Archive for August, 2008

On attracting readers to Ye Olde Blogge Syte

August 28, 2008

Without question the most productive move I made as a newborn blogger was putting up a post at BlogHer looking for other middle-aged women bloggers. (And I clicked on a WHOLE lot of links just to get to that point…) That led to a lot of discussion, some fun developments and some great links with some very interesting women. I’d like to repeat that feat, if possible.

It’s not that I think I’m the non plus ultra in blogging. For every ten mediocre blogs I trip over, I generally find one blogger whose interesting life experiences, sparkling prose and off-the-wall observations make me want to delete everything I’ve ever written. Some of you people can WRITE, and you make me want to be BETTER. And the feedback I get from you is making a more honest woman out of me.

So, I have decided that, rather than sitting around crying in my beer (my favorite pose of late) over my moribund blog stats, I am going to perform one act of blog enhancement per week (along with shaving my legs and conditioning what’s left of my hair). And I have found many bloggers who are happy to help me with my resolve, which is one of my favorite things about the Blogosphere. Unlike most of the self-obsessed homo sapiens I bump into all day long, ya’ll ain’t stingy!

My most recent attempt was prompted by One Cool Site — one of several links I picked up from the very smart Dumb Little Man — who pointed me in the direction of Google site verification. After several abortive attempts, I am now verified under both my blog names, although I’m told it may take a few weeks for any results to appear.

I’ve also, at the suggestion of Problogger, reached out this week to a couple of blog cooperatives and will sift through my blog for a pillar post or two to send to some zines.

Okay, you blogging veterans: Is any of this going to help, or am I just spinning my wheels? Are any of these widgets or embedded functions effective? Of all the advice you’ve bumped into out there about expanding the reach of your blog, what has been the most productive? Help a girl out, okay? I’ll be happy to do a follow-up post about my experiences with any suggestions.

Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?

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Back to school

August 27, 2008

The intersection leading from my little road onto one of the main city streets was stacked up this morning as school buses and minivans dropped children off at the neighborhood elementary school. While I waited for my turn, I watched my neighbor Ronda walk the last of her six children to the safe corner with the crossing guard.

Cammi has grown tall — she must be in sixth grade now, one of the big kids, almost ready for junior high — and the once-shy little girl will now chat with me with all the confidence and maturity of her older brothers. There are some benefits to being the youngest. And the older Cammi gets, the more gray I see in her mother’s hair.

It’s almost over for her, I thought.

As I sat there, a captive audience to this back-to-school pageantry, I envied them all. My youngest is also starting his last year of school, but he’s more than a thousand miles away. And the weight and portent of law school can’t compare with the sweet sights, sounds and smells of a public school childhood.

Notes from the teacher pinned to a shirt. Lunch money. School pictures featuring crooked teeth and morning hair. After-school soccer/football/basketball practices. Spelling lists. Birthday treats. PTA meetings, mostly missed. Book reports. Science fair projects. School plays. Christmas programs.

Band concerts, full of squeaks and clams. Sports days. Report cards. Parent-teacher conferences. Smelly gym clothes, washed at the last minute. So many lost jackets that I finally decided to let the Firstborn freeze if that’s what he wanted. Shorts in the middle of winter. The perfect shoes. Swooshes.

The slightly antiseptic smell of a school hallway, or the sweet odor of a bottle of paste. Rounded-tip scissors. Autumn leaves and Indians. Lacy cut-out snowflakes. Michael Jordan valentines. Colored-paper tulips and daffodils made of Dixie cups. Thousands of days entrusting my children to the whims of their classmates and the temperament of their teachers to try to fit them for the world.

Don’t be sorry that it’s over, I reminded myself. Be glad that it happened, and that you were blessed to be a part of it.

I let it all wash over me, and then turned the corner and headed for work, filled with grace.

The Biggest Loser or Queen for a Day?

August 25, 2008

When I was a kid back before the Dawn of Time, Mother and I used to watch an afternoon show called “Queen for a Day.” Every weekday, a series of sad, doughy, exhausted women in worn-out shoes and faded house dresses vied for that coveted title by exposing to the American public the full contents of their grim, dreary lives.

Too many children, too many bills, major illnesses, absent husbands, broken cars, personal disasters — each story brought new gasps from the studio audience. These poor creatures were then judged, I recall, by some sort of applause-o-meter, and each day a new winner was crowned with a tiara and a velvet cape and given an assortment of new appliances and other trinkets to try to make up for their sad circumstances.

It was absolutely ghastly. The only thing worse than being a loser on “Queen for a Day” was being the winner. It was social voyeurism on a national scale, and I now recognize that the main emotion that I felt while watching that show was guilt. Their suffering was my entertainment. Whatever became of those poor souls and their grubby, underfed children?

I have the same uneasy-between-the-shoulder-blades feeling about The Biggest Loser. NBC — and a lot of networks with similar reality programs — have made millions of dollars exploiting the misery and longing for normalcy of the more-than-just-obese. These truly brave people put their egos, health and sometimes their personal safety on the line to satisfy the demands of producers who are after just a few more percentage points in the ratings.

I wince listening to them berate themselves and their former lives, and I’ve wondered how successful the winners have been at keeping off the weight once outside that hermetically sealed POW camp that masquerades as a health club.

The NYTimes over the weekend had a great article summing up the allure of TBL and its sister shows:

Before-and-after television needs a deep reserve of misery, and particularly on weight-loss shows the “before” returns in rhythmic waves of humiliation and self-loathing… The lows drop ever more excruciatingly downward before rising up in a frenzy of exertion, deprivation, extensive weight loss and a new life…

These fat-reduction spectacles are embedded in a mixed message that mirrors a broader cultural clash of appearance and appetite — and our obsession with both. Against a loop of talk shows and made-for-TV dramas about eating disorders, Americans are goaded into ever more drastic and extreme expectations of physical perfection on prime time, while their path is mined with Double Croissan’wich specials at Burger King and Olive Garden “Tour of Italy” triptychs (lasagna, chicken parmigiana and fettuccine Alfredo)…

These plus-size transformations are spellbinding, admirable and even enviable, but they are also teases, making impossible transformations seem just a commitment away. The lonely, self-hating journey of weight loss is turned into an exhilarating and emotionally fulfilling team sport. These programs also dismay advocates from [fat advocacy] groups … who complain that they frame obesity as a character issue or a public-health menace and further stigmatize those who do not conform.

As the Times puts it, TBL “selects alarmingly overweight people and puts them through a Herculean diet and exercise regimen” that few of us out here in the real world would be able — or even want — to duplicate. That some of them who are bounced from the show actually do continue to lose at that unhealthy rate and return to the show is proof of their desperation.

I even object to the ambiguity of the title. Are the biggest losers the winners, or the ones who get voted off? Who really wins in this kind of scenario?

NBC, I suppose. I just hope that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back at this kind of epic, high-definition voyeurism and cringe at the inhumanity of it.

Adventures at Midlife: Still waiting for Uncle Sam?

August 21, 2008

The National Women’s Law Center just released the results of a poll indicating that “women are significantly more pessimistic than men in their attitudes about the status quo in America, both on a societal level and in terms of their own lives.”

“Women are more likely than men to feel that they are falling behind economically, and are more likely than men to be worried and concerned about their economic prospects,” the release reported. (In other words: Once again, women are MORE IN TOUCH WITH REALITY!)

The cure? “Regardless of age, income, and education, more than half of women (55%) feel that the government should do more to solve problems and help meet people’s needs.” The press release then goes on to outline an ambitious plan for closing the wage gap for women, reducing the number of uninsured women and children, expanding access to birth control, reducing the number of women at the poverty line and reforming the judiciary in favor of pro-women judges — all based on new or improved federal legislation.

Pardon me while I heave … a great sigh. Sorry, y’all, but that dog just don’t hunt no more. I’ve been waiting for more than 30 years for just the wage gap to close, and that issue has had legislation in place since 1963! I wasn’t even in the workplace then! (Corporate America has a large bag of tricks and excuses to help it slide around the issue, including making salary schedules a secret and being notoriously difficult to sue.)

I’m not against federal or state legislation on social issues, especially if the community need is dire, the status quo egregious, and the legislation well reasoned and full of teeth. It’s just that, at this stage in my life, looking down the short road at 60, I can’t wait for any government entity to make it all better.

I’m glad that my parents of The Greatest Generation have had access to Social Security and Medicare, and I have hopes of a more stable economic future for my children and grandchildren. But I think we of the gradually graying hair and creaking knees may be on our own, at least for now. Obama talks about exempting seniors from income tax if they make less than $50,000 (which wouldn’t help me), and McCain remains popular among seniors, who think he will be sympathetic to their needs. But I don’t expect either one to swoop in and rescue us. I think we’ll have to just rescue ourselves.

I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it over the years. Since starting out in the ’70s, I’ve had few mentors, and almost no women models for how I wanted to “do” my life. So I just did it. Between the demands and needs of a spouse, children, home, job, etc., I created a life. Sometimes it had baby spit, spilled Coke, tears or duct tape holding it all together, but it worked.

I expect the future to be the same. I see people who are several years ahead of me on the retirement scale making some interesting choices and adjustments. Several friends, despite protests from extended families, have sold off the old homestead in favor of smaller, more manageable digs. A neighbor couple who were having a hard time making ends meet on his government pension recently took in an elderly woman as a boarder, and it seems to be working out well for all three of them.

My husband’s colleague negotiated for a package that included several years of working part-time before retiring based on his full-time income. My elderly mother enjoyed a “senior companion” — paid for by a county agency — who would drop in a few times a week to play cards or run errands for her. We all know people who have turned hobbies into occupations, often making extensive use of the Web. Three generations of one family I’m acquainted with live in one house, taking care of each other, sharing everything and learning daily how to make it work.

These are the easier choices. Some choices are harder, such as divorcing a dear but severely disabled spouse in order for him or her to qualify for adequate Medicaid or insurance benefits, or finally cutting loose a loved one who is draining off personal and financial resources. It’s difficult, but it’s done.

I’m not certain what The Spouse and I will have to do when the time comes. I suspect making some sort of part-time income for a time will be part of the mix, as well as downsizing some plans and expectations. But I’m not looking for Uncle Sam to come rolling in on a tank anytime soon to solve my personal financial problems.

Note: This is cross-posted at MidLifeBloggers.

Another Bloggers Bouquet

August 20, 2008

Mama still don’t feel so good, chillun. Go outside and play:

• Were it not for this enterprising gentleman, thousands of men in my little Dusty Corner would have nothing to wear with their beartooth and rifle-cartridge bolo ties. Ah, fashion…

• I’ve been surprisingly cheered and comforted by several cancer blogs I’ve tripped over recently, including one by Nightline and NPR correspondent Leroy Sievers, whose obituary was posted in the LATimes. His NPR blog, My Cancer, had the kind of tough writing and perspective you’d expect from a man who spent time in some of the modern age’s most dangerous places. Other excellent examples abound, but for me the mother lode of all cancer blogs still has to be Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Cancer, chronicling the unique and upbeat cancer journey of the still-very-much-alive-thank-you Carr. Her good news is that some cancers can eventually be downgraded to merely chronic conditions — and who doesn’t have one of those?

• Has your Ivy League education robbed you — like William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar — of the ability to converse with your plumber? (Hel-lo?) Rachel Toor admits that where you go to college can determine what you become: “Some of us become jerks. And others spend our lives trying to figure out what it meant to have been there — and how to get over it.” (Via Arts & Letters Daily.) Anybody else out there still trying to recover from your college education?

• My fellow WordPressers may have already discovered this gem on their Dashboard pages, but Where is Bob? brings new meaning and insight into one of the lower circles of cubicle hell. A group of university IT-ers has a beloved boss replaced by an absolute nincompoop. The man’s clueless-ness is staggering, and the post on Bob’s Other Job is particularly priceless. How WILL it end?

The Blogger’s Bouquet

August 18, 2008

Since I came back from a lazy weekend in the mountains not wanting to expend any more excess energy than is absolutely necessary, I am inaugurating a new feature — The best of the Monday morning blogs:

• I absolutely love Bill Cunningham’s fashion photo essays in the New York Times. If you haven’t been introduced, oh, PLEASE, allow me! His latest one explores the burning and eternal question of “Can I wear white after Labor Day (and if not, WHY NOT)?”

• If it isn’t too early in the day to stomach a little Camille Paglia (Have you had your coffee/Diet Coke yet?), she has an interesting take on Madonna’s 50th birthday. (Just ignore her initial ranting about Obama.) Via Jezebel.

• For those of you who don’t know Maud Newton, I’m sorry for you. In addition to her wise, witty and comprehensive coverage of the literary scene, she’s a weekend genealogist, and her family history is both poignant and hilarious. As someone who has felt the eternal tug-of-war of religion in a family, I find her tales of her Southern Pentecostal upbringing absolutely spot-on. And now she finds a family link to the Salem Witch Trials! (Maud, some of us just can’t escape religion.) If you have time, track back on the links she provides.

• I was surprised and curious to see a NYTimes article on a subject that I blogged about days ago, including a prominent reference to my own best evidence, Bruce Jenner. Hmmmm.

• In that light, be sure to put a bookmark on Jan’s latest offering at MidLifeBloggers, wherein she demystifies the whole Internet copyright maze. Thanks, Jan!

Faces: Being Colleen Corby — or not

August 14, 2008

Throughout my pimply and klutzy adolescence, I was desperate to be ANYONE but me. (The only person who thought I was cute was my dad. Really. Boys would cross the street to avoid being seen with me.) And most of that time, I was desperate to be Colleen Corby, the ubiquitous teen model whose image seemed to be on every other page of Seventeen Magazine (15 covers) and all the other teen publications of the time. To get an idea of how unrealistic my dream was, I didn’t look remotely like her. Not even close. (Think more Doris Day-ish, only not so pretty — or perky.)

Corby walked into the Eileen Ford Agency uninvited, looking for a summer job, and found herself booked solid for the next 20 years or so. She, as they say, would have looked good in a potato sack, with a little belt, a beret and some black Mary-Janes. I remember sighing over pictures of her all dressed up in her preppy tartans and swingy little Sixties dresses, with her shiny hair, big eyes and perfect eyebrows.

Unlike today’s supermodels, Corby (the magazines told me) lived quietly in an apartment in Manhattan (!?!) with her businessman father, stay-at-home mother and little sister, Molly, who was also a model. “Wow,” I thought. “How would I go about getting to be part of that gene pool?”

Colleen (they said) loved listening to her Andy Williams LPs, but Molly had nearly ruined him for her by playing the albums so much. OMG! I loved Andy Williams, too! We were practically best friends! (That faint noise you hear is my grown sons laughing their guts up. “Andy Williams? Albums? Geez, Mom…”)

She didn’t stay on the scene long enough to get franchised like Heidi Klum and her ilk, and her proposed film career didn’t pan out, so she retired to a quiet life of marriage and motherhood, occasionally venturing out when fans — like Oprah — want to remember her.

That memory makes me sad, and it isn’t Corby’s fault. (I also wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn. HA!) My fan-crush on her only alienated me further from myself. Why did I set myself up like that? Was there really such a dearth of acceptable role models then that I had to pick someone whose looks and lifestyle were so utterly unattainable? It would take me years, decades even, to come to an uneasy truce with myself and my looks.

I’m sometimes glad I only had sons, because I’m not sure how I would have guided a daughter through that adolescent minefield.

Body betrayal: Taking care of yourself isn’t enough

August 13, 2008

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend and traveling companion who has always been an inspiration to me. A a beautiful woman who just turned 60, she and several neighbors have been faithfully walking around the track at a nearby junior high school most mornings for more than 25 years, rain, snow or shine. She doesn’t drink or smoke, takes gobs of vitamins, drinks water or diet soda and watches what she eats. She is gracious and generous and good-hearted.

She has also just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. Oh, and her knees and back are beyond BAD.

EXCUSE ME? How fair is that? This woman has taken care of herself in ways that many of us (ME!) simply haven’t, and yet she is facing an uncertain future full of cardiologists, internists, in-hospital tests, physical limitations and expensive drugs. (She’s having knee surgery shortly, which, given her other conditions, really worries me.)

Her take on it? Genetics. Her parents and older sisters exhibited many of the same complaints, and she figures it’s just the luck of the draw. But I’m still fuming on her behalf. As with many other aspects of life (marriage and child-rearing come to mind), doing everything “right” isn’t any kind of guarantee.

Perhaps we need to lighten up on our expectations of ourselves and others as we age. There still exists a tendency for us to think that we midlifers may have brought our maladies on ourselves through bad choices and bad habits. I know I’ve been too quick to judge others of my generation based on their physical condition. “How could they ‘let themselves go’ like that?” I’ve thought, when in reality they may not have had much say in how their physical health played out.

By all means, don’t give up your gym membership, and try to stay away from the French fries if you can. But, please, don’t feel guilty if your best efforts can’t forestall a what may be a preset genetic determination.

The Olympics: After the cheering stops, what?

August 12, 2008

I remember a few years back reading an article about ultramarathoners, those demented souls who live to run grueling races of 100 miles or longer. Many of them can only manage to hold part-time jobs that barely support them, as they spend nearly all of their time training, conditioning, eating, hydrating and plotting their next races. It is an utterly obsessive and largely solitary pursuit. As the author pointed out, these athletes are spending vast amounts of time and energy on a pursuit that doesn’t advance, improve or enlighten the condition of their fellow human beings. It’s a wholly narcissistic endeavor.

I thought of this article when I watch a bewildered Brendan Hansen try to explain his not even medaling in his supposed premier event, the 100m breaststroke. Despite the media’s reports of his demise, he insisted he wasn’t done yet and wasn’t going to be ending his career on such a disappointing note. “Well, good luck with that, pal,” I thought. “I hope your legs hold up.”

I sometimes wonder about the endgame for our modern Olympic athletes. At some point in their lives, age or injury or mental fatigue will catch up and outstrip them, and they will be left to create their futures. But so many of these athletes have spent some of their most formative years at the center of their own universe — cared for, watched over, reported on, interviewed, handled, managed, coached, groomed, massaged and over-scheduled by a entourage of handlers— that I question their abilities to find any kind of normalcy.

One young female athlete (I forget the sport, NBC is so flighty) last night admitted that she had missed high school to pursue the Olympics, but that, despite not having had much of a teen-age experience, figured she had the rest of her life to make up for it. Really? I think she may have missed more than just the prom. You develop a lot of interpersonal skills in adolescence, as well as a healthy respect of the world and its wonders/horrors/realities.

I seem to remember the great Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner having a major personal-life meltdown at the end of his Olympic career, and he’s had a bit of a checkered life since. (Reality TV? Please.) How do you go from front-page headlines to being an average Joe or Jill? Of course, some of them do just fine, the Mary Lou Rettons and others who continue to advance their sport and inspire other young athletes.

But cushy jobs as sports broadcasters and elite coaches are not in the cards for all athletes. Since sports psychology is such a booming business, I would hope there is some sub-specialty there that might help athletes transition from the medals stand to every-day life.

Update: Apparently the NYTimes has been pondering this very issue as well.

About Blogging: Finding a voice, chapter 2

August 11, 2008

Hel-lo! I was very surprised at the response to my last post about finding a voice. It actually sat in my file for several days after I first wrote it, and I almost didn’t post it. I thought it sounded a little whiny, and I didn’t think anybody had such issues but me. Not so. It was one of my most-viewed posts ever, so finding a voice is a topic of concern for a lot of bloggers.

I still think that list by Kurt Vonnegut is a good place to start, and I was particularly taken by two of his points. I’ll expand on them in two posts. The first:

Sound like yourself. “The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child.”

When I am writing or even speaking comfortably, I know I sound like my father. He was 49 years old when I was born (a fact that I only began to appreciate when I turned 49) and lived a very colorful, although not entirely successful, life. He was, at various times, a tramp, a bootlegger, a businessman, a municipal judge, a rockhound, and an amateur archeologist/geologist/theologian. (The tension created by that last combination was particularly interesting.)

The youngest of eight children of a itinerant politician and his long-suffering wife, Dad was on his own by the time he was 15, riding the rails with hundreds of other men, looking anywhere for work and being taken advantage of in ways that I can’t begin to imagine.

He wanted to be a doctor or an engineer, but that simply wasn’t possible, so he scraped together the means to attend pharmacy school, where he learned Latin. He would recite to me dirty limericks in Latin, laugh uproariously and then refuse to tell me what they meant, although I did finally learn the meaning of one of his favorite phrases, “Illegitimi non carborundum.”

His speech was anything but ordinary. People weren’t poor, they were “impecunious.” Couples didn’t shack up, they “lived together without benefit of clergy.” I wasn’t picky, I was “persnickety.” Occasionally I’ll be talking with someone, and they’ll give me a curious look, and I’ll realize I’ve just used one of my father’s words or phrases.

He came to religion late in his life, as much to please my mother as anything, and taught Sunday School classes to those even less churched than he. But his background as a scientist never left him. My older brother always called him “the Old Skeptic.” He had a prominent gap between his front teeth, like the Wife of Bath, and his favorite contemplative pose was leaning on his arm, a thumbnail wedged between those teeth.

He was proud of the small business he built and where we all worked to help out, but the invasion of the big chain stores ultimately forced him to close his doors. A childhood of neglect and poor nutrition plagued him all his life and finally caught up with him in his sixties. He died in pain and afraid, not certain of what was going to happen to him. I saw it in his eyes.

He encouraged his children to think for themselves, and insisted we not expect anyone to take care of us, not even him. In an area and an era that offered young women limited acceptable choices, he made me feel like I could do anything.

Mother’s voice? I seem to remember endless variations of NO, usually delivered in a way to make us feel guilty and ungrateful for asking in the first place.

“Why do you always tell the kids no?” my father asked her once.

“Because I want them to stay little,” she replied. (I think that answer alone could account for at least one of my years of psychotherapy.) My two older brothers had blown her off by the time they were teenagers, which left me as her chief object of disappointment.

So the two major voices of my childhood were a tug-of-war of “Yes, You Can” and “No, You Shouldn’t.” I feel that tension still, every day, and managing tension can be the bedrock of good writing. So I suppose I should be grateful for that tension, and exploit it in my writing whenever and wherever I can.

What childhood voices are in your head?