Talking About That Little Lady

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Pondering What it Means to be Ladylike in the Modern Era


Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Several years ago, my husband and I had some friends who were members of one of the Yacht Clubs in San Francisco. We would occasionally join the couple for dinner after a day of sailing.

The views were fantastic, the bartenders gave a deep pour, and the food was good (but not great).

San Francisco is well known for its more liberal political leanings, but the yacht clubs are where the more conservative (i.e. wealthy) can be found in the notorious hippie city. The rules of the yacht club dictated that we had to mind our p’s and q’s while there.

On one memorable night after a hearty dinner, the four of us retired to the bar with drinks in hand and began a rousing and competitive game of liar’s dice.

Just as things really got rolling, as it were, an Admiral of the club who was a huffing old man with a bulbous nose blooming with red capillaries, bustled over to us. He leaned over the bar and blurted, “Ladies do NOT throw dice in bars!”

Remember when you were a kid riding in the front seat of the car? And that moment when your mom would hit the brakes and throw out that strong mom arm to protectively keep you from flying through the windshield?

That is roughly the approach my husband took to keep me from getting very unladylike in a real hurry.

After the adrenaline dissipated and another drink was poured, I remember thinking how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.


The George Moro Dancers at El Rancho Vegas, 1949 — Photo by Don English, photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

These days I’m a lot older and a lot less inclined to take any guff off of anyone, particularly a stuffy old rich man. But this concept of “being a lady” and acting ladylike is still something I think about. In fact, as I age, it’s on my mind more than ever.

My parents grew up during the Great Depression and had me late in life so I ended up with a more old fashioned set of values than many of my peers in school. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, women weren’t having kids into their late thirties, so my parents were a generation older than my friend’s parents.

Where they had cool bell bottom pant wearing moms and sideburn wearing dads who were easy, open, and permissive, my folks were stodgy and carried a depression-era sensibility about almost everything, including but not limited to: money, discipline, and politics.

But to their credit, where many of my female friends grew up with their parents saying, “When you grow up and get married…” mine were saying, “When you grow up and graduate from college…”

Pretty forward thinking for my ultra conservative folks.

So I followed their advice, went to college, got a post graduate degree and these days I work in operations to support scientists, including both physicists and engineers. While the percentage of women in the various STEM fields is still small, it is certainly growing. I am lucky to work with a lot of strong women in non-traditionally female professions. This has me thinking more and more about what it means to be a lady.

If clothes make the man, does how a woman dresses define whether or not she is a lady? With each passing year, the dress code of employers becomes more casual. Both men and women can wear khakis and a button down, so maybe clothes are no longer a deciding factor.

Once the measure of being a lady was being demure, subservient, speaking in low and melodic tones. My mother’s 1950’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbook explains that my job as wife is to have the children clean and tidy for when my husband comes home. I should dress in a pleasing way and greet him at the door. That advice was prudent for the times, but is no longer the measure of what makes me, or anyone, a lady.

I’ve been noodling over writing this piece for a little over a month. I had started getting down the words when the Be a Lady They Said video went viral. I saw it posted on all of the social platforms. I didn’t want to seem like riding the coattails of that sentiment so I set this story aside. Perhaps I’m not the only one thinking on this topic.

This question of what it means to be a lady continues to rattle around in my brain so I dusted this story off and starting thinking about it again. As I enter the time of my life where I will no longer have the ability to bear children, an aspect some say defines the very nature of womanliness, I wonder who and what I am now that I am no longer young, with the power and energy that youth brings.

My face in the mirror is changing, my hair is rapidly turning gray, and what it means to be a lady, for myself anyway, is also changing.

So I haven’t yet answered the question of what it means to be a lady, and maybe I never will. Or maybe the answer is being a lady means whatever I want it to mean.

And for the record, ladies most certainly do throw dice in bars.


Royalty Free image from corbisimages.com

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there

Five Things I Learned while Working from Home

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Lessons from Shelter-In-Place

 

Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

One of the benefits of my job is that I work from home one day a week, and have been doing so for just over seven years. It’s a wonderful perk. If I ever chose to move to a different job, I’d want to be sure I retained this same benefit as it goes a long way toward my mental health.

As a confirmed introvert, working from home on Friday allows me to get my job done while having a little break from my very extroverted team of peers (all of whom I adore, in measured doses).

So when word came down from my leadership that we are to work from home for the foreseeable future, I though “pfft, no problem, I’m already a pro at this.”

On Day One, I approached my now shelter-in-place working from home days exactly as I approached every work from home Friday, and that was my first mistake.

Since I believe in growing from my mistakes, here are five things I have learned and want to share from the first week of working from home every day:

#1 You must have boundaries 

When working from home just one day a week, the boundaries between work life and home life were never an issue. I’d get up a little later than usual, make the short commute down the hall, and do my job. Since the end of Friday is also the end of the work week, at 5:00pm I’d log off and enjoy my weekend time.

Now that work from home is every day, it’s too easy at 9:45pm to think “oh, you know, I could just dash off that email to my boss that I forgot to do earlier” or when I’m obsessing over the current news at 3:30 in the morning, “I could take one more look at that PowerPoint draft.”

To be honest, it’s very likely that I have used “putting in extra work” as a way to deal with my anxiety over the current events. It feels like I am doing something about it, but I’m not. It’s an avoidance and over time will wear me out when right now I need to find ways to stay strong.

In short: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.

#2 You must have boundaries

Since my husband is now my coworker five days a week, and since my husband is my absolute favorite person in the world, I find myself wanting to spend time with him as we usually do after work or on the weekends.

This means sitting together, drinking coffee, talking over all the things on our minds, including but not limited to: how cute our cat is, our thoughts on movie, television, or literary characters, what to have for dinner, and most importantly whether or not feeding peanuts to the crows and bluejays in the backyard will cause them to protect us, as a fierce corvid army, when the zombies rise…you know, normal couple stuff.

But if we spend too much time in our usual weekend pattern, then I am not getting work done. Then again, if I spend too much time doing work (see #1 above) then I’m not spending needed time with my husband.

Once again: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.


Photo by Yann Allegre on Unsplash

 

#3 You must have boundaries

As part of my job I support a team of technical people who are dispersed across the country, so I am very used to using video conferencing daily, whether at home or not. When this new stay at home edict came down, I was already set up on the app, had a good camera to use, and a speaker for sound.

Not so for my peers. For the most part using videoconferencing is new for them, and I find myself giving mini tutorials on every meeting we have.

Our IT department is now conducting four one-hour long trainings a day on how to use the videoconferencing service, but my peers seem loathe to take a course. “Too busy,” they say. So instead they are relying on me to help them. In every meeting.

This is not sustainable. I love to help people but I can’t get sucked into this vortex. Instead of jumping in there when they have troubles, am now sitting on my hands when someone says, “I can’t figure out how to share this document” or “Why can’t I see everyone?”

If they ask me directly, I will help, but if they are just muttering and fumbling I stay quiet because the best way to learn is to do it for yourself. The user interface isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little time to get comfortable with it.

The one exception: The times when a participant has both their phone and laptop dialed in which produces that horrible ping back and forth that escalates into a high teeth grinding sound. The audio equivalent of standing between two mirrors. I cannot restrain myself from jumping in to sternly say “Phone or Laptop, not both, mute one!”


By Elsamuko from Kiel, Germany — inf, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40716759

 

#4 You must have boundaries

At any break at work, I find myself looking at the latest headlines. On every call my peers want to talk about the headlines. In the kitchen while making lunch my husband and I talk about the latest headlines, “So, did you hear that…”

All of this fuels my anxiety and managing this is a big factor in my ability to stay safe and sane, and to be an active, productive employee.

Many years ago I took a meditation class and the instructor told us: “You don’t have to watch, read, or seek out the current headline news. If there is something you need to know, it will find you.”

It has been almost 20 years since I first heard this gentle guidance and it is more true today than it ever has been.

#5 You must have boundaries

On Friday work from home days, I tend to dress pretty comfortably. Yoga pants with a not terrible shirt. Fluffy socks and slippers. Loose but comfy (okay, ratty) sweater.

This is fine once a week, as Friday is the most causal day at work by far, but this is not sustainable for me five days a week. It is really true that clothes impact how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you feel. Clothes matter.

Now, I’m not saying put on a three piece suit and hard shoes every day, but at least wear the kind of “business casual” clothes you might wear to the office. Get up, take a shower, comb your hair, put on some work clothes, maybe light makeup if that’s your thing, and present yourself well. You’ll get your mind right to sit down and do some work.

Then when the work day is done, by all means, jettison yourself right back into those comfy home clothes. You’ve earned it.

We have no idea how long this current stay at home edict is going to last. so it is important to build good boundaries now to help stay sane over time.

And just because you work from home, don’t neglect washing your hands!

Hey, you: Stay safe and stay productive!

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there

 

Every Picture Tells A Story

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The Story is in the Eye of the Beholder

 

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

My photography teacher and mentor holds regular photo review sessions where we, her students, come together to show our photos and receive feedback from the group.

The rules are that we show our photo but stay silent. The photographer says nothing while the audience to reviews it, forms their opinions, and then provides feedback. Once feedback begins we are allowed to answer questions but the preference is to stick to the aspects of the photo and not stray too far into the backstory of why, what, or how.

Our teacher learned this from her own mentor, the legendary Al Weber. It was how he worked sessions with his students.

There are plenty of juicy quotes out there in the world about how a photo should tell the story without further explanation. How the photographer should say what they want to say visually and refrain from adding more explanation.

I understand that view and don’t entirely disagree. In a different photoclub meeting a few years back, I had quite a spirited debate with a fellow photographer who insisted that the technical aspects of the photo were all that mattered and “telling a story” was unimportant.

I insisted that a photo that doesn’t tell a story is boring. We agreed to disagree.

His technically superior landscapes remain astounding in their quality and dull in aesthetics. My photos have something to say, but are technically imperfect. Both of our photography styles are relevant and fine. The artist makes their art as they see fit.

You see, I’m an unapologetic logophile — a lover of words. I’m a storyteller from birth and when I look at photos, I like to hear what the photographer has to say about how and why they took the photo and what it means to them. I find sitting in silence a challenge when I’m so creatively inspired by my peers.

Also, the story a viewer gets from my photo may not be the story I was trying to tell. I know, I know, that’s fine. Everyone sees art in their own way, through their own filters, and that is valid. Of course.

But sometimes, like the photo in the header of this story, I want the viewer to know more. I want you to feel what I felt when I took the photo. I want it to resonate on a deeper level.

So now that you’ve seen the header photo, I’m going to tell you the story.

t was the first week of this past December and I was traveling home to California from Tennessee. My itinerary said that I would fly on a small commuter plane from Knoxville to Denver, and then from Denver to San Francisco.

Riding on the very small commuter plane gave me no small amount of pause, in fact I wrote about it here:

My Fear of Flying

Before heading to the airport, I’d checked the weather in Denver and the news was not good. Snow. Lots of snow. Here I am flying on a very small plane right into the heart of a winter storm. Due to land in Denver around 6:45pm, it would be when the storm was expected to be the worst.

I was, to put it in crystal clear terms: Freaked Out.

Snow, small plane, winter, ice, terror, tired, just want to get home, will I even make it home tonight, I don’t want to die, pleaseohpleaseohplease… Like that, swirling around in my head. (Isn’t anxiety just so helpful?)

That header photo, the one with the beautiful sunset, was taken over eastern Colorado. Above the clouds was the most magnificent view of the sunset from the plane’s large window. The roiling storm clouds gave a great foreground. The contrast of blue and orange are a perfection of complimentary colors that only Mother Nature knows how to create.

Now, let’s be honest with each other: There are a lot of beautiful photographs of sunsets out there in the world. Plenty of astounding locations, views, and colors. My photo is surprisingly clear and well-focused for having been taken through a plane window. I used a Sony Cybershot as it was the best camera I had on me at the time.

I look at that photo and I love the brilliant colors, that I managed to mostly (but not precisely) center the sun, and the clouds make it very moody. But when I see that photo, what I feel is fear.

The dark and foreboding clouds below that gorgeous Colorado sunset were a metaphor for everything I was feeling when the shutter clicked. This photo was taken at the edge of the storm, you can see the ground on the right lower side. We had not yet begun to find the center of that winter storm when this photo was taken. It still lay ahead.

I should probably title the photo “Yearning for the Runway” because as I both watched and photographed that sunset, I kept visualizing over and over in my mind a smooth landing, pleading to the universe for safety.

Turns out by the time we got to Denver there had been a break in the storm and the runways were clean, dry and perfect. We landed pretty much as I had visualized. The snow was projected to start again soon, so after a little deicing, we took off late but made it home to SFO on time and intact.

I don’t know if telling my story makes you see the photo any differently. Maybe what you see when you read the story of that photo is different from mine.

I like knowing that my photo is more than just a lovely sunset, it’s my reminder that life is both precarious and precious.

And small planes are safer than I think.

Just wait until I tell you about my photo of a deceased ladybug.

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there.


 

A Moment Matters

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And So Does Kindness


 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

It’s morning and I’m waking up rough after some really painful dental work. I’m running late for work but I’m trying to stay calm and just get there.

I’m traversing a road that is something of an unofficial border. On one side is a series of slightly rough neighborhoods where gentrification is coming hard and fast. And painfully.

The other side is the “good” side of the road (scare quotes used intentionally). Gentrification has already arrived to this side of the road, for both better and for worse.

I stop at a red light at a major intersection. I am first in line and there is a long line of cars behind me.

“Who Can It Be Now,” plays from the oldies station on my radio. A popular song from my high school years is now an oldie. Don’t get me started.

I tap my thumb on the steering wheel and hum along when to my left, a local denizen, a gentleman who has seen better days, enters the crosswalk taking something of a slanting route over the white lines.

In his hand he’s carrying an open tall boy and holding it close to his chest. He’s smiling, though his face and his skin looks like he’s seen some things.

I am alternately like “right on!” because why not beer at almost nine in in the morning? Then “oooh, damn” because beer at nine in the morning possibly means chasing a few demons somewhere around nine o’clock the night before.

But I don’t know this guy’s story, so I don’t judge.

As he ambles amiably in front of the grill of my very old and very tired car in the center lane, in the right lane an oblivious driver in a black Mercedes whips right into the crosswalk, intent on turning right and doing it right now, and damn near hits the guy.

Our beer drinking friend pulls up short, steps back and slightly bows, waving the Mercedes along. It pulls out in a huff, if I can attribute huffiness to a car.

Then the man in the crosswalk turns to me and smiles a lopsided smile and waves. I do what any decent member of the human race should do, I wave back. I briefly entertain a “I should not have done that” thought because I have learned through enough years living near and in big cities that sometimes it’s just better not to engage.

But I was wrong for thinking that. As I wave, he smiles a little wider, peers around the corner of my car to be sure the coast is clear, then makes his way safely to the other side of the road.

My light turns green and I drive on, thinking about the guy, this city where I now live, the ever growing division between rich and poor, and the implications of gentrification. I also think about how delicious the lemon scone sitting in the passenger seat is going to be when I get to work and gobble it up.

I get to the place of my employment, find a parking spot, quick yank the parking break and start my day. Something about the man with the tall boy sticks with me and I can’t quite figure out why.

One thing I know for sure is that I have to write about it, to capture the fleeting moment and memorialize it for myself as much as for anyone else.

And so I have.

This item first appeared on Medium, find more of my work @karenfayeth over there.

The Gift of the White Elephant

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The Holiday Game that Highlights the Best and the Worst

 

Photo by James Hammond on Unsplash, and slightly modified by the author

“Okay, everybody take a number!” she chirps while walking around the room holding a small jute bag containing blue slips of paper with numbers ranging from 1 to 25 written in black Sharpie marker.

25 slips. 25 people. 25 gifts that range from boring, to gag, to “oh that’s sort of nice.”

I draw my folded slip and put it in my pocket. I’m in the middle of telling some nonsense story that gets a laugh from my coworkers, spinning a yarn in between sips of good red wine.

It’s the annual holiday party. It’s the boss of my boss. We are at her house and enjoying catered appetizers. Two weeks ago we were commanded to attend and to bring a $15 gift. Pay for play. “Remember, $15 is a ceiling and not a floor!”

The White Elephant is among us.

Some people love the White Elephant. Some people loathe the White Elephant. One thing is for sure, there are no set rules for playing the White Elephant’s dangerous game.

How many steals, how many rounds, what value, and what is proper etiquette depends on who is running the game. The Ring Master controls the Elephant.

My favorite annual White Elephant game is played with a group of salty network engineers. Instead of using slips of paper with numbers, they use two decks of playing cards. It lends a little gambler’s air to the proceedings.

Today it is slips of paper and when my story is told and the laughs die down, I head to the kitchen to refill my cup. Only then, alone with bottle and corkscrew, I allow myself a peek at the blue slip in my pocket.

I groan. There on a background of robin’s egg blue is the number I least wanted to see. A single dark slash on a pristine paper background.

My number is 1.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels

(I’d have shown you a photo of the actual slip if I hadn’t washed it in the pocket of my jeans in the weekend’s laundry run.)

I have been chosen to start the game. Fate has determined that I select the first gift. How the game opens sets the tone for the entire White Elephant event, and that responsibility now lies with me.

I nervously gulp red wine from the plastic cup, tannins bitter on my dry tongue.

I recalled a day several years ago when I — a confused, jet lagged, and nervous American — rode a busy commuter train between Reading, UK and London. No seats available, I stood in the packed rail car near one of two doors. At each train stop the other door provided egress onto the platform, so I felt safe by the door across the aisle.

But as the train slowed, making its approach and then stop into Paddington Station, a train car filled with intense British commuters turned to look at me. I was unprepared for my moment, which demanded that I quickly and without delay lower the window, reach outside, turn the handle to open the door and usher these good people on their way.

It was a terrifying yet exhilarating event. I’m glad to say that day in London I executed the door as well as any foreign traveler could be expected to.

I drew from that memory to find my confidence on a rainy holiday evening in Northern California. My coworkers now turned to me to open the door to a successful White Elephant gift exchange.

I doubted myself in that moment just as I had doubted myself in Paddington Station. I knew I needed to stay grounded. I needed to visualize my way through the process. I needed to control the speed of the game.

And I needed to smile genially and do my best.

When the time was right and all were seated around the tree, my number was called. I raised my hand, saying “right here” and the crowd roared “oooooooooooh! Karen has number one! This should be good.”

I slugged back the last of my cup of wine and allowed the game’s host to refill it with champagne. The bubbles were too festive for such a solemn task, and I carefully set the newly full cup down on a coaster and stepped up to the tree.

Its genuine pine boughs welcomed me under its skirts. Salt and flour dough ornaments with a child’s paint job gave me a true horizon to focus on while I got my sea legs. I paced the half circle around the tree, side to side, like a caged panther scanning my holiday wrapped prey.

“Let’s see, what present looks good?” I said aloud, encouraging suggestions from the audience in the style of Price is Right.

Finally, when I felt I’d eyeballed every present under the tree, I made my selection. A long narrow box tightly wrapped in red and gold paper. It was crisp, clean, and inviting.

Quickly I skinned the paper from the gift and found an Amazon box. Cue a round of jokes about “Does anyone shop in the stores anymore?” and “Why would we? Amazon has everything!”

I pulled at the clear packing tape sealing the box and with no small amount of trepidation parted the flaps and peered inside. Would a pearl lay inside the cardboard oyster? Or only rotten sand?

My eyes landed on the treasure that lay within and my shoulders fell. Hope died when I saw clearly the item that began our game of chance.

I withdrew it from the box and said:

“I believe I have found the gift that will be coming home with me.”

With left hand firmly on hip, I took a solid stance and raised my right hand high above my head in the style of Lady Liberty, then announced to the overhyped crowd:

“It is a Donald Trump toilet brush.”

The crowd roared and the White Elephant smiled, for it was the perfect holiday gag gift.

“And with that,” I say,

“We are game on.”