Archive for the ‘grass-is-greener’ Category

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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The last time our family got together — finding all of us in the same zipcode at the same time is a rare and wondrous feat — we hunkered down in a suite at the Holiday Inn Express (Backstory not important). With no bar or restaurant in sight, our family of foodies trekked to the closest place of business, a gas station mini mart, and bought tortilla chips, bean dip and salsa, and wine, which we drank out of styrofoam coffee cups.

I think we were happy.

I got to thinking about all this happiness business the other day via a piece in the New York Times that suggests that our all-American pursuit of happiness leads to nothing but angst.  The writer, Ruth Whippman, a Brit who recently relocated to California, contrasts British grim to American happy and says she’ll take grim any day.  She starts her piece with a quote from Eric Hoffer — “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness” — then sails right in:

Happiness in America has become the overachiever’s ultimate trophy. A vicious trump card, it outranks professional achievement and social success, family, friendship and even love. Its invocation can deftly minimize others’ achievements (“Well, I suppose she has the perfect job and a gorgeous husband, but is she really happy?”) and take the shine off our own.

Point taken.  We have tied ourselves up in knots of late by using happiness as the barometer of who we are, what we are, and what we’re doing.  And we find that, no matter what, the scale is such that we don’t measure up.  How could we?  I can’t even define happiness.  Can you?

Nonetheless, this endless quest for what we consider our birthright lands us smack in the land of “yeah, but…” A good job that pays the rent?  And maybe even engaging for some of the day? Yeah, but…  If I put in a few more hours, if I got that raise, if I had a better title, if i didn’t have to grade those papers … Then, I’d be happy.

Family and friends?  We had a blast the last time we got together, but if only we could do it more often.  And, you know, the last time the wine was kinda sub-par….

Great kids?  Well, yeah…  He/she plays well with others, and indeed rocks the playground, but, sigh, we’d all be happier if he/she could get into that Chinese immersion program, get on the select soccer team, score off the charts in math, or get into that pricey school that everyone is talking about.

You get the drift.  We’ve bought into the idea that Happy is measurable, and especially for women it breaks down like this: Great career, with a fat paycheck and smug title. Exotic vacations (cue Facebook).  Adorable family that shows well in the Christmas card photo.  And, of course, scores well, too.  Sexy as all get out (and thin to boot).  A closet full of killer boots. (Okay, my own personal preference. Note: I do not measure up.) Yoga class and book club.  And granite in the kitchen.

Is it all about the shoulds? The quest for perfect?  For most of us, the package is unachievable.  But even if we could lay claim to the whole checklist, there’s always this: the next big thing.   Call it the “If-then” fallacy that keeps us living in the future, and blame it on what Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes in Stumbing on Happiness as our uncanny ability to blow it when it comes to predicting what will make us happy.  There’s something else at play here, too:  the American culture itself.   As we wrote in Undecided:

What gets us into trouble is a culture that is both acquisitional and aspirational, leaving us in a constant drool for the Next. Big. Thing. But once we get it, guess what? We’re happy for five minutes, and then we’re off on the chase. We’re back to square one, lusting again over that greener grass. And here’s an irony: Once we’ve jumped the fence, we sometimes wonder if what we had in the first place might have been what we really wanted after all.

Consumer culture doesn’t help. We’re constantly fed the message that we will be happy, sexy, thin, loved—pick one—if we buy the new and improved face cream, wheat bread, plastic wrap. Do we ever see the message that we have enough? Sure, we’re smart enough to know that ads in glossy magazines do not promise happiness, but the subtext spills over: This thing will make you happy. Get the externals in order. Happiness to follow.

But anyway, back to Whitman, whose column sparked this riff.  From her across-the-pond perspective, she has us down:

Since moving to the States just shy of a year ago, I have had more conversations about my own happiness than in the whole rest of my life. The subject comes up in the park pushing swings alongside a mother I met moments before, with the man behind the fish counter in the supermarket, with my gym instructor and with our baby sitter, who arrives to put our son to bed armed with pamphlets about a nudist happiness retreat in Northern California. While the British way can be drainingly negative, The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis.

Bingo.  In our lifelong chase after the impossible ideal we can’t even define, we’ve blinded ourselves to what happiness may be all about after all: a certain contentment with what is.  An ability to savor  the moment. We might even get there if we could ratchet down our expectations.

Which leads us back to the Holiday Inn Express, where our party of five ended up talking and laughing well into the night.  And even though the wine was sub-par, I think we were happy.  Maybe even with a capital-H.

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I was shocked and saddened this weekend when I clicked on an email telling me that Erica Kennedy–fashion publicist turned writer turned author–had died. How I wished I could unclick it–the email, and the news. Today is no better: my head feels clouded, like I’m thinking through mud. My gut feels heavy, as though I ate a bowling ball for breakfast.

The thing is, I didn’t even know her that well. When I was working on Undecided, her second novel, Feminista, had just been published. I honestly don’t remember if I started following her on Twitter first, and that was how I found out about the book, or if someone (or Amazon) had recommended the book to me, and that was how I came to follow her. Regardless, so many of the themes in her book lined up so closely (I mean, eerily so) with the issues the real-live women I was profiling in Undecided were grappling with, I had to talk to her. And she was immediately receptive. We began chatting—or, you know, tweeting; soon enough she sent me a direct message with her email address. I was stunned and flattered by how generous she was with her time, how open she was with me about what she was going through–and had gone through–in her own life, and impressed by her sharp, decidedly un-sugar-coated take on society, pop culture, and Life As A Woman. (You can read an edited version of our interview here.)

We talked about the pressure to have it all—and what the hell that ridiculous message is supposed to mean, anyway—and its shadowy sister: grass is greener syndrome. Kennedy was honest—and enjoyably blunt—about how ambivalent she felt about her own success (as an NYT bestselling author, of a level that’s unimaginable to many of us but that meant little to her); how sometimes she was envious of friends she’d gone to school with who’d gotten married and/or had kids very young, to hell with career… even though Kennedy herself did not particularly want children. She said the happiest time in her life was when she was finishing up Feminista, living in a small rental in Miami, far away from her more-permanent digs in New York. She’d write in the mornings, then ride her bike to the beach for a swim. A relatively mellow existence for the woman who’d taken on the big city—and won. The woman who’d talked Puff Daddy (back when he was called that) into ditching the hip hop gear in favor of sleek suits.

She was just so honest, so forthcoming and so real. She spoke and wrote so many of our truths–though I don’t know to what extent she realized it. I asked her about Feminista’s main character, Sydney, about how she sabotages herself, pushes people away, has so many moments of hot-messedness… and how it is that, despite all that, she’s totally relatable. How did she manage to write such a character? And Kennedy said, while she knew she wanted to write a woman who was angry—one who could really embody all the anger women feel over the mismatch between the great expectations we’re raised to believe are our due and the pressure we feel to be amazing and have it all and what’s actually possible—she never expected the feedback she’d received. Never expected so many people would tell her how much they related to Sydney.

That’s particularly wrenching to think of now.

Kennedy disclosed some darker things too. Things she asked I keep off of the blog (although-that generosity again–she said I was welcome to include any of it in the book, as it felt more removed; while much of her story is in the book, I opted to keep many of the very personal details out), and which I intend to keep to myself here, too. Many have speculated about how she died. I immediately wondered. Just typing those words makes my heart break a little more. Again, I didn’t know her well, but I feel that I knew her.

We emailed back and forth for a while. I riffed on things she wrote. At one point, I hadn’t heard from her in months, and then I got an email with a link to a story and a short line: Hey! What do you think about this? Might be something for your book. (I wrote about it on the blog; you can read that one here.)

Apparently, she was like that with countless people. A connector. A spark. A deep thinker and a deep feeler. Which can be rough for anyone—rougher still for some.

I’m so sorry that I’ll never know her better – and so thankful that I knew her at all. As Roger Ebert tweeted upon learning the news: The world is a lesser place.

Indeed it is. Rest in peace, Erica.

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So, the Mommy Wars. They’re back. Again. Or still.

A superquick recap: As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, last week Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said on CNN that Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s wife Ann, a stay at home mom, had “never worked a day in her life.” Naturally the Romney campaign latched on to that one with the sort of ferocity that would make a pitbull (lipstick-wearing or not) proud, and the media has been all over it since.

While “Can’t we all just get along?” is my immediate, reflexive thought in the face of such firestorms, I realize that it’s just not that simple–and that, as Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote, The Mommy Wars are real. In her smart and honest piece, Williams writes of her experience having a foot in both worlds–she’s a mom and a freelance writer who works from home. Here’s a taste:

We as women spend our whole lives being judged, and never more so than for our roles as mothers. We suffer for it, and frankly, we dish it out in spades. We park ourselves in separate camps, casting suspicious glances across the schoolyard. And it sucks because the judgment is there and its real and it stems so often from our own deepest fears and insecurities. We pay lip service to each other’s “choices”–and talk smack behind each other’s backs.

Yep, we’ve got each other’s backs theoretically, but when it comes down to it, Williams is pretty much right about what we’re doing behind them. But what is it really about? Why are we so defensive? So eager to judge each other for doing things differently? I’d argue its because, sometimes, we worry that we’re doing it wrong — and that the easiest, most comfortable defense in the face of that kind of worry is often a good offense.

And it’s not just stay at home moms versus working moms. It’s working moms versus their non-mom, on-the-job counterparts. It’s moms versus women who don’t have kids. It’s singletons versus coupleds. It’s pro-Botox and anti. It’s Tiger Mom versus Bringing Up Bebe. It’s gluten-free/organic/vegan versus chicken fingers and tater tots.

The other night I Tivo’d a show on OWN: it featured Gloria Steinem in conversation with Oprah, and then the two of them speaking at a small gathering of Barnard college students. At one point, Oprah asked Steinem about being attacked by other women, and then cut to a clip of Steinem on Larry King’s show. King thanked Steinem for being with him, she smiled hugely, and King went to a call. A woman’s voice came through, and she said, “I’m so glad I get to talk to you, Ms. Steinem” …and then went in for the kill. “Why are you trying to destroy families?” she asked in a voice so hostile it made me shiver. “Are you even married? Do you even have kids?” she demanded accusingly.

So, here’s the question: why are we so quick to perceive someone else’s doing things differently–or simply fighting to get access to those different things to do–as an attack on what we’re doing, a statement on our choices? As though there can be no other explanation for why we’ve taken the roads we’ve taken than that the road we didn’t take is wrong.

If we go out for ice cream, and you get chocolate, and I get vanilla (okay, I never get vanilla–I will always get pralines’n’cream), can’t the reason we’ve ordered differently just be attributed to the fact that we have different taste, like different things? Must I interpret your taste for chocolate as some sort of implicit judgment of mine for caramel? An attack on pralines? Surely, that would be chock-fulla-nuts.

What would I get out of criticizing you for your choice?

Perhaps if I was a little unsure that I’d ordered correctly, or perhaps if your choice was looking kinda good, enumerating all the ways chocolate is bad and pralines are good might help to stave off the self-doubt.

When it comes down to the Mommy Wars and all of the other crazy Us-vs.-Themmery we women put each other through, isn’t this kind of what we’re up to? After all, what, exactly, does my choice have to do with yours? Or yours, mine?

Well, there’s something: your choice has to do with mine in the sense that you’re showing me what the road not traveled looks like. If there’s only one way to do something, you’re spared the worry that you’re doing it wrong. There is no right or wrong, better or worse, there is only the way. But, the more options there are, well, the more options there are. And none of them is gonna be perfect, because nothing is. And when we come upon the bumps in our road, we wonder about the other road–and we worry that it’s better. And then, in our lesser moments, we seethe. We judge and we criticize in an attempt to stave off our doubts. If we can make the case that we are right–or, perhaps more to the point, that the other is wrong–we can seize on that little boost of self-assuredness to carry us through for a while.

So I guess what I’ve come up with is this: the moments when we feel like we need to make the case that that other road is wrong are probably the moments when we need to look at ourselves. Honestly. Perhaps we’re frustrated, or overwhelmed, or insecure or unhappy, or–and my money’s on this one–just having one of those days.

And women still have a lot of those days: that we have these choices we’re so quick to do battle over is new. We face structural inequities, lesser pay, the bulk of the burden of the second shift — and all of that second guessing. While we do indeed have access to a ton of paths that were blocked to us just a generation ago, we haven’t yet had the chance to make them smooth and pretty. They’re unpaved and overgrown and difficult to find. Of course we will have moments of self-doubt and envy and insecurity and frustration. But sniping at and about each other does no good for no one.

Last night before I went to bed, I was flipping the channels (it was a big weekend; I allowed myself some serious couch potato time once I got home–don’t judge!) and stopped for a quick second on CNN, because the ticker below that said “Mommy Wars” grabbed my attention. Four commentators went back and forth and around and around about the Mommy Wars: they were all men.

We are all doing the very best we can, in a world that it’s up to us to change, to make room for us. Every last one of us, no matter what path we choose to take. We’re all travelers–and we should do what good travelers do. Greet each other with a smile and an open mind. Share our stories. And, then before heading our separate ways, we should wish each other happy trails.

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Of all the words that have been spoken or written (ours included) about Steve Jobs in the past few weeks, the wisest and most meaningful may have come from the eulogy delivered by his sister, novelist Mona Simpson, who recently shared it with the New York Times.

By now, you have probably read Simpson’s opening:

Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.

And you probably know Jobs’ final words, with which Simpson ended her eulogy:


But what’s stashed between those bookends is genius: a number of life lessons that apply to so many of us, especially women, as we try to figure out where and how we fit into our changing world. We women have come a long way in a short amount of time, with no real roadmaps – or even many role models — to guide us as we try to figure out the balance between the expectations of our evolving roles and a world that hasn’t quite caught up.   As we heard from one of the women — a poet, a grantwriter for a nonprofit, a schoolboard member and a new mother — we interviewed for our book:

“I wonder if some of our frustration is about the fact that it’s virtually impossible to excel at everything—wife, writer, teacher, runner, in my case—and so we’re always worried about the area in which we’re not measuring up to our own expectations. Maybe it’s that society is telling us all that we have to be successful career women—but the world has forgotten to mention that if we want to do that, we can let go of worrying about our pound cake. Or maybe it’s just that the mold of womanhood has been broken, and now it’s up to all of us to make up our own versions. That’s incredibly empowering—because it means we get to make things up as we go along—but also scary and hard.”

And so, because we’re still learning how to navigate the trade-offs, when it comes to making choices on how to live our lives we often rely on shoulds and expectations – and spend a lot of our time wondering “what if.”  Nasty business, most of the time, that takes us out of the moment, and into the netherworld of grass-is-greener.  We second-guess ourselves, contemplating what might have been, and worrying about whether we measure up.

All of which brings us back to Mona Simpson and the lessons she learned from her big brother Steve who, on top of everything else, truly appreciated the wonder in life.  If it’s a roadmap we need, it’s a good one to follow:

• Steve worked at what he loved. He worked really hard. Every day.

• He was never embarrassed about working hard, even if the results were failures. If someone as smart as Steve wasn’t ashamed to admit trying, maybe I didn’t have to be.

• His philosophy of aesthetics reminds me of a quote that went something like this: “Fashion is what seems beautiful now but looks ugly later; art can be ugly at first but it becomes beautiful later.”  Steve always aspired to make beautiful later.

 • He was willing to be misunderstood.

 • He believed that love happened all the time, everywhere. In that most important way, Steve was never ironic, never cynical, never pessimistic. I try to learn from that, still.

 • With his four children, with his wife, with all of us, Steve had a lot of fun. He treasured happiness.

What you find, if you distill those lessons, is a simple recipe for living life to the fullest, whether or not we ever achieve iconic and/or genius status (note: most likely we won’t): Work hard.  Follow your heart — even if failure is a distinct possibility.  Be patient (art versus fashion, remember?).  Treasure the moment.

And appreciate the wonder.

It all resonates, actually, with one of Apple’s earliest slogans, borrowed from Leonardo da Vinci: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

As with Apple, so with life?  Oh wow.

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In the ever-escalating fetishization of the female form, I was left scratching my head once again when I opened the latest issue of Newsweek to find a quick take on Paris Fashion Week. The story focused on the untimely collapse of a few high-rent benches at the Balenciaga show. News, right?

But what sent me hollering for the fashion police were two of the three images in the photo spread: a silky pastel Rochas number that could best be described as underpants with a jacket and a full-pager of a Balenciaga outfit that combined a colorful broad shouldered shirt with, um, jogging shorts. You know, the kind that went out of fashion with side-ponytails.

In both cases, the preternaturally long-legged models had that don’t-eff-with-me look on their faces as, I assume, they power-strutted the runway. And yet: color me baffled. Who of us could wear this stuff, even if we wanted to?  And why, with all the designs from all the spring collections out there, did Newsweek choose to highlight these?

Is this supposed to be the vision of the empowered woman?

Now most of us are jaded enough to know that most of what we see on the catwalk is rarely what we’ll see on the sidewalk – or even on the sales rack. But you have to wonder what these images tell us about ourselves nonetheless.

It’s an old, oft-repeated story: the focus on cadaverous models on the runways and in fashion magazines has been shown to contribute to bad body image among women and young girls. And whether we cop to it or not, we’ve let media images define us since we were old enough to flip the pages of Seventeen Magazine. But there’s more to the story than that.  What we can’t help wondering is what these high fashion images say about women’s place in the world.  Clearly, you’d have a hard time accessorizing bun-hugging shorts with a laptop – or even a cocktail, for that matter — much less be taken seriously.

We women today have been raised with sky-high expectations, with the message we could have it all: killer career, happy family, sexy body and granite in the kitchen. And while we know that having it all, at least all at the same time, can be a dangerous pipe dream that leaves us second-guessing ourselves and feeling that we don’t measure up — still we aspire. Which is why we find the disconnect between who we want to be and the media’s notion of how we’re supposed to look so darn confusing.

And so we wonder. Are these images a subtle way to keep us in the land or either/or?  To keep us in our place? Or is it all a big fat joke?

On us.

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So I came across a post over at BNET the other day that suggests that our high school selves sometimes come back to kick us in the pocketbook when it comes to our careers.   According to business writer Jeff Haden, our professional lives are “like high school with money.” But what might have led to acceptance by the mean girls back in the day can actually be disastrous out in the business world.

He points out that the survival skills we learned when we were fifteen sometimes stick with us when we’re thirty – or beyond — and they rarely end well.  You can guess the ones: Looking to the wrong folks for advice; doing what everyone else is doing because, well, everyone else is doing it; making decisions based on the “shoulds”;  and caring far too much about what other people think.  All these patterns, he writes, can be roadblocks when it comes to building a professional life.

His point, in a nutshell:  For good or for ill, most of us got it wrong in high school.  And yet, old habits die hard.  All of which got us to pondering:  Do our high school selves mess with more than the corporate ladder?  Are our grown-up perceptions still colored by the girls we once were?

For many of us, life took an abrupt left turn once adolescence reared its awkward head. Maybe we were one of the cool kids. Maybe we were irretrievably dorky. In either case, we were filled with self doubt. Self-definition came in the form of how someone treated us at lunch or whether the phone rang that night. So silly. And yet.

You have to wonder how much of that insecure self stays with us into adulthood, whispering in our ear, making us second guess our decisions, and nudging us to replay those invisible patterns etched long ago. Are we still looking for approval from erstwhile best friends? Is there a part of us that still wants to please the arbiters of ninth grade taste — or show them up? Hello there, mean girls! Take a look at me now!

Didn’t matter whether we were beauty or brains – or none of the above; the prom queen or the wallflower; whether we were picked first or last for volleyball or had our ass routinely kicked by Algebra II.  Deep inside, or maybe not even so deep therein, we were all just a little bit miserable because of, or in spite of, how we perceived ourselves back in the day.  And what we wonder is this:  Did we every outgrow that awkward adolescent? Has she left an indelible mark on our iconic self?

Is she part and parcel of the master narrative we sometimes use to frame our lives?

Don’t get us wrong. Painful or not, high school was a pivotal time. After all, a lot of serious developmental stuff goes down during those formative years, and chief among that work is individuation – figuring out our identity, defining ourselves apart from our parents.  It’s a search that leads us logically toward our peers, with this one nasty byproduct: we tend to see ourselves as others see us.

Or, worse yet, the way we think that others see us.

Sure, men are subject to this process, too, but here’s where it’s different for women.  We’re hard-wired – or maybe socialized — to please.  (Nature or nurture, who cares?)  Which is why we listened to those imaginary whispers when we were in high school – and sometimes do it still.  We see ourselves through others’ eyes.  We judge ourselves by others’ judging.  And we ask ourselves:  Do we measure up?  Do we fit in?

You have to wonder if this is one more reason why decisions are so loaded for women, especially when we’re trying to figure out what to do with our lives.  Could this be why we’re always lusting after that greener grass?  Why we have such a hard time figuring out what we want?

All of which leads us back to where we started.  We can’t help thinking this lingering desire to fit in impacts women more than men, especially as we navigate the somewhat unfamiliar turf of today’s workplace. Because we are unsure of the rules, do we take reactions more seriously? Are we more tentative?  Continually looking over our shoulder to make sure those whispers in the corner aren’t about us? Worse yet, do we avoid even putting ourselves out there, sticking with Mr. Safe Path, so we can avoid the risk of rejection?

Good questions, right?  But meanwhile, even as I type this, I hear a tragic little ninth grader – the one with the bad hair and the big glasses — whispering in my ear: What will (choose one) think? To which the only grown-up answer is: Who cares. Because while we may assume we’re being judged, more often than not, the only one who’s doing the judging is our high school self.

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Life lessons via Woody Allen? Who knew.

Surely by now you have seen his latest, Midnight in Paris, a sweet little movie that is both a love letter to Paris with a few big questions tucked inside the laughs. To wit: Do we idealize what we don’t have? Are we in love with a fantasy — and does that love affair sometimes throw us over the edge?

For those of you who have not yet seen the movie, it’s not too much of a spoiler to note that Gil, the main character played by Owen Wilson, has fallen head over heels for a glorious Paris of a bygone era, the one that is inhabited by writers and artists such as Ernest Hemmingway, Scott (and Zelda) Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali. In the world according to Woody, Gil falls into a time wrinkle and dances and drinks with them all each night after the clock strikes 12.

It’s heady and exciting and romantic as well: Gil’s vision of the perfect life. And yet. What he eventually learns is this:  when you idealize the past, you put yourself in danger of missing out on the present.

It’s a lesson we women could take to heart. So many of us have been raised with the fantasy not of another era – but of the perfect life. It’s a pervasive message – you can have it all, you can do it all, you can be it all – and, the biggest scam of all, it’s all going to be perfect.

Except when it isn’t.

And yet, like our hapless hero in Midnight in Paris, once we’ve been fed on the fantasy, we continue to chase it as Gil does by hopping into a vintage Peugeot cabriolet each night that transports him to Gertrude Stein’s salon. But when our day-to-day reality falls short of the ideal – as it often does — we look to the other side of the fence, the path not taken, and assume the world we imagine, our own personal Paris of the 1920s, is so much better than it actually is.

And there you have it. Grass-is-greener syndrome as explained by Woody Allen.

All of which makes us wonder: does our romantization of that other reality lead us to second guess our choices?  Convince ourselves that someone out there is always doing it better, faster – and having more fun (and thanks for that, facebook friends)?

We know in our hearts that perfection is nothing but a pipedream, and yet the messaging tells us otherwise:  we’ll have it all it all – career, marriage, family and granite in the kitchen.  And all of it will be just as advertised, thank you very much.  But even when it is, as tennis icon Billie Jean King reminded us on the 50th anniversary of her first Wimbledon title, perfection is only a momentary hit of Nirvana.  Last week, NPR’s Susan Stamberg asked King, who won her first title at 17 and proceeded to win 20 more, what it felt like to hit a perfect shot.  Check her response:

Ms. KING: It feels like it’s mind, body and soul totally integrated for one perfect moment and you feel like you’re one with yourself and one with the universe all in a very split moment.

STAMBERG: The first time you do it, do you have time to stop and think, gee, I just did that, or is it just all moving so fast?

Ms. KING: No, no, it’s just a split moment. You’re in and out. You’re totally in the process, in the moment. That’s when you’re in the zone in anything. And all you do in life, if you’re engaged in the moment, that’s when life, I find, is the most, you know, it’s most gratifying.

And that’s the secret: Living in the moment, with all its beautiful imperfections.  Which leads us back to Midnight in Paris. The film  wraps with a dose of happily-ever-after as well as an epiphany that makes sense for us all: The present is a little unsatisfying because life itself is a little unsatisfying.

And that’s just fine with us.

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Remember when you were a kid, and you wanted to pierce your belly button or stay out all night, and you’d say to your mom, “But mooooom, everyone else is doing it!”? And then she’d say, “If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you?” And then, if you were feeling especially petulant, you might say, “Well yeah. There’d be no one left to play with.”

No one wants to be left behind. (After all, how much fun would it be if all your friends had jumped off the bridge, leaving you standing alone, like the proverbial cheese?) And, in a way, that feeling never goes away.

Once we’re all grown up, how much do such feelings interfere with our decisions? How often are the things we pick for our lives influenced by a little unconscious–and not so unconscious–desire to head off becoming the cheese? How often are the milestones (marriage, advanced degree, corner office, fat apartment in the city, fat home in the ‘burbs, fat baby in the stroller) we shoot for not, if we were to think about it, the result of us really assessing what we want for our lives, but just sort of assumed? Everyone else is doing it…

It’s not that we’re mindless lemmings, of course. But have you noticed how the nuances of friendship play a role in our choices—and how our choices play a role in our friendships? Conflicts, particularly between women, have a lot to do with choices. Defending what we’ve chosen for our lives—and what we’ve chosen to leave behind. Judging our friends’ choices. Interpreting the fact that our friend has chosen something different as her judgment (and rejection) of what we’ve chosen for ourselves. The distance that grows when we feel like (because we’ve chosen differently or believe we would choose differently if we were in her shoes) we can no longer relate to the women to whom we’re closest.

Like the kid afraid of being left all alone on the bridge, each of us, at one time or another, has been left feeling like the oddball exception. And that feeling can mess with the decisions we make–and often, the really important ones. The ones that take our lives in one direction or another. How often do we steer ourselves into what we believe is the culturally-approved path, make decisions based on what we think we should do, what we should want?

Take, for example, those of us who secretly just want a “paycheck job,” the kind you show up for at 9, leave at 5, and don’t think about til 9 the next day. But we’ve absorbed the idea that it’s not enough, that there’s something wrong with us to merely want a job when we can have a Career–so we kill ourselves to meet some grand milestone we think we should want, quietly wondering all the while: Why am I doing this, again?

Maybe the conventional ideas about the ‘American Dream’ are the ones that tug at us: steady career path, home ownership, husband, kids. Everybody else seems to want those things, right? Surely we must be insane for being more interested in adventure than security. So we opt for the safe path, daydreams of running off to join the circus growing all the more tantalizing with each mortgage bill.

Or maybe it’s the notion of having it all, the Superwoman icon that keeps us quiet. We see other women smoothly managing it all. Or so we think. So we struggle to keep our heads above water, never letting on that we’re one cupcake away from going postal, never even questioning what parts of “it all” we really want, what is really worth wanting for us–because, well, let’s be honest, who has the time?

The thing about women having the unprecedented number of options we do today, having all sorts of ways to structure our lives, to cobble together our own reality made up of some parts work, some parts fun, some parts family—well, it’s new. We don’t have centuries of role models to look to for guidance. And nothing’s perfect. And so, when we’re having One Of Those Days, maybe we start to question the way we’re doing it. We wonder: should I be doing what she’s doing?

But instead of all of this silent comparing, the assumptions and judgment, what if we instead took a moment to think, to realize that we each have our own path—and just because our friends are doing something different doesn’t mean they think we’re making a mistake. That they might have just as many moments of questioning themselves and their decisions as we do. And if that’s the case, then maybe the best way to deal would be to start talking. Maybe, if we can all summon up the bravery to be a little more honest, we’d realize that we’re actually in good company. No matter how different our choices.

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So I confess.  I was ambushed by the green-eyed Facebook monster over the Memorial Day weekend.  I spent most of mine sitting at the dining table, gazing longingly out at our backyard, grading papers. Welcome to my life at the end of the quarter.

So you can guess that all those posts and pix from FB friends at picnics and barbeques and baseball games, spending time with friends and family, left me just a little bit deflated.  Lusting after that greener grass.   Because surely, all those happy faces and cheery posts mean those folks were doing it better, enjoying more life, and having more fun.  Right?

And then (okay, procrastination is  good for the soul), I ran into a blog post that, in a small way, reminded me that the thing that we daydream about when we wish we were doing something else, that thing that from the outside looks like heaven here on earth — usually isn’t.

Case in point.  The glamorous life of a travel writer.  If you love to travel and, you know, you write for a living (or think you should) well, what could be better?  Sigh.  If only. But, as Pam (AKA “Nerd’s Eye View) writes in a post entitled “Why I’m not a full-time Travel Writer”, once you’re on the inside, you realize that the reality is quite different from the fantasy.  She’s a travel writer, who pays the bills as a technical writer, and she provides a dose of reality as to what that dream career is really like.  The whole post is great, but here’s the nut:

Next month is the Travelblog Exchange (TBEX), a conference for travel bloggers. I had dearly wanted there to be some kind of reality check discussion, not because I want to depress hopeful writers, but because I wanted to blow away some of that fiction around what it really means to be a travel writer by profession. X1, who writes for a prestigious publication and travels a lot has told me, “Yeah, it’s great. I love the work. But I’m poor. I live in a tiny apartment.” X2 admitted to winning big in the technology lottery and living off those funds. X3 has a full time day job and a spouse with a full time day job. X4 admits to churning out fluffy, uninteresting stories for custom publication markets.

The folks I know who are full time freelance travel writers are in a continuous cycle of pitch, write, edit, research, travel, repeat. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not clear to me that money is that good. I know a few staffers, too, and you know what? They’re just like your friends with day jobs. They have meetings and process and office politics and frustrations. Sure, they get to go some places, but so does the outside sales guy, and he doesn’t have to see his story eviscerated before it goes to press.

What I wanted at TBEX was a session that presented the reality of writing as a profession, not as a quixotic pursuit or a weekend hobby or gap year boondoggle. Admittedly, I wanted this for myself as much as anything. Because I struggle with what I do (what is that, anyways?) all the time. I wanted to hear people who I think of as grown up, professional travel writers speak honestly about how they juggle all this stuff, how they manage to make it work. I’m always grateful for time with writers who will share, honestly, how they get by — a recent conversation revealed a writer’s need to sell multiple stories about one destination with every trip in order to make the travel pay off. “I can’t go just because I want to. I need to sell that story five times over to have it be worth my while.”

There are those who have made the jump to an itinerant lifestyle, bugging out to places where the low pay is enough, effectively outsourcing this work to places where 30 dollars goes much further than it does in my chosen home. That’s not something I’m willing to do. And keep in mind some basic math — even were I to make 1000/month blogging, I could not live on my annual income. There are also some who manage to generate a decent income, but they have a highly targeted market, they have a sophisticated understanding of what the web likes, they are backing up all their words with the sale of a product or service that people want to buy. Having none of those things, I don’t expect to live off the first person scribblings of this blog.

You should also read the comments to this post that, at this point, number 101. All of which is to say that, when we’re toiling away in a cubicle (or the dining room table) dreaming of that killer job that involves only a backpack and a laptop — we’re probably blinded by the rose-colored glasses.

The travel writing gig — it’s just a small example.  But there are other dreams out there just like them.  (Insert yours) Which is absolutely not to say we shouldn’t follow our dreams.  (Ack.  Double negative.  Sorry!)  Or that we shouldn’t do what we can to make them happen.  Not at all.

The lesson is this.   Life is complicated.  Messy.  Rarely is it perfect.  There are always trade-offs.  And that grass?  Usually not as green as it looks from the other side of the fence.

And oh, by the way.  Memorial Day?  Just about the time my second red pen ran out of ink, got an invite for a last minute barbeque at a friend’s house.  It was goddamn delicious.  In every possible way.

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