This Exquisite Life

Life is too short not to be a leading lady.

Dream a Little Dream

The first post for the new year means it’s time for a new theme – the lens through which I plan for the year ahead. I’m not big on making resolutions, but I do like to set some goals.

My theme for 2013 was CELEBRATE, which I defined as “to make the effort and take the time to have some fun and bring some joy into our lives.” Whether that was through cooking favorite holiday recipes or making time for a Sunday Night Family Sit-down Dinner or making assorted seasonal crafts with my 11-year old to mark our way through the year, the goal for last year was to escape my usual bah humbug practicality and light eight days of Hanukkah candles even if it meant three extra days of scraping wax. The results of “celebrate” were mixed but at least I tried. (I knew my Christmas dinner was a success when my teenager groaned and proclaimed “the pie is winning.”)

My theme for 2014 is DREAM. This is the year for me to remember that my leading lady mantra of “take charge of your future, make a plan, and see it through” requires a supporting foundation of possibilities and what-could-be. As Carl Sandberg wrote in 1922, “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I tend to get mired in the day-to-day, in staring at my color-coded budget and shifting dollars around like one of those traffic jam puzzles where if you shift one car a little bit one way, the whole puzzle can be solved in a few moves. But it isn’t enough for me to just move the pieces around, I need a purpose, a bigger picture – I need a dream (or several!).

Last February I watched for the first time the YouTube video of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. This was one of those milestone historical events that I knew culturally but didn’t really know personally – like reading the Cliff’s Notes for a canonical novel. I was blown away by the power of his oratory and the power of his words. The video is 17 minutes long and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Pour a fresh cup of coffee, pop some popcorn – whatever it takes – but if you haven’t experienced this speech, then I think you should.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Dr. King was dreaming really big dreams, of course, not unlike another dreamer – John Lennon and “Imagine.”

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

My dreams are smaller – owning my own home, vacation travel to a far-off land, bringing music back into my life through symphony tickets and maybe learning to play an(other) instrument. And, yes, some big dreams too – like winning millions in the lottery and doing Great Works for my extended family, my community, and causes that tug at my heart and my conscience. Small or large, the point is that when I lie in bed at night and examine my life, I want to imagine a future of possibility and fulfillment and contentment. I know I’ve got the rent covered this month, that’s no longer the concern. Now I’m free to dream a little dream of what could be, just for me.


Live like no one else will, so later…

…you can live no one else can. Thus spake Dave Ramsey, my financial guru of choice. I’ve been re-reading his Total Money Makeover lately because while some people are caught up in visions of sugarplums, I’m all about laying the foundation for next year’s budget. This time of year, when we buy new calendars and make resolutions, is the obvious time for such soul-searching and analysis, and I loved creating the 2014 worksheet in my financial planning Excel file.

What’s exquisite or leading lady-like about this topic, you ask? Being in control, of course – outlining goals and making a plan to achieve them. Dave Ramsey outlines a series of steps designed to get any individual or couple out of debt and into a place of stability, security, and even financial superstardom. I have followed parts of the plan before but never really executed all the steps in order, and that will probably continue. This is not a reflection of a half-assed attitude, but rather an acknowledgement that a budget and goals are planning tools and sometimes the realities of life don’t precisely fit the model.

So in the spirit of encouragement and sharing ideas (please, I welcome yours!), here’s what I have planned for 2014:

First, I’m giving up my rented washer and dryer and planning to use the laundry facilities provided in my apartment complex. I started renting these machines when I got divorced and moved into my apartment because I wasn’t sure how long I would be there and because a smaller monthly fee was easier than spending a chunk on buying at that time. Plus, since I’m not the world’s greatest handyman, I liked that I could just call for repairs if they were ever needed. Four years later and having spent approximately $1700 in rental expenses, I’m a little shocked at the idea that by now I could have bought my own set at least twice (and that’s brand new, never mind used). With one child off at college and the other only spending every other week with me, I average two, maybe three loads of laundry per week, and I’m willing to live with the relative inconvenience of no longer taking care of this chore “in house.” GOAL: Reduce expenses.

Second, I have opened an individual brokerage account to help me start to buy some stocks. I have never owned stock directly, by which I mean I’ve participated in my company-sponsored 401(k) for years but never anything more self-directed, but after going to a Whole Foods corporate visioning and five-year planning event in October, I’m interested in buying a few shares of this company and a few others that I trust. I’m starting small (very small) and my philosophy is to buy and hold, so I have no aspirations of day trading in my fuzzy bunny slippers. GOAL: Save for retirement.

Third, I have done a complete inventory of my closet with substantial weeding out and Goodwilling, so that I know exactly what I have and what I need. Being smart about money doesn’t mean never spending it, it means spending it wisely and with clearly-defined priorities. I walk my dog in the dark a lot and prefer shoes that can be easily washed if I step in mud or, uh, whatever, and my Toms just aren’t holding up in our rainy, cold winter. So when I received a lovely surprise holiday cash gift, I consulted my wardrobe list and knew exactly what my next purchase should be. I did extensive online price comparisons and retailer inventory searches and I am convinced I got exactly what I needed for the best price possible. GOAL: Spend wisely and minimize the splurges.

Fourth, I will focus on eliminating my debt. Dave Ramsey talks about the “debt snowball” – paying off small debts first and then rolling those monthly payments into the next larger debt and paying it off, and so on. I have approximately $400 in credit card debt (retail store cards – I have no Visa or similar other than a debit card) which I will pay off as soon as possible, even if I eat ramen noodles and cabbage soup for two months. I can roll that payment into making a larger monthly car payment, and when that’s done, I can roll that payment into taking care of a 401(k) loan. How do I get excited about ramen noodles and cabbage soup? By plotting out how much the debt will reduce month by month and how much I can accelerate the pay-off dates with the snowball attack. GOAL: Eliminate debt.

You’ll notice that I don’t have a goal that says “increase income.” That’s because I really have no control over that, given that I’m not ready to actively search for new employment. If I get a raise or win the lottery or some long-lost fourth cousin remembers me in his will, then that’s a whole new round of fun. Until that happens, my task is to prioritize and work within the boundaries that are set for me and which I have accepted by staying in my job.

A few final thoughts:

  • Remember to contact your insurance agent(s) to be sure you’re getting all the discounts you deserve. I recently discovered that my auto insurance agent had neglected to renew the “good student” discount for my 18-year old driver; doing so saved me $50 per month.
  • Consider how many cable channels or other entertainment perks (like Netflix) you really need. I willingly slashed my range of cable channels to get my monthly bill under $100 since they make it impossible to unbundle the big three – phone, cable, internet – without actually paying more than the cost of the bundle. And I negotiated to get my DVR service for free for the next year.
  • Be specific on holidays and birthdays. I had no shame at all in telling my teenager that what I really wanted for Hanukkah was some new Victoria’s Secret cotton underwear to replace my thin, holey ones. She took advantage of their 7-for-$30 deal and I got a gift that was much-needed but that I would have put off buying for myself as long as absolutely possible.
  • Taking care of yourself – a little pampering – is fine, but choose wisely. I spend $65 to get my hair cut every four weeks like clockwork, but I do my own manicures, pedicures, and facials, and I go to the movies on average once a year. I’m cutting way back on the amount I eat out and I scour websites like (Twitter: @byrdiebeauty) for cosmetic products reviews that help me find good quality at Target rather than Nordstrom.

I have discovered that there is a lot, A LOT, I’m willing to live without now so that in a few years I can be a financial superstar. This willingness didn’t all happen overnight, but just like I fill up boxes for Goodwill whenever I’m angry about something, this financial housecleaning leaves me feeling really positive about the power I have to control my life and my circumstances. Happy 2014, y’all!

Leading Ladies Go to Vegas

I started this blog over a year ago to speak specifically to women, to encourage them and share ideas for becoming fearless, for being “the leading lady of your own life.” I am pleased to say that many of my followers are male, and it makes sense that the desire to be in control one’s own life is not reserved for a particular sex. It also makes sense then that inspiration for how to achieve these goals comes from both sexes, too. In today’s example, it comes from none other than Oscar Goodman, defense lawyer for the mafia and mayor of Las Vegas. I recently finished Goodman’s new memoir, Being Oscar, and it offers a number of examples of a life lived right.

  • Disclaimer #1: I am, in fact, related to Goodman on my paternal side. But other than probably meeting him at my great-grandmother’s 80th birthday party when I was still in single digits and possibly one other encounter in the 90s, I can honestly tell you that just about everything I know of the man comes from the book I just read.
  • Disclaimer #2: An autobiography is one long fish story, and anytime the book’s cover includes two Las Vegas showgirls and a martini, you know you’re in for a wild ride. I read this book under the basic premise that it is true, that is, that Goodman is not deliberately lying or creating a persona that is not really him. The fish may have gotten bigger, but I have extended to Goodman my good faith suspension of disbelief.

So what did I learn that can help me be a better leading lady?

First, Goodman absolutely believes in himself, which has allowed him to withstand the doubters, the haters, the publicity, and the legal battles and courtroom circus with his good humor intact. He is self-reliant, he does not need the approval of others to make him happy or validate his existence, and he is aware of his strengths and knows his character. How many people define themselves simply by the reflection of those around them (so-and-so’s wife, mother, daughter, employee). I couldn’t find the exact quote again, but somewhere Goodman says something like “I want to dispel the rumor right now – Carolyn [his wife] doesn’t walk around to my side of the bed and wake me up with applause every day. I can hear the applause inside my head as soon as the alarm goes off.” He also says (several times) that he is an inveterate gambler and drinks like a fish. Oscar will be Oscar.

Second, Goodman has identified the core belief in his world view – that all American citizens are entitled to be treated the same under the Constitution – and that belief has guided his every move. This aspect of belief in due process and civil rights seems especially relevant in these days of 9/11, Edward Snowden, and the TSA.

Strike Force attorneys and FBI agents acted like they were doing God’s work, and therefore they didn’t have to play by the rules. They thought the guys I was representing were evil, and even if there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the charges, it didn’t matter because they were guilty of something. The agents felt the ends justified the means.

That’s not what the Constitution says, nor is it what the Bill of Rights is about. (Chapter 2)

Goodman never says his clients were innocent, but he does believe that “innocent until proven guilty” should mean something. I don’t have to like his clients or their business antics, but I do very much like that he stands for something and isn’t afraid to say so.

Third, Goodman is also a big fan of something that is one of my own hot buttons – honesty. I cannot stand being lied to and I have no respect for liars. It just takes too much energy to remember all your lies and to whom you told them – honesty is cleaner, simpler, and a lot less stressful. I have told my girls over and over that even if the truth is painful or messy, it’s always better than the lie you could use to cover it up.

All these guys [Goodman’s mafia clients] treated me well, but I learned a really important lesson when I first started representing Rosenthal. I was supposed to file something on a minor case, but the time had lapsed. I told him what had happened, and instead of berating me, he said, “As long as you tell me, it’s okay. Just don’t ever try to hide anything from me.”

A judge once told me the same thing: “When a lawyer tries to hide a mistake, it grows.” (Chapter 8)

And finally, Goodman believes, as I do, in the mirror test. He stopped practicing law because he didn’t like his reflection anymore and he had a successful 12-year run as mayor of Las Vegas because he did. Actually, Goodman pulled off the greatest professional coup possible – he loved a job that he didn’t actually need.

I soon discovered that I was just one member of a five-member… city council. My vote counted for no more than any other council member, So I had to learn to count to four to operate effectively in the political world. But the biggest thing I had going for me was that I didn’t need the job.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved the job. But I wasn’t concerned about the politics of being an elected official. I wasn’t worried about a political career. I ran for mayor because I wanted to do something for a city that I loved. That was the only reason I was there, and it made me more powerful. I was immune to lots of the petty nonsense that comes with any elected office.  I said what I thought, and I did what needed to be done. (Chapter 11)

Being Oscar is a fun read, with tons of name dropping and “inside scoop” to keep it interesting. But most gratifying is that when you strip away the martinis and the showgirls, you find real sbstance and values, actions, and character worth consideration.

How do you teach integrity?

Honesty, responsibility, integrity, a good reputation, trust  – these are all values that we as parents think we model in our homes and teach to our children. How do you handle it when something goes awry? How do you impress upon an 11-year old that she has to make a conscious decision about the person she wants to become and that the behavior patterns she sets today have life-long consequences? And once the trust is lost, how do you rebuild it?

Dear [Daughter],

We want to be sure you understand why your behavior this week – failing to complete an assignment even when help was offered and then lying about it – is so wrong. This behavior has happened before, in Mrs. X’s class, and we thought you understood that this will not be tolerated.

Failing to turn in your homework on time is irresponsible, immature, and damages your relationship with your teachers. If you need help with a concept, you are expected to ask one of us for help, then follow up with the teacher and attend an afterschool tutoring session if necessary. It is an absolute rule that you will turn in homework when it is due and not go to your teacher with excuses.

Lying damages RESPECT. When you lie to a parent, a teacher, a family member, or a friend, you are telling that person that you don’t care about them, that you don’t respect them enough to even be honest. Being known as a liar means they also lose respect for you, and you lose your own self-respect.

Lying damages TRUST. When a parent, teacher, family member, or friend realizes that you lied to them, they begin to doubt every action you take and everything you say, no longer able to tell what is true and what is not. Losing trust means losing privileges and independence, because we can’t trust that you will do as you say you will or that you will follow through with your responsibilities as we expect you to do.

Lying damages INTEGRITY. Integrity means your willingness and effort to do the right thing. When those around you question your integrity, they no longer give you the benefit of the doubt. That means that instead of assuming a once-in-a-while forgotten assignment was truly an accident and assuming that you meant to do the right thing (and giving you a chance to make it right), they assume you are lazy and a liar and probably just don’t care.

Lying damages REPUTATION. The [daughter] that we, your family, your friends, and your teachers know and love is smart, strong, intelligent, and full of great love and enthusiasm. You have a reputation for being reliable and mature and capable and beautiful, inside and out. When you become known instead for lying or being irresponsible, it takes a very long time to fix your reputation and get people to trust you again.

In punishment for your actions and behavior this week, you have lost all TV/DVD access and all opportunities for playdates for the remainder of this six weeks grading period [note to reader: five weeks]. You need to understand how serious these behaviors are and you need to think about the kind of person you want to be and the reputation you want to have. Only you can repair the damage you have done by being irresponsible and by lying, and it will take time and effort to show us and your teachers that you have good intentions and can be trusted to take care of your responsibilities.

[Daughter,] if we didn’t love you, then we would say “whatever” and “this isn’t a big deal, who cares?” But it is a big deal and we do care, and we only want the very best for you – to see you succeed in school and in life and to see you be proud of who you are as a person.

We are here to help you, every step of the way, because we love you with all our hearts.

Mom and Dad

What happens when the village is MIA?

Here’s the tweet that appeared in my Twitter feed yesterday:


I don’t always see eye-to-eye with the politics of my family and friends, but I generally try to just stay quiet, preferring long-term relationships over unwinnable confrontations. However, this tweet really bothered me so I shot back some of my favorite Marxist rhetoric just to stir the pot and then spent the rest of the night worrying about some of my favorite people unfriending and unfollowing me.

It bothers me that the author assumes all recipients of government assistance programs are lazy, and that got me thinking about the “it takes a village” philosophy of community. What happens when there is no village?

I am fortunate to come from a family that values family – the relationships, the friendships, the being there through the ups and downs. We help each other pack, move into new homes, and unpack. We care for each other’s children from time to time, for a day or a week or a month. We help out with gas money and college tuition. We talk to each other often and offer moral support and emotional pick-me-ups whenever needed. This is the first circle of the village, and my life is richer for being a part of it.

The second circle of the village is the community – the school teachers, the faith communities, the Boy and Girl Scout troops, the community health centers, all those groups that know us by name and notice if we don’t show up and are there if we reach out for help. But time and money are scarce resources, and often the demand is greater than the resource can support.

The third circle of the village is the government, with its Medicaid programs, food stamps, state health insurance for children, and more. The author of the bothersome tweet assumes that people in this group skipped over the first two layers of village because somehow it’s easier, lazier, to just live in this realm. There are those who want to dramatically shrink this layer of the village, who think that we should all sink or swim on our own, who think the people receiving these services are here because they want to be.

Well, I have applied for WIC food stamps and I have applied for my children to have state-sponsored health insurance and I’m here to tell you, it isn’t fun. The processes are demeaning, the forms are lengthy, the bureaucracy is thick, and no one who has any other option would do this. As a society we offer these programs because we have a community obligation to help those who have no other option, people for whom the first two layers of the village are broken or dangerous or unhealthy or nonexistent.

Ah, says the skeptic, but what about the people buying lobster with their food stamps? What about the people at the Medicaid health clinic talking on the latest version of the iPhone? What about the homeless panhandler who uses the dollars he receives to buy liquor or cigarettes? Well, so what about them? Is lobster reserved for a rich person’s pleasure only? Should poor people dress like poor people and act like poor people so we can more easily recognize and pity them? I agree that government welfare programs should be crafted to target the truly needy, which may include setting benefit limits or rewarding targeted behaviors or milestones. But individual circumstances don’t always fit neatly into the box of the government’s imagination and monolithic policies don’t always meet immediate and personal situations. And just as our legal system says “innocent until proven guilty,” our welfare programs need to start from a place of assuming the best, not the worst, of those they serve.

My father says that “people vote their pocketbook,” meaning that in the most simplistic description of American politics, rich people are Republicans and poor people are Democrats. But I know a few people without two nickels to rub together who think Ted Cruz is the second coming of the messiah, so what’s going on? In the cases of those I know personally, it’s relatively easy for them to believe what they do because they have the luxury of the first and second layers of the village to take care of them. It’s easy to devalue that which is not personally meaningful.

In the end, people are people. Some people find ways to cheat Medicaid. Some people find ways to hide their money in off-shore countries and foreign banks. Some people rise to the highest level of what is expected and then break through to tremendous achievement, while others sink to the depths of society and drag others down along the way. Welcome to the melting pot, where we have the freedom to succeed and to fail. If you don’t want the panhandler to buy alcohol, then give him a sandwich and a bottle of water, not cash. Or don’t give him anything at all, but don’t also spit on him as you drive by.

Our government isn’t perfect and our challenges are many, but the checks and balances of our system are meant to drive conversation and compromise to the best possible solutions given what we know at the time. Our current hard-headed, blinders-on polemic from both sides of the aisle is dangerous for all of us, whether you keep your candy, give it away, or have it stolen from you.

Driving Myself Crazy

A year and a half ago I totaled my car on one of my city’s major freeways. I was the third car in a 5-car pile-up and although I walked away unhurt, the psychological damage lingers.

I think it’s normal that after a significant car accident, one’s driving behavior changes for the cautious and defensive, but then after a while one slips back into unthinking patterns of pre-accident tendencies and driving style. This is no different from having a cavity and then being fanatical about flossing for a while. In my case though, when combined with my generous and active imagination, I haven’t been able to shake off a certain nervousness and even fear behind the wheel.

Car 1

Car 2

When I approach a flyover, I can see in my mind’s eye, and almost feel the impact of, driving into the concrete lane divider when the flyover splits into north and south. I can see myself veering sidewise off a bridge and flying, Thelma and Louise-style, to crash below. I am reluctant to change lanes and, knowing how poorly our brains process speed changes, jerky on the brakes. And I am hunched and tense when the light changes to yellow at an upcoming intersection and I start to slow down, waiting to get rear-ended. This all sounds excessive, even to me as I write it, and I know that no other driver on the road senses my hesitations. These feelings occur only in the midst of heavy traffic, when any normal person is a bit more cautious, so I’m probably overstating this to some degree. But it feels real nonetheless, and while I expected these feelings right after the accident, I also expected them to be gone by now.

The irony here is that I love to drive and earned an early reputation in my family as the reckless one. I got my first car at 16 and when I handed it off to my sister at 18, every exterior body part except the roof had been replaced at least once. But even before (long-time well-before) the accident, my driving had matured considerably. I hadn’t had an accident in ten years or a speeding ticket in seven (5 miles over in a school zone, dang it). And yet, from where I sit today, it’s a good thing I commute 20 miles each way to work every day and that I drive 2-4 hours to see family because it forces me to take a deep breath and come to grips with my new and unwanted Nervous Nellyhood.

There is some good from all of this – I leave much more space between me and the car in front of me than I ever used to, even in rush hour traffic when tailgating is de rigueur and even necessary if you want to get anywhere, and much of the time I am content to poke along in the outside lane and leave the lane-weaving and screaming to the nut jobs to the left of me – but still, I’d really like to shed the more extreme doubts and fears. My company requires defensive driver training every three years, so I’m current on the reminders for safe driving tactics, and I know intellectually what to do in a skid or how to avoid hydroplaning. But what my head knows and what my blood pressure feels when I get behind the wheel are different things. I have no qualms about my own skills, but I’ve lost my trust in the drivers around me.

There’s no fancy ending here, no neat bow I can use to tie up all these thoughts of mine, but sharing helps. I always say that if I ever win the lottery, my first splurge will be on a personal chef; I’m not ready to trade that for chauffeur, so I know I’m not a complete disaster. Hopefully, with continued good driving practices and the passage of time, my sense of security and even fun behind the wheel will return.

Bacon and kale walk into a bar…

I remember learning in college that Freud’s concepts of the ego, superego, and id can be imagined as a man riding a runaway horse while whipping himself. When applied to food and our dietary habits, this metaphor speaks to what seems to be the particularly American tendency to indulge to excess even as we beat ourselves up for it, claiming we’re going to do better even as we know the next Krispy Kreme is just a drive-through away. On one end of the spectrum you have the laughable self-mocking of a burger-and-fries lunch topped off with a diet soda and at the other end, terrible diseases like binge-and-purge bulimia. We provide calorie counts on fast food menus but we still buy just as many Big Macs (and in some cases, more). We pass legislation to forbid sodas in public school vending machines, but we chastise Michelle Obama for encouraging water as the beverage of choice.

Diet (“lifestyle”) books like French Women Don’t Get Fat emphasize “all things in moderation” and sell millions of copies, Pinterest is full of green monster smoothie and detox water recipes, and Tosca Reno’s “eat clean” empire offers 11 (eleven!) different books to help you find the right angle into her food philosophy. And yet, and yet, bacon reigns supreme as our go-to ingredient, showing up in everything from bacon-wrapped filet mignon to chocolate bars and chewing gum. Despite the fact that it’s meat’s version of the fettuccine alfredo heart attack, we can’t seem to get enough.

Why do we spend so much time obsessing over our food? I’ve got a few ideas:

  • In a world of global uncertainty and an overload of instant information, food seems like one of the few things we can control. Unfortunately, however, we also wake up hungry every day, and thus the battle begins, especially when we’re confronted with pictures of celebrities and fashion models (people whose body is their job) that set unrealistic but no less desirable standards for body image.
  • The American psyche is rule-driven, leading us to latch on to latest-and-greatest miracle foods that promise to help shed the pounds and strengthen our bodies and minds
  • Our melting pot exposure to cuisines of all types makes the “what’s for dinner tonight” question really complicated, which is why all diet books now include a day-by-day, week-by-week, or monthly meal plan and recipes

October 2 was National Kale Day, which prompted an NPR blog by Maria Godoy and Eliza Barclay to ask, “Is It Time to Cool It on Kale Already?” Kale does indeed have many fantastic health and nutrient benefits but, “As we’ve reported many times, it can be dangerous to fixate on individual foods as curative substance, because your diet’s influence on your health is an incredibly complex equation.” Not to mention, when we continue to have weight or other health issues, it’s easy to blame the ingredient and grant ourselves absolution (again, as we pull into the Krispy Kreme drive-through).

Rather than advising you to run along like a good little reader and be sure to eat your peas and broccoli, I think the answer is to stop vilifying the food we eat. Food is food. I can make it through the work day with a pint of ice cream at lunch just as easily as a salad with grilled chicken breast and dressing on the side. There are consequences to each of those decisions, of course, but for better or worse, it’s all just fuel.

I’d like to make it through a week, a day!, without associating my meals with feelings of guilt or self-righteous victory. I’d like to eat food that tastes good and be honest with myself about how the food I consume makes me feel – the Sonic #1 combo with tater tots and a Reese’s Blast just doesn’t make me feel good anymore. Not because it’s “bad” food, but because I feel heavy and bloated and Thanksgiving-stuffed afterwards, and I don’t like those feelings. But I also know that the salad with chicken breast leaves me hungry again at 3:00 and I really don’t like snacking through my day (not a value judgment, some people believe you should eat six or seven small meals a day, just not me).

And… this leads us back to familiar territory (see also my post Food, Glorious Food from Sep. 2012). The leading ladies among us will resist the urge to follow blindly any one diet prophet’s plan to the exclusion of all else and we will consider new miracle food revelations without turning into a zombie about it. We will use some basic principles of good health (drink plenty of water, minimize the sugar, an apple a day keeps the doctor away) and weave them into a meal plan that meets our needs in a satisfying way. If we are true to ourselves, then there is no need to obsess, no need to judge ourselves as sinner or saint.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bacon and kale walk into a bar and live happily ever after.

Put down that phone and pay attention!

I finally admitted something was amiss when my 11-year old daughter said she needed an iPhone “so that when we’re in the living room watching TV, I have something to play on just like you and Clara [her 18-year old sister].” The mental picture of the three of us sitting together but not actually interacting was crystal clear and embarrassing.

For a long time now, I have had a growing awareness of our cultural inability to just sit still and pay attention, or at worst, to sit still and daydream. We bring laptops to our meetings and check email or IM our colleagues while the discussion goes on around us. We check Facebook or Twitter on our smartphones at red lights. We play Angry Birds or Candy Crush on our iPads in the living room, because the entertainment of the TV program or DVD isn’t enough entertainment.

It’s reassuring to realize I’m not the only one to notice what’s going on – “In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused.” (Michael Crichton). But we pay a price for all this entertainment, not the least of which is the loss of the ability to entertain ourselves without direct stimulus, i.e. the ability to think and imagine.

You, me and everyone else in the room knows that when you are answering emails on your mobile you aren’t really present. Your kids know it. Your co-workers know it. Your clients know it. Your spouse knows it. You know it. I’ve come to terms with this in my own life.

But I recently had a deeper insight. When I am always plugged-in to a device, I am not really present in my own life. I don’t enjoy my life as much when I live in the half-present. Not only does constant connectivity lessen my enjoyment of life, it distracts me from achieving the creative goals I set out for myself. The brain needs mindless time to reflect. This is why we come up with our best ideas in the shower. – from “Stop Fooling Yourself, Unplug,” by Jon Burg

We also pay the price of blocking out the world around us. Late-afternoon dog walks are for reflecting on my work day and taking a few moments to stand and stretch after hours behind a desk. Rush hour red lights are for noticing that the spring bluebonnets are blooming in the usually weedy bar ditch. Sitting on the sofa with my children is for asking about their day, laughing together, and being with them physically and mentally.

I greatly admire the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton. Her sense of style, her calm demeanor, her grace and composure, and her ready smile all strike me as very leading ladylike. It is telling to me that she is never seen idling her time on a cell phone. Yes, she has people to carry her phone for her in the event of need, and yes, her boss would be appalled at the negative press if such did occur, so Kate’s just doing her job… But she’s doing it well. Every photo at a public appearance, every comment from those whom she meets, demonstrates her active engagement with those around her, conversing and asking questions and actually listening to the answers. Perhaps she really is thinking about the dinner menu in the back of her mind, who knows, but if so, she hides it well.

I don’t have paparazzi hiding in the bushes to photograph my every facial expression, but I do have colleagues and children and friends, all of whose respect I value and for whom I strive to be an example of a leading lady. For myself and for them, for the quality of my personal and public life, I want to be present and engaged. That means:

  • No more cell phones at red lights. It’s one thing to check driving directions in a new place, but Facebook and Twitter can wait. I think I can handle not being entertained for sixty seconds.
  • Respectful behavior in meetings and an awareness that if we all paid attention, the meeting might end sooner and with better decisions and well-defined action items
  • Using my dog walking time to listen to my inner monologue even as I notice what’s around me – even in central Texas we have some semblance of seasons to enjoy.
  • Resisting the auto-urge to tune in or plug in. Perhaps a little less Pinterest and fewer NCIS reruns and a little more reading?

Let’s be honest, this doesn’t mean I will never surf the internet to kill time in a doctor’s office waiting room. But it does mean that I want to be more comfortable with just being in the moment (even the boring ones) and less like a member of the smartphone zombie apocalypse.

Women in Power Having Sex

My philosophy about drug-taking athletes, adulterous movie stars, and embezzling politicians is that everyone is doing it, they just got caught. I am able to separate the public face of these people from their private lives, and I really don’t think it’s news when the two worlds collide (nor am I at all interested in what they allegedly did).

The subtitle of a July 13 Wall Street Journal essay, “The Chaste Ways of Female Politicians,” says that “women in office don’t dare to get themselves into tawdry situation – but that could be changing.” Historically, author Hanna Rosin says, women in leadership have kept themselves out of trouble because the risks were too great – a man who dallies can still get elected and ends up being excused for his bad behavior because whether we admit it or not, our culture idolizes ego, ambition, power, and strength. Our willingness to accept those traits in women has been a long time coming and women in power are typically good custodians of what they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Rosin quotes the statistic that “According to the General Social Survey, younger women are cheating on their spouses almost as much as men: About 20% of men and 15% of women under 35 say they have ever been unfaithful.” Maybe, maybe not. Where’s the statistic on what percentage of survey responders tell the truth? That other 5% of men have to be cheating with someone, and they can’t all be with the same woman (unless the Mrs. Robinson factor is at play).

I think it isn’t the “chaste ways” that are changing, it’s a woman’s willingness to talk about it, or conversely, our (in)ability to keep a secret. There was a time, the black & white movies show us and the historical romance novels tell us, when a person’s business was private, when you didn’t unload all your baggage on the first date, and when a woman’s mystery was part of the allure. Rosin writes:

When the young Krystal Ball ran for Congress in Virginia in 2010, risqué photos appeared showing her dressed as “naughty Santa” at a Halloween party with her husband. Ms. Ball lost her race but left behind a manifesto for the next generation. Society, she wrote, “has to accept that women of my generation have sexual lives that are going to leak into the public sphere.”

Krystal Ball. Really? Okay, moving on… I just want to know, who’s doing the leaking?! Sometimes it’s the paparazzi, but sometimes we only have ourselves to blame – it’s time to call bullshit on the victim act. Why should we blithely accept that private information will inevitably become public, and that that’s okay? In this case, I think Ms. Ball should have checked her full-length mirror before going to that party where people have, you know, cameras and stuff. But I know of examples much closer to home. I have been shocked to learn how many of my coworkers are having affairs… with other co-workers… knowing that in one or both cases, the spouses also work at this company… and may or may not know about the affair. Can’t anyone keep a secret anymore?

I think what’s changed is our willingness to own up to our own flaws and misdeeds as part of the shared human condition. I have an ex-husband, you have an ex-husband, let’s moan about them together over lunch. Things that might have shamed us in the past (“my husband cheated on me” or “my kid was suspended at school for drugs”) no longer have the power to shock. This quickly gets complicated, of course – it isn’t my fault that my husband cheated (is it?) so why should I be embarrassed? Just how responsible am I for my child’s actions and decisions? And in severe cases, like spousal and child abuse, much better to tell a secret and get help than live in painful shame. Really, people, I’m not a monster… But I do think there is a time and place for such sharing. I tell things to my best friend when we’re alone that I wouldn’t share with her if we were in a crowd, and I tell my sister things I wouldn’t tell my boss or mother or daughter. We all filter our information sharing, or at least we should – as a society, we’ve lost our filter.

The Rosin essay says that women are cheating more (or maybe just talking about it more) because we’re more willing to forgive. I agree that the double standard of the ambitious man and the docile woman should disappear, but that doesn’t mean the ambitious woman has to tell-all either. In all cases, the scandal is a distraction from the great amount of work our state, country, and global community needs for improvement. Can’t we all just keep our mouths shut? We might like each other a whole lot better if we did.

Fighting for My American Dream

The Week magazine’s statistics sidebar, called The Bottom Line, offers the following tidbits in its August 30 edition:

Existing home sales hit a four-year high, rising more than 6 percent in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.39 million. That’s the best number since November 2009, according to the National Association of Realtors. (The Washington Post)

More than half of U.S. homes sold last year and so far in 2013 were purchased with cash alone. Before the financial crisis, only 20 percent of homes sold were “all-cash sales.” The numbers reflect investors buying cheaper homes in hard-hit areas to rent out. (San Francisco Chronicle)

I’m struggling to reconcile those figures in any way that makes me feel optimistic about our country’s future, or more narrowly, my future as a homeowner (currently I rent). Without resorting to any kind of partisan rhetoric or analysis, I’m left feeling like the little people are getting the shaft. I’m happy that home sales are on the rise, because I know that is an indicator for our overall economic health, but I am saddened that the homebuyers are not the home-livers.

When I think back to the post-WWII housing boom (no doubt naively and romantically), I think of young couples buying their first home and starting their life and family and I think of home ownership as a sign of prosperity and optimism. Compare this to the number of TV shows featuring investors who buy houses for cheap, invest the minimum, and flip them for big bucks, and it’s clear that houses now symbolize business.

Add to the thought-provoking mix this article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “Foreign Buyer’s Drive Florida’s Housing Recovery”:

Nicole Kenaston’s dreams of owning a home in Miami keep getting dashed. The 32-year-old federal government worker says she’s bid on at least five houses in the past three years and each time lost out to an overseas buyer paying cash. “I’ll find a place I like and can get financing for, and the all-cash buyers will come in and pay above market for it,” says Kenaston. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Buyers from overseas have spent $50 billion-plus on more than 250,000 properties in Florida since 2009, the Realtors’ data show. Daniel Arguelles, 33, a stockbroker in Bogota, has bought three houses in the Miami area over the same period. “You have cheap prices, a cheap dollar, and low interest rates. And that’s a scenario that you haven’t seen in about 50 years,” he says. Arguelles, like many international buyers, is renting out his properties. Others are using them as vacation homes.

I also came across one horrible little opinion piece in Forbes called “Why Most People Will Never Achieve the American Dream.” The author claims that “Opportunity in the past was available for those who could see it. Today, you must be able to successfully navigate yourself ‘through a filter’ that earns you the right to be considered for the opportunity.” Did he really just say that I have to earn the right (and be approved) to even make an attempt at a better life for myself? Earn the right?! How completely un-American. Our Protestant work ethic forefathers are rolling over in their graves.

How do we find the balance between nurturing our economy (and taking money from anyone willing to spend it) and protecting our integrity as a nation – which to me means doing the right thing for our citizens and their generations, not just the easy thing?  Perhaps it’s time for a fresh definition of the American Dream…

I found an Oct. 2012 press release from that tackles that very issue:

Findings from the survey suggest that the public’s definition of the American Dream is flexible and, often, personal; only 9 percent defined the Dream as rags to riches.

  • Nearly 3 in 10 Americans (28 percent) said the American Dream is the opportunity for people from modest beginnings to live a secure, middle-class life.
  • Only 9 percent said the American Dream is the opportunity for people to from modest beginnings achieve great wealth and fame.
  • Just over half—51 percent—said the American Dream represents both of these ideas.

The research suggests that Americans have a variety of ideas regarding what the American Dream is. When asked for a word to describe the American Dream, open-ended responses reflected a broad definition of the American Dream, with a lot of individual variation. While there were a great variety of responses, most respondents mentioned either classic American ideals like freedom (31 percent cited ideals; 24 percent cited freedom), or things related to home and family, especially homeownership (16 percent).

I’m on board with the idea of the Dream as access and opportunity but not a guarantee. But I also think we have to take care of our citizens first, and if that means giving the Nicole Kenastons some kind of preferential treatment over foreign cash buyers or enticing rental property owners into lease-to-own scenarios, then I’m on board with that, too.

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