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The Feminine Mystique is 50 years old; do you know where your equality is?

Here’s a hint: if you’re a woman living in America, it’s still pretty far out of reach. Because for as far as women have come in the ol’ US of A, the fact is that the state of affairs here–compared to most of the rest of the world, is pretty freaking abysmal. As Stephanie Coontz wrote in an op-ed entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled” in Sunday’s NYT,

Astonishingly, despite the increased workload of families, and even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult in the home is employed, in the past 20 years the United States has not passed any major federal initiative to help workers accommodate their family and work demands. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guaranteed covered workers up to 12 weeks unpaid leave after a child’s work or adoption or in case of a family illness. Although only about half the total workforce was eligible, it seemed a promising start. But aside from the belated requirement of the new Affordable Care Act that nursing mothers should be given a private space at work to pump breast milk, the FMLA turned out to be the inadequate end.

Meanwhile, since 1990 other nations with comparable resources have implemented a comprehensive agenda of “work-family reconciliation” acts. As a result, when the United States’ work-family policies are compared with those of countries at similar levels of economic and political development, the United States comes in dead last.

As I likely do not need to tell you, the number of hours worked expected from the average worker during the average workweek has ticked steadily up in recent years, making the idea of two full-time employees trying to raise a child while maintaining each of their careers near impossible.  So someone steps down. Men are generally paid more than women–so guess which one tends to do the stepping down? And in fact, the more hours a man works, the more likely it is his female partner will quit her job. (And interestingly, married dads whose wives don’t work full time get paid more. Grrr.)

I have an extremely talented, very driven friend who works in New York, in a highly competitive, fast-evolving field. She is passionate about her work, and fiercely devoted to keeping her skills current. Her husband makes more money than her, and his job offers benefits. They’re thinking of having a baby. Her current boss won’t pay for leave–and, she’s been feeling pretty stagnant in her position. Up until recently, she’d been looking for a new job. But now, she’s thinking, well, maybe I’ll just take some time off when we have the baby. Child care is so expensive anyway. It’ll put her at a disadvantage later, but she doesn’t see much of a choice. She’s stopped looking for something new–despite the fact that she has not, as of yet, stopped taking the pill.

Sheryl Sandberg would call this a classic case of “leaning out”–taking oneself out of the game before it’s necessary in anticipation of work-life issues–and suggest that this friend of mine rethink her strategy, “lean in” instead. Even this friend of mine looks at is as a personal choice. But the thing is, in cases like this, the personal is, in fact, political.

Going back to Coontz’s piece:

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their ‘decision-making process,’ it became clear that most had made the ‘choice’ to quit work only as a last resort–when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Every time we buy into that idea — that what’s going on with us has only to do with us — the movement stalls just a little bit more. It’s been fifty years since The Feminine Mystique… and twenty since the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order for things to change, we have to realize that what we are up against is bigger than the particular circumstances of our own lives.

Just as the miserable, Valium-popping suburban wives of Friedan’s day might have looked around at their gleaming linoleum and state-of-the-art vacuum cleaners and said, but I chose this, we too can look at everything as a personal choice. Or we can step back, take a broader look, and realize that while, yes, perhaps we did “lean out”–taking a lesser job in a lesser place because our husband made the big bucks, or taking some time off work with the baby because it “made more sense” even though, in an ideal world, we’d like to work, too–a huge, invisible (and not so invisible) part of why we “decided” to lean out is systemic. It’s cultural and it’s structural and it’s policy-determined and it is, in fact, political.

The graphic that ran with Coontz’s story is a color-coded world map that shows which countries have paid maternity leave, by weeks provided. Those in the “none” category included Palau, Papau New Guinea, Nauru, Western Samoa, Tonga, Suriname, and the United States. Aren’t we better than this?

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thumbnail[2]If we want to close the ambition gap, a good first step might be learning how to shake our heads.

There’s this great quote from Feminist icon Germaine Greer: When we talk about women having it all, what they really have all of is the work.”  She was being somewhat facetious.   But then again, not so much.

Which leads me to wonder: Would women be more powerful if we could just say no?  A couple of recent studies just say yes.

Some say that women are hard-wired to please.  Others say we’re socialized that way.  In either case, we see it all the time:  Good little girls doing as they’re told at home, eager for the stamp of approval from mommy or daddy.  Older girls sitting still in class and turning in their homework on time to please their teachers.

But what’s surprising is that, according to a new study, even those of us raised with the “you go, girl” rhetoric never seem to outgrow our eagerness to please.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal, a paper presented at the American Economic Association meeting earlier this month confirms that even when we grow up, we’re much more likely to say “yes” when we want to say “no”.

The study focused on 47 business-school students who were asked to recall a time when they were asked to do a favor on the job when they really didn’t want to.  And guess what?

The female participants did the favor, even though they were five times more likely than males to report having felt worn out. Perhaps they obliged because they were also twice as likely to have been worried about the consequences of saying no.

Ya think?  The researchers further postulated that this willingness to do favors  “may lead them to become overburdened with low-skill tasks.”

In other words, when we find ourselves locked into a continuing chorus of “Sure, I’ll be happy to…”, it not only saps our time, but zaps our power as well.

So much for the need to say no when we’re at work.  Head on over to the homefront and you find another related power drain:  According to a new study out of The University of California at Berkeley and Emory University, women who rule the roost at home are less likely “to pursue promotions and other career advancement steps at the office.”  In other words, when you’re the CEO at home, you’re much less likely to ever come close to the C-suite at work:

“It appears that being in charge of household decisions may bring a semblance of power to women’s traditional role, to the point where women may have less desire to push against the obstacles to achieving additional power outside the home,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Serena Chen, a co-author of the study.

Despite the feminist movement and other gender equity efforts, women largely retain authority over child-rearing and household chores and finances, with men deferring to their expertise in these matters, researchers point out. This paradigm has had an impact on women’s career choices, the study implies.

Whether all this power over domestic decisions takes away our ambition by fulfilling our innate need for power – or simply drains our energy– who knows for sure. But, says Chen, when it comes to seizing power in the workplace, we ought to let some go at home. Women need to “at least partially abdicate their role of ultimate household deciders, and men must agree to share such decision making.”

In other words, there’s only so much of us to go around, and we should use ourselves wisely.  The first step might be to reconsider the messaging we’ve been raised with: As we’ve written here and in our book, told we can have it all, we heard we must do it all. Told we can do anything, we heard that we could do everything —  and we’d better do it perfectly. We are told to be grateful for all the choices we have, and, of course, we are, but the one crucial message that never got sent was this: every choice entails a trade-off.  If you’re doing A, you can’t be doing B.

Or, in light of the studies above, you can’t be doing favors for someone else at work, and still have time to charge ahead on your own projects.  Nor, apparently, can you run the household like a CEO — and have any mojo left when it comes to climbing the ladder at work.  Which is to say, we need to give ourselves permission to let go.  Or even abdicate.  Even if it means that some things get done less than perfectly.  Or not at all.

When you think about it, it’s all pretty simple.  All we need do is learn to say no.

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Lest you thought feminism‘s battle was over, let me reassure you, we’ve only just begun. And, despite all the work we’ve left to do, many facets of feminism, facets that are, by all proper measure, actually settled by now continue instead to rerun, like so much sitcom syndication. Consider: How is it that, in the very same week I find myself reading another spot-on piece by Ann Marie Slaughter – this time in Foreign Policy magazine, expounding on the many reasons why we need more women involved in high-level foreign policy (and why we need to change policy around parenthood and attitudes about non-linear career paths if we want to see them there… and why the people most likely to make said changes happen to be women) — and a throwback piece of “feminism ruined everything” hysteria claiming that women reallyreallyreally want to get married but can’t find men to marry them because, thanks to feminism, “women aren’t women anymore.” (This by one Fox News’ Suzanne Venker, a woman with a career–who is also married with children. Just… seriously?) Oh, and a lengthy Washington Post piece dissecting, in full hand-wringing anxiety about What It All Means, the fact that women newscasters can now sport long hair and ditch the blazers.

The blogger in me can’t help but wonder: which one got the most clicks?

I jest, but also not. Because the thing is: Scare tactics can be compelling. You’ll never get married, you with your dirty career ambitions, you’re not woman enough! And an article about fashion (even newscaster fashion) might generate some interest, likely of the screwing-around-at-work-by-consuming-mental-junk-food variety. Whereas real, substantive discussion is a far harder sell. Which makes sense. But it leaves me wondering: given what’s “clicky” and what’s not, how many women are left with the false impression this junk “news” sells–that feminism is about making women unwomanly and pitting them against men, or having a right to bare arms while delivering the 5:00 news–as opposed to the stuff that is real, and that really matters, and really affects you and your girlfriends and sisters and coworkers, your mothers and daughters. Like reworking work for the new–nay, the now–reality, the reality that includes unmarried women who work to support themselves, married women who work to support (or help support) their families, and women of all stripes who simply want to work, because they’re smart, ambitious, and interested in being productive members of society?

Feminism is not about being “angry,” “defensive,” or an ethos of “men as the enemy”–I kid you not, this is the language Venker used. And the calls for “returning to a simpler time,” lamenting the loss of the good old days (Hi, Republicans!), are about as useful as pining for the return of Beverly Hills, 90210 The Brenda Years. They’re over. They’re not coming back. Time doesn’t go backward. Brenda has moved on. The more you moon over bygones, the more you render yourself irrelevant. Out of touch. And yes, even kinda pathetic. (Though I’ll happily go on record as a fan of the Brenda years, I certainly don’t expect them to come back.)

Worse, though, is that all the yammering about bygones keeps us focused on the bygones, arguing about things that aren’t even issues anymore, that are just reality, the stuff that, by comparison, just doesn’t matter that much. Whether or not women should work and be independent is not a question any longer. We do, and we are. And that’s, as many of us believe, as it should be. (And, once and for all: the men that don’t want to marry someone who’d qualify as an independent woman… is that a guy you really want to spend every bleeding night with, foresaking all others, from here until Ear Hair and Depends, so help you God? Hint: No. No, it is not.) Feminism should be looking forward, not behind, considering what’s happening now, and what will come after that.

Time, after all, only moves in one direction.

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I frequently hear from former students – usually bright, idealistic twentysomethings — long after they’ve exchanged their college dreams for, you know, reality.

Often, these women are more than a little shell-shocked when they come face to face with the disconnect between their high expectations and life out there in the real world of work.  Their notes, emails and phone calls speak of a certain dissatisfact  Raised to believe they could have it all, they’re suddenly undecided.  Disillusioned. Wondering about that greener grass.  One former student, channeling Betty Friedan, called it “the other problem that has no name.”  All this angst, in fact, was one of the triggers for our book.

The latest email came from a focused young woman – we’ll call her Susie — who moved several states away after she scored the job of her dreams at a big tech company right out of the gate.  Great, right?  But what she wrote was anything but.

She first relayed a story of a friend, an Ivy League grad who was now working in New York – who was so miserable at her job she was thinking of calling it quits.  Why?  Constant sexist remarks.  A sense that she was invisible to the powers that be.  The final straw?  One of the partners in her firm sent out an office-wide email, addressed “Dear Gentlemen”, even though there were several women on the chain – and left her off it completely, though a male employee with her same job was included.

Small stuff, maybe.  But when you’ve been led to believe that gender discrimination is a thing of the past, that feminist battles have been fought and won, that you, sister, have achieved equality, reality provides a nasty wake-up call.

Anyway, back to Susie, who had her own tale of invisibility to tell.   Not long ago, she flew off to run a booth at a trade show for her company.  She reveled in the responsibility – and also in the opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with her brand new boss, who was headquartered in a different state.  But while Susie was busy running the show, a Playboy model who’d been hired by her company for the gig, was working the crowd.

You can guess how this story ends, right?  Susie ended up with about 20 minutes of facetime with her boss, who was far more interested in chatting up the model and taking her to dinner.

“It just leaves so much dissatisfaction in my heart because I feel like there is no way to win this game,” Susie wrote.  “As women, what makes us valuable in the office? There are enough really talented women on my team that I know climbing the ranks is a possibility…”  And yet, she wondered:  how do these women feel when they’re smart, work hard, and then they see, as she did at the tradeshow, that looks carry more currency than talent. “I just wonder,” she wrote, “that even if we reach the pinnacle of success, whatever that might be, will we ever feel like we truly have it?”

Sigh.  One of the most insidious things about this kind of sexism, I told Susie, is that the folks who perpetuate this nonsense rarely realize what they are doing or saying. White male privilege?  More than likely. But it also speaks to the fact that, while we may have come a long way, we still have a long way to go. Which is why I get so grumpy when young women refuse to call themselves feminists – or when their older sisters, the ones who are edging up toward the top of the food chain, are loathe to acknowledge the way things were – and in many cases, still are.

Of course, what rankles the most is the idea that dealing with gender discrimination, with sexism of all kinds, is seen as women’s work.  Shouldn’t it be everyone’s work?

Hillary Clinton — one of the most powerful women in the world and someone who has put up with more than her share of bad behavior solely because of her gender – might well agree.  Check what she told the Gail Collins in an interview in Sunday’s New York Times:

For a long time, Clinton said, when she talked about giving women opportunity, “I could see some eyes glazing over.” But now, she continued, people are beginning to see that empowering women leads to economic development. That you don’t espouse women’s rights because it’s a virtuous thing to do but because it leads to economic growth.

Economics? Brilliant!  Which leads us back to Susie.  Who, we might ask her boss, made more money for her company that week at that trade show?

And exactly who is it that wins when smart and talented young women are too discouraged to stick around?

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I’m starting to wonder if this presidential election might hinge on apron strings.

In the wake of the last debate, we’ve all been caught up in binders and trapper-keepers and funny Facebook memes – along with some hijinks on Amazon, where a bunch of smartypants hijacked several binder pages.  I think we’re missing the point.

According to the New York Times, both Obama and Romney are in hot pursuit of the women’s vote.  Which is to say, they seem to think that Double Xers may determine the next president of the United States:

 … And on the campaign trail and on the air, the candidates and their allies argued intensely all day over who would do more to help women. At the same time, the topic of whether the heated encounter Tuesday night had alienated the very female voters they were seeking to connect with became fodder for cable TV discussions.

The level of intensity left little doubt that the election was coming down not only to a state-by-state fight for territory, but also to one for the allegiance of vital demographic groups, chief among them undecided women.

Whew.  Whether the chattering class is right or wrong, it appears we have a lot more power than we’ve had in quite the while.  Let’s think this through.

The bedrock issue in the debate over the women’s vote has had to do with reproductive rights:  abortion and contraception.  Key issues.  Agreed.  Especially because the next president will more than likely be appointing one, or maybe two, justices to the Supreme Court, who may hold the future of Roe V. Wade in their hands.

And then there’s the funding of Planned Parenthood, which not only provides family planning services, but also provides women without health insurance life-saving care for breast cancer, among other medical issues.  My friend was one of them.

But the real issue as I see it is the vision of women’s role in the workplace and the home.  I found one of Gov. Romney’s responses in the debate to be key.  The question had to do with inequalities in the workplace, including the pay gap — Go here for a state-by-state chart of gender pay inequity — which the Governor sidestepped with the unfortunate comment about binders.  What I found revealing, not to mention troubling, was the end of his response, which related to the woman he had hired as chief of staff while governor of Massachusetts:

 Now, one of the reasons I was able to get so many good women to be part of that team was because of our recruiting effort, but number two, because I recognized that if you’re going to have women in the workforce, that sometimes they need to be more flexible. My chief of staff, for instance, had two kids that were still in school. She said, I can’t be here until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. I need to be able to get home at 5:00 so I can be there for — making dinner for my kids and being with them when they get home from school. So we said, fine, let’s have a flexible schedule so you can have hours that work for you.

On the surface: flexible schedule.  Good.  One of the issues we’ve been writing about is the challenge faced by working women, who put in the same hours as their male counterparts, and then have to dig into the second shift when they get home.  But look again at the governor’s answer, then ask yourself this:  Where was the chief of staff’s husband and/or kids’ daddy at 5:00?

That’s it, right?

Why is it that in 2012 some folks still assume that household and childcare duties are women’s work?  And why, as one of the sources in our book fumed, do we plant work life balance smack in the middle of the “women’s issues” silo?  Shouldn’t this be a human issue?  A family issue?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I cook dinner most nights, no matter what time I get home from work.  And I’m damn good at it.  No, scratch that.  I’m really good at it:  I inherited my culinary mojo from a long line of incredible Italian cooks (Ask me about my aunts’ gnocchi or cannoli sometime, or my mother’s ability to throw together anything fantastic without a recipe).  Plus, I like to eat good food.  But that’s my choice.  Proscribed gender roles have nothing to do with it.

The issue here, as the presidential election heads down the home stretch, has to do with perception as well as policy.  And I suspect that the nuances of the latter are often driven by the former.  And in this case, the perception in question is gender roles in the home as well as the workplace.

Cue the aprons.

The most recent time-use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that women still own the second shift. Most telling stats?

On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework–such as cleaning or doing laundry–compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women.

All of which, presumably, is on top of a 52 hour work week.

Now, can a president do anything to change all that?  Probably not.  But given that I have been given a lot of power in this election, my vote goes to the guy who doesn’t assume my place is in an apron.

Speaking of which, my husband is wearing one right now.  I’ve got one eye on the Giants game as I write this.  He’s firing up the ‘que and throwing together a salad.

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It happened again the other day:  I was being interviewed by my introductory journalism class when I got The Question:

Are you a feminist?  Of course, I shot back.  Beat.  Are you?

The young woman was the tiniest bit flummoxed at being put on the spot.  Well, she said.  I guess it depends on how you define feminist.  “A human being,” I replied, as I always do, and then enumerated some of the issues:  equal pay for equal work.  Equitable division of labor at home.  Equal representation.  Blowing up gender stereotypes.

And then I said something like this:  How can anyone NOT be a feminist?

Cue the debate.  About the meaning of feminism.  About the bad rap the label has gotten.  About the fear some young women have in owning the term.  Finally, I asked for a show of hands.  How many of you consider yourself feminists, I asked.  Slowly, about half the class – including some males and the woman who had asked the question in the first place — raised their hands.

Whew. Better than I expected.

Anyway, I was reminded today of all the things I should have said when I ran into a video of a killer keynote address given by the glorious Gloria Steinem this week at the National Press Club in celebration of Ms. Magazine turning 40.  (Fun fact: Back in the 1970s, Steinem was the first woman ever invited to speak at the Press Club.  Like all the other speakers, she was given a necktie.)

The irony, as Steinem pointed out, is that public opinion polls show that the majority is on our side when it comes to any of the issues raised by the women’s movement.  (See?  We are all feminists.) It’s the power structures that are resistant to change.

Her take on equal pay?  Check it:

 …if we just had equal pay in this country, just the single thing of equal pay, which is what most everybody agrees with, right? We would have the single most important economic stimulus this country could possibly possibly ever have. It would be about $200 billion dollars more a year injected into the economy, about $150 a week more for white women on the average, for women of color something between $250 and $350. And it would be injected into the economy exactly where it’s most likely to be spent. We are not going to send it to the Cayman Islands, no! We are going to spend it and it is going to create jobs…

Awesome.  Hard to disagree.

She also talked about the backlash against feminism, and one of the most insidious strategies is telling us that the women’s movement is over and done.  Old news.  We’ve succeeded.  It’s one way to keep us from moving forward, she said, and to keep younger women from identifying as feminists.   She also noted that “women’s issues” – think childcare, for one —  often get siloed.  She said that for years, she’s been asked if she is interested in anything other than women’s issues.  Her answer?  “Can you think of one thing that wouldn’t be transformed by looking at it as if everyone matters?

Seriously.  She went on to discuss something else that had more than a little resonance with stuff we’ve written about here – and relates to one of the last questions I was asked in that classroom interview. A student asked if I thought I had it all. (Insert smirk here.)  I said absolutely not, that having it all is a myth, especially one that so many of them had been raised with, and rambled on about the expectations of what having it all means for today’s women:  smart, successful, skinny, sexy, great career, even better family, and granite in the kitchen.  I could go on, and I suspect I did, but let’s give Gloria the last word:

Can women have it all?  That’s not the right question.  Most women are asking – am I going to lose it all.  It’s a rarefied question.  The real question is why we’re asking it at all of the individual when we live in the only industrialized democracy in the world that doesn’t have child care, has more unfriendly work policies in terms of both parents being equal parents…  The ultimate answer is men raising children as much as women do and women being as active outside the home as much as men are.

And wouldn’t we all be better off?  I have this hunch my students would agree.

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The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we’d sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.

Funny, my friend said, but true.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift:  When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it’s not always you that needs fixing.  Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.

In other words: Ain’t me, babe.  It’s you.

If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here’s a taste of what Altstadt had to say:

 … it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt … questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems-mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be? …. Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?

If you read women’s magazine, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.

Hit the like button.  As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel.  But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?

Indeed.  We’re led to believe that if we’re not happy, if we’re less than content, there’s something wrong with us.  But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix?  When we’re unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad — pick one — it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we’re struggling with the second shift, when we’re overworked and underpaid, when we’re striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we’re relentlessly undecided, maybe it’s not us that needs help — it’s the system.

The structures themselves.  Cue the sociologist.

And yet, we’re led to believe that if we would  just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.

All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:

According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black:

Happiness coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude—or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.

The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time:  workplace massage chairs.  Free sessions with a work-life coach.  Oatmeal-raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office.  All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won’t notice that we’re overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we’re still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy‘s buck?  To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?

To keep us thinking that if it’s happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?

Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack.  Anyway, she writes that she’s tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out.  Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she’d rather do is change it.

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