A Year of Reading Books by Women

My rekindled feminism, brought to a blaze in my disgust over Trump’s election, hit my Kindle reader right away. I resolved to read only books by women in 2017. I read 14 books in all, 13 by women, one book by a man and some short stories by women and men.

I started the year by rereading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it first in high school (25 years ago, but who’s counting), so I wondered if it would pack the same punch. It did, even more so as I imagined how many of our right wing lunatic political leaders would love a United States where the rule of law is gone and instead the government runs on biblical bullshit.

After that, I needed some escapism, so I read books 6, 7 and 8 the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. These books are, frankly, not that good. I got into them last year because of the TV series, and I got in to the TV series because of the fabulous period costuming by Terry Dresbach. The first three books are good, the fourth is OK, and then they go downhill – recycled plots, little character development, way too many inconsequential actions. I stuck with them because I expected a big payoff in Book 8 and it was only “meh.” It kept me a little entertained during my 15-hour flights to India, anyway.

I needed reality after that fantasy binge, so I read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron.  Diana Gabaldon’s experience writing the Outlander books also fueled this interest. I have always wanted to write fiction but I have not succeeded for various reasons (here and here if you want to know more).

Then I read another series a friend had recommended, The Giver books by Lois Lowry. The dystopias Lowry created are similar to Atwood’s in some respects – in one society, a group of young women is judged by its ability to have babies. These are young-adult novels and not really my speed either, but I feel that I learned something from them about how our desires to protect ourselves from pain and harm may leave us feeling nothing, which is worse. They were good summer reads anyway.

At this point, I was reminded of some short stories I read by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. I reread a few of them that had influenced me as a young woman. I never felt that I wanted to have children, yet all women I knew except for one great-aunt had children. Her stories confirmed for me that it was OK to have a childless life.

My next book was “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners”  by Therese Oneill. A blogger I like had recommended it. It was very laugh-out-loud funny in places and pretty gross in other places. I later read a female historian’s account of all the ways the book is wrong. Entertaining – both points of view.

My last summer read was “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messaud. This was my favorite fiction book of the year. It followed on the themes from The Artist’s Way – the protagonist is a frustrated artist who finds her muse, only to be betrayed. Messaud is a hell of a gifted writer and I am planning to read more from her in 2018.

I realized at some point that I’d read only books by white women so far in 2017 and I had wanted to continue my efforts to read more African American women, so I read “Strategize to Win” by Carla Harris. She’s a high-ranking banking executive who’s made a name for herself not just for thriving in a white man’s industry, but also for giving solid career advice. I wish I’d read this book 15 years ago. It was instrumental in my decision to enroll in graduate school, classes starting in January 2018.

I reread “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, just because it’s beautiful.

My final female-authored book for 2017 was Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey.” I read about it in a profile in The New Yorker and I was captivated by her direct, insightful language in translating the Greek classic. It was very good, maybe missing a bit of the poetry of other translations, but doing a great job of making you care about the characters and better understand the ways the ancient Greeks lived.

I read three things my men. In October, to get the spirit for a trip to Baltimore, I read and reread some short stories and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. We visited his house and grave in Baltimore on Friday the 13th and got into the Halloween spirit. I was reminded of what a genius he was – the stories are well worth reading if you haven’t touched them since high school. I also read some short stories by Haruki Murakami on and off this fall. They were not that good. Long-form fiction is more his style.

Finally, I am reading “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Anderson. This is my #1 nonfiction book for the year. If you want to understand how Trump could get elected president, read this. Anderson’s premise is that there is something in American culture, from its earliest days, that promotes and encourages magical thinking. Maybe it was the wide open spaces of the New World, or the religious nutjobs who first colonized the land, or maybe its the American embrace of new technologies, be it printing press or Internet, but our Constitutional freedoms have curdled into something dangerous for the future of American society.

For 2018, I will be starting out with college textbooks, I guess. I’d like to read more from African Americans and other cultures. And I will probably read one more series over the summer, just for fun.

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Don’t Raise Your Hand

I’m back home from an overnight business meeting. Another meeting where men dominated and treated women dismissively, and women (myself included) did dumb things that didn’t help.

The meeting was for an industry group of people in technology. There are six women (three of whom are lower-level staff people) and 20 men (including two senior male staff people).

Monday night, at a dinner at a steakhouse (natch) where do I end up standing during the cocktail hour, but with two of the women, who talked the whole time about their kids and families while all the men talked shop. I peeled myself away and tried in vain to insert myself into more substantive conversations.

Then for the meal, determined to break in with the real action, where do I end up sitting but at the “girls’ table” with the three other women! I ran to the bathroom before the meal and when I returned, all the seats were taken except for two, next to the other three women and one of the women’s male coworkers. Those seats were vacant, of course, because none of the men wanted to sit at the “girls’ table.” I made the best of it, and we had good substantive conversations, but the worse tendencies of men and women in business were off to a bad start.

One of the men who led the meeting is always welcoming and engaging. The other one literally ignores me – it’s like I am not in the room. I made it a point to say hello to him and to engage him in conversation.

At the meeting today, I intentionally crossed the room to avoid the other women and sat in the middle of a pack of men. I engaged them in conversation and we had a good meeting. Then during a Q&A after a presentation, I could not get my question in. The men kept talking over me. At one point I actually raised my hand like a schoolgirl, which just made it all worse. Eventually I half rose out of my seat and just talked over another man  – the jerk I mention above – to get my question in – really just steamrolled him the way everyone had steamrolled me. The question was answered and sparked a good debate.

At the afternoon break, over coffee, the man who did the presenting actually said to me: “Did you get what you needed out of the presentation? You didn’t ask a question.” “Yes I did!” I shot right back at him. “I asked about X.” “Oh yeah,” he said, backing off, “that’s right.” I grabbed my coffee and walked away.

The meeting concluded with a man in the group taking credit for an idea I have been pushing for a year. It was a minor point after everything else that day, but it just felt like the last straw. I took an early train home.

If you find yourself in this situation:

  • Don’t stand around with a gaggle of other women shooting the shit. Look to see who everyone else is talking to, and talk to that person.
  • Never sit at the girls’ table.
  • If you have a question, ask. Don’t raise your hand and wait to get permission to ask. Just do it.
  • If someone does something sexist or even just thoughtless (hard to tell sometimes), call him on it, right away.
  • Be in the present. Get your ideas down early, speak up, repeat yourself if you need to before the men will listen.

Who Loves a Business Trip?

I’m on a business trip for a few days. Nothing fancy, just a hop on Amtrak to Baltimore for a couple of days.

I love business trips. Although I’ve been traveling for work a little for 20+ years, it’s still thrilling somehow. I feel like Peggy from Mad Men with her smug satisfaction, even if it means staying at a budget hotel, drinking low-quality whiskey.

Or, in my case, a fruit, veggie and hummus plate from Amtrak…

Business trips cure my craving for alone time. Something about a hotel room, all to myself, a flight without a companion, even a meal alone feels great. I get time with coworkers during the day, or I interact with lots of strangers at a conference, but any time after that is MINE. At home there’s always something that needs doing, or my husband wants to chat, or the TV is blaring… Always something demands my time. 

Most importantly, I get lonely after a few days, or I wish I was home again. And then I am – feeling refreshed.

A “Friend” at Work

A woman I work closely with had a goodbye party this week. I didn’t attend. Notice I did not say “a friend from work.” I would like to think of her as my friend, but she’s not, really.

Her husband got a job in a new city, so they’re moving. She’s going to keep her job, but work remotely from now on with occasional trips to see up at the headquarters. She did not want to move, does not want to work remotely, and is actively and vocally dreading the whole thing.

If she were a “friend,” I would feel more comfortable telling her what I really thought about this. My greatest regret in my career is that I put my husband’s career ahead of my own. He was older and more established at the time, so I deferred to him. Today, I have advanced much further in my career – perhaps as far as I can go. He’s in exactly the same place, doing exactly the same thing, and counting down the days (many many days) to retirement.

If she were my friend, I’d tell her not to defer, not to consider her career second-best. It isn’t, for one thing – she’s at a higher level than he is and is more established at a premier company. She also loves living in the city and loves being in the office. She will be miserable working from home full-time and living in a provincial city. Also, her husband sounds very controlling. They got married not even a year ago. She’s forever saying her husband “lets her” do this and that. I find this disturbing. She’s all of 30 years old, and she has a long way to go. I am 47 and I have a bit of wisdom to offer. Yet, all this is none of my business.

I might have considered her a friend, but it’s clear she doesn’t feel this way about me. I actually heard her talking on the phone about me (our desks are next to each other). She started to say “a friend at work” when she stopped. “A fr….. a coworker,” is what came out instead. So she actually stopped herself from calling me a friend, while on a personal phone call, and sitting right next to me.

So,  I keep my mouth shut, skip her going-away party, and count her out.

Can you really have “friends” at work anyway? I was close to a few people at my old job, and we’ve tried to stay in touch. When we get together, though, we talk excessively about the old times, or about the current situation at work if they’re still at the same place. Is this true friendship, or just affinity born of professional convenience?

I have two true “friends” from work – both women I worked with decades ago. Perhaps distance is needed to assess whether a true friendship is in the cards. We’ll see in another 20 years who I still consider a friend.

“Women’s Work”

I’ve had these garden gloves for years. I never noticed the label: Womanswork.

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I love these gloves because they fit perfectly. No wonder – Womanswork is owned by a woman and many key staff people are women and relatives of the company’s founder. (For more info, see their Website.)

Wow does the term “woman’s work” get a bad rap. I have been watching this BBC show “Victorian Slum House” (airing now in the US), one of these shows where modern people try to live in historical times, and this old guy who probably would have been dead in the 19th century is all upset because he’s stuck doing “woman’s work” – making artificial flowers to sell to milliners. He tried “man’s work” at a bell foundry and put his back out.

I felt sorry for him, because back pain is horrific. But I turned sour at his disdain for the flower-making job. It put food on the table and kept a roof over the head of his whole family of five for a week. Why, is his mind, is making a bell more important than making an ornament for a hat? Is it because a bell is big and heavy and a flower is tiny and light? Because the bell costs more? Because a bell is “manly” in some way that a flower is not?

Both iron bells and artificial flowers are fripperies in life, one might say. Not necessary. Not important. One is not inherently better than another. But all work has value. All work matters and should be treated with respect, just as all workers should be treated with dignity.

A lot of young men find themselves out of work nowadays. That’s for a lot of reasons, but one reason is because of their disdain for “women’s work.” Health care is the largest sector of the US economy, yet it’s predominantly female. So is education; except at the collegiate level, female teachers and staff outnumber men greatly. Men need to get over this idea that only certain kinds of work are worthy of them. Or, they can stand back and watch the women continue to outshine them at every turn.

Trying “The Artist’s Way”

A lot of people think that creative genius just … happens. You’re born a genius, like Madame Curie, outshining all the men in the lab, or you’re struck with a bolt of inspiration, like Georgia O’Keeffe in the southwestern desert, or you just see the world so differently that you can’t help but be creative, like shy Emily Dickinson in her little room in Massachusetts.

Nonsense.

Genius is hard work. Creativity requires dedication. Success requires a belief in yourself, as well as a willingness to tell naysayers to go to hell.

I’m learning this as I started reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron this week as a self-improvement project. I find myself frustrated by my inability to do what I really want to do and instead I keep going on with jobs that don’t satisfy me. I throw up roadblocks to success. I allow self-doubt to creep in. I just don’t put in the work.

The book has a spiritual component that does not appeal to me, but the advice so far has provoked thought and action. I started with two central activities:

  • Morning Pages – Every morning, first thing, write three pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness prose. This discipline is meant to remove cobwebs from your brain and get creative juices flowing.
  • Artist’s Date – Once a week, take a small, solo adventure somewhere for a couple of hours. This is meant to open your eyes to new experiences and unexpected connections.

Morning Pages has been interesting. Since I am comfortable with writing already, I’m not challenged to fill the three pages most mornings. After a few days of doing this, I noted how themes repeated themselves – my various aches and pains, my husband’s various actions and inactions, and the little things that set me off or please me, plus (as always) diet and food. I’m interested to see where this goes.

Yesterday I went on an Artist’s Date. For a mid-afternoon break from work, I walked from my office in Times Square down to Columbus Circle and back. I have done this a couple of times before, but I took a different route this time. I didn’t bring money or a cell phone or anything but my badge to get back into the office. I made note of anything that surprised me, such as:

  • Aggressive peddlers of bicycle rentals, including one guy who was using his job to harass women.
  • A coffee truck promoting the new “Twin Peaks” TV show. (“Damn good coffee.”)
  • A tall young man dressed all in black except for hot pink high-top sneakers.
  • A group of young people drawing some promotional thing on the sidewalk with chalk.
  • The startling green of Central Park in early spring.
  • An older man dressed in what looked like a cricket uniform.
  • So much “French” food – little bistros and quick-serve places with French names.

I didn’t immerse myself into this experience as much as I wanted to. It was my first try, OK? But I noted a few things that attracted my attention – bright colors, fattening food, and the somewhat puzzling activities of people young enough to be my children.

I am already thinking of where I want to go on next week’s “date.”

 

 

Plant a Tree

I bought a tree yesterday. An Eastern redbud, variety “Carolina Sweetheart,” with red variegated leaves and dark pink flowers.

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We went to a fancy garden center to get it. Few places scream “distaff side” more than a fancy garden center. Farming is  a man’s world. The garden is where the gals go.

We no sooner arrived than the extras from Central Casting appeared: The skinny old WASP-y woman in khakis and tennis shoes, the tummy pooch from mothering 3 or 4 children, broad-brimmed hat shading her face, deeply lined from too much sun and too many cigarettes in her youth. The Earth Mother in jangling bracelets, who let it be known to all within earshot that she drove up from New Jersey that morning because she just had to have such and whatnot. The 30-something French-manicured mom who wants to rip out every living thing from her newly purchased property that she hates and replace it with other living things that she loves, for now.

Some male employees took them around, showing off the plants and listening to these women’s garden glories. The message was plain on these men’s faces, under their hipster beards: “Whatever you want, lady.”

I fled to the ornamental tree section and browsed the redbuds. A young woman who worked at the garden center asked if I needed help. She was maybe 5’2″ with dark hair clubbed into a short ponytail under a floppy sun hat. She wore black-framed glasses and sturdy boots and dirty jeans. Under the V-neck of her T-shirt I glimpsed part of a tattoo of a magnolia blossom (I knew it was a magnolia because under the blossom, “magnolia grandiflora” skated across in script). I also glimpsed a nest of curly auburn armpit hair.

We got to talking, and guess what? She lives a couple blocks away from me. She rides her bike to work in the garden center – at least an hour’s ride up some steep hills. She was funny and knowledgeable and confident. In short, I wanted to be her.

OK, not her exactly. She’s probably half my age, for starters, and no way do I want to be in my 20s again. But her life as I glimpsed it and assumed it to be appealed to me. How nice it would be, to do what I love on my own terms? I don’t know if I’d stop shaving my pits, but I’d love to wear my handmade clothes, eat my fill from my garden, write and just be, on my own terms, more often than I do today.

What’s stopping me? Fear of poverty, I can tell you that. I’ve always been driven to earn money and achieve more and more in my career. That’s brought me to a big job at a big company in a big city, living in a big house with big bills to pay. Has it brought happiness? Not really. I enjoy this life, for sure. But part me of always wonders what it would be like without it all.

When I was in my 20s I tried the bohemian life, but bolted for convention quickly. You marry, buy a house, get your first “real” job. Maybe you have a kid or two. You may want to go back to a simpler time, but you also need to be a grown-up, so you keep going.

Someone with a better sense of humor than mine once said: “If everyone actually did what they wanted to do when they were young, the world would have way too many ballerinas and not nearly enough garbagemen.”

True enough. So I will plant my tree, inhale its floral scent in spring, sit under its shade in summer, collect its autumn leaves, gaze at its naked limbs in winter, and think about what might have been.