Sunday, December 18, 2011

Home for the Holidays

Cultural differences are powerful, as my trip to China taught me. Watching people hock giant loogies on the street isn't something we in the West often do, and we find it pretty uncouth. But after a week living in the dreadful air quality of Beijing, I kind of got it. 

Maybe I've just noticed it more since my recent trip, but air quality in Beijing seems to have been in the news a great deal lately. NPR's Morning Edition recently ran a story today about how keeping one's air clean is a luxury in this city of 23 million. Click here for the link. Another story, aired on Marketplace, cited a study showing a 60 percent increase in lung cancer in China over the past decade, at a cost of $100 billion a year, nearly 6 percent of the GDP. Try to imagine the understandable outrage if this were to happen in the United States.

The lack of protests of any sort was striking to me, and it felt very, very different. Yet my experience there with the Chinese as well as with tourists and expats I met and watched at many times amused me greatly, as it showed me that some things are universal:

Cab drivers. There are those who want you to be their best friend and more who act as though by taking you on as a fare they are letting you through past the velvet rope at the newest club in town. Still can't decide which is more annoying.

Annoying radio. Despite my complete lack of proficiency in any Chinese dialect, I know a car dealership ad when I hear one, especially on a Saturday morning. Why do they have to be so loud? Guess it works.

Come....on!!! Is the universal expression of frustration in traffic, or at least something that sounds like it.  This noise, naturally, is accompanied by a throwing up of hands and followed by a string of single-syllable words.

Teenagers.  A family from a European country (unclear to me which one, my limitation) is visiting the Great Wall of China on the same day I am there. Kids and mom come through the gate built around the 8th Century looking irritated/bored to tears. Dad stands at the top of gate and bellows something funny and good natured about how cool it is to be there. Mom sighs. Younger girls look embarassed but send him cute grins.  Oldest daughter, aged 15, rolls eyes and stomps on.  If you don't live with it, you've done it.

Young people. I loved seeing the twenty-somethings who work in the big city.  When I sat in a Starbucks across a courtyard from my hotel, I was near a subway station and enjoyed watching all of them head off to work in their cute boots and coats.  They dress much like members of their cohort in New York or Chicago, and they laughed and flirted with one another as they walked by. But in the meeting setting where they were working for me on behalf of the hotel, they were incredibly polite and respectful, looking to me as an elder for direction in a way American twenty-somethings typically do not. They seemed so very young. I found it very touching and wished I could tell them in their native tongue how much I appreciated their work.

Later I learned more. I knew that many had come from the countryside to help support their families, but heard anecdotally from a number of expats that most of them only get home once every twelve months, if at all, for Chinese New Year. It's estimated over 2 billion Chinese migrate during this holiday. The young people I saw were trying so very hard to do a good job, but it wasn't clear to me if there was real opportunity for them. 

I don't remember well how I felt in my twenties, but my own children are close to it and I can't imagine them being so far away, for so long, at such a tender age. I looked at these sweet kids, many who are no doubt living in the outer rings of the city and in meager circumstances, and thought about how surely lonely they must be, so far from those they love and all that is familiar. For at least some of us, youth and not knowing about how hard the world can be gives us the courage, even if false, to go forward.  China's brutal history does not offer much in the way of of support for this, but I hope the future rewards this generation's hope. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Traveling Like a Queen

After filling up four days off for Thanksgiving--the kids were with their father and second mom--with seeing friends and distracting myself with a lot of walking and magazines, I spent my Sunday evening watching a wonderous French film, Queen of Play.

It's about chess, but of course it's a metaphor.  The story is familiar, with a working class woman for whom suddenly the world cracks open and she can't turn back, even though she knows she should.  She's no sweet young thing but a woman with a long marriage and a teenaged daughter, making it more Bridges of Madison County than Pretty Woman.  But it's a French movie so, happily, the viewer doesn't need to be whacked over the head, and the relationship between Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline), who speaks in French through the whole thing, is more about delicious flirtation than getting down to it.  Bonnaire's character discovers her game through an encounter with a guest at the hotel where she changes beds, and she sees a path she must walk down, the village gossips be damned.

We're all held in by our internal expectations of behaving well.  My recent trip to Asia was sanctioned given work commitments, but I tacked on a couple of days in San Francisco for my own benefit.  There were friends I asked to come along, but they have kids and men and work, and I wondered for a brief moment if I should just do the proper thing and come straight home.  "All by yourself?" my little good girl voice asked.  This was the moment when I realized it is possible to wait forever to find a person to do things with, but if I want to do something it was time to do it myself.  I haven't the patience to get on a tour bus, so solo it was.

After a week in a smoggy Beijing and thirteen hours in coach, I landed at SFO.  It was Chamber of Commerce weather, with such perfect sunshine off the Bay I practically wept.  After a hot shower I hit the Slanted Door in the Ferry Building and ordered lunch and a fine glass. I was so tired and turned upside down it wasn't weird to be there by myself.  The couple who sat beside me struck up a conversation and told me to hit Chaya for sushi later that night.   I hadn't really liked the woman of the team when she came in and started talking, but suddenly I realized being approachable might not be a bad thing and decided to take her advice. 

Chaya's bar was upscale and also fun, even at an early hour.  It was amazing to me how people, men and women, just started chatting me up.  I met a writer, a cool woman from Kansas who'd been educated in the UK, and a couple of crazy chicks.  A man with the warmest voice I've ever heard bought me a glass of wine from the other end of the bar, and when I thanked him and shook his hand, I felt like I'd met someone I'd known forever and had a strong desire to throw my arms around him.  He took a friend to the airport and came back to spend two hours talking to me. The next night we spent several more talking at my birthday dinner. (I'd booked a spot at Frances, where I'd decided I could be on my own, which would have been lovely in any case.  Being with him, however, was much better.) 

A couple of weeks later, I'd head back to the city for a longer visit.  Now we've eaten well several times and have checked out Napa together.  We shall see what follows, but it's been a very nice time indeed, and I am grateful be in a personal place and to live in a time when that's all I must consider.  The only downside is that it gave my Thanksgiving weekend a very hard act to follow.

Helene's journey is also uncertain, and like me a few years ago, she has more to lose and the fear of hurting those she loves. All she knows is that she must forge ahead, and luckily she's got some support, though she is out of her depth and is old enough to know it. Like all wise adventurers, she is thrilled but scared to death.  As she leaves idyllic Corsica by ship in a final scene, the one she loves grows smaller and smaller, and she waves in a futile gesture.  She's on her own now.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hailing a Cab in Beijing

Coming off the adrenaline high that is my firm's annual meeting, I had a few extra hours on a Saturday morning in Beijing and decided to jump in a cab at my hotel and run up to T Square, as it's known among the well-traveled in Asia.  "Tiananmen Square," the cabbie sang, mocking my American accent, as we drove up the freeway to the infamous spot, across from the Forbidden City and smack in the middle of Beijing, a metropolis with a population of 23 million souls and almost 5 million cars.

I noticed him regarding me in his rearview mirror, seemingly interested in a woman, or at least a Western woman, in a taxi by herself. "Square, no stop," he said knowingly.  In fact the Forbidden City, which is immediately across the boulevard and almost eight million square feet in size, means that there are no cross streets for at least twenty blocks, so I ended up jumping out once we hit gridlock in front of the iconic portrait Mao had installed when he became the boss of everybody. 

People were out in droves, shopping and enjoying the weekend morning.  I'd been in the area the night before, after a group dinner, where I'd ended up with a few others led by a worldly colleague in a little bar owned by a German expat.  It had been dark and quiet and gated off for the most part, but now in daylight it was loud and filled with the smell of cigarettes and the frequent whiff of sewage, though the streets were quite clean.  I walked past the landmarks and into my previously unexplored territory. 

Even though I am a small person with straight dark hair, I still got plenty of stares.  People were buying roasted chestnuts and some sort of pastry.  Justin Bieber sang in a tinny voice over the din of the crowd and the hawkers of cheap silk scarves.  I felt completely, utterly foreign.  It wasn't like being in Paris or New York, where I'd felt a hick but had toyed, even on my first visits, with the idea of living there.  Not for a moment in China did I feel like I might belong.

The air quality in Beijing is appalling.  At one point shortly after my exit from the cab, I felt breathless and didn't know why, until I considered that the sun never really seemed to be properly out.  As I'd spend at least three hours walking that day--though I didn't know it yet--I wonder now what damage is done to the local citizens. 

I headed to the Forbidden City and was amazed at the quiet and the birdsong.  It was enormous, beautiful, and had the faded beauty of a national treasure built in 1420, not that I'd seen many of them. The spitting hoards (the Chinese do this almost constantly, perhaps because of the air quality or lack thereof) congregate near the main buildings, and the enormous pond and beautiful landscaping do not appear to be of interest to most.  I loved it and would have stayed all afternoon and looked at the beautiful gates and sat in the quiet, but had to get back to the meeting.

So back I headed to the Square, figuring I'd have the same ten-minute, 20-Yuan trip back.  I walked for about six blocks and found a bunch of cabs congregated on a side street.  I walked over to one, who looked at my taxi card with my hotel name on it, and typed 80 on his mobile screen.  How do you say go to hell in Chinese? I thought.  I've been around and refuse to get ripped off.

A good 45 minutes later I was on a side-street of questionable repute (to me) and asking a very young man in a valet uniform to hail me a car.  I'd waved at a number of drivers on a major throughfare and those few without occupants just shook their heads at me and I realized I wouldn't get anywhere on my own.  But this fellow flagged one down in less than two minutes.  With relief I got in the car and showed the cabbie my taxicard.  He looked at me helplessly and threw up his hands.  No idea.

We had not a word in common. I was in the middle of a city I knew not at all, and he was stuck with an idiot passenger who didn't know how to dial the hotel from her US phone. In silence, we sat for a minute, then he pointed at the hotel number again. Susan, I admonished my middle-aged self, you're not in Manhattan, sister.  And you may finally have bitten off more than you can chew.  I looked down at my ring with my children's names engraved on it and wondered what they'd make of my predicament. Luckily midday traffic had kicked in, so I had some time before he threw me back out on the street.

The freeway through the middle of Beijing, China

Once I remembered to breathe, it occurred to me I wasn't working without a net.  In a controlled state of panic, I pulled up my Blackberry and sent a colleague an email, to which she responded: "Don't freak out.  Standing next to someone who works with us and is Chinese." A call, with what felt like an endless ping across satellites from my Dallas number to her Chicago phone, finally hooked everyone up.  After the discussion, I looked at the man who held my immediate fate in his hands and asked if things were OK. He shrugged and nodded, then laughed with great relish at my obvious relief.  At some point during what turned out to be a 40-minute drive and 60 Yuan, he turned off the ignition in the midst of a complete and apparently common stop, and hurled a great spitball out the window. 

The world, as I have often commented, is not Disneyland. Maybe I wasn't in any real peril--the driver's laugh suggested hey, we would have found it eventually--but this experience gave me a jolt. In the middle of my fifth decade with not a little bit of travel behind me, I foolishly assumed I knew what I was doing, and might have found myself in a predicament had I not had someone to call. A little scary, to be sure.  But the worst trips make the best stories. Can't wait to get to Paris again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Five Expensive Things Worth the Money

Ask me about my outfit, and I'll tell you what a deal I got.  My hot dress? Target. My premium denim habit (see below) is now supported by a resale shop near the TCU campus.  There are some things that I've found worth the money, however.

Dyson vaccum cleaner.  A couple of years ago I attended the wedding of dear friends in a raspberry satin dress from Banana Republic that cost me a cool $34.99 and made me look like a million bucks. It was rendered much less attractive by about fifty flea bites on my legs. That evening I arrived home and found the infestation had continued unabated, despite bombing and using my useless vaccum endlessly. I fretted all night and showed up at Target when it opened on Sunday morning.  Bought the floor model of the DC24 Multifloor for $350 and vaccumed three times a day for about 36 hours. Done. It's bagless, so you can see into the chamber and know what nasty business has come out of your carpets. Loved pitching those fleas into the bin, and it eats up dog hair. Excellent for neat/control freaks, not that I am either.

My Infiniti G35.  Bought this in December of 2009, when car salesmen wondered if they would eat again. My baby had 24,000 miles on her, and between the economic squeeze and the salesman being hopped up on Percoset for upcoming back surgery, I got a great deal. The car has run like a dream and when I found a great and honest mechanic, hasn't been expensive to maintain. It's a safe car to drive my kids around in and for my commute. And it goes like stink. It's a great used car I couldn't have afforded new, and I will drive it until the wheels fall off.

A Wusthof 1.6 cm knife.  As close to all-purpose as a capable cook can find.  I paid full retail for it at Williams Sonoma, but I use it every day for damn near everything I cut up.  Keep it sharp and out of the dishwasher and it will never let you down.

Clarisonic. If you are a woman of a certain age, this is a not-so-secret weapon.  Makes your skin so clean and gorgeous you'll weep,and it helps get rid of  at least some of the damage life has done. People will tell you how great you look and you can take a break on facials. If you're in your twenties, plunk down the $150 and use it every single night, no matter how late you've been out and how many dollars drafts you've downed. Do this and wear your sunscreen, and your forty year-old self will thank me.

Citizens of Humanity Jeans. I was newly single five years ago and back to my fighting weight--the much-touted divorce weight loss worked the other way for me until my freedom was secure--and my friend Tammy and I hit a very expensive place catering to rich sorority girls.  She kept pulling out pairs and said not to look at the size or the price or the length but to consider only how my ass looked.  I complied and when I pulled on one pair, it was like coming home.  Incredibly soft and comfortable. Also, when I turned around and saw how my backside looked, I figured I'd give those sorority girls total hell.  These are Not Your Mom's Jeans, my friends. My Citizens cost a hundred and eight-five bucks and another twenty to hem, but I still wear them all the time. To wine bars, to work and to church.  Beat that with a stick.

Next post: Cheap things that work really, really well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My Furry Toddler Grows Up

Even though I am left-handed, my right arm is appreciably bigger than my left.  The eccentric dog trainer I hired last winter showed me how to hold the leash in such a way that I might manage a young dog now pushing seventy-five pounds.  His technique means I hold the leash in my right hand and can leverage my entire weight against him.  On occasion it works.

Since we adopted him last January, Jack, our ebony lab mix, has gone from a skinny adolescent to a sleek young adult, with bravado to match.  Keeping him exercised means at least an hour a day at a hard walk, which is good for me if not always easy to fit in.  I've run with him on and off, but it's rather like chasing a toboggan down an icy hill, getting faster and faster until I wonder if I might end up concussed against a telephone pole. There is hell to pay if I skip that hour, meaning the next day he'll bolt across the street at warp speed--typically at dawn while I am in my nightgown and trying keep a low profile while he gets his business done-- to chase a cat, or run after the fifty-something man heading out for a morning ride on his custom-built bike. This man lives up the street and drives a nice Audi when he's not riding his bike. My dog's charms appear to largely be lost on him. 

As good-looking and athletic as Jack is, he's naturally partial to cute co-eds.  Consequently our walks, as we do our loop around the beautiful campus of Texas Christian University, have become hour-long bicep curls for my right arm. Every ponytail that swings by looks to Jack like an opportunity to be fussed over, and he is chasing those Nike shorts for all he's worth, even if some find his size and wolf-like appearance a little scary. In the neighborhood on our swing back home, small children beckon when they see him. They see his spirit and feel no fear. Most of the time, their parents ask if they can pet him, and with them he inevitably proves to be gentle and sweet.  The little ones bury their faces in his furry neck and laugh.  He nuzzles them and then looks at me, ready to go. 

Then there are squirrels, who are an entirely different story. They are Jack's fifty year-old Scotch, his hand-rolled Cuban cigars, his sirens.  The co-eds are no match for them.  I've learned to watch for them and steer him towards the nearest fire hydrant to sniff while they see us and scamper up the nearest tree.  But if I let my mind wander and one is running anywhere nearby, I'm risking a dislocated shoulder.  In the past few months, he's been allowed a little unsupervised play outside, and has deposited no less than four of these rodents, quite dead, on my deck. One was headless. My backyard is now a killing field, but the feral cats who kept stubbornly taking up residence under said deck appear to have been evicted for good. 

Jack and I spend a great deal of time together, and to say he depends on me completely is an understatement.  He watches as I back my car out of the driveway, and greets me every time I come home.  He sleeps in front of the stove while I cook so I must walk over him, lest I forget he lives here.  He sleeps outside my bedroom and wakes me in the night as he barks away potential intruders, most of which are likely possums, and patrols the back yard.  He gets on the bed when invited but doesn't stay.  Jack needs his space and lies at my feet when I read when I'm on my own.

When the children came back this summer after nearly a month at their father's, he leapt around them with utter joy.  On the Mondays when they come back and we sit on the couch to watch Castle, our favorite ritual, he sweetly wedges his not inconsequential bulk between us, jealous after having me all to himself for seven days.  She's mine, he says, but I belong to all of you.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How to Get Rid of Old Furniture

Due to some housecleaning of the psyche, I haven't posted in a month.  It's been mostly sorting out drawers so far, in a typical effort to avoid the big crap that really needs to go.  I know the large pieces of emotional furniture, with their broken legs and ripped upholstery, are there, but it's still possible in my little mind they'll be necessary at some point. They've been with me for nearly a lifetime, and who knows when I will need them? 

In the drawer category: my feet have been bothering me.  This is due to many road miles and not enough yoga.  More significantly, I am a short girl who finds heels make me feel, not surprisingly, powerful.  Yet the burning sensation in my left foot sent me to a reflexologist.  My choice of her was reflexive, in fact, as I was hoping I might sort out some other things through her trade, rather than that of a podiatrist accustomed to serious things. My issue (plantar fascitis, it turned out) wasn't serious, but the thought of any kind of disability curtailing my daily cardio freaked me out.

So off I went to see Brenda.  There were low lights and groovy mood music, so it was a little like a relaxing massage, except all those little crystals in my nerve endings (this part I believe, as her work felt like breaking up tiny pieces of broken glass in my heels and toes and other parts in between) made it smart, quite a lot. 

"I don't talk a lot during my sessions," said Brenda.  She turned out to rival lawyers in her lack of self-awareness.  I heard about how Tums, mammograms and what she called "Dancercise yoga" all would eventually kill me, and how she'd really like to start over again on another planet.  I didn't argue back but thought, as I watched her walk back towards her desk to print out my invoice, that my yoga studio sold me with the teachers: as much as exercise is enjoyable, I get off my ass and get to it because I want to look good in shorts.  After four rather chatty sessions, my feet feel objectively better and I did truly feel the energy coming through Brenda's hands to my soles, but my notion of a gift of widsom with purchase didn't pan out.

The old couches and the charming chair needing refurbishment were still there.  Why do I still cry on the days when I drop the kids off for a week at their father's? How come, despite a deliberately busier social calendar, is the dog my closest companion? Why are my short and limited relationships the exception rather than the rule?  Shouldn't being on my own, which feels normal, also feel good by this point?

A long talk with an old friend, as is often the case, turned into a catalyst for movement.  "Work is good for you," she offered.  And it is, although as all-consuming as it can be for someone of my ilk, it can't possibly be enough to serve all my emotional needs. And (her question an echo of the one nagging me constantly) after six years as a single person with plenty to offer, why hadn't I found something substantial?

"I need to be a good mother," I offered. "The kids don't need to be meeting guys I date.  We always break up." Well, she suggested, that's a very convenient excuse.  She then wondered what I was trying to control, and why.  And also why I hadn't outsourced at least some of the work in figuring it all out.  "Nobody, alone, can handle what you're trying to do. And what you're doing isn't working."

Then she said, And you're really no fun at all right now. I knew she was right.  This is a woman who's been married for two decades, raised two children through university age, and suffered a terrifying and life-threatening illness.  She is well aware that life as a grownup is not always fun and games.  She loves me enough to tell me I am a tightly-wound piece of work. 

So now on to the bigger stuff.  I thought I'd dealt with it long ago, but there is plenty of evidence against it.  A bunch of activity--like beating myself up for not making everyone's life absolutely perfect--has turned out to be a good distraction from doing my own necessary inventory and purge. I'm a little better on the spiritual front these days, which is a safe harbor.  But the real work lies with me, and letting go is the hardest part.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steve Jobs: Death as the Change Agent of Life

Today I read, again, Steve Jobs' commencement address to the 2005 graduating class of Stanford.  As he gives this speech, he's already been through a serious cancer scare--he had a rare, curable form of pancratic cancer--and gotten more time than he imagined. Given his resignation from Apple last week, it is clear he's going to die pretty soon. It's hard to comprehend a world without him, and it's awful to contemplate. Yet in this speech he says that death "is very likely the best invention of life." 

The prospect of it certainly spurred him on.  He decided to no longer waste time or mince words, and as a result we have things that do make our lives cooler and more joyful.  I remember the first morning when before dawn I set out for a walk with my iPod and thought, it's almost fun to be out at six in the morning.

The first time he left Apple, of course, he was pushed. He talks about how getting fired from the company he started led him to despair, followed by restlessness. So he started another technology company and, more importantly to the rest of us, Pixar. It gave us "To infinity and beyond!" and Mt. Wannahockaloggie, helping Nemo be found.  And Holly Hunter's character looking ruefully at her mirror image in Spandex, yet going out to save the day anyhow, because being a mom mattered more.  During this time Jobs got away from the office long enough to meet an extraordinary woman who became his wife and the mother of his children.  Failure is how we frame it.

My favorite story is about calligraphy.  Jobs went to Reed College, a small private institution in Portland, Oregon, for a little over a year.  He didn't want to spend any more of his working class parents' money, because he didn't know what he really wanted to do.  So he dropped out and then showed up at classes as a drop-in just because he was interested.  Everything on the campus, from drawer fronts to student council election posters, was drawn in beautiful script, and he was curious enough to go to a class:

I learned about serif and san-serif typefaces, about varying the space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.  It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.

And now a three year-old can pick up an iPad and intuitively know how to use it.  Jobs calls it "connecting the dots" which he says can only be done backwards, not forwards.  As life can only be understood.  No wasted steps. 

A full text of his speech can be found here, on the Stanford website:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wisdom of Julia Roberts

Saturday night I was watching Steel Magnolias. Yes, this makes me sound like a loser, but in my defense I'd hosted a party at my house the night before and was dreading what turned out to be a very bad date the next evening.  More on this in future posts.

Anyway, I was watching Julia Roberts play Shelby in her dreadful, ghastly front-pleated trousers and that awful sweater she wore to the holiday carnival--the eighties were bad for everyone, but imagine seeing what your stylist talked you into embarrassing you past mortality.  Not sure even $20 million a picture would fix that.

I knew soon she'd be on life support, but had dropped in in time for one of my favorite lines of the movie.  And it occurred to me, like a guy quoting Pacino, that many of my favorites of all time came from that funny-looking yet impossible not to look at woman from Smyrna, GA.

In order of like, these are mine:

"I'd rather have thirty minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special." This line has led me to fall into ill-advised love affairs, expensive spa treatments and more than a couple of afternoons drinking on patios.  But she wanted to be a mama, and she was married to a philandering Southern man.  ("I thought it might makes things..better." Ah said, Sally Field's raised eyebrows as they understood.) When you're tragic, you get away with this.

"It's easier to believe the bad stuff." In Pretty Woman, she was the gorgeous girl who doubted herself.  Maybe it was because she was a hooker, or maybe she became one because of it.  This movie didn't plumb the depths of her psyche (though Richard Gere did discuss his therapy) but unlike in real life, she didn't remain a dirty little secret to her dream man and he made good on his compliments. In spite of unreality, it made all of us feel better to know a girl who had hair like that still remembered what the mean girls said in biology class.  And then was redeemed by her Prince Charming.  This is the part I don't like about the movie.  I always wished she'd gone off to the London School of Economics and beaten Richard out on a LBO, or whatever those finance people did back then.

When she messed up her pantry.  This isn't technically a line, but when she looks at her tidy cupboard and throws everything around in a rebellion against her controlling husband in Sleeping With the Enemy, we all feel like she's broken free.  (In my own similar act, I used to clean out my ex-husband's travesty of a home office while he traveled.  We all have our ways.) Of course we know the bastard won't let her go and she'll have to shoot his sorry ass.  I was always so happy that she did it instead of her new boyfriend, who got knocked out early and only woke up after the ex was quite dead.

"I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." K, pathetic, but in Notting Hill she was playing herself and what guy, even Hugh Grant, could resist?  To be truthful, my favorite line in this film is when Hugh looks at her with messy hair and no makeup first thing in the morning and says, "You have never been lovelier to me than you are now."  Which makes me pathetic, I suppose, but gee.

And when gorgeous, tuxedo-clad George Clooney, the scoundrel who has lied and stolen and nearly destroyed her professional reputation in Ocean's Eleven asks her about her new love Andy Garcia, "Does he make you laugh?" she says, a beacon of strength to all of us women who've struggled to break free of a charmer: "He doesn't make me cry." 

Yes, it turns out that Andy loves money more than Julia, but George is bad news for her and sequels always suck, as Ocean's Twelve did for sure.

Do you have favorite Julia quotes?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why Don't Smart Girls Succeed in the Work World?

A friend of mine was labelled as a child, quite rightly, as gifted.  Like a number of women I met at Queen's University, where I made my lucky escape from a small-town gulag, she was the first one in class to put her hand up and ask questions.  She and her counterparts had attended elite all-girls schools in Toronto. They never apologized for asking questions, and never assumed the boys had better ideas.  They made the best grades and the professors loved them. I was a B student on my best days and was too busy thinking about the boys in other ways to care much about Canadian Federalism. When we graduated, I fumbled around, as I had expected to.  My friend landed her dream job and spent the next two years in a pit of misery: it was nothing like school, and she felt like a failure. She dropped out for a long time, and only took steps back in years later. Now in hindsight, she has spent some time thinking about why girls who excel in school very often don't make great careers, and is incorporating her ideas into her consulting business.

I would prefer to set myself on fire in the lobby of the law firm where I work than let any of my brilliant colleagues see my university transcript.  And yet. living by my wits, I have found really interesting work that lets me contribute and grow and support my children and myself.  But, like my friend, so many of the smart girls I knew have dropped out of the workplace or have played around the edges of several careers but have never really made headway.  

So maybe I'm a little scrappy and a survivor, not to mention a single parent without a choice but to find a way to make the best living I can.  Still, what have I done that these exceptional women haven't?  A few thoughts:

I'd no illusion of being particularly special.  I have never been described as brilliant or exceptional.  Instead, I'm told I play well in the sandbox and am fun to be around, and every once in a while someone tells me, usually with a bit of surprise, that I'm actually quite bright. They also say I get crap done. This used to bother me a lot as I thought it meant people thought me frivolous. But since my work doesn't involve saving babies, I've decided making work fun is a pretty valuable attribute. Also, it's meant I can work for people who wouldn't hesitate to tell me how dumb I am while paying me quite well.  It's meant I can mine the opportunities for learning in most places--these opportunities are almost always there if you can get over yourself and look for them--so that I could eventually leave the jerks for something better. Which I most certainly did.

Rebellion is fun.  The problem with being one of those smart girls (as opposed to smart guys, if you think about it) is that you always play by the rules.  Understanding quite young how to make the grownups like me, I worked that so I could go off and color outside the lines. I realized early that most institutions have a few lifers who are invested in making sure things are predictable.  The problem is, those people don't move organizations forward.  In fact, they don't get things done because they spend all of their time worrying about what the people in charge think of them.  The Eddie Haskell in me knows I must be deferential for the most part, but that asking uncomfortable question in the right circumstances and taking the odd risk shakes things up. It also mitigates the tedium of the workplace.  Everyone needs more of that.   

Get to know failure.  My freshman roommate at Queen's cried when she got her first B. I laughed at her, because I'd been told from an early age that I wasn't cut out for academic success, yet here I was sitting in the same dorm room with her. I remember the startled look in her eyes when I told her this. Suddenly she realized she could have had a lot more fun in high school and still wound up in the same place. She never really liked me after that. The people who hand down grades, I knew by then, are human.  They have good days and bad.  Some of them are jerks and some of them are really ethical people.  Kind of like bosses.  Taking all of your self-worth from authority is a one-way ticket on the Unfulfilled Potential Express at best; at worst, you end up informing on your neighbor when the Stasi show up. I've had some notable failures--at few jobs I've been terrible at and a marriage that crashed and burned--and yet have managed to eventually land on my feet.  No fun, but the only injury was to my pride. No big deal.

My daughter is a smart girl, but I tell her over and over again that I am proud of her whether she makes an A or not.  Her brother does well, too, but doesn't fret over it at all. My expectation for both of them is post-secondary education, but I'm not hung up on where the they go--beyond whether they feel like it's a worthwhile experience--or whether they make the Dean's List.  In the end, I don't believe it matters all that much. 

So I tell them all of the following: Show up.  Think for yourself.  Treat the people who work with you (and the lady who cleans out your trashcan when you work late) with as much respect as those in authority.  Take a chance and if you fail, get up.  People will admire you for taking the chance. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Playing Through

Sometimes a respite only reminds me of what I'm missing.  It's the thirty-second consecutive day where we've hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in Fort Worth, and it's wearing.  During my week in Canada, I described it to my extended family as rather like February in the north--when it snows while you're Christmas shopping, it's charming.  When you're still shoveling snow two months later, it's totally not. 

The heat isn't that bad, I've always claimed.  The predictability of it has always rather appealed to me in contrast to the other, volatile Texan seasons, where torrential rains, tornadic winds, property-damaging hail and rapid temperature drops can all occur inside of an hour, usually when I am driving home. But in summer my air-conditioning kicks on every half-hour or so during the night, and I know when I get up to walk the dog the relentless, burning sun will have risen in a bracingly blue cloudless sky.  Every. Single. Day.

I remember running after school in rural Ontario in the grip of winter.  The sun had earlier been bright against a blue sky on those days, too, though it did nothing to warm up my world, but by now it was going down in a hurry. I'd look down occasionally as my Nikes squeaked on the hard-packed snow and wrinkled my nose to unstick my nostrils, glued together by the frigid air.  I was proud of playing through.

These days in my adopted home, I need serious sunscreen if I'm out after eight in the morning.  Running errands in the afternoon can leave one exhausted--it's 60 degrees in the store and 115 in the parking lot, a bit hard on the constitution.  I'm tired of drinking water, which it seems I must do all day long if I do more than sit and answer my correspondence. 

For a week the children and I went north, though it was rather hot for there as well.  Still, as we walked out of the airport, that oven-like heat his us and we all groaned a moment. Again, I am inclined to play through and get out each morning (another plus side of heat is that if you get up early enough in the morning you get a break) and even on the odd evening on my bike, though when we hit 107 yesterday I decided it wouldn't be prudent.  When hot yoga at 95 degrees is cooler than outdoors, something is amiss, though I've made it back there a few times since our trip. 

The cold, though I find it more unpleasant than the heat, never really frightened me, perhaps because I was a child in the greatest extremes.  The cold has more sounds at night: I remember trees popping and the sound of large icicles falling in the dark. Cars wheels squeaking on the snow and clear voices. The cold was solid and benign.  The heat is silent, but ruthless and unforgiving, and I still wonder as I did when I arrived a decade and a half ago if the road might not spontaneously ignite in front of me.  It feels, as I once wrote, Biblical. We all wonder if the heat and the concurrent drought is some sort of punishment, or appropriate preparation for it. Will it ever end, we ask?  I heard a radio host say our record from 1980 was forty-two day over 100.  Bring it, he said.  He must be new here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Noodle Salad

Every family has a narrative. To paraphrase Tolstoy, the happy ones are really pretty boring.  Although I am skeptical they really exist, I have to remember Jack Nicholson's line in As Good as it Gets, in response to Greg Kinnear's comment that nobody really has a good family story.  Nicholson's character, Melvin, has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he's insightful nonetheless. There are some nice stories, he responds: "stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad...Good times, noodle salad.  What makes it so hard is not that you had it bad, but that you're pissed that so many people had it good."

The noodle salad people, to my mind, just do a better job of throwing up a layer of spackle over the dirt that is family life.  There is blog I read sometimes, written by a young woman who seems like a very nice person.  I don't know her personally but do know some things about her family that perhaps I ought not.  Granted, everyone in a family has a different perspective. She writes a food blog that with each post includes happy memories associated with a particular dish, all metaphorical noodle salad.  Frequently I cringe at her characterization of her family. I'm not sure I do so because I believe it to be spackle or because I am deeply jealous.

A good friend of mine discovered, when she was around forty, an additional sibling, what the tabloids refer to as a love child.  The parents, biological, adoptive and innocent bystander, had passed away.  So all that was left were the six siblings, my friend being the youngest, to deal with the situation.  When she walked in and saw who she refers to as her "erstwhile sister", her reaction was immediate and visceral: "There was Daddy's face."  The family divided pretty much evenly, save for her, along the lines of  how they defined the family story.  Half of them, she said, thought Daddy was a saint for putting up with Mother's often irrational behavior.  The other half thought Mother had been devoted and did her best, that Daddy did what he wished, the rest of the world be damned.

I spent last week with my own nuclear family, a trio of three with our own special and refined dance, despite a one-time spouse and two offspring of my own. Years ago, a dear friend, also the youngest of many, told me she thought my own children could eventually serve as surrogate siblings: "They will see what happens in your family and tell you what they see," she said.  "This will give you an objective view of how the dynamic works." 

I hadn't been on the home turf for several years.  I'd forgotten.  It was much the same, yet taken up several notches. As when The Unit is here, there are at least two hours in a morning designated to reading the paper with little or no intellectual context but a lot of tsking about the state of the world.  Discussions about who eats what when and more than a little pressure on those who'd rather eat when hungry rather than on a schedule took up substantial parts of the day, as did unloading and reloading the dishwasher because interlopers (the kids) had done it wrong.  This particular issue actually occupied a good hour one evening after dinner, accompanied by a vigorous debate, fueled almost entirely by me. Then there were the post-dinner drinks talks, which generally involved a dissection of the mistakes all the neighbors and friends are making currently, followed by an inventory of my own transgressions against The Unit over the past decade and a half.  I could have traveled six blocks to my ex-husband's house to hear a list of my many faults, yet I'd gone 1,100 miles and filled out a Customs form.   Every night, the kids and I talked into the late hours about what had transpired.  This illuminated the circumstances of my own childhood in ways I'll be sorting out for a long time.

So for me, though noodle salad was served, there are no noodle salad days to document recently or otherwise. In the end I am jealous of the young woman I don't know but do, not for her reality but for her view of it.  My own father has his own static view of reality, one that is met with derision and bluster when challenged.  I'm envious of the certainty of both.  My own view is in line with my friend, she with the erstwhile sibling.  After her momentous family meeting, her last word was this: the truth, she said, lies somewhere in the middle.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New Tricks

My only real teaching stint was back in high school when I worked as a lifeguard and taught lessons at the public, unheated pool in my two-stoplight hometown in the hinterland. Most of it involved convincing little kids to stay in the 65-degree water long enough to learn to stay afloat.  When their lips turned blue we got out and discussed safety rules, me in a sweatshirt talking over the chattering of little teeth. 

Four or five evenings a summer (to be generous, this season lasts about twelve weeks in the Ottawa Valley) we had adult classes.  Although I'd had my share of preschoolers clinging to me like scared monkeys during lessons, nothing in my life experience, save for my own mother's fear of the water, prepared me for this entirely different job. 

I remember encouraging and talking about getting comfortable in the water, and if I was completely out of my depth, my students were determined enough to let it pass. What I principally recall is my own admiration of middle-aged women who were brave enough not only to put on bathing suits for what might have been the first time but who were also prepared to acknowledge and overcome their fears.  No dudes in these classes: this was 1984 in rural Ontario, where men did not admit to fearing anything other than the Junior B hockey team missing the playoffs.  But these women wanted to do this thing so they didn't have to be afraid any more. Farmer's wives, they were practical and suffered no silliness, least of all from themselves.  Still, there was gratitude in their eyes when I explained that my own mother had grown up on a farm and didn't have the chance to learn to swim, that she'd been adamant and generous in ensuring I'd gained this skill. 

Last night I took The Boy to our second yoga class together, the Raw Beginner session. The Boy is a runner who has heard that he can train harder without injury through the wonder of vinyasa, and he loves any physical challenge.  Plus this particular studio is full of attractive women. He's down with that.  

Then there is the teacher, a woman I estimate to be in her mid-twenties. She has all the gifts I lacked when teaching grown ups new tricks, the rare sort who is well-accomplished in her craft but still remembers how it feels to start something new and scary.  I am, as I told her a couple of weeks ago, worse than a raw beginner: I've practiced on and off for five years or so, but have developed some bad habits.  She is great at breaking down poses and really giving a good foundation.  She is funny and incredibly positive without being saccharine and has the ability to push people past their comfort zone while never being patronizing.  An old soul to be sure, I am certain she also has a good story, which I hope I might learn someday.

There were people (dudes, I am happy to report, are no longer afraid to reveal that they don't know how to do something) ranging in age from middle school to retired in this class.  Our teacher gave us all a fine lesson and an exercise in learning what is easy and what is hard for each of us.  It was a class that helped me identify where my own resistance lies and the reasons behind my sore spots. Her gift is priceless.  Namaste, indeed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Case Against Neutral Hose

I've been watching the Canadian tour of the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge with great interest, much more than I should, given the other events of the world.  In the spirit of frivolity, I shall thus in this post not tackle the issue of the U.S. debt ceiling (for which I am to say the least not qualified to comment upon) but rather the state of Catherine's legs. 

Those pins are extremely enviable, of course, a debt to her mother Carole's genes as well as endless hours in the gym.  So why in God's name cover them up with what my friend Karen referred to twenty years ago as "The Dreaded Neutral Hose"?  We were living in Toronto at the time (where she still resides) so the cold was no defence.  Black opaque hose were the rule, until proper spring came.  No pretending it was otherwise.  This was in the day before self-tanners, which would have mitigated the situation for those sufficiently intrepid to brave the wind.  But those awful beige things were what our grandmothers wore to church.  And now not only Kate--bound, I am aware, by Royal protocol--wears them, but also her hottie sister, Pippa. 

A further argument in opposition arrived when I was shackled to pantyhose during my early years in the workplace.  A man whom I admired and at one point adored told me that they were "the most sexless item ever invented."  At some point Pippa will momentarily take leave of the titled sort and go on a last hurrah in the States.  Some guy in LA will have a look at her control-tops (not that men differentiate between those and the sheer to the waist things) and say, I'm going to see what Liz Hurley's got going on tonight.  She might have a couple of decades on you, but she remembers how badly people dressed in 1987 and keeps upping her game. As Pippa is known for attributes other than her legs, perhaps she'll get a pass on this one.  But one day she'll be forty, and she won't want to wear things that make her look like Camilla.

Later in life I got my first law firm gig, in Texas.  There was a rule about hose in the office.  This was strictly enforced for staff but flouted by female lawyers.  I was not a secretary, but management-level staff.  And yet the day I tried to cheat and wore a long black skirt with no hose (and brown ankles) I was busted by the HR director.  She thought I might go home and change.  I stared her down and said I'd try to remember the(stupid) rule in the future.  This admonition came from a woman who was a poster child for What Not to Wear. 

In earlier weeks my then 7 year-old daughter watched me struggle into a pair of pantyhose and pronounced them "terrible." And she was right.  It was a hundred bloody degrees outside and my behind was sweating as though I'd chosen leather trousers for the office. When next taken to task by the HR director, I told her to discuss it with the managing partner if she had a problem with me. Never did hear back about that.

So Catherine, you are clearly on good terms with HRH Elizabeth. After you've provided a male heir, you can tackle this. Surely the fate of the Commonwealth does not hinge upon the matter, and you can be trusted to do everything sartorial with good taste.  As for Pippa, she should know that other brave women have gone before her in this fight. She has a choice, and no need for the control top.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What's Next

It's the summer before my eldest begins high school.  A number of her friends are youngest siblings, and conversations at summer parties have turned on how soon these kids will be out of the house.  A good many of the mothers I converse with have entirely devoted the past decade and a half to their children's lives.  "So what's next for you?" I've asked a few. 

It's a bit uncomfortable, at least for them.  Because I've been a Working Mother (at a certain local elementary school, a few of my ilk have felt they bore scarlet W badges, given that PTA meetings take place at 10 a.m. on weekdays) for much of my own kids' childhoods, I frankly have a little bit of trouble understanding how they haven't lost their minds completely. It's not that I don't appreciate them. For so many things, I rely upon the moms who have done this.  They ferried my kids to and fro from various after-school activities, and I might not have any actual printed photos of my children over the past five years save for their thoughtful gestures. 

I like to get things done and to think about what I want to do next.  Yes, what I want to do next.  This sets me apart.  One friend was talking about her house recently and how a major upgrade turned out to be, as these things do, more expensive than she expected.  "But we're going to spend the next 35 years in this house," she said, "this is where our kids and theirs can come home to." She loves her life. But it scared the hell out of me to think she knew exactly where the rest of her life would be spent. 

Many would argue that this mother is of a superior caste to that which I occupy. After a trip to DC and then to NYC over a period of six days, I got to thinking that maybe I should consider the wider world once my chicks have left the nest, and I mentioned this on the weekly phone call to my parents. "Well, that will depend on where the kids end up," she said.  That's what airplanes are for, I responded.  She said that maybe the mistake she and my father made was trying to do this for me.  A fair point, since putting down real roots sounds like giving up what else might be out there.  

My kids tell me they like that I'm independent and try new things, that I jump on airplanes and go places and meet people and do stuff.  They know I'm here for them until they head off on their own paths, but they've had enough upheaval in their lives that they really don't sentimentalize: they know things will always change. Someday they may take me to task for my independence, but all of the big choices--where I live, how I choose not to marry again until they leave me, where they go to school--are about them.  Once they've crossed the stage to matriculate and know which college they'll attend, all bets are off on my whereabouts, though not my financial or moral support, the latter of which will continue until the day I die. In return, their love for me will not depend upon me sitting at home waiting for them.  They would rather hear of my latest adventure.

I wonder, when I hear these mothers say that they want their kids to have a familiar home to come back to, if they are doing for their kids or for themselves.  It's a convenient reason to avoid getting back into the world and finding out what they are made of.  Most of them don't have to for financial reasons, but to me this means they can do whatever they want, which maybe would be scary to me as well: often challenges are gifts. They've established identities revolving around being mothers and wives, and I suppose husbands don't always react well to change, either. But knowing most of their husbands, I don't imagine that starting a freelance business or getting a part-time job would send the guys into a tailspin. Most of them just want their wives to be happy. Making a little money would be okay, too.

Doing things that scare me (not the reckless stuff, the I've always wondered if I can go there stuff) I've learned during the past decade, thrills me. Quite likely that's why I have the life I do.  Heaven knows I don't want to be sure about where I'll be living for the rest of my life. There's a big wide world out there, and I for one am excited about what's next, tomorrow and beyond.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You Can't Make Old Friends

Christopher Hitchens famously said a melancholy lesson of advancing years is that you can't make old friends.  For many people, the biggest obstacle to taking risks and growing personally is the fear that they will leave friends behind. 

There are a lot of people I don't remember from earlier stages of my existence.  I get friend requests from people and can't for the life of me remember sitting beside them in high school math class.  There are others who knew me as I became myself, back at university. I see them only on occasion, and they typically fall into one of two camps: those who keep up with who I am now, and those who still see me as the person I was two decades ago. 

The ones who keep up with me are those who've made an effort, and it's reciprocated by me.  Even if we don't see one another very often, we keep up over the phone or by electronic means and I also know how far they've come.  In at least two cases, they are the sort of people who've spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of life they want, and they are living it. I admire their purposeful ways and the satisfying selves they have built with like-minded spouses.  The other camp, who still see me as the awkward hayseed, typically have let their personal trajectory move along without their permission--usually in an attempt to satisfy external expectations they've constructed rather than what they deeply wish for themselves--and so continue to play their long-expired superiority cards.

Between the curve balls fate has thrown my way and my deliberate attempts to learn about the world at large, I've ended up with a bunch of friends I might not have had otherwise.  Or, more accurately, they are the people I was supposed to meet once I became who I've always wanted to be.  Two come to mind, and both have made big changes recently.  Both are life-long Texans, women with whom I bonded initially because we'd been through divorce and had ambitions to come out the other side roaring, if you'll pardon the Helen Reddy reference. 

Both have worked incredibly hard and have done well in their respective fields.  They are about the same age, but one had her only child very young and is now unfettered.  After gutting out several years to work off a degree, she's just moved to NYC.  I visited her there this past weekend and was thrilled to see her new neighborhood on the Upper East Side and felt almost more giddy than she about her absolute gumption in pursuing such an adventure.  There will be winter, but she'll adapt. 

The other has a young child and has given her all to her little girl and her place of work over the past six years.  She became a city person, or tried to, against her instincts.  Now she's done her time in North Dallas (my frequent readers know how I feel about that place) and is heading to the Hill Country of Central Texas, which is as lovely a place as I can imagine living.  She's got a good gig, which she's earned ten times over, and I'm looking forward to heading to the gorgeous banks of the Guadalupe to catch up and see her in her element. 

For both my happiness couldn't be greater than if it were my own life taking shape. We've all got our circumstances arranged in the way we wish, men or not. We take care of our children and we make our own money. When I met each of them, I knew immediately they would become dear friends of mine, even before I knew how things had earlier played out for each.  I  measure our friendships in years rather than decades, but we've made up for lost time and take great delight in hearing one another's stories.  With each, I've developed a deep and abiding connection.

So as much as I admire Hitch's intellect, which surpasses mine by immeasurable yards, I must say this is a case where men are at a disadvantage.  Women may not be able to make old friends, but many of us have the ability to recognize them when we meet them.  And sometimes we even get to have great vacation spots as a bonus. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

A World Without Facebook

The Girl and the Boy, both on summer vacation, are both out of town this week, headed in separate directions.  I'll be doing the same in a few days and there will be hundreds of miles between us.  Yet in addition to daily texts and phone calls, the Girl is posting pictures on Facebook, so I can see how her day went. The Boy, while more cryptic, also posts, though his lame phone (mom's old Crackberry, aka The Brick) doesn't take pictures.

I am of an age and live in an age where my friends fall into two camps: those who engage in social media, and those who adamantly oppose it.  Three summers ago my friend Colin visited me and suggested I get on Facebook.  My response was that social media was irrelevant to me, given my age.  Colin--who is not only one of the scariest-smart engineering types I know but also, back in 1986, introduced me to Elvis Costello--was unequivocally in opposition.  "Your kids," he said, "will use this or another version of it constantly. If you really want to be involved in their lives, you"d better get with it." 

It wasn't hard, except that I spent a couple of weekends searching for friends from previous lives and wasting a whole lot of time getting an understanding of it.  I'd started this blog and realized quickly that most of my readers would come from my friend list.  I even started tweeting, though my enthusiasm for that never really has taken off.  At least I understand it, though. By now most of my good friends and even my mom are on Facebook, though some of them are either erstwhile users or perpetual lurkers. 

Others yet resist entirely.  This gap is not, anecdotally, based upon education or age, as many of my most intelligent friends resist.  And while some of my older friends say they don't get it, many others who are several decades beyond me post with relish.

Some of my resistor friends even have managed to keep their children off. I feel, alternatively, that these kids will go on to finish mapping the human genome or will be the subject of future Weiner-esque memes, sort of like the university friend who now spends four hours a night glued to the television because his parents forebade his watching during his formative years. I have misgivings about my indulgence of my own two children, though I and many other significant adults in their lives watch their posts carefully. 

Today in the WSJ I read the best argument yet for staying with the program. Daniel H. Wilson, in his piece "The Terrifying Truth About the New Technology" argues that what modern Luddites (they were, you may remember from sociology class, the textile workers who threw mechanized looms into the river) really fear is getting old.  And yet by resisting, they make themselves old, because the world keeps changing whether they like it or not.  Mr. Wilson, born in 1977, says it well:

Of course it's possible for old folks to adapt to new technological advances. People do it all the time. It only takes a grim determination to force yourself consciously to interact with each new wave of technology, no matter how insipid it seems. Only through grueling, hard work can you hope to understand or belong to the new world that is constantly (and rudely) emerging.

"So what?" you might ask. Those young people can keep their precious Internets.

I'm not saying you have to keep up. But at the moment you choose to stop growing, your world will begin to shrink. You'll be able to communicate with fewer people, especially the young. You will only see reruns. You will not understand how to pay for things. The outside world will become a frightening and unpredictable place.

As they say, the only constant is change.

Each new generation builds on the work of the previous one, gaining new perspective. New verbs are introduced. We Google strange and dangerous places. We tweet mindlessly to the cosmos. We Facebook our own grandmothers.

I, for one, don't want to be left behind.

Me neither.  Thanks, Colin, for helping me keep my world from shrinking.  And for the record, I follow Elvis Costello on Facebook.

Friday, June 10, 2011

One Way Greatness is Made

"When I was a child my mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier, you'll be a general.  If you become a monk you'll end up as the pope.' Instead I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I Can't Live in Canada (And Just a Few of the Reasons I Love Texas)

"It's too early to run the dishwasher yet," my mother said on the phone last week when we talked during the dinner hour. She was talking to me and directing my father on how to correctly load said appliance, which is why it came up. When I look forward to retirement, I hope to not descend into sweating the small stuff, but it is a fate that seems to befall most.  We humans are in perpetual struggle for control over existential angst, and once past a certain age, this seems to manifest most in matters of food and how it's served.

Yet paradoxically, my mom's comments were about a new policy from Hydro Ottawa, the only electric service available where my parents live. The monopoly means that the authority can impose higher fees on use--with the implementation of "smart meters"--at times when highest usage takes place.  Hence, the dishwasher should not be run until before bedtime.  However the forks are placed, apparently it's fine for the nanny state to determine her housekeeping schedule.

In Texas, we have, for good or ill, deregulated electric utilities and choice, which I have learned is paramount for Texan consumers.  (I've no experience living in any other US state, and my adopted home is sufficiently different from all others that I won't presume to comment on the cultures of the other 49.) We are also, not coincidentally, on our own electric grid.

The smart-meter idea, however it quite likely would benefit the greater good, would in local parlance fly all over Texans. Who the hell is the government to tell us when we can wash the dishes or where we should set our thermostats?

A few years ago I was talking to a friend who also happens to live in Ottawa, about our cat.  "You mean, she just goes wherever she wants?  We have a by-law against that." Well, Midnight is now more of an inside cat, due to her skirmishes with ferals, who also do so.  But she can still roam freely, as can the ferals. 

I suppose it would be much better if everyone agreed that cats should not roam at will.  We'd have fewer problems with strays and concommitment disease, clearly, and the local bird population would be flourish.  But the difference between Ottawa and Fort Worth is this: no one where I now live would comply, and enforcement would be next to impossible.  And any politician who tried to impose laws limiting Texan's freedom--even if it's freedom to use up a scarce resource or let pests run free--would be drummed out of office, no matter what ticket he or she had been elected on. 

I got rid of the ferals in what I consider a particularly Texan way: my neighbor helped me.  He is an outdoorsman who sells hunting equipment to companies like Cabela's.  His family owns a big ranch a couple of hours outside of town, and he drives one of those tricked-out pickups.  Graduates of TCU, he and his young wife are just lovely.  Also, he has deer guts just around and knows how to use live traps.  He caught no fewer than four of the feral beasts and took them to the ranch to be mousers.  He also has a chicken.  Yes, a chicken, now that the ferals are gone, as the first chicken he had was eaten by a feral and he had a vendetta.  I'm certainly not calling the authorities, as I am holding out for fresh eggs.  And he is my neighbor, a bond not taken lightly here in the Lone Star State.

As for me, I continue to be a committed recycler.  I also keep my thermostat at a conservative 78 degrees in summer--given that it's already 103 outside, it's nowhere near ambient but that would be miserable--and don't run the dryer or the dishwasher at peak hours.  Because I choose to.  Not because the government tells me to.  Guess I've officially gone native.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The (Almost) Unbearable Littleness of Being

There is a girl in my son's fifth grade class who is, in his words, "going to doing something really amazing in the world someday."  She, let's call her G, is an independent organizer of charity drives and, for her birthday, asks that guests to her party make a donation to her most cherished cause.  This girl runs races and climbs trees and doesn't back down from anything. G is pretty. And she is diminutive, which makes her passion even more endearing.  Yet her size does not detract from what she gets done. 

I've always been little.  My mother said that when she brought me home, it was like carrying a solid little bag of sugar.  I had a fall birthday and, in the absence of preschools in rural Ontario in the early 1970s, went off to proper school at the age of four, where I was not only small for my age but also nearly a year younger than many of my classmates.  Like G, I had gumption, but not nearly so much as she, and often not enough. It certainly was better that I was a girl and cute enough to get by, but for a long time I felt like I was playing a game of catch up.  And no matter how hard I worked, it seemed I saw that aw, shucks, isn't that cute look every time I tried to prove myself.   It made me furious, and when I stomped my little foot things only got worse.

For someone my size, I did make a few inroads into athletics, mostly solo sports since I hated the idea that my littleness would (and usually did) slow down the rest of a team.  Distance running seemed to be about obstinate dedication, and until I ran a joint or two into the ground through over-training, I did rather well.  I managed to get through the time-trials needed to qualify as a lifeguard through the Canadian Red Cross, but it was close, and I'm still not sure the instructor didn't fudge it because, gosh darn it, I was just so cute and plucky.  My limitations were clear quite early: I would never really be an athlete. 

Nevertheless, I have stayed active through my adult life into middle age, save for a couple of years sacrificed to marital dissolution.  I can walk a fast six or seven miles with a 70-pound dog, but running is out of the question if I want to get out of bed in the morning and walk without pain.  But I've never given up on the idea of being seriously fit. A month ago I got a real bike and have been riding it regularly and am building my miles.  This weekend I went out, excited at the prospect of my first summer ride. 

The wind in North Texas, never tame, seems to get stronger the hotter it gets.  The trail ride at 90 degrees for seven miles to the southwest with 20 MPH gusts was a slog, though I kept reminding myself that I, too, get stronger each time I fight it.  Still, when I turned around and started the other way, it was like I was in labor and the epidural had finally kicked in.  The grimaces on the faces of riders meeting me now seemed rather comical, since the bastard was now pushing me along rather than taunting me relentlessly.  Buoyed, I decided to ride home via the prettiest street in Fort Worth, a winding road past a PGA course and perfectly manicured lawns. It's gorgeous and wasn't terribly busy at that time of day. It was giddy fun as I turned onto it, though I was thinking about that hill, easy to drive but now that I thought about it not the best idea on tired legs. 

I made it up the hill.  But at times the wind actually pushed the bike backwards as I ascended.  For all I know, this happens to every rider. But for me, it was as though Mother Nature was giving me a spanking for doing something regular guys do on lots of Saturday mornings. You're small, she said. I'm tough as hell and you won't beat me, said I.  As it was, she made me sit down for two or three minutes beside a professionally-tended flowerbed at the top of the hill, gulping water and air and wondering if it would be okay to lie down under the big live oak inside the gate.  Then I got up and rode home.

This is not really about health, of course.  I could keep up my walking regimen and my hour of core work a week and still be fitter than 90 percent of the US population.  I'm not on The Biggest Loser and trying to transform my life; it's already pretty healthy. 

Nope.  Like everyone in the grips of a midlife crisis (mine at least involves a Trek hybrid instead of a Harley) this is about reinvention.  Finally I want to be that girl who can keep up with the boys, the one who is in the Athleta catalog and knows how to snowboard and surf.  Not the one who woke up after her first day of skiing and thought she'd dislocated her hip.  Not the girl who spent hours, for weeks on end, in her driveway shooting baskets only to learn that to make the team she'd have to play against people who were normal-sized and even tall. 

It's trite to say trying new things keeps one young, yet also true, though more on the flip side. Ads that showcase such pursuits emphasize the fun part of feeling like a kid again, but the truth is that in trying again we remember all of our shortcomings as children and teenagers. That's why most people, other than the ones who grew up skiing and surfing and playing tennis with confidence, don't try novel stuff.  Taking on a new athletic pursuit has brought these feelings up again, and yet all I am really doing is the true work of growing up: acknowledging my limitations and having a fun and fulfilling life in spite of that knowledge.

We all want something, and I want to be taken seriously, perhaps more than anything else. And that's because, due to my size, I feel it's been denied me many times. And yet I don't worry about it much anymore, as experience and age mean that most of the time people look at me quite capable indeed. Also, I can be an overbearing know-it-all at times, so a lot of people who know me know would find this pretty funny. What I do know is that my self-consciousness and overcompensating behavior mostly go away when I am truly engaged. This is what I see in G, and I hope she keeps it.  At some point when doubters look at her and think she's not up to it, cute little thing, she'll go find lots and lots of other people to write checks and fund her cause. And then she'll change the world.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Envy is the Enemy of Contentment

There's an uncomfortable feeling I get from time to time.  It's often in carpool line, though it doesn't happen when I see the mom who is dropping off her kids and in a hurry to get to her minimum-wage shift at Sonic or to clean the house of a woman like me.  No, this feeling occurs most frequently when I'm in proximity to a particularly slender blonde who is wearing yoga pants and is driving a Range Rover or a Hummer (yes, in Texas people drive these without apology) and looks like she is in a hurry to get to Pilates. 

At this point in the day, I've awakened and looked at my Blackberry, answered a few of the messages that have arrived overnight from Asia and Europe, and am already worrying about what I haven't done.  Sometimes I've been on a 7 a.m. conference call already, occasionally juggling it with getting a child to school--the mute button may be the single greatest invention for working parents--and am looking at a commute and a day with multiple calls and a couple hundred emails. When there is a problem with the house, it's mine; there is no man to call when the garage door falls down. I do manage to squeeze in workouts, but like everything else in my life, they seem to be done at a sprint and, until I discovered the joy of the bike, without much fun involved. 

So yes, I am jealous of the blonde who appears to have landed in a cosseted life where all she needs to worry about is how her ass looks in yoga pants.  I know comparison is enemy of contentment and that I should work harder to compare myself to people who have less than me, and God knows I am way, way on the side of fortunate.  But this is not human nature.  People magazine is still in business for a reason. 

Then I ran across a message, not a new one but said in a way that resonated with me, on Communicatrix:

Here's what I've learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.They come from not knowing what the people you're envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of s*%t they've shoveled; how grueling the the maintenance of success can be...For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you're capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It's far easier to envy someone else their success than it is to figure out what yours might look like, much less go after it.

When I get to this place, it's because I'm buying into what looks like success, rather than my own version, which I've chosen quite freely. So then I start thinking about what I have. A great, if challenging and consuming, gig which affords me a chance to actually drop my kids off at school and make a living a far sight past minimum wage. My work sometimes makes me wonder if  I am sufficiently capable or intelligent to do it well, but this is where I actually like to be. Otherwise I get bored and more cranky than usual. 

I do find time to walk the dog and ride my bike and go out with The Boy on his training runs. Once I've unloaded the dishwasher and folded the laundry and gotten everyone fed, I sometimes enjoy my very comfortable house. I even do something properly social, once or twice a quarter.

I am making my own version of success, though sometimes I get sucked into the idea of being the blonde in the Range Rover.  It's just that when I'm reading my Blackberry during soccer games and arriving late for pick up at birthday parties and consistently telling my kids we've got to go because I've got to get back to whatever, I think I'd be a better mother if I'd just drawn the blonde's straw.  

Maybe, maybe not.  To hear it from my kids, I'm not much worse than any other mother, which I guess at adolescence is as good as it gets.  And I sure wouldn't be any happier if I lived like a real housewife of Rivercrest.  Because those women are only interesting once you learn about their past.  Sitting around the pool while waiting for my husband to finish the back nine would send me straight to a pitcher of martinis.  I am where I am because I've decided, consciously or not, to be here.  This is because I have opportunities to choose, unlike the mom who must work at Sonic or someplace more unpleasant or dangerous.  So I'll do my best to focus on that.  When I can't, I'll try to remember that the skinny blonde maybe has a big pile to shovel, every day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Happily Married People Know

At a party last night, I saw a lot of happily married people. It was a very nice party, by a lake and appropriately casual with lights strung around the lawn and a taco truck for food and a bar staffed by nice young people who were being paid in tips.

Divorced people frequently find solace in our finely-attuned ability to see chinks in the armor of Tribe of the Perpetually Happy. Oh sure, we tell ourselves, they've been together for two decades and have a beautiful and talented family, a couple of enviable chunks of real estate, and impressive resumes.  But did you see the way she snapped at him when he ordered his third scotch?

Sometimes we're right and people bust up in spectacular and trainwreck fashion, but when they do it's rarely satisfying to those of us who've been there.  Like when we read about another famous and powerful man who's had a secret life for a decade at least, we wonder if anyone is immune.  Happily married people have the luxury of not thinking it will happen to them, at least not for more than a fleeting moment.  Sure, they understand that it might, but they've been spared the experience of having their lives implode and the brittle truth that nothing, absolutely nothing, is forever. 

Instead--and most important--these charmed and wise people are kind to one another, even in moments of stress.  A couple of years ago, my daughter told me a story about parents of one of her friends; this couple was among those I talked to at length last night. My daughter was in the car when the mom ran out of gas. She called the dad, who soon arrived with a full fuel can. Instead of the screaming match my children would have braced themselves for back when their parents were tethered to one another, these thoughtful people were, amazingly, apologetic to one another. "Sorry I had to call you." "It's okay, I drove your car yesterday and noticed your fuel light was on and should have filled it up then." Really? Not where my kids lived.  Hearing the story, I was seared me with shame at remembering my own impatience in the face of dropped balls.

These couples also talk to each other, a lot and about everything, from what I can tell. And, most amazingly, they sincerely like the people they've traveled with through young married life past babies and toddlers and into now the phase of raising middle and high schoolers.  That's it, in essence: they really do still like each other. There is shorthand in conversation and the way one just looks at the other when one is ready to leave the party and the other one knows. Many of these people even look like they're going home to get busy. It's not, who the hell are you and how did I get here?  Or, why do I feel like I'm living someone else's life?

As I looked around last night I realized I like all of them, nearly to a person. I suppose this tempers my burning envy of their happy unions, or at least I'd like to think so. Also, they still invite me to their lovely parties and never make me feel like a freak, my default self-perception.  No, they let me into their magic circle despite my clear failures, and so we get to talk about all we have in common, even beyond kids--many of them have interesting jobs, great reading lists, screechingly hard workouts (I think this might be the middle-aged version of talking about ailments, as my parents seem to do constantly with their friends, though they laugh about it) and where we'd like to live once our kids leave the nest--and I have a marvelous time. 

As my single life stretches into the second half of a decade, I am thrilled to still be included at such gatherings.  Although seeing all these people in truly satisfying marriages (once one has passed forty I think "happy" is rather a frivolous word) where they've had the corners knocked off them and go on with anticipation rather than dread, does make me consider once again what is so terribly wrong with me, it also gives me tremendous hope.  That my daughter and her brother have the chance to spend time around so many people who have made happy lives is proof to them that it can be done.  And maybe someday it will rub off on their mom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Life in my college town follows an annual rhythm that, although predictable, can still catch one unawares. In May, it's the opposite of that first fall morning when you walk outside and know from now on you'll need a sweater: something is just off, and then you realize there is a distinct decline in traffic, specifically of tricked-out F350s and BMWs driven at inadvisable speed by blondes wearing Prada sunglasses with Nike shorts and t-shirts from sorority rush. 

The Hot Chicks in the pretty house at the end of the street have moved out.  I've harbored a middle-age grudge against them since I moved in a year ago.  They are nubile, with perfectly highlighted hair and clothes I am not ashamed to say I covet. Their handbags cost a mortgage payment.  Two of them have new X5s.  The third, poor thing, had to settle for her mom's five year-old Lexus SUV.  They have cleaning ladies and yard guys.  Did I mention they were, in the time they lived here, college students?  For a while I let the dog take care of major business on their lawn--proving one can be sophomoric at any age--until I realized they weren't the ones who had to pick it up.

And yet, when I saw the moving van, I realized they were graduating.  I know they are all heading off to New York or London or wherever that sort of young woman goes to find a hedge fund manager to marry, but it made me wistful, as did the general quiet in my part of the city.  Right now I don't have to wait in line at the Kroger behind obnoxious and entitled young men buying beer, and I can put gas in my car without being blinded by the glare of a Tiffany engagement ring on a senior filling up her own tank with her Platinum card.  But I feel sad that a whole class has moved on, and not just because they keep the local economy going. 

This is not unrelated to the fact that my own babies are moving on, too.  The Boy is leaving our darling elementary school for the trials of sixth grade, and his sister will be in high school next year.  How on earth this happened, I am not sure.  All I know is that I cry at the drop of a hat lately, especially during that Subaru ad with the little girl who is really the teenager and her dad is telling her to be careful driving. 

Because that's what it's like at this stage.  When they are toddlers, the days seem to go on forever and they want to be with you all the time.  Now I don't really remember the time in between and often feel relegated to the role of chauffeur and bank, and my presence is generally tolerated but not embraced.  Time has suddenly accelerated: I have four short years with my firstborn, shared every other week with her father and stepmom, before she heads out the door for college, God willing.  I'll have her brother for another three years, though I'll be sharing him not only with other parents, but with girls and cars and sports. 

Good parents do themselves out of a job.  As mothers in our circle go, I consider myself  laissez-faire, with full-time work and co-parenting serving as barriers to intense involvement. We still have plenty of teenage territory to cover, which from what I understand from other parents makes it much easier to let them go.  But not really, once the moment arrives. 

It will not surprise me if both of my kids wind up living in Fort Worth for the rest of their lives, but we've talked about how important it is for them to get away for few years.  Texas Christian University, fine institution though it is to attend and grow up beside, should not be on their list of schools, in their mother's opinion.  For one, we're not rich enough.  "But what if I get a scholarship?" the Boy asks.  We'd still have to get you a fifty-thousand dollar pick up truck, I reply.  Still a few more seasons before we get there, and  I've resolved to enjoy them while they last.