Everyone’s got some sort of laminated badge hanging from a chain or a ribbon or clipped to their belt.
As a self-employed writer, my business cards, in two styles, and my website (which I had professionally designed for me) help to identify me to potential coaching students and clients.
But, as 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman wrote, I — like all of us — contain multitudes.
I’m a wife
I’m an immigrant/expatriate
I’m an athlete
I’m a collector of antique and vintage objects
I’m a photographer
I’m an obsessive listener of radio
I’m nominally Episcopalian/Anglican, although I haven’t attended church regularly now for almost two years
I’m a feminist
I’m socially liberal
I’m a Francophile
I’m a traveler
I’m a mentor
I’m a teacher/coach
I didn’t even think (?!) to include my race (Caucasian) or gender (cis-female) because, to me, they’re not worth mentioning….which in itself is a sign of privilege.
I get it!
Nor do I mention my age because it’s a quick and unpleasant way to pigeonhole and minimize me and my value in a culture that fetishizes and rewards youth. I don’t identify with my age group at all, even if perhaps I should.
My husband, American-born, is Hispanic and, while he speaks no Spanish — nor, as friends once asked me, does he wear a guayabera or dance salsa (!) — he likely identifies most as a photographer and photo editor.
We have no children, so the default roles of parents/grandparents are not ours.
I’m endlessly fascinated by how people identify themselves, and which identities they choose to foreground and which they choose to hide or deemphasize.
We live in a time of competing and loudly shouted identities, when intersectional feminism often gets angry and frustrating, as women try (and often fail) to comprehend one another’s challenges.
We live in a time of extraordinary income inequality, where identifying with a particular socioeconomic class can be relatively meaningless when there are millionaires who consider themselves “poor” in comparison to those with billions. Those who who fly only first class looking longingly at those who only fly private.
We live in a time of deep political division, where civil conversations stop dead, or never even start, so identifying yourself with one camp or another can be dangerous.
Which of these best describes your default choice?
I know a few people who immediately choose the first, justifying their expenditures — sometimes far beyond their budget or means — with “I deserve it” and “I work hard” or “It’s only X$/euros/pounds.”
I watch those people from a distance, warily.
Not spending money can be a monumental challenge for some. Or not over-eating or drinking or smoking.
Maybe my perspective is a result of my unlikely and stringent childhood, shuttling between a strict girls-only boarding school and more permissive but still-regimented girls-only summer camps.
The former offered very little comfort, softness or emotional respite, only a large, shared dark green wicker basket of cookies every afternoon and the chance to watch television in the common room for a few hours one evening a week.
So I’ve always been suspicious, sometimes even disdainful, of people who constantly insist on pampering and spoiling themselves, having seen too much of it in adults who should have been more aware of, and attentive to, their responsibilities.
I do enjoy many pleasures — good food and wine, travel, music, a lovely home — but I can also wear myself out battling internally over how often and how much is too much.
I sometimes find it hard to just be nice to myself.
And, as someone who works alone at home, with no boss or colleagues, no performance reviews except winning repeat business from my clients, it’s all up to me to find and complete enough work to earn my living.
That means no dicking around — I don’t even sit on our comfy sofa until my workday is done, daytime television only tuned to CNN or BBC in the case of huge breaking news.
Self-care, a word I find odd although I heartily endorse its spirit, can be difficult for people who’ve been raised to be stoic and uncomplaining. It can feel like self-indulgence when it’s really just putting gas back into your depleted physical, emotional and spiritual tank.
It’s also deeply unAmerican, (a nation founded by Puritans), to take time off, to slow down, to actually take and enjoy vacations.
It’s so much easier, in an economy driven by consumer spending, to just buy stuff, more stuff, better stuff and newer stuff — which (funny thing!) also takes no time away from remaining “productive”.
It does very little to produce happiness.
And not being perpetually busy here is often seen as evidence of stupidity or laziness — not a smart decision to rest and re-charge.
My six weeks off, unimaginable to some, (and yes, a huge investment), was a great gift to myself.
Many could see it as self-indulgence, and maybe it was!
But here’s the thing….
The money that funded it only resulted from years of self-denial, saving hard, whether an unexpected windfall, (a massive copyright settlement in Canada that won me and many journalism colleagues five-figure sums), or my own income.
Americans also continue to have frighteningly low rates of savings, for a variety of reasons: health insurance and post-secondary education — hardly luxuries! –— are now big-ticket items, for one.
Low and stagnant wages are another problem.
But if you’re making enough to surpass basic needs, you have to save. And that often means — ideally for a while anyway — doing fewer fun, cool, tempting things, like buying the latest tech toys or phone or putting a vacation or wedding or new something on credit cards.
I’ve also been fasting, (800 cals/day, 2 days per week) since April 2016 and it’s helped me to lose weight; I’ve blogged about it here.
No one wants to go through life forever feeling deprived. But, I’ve seen, if you can stick it out and be patient, results do accrue.
The way that President Donald Trump behaves — a mixture I find both exhausting and toxic — is far too familiar.
He accuses everyone who disagrees with him of trying to undermine him.
He’s flapped his hand at his wife in public as if she were a poorly-trained servant, leaving her behind as he ascended the White House steps — leaving the Obamas, instead, to escort her, each extending a gentle hand to Melania’s back.
He has every privilege and power the world can bestow upon him and it’s insufficient to his insatiable needs.
There’s no way to predict what he will say or do next, and millions worldwide are now on tenterhooks, anxious and insecure.
What fresh hell awaits tomorrow?
Been there, lived it and hated it.
I grew up in a family that had mental illness and alcoholism in it. You learn to adapt, even while you wish you didn’t have to. You’re constantly on-guard for the next draaaaaaama, the next mess to clean up.
Americans are learning to similarly bob and weave and dodge and feint to accommodate his incompetence and capriciousness.
How to cope:
We become hyper-vigilant, ever alert to the next catastrophe.
We anticipate disaster, ever ready to finesse it, no matter how scared or overwhelmed we really feel.
We’re confused, because what was said the day before — or 10 minutes earlier — is now different. Pivot! Fast! Do it again!
The cognitive load leaves us unfocused or less productive at work and in intimate relationships. We’re burned out.
Gaslighting is incessant, the denials of terrible things they just said. You heard it. You saw it. But…no, you didn’t, they insist.
There’s a woman in my spin class — our spin class — who rarely smiles. Her face is usually set in a mien of unsettling intensity, her eyes always agog at..something.
She is as lean as a whippet, her muscles shorn of all excess fat, all softening curves. She carries a large bottle water with ice cubes in it.
She’s in her 50s, maybe retired or self-employed or doesn’t have to work. She appears to live at the gym, working out for hours.
Culturally, as someone who needs to shed at least 30 pounds, if not more, I should envy her, despising my own excess adipose tissue — a tummy whose additional flesh I can still grab (OMG!), despite three months now of two-day-a-week calorie restriction (750 per day), no alcohol until Friday evening and two to three spin classes a week plus lifting weights.
(I do see a difference in my shape and size now, as do my husband and friends. It’s just sloooooow. This morning in the mirror I saw…shadows in my cheeks. Definition?!)
I’m working it.
She’s working it.
The day after my left hip replacement….Feb. 2012
Another friend of the blog, a fellow journalist named Caitlin, writes Fit and Feminist — and is now doing (gulp) triathlons.
We’re all headed to the same place eventually, some much faster and more heart-breakingly so, than others.
I live in an apartment building where we own our homes, so I’ve stayed for decades and have gotten to know our neighbors.
It’s also a building with many — most — residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
Death stalks our hallways.
But in the past decade, we’ve also lost two lovely men, both mid-life, to brain tumors. One man on our floor died of cancer, at least three women in our building, (those that I know personally), are dealing with it.
It’s deeply sobering — (a fact I spend a lot of time denying!) — to stop and realize how fragile our bodies are, prey to genetic shit-shows we didn’t choose and must face nonetheless; my mother has survived at least four forms of cancer so I’m hyper-vigilant with mammograms, skin checks, Pap smears. I smoked once, for about four months, when I was 14 and am very careful about much alcohol I consume.
The weight I’m working so hard to shed is less for cosmetic reasons than for health.
And yet, life also offers tremendous sensual, shared pleasure in the form of delicious foods and drinks, which (yes, I admit) also include alcohol and sweets.
Some people dismiss this idea — sucking back juice or Soylent — treating food as mere fuel.
Not I. Not ever.
I was in great shape in fall 2014…then spent three weeks in Paris. Ooooohlala.
I look at young women, and men, in shorts and tank tops on the summer streets, carelessly luxuriating in their unlined, unscathed beauty, and wonder if they’ll look back in a few decades with rue or remorse, or happy memories of having savored it all while it was theirs to savor.
It’s a fine balance, this, between the mortification of the flesh, the discipline and self-denial to keep (or regain) a lean physique — and the slothful joys of long naps, a slice of chocolate cake or pie, hours on the sofa watching terrible television or playing video games instead of lifting weights or running or yoga.
Having worked non-stop to meet a magazine deadline, (the story for Chatelaine, a major Canadian magazine, which I’m really proud of, a medical one of course, is here), I ended up in the hospital, in March 2007, with pneumonia, and spent three days there on an IV, coughing so hard I could barely sleep. Drenched with fever sweat, I staggered into the ward shower, and — out loud, alone — apologized to my poor, aching, weary, worn-out body.
It was not, I finally and belatedly realized, a machine to be run until it smoked for lack of grease in the wheels.
Our bodies are the greatest of gifts, to be cherished and held and adored.
The other day, I received an email from a young friend I met in Tucson a few years ago and who has since gone on to work in Nigeria, teach English in Turkey, do volunteer work in Mexico, compete for a London-based fellowship and intern at CNN in Atlanta.
He only graduated last May.
Nor is he a person of privilege, quite the opposite, making his trajectory even more impressive.
His email thanked me for my belief in him.
We had had a long and deeply personal conversation during a student program I was teaching in. I was touched he trusted me enough to ask my advice and was happy to give it.
It made me stop and think about the people who’ve shown their belief in me along the way and how that trust and confidence in my skills and strengths kept me going when I thought I couldn’t.
While some of today’s millennials have won trophies for showing up and some have been told Good job! for almost everything they do, I’m a Boomer from a challenging and demanding family. Everyone is a high achiever and kudos were not the norm. So the people named here made a serious difference in my life.
I know that I know how to photograph. It’s hard to take creative risks without some encouragement!
My high school art teacher, who allowed us to use her first name. Funny, warm, down to earth, she saw how troubled and unhappy I was, (bullied every day there for years), but she nurtured and appreciated my talents for drawing, painting and photography. I needed a safe place to be good at something, and to be liked, even on my worst days. She offered it and belief in someone who might not be bullied forever.
A friend of my father
He loaned me a Pentax SLR camera, knowing I wanted to become a photographer. Even more generously, he told me about an annual contest, open to anyone in Toronto to submit their images of the city to Toronto Calendar magazine — which used them as their sole cover image. Still in high school, I sold three of mine. That boosted my confidence in a way no high school grade ever could have.
I started selling my writing to national magazines when I was 19, still an undergraduate at university. I still can’t quite imagine what they thought of the kid who showed up in their offices with a multi-page list of story ideas I went through until they finally said yes to one of them.
Or sent me out to report stories I’d never done before — like sitting in the open door of an airplane to watch a skydiver or calling the German headquarters of Adidas for a story about running shoes. I was hired at 26 as a staff reporter for the Globe & Mail, Canada’s best national newspaper, without a minute of daily newspaper experience after eight years’ freelancing for them and my editors there sent me out on major stories that ran front page, terrifying me but giving me opportunities to grow, learn and shine.
Once in your life, if you’re lucky, you meet the right person at just the right moment. Not romantically, but in a much deeper sense.
A former Resistance hero, he was the founder of a Paris-based journalism fellowship I was selected to participate in, (and also founder of a home for wayward boys; Glenans, a sailing school, and a major daily newspaper.) He introduced me to everyone, proudly, as “Le terrible Caitlin!” — which I thought rude until I realized it meant terrific.
I was 25, desperate to somehow get a great journalism job, to build my skills and self-confidence. To have someone so incredibly accomplished like me and deeply believe in my potential? He did, for which I’m forever grateful.
I’ve had some amazing adventures as a journalist. I’ve spent a week crewing on a Tall Ship and sailed with an Americas Cup crew.
The best adventure (so far!) was in March 2014 when I joined a multi-media team in rural Nicaragua for a week’s reporting on the work of WaterAid there. We worked in 95-degree heat in Spanish and Miskitu and became so close that we all stay in touch still. It means a lot to me that clients trust me to tell their stories.
My fencing coach
How cool was it to be coached by a two-time Olympian? Amazing!
I had arrived in New York with no job/friends/family/college alumni — and had to re-start my journalism career at 30.
I landed in Manhattan, a hotbed of fencing talent. My coach, who was teaching the sport at NYU, was a former Navy man, who decided after a year or so of our mediocre foil fencing to turn a small group of women, then in our mid 30s, into sabre fencers. This was unheard of — and we couldn’t even progress beyond nationals because there was then no higher-level competition available to women.
It meant learning a new weapon, new ways of thinking and behaving on the strip, and most of all, simply being willing to try something that looked weird and impossible at first.
His faith and belief in us — much deeper than any we had in ourselves! — was truly transformative. I went on to become nationally ranked for four years, happily surprised at what you can do when someone sees talent within you, pushes you hard to develop it and celebrates the results.
My first agent
I found him through a friend. Quiet and soft-spoken, he took me to lunch at one of the city’s most elegant restaurants, Balthazar, where we ordered Kumamotos. (Oysters. I had no idea!)
I wanted more than anything to write non-fiction books, to do deep, national reporting on complicated subjects. Ambitious stuff. Finding an agent isn’t easy — you need to like, trust and respect one another, knowing you’re entwining your reputation and career with theirs.
And when an agent takes on a new writer, one who has yet to even publish a book, they’re gambling on a raft of things: your skill, your determination, your ethics, your ability to see it through to the end.
He fought hard for my first book as 25 publishers said no, some quite rudely. It did sell, and we’re now working together once more on my third book proposal.
She’s opened her home to me for decades and treated me as family, even though we met professionally when she was a PR rep in Toronto and I wrote about the organization she worked with. After I became a victim of crime here in New York, she let me stay in her Toronto home for three weeks to recover to decide if I would come back to the U.S.
My husband, a fellow journalist, has been-there-done-it-seen-it-all — he’s won a Pulitzer Prize for editing 9/11 photos for The New York Times, photographed three Presidents as an eight-year member of the White House Press Corps, covered two Olympics, several Superbowls, the end of the Bosnian war. He knows what excellence in our field looks like and demands.
His faith in me — even as our industry has lost 40 percent of its staff since 2008 — is enormous. He’s seen me write two books, (with two tired fingers!), and encourages me every day to take even more creative risks.
Who believes — or believed — in you along the way?
Some days it seems everyone I meet is afraid of getting old — or at least of looking as old as they are. Occasionally, I see women who have had so many face lifts that they can barely move their lips when they talk, let alone smile.
Business is booming in the anti-aging market. Plastic surgeons who specialize in lifts, tucks and fillers barely noticed the recent recession. Cosmetics with anti-aging properties fly off the shelf, and new concoctions appear almost weekly.
I admit to supporting the multibillion-dollar skin care industry with my long use of night creams, as well as a slew of daytime facial and body lotions that purport to “smooth out” aging skin while protecting it with sunscreen. I also color my hair, which in its natural state is now about 80 percent gray.
But I draw the line at injectable fillers and muscle relaxants, face lifts and tummy tucks. I’ll do everything I can to stay out of an operating room.
I’m with her on that. I also really like her emphasis on who you are are as you age, not just the shape, size and condition of our bodies and faces:
Youthfulness is not just a question of biology. People are perceived to be younger than their years if they smile and laugh a lot (be proud of those laugh lines!) and are generally cheerful and upbeat, the kind of people who smile at strangers and wish them a good day.
People often guess me as 10 to 15 years younger than my true age, which is pleasant. This week, a NYC cabbie guessed me 13 years younger, and young people looking at me in broad daylight (i.e. their eyesight is fine!) do so as well.
If people perceive me a decade younger than some of my peers, it’s likely a combination of things:
— I’ve never smoked
— I get a lot of sleep
— I disconnect, often, from technology to meet people in person, read books in print, get into the real world
— I minimize my use of social media (however hip) to recharge and reflect
— I enjoy my life, and have a wide network of supportive friends
— I only drink moderately
— I exercise 3-4 times a week, often outdoors in nature
— I have much younger friends, some even in their early 20s, and love being part of their lives
— I’ve never hit rock-bottom, terrifying poverty, the kind where you have no idea where your next dollar, or dime, is coming from. Terror and 24/7 anxiety will age anyone quickly.
Here’s a great post from Emma Johnson, aka Wealthy Single Mommy, a fellow New York journalist, who is 36, about accepting and enjoying how our bodies change with age:
In the past year or so I’ve noticed other first, albeit subtle signs of aging: The large pores. A second glass of pinot grigio at night and I wake to extra-dark circles and creping under my eyes. The cellulite that has hugged the back of my thighs since I was 12 has spawned and now also covers the front of my thighs. After two babies and four decades, I don’t expect to see a flat tummy again. Everyone knows bodies age, yet are surprised when it happens to theirs. Here I am.
And yet for the first time in my life, I see something else that wasn’t there before. When I see pictures of myself smiling I notice the fine laugh lines, yes. There is something else in my whole face that is new. The same thing when I catch a reflection of my eyes in the rear-view mirror as I glance at my children sleeping in the backseat. I see the crow’s feet at the same moment and I see a pretty face. I did not see pretty before. It may have never been there, I’m not sure.
We now have a small army of male archetypes suffering sartorial midlife crises.
There’s the man still padding around dressed like the 28-year-old Silver Lake hipster—Vans, Daft Punk tee, thigh-hugging jeans—he was a decade ago. His proliferation is easy to understand, because his style requires no effort. Change nothing. No wonder he has numerous stuck-in-time siblings, like his urban-styled brethren.
Women, certainly in the U.S., are judged harshly when we’re not deemed sufficiently thin, perky and unwrinkled — which rules out plenty of us over 40, let alone 50.
It also focuses way too much attention on the size of our hips or ass when we really need to focus attention on the size of our paychecks and investments for retirement.
Active, curious,open minds and generous hearts are every bit as important — and generally far more within our control — as the inevitable ravages, and sometimes really lousy luck, faced by an aging body.
Some of the coolest women I know live in my apartment building, like M. who’s 80 — and feels about 60 — with fab clothes and a pompadour, a booming laugh and a spirit that still kicks ass.
I want to be her.
When you look in the mirror — especially those of you over 30 — are you happy with what you see?
Trophies were once rare things — sterling silver loving cups bought from jewelry stores for truly special occasions. But in the 1960s, they began to be mass-produced, marketed in catalogs to teachers and coaches,
and sold in sporting-goods stores.
Today, participation trophies and prizes are almost a given, as children are constantly assured that they are winners. One Maryland summer program gives awards every day — and the “day” is one hour long. In
Southern California, a regional branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization hands out roughly 3,500 awards each season — each player gets one, while around a third get two. Nationally, A.Y.S.O. local
branches typically spend as much as 12 percent of their yearly budgets
It adds up: trophy and award sales are now an estimated $3 billion-a-year industry in the United States and Canada. Po Bronson and I have spent years reporting on the effects of praise and rewards on kids. The science is clear. Awards can be powerful motivators, but nonstop recognition does not inspire children to succeed. Instead, it can cause them to underachieve.
The story had attracted 282 comments within a few hours of its publication…here’s part of one, from a male reader in New York City:
We want fame. We want adoration. We never want to break the from adolescence, no, from infancy, when we were center of the universe and a whimper could get our diaper changed.
And this admission, from a young woman in Chicago:
I’m 24 and a college graduate, and my peers and I were constantly praised from kindergarten through college. Like in the article, we all got trophies and certificates of achievement in grade and middle school, high grades in high school (partially so we could get into good colleges) and good grades for just showing up to class in college.
Competitive skills are not inherently developed; they are learned. What we have now is a group of young people coming out of college and high school who are just discovering that it takes more than showing up to succeed in life, and it is in no small part due to the “everybody is special” culture that we were steeped in as adolescents.
I think there’s a fine line between wanting non-stop attention and false adulation — “Great job!” I hear parents coo when some small child does…anything…these days — and genuine encouragement to persist in the face of disappointment and rejection.
We all went back to our busy lives and personal challenges, and we’re all still here, all still in the game. We didn’t curl up in the fetal position, sucking our thumbs and whining to one another about it.
Ever. At all. You lose, pick yourself up and get on with it.
I applied last year again, as one of 278 applicants, and became one of 14 finalists.
I lost again.
I’d planned to re-apply this year but I decided to take a break. Will I apply yet again? Probably.
Losing is dis-spiriting, indeed, but I think “winning” every time you compete for something is crazy.
Life is too difficult!
You’ll never win every date/job/fellowship/grant/award/book contract/raise/promotion you want. No one does. (And if you do, I wonder how far you’re stretching and growing…)
But in a culture that usually only cheers and celebrates heroes and the wealthy, those whose visible proof of success wins them lots of attention and praise and high-fives, (all pleasant, certainly), it’s a challenge to remember — and to teach children — that failure is normal, to be expected and builds tenacity and resilience.
And those are the true building blocks of solid, lasting self-confidence.
So I read a blog today by a 28-year-old man, who confessed to self-loathing. Then one of his commenters, a woman, agreed.
Let’s be a little sensible here.
We’re managed to out-source manufacturing and X-ray reading and people now have virtual assistants working for pennies 12 time zones away.
Why not outsource self-loathing?
Think of all the time it will free up.
No more staring at your computer muttering “I suck! I’m such a shitty writer.”
No more standing before the mirror, grabbing rolls of your fat, groaning “I hate my ass/thighs/stomach!”
No more trying to make music/create a dance/knit a sweater, whispering to yourself with hatred: “Why bother?”
Let someone else hate you!
The truth is that other people will be so breathtakingly mean, if you give them half the chance, you’ll never have to beat yourself up again. I got a “review” on Amazon of my latest book, in which I was described as “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”
Now, that’s some kind of nasty! I felt like a rank amateur in the face of that level of loathing.
The sad truth is that self-loathing is essentially self-indulgent. It’s common in your 20s, maybe in your 30s, as some of your peers will inevitably race ahead of you into law partnerships or see their work on Broadway or move into their third huge home. Whatever you’re doing may start to feel inconsequential, even if it’s really not. A crap economy doesn’t help.
The good news? Once you hit 40, or beyond, you’ll be so grateful if you’re simply alive, healthy, employed, solvent and loved that all that silly shit will no longer seem like an appealing use of your time or energy.
It’s sort of interesting being loathed. I prefer it to indifference, actually.
What are the downsides of being loathed?
— Someone may try to kill you (bad)
— Someone may try to physically harm you (bad)
— Someone may try to damage your professional reputation (annoying but you can deal with it)
— Someone may try to sabotage your personal reputation (bullying sucks)
But unless these are the real and likely consequences of such enmity, do you really care that much if someone hates you?
Yet, and yet and yet, I have entire days I think I just can’t: make that call, send that email, ask that favor, knock on that door or send that resume.
People have told me for decades how confident I appear, and the operative word might be appear, for there are too many days I feel like some medieval warrior girding her loins before even picking up the phone or sending out an email.
As someone with no steady income, salary or pension down the line, I’m in lioness mode: I eat only what I catch and kill. That means having to hustle for clients every day, whether reaching out to former or current ones or finding and cultivating new ones.
Either way, it means a lot of people contact and no guarantee of the outcome.
Which, if I fail, means — I’m broke!
I can blame my reticence on a few things:
— I’ve been canned from a few jobs, which has permanently dented my sense of likability, no matter how businesslike a layoff can be
— I was badly bullied in high school for three years by a small gang of boys
— I spent ages 5 to 30 in Canada, a country that has no tolerance for self-promotion or boasting then moved to the U.S., a place with a population 10 times larger, competing with some mighty sharp elbows. Time to man up!
— I faced a tough crowd in my own family, people who often found much to criticize and little to praise
But without a cheery demeanor and the conviction you have something worthwhile to offer, it’s tough to get out there and ask for what you want, whether a job referral, grant recommendation or help with a new project.
I had recently reached out to two people, one an old friend who didn’t call back for weeks and one a new contact whose initial voicemail sounded fairly frosty. So it was with a heavy heart I called both of them back.
Both were delighted to hear from me. Both had lost my phone number and wanted to hear my ideas.
If I hadn’t had the confidence to reach out again, I would have lost out on some cool opportunities.