Archive for September, 2009

Since the pleasures and perils of the comfort zone seems to be the theme for the week, I suppose it should come as no surprise that I got an email yesterday from a 28 year-old Undecided reader we’ll call Jane, stuck in one hell of a pickle. Jane’s problem? She finally has a job that she loves. She actually wrote “I wake up every morning excited to go to work!” (Actually, she wrote “EXCITED.” I swear.) This, of course, is not the problem. The problem is that, after several rounds of interviews she went on motivated primarily by a little healthy What The Hell?, a friend who doubles as the president of a wildly successful start-up offered Jane a job.

Jane consulted with everyone from her current boss (who told her she was planning on retiring in 5 years… and turning the company over to Jane) to her dad, her mom, her aunt, her boyfriend, her ex-coworker, and all of her friends. She wrote:

I’ve been 100% in and 100% out about 6 times each way. I have a 3-page pro-con list. Literally… And now I’m here. With probably the most difficult “who are you?” decision I’ll face for awhile (ever?). And you know how I feel? Like I’d rather take a swan dive off the Golden Gate bridge than make this decision. What if I’m wrong? What if I hurt someone? In the middle of a recession, when most of my friends are struggling to find and keep jobs-I have two absolutely amazing opportunities, and instead of seeing that, high-fiving myself and getting to the decision, I want to cry. Or throw-up. And I want to take back ever going to that first interview.

What should Jane do? I had no idea. But I did pick up on something in the email: What if I hurt someone? To wit:

It’s so odd how emotional and relationship-driven this is for me, in addition to the fear of making the actual decision. A huge factor on my list involves hurting people. Instead of being proud, I feel like a selfish, sneaky, ungrateful turncoat.

And that stuck out to me because I relate. Oh, do I relate. And don’t we all? It’s funny–and it’s unfair; girls are raised to be sensitive to others’ feelings, to be empathetic, to be sweet. And it’s not just the sugar-and-spice nurture that’s to blame here; nature has us hard-wired for it, too. After all, back in the loincloth days, we had to keep the babies–the very tribe–safe and sound, anticipating and taking care of everyone’s needs, while the menfolk were off bringing home the buffalo. Here’s a little more from Jane, on that front:

When I ask my male peers what they think, I get a resounding “Hell yeah! Take it. Tell your boss ‘see ya.’” And when I ask my female peers, they say, “Wow, that is a very difficult decision. Can I help you? Want to meet to talk about it?”

The trouble is that, some of us become so good at empathizing, such experts at feeling others’ feelings, we have no idea how to parse them out from our own. “I don’t care; what do you want to do?” becomes a mantra. And when we’re deciding where to go for dinner, hey, we’re the perfect, easygoing companion. We even convince ourselves that we really don’t care–never mind that we’ve had Indian twice this week already. (After all, who doesn’t love a good curry?) But that can become a habit–a comfort zone. And then what happens when we face a choice like Jane’s, where we’re the only one who can make the decision, and we’re the only one who’s going to have to live with the consequences? I’ll quote her again:

If I could really figure out the answer to everyone’s question “What do YOU want?” – I’d do that! But how do I know what I want…?

And that is one hell of a good question.

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Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from former students, wondering what to do with themselves when grown-up dreams get bitch-slapped by recession-era reality. One, from a talented writer, whose job fell through after only a matter of weeks, particularly hit home. Should she stay in the big city, where she had just scored the perfect apartment, she wondered, or move back to the comfort of her middle-of-the-country roots.

Moving home, she wrote, was “somewhat appealing. But then again, not at all.”

Which reminded me of an apocryphal story I once heard that speaks — in a very weird way — to the tyranny of the comfort zone. It goes like this: There was this housewife who for years cut the ends off a roast beef before she put it in the oven, until someone asked her why. That was the way her mother always did it, she replied, but then got to wondering herself. And so for the first time, she asked her elderly mother why SHE cut the ends off the roast. Her mother’s reply? Because the pan wasn’t big enough.

And therein lies the danger of sticking only with what you know — why, as Shannon wrote in Perfection: A Zero Love Game, comfort zones can morph into prisons of our own making: You stop asking why. You forget to explore.  It’s not just about moving back to your high school bedroom after college, or cooking dinner the same way your mother always did. It’s also about surrounding yourself with people just like you, people who think like you think and do like you do — whether they’re hipsters or jocks, high school buddies or sorority sisters, take-no-prisoners business types or stay-at-home moms. If you’re stuck in a homogeneous universe, as comfort zones so often are, your world shrinks. And there’s the danger. Before long, you not only become trapped by the norm of your own particular niche, you cease to question it. Choices that take you beyond it — in any direction — get scary.  Cognitive dissonance, the method by which we learn and grow?  Out the window.

To a certain extent, all this comfort zone business can be a cliche of the quarter-life crisis, which Washington Post reporter Lindsay Minnema tackled anew last month:

It’s not a new phenomenon, but today’s young people seem to experience it more acutely than the young people who came before them. And with the tumultuous economy and job market meltdown of the past year, recent grads are getting a double helping of quarter-life anxiety.

Unlike young adults of generations past, many of whom were married and settled in their careers by their mid-20s, today’s college grads experience a longer period of transition to the settled-down stage, said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From Late Teens Through the Twenties.”

“It is a unique time of life when people are not entirely dependent on their parents . . . but they don’t have a stable life structure with marriage and parenthood and stable work,” Arnett said. “They go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners. They go through a long period of figuring out who they are and how they fit in the world.”

Arnett believes this transition period can be positive, with its opportunities for growth and adventure. But for some people, the turmoil brings worry, fears of failure or of being trapped by responsibilities, or depression.

On that latter note, Minnema quotes Leslie Seppinni, a marriage and family therapist and doctor of clinical psychology in Beverly Hills, Calif., who suggests that one route out of their funk is for quarter-lifers to expand their horizons:

Instead of stewing in their misery, quarter-lifers should focus on what they can change, Seppinni said. “Although it is a time of depression, it is also a time of being creative in getting yourself to do something out of your comfort zone,” she said. “Embrace the challenge.”

Meanwhile, what did I write to that former student? Nothing profound. Just this:

I once held a job for three days. This is true. They were the longest, most awful days of my life. But at least I knew. Your next step will likely evolve, rather than present itself as such. Meanwhile, don’t give up. And yes, you should definitely test the waters in ——- to see if you like the city, by working as a barrista if need be. If you packed up and left right now, you’d always wonder if you had missed out. You may love it. Or you may hate it. In which case, you can skip away happily in search of something new…

In other words, you’ll give yourself the chance to figure it out.

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I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Barbara’s post from last week, Choosing the Iconic Self, about how women–now freed from the simple definitions of either wife or daughter–struggle to define our authentic Self, and wind up trapped by the iconic image of whatever dream-self we aspire to become, saddling each choice with a hefty helping of extra importance. In particular, Katie’s comment on that post came to mind:

I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything–wife, writer, teacher, runner in my case–and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations?

I think she’s absolutely right. And her comment reminded me of something I read or heard or imagined at some point, probably while putting off doing something on my to-do list: that perfectionism begets procrastination–and that this is so because if everything has to be perfect, it’s that much harder to start something, what with the pressure that it be perfect and all.

Thinking about that got me to wondering if that’s why comfort zones so often morph into prisons of our own making: we find something we can do, and we stick with it, because it’s simply easier than considering all the other options out there, hoping to pick the right one, and hoping we can do that well, too.

Which brings me to tennis. (Though I don’t follow tennis, I’d feel remiss writing a post about anything today without mentioning all that went down at the US Open over the weekend. Bear with me.) Kim Clijsters, who won the championship (thanks, in small part, to Serena’s temper tantrum–go here for a sane take), fresh out of retirement, new motherhood, and a 2005 Take-That to those who’d dubbed her The Best Player Never to Win a Major, analyzed her game, telling the New York Observer:

‘I remember Justine [Henin], she was one who could mix her game up even if she was not playing well,’ she said. ‘Someone like [Amelie] Mauresmo, even Venus and Serena, were hard hitters, they can still work their way through matches even when they’re not playing their best tennis. I’m not saying everybody’s like that, but I haven’t seen a lot of girls change their game up a little bit.’

Changing up the game. It worked for her.

But it’s a tricky prospect, not least for the reasons mentioned above. Made trickier, of course, by the way in which women’s steps and missteps are predictably and thoroughly picked apart.

Which brings me to Serena. I’m going light here: in a nutshell, she had a McEnroe-style meltdown, after an unusual call at a critical point in the match–and was subsequently raked over the coals for it, despite the facts that she left the court before going Full McEnroe, issued the requisite apologies, and overall demonstrated that she really does try to do the right thing. But she’s human. And no one’s perfect.

Granted, some are picked apart more than others. But we all get it to some degree. Our foot faults might not be internationally broadcast. They probably don’t inspire a movement on Twitter. But maybe we flunk the class, blow the interview, bungle the presentation, or take a risky career gamble that doesn’t look like it will pay off. And the  look from Mom, the raised eyebrow on the other side of the cubicle, the cutting remark from our best friend–they sting too. (Although none quite as much as the disappointment in the face we see in the mirror, as Katie’s comment suggested.) Couple that with our own fears of failure, and it’s a feat not to be paralyzed by angst over perfection, not to stop ourselves before we even dare to start.

By way of inspiration, I’ll end with this choice item, via Feministing’s reportage from the recent “Feminism is a Memory” panel discussion at Omega. When asked “What is the practice or script you use to push yourself past fear?” Gloria Steinem said:

I was too afraid to speak in public until after 30 and finally decided to speak because of the women’s movement and I still was terrified, but I realized if women can’t do anything fucking right anyway, might as well do what you please.

Amen, sister.

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Or, to paraphrase John Lennon: “I am (s)he as you are (s)he as you are me and we are all together.”

In other words, you identify.  That’s what we’ve found in many of the thoughtful comments that rolled in over the past few weeks, either on our blog or Facebook. (Ahem. Are you a fan?) Here’s a taste of the backchat:

Midlife Crisis, For Her clearly touched a chord:

At some point, people have to grow up and realize that the TWENTIES are the time to try out new identities such as career changes and traveling-the-world without a care etc., and then once you turn 30 it’s time to face the music. At some point it really DOES become “too late for a new beginning”, and until humans gain an ability to live 9 lives, we have to accept that some doors will have to be closed forever because there is just no time left. It’s true that life does pass you by, we are on this earth for only a blink of an eye. During my 20s I lived in various cities (Chicago, Houston, Washington D.C.) and traveled to nearly 30 countries, and I shopped like mad following all the latest fashions and explored various “career ideas”, job-hopping every couple of years. I DID pay a price for my youthful restlessness, for example professionally I’m at the level of people who are nearly a decade younger than I am, and my salary level is far beneath other 30-something professionals who did the “straight-line-career-track” direct out of college. Still, those freeliving years of my 20s were absolutely essential for me to have lifelong satisfaction and no regrets, and I wish more women could really use their twenties to explore these different lifestyles/identities so that they wouldn’t suffer from “the grass is greener” syndrome. Everybody would love to live forever, everybody laments growing older, but being a Grown-Up means you don’t cry over things you can’t change, you make the best of it. Women can’t change the fact that our Fertility is limited, and the fact that we’re eventually going to die, and NO we can’t all “be anything you want”. That sucks, but that’s life, and it’s pointless to cry over the facts of life. — Crystal

Colleen disagreed:

I just turned 30, and I find it depressing to think that just because I reached a certain age, whatever i happen to be doing right now, is what i’m gonna do for the rest of my life. I am an attorney and my twenties were spent by a mixture of going to school, traveling, working, and most recently 2000 miles away from home doing field work for the Obama campaign with a bunch of 19-22 year olds, and now I am back to working as an attorney. I don’t do things to get them out of my system because I’ll have to stop one day, once I turn X age or once I have kids, I do them because the opportunities arise and if I can make them fit into my life, I do. I don’t see why that has to change once I turn a certain age or have children. I think a lot of the reason people are afraid to have kids or wait so long to do it, is this notion that once you have kids, you have to stop doing anything that you ever wanted to do for yourself. I, for one, have no intention of throwing in the towel on living life now, when I have children, or ever. — Colleen

And, just to show that Undecided welcomes comments from all genders:

You are a fantastic writer and I look forward to seeing your stories like this one. Insightful, positive, balanced, and a thing that makes you say hmmmm. This undivorced, non-corvette owning, non-young girlfriend toting 3-2-1 Contact fan completely related to your story despite the gender difference. Great work as usual! – John

A related post, Choosing the Iconic Self, also hit home:

You have the details down, except for that you promoted grandpa. He was a sea captain – there was no wealth but they had a comfortable life and prominence in the small town. And I think you are right. I remember when my nephews were young my sister in law told me she was really careful about telling them they were “good” when they had done something good. She said that you have to tell them that their drawing is good, or whatever, so they don;t think it’s THEIR value that gets determined by what they achieve. I was super impressed by that. And, thinking back, I assume the reason I was impressed was that the idea was new to me. Myself I was likely taught that my value was in the drawing, so to speak — Lotta K.

I really appreciate this post. I’ve definitely thought about these things, especially in the three years since graduating from SCU as I made a major career switch. I came to realize the unrealisticness of some of the aspirations I had — whether they were dreams I had since I was young or newly set outlandish goals. Also there were some aspirations that I thought, oh that would be great, but I’m really not willing to do what it takes to get there. It’s not what I wanted to do after all. I couldn’t find the words for how I was feeling as I was struggling with all this, and I definitely don’t think that I’m in tune with my authentic self…but I hope that I can say that I’m on the way :) – Nicole L.

All of it’s right. Every bit you say. We are drawn to an ideal and then we try to fit ourselves to the notion. My dream: to be an actress and writer. Years later, after having done both in a really small way, marriage and children came along. One reason I got divorced was that I didn’t fit in with his family’s ideal of what a ‘wife’ should be. It may have been my love of baseball combined with my male gay friends that made them uncomfortable. So I left and moved with my kids to a small western town. Where my kids grew up to be those kind you mention. Anything is possible. Their reality is lack of money from the home front and all fringe dwellers will understand this. Grinding poverty is the ultimate reality. In the meantime. I write for a living and act, occasionally even being paid to do it. But yet, it nags because that’s what people do…second guess and nag themselves over the road not taken, the poor judgment calls, the missed opportunities. Who would I have been….could I have been if only…. — Dana

Love this post! I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything–wife, writer, teacher, runner in my case–and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations? — Katie

Holding Up Half the Sky stirred stuff up as well:

The neglect of children (and fetuses) because they are female, always astounds me, no matter how often I hear about it. What stories like these show us is that women’s rights are not a foregone conclusion; they are something we must struggle for together. H. Clinton put it so well at the Beijing Conference in 1995 when she said women’s rights are human rights. How do we respond to countries who blatantly disregard human rights? Yet perhaps we ignore women’s rights? And it takes special issues of media, in honor of women’s equality day, to bring these issues into sharper relief. Thanks for offering this summary of some of the issues that the NYT addressed on Sunday. — Austen

I recall talking to a friend about the article. What definitely struck me is how they think women leading the world would lessen war, etc.

“Q: If women ran the world, would wars still exist?
A: No. It would be a better, safer, and more productive world. A woman would bring an extra dimension to that task-and that’s a sensitivity to humankind. It comes from being a mother.”

It’s saying women are different from men, which I don’t think is true (we are socially programmed to think and behave differently; can’t really help it in a country where everything’s labeled blue or pink). People are capable of being great or horrible leaders, regardless of what biological sex they may be. In this piece, women are held up to a standard, so it’s a bit troubling. — Jeannie

Finally, our first guest post, Taking it Public, garnered its share of fan mail:

Excellent post. Especially enjoyed the comparison to Scandanavian countries. What a wonderful nation we would be if our politicians considered the needs of all citizens. More topics would be discussed, and more needs would be met. Great piece, would love to read more from Charlotta! — T.J.

Hi Charlotta, great post, I enjoyed it a lot, and agree with you in everything, although I can’t help wonder if Universities, outside of humanities, med/communication and arts has as high a number of female students? I would be interested to see if that was the case in say, areas of economic studies and technology, for example. I have to say that althoug I am an avid Obama fan I am also a Swede, a Mother, a Wife and all things related and very disapointed in the lack debate there is around matters concerning The Family. I wonder of these matters are still considered being “women’s issues” and therefor not as high on the agenda as other matters. Lack of affordable child-care and parental leave, equal pay etc, etc, are not only women’s issues, they are concerning men AND women and we need to understand that and start a valid debate sround these issues if we are going to break away from a very old-fashioned belief in a homogenous family structure. – Cecilia

Keep the conversations going. Catch you all tomorrow.

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I suppose it should come as no surprise, what with the nasty brouhaha that erupted three years ago when Katie Couric was named anchor for CBS’ 60 Minutes, that the recent announcement about Diane Sawyer taking over Charlie Gibson’s anchor post on ABC World News upon Gibson’s retirement was met with a scathing round of… er, analysis.

While the Women’s Media Center dubbed it a “watershed moment,” the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Karen Heller took a less optimistic tone, all but calling nightly television news an endangered species, Sawyer’s appointment an overhyped boobie prize:

The nightly newscast is also the Metamucil half-hour, as the pharma ads reflect. The three newscasts collectively attract 20 million viewers, half the size of the audience 15 years ago, with a median age of 61.3, hence all the health coverage. Claiming Sawyer’s appointment “historic,” as many have, is misleading. It’s a job many men, including Gibson, no longer want.

So, while we all know the fate of the numbers Couric found upon assuming her position, from what Heller says, it seems like dwindling ratings should have been an all but foregone conclusion (and she may be right: I mean, how many people do you know who get their news at 5:30, on TV? Thought so). And Katie was a convenient scapegoat, made all the more convenient because she was a trailblazer, a first.

But that’s just the half of it.

I was surprised to find this dim assessment on from Courtney Martin, on the website Feministing:

Sawyer seems like a perfectly decent interviewer and a hardworking journalist, but I’m also struck that she fits into the “NewsMommy model” that Ann reported on back when Couric was chosen–essentially that the networks are choosing women who are non-threatening, aka maternal, for the top positions so as not to freak out viewers still not used to the idea that women can be assertive, independent, and–gasp–childless.

First, lest I forget, Diane Sawyer doesn’t even have children. As Amanda Fortini put it on Salon’s Broadsheet:

Sawyer is many things–smart, competent, often witty, exceedingly attractive–but “maternal” is not an adjective that springs to mind. You might even call her telepresence the opposite of maternal: glossy, self-contained, occasionally remote… So what, exactly, is it that qualified her as maternal? That she is a woman of a certain age? This is the sort of stereotyping feminists have long worked to combat.

In my opinion, Fortini hit the nail on the head, although I don’t think Martin’s post was quite as dismissive as Fortini took it to be. But really, aren’t we beyond all this? What’s with the use of the word “mommy” in that context–as if it’s a synonym for airhead or lightweight? I’ll concede that morning news shows like Good Morning America are to news as Pop-Tarts are to breakfast, but Diane Sawyer has a pretty impressive resume behind that pretty face (is it the pretty that’s the problem?): she has 30 years of network experience, was an aide to Nixon, she’s interviewed the last four presidents and their wives, as well as world leaders such as Ahmadinejad, Sadaam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Robert McNamara, and Manuel Noriega to name but a few. She’s covered the State Department, and was one of the first female correspondents on 60 Minutes. And, um, Charlie Gibson seems like a nice guy and everything, but a hard-hitter? Not so much.

While Sawyer’s new gig may indeed be a boobie prize, perceived as but a pit stop on the way to the Metamucil aisle, I’m struck by all the analysis. Because, had some guy been given the job, we’d all be on the same side: where are the women? Perhaps we’d be more focused on this sobering fact: according to the Women’s Media Center, “women hold only 3 percent of the ‘clout’ positions in media.” But now that she’s there, the best we can do is to consume rumors of catfights between she and Couric, pick apart the career choices she’s made, what she looks like, and each other.

What will it take for us to stop judging each other and get on the same team? To stop reaching for the shards of shattered glass from those ceilings our sisters have worked so hard to crack and using them as weapons against each other, rather than sweeping them up, admiring the fact that we might be able to make it through a little easier, and getting on with our own lives and the ceilings we’ll inevitably face? Equality? Yet another reason to keep working for it–and, frankly, as good as any.

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So the other day, I was hiking up the mountain with my friend Lotta, who told me a story about her grandmother. I will probably get the details wrong, but the gist is this:

Her grandmother, one of several siblings, grew up in a small seaboard town in Sweden, where as a young girl she was known for her beauty and as an adult, as the wife of a prominent shipbuilder (this is where I am sketchy on the details). When she was in her forties, her husband died, and with it, her identity: No longer the young beauty, no longer the prominent wife. The story was a clear reminder that until fairly recent history, women derived their identity from their looks or their husband, or both.

Stay with me here: Flash forward a few generations and suddenly women could be the shipbuilders — or whatever. And so we began to derive our identity from what we did, our work. Slowly we are learning, though, that that’s not right either.

I was haunted by all this, as well as Shannon’s post on Midlife Crisis, when I started wondering if, just maybe, the issue is this: Somewhere between the era of being someone’s wife or daughter – or, more recently, someone’s doctor or someone’s lawyer — somewhere between those two poles, we women are still trying mightily to figure out how to define our authentic Self. And in the process of the search, many of us get trapped by the icon: We dream of who we want to be – the swashbuckling reporter, the fearless photog, the edgy writer, the rail-thin supermodel, the uber-wealthy CEO– and make life choices that fit the image, images that are often dictated by women’s media – magazines, movies, fiction — that tend to glorify the impossible.

And if those dreams don’t pan out, or we decide to stop the chase, if the iconic self becomes a nagging reminder of the road not taken, well, we look over our shoulders. Second guess all our choices. Feel we’ve failed. When of course, we have not.

Could fear of betraying the icon be one reason why making life choices is so fraught? Why we assign our decisions so much weight?  Why, no matter what we choose, we taunt ourselves with the idea that Door Number two would surely have been a better choice?

When it comes to Gen X-ers and Millenials, I tend to blame us: mothers who, infatuated by the prospect of our daughter’s newfound opportunity, taught them they could do and be anything. There’s possibility out there, we exclaimed. All those open doors! Opportunity! Grab it!  All you have to do is want it — and try hard!

We were right to tell our daughters to dream high, and never sell themselves short. But what we left out of the lesson was the fact that sometimes reality – or talent or resources or life itself – intervenes, now matter how hard you try or how hard you want. (Could this be why so many college women consider a “B+” to be a failure?) And you know what? When it does, it doesn’t always matter. Because what we do is not who we are. And sometimes the image — the iconic self — is just that. Men have had generations to figure this out. But for women, relatively new to this game of self-definition, we’re stuck. Call it growing pains.

Meanwhile, full disclosure: When I was a kid, my two dreams were to have a houseful of children and to write the great American novel. Marrying into a family of seven siblings quickly taught me the insanity of my first dream. (My mother-in-law once confided that over a ten year stretch, she had no memory of anything but laundry and carpools. True story.) And my second? At this point, I’d be happy with the adequate American novel.

As for my authentic self? Still not sure. Are you?

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Now that the flurry that is August has subsided, a few quick hits to remind us that we are all, well, Undecided.

And apparently there are enough of us out there to prompt our own marketing niche. Hence, The New Decider Watch? Terminally undecided? Simply sneak a peak at your wrist:

The New Decider helps you make decisions: as the seconds tick round the words “yes” and “no” are alternately displayed. When you need to make a decision, simply glance at the watch for your answer. A magnifying dome sits just above the answer window to aid visibility
The New Decider may not always be right, but as Tony Soprano observes,“a wrong decision is better than indecision”.

The wisdom of Tony Soprano notwithstanding, we may think that indecision leads to stress. And clearly, it does. But a new study out of Portugal suggests that stress itself can lead to bad decision-making. The study, published in the July 31st of Science, reveals that chronic stress can switch our brain onto automatic pilot, so that we make choices out of habit, rather than thoughtful cognition:

The researchers looked into goal-orientated decisions (so those where consequences are taken into account) and automatic decisions (so those resulting from habit) as well as the switch between the two, and how this was affected by chronic stress.
To answer that Ferreira and colleagues used rats exposed to chronic stress and, together with normal control rats, put them through training to learn to press a lever in order to obtain food rewards. Both stressed and control rats responded very similarly, rising the number of pressings with time as they learned that this would increase the rewards obtained.
But when the situation was changed by feeding the animals on the side, so making the food rewards less appealing, while control rats were able to re-evaluate the situation and diminish the number of pressings, stressed rats continued to push the lever constantly despite the effort this required. This suggested that once a habit was established stressed animals were no longer capable of switching the response back.

On another topic, but clearly related, Meryl Streep riffs on work-life balance and gender issues, Hollywood style, in a ten-minute interview she granted
salon.com a few weeks back. Love what she says here:

You had a famous quip in the 1990s about how difficult it was for older women to get good roles — that Hollywood producers don’t want to cast women who remind them of their first wives. Recently, you’ve said that you don’t think anything has changed dramatically. And yet you’re wildly in demand …
I don’t think they have changed dramatically, otherwise all the actors my age would be working as much as I am. And I think I have surfed a wave of very good fortune. I guess, starting with ["The Devil Wears Prada"] it has to do with the money coming back in big blockbusters. But if there were more female-driven, interesting projects that were widely distributed … That audience is there, they want to go.
There does seem to be a strange amnesia after women-targeted films, like “Mamma Mia,” are huge hits.
In the blogosphere. Because the blogosphere is still mostly fellas. Somehow they have all the spare time because — I guess, someone else is cooking, or cleaning, or doing whatever it is that needs to be done. [Laughs]

In other words, we may be the breadwinners, but we’re still expected to, um, butter the toast? USA Today reports that by October or November of this year, women will represent the majority of workers. But will numbers give us parity or equality. Nope. From the article:

The change reflects the growing importance of women as wage earners, but it doesn’t show full equality, Hartmann says. On average, women work fewer hours than men, hold more part-time jobs and earn 77% of what men make, she says. Men also still dominate higher-paying executive ranks.

On the other hand, we may not be fully represented in the boardrooms, but we do have spending power. According to “WOMEN WANT MORE: How to Capture Your Share of the World’s Largest, Fastest-Growing Market” (HarperBusiness, September 2009), educated working women may drive the new economy, with some $5 trillion in incremental earnings to spend. Which may give us some leverage, at least as consumers. From a press release about the book:

“WOMEN WANT MORE” is based on The Boston Consulting Group Global Inquiry into Women and Consumerism, a survey of more than 12,000 women in 22 countries around the world, comprehensive one-on-one interviews, as well as the authors’ decades of experience with companies and consumers worldwide. The survey results show that women are dissatisfied with the products and services available to them in many categories, largely because companies misunderstand women’s issues and fail to answer their needs. Most of all, women are overwhelmed by demands on their time and the challenges of dealing with the many roles they typically play — as wives, mothers, partners, professionals, friends, colleagues, sisters, and daughters.

And finally, this being the day after Labor Day, a back-to-school item. Newsday.com reports that as the economy falls, the number of college students stressed about choosing a major spikes. (Dirty little secret: Your major? Doesn’t always matter.) The response, on some campuses, is to relieve students’ anxiety by encouraging them to take a taste test to find what they truly love, rather than worrying about a career. Others, such as Hofstra, are piloting programs to help students navigate the decision-making process:

Ten students will meet once a week for two months and participate in a series of exercises designed to reveal their talents, skills and interests. By the end of eight weeks, the goal is for each to choose a major.
“They come in thinking they absolutely have to know what they’re doing from the beginning of freshman year,” said Jayne Brownell, assistant vice president of student affairs. “But they are putting false pressure on themselves, and placing too much importance on the choice of a major in determining life success.”
Brownell ought to know. She majored in women’s studies at Rutgers University. “When people asked me my major and what I was going to do when I graduated, I didn’t have an answer,” she said. She spent five years as a business manager for an advertising company right after graduation.
“You’re not going to have one career anymore,” she said. “That isn’t the way the world works. I think my education served me very well over time.”

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I confess, back when “thirtysomething” was on TV (in the late 80s), I tuned in. (And now, I’m thirtysomething, and they’re releasing a 20th anniversary DVD. Oh time, you fickle mistress, you.) Despite relatively lackluster ratings, the haters were loud in their view that the whole endeavor was nothing more than a yuppie whine-fest populated with characters plagued by self-absorption of epic proportions. And sure, it could get a little tedious. Dinner parties. Shopping for babysitters. (And camping gear, and strollers.) Remodeling sagas. Princeton sweatshirts that appeared whenever the occasion was too casual for shoulderpads. The fact that nothing much really ever happened–and that it went down at a snail’s pace. All of which may well be true. But, if it was just a boring woe-are-we-for-all, why the vitriol? And why, with the release of the DVD, have so many (yours truly included) chosen to weigh in?

I think it has to do with the fact that something about it rang true, and continues to ring true today. (And not just that remodeling is one of life’s greatest sucks.) The conflicts, particularly between the women, had a lot to do with choices: defending what we’ve chosen for our lives–and what we’ve chosen to leave behind; judging our friends’ choices; interpreting the fact that our friend has chosen something different as her judgment–and rejection–of what we’ve chosen for ourselves; the distance that grows when we feel like–because we’ve chosen different things or believe we would choose differently were we in her shoes–we can no longer relate to the women to whom we’re closest.

The choices themselves may change, but will those conflicts ever get old? I don’t know, but, the reappearance of “thirtysomething” has taught this thirtysomething one thing for sure: I will. Sigh.

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48486191-1Someone who is smarter than me (and who shall remain nameless) forwarded a link to an L.A. Times op-ed written by Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two journalists who were imprisoned in North Korea and released last month.

Their piece, this smart kid suggested, serves as a good wake-up call for the rest of us: Not necessarily Ling and Lee’s own story of being captured on a frozen river that divides China from North Korea and thrown into jail, but the story they were trying to cover. It’s a story that is ultimately all about choices — or lack of same.

Excerpts from their op-ed:

We had traveled to the area to document a grim story of human trafficking for Current TV. During the previous week, we had met and interviewed several North Korean defectors — women who had fled poverty and repression in their homeland, only to find themselves living in a bleak limbo in China. Some had, out of desperation, found work in the online sex industry; others had been forced into arranged marriages….

Our motivations for covering this story were many. First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland…

Most of the North Koreans we spoke with said they were fleeing poverty and food shortages. One girl in her early 20s said she had been told she could find work in the computer industry in China. After being smuggled across the Tumen River, she found herself working with computers, but not in the way she had expected. She became one of a growing number of North Korean women who are being used as Internet sex workers, undressing for online clients on streaming video. Some defectors appeared more nervous about being interviewed than others. But they all agreed that their lives in China, while stark, were better than what they had left behind in North Korea.

Are you awake now? As the forementioned smart girl wrote in her email:

The underlying story is a good wake up call to us: Better to be an internet sex worker than live in North Korea where they have no choices. That’s what faces them — and here we are whining about doctor vs lawyer vs mother?

Photo: Euna Lee, left, hugs her husband and daughter and Laura Ling hugs her husband, Iain Clayton (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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While young women learn in school that their female experiences matter, the differences between college and the real world can lead to a new form of uncertainty, suggests contributor Charlotta Kratz, a lecturer in the communication department at Santa Clara University, who writes that the skills they have developed in the classroom aren’t always appreciated on the job.


by Charlotta Kratz

Once at a dinner party I met a woman who had been one of the first women to graduate with a business degree from University of California, Berkeley. It was in the early 1960s. When she graduated people had expected her to become a secretary, but, she said, “I didn’t go to business school to be a secretary.” Instead she had had a long and successful career with an insurance company. She didn’t marry until she was retired, and she never had children.

Someone asked her if she had felt discriminated against as a woman.
Never in my professional life, she said. Everyone knew I was good at
my job. But after retirement she had started feeling judged. In the
eyes of the world around her, she had gone from being a leader to
being a little old lady. There wasn’t room in people’s imagination for
‘retired business woman.’

I was watching the coverage of Ted Kennedy’s funeral over the weekend.
There was a wake on Friday, and a Funeral Mass and burial on Saturday.
Many friends, family members, and colleagues spoke. There were funny
stories, heartfelt memories, poignant moments, and lots of warmth.

On MSNBC (my default channel) two male political commentators chatted
away. They talked about Ted Kennedy and politics, Ted Kennedy and
sports, Ted Kennedy and relationships, Ted Kennedy and life. Guy talk.
Insightful and interesting, but definitely guy talk.

Women may be equal to men professionally, but we could never talk
publicly about personal female experiences the way men talk about
personal, private, male experiences (like the relationship between a
man and his son) in public.

The experience of being a man is of common interest. The experience of
being a woman is not.

Obviously there are shades of gray here. There are areas in society
where female experiences, voices, have been increasingly valued. One
such area is, I think, education. Educators are often women. Many
students are women. At the university where I teach more than 50% of
the undergraduates are women. In our department, communication, it’s
not uncommon to find classes with 20 young women, and 4 young men. And
add to that the fact that higher learning, at least in the humanities
and in social science, is collaborative – female – in attitude.

What happens is, I think, that besides doing well academically young
also learn in school that their experiences matter. They learn
that authority figures think like them. In a crisis they can ask a
teacher for a tampon. There are gender studies classes, and the
implicit message there is that female experiences actually have value
for the larger group.

Maybe this learning environment has made the young women who graduate
today unprepared for what faces them outside of the university: Same
old world, where women can be professionals, but only if they check
their female-ness at the door.

It’s that lack of preparedness that is interesting. I think schools
are ahead of the rest of American society when it comes to gender
equality, but I think young women end up suffering for it. I think
young women walk out into the world expecting to be heard, and I think
they feel disconnected and depressed when they are not. I think this
leads to a new form of uncertainty. The skills they have developed
don’t work, and quite literally, they don’t know what to do.

In Scandinavian countries (I am Swedish, so this comparison comes
naturally to me) the situation is a little bit different. There are
gender equalizing structures in place: affordable child care, 12+
months of paid parental leave, and 5-7 weeks of paid vacation per year.
Just to mention a few. It’s easier for two spouses to have careers,
and an overwhelming majority of families do have two careers.

My point is this: These programs have been put in place after public
discussions. That means that unlike in the US, child care, just to
take one example, is an issue that gets public attention.

That is a huge difference. It doesn’t mean that Swedish families have
it all figured out, or that the tension between career and family
doesn’t exist. It does. Swedish women are tired and frustrated too.
But they talk about it. Society talks about it. Politicians consider

In 2009, in Sweden, the experience of being a woman is of public
interest. Swedish women in their 70s, my mother’s generation, say that
“we’ve come far”. And they are proud.

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