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Archive for February, 2010

Hey! You! Anybody out there?!

If you’re part of the Millennial Generation, you surely are. But you aren’t likely to read much more than the first few lines of this post, are you? That’s among the findings of a recent Pew Research Center study on Gen Y (roughly defined as those from 18 – 29) and how they communicate.

Out? Facetime. In? Status updates.

In short (literally), if you’re young and hip, you like it quick. So says a yahoo news story, via the AP, on one aspect of the study — the demise of blogging among the millennial set:

A new study has found that young people are losing interest in long-form blogging, as their communication habits have become increasingly brief, and mobile. Tech experts say it doesn’t mean blogging is going away. Rather, it’s gone the way of the telephone and e-mail — still useful, just not sexy.

“Remember when ‘You’ve got mail!’ used to produce a moment of enthusiasm and not dread?” asks Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Now when it comes to blogs, she says, “people focus on using them for what they’re good for and turning to other channels for more exciting things.”

In less time than most of us care to note, we’ve seen the diminished use – if not outright demise — of snail mail, faxes, land lines, newspapers, email and now — blogs? Chalk it up to social networking, says the yahoo story:

With social networking has come the ability to do a quick status update and that has “kind of sucked the life out of long-form blogging,” says Amanda Lenhart, a Pew senior researcher and lead author of the latest study.

More young people are also accessing the Internet from their mobile phones, only increasing the need for brevity. The survey found, for instance, that half of 18- to 29-year-olds had done so.

All of that rings true to Sarah Rondeau, a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

“It’s a matter of typing quickly. People these days don’t find reading that fun,” the 18-year-old student says. She loves Facebook and has recently started using Twitter to share pictures of her dorm room and blurbs about campus life, which are, in turn, shared on the Holy Cross Web site for prospective students.

Life by status update? I’m all for short and quick. It’s efficient! There’s quantity! And yet, at the risk of being called, well, old, I have to wonder: Where’s the depth? The bigger picture? The other side? Where does this leave the art of chitchat?

And in fact, there are subtle rumblings around the edges that hint that all is not always well in the land of quick connections. For example, PR Newswire reports that a St. Paul company is offering seminars to show twentysomethings how to use facetime rather than screentime to score a job. Huh? That needs to be taught? And there’s this: A story out of CUNY’s Baruch College links the high depression rate among millenial students to uber-connection:

Baruch psychology professor David Sitt acknowledges the implications of technological evolution on an entire generation’s social character.

“We are changing our expectations of what we need in life to make us happy,” said Sitt. “Since technology has propelled us forward it creates a speed where everything is immediate and the window for gratification has narrowed.”

According to Sitt, depression grows from a root need for gratification as social networking tools and electronic gadgets instill in us a constant pressure to connect.

“Initially we only needed to see our friends once a month, now it has turned into everyday,” said Sitt. “We have this idea that if we don’t check our emails or post on Facebook every second then we missed out on something or that people have forgotten about us.”

I tweet, therefore I am? All of which brings us back to something we wrote about last month — the way in which these cyberlives have begun to erode our real ones. From that post:

Is this uber-connection to our cyber-lives and cyber friends and god-knows-what-all-else keeping us from being fully present in our own here and now? From appreciating what we have — rather than jonesing for what we don’t? Does the fact that we have one foot in our own life and the other in about a hundred others make us continually wonder what we’re missing?

All those distractions! All those choices! No wonder we’re always angsting over that greener grass — because the other side of the fence is always up in our face.

And the thing is, when that other side of the fence comes to you via short and quick, it’s almost always looking better than it is.

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I’m guessing by now you’ve heard about Lori Gottlieb’s new book, based on her contentious 2008 Atlantic essay I wrote about awhile back. Charmingly entitled “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” the book has earned a ton of ink, both positive and negative, and the movie rights have already been snapped up. (Yeah, can’t wait for that one. Let me guess: knockout actress with hair dyed a mousy brown goes on date after date with loser after loser, until she finally falls for the short, fat, bald man with bad breath and a heart of gold.) While Gottlieb’s horrifying depiction of life as a SWF is downright depressing (and her rose-colored imagination of married life as the magic, loneliness-busting bullet just kind of odd and naive), she insists there’s more to what she’s saying than simply the fact that she’s been there (dates with dudes she dismissed for reasons ranging from a sub-optimal first name to a head of red hair), done that (single and tormented by the ticking of the biological clock, she hit the sperm bank and is now a single mama, lonely for company). From Sarah Hepola’s piece on Salon:

‘This isn’t some regretful 40-something giving you matronly advice. I spoke to scientists and experts in neurobiology, psychology, sociology, marital research, couple therapists, behavioral economists, regular folks married and single.’ Don’t like what the book is saying? There’s more than Lori Gottlieb to blame.

Maybe so. And that is what interests me most about the whole thing, far more so than whether or not one single woman should be writing books telling all other single women why they should “settle”, based mostly on original single woman’s issues and regrets. (Um, not to mention the fact that original single woman also happens to be wildly successful, and mom to a healthy child–yet seems unable to enjoy either of the latter above because of the former above–that she’s single. Is it just me, or is this like a bad Cathy cartoon?)

The thing is, what we’re really talking about here is choice, and that, often, because we believe (because we’ve been told) we have so much of it, we operate according to a belief that to settle for anything less than perfection is to sell ourselves short.

Of course, we’ve covered the problems with perfection. Namely, that it doesn’t exist, and, therefore, we can waste a lot of time waiting for it. Thing is, though, those words are pretty easy to throw around–we read them, we say them, we hear them, and we agree. Of course perfection doesn’t exist, we say. Only a fool would hold out for perfect.

Fools like us.

I think what gets us into trouble is that this reality is so totally at odds with the yarn we’ve been fed since forever, you know, that one we like to yammer about. The one that says You Can Do Anything! And I think it’s that idea that gets our knees to jerking, when someone dares suggest we should settle–for a man, or anything else in life. (And I wonder how steady Gottlieb’s knees would be, were someone to suggest she settle in some other realm of her life.) While the man question is interesting, I think it’s more interesting in terms of all of the other choices in our lives: on some level, do we think that sticking with something (or someone) long enough to see the glossy sheen fade away and the flaws emerge is, well, settling? Do we allow ourselves to be blinded by some mental checklist that renders us unable to enjoy what’s right in front of us? Check Gottlieb’s reference to our pal Barry Schwartz, in an interview with Psychology Today:

‘I interviewed a psychologist for MARRY HIM named Barry Schwartz. He’s a professor at Swarthmore and he also wrote a terrific book called THE PARADOX OF CHOICE. We had a long conversation about how having so many choices actually makes people depressed. You’d think it would be liberating–who doesn’t want to have options?–but actually, having so many makes us dizzy with indecision. And when we do make a choice, we second-guess ourselves because we compare it to all the other options that we didn’t choose. The same applies to having so many choices in a potential spouse.

So Schwartz said to me, about the way we choose spouses these days, ‘You have to remember that good enough is good enough.’ And that mantra has helped me and many women I know enjoy the men we meet much more, and also make much better choices out in the dating world.

Of course that makes sense. And I like the point. But. Is it a cop-out?

It reminds me of the whole Happy Life Or An Interesting One debate, and the question of whether we put too much of a premium on a certain brand of happiness, undervaluing interesting along the way. I guess, as we’ve said before, happiness is really all in how you define it.

It makes me think of the movie Parenthood, and the amusement park wisdom from Grandma.

On the other hand, that’s Hollywood. But sometimes, Hollywood wisdom is good enough.

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Hey boys, whether or not you “wear the pants”, you really need to keep ’em on.

In case you missed it the first time around, below is the post we wrote back in December when Dockers first unveiled its misogynistic “Wear the Pants” campaign. We titled it “Turning the Other Cheek.” Whew. Little did we know what we were in for…

Welcome to the opening salvos of the great pants war. To wit, while we were MIA, Dockers apparently took it upon itself to reconstruct society’s trek toward gender equality with its new ad campaign for men’s slim-fit, “soft” khakis. Such the bad plan. Dubbed “Wear the Pants”, the campaign comes with its own Man-ifesto (I don’t make this stuff up. That’s what they call it. And watch for the high-rent ads on Super-Bowl Sunday.) You can see the ad on your left. They also have a Facebook page, where folks can post their ruminations on the true definition of a man. Anyhow, the copy reads as follows:

Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.

Clearly, some copywriters were jonesing for a Mad Men fix and thought they could dabble in a little mid-century irony to sell some pants. Not exactly, writes the SF Chronicle’s stylewriter, Aaron Britt:

Arch? Stirring? Silly? And more importantly, did you balk when you registered that this throw-down has come not from some edgy line of denim or gauche leather emporium, but from none other than the world’s most peaked, pathetic pants: chinos. And it’s not just any chinos calling you a sissy. It’s Dockers.

But really, I’m a little bit flummoxed. Offended, even. Deconstruct the Man-ifesto and you find that the whole campaign is just not funny. In fact, it smells more than a little bit sexist in its sub-rosa rant against the women’s movement and the way in which some of those not-really-witty one-liners play into the worst fears of paranoid neanderthals: Does gender parity mean gender-less? If women succeed in stepping up, does that turn guys into girly-men (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s phrase, not mine)? With no men to wear the pants, do small children run wild and old ladies get run over?

Left unsaid, of course, is who is wearing the pants. Those emasculating women? And what, for the love of god, have they have done to the workplace?

Now, for years, ads directed toward women have preyed upon their need to be more, well, feminine: Wear this! Wax that! Paint those! And so you can argue that it’s no more than turnabout to sell pants by preying on men’s need to be more traditionally masculine. But see, here’s the difference: Does masculinity have to equate to keeping women in the kitchen? It’s clear where the women are in the scary Dockers scenario: Wearing their menfolks’ khakis, of course, which is why everything else has gone to hell. As Jami Bernard wrote on Walletpop:

Just because the Docker ads are tongue in cheek does not mean they’re not sexist. It’s one thing to encourage men to man up, another to tell them to “wear the pants” — an expression that taps directly into the old question: “Who wears the pants in this family?” There are only two possible answers: the man of the house, or the woman who has been stealing his thunder. “Wear the pants” is a call to arms, even when used jokingly, that says the only way to be a man is to put women in their place…

The real joke, of course, is that the pants in question, writes Broadsheet’s Mary Elizabeth Williams, is “the brand that made everybody’s asses look fat in the ’90s..” Whether or not we girls (or, for that matter, our guys) are wearing the pants — I doubt they’re gonna be Dockers.

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Amid all this talk about whether women need to be more like men to make it in a man’s world, along comes Katie Couric in a sexy fashion shoot for the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, due out Feb. 16.

Guts ball — or career poison? Does it diminish her credibility or, in an unexpected way, add to it? In an odd pop-culture kind of way, is she giving women permission to be themselves?

Clearly, Couric has made it in a so-called man’s world. And in this photo-spread, it’s pretty clear she’s not trying to be like one. There she is in a short and sexy one-shoulder cocktail dress. With smoky kohl-rimmed eyes. And look, are those Christian Louboutains? There she is again, wearing a don’t-mess-with-me mini-skirted black suit by Giorgio Armani. She stares right at the camera. Not flirty. Not flinty.

But on top of her game.

It’s a combination of sex and power, writes Robin Givhan in the Washington Post, who finds the pictures:

… an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There’s nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner — Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels — to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

Post- or pre-feminist? You tell me. Obviously, there is/will be backlash. Like this from Jezebel.com:

This argument feels like one of those moments where counterintuitive logic comes full circle to just plain retrogressiveness. I support Katie Couric’s right to pose as sexily as she wants to. Fashion shoots are fun and she looks great at whatever age. It’s part of her job, like it or not, to be someone people want to look at or watch. But do we have to pretend that the display of the traditional beauty of someone on television, as seen in a fashion magazine, is somehow fresh and progressive? Show me Candy Crowley in Balenciaga (or, um, in sweatpants?) and maybe I’ll be impressed.

And yet, stilettos notwithstanding, the fashion shoot, and reaction to it, makes you wonder all sorts of things. Do women have to downplay their sexuality to be taken seriously? If they don’t, are they playing to some regressive male fantasy? Are women still judged on their looks as much as on their abilites?

Or is this sexy shoot of the first successful female network news anchor none of the above? Is it really about seizing our identity as women without apologies, like Justice Sotomayor’s fire engined red nail enamel, a subtle sign that, as Gloria Steinem suggested in Shannon’s post from yesterday, it’s time to make the world fit women, rather than the other way around.

Now clearly, Gloria would have major issue with the stilettos. And probably with the fashion shoot itself. But with the underlying message?

It’s worth a reminder that Couric started her network job wearing age and gender-appropriate twin sets and blazers and, until the Palin interview that cemented her career, was considered something of a lightweight. You have to wonder if maybe what her fashion spread shows is that she has arrived and she knows it. From the Washington Post:

Now, in 2010, Couric has pronounced herself sexy in the Bazaar photographs. After breaking ground in network news, after having folks debate whether she should have worn a white blazer on her debut show — as if anything but black or navy proclaimed her less serious — there are these images. Unapologetically, forcefully, I-dare-you, sexy. In each one, Couric looks strong and capable. Capable of what, of course, is the underlying question.

Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes — a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliche of Crayola-colored blazers.

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One time, long long ago, in a kingdom far, far away, my mom said to me, “Shannon, I feel as though I haven’t given you enough advice.” To which I replied: “Shut the f*** up, mom.”

(Trust me; she’s given me plenty.)

And yet, get a group of women gathered together in the presence of a feminist icon like Gloria Steinem, and all we want is advice. But the thing about advice is: no matter who it’s coming from, no matter how sound and wise, it weighs on us, becomes a heavy, restrictive Should. Unless, of course, the advice is to ditch the shoulds altogether, as was Steinem’s, at a recent event at Yale:

During the question-and-answer session, Claire Gordon (’10) asked the members of the panel if they thought women should feel obligated to continue in the workforce.

“Dispense with the word ‘should,'” Steinem answered. “Don’t think about making women fit the world–think about making the world fit women.”

She said women should pursue the life choices they would most enjoy, regardless of social expectations.

I love this idea about making the world fit women–I love it on the macro level, obviously, but I love it in the individual sense as well. And I think maybe, just maybe, such a subtle sounding shift in perspective might in fact play out to be huge: rather than looking at ourselves as the X factor that, well, should do the bending required to fit within the conventions, the rules, the, you know, shoulds, imagine looking at our work, our relationships, the way we prioritize, the way we spend our time as the things that can be molded, tweaked, adjusted instead. Imagine if we took whatever unfair truths might exist, said To Hell With It, and did whatever we wanted–the way we wanted–anyway. Imagine, just for a second, that the only thing we should be doing is being who we are–and that the rest of the world should bend to suit us. All advice should be so freeing. And speaking of, that advice my mom wanted to give me? I shoulda listened.

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Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, there’s this: on-the-job happiness coaching.

Kid you not. 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.

For the love. Have we taken this happiness business too far? Critics think so. Me, too. But back to the WSJ:

Critics say that pushing positive thinking is just a way for companies to improve morale while they continue to burden employees with the threat of layoffs and an ever-increasing workload. Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent book, “Bright-sided,” blames “positive thinking” for enabling people to avoid confronting a wide range of serious problems in the economy and workplace.

Well, sure. If you’re busy bright-siding yourself, maybe you won’t notice that you’re overworked, you deserve a raise, the guy in the next room just got laid off, and today’s list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm. There’s that seventy-seven cents on the dollar thing, too, and those structural changes that never quite happened that would allow for gender equity at work — and at home.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with positive thinking. I tend to like it, actually. And it’s a sure thing that running around the office complimenting each other and counting your blessings is definitely a way to improve morale — not to mention your company’s bottom line. But it’s also likely to keep you from making any changes to the status quo. Or maybe even wanting to.

Kinda makes me think of “Up In the Air”, where George Clooney’s character attempts to convince the newly-laid-off that their pink slips represent marvelous opportunity. I’m also reminded of a visit to the corporate campus of this wildly successful and notoriously hip young company for lunch one day. The cafeteria boasted at least seven stations where you could order anything from all-American burgers to grilled fish to Pad Thai to salads to make-your own sandwiches. (In my case, a BLT with an unlimited supply of perfectly cooked applewood-smoked bacon.) We sat outside at an umbrella table, within shouting distance of the lap pool and the sand volleyball court. Lunch was gratis for anyone with a badge. As was breakfast. And snacks. Inside, employees could do their laundry, get their hair cut, see the dentist, and play with their dogs. Out in front? Valet parking.

All of which clearly led to good moral and high productivity. And, since employees could do everything at the office but sleep — and lots of them did that, too — insanely long hours at work. Quite the trick, when you think about it.

Which brings us back to the happiness coaches. Another kind of Kool-Aid? They trainers suggest workers do a number of concrete on-the-job tasks to up their happiness quotient:

Write e-mails to your co-workers every day thanking them for something they have done. Meditate daily to clear your mind. Do something for somebody without expecting anything in return. Write in a journal about things you are thankful for; look for traits you admire in people and compliment them. Focus on the process of your work, which you can control, rather than outcomes, which you can’t. And don’t immediately label events good or bad, but remain open to potentially positive outcomes of even the most seemingly negative events.

Not exactly rocket science. But good ideas nonetheless. And I’d be all over it. Sigh.  If only I had the time.

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And again and again and again and again….

Undoubtedly, you’ve asked yourself this very question more than once in your life, wished for a replay, a do-over, a little taste of what Bill Murray was forced to endure in the 1993 flick Groundhog Day–giving an entirely new meaning to the term while he was at it.

It would make choices so much easier, wouldn’t it? After all, if you came to a fork in the road, yet knew you’d have the opportunity to take the other path the very next day, well, I doubt you’d spend too much time debating which way to go. I wouldn’t. Of course, we’d never get a chance to see where those roads led, how they played out in the long-term, either. Our decisions would become so much less weighty, in fact, they’d be all but meaningless.

And that’s the hell–well, that and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania–in which Phil the Weatherman finds himself. At first, reveling in a life free of consequences, he behaves shamelessly. And, in the same situation, who wouldn’t? Consuming one’s weight in baked goods, driving drunk, bedding unsuspecting women, killing famous vermin…. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how we’d do it, but whatever. The bottom line is that the living for today thing gets old pretty quickly. And so he gets outside of himself, he makes nice with the townspeople, takes a genuine interest in the woman he really wants, does a fabulous report on the Groundhog Day festival, and wakes up to find the spell is broken.

So what’s the moral? Well, according to Wikipedia:

In philosophyGroundhog Day has been considered a tale of self-improvement which emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence.[19][20] As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists[21][22] because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”[23]

I don’t know about all that, but I will say this: whether that vermin sees his shadow or not, tomorrow’s a comin. And, as hard as our decisions can be, they matter… and it’s because they matter that they are so hard. But maybe the half-full way of looking at it is that with every choice we make, we take a little control of the tomorrow we’ll wake up to… tomorrow.

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