The Year of Yes

The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes

This memoir by a TV goddess is empowering and just as funny as I expected it to be. I really enjoy Shonda Rhimes’s TV writing: Scandal, Gray’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder are addictive and brilliantly plotted. I recognized some of the sentence-level pacing and style from her shows; it works just as well in this format. The gimmick of the book is that in the year 2014 Rhimes made a resolution to say yes to things that scared her. The end result was that she moved from hiding in the writers’ room to taking the spotlight herself, and feeling more comfortable there. She made several intimidating TV appearances and a few public speeches, including her Dartmouth commencement speech. Her stories about working motherhood and the mommy wars. losing weight without self-hate, learning to accept compliments, and taking time to play were perfectly expressed, and just what I needed to hear.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.

The Runaway Princess and The Runaway Dragon

These two children’s books take a lot of fairy tale tropes and give them a feminist spin. I’d recommend them to any parent of a princess-obsessed girl.

The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

This story begins with a typical princess setup: the king and queen lock a princess in a tower and call for princes to compete for her hand in marriage. But this princess isn’t having it: she escapes and works to complete the tasks set by the king so that she can win her own hand. She befriends the witch and the bandits that the princes were told to defeat, and reveals the cheating committed by the princes. She finds a baby dragon, that becomes her pet. It’s a bright and happy story with a satisfying ending.

The Runaway Dragon by Kate Coombs

This sequel begins with the almost grown, somewhat neglected dragon running away, and Meg going off on a quest to find it. Her parents make her take a bunch of royal guards, and the party gets lost in an enchanted forest, where a dwarf who is knowledgeable of fairy tale tropes gives them lots of advice. Meg’s friends end up in a giant’s castle, while she and her magician outwit an evil sorceress. I like how a romantic subplot is a bit of an afterthought, rather than the main point. The focus is on Meg’s desire for adventure, her worry for her pet dragon, and solving the problems that she and her friends get themselves into.

Playing Big

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr

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This women’s career self-help book is focused on women who have not quite reached their high potential. It’s a much more inclusive, less corporate version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Mohr strikes a delicate balance–asking women to take responsibility for their success while acknowledging the pervasiveness of discrimination, the double bind, and other factors that limit them. She explains the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and gives solid advice for motivation and confidence. She also includes a lot of examples of women diving into hobbies and activism as a way of “playing big,” decoupling women’s ambition from striving for prestige and money in the business world. Her advice is mostly focused on building confidence and on encouraging women to take bigger risks. She hopes to inspire women to stop constantly putting off focusing on their goals, to refuse to settle for mediocrity. Along with The Confidence Code, I’d say this is my new favorite self-help book targeting women and their careers.

Mohr does discuss parenting and the ways that family plans change and limit women’s careers. But she doesn’t talk about how for many women, getting married and/or having children is itself the way that they “play big” and reach for their dreams. Planning a family and making the decision to conceive a child or buy a house could be the thing that makes them excited, that gives them the feelings of awe and excitement that Mohr names pachad and yirah. Maybe that’s controversial to say, but it’s a feeling I have had and that many women share. It’s hard to talk about family-making as a dream without implying that all women will be totally content, with their ambitions completely satisfied and their talents fully utilized, by the work of raising children. Maybe Mohr believes that women don’t need as much encouragement to leap wholeheartedly into plans for family as they do for career and personal development. I’d agree with that, so or that reason I can understand why Mohr focused instead on career and creative pursuits. She wrote this book at an interesting moment in her life–as she was pregnant with her first child. I will be interested to see how motherhood influences Mohr’s later writing.

Classic Women’s Lit Rewritten

I think it’s fun and potentially instructive when authors rewrite or draw inspiration from classic literature. These two books offer new perspectives on two of my favorite 19th-century novels.

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre edited by Tracy Chevalier

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This collection of short stories is inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular by the triumphant ending line quoted in the title. It’s really interesting to see how this wide variety of writers took that idea and ran with it in so many different directions. There are stories here that retell Jane Eyre from the perspectives of different characters, memorably Grace Poole and Rochester, some concentrating on her boarding school or her time with St. John Rivers, some changing the setting to contemporary or another country or even a sci-fi future. In some of them, the connection to Jane Eyre is small, but it’s fun to look for it. Chevalier’s opening essay is solid and fun, nostalgic in a way that many of us feel about Bronte. If you like short stories, Jane Eyre, and/or the authors included here, including Audrey Niffenegger, Elizabeth McCracken, and Emma Donogue, you’d enjoy this volume too.

Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton

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This book is a kind of fan fic sequel to Pride and Prejudice that concentrates on a minor character, Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennett’s friend who marries the obsequious minister Mr. Collins. I was disappointed that the book didn’t tell much about Charlotte’s marriage, instead beginning with her widowhood. Now, no one wants to read about Mr. Collins, one of the most annoying characters ever written, and everyone rejoices at his early demise and Charlotte’s freedom, but in a way this makes achieving happiness seem almost too easy for Charlotte. This book takes for granted that her marriage to Collins was a mistake, but I’m not sure Austen would agree. I was somewhat disappointed that Elizabeth and Darcy didn’t appear in the book much either.

The action of this novel begins when Charlotte’s younger sister Maria joins her in her widow cottage and starts husband-hunting, attracted by a young American. Each sister has two suitors, one good and initially disparaged, one bad and initially pursued. Maria is careless and boy-crazy at least for the first half of the book, while Charlotte is prim and proper in an exaggerated way, so much so that the central problem, when it finally comes up, is one that you can barely believe she would ever get herself into. The sentence-level writing is Austen-inspired and fun. I had mixed feelings about this one. Probably only a serious Austen fan would enjoy it.

Ready to March

The Women’s March is tomorrow, and I’m excited to attend in Nashville with my baby. When I took him with me to vote in November, I was excited to think that years from now I would be sharing with him that he helped me elect the first woman president. Maybe someday he still will. This protest is a historic moment, one that I’ll be proud to tell my child he was present for. I still would have preferred to tell the other story, but at least we’ll be on the right side of history, as active dissenters rather than passive consenters.

This march will be the fourth protest I’ve attended since the election. I went to the Marcha Contra el Odio de Trump (March Against Trump’s Hate) organized by Dignidad Obrera, among other Nashville organizations, the Sunday after the election. There was a small bilingual discussion beforehand among parents and teachers looking for ways to support children who may be encountering racist bullying triggered by the election. About 300 people marched.

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The other two protests were smaller. There was one on the day of the electoral college vote. It was cold, so I brought hot chocolate to share with the persistent protesters who stayed longer than I did. And then a couple weeks ago, I joined a couple dozen people protesting outside of the offices of our Republican senators, focused on the climate change deniers who are nominated to the Cabinet.

I understand that not everyone can protest–and in fact maybe the size of this weekend’s protests is getting out of hand and borderline unsafe. Protests like this are by their nature a one-time event, when what we need is ongoing commitment. That’s why I wanted to share some of the other things I’ve been doing since the election and hope to continue to do as long as necessary.

I went to a meeting, sent emails, passed out flyers, made phone calls, and talked to coworkers about the vote on collaborative conferencing for a teachers’ contract in our school district. This victory, coming just a week or so after the crushing defeat in the election, has been a definite bright spot. I’m looking forward to watching this process and hope for a contract that will improve teachers’ pay and working conditions, and thus students’ learning conditions as well.

Inspired by the Indivisible guide, I have been calling my two Republican senators at least weekly. I’ve made over 20 calls so far. I receive daily action alert texts that give me ideas about what issues to talk to them about, but usually I already have something I’m mad about. Since education is my pet issue, I’ve been focused on the Betsy DeVos nomination for Department of Education. So far the senators haven’t done much that I wanted them to do, except push back DeVos’s hearing a week and say in the media that they want to replace the ACA. I want to participate in a growing wave of angry calls, so that these senators start to feel like their seats are at risk if they don’t change the way they vote. Senator Bob Corker is up for re-election in 2018, and getting rid of him should be a #1 priority for all Tennesseans.

I’ve done a lot of small things online: signing petitions, tweeting, using an app called Countable, liking, commenting, and using the angry or sad reaction emoji on facebook (Why is there no ‘scared’ or ‘yikes!’ reaction emoji? We need that one now). It’s easy to feel like these are throwaway actions, but they’re also effortless and cost me nothing. Why not spend the miniscule extra energy of a click or two? I like to think that when I click ‘like,’ that means that my facebook friends are more likely to see a story, and that may influence them.

I’m not detailing my activities here in order to brag, and I don’t want to participate in some kind of ally theater. I don’t need to give myself a pat on the back because nothing I do can ever be enough until our world is just and free. But on the other hand, I made a commitment to do these things, and I want to hold myself accountable, and there’s nothing like publicity to do that. My hope is that hearing about what I’m doing can encourage others and give them some ideas about what they might do as well.

These protests are only the beginning of a resistance movement that will have to last for several years. Going forward, my goal is to do about four things every week: a call to each of my senators, one local or state-level action or phone call, and one in-person action, like attending a meeting. I probably won’t reach that goal every week, but it’s a dramatic uptick in my involvement compared to last year, and it’s close to my limit for the amount of time and energy I have to devote to these activities, considering I have a full-time job and two little kids. So far I’m finding these actions very doable and empowering. They’re a great outlet for the frustration and anger that would otherwise build up just from scrolling my newsfeed. Compared to helpless inaction, doing something, anything, is a relief.

Let’s march!

The Alchemist

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

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I had heard a lot of good things about this short little book, and was happy to finally pick it up. A lot of people, including Brene Brown, whose work I find persuasive and inspiring, call it wonderful. I was sorry to be disappointed with it.

The story works well if you think of it as a fairy tale and don’t try to derive any deeper significance from it. It’s a simple quest narrative about a boy who goes looking for a treasure. But what bothers me about the book is that it clearly seems to be trying to teach a life philosophy, and many of its readers like it for precisely that reason. I guess my problem is just that I don’t particularly like its philosophy. Here’s a quote that sums it up:

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

I guess I just don’t believe the world works like that. It would be nice if it did. This philosophy seems to say that if you don’t achieve your dreams it’s your own fault because you didn’t follow “your Personal Legend” with enough faithfulness and tenacity, regardless of circumstances. It’s a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy, exemplified by the boy’s quick success in the crystal shop, starting with nothing and earning back double the money he’d lost to a thief in less than a year. The boy is always reading omens to help him make decisions, and I don’t think omens happen in this world. Again, if you think of it as a fantasy world where the wind and desert talk to him through magic, it’s fine. But if it’s supposed to be a metaphor for real life (and I think it very clearly is), I don’t find it persuasive because I don’t think life is that easy. There are definitely nuggets of wisdom, like the part where the boy talks to his heart and finds that it is too scared to go forward, but he chooses to go forward anyway. This particular idea about fear is said better or at least equally well by Elizabeth Gilbert in the opening of Big Magic.

I also had a problem with the way the book treated love and the boy’s relationship with Fatima, a “woman of the desert” who is content to wait for him while he searches for his treasure. What about her “Personal Legend”? Apparently her role is just to sit at the oasis and wait for him to return. It seems pretty convenient for the boy that “love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend.” Exactly. He’s a man. For women in our unequal society, it is a common experience that love and family get in the way of, or, at best, delay the realization of professional and personal aspirations. Fatima is one of two female characters, and both are just love interests with no real personality. The story would have been about the same without either one of them in it. It seemed they were only there to give the boy something to sacrifice or a way to prove he can delay gratification, on his way to finding his treasure.