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Archive for December, 2010

Here you go:  in no particular order, a dozen New Year’s resolutions designed especially for the undecided.  Let us know what speaks to you – and add a couple of your own.

Ready?  Set.  Go!

• Inhabit the moment.  You can’t rewrite the past.  You can’t be sure of the future.  All you really have is now.  Make the most of it.

• Sidestep the buzzkills.  You know what we mean — the friends who make you feel “less than”.  Like the ones who, intentionally or not, have you convinced their grass is ever greener. Or the friends who not only have to be the star in their own movie, but in yours as well.  Wise, wise Bernie used to call them the folks who needed to be the bride at the wedding and the corpse at the funeral.

• Exercise. To quote Tweety (and Shannon, too), working out is the one thing in life that after you’ve done it, you’ll never be sorry you did.

• Expect good things. When it’s equally likely that the outcome of a given situation could go either way, think positive rather than negative.   Similarly…

• When you hear hoofbeats behind you, think horses, not zebras. Which is another way of stating Occam’s Razor:  The simplest solution is often the most likely.

• Don’t judge. And don’t worry about others judging you.  Both, equally destructive.  And let’s face it.  Who knows for sure what goes on in someone else’s head.

• Make your bed. Thank you, Gretchen Rubin and “The Happiness Project.”

• Call out the bullshit: policies, comments or jokes that are sexist, racist or likely to perpetuate marginalization.  Done well, you might change some minds.  And while you’re at it, call out the knee-jerk nonsense, too, whether it comes from the right or the left.   As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Love it.

• Put yourself out there. Kiss a frog (or a prince), cut bangs, take a tough class, cook a soufflé, or apply for a job/assignment that takes you outside your comfort zone.  You’ll always get over a failure, rejection or a bad haircut.  But as one of our sources told us, what you’ll always regret is never having taken a risk.  Or, as Lucille Ball once said: “I would rather regret the things that I have done than the things that I have not.”

• Spend time alone. Reflect.  Get to know your best friend — that would be you — and she will never lead you astray.  Find your enthusiasm, and notice what you love:  that’s what will make you happy.  Take it from Thoreau:  “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.”   Or, for that matter, Oscar Wilde:  “Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.”

• Count your blessings. (Thanks, everyone’s mom and the Dalai Lama)  But by the same token, if something needs changing, fight for it.

• Drink water. It does a body good.  Really.  And while you’re at it, ditch the jammy wine.  It’s as bad as the punch.

There you have it.  Have a great 2011 — and pass it on.

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In the spirit of the season:  an iconic duo of  feel-good Christmas Eve moments, movie style.  Just enough gratuitious Christmas cheese to make even Ebeneezer Scrooge  a little teary — plus a few life lessons, Undecided style.

“If things don’t turn out the first time, you’ve still got to believe” (from the original “Miracle on 34th St.”)   Which is to say,  just because things don’t work out the way we want at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t actually working out.

“Merrrrrrrry Christmas, you old Savings and Loan!” (from the best Christmas movie ever — no matter how many times you’ve seen it.)  In other words, even when everything’s a mess, everything can still be great:  a change of perspective can make all the difference.

Merry Christmas to all…  And to all, a good night!

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Forget the B-word; if you want to hit a woman where it hurts, one word’s sure to do it, according to longtime Vanity Fair contributing editor Leslie Bennetts in a piece titled “The Scarlet A” in this month’s Elle magazine, and that word is Ambitious.

Here’s Bennetts’ lede:

Over the past three decades, I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most celebrated women: queens and princesses, senators and rock stars, moguls and movie legends, first ladies and fashion titans. Some were barracudas whose appetite for power would make Machiavelli look like a pushover, but only one ever owned up to being ambitious.

Hillary Clinton? Oprah? Condoleezza Rice? Um, no.

Soon after Catherine Zeta-Jones married Michael Douglas, I met her at their baronial apartment overlooking Central Park West. Waving a hand bedecked with a diamond as big as a grape, Zeta-Jones gestured toward the mantel, where her husband’s Academy Awards were displayed, and confided that she wasn’t satisfied with his reflected glory. ‘I want my Oscar up there too,’ she said, her dark eyes glittering with determination.

Why so taboo? It seems a logical assumption that a film actress should want an Oscar… but, Bennetts writes, “in all my years interviewing movie stars, nobody had ever admitted to coveting one.”

And even after women have scored mega-success, they minimize what it took to get it. Bennetts’ piece outlines the ways some of the most successful, prominent, and groundbreaking contemporary women have refused to own their ambition. Hillary Clinton described herself as “stunned” when President Obama asked her to be his secretary of state, to the point that “‘I kept suggesting other people: ‘Well, how about this person! How about that person!’” Oprah (as Bennetts reminds us: “the richest self-made woman in America and the country’s first black billionaire”) said she doesn’t think of herself as a businessperson. From Drew Gilpin Faust–the first woman president of Harvard–to Michigan state governor Jennifer Granholm to former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice, women seem more likely to attribute their success to luck or to describe it as something that “just happened” than to own it. Can it really be that women still haven’t learned to take a compliment? Or is it that to be seen as ambitious is no compliment at all, but (much like being dubbed ‘opinionated‘) risky, dangerous, unladylike?

Um, probably. According to Celia Lake, a pollster and political strategist Bennetts quotes in her piece:

When men are being tough, voters define it as strength, but when women show toughness, the voters think they’re bitches… The research shows parallel stereotypes of women in executive management.

And, while we might be inclined to say but things are changing! Girls today are surely more confident than that! Bennetts offers up evidence to the contrary, quoting a recent Harvard grad, who recalled her experience in high school, and why she opted out of running for class president.

I was afraid people wouldn’t like me. And the truth is, they probably wouldn’t have. There’s this attitude that if you’re a girl, there’s a limit on how much success you’re allowed. When I was nominated for a major award, the friends of another candidate went around telling people that they shouldn’t vote for me because I already had ‘too much.’

I’d venture to say aspiring class presidents of the male variety do not face such “he has too much” anti-campaigns.

But why do we buy into it? One reason, according to longtime women’s rights advocate and former president of Planned Parenthood Gloria Feldt, is socialization.

[Feldt's] interest in power was sparked by research she did on women in politics. ‘Millions of dollars are being spent to help recruit, train, and support women to get elected, and yet they’ve scarcely moved the dial at all,’ Feldt says. ‘The problem was not that the doors were not open. The problem was that women were not walking through those doors–and that just blew me away.’

One reason women hang back is what Feldt calls a lack of ‘intentionality.’ It seems that from their earliest days, boys know they’re supposed to have a specific interest; they can decide to be and do whatever they want,’ she says. ‘Girls are now told they can be and do anything, but they’re much less likely to be taught that they should have a life plan that’s intentional. Girls are socialized to be reactive; boys are socialized to be the askers, girls the askees.’”

We’ve written about that before, and we think there’s something to it: boys are brought up knowing their job is to slay the dragons, to go, to see, to conquer. While the girls… well, we were the pretty princesses waiting to be rescued. And if that’s indeed the case, and if it’s further the case that we fear being seen as ambitious, for (perhaps) the more grown-up version of I’m afraid people won’t like me–well, is it any wonder so many of us are so undecided? We’re given the message that we can do anything, but we’re not socialized to be the doers. And even if we decide what we want and that we will do what it takes to get it, there’s no guidebook that shows us how. Even the women who’ve gone before, rather than saying, well, I did this, and I did that, and these things were really important, are more likely to sweep away the footprints they left, with a self-deprecating “it was really just a fluke.”

Perhaps the proper first step would be to wear our Scarlet As with pride. I’ll go first: I’m Shannon, and I’m Ambitious!

Feels kinda good.


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So today I thought I’d offer a quick riff about double standards.

Case number one, the most obvious:  Rep. John Boehner’s weepathon on “60 Minutes.”  The prospective Speaker of the House cries.  Don’t know why.  But as USC Professor Kathleen Reardon points out on HuffPo, it’s perfectly fine — if somewhat creepy — if a Republican male cries on TV, but can you imagine the outcry if Nancy Pelosi had done the same?  From Reardon’s post (Note:  videos from “60 Minutes” are embedded here):

Men get to cry with impunity lately, especially those considered tough, stiff, distant, difficult, demanding or dispassionate. The context matters; nowadays in politics talking about old friends, soldiers, children, harm done to one’s family, or personal challenges provide opportunities when a tear or two can do more good than harm.

Republican crying is more acceptable than Democratic crying because liberals are expected to be softer – “bleeding hearts.” Republicans are perceived as tougher, less sensitive, often more concerned with business priorities. So, crying works well for them. It’s the violation of expectations that makes conservative crying persuasive. It’s the beauty of not being predictable.

Women, whether in business or politics, are in a more difficult position with regard to any sort of emoting. Since it is expected of them, crying doesn’t serve as a balancing technique. It merely confirms that they are soft. Of course, if a woman like Margaret Thatcher were to shed a tear, it would violate expectations and in the right context might serve her well — once or twice.

Yet the tough Nancy Pelosi won’t take that risk. When asked about John Boehner’s tendency to cry, Pelosi responded:

“You know what? He is known to cry. He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills. If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics — no, I don’t cry. I would never think of crying about any loss of an office, because that’s always a possibility, and if you’re professional, then you deal with it professionally.”

You can’t blame Pelosi. She remembers what happened to Hillary Clinton.

So do we.  She cried on the campaign trail.  And was roundly castigated for it:  How, you know, like a woman to be so emotional.  And so it goes.  Need we say more?

Case in point number two:  While reading the paper on Sunday, I came across a curious, dated expression not once but twice.  Family Man.  As an accolade.  Really, hadn’t that phrase had gone the way of the beehive hairdo?  Apparently not.  The first reference came via a column about our newly elected District Attorney and his newly appointed chief deputy, his best friend.  The columnist took pains to note that both were “dedicated family men”, each with two kids.  The subtext?  Well, it might have been to note that though the two men are close, they are decidedly hetero.  But that’s beside the point.  The implication is that, because they are fathers, well, you can trust them to get the job done.  More in a minute.

The second reference was to some movie star or other.  I think it was Matt Damon.  But again — and I’m embarrassed to admit that I read such stuff, but what the hell, it gave me meat for a riff — shortly after the nutgraf, he was described as a “family man.”  As in, what a guy!

Now, I like families as much as the next girl.  I have one of my own, which I guess means you could call my husband a dedicated family man.  But have you ever heard of a “family woman”?  Yeah, thought not.  And here’s where that double standard comes in.  As we discuss (okay, at length) in our book, studies have shown that women are held back in their careers because they have families, which is bad enough, but also because they might have families.  It’s called the maternal wall, and there’s an impenetrable bias there.  As one of our sources, University of Illinois business professor Jenny Hoobler, told us: “ If a man has a picture of a child in the office, it makes them look like they’re stable, like a good, solid trustworthy employee, but if a woman has pictures in the office, it looks like, uh-oh, she’s not really dedicated to the career.  Will she leave the workplace early to pick up her kids?  Will she take an extended maternity leave?  Will she even come back after the birth of her next child?”

Ugh, right?  Right?

And then, there’s this: A study on fathers out of the Boston College Center for Work and Family found that the dads confirmed that having a baby enhanced their self-image at work, in terms of reputation, credibility and even career options.

I’m sure there are a plenty more examples, but, frankly, I’m off to find my Kleenex.  And so, I leave the cries and whispers to you.  Anything to add?

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Today’s post is one of those ones that I’ve thought about writing often, but been happy to shy away from. It’s tricky territory. But over the past week, fate intervened: first, in the form of the New York Magazine in my mailbox, which screamed from the cover: Fifty years ago, the pill ushered in a new era of sexual freedom. It might have created a fertility crisis as well. And then, in the form of a headline on one of my Google Alerts, a personal essay by Elaine Gale, called Breaking up with feminism: A heartbreaking loss led to a new and deeper relationship–with the Feminine.

At issue: the not-so pleasant side effect of the power to impose a little control over our reproductive lives: that while we indeed have incredible control to suppress our fertility (while still expressing our sexuality) while we establish ourselves professionally, or financially, or just allow ourselves to get the sowing-of-the-wild-oats out of our systems, well, we don’t have control over when our reproductive systems time out.

Just typing that out loud feels like I’m a traitor to the cause. Because, you know, the Pill is a good thing, as I’ve mentioned before. As Vanessa Grigoriadis writes in the NY Mag piece,

…the Pill, after all, is so much more than just a pill. It’s magic, a trick of science that managed in one fell swoop to wipe away centuries of female oppression, overly exhausting baby-making, and just marrying the wrong guy way too early.

True, dat. Quoting Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, Grigoriadis goes on:

“Today, we operate on a simple premise–that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”

…These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners.

And, you know, why shouldn’t we take equal part in that experimentation–a time that’s become so fundamental to the American experience, science types are trying to get it distinguished as an entirely new life stage? The Pill gave women power and freedom and equality — and what could possibly be more empowering than that? These very things were the great promises of feminism.

Which brings us to Gale’s story:

I loved all the things Feminism whispered to me at night when I couldn’t sleep:

“You deserve the world on your own terms.”

“I will take care of you and make sure that things are fair.”

“You can have it all!”

…Meanwhile, my life had a repeating narrative: professional success, romantic mess. There was Mr. Right Now, Mr. Adorable Slacker, Mr. Too Bland, Mr. Has Potential, Mr. Too Old For Me, and then Mr. Artistic But Unstable.

I always thought that I had plenty of time to get married and crank out some children. Women can do anything they want when they want, right? That’s what feminism was always whispering in my ear.

Then, at age 36, she married her husband. She writes:

We decided that we wanted to have a child, although at the time, I partly saw it as another box to check off. After the miscarriage, feminism and I had our falling out.

What’s feminism got to do with it? Here’s Gale’s take:

Feminism was always going on and on about the importance of having choices. But I found that my biological choice to have a child was snatched away from me while I was being liberated.

I had been told that I could have my career first and have children second. That it wasn’t either/or. I thought that it was going to be better for us than it was for our mothers. But my mom ended up with a wonderful career as a university professor and had three children.

Confused, I rued the day I fell under feminism’s sway. How could I have been so naive? How could I have put off having children so late that I have possibly missed the opportunity to have children at all?

Tough stuff. And props to Gale for that kind of blunt honesty. Back to Grigoriadis:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late… Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect.

And ironically, this most basic of women’s issues is one that traditional feminism has a very hard time processing–the notion that this freedom might have a cost is thought to be so dangerous it shouldn’t be mentioned.

And that, I tend to think, is the real trouble here. Not the cost itself–but the reluctance to admit to it. It seems to me that we’re shying away from what may be the biggest challenge for women today: admitting that freedom might–no, does–come with a cost. In the reproductive realm, yes, clearly — but in the larger sense too: We’re missing the rather nasty message that every choice entails a trade-off. That we can’t have it all.

You read that right, sister. You can’t. I can’t. No one can. It’s an ugly message, so is it any surprise so few of us want to go there?

It’s funny, the other night, I was out to dinner with some friends, and one was asking me about the book. And I said something that left him stunned: that when we talk about “choice,” we focus on all the options, and the things that we choose. But, by its very definition, making a choice entails not choosing something else. We just like to leave that part out.

And he looked at me with his mouth open for a minute or two, and said, Holy Crap! That’s so true, but you’re right, no one ever talks about that.

I think we should talk about that. Not least because there’s something about talking about stuff that makes even the suckiest of stuff suck a little bit less. Seems like Grigoriadis might agree:

Sexual freedom is a fantastic thing, worth paying a lot for. But it’s not anti-feminist to want to be clearer about exactly what is being paid. Anger, regret, repeated miscarriages, the financial strain of assisted reproductive technologies, and the inevitable damage to careers and relationships in one’s thirties and forties that all this involve deserve to be weighed and discussed. The next stage in feminism, in fact, may be to come to terms, without guilt trips or defensiveness, with issues like this.

The reluctance to discuss the very real consequences of putting off getting pregnant because we’re afraid doing so would somehow discount the very important freedom that comes with being able to put off getting pregnant does us a disservice. Is that freedom of any less value because it comes with trade-offs? When we talk of choices only in terms of what we choose–and never with a nod to our feelings over what we consequently choose to leave behind… well, how empowering is that, really? And when we talk of “having it all” as though all “all” entails is a big bowl of cherries, how are we to feel when we realize that, in aiming to have it all, what we’ve really wound up with is all of the work?

They’re tough questions, and they require tough honesty. Isn’t there some kind of pill for that?


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I write today of two strong women.  One recently deceased, one very much alive.   On the surface, they’ve got nothing whatsoever in common — I’m sure they’ve never been mentioned in the same article, much less the same sentence — except for the lesson they have to teach us.

It has to do with being real.  Despite being judged.

I once met the late Elizabeth Edwards at a fundraiser for George Mark House, a children’s hospice founded by a good friend.  Edwards, the keynote speaker, had left the stage and was heading off to her next engagement, when I jumped up to shake her hand.  Her husband had just begun his campaign for president, she had just announced that her breast cancer had returned, and I babbled on about how I hoped to see her in the White House.  (At that point, the primary campaign was pretty much a dead heat, with John Edwards espousing the most progressive positions.  Funny, that.)  Anyhow, we chatted for more time than I thought we would and here’s what happened:  I reached out for a handshake, she instead gave me a huge hug.  A real one.  Unrehearsed and warm.

Sold.

And so, like many of us, I was shocked and disappointed when her husband crashed and burned and, at least at first, she supported him.  Huh? Like Hillary, we castigated her for living in denial, for standing by her philandering man.  As if, when a powerful man has a fling with a silly woman half his age, it is the wife who looks like a fool.   She ultimately left him –  but not after getting raked over the coals despite the fact that it was her husband’s mistakes she was just trying to deal with.  And yet.  Most of us turned away.

I’ll get to Cher in a minute, here, but first:  One who didn’t turn away from Elizabeth Edwards was Salon’s Joan Walsh, a huge admirer of Edwards’ ever since she conducted a long interview with her back in 2007.  This week, Walsh wrote an elegant obituary, which she ended thus:

At the end of our 2007 interview, I asked [Edwards] whether she was bothered by critics who said she shouldn’t have continued to campaign after her cancer recurred; she should have stayed home with her young children. Her answer can stand as her last word, again:

“After all I’ve been through, I realize: You don’t know exactly what life lessons you taught your kids until much later. You don’t. And maybe the most important life lesson for them is for me to say, When bad things happen, you don’t let them take you down. If I hadn’t continued to campaign, I’d be sending the opposite message: When bad things happen, go hide. Do I know with absolute certainty we’re doing the right thing? I don’t. Having been through what I’ve been through, I hope people trust I wouldn’t risk my relationship with my children. I think this is the right choice.”

And this is what brings me to Cher, the cover girl for this month’s Vanity Fair.  Like Edwards, she’s been judged — for everything from her big hair to her tiny outfits, to her plastic surgeries and tabloid relationships to whether or not she’s been properly supportive of her daughter’s sex change.  And like Edwards, she willingly admits that life is complicated and that she sometimes gets it wrong.  That she has gotten it wrong.  From VF writer Krista Smith:

At 64, she has been up and down too many times to count. “I feel like a bumper car. If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction,” [Cher] says, adding, “And I’ve hit plenty of fucking walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.”

Now do you see it?  What the political wife and the Vegas diva have in common?  What they can teach us, and why, deep down, we love them both?  Let’s check how salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams calls it:

Underneath all the many layers of wigs and sparkles, what makes Cher so enduringly special is her realness, her willingness to say to the world that she gets confused and she gets it wrong sometimes, but she keeps trying anyway, because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what makes the spangly, big-haired queen of Vegas a role model for us all.

And this is what we learn, from both Elizabeth Edwards and Cher:  Life is messy.  Whether or not we actually clean it up doesn’t much matter.  What makes us real is that we’re willing to try.

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Hi, I’m Shannon, and I’m an advice-column-aholic. From Elle‘s “Auntie” E. Jean to Salon’s Cary Tennis, theirs are my go-to pages. I typically get a couple Q-and-A’s from Auntie Eeee down while still standing by the mailbox, and, no matter the top headlines of the day, “Since You Asked” is my first click on Salon’s newsletter. So, recently, there was one that really made me think — and while I have thought of the nut of his advice often since, I couldn’t quite recall what the questioner’s issue was. To leave something  – a job, a town, a relationship? honestly, no clue – or not to leave, to stay or to go. The eternal question, no? Anyway, Tennis generally allows for very long, very detailed questions. And, true to form, this one was lengthy, filled with details that set the scene, laid out the pros, the cons, the players, the action. So his verdict would be informed.

And you know what his answer was? Dispense with the pro/con list; stop worrying over whether this is the “right” thing to do. Whatever it is you’re doing, just do it, and do it well. Do it the best you can.

Kind of incredible. I daresay revolutionary. I mean, imagine that: if all of the details were irrelevant, and the only thing that mattered was that you do whatever it is you do well. To hell with whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing.

In the writing of our book (now available for pre-order on Amazon — yipeee!), we’ve talked to women agonizing over everything: from the huge to the trivial. And one of the major commonalities is this: whatever the decision they face, they’re worried they’ll choose wrong. So many factors to consider! So many cases to be made, so many pros, so many cons! So many worries over figuring out what’s right. It’s human, of course. We are blessed with the power of rational thought. But is it also a curse? Do we get stuck in the spinning? And do we keep ourselves trapped there? After all, it’s easier to worry over figuring out what the Right decision is than it is to just decide to do something, isn’t it? So here’s a challenge: to factor Whether It’s Right out of the equation entirely, and just do something. And instead, focus your energy on doing that something well.

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