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Archive for November, 2009

Apparently, Gen X has become the forgotten child of the stalled economic engine, stuck between the Baby Boom and Gen Y.

According to recent research by the Pew Research Center, slightly over half of middle aged workers say they are planning to delay their retirement. You can blame it on the recession and tanking IRAs. But what it means for Gen Xers is that there will be fewer places at the head of the table. And thanks to do-it-cheaper Gen Y’s, very few new seats at the foot. Women may be in the biggest pickle of all.

According to an Associated Press story, those workers who came of age with the Brady Bunch are experiencing new levels of workplace angst:

They’re antsy and edgy, tired of waiting for promotion opportunities at work as their elders put off retirement. A good number of them are just waiting for the economy to pick up so they can hop to the next job, find something more fulfilling and get what they think they deserve. Oh, and they want work-life balance, too.

Sounds like Gen Y, the so-called “entitlement generation,” right?

Not necessarily, say people who track the generations. In these hard times, they’re also hearing strong rumblings of discontent from Generation X. They’re the 32- to 44-year-olds who are wedged between baby boomers and their children, often feeling like forgotten middle siblings — and increasingly restless at work as a result.

It becomes even more complicated for Gen-X women, often navigating unfamliar turf when it comes to the workplace, who have to scramble for any place at the table, as we’ve noted here :

Sure, we women do school well. University structures, especially, support the way we learn and succeed. Overachievers? High expectations? Duly noted and rewarded. But once we get to the workplace? Different kind of rules.

Let’s face it. We missed the socialization. From ancient times, men have been raised to know their job is to slay the dragons, and that they will be alone in doing it. American mythology, too, teaches men that their role is to go, seek and conquer. For generations, men’s roles have been predetermined, and unquestioned: They provide. And workplace — and social — structures have evolved to support the model.

For women, though, relatively new to this world of work, roles are still in flux. We never learned to slay the dragon — we were the pretty princesses waiting back there in the castle — and often, we’re a little confused by the messy nature of reality as opposed to the comfortable fit of school. And so we’re flummoxed. Overwhelmed. We’re feeling our way. Where do we fit in? How do we fit in? Should we fit in?

Then, there’s this: Gen X women are often the ones struggling mightily with work-life issues, figuring out how to balance career and family:

… many women are in a place where they have young children or have begun to think about starting a family. Suddenly, career choice becomes a matter of careful and excruciating calculation: Women raised to be masters of the universe –but still seeking the flexibility to raise their kids – are pulled in opposite directions: Meaningful career? Meaningful family life? Choices become crucial: how will we find that niche that will allow us to find satisfaction on both ends? What if we don’t? Maybe we came up expecting to achieve the male model of success; now we realize it’s impossible. Or we’re agonized and guilty because, with all this grand, amorphous opportunity, we find we don’t want that model of success anymore.

Finally, we’ve pointed out that, when it comes to family, these very same women are often judged in ways that their brothers are not:

Let’s also acknowledge that one of the most significant cons of having children might be the impact on a woman’s career; moms with young children are often passed over for promotions, while childless women of childbearing age are often passed over as well, on the grounds that they’ll likely have children soon. Despite the fact that fathers’ roles have begun to change as they’ve become more involved in child-rearing, work-life balance is still considered a women’s issue. And yet. A recent study by Lancaster University prof Dr. Caroline Gatrell found that some employers see their female employees who don’t want children as wanting in some “essential humanity,” and view them as “cold, odd and somehow emotionally deficient in an almost dangerous way that leads to them being excluded from promotions that would place them in charge of others.”

No wonder the discontent is growing: Promotion? Unlikely. Jump ship? Gotta compete with the new kids, who are cheaper to hire, and more tech savvy anyhow.

On the other hand, the AP story suggests all is not lost for the X-ers — so long as they are willing to do a little reinvention — and pimp out their years of experience for newbie wages:

Jon Anne Willow, co-publisher of ThirdCoastDigest.com, an online arts and culture site in Milwaukee, is among employers who’ve recently been able to hire more experienced candidates for jobs traditionally filled by 20somethings.

They’re hungry to work, she says. And as she sees it, that gives her fellow Gen Xers and the baby boomers she’s hired a distinct advantage over a lot of the Gen Yers she’s come across.

“When the dust settles, they’ll be exactly as they were before and we’ll just have to sift through them and take the ones that actually get it and hope the rest find employment in fast food,” she quips.

Swell. Should you stay? Should you go? Call it a Gen X sandwich, with a hefty dollop of indecision on the side.

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It’s great to have options. But dealing with them can be a bitch.

Or so we like to say. That’s our very tag line, but, because today marks our 100th post–and is also, coincidentally, the day before the great beige food binge, I’m feeling a little sentimental and thought it would be an appropriate time to give up the but, and offer some musings on gratitude.

I’ll admit, I have a lot of big buts in my life. We all do. Especially when it comes to choices. I can’t tell you how many times, in interviews we’ve conducted for the book and conversations with friends and strangers about the book, women have expressed that very sentiment: I mean, I’m grateful to have all these choices, but… Or the slightly more optimistic: I feel blessed to have all these opportunities that women a couple generations ago didn’t, but…

One of the more scientific pieces of research that’s informed a lot of what we’re doing is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. (Read some of what we’ve written about it here.) I got to thinking about Schwartz again today, after coming across this piece, The Psychology of Happiness, by Elfren Sicangco Cruz. In it, Cruz writes:

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz asserts that, paradoxically, happiness may lie in limiting our choices rather than increasing them. He says: “After millions of years of survival based on simple distinctions, it may simply be that we are biologically unprepared for the number of choices we face in the modern world.”

We’ve all lived the truth of that statement, but, as much as we moan and groan, kvetch and complain, no matter how overwhelmed we can be by all the analyzing, all the fantasizing over the grass we’re so sure is greener, all the musings over what we’re NOT doing, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman that would really choose to go back to a time when women had no choices, or severely limited choices, or choices that were made for them–probably by the prominent man in her life. So, to the prospect of limiting our choices, I say: no thank you very much.

But.

This I can get behind:

Schwartz recommends that because more choices bring more opportunities for comparison, the recipe for happiness is twofold. First, make your decision irreversible. Second, constantly appreciate the life you have… Grateful people are healthier, happier, and more optimistic than people who are not.

Again, I’m not so down with the making of the decisions irreversible thing. Despite the angst it can cause, I like the security of knowing that if I blow it and pick Door Number One when I should have gone with Door Number Two, I can always try again.

But.

The gratitude, I can get behind. So maybe, in honor of Thanksgiving, we should give it a try. Maybe, for just one day, rather than being agonized by all the things we can do, we should try to be thankful that we CAN do them at all. Maybe, rather than focusing on the overwhelm of getting it all done, we should try to be thankful that we are empowered enough even to attempt it. (And that, some days, the stars align and our to-do lists actually wind up with more things crossed off than added on.) Maybe, rather than holding up the buffet line, debating the relative merits of dark, light, or tofurkey, we should just say the hell with it, and be thankful that this is one day when we really can have it all. And stuffing and sweet potatoes and gravy and pumpkin pie…

Just hold the whip cream. It goes straight to my but.

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Back in 1998, three protofeminist powerhouses of rhythm and blues collaborated on a take-no-prisoners album called “Sing It!”.

The three included swamp-rocker Marcia Ball, famous for her saucy singing and possibly the best roadhouse piano since Professor Longhair; the revered Irma Thomas, the Grammy-award winning “Soul Queen of New Orleans”, long an idol of the other two; and Tracy Nelson, former front-woman for Mother Earth, who can mix country, roots, R and B and Gospel with a voice that cuts clean to your soul. Incredibly strong role models for women everywhere , these three are loud, proud and if you’ve never heard of them, it’s only because you didn’t grow up in our house — or you’ve been forgetting to go to JazzFest.

As incredibly talented as each of these women are on their own, their Grammy-nominated collaboration cranked it all up in an explosive and high-spirited celebration of what strong women can do when they come together to claim their voice. Too often we forget that.

I flashed on “Sing It!” today when I came across a reference to San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women in a letter to the editor in the SF Chronicle. The writers of the letter, like most of us, were quick to point out the inequity in what the numbers tell us look like workplace equality. But they upped the ante considerably by not just complaining, but by issuing a compelling call to join them in concrete action:

Businesses need to recognize that in 2009, women became 50 percent of the workforce and made 85 percent of the consumer spending decisions.

To ignore these facts is just bad business. Studies indicate that embracing gender and racial diversity helps the bottom line.

Working with Calvert Group, LTD, a socially responsible mutual fund, and Verité, an international human rights organization, this crew has been working to develop a set of gender equity prinicples backed by a corresponding set of metrics by which a company can gauge its progress when it comes to the advancement of women in the workplace:

Together, we are producing tools and resources that will help businesses stop bemoaning the fact that there are too few women at the top and do something about it.

To embrace women from the factory floor to the boardroom, the principles are creating indicators and resources in seven categories to help build gender-equitable workplaces. One of those categories is the lack of women in management and on boards of directors.

You have to love the principles, which address everything from compensation and benefits to worklife balance and career development. And the tools, too. Whether or not they will go viral, who knows? What I like most is that the plan goes beyond bemoaning and involves collective action for making change on the systemic, or institutional, level. Maybe this is all about enlightened self-interest for the folks up there in the boardroom. But it reminds those of us on the middle floors that we have a voice — and the power that comes with it.

It’s all too easy to look at inequities and bad numbers and see ourselves as victims of a patriarchal society, as voiceless and powerless. Some of us do get riled up — nothing like anger for a wake-up call — but unless that anger translates into constructive action, who cares? We’re back in our seats. And for some of us, if we are told too often that we have no voice, well, does that become self-fulfilling prophecy? Do we silence ourselves?

And is that when, especially when it comes to the culture of the workplace, we see choices as burden rather than opportunity?

Writing on Women on business, blogger Jane Stimmler suggests it doesn’t have to be that way. Her take on the problem is that as we’ve assumed new roles, and grasped new opportunities, we’ve taken on the “new” without realizing we have to shed some of the “old.”:

As long as women’s choices involve tacking on new duties to an already demanding and hectic lifestyle, there cannot be the fundamental shift to equality. I am reminded of the many stories I have heard about women in the workplace who are given added job responsibilities – but they don’t receive the title or the raise. For women to be happier with their lives, we don’t need fewer choices – we need more support and encouragement.

In other words, we need to reclaim our voice. Which brings me back to Marcia, Irma and Tracy. Next time you’re feeling overworked and underpaid — or too damn tired for the secnd shift — go in there, sister, and sing it!  And remember when you do that fifty percent of the workforce is right there with ya, doing some killer back-up.

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Late last week, I caught up with M., a young woman–a New York transplant a couple of years into post-collegiate life–we’re profiling in the book, fresh off the heels of a major decision. As she downloaded the details, so much of what she said about her choice–to leave a great job with a major brand in the field she’d always thought she wanted to be in–rang true. Here’s a bit from M:

It was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever made because I knew in my gut that I was unhappy, but on paper it made a lot of sense for me to keep working there. I had good health insurance, I was making a good salary, I had a steady job, but I was just unhappy and to make a choice based on my feelings versus what logically made sense was really difficult.

Feelings. They’re so – well, touchy feely. Hard to quantify. They look so woefully wimpy on a list, lined up against numbers and facts and figures. Like they’re somehow less real. And yet – if happiness, satisfaction, a sense of purpose, and other, you know, feelings are what we’re after, it shouldn’t seem so outrageous to base our decisions on them. But it can — if you’ll pardon the choice of word — feel outrageous. Irresponsible. Silly. And when it comes down to the choice that looks good on paper versus the one that feels right in our heart, choosing the one that feels right over the one that’s arguably right can feel kinda wrong.

Back to M, who aggressively went on the prowl for a new gig, and was rewarded with a couple of job offers (two of which came on the same day), all of which came complete with their own sets of pros and cons. But ultimately, in analyzing the facts, she realized that what it all came down to was feelings.

It wasn’t necessarily a matter of being worried that, oh no, I have no options, I was like, okay, I have worked really hard to put options in front of myself now I have to make a choice where I just put so much effort into making sure I put before me as many avenues as possible, but then, there I was, stuck having to make a choice.  That was really difficult for me, and since I’ve been in my 20s the big choice I made was to move to New York, and since then I’ve felt like I was just making very small choices. And this was going to be my first really big, life-changing decision since then. So, it was extremely difficult and I can tell you honestly that I put a lot of grey hair on both my parents’ heads and my poor boyfriend–I can’t tell you how many times we sat there with pros and cons lists that I had him talk me through.

It’s hard to adjust to being a grown-up and realizing that the repercussions of your choices mean so much more, so I think it was really hard for [my parents] you know, they wanted to help me in the ways they always have as parents. They wanted to be like, it’s gonna be all right and we’ll take care of it for you. The thing is they just at this point had to be council, and I had to figure it out because, at the end of the day it was me that was gonna take care of me, and if I screwed up I was the one who was gonna deal with the repercussions.

It came down to the fact that I was unhappy, and I would start to think about what my life would be like in these new decisions, and just what made me feel less anxious and what made me feel happy.

M’s story hits on a bunch of things: How relatively new it is for us women to be in charge of our own lives, and the decisions that design them. And how, the reasoning skills, the objective ways we’re often taught to approach decisions, don’t–can’t–take into account what’s most important, when it comes down to what’s going to make us happy: how we really feel.

M’s tale has a happy ending: she loves her new job. The one, she says, she’d “never in a million years imagined doing.” But she does have one regret:

I regret that I didn’t take the time to really reflect earlier. I just spent so much time I think pushing away my feelings and pushing away, hey, what is it that I really want to be, because it was going to be tough, and then it took me being really unhappy at work to stop and reflect: okay, what are you gonna do with your future?

It shouldn’t take a bout of extreme unhappiness for us to give our feelings the weight they deserve, but so often it does. And it shouldn’t seem such a daunting task to confront them, either, but so often it does. And the funny thing is, maybe if we could learn how to listen to them, to trust them, to value them, they might be the one thing that can make our decisions easier. And wouldn’t that feel good?

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So, the other day I rambled on about all the distractions that come with uber-connection. And, if we were to be honest, we would all admit that one of them has to do with cybershopping. Sigh. One of the clutters in the inbox comes in the form of seductive ads for shoes, dresses, “outerwear” (why can’t we just say coats?), you name it. All tantalizing us with pretty pictures of skinny models in clothes we may never wear, special online discounts, and real or imaginary deadlines.

Really, we have work we should be doing, but then there’s the seduction: Buy now! You too can be a fashionista! Free shipping! On sale for the next five minutes only!

And so you bite. (Or don’t. But wish you had.) And then that yellow dress flies into your mailbox and your credit card lives to regret it. If only you could have tried it on first. Trust me, I will get a little more substantive in a minute here. But first:

Just this week I came across a tech piece in the SF Chronicle about a bunch of new websites that use “augmented reality” (don’t ask) to allow you try on your online purchases out there in cyberspace. Basically, you can try out that cute little frock online — and maybe even mosey onto facebook to see what your friends think — before you plunk down the plastic. Genius? Maybe. Stay tuned for serious.

You have to wonder how great it would be if real life were like that, especially when we’re dealing with the big choice Q’s: What should I do with my life? Where will I fit? What would it be like to walk in those other shoes? Can I try before I commit?

Look to the big picture, and you realize that in unexpected ways, we all can — and do — try our callings on for size. Here’s just one hint. A 2002 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics drew a longitudinal picture of younger baby boomers (born between 1957 and 1964) showing that they held an average of about 10 different jobs between 18 and 36. Most studies show that younger workers are even more mobile.

For example, a Business Week article dating from this past summer, found that, for workers under 30:

Corporate commitment has dwindled, tenure has grown far shorter, and people switch jobs with much greater frequency. The average American changes jobs once every three years; those under the age of 30 change jobs once a year.

Trying jobs on for size? Not such a bad idea, when you think of it.

Here’s a hint, too, that maybe we’re trying on new roles at home as well. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the homefront reversals resulting from the economic downturn — some have begun calling it a “he-cession” — with women poised to become the majority of the workforce. What that has meant is that in many families, mom flies out the door with the briefcase while dad stays home with the kids. While the workplace parity has not resulted in economic parity — as we’ve reported here, here and here — there may be an unintended consequence:

Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., who has written extensively about the history of marriage, says that the shift in spousal roles in some families could have a lasting impact. “The silver lining here may be that men now get a little more experience under their belt in terms of actually being the experts at home,” she said. “When the economy recovers, we may find a little boost towards men and women sharing these roles.”

Finally, there’s this. (Journalists tend to write in terms of threes. Old habits die hard) Examiner.com posted a column thursday in which Gen Y women gave thanks for all the ceilings that their strong female role models shattered for them, enabling them to try on the opportunities their mothers never had. As one 24-year-old woman wrote:

This year I am most thankful for the opportunity to have a career as a woman. Going back many generations, my family is full of strong and ambitious women, from my ancestor who came over during the potato famine to my grandmother who had a successful modeling career and raised a family. My mother was the first in her family to get a college degree. I feel thankful there is no longer any question that I could go to college and have a career. My parents pushed me to get an education and supported me as I moved away from home, which many women in my mom’s generation would not have really considered. Now the canvas of the world feels much more available for women.

Sure, you could spin a lot of this in terms of the half-empty glass. But I choose half-full. Yeah, choices — no matter what, no matter when — are tough. Angsty. And there’s still work to be done. Lots of it, in fact. But when you realize you’re not locked in, that life continues to evolve, maybe each individual choice — even a lousy one — doesn’t carry quite so much weight.

Meanwhile, back to that yellow dress. I confess. Mine. I was the victim of a 12 hour sale on Bluefly when I should have been doing something productive. But actually, after letting it sit in the mailing bag for several weeks, I realized it’s kinda cute after all. With those cool brown spiderweb tights that Shannon gave me last Christmas and my killer brown boots (yeah, I found those online, too), it might be just the ticket for Thanksgiving.

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Marcus Buckingham has done it again. In this week’s HuffPo installment, Buckingham gets started by citing Time magazine’s special on the State of Women as saying that the gender war is over, and it was a tie. But Buckingham takes it one step further:

I’m not so sure. In a war, no matter the outcome of a certain skirmish or battle, the winner is the party whose attitudes, behaviors and preoccupations come to dominate the postwar landscape. By this measure, the outcome of the gender wars, if wars they were, is clear: women won.

He makes his case by saying that “men’s attitudes more and more resemble women’s attitudes”, citing the fact that fewer men now believe that men should be the breadwinners, women the caretakers, than did in 1977. He says that “men’s behaviors are becoming more and more like women’s”, using the fact that men now do more housework than they did in 1977 as evidence. He even cites popular culture:

Even our entertainment heroes have lost their masculine muscle. Arnold, Bruce, and Stallone are long gone from the screen, but even the flirty, flaky, funny adolescents–Tom, Brad, Jim, and Will–no longer charm us quite as much as they once did. Instead our leading men are the likes of Zac Efron who, though he can still “Michael Jordan” it on the court, now has to sing and dance charmingly to earn our affection.

Um, okayyyy. But here’s where it gets interesting:

The war is over. Women won. And, as ever, to the victor go the spoils.

And what are the spoils of this particular war?

The spoils are choice. Women have more choice than ever before in their work, home, and lifestyles. And yes, men are becoming more like women, and so men are starting to face the same multitude of choices that women tackle.

Today, with many companies offering paternal leave, men now have the choice to stay at home after the birth of their newborn… But they also have the choice to take advantage of this leave and stay at home wondering whether or not this absence will hurt their careers.

Men have the choice to stay at home even longer and assume the chief caregiver role… But they have to face the fact that, in making this choice, their skills might become obsolete and their wages, when they re-enter the workforce, will wind up reflecting their out-of-date proficiency.

Men have the choice to arrange their schedules so they can pick up the kids from school twice a week. And they have the choice not to, and then to feel guilty about this choice.

The choice-filled world that women have bestowed on men is a tough world. Tough on women; even tougher on men. At least that’s what the data reveal. In 1977, 41 percent of women reported feeling some level of work/life conflict, whereas only 35% of men did. Today, about the same percentage of women report work/life conflict, but 59 percent of men are now similarly torn.

Buckingham, Buckingham, Buckingham. Welcome to our world. While what he has to say about our choices is interesting (as is his use of self-reported statistics to back up his points), what’s more interesting is what he doesn’t say. Like this:

A study in the current issue of The Academy of Management Journal reveals that bosses generally perceive women workers to have more family-work conflict than men, even though this isn’t the case. And this belief, mistaken though it is, leads supervisors to take a negative view of women employees’ suitability for promotion.

Or this, from the Economix blog at the New York Times‘ web site:

In most jobs, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings narrows greatly when you adjust for factors like career path and experience. But at the top of the income scale–jobs paying more than $100,000–the salary gap between equally qualified men and women is still vast.

Or this, which Laura Liswood, co-founder of the Council of Women World Leaders, wrote yesterday:

In its annual measurement of global progress in the lives of women and girls, released October 27, 2009, the World Economic Forum reported some major improvements in surprising places. The 2009 Global Gender Gap Report–which, country by country, examines data indicating the resources and status of women compared to men–ranks Lesotho, for example, in the top 10, a marked improvement from its place at 16 last year and 43 in 2006. By contrast, the United States moved down three slots last year and now ranks 31st.

In terms of why you might be a little irritated by that, feel free to pick your poison: that the U.S. is ranked 31st, or that we moved down three slots last year. I myself am having a little of both. Liswood spells out the characteristics of our grouping thus:

Group III Gaps in these countries (including the United States and United Kingdom) have been almost completely closed in education and health; progress is occurring on economic and political participation. What is lagging is women’s presence at the highest levels of power be it management of a business or head of state or government or parliament. Countries that adopt quotas for business or politics often see an immediate jump in their standing once these mechanisms kick in.

Ooh, quotas. Scary. But why should we be so opposed? As Latoya Peterson notes in her Jezebel piece about the report:

Norway has legislation that demands all public institutions “promote gender equity, and these efforts are to be documented each year.” The top ranking country, Iceland, passed this type of legislation back in 2000 as the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women. Finland employs an “Ombudsman for Equality, the Gender Equality Unit, and the Council for Equality” in its pursuit of gender parity. And in Sweden, there is an Ombudsman on Discrimination, as well as measures taken in schools and workplaces to ensure women do not face bias.

Why should we care what goes on in Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden? They hold the top four spots in that report. The one where the U.S. ranks 31st.

Let’s read just a little more from Liswood:

Data are a necessary component to start the process of resource allocation and policy shift. Data collection alone can’t make the sea level rise, but many political and business leaders hide behind the excuse that women must ‘make the case’ for change. The case can rarely be made without information that proves what women may intuitively already know. And looking at a gender gap that has been indexed should give leaders pause if they are not fully utilizing 50 percent of their talent.

It certainly should. The thing is, if we were to proactively address the measurable inequities, like Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, then–if Buckingham’s right–everyone would stand to benefit. But where Buckingham–where the very United States–has fallen short, is in viewing it as a personal issue, an issue of behavior, or attitude, or whether Zac Ephron is cashing in at the box office… In choosing to look at such heavy decisions merely as personal dilemmas, left to each of us to handle on our own, in our own way, we are missing the point. Yes, we have choices in our lives, and it stands on each of us to make them. But they’re made harder by the lack of institutional support. The war may be over, but the battle has just begun.

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There is a point here, I promise. But first, here’s the scene. My desk, at work. A wobbly stack of books, papers and files, some dating back to last spring. A to-do list, also written last spring. On the other side of my mousepad, a pile of resumes for the letters of rec I need to write. On my computer, some 200 emails that at least have to be opened.

Plus the steady buzz of folks, either in the hall, or in my office. Kinda like a roving cocktail party, but without the booze. This is not necessarily a good thing. The latter, I mean.

My home office, not much better. At least 100 unread emails. My desk is cleaner — today — but you still never know what you’ll find. A friend once described my work-at-home digs as a junk drawer. At times, the description is apt.

On Tuesday I got up early, graded papers, scanned two newspapers, got ready for school, found and paid my Macy’s bill while my Cheerios got soggy, blew out the door and off to work, taught some classes, and met with a bunch of students who have the end-of-quarter heebie-jeebies. (They’re contagious).

Last week, we hosted a party to celebrate a friend’s engagement. Next week is Thanksgiving (Yikes! I forgot to order the turkey). It’s my husband’s and son-in-law’s birthdays. Shannon and I are knee-deep in writing this book. And this blog. My hair is stringy and I’m low on clean clothes.  So here I am.

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully realize that those balls I’ve got in the air mark me as a lucky woman.  Nonetheless, I’m somewhat breathless just itemizing all this. I’m frazzled. Distracted. And probably like you, just a little bit crazed: Too much going on, going on all at once.

Maybe it was ever so. But now, add this. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported on some new studies on the way that techno-stimulation — texts, tweets, IMs, Facebook, news alerts, the list goes on — has led to a new form of attention deficit disorder. We’re always on. Uber-connected. Addicted to short bursts of constant information. And despite our best intentions, we get sucked in. All of which, experts say, impacts our ability to analyze. From the story:

“The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” [Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University] said, “the less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I do think we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, uses the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe the way technology is rewiring the modern brain.

I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need to know what Suzy from Ohio is doing every five minutes. And yet. There’s the seduction of the buzz, the flash. She has me at beep-beep.

Which brings me belatedly to my point: Is all this stuff, this stimulation, this juggling, cluttering up our already cluttered brains to the point where we are not only overwhelmed — but chronically undecided?

The science suggests the answer is yes. Shannon wrote earlier on our blog about the Paradox of Choice, about how the more choices that confront us, the less likely we are to make one — or to be happy with it when we do. There’s the iconic jam study, where shoppers confronted with 24 jars of jam — versus just six — walked away empty handed. And the pivotal Magical Number Seven study, which dates back to the 1950s, that found that the human brain has trouble processing more than seven items at a time. The study was the basis for similar research in 1999 by Stanford Marketing Professor Baba Shiv, then an assistant professor at University of Iowa. He sent two groups off to memorize a series of numbers. One group had to memorize three. The other, seven. At the end of the task, the groups were given their choice of a treat: gooey chocolate cake or fruit salad. The three digit group overwhelmingly chose fruit. The seven digit group — cake. The point? Overwhelmed with the memory task, the rational brain of the seven-digit folks begged off and let the emotional side take over.

Shannon wrote recently about Zen and art of multi-tasking where, really, what we need to do when we drink tea –is to just drink tea. I wrote about the need to just play cards. Put all of this together and I think you find that maybe, for our own mental health, not to mention our ability to make decisions, we need to turn down the chatter.

Sixties guru Timothy Leary (he of LSD fame) once exhorted the youth of the day to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I’m thinking it’s time to flip the switch: Turn off, tune out, drop in.

But wait. Did that make the slightest bit of sense? Not sure. I’m off to find some chocolate cake.

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So, one night last week I was having a glass of wine with a friend–and wound up with a good belly laugh at mankind’s expense. I’ll spare you the exact details of how it came up, but at one point, said friend described to me a cartoon she’d recently seen. In one frame, a pretty woman of an average build looks into the mirror in horror; her mirror image is heavier, uglier, and facial-hairier than her real self. The next frame shows a balding, beer-bellied man smiling happily as he gazes upon his reflection, which features a chiseled physique, and a full head of hair. We got a good laugh out of that, but it was one of those laughs that wound down to an OhMyGod, it’s true! And then, a far less giggly: Is the joke on us?

Trolling around the world wide interwebs today, I found quite a slew of fodder to indicate that, yes, the joke is on us.

Item Number One: Aaron Traister’s Fatherhood feature on Salon, entitled, “And May Your First Child Be a Feminine Child: People did victory laps when my wife gave birth to a boy. Why was the reaction to our next baby, a girl, so cold?” In it, he compares the reactions–both his own, and those of others–to the news of his first baby’s sex, a boy, to that of his second, a girl. Check it out:

A kind of pitying, you-lose sentiment was common among dads without daughters. They always delivered some polite variation of, ‘Dude, that sucks.’ Or, ‘What are you gonna do with a girl?’ I remember talking to a friend whose second son was born with a heart defect that required two open-heart surgeries before the kid’s first birthday. When I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he and his wife shouldered such difficulty he said, with a sigh, ‘It’s been rough.’ He then slapped me on the back before continuing. ‘I’m just glad we didn’t have a girl. Good luck with all that!’

As for women, well, they never went that far, but even their enthusiasm seemed dialed down. During our son’s birth, the blue-haired waitresses at our favorite diner had been kind enough to act as my wife’s unofficial pregnancy support group. They doled out advice on anything from sleep deprivation to breast-feeding. And when it came to gender, the decision was unanimous from every waitress in the joint: Boys are easier than girls, and girls are difficult and demanding, and then they turn into teenage girls and they’re at their worst.

…Even my perpetually sensible Indian pediatrician ended my daughter’s first checkup by saying, ‘Little girls are very special. But then they turn into teenage girls, and you want them to just go away.’

Um, yeah. Awesome, isn’t it? So, in Traister’s world, before the Double-Xed among us are even out of the womb, daughters come saddled with a scarlet D. D for disappointment; D for dread over those inevitably horrible teenage years (for the record, I’d like to state that I encountered just as many male idiots as I did female during my own foray through the teens); D for dumbass “friends” who suggest that the heartache of having a seriously ill child is favorable to having a girl. And while it seems a little too cut and dry, a little too easy to call out Every Man Really Just Wants A Son To Play With as the root of all of our angst, the fact of the matter is, like our sister in that mirror-image cartoon, we women are quite hard on ourselves. And some of those D’s might have a little to do with it.

While we’re on the subject of women being hard on ourselves, let’s continue on to Item Number Two, from Broadsheet’s Mary Elizabeth Williams. In “Did You Mean That, Google?” Williams is in for a shock when she searches the term “bad fathering.”

Earlier today we did a search for ‘bad fathering’ and got a ‘Did you mean: bad mothering?’ You also get a similar suggestion if you Google ‘poor fathering.’ In fact, the very first thing at the top of the page when you search for ‘poor fathering’ is ‘Mommie Dearest (poor mothering ability)’. The first two true results for ‘bad fathering,’ meanwhile, are for a band called Bad Fathers and ‘First time father deserves a bash.’

Who knew Google was a sexist pig? But frankly, the fact that it’s not, that it is but a soulless algorithm, makes those results even more disturbing. While I’d venture to say, as is the case with poorly behaved teenagers, there are likely as many examples of poor fathering out there as there are of poor mothering, it’s clearly not written about (or read about or searched for…) as often. Like the cartoon couple, some of us are more inclined to seek out our flaws, while some of us are… not.

Moving on, Item Number Three: On DoubleX, Amanda Marcotte responded to Traister’s piece, in a way that feels more victimizing than empowering:

The reason women work harder and get paid less is partially sexism, and partially women’s lack of entitlement due to lower self-esteem. We put our noses to the grindstone, never try to draw attention to ourselves by asking for more, and suffer from imposter syndrome. Many of us are easily convinced that our jobs are less important than our husbands’, so if someone has to cut back for family reasons, it’s almost always a woman. And part of the reason probably goes bck to what Traister observed–when you’re told that you’re less valuable than boys from the day you’re born, you begin to believe it.

I myself have one sibling–a sister. And I never felt like being a girl made me a disappointment, to my father or anyone else. (In fact, I daresay I have that man wrapped around my finger.) But, even if we assume Traister’s Neanderthal world is an anomaly, his piece, taken with that bit about Google and Marcotte’s response, well, it makes me wonder about a chicken-and-egg kind of conundrum. Like, what comes first, the inferiority complex, or the assumption that we should have an inferiority complex? And can the latter be every bit as damaging?

If that’s the case, then I do think there’s something worth thinking about in all of this (something other than what a sexist pig that fat, bald Google is). How does all of the above–so decidedly at odds with the You-Can-Be-Anything-You-Want mantra we’ve been chanting since preschool–play into how we make our decisions? How many of us put on a brave face, while silently picking ourselves apart in front of the proverbial mirror? A picking apart that’s made worse because we know we should be thinking, “I can do anything I want!” How often, do you think, when a man and a woman give comparably botched presentations at work, their internal dialogue is the same? And how much do you think that internal dialogue affects our ability to bounce back, our performance the next time? How often do we hedge in our aspirations, because of That Voice, the one who’s manifest in the mirror? Imagine how much spare brainpower we’d have, if we could just let it all go, if our internal critic turned into the kind of ally that would make looking in the mirror an empowering experience? Maybe there’s a lesson to take from the guys here: maybe, the next time we say to ourselves, “I’m not good enough” we should say instead, “Wow! Who knew I was so fabulous?”

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First she made a decision. Then she wondered what on earth she was thinking when she made itDSCN6202. Now Maggie is living the life — and learning to love the unpredictability of it all. In today’s guest post, a newly minted college grad — who teaches English to French teenagers, fights off the advances of train conductors, and like the rest of us, is petrified of growing up — muses about how the reality of the adult life has suddenly crept up behind her and taken her by surprise. Baguette in hand, she stands ready to battle it back into oblivion.


La Vie Est Belle

by Maggie Beidelman

What the hell am I doing here? I keep asking myself this question. Sure, I filled out an application, booked a plane flight, and here I am: Lyon, France. Seven months of teaching English to unappreciative French high school students. But how did I get here?

Somehow I cannot reconcile the actions it took to get here and the actual existence of living, independently in another country. It’s like a dream that never should have come true, simply because these dreams always end with waking up to reality.

But this is reality. I don’t see why I have such a problem recognizing my own place as an American in France, because everybody else seems to notice. Just the other day, a train conductor asked me to explain the meaning of the word “ain’t” from the 60s classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Clearly, my status as an American entitles me to explain the existence of incorrect English grammar in popular culture.

Two months ago, I packed my bags, got on a plane and moved to France to teach English, write, and figure out what to do with the rest of my life. Why did I choose this simultaneously terrifying and thrilling adventure? You might say it’s because there aren’t any jobs in America, anyway. And you’re right. But that’s not the sole reason behind my choice to throw everything I own into two suitcases, leave behind my boyfriend of a year and a half and my family, and spend all my savings on a flight to a place where I get a miniature monthly stipend to be handed keys and a classroom, with no training to speak of.

The thing is, I’m 22, and I’m petrified of growing up. This is the first autumn season in 17 years when I have not been sitting in a classroom, studying and preparing for a life that is no longer predictable, and therefore impossible to study and prepare for. I thought that moving to France would allow me to postpone the inevitable—adulthood—and give me something good to put on my resume. While the latter might be true, I have found myself mercilessly thrown into the writhing, gorgonic realm of adulthood with little more than a worn American passport and a strong sense of survival.

So far, that strong sense of survival has saved me from going completely insane in this absurd realm of expatriatism, where train conductors harrass young Americans about songs before their time and parfait does not mean an ice-cream at McDonald’s. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to dress in layers, buy bread from the boulangerie instead of the grocery store and say, “No, thank you, I’m not interested in your advances,” or rather, “Get lost.”

It’s mid-November now, and here I am. Thirteen-hour teaching week. Daily fresh bread. Cute little French apartment. If I had stayed in the States, I probably would’ve joined the 80 percent of my class who moved back in with their parents after graduation. But, I didn’t. Somehow I gathered up enough nerve to leave everything behind in hopes of finding some exciting new adventure, if not terrifying and completely maniacal.

And I found it. It’s crazy and fun and I’m homesick and happy and somewhere, at some point, adulthood has snuck up on me. But, with baguette in hand, I stand ready to battle it back into oblivion and embrace the uncertainty of a life suspended between the predictable past and a foreign future. Because not knowing what’s going to happen next weekend, next month or next year is what makes my life exciting. La vie est belle.

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Do you remember when you were little and you wanted a perm (okay, I’m really dating myself here), a belly ring, a tattoo, and you’d whine to your mom, “But mooooom, everyone else is doing it!” And she’d say, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?”

Depending on my mood, I, smartass that I tend to be, would sometimes mutter “Well yeah. There’d be no one left to play with.”

But today I got to thinking about how that feeling never really goes away. What inspired it was a piece I came across at The Frisky, entitled “Birthday Blues: What Happens To Friendship After You Turn 30?” In it, Amelia McDonnell-Parry writes:

I have a few single friends, sure, and they’re awesome. But while I know life isn’t a race and I truly don’t feel like I’m competing, I feel strangely “behind” the vast majority of my friends in the personal life department. It’s not that I’m jealous or that I desperately wish I were getting married or having a baby right now–remember, I almost was married and am grateful not to be. But I also feel a little disconnected from them.

That’s a familiar feeling. No one wants to be left behind. After all, how much fun would it be if all your friends had jumped off the bridge, leaving you standing alone, like the proverbial cheese? But it got me to thinking, how much do such feelings interfere with our decisions? How often are the things we pick for our lives influenced by a little unconscious–and, not so unconscious–desire to head off becoming the cheese? How often are the milestones (marriage, advanced degree, corner office, fat apartment in the city, fat home in the ‘burbs, fat baby in the stroller) we shoot for  not, if we were to think about it, the result of us really assessing what we want for our lives, but just sort of assumed? Everyone else is doing it…

A little more from Amelia:

I ultimately want all of those things that my friends have–commitment and companionship and children–but truthfully, I can’t always imagine those things happening for me. Of course, at age 30 my mom was pregnant with me and about to marry my dad (yeah, I was an accident), but I’m sure when she looked ahead she didn’t see, say, a divorce or a cross-country move, two things that have occurred in her life in the last decade. Turning 30 has started to make me wonder what positive and negative events are to come. I’ve always liked being “prepared.”

When I went to Costa Rica this summer, one of the big “lessons” I brought back with me was that there’s something extremely gratifying about not looking too far ahead. The chances of envisioning what the future will actually hold are slim and life is better spent enjoying things as they happen. For the most part, I think I have applied that to my life rather well, but with 30 only, ack, a week away and everyone around me going through major life changes, I’m suddenly feeling this weird, self-imposed pressure to anticipate what’s ahead. What do I want? How am I going to get those things? Where do I want to go and how am I going to get there?

They’re tough questions. Made tougher, of course, because deep down, each of us knows we are the only one who can answer them. Of course, it’d be easier to just follow the trail someone else has blazed… for a while. But what happens when we realize it’s not a fit? We’re back where we started, left with the ultimate question, which Jane, who I wrote about in Deciding For Yourself, so eloquently asked:

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…?

That is the question. We’re each on our own path, and, ultimately, the biggest job before us is not figuring out which way to go, but in learning how to enjoy the ride–to focus more on the amazing, and less on the race. Sure, it’s nice to have company along the way, but our friends–no matter how much we love them–are on their own roads, too. Sometimes they can lead us into the light, and sometimes, not so much. Trust me–I got that perm.

And my hair has never recovered.

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