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Does your spouse vastly out-earn you? Does it matter?

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, love, Media, men, Money, women, work on August 30, 2012 at 12:07 am
united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web

united states currency seal – IMG_7366_web (Photo credit: kevindean)

Maybe it’s your wife who’s out-earning you, a trend in the United States, where one-third of women now make more money than their husbands.

Here’s today’s New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject, by Hannah Rosin, about the new “middle class matriarchy.”

What we’re really talking about is income disparity, a proxy for the very real issue in every marriage — power: who has it, who has more of it, who uses it and some who, in a nasty fight, abuse it.

Marriage, to me, ideally means two people helping one another to shoulder their burdens, but is it anymore?

Here’s a recent blog post by a fellow freelance writer on this subject:

I realize that I don’t really want to “have it all.” Or, rather, the phrase “having it all” is different for everyone. For me, it means having a balanced life, as a writer and wife and mother and woman. A high-powered career doesn’t interest me, though I wouldn’t want to stop working completely.

Michael and I have always wanted the same, basic things: marriage, children, a house, fulfilling careers. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. Now? I’m a writer…

But then I think about how Michael’s carrying me. How he’s carrying us. And not wanting “it all” (in the conventional six-figure sense) makes me feel guilty.

This writer says she makes about $30,000 a year, working mostly part-time.

That’s a fortune to some people, but not in many parts of the United States, unless you own your home outright, pay almost no property tax and feed your family from your own food production.

Without a significant additional income from your spouse, you’re going nowhere fast.

And husbands know it.

Her post spoke to me because my annual income for two years, also as a freelance writer, was less than $30,000. Things have improved for me since then — my income doubled between 2008 and 2009, and I’m up 11 percent over 2011, with four months’ additional earning power before year’s end.

I still earn far less than my husband — who, thanks to his newspaper union, is stuck with measly 3 percent raises year after year.

So, who’s more “successful”?

Is money our only, our most accurate, measure of worth?

Ask a teacher or those working at lower wages doing essential work…

I began writing for a living in 1978, in my final years of college. Back then, $1/word was normal pay. It was also plenty — my share of the rent was about $300/month and my only other bills were food and phone. Today, costs are way up, I want to retire, (i.e. must save a ton of dough), and many editors pay the exact same wage. Many talented, experienced writers are hustling harder than ever for less money than we made a decade ago.

But many of us, watching some of our peers hit the Today show or best-seller lists, also feel driven to make big bucks, with or without kids, because we can. Our incomes prove our bona fides as smart, ambitious, driven, feminist.

What if we don’t want to?

That’s a pretty radical statement for women daily exhorted on all sides to Do It All. As many women doing it all know, (those without 24/7 nanny care or family support), it can be a recipe for exhaustion.

We don’t have kids, (by choice), nor must we support broke parents; my father and mother are well-financed and Jose’s parents long dead.

So whatever income we scrape together is up to us to negotiate. In our early years, we had some very bitter fights over my inability to earn a lot more than I do. Now Jose gratefully accepts what I earn, even if it’s less than my income from 2000, when we met, and I had a $1,200/month client for about a year. I recently — after many tough years without one — snagged another.

It’s difficult not to feel really frustrated sometimes. We’re in our 50s, not 20s or 30s with decades ahead of us in which we want to workworkworkworkwork.

Like many people our age, and in our industry, we’re both doing our best to adapt, but we’re weary of trimming our sails or savaging one another for our stagnant/falling incomes. It’s been too easy to turn that frustration on one another.

From The New York Times:

In the first quarter of this year, per capita disposable personal income was up just 4.7 percent from four years ago. That is the smallest such gain since the late 1940s, when the number was influenced by the fall in government spending after World War II. Adjusted for inflation, the average American now has income that is 2.1 percent lower than four years ago.

Do you significantly out-earn your husband or vice versa?

How’s that affecting your marriage?

Why are women so scared to say “I’m awesome!”?

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Money, women, work on August 28, 2012 at 12:04 am
International Money Pile in Cash and Coins

International Money Pile in Cash and Coins (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Let’s say you’ve got the degrees and education and skills and smarts to land a job interview at Google.

Then you blow the interview because…you’re too modest to toot your own horn.

Seriously?

So reports The New York Times:

Meanwhile, there is the very Google-y approach of gathering data on precisely when the company loses women, then digging deeper to figure out what is happening and to try to fix it…

Google’s spreadsheets, for example, showed that some women who applied for jobs did not make it past the phone interview. The reason was that the women did not flaunt their achievements, so interviewers judged them unaccomplished.

Google now asks interviewers to report candidates’ answers in more detail. Google also found that women who turned down job offers had interviewed only with men. Now, a woman interviewing at Google will meet other women during the hiring process.

A result: More women are being hired.

Once hired, technical women were not being promoted at the same rate as men. At Google, employees nominate themselves for promotions, but the data revealed that women were less likely to do so. So senior women at Google now host workshops to encourage women to nominate themselves, and they are promoted proportionally to men, Mr. Bock said.

I find this fascinating, infuriating and sad.

But not surprising.

A book I recommend to every woman is “Women Don’t Ask”, which, even though it focused on an elite group, (MBA students), intelligently explores women’s ambivalence about asking for more at work, whether perks, money, power or responsibility.

From the authors’ website:

Women are much less likely than men to ask for what they want and to use negotiation as a tool to promote their own ambitions or desires. Sara interviewed nearly 100 people all over the country—both men and women—and found the same thing. Men use negotiation to get ahead and get what they want between two and nine times as often as women do.

(I’ve added the bold and italics.)

Why must women negotiate?

– We live longer than men and need more income in  retirement to support us. The less we earn in our work-lives, the less we’ll have in old age.

– Women often take some time out to bear and raise children, lowering their lifetime earnings and reducing the amount they’ll receive from Social Security.

– Women who fail to ask for more — get less. No one’s going to offer you anything if you leave it on the table by not even asking for it.

Modesty is a charming quality. I prize it. But not at the literal expense of earning less or facing a shortened career with limited prospects.

Why do women fail to ask for more?

Fear of being disliked. Fear of others’ disapproval for being pushy. Fear we can’t actually do the job.

All of which, on some level, are bullshit.

I’ve been negotiating for more money and responsibility since I was a teenager writing for national publications and paying my own way through university on my earnings. This wasn’t money I was blowing on clothes and shoes and cool shit I didn’t need, but groceries, rent and utilities.

Oh, and tuition and books.

One day I was in the newsroom of the paper I wrote a weekly column for, earning $125 a week. I overheard my editor trying to dissuade a male columnist from dropping his column: “But you’ll lose $200 a week!”

That additional $300 a month, $3,600 a year, was serious coin in 1978, and just as valuable today.

Negotiating isn’t fun or easy, which is no excuse to avoid it.

If you feel you’ve got more to lose, or less to fall back on, you’re probably likely to take whatever they offer. When an editor recently called me to offer a magazine assignment, she initially offered me $1,500. I know the market and my skills and asked for more. She gave it. She could have refused.

So our ability to negotiate also relies on our level of self-confidence, our skills, our networks — and our comfort level knowing our market value and feeling at ease asking for the pay that reflects, and respects, it.

It’s easier, always, to grab the first (lowest) offer and run.

I grew up in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck or pension. Negotiation was normal, tough discussions typical, and we all knew that those hiring us would probably try to offer the least possible.

You can also out-source some of this. I’ve used agents and lawyers many times to negotiate on my behalf. Yes, it costs money. But well worth it.

You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Do you negotiate?

How’s it working out?

Twenty reasons I (still) love my home, 23 years later

In beauty, behavior, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on August 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

I’ve never lived in one home this long. Ever.

Growing up in Toronto, between the ages of 3 and 30, when I left, I lived in three houses and four apartments, none of which I owned.

Between September 1982 and June 1989, I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto (different apartment)-Montreal-rural New Hampshire-New York.

Enough!

I moved into this one-bedroom suburban New York apartment in June 1989. It was the absolute most we could afford to buy, assuming we’d be moving into a house within a few years as my first husband’s income improved.

Not quite. Finally solvent after years of medical training, he left the apartment and the marriage within two years of our wedding. Sweet!

I stayed, damn glad I’d insisted on the pre-nuptial agreement that made sure I could.

I’m writing this on our balcony. The wind is blowing. A helicopter just buzzed straight overhead, low. I can hear crickets, and the low hum of traffic on the bridge a mile away.

Here’s why I’m still (surprisedly) happy to be here:

It’s been my emotional anchor. Since we moved in, ripping out all the ugly cat-pee-stinky carpeting, I’ve been married and divorced and remarried. I’ve had four surgeries, won and lost well-paid jobs, sold two books. Put my dog to sleep. This familiar space has comforted me with unchanging stability through it all.

The view. A tree is finally growing into our terrific view of the Hudson River. My next door neighbor and I are plotting how to trim it without having to plead hopelessly with the co-op board.

The breeze. On all but the hottest days, a delicious breeze blows through our windows, atop a high hill.

Top floor! 

The pool. I see its turquoise glimmer beckoning me through the trees. It makes me feel wealthy indeed to have access to a pool — and not have to take care of it.

Can you see it?

Wildlife. The other night a very large coyote stood barely 20 feet from me in our parking lot. Deer routinely graze on our lawn, and we hear raccoons often. We even have enormous wild turkeys on our street. All this so close to New York we can see the Empire State Building from our street.

Good neighbors. When you stay a long, long time in one spot, you get to know, like and trust — you hope! — a few of your neighbors. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2008 about my building for The New York Times.

A sense of history. I’ve seen tiny babies, once held football style in the hallways here, go off to college. I still remember, well, many of our older residents who’ve left, a few for nursing homes and far too many to the cemetery.

It’s my ever-evolving design lab. I studied interior design in the 1990s, and have changed the wall colors here many times. The front hallway began a brilliant lemon yellow, paled to a softer version, was coral for a few years and is now, best of all, a Farrow & Ball color, Gervase Yellow. My bedroom walls have gone from sponge-painted Greek taverna-wall blue to aqua to a soft gray. (If you want to make a serious, fantastic investment in your home, try F & B paint. It’s costly, but worth every penny.)

Our bathroom. Love it. I designed every inch of it — all 5 x 7 feet — from the curved wall-mounted wooden vanity to the mirror I had made by re-purposing an antique Chinese frame. Our new tub is 21 inches deep. Heaven!

Sunsets. They’re simply amazing, every one more beautiful than the rest.

An ever-changing weather movie. We see snow, hail, rain and even occasional tornados as they move south or east towards us across the Hudson River. Some mornings the fog is so thick we can’t even see our own parking lot. It’s a New York version of the classic 1857 woodblock by Hiroshige of a yudachi, a sudden summer downpour.

See what I mean?!

Low-maintenance. In the summer, our balcony plants need watering. But rarely do we need to spend for the plumber, electrician or a professional plaster and paint touch-up. I prefer having the additional time, physical energy and cash this allows.

Light! I thrive on natural light, and with large windows facing northwest, no tall buildings nearby and none ever likely to be erected, this is never an issue. Especially working at home, even the gloomiest days are not oppressive.

Less money needed for furniture/curtains/electronics/art. I’d rather own fewer, better things than inhabit a huge space that’s half-empty or jammed with junk. Living in a smaller space forces us to edit carefully, choosing only what we value, use and that truly delights our eye.

Seasonal decor. Our living room looks very different in summer than winter, as we switch out colors, designs and materials, (like a scarlet kilim rug for a white catalogne; red and yellow paisley pillow covers for white and emerald green.) It saves wear and tear on our things and gives us a fresh look to enjoy. We also move our art — photos, drawings, prints, lithos, paintings and posters — from room to room, sometimes (gallery style) putting some away for a few years so we can appreciate them anew.

A good layout. I should be sick of the same four walls. But with six discrete areas in 1,000 square feet — seven in summer with the 72 square foot balcony — I very rarely feel cramped.

We’re not “underwater.” We’re not making out like bandits, but we have equity in our home and a fixed mortgage rate that’s decent. It’s deeply un-American to stay put, and not keep moving up into larger, costlier housing.  I do sometimes long to inhabit a house again. But knowing we can weather almost every financial storm and not lose our home to some toxic mortgage or sudden jump in property taxes offers comfort in these times of such financial insecurity.

Our stone walls. The property once belonged to a wealthy land-owner who built deep, thick stone walls with jagged edges facing the street. When covered with a layer of snow, they look exactly like a row of teeth!

It’s affordable. While our monthly costs, of mortgage and co-op fees combined, might seem high to some people, they’re crazy low for New York, where $5,000 a month or more is fairly normal for a mortgage, even some rents. I was single and freelance from 1996 to 2001, and could still handle the cost, with the added benefit  of never facing a sudden rent increase or forced sale.

How do you feel about your home?

A mid-town Manhattan afternoon (includes tourist tips!)

In behavior, books, business, cities, journalism, life, urban life, US, work on August 24, 2012 at 12:01 am

My new book “Malled” in the bookstore window! Yay!

If you’ve never been to New York, you probably think “Times Square! Empire State Building! Statue of Liberty!”

Or, possibly, my favorite retail landmarks, Barney’s and Saks, where the 1 percent decide whether or not to drop $12,000 on a handbag. (Yes, that was one price I saw at Barney’s.)

What I enjoy most about Manhattan is how much pleasure, on a good day, you can derive from a mere few blocks. Here’s a terrific daily list — and it’s a long one — of all the free stuff you can do here. It’s run by my super-talented friend Elizabeth who, naturellement, also sings in a band called The Hot Sardines, who often play at the Standard Hotel.

Here’s how I spent my Wednesday this week, a blessed respite from my glued-to-the-computer-alone-in-the-boring-suburbs daily routine:

11:00 a.m. I arrive at Grand Central Station (which you must visit because it’s so gorgeous since the renovation finished in 1998. It also has great shops, with everything from shoes to books to olive oil to cupcakes and Junior’s legendary cheesecake.) My train pulls in on the lower level. I settle in at the little cafe beside the clock for a small panini and a cappuccino.

11:30 a.m. I find out why my cellphone isn’t handling email at the Verizon store at 44th and Madison. (Remember that address if you need phone help.)

11:40 Check out H & M, a blur of $12 polyester. I snag a way sexy red stretch dress and pray, if I stop eating for a week and wear a lot of Spanx, it will look good. I pick up two patent leather bags for $8 each, for my trip to the Decatur Literary Festival next week. I’m speaking at 2:30 Sept. 2. Come visit!

noon Check out Zara. Their accessories are always interesting; I buy a lovely cream wool scarf/shawl with pale gray paisley print.

(Note: I’ve only covered two blocks of midtown, from 44th and Madison to 42d and Madison. Manhattan’s density can save you a lot of time.)

1:00 Arrive at the New York Times building at 8th and 41st. It’s a local landmark, designed by Renzo Piano, covered in glossy white metal bars. I love walking into the lobby beneath the huge metal Gothic letters that mimic the paper’s name. The old Times’ building, 229 West 43d., was old-school, with a tiny lobby in dark granite. The new one is enormous, airy, bright, with a central atrium filled with trees and grass. The guard calls Jose, my husband who works in the business section, and I get my day pass.

Tip: There are two restaurants in the building, on the main floor, in an area not known for good food. Try Schnippers’ for mac and cheese, burgers and fries.

1:20 We eat lunch in the 14th floor cafeteria, with its tomato red carpet, large round tables, Eames chairs and a balcony with benches where you can sneak a snooze. I see, as I always do there, several editors and writers I know, one just arrived from London. Even though I’m “only” freelance, it’s nice to be welcomed and know so many people.

2:30 I head to the business section and have a chat with several female friends who work at the paper. Another editor’s wife, a friend, happens to be visiting as well. Gabfest!

2:45 I pitch another idea to my editor there and he wants it. Score!

3:15 I visit Muji with K, my friend who used to live in Tokyo. She admires their tatami mats and I buy a gray cotton dress, perfect for fall with my new gray and white scarf. If you don’t know this Japanese retailer, check it out for everything from colored pencils to cushion covers to stockings.

4:00 With watermelon coolers in hand, we settle into one of the hundreds of dark green tables in Bryant Park. The park, once closed for many years, has become the most wonderful urban oasis. There’s a carousel ($2), great food, a reading room (!) lending books and magazines, chess players, fountains and many happy people enjoying it all.

6:00 I have two hours to kill before I meet Jose back at Grand Central to take our train home. I walk to the southern edge of the park, deciding whether or not to ride the carousel, when I see three tables covered with…board games. And two people playing a fast and ferocious game of Bananagrams, which I’ve never seen or played. “Can I join you?” I ask. The game is a blast, a faster-moving version of Scrabble. My two partners are quick and literate so we’re racing the clock to yell “Bananas!” to signal that we’ve won. Turns out that Sarah, wearing a Bryant Park polo shirt, is paid to play games all day with whoever shows up. She’ll be there until September 30. I’m so psyched to go back!

Tip: The hardest challenge for everyone in Manhattan is finding a clean, safe, attractive — free — place to pee. Bryant Park has one of the city’s nicest toilets, in the northeast corner, with marble counters and fresh flowers. Grand Central Station, at 42d and Park (two blocks further east), has three restrooms, two women-only, two on the lower floor.

6:55 Crossing Fifth Avenue, I see a steady stream of gleaming black Escalades, ferrying the wealthy Wall Street crowd north to their homes on the Upper East Side. While the rest of us hoof, subway, bus or cab it, this daily migration is a reminder of how economically divided the city really is.

Tip: The only reason we really, really, really hate tourists? They stand still in the middle of the sidewalk, stopping in front of the rest of us who are always in a big hurry. Or they walk really slowly, sometimes three or four abreast, blocking our way. Once you exit a building, pretend the sidewalk is moving and will, like the ones in airports, will throw you off if you don’t pay attention. Pay attention!

7:00 A quick tour of Sephora, seeking a birthday present for a younger friend, I buy a bar of Fresh Hesperides soap, which smells divine and will last for a month.

7:50 Walk past Posman Books, one of my favorite indie bookstores, which — to my deeply grateful astonishment — is displaying my book in the window. I’m thrilled, as some of the country’s top book, magazine and publishing editors and agents shop there. Chat briefly with an elegant older woman shopper who lives in Zurich, buying Aristophanes.

7:57 Buy popcorn and chocolate milk for dinner to eat on the train. Jose finds me at the platform and we head north.

The value of doing something really badly

In aging, behavior, business, children, culture, education, life on August 22, 2012 at 12:04 am
English: The picture being uploaded is a from ...

English: The picture being uploaded is a from Evergreen Golf – Driving Range located in Martinsburg, Wv (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When was the last time you tried something new — making an omelet, writing a screenplay, drawing your dog?

Were the results really awful?

What did you do next?

I bet some of you wailed in (premature) despair: “I suck! I am the world’s worst cook/screenwriter/artist!” And possibly swore that was the last time you would road-test that particular patch of hell.

But I think there’s tremendous inherent value in doing something very poorly. Because, unless you’re an absolute genius (ooooh, lucky you!) you will not be amazing at pretty much anything new right out of the gate.

So, being lousy at something doesn’t mean you’re always going to be lousy. It means you’re a beginner. If you don’t indulge in the ego massage of frustration, (says the chick who once threw her fencing helmet across the salle), you’re bound to start getting better if you keep at it.

Babies fall down a lot when they start walking. It’s a new skill.

They don’t form complete lucid sentences when they begin speaking, nor do we expect them to. It’s a new skill.

When I took up fencing in my early 30s, when I moved to New York and didn’t have a job and didn’t know anyone beyond my fiance, I was pretty lousy at it for a while. Being a driven, stubborn perfectionist, (in New York, the equivalent of having a pulse), I did not take kindly to being shitty at something.

I hadn’t sucked at anything in ages.

One night, worn out and sore and deeply frustrated by my lack of progress, I went and wept in a stairwell. I never cry. I didn’t come back to class for about a month. Then, to my coach’s surprise, I did. A two-time Olympian, he knows how hard it is to get good at fencing. To get really good at anything.

I needed to get comfortable with “failure”, to dredge up the necessary humility to learn something new, and do it poorly for a while until I improved. Or gave up.

But I very rarely give up. For the next four years, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer, knocked out at nationals each year just before the final eight. I learned a great deal about myself in those years, most of it about mental blocks and anger and what a toxic waste of time it is to beat yourself up for being lousy at something.

Who isn’t?

This past weekend, I suggested to my husband, an avid golfer, we go to the driving range. He couldn’t believe his ears. My standard line is that I hate golf.

I haven’t learned a new skill in far too long, so I had him teach me as we ploughed through a large bucket of balls.

Some of my swings were so shockingly bad that I didn’t even get near the ball. I’m a highly athletic person, still, with terrific hand-eye coordination. So I cursed and sulked a bit.

Then I took a long deep breath and reminded myself that I had deliberately chosen the exercise of doing something completely new and unfamiliar.

In my work life, as a full-time freelance writer, I’m expected to be excellent all the damn time. I need the relief of being awful. To try new stuff out in privacy. To see if I can still learn, and how I’ll handle the frustrations that come with that process.

So, when I whacked that ball soaring into the air, landing a satisfying 150 yards away, I was ecstatic. Then I did it again. And again.

I was wildly inconsistent.

That’s what it means to be a beginner, a learner.

In an era of rushrushrushrushallthetime! we often don’t allow ourselves, (or our sweeties or our kids), the luxury of failure and experimentation. Of being a beginner.

High school students feel tremendous pressure to get good grades to get into the right college, where they feel tremendous pressure to choose only the classes they know will get them the high grades to get them into the right grad or professional program and into the right job and…On it goes.

We’re squeaking our lives away in a hamster wheel of perfection.

When was the last time you savored being lousy at something you’re simply new at?

Are you still willing to be a bumbling beginner?

Does journalism still matter to you?

In behavior, blogging, books, culture, journalism, Media, news, politics, US on August 20, 2012 at 3:05 am
Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg

Carl Bernstein in Salt Lake City.jpg (Photo credit: Jeremy Franklin)

Do you care about facts?

Context?

Objective truth?

As someone who’s been working in journalism for 30 years, I get up every morning assuming — hoping! — there is still an audience interested in learning something smart and thoughtful about the world they didn’t know the day before.

I say “day” because minute-to-minute “news” is often, unless it’s about a death or natural disaster, wrong, biased, misinformed.

Being the first to report something doesn’t mean being the best.

I don’t use Twitter. When I read my “news feed” on Facebook, I don’t substitute my friends’ opinions, videos and pet photos for an understanding of the world.

But many people now do. For them this is news, traditional media be damned.

Thanks to the Internet, to blogs like this and news that reifies hardened political views, too many people now turn to an echo chamber, listening and reading only those people whose shared vision of the world and its challenges — poverty, reproductive rights, defense, education, health care — comforts, soothes and reassures them that their worldview is right!

What we’re gaining — in a feeling of connectedness and community — we’re also losing by ignoring or shutting out the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, perhaps violently. If you live in the U.S. and read the liberal New York Times, it’s worth also reading the opinion and editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to see a totally different view of the same issues.

Just because you lean wayyyyyy to the left, or right, doesn’t mean your opinion is accurate because it’s shared by those who shout your tune the loudest.

No matter how much you may disagree, if you refuse to examine and consider other viewpoints, how can you learn how other people think? With a Presidential election here in a few months, it’s certainly going to play out at the ballot box.

You can’t just cover your ears and shout lalalalalalalalalalalala and hope to have a clue what’s going out there.

I read a variety of media, and try to include British and Canadian sources as often as possible. If I were less lazy, I’d also read Spanish and French media. Nor do I assume that any journalist, or media outlet, has some exclusive claim to the truth. I know better!

When it comes to “truth”, there are many different versions.

Here’s a short video interview from the Guardian newspaper with American journalist Carl Bernstein about the issue; he was one of the two Washington Post reporters whose exhaustive, dogged investigative work on former President Richard Nixon led to his resignation.

In his view, the scourge of our era is this closed-eyes/closed-ears attitude. Our unwillingness to listen to one another in order to gain some sort of consensus.

Do you seek out views other than your own?

Do you sell oxygen with these? The joy of high heels

In beauty, behavior, Fashion, journalism, life, Style, women on August 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

After two years of agonizing pain, making every step exhausting, I have a new hip.

Time for high heels!

In the past few weeks, in an unprecedented spree, I’ve bought two pairs, one of which my husband urged me to do, one of them so high I asked the befuddled sales associate if they came with oxygen. The altitude…

I was never much of  a high heels sort of girl.

It wasn’t because I’m a feminist.

It’s because I’m a journalist, lived downtown alone in large cities for many years and have often traveled solo in some funky places — i.e. I wore flats so I could walk long distances and run fast, safely, when necessary.

Yes, a stiletto heel makes a nice weapon, but I never wanted any miscreant to get that close in the first place.

When you work as a news reporter, every day offers some fresh new hell interesting challenge as you’re sent off to cover whatever the editor thinks important, and in all kinds of weather. It’s not a job for gals whose wardrobes restrict them physically, or whose idea of outdoor activity — as American humorist Fran Lebowitz once joked — is stepping from the taxi into the restaurant.

Stories I’ve covered included:

– a bloody car wreck where everyone died in a head-on collision with a city bus. This meant running up a wet, snowy and muddy hill to reach the site

– racing to beat the press pack across a convention center hall to reach the Prime Minister after a speech

– squatting on the wet, slippery, bucking deck of an America’s Cup boat to interview crew members

– heading into the midtown Manhattan offices of a shady “baby nurse” firm for a quote, fully expecting to be yelled at, possibly hit, and needing to sprint back to safety

You get the idea.

Not only do serious reporters need to run/squat/climb things, we need to beat the competition.  Not that anyone really working it would show up in Louboutins, but knowing I could book it was comforting. On several occasions — back when the earth was cooling (the 1980s), before the Internet and cellphones — I had to locate, commandeer and race to the nearest pay phone before anyone else in the press pack.

(Watch a few 1940s movies to see what I’m talking about.)

It was no time for heels.

The week I got re-married, last September, a tad anxious as most brides are, I did what tends to soothe me at times of stress — buy shoes. I treated myself to my first-ever, full-price pair of Manolo Blahniks, burgundy sling-backs to wear with my (non-white) wedding dress.

Damned if I was going to head back into matrimony in boring old flats. Nope, this was a day for gorgeous, sexy heels. One of my favorite photos of that day is my Dad and the minister, each steadying me, as I slip into them before gliding down the aisle.

I was blond then!

Here’s a recent blog post featured on Freshly Pressed, about whether you can be a feminist and wear high heels.
How many of you dig high heels?

Saying “Thank you”

In behavior, culture, domestic life, education, family, life, parenting on August 16, 2012 at 12:19 am
Message in the bottle

Message in the bottle (Photo credit: funtik.cat)

A lovely card arrived this week for my husband, a thank-you note (real paper, lovely image, hand-written in pen) from a young female photographer whose work he had commissioned for a New York Times photo essay.

If you think thank-you notes — no, not thank you tweets or emails — are passe, think again.

If you really want to make an impression, consider the quaint, old-fashioned elegance of writing, stamping and mailing a thank-you note.

Whenever I leave home for a few days or longer, I carry personal stationery and some thank-you cards with me, so I never have an excuse not to write a thank-you note, to someone who hosted me for dinner or helped with my book or gave me a work tip.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama was recently chastised by Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, for being insufficiently grateful:

Stories abound of big donors who stopped giving as much or working as hard because Obama never reached out, either with a Clinton-esque warm bath of attention or Romney-esque weekend love fests and Israeli-style jaunts; of celebrities who gave concerts for his campaigns and never received thank-you notes or even his full attention during the performance; of public servants upset because they knocked themselves out at the president’s request and never got a pat on the back; of V.I.P.’s disappointed to get pictures of themselves with the president with the customary signature withheld; of politicians disaffected by the president’s penchant for not letting members of Congress or local pols stand on stage with him when he’s speaking in their state (they often watch from the audience and sometimes have to lobby just to get a shout-out); of power brokers, local and national, who felt that the president insulted them by never seeking their advice or asking them to come to the White House or ride along in the limo for a schmooze.

Care and feeding has been outsourced to Joe Biden, who loves it, but it doesn’t build the same kind of loyalty as when the president does it.

“He comes from the neediest profession of all, except for acting, but he is not needy and he doesn’t fully understand the neediness of others; it’s an abstraction to him,” says Jonathan Alter, who wrote “The Promise” about Obama’s first year in office and is working on a sequel. “He’s not an ungracious person, but he can be guilty of ingratitude. It’s not a politically smart way for him to operate.

I say “thank you” a lot.

And mean it.

I say it to my husband, several times a day — for cooking dinner, or sweeping the balcony or just being a loving and devoted partner. We will not be sharing life forever, so better to voice my gratitude to him while I can.

A man whose vision changed my life, by creating a journalism fellowship I did in Paris at 25, died November 27, 1986. I found out when I returned to the Montreal Gazette newsroom, where I was then a feature writer, and burst into tears when the operator handed me the message.

In June 2007, I finally had the chance to thank him, by traveling to the small Breton town of Concarneau. I searched for his grave in vain for an hour, in broiling heat, before asking the guard to show it to me. I sat beside his stone and kept him company. I wanted to pay my respects, to thank him for the life he helped make possible for me.

Years ago, a former journalism student of mine — she had been very beautiful and lazy, often coasting, as she knew she could, on her looks and charm — sent me a thank-you note, finally understanding and grateful for why I’d been so tough and demanding as her teacher. She now had a very good journalism job, one that set the bar much higher than she’d expected, and she now saw why I’d been such a hard-ass, trying to prep them all for unforgiving editors, like the ones I’ve always had.

That note meant a lot!

Every day someone  — the guy making your deli sandwich or doing your dry-cleaning or the woman who drives your bus this morning — is making our lives a little better. Maybe it’s a friend, neighbor, relative, professor or teacher who, even by their words or actions a decade or so ago, did or said something that smoothed our path or soothed our souls.

We need to say thank you.

Here’s a lovely blog post recently featured on Freshly Pressed by a woman, now a teacher, who wrote to thank one of her early teachers — who gave her a D on a paper.

I’ve now been to a few funerals, and far more than I’d like. It’s too easy to eulogize the dead, heaping them with praise and thanksgiving.

Do it today.

How much detail is simply too much?

In behavior, blogging, books, domestic life, Media on August 14, 2012 at 12:51 am
Writer's Block 1

Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate). How much — REALLY? — do we need to know?

Everyone who writes a blog, unless it’s focused on a specific subject, shares details of their life, past and present: their kids, their partner, their dating life, their work, their school experiences…

How much is too much?

Readers here have learned that:

– I need to lose a pile of weight and how tedious this is

– I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, including a hip replacement in February 2012

– My (second) husband is Hispanic, and a fellow journalist

– My relationship with my mother is toxic-non-existent

– My mother has issues of mental illness and substance abuse

There’s much more I could share. But every word, every sentence and every blog post we write contains the seeds of potential disaster if we carelessly hand out our deepest and most private thoughts, fears and feelings to…people we don’t know.

i.e. you.

How much attention/validation is (ever) enough?

Our private lives, when written for mass consumption, offer readers the powerful opportunity to feel empathy, horror, sadness, disgust, delight, amusement.

They can high-five us across six time zones — or trash us with vicious comments. It’s the deliberate risk we take in exposing our soft underbelly to the cool gaze of strangers.

Sharing personal detail can offer the writer a chance to reflect and make (better) sense of their own milestones, and help their readers do the same: divorce, death, marriage, the bewildering rejection by a friend or lover. In reading others’ stories, we can feel less alone, better understood.

Less weird.

I found great comfort, when I wrote about my tortured relationship with my mother, from some of your comments. As the painfully unhealed wound of my life from the age of 14, this issue offers a lot of great material.

But without a wise and protective editor saying “Um, you know, this might be a little too much”, bloggers run the very real risk of over-exposure. And the only editor most bloggers have is themself.

When I wrote “Malled”, I initially included some unhappy details about my family relationships, I thought important because they would offer context. I had five first readers, one my sister-in-law and another a dear friend.

All five said, “Nope, take it out. It’s too much information. You shouldn’t share that much.”

When I handed in “Malled’s” final revisions, I sent them to a friend who works in publishing for another major house, who offered some new and unexpectedly tart criticisms about the book’s tone. As my friend, as someone who knows what makes books sell well, she was being helpful and kind, even if it was hard for me to read.

My editor and her assistant, when I asked them, agreed — and we made even more changes.

My point?

Thank God for editors! Thank God for protective friends.

Those posts, however raw, remain available for lovers and employers and friends and family to forever find on-line. I’ve found far too many blogs that are merely verbal vomits, as though simply spewing one’s misery into the ether offers readers something of value. It doesn’t.

A blog post asks attention from someone who does not know you.

And naively assuming their goodwill, understanding, empathy and/or agreement is unwise. Some of the comments on amazon.com about “Malled” have left me shaking, as, in the guise of a “review”, people who have no idea who I am, beyond the narrator’s voice there, have shredded my character and impugned my motives.

That’s the risk you take.

Here’s a thoughtful piece from The New York Times Magazine about the perils of over-sharing:

Every personal-essay writer struggles with this line, and I don’t know one of us who hasn’t bungled it big time. I tried to protect the writers I worked with. On other first-person sites — sites where I flattered myself that the editors weren’t as careful as I was — I saw too much exposure. I would find myself excising the grimmest parts of personal essays, torn between my desire to protect the human being and my knowledge that such unforgettable detail would boost a story’s click-through rate.

“This feels a little unprocessed,” I told writers who shared their tales of date rape and eating disorders, but it was hard to deny that the internal chaos, that fog of confusion, could make for compelling reading, like dispatches from inside a siege…

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves…My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void.

How much do you share in your blog posts?

Have you ever regretted it?

The writer’s life, this week anyway

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, life, Media, women, work on August 12, 2012 at 12:09 am
English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Gra...

English: A 4 segment Panoramic view of the Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, New York, United States. Taken with a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An ongoing occasional series on my life as a full-time writer in New York. Maybe surprisingly, little actual writing is involved — and much rejection (and patience) is pretty standard. This week included two writers’ deaths and the loss of $2,000 income.

Monday

Exhausted by attending BlogHer, a 5,000 participant conference in Manhattan on Friday and Saturday, I took the day off for R & R. Slept in the sun by our apartment pool. Bliss!

Tuesday

Started researching the weekly personal finance blog I write for Canadians, focused on the move by one bank to shut down accounts of Iranian Canadians, in order to comply with federal regulations. Knowing that bank and government PR people are slow to return emails or calls, best to start now — my deadline is Friday.

I need to order books for my Neiman-Marcus event in September. Since I have to pay for these books myself, even with a 40 percent author discount, I don’t want to get stuck with unsold merch and a credit card bill. Sigh.

Phone meeting with a new-to-me client who is, (blessedly highly unusual), unhappy with the 2,000 word magazine piece I just handed in. We spend 30 minutes wrangling. Not fun.

Call an agent who’s seen my third book proposal, but didn’t like it as is, to determine if he wants to work on it with me anyway. Check in with my assistant in New York and assure my assistant in Toronto I’m really not ignoring her. I am, though. I’m swamped and feeling really distracted.

One of my toughest daily challenges is setting priorities for what’s urgent as I constantly toggle between meeting deadlines, finding new work, marketing my book and doing the work already in hand.

Wednesday

I get a last-minute email invitation to attend a presentation in Manhattan by a Harvard Business School professor writing a book about retail work, as I did. But she’s getting inside access to senior corporate executives. There are 29 people in the room, from retail workers to reporters to union reps. It’s fascinating work and she’s a lively and personable speaker. I’m honored when she asks if she can use my book as part of her research.

I’m meeting at 6:30 with a very senior editor at a major newspaper, ostensibly to be social, but I’m also curious if I’d fit there as a staffer. I have four hours to kill before the dinner, so I go to a French movie. It’s a hot, humid day and sitting in the cool darkness eating popcorn and being transported to early 20th century Provence is heaven.

Thursday

Scrambling to finish my personal finance reporting.

I sit on the volunteer board of a writers’ group offering emergency grants to those in need; I learn that one of our board members, 76, has died.

Checking in with colleagues and editors and a possible new agent to see where things stand with my book proposal.

Had the idea to create a new conference for women over 40, so I’ve been emailing and calling a few people to see if they’d be willing to brainstorm it with me. I go to the local hotel and get their rates for renting a room and meals for a meeting — sobering! Immediately see why conferences need sponsors!

Get an email from the Decatur Literary Festival wanting me to update my site on their website. Need to send bio, headshot, cover of my book and a brief description of it. I’m really looking forward to this event, but nervous that — as can happen — no one will show up to hear me speak or to buy my book. I have several friends living there, one of them author of a terrifying book about MRSA, who want to get together socially. Will I have time? Have to check the website to see how many parties I need to attend! It’s a rare, fun chance to meet a lot of other authors.

I wonder if getting another fellowship would help me, financially and professionally and check out the Knight-Bagehot, which offers $50,000 to study at Columbia University. Everyone who’s won in the past two years is 20 years my  junior and has a staff job. I email the program director to ask if applying is even worth it.

I call a local library to ask if I can do a reading. They say no.

Friday

Drop off the car for repair — $200.65, $100 less than I’d expected. Yay!

A friend emails to ask my advice about how to choose an agent — as the Olympic athlete she has written about has won a gold medal and is now on everyone’s mind. I steal an hour of work-time to watch synchronized swimming, cheering loudly for the Canadians. As someone who used to do synchro, I’m in awe of their skills.

Awaiting word on pitches to Monocle, The New York Times, Marie-Claire, Hispanic Business and others. I read a few stories in Bloomberg Businessweek and now want to send a copy of “Malled” to the CEO of Ann Taylor, a women’s clothing retailer here, and to the new head at J.C. Penney.

A friend has suggested I update my website to attract more paid speaking engagements, so I have to start reaching out to people for testimonials.

I need to request a copy of the raw manuscript from a client whose thriller I edited last summer to possibly get more freelance editing work from an agency.

Talk to my personal finance blog editor, who lives and works in Austin, Texas. Typically, I often work for years with editors or clients I never meet. It’s our first personal chat in the three months I’ve been writing for him.

Learn of the premature death, of cancer, of David Rakoff, a fellow Canadian writer in New York – at 47. Sad news, and another terrific talent lost.

The magazine editor who hated my story kills it with no offer of a kill fee for my time and work. I’ve just lost $2,000 of income I’d counted on. Haven’t had a story killed in years. Nice.

Call five regular clients to see if I can snag some assignments to make up for that lost revenue.

Referred a colleague in Seattle to one of my editors.

Invited my assistant to come for dinner. She’s been working hard on a tedious set of tasks for me, cheerfully and well. In addition to two part-time assistants (one at $10/hr, one at $13/hr) I have a cleaner in twice a month ($25/hr.) When I hear the phrase “job creators” I look in the mirror. My income may have many fewer zeros than Corporate Kings, but it’s also paying others for their skills.

Head to the gym, where I actually have time (on the elliptical) to read magazines.

How was your week, my dears?

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