08 April 2014

Cycles

My high school class celebrated its thirtieth reunion last week. I didn't go to the festivities at the school, but I attended a cocktail party at a private home, and I was delighted to see all my classmates. I went to an all-girls' independent school in Manhattan, so the gathering was exclusively female. There were forty-one of us in the graduating class, but we include in our reunions anyone who was a part of the class at any point, and that encompasses about fifty women in all.

I'm not going to lie and say that we were all the best of friends back then. We had our squabbles and our cliques and our difficulties, like any group of teenaged girls. What pleases me now is the sense I get that, having reached midlife, we are all friends. We're like sisters; we can criticize each other, but as against outsiders, we will defend each other to the death.

I arrived at the cocktail party drenched, as I had walked through Union Square in the rain without a coat or umbrella. (I haven't really matured that much in that regard since twelfth grade. I still do the quintessential New York squint-and-dash, which my mother used to call "dodging the raindrops.") I was greeted at the door by a classmate who quickly poured me a glass of wine. I looked around the room and was instantly calm; I knew exactly who everyone was. No one had changed so much that I didn't remember her, or didn't know her name. They were all there, these old friends, and they hugged me warmly, not caring about my frizzy hair and damp sweater.

Some of us are still married (or married again), and some are divorced. Many never married. The group included both mothers and women who never had children; among the mothers, some had college-aged children and some had children who are still quite young. In addition to having handled pretty complicated private lives, every single one of these women is professionally accomplished in some way. Artists, musicians, writers, doctors, executives, teachers, scientists - you name it, and there's one in the group. In chatting with them, though, I heard a recurring theme: in our mid-forties, we all feel like we are at a turning point, either personally or professionally, and we aren't sure about what comes next.

I had an English teacher in high school that I didn't like particularly at the time. She called me out once on writing a first draft of a paper about a book I hadn't read; my cocky sixteen-year-old self was supremely annoyed at her power of perception and her insistence on confronting me about it. (She ended up giving me an extra week to read the book and resubmit the paper, and she didn't penalize me. Having been found out was punishment enough, and I learned the lesson.)

That same teacher, in a conversation I had with her years later at a school-related event, listened to my tale about leaving the workforce to care for my small children, and my doubt as to whether I had done the right thing. She responded with something I would never forget.

Women, she told me, live their lives in cycles. We are designed that way. Everything about us follows a curving path: our bodies, our careers, our thoughts and perceptions. We start out in one direction, pursue it to a turning point, and then cycle back. When we cycle back, we sometimes think we have lost ground, but in fact we have covered more territory than our male counterparts, who tend to live their lives in a more linear fashion. To someone with less acute perception, we don't seem to be making forward progress, but later in our lives, having accomplished so much - relationships, families, careers, and other contributions to the world - we can be astounded at how far we have actually traveled.

At the reunion last week, I repeated this wisdom to one of my classmates, a beautiful woman in her mid-forties who, having given up a career as an accomplished and acclaimed musician to raise her sons, is now wondering what comes next. She e-mailed me the next morning to thank me. I know she can accomplish anything she wants to accomplish, whether that includes putting out another album, taking up some other form of art, or waiting until her young men are fully grown to begin cycling around again. Many paths are available to her, and the choice is exclusively hers.

I went home after the party - dodging the raindrops again - with the profound conviction that we are all at a turning point in this particular cycle, a cycle we have traveled both together and apart. I am very, very eager to see what comes next, and I am going to try to stay in touch with my classmates so that I can witness the rest of the journey in real time.

05 April 2014

Alaska

My husband and I are both graduates of Dartmouth College - that's where we met - and we're members of the Dartmouth Lawyers Association. The DLA is supposed to be a professional affinity group, but I'll tell you a secret: it's really a loose-knit group of avid skiers who travel to a different ski resort every year with their families and renew their friendships over apr├ęs-ski drinks and continuing legal education lectures.

We've been to Colorado, Utah, California, and even Switzerland together. And this year, we went to Alaska.

That's right. Our meeting was in a beautiful ski resort called Alyeska, not too far from Anchorage.

On our way out, we flew from Newark to Minneapolis, and then from Minneapolis to Anchorage. We stayed two days and two nights in the city before driving out to Alyeska for our meeting. In those two days and nights, we got to see just about everything Anchorage has to offer:


Me at the starting line of the Iditarod Trail Race, the famous dogsledding race from Anchorage to Nome.
We saw the mushers and their teams take off at the beginning of the race!
Making friends with one of the racers!

A reindeer on a leash in downtown Anchorage.
Things you don't really get to see in New Jersey.



After Anchorage, we drove along the Seward Inlet to Alyeska, taking in incredible views of the Chugatch Mountain Range in the fog.



Our hotel lobby featured a life-sized diorama of a polar bear in his native habitat.



We spent some time skiing in the beautiful mountains right outside the hotel.



One of the best things about skiing is the lunch breaks: you are burning tons of calories on the slopes, so you can have whatever you want for lunch. In Alyeska, the view was the icing on the cake - almost literally. But the best part was the company, of course.

Yes, I made that sweater I'm wearing.

We even had a chance to go snowmobiling one afternoon. Snowmobiling is like motorcycling or jet-skiing, but on the snow. It's a really wonderful way to get out of the resort and see the natural beauty of the interior forest areas.

Me on my snowmobile

Lunch break on the trail


It was a wonderful (if long) trip. I learned a lot about the 49th state and a little bit about its laws. Did you travel this winter, or did you stay home where it was warm and cozy? Where would you go next if you could?

04 April 2014

Accountability

One of my dear old friends from college recently posted a link on Facebook to a weight-loss program that she had been following that had yielded excellent results. It's a virtual (i.e., totally online) program that one follows at one's own convenience, with e-mail support and guaranteed results. I thought that sounded good, so I looked up the website.

First of all, this particular program costs $100 a month - far out of my budget for a virtual weight loss program. (I could join the fanciest gym in the county AND enroll in Weight Watchers for less.) But more disturbingly, at least to me, the program publicly posts before-and-after pictures of its participants, in their underwear, identifying them by full name. Ugh, I thought; I don't want the entire internet to see me, overweight, in my underwear. Is nothing private anymore?

But the website touts this as an advantage of its program. Knowing that the world is following your progress, goes the reasoning, provides accountability. You won't want to fail if the whole world is going to see your failure.

Gulp.

I quit a weight-loss group on Facebook a couple of years ago after I discovered that, because it was an "open" group, everything I posted to the group page popped up in all my friends' news feeds. That's right. Everyone I know heard about every single workout and every calorie I consumed. Alarmed, I contacted the group administrator and asked her whether she would consider closing the group, so that only members could see the posts.

No, she responded. That would destroy an essential element of the group's success: accountability.

Since when do I have to be accountable to everyone I know for everything I do? Doesn't that put unreasonable pressure on a middle-aged working mom who is trying hard to keep other parts of her life running smoothly, on a daily basis, and might just want to lose a pound or twenty on the side?

I recently enrolled one of my daughters in a local SAT-tutoring program in my town. The kids attend a class once a week and then take home a practice test to complete during the week. Every Monday morning, the director of the program grades the practice tests and then e-mails the results - all the results, for all the kids - to all the parents. Thus, every week, tens of people I don't know are made privy to my daughter's results on her practice tests. Sometimes, she doesn't finish the tests because she needs help with them; on those occasions, a large ZERO under her name, highlighted in yellow, is e-mailed to all the parents.

I contacted the director of the program and asked why it was necessary for all the parents to see all the kids' scores on a weekly basis. Were the children not entitled to a little privacy as they learned?

Guess how she responded.

Accountability. Making everyone's scores available to everyone, she told me, promotes a "healthy sense of competition" that gives her program improved results.

I am completely uncomfortable with that. In choosing to enroll my daughter in a tutoring program, I was looking for gentle, encouraging help, not competition and public embarrassment. I looked around on the internet for a site where I could post a nasty review, to alert other parents to this feature of the program, but I couldn't find any way to give feedback in a public forum. It seems to me that the program needs to be made publicly accountable for its policies, don't you think?

We are all accountable to ourselves for our own actions, our shortcomings, and for our failure to make an effort when effort is required. We are also, on occasion, accountable to our families for our decisions, and to others whom we have wronged over the course of our complicated maneuverings through our lives. But I do not understand why I need to be accountable to the entire world for my appearance, or why my daughter needs to be accountable to people she does not know for her practice SAT scores. I think, at least in these two instances, the concept of accountability has been taken too far and has crossed the line into dangerous territory: motivation by threat of public humiliation. Do you agree?