and commitment?  Should we compromise our standards?  Surely not.  Should we leave men to struggle as the gender gap widens?  Probably not. 

And so we are left with a conundrum we’ve never faced.  I don’t have the answer.  But I suggest we don’t wait four or five generations to start looking for it.