Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What 2010 Taught Me

My year is ending up on a great note: a new opportunity at work has made the sky in my little world a very happy color.  My children are happy and healthy, which I vow to never take for granted.  My romantic life shows promise, though no fairy tales exist at mid-life.  Friends, kids, home and work (a place to go every day is very good for me) have let me see it's just a piece of who I am.

It's always strange to try and remember where I was a year ago, but upon thinking it through this evening on my walk--it's an unusually balmy (even for North Texas) 70 degrees, which has no doubt also affected my mood--this is my very limited wisdom, based on my own year and a few nuggets from those close to me:

  • If an opportunity keeps presenting itself, take it.  Even if you think you can't do it.
  • We all get chances we don't deserve. You're as worthy as anyone. Say thank you, and make the most of what life hands you.
  • Opportunities can be chased.  Relationships can't.
  • Really bad things happen to people who don't deserve them at all.  It's not contagious, so do what you can to help. 
  • Saying you're sick of something isn't the same as saying what it is you want.
  • Figuring out what you really want is the hardest part of getting it.
  • Every single person has one major issue they struggle with their entire life.  Maybe you only have to manage it, not fix it.
  • Make an assumption about a person's character, positive or otherwise, and you will almost always be wrong.
  • Everything doesn't need to be done right now.  On thorny issues, wait, or call someone you trust.
  • Re-read everything before you send it. Three times.
  • Life is full of surprises.  Some of them are nice.
  • Overprepare, and go with the flow. (I need to learn this one every year.)
Happy 2011.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Fridge Magnets

After a full week of houseguests--okay, they were family, but I'm used to more time to think, cook, write and read alone--I am finally sitting in my kitchen in a delicious in a moment of solitude, letting a rich and pungent French fish stew simmer.  I look up to see the outside of my refrigerator, normally spare, punctuated now with holiday greetings from friends, and as I survey those I've posted, I wonder about what may be Freudian slips all over the place.

My pretty blond friend from South Texas (she lives in Dallas now but works with me and is a valued colleague, too, so I let the Big D aspect of her life slide) and her daughter, who is seven, are pasted up by a magnet of my son in his baseball uniform.  Maybe I have a secret desire for him to one day marry this adorable little girl so her mother and I can organize a wedding and consume libations at the same time.  Her mom and I, for the record, have been requested in our work to perform the emotional equivalent of digging ditches together and have done so happily and with some success, such is our rapport. 

For my dear and equally pretty Houstonian friend, pictured with her grown daughter, I have used the magnet that reads: "Leap and the net shall appear."  Appropriate, since my friend from Houston and I met at our last place of work--where there were certainly shades of a workplace dysfunctional family-- and got divorced at the same time, and thus have been one another's net more than once.  Take the High Road is our motto, though we both need to call one another when we fall short of it.  Mercifully, or by dint of effort, this is not the case nearly so often as it once was. 

My son's recent and second passport photo is suspended by a tiny US greenback magnet--is this a worry about how much he will cost, or a desire for his success as the entrepreneur he so often expresses a wish to be?

Then there are my same-sex couple with twins friends.  They made an adorable family photo this year, and they all look, to my delight, very happy, backing up the sense I've had during my visits that there is a lot of love in their house. The children, toddlers now, have the angelic faces that also foreshadow their looks as adults. And yet, the fridge magnet I have holding them up is an iconic black and white photo of Andy Warhol, in which he holds a hand over his face as though to express shame. Why this one? Maybe I wonder if there are others who might walk into my kitchen and not feel the love.  But I know I shouldn't feel shame. I need a new magnet expressly suited to tolerance, because I sure don't have one now. 

And then there is the one I bought shortly before my divorce became final.  This one says, "It's All About Me." Behind it is a picture of a family on the beach.  They, too are a happy family, among the happiest I know.  They are all generous and enormously likeable, but at times--okay, especially Christmas--those of us who haven't got that intact, secure unit feel a tad inadequate and more than a little jealous of the long and unblemished history their little tribe of four has built together.  But still, good for them.

None of these posting choices was conscious at all, yet each tells me something about myself.  I go through this season each year with a sense of dread and sadness, each time reinforced by old patterns repeated.  I always wish that I could impose a happier time for myself by having what yogis call intention.  But every year of my adulthood brings the familiar sense of being carried along by inexorable annual tide of  the same sad stories and their accompanying angry and tearful arguments. 

Maybe my fridge, at least, shows some authenticity.  Today I really do want it to be all about me, with my quiet and orderly house around me, a good meal on the way, and a hot bath and a good book in the evening that lies ahead. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Better to be Lucky Than Good

I have never purchased a lottery ticket.  Nor have I set foot in a casino.  It's not a moral case against these things, nor a belief that being in the right place at the right time doesn't often change the direction of one life or even that of many, but rather a belief in slow, steady progress over taking a flyer and making it big. 

Friends have suggested I go to Vegas or head to Oklahoma to try my luck.  These friends, kindly, are unaware of just how much of a snob I am---I'd go to a grimy pub to hear a novelist do a reading, but have no interest in hitting a modern day Sin City. Rat Pack Vegas I'd do, although even if I could travel across space and time, I am likely not the right sort of dame for that.  But they insist I would finally understand the thrill of a gamble. My response is that getting married to an entrepreneur was quite enough experience for me in that department. 

But more than that, it's the only child in me.  Although in performance reviews at work I am often called a team player, which thrills me because surely it means I am socialized at least enough to play well in the sandbox, I don't like playing games, especially when other people are watching me.  I'm social, but a lack of Monopoly nights at my house and more than enough sound trouncings by my father at checkers put me off these distractions.  And they're not, the Protestant Work Ethic reminds me, very productive. 

A young man I once worked with at an advertising agency was the son of a Baptist minister.  When others would head out on pitches, he would quote his mother, who didn't believe in luck but was a sweet woman: "Happy Providence!" the young hipster would say with as much irony as he could muster.  His mom believed we all walked a path set out by God.  Timing and bullshit couldn't beat that.  This definitely appealed to my PWE, although it countered that getting to meetings on time and taking good notes surely must count for something.  

I do believe in luck, but it's more along the lines of Woody Allen's notion that we get points for showing up.  When I moved to Cowtown and knew no one, I realized I had the opportunity to reinvent myself through a different career. So while my babies napped I wrote a parenting column for free, a bad column and a few features in a local business rag for almost free, and cold-called every communications director I could look up.  Most turned me down, but one asked me to serve on a volunteer committee at her non-profit.  During my service, I met an up and coming PR director from the city's leading agency.  She gave me a few projects and then a bigger break when a good account exec left.  I worked late at night and early in the mornings and did my best to nail every project.  One day she invited me to meet her boss who said, to my eternal delight, "I love your writing."  This boss was doing work for a local legend and political kingmaker who also had founded the biggest law firm in town, and he was looking for a marketing person. 

So after writing $100 columns for a few years and building up a portfolio, I got a chance to work for the biggest game in town, and I did my best to rise the occasion. Now I work for a world-wide entity, which when I consider it seems like a great leap indeed.  On regular days, it's just work, but probably I've forgotten how much I've learned.  We all, no matter how each of us works to cultivate gratitude, take our happy providence for granted. 

How did I get here?  I'm reasonably bright, but nowhere close to many friends and colleagues.  I work hard, but again, scores of colleagues help me, through their 24/7 drive, recall the Gen-X slacker who lives within me. 

Luck cannot be discounted.  There are lots of people, the PR director and her boss only two among many, who have given me chances.  The same young man at the ad agency, when Anika Sorenson was competing in our local PGA tournament, said of the controversy around a woman being allowed to compete in a man's sport, she's being given an opportunity she didn't earn.  Yes, I said, we all do, if we recognize them, and know what to do with them.  So I guess I'd rather be lucky than good. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

"I was thirty-five before I discovered a B-plus was a really good grade."

--Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Life Really is Too Short to Live in Dallas

My occupation is an odd combination of intellectual dexterity, emotional intelligence, and reasonable taste. It was in the latter vein that I was dispatched to find gifts for an internal meeting next year of senior management from all over the United States and Latin America. 

I don't really mind doing these things, as it's a break from my desk and the hundreds of emails that flood towards me all day and night, an aspect of working for a global organization that it took me a long while to manage.  ("Just turn it off when you go to sleep," offered a partner in my early days.  So much for that.  When I wake at three-thirty for my regular worry session, I can't help but scan the Blackberry for urgent messages.  And even if I slumber through the night, an increasingly rare thing, I look at the damn thing before I even get out of bed.)  

At any rate, when I got marching orders to look at Texas-themed gifts, I went to what I consider the real thing:  Fort Worth. When I moved here over a decade ago, I heard again and again that the FW of DFW was a completely different animal than the Big D.  At Railhead, a Fort Worth barbeque place owned by a local who is also a state congressman, the shirts read, "Life is too short to live in Dallas."  The lore I learned early on included the story, perhaps apocryphal though it feels true, that Amon Carter, the millionaire who started Fort Worth's Star-Telegram newspaper and who founded the first television station in the area, is said to have packed a lunch before visiting Dallas rather than spending his money there. 

I didn't know or care a thing about Dallas until three years ago, when I started commuting in that direction.  I've tried to be open-minded, as an aspiring urban soul who lived in Toronto for seven years. To be sure, there are some great places to shop and a few tightly-wound restaurants.  I've worked with people who live there and gotten to even like a few, but I always feel like a tourist. Additionally, I've experienced quite sincere pity from my Cowtown friends.  They don't understand my protests about "world class" and "global."  Why can't I just stay home and make a ten-minute commute?  Surely there is something I can do. Well, I have two kids and my opportunities lie outside the Gateway to the West. 

Nevertheless, my loyalty in tact, I went to a fabulous store in Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth, and managed to find myself some pretty hot premium denim, and I coveted a pair of six hundred dollar boots.  For the work task, I found some beautiful cufflinks, a silver money clip, a proper buckle for a leather strap, and some coffee table books.  These, the Dallas partner (okay, he's actually from the Midwest, but he's been here as long as I have, so no excuses) pronounced "cowboy" and "hick."  I agreed with the first characterization, because I've met more than a few cowboys who are worth a lot more than a Dallas lawyer--they might have manure on their boots, but money spews forth from their granddaddies' acreage, and they are Real Texas Men, which as my readers know is irresistable to me--but took exception to the second. 

Several years ago, another Dallas lawyer explained his city to me: "Dallas is not like Fort Worth.  We are aspirational.  We want to be L.A."  He seemed, inexplicably, to believe this was a good thing.  As those in West Texas would say, Big hat, no cattle.

So I'll work in Dallas--because I don't have a granddaddy with an acreage and this is my gig and the deal that goes with it--but every weekday evening when I drive back across the Tarrant County line, I exhale.  I love my town and its contradictions: rich yet unpretentious, conservative but live and let live, sleepy yet full of a fair number of scandalous open secrets, a big city that acts like a small town. Fort Worth grows and has ever more to offer, but it never forgets where it came from. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not How It's Always Going to Be

One night, wanting to be led around the two-stepping floor at Gruene Hall, tearful and full of Shiner Bock, I shouted at [my husband] 'Is this how it's always going to be?'  We laugh about it now...If we've learned one thing, it's that no moment, good or bad, is how it's always going to be."
--Jenny Browne, We Might as Well Dance

One of my greatest flaws is my tendency to assume that things will continue exactly as they are. Four-plus decades of experience and wise friends have tried to teach me otherwise--as one said, "That's ridiculous. It's like thinking, 'I've been alive for so long.  How can I be dead?'"

But in my irrationally dark moments, I look at my current circumstances and see the end of my life, the years collapsing upon themselves. I'm sitting at a rail crossing watching an endless train of days taken up by the particular tedium that seems to be, of its own will, wasting my precious time on earth.  I've felt, my entire life, a hand pushing my back, propelling me forward.  It has led to some career success and a relatively orderly home environment.  My affairs are, for the most part, in order, but by preoccupying myself with such things I end up with the days speeding by in exactly the manner I dread. 

This week I got to spend several days with my parents, and among the news items they related from home were included those about people from the tiny town we lived in during my middle and high school years.  These souls, my contempories, have grown middle-aged, their parents old, over the thirty years since I left.  They've stayed put.  Why, I wonder, would someone stand still for all those years?  My immediate reaction is that they've frittered away their lives mindlessly doing what they've always done. 

The hand pushing me forward is in cahoots with the Protestant Work Ethic, which says: There's a big world out there. What's next.  This, you may note, is not a question.  My mind and temperment almost automatically drive me towards the next logical step, the to-do list item to cross off.  PWE wants to know, Have you saved for retirement?  Where do you want to be in five years?

I have a friend who works as a teacher for a small private school.  She is, like me, a single parent of two children, and she makes a good life on a lot less money than I make, with only spotty financial assistance from her co-parent. A few weeks ago we were sitting in my kitchen and I confessed that I lose a good deal of sleep regarding the issues my PWE so persistently raises.  I asked how she managed to do it.  "You know," she mused, "it will all work out. I just have faith and try to get through each day. Worrying about it doesn't help."  

Yesterday, Dad and I got up and started working in my yard.  The leaves, though they'd been cleaned out three weeks ago, were starting to get deep again, he couldn't stand it any longer.  He pushed me to keep going when I was ready to quit. (The Inner Hedonist wanted to have a beer on the deck.)  While we were working, my teacher friend came by on her daily walk.  "Oh," she said, "I just like the crunch of the leaves under my feet.  Raking them would take that away."  I envied her, but am old enough to know that, although circumstances change all the time, people rarely do.  My invisible hand isn't going to stop it's persistent press forward. 

In Jenny Browne's recent essay, she talks about attending a wedding with her husband, ten years after their own.  In the interim, they have both lost people dear to them; she, her father.  Like me, she adored her dad, despite the fact that he could be a pain in the ass.  (Slave-driving yard thug, I think I muttered to mine, though it was warm and sunny. Though eventually we did have that beer.) Browne doesn't express regret for things not done, but acknowledges that it took the shock of losing her parent to see that ever-changing stream that is life, rushing by. 

Luckily, I inherited my IH from my Dad, too, so when he and my mom wanted to go to dinner, I elected to go for a fine meal.  Not a pretentious one, but a superbly prepared one at a local spot called Ellerbe's Fine Foods, recently honored as one of Ten Best New Restaurants by Bon Appetit magazine.  We ate well and split a proper bottle of French wine.  It was marvelous, we all three agreed, though my mom said she was glad we hadn't taken the kids or it would have cost another hundred dollars.  Okay, so it's unpretentious, but it's not Taco Bell.  But then again, it won't always be like this. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

When Your Kitty Gets Stuck

It's interesting which problems are relatively easy to solve and which prove messy and intractable. 

The day I left on a business trip to Chicago last week, my garage door fell down. Or rather its support system gave way: the ancient spring and pulley system on it fell down.  I managed to make, via electric means, the door go up one last time before the old mechanics gave it up--the whole business had been bucking and choking for several months, so I wasn't all that surprised--and then asked the dad from the nice family who watches my pets to pull the door down so the whole street wouldn't know I was away. 

The night before that the hinged door in my den also fell off, and Gus the Neurotic Terrier kept me awake because he has started barking at the bathtub, as he did when we first moved in last spring.  It's gotten colder at night, and presumably the creatures who have been coming back for several years have once again decided to winter under my pier and beam foundation.  I don't suppose I'd mind all that much, except I wonder about property damage--who knows what they're doing when they are banging around down there?--and Gus has kept me awake for a number of nights as he bellows convulsively beside the toilet.  Alternatively, he goes crazy in my closet, where the portal into the underside of the house, about three feet deep with a dirt floor, lies.  Failing that, the dishwasher is the recipient of his wrath. 

Early Friday morning my regular yard help stopped by when I was out for a run and told my daughter he thought the lawn could wait another week, when in fact my property was choked with leaves and acorns.  My yard fellow is a laisser-faire hippie who doesn't mind messy if it's organic matter.  I, however, do mind, and decided the job called for an army of men with leaf-blowers.  Enter Julio and his crew, who promised to arrive Saturday morning. 

Friday night I had friends invited over for wine and eats.  But late in the day, when my son and I got home, we realized we hadn't seen the cat in a while.  And then we heard her: furious meows coming from one corner of the house.  I called still other friends, and the husband, who is the sort of guy who isn't afraid of narrow dark spaces and what they hold (dead rats and the odd beer can, I've since heard of my crawlspace) to see if he could come rescue our cat from the depths.  And so it happened that I sat with three friends drinking wine in my dining room while a very nice man and two young boys crawled under my house, scaring the wild beasts out and putting bricks around the gaps in my foundation.  The boys got an adventure and the man got a beer.  His wife got a very grateful phone call from me the next day.

Next morning, still no Midnight the cat.  But the meows were increasingly fierce. Where the hell was she?  I called my friend Jen, who has a real job and always knows what to do.  "Are you wearing cute workout clothes? Go to the firestation around the corner and bat your eyes," she suggested.  "Tell them you know there's a joke in there somewhere, but your kitty is stuck and can they please come over?"  As I was talking to her, my son came in, jumping up and down.  I was on the phone, I whispered and he said Mommmm. This is really important!!!

Midnight was in the turnstile on the roof.  She'd somehow been chased into the attic and now was wrenching the air exchanger back and forth. 

So I got in the car--my reserve light was flashing, since I'd rushed home to get ready for my guests the night before--and drove over to said firestation, where a non-plussed fireman asked for my address and said they'd be over shortly.  He didn't even laugh at Jen's joke.  Now if I'd asked a cop, he would have laughed, but he might have also told me he had better things to do.  As it was, the fire truck showed up with five able-bodied and very nice people who crawled through my attic and got on my roof and located where Midnight had hidden out. Midnight failed to apprehend what nice people they were, however, and stayed put.  They left the turnstile off and advised waiting. 

As the firetruck pulled away, Julio and his boys got moving with the noisy leaf blowers, and the cat stayed put.  The feral ones were still around, but we'd chased them off early that morning and thought the house perimeter was secured.  Then I remembered the words of the nice 'ol boy who had fixed the garage door the day before.  "You need a bigger dawg," said the very polite and large man who'd hoisted the door and fixed it in short order for a hundred and fifty bucks when I told him about the wild felines.

I got lunch together and then ran my daughter to a friend's to work on a History Fair project.  When I got back, Julio was waiting to make sure I was happy with the yard, and I was. Then my son jumped down fromn the shed, from which he'd found his way on the roof, with Midnight in his arms.  Not a mark on her, but she was starving.  She ate and then began to very carefully clean herself off in a leisurely manner, oblivious both to her trauma and to to the trouble she'd caused for all the humans in her orbit. 

That night, there was more banging under the bathtub, and more barking in my closet.  "They're clever," Mr. Loudey said when he looked over the fence to see why the fire department had been engaged.  Then he went off to remark upon Bobo's overall cuteness and to call his canine names like Sugarbear and Sweetiepie.  I am pretty sure the garage door guy doesn't call his dog these names.  But since every pest control company I call says, "we don't do cats," I may need to cloister Midnight and put the Real Dawg next door (his owner is an avid outdoorsman) or the hawk the owner is also training on the job.  Bobo, I have determined, is not up to it, due to a life more cosseted than that of Gus, which is a tall order. Fight fire with fire, as it were.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Why Change is Hard

"...however much you dislike the things that are keeping you from going where you say you'd like to, they are the things that have kept you alive, and they are not going down without a fight.  Plus they have much, much bigger muscles and much greater familiarity with the dark, dank alleyways of your soul than [do] those fresh little hopes."

--ColleenWainwright

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dress You Up

For the past several years I've been invited to Halloween parties for grown ups--or maybe I've always been invited and just haven't gone.  But this particular host (she knows who she is) doesn't take no for an answer, and she gathers a fun group who put tremendous effort into the right getup for the evening.  Two years ago I showed up in civilian garb and took quite a beating, but since I'd just come off of five consecutive sixteen hour days at a Firm meeting and had endured several weeks of anxiety and dread due to morphing meeting agendas across multiple international time zones, I gave myself a break.  Last year I just didn't go, such was my dread of coming up with a costume.  This year I've got two parties, the earlier of which my children will be attending. 

So why not just go?  It's not an office holiday party with forced cheer and small talk---I really like all of these people, but all I want to do is have a glass or two of wine and gossip in the the kitchen.  Why are fully grown adults dressing up?  Once I heard an impeccably turned out colleague of mine say, twenty years ago when quizzed about her garb for a Halloween party, "I got dressed.  I didn't get dressed up."  I took up her advice and decided there was really no need for me to go to a party and look foolish, at least not intentionally.  God knows I can do that all by myself. 

So I've just worked a 65-hour week and feel good because I managed to put in a brisk walk and buy some groceries today.  And now I have to come up with an inspired costume that doesn't embarass me or so lame as to become a story that follows me to my grave.  But if I don't put it out there, I'll be seen as a stick in the mud.  My reluctance rises from, as with so many things, my perfectionism--if I can't do something properly, I don't want to do it--and from the notion that I'll reveal something in my choice of costume that will make people wonder about me.  No, that's not quite it.  My real concern is that it will make people talk about me, the small town girl's eternal fear.  And then there is my quite opposing desire to wear something so scandalous that everyone will talk about it. 

That said, I've got something rather tacky going, involving a leather dress, fishnet stockings and some bondage heels.  But since it's me, I'll worry about looking trashy and might still end up looking like an expensive call girl.  I suppose there are worse problems to have. The evening awaits.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What I Signed Up For

I used to volunteer.  As part of my father's philosophy, I was obligated to as soon as I was old enough.  We weren't trying to change the world (he was a cop, an occupation which inevitably disabuses most of that notion in short order) but Dad was considered a leader in our small community.  So he said I needed to get out there and be a good citizen. I did a little work at the library and coached a couple of soccer teams.  Luckily soccer was considered kind of an odd sport in my hockey-mad town, and the season was mercifully short, so no parents howled at their sub-par volunteer help. I'm pretty sure I didn't get any of those kids on the track to Olympic gold, but I think they had some fun.  I am sure I had a better time than they did, since ten year olds are about as much fun as anything: they have energy and opinions but are basically oblivious to the opposite sex.  So there was a lot of potty humor and very little eye-rolling.

I did some community service of the Big Sister type when I was at university, and when I graduated I moved to Toronto and was a literacy volunteer.  Over my nearly three-year stint, I am proud to say, I helped two remarkable women become functional readers of the English language.  Both had grown up in countries where girls weren't granted educations, and both had been with men who were ambivalent about their learning. 

One was a shy Somalian, a very young mother of a beautiful little girl.  He husband was a Ph.D, and he was encouraging her because he felt she would be a better mother and wife if she could read. The second was a recently divorced mother of three, who had been born in the Middle East and had immigrated to Canada in her twenties. Now she was in her thirties but looked much older, evidence of  too much work and worry from living with a hard man. She was motivated by her desire to read with her daughter, who was in first grade at the time, but as she herself gained confidence, her grit showed through.  She was a gifted cook, so we worked on recipes---reading cookbooks, and then homework where she needed to write out her favorites, handed down through generations.  The act of articulating what her grandmother showed her every day of her girlhood was a huge challenge for her, but the look of triumph and pride on her face when she did so was as much an accomplishment for me as it was for her.  I admired her tremendously, even though I was not yet a mother.  Now I look back and know that her love for her children helped her walk through what must have been a lot of fear.  I often wonder where she ended up. 

When I moved to Texas, I immediately volunteered at a local non-profit dedicated to parenting and children.  I wrote a column for them in a local magazine (yes, they really make the questions up) and taught some parenting classes.  In addition to being an obvious case of the blind leading the blind, I now look back on my experience and remember the parents forced to go to the claustrophic little beige room by a family court judge as part of a divorce proceeding and cringe at what I might have said.  What the hell, they must have asked, does she know? 

Later I got what was considered a moderately important job and was asked to serve on the board of the same non-profit. I liked the people I served with, but found the monthly lunch meetings perfunctory and I was not, by a long shot, in a position to give money to the cause, which seems to be the chief purpose of a board.  Pretty sure I didn't help out many people then, either.  Even worse, it was my first step towards life in a rarified little bubble. 

Sure, I work a demanding job, co-parent two children and manage my own household without paid help or a significant other. I commute at least six, often eight or ten, hours a week.  And to be sure, I can summon up plenty of feelings of guilt and inadequacy without thinking about how I should volunteer.  I'll do that when my kids grow up, I reason, and am pretty sure I will.  The cost, of my non-volunteer world, then is not to those I might be "helping", but the blinders I wear around in my self-involved little universe. 

Everyone I work with, for the most part, is nice and well-educated.  I can afford a house in a good school district, and although I don't live in the prettiest part, I can walk there in three minutes.  I have a nice car, a luxury sedan that's a few years old.  I put money away every month and take my kids on a pretty nice, though not extravagant, vacation every summer.  What I don't think about on a daily basis, because I only spend time around people who are pretty much like me or often much better off, is that there is a whole world of people out there who not don't have these things, but whose lives are a constant battle against minor issues that morph into really big ones, because they don't have the few hundred bucks that make the little ones go away.

I have good friends who do well financially, much better than I, but they also have Real Jobs.  They have no choice but to see this other world, and in the course of their days they actually do help others less fortunate.  Yet for me, it's been a bloody long time since I've done a damn thing to pay my rent on earth.  So today when I went into Municipal Court to resolve a traffic ticket (late with my inspection) I was actually horrified at some of the people I saw.  That I was horrified is a distinct case of snobbery--okay, there were a number of elaborately tattooed busoms and calf muscles and an even greater sum of people testing the tensile strength of polyester, not something, to be fair, one sees typically at an AMLAW 100 Firm--but the fact that I can travel through life in such a way that I am shocked means I am sheltered indeed. 

So what to do?  My life is pretty packed, but I've got to figure out a way to at least take a stab at getting a broader view of the world once again.  In the meantime, I am preparing to work at my Firm's annual meeting, so at some point during the course of a 14-hour day I will soon be having drinks with a quite a few people who went to Oxford or Harvard or both, and will be enjoying a very good hotel and a twenty-dollar cheeseburger from room service.  At least, I hope, on this trip I'll remember just how spoiled I am, though that doesn't count for much, I know.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Election 2010

Last Friday morning I took an hour out of my workday to watch nine eight-graders give campaign speeches for their school's student council.  My daughter was running for secretary, and I wanted to be there for her, but in the process I learned about her environment and remembered my own eighth grade self, who pales in comparison.  I also learned about my child's inherent grit. 

There are 800 kids at her school, and from my anecdotal look at the student body, about 70 percent are Hispanic. There are a few other groups scattered about, but for the most part the rest are the white Anglo kids, who were represented 8-1 on the stage where the candidates sat.  I sat at the back of the auditorium and watched as the mass of adolescent awkwardness lurched in.  Then, at a teacher's urging, I moved into the second row, and my first born gave me a look, but it was a what was I thinking one rather than a please leave now sort, so I was glad to be there. 

The speeches?  There were those who were prepared (the females, to a woman) and then there was the jock, who is a man of few words but still commanded attention.  Then there was the heartthrob, whose personal charm evaporated almost completely in the face of the whole student body watching him expectantly. He had decided to wing it, from what I could tell. I wanted to say, overprepare and go with the flow, dude, but he knows that now.  There was one boy who knocked it out of the park because he did just that and has a good bit of wholesome charm himself.  The most impressive--probably the prettiest girl in her class--gave a sweet and sincere speech about how easy it is to talk about doing the right thing and approaching someone sitting alone in the cafeteria and actually doing it, and then about how she'd struggled with being quiet and hoped she was doing better. 

As a family friend wrote me afterwards, I would maybe have a stroke if I had to make a cogent speech in front of 800 peers.  So I was impressed by every one. I wondered about what it had taken for the single Hispanic boy to run.  He got the most raucous applause, and yet in the end did not win.  For all the discussion about inclusion, most of the kids don't feel see themselves as leaders.  It worries and bothers me, not just because I am seeing it in my children's world, but because I wonder if I live in a culture where this might not change.  Or maybe it's always been the case that twenty percent of the people fill all the leadership roles and we just notice it more now. 

And my own child?  Unlike her mother, who had moved to a new school in seventh grade and who was still the next year getting knocked around pretty good by almost all the girls and had maybe two people to hang out with, was up on that stage, giving a good speech in a strong voice.  I didn't well up but looked at her, as I often do, with admiration and more than a smidge of awe. 

She didn't win.  At least she didn't win the election, and it was very hard, at least for a couple of hours on Friday afternoon.  I believe there was a suggestion she should be homeschooled.  This, even she agreed, was a bad idea when I pointed out that she is already smarter than either of her parents. I also pointed out that she'd gotten a lot more votes than the people who didn't run. Characteristically, she had rallied by Monday, as had the other six impressive people who aren't office holders, at least this year. 

My middle school self rallied eventually, too, once high school came along. I told my daughter with confidence--due to considerable experience, to be sure--that failure is a good creature to become acquainted with early in life, if only so it's a beast with which we are familiar by the time we need to go to college, work, and even volunteer life. There are so few setbacks we can't bounce back from, if only we know that to be true. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

What It's Really About

We all have at least one: a friend who tells us unpleasant things about ourselves for our "own good."  These friends are also authorities on issues in their own families, at least as far as the blinders everyone else in their clan are wearing.  Their own stuff, not so much. 

It's a old saw that it's easier to raise other people's kids than your own, and the same holds true for examining the mistakes each of us repeatedly make.  And, as Penelope Trunk points out in her latest post, almost everyone has a single issue that we struggle with throughout our lives.  She then goes on to talk about her personality type according to Myers-Briggs (she is an ENTJ or a Field Marshal, as am I) and that its particular trouble is that us ENTJs don't do tact.  Then she tries to analyze her husband's personality, writing that he can't plan for the future, but right then she allows her issue with him is that he can't separate from his mother.  Although she goes on to say she knows she, like everyone else with an intractable interpersonal problem, has to make peace with it--Shut up or get off the bus is how she puts it--it's still his issue that she sees as the primary mover in her marital conflict. 

In a more insightful column, Cary Tennis offered this to an advice seeker who felt he needed to tell his brother "the truth" about their father:

This is what I have learned. When you think you should really tell a person this thing or, This person really should know that, just stop first.  Just stop.

He goes on to explain that what really needs to happen, before we blurt out something like, "You let your kids run all over you and they are brats," or "You're depressed because your marriage is slowly and inexorably coming to an end," or "You should quit smoking, because it's going to kill you," you need to bite your tongue.  Not just because the person, at least at three in the morning when she can't sleep, already knows this--it's the elephant in the room, but she does, I guarantee, know this deep down already, and if she had the ability right now to deal with it, she would--but because your visceral need to explain this to them says more about you than about the other person.

In other words, what do you believe you'll get from telling this person their marriage is going to end?  A sense of, well, I've been through it, and let me tell you, this is how it's going to be, and you might think you're better than me but you're not.  Your marriage will end, too, and you'll know--like me--how it feels to have a public failure.  In still other words, we shouldn't tell this person what we really think they should know, because it's just mean. It's not coming from a good place within our ourselves. So unless she asks us again and again why she is unhappy (and even then it's not a good idea to come out with it) it's best to listen and nod, or quietly decide that she needs another friend to talk to. 

This insight from Tennis, I've decided, is a great tool for what I believe to be the first rule of adulthood: own your shit. If you're obsessing over another person's mistakes, why?  What buttons are they pushing?

Which brings me back to Penelope.  She is correct that we each have our own singular issue to grapple with as a life-long project.  Based on the Cary Tennis rule, I realized I needed to figure out why on earth her telling of it in what I believe is a misguided manner bugged the hell out of me.  I've been processing it all day in the back of my mind, and it's boiled down to this: as a fellow Field Marshal, I know that tact is only a very minor manifestation of our own dialogue at three in the morning.  (Do you suppose there are personality types that sleep well?)

No, my problem, as an Extroverted/iNtuitive/Thinking/Judging type, is that I fear chaos.  This is why I want, always, to do things properly.  If I don't, it's a pretty short ride down the slippery slope to my entire life, if not the universe itself, falling apart.  General Patton was an ENTJ, hence the nickname for the Type, and his fears, given that thousands of lives were in his hands, were certainly warranted.  I remember that when I look at my baseboards in need of paint and beat myself up because my oil change is 424 miles overdue, it's not life and death.  But my fear comes from the same place as Patton's--if I mess up, it will be a disaster.  And my ego is big enough to think I'll take a few people down with me.  After all, if I follow Cary Tennis' advice, it really is all about me. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Improvement

This past weekend I scraped, sanded and weatherproofed my deck, a home improvement project that took almost fifteen hours.  My Inner Hedonist was tired, and there was a big wedding on over at Former Husband's house a few blocks away, so my need for smug superiority won out.  By God,  Protestant Work Ethic said, you can take care of yourself.  Go forth to Home Depot and make me proud. 

Understand that this is not a little back porch. This thing encompasses a couple of time zones, which makes it the ultimate party deck.  Unlike the frat boys who lived here before--I live in a college town where, even with locals who are relatively well-off, the students have better cars and nicer houses than most of us--I don't have a hot tub and am happy they took theirs away before I moved in, given what was probably in it.  And although I will certainly allow that there has been some drinking done on the deck since I moved in, there aren't hoards of co-eds on it every weekend.  This I gather was the formerly the case, based on comments from my neighbors and the multitude of beer cans I pulled out of my flowerbeds last spring. 

No, this was the sort of project FH would have snickered at me trying. It was one of the things he was referring to when he said, five years ago, "You think you can do this by yourself? Good luck with that."  So when I had scraped down all 300-odd square feet of it and it looked worse than when I started, I wondered if he maybe hadn't been right.  Then I cleaned myself up and went for some awesome sushi with my girlfriends.  I'd think about it tomorrow. 

The sun rose again, and despite my aching arms and creaky back, I rallied and told the Inner Perfectionist (she's been kept well in line of late, but in low moments she can grow noisy) to go sit in the corner. It wasn't going to be immaculate. The fake redwood paint is still in place on the railing that runs the perimeter, as well as under the trellis where the weather hasn't been as harsh.  So the redwood-tinted waterproofing colors the bare wood but doesn't quite cover up the uneven coloration. Still, the result was a rather shabby chic look.  And it's sealed against the torrential rains and relentless sun of North Texas, at least for awhile, which is as much as anyone can hope for.

I could handle the physical labor, but the the drain was worrying about how I might screw the entire thing up. (Okay, IP got obstreporous several times.  She's a three year-old.) I was all by myself out there, save for a few sweet phone calls from Harley Man, who made FH's voice in my head much, much quieter. And then I remembered the mantra for worriers and perfectionists: what's the worst that can happen?  It wasn't going to fall down, and I could always bite the bullet and hire someone to fix my mistakes.

In the end it's much improved in appearance, and the sticky that was on it (a lot like when my university roommate dropped a gallon of orange juice on our linoleum and it lasted until graduation, no matter how many times we scrubbed it) has evaporated.  And now there is no one to snicker at me.  As one of my wise girlfriends pointed out over sushi, today is your lucky day.  Amen.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

On Not Missing the Smell of Snow

Does a big change in a person's life, well-considered and planned, have the possibility of changing their happiness in the long term?  I have a friend who wants to change her circumstances, radically--a move, a job change and a totally new life is what she has in mind.  She wants to leave the big city and her high-paying job and go back to the small town life she grew up with.  She wants her child to have grandparents close enough to come for Sunday dinner. 

I am impressed with her bravery and her willingness to understand that the logistics, once we're not twenty with a life that fits in a Honda Civic, will be tedious and many.  To me the real question, the one I keep asking her is, are you really sure once you make these big changes that you'll be any different?  In other words, wherever you go, there you are.  My instincts as a friend are to counsel her to make incremental changes, but this is rich given that I moved not only to America from Canada but to a whole other country in addition when I landed in Texas.  So I know change can be tranformative, but it doesn't fix all. And it hurts while it happens.   

Moving to a place with plentiful sunshine and minimal cold certainly changed me and made me happier than trudging through the snow-filled, four-month tunnel that is the Canadian winter.  I can't quite imagine going back--it's a bit like that old saying about trying to keep them down on the farm once they've been to Paris. But the hundred-degree weather for weeks at a time, though it delights me, drives other Northerners mad.

Divorce is many things, but mostly change. For so many years, I heard from my husband that I was an unhappy person.  A fair charge to be sure, because during our years together I became increasingly so. Now, five years later, there are times when I can be unhappy, but in comparison, hardly ever.  I think of my misery with him the way I consider walking off the streetcar beside Lake Ontario.  It was difficult, but an old life from which I learned what I could live with and what I couldn't. 

So is my general satisfaction with life because I made the choice to be warm and not live with my former husband anymore?  We can't make another person happy or expect them to do so for us, but the reverse isn't true:  people really can make one another miserable.  I couldn't be happy if I was still married to my former husband, but nor could I be if I hadn't examined my closely held beliefs about myself and how I played into the wretched dynamic between us. I wouldn't be happy in Texas if I sentimentalized the autumn leaves and the smell of snow, but I figured out that for me, hot beats cold. 

So to my friend I have to say, leap, but know that the walk through the swamp won't be easy, and it will take a long time to break on through to the other side.  Once you get there, the view is really good.  But to really see it, you need new eyes. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Showdown: The Protestant Work Ethic v. Inner Hedonist

The deck really needs sanding.  It's a great place to hang, and it takes up most of the not inconsequential backyard.  This means I don't have to mow it, but I do have to manage a big chunk of lumber.  The weather was perfect and my Protestant Work Ethic said it was time. My Inner Hedonist said that, although the deck has served her very well so far, 85 and sunny doesn't happen very often in the Lone Star state. Then she got an offer to head down to South Texas to sit on the beach and eat some shrimp and maybe, incongruously but appealingly, to take in a hockey game. IH told PWE to stop bumming her joy already and booked a Southwest flight to the Gulf Coast, stat. 

IH got to eat her shrimp. She also got to spend a Saturday afternoon on a couch and watch a lot of college football, all while reading some great magazines that provided tremendous insight into the male mind. A note, girls: if you want to understand guys, read Men's Health and GQ and skip Self and Glamour.  The hockey game and the other girls there--if you are a hair stylist who is out of work, Corpus Christi needs your services--gave IH a tremendous boost in self-esteem, which needless to say she enjoys a great deal. She wore her bikini, dug her toes in the sand, laughed a good deal and rode on the back of a Harley owned by a very hot guy. Did I write that out loud? Oh, never mind.  It wasn't me, it was IH.  And she doesn't care what people think. 

Upon arrival at the house last night, PWE told IH that she'd been abandoned her post. And had she actually seen the fingerprints on the French doors, never mind the dust on the ceiling fans? And who the hell was going to do the laundry this week?  As for the deck, it didn't just sand itself while IH was off having her fun, thank you very much. It was still there, and "distressed" will soon turn into "rotting" unless she gets off her sunburned ass to take care of it. 

IH opened some wine, grilled a steak and turned on Gossip Girl. Monday would show up soon enough, and she still had sand in her flip-flops.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Does Facebook Make Us Rude?

Wishing someone a happy birthday has become tricky business.  Based on the number of mid- to late-September birthdays in my circle, a lot of people apparently got lucky in the 1970s around the office Christmas party (I think that's what they were called then) and on New Year's Eve.  If I had to send each of them a card and take them to lunch, I'd have to take a leave of absence from my job and extend a line of credit.  Luckily for me there is Facebook, which strikes me as a bit of a cheat on my part.  And yet people are quite likely getting many more birthday wishes as a result of social media.  Is this a mark of a more or less civilized way of living?

My little generation of Gen-X types is, in this as in so many ways, divided on the subject.  I have friends who still say they think a text or email as a form of communication is rude, but most are quite comfortable with these or with an FB message, since they're on a few times a day. 

The divide is somewhat age-based---my friends who are older than I am, even by a few years, almost always say that a phone call is better and sometimes don't even know how to text or use social media--and is, anecdotally, related to marital, work, geographical, and hipster status.  So married people, especially women, tend to call each other, and those who don't work outside the home even more so.  They are also often the ones who tell me they think a text is a rude way to connect.  People who are plugged into popular culture, travel a lot for work or who live more than 100 miles from their hometown tend towards Facebook posts for general updates and texts for immediate needs. 

Only a couple of years ago I thought I was too old for social media, but my friend Colin--he and his wife are definitely plugged into popular culture and have so many friends who live all over that they got on the bandwagon early--told me to get with it because I needed to understand the world my children will live in, as we're really only in the early iterations of this medium.  As I have been more than once, I'm grateful for a kick in the pants from a friend, as he was entirely right. 

I'm a single parent with a demanding job and commute, so I honestly don't have the time or inclination for talking on the phone unless it relates to something urgent or juicy gossip, and I am definitely not a lady who lunches, other than at my desk with leftovers.  I really like texting, especially when it's for logistics, and Facebook annoys me for all the reasons it does others, though the ability to catch up with lots of people I've had the good fortune of knowing, many of whom live hundreds of miles from me or are always on the road.

Today, though, I got home and found a note in my mailbox.  As with my home phone number, usually what I receive in the mail is junk, so I was thrilled to find a little handwritten missive.  It was from the mother of a friend of mine.  My son was fortunate enough to attend a football game at the University of Texas last weekend (I'll not discuss the outcome of the game, though it was ugly for the UT faithful) with the family of one of his school friends.  The boy's grandmother actually sat down and wrote me a note about how much she enjoyed visiting with my son.  I can keep it in a drawer and read it when he's seventeen and I am despairing over his future, as every parent of a teenager assures me I will do.

Is the medium the message?  Because I'm not a boomer or one of their children, I am not entirely sure, a state I've learned is part of the flux inherent in my cohort.  I'd love to think I can sit down at my writing desk and manage my correspondence, but if you're my friend you know I'll be pleased with myself for remembering your birthday, even if Facebook has helped me do so. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Clothing Diet

Clothes are fun for me. Although I'm not a model with impossibly long legs who can look good in a bransack, I do manage to put together a cute look. Confidence, I've learned, makes the outfit: combine disposable clothing with the good stuff you've gotten on sale at Neiman's or Nordstrom ( I can honestly say I have pieces I bought eight years ago and still wear) and walk into every place like you own it, and you're money. So I keep the black Theory shift and jacket, the good jeans and the real jewelry.  Then I buy five-dollar tees and shoes on major sale, and there I am. 

Getting dressed is fun for me. I rarely go to the mall and haven't the time to book a Saturday to shop, but do love it when I run across a bargain as I run through Target.  Yesterday I got gray ankle boots for $29.99 while I was running through for kids' snacks for lunches.  I am what Gretchen Rubin calls a moderator rather than an abstainer. Among other things, this means that I get panicky when I am told I something is off-limits.  Here is her post about the differences.

And yet I still often feel as though I over-consume (a vestige of Depression era thinking in my 1949-built house is entirely present in the miniscule closet, which reminds me each day that at one time a woman and her husband could keep all of their clothes in a tiny space) and so I was intrigued by an article written by Jean Chatsky entitled, "Why You Only Need Six Pieces of Clothing."  I work in a distinctly non-fashionista office, and most of my interaction with bosses is via email or over the phone. In contrast, Chatsky is interviewed frequently on television. She's got to look the part of a financial professional. And yet when restricted to six pieces of clothing, not including shoes or accessories, she finds, to her chagrin, that no one notices. 

We think we dress for others--and Women Who Dress do so for other women more than they do for men--yet of course we shop and dress for our own reasons, many of them not clear to ourselves. In response to the economic downturn, there is a group of people dedicated to doing away with mindless shopping in the form of an idea of having only a few pieces of clothing, and others that are on a year-long diet  from clothes shopping.  Amercians are funny that way: either they have to shop 'till they drop, or abstain altogether. The vast majority, at least where I live, are abstainers, based on Rubin's criteria.

I looked in my closet a couple of weeks ago and tried to determine which six pieces I could live with for a month.  Them, only them.  I wasn't quite like the woman I read about who tried the six pieces for a month and said she didn't even feel like getting up in the morning, though I understood her condition.  I can cull, I can stop buying (the Liliputian closet helps) but only six? I felt panicky at the very notion. Yet there are interesting ideas in each movement that have made me re-think my philosophy of dressing and acquiring.

We just don't need as much stuff as we think we do, or at least we all need to find ways to spend our time that don't involve acquiring more of it.  But it's hard. If we give up shopping, what will we do?  Taking up a new hobby is often a appealing because we can occupy ourselves with getting the accoutrements associated with it.  Our world is loaded with enticements to shop, so that watching television or reading a magazine is like being a diabetic working in the candy factory.  Doing without, even with financial impetus, is easier said than done. 

It's a lot like eating well.  Quality and simplicity are what work best, but adhering to these involves saying no more than saying yes.  And saying yes is way more fun, especially when life is too busy and not always fulfilling in a deep and meaningful way.  I'd like to think that our culture will embrace only taking what we need and do so over the long run, but it doesn't seem likely to me.  I will continue in my moderating ways (note: "moderator" can also be called "control freak") and the Target sale rack will be my siren.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jumping Into the Mud

Looking at the end of a very high diving board, I balked.  My son, about seven at the time and standing in front of me, said "Mom, are you frightened?"  I allowed that I was.  "Can I go off by myself? I'm not frightened." Okay, I said, and went back down the ladder.

How had this happened?  I'd been a lifeguard and a runner and a treeplanter and hiker.  I hadn't really been afraid of much, and then suddenly I couldn't jump off a ten-foot high diving platform?  I convinced myself that my inability to take a relatively simple physical risk grew from my sense of responsibility.  After all, there were two people who needed me to stay alive, right?  I couldn't just go jumping off things.  Once upon a time I'd jumped off a cliff at least four times that high in Corfu, landed in the sea and bruised my tailbone in the process.  A minor injury well worth the thrill, not to mention the story, I'd thought.  Obviously, I wasn't that person anymore.  Now, of course, I was a grown-up. 

Four years later, I was wading through a creek, climbing hay bales and tire ladders up the side of vertiginous, slippery hillsides, and, in the end, crawling through mud for a solid ten feet. Almost four miles overall, and I almost didn't worry about getting an infection or an intentinal flu.  Five months ago, a good friend and colleague had emailed me and said a couple of fun guys she knew wanted to do this race for charity.  "It's kind of crazy," she wrote, "but it will be fun, and it will give us a reason to kick up the workouts."  So I did, sort of, and in fact was in better shape than a good many of the participants.  Nevertheless, my companion on the race could have beaten me in by an embarassing margin, but he stayed with me and made slogging through muck so much fun that I hardly thought about snakes or leeches.  Or staph infections or e-coli, never mind a broken bone, though my slow pace probably helped prevent the latter. Adventurous doesn't mean reckless: I might be branching out, but once a mom, always a mom. Still, it wasn't an anti-bacterial kind of crowd, so when in Rome, act like the Romans applied. 

Today someone who's known me through all of the muck of the past few years wrote to say I was a different person.  I thanked her but said that I thought maybe I'd not changed but just found myself again.  And it turns out, I'm an intrepid soul. 

Run the Jailbreak benefits Sowers of Seed, which underwrites wells for clean water in India.  Come on out next year and join almost 10,000 other crazy yet kindhearted folks.  It's rough, dirty fun.  And at the end, you get pummeled with a firehose, have some great people watching, and beer.  Not your usual Saturday afternoon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

How 'Bout Them Texan Men


I'd been at dinner at a lovely trattoria in midtown Manhattan with a small group of lawyers from around the world.  There had been talk of films and books and politics, as it was late October and the American presidential election loomed large everywhere.  We'd eaten well and had some good wine on the firm dime, and heard stories about Cuba and Spain and which transcontinental flights were best to avoid jetlag. It was late, even for a New York dinner, and as we ambled out to the foyer we noticed that, in addition to the cold, it had started drizzling. 

My boss at the time, a nice man, said I could catch a cab a block or so down the street.  I was wearing a red silk dress and it was eleven o'clock at night.  I took two steps over to the bar and sweetly asked the bartender if he would call me a cab, which he did, perhaps in reaction to the red dress or more likely my deeply annoyed demeanor. In that instant I thought of my boss, you live in Texas, but you are not of it.  In the next moment, I realized that I'd quite seriously expected him to go out in the street and fetch me a cab and see me off safely. I'd once prided myself on taking care of myself in this sort of situation, and I still certainly could.  But in the past decade or so, I'd grown rather accustomed to being treated in a particularly deferential manner. 

There are many things I love about Texas, too many to name here.  The thing I love absolutely most about it, though, is the men.  Broadly speaking, they are not known for being progressive, which in my twenties, would have, in local parlance, flown all over me.  But now I am old enough to know a good thing when I see it, and I positively adore them. 

The first time I was on an elevator in an office building here, I wondered why when the doors opened no one was getting off.  Then I realized I was the only woman in the cab, and they had to wait for me to disembark before they could.  A couple of years later, I was in another elevator with two young men, and on the ground floor one of them charged off ahead of me.  "I'm so sorry," the other drawled, shaking his head.  "He's from New York."  Even in Dallas--to be clear, I work there, but I live in far more civilized Fort Worth--I am here to tell you, men hold doors open for me and other women.  I take care of just about everything in my life, so this is nothing short of wonderful for me. 

Then there's the talk.  Once I worked for another lawyer, a native Houstonian who had an East Coast education and a sailing pedigree. In spite of them, he retained his Texan charm.  When I called him and he saw my name on his caller ID, he'd inevitably pick up, wait a beat and say, "yes, m'am."  I worked for him, but his deference to me as a woman was ingrained through his upbringing. And it drove me positively wild.  I never did a thing about it, but it was a nice perquisite of my job.

I know that others will say that Southern manners trump those of Texans, and they may be right.  But throw in diesel F-350s and some scuffed-up Justins, and really, no contest.  Although come to think of it, one of the most engaging Texan men I've ever met was wearing a seersucker suit the first time we talked.  He looked a bit of a throwback, but it charmed me.  Maybe it's just atttitude.

So for my children what do I wish?  I hope my daughter, should it be her wont, finds a man with good Texas manners and whose respect for his momma translates to her.  As Texan women traditionally go out and kick ass, he won't, if he is genuinely of this place, mind if she does.  Similarly, I hope my son keeps his admiration of strong women and also his genuine love of them generally.  He does say "yes, m'am," to his teachers, and he will likely, should life go as he wishes, have a fine looking truck one day.  And this summer, I taught him, along with his sister, how to hail a cab.  He'll not be leaving anyone out in the rain. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do You Earn Less Than Your Neighbors?

When I walk around my neighborhood, especially in the evening when the comfortably appointed living rooms and the Tuscan-inspired kitchens are lit from within, I often think, where do these people get their money? Within my zipcode, I live on the other side of the tracks.  The good bit of the other side, but nevertheless, that's not where I choose to walk the dog. 

So when Slate's Timothy Noah, in his series about the growing income gap in the United States, gave me a gadget that allowed me to see how I measured up, income-wise, to my fellow zipcode members--as well as to the rest of the country--I was curious, if a little apprehensive.  And the results were:

  • I make only about 65 percent of what the median household in my zipcode does;
  • And yet, I make more money than 72 percent of the country.
This means that:
  • I live near a lot of rich people, which I knew; and
  • Because of this, I see myself as below average, which is sort of like making C's at Harvard
(Click here for the post with the gadget)

Keeping up with the Joneses is not a new idea, by which I don't mean it originated in the 1950s, but that we'd still be living in grass huts or igloos if we humans weren't by nature competitive.  But as Juliet Schor pointed out in her prescient book, The Overspent American, in 1996, most Americans don't compare themselves to their direct neighbors any longer.  Unlike me, they aren't walking their dogs in the evenings, but are at home keeping up with the Kardashians or the Real Housewives. Schor wrote in 1997 that people were comparing themselves to the characters on Friends, but although that seems like ancient history in terms of popular culture, it's even more true now than then.   

It's not when, as Schor points out, that people making $70,000 a year compare themselves to people making $90,000 that the problems occur.  In fact, it might make for a rather healthy striving to earn more, although for the next few years not many of us can hope to make a pay jump. 

The problem occurs, Schor writes, when someone who makes $30,000 compares herself to someone who makes nearly six figures.  That lower earner will put herself into debt to keep up---think leasing a car, Tory Burch flats.  Move the numbers up, and that means private school and a rented summer house. And the trappings of the good life, to which we all are apparently supposed to aspire, are more conspicuous than ever, no matter where the Dow sits. 

Schor cites another book, The Millionaire Next Door.  It, too, was written fifteen years ago, and it shows what happens to those who focus not on the consuming, but on the accumulating of wealth.  These guys--back then it was mostly guys, and I'd love it if Thomas Stanley would write a sequel, if he's in fact still alive, to see if things have changed in terms of demographics--bought modest bungalows in established neighborhoods, domestic sedans with cash, and spent their money only on educating their children.  These people didn't care about their neighbors' money, though I wonder how they (or more interestingly, their wives) would have done in the face of reality shows, the bling of which persists even as the economy and those within it struggle. 

The best stat he showed was that the average net worth of a lawyer is less than that of a teacher, because teachers don't need the things lawyers do: high end foreign cars, custom made suits, and kids in posh private schools.  Which goes to show, it's not what you make that matters, it's what you spend, or rather what you don't.  Easy to say, but difficult in practice, especially when you turn on the t.v.    

Monday, September 6, 2010

Disentangled

I'm getting ready for a yard sale next weekend.  Even after a ruthless sorting before the move, there are still lots of things to peddle by the garage.  Some stuff just didn't work with the new house--drapes, a couple of tables, and some rather costly window blinds my parents bought me for Christmas a couple of years ago.  I'd hoped they might fit some of the new windows, not that I bothered to measure, and so with us they came.  Also on the block are bikes and jackets that don't fit any longer and the inevitable exercise gizmo I never used.  (For the record, I have blown through my fair share of home exercise equipment, including a couple of stationary bikes and a mini-trampoline.  It was instructive in that I realized nothing of this sort is built to actually be used, so after six months of regular use, springs and ball bearings give way, sometimes alarmingly quickly.)

At the back of the utility closet, I found a mailbox.  It's a beautiful Craftsman-style one I bought for the house I shared with my former husband.  Five years ago he moved out and I decided, in a fit of simultaneous relief and self-delusion, to do some things around the house I'd wanted to do but hadn't because he'd disagreed with them. So I got rid of the ugly mailbox left by the elderly woman from whom we bought the house and installed one that complimented the lines of the prairie-style bungalow.  Then the split became real, I moved out and into a rental, but I took the mailbox with me. It had cost a hundred bucks or so and looked as good as new, and I didn't want to leave it behind. When I finally did buy another house, I thought it might work, but I have a charming mail slot here and don't need it.  Still, I had a pang when I marked the price.  A lot less than what I paid, but hard to let go for others reasons I can't quite name. 

Then I tackled the blinds, whose strings had gotten all intertwined during the move.  I spent a good hour working through the knots and twists until I finally liberated them from one another.  For a while at the beginning, I was worried they would go the way of my holiday "net" lights that I tried to put up on my deck trellis, which is also covered in a tangle of wisteria.  In preparation for the housewarming party, I invested enough time in hanging these lights to cure a major disease, or so it seemed, and never really did get them sorted out. At times like this, I wonder if part of my brain didn't really develop, since I am so befuddled by such tasks. Anyway, I left the lights up, and once it got dark and the party was going, they looked pretty and no one noticed that they weren't perfectly strewn. 

To be sold, the blinds need to be separated.  I got agitated, but once I calmed down and concentrated on the mechanics of how the strings were tangled up and looked closely at how they might be pulled apart, I didn't feel so hopeless and mad at myself for not knowing how to make it simple. To accomplish this task, there were no short cuts.  The only way through it was with patience and attention, and now they are neatly separated and priced.  Like the mailbox, they don't serve me in my current life, and it's time to let them go.  I'll not get my original investment back, but I'll get more from selling them that from what they give me by taking up space.  Not just a few bucks, but more room to breathe.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Optimism and Worry

I'm an optimist who worries a lot.

--Madeleine Albright

I know what she means, and have determined that this is a characteristic of people who succeed, or want to.  We overprepare, set the highest standards for ourselves as workers, parents, friends and spouses.  And yet, we never quite feel like we've got it right. 

There are lots of people who give themselves breaks.  I'm tired, they say.  My boss/parents/ex-wife is ruining my life. It's not my job.  It's somebody else's fault.  And besides, Dancing With the Stars is on.  But they aren't the sort of person I want to be.

Those of us who want to do it right, behave with intrgrity, pay a price if we take it all on our backs.  So what's the middle ground?  Or is there a middle ground, if you are someone whose job affects the fate of the free world, or is a life and death proposition?

Boundaries are key, so those Experts Who Know say.  How one sets these is a matter of knowing one's personal emotional pitfalls.  I confess to keeping my Blackberry by my bed, and it's the first thing I look at when I wake up.  Even at four in the morning.  I only answer if it's a colleague I know, since it's not always gramatically correct and I know they'll just be happy I answered. I don't work weekends, but I do check my email several times each Saturday and Sunday in case there is something I can handle with a quick response.  Okay, that's working on the weekend.  But not really, right? 

I exercise every day and make it a point to get enough sleep, or at least try really hard.  When I have to choose, sleep wins.  One of the few bits of wisdom I have in my fourth decade is that real rest fixes almost everything that's wrong.  A rested self can take on the world.  A compromised and tired self will try but probably botch it. 

So, readers, how do you think high achievers manage this balance between getting the essential things done and keeping themselves healthy in mind and body?  Not just leaders of the free world, but anybody who has a demanding life and wants to do it properly?  Many of my readers, I know for a fact, are of this ilk.  What do you do to make sure you do your best work and yet still are involve in your families?  And what do you to to take care of yourself so you have a long and healthy life?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What Makes Me Happy

A monk celebrated for his wisdom regarding happiness shares his top ten list today on Wowowow.  These tenets fly in the face of what most of American culture tells us will help us reach this elusive state. 

Adversity, criticism and not getting our own way, according to Matthieu Ricard, can get us on the path towards it. Riches, fame, pleasure and revenge, not so much.  (Pretty sure he won't be getting any guest spots on Real Housewives.)  Check out the full list here.

Fairly regularly, my son the philosopher and I have a talk involving lists of important things.  He thinks a lot about happiness and what he wants his life to look like later, and so we puzzle over matters together.  He is wise and gets me thinking harder than usual. Even so, I am bit frivolous. So unlike the esteemed monk, my list is only five things and isn't filled with deep insight.  It's about the little rituals that punctuate what must be done--getting places on time and making deadlines and filling out forms--with moments of lightness.  So, in no particular order, here are my happy places:

Grinding my own coffee beans.  It's loud for a minute, but the smell is heavenly when I grind them, and then again the next morning when I get back from my run and turn the coffeemaker on.  I'm mostly awake by then and have found my soul and (usually) a better mood on the trail.  A little cream and the first few sips later and I am ready to wake the kids and head into the steeplechase called a day in modern life. This method is cheaper than Starbucks, plus I have a great caffeine buzz by the time I start my commute. 

Sitting on my deck.  This falls into the category of things I don't do enough.  It's been a hundred degrees for about two months now, so this has been curtailed of late.  But we're heading into fall in Texas, which means sitting outside without sweating for a few months before it gets cold. My favorite time is early evening, closely followed by Sunday morning.  Even in the middle of the city, my yard is private and mostly quiet, and it's lovely just to sit and be. Solving the problems of the world with friends is also pretty darn great.

Clean sheets.  Usually these are combined with a clean house, but even when they are not, there is something about climbing into a clean bed that makes me feel safe, comfortable and cared for.  Even
though--or maybe because--I do it for myself.  They don't have to be fabulous sheets.  Many years ago, my Great Aunt Annie gave me a set of flannel sheets that were a ghastly print in mustard and green.  But they were soft and warm against the bitterly cold Canadian nights. Especially when they were clean.

Suicide hill.  There aren't all that many hills in Fort Worth, but there is one close to the trail near my house that is a whopper by almost any standard.  On my typical early morning trek down, I often see an elderly lady very slowly traversing the road that crosses halfway up this summit. (It undulates.) She has a walker, but she's out there.  So after my two mile loop of the park, I head back up and give it all I've got, on my brave days more than once.  As I feel my limbs burn and my heart pounds, I remember to feel gratitude for the strength in my legs and my heart and my lungs.  I am almost forty-four years old, and I can do this.  No small thing. 

Singing in the car.  Among my most guilty pleasures in having a teenager is listening to frothy pop songs and cranking up the radio to sing.  Of course, I never do this when I am alone; it is only a sacrifice for my children. But it does make me ridiculously happy.
"Everything will be okay in the end.  If it isn't okay, it's not the end."

--Unknown

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Blogging With Your Ex and Other Thoughts on Divorce

The divorce rate in the United States is at a 30-year low.  It's down to 3.5 per 1,000, according to the CDC.  It's news to me that divorce is classified and tracked as a disease, but apparently it's got enough of an impact on health to be tracked.  Considering it, for those of us who have slogged through the muck and detritus of a destroyed union and endured the exhaustion, depression and weight loss/gain that typically mark the experience, I don't suppose it should come as a surprise. 

This week Bruce Feiler, in a piece in the NY Times, suggested that this lowered rate was as a result of all the public discourse on high-profile splits--the end of political marriages like the Gores and the Edwards and of course the exploits of Jesse James, the bad boy who went to good with Sandra Bullock and back to bad again with a chick whose tattoos rivaled his, and of the formerly perfect Mr. Woods--and how all of us get to experience these things vicariously and so don't actually feel the need to end our own marriages.  We see how bad it is to actually split up and think well, I guess I can pick his wet towel up off the floor one more bloody day. 

This theory is utter nonsense.  In the Western world, at least, we all believe our own experiences are somehow unique, and that if we need to be happy, it's for the best.  As long as it doesn't cost us too much money.  And that's really what the drop in divorce rates is about because, let's face it, unless it's truly intolerable, staying together makes a lot more sense than breaking up, and very few of us see ourselves on easy street these days.  Elin couldn't, given her very public humiliation, wait for the market to bounce back, but my bet is that lots of other people are turning a blind eye to spouses' transgressions, large and small, holding out hope that the McMansion will be worth more what they paid for it in a few years and then they can make their escape without losing their shirts.

Just when I started obsessing about my status as a social leper,  I ran across an article in the Globe and Mail about a divorced couple who blog about co-parenting.  They live in New York and are both writers and bloggers, so they decided it would be an interesting idea to write a blog together, alternating posts.  They've really hit on something, since it is, truly both sides of the story on how it feels to try and parent children in two separate houses.  Their blog, When the Flames Go Up, is riveting, even for someone in her fifth year at co-parenting. I do like the blog, but at times I've felt they've been a bit smug about how well they are doing, given that it hasn't been too long and neither has remarried or had other children. 

So far, although they are both good writers, I like hers more than his.  He tends to talk a lot more about the doing, she the feeling, not really a surprise.  But he is funny and articulate, and does occasionally share an emotional nugget, as in his post entitled "If This Blog Were a Pig, it Would Have Unearthed its First Truffle." Sorry to be a girl, but I'm not reading this to know that he spent eleven days with his extended family canoeing; I want to know how he gets through his days in general.

Her posts are sometimes emotional but, at their best, pragmatic.  They've only been at this for a few weeks, have gotten a lot of press along with many, many comments from people who are going through this, and I see their perspective growing as a result. I loved her latest installment, called, "Why We Can."  She gives reasons why their arrangement works--among them, that they are both sane and live eight blocks from one another-- that make perfect sense. She saves herself from sanctimommy-ness, albeit the divorced kind, with the following statement:   "...you can't, by definition, co-parent equally, if both of you aren't in it.  If that's where you are, think about parallel parenting (in which you each do the best you can with what you can control, separately) instead."  She's a newbie, but she gets it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Getting Lucky

To say that I am a creature of habit doesn't quite cover it.  I take pleasure in ritual, and know that if things like exercise and early bedtimes and grocery shopping and time to cook aren't planned ahead, then it's a short road to fifteen extra pounds and general unhealthy crabbiness.  In order to fit these in around two children and a fifty-hour workweek requires a certain amount of well, rigid scheduling. 

So my days take regular paths to one of two or three running routes, then to the office for a predictable routine, and the same grocery store at a particular time on Saturday morning and then Target later on.  Boring for sure, but from what I understand, it also is the worst way to generate new relationships, opportunities, and luck in general.

Richard Wiseman, Ph.D, has spent his career figuring out why some people are luckier than others.  A big part of it is attitude--smiling and being friendly, for example, help a lot.  I am pretty sure I'm covered there, and have had my share of fun conversations in checkout lines and waiting for elevators.  But a big part, according to Wiseman, is also to do things outside of one's comfort zone, and then be alert to the opportunities to crop up.  This part is hard, especially for those of us who have settled into middle age and our own happy ruts.  But it seem to me it's food for thought on how not to turn into an old girl who is set in her ways, a not terribly attractive attribute in a single woman.   

In an article in O Magazine entitled, "How to Get Lucky," Wiseman's theory is given an introduction about a woman who gets a hot date--who becomes her husband--because she goes to a different dry-cleaning place.  That's an eye-roller, but the notion that one's mind opens up with change is certainly a good one.  That's what I look for in a good trip, and I've given up assuming others feel the same way. Though once a guy was cutting my hair who told me that at Epcot there was a pavilion that was "just like Paris."  Yes, I responded, except it's not. So maybe not everyone wants to expand their horizons for real.

This morning I needed to go out into the broader world to get my car's registration renewed, having left it until near the end of the month and so generating an inefficient errand of a half-hour or so.  So, in my time off the beaten track, here's what I got to see:

  1. A cowboy in a straw hat with a truck with at least eight tires and two gun racks.  I think maybe he'd driven across the back forty before he came into town, judging by the aroma off said tires.
  2. Someone who said he'd bought a veehickle about eight years ago, but was now fixin' to be finished rebuilding it and wanted to know how to have it registered as he didn't have a title. 
  3. A church sign that told me "Stop, drop and roll won't work in Hell." 
So local color and food for thought.  Next month I need to get new tires.  Can't wait for the excitement that ensues. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back to School...at 105 degrees

This afternoon I had the pleasure of hanging with a group of friends at the pool at my favorite local country club.  I live in country club town. Though I lack country club wages, I am fortunate enough to have several friends who belong to what I consider the nicest place in town, so I glom on with gratitude. This particular spot was built, as I understand it, as a golf course for Ben Hogan.  I wish I could say I was a golfer. But my hangout is the spot to which wives and children were relegated and which I visit with delight. I call it The Flamingo Kid pool--for some reason, the minute I walk in I think of Janet Jones in her white swimsuit--and for the last five or six years, the kids and I have gotten to spend two or three splendid afternoons a summer there. 

I hadn't been in a bathing suit since Memorial Day. Work has been overwhelming and our DC vacation didn't allow for lazing about beside the pool.  It felt good today to take the Texas summer stance: in the water for two hours, beverage in hand, wearing sunscreen and chatting with cool women about kids and life until my fingers get so prune-like I know it's time to get out and sit in the 100-degree shade. The children splashed around (alas, due to an incident, the high board was closed; my son's record is 52 jumps off it, and both he and I were disappointed his ritual could not continue) but we munched on poolside food and everyone got a little bit of sun. 

Finally the lazy early evening wound down, and we all sauntered out, consoling one another about the return tomorrow to school days and real life.  For me, real life lasts all summer, as working parents' weeks get a little more rather than less complicated when school is out.  But still, having to get the kids up early and someplace on time after they've spent three months sleeping in is an adjustment.  So is the idea that next year I'll have a child in high school and another in middle school.  The sweet days of the elementary years will be behind us, and the big bad world of cliques and AP classes and driving school and college prep classes await. 

Last Friday I heard a wonderful replay of an interview with John Mellencamp on Fresh Air. I recommend it, as although Terry Gross can irritate me beyond belief, she does ask some pretty good questions.  (And, with what I can only assume is tremendous restraint, she never uses the words, 'ubiquitous snare drum'.  What a professional.) And he is a self-described scrappy old liberal folk singer.. At any rate, she remarks upon Mellencamp's discussions of mortality in his work, and a fascinating discussion ensues. 

The line with which she launches the conversation is about mortality, but I think it's also a good reminder about when to take a breath and savor moments with our children, despite our ninety-mile an hour lives:
"Life is short, even in the longest days."  Back to school we go.

Monday, August 16, 2010

How to Make Rapini

My first child's first babysitter not only took wonderful care of my baby.  She also fed our family a couple of nights a week, sending home dreamy pasta, roasted eggplant, and the most profoundly delicious veal I've ever tasted.  One evening at pickup time, she also taught me how to make rapini, which is Italian for spinach that tastes good.  

Back in 1997, I took my beautiful six-month old, blue-eyed darling to Rosa.  Her daughter, a new bride and eldest child, was my co-worker, which made Rosa was an Italian grandmother in training, and she loved my little girl without reservation. So even though I cried in the parking lot at work every morning for the first month, I knew I needn't worry.  And Rosa fed, no, nourished her: tender, tiny pasta with finely grated carrots and perfect sweet peas, so that when on weekends I opened a jar of Gerber's, my child looked a me as if to say, you want me to eat that? 

Now that sweet girl has her dad's hazel eyes and is officially taller than me, but I still make spinach the way Rosa taught me. This recipe has three of my favorite things in it, and then green stuff too. And it only takes two minutes, so wait until everything else for the meal is ready before you start it. 

Rosa's Rapini
2 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups of fresh spinach, washed with stems torn off, washed and dried carefully
2 pinches sea salt

Heat medium-sized saucepan to medium-high.  Add olive oil until you can swirl it around to cover the entire pan surface, then add garlic and stir with wooden spoon until it smells really good but isn't yet brown.  Add the spinach and then the first pinch of salt; stir quickly and add the second.  Cook the spinach, stirring to keep it from burning, until wilted, then serve and eat immediately.