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If rules were made to be broken, why are so many of us so afraid of breaking them?

They have their function, after all: if everyone took a red light as but a minor suggestion, driving—or merely riding in—a car would be a seriously risky endeavor. Actually though, it occurs to me as I type this, there’s an intersection by my house, near where I get onto the freeway to go North. The light works on some sort of timer or sensor or something. And several times, in the painfully early hours when I’ve been on my way to the airport, I’ve sat at that light. And I’ve waited. And waited. And waited. In fact, I’ve never seen it turn green. More than once I’ve inched into that intersection, staring down the deserted streets, thinking to myself “Should I, or shouldn’t I?”

I got to thinking about all this rule-breaking business after hearing Barry Schwartz’ most recent TED Talk on NPR. In it, he talks about what he calls “practical wisdom,” how ideas and behaviors that typically would fall under the heading of “common sense” are valued less and less. His talk focused primarily on organizations and institutions, how an over-reliance on policies and procedures creates bureaucracies and red tape the navigation of which take precedence over a more thoughtful approach–and which are a nightmare to deal with, to boot. How we can get so focused on objective knowledge that our humanity takes a hit. How sometimes, in fact, the rules can lead us astray – as when one man’s child was taken from him after a security guard spotted the clueless father giving his son a Hard Lemonade at a baseball game, oblivious to the fact that “hard” meant booze. Though it was an honest mistake, it was weeks before the child was returned to his home and his father allowed to see him again.

What’s all this got to do with the rest of us? I tend to think quite a bit. When it comes to what we choose to do with our lives—and the angst around those choices—I’d bet that no small part of the difficulty there has to do with the tension between the desire to be true to ourselves, and the desire to play by the rules. To do the things that are expected of us. To color within the lines. To be the perfect fill-in-the-blank. (And the perfect fill-in-the-other-blank, and the other blank, and the other blank…) Certain things are allowed. Certain things are expected. But are they right? And, more importantly, are they right for us? How can we be sure?

Schwartz quotes Aristotle, saying that practical wisdom is figuring out the right way to do the right thing in a particular circumstance, with a particular person, at a particular time. In other words, it’s subjective. Frustratingly so… except when you consider that, if that’s the goal–to live with practical wisdom–you have all the answers you need. You don’t need to consult the rule book—or bow down to the shoulds—because the only should that matters is that you do what’s right for you, given the circumstances of your life now. If that means coloring outside of the lines, so be it. In fact, if that means coloring outside of the lines, then that’s exactly what you should do.

Just make sure to look both ways first.

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This post first appeared on last year’s Equal Pay Day, but, frankly, we think it’s worth repeating — especially in light of the women of Wal-Mart’s ongoing travails. And we think, once you read this, you’ll agree that their travails are your travails. Happy Equal Pay Day — and we encourage you to celebrate by asking for a raise!

Today is Equal Pay Day: and while the name implies equality, the meaning itself is its precise opposite. Working women of the world, brace yourselves, and prepare to be pissed: today marks the day that your salary catches up to your male counterpart’s… from last year. That’s right, as compared to the dude in the next cube, since January 1 of this year, you, sister, have been working for free.

Yes, despite the fact that it is 2011, despite the fact that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which extends the time employees have to file discrimination suits, despite the breadwinning Alpha Wives appearing in trend pieceshither and yon, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was enacted oh, some 48 years ago, the fact remains: on average, women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. (Even less for women of color.)

Here’s some more fuel for the fire, from a piece from yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR:

Economists say part of the gap is because women are more likely to take time off work for child care, and an even bigger part is because of “occupational segregation”: Women tend to work disproportionately in lower-paying fields….

But even when you control for occupation and a host of other variables, economists still find an unexplained gender gap of anywhere from around a nickel to a dime or more on the dollar. [Emphasis mine.]

Yep, those convenient, fall-back excuses citing time off for kids or lower-paying career tracks are handily debunked by Ilene Lang, with the women’s research group Catalyst:

‘From their very first job after getting their MBA degree, women made less money than men,’ Lang says. ‘On average, they were paid $4,600 less.’

Very first job? MBA? I think that settles the time-off-for-kids/lesser-paid-career-track thing. Of course, the truly ugly thing about a stat like that is that, not only does it persist, it inevitably gets worse over time. Every time you change jobs and are asked for a salary history, you’re at an increased disadvantage–and coupled with this gender-based pay discrimination disparity, well–that disparity is going to do nothing but get worse. And that’s how it is that you’ve been playing financial catch-up for THE PAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS.

But wait! There’s more:

Catalyst’s findings held even when those studied had no children. For Lang, this says that decades-old stereotypes persist.

‘There are assumptions that women don’t care about money, which is crazy!’ Lang says. ‘There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force. All those assumptions are just not true.’

Of course they’re not. And yet, even if they were true–even if women didn’t care about money at all, and every one of us had a man to take care of us and the intention to stop working once we had children–well, would that in any way justify the inequities? I myself, as you may have guessed, think not.

How best to address the issue? Well, asking for more money is a start. A big one, and one in which many agree women might need a lesson. We don’t want to be rude, pushy, or assertive, but we don’t want to be broke, or the underpaid schmuck on the payroll either, now do we?

But, as with a lot of things, focusing only on the individual leaves a little too much unaddressed. There’s a bill pending in the Senate now, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to prove gender bias, increase penalties, and nix the hush-hushness that exists around salaries in an organization. In an open letter, Ms. Ledbetter herself writes:

Without the Paycheck Fairness Act, women will continue to be silenced in the workplace, just like I was–prohibited from talking about wages with coworkers without the fear of being fired. This forced silence keeps many women from discovering pay discrimination in the first place…

Now I know that some people will say that with times as tough as they are, we can’t afford to worry about pay discrimination now. But I’m here to tell you that this recession makes pay equity even more important. With women now making up half of the workforce, more and more families are dependent upon a woman’s paycheck to make ends meet.

So, happy Equal Pay Day! …and apologies for the rant, but I think you’ll agree it was warranted. If you’re inspired to take action, rather than taking it out on Dude-in-the-next-Cube, there’s a link to email your Senator here. And, I dare suggest that you do it while you’re on the clock: more than likely, your boss owes you.


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And that’s why many people are apparently appalled.  Not necessarily because CBS foreign correspondent Lara Logan was surrounded by an angry mob in Cairo, and beaten and raped.  It was because she was taking unnecessary chances.  (Read: risk-taker)  She was doing it to advance her career (Read: ambitious).  She was daring to go where she did not belong.  (Read: brazen)

While none of the naysayers have been so brutal as to come out and say she got what she deserved, the fallout from the news of her hideous assault has been almost as ugly as the assault itself.  Here’s the background via the New York Times:

Lara Logan, the CBS News correspondent, was attacked and sexually assaulted by a mob in Cairo on Feb. 11, the day that the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, the network said Tuesday.

After the mob surrounded her, Ms. Logan “suffered a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating before being saved by a group of women and an estimated 20 Egyptian soldiers,” the network said in a statement. Ms. Logan is recovering at a hospital in the United States.

The evening of the attack, Ms. Logan, 39, the network’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, was covering the celebrations in Tahrir Square in central Cairo with a camera crew and an unknown number of security staff members. The CBS team was enveloped by “a dangerous element” within the crowd, CBS said, that numbered more than 200 people. That mob separated Ms. Logan from her team and then attacked her.

Heinous, right?  And yet.  Comments on talk radio and the interwebs Wednesday were cascading into blame the victim mode.  NPR, for that matter, had to take a number of comments off its site completely, and issue a plea for civility.   Meanwhile, according to Time.com,  reporter Nir Rosen, a fellow at NYU, resigned from his position at the university after he sent an ugly tweet suggesting that Logan was some kind of brazen careerist, trying to outdo CNN’s Anderson Cooper (who had been beaten in Cairo a few days before) and capped it with this:

“at a moment when she is going to become a martyr and glorified we should at least remember her role as a major war monger”—a reference to his criticisms of Logan over her coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams (we love her) took on Rosen and others, too.  (According to Williams, Rosen also tweeted this:  “It’s always wrong, that’s obvious, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention [Logan will] get.”  Yeah, ugh.)  She also added this, referring to yet another hater:

And the ever-heinous [right-wing blogger and Fox News regular] Debbie Schlussel was quick to jump on her regular line of racism, noting how the assault happened in a “country of savages,” because that never ever happens anywhere else, and it’s never committed by light-skinned people! She then twisted the knife by going after Logan herself, saying, “So sad, too bad, Lara. No one told her to go there. She knew the risks. And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows… How fitting that Lara Logan was ‘liberated’ by Muslims in Liberation Square while she was gushing over the other part of the ‘liberation.'”

Need we go on?  Yes, lets.  Grazing on some talk radio on my morning run, I heard similarly ugly — and thinly veiled — comments that suggested Logan had put herself in danger because she was trying to play like the boys.  Among them?   “What was she doing there anyway?”  “Didn’t she know the risks?”  And the worst, from a woman who suggested that the difference between a woman who might be assaulted while simply walking though a park (Read: innocent) and Ms Logan was that Logan was doing it for work.
As in, shamelessly ambitious.  Girls, you know, aren’t supposed to do that.

But here’s the thing.  If she is shamelessly ambitious, who cares?  Are we not over that?  If she took an unnecessary risk — and nowhere does it suggest that she did — isn’t that what foreign correspondents are paid to do?  Right?  But that’s not the point.  Or at least not mine.  At the midpoint of the protests in Tahrir Square, when things started going ugly, reporters were roundly encouraged to get the hell out of Dodge.  Many stayed.  Including Anderson Cooper.  He was beaten up.

We called him a hero.

P.S.  Within minutes of posting this, we got an ugly comment suggesting that Logan got what she deserved.  We have declined to approve it.

photo credit:  CBS

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Today is Equal Pay Day: and while the name implies equality, the meaning itself is its precise opposite. Working women of the world, brace yourselves, and prepare to be pissed: today marks the day that your salary catches up to your male counterpart’s… from last year. That’s right, as compared to the dude in the next cube, since January 1, 2010, you, sister, have been working for free.

Yes, despite the fact that–I’ll reiterate–it is 2010, despite the fact that the first bill President Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which extends the time employees have to file discrimination suits, despite the breadwinning Alpha Wives appearing in trend pieces hither and yon, despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act was enacted oh, some 47 years ago, the fact remains: on average, women earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. (Even less for women of color.)

Here’s some more fuel for the fire, from a piece from yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR:

Economists say part of the gap is because women are more likely to take time off work for child care, and an even bigger part is because of “occupational segregation”: Women tend to work disproportionately in lower-paying fields….

But even when you control for occupation and a host of other variables, economists still find an unexplained gender gap of anywhere from around a nickel to a dime or more on the dollar. [Emphasis mine.]

Yep, those convenient, fall-back excuses citing time off for kids or lower-paying career tracks are handily debunked by Ilene Lang, with the women’s research group Catalyst:

‘From their very first job after getting their MBA degree, women made less money than men,’ Lang says. ‘On average, they were paid $4,600 less.’

Very first job? MBA? I think that settles the time-off-for-kids/lesser-paid-career-track thing. Of course, the truly ugly thing about a stat like that is that, not only does it persist, it inevitably gets worse over time. Every time you change jobs and are asked for a salary history, you’re at an increased disadvantage–and coupled with this gender-based pay discrimination disparity, well–that disparity is going to do nothing but get worse. And that’s how it is that you’ve been playing financial catch-up for THE PAST THREE AND A HALF MONTHS.

But wait! There’s more:

Catalyst’s findings held even when those studied had no children. For Lang, this says that decades-old stereotypes persist.

‘There are assumptions that women don’t care about money, which is crazy!’ Lang says. ‘There are assumptions that women will always have men who will take care of them, that women will get married, have children and drop out of the labor force. All those assumptions are just not true.’

Of course they’re not. And yet, even if they were true–even if women didn’t care about money at all, and every one of us had a man to take care of us and the intention to stop working once we had children–well, would that in any way justify the inequities? I myself, as you may have guessed, think not.

How best to address the issue? Well, asking for more money is a start. A big one, and one in which many agree women might need a lesson. We don’t want to be rude, pushy, or assertive, but we don’t want to be broke, or the underpaid schmuck on the payroll either, now do we?

But, as with a lot of things, focusing only on the individual leaves a little too much unaddressed. There’s a bill pending in the Senate now, The Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make it easier to prove gender bias, increase penalties, and nix the hush-hushness that exists around salaries in an organization. In an open letter, Ms. Ledbetter herself writes:

Without the Paycheck Fairness Act, women will continue to be silenced in the workplace, just like I was–prohibited from talking about wages with coworkers without the fear of being fired. This forced silence keeps many women from discovering pay discrimination in the first place…

Now I know that some people will say that with times as tough as they are, we can’t afford to worry about pay discrimination now. But I’m here to tell you that this recession makes pay equity even more important. With women now making up half of the workforce, more and more families are dependent upon a woman’s paycheck to make ends meet.

So, happy Equal Pay Day! …and apologies for the rant, but I think you’ll agree it was warranted. If you’re inspired to take action, rather than taking it out on Dude-in-the-next-Cube, there’s a link to email your Senator here. And, I dare suggest that you do it while you’re on the clock: more than likely, your boss owes you.

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There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”

How often do you just drink tea?

Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.

Oh, I’m also drinking tea.

I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:

Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.

A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.

While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)

In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?

That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t  just drink the tea?

Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”

Yup.

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Really, women’s work is never done.

At a time when we’re told that work-life balance is the great mirage; at a time when women are still punching the clock on the “second shift”; at a time when kickass young women are still stuck trying to decide how and where they fit into the world of work …

At a time when there is so much unfinished business for feminists to attend to? We get this?

This, according to NPR, Reuters and others, being Hollywood’s new vision of “Do me” feminism: A 30 minute HBO comedy, starring Diane Keaton as “a feminist icon who decides to reignite the movement by starting a sexually explicit magazine for women.”

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. Good for the goose, good for the gander. (Although it does kind of smack of the way Hollywood frames First Amendment fights in terms of Larry Flynt. Oops. Did I bring that up again?) We all love Diane Keaton. The show should be gloriously funny, especially on HBO. And I’m sure I’ll watch it.

But please don’t call it feminism. Or use it to imply we’ve come a long way, baby.

Jezebel.com was among the many who reported on the upcoming show as the greatest thing for women since the Equal Rights Amendment (Oh wait. Still haven’t passed it.) But, like NPR, Reuters and Salon.com’s Broadsheet, Jezebel used a money quote that revives a couple of 1970’s stereotypes that, in the long run, may have stalled the momentum — even though the generalizations only applied to a handful of women:

Perhaps HBO is trying to do penance for or regain female viewers lost after Sex And The City went off the air? In any case, Marti Noxon [the show's producer] says she’s wanted to do a show that touches on feminism for a while; she was 12 when her mom came out as a radical feminist lesbian and had to juggle her mom’s beliefs with her own interests: “I wanted to be a gal, I was very interested in men, and I wanted to shave my legs,” Noxon says. The concept of the Diane Keaton project — an older lady working at a porn mag — sounds awesome. As long as they don’t call it Hot Flash.

Stereotype number one, in case you didn’t notice: Back in the day, only lesbians had street cred as feminists. Stereotype number two: you can’t fight for women’s rights if you happen to wear a skirt — or like boys, for that matter. Didn’t we get over that, long ago? Feministing.com, in fact, just referenced a new study that exploded the myth that feminists are man-haters. The study found that “contrary to popular belief, feminists reported lower levels of hostility toward men than did nonfeminists.”

Salon.com’s Broadsheet was a bit more circumspect in its report, pondering whether “the series will amount to f*ck-me feminism or lightweight “lifestyle” activism. But maybe, just maybe, the show will bravely explore those competing influences of feminism and mainstream sexual culture.”

But still. Aren’t we leaving something out?

A few years back, I did a story on a houseful of edgy, independent young women about to graduate from college who refused to call themselves feminists. I asked them why:

It’s a spectrum issue, they said first. They’d be more likely to call themselves feminists if they could explain where on the scale they fell. What they don’t want is to stick to the label, all or nothing. “I don’t want to be – I’m a feminist, but… ” said Tessa. “I think a lot of people perceive feminists as being so hard-core – men-haters, almost masculine.”

They said they’ve never experienced gender discrimination. They’ve never been in a class where they were dismissed because of gender, never been told they couldn’t do something – or had to do something – because of their sex. Never – yet – faced discrimination on the job. Battles fought, battles won, they said. Old news.

“I’ve grown up and had every opportunity,” said Kate, who conceded that without the benefit of privilege this might have been a different conversation.

“Therefore, it’s hard to identify with the word feminist because, for me, it’s the norm. Now it seems radical to say feminist. It’s hard to get passionate about a cause when you haven’t faced the consequences of what you’re fighting for.”

Later, we talked about patriarchy and the need to change institutions. One woman wondered if such change wouldn’t require some sort of movement. But, another one said, “you have to be oppressed to have a movement. And we’re slowly working forward.”

Really? With all the work still left to do? Instead we’ve got Hollywood portraying feminism’s last frontier as owning our own porn. And we’re supposed to cheer.

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I quote Ron Livingston, in his iconic role as office cog-cum-construction-worker Peter Gibbons: “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” You know you’re in trouble when “Office Space” stops making you laugh and starts pissing you off. And, in his prestigious think tank job and despite the PhD in philosophy under his belt, Matthew Crawford, the author of a new book called “Shop Class as Soulcraft” was most definitely in trouble. So, after several months of doing suprisingly little thinking at said think tank, he left, and opened up a motorcycle repair shop. His book is about the satisfaction of an honest day’s work–and how our society places too little value on such work (witness the extinction of shop class). In a recent NPR interview, he said:

Anyone with halfway decent test scores is getting hustled into a certain track, where you work in an office.

He argues that we’ve created an “educational monoculture,” with “only one respectable course” (those words made me think of the creepy meat-grinder scene in Pink Floyd’s The Wall–check the video at the end of this post), and goes on to say:

It takes a real contrarian streak to live more deliberately and make these calls for yourself…

That reminded me of this comment from Tamara, in response to my post about The Uniform Project, and whether less choice leads to more creativity: “I think it really comes down to an individual’s ingenuity and courage to be themselves.” And it does take courage–and a bit of a contrarian streak–to be yourself. Assuming we can find that courage and tap it, Crawford describes the point of work, as he sees it:

The point is to find some work where you can make yourself useful to people in a straightforward way that engages your own judgment and thinking so that your actions feel like they’re genuinely your own.

Seems like a lot to ask for from a job–and yet it also seems so profoundly simple, there’s no way it can’t be true. Leave it to a philosopher. But really. Do you feel like you were steered away from your passions, your soulcraft, in pursuit of…. a job? And, again back to the choices thing, I wonder if, as overwhelmingly inclusive as the whole “you can be whatever you want!” mantra is, it’s all too easy to just get on the conveyer belt, and hope to make some decent… hamburger? Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to be said for hamburger. Security. Benefits (dare to dream). But what about fulfillment? What about passion? Is it possible to have any pudding, if we don’t eat our meat?

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