“The price of the bargain dress is not paid by Tilda or Ray who wears it. The real cost is borne by the workers in the sweatshops that are springing up in hard-pressed communities.”
In the aftermath of the Bangladesh building collapse that killed more than 1,000 garment factory workers last April, these words have a timely ring. But in fact, they are drawn from U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins’ 1933 essay “The Cost of a Five-Dollar Dress.”
I couldn’t help but be struck by the many parallels between now and then—including the reluctance of us cash-strapped shoppers to pay more than necessary. “[I]n hard times it is perhaps asking too much of the consumer to hope that he (or she) will refuse to purchase specially priced’ clothing as a protest against sweatshop products,” acknowledged the pragmatic Perkins (who was, incidentally, the first woman to hold a U.S. cabinet post).
Even for consumers committed to putting their dollars where their values are, the situation is far from simple. “I really want to do the right thing but I don’t know how to do that on my income. I certainly can’t make my own clothes for a host of reasons. I do buy many things at thrift shops, but does that solve the problem if they were still made cheaply in the first place?” was one friend’s response to my recent essay on “The Hidden Costs of Fast Fashion.”
There is also concern that even expensive clothes may have been manufactured under bad conditions—so given that we don’t know for sure, why pay more? (For what it’s worth, here’s my take: It’s true that money is no guarantee—that a pricey item may have come from an overseas sweatshop. But that $15 skirt or pair of pants? You can be pretty sure of it.)
Moreover—and I hate to tell you this—factory conditions are not the only potential moral hazard here. Consider the fact, as I learned just this morning from my law professor friend Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, that the tin in the zippers and buckles we wear is often inextricably linked to bloody armed conflicts and human rights abuses. (For more on this issue, see Ciara’s disturbing Slate piece about how “conflict minerals” are integral to our cell phones—and that the companies who make these products are currently engaged in a legal battle to secure their right not to tell us.)
So what do we do?
For starters, I suggest we not simply throw up our hands or turn away–and that we keep looking for information and answers even as we acknowledge our own complicity.
In the meantime, many of us can spend more but buy less—though some no doubt would question this. To wit, one reader of my previous piece was horrified at the suggestion that eight or ten pairs of shoes are more than a teen girl strictly needs. “Eight or ten pairs of shoes is extravagant? Where did you grow up? Well-dressed women have, at a minimum, a pair of workout shoes, sandals, boots, bad-weather boots, flats, and some dressier heels of varying heights — and then they have some if not all of those in different colors and styles, depending on their lifestyle. I doubt there’s a woman above the poverty line in America with two feet and fewer than ten pairs of shoes. The average woman in the US has at least 19 pairs.”
I will also continue to sound the thrift shop drum. Yes, the clothing we buy there—like the $2.00 Gap t-shirt I’m now wearing—may have been manufactured under bad conditions, but the fact is, it’s already here. We are talking sunk costs, both environmental and human, and in buying used clothing, at least we keep it out of landfills. As I see it, thrift shops are one place we can still feel good about that five dollar dress. Or that five dollar dress that’s not a dress—just ask this woman here.
A friend’s highly discriminating child wrote home from camp: “The swimming here is not the best.”
That’s pretty much the review I’d give this entire summer—not that it’s the summer’s fault. We’ve been slammed with deadlines at work, and my one week out of the office in June feels like a lifetime ago. I’m still up in the air about whether I’m going to move apartments. (On the pro side, this building is sort of a wreck. On the con side, I’m living here now.) A sultry two-week heat wave practically did me in.
At such times of feeling not the best, I often find myself casting about for new perspectives—ways of thinking about my life that inspire and recharge me. Here are four that have recently captured my imagination. I’m planning to spend more time with them. Perhaps some of you will join me.
1. Clarify your values, don’t focus on goals.
Reading these words I had a bit of an ah hah moment. I am really really good at meeting goals, but more and more, I’m finding that the reward often doesn’t match the effort. What would happen if I shifted the focus to my values? This suggestion comes via George Mason psychology professor Todd B. Kashdan, whose “Your First Step Down a Purposeful Path” graphic is now making the Internet rounds.“Make up a declarative list of what’s important to you” is what Kashdan counsels. In any case, it’s bound to be interesting. I’ll let you know.
2. What part of your life is unlived?
This is the question at the heart of Living Your Unlived Life, by Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, who views living out the answer as “the most important task of our mature years.” In particular, he asks us to consider “What is unlived yet still has some urgency within you?” I’m intrigued by this question, by what amounts to an invitation to evaluate existing goals in a new and larger context.
“We all carry with us a vast inventory of abandoned, unrealized and underdeveloped talents and potentials,” Johnson writes. “Even if you have achieved your major goals and seemingly have few regrets, there still are significant life experiences that have been closed to you.… Of course no one can live out all of life’s possibilities, but there are key aspects of your being that must be brought into your life or you will never realize your fulfillment.”
3. Move towards pleasure. Now.
This is the message my life coach friend Max Daniels gives her clients. Instead of waiting until we “deserve” the trip to Portland or Amsterdam or whatever that thing is we yearn for—or until the perfect conditions fall miraculously into place—she encourages us to take action now. What especially intrigues me is her idea that, in taking these steps in the present moment, we in essence move closer to being the person we want to be. Do I believe this? I’m not entirely sure. But she doesn’t ask me to. She suggests that I collect my own evidence—which is what I’m planning to do.
4. What are you looking forward to?
From my busy summer, I am moving into an even more busy fall, and at times I can feel like my friend’s three-year-old who, informed that she couldn’t wear her sundress in January, hurled herself onto her bed with the cry: “I’ll never be happy again!” That’s when this question comes in handy. Because right at this very moment, I can think of a number of things coming up to which I’m looking forward. Yoga and brunch with fellow western Mass ex-pat Molly tomorrow. Dinner next week with Meta and (maybe) Delia. Meeting virtual writer friends Trish and Dorie in real life (that’s irl, to the cyber-centric) early next month. And those are just the things that come to mind in 30 seconds. Taking time to regularly ask myself this question is a way of balancing out my tendency to focus on the hard stuff. It doesn’t make it go away, but it puts things into perspective.
5. Take stock of how you rocked
Take my advice—I’m not using it! This quip came to mind yesterday as I read Trish’s post inspired by one of mine about taking stock of all we’ve accomplished in the previous year at times when it feels like that list is mighty paltry. You know what? It never is, as I was (once again) happily reminded. Next month will mark a year since I moved back to Boston, which seems like a perfect moment to give this little exercise another whirl.
* * *
And now: Your turn. Do you have a question or strategy that helps move you forward ? If so, I’d love to hear it.
A couple years back, in quick succession, I submitted three essays to a well-respected website, all of which were snapped up. My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my editor said—and I haven’t sent her anything since.
I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and practical reflections on the submission process. Here is what she said in a Facebook post excerpted from her upcoming e-book:
“I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to multiple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate—or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)
So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?
It’s because I was too stubborn to give up, even when I was failing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.
So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing: Rejection isn’t about you. If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.
When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product itself?
No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.
The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.
It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”
If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from trying, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!
The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. Easier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who succeed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.”
Yes, easier said than done—and for some of us more so than others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have an absurdly heightened (and self-defeating) response to perceived rejection. I really can’t say why. Temperament? Childhood experiences? Cultural messages? For whatever reason, I quail at the prospect of pushing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glimmer that interest may be lacking.
But you know what? I’m getting better. The most helpful thing has simply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am thinking something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes it also helps to play with gamifying the process. So what if I send this here? I wonder what will happen? I also try to focus on actions and measure success in those terms. Submitted the essay to three outlets? Excellent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has nothing to do with me.
I had a chance to deploy all of these strategies a couple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two editors went into a media black hole. One editor never responded at all. The second, just back from vacation, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some reason, I decided to first reach out to another writer, someone I’d met on Twitter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it happened, she did. The piece went to her editor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to publish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blogging contract.
To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Having Its Moment, and you can read it here.
So in the end, I was lucky that the first two editors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remember: It sometimes does.
A few weeks back, it hit me that I’m trying to do too much—especially given that I’m happiest with a good bit of downtime. How to reconcile Type A tendencies with my need for a balanced life? It came to me, a strategy: “Seven things in seven hours.” Rather than cramming weekend days with endless to-do list items, I’d limit myself to one per hour. I’d be selective, strategic.
But when I sat down to make a list, that’s not what I wrote. Instead of typing the word “things,” I typed the word “days.”Seven days in seven hours. I had to laugh. It so exactly captured the absurdity of what I’ve been trying to do.
Which goes to explain why Plan B Nation is on extended vacation. When I took a week off from my Harvard communications jobs last month, I’d planned to spend a lot of it catching up on blogging. Luckily, I quickly determined that this was a bad idea. Instead, I visited Polly in Maine and pretty much took it easy. Bananagrams, dogs, kids, long walks, books—that’s pretty much what my vacation looked like.
Then last week, without quite meaning to, I went on a writing bender, resulting in two pieces that went live yesterday. Along with my Atlantic debut—a piece on women and drinking (including my personal take on AA)—I also wrote about so-called “slash careers” on the Cognoscenti blog. Lawyer/writer, minister/physician–you get the idea. It’s a piece I’d had in the pipeline for quite some time, and it felt great to finally get it out of my head and onto the web.
Seven things in seven hours. Clearly, my efforts to pare down are a work in progress. There are so many things I want to write, and far too little time. But if I’m still taking on too much, I’m also taking breaks. This afternoon, I got a massage. Tomorrow I have yoga. And as soon I get this post up, I’ll be watching House of Cards.
He loved dried apricots, rotisserie chicken, and sleeping in the sink. He detested other members of his species. He cost $70, shots included, and I acquired him back in 1996 while still working in Manhattan as a lawyer.
It wasn’t my idea to get a cat. The directive came from two separate friends, both exasperated by my failure to get over a not-so-recent breakup. They thought that a cat would be good for me. I suspect they hoped it would shut me up—or at least shift the conversation.
He came home with me in a taxi cradled in my blue Coach purse, having won release from a cardboard box through piteous kitten mews. An antic feather-light ball of fluff, he developed a disconcerting habit of racing through my Upper West Side apartment and hurtling off the bed, legs splayed in all directions, nothing to break his fall. I named him Clarence—not for Clarence Darrow, the most frequent of all first guesses, but for Clarence, the disheveled Angel Second Class who struggles to rescue George Bailey from despair in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In time he grew regal and immense (“large-boned,” my father called him). “Such a small tongue—and so much kitty,” a boyfriend once observed, watching the cat’s prolonged and painstaking grooming process. “Clarence is a ceremonial cat–not for everyday use.”
Seventeen – almost 18 – years is a very long time, and we went through a lot together Mr. C and I. We moved from New York to western Massachusetts to Cambridge then back to western Mass and finally to Brookline. I quit law, published two novels, cycled through jobs and unemployment. Through every challenge, every disappointment, the cat was there beside me—splendidly furry and impervious, purring and reassuring.
He’d been losing weight for more than a year, and it was clear something was wrong. Kidney failure was one possibility. Cancer was another. Diagnostic tests were inconclusive. I began giving him subcutaneous fluids to help with hydration, pills to stimulate his appetite. (“You … you are like a nurse for your cat!” sputtered a courtly Latin gentleman on hearing of my ministrations.) Then, six weeks ago, with his appetite flagging, came another round of tests. The verdict: Late-stage cancer, in both his abdomen and lungs. When I brought him home, groggy and weak, from the hated animal hospital, I whispered to him a promise that he’d never have to go back.
I knew that I wanted him to die at home, but that’s all I knew. I didn’t know what that would entail, or what I should do or when. Not surprisingly, it was one of those times when the Internet proves a godsend. With a bit of searching, I discovered Harbor Veterinary House Calls, which not only does home visits but also offers pet hospice care. As the lovely and kind Dr. Maija Mikkola Curtis explained on her first home visit, hospice care for animals—as for humans—is about quality of life. She told me to think of her as a partner, to email her if I had any questions at all about ongoing treatment or next steps.
The next weeks were pretty good ones for Clarence—lots and lots of rotisserie chicken, tuna, and attention—but by the end of last week, he began a precipitous decline. He stopped eating and took to retreating to the darkest reaches of a closet. Already frail, having dropped more than half of his weight in the course of the past 18 months, he grew even weaker and frailer. With a heavy heart, I contacted Maija, and she came out the next evening.
We watched Clarence for a while, Maija and I, as I reached a final decision. “The spark has gone,” she said quietly. I had to agree. The process of euthanasia was simple and very peaceful. I’d already been saying good-bye for a very long time, and I petted and whispered my love to him as his life ebbed away.
Early last month—shortly after learning how very sick Clarence was—I happened on an advice column about a guy who was spending thousands of dollars to keep his cat alive despite living on a disability pension and, from the perspective of his best friend (the letter writer), having “no extra cash for luxuries.” I loved the columnist’s response:
It may be that your friend’s relationship with his cat is something he truly cannot live without; it may be that he feels something toward this cat that is beyond the understanding of outsiders and without the protection of social sanction or naming.… [P]erhaps eventually we will come to see that a man’s relationship with a cat is not simply that of a person to a luxury item, but something else, something sacred.
I’m down with that.
The house is very quiet when I get home these days. “Where’s the boy?” I call. Not because I’ve forgotten but because it’s what I do. I’ve also taken to scrolling through Petfinder, gazing at the pictures of the countless cats waiting to find homes. There’s Glad who reminds me oh-so-much of Clarence. (Would that be strange or good?) There’s sweet-faced Herman with his gorgeous coat and playful goofball Mr. Then I look at a photo of Clarence that Monica took in April. So present, so very there. He was—is—a beloved being. You are a beloved being.
When Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renounced his U.S. citizenship last year, with the apparent goal of saving hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes after the company’s IPO, the Brazilian native had no shortage of outraged critics.
“He has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share,” Ilyse Hogue wrote in the Nation, to cite one example. “The story evokes the image of the marauding aliens from the movie Independence Day, who come to Earth to take what they can get before moving on to another planet.”
But for all the furious accusations, Saverin seems to have been on the cutting edge of a growing trend. “U.S. citizens ditch passports in record numbers” was the headline on a May 8, 2013 Fortune/CNN piece reporting that more than 670 U.S. passport holders gave up their citizenship (and U.S. tax bills) in the first three months of this year—more than any quarter since the IRS began publishing figures in 1998 and nearly three-quarters of the total number for all of 2012. The newly ex-patriated include Isabel Getty, daughter of jet-setting socialite Pia Getty and Getty oil heir Christopher Getty, and—last year—wealthy songwriter-socialite Denise Rich.
This got me to thinking. While I totally get the anger at Saverin and his ilk, I’m also intrigued by a larger question, implicit yet unaddressed. How much money is sufficient for any single person? Does someone like Saverin ever say “Now I have enough!” Or do you keep on pushing until you have all the money in the world?
As I turn over these questions, I also find myself thinking about another man—one who could not be more different from Eduardo Saverin. His name is Daniel Suelo, and in 2000, at the age of 39, he left his life savings ($30) in a phone booth and walked away. For more than a decade since, he has not earned, received, or spent a single dollar.
“Unlike the average American—wallowing in credit-card debt, clinging to a mortgage, terrified of the next downsizing at the office—he isn’t worried about the economic crisis. That’s because he figured out that the best way to stay solvent is to never be solvent in the first place,” is how a piece in Details magazine summed up Suelo’s financial non-plan.
Born into an evangelical Christian family whose beliefs he’s long since discarded, Suelo’s personal philosophy eludes easy definitions. He lives in the caves and wilderness of Utah. He forages, dumpster dives, and eats with friends (as well as strangers). He doesn’t panhandle, collect food stamps, or accept other government support—not that he sees anything wrong with those who do, he’s quick to say—and he often works, just not for pay. He does make use of public libraries—borrowing books, checking email, and keeping his website and blog. “He wants to have the smallest ecological footprint and the largest possible impact at improving the world. His life goal since I met him is to take as little and give as much as possible,” his best friend told writer Mark Sundeen, whose compelling book about Suelo is called The Man Who Quit Money (Riverhead, 2012).
As I think about Saverin and Suelo, a study in opposites, I marvel over the vast elasticity of our concept of need. Saverin thinks he needs billions of dollars. Suelo needs to have none. Needs are not objective facts. They reflect values and choices.
I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting we stop doing all we can to make the world a more just and more equitable place. What I am suggesting is that, in the meantime, we give ourselves a chance to thrive, that we have the courage of our convictions (which starts with knowing what they are).
For me, this perspective is liberating. Early retirement, single-family homes, college educations – these accoutrements of the American Dream are increasingly hard to come by. Do we simply redouble our efforts to achieve such established socially sanctioned goals? Or do we explore new paths, expand our repertoire of options? (Another terrific example of someone doing just that is Ken Ilgunas, a Duke graduate student who lived in a van to avoid going back into debt and turned his experience into the wonderful memoir Walden on Wheels (New Harvest, 2013)
Few of us are likely to follow Suelo’s example—I, for one, am not inclined to fill my dental cavities with pine pitch. What I take from his story isn’t the specifics of his journey. Rather it’s his capacity to find fulfillment while lacking things that most of us reflexively assume to be essential. If Suelo doesn’t need any money, I sometimes muse, perhaps I don’t really need [fill in the blank].
There are those who attack Suelo for failing to contribute to some larger social good. (One exasperated fan finally got his detractors to shut up when she told them that she pays taxes, doesn’t use the library, and is donating her share to Suelo.) But to my mind, his provocative life is contribution enough. His choices push us to think harder about the nature of our own. His life expands our sense of possibility. And that, to me, is priceless.
So you go to a spin class in your progressive neighborhood, in your progressive city, at your progressive women’s gym—one that has as its stated mission to “empower women to be strong, both physically and mentally.”
You have never been all that keen on spin class—indeed, truth be told, you’d admit to having Facebook opined that “there are two kinds of people: Those who like spin class and those who do not like spin class.” Still, you are there. You get your bike set up, and soon class begins.
You are not crazy about the music (you are someone who joined this gym in part because it plays classical music in the locker room and also for the reasons described by Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams in a piece that, curiously enough, appeared just last month). But hey, it is spin class. You aren’t here for entertainment. You’re here because you’re feeling stressed and aerobic exercise improves your mood. That is until you hear the lyrics, when your mood takes a decided nosedive.
Shake that ass for me, shake that ass for me …
Seriously? This is the music of choice for empowered women? You try to ignore the words. You manage … for a while.
If good girls get down on the floor
Tell me, how low will a bad girl go?
She’ll probably pick it up, drop it down real slow
Either that or she’s upside down on the pole .…
And that’s when you get off your bike, collect your things, and leave.
* * * *
My friend Lynne Marie Wanamaker—a fitness trainer and anti-violence educator—wasn’t a bit surprised by my experience. Here’s what she had to say when I asked her to weigh in:
“We live in a rape culture and even the most progressive people don’t see it. I am told all the time that certain things are not a problem or are not a problem here. (i.e, teen dating violence, domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, homophobia–I could go on and on.) It’s a QED of denial: We are a progressive community of good people on the side of good, therefore that isn’t happening. Even if it is. I have decided to call this ‘Progressive Self Congratulatory Disorder.’”
It feels important to say that my own reaction was in no way self-consciously political—it was immediate and visceral. Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from being a political correctness queen. My concerns lie in the realm of human experience, not in abstract theory.
I’m also a woman who, in retrospect, spent way too much of my youth thinking about what men think of me—a willing if clueless collaborator on the larger social project of turning women into objects. Messages like the ones I heard in spin class? For decades, I absorbed them without thinking. The results were not good. (A fascinating side note: Research has shown that women who see themselves as objects are less able to count their own heartbeats—a finding that further underscores how music that objectifies women is fundamentally at odds with the goal of empowering women to inhabit their own bodies, “to be strong, both physically and mentally,” in the words of my gym’s purported mission.)
Finally: You know what? I simply couldn’t care less how low a bad girl can go—I’m way more interested in hearing about how far a smart one can. In my era, there was music that was energizing and enlivening without turning women into disposable body parts—think Bruce Springsteen, the Talking Heads, R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha. I assume—at least I profoundly hope—it still exists today. Next time I’m in spin class, I’d really like to hear it.
* * * *
Note: In a subsequent email exchange, a Healthworks spokeswoman wrote that instructors, who choose their own music, are expected to play “clean versions” of the songs they select and to “use good judgment in choosing music that would not be considered distasteful or offensive” and that they would follow up with the instructor who taught the class I attended. I wrote back: “With all due respect, it doesn’t seem to me that you are providing adequate guidelines here.” I did not receive a response.
On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.
It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends. It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.
For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.
My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th–century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century. Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.
I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.
Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?
By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.
Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.
Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.
How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.
Having already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a theater in my neighborhood.
First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.
Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.
I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.
Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.
Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.
While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”
You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here. Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.
The following exchange is instructive on this point.
Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.
What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):
“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”
The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?
Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)
I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.