Taking a Break, Then Taking Action

I took a break from all social media in June. I was so heartsick over everything – pervasive racism and discrimination, police brutality, the continuing death toll from Covid-19, the never-ending catastrophe of the Trump administration. It was too much to take. How could I spend my time sewing, gardening, and otherwise enjoying my life in the face of so much, pain, suffering and death?

I used the time instead to attend some rallies, read and attend lectures and talks about the issues, reckon with my own experiences with racism – times I have both done and said things I should not have, and have been silent when others did – reach out to friends and neighbors who are hurting, and planning sustainable actions for the future.

If you’re interested in these issues, here are a few steps you might want to take along with me.

  1. State clearly and often that Black Lives Matter. Don’t give me that “all lives matter” nonsense. If you don’t understand what Black Lives Matter means, guess what? It’s easy to learn. Start here.
  2. Call out people on their racism. I am tired of just ignoring crap I hear from other white people – those microaggressions, those little snide comments and “I’m not prejudiced, but…” statements. Guess what? You are prejudiced. And I am not taking it anymore.
  3. Learn about the long, long history of racism. As a starting point, I especially recommend “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times Sunday Magazine, as a primer to the history of slavery and how racism has poisoned all aspects of American life.
  4. Learn about conscious bias. All people have biases – it’s part of being human. But unconscious bias is what happens when we make snap judgments about people based on preconceived notions or prejudices. Unconscious bias is the quiet, nasty sibling of outright loudmouth bigotry. It affects how people judge one another based on their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, ability, nationality, religion or other factor. A useful tool is to “press the pause button” when I feel unconscious bias creeping in. Think – am I feeling this way because the other person is X and I am Y? Recognizing bias is the first key to stamping it out.
  5. Open your wallet. Instead of spending money to enjoy my white privileged life, I have been spending money to help others. There are many worthy causes. Here are a few national organizations I have supported – some longtime supporter, some new supporter: The NAACP, The Southern Poverty Law Center, The United Negro College Fund and The Black Women’s Health Imperative. Even better, support your local organizations. We love LEAP – a local educational program.
  6. Talk about it. Many white people – myself included – feel that they can’t talk about racism. They may think – “I don’t know what to say.” Or “If I say something it may come out wrong.” Or some other excuse. I encourage you to reckon with what the real reason is. For me, it was shame. I am ashamed that I have failed to see and fight racism in my daily life. I am ashamed of things I did in the past that seemed OK but now I know were not. Whatever your reason is, lean into it. Talk to your friends and family. Get them to understand your point of view, and get them to understand why it’s not OK to ignore it, or to say “it’s not my business” or whatever sorry excuses they may have. You are not going to get it right every time, but if you learn you will put yourself on the path to righteousness.
  7. Normalize Blackness in your life. This was a suggestion from a coworker who gave a presentation with others about racism in everyday life. By this, she meant that white people tend to view Black people as “others” – outside of their normal lives and experiences. Most white people, for example, will accept a Black person as an entertainer, or an athlete, or a servant in some way, as long as it’s on their terms and doesn’t make them uncomfortable. “Twelve Years a Slave” was a devastatingly powerful Best Picture Oscar winner movie few white people have seen. Too heavy for you? “Black-ish” is an award-winning sitcom about a wealthy black family that tackles racism head-on. about Do you read books? Shop at stores? Eat at restaurants? Are they all “white”? Seek out other perspectives of others.
  8. If they don’t get it, boycott. I have not been a strong advocate of sending a message through my wallet. Companies that do outrageous things – such as Hobby Lobby’s refusal to cover birth control for its employees – don’t get my business. But I have been less interested in policing the “rightness” of other things I consume. Now I realize that it’s not enough to plead ignorance or to claim I don’t notice, or not to care when, for example, a clothing designer never features a nonwhite model, or an older model, or a model who’s larger than a size 00. I need to pay more attention to what I buy and the message that sends. So, unless things change (and if they don’t after all the consciousness-raising that’s been going on, I am speechless) I won’t buy from businesses who fail to listen up. For me, that means some European sewing magazines and pattern companies are now on the “do not buy” list, along with companies that have a history of discrimination or pay lip service to racism in our society.

What are you going to do?

Resolutions for 2020 – Distaff Style

Self-improvement plans – what else would we distaffers do on January 1?

A few quick resolutions then, before we get to work:

  1. Style: I did Me Made May for the whole month last year (even while on vacation) and for most of the year, really. Now that I have a reliable jeans pattern, there’s nothing stopping me from wearing Me Made Everyday. So I am going to go for it!

I got started this morning with a nice long walk in the park with the hubs and the dog in Me Made Jacket (Simplicity 8843), the Jasper Sweater from Paprika Patterns, and hat by Green Pepper Patterns.

IMG_20200101_091805
Me Made Cold-weather outfit

I made the sweater last week out of some poly-cotton blend sweatshirt fleece with a muted plaid design.

DSC00612
Paprika Patterns Jasper Sweatshirt

To add interest, I did the cuffs, side panels and collar on the bias.

2. Gardening: My vegetable garden really put out this year. Amending the soil in my two raised beds helped so much. I found a reliable set of tomato plants and other veggies to grow from now on. I was kicking myself for not doing a better job of tending to the plants and harvesting. So I am planning to do less, but put more effort into what I have and not let anything go to the bugs or go bad on the vine.

IMG_20191013_112808
Tomatoes anyone?

3. Fitness: Seek out a real posture plan. I played around with various posture exercises and finally found something that seemed to work. I need to hire the trainer who did this workshop for some private sessions, to make this a regular thing. I am hopeful that I can stop my hunchback development and maybe even undo some of the damage I’ve done.

4. Housework: I have one simple goal. Keep the kitchen floor clean! With a dog around, it’s a chore. I always feel like my home is at its best when the kitchen floor is vacuumed and scrubbed. So that’s the big goal here. Exciting, right?

5. Sewing: For sure, I am going to continue with my “sew edgy” look for the office. I need to find a simple dress that I can make a TNT. I also need a few blouses, and I really need to make a proper suit. For casual wear, I will perfect the jeans. I realize that while I have been playing around with a lot of indie pattern companies, I have been disappointed with some results compared with results from Big 4 (although there are exceptions), so I am going to focus more on Big 4. I have plenty of fabric and patterns at this point – so I am going on a “fast” at least for the first half of the year.

IMG_20180921_194314.jpg
Sew Edgy office outfit – a favorite

6. Sustainability: A friend who’s a sustainability consultant really made me think about the nature of consumption and waste. I am proud that I don’t do fast fashion and that I will mend and alter clothing. I take public transportation, walk or bike most places. I have a few “upcycle” and “refashion” sewing projects in my head for this year. I feel I could do more, however, when it comes to food. We are doing Meatless Mondays as a family, and on my own I will do more meatless meals (my husband will be challenged to do Mondays as it is). I also am going to buy fewer prepared things in plastic containers – I am talking to you, deli soups and salads! Seriously, it’s not hard to make soup. I’ll probably save $100 a year! I sewed up some simple reusable bags for produce, and I always use tote bags at the store. And I am going to stop buying the occasional to-go coffee unless I can get it in a reusable insulated mug. I already do this with water – why not with coffee?

7. Diet: I just gotta kick sugar. I feel that very badly. I can go for weeks without any, and then I have some, and it’s just a spiral from there. I am not sure how to tackle this one, except to go cold turkey. I need to research more, but it’s happening.

IMG_20191221_161434
The last pie, for a while anyway

8. Career: I started last year doing a weekly work reflection on Friday mornings. I’d write down a few accomplishments, networking wins, personal achievements and other notable events from the week. This is a great idea because at work, weeks turn into months, turn into years, and then you have to get a new job, and you go to update the resume and you can’t think of what to say! This exercise takes 5 minutes and it really helps. I am getting started by updating my LinkedIn profile and resume with key accomplishments from 2019. Also, I am trying to network more. I need to be “heads down” at work and more collaborative and social.

9. Family: This is a tough one. I feel that I have neglected my husband and family at times, especially my in-laws. There’s no excuse – we live so nearby – but weeks go by without a word to or from anyone. Even with my husband, we have well-established routines that make it tough to break out. So I am going to make more of an effort on all fronts. Sometimes a simple call to say “hi” or an impromptu date night is all we need to get out of the rut. I will take care of my mother when she has knee surgery later this month, so I can use that time to visit a bit with others to get the year started off well.

10. Reading: I have done well with reading more female authors, but I feel I need to do more to read writers from different nationalities and races. I got a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas, so I plan to pick up a few things to get started. I general, I am going to try to read more and do less “faffing about on the mobile” while on my train commute. Now that my grad school is done, I will have time to open my mind more in other directions.

11. Giving back: We made an effort  in 2019 to give more to charities, and we succeeded in increasing our contributions by a thousand dollars over the course of the year. I also have done a bit more charity work with groups I support by in-kind contributions of time and expertise. In fact, I won an award from one charity I support with weekly editing and coaching of college students. I miss volunteering with local groups, though – I managed one event in 2019 – a bike-a-thon – so I am going to try to do two events in 2020.

IMG_20180428_105317 (1)
Biking for charity – $500 raised

12. Activism. I will admit it: I dread 2020. I am terrified that Trump will get re-elected. I have little confidence that the Democrats will get their shit together. I worry that the economy will thank, and while that would hurt Trump, it’s going to hurt a lot of other people too, so I don’t exactly wish it. After he was elected, I made a plan to so something once a week to #resist. I wrote letters to Congress. I attended rallies. I got educated on the issues. I sewed a shitload of pussyhats. I donated money to groups under siege – Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League – I could go on. I have kept up some of these activities but have let others slide. This is a do-or-die year. I need to step it up.

Thank you for reading! I wish you all a happy healthy 2020! (Except Trump.)

Books I Liked in 2019

Tied up with grad school and work obligations, I had to be choosy about what I read in 2019. As in past years, I made it a point to read more female authors’ work. Here are some recommendations:

Science Fiction/Fantasy

I started the year re-reading “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeline L’Engle. Over Christmas, I saw the movie directed by Ava DuVernay, and it was … not how I remembered one of my favorite books of childhood. So I hit up the library and re-read the story. It’s still a fabulous story with a message that really resonates with me today much as it did when I was a child.

That put me on a science-fiction/fantasy kick, so next I re-read Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece “The Left Hand of Darkness.” (Again, with the library.) The book is famous for exploring gender issues in science fiction. It’s strange and beautiful and I highly recommend it.

Then I re-read “Dune” by Frank Herbert – one of the most popular books of my youth. This book did not age well. While the planet and culture Herbert created are fascinating and inventive, the characters and story arcs seem pretty dated and even offensive today.

I continued to plow through the library’s science fiction/fantasy section with “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman – a deliciously funny and scary send-up of the way religion warps societies.

At this point, I gave up on my library visits  and sought out some new sci-fi books. I bought “The Power,” an award-winning book by Naomi Alderman, about a new deadly power that evolves in women, changing tipping the battle of the sexes to women. I highly recommend it, too.

I highly anticipated Margaret Atwood’s sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, “The Testaments.” The original book changed my life in high school, and I re-read it recently in light of the never-ending shitshow that is the Trump administration. Sadly, the Booker Prize-winning “The Testaments” disappointed me. While some might find the story satisfying, I think it missed something deep and true about human nature and the American psyche, unlike the original, which cuts very close to home.

Nonfiction

I had read a lot of sci-fi at this point, so it was time to get real. What better way than with a book about people who live in a slum in Mumbai, India? “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a prize-winning nonfiction book by the journalist Katherine Boo. I was drawn to this book because I noticed these slums in Mumbai, right alongside the glittering modern airport.

airport slum

I was both fascinated and horrified – I took myself on quite a guilt trip but also came to understand more about Indian culture and ways of life. The book is dark and devastating and also funny and sweet in places.

For nonfiction, I also read “Feminism is for Everybody” by bell hooks, the pen name of the feminist professor and activist Gloria Jean Watkins. The book is an approachable primer on what feminism is – and isn’t. I love hook’s simple language explaining how feminism is an antidote to the patriarchy’s institutionalized sexism. I also like how she challenges white cis bourgeois women (such as myself) to basically get our heads out of our asses.

More Fiction

I started but could not finish “The Tale of Genji,” an ancient Japanese work – a kind of proto-novel – written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, in the 11th century. The book follows Genji, a beautiful and charismatic young prince, through his loves and losses, victories and sorrows. The book starts with young Genji, dishing with his friends one rainy night, about the “ideal woman.” I read this in English translation, which included copious notes to help the reader understand the intricacies of 11th-century Japanese life.

I tried to read this after I saw a beautiful exhibit inspired by the book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I stood a long time looking at this screen, depicting Genji in exile.

Genji in Exile screen

I was fascinated because not only was the text ancient, but a woman wrote it! Sadly, for me the book was hard to get through and follow. There’s a lot of what we modern people would consider misogyny, rape and child abuse. But I imagine it’s a realistic picture of what was going on in Japan at the time.

I was interested in reading something new after that. Unfortunately, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh was not what I was looking for. This novel tells the story of a beautiful privileged young woman who basically sleeps and shirks her life for a year, with no consequences. She emerges from her year richer and happier and more beautiful… blah blah. Awful.

My final recommendation – saving the best for last – is “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, the 2019 winner of The Pulitzer Prize. I loved this so much I bought copies for many friends and relatives. It was so beautiful and unexpected and thought-provoking. Please check it out.

A Year in Review

I happy that I scored a few accomplishments in 2018 in my distaffian pursuits, besides sewing. In no particular order, here they are, plus some recommendations in case you’re interested in knowing more.

Survey Research and Statistics

survey

I enrolled in a graduate program in survey research. I took an intro to survey research class in the spring and a statistics class in the fall. I recommend that everyone gets to know a little about surveys – how they’re conducted, what a good one looks like, what a bad one looks like, how the math is done and how to interpret results.

There are so many surveys these days. I estimate I get a request to take a survey at least twice a week – mostly marketing and customer service surveys where companies want to know why I bought or  didn’t buy something or what my experience was like. Sometimes a pollster calls me for a public opinion survey or a political poll. I used to say “thanks but no thanks” to surveys, but after learning more about them, I participate more often.

A couple of takeaways:

  • People like to harp on surveys that are “wrong,” but they rarely are wrong. Most 2016 US presidential polls predicted Hillary Clinton would win by a slim margin. Most Brexit polls predicted the UK would vote to “remain,” by a slim margin. Those surveys were not wrong. A slim margin is still a margin – the margin represents the likelihood that the outcome would go the other way. It’s unlikely, but it does happen, as we know all too well.
  • Innumeracy is a problem. Many people do not understand simple statistics and random chance. For example, if you flip a coin, the chance it will be heads is 1 in 2 (expressed mathematically as 0.5). If you flip a coin twice, the chance it will be heads twice in a row is 1 in 4 (0.5 times 0.5 = 0.25), but the chance is will land heads on each individual flip is still 1 in 2. The odds reset with each flip of the coin. If you flip a coin 9 times and it comes up heads 9 times, what’s the chance it will be heads on the 10th flip? Still 1 in 2. Every slot machine ever was built on peoples’ inability to understand this.
  • All surveys contain some kind of bias, no matter how well the pollster controls for it. For example, some respondents will modify their survey responses depending on the gender or race of the person asking the question. Some people will misunderstand a question. Maybe a question is poorly worded. The person asking the questions may not be clear or understand a response. Many other things can go wrong.
  • Survey fatigue is a problem. As more and more surveys are conducted, respondents are getting better and better at evading them. This makes it harder to get a decent response rate, which increases the cost and time it takes to do a solid survey. The old random-digit telephone dialing methodology doesn’t work well when so many people have cut the cord, and most young people have never had a land line at all. New technologies are needed to combat this.
  • Internet polls are useless. Seriously, don’t ever pay attention to what an Internet survey says.

These two college textbooks were pretty well written and approachable:

Elementary Statistics in Social Research by Jack Levin et al.

Survey Methodology by Robert Groves et al.

Also, the statistics posts on DrMath.com and the LinkedIn courses by Eddie Davila are good.

Easy-Does-It Gardening

I finished my perennial beds this year. A few things didn’t do so well, but all in all, I am happy with how this turned out. I am glad I spent the money to have the old bed dug up and new beds created.

IMG_20180705_113625
New perennial beds

I have learned the hard way not to engineer a perennial bed that closely. Maybe some gardeners are OK with fussing over everything, but I lack the money, time and energy for any high-maintenance plants. They have to grow with little love or supervision, or they’ll take their chances. That means no delphinium, which need constant fertilizer, or Asian lilies, which get eaten by bugs.

IMG_20180905_191731
Asters (blue) and false sunflower (yellow)

I didn’t design these beds but instead adapted a sample bed design from the book “The Garden Primer” by Barbara Damrosch. Not all of the plants were available in the varieties and colors the book suggested, but I was able to find decent substitutes. A friend gave me this book years ago. There’s a new edition out that has updated recommendations for plant varieties.

I’ll revisit the plan in the spring, as some plants likely won’t survive the winter. I wanted some white phlox, but I couldn’t find any – will seek again in the spring. Also, I think the design overall has a few too many “daisy” shaped flowers – I’d like more shape variety.

The vegetable garden turned out pretty well, considering the soil in my raised beds needs replacing. I augmented it heavily with compost – bought some in addition to what I made. As usual, I planted too many tomatoes.

IMG_20180803_193546
There is such a thing as too many tomatoes

And I really messed up with the seedlings I bought from a roadside stand. I will always go to a reputable garden center from now on.

Modular Cooking

In 2018 I discovered the joys of modular cooking. In brief, my husband and I cook and prepare a variety of proteins, veggies, starches, salads and soups that can mix and match into meals.

For example, in the summer I do every week a big mixed grill of vegetables, and in the winter I do a big pan of roasted mixed vegetables. The mixes are seasonal and vary a bit week to week.

IMG_20180719_184423
Mixed grill of summer vegetables

This mix above has bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini and yellow squash. Alongside this grill wok we cooked several chicken breasts and a few ears of corn. We get these meals out of it:

Meal 1: Chicken and veggies with corn on the cob

Meal 2: Chicken fajitas with the veggies, plus salsa and tortillas, with corn salad on the side

Meal 3: Pasta primavera with the veggies and the last of the chicken, plus some Parmesan cheese and a tossed salad on the side

Meal 4: Omelets with the last of the veggies, plus cheese, bread and salad

Winter takes on this concept start like this, with a whole roasted chicken and roasted root vegetables.

IMG_20180520_170304
Modular cooking in fall and winter

Dinner 1: Roasted chicken with sweet potatoes and roasted carrots and parsnips

Dinner 2: Chicken pot pie with some of the leftover chicken and roasted vegetables, plus a gravy and a pastry crust

Dinner 3: Stuffed sweet potatoes with leftover chicken, plus some nuts and dried fruit

Dinner 4: Chicken noodle soup, with broth made from the chicken carcass, plus pasta and the rest of the roasted veggies

This method of cooking is a revelation for me. For this to work, you have to be OK with leftovers, admittedly. Often as the week goes on, the more flavorful dishes appear. Hot sauce is my new best friend.

 

Ever Wonder What Those Models on Sewing Pattern Envelopes Are Saying to One Another?

Picture this: a Kwik Sew sewing pattern envelope from the 1970s. View D is a white woman with a brunette bob, wearing a flesh-colored bra and a long green slip. View C, a white woman with a blond bob, is also wearing a bra and slip, but this slip has a slit in it. View A is a white woman in a short, lace-trimmed slip, arms crossed over her bare chest.

Miss View C says to Miss View A: “Come on, Blair! Do you want to pledge Chi Omega or not?”

IMG_20180426_163916

So that’s what the models on sewing pattern envelopes are saying to one another! Passing along weed and birth control. Expressing their sexuality. Tormenting their siblings. Plotting against enemies. Expressing feminist positions instead of vapid fashion statements.

It’s all in the book “Pattern Behavior: The Seamy Side of Fashion” by Natalie Kossar.

Kossar started this book as a Tumblr a few years ago. I looked forward to new ones coming out every few days. Kossar has compiled many of the best into this book.

Kossar and sewing did not get along. As a child, she’d been bored many times at the fabric store, as her mother pored over pattern catalogs, and she could never get the hang of sewing. “Girls who liked sewing were weak and boring. And I refused to be one of them,” Kossar writes.

She saw sewing patterns in a different light when her mother asked her to find a vintage pattern online. A simple Google search bombarded her with thousands of pattern envelope images, including many that expressed outdated ideas about gender, race and class. She started thinking of putting these models into a new conversation. “The juxtaposition of the vintage images with modern dialogue generated a strong message of social growth and change,” Kossar writes.

IMG_20180426_164858
“Average” takes on a new meaning.

If you like what you see and want more, please leave a comment below to enter a giveaway to win a free book! From all the comments received by 8 p.m. US Eastern Time on Tuesday, May 1, I will randomly draw one winner for the prize.

Five Years Ago I “Leaned In”

Five years ago, I found myself at a crisis point in my career. I was feeling restless and dissatisfied. I vaguely felt underpaid and underappreciated, in a male-dominated industry and company. While I had been successful,  I was stuck.  I didn’t know how to move forward, nor did I have the energy or courage to move. I had started looking for my next opportunity, but without any firm direction or goal.

I read “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg shortly after it published, five years ago this week. So had a couple of work friends. We each invited five women to be part of a “Lean In Circle” at the office, to follow up on the book’s advice. A group of about 15 women met for two hours every other month to work through the program and support one another.

“Lean In” changed my life. Today, I am at a much bigger and more prominent company, in a bigger job, with more pay, responsibility, challenge and energy. “Lean In” didn’t do this alone for me, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone, jump-started my career and opened my mind to what was possible.

A lot of people like to disparage “Lean In.” I wonder, did they actually read the book? They complain that Sheryl Sandberg approached the topic from a place of extraordinary prestige, wealth and privilege, as a Harvard graduate and COO of Facebook. Yes, she did. So what? I don’t understand how that invalidates what she has to say, as if the only “legitimate” women’s viewpoint on careers has to come from some hardscrabble perspective. And I really don’t understand why a “women attacking other women” viewpoint in op-eds and blogs is somehow more valid. There is a special place in hell reserved for successful women who don’t help other women succeed.

Here are several real-world examples coming from me, who came from a hardscrabble background, of how “Lean In” opened my eyes and helped me move forward:

Sexism: My manager at my old job was an older British man. I liked him and we got along well. But he did three things that really bothered me:

  • He insisted I get a mentor.
  • He socialized after work only with other men on our team. Me and other women were never invited.
  • He said that me and another woman I worked on a project with lacked “gravitas” to present our project findings on the big stage at a department-wide offsite, so he recruited a man to present with us.

At the time, I didn’t see these things as sexist, but “Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • Sheryl Sandberg wrote a lot about and how older people are always encouraging young women to get mentors. This push makes young women feel inadequate and forces them into artificial relationships with senior people who… you guessed it… make them feel even more inadequate. Mentors can be wonderful, but such a close relationship must develop organically.
  • By not being invited to after-work events, I missed out on valuable face time with the boss.  The men had better relationships and more insight into what the boss was doing and thinking.
  • “Gravitas” is a fancy way of saying “you won’t be taken seriously.” The man who my boss pushed into the project ended up doing some harm to it because he had to throw his dick around.

Equal Pay: I pushed for better pay when I joined the company, but I was told “this is our offer, not up for negotiation.” I was getting paid more than at my last job and this was a big opportunity, so I accepted it. Once I got promoted into management, I got a small raise because it was in the middle of the budget year, with a vague promise I’d get more later. I wasn’t happy, but I was naive enough to trust the system. Then two things happened:

  • I realized that most of the men who reported to me made more than me, and the lone woman on the team with equal experience to the men and at a higher position made even less. My complaints got me nowhere. I was never made whole and each year I sank a bit further back in pay equality because new people were brought in at higher salaries.
  • I was a top performer and earned raises and bonuses regularly, but I still was underpaid. I earned about 85% of what peers from the “Lean In Circle” earned. And they were underpaid compared to men in similar positions.

“Lean In” opened my eyes:

  • I didn’t understand how compensation works. If you are underpaid today, you will always be underpaid. The compensation system is rigged against you and no one will fix it.
  • If you want to be paid more, you need to know your value and negotiate hard. I learned how to negotiate and how to calculate my value to get better pay and other perks at my new job.

Taking Risks: I am by nature rather risk-averse. I don’t seek thrills or take many chances in life. “Lean In” made me realize I was too comfortable where I was, not challenged enough or interested enough to find fulfillment at my job. I noticed a few things:

  • My job was in a female ghetto – an operational role that was viewed as a cost center, not revenue-generating or otherwise contributing much to the bottom line. My boss took another job and I had a new female boss, who in turn reported to a woman, “Big Boss,” who was one of only two women leading our entire division. Only human resources had a higher proportion of women than our group did. Men made the decisions, and we women (for the most part) executed them.
  • Women at my level within this group were moved around like chess pieces to satisfy whatever demand at the moment fell on Big Boss’s ears. These lateral moves were good for gaining experience, but they never seemed to lead to promotions or big opportunities, rather just putting out fires and shoring up crumbling walls. Some women had been at these types of tasks for 5 to 10 years! Strategic decisions came from a higher level they didn’t penetrate.

Because of “Lean In” I realized I needed to take chances in my career. The longer I stayed where I was, the harder it would be to move. There was a reorganization and Big Boss wanted me to take one of these lateral-move jobs. I had a meeting with her, where I laid my cards on the table and told her flatly what I wanted. She said no. So I left. I never would have had the courage to do this without “Lean In.”

Leaning In at Home: Sheryl Sandberg inspired the most vitriol with her insights into how to manage a work-life balance. Such a powerful and big earner of course could have endless nannies, maids, assistants and other helpers. She didn’t understand the struggles of single mothers, or of women whose partners also have demanding jobs and are unwilling or unable to take on more responsibilities at home. This is a valid criticism.  And Sandberg herself viewed these challenges through a different lens when her husband suddenly died a few years ago. Also, I don’t have kids, so I can’t comment on the working mother dynamic. But this doesn’t mean that all of Sandberg’s ideas are bullshit.

  • Just like at work, at home you also have to ask for what you want. Your partner and kids won’t read your mind.
  • Your husband needs to be an equal partner, or you will tote around resentment along with all the housework, shopping, cooking and child care responsibilities. If he won’t meet you halfway before you’re married, you have no hope after you’re married.
  • Don’t put your career on hold because you might get married, might have kids, or might have to care for aging parents. Do what you need to do at work. If personal life throws curveballs later on, deal with them then.

When I took my new job, which has a long commute and longer hours, I told my husband that he must take on some responsibilities at home, such as making dinner two or three nights a week (including cleaning up after), vacuuming, paying some bills and shopping for groceries as needed. He doesn’t like it, but he does it, and he acknowledges it’s fair. “Lean In” helped me craft these discussions with my husband, to get to a satisfactory agreement.

What’s next?

I think I will reread “Lean In” this month to see what else I could learn or other places where I disagree with Sandberg. I also wonder what other women think. Have you read the book? Did it help you?

A Year of Reading Books by Women

My rekindled feminism, brought to a blaze in my disgust over Trump’s election, hit my Kindle reader right away. I resolved to read only books by women in 2017. I read 14 books in all, 13 by women, one book by a man and some short stories by women and men.

I started the year by rereading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it first in high school (25 years ago, but who’s counting), so I wondered if it would pack the same punch. It did, even more so as I imagined how many of our right wing lunatic political leaders would love a United States where the rule of law is gone and instead the government runs on biblical bullshit.

After that, I needed some escapism, so I read books 6, 7 and 8 the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. These books are, frankly, not that good. I got into them last year because of the TV series, and I got in to the TV series because of the fabulous period costuming by Terry Dresbach. The first three books are good, the fourth is OK, and then they go downhill – recycled plots, little character development, way too many inconsequential actions. I stuck with them because I expected a big payoff in Book 8 and it was only “meh.” It kept me a little entertained during my 15-hour flights to India, anyway.

I needed reality after that fantasy binge, so I read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  Diana Gabaldon’s experience writing the Outlander books also fueled this interest. I have always wanted to write fiction but I have not succeeded for various reasons (here and here if you want to know more).

Then I read another series a friend had recommended, The Giver books by Lois Lowry. The dystopias Lowry created are similar to Atwood’s in some respects – in one society, a group of young women is judged by its ability to have babies. These are young-adult novels and not really my speed either, but I feel that I learned something from them about how our desires to protect ourselves from pain and harm may leave us feeling nothing, which is worse. They were good summer reads anyway.

At this point, I was reminded of some short stories I read by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. I reread a few of them that had influenced me as a young woman. I never felt that I wanted to have children, yet all women I knew except for one great-aunt had children. Her stories confirmed for me that it was OK to have a childless life.

My next book was “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners”  by Therese Oneill. A blogger I like had recommended it. It was very laugh-out-loud funny in places and pretty gross in other places. I later read a female historian’s account of all the ways the book is wrong. Entertaining – both points of view.

My last summer read was “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messaud. This was my favorite fiction book of the year. It followed on the themes from The Artist’s Way – the protagonist is a frustrated artist who finds her muse, only to be betrayed. Messaud is a hell of a gifted writer and I am planning to read more from her in 2018.

I realized at some point that I’d read only books by white women so far in 2017 and I had wanted to continue my efforts to read more African American women, so I read “Strategize to Win” by Carla Harris. She’s a high-ranking banking executive who’s made a name for herself not just for thriving in a white man’s industry, but also for giving solid career advice. I wish I’d read this book 15 years ago. It was instrumental in my decision to enroll in graduate school, classes starting in January 2018.

I reread “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, just because it’s beautiful.

My final female-authored book for 2017 was Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey.” I read about it in a profile in The New Yorker and I was captivated by her direct, insightful language in translating the Greek classic. It was very good, maybe missing a bit of the poetry of other translations, but doing a great job of making you care about the characters and better understand the ways the ancient Greeks lived.

I read three things my men. In October, to get the spirit for a trip to Baltimore, I read and reread some short stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. We visited his house and grave in Baltimore on Friday the 13th and got into the Halloween spirit. I was reminded of what a genius he was – the stories are well worth reading if you haven’t touched them since high school. I also read some short stories by Haruki Murakami on and off this fall. They were not that good. Long-form fiction is more his style.

Finally, I am reading “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Anderson. This is my #1 nonfiction book for the year. If you want to understand how Trump could get elected president, read this. Anderson’s premise is that there is something in American culture, from its earliest days, that promotes and encourages magical thinking. Maybe it was the wide open spaces of the New World, or the religious nutjobs who first colonized the land, or maybe its the American embrace of new technologies, be it printing press or Internet, but our Constitutional freedoms have curdled into something dangerous for the future of American society.

For 2018, I will be starting out with college textbooks, I guess. I’d like to read more from African Americans and other cultures. And I will probably read one more series over the summer, just for fun.