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Archive for July, 2012

I’m off to Mexico tomorrow, and, up until a couple of hours ago, I possessed exactly zero pairs of non-running shorts. Ergo, I sucked it up and made a speed shopping trip between a quick lunch and a (not so quick) meeting so that I might procure a pair or two. And in the dressing room, my internal dialogue was not along the lines of These Are Cute or These Are Heinous, but instead, something more like this: How does my butt look? My thighs? Does the color make my skin look even paler than it already is? Does the cut make me look shorter than I already am? (I suppose it’s no wonder that up until today I owned no shorts. I have better things to do than entertain this variety of nonsense. Like sterilizing mason jars for bulk snacks. Or hunting for unicorns.)

Turns out, though, there’s a reason I do this, and you likely do it, too. And it’s not that we’re obsessed with our looks or have poor body images or are bereft of self esteem. Nope. According to a new study, people–men or women–are basically programmed to view women as a constellation of parts. Arms. Abs. Butt. Lips. Eyes. Toes. Whole person? Not so much. Via Eurkalert, check it out:

When casting our eyes upon an object, our brains either perceive it in its entirety or as a collection of its parts. Consider, for instance, photo mosaics consisting of hundreds of tiny pictures that when arranged a certain way form a larger overall image: In fact, it takes two separate mental functions to see the mosaic from both perspectives.
A new study suggests that these two distinct cognitive processes also are in play with our basic physical perceptions of men and women–and, importantly, provides clues as to why women are often the targets of sexual objectification.
The research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, found in a series of experiments that participants processed images of men and women in very different ways. When presented with images of men, perceivers tended to rely more on “global” cognitive processing, the mental method in which a person is perceived as a whole. Meanwhile, images of women were more often the subject of “local” cognitive processing, or the objectifying perception of something as an assemblage of its various parts.

Now, said study could only show that this is the case, not why this is the case. I, however, am not above speculating: Blame the media, society, your parents or teachers or coaches or friends or Barbie or Vogue, whomever you like. There is no shortage of scapegoats, and they’ve all likely earned at least a little bit of that blame. Even still: argh.

One upside: the study found that, when circumstances were altered to encourage the participants to take a more “global” approach to evaluating the subjects, they were more likely to see the women as whole people. We’ll stay tuned for the study that figures out how to alter the circumstances of life-in-general accordingly.

In the meantime, though, I kind of have to wonder: what if this sort of reductionist objectification isn’t just limited to our physical selves? I mean, it’s bad enough that we’re basically conditioned to view women as Ms. Potatoheads, legs and arms and teeth and butts and breasts and thighs. But what about the rest of it, the other ways we pick ourselves apart? In the same way we judge ourselves (and others) according to a running checklist of physical attributes (I’m tall and I have good hair and pretty toes but no boobs but good abs but my arms could be more toned and my teeth need whitening…), do we dissect ourselves on the other stuff too?  (Well, I’m not that organized but I’m very successful but I should be more physically active and my spiritual life basically consists of praying for good parking spaces but I have good friends but my romantic life’s in the toilet but I am super good with money…)

Am I onto something? Methinks yes. That stuff’s tougher to brush off, sure, but, think for a minute, about that Ms. Potatohead study. It makes you mad, right? It’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? A woman is clearly more than a bucket of parts, isn’t she?

So what if cataloguing the other stuff is just as wrong?

It feels helpful, in a way, to keep score–like we could plug in all the data and then some magical algorithm will spit out a number. To tell us what, though? You are doing ThisWell at life, I guess. But that would be nonsense, because things can look great from the outside and be terrible inside. And things can look not particularly impressive on the outside but be pretty incredible from the inside. A random sampling of body parts gives you no real indication of the whole, but it’s kind of impossible to describe in what way, precisely, that is so. Why the parts, taken separately, are so inadequate. So I just wonder:  What if the dissecting we do of ourselves, the inventories we take of our lives are just as false, just as misleading? What if our value as a person has nothing to do with the score on the checklist? And what if we are, truly, greater than the sum of our parts?

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Not gonna lie, I will be glued to the tube like most of you for the next two weeks: swimming and soccer and sprinting, oh my!  Really, I can’t wait.

And like you, I am reveling in the fact that this has been dubbed the “year of the woman”.  As NPR reported, via the Associated Press:

For the first time, there are more women on the U.S. team than men, 269 to 261, and Russia’s team, which is nearly as big, is also majority-female. Saudi Arabia has sent its first two women to the competition, and the games feature what in all likelihood is the most pregnant athlete to compete in an Olympics: Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, who is due to give birth to a girl any day now.

Even Britain’s poster athlete for the Games is a woman — heptathlete Jessica Ennis, who in addition to appearing on countless London billboards also beams up at arriving visitors from a field along the Heathrow airport flight path. A 173-by-264-foot likeness of the telegenic star is painted on the grass there.

Good stuff, right? But while we’re busy patting ourselves on the back, especially here in the U.S. where the women Olympians outnumber the men, I’ve collected a few instances of sexism skulking around the “you go, girl” edges.  (Please don’t accuse me of whinging, which is colorful Britspeak for whining) And so, in the interests of feminists everywhere, I thought I’d bring up a few of the most telling examples to show that, well, our work is not quite done.

1. Back of the Bus, little ladies:  The Independent reports that both Japan and Australia are in the hot seat for flying its male athletes business-class while the women were stuck back in coach:

Japan’s world champion women’s football team took exception to flying economy while their male counterparts sat in business class on a flight to Europe for the Olympics. The Japan Football Association said the men flew in business because they are professionals.

As for Australia, it was all about basketball.  The males were up in front, even though the women’s team was the better one.  Again, from the Independent:

Former Australian women’s basketball captain Robyn Maher said the Australian women’s team had repeatedly asked Basketball Australia to justify the inequity.

“Over the years it’s been a multitude of (reasons given) — the men get better funding, so they’ve been able to do it; the men are bigger so they need more space,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s been a bit of a sore spot, especially since the women are much more successful.”

Ya think?

2.  Pin-up Babes?  Yep, that’s how the Scotland’s Daily Record described the the U.S. women’s soccer team as they arrived in Glasgow this week.  Without a mention that the U.S. women’s soccer team is one of the world’s best, the story frames our girls in terms of sex. Insulting, much?  It starts like this:

ALL of a sudden, the Olympics have got sexy. Really sexy.

The pin-up babes of the US Olympic football team arrived for their first training session in Glasgow yesterday.

And although the rain was pouring down, you would hardly have noticed as stars such as glamour-girl keeper Hope Solo, 32, and strike stunner Alex Morgan, 23, hit the pitch.

The story segues into a condom count – according to the Record, 150,000 – and includes a quote from Solo about sex.  But not word one about, you know, soccer.

3.  Bar codes on … the bum?  You heard that right.  Salon, via Bitch Media, reports that some enterprising advertiser bought space on the backs of two UK beach Volleyball players’ bikinis during the qualifying rounds this spring – allowing creepsters with sharp eyes and quick phones to scan the QR codes and be taken to the advertiser’s website.  Ew.  The Olympics committee nixed the codes for the actual games, but according to Salon, the images were already all over the internet.  If that doesn’t creep you out, how about the Brit nickname for beach volleyball: “Baywatch with balls.”

Even Yahoo! sports has gotten into the act, with reporter Martin Rogers writing in wink, wink mode that Prince Harry, the “self-style Playboy Prince” is “most excited” about attending the beach volleyball event.

4.  And then there’s Go Daddy.  Which we wish would just, well, go. USA Today reports that Go Daddy, the bad boy of Super Bowl ads, is back again with a few commercials that will air during the Olympics that supposedly tone down the “naughtiness.”  You be the judge.  One features a sexy chic stripping off her trenchcoat to descend into a bubblebath.  Another shows a woman with a come-hither look in her eye stroking an otter resting just beneath her rather large chest.  The theme of the ads, which juxtapose pretty girls with geeks, is “beauty on the  outside, but brains on the inside.”  Whatever.  What’s interesting is that I read somewhere that, unlike the Super Bowl, the majority of the Olympics audience is made up of women and families.

5.  Finally, there’s the press corps:  The The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games estimates that some 21,000 journalists will be covering the London games and what I’d like to know is how many of them will be women, this being the year of the woman.  The numbers are almost impossible to come by, at least today, but here’s an estimate from my pal Mark Purdy, currently in London covering the Olympics (his twelfth) for the San Jose Mercury News:

Educated guess: Among USA journalism contingent, probably 75-25 men vs. women. Among international contingent, probably 95-5 men vs. women. Although that’s only print journalists; we work in a separate building and in separate parts of the venues from the broadcasters. There seem to be more women in that field, though I couldn’t give you a real guess.

Those lop-sided numbers?  Not really surprising, considering that according to a 2012 Women’s Media Center report, 11.4% of sports editors, 10% of sports columnists, and 7% of sports reporters were women.  But still, it makes you wonder.  Is that gender inequity one reason why, research has shown, that the gap between Olympic coverage of men’s versus women’s sports has widened? But more importantly: does that impact the way the stories are framed?

Don’t know, can’t answer.  But it might be fun to pay attention.  As for right now, I’m just anxious for the games to begin.  When it comes to the medal count, my money’s on the girls.

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It’s grey skies for women inspired by the docs on Grey’s Anatomy: Keith Chen and Judith Chevalier, both PhDs at the Yale School of Management, write in The Atlantic about their new study under the gulp-inducing headline “Is Medical School a Worthwhile Investment for Women?” and make the case  that, financially speaking, women are better off becoming physician assistants than doctors. If there was ever a finding that more clearly demonstrated the myriad ways in which our system isn’t working, I’d love to see it. (And by “love,” I mean hate.)

Now, the authors (thankfully) come right out and say that their intention is not to dissuade young women from becoming doctors, just that this is information they should consider when plotting their future career paths. Which is certainly true. After all, med school is expensive, as are most advanced degrees. (In fact, they cite studies that show that more women MBAs and JDs drop out than do doctors.) And, you know, ROI is important. BUT.

First, the obvious: the inequities. According to the study, women doctors start off making less money than their male counterparts, and, as anyone who’s ever filled out the salary history portion of a job application knows, that kind of disadvantage right out of the gate is only going to be compounded. But the study’s authors quickly move on from this issue and focus instead on another: a difference in hours. From the piece:

This captures the insight that in order for an investment in the high up-front cost medical degree to overcome the lower up-front cost of a PA degree, not only do a doctor’s wages have to significantly exceed those of the PA, but the doctor needs to be willing to work enough hours to make those wages pay off.

“Willing.” Interesting choice of words, no?

More than likely, what that means is this: male doctors are far more likely to have the benefit of a spouse who can and will take on the bulk of the Life Administration tasks than are women. (Score another one in the “The Biggest Career Decision You’ll Ever Make Is Who You Marry” column.) Of course, that’s pretty reductionist: undoubtedly there are many women–even the high achieving sort who become MDs–who wind up ramping down their careers, at least for a little while, because they want to. They want time with their children while they’re young. And that makes perfect sense. But again, what it amounts to, for women, is a choice. To make a high-powered career pay off, do we have to sacrifice motherhood? To have a family, must our career take a hit? It’s a choice that most men don’t have to entertain.

From our book:

But absent structural and societal changes, the conflict between work and family often involves retooling the dream. In 2010, Harvard Magazine ran a feature on a study showing that women who’d gotten their MBAs from Harvard were far less likely to both have kids and a full-time job at the time of their fifteenth reunion than were MDs. And in both cases, working mothers chose less-demanding areas: The story pointed out that women make up 41% of new doctors nationwide, but only 30 percent of ER doctors or general surgeons.

The story was somewhat unremarkable (sorry, Harvard), except for the dialogue it provoked. One comment from a twenty-nine-year old med student named Erin was right on point. About to choose her specialty, she confessed that she thinks she was made to be a surgeon but knows that she’ll never go into that field. She writes that she can’t figure out how to be a good mother someday and factor in the hours–and the lack of flexibility–required to be a good surgeon. ‘I hate that this conflict exists,’ Erin writes. ‘I hate that I keep running into a roadblock. And I also hate that my male counterparts don’t have this same internal dialogue.’

Career or family? One hates even to ask the question — especially in the face of a study like this, rife with cold, hard numbers — lest it might lead some smart, ambitious, valuable, talented, potential-filled women to, as Sheryl Sandberg might say, “lean out.” To take themselves out of the game before they need to, anticipating the work-life conflicts a certain career path might present, and ramping down their ambitions accordingly.

And yet. To pretend they don’t exist is to bury our collective head in the sand. But women represent over half of the labor force in this country, and to leave so much untapped potential on the table is a momentous waste, for our society as a whole, and for each one of us individually. To do nothing is not an option–we’ve outgrown the status quo. So it seems to me that the question is not career or family, but: isn’t there some way to structure the world of work so that it works for everyone?

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Now that the chatter about Marissa Mayer has started to grow cold, let me admit that the whole conversation has pissed me off.

In case you’ve spent the past few days under a rock or — same thing — totally unplugged, Marissa Mayer is the former Google superstar who was annointed CEO of Yahoo on Monday. Her story went viral when she casually announced that she was preggers, telling Fortune Magazine: “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”  Those 14 words ignited a shitstorm.

What made me incredibly cranky is how retro the conversation quickly became: It wasn’t about Marissa Mayer, 37-year-old brainiac tapped to become one of only 20 women at the helm of a Fortune 500 company. But Marissa Mayer, new mom:  How on earth will she manage?  When will she bond with her newborn?  How in the hell will she ever run Yahoo (which, it should be noted, is in desperate need of turnaround.)

All the backchat and the judging that came with it? Sheer lunacy.  And, yeah, more than a little bit retro:  Would we be talking about any of this if a soon-to-be-a-father had gotten the top job at a major U.S. company?  You know the answer. No effing way.

What makes me crazy is what we’re not talking about: the real reason the conversation caught fire in the first place. And that’s the fact that the U.S. remains one of the least family-friendly countries in the industrialized world when it comes to public policy and workplace structures. And that, when it comes to managing the almighty juggle between home and work, the problem is seen as purely a woman’s to solve.

We never seem to question that.  Or ask why, when we talk about ambitious women like Mayer, we make what should be the political intensely personal: What will she do?

Who cares? What really matters is what we – men and women alike – need to do to make work work for all of us. Let’s start with public policy. Ours sucks. To demonstrate just how much, look at Sweden. As we reported in Undecided, Sweden subsidizes preschool and elder care—and provides thirteen months of paid parental leave that can be taken in any increments until the child turns eight—reserving at least two months of that leave for fathers. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take parental leave. And those who don’t often face the stink-eye from family, friends, and coworkers.

By contrast, here in the U.S., the Family Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees unpaid, job-protected leave for twelve workweeks after the birth of a child.  Period. As for valuing work-life balance? In spring of 2010, Congress failed to pass the Work–Life Balance Award Act, a thoroughly benign bill that would have established an award for businesses that develop and implement work–life balance policies.  And child care? Legislation to establish early childhood education and day care programs, with tuition on a sliding scale, was passed by both houses back in 1971.  Then-president Richard Nixon vetoed it.  Some forty years later, the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies reports that only one out of six children eligible for child care assistance receives it.

Then there’s the workplace itself, which is still more reflective of the days of Don Draper, where there was always a Betty at home to take care of business, and Don could come home (or not) whenever it suited him. But how many families live like that anymore?  In this economy, how many could?  And so Betty, like Don, puts in the expected 52-hour workweek, and then comes home to do the laundry.  And sure, while many forward-thinking companies now allow employees to be flexible, what that often means is that, whether you’re at the office or at home, more than likely, you’re at work.  At two jobs.

And finally, let’s look at our social culture, by which I mean: where are the men? Despite the fact that most working women put in the same long hours as their husbands, when they come home, they still own the second shift.  To this day, we largely define work-outside-of-work in traditional gender terms: men do the yardwork and take care of the car, women do the dishes and take care of the kids. This is not to put down the male gender: I’m sure there are any number of guys out there who are more than willing to pick up the kids or fold the clothes, as a 2011 Boston College Center for Work & Family report on “The New Dad” found.  But where the conflict arises, Brad Harrington, executive director of the Center for Work & Family told Diversity Executive Magazine is within the cultural context:

Many working dads are stymied in their desire to spend more time at home because of age-old perceptions of men’s roles, both at home and at work. But it’s also partly because men want to have the best of both worlds. While many men in the Boston College study expressed an increased interest in being at home with their children, a large percentage also said they wanted to have greater responsibilities at work.

So trust me.  I am delighted that  Marissa Mayer was hired as CEO of Yahoo while being, you know, openly pregnant. She’s a great example of the fact that a woman can use her brain and her uterus at the same time.  And as such, she is sure to start chipping away at the maternal wall that holds many of us back when it comes to positions of power.  But let’s go beyond the obvious.  Rather than opining on whether Mayer will be a good mommy, what we really ought to be talking about is why the workplace remains so incompatible with motherhood in the first place – and why we assume that fixing that incompatibility is women’s work.

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I sometimes wonder whether our uber-connection has left us more than a little disconnected.

There’s no denying the ubiquity of iComm.  Long ago, we gave up talking in favor of typing.  (My land line rarely rings.  Does yours?) More recently, email conversations -– thanks to the seductive buzz of the smart phones in our pockets – have given way to pithy texts.

This is especially pronounced among teens, especially girls. (A friend with a teen-aged daughter once told me that their monthly phone bill, which itemized the texts, came in a box, rather than an envelope.)

According to a recent Pew Research Center Report presented at an education conference this week, texting is the dominant form of communication among teenagers – who blast out on average of 60 texts a day.  Some quick numbers from the report’s summary:

·  Older girls remain the most enthusiastic texters, with a median of 100 texts a day in 2011, compared with 50 for boys the same age.

·  63% of all teens say they exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. This far surpasses the frequency with which they pick other forms of daily communication, including phone calling by cell phone (39% do that with others every day), face-to-face socializing outside of school (35%), social network site messaging (29%), instant messaging (22%), talking on landlines (19%) and emailing (6%).

We grown-ups aren’t all that different. That same Pew study reports that what we do most with our cells is text. An earlier Pew study found that adults who text send or receive an average of 41.5 messages a day. Among 18 – 24 year olds, that number soars to 109.5. That’s a lot of LOLs.

Before I go on, let me assure you that I’m as insanely Apple as the next geek. I have an iMac at work, an even newer iMac on my desk at home, and within reach: a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPad.  I’ve also got an iPod, but I’m not sure where. And yet, Apple cliché that I am, I can’t help wondering what we lose when our main form of communication is dependent upon the dexterity of our opposable thumbs.  Call it the curse of the small screen, and smaller keyboard?  Both render writing (or reading) more than a sentence or two a pain in the ass.

Can you go deep without going long?  And do our relationships suffer as a result?

MIT professor Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, suspects we may be sacrificing intimacy on the altar of instant connection. She agrees that texting is great for keeping in touch, but when texting becomes a replacement for conversation?  That’s where we enter the danger zone.  At a TED Talk earlier this year, she discussed ways in which our instant communication can in fact hide us from each other:

Across the generations, I see that people can’t get enough of each other, if and only if they can have each other at a distance, in amounts they can control. I call it the Goldilocks effect: not too close, not too far, just right. But what might feel just right for that middle-aged executive can be a problem for an adolescent who needs to develop face-to-face relationships. An 18-year-old boy who uses texting for almost everything says to me wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”

When I ask people “What’s wrong with having a conversation?” people say, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with having a conversation. It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you’re going to say.” So that’s the bottom line. Texting, email, posting, all of these things let us present the self as we want to be. We get to edit, and that means we get to delete, and that means we get to retouch, the face, the voice, the flesh, the body — not too little, not too much, just right.

One more presentation of the iconic self?  Communication professor Charlotta Kratz, one of my colleagues at Santa Clara University, hears similar stuff from her students. “They prefer to text because they don’t want to talk to anyone,” she says. “Even talking on the phone is awkward.”  She recalled one student telling her that driving the 30 miles over to Santa Cruz with a group she didn’t know well for a class project was pure hell.

“We talked about generational differences and I told them that their tech non-savvy grandmas would make three new best friends on that car ride,” Kratz said.  “They agreed.”  Still, she says, “I’m not sure we lose anything necessarily [with texting].  I think it’s better to ask how things are different.  People are available 100 percent of the time now, for one thing.”

What’s interesting is that the 24/7 availability comes with its own rules that, SCU feminist scholar Laura Ellingson has found, often follow age-old gender scripts, at least when it comes to relationships: women are accused of being curt and mean if they send short texts, men are labeled girly if they are expressive. In a recent feminist methods class, Ellingson’s students investigated ways in which texting is gendered. “They found mostly that women send longer, more detailed messages with more emoticons and exclamation points and other ways of expressing emotion more explicitly than men did,” Ellingson said. “Both genders found that the medium is prone to misunderstandings and hurt feelings and unintended consequences.”

But what Ellingson found disconcerting about the class project was that two of the groups pursued themes around women’s over-analysis of texts for subtle meanings, essentially blaming the women for miscommunication, rather than the men who sent extremely brief texts:

“This is not a scientific study by any means, but it was illustrative of the point that in heterosexual relationships, it is still women who bear the majority of the responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationship; they are supposed to text as often as he wants to hear from them, but not too much so as not to be seen as “needy”.  They anxiously try to ferret out cryptic meanings in texts and then get labeled neurotic by the very men who expect them to competently interpret their meanings. The one thing that men are in charge of is the initial text following the exchange of cell phone numbers when first meeting or first becoming interested in each other. Women and men both said that it is up to the man to initiate first contact, and that women are seen as needy if they text first.

Whew. I have to wonder if all this angst could be eliminated by some good old fashioned facetime.  Or a multi-sentence conversation that doesn’t need emoticons. The point, I guess, is that life itself is messy, complicated. There are choices to be made and selves to find. And yet: as with all our digital diversions, we avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass i-teraction.  And so you have to ask: what is it that we’re after? And, what is it we’re avoiding?

I could go on. And would. But I just got a text.  Gotta send a reply.

Photo credit: Sierra Smith, statepress.com

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Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I’m not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry — although either one is a good start — but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter.  Both literally and figuratively.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small.  As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space.  Out with the stuff that doesn’t matter.  In with the stuff that does.  There’s a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA magazine, we have become a clutter culture.  As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff—toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there’s room, or even if there’s no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there’s nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

George Carlin famously observed that “a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it.”

Freuer’s piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff.  And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like “not fun” and “very chaotic.”

“Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms  or  unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study,” UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of  the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email.  “Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion’s share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.”

No kidding. But there’s more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers.  Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women.  It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus.  I don’t know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists, some dating back to last spring, and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails.  (True confession:  I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time.  Well, maybe that’s writer’s block.  Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution. Clean off the desk, read the emails, and do the dishes.  Done.  But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet.  And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle:  Undecided.  Lusting after the greener grass.  Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age?  We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook– all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs — that it’s sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter.  And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where’s the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it’s hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy.  The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything – where she lived, what she did, who she married – was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life.  She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed  The William Morris Project. To wit: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

As in houses, so in life?  Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

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