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Archive for September, 2010

Clearly, we’ve been remiss in our lack of commentary on what’s been dubbed “Franzenfreude”, or the running media flap about the fact that when men write novels, we call it literature — as opposed to, you know, when women write novels, we don’t.

So let’s catch up, shall we?

Jennifer Weiner, who wrote “Good in Bed” and other books that fell under the now-dismissive rubric of “chick lit”, coined the phrase as a Twitter hashtag in a fit of pique over the advance praise Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Freedom, had garnered from literary reviewers.   It hadn’t even hit the shelves, in fact, before New York Times reviewers declared it a masterpiece.  It might well be.  But the point that Weiner and another best-selling writer, Jodi Picoult, emphasized, is that novels by women are not only unlikely to receive such rave reviews, but are less likely to be reviewed at all.

At least by, ahem, serious reviewers.  According to a piece on Slate’s Double X:

Weiner and Picoult raise the following question: Is pop fiction written by men more likely to be lifted out of the “disposable” pile, becoming the kind of cultural objects august institutions like the New York Times feel compelled to pay attention to? And are the commercial genres most commonly associated with male writers and readers—science fiction, legal thriller—more likely to be taken seriously than their female equivalents (chick lit, romance novel)? Or as Weiner puts it, would certain male writers—Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Carl Hiaasen, or David Nicholls—”be considered chick lit writers if they were girls?”

Or, as Weiner told The New Republic:

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book—in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

Just to be clear, I loved Jonathan Franzen’s last book, and can’t wait to read this one.  (And, for the record, I also liked “Good in Bed”) But still, I’m pissed.  Because Weiner makes a good point about the whole double standard business — God forbid, issues that reside on the XX side of the fence like feelings or families be taken seriously — that The Nation’s Katha Pollitt picks up this week (thus giving us a newspeg) and goes deep:

Do male writers have an edge in attracting serious critical attention? This question, so urgent to women writers, so tedious to male editors and pundits, is getting its latest workout thanks to the vigorous tweeting of bestselling popular novelists Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult about the accolades heaped upon Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom (two ecstatic New York Times reviews, the cover of Time and much, much more) and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. Weiner is a sharp and fearless observer of literary gender politics, and I think she is onto something. (I should mention that she used my collection of personal essays, Learning to Drive, to illustrate the double standard by which women autobiographers are slammed for revealing small weaknesses while men are praised as honest and bold for chronicling their addictions and wife-beating. And as long as we are on the subject, let me add that my shocked, shocked reviewers were women.) Plenty of women writers get excellent reviews, but it is very rare for them to get the kind of excited, rapturous high-cultural reception given to writers who are “white and male and living in Brooklyn” or, since Franzen lives on the Upper East Side, are named Jonathan. “Girl genius” is not a phrase in our language.

Pollitt offers a good helping of stats, courtesy of Double X (which employed some XY spread-sheet analysis) to back up her thesis.  For example:

…over the past two years 62 percent of the fiction reviewed in the New York Times had male authors, as did 72 percent of the books that got both a daily and a Sunday review.

The Atlantic, The New Republic and Slate itself review more fiction by men (if you include the reviews in the DoubleX blog, it’s 55 percent).

… A year’s worth of fiction coverage in The Nation clocked in at 75 percent male (!). Of course, it is possible that men write two-thirds of fiction or (more likely, but still improbable) two-thirds of the kinds of fiction high-end book editors assign—but those assigning decisions are themselves the product of a whole hierarchy of taste that has gender already built into it. What is a significant subject? Which writers get to ask the reader to work hard? Chris Jackson, an editor at Spiegel & Grau, for Chrissake, confessed on the Atlantic website that he hadn’t read any fiction by women in years, so he read some, and, hey, it was pretty good!

Pretty good?! Ach! That pretentious dweeb. Can’t you just feel his patronizing little pat on the head?

Thing is — and here comes the meta-message, which is why this whole discussion matters — though we’re talking about writing books here, we could probably substitute any one of a number of career areas where, when men and women do the same type of work, men tend to be taken more seriously, promoted more and paid more.   And that is the point.  And while some folks like to say that difference has a lot to do with the fact that women are more likely to take time out, or a less-than-killer job, or have their priorities elsewhere in order to raise their kids, there are studies out there that show that even when women don’t have a family — or even plan to have one — they are still seen as less promotable.  Because, well, they might.

What it’s really about is the double standard.  Families notwithstanding, we’re dismissed for being who we are.  Period, end. Which brings us back, one last time, to Franzenfreude and Pollitt:

It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e., narrower) subjects—family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)—while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics and whaling, and becoming a man….When men write books about family life—John Updike, Jonathan Franzen—they are read as writing about America and the Human Condition. When women write books that are ambitious, political and engaged with the big world of ideas, they are seen as stories about the emotional lives of their characters.

As in lit, so in life?  Really?  Are we still paying the price for that extra X?  I’m tempted to insert here — exactly what’s wrong with stories about the emotional lives of the characters? — but then, sigh, you might never take me seriously.

P.S.  A free copy of our book if you can correctly guess who is pictured above.

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“I would like people to think I’m as quick and clever and smart and charming as the characters that I write, so I identify with somebody wanting to build an entire world where they get to reinvent themselves. Where they can socialize in solitude. Where they can do a rewrite and polish their own personality.”

That’s a quote from Lloyd Grove’s Daily Beast interview with Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for the forthcoming–and already critically adored–film The Social Network, a tale of Facebook’s founding (or stealing?) by Mark Zuckerberg. And how painfully right-on it is. On Facebook, we can be whomever we want to be. We can be funny and pithy and intelligent and successful and worldly and sexy and happy and sporty and well-read, well-traveled, and well-“liked”. We can detag ourselves in pictures where we look too fat or too frumpy; we can delete posts that make us sound inane or insane; we can change our profile pictures with the weather. We can expound our impressively-informed political leanings, broadcast our exceptional taste in food, put our enviably stacked social calendars on display. But a list of likes, a compilation of status updates, a collection of comments does not a real person–or a real life–make. Nor does a “friend” a friendship make.

Consider this, from a rave review in not less than The New Yorker:

From the first scene to the last, “The Social Network” hints at a psychological shift produced by the Information Age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind.

We avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass e-teraction — so what is it that we’re after? And, what is it that we’re avoiding? In Jeremy McCarter’s excellent Newsweek review, McCarter leads off with a reference to a series of Harvard lectures given by Thornton Wilder, one of which focused on “the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom.”

Our modern world, our modern lives, are marked by independence, by freedom, but a pseudo-salve like the ‘book is nothing but a band-aid. A band-aid we’re all too happy to apply, lest we have to deal with our real selves. Our real lives. That inevitable loneliness and uneasiness of which Wilder spoke. Check this quote from McCarter’s piece:

[Zuckerberg's] opacity leads to an irony that’s not quite tragic, but, in light of how many of us share it, still plenty sad. Zuckerberg and his employees spend enormous time and energy trying to make people connect to each other via their online social network, but they’ve got the situation backward. The route to a happy life, let alone a meaningful one, doesn’t lie in escaping loneliness. As Wilder tried to tell his audience, it is an inescapable part of living in a country as big and free and unencumbered as this one… The trick for us, and for the people around the world living as we do, lies in using our loneliness. Wilder stated that challenge best and for all time when he described the ‘typical American battle of trying to convert a loneliness into an enriched and fruitful solitude.’ Like… another touchstone of contemporary culture, Don Draper–these characters can’t get along with each other because they haven’t learned to get along with, and don’t even really know, themselves.

Fear of solitude, fear of intimacy, longing for connection… no doctor could conceive a better cure than Facebook. But does it make our condition worse? After all, if we’re constantly living the Profile life, the one that offers a sense of reprieve from our solitude, a mirage of intimacy, a well-defined “self,” we never learn to deal with the real stuff. And while it may, indeed, be a harmless way to pass the time, to offer minimal nurturing to connections truly worth maintaining, to provide a quick fix of “social life” when one is chained to one’s desk, there’s something to be said for all the analysis. In a world so limitless, so full of options and possibilities, so marked by independence and freedom and their concomitant loneliness and unease, it can feel nigh impossible–not to mention terrifying–to invite the solitude we’d need to narrow down who in the hell it is that we are. So we create and recreate ourselves at will–all while avoiding ever getting to know who we really are.

I can’t say I’m above it. I’m posting a link to this post now on my own FB page. And I hope that you “like” it.


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And so we have all these women running for office in November.  Many of them are right-wingers.  Those are the ones I want to talk about.  (California has two:  Carly Fiorina, former CEO of HP, running for the Senate, and Meg Whitman, former CEO of EBay, running for governor.  Neither one has ever held public office before.  But that’s another story.) Following Sarah Palin’s lead, these new double XX politicos want us to think they are feminists.  (We’ve gone there before in this space.  Want more?  Go here.)

I’m not even sure they’re women.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think women come in many stripes and colors.  So do feminists.  And there’s nothing better than a big tent, right?

And yet.  There are a certain number of bedrock issues (Abortion?  Not even gonna go there.) that we can all agree upon, that you would assume any double X-er would support mainly because these are the issues that directly affect women.  All women.  And their families.  Women’s issues,  right?   Hello, kids?  But these right wingnuttettes?  Nope.  Seriously, folks.  A skirt does not a woman make.

(Neither does a tea party.)

Case in point:  The New York Times reports today that the GOP — which is banking on some of these whack-job women helping them achieve a majority in Congress — plans to reveal its plan to “take back America” today at a lumberyard outside of D.C.  Channeling the “Contract for America” cooked up by former GOP Speaker of the House and Family-Values-Guy Newt Gingrich (who, by the way, dumped his wife  for another woman when said wife was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.  But that’s another another story) the New York Times reports that they begin their blueprint with the following promise:

“We pledge to advance policies that promote greater liberty, wider opportunity, a robust defense, and national economic prosperity. We pledge to honor families, traditional marriage, life, and the private and faith-based organizations that form the core of our American values.”

And without question, we can expect to hear that these newly energized “feminist” politicos, these women who call themselves women, have signed right on.

To what, specifically?  Here you go.  One of the ways they plan to honor families is to repeal the newly enacted health care law.  On the agenda.  Front and center.

That sound you hear is me throwing up.   Because who suffered most under our our health care system of old?  Women.  And when women suffer, it’s often the kids who pay the price.  So much for those family values.  But let’s recall a few things we may have forgotten about the old way of health care.  Pregnancy:  pre-existing condition.  Women:  statistically more  likely to work  part-time jobs (so they can care for their kids) that do not provide benefits.   Sure, all is well and good for ladies who can depend on well-employed husbands for heath care benefits.  But what if he loses his job?  Hard to afford COBRA on a part time salary.  Or no salary.  Or even one salary, for that matter.

And what if she’s a single mother?  Sorry, kids.  No doc for you…

Back to a post from back in November that linked to a piece in USA Today, here’s a quick refresher on how the old health care system discriminated against women:

  • insurance companies are allowed to charge women more for the same policies as men in 40 states and the District of Columbia;
  • in those same states and D.C., insurance companies can charge businesses with mostly female employees higher group rates;
  • many companies don’t provide maternity coverage as part of their basic plans (perhaps you heard Rep. Senator Jon Kyl, of Arizona’s sensitive take on this issue? “I don’t need maternity care and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.” Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, called him on the jackass remark, replying “Your mom probably did.”);
  • insurance companies can exclude coverage for pre-existing conditions; having had a C-section is one of them;
  • if a woman is pregnant when she buys an insurance company, insurance companies can deny maternity coverage;
  • 8 states and D.C. allow insurance companies to deny coverage to victims of domestic violence.

There’s more, but those are the highlights of healthcare coverage for women who had insurance.  But what about the ones who didn’t?  Or their kids?  You do the math.

Should we go on?  Yes.  Let’s.

Then there’s the Meg Whitman plan for California that involves cutting off welfare at the two year mark.  Which would be great if there were jobs to be had.  (Ahem. You know how that one ends.)  But again, what about the families we care so much about?  What happens to the kids when mom and dad can’t get a job, or when a single mother can’t afford day care  — because, you know, we’ve never made affordable day care a priority?

A while back, one of the experts we interviewed for our book talked about the rise of the right wing women in politics and what she suggested is that maybe one of the reasons for their success so far is that they are not threatening.  And really, given their position on the issues, why would they be?

About a month ago, New York Times columnist Gail Collins had a chat with feminist writer Stacy Schiff, and here’s a little excerpt from what they had to say about the new wave of women activists, who had taken to calling themselves “mama grizzlies”, the moniker inspired by Sarah Palin, and whether or not they could really be feminists.  Let’s give Gail and Stacy the second-to-last word:

Gail Collins: Do you think the Mama Grizzlies really can be feminists? I don’t think you can throw a woman out of the club because she voted against the stimulus bill. But if feminism simply means supporting equal rights and equal opportunities for women, I don’t see how a feminist can be opposed to government programs that provide poor working mothers with quality child care.

Stacy Schiff: Exactly. The issue is no longer first-rate intellect, or first-rate temperament, but first-rate opportunity. Which is where the Mama Grizzly business really falls down.

An actual grizzly mom is a single mom. She lends a whole new definition to full-time homemaker. If Dad shows up it’s probably to eat the kids. What Mama Grizzly wouldn’t believe in school lunches, health insurance and quality childcare? Who’s going to look after the kids while she’s off hunting? It’s really, really clever to put this powerful vocabulary — pit bulls and grizzlies — in the service of disempowering people. Kind of like death panels in reverse.

Thing is, parity is important.  Absolutely.  We want equal representation in government, in business, in life.  But when it comes to those who make the policy, let’s face it:   Men vote on the issues, not the pants.
Same with us.  It’s the issues, not the skirts.  A woman who can’t-slash-won’t support women’s issues?  Fail.

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A bunch of stuff in my inbox had me pondering a rather big question over my morning cuppa Josephine today, dear reader: What does it mean to be a woman? Can a woman who opts out of marriage or motherhood, or into math, still be considered feminine? And how do such not-quite-totally-conscious hang-ups play into our choices? (Had I known this was to be the territory my mind would be traversing, I might have opted for something stronger than coffee.)

First, check the rundown: Item #1: Danielle Friedman’s Daily Beast piece “Childless and Loving It,” in which Friedman wonders what’s behind the growing number of women (today, one in five of us; that’s up from one in ten in the 70s) opting out of babymaking. Here’s a bit of it:

Many scientists believe the seemingly biological drive some women feel isn’t triggered by biology so much as culture–combined with a fertility deadline. Not only is having children more socially acceptable, says evolutionary biologist David Barash… but for many, as a life goal, it represents a source of happiness and belonging in the same way that attending college or pursuing a career might. Evolution has bestowed upon women a desire for sex and the equipment to have a baby; from here, free will steps in.

…Despite their growing visibility, such women still report feeling stigmatized…

To offer support and like-minded companionship, a thriving subculture of websites, forums, and meet-up groups has emerged. On TheChildfreeLife.com, discussion topics include childfree issues at work and “non-children” (i.e., pets) among others. The social group No Kidding boasts dozens of chapters in the U.S. and abroad. While most espouse a “live and let live” mentality, some groups take a more in-your-face approach to living childfree–a message perhaps best illustrated on this T-shirt, emblazoned with “Why would I want kids? I’m ENJOYING my life.”

Chewing on that one, I clicked on another, sent by way of mediabistro.com’s newsletter: “Single Women Rule Sets Blog Crawl.”

In an effort to rebuke the myth that “all single women talk about all day long is how to land a man,” Single Women Rule will present its second annual Blog Crawl for National Unmarried and Single Americans (USA) Week Sept. 19-25.

National Unmarried and Single Americans Week…who knew? But, back to the point, the blog crawl will send readers to a different single-minded (ahem, couldn’t help it) blog for each day of the week, to broaden the conversation about living single while female.

And then came a visit from Winnie Cooper. Or Danica McCellar, The Wonder Years’ Winnie’s real-life counterpart, who now spends her days posing in sexy spreads for lad mags like Maxim–and penning texts on… Math.

Yes, math. Turns out Winnie’s got quite a brain on her, having received her degree in mathematics from UCLA, and co-authored a complex theorem that’s named after her. But hers are not your mother’s (or, likely, your) textbooks. With names like “Math Doesn’t Suck,” “Kiss My Math,” and the hot-off-the-presses, “Hot X: Algebra Exposed!” McCellar’s found a somewhat problematic answer to the long-asked question of how to get girls more interested in math: convince them that doing so with make them sexy, pretty, and popular. Cosmo-style Calculus. Kinda makes you want to cringe–until you remember how smart she is. Which just leaves you a little flummoxed. Progress? Pandering?

A Q and A on Salon addresses the contradiction:

Salon: [McCellar's] books feature cheekily sexy titles and fluffy packaging–the cover of “Hot X” promises “boy-crazy confessionals!” Is she sending mixed messages that compromise her mission–or just making savvy marketing moves?

…the stereotype persists that being a highly intelligent female just isn’t sexy. Many people think it’s just harmful for adolescent girls to be so concerned with their sex appeal. But you tell girls, “Smart is sexy.” Do you worry that you’re seeming to suggest that it’s OK to do well in school as long as it doesn’t get in the way of being sexy?

DM: When you’re a teenager, it’s really hard to figure out who you are. Girls are being inundated with movies and billboards and TV shows and magazines, 24-7, with images of women portrayed as nothing more than sex objects. When they’re getting the message that you have to choose–when they really believe that they have to be the smart nerd girl or they can be fun and sexy but kind of slutty–if that’s what they think their choices are, then that’s a very dangerous message to be giving them. Because what looks like more fun? It looks like more fun to be fun and sexy.

Let’s remove that idea that you have to choose. You can be fun and flirty and really, really smart, because you know you don’t have to dumb yourself down. Dumbing yourself down only has to do with mimicking this one particular form of what the media tells us is attractive. And the stereotype that you have to be dumb to avoid intimidating men is really, really insulting to guys as well. That’s why my books look more like teen magazines than math books. Because I don’t want girls to think, “Oh, well, here are the only images I ever see of women who are good at math–they look like, you know, schoolmarms, or whatever.” Let me show you that you can customize your life any way you want.

Perhaps it’s just me, but taken together, in boom-boom-boom fashion, I got to wondering. About, as I mentioned, what it means to be a woman–and messaging and acceptance and community and validation. Each one has a certain you’re-not-alone component. Which is all good, especially if knowing you’re not alone makes living outside the confines of the traditional female roles more comfortable. And especially given the other thing they all have in common: the perceptions women who are childfree or single or who really, really get off on math are up against. But the flipside of that is an undercurrent that makes me wonder… like, maybe, for whatever reason, we need to know that we’re not alone in order to feel okay about our choices. Which is totally human–and also, frankly, nonsense. Because, like your teacher may have told you back when you decided you really just didn’t get math anymore (which, studies show, most girls do, right around middle school–even if they’re getting As), every one of us is a unique little snowflake. And while it’s nice to have company, we shouldn’t need it to feel free to be who we are, to make the choices that are right for us. And I wonder if the need for company makes our choices harder, not least because seeking it out, following proscribed paths–even off-the-beaten-path paths–means we never spend any time honing the skills we need to make decisions based only on what we want.

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So. Heard about Ines Sainz yet? Undoubtedly, you have, as her story has gone from zero to ubiquitous over the past couple of days. The attractive, blond TV Azteca broadcaster has found herself at the center of a brouhaha, after attempting to report from the sidelines–and the locker room–of the New York Jets over the weekend. Initially, she tweeted her mortification at the way the players were treating her, saying she was “dying of embarrassment.” But now she’s saying she’s “not sure” harassment even took place.

What’s happened in the meantime? Well, for one thing, just about everyone–from the New York Post piece that ran with the lede “Sexy TV sports reporter Ines Sainz slinked into last night’s Jet game in a black minidress with a plunging neckline and matching black stilettos–while insisting that she ‘felt very uncomfortable’ when lusty Jet players made salacious comments about her in their locker room after practice Saturday” to  CNN‘s Joy Behar who played the “some people say” card in an attempt to address what Sainz was wearing, to, inexplicably, Law & Order‘s Richard Belzer (I’m not a sexual harassment expert, but I play one on TV??) on Good Morning America, to the Today show’s Meredith Viera–has taken the opportunity to deconstruct the outfit she wore to practice and the locker room on Saturday, which consisted of jeans and a white button down shirt. To be fair, there are fairly provocative shots of her on her website and her network’s website, and said jeans-and-shirt were on the tight side. But. Are we really still living in a world where the appropriate response to such an incident is to repeat the tired old dismissal: Just look what she was wearing! (Or what she was wearing for some publicity shots once upon a time that have nothing to do with the incident in question!) What did she expect? (To quote, I’m told, Sex & The City, you’ve just described every rapist’s legal defense.)

(And, um, am I the only one who wonders why men don’t find that offensive?? The implication that a grown man is nothing more than a mindless animal who can’t possibly be expected to control himself in the face of a pretty woman? Seriously?? The blood, it boils.)

There are other issues at play here as well. Among them, the debate over whether women should be allowed in men’s locker rooms. Well, from a journalist’s perspective, you have to have equal access to do your job. If male reporters get (have?) to report from the sweaty, naked bowels of the locker room, then women do, too. Period. (For the record, any sports reporter will tell you, there is no more disgusting place on earth. No one wants to be there. And, sorry, but while we can all appreciate the value of a scoop, we’re not exactly talking about matters of national security here. Why can’t everyone just have another hot wing, and wait the three minutes it might take for whoever the game’s big storymaker is to throw on some clothes–or even a towel, for the love–and take it outside?)

And then, there’s this. Flip on the TV news. Notice anything? One could be forgiven for assuming that appearance is a job requirement for women–as opposed to men–who work in broadcast news. Which carries us right into the most offensive aspect of the whole thing, in my humble opinion, anyway: the tightrope-walking act we all do day in, and day out. A woman must look good, just not too good. Boys will be boys, and women will be judged.

Makes me want to snap a towel.

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How many of our career decisions are dictated by the shiny objects?  You know the ones we’re talking about:  the title, the status, and most of all, the fat paycheck.

Okay, they’re not really shiny and they’re not even objects, but you get the point.  We’re constantly on the chase, even when we know it sucks.  Which leads me to wonder how often we’re deterred from following our passions or finding our purpose because we’re too busy running after one of those conventional measures of worth.

How else would we keep score, right?  And money buys us happiness, after all — er, doesn’t it?

Brace yourself.  It does, but only up to a certain point.  Which ultimately, for the undecided among us, is good news.   According to a new study authored by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, the cut-off point is a household income of $75,000.  Up to that point, individuals in the study reported greater emotional well-being,  a scientific measure of happiness, with greater income.  But above and beyond that magic 75K?  Doesn’t makes us any happier.

Not one bit.

According to a New York Times story on the study:

It’s not so much that money buys you happiness but that lack of money buys you misery, said Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton and one of the authors of the study. “The lack of money,” he said, “no longer hurts you after $75,000.”

Where you live and the cost of living there has only a small influence on that number, he added. (That may be a revelation to some Manhattanites.)

The study, which analyzed Gallup data of 450,000 randomly selected Americans, did find that one’s “life evaluation” — a self-assessment of one’s life — continued rising well above $75,000. But this is not the same as experiencing day-to-day happiness.

“Many people want to make a lot of money, but the benefits of having a high income are ambiguous,” said Professor Kahneman, who is also a Nobel laureate in economics. When you are wealthy you are able to buy more pleasures, he said, but a recent study suggests that wealthier people “seem to be less able to savor the small things in life.”

Interesting, that.  And  reassuring, too, especially if it’s our hearts we want to follow when we choose a career. Which leads back to one of the themes in our book, and one we’ve discussed here:   that inner scold that constantly nags that the only way to be all we can be is to stick with Mr. Safe Path.  What we like about this study is that it gives us a nudge, permission even, to follow our passion, rather than the paycheck, when it comes to deciding what to do with our lives.  Back to the Times story:

…Understandably, the recession is causing more people to place the financial rewards of a career first, said Nicholas Lore, founder of the Rockport Institute, a career coaching firm, and author of “The Pathfinder.”

But this could backfire as people who initially pursue a field because of the salary realize that the work is unsatisfying. Mr. Lore has recently coached a lawyer who decided to forgo his high pay in favor of teaching law, an investment banker who decided to switch to a green energy company and a dentist who decided to become a schoolteacher.

It all depends on priorities, Mr. Lore said. Some people are willing to make lifestyle changes because the intrinsic rewards of following a passion or making a difference are more important than a high salary in an unenjoyable career, he said.

In the end, people should pursue what they’re interested in, said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” Looking at lists of careers with the highest salaries tends to be a fool’s game, he said.

“It’s very hard to game the system, in the sense that situations and conditions change so quickly that a field that is hot today might be only lukewarm in 5 or 10 years,” he said. “It might even be nonexistent.”

Let’s say you see that accountants are getting decent salaries directly out of college, he said, but you don’t really like accounting. “Chances are you’re not going to be very good at accounting,” and your salary will reflect that, he said. “Generally, people flourish when they’re doing something they like and what they’re good at.”

Of course, 75 grand is nothing to sneeze at, especially if you’re only a few years out of college.  But what’s reassuring about studies like these is the fact that, if it’s happiness we’re after, there is indeed a finish line.  Sure, the Joneses might pass us by, but if we’re out there doing something we love, we may lose the race, but we certainly will have won the last laugh.

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Is this the trouble with girlfriends?  They tell us what we want to hear?

That’s what controversial writer Lori Gottlieb (she of “Marry Him: The case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” fame) suggests in a piece in the July issue of Marie Claire that I came across the other day.   She’s writing mainly about bad boyfriends and dating dilemmas (that is, after all, her shtick), but some of what she says applies to other issues, too.   Such as what to do with our lives.  (Full disclosure:  Gottlieb was gracious enough to give us an insightful interview for our book.)

She starts the piece by referencing SATC, not at all favorably.  But if you can get beyond the dig at Samantha, head down to the boldface (mine) at the end of the graf.  That’s where the truth hangs out:

Remember the scene at the end of the first Sex and the City movie, when the fabulous foursome was sitting down to cocktails? Samantha had just left Smith, her gorgeous, adoring boyfriend — whom she loved and who had lovingly supported her through breast cancer — because “I love myself more.” That’s right: She dumped a keeper using what was arguably the most idiotic grrrl-power proclamation in the history of chick flicks (and there’s some formidable competition there). And how did the gals react? They toasted her! As always, the bobble-headed brunch mates unquestioningly took her side. And something dawned on me: This is exactly how I am with my friends (minus, perhaps, the four-figure handbags). Just like the girls did in every episode of SATC — and in the new film, currently luring Miatas-ful of women to theaters like well-shod moths to a flame — we cheer each other on, thinking we’re being supportive, when often we’re just enabling bad choices. To put it plainly, we’re one another’s yes women.

One another’s yes womenEnablers? Ouch.  But there it is.  In our efforts to be supportive, sympathetic and sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice to our girlfriends, do we get caught up telling our besties only what we think they want to hear?  Are we reluctant to tell the truth if it means we might lose a friend? And do we seek out friends who will serve as our personal echo chambers, who cross over that thin line that divides support from enabling?

We know we all do it:  seek out certain company for certain dilemmas.  Beau’s pissing you off? Call your resplendently single pal or the one who never liked him. Uncertain over whether to wed? Call in the smug marrieds. Want to quit your job even though you have no prospects? Call the pal who’s done it. You get the point:  We can’t get past the temptation to surround ourselves with those willing to preach to our own private choir.
And about that tough love?  We’re probably as afraid to give it as to get it.

This may be a silly example, but when was the last time you told a friend that, um, she looks bad in green?  Or continued to hang out with someone who would say as much to you?  Even if you really do, you know, look like shit in green.  But let’s get back to Gottlieb, who puts herself in the picture:

I’ve always enjoyed the unconditional support of my female friends. Life can be a rough ride, and I count on that cheerleading squad when things get me down. But for women, a bit of consolation can balloon into a complex system of chronic ego-inflation. Was the lawyer boyfriend who didn’t call me for a daily check-in when in court “too into his career,” even though he was really attentive the rest of the time? Probably not. But I heard a round of hurrahs from my friends when I broke it off. And the next guy I dated, who never responded to my e-mails, was he secretly gay? “Yes!” shouted my book group, practically in unison. Look at you, they said, successful, smart, and cute! He must be gay. We “yes” our friends into false presumptions and bad decisions — tell your demanding boss off! Buy the $700 Alexander Wang stilettos; you’ll wear them everywhere! — convincing one another that anyone who disagrees with us is wrong because, according to those who know us best, we’re always right. But instead of a frenzied pack of enablers nurturing our self-delusion, what we need is someone brave enough to give us the truth.

Clearly, this girlfriend stuff goes beyond shoes or boyfriends, and that’s where it all gets truly dicey.  Because with larger decisions this echo chamber business can do some significant damage to our ability to choose for ourselves — and feel comfortable with our decisions when we do.  If we surround ourselves with friends who tell us what we want to hear, who validate our every choice, what then?    Do we ever learn to think critically about our own decisions?  Trust our own guts?  Decide what to do with our lives without looking outside for someone to say, “You go, girl!”  And do we automatically disregard anyone brave enough to play the devil’s advocate?  It’s like faux-empowerment.  We tend to believe what we hear — and yeah, it might be what we really need to hear to pull our chin off the ground — but what we’re left with if we don’t watch out is the idea that we are so goddamn fabulous, so absolutely right, that we deserve nothing short of perfect.  And that, dear reader, is something that almost never ends well.

Not coincidentally, I keep thinking of that classic Jack Nicholson snarl from “A Few Good Men”:  “You can’t handle the truth!”   Well, you know what? Maybe we could, if we got used to hearing it more often.

In other words, tell us what you think.  As opposed to what you think we want to hear.

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