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.
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.
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!”
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!
Every year on December 1, the classic Merle Haggard song “If We Make It Through December,” becomes my theme for the next 31 days.
Released to the world back in 1973, Merle’s words still resonate in 2019 as I play the song on repeat in my car driving back and forth to my job.
I play it on those days when it’s both dark in the morning and dark in the early evening. When I’ve been inside all day, completely missing the sun. When the rain comes down. When my feet ache and my head hurts and I wonder why, for another year, I’m anxious, depressed and overwrought during what is meant to be the happy time of year.
Every year I look forward to December and the holiday season, hoping to capture some small bit of that childhood joy and anticipation and magic. I watch movies like White Christmas and Holiday Inn that are filled with optimism and dancing and songs about snow.
But every year I feel crushed by an avalanche of end of year business activities. It’s the nature of the profession I have chosen that December is just always going to be busy, stressful, and intense.
Now I don’t mean to hate December
It’s meant to be the happy time of year
Thanksgiving seems to come easy with a few days off of work and a bit of turkey and gravy. The moment the last morsel of pumpkin pie is consumed, the ho-ho-ho expectations ramp up into high gear. Already I see my calendar filling up with events which are all wonderful taken individually, but are a lot to manage all together.
I always wonder how certain friends are able to hold down a full time job while also decorating their home top to bottom, entertaining with ease, baking up a bunch of seasonal treats, getting their shopping done, presents wrapped to perfection under the tree, and look good (and calm) doing it, too.
There has been more than one year where it was a trick for me just to drag the artificial tree out of the garage, much less set it up, get the lights working and hang some ornaments.
Every year I dream of the perfect December where I move through the holiday season with the ease of Martha Stewart after one of Snoop Dogg’s special brownies. Color, sparkle, magic, joy. Calm.
Every year I fall well short of that mark and blame myself for not being more organized, not being a better hostess, not being just, you know, a better person.
I think my holiday present to myself this year is to ease up on all the negative self-talk. To give myself the grace to do the work that is demanded by a full time job and to do the best I can with the holiday preparations.
Perhaps good enough really is good enough.
This all sounds well and good, the words are easy to type, but it’s harder to go out there and really live that decision. Hard to unwind the old recordings in my head that tell me if I don’t pull it off perfectly, I’m a loser.
But this year I’m going to try a little harder.
If we make it through December we’ll be fine
And I will. I’ll be fine. This annual hell and highwater (literally, the rain is pounding down as I type) will recede, the perfect storm of work and holidays will draw to a close and we’ll all find our way back to level ground.
Maybe this year I’ll enjoy the holidays a little bit more for what they are, not what I should have done.
You know, December ain’t so bad.
In the words of ol’ Merle “I don’t mean to hate December.”
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country
Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.
Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.
I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.
My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.
Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.
That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.
I really do get it.
But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.
For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.
There’s the unscoldable rascal!
Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.
This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.
See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.
Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.
Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.
Maybe I need to fart around a little more.
Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.
A little cocoon, snug in a fur coat, warding off the shiver. A magnolia blossom, in very early stages. What is gray and fuzzy now will soon be creamy pink, fragrant and bold, seemingly overnight. Soon. But not yet.
In that one corner of the yard, I’d forgotten the daffodils that grow wild. Their leaves have come on bold and green with the promise of emerging stalks soon carrying butter yellow blooms. Soon. But not yet.
I stop and smile. I remember that December 21st was the shortest day of the year, a milestone that now lies in the past. Even though this weekend promises torrential rain (which the California soil will gladly drink up), gray skies, and gloom, the fact of the matter is that Spring is on its way with rush of color and fresh leaves, activity, joy and warmth.
The sunshine of my favorite season will soon come to push back the gloom and cobwebs in my mind and replace it with tulips and lilacs and California poppies.
I will photograph and paint and pick and sniff all of the riotous wildflowers that California has to offer. I will smile when I see them growing in the unlikeliest of places.
Oh so very soon I will bask in the Spring warmth and smile at the clear skies and feel happy as the sun sets later and later each day.