Saturday, November 20, 2010

There are two kinds of women on the planet.

This is going to be one of those posts that could get me in trouble. And while I welcome – and cherish – all comments, tonight’s little rant is mostly directed at the women reading this, women who may decide never to stop back here, and never comment, again. But I hope that’s not the case because you often prop me up and keep me from teetering right off the edge. (And for the men who read this, and the men who comment: you are some of my favorite people ever, even if we've never met.)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had a theme keep resurfacing in my life and today, a woman I work with synthesized the whole thing in one succinct statement. As we caught each other up on the details of our lives, she explained some of her attitudes and behavior by saying, “You know I’m really gay man inside, right?”

Now, before anyone gets offended, this was in no way a slight to men or women, gay or straight. I knew exactly what she meant. She described herself as someone (in her case, at least partially) driven by testosterone, who is attracted to others mostly driven by testosterone. Put another way, she meant exactly the same thing another friend of mine and I said to each other earlier this week. We were discussing our (admittedly perhaps, harsh) approach to a business challenge and I said something like, “I must have misplaced my estrogen somewhere along the line.” She totally understood what I meant.

Let me sum up here: sometimes I feel like I’m SO not a girl. I don’t understand how women tick, and I don’t mean that in a nasty, catty way. To coin a phrase, some of my best friends are women. It’s just that often, I watch other women, or listen to them, and realize that I’m about seven lifetimes away from doing or saying anything like that. What follows is a partial list of stuff I don’t seem to have a natural affinity toward doing, any inclination to do, or any real interest in pursuing:

Decorations: The one and only time I decorate our home is at Christmastime, and I do have to admit I go a little crazy there. But when my boys were younger, I tried to be a good mom and celebrate holidays in a ‘mother of small children’ kind of way but even I can admit it was half-hearted, if that. (Quarter-hearted?) Suffice it to say I never put out flags of any kinds, or valentine hearts or shamrocks or gourds or turkeys or pilgrims. On or about October 29 each year, I’d unpack a few pumpkins and skeletons from a box tucked away in our storage area and scatter them around. Sometime every spring I’d find some bunnies and eggs, just in time for Easter Sunday. That was it. Absolutely it.

That’s kind of pathetic; you don’t have to tell me that. Put it this way: walk into our house on February 14 and take a good look around. I guarantee you it will look exactly the same if walk in again on July 4.

Thing is: I love to see a beautifully decorated room. I love to walk into someone’s home and see that she’s taken some time to welcome a season or a holiday and has shown it in her surroundings. So what’s with me? How did I not learn this?

Decorations, part 2: sweaters. There are two kinds of women in the world: women who own holiday sweaters and women who don’t. This isn’t a judgment; just an observation. You won’t be surprised to learn I don’t own a holiday sweater of any kind. I don’t know why, exactly. I don’t dislike them, and in fact felt a little out of place NOT wearing one while my boys were younger. Seemed like every woman I ran into at various school events had the season cheerfully displayed on her sweater (some more, err, cheerfully than others but let’s leave that discussion aside for now.)

And yet – never bought one. Never wore one. How did I not learn how to do this? How is this not a natural part of my middle-class American Mom DNA?

Supplies: First aid, snacks, wipes, and various other small miracles women pull out of their purses on a daily basis. I never carried a small bottle of Tylenol, a pack of Band-Aids, tissues, or a small scissors on me to be prepared for possible small emergencies. (Still don’t, to this day.) I never carried a tiny container of goldfish snacks for the boys; I never had a damp washcloth in a Ziploc bag to wipe sticky hands or faces.

I love that some women can reach into their bags and practically stitch up a minor injury or splint a fractured finger on the fly should it be required. They always carry treats, comforting little extras of all kinds and always enough for everyone. Amazing. Admirable. And absolutely foreign to me.

And speaking of their bags, I never quite got that memo, either. I went through a brief purse phase when I was in my twenties, and I sort of outgrew it. Purses haven’t meant much to me since, although I have purse envy quite often. Women always have better, nicer, cooler, more stylish purses than I. And I never really seem to do much about that.

Okay, I think you’re getting the picture here, right?

My point is that given my interactions with the women I mentioned earlier, maybe I’m not such a freak. Maybe there are more of me out there than I think. (Maybe not.) Then again, it’s probably not an accident I would connect with women friends who are simpatico with my point of view.

It could also be that because I’ve been in the workplace for more than thirty years, I’ve lost touch with some of the softer sides of womanhood. The sides that celebrate things like valentine hearts and purses with a million cool little sections to hold dozens of cool little things. The sides that remember that Halloween comes every year at the end of October and any thinking about the costumes the kids would wear to go trick-or-treating should probably take place earlier than the afternoon of October 30.

So is there a conclusion here? Can I really just fall back on my “I blame Gloria” catch-all explanation for everything I find confounding and mildly disturbing about the reality of womanhood these days?

Why yes; yes, I think I can. Somewhere along the line, Gloria and her cohorts planted some kind of seed in at least some of us, a seed that grew into a veritable garden of overcompensating for our gender – as if that were a hindrance - and trying too hard to be “neutral.” At this point in my life, I can’t tell how much of this is me and how much of it is her. And it’s kind of pissing me off to tell you the truth.

But I don’t think I’m entirely a lost cause. I still totally have faith in my shoe-of-the-month club concept, for example. And I have, right now, at least eight kinds of black slacks hanging in my closet because you can never stop shopping for the perfect black slacks. Let’s not even get into my Colin Firth issues.

My real question is: how did I get to be a certain age and still have so many doubts? Are we all kind of faking it – the confidence, the stiff upper lip, the Helen-Reddy-ness of it all? Maybe some of us don’t. I’d love to meet the woman who doesn’t. She would be formidable and fierce and fabulous.

Maybe we all go on ‘girl weekends’ or ‘girl getaways’ and ‘girls night’s out’ or ‘in’ so we can reassure each other that we’re not insane. That taking divergent paths toward womanhood doesn’t mean we’ve traveled on parallel paths that never intersect. Not at all. Sometimes I feel like we’re just a nation of Kate’s and Allie’s, trying to figure out the next steps as we enter the last 30 or 40 years of our lives. And if that’s the case, it feels good to have all kinds of companions along the way.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

No. No one needs one of those, either.

Despite what the last post implies, whenever I’m perplexed about what to buy someone, I usually solve the problem by visiting a bookstore. I ask you: where else can you shop for people on your list who have interests that might range from Harley Davidson to Jacques-Louis David?

Which is why I cannot understand the items you find near the checkout in bookstores. Well, yes I can, from a purely marketing perspective. Like all retailers, booksellers design “cash wrap” displays specifically to appeal to buyers on an impulse level, and entice us to pick up just one more item on our way out the door. We’re already in line, credit card or cash in hand – why not add the little bonsai in a box kit or a startling little journal called “All About Me?”

Impulse is one thing. But from a “what can I buy Aunt Alice this year” perspective, I just don’t get it. Browsing this eclectic display, much less buying anything here, makes no sense to me when the bookstore itself lays the entire universe at our feet.

Sadly, this selection of “gifts you might never ever think about buying someone” isn’t a bookstore-only phenomenon. You can’t navigate any retail establishment this time of year without bouncing off a kiosk packed full of “does anyone really need this” right next to the ”I’m positive no one needs one of those.”

I’d like to go on record here but before I do, let me say this: If you already own one of the items that follow and simply love it to pieces, God bless and enjoy. If you’ve purchased one or more for someone on your list, may they live long and happily with it. The spice of life, and all that. But for me, I’ll know I’ve inexplicably reached the “she’s impossible to buy for” list if I ever receive any of the following:

1. A pillow with the word “dream” stitched across it. Or “love” or “serenity” or “breathe” or “vision.” It’s not that I begrudge these feelings or states of mind, but embroidering it on a pillow doesn’t make it so no matter how much we all channel our inner Julia Roberts. [Yes, I do sometimes wonder where I’ve misplaced my estrogen.]

2. One candle and one bottle of bath oil packaged up as something called “spa in a box.” I’m far from the most worldly, the most cosmopolitan woman on the planet but if this is a spa in a box, I’ve been sadly led astray about the spa experience.

3. And if only because it sets my teeth on edge, I don’t ever want a “pocket ‘brella,” although it might come in handy during the next ‘understorm.’

But far be it from me to suggest you bypass those “great gift ideas!” kiosks you’ll run into over the next few weeks. You never know what gems night be hiding there. Just be aware that some enthusiasts are better served than others. Golfer on your list? You’re all set. Buy a golf business card holder, a snow globe containing a golf ball, a mini-golf bag designed to carry toiletries, a barbecue set where the handles look and feel like golf clubs, a talking pop-up putter cup, golf club bookends, gold ball finder glasses, or a golf picture frame.

For the wine lover on your list, create a gift set with the battery-operated corkscrew (“no more twisting or tugging!!”) and the electronic pocket wine master, so he or she will always select the perfect wine in a restaurant. I’m sorry, I thought that nugget of information was exactly what a wine steward lives to discuss with you. Not every single bit of information in the universe has to be captured in a handheld device, does it? How did something so organic – wine- become so gadget-laden?

Moving beyond the special interest groups, let’s review the annual standards: the ubiquitous lock de-icers, electric windshield scrapers, and electronic tie-spinning racks. All useful enough, I guess, but each one cries out: “You’re so hard to buy for! I finally picked this up after I spent four hours wandering around the store.”

But not one of these are quite as useless as the basketball shot glass game, the mini-helmet display case, or the diaper dude pacifier pouch.

But I suppose it’s true enough that one woman’s lavender aromatherapy is another woman’s sleep sound pillow, so to speak. At this forgiving time of year, I’m trying to remind myself that the magic of the gift-giving season lies in the joy behind the giving, even if that joy comes wrapped as a mounted, singing, plastic bass. So if you know someone who will absolutely cherish the Chihuahua who dances to “Oye Como Va” at the touch of a button, knock yourself out. The smile that morning is what you’ll remember, long after the present disappears in the yard sale next spring.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Christmas Treacle

Nothing like a quick Sunday evening trip to Barnes and Noble to wind me up.

Before I hear from everyone who is ready to accuse me of jealousy and envy, let me stop you right there. I LOVE to read good writing and have nothing but admiration for authors who challenge me or entertain me. How any writer breaks out of the pack of thousands and thousands of titles and finds a following is beyond me (obviously.)

Mostly, I deeply admire and yes, maybe envy, writers who can make me laugh. It’s not that I’m difficult to please. It’s mostly that “writing funny” is pretty difficult and few people do it well.

This post isn’t about any of that. It’s about Christmas. Or more specifically, about Christmas books.

For some reason, this latest trip to the bookstore made it obvious that one of the components of publishing success that has somehow eluded me is using the word “Christmas” in your title, preferably linked with something admirable, lovely, warm, promising or comforting. lists indicates it offers 90,899 books that contain “Christmas” in the title. I offer the following partial list to review:

A Cup of Christmas Tea

The Christmas Box

The Christmas Sweater

The Christmas Shoes
(This is of particular note in our house for many reasons. We mock this one relentlessly and without remorse every single year.)

The Christmas Secret

The Christmas Hope

A Christmas Promise

The Christmas Promise

The Christmas Pearl

The Christmas Clock

The Christmas Dog

The Magical Christmas Cat

The Christmas List

The Christmas Cookie Club

A Plain & Simple Christmas

The Christmas Bus

The Christmas Train

Christmas Jars

Christmas Jars Reunion

Subtitles also matter here:
The Christmas Spirit: Memories of Family, Friends and Faith

The Christmas Box Miracle: My Spiritual Journey of Destiny, Healing and Hope

The Christmas Sweater: A Picture Book

Had enough yet? Me, too.

Let me clarify one other point here. I adore Christmas. I do. Ask my kids or my husband.

I start listening to Christmas music without apology in November.

I’m the one who arranges our theater evening every year to attend Civic Theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. Over the years, two of my boys have appeared in the show. I watch the movie on television every year, the George C. Scott version. (Don’t even speak to me about any others, including the Alistair Sim version. Not open to debate as far as I’m concerned.) I read the Dickens story.

I find a performance of The Messiah each year.

I bake. I send cards. I decorate. In fact, Christmas is the one and only time of year my house gets any kind of decorative treatment.

I get sentimental about Christmas. There. I said it. But I don’t “get” the ideas behind these kinds of Christmas books. I haven’t read even one of them but I guarantee they all tell a story of love and sacrifice and compassion and humanity and fellowship. A story of a despairing someone meeting a wise someone – and the source of that wisdom can be older (see The Christmas Box) or younger (see The Christmas Shoes), makes no difference – and then learning the “true meaning” just when they need it. The story of how almost anything you can name is a metaphor for Christmas.

Well, I guess not almost anything. Admittedly, I paged through only ten pages of the Amazon list so I barely cracked the 90,000 +, but I’ll bet I won’t find these:

Christmas Turtle

Wrong. That book exists. And guess what? It’s “a heartwarming story that explores the special love a grandmother has for her grandchildren.”

Maybe choosing an object to symbolize the season isn't a good idea. What about using those moments of life that aren’t so darned happy? I’ll bet I won’t find any of them in Christmas books. Wrong again. Pages of titles described less than golden moments around the tree: Oscar’s Lonely Christmas, The Lonely Snowman, Byron the Lonely Christmas Tree, All Alone at Christmas, Oliver All Alone, A Cold Christmas, and Kitten in the Cold. (Several of these had adorable yellow lab puppies on the cover who looked sad.) Dear God! Who buys these? Are you crying yet?

Or how about this? A Stranger for Christmas. Guess what? It’s a “very special story about love, family, and miracles…the true meaning of Christmas… a story to remind us of the values we cherish, the people we love, and the lessons of the holiday season.”

Ugh. I’m about to get Christmas Nauseous. Or Christmas Cranky. I wonder if anyone would buy Christmas Curmudgeon, the story of a woman of a certain age who discovered ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ after she was inundated with cloying, vacuous Christmas books one night in the bookstore. She discovered ‘the lessons of the holiday season’ by resolving to eat more cookies, drink more eggnog and surround herself with people who celebrated the season by never reading books like these.

My day feels more merry and bright already.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

5 hours? Try 30 seconds. That's all you'll need to view proof that the "women's movement" was an illusion.

Opening shot: a harried, attractive woman arrives home. She walks in, and closes the front door behind her with her foot. Two young boys who look about ten years old go running by, without acknowledging her, waving toys and making noise. She drops her shoulder bag on to a bench and continues into the home, carrying two packed grocery bags into her kitchen. She’s talking to us about her “2:30 feeling,” as she arrives home after her ‘first job’ to begin her ‘second job,’ presumably with her family.

She enters her spacious, spotless, granite-filled kitchen. At the table sit two other children, more sedate than the high-spirited youngsters who ran through the foyer earlier, children who appear to be either happily working on homework or otherwise quietly occupied. Note: neither of them greets the woman either.

At this point, I’m confused. I can only guess she’s either the hired help everyone feels perfectly comfortable ignoring for some reason or their over-worked, exhausted mother who demands not one thing from them, not even a greeting when she enters the room.

A cautious, responsible woman, she despairs about her stressful, tiring day and then informs us of her recent decision to load up on legal stimulants. She admits that she was “nervous” at first, but her husband reassured her of the efficacy and safety of this miracle drink. She takes two packages out of her grocery bag – his and her, I guess – and as she tells the story of his endorsement, she mimics his yapping mouth and rolls her eyes, as if he couldn’t possibly tell her anything of value about any subject at any time that could be trusted. Her husband – the moron! – this stuff works for him. Somehow, despite his seemingly poor track record for sharing relevant, factual information, she decided to give him a chance and give his suggestion a whirl. It has only a few calories – thank God! She can keep her girlish figure. Zero sugar – again, so she can fit into her skinny jeans easily.

[I’m interrupting this narrative to admit that this is nothing new. Men shown in commercials have been the recipients of derisive comments, mockery and other uncharitable depictions for years. This one is sort of like that but it’s more than that, too. It’s an equal opportunity insult-fest. Read on.]

She walks over to him to deliver his own little set of bottles, presumably to help him overcome his debilitating “2:30 feeling” and…wait a minute! I know what you’re thinking but you’re wrong. Unlike his wife, he’s not frantic with activity and just trying to make it through his own slump. He’s not vacuuming or changing the oil or raking the yard or cleaning the gutters or doing another load of laundry or starting dinner. He’s on the sofa. Sitting on the sofa quietly, as two boys run amok, as two other kids do homework and as his wife – between her two jobs apparently - carries two full bags of groceries in to the house. There he is – just sitting. And even better: reading a magazine.

She plops down next to him and then admits he was right about one thing: exactly what she needs to drink to get more energy every day. He delivers one line in this marketing masterpiece: “Told you so.”

Is it me? (Don’t answer that.) This makes me insane. I hate that it’s nearly 2011 and we’re subjected to a little commercial tableau featuring a wife/homemaker/working woman, reminiscent of Ms. Helen Reddy circa 1972. I hate that this husband sits around like a king in his castle.

And all this time, I thought AMC’s Madmen was supposed to be a period piece, pointing out the quirks and wrong-headed thinking of a different age. If this commercial is an example of the sales pitches created by ad agencies these days, it turns out not one thing has changed on Madison Avenue in fifty years, except possibly the smoking policies.