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


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?