You CAN Go Home Again

Yes.  You can go home again.  I just did it.

After spending many (too many?) decades of my life in the Chicago area, I departed for San Francisco in 2005.  Forgive the cliché, but I’ve never looked back.

I had lots of good reasons to leave Chicago, and lots of good reasons to head for the West Coast.  At one time or another, I’d spent some of the happiest years of my life in California, and I looked forward to many more happy years in the Bay Area.

Thankfully, those happy years have become a reality, and returning to Chicago was never on my agenda.

Yes, I’d left behind some great friends and some family, too, and I did miss seeing them.  But I didn’t miss anything else in Chicago.

So why did I turn up there for a weekend in May?

Easy answer:  My older daughter (I’ll call her Mary) decided to celebrate her May birthday by taking her kids to Chicago to show them where she’d grown up.  She wanted to escort them to all of the places that had been important to her:  where we lived; where she went to school (from nursery school and elementary school to junior high and high school); where she spent countless hours at our lakefront park, our beach, our library, and all the rest.

And she asked me to tag along.

Of course I said “yes”!

After telling the kids story after story about these places since they were toddlers, we finally had a chance to show them what they’re really like.

So here’s how we spent the two full days we were there:

First day:  We explored the sites near our former home in a leafy suburb on the North Shore.  We first drove to the block where we lived; then to the elementary school two blocks away; to the even closer nursery school (like the one where I set a murder  in my fictional mystery, Jealous Mistress); and the small suburban downtown.  We frequently emerged from our rental car to get a close-up look.  Some things had changed; many had not.

We proceeded up the North Shore to look at New Trier High School, Mary’s alma mater.  Then we spent the afternoon at the Chicago Botanic Garden (actually located in Glencoe), a fabulous garden filled with astounding plants, a charming waterfall, three islands featuring Japanese gardens, and a remarkable sculpture of Carl Linnaeus.  Mary and I fondly recalled how much she, her father, her sister, and I had relished our countless visits there.

The first day included mouth-watering meals at favorite spots like Walker Brothers pancake house (it’s called Palmer Brothers in Jealous Mistress), where we devoured its revered apple pancakes, and Lou Malnati’s, where we eagerly consumed some of the deep-dish pizza Chicago has made famous.

Second day:  We drove into the city and parked at Navy Pier, planning to hit some of the city’s highlights.  Navy Pier, renovated in the ‘90s as a playground for Chicagoans, was a great place to start.  We braved the hot sun and waited in line to board the Centennial Wheel, a recently redesigned Ferris wheel that now sports large enclosed gondola cars with huge windows providing magnificent city views.  We even bought copies of the corny tourist-rooking photo taken of us just before we boarded.  After lunch at a casual spot on the pier, we hopped on a shuttle bus to Michigan Avenue.  It dropped us off close to our destination:  the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River, where we’d take the renowned 90-minute architectural boat tour.

We indulged in treats at the Ghirardelli Square outpost in the Wrigley Building as we gazed at the historic Tribune Tower. Then we boarded the “First Lady” cruise to see the notable architecture along the Chicago River.  We were lucky to have a remarkably knowledgeable tour guide associated with the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

We marveled at the great architecture and the many stories about the tall buildings sited along the riverfront.  But there was one enormous blot on the riverscape:  a sleek 92-story building, so shiny it reflects the Chicago skyline on its stunning glass façade.  Unfortunately, the outward appearance of this otherwise beautiful building is sullied by the enormous name erected at the very top in enormous capital letters:  T—-P.

This building looms so large, and in such a prominent location along the river (on the former site of the Chicago Sun-Times plaza, where my high school choir once sang Christmas carols), that the name at the top infuriated me.  Weren’t the residents of Chicago, who voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016 (she won over 83% of the votes in Chicago, while her opponent squeaked out 12%), appalled that they must confront this name on a regular basis?  Although a few mild protests have been mounted, the name remains.  But take heart.  The Chicago Tribune reported on May 30 that the real-estate firm advertising space in the building has chosen to downplay the name: Its brand-new brochure doesn’t even mention it.  Others avoiding any connection with the name include the building’s architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who refer to it by its address, not its name, on the firm’s website.

Still, if I lived in Chicago, I’d go further than that.  I’d organize an effort to remove that name from everyone’s sight.  I really would.

When we left the boat, we speedily walked south on Michigan Avenue, headed for Millennium Park and our dinner reservation at Gage, a gastropub directly across from the park.  After a great meal celebrating Mary’s birthday, complete with cake and candles, we made a bee-line for the park and its now-famous “Bean.”  After a good look around the park, we made our way back to Navy Pier to collect our car and drive back to our hotel.

Before heading to O’Hare for our return home, we managed to squeeze in encounters with several wonderful old friends and a few family members, along with a sentimental return to a favorite Evanston restaurant, Olive Mountain.

Did I forget to mention that we hit extraordinarily beautiful weather?  Sunshine and temperatures in the 70s reminded us of Bay Area weather, not the kind of weather we’d managed to survive in Chicago year after year.  We made sure to let the kids know that this weather was not typical for Chicago!

In short, you can go home again.  Not to make it your home again.  But to spend a delightful weekend visiting old haunts and new attractions.  Sharing the experience with good friends and loved ones makes it even better.

 

 

 

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A Snowy April 1st

On the morning of April 1st, The New York Times reported that the city had woken up to an April snowstorm, “with about 5 inches of snow expected to produce slushy streets and a tough morning commute.”  The storm followed a string of storms that had hit the East Coast in March with heavy snows and damaging winds.

This New York story about snow on April 1st reminded me of another April 1st snowstorm:  The one in Chicago that changed my life.

In the spring of 1970, I was already questioning whether I wanted to spend another year in Chicago.  My work at the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau had its good points.  I was co-counsel with a lawyer at the Roger Baldwin Foundation of the ACLU (who happily became a lifelong friend) in a case challenging the restrictive Illinois abortion law, a law that made any abortion nearly impossible for all but the most affluent women in Illinois.  Our case was moving forward and had already secured a TRO allowing a teenage rape victim an emergency abortion.  A great legal victory!

But the rest of my life was at a standstill.  I was dating some of the men I’d met, but I hadn’t encountered anyone I wanted to pair up with.  In fact, I’d recently dumped a persistent suitor I found much too boring.  Relying on old friendships led to occasional lunches with both men and women I’d known in school, but the women were happily married and had limited time for a single woman friend.  I tried striking up friendships with other women as well as men, but so far that hadn’t expanded my social life very much.

I also haunted the Art Institute of Chicago, attending evening lectures and lunchtime events.  The art was exhilarating, but good times there were few.  When I turned up for an event one Sunday afternoon and left a few hours later, planning to take a bus home, I was surprised to see almost no one else on Michigan Avenue, leaving me feeling isolated and (in today’s parlance) somewhat creeped-out.  (In 1970 Chicago hadn’t yet embarked on the kind of Sunday shopping that would bring people downtown on a Sunday afternoon.)  Similarly, I bought tickets for a piano series at Symphony Hall, and a series of opera tickets, but again I many times felt alone among a group of strangers.

I still had lots of family in the area.  But being surrounded by family wasn’t exactly what I was looking for just then.

So although I was feeling somewhat wobbly about staying in Chicago, the question of where to settle instead loomed large.  When I’d left law school three years earlier and assumed a two-year clerkship with a federal judge in Chicago, I’d intended to head for Washington DC when my clerkship ended.  But in the interim Tricky Dick Nixon had lied his way into the White House, and I couldn’t abide the idea of moving there while he was in charge.

My thoughts then turned to California.  I’d briefly lived in Los Angeles during 8th grade (a story for another day) and very much wanted to stay, but my mother’s desire to return to Chicago after my father’s death won out.  Now I remembered how much I loved living in sunny California.  A February trip to Mexico had reinforced my thinking that I could happily live out my days in a warm-weather climate instead of slogging away in Chicago, winter after Chicago winter.

So I began making tentative efforts to seek out work in either LA or San Francisco, cities where I already had some good friends.

What happened on April 1st sealed the deal.  I’d made my way to work that morning despite the heavy snow that had fallen, and I took my usual ride home on a bus going down Michigan Avenue to where I lived just north of Oak Street.  The bus lumbered along, making its way through the snow-covered city, its major arteries by that time cleared by the city’s snow plows.  When the bus driver pulled up at the stop just across Lake Shore Drive from my apartment building, he opened the bus’s door, and I unsuspectingly descended the stairs to emerge outside.

Then, it happened.  I put a foot out the door, and it sank into a drift of snow as high as my knee.  I was wearing the miniskirts I favored back then, and my foot and leg were now stuck in the snow.  The bus abruptly closed its door, and I was left, stranded in a snowbank, forced to pull myself out of it and attempt to cross busy Lake Shore Drive.

On April 1st.

Then and there I resolved to leave Chicago.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it.  I made up my mind to leave the snow-ridden city and head for warmer climes.

And I did.  After a May trip to the sunny West Coast, where I interviewed for jobs in both Los Angeles and San Francisco (with kind friends hosting me in both cities), I wound up accepting a job offer at a poverty-law support center at UCLA law school and renting a furnished apartment just across Gayley Avenue from the campus.

The rest is (my personal) history.  I immediately loved my new home and my new job.  Welcomed by friends, both old and new (including my brand-new colleagues at UCLA), I was happy to have left Chicago and its dreary winters behind.  And six weeks after arriving in LA, I met the wonderful guy I married a few months later.

What happened next?  I’ll save that for still another day.  But here’s the take-away:  a snowstorm on April 1st changed my life.  Maybe it can change yours, too.

 

Who the Heck Knows?

I have a new catch phrase:  “Who the heck knows?”

I started using it last fall, and ever since then I’ve found that it applies to almost everything that might arise in the future.

I don’t claim originality, but here’s how I came up with it:

At a class reunion in October, I was asked to be part of a panel of law school classmates who had veered off the usual lawyer-track and now worked in a totally different area.

Specifically, I was asked to address a simple question:  Why did I leave my work as a lawyer/law professor and decide to focus primarily on writing?

First, I explained that I’d always loved writing, continued to write even while I worked as a lawyer, and left my law-related jobs when they no longer seemed meaningful.  I added that my move to San Francisco led to launching my blog and publishing my first two novels.

I concluded:

“If I stay healthy and my brain keeps functioning, I want to continue to write, with an increasing focus on memoirs….  I’ll keep putting a lot of this kind of stuff on my blog.  And maybe it will turn into a book or books someday.

“Who the heck knows?”

 

After I said all that, I realized that my final sentence was the perfect way to respond to almost any question about the future.

Here’s why it seems to me to apply to almost everything:

None of us knows what the next day will bring.  Still, we think about it.

In “Men Explain Things to Me,” the author Rebecca Solnit notes “that we don’t know what will happen next, and the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly.”  She finds uncertainty hopeful, while viewing despair as “a form of certainty,” certainty that that “the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it.”

Let’s cast certainty aside and agree, with Solnit, that uncertainty is hopeful.  Let’s go on to question what might happen in the uncertain future.

For example:

We wonder whether the midterm elections will change anything.

We wonder whether our kids will choose to follow our career choices or do something totally different.

We wonder whether our family history of a deadly disease will lead to having it ourselves.

We wonder whether to plan a trip to Peru.

We wonder whether we’re saving enough money for retirement.

We wonder how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in an upcoming case.

We wonder what our hair will look like ten years from now.

We wonder what the weather will be like next week.

And we wonder what the current occupant of the White House will say or do regarding just about anything.

 

You may have an answer in mind, one that’s based on reason or knowledge or probability.   But if you’re uncertain…in almost every case, the best response is:  Who the heck knows?

If you’re stating this response to others, I suggest using “heck” instead of a word that might offend anyone.  It also lends a less serious tone to all of the unknowns out there, some of which are undoubtedly scary.

If you prefer to use a more serious tone, you can of course phrase things differently.

But I think I’ll stick with “Who the heck knows?”

Warning:  If you spend any time with me, you’ll probably hear me say it, again and again.

But then, who the heck knows?

How Big Is Your Signature?

I’ll bet you never thought that the size of your signature meant a darned thing.  But guess what.  It does.

A recent study by a business school professor at Washington University in St. Louis found that an oversized signature is correlated with an oversized ego, and a great big ego can have practical business consequences.

In my view, the research findings apply to people running enterprises in a whole lot of areas other than corporations, including the White House.

The research by Professor Chad Ham, a professor at Wash U’s Olin Business School, concluded that a CFO (chief financial officer) with an oversized signature is more likely to make questionable choices because of his/her oversized ego.

Professor Ham’s research, described in a paper published in the December issue of the Journal of Accounting Research, showed that “narcissistic CFOs are less likely to recognize losses” promptly, and that this behavior is “consistent with a willingness to cover up past mistakes.”

Ham’s research team, which included academics from the University of North Carolina, the University of Maryland, and Rice University, looked at the size of a CFO’s signature and how it related to his/her level of narcissism. They then connected those findings to the financial reporting by each CFO’s corporation.

The research team compared the performance of the companies before and after the CFO was appointed.  The result was telling.  The firms became “more aggressive” when narcissistic CFOs were appointed.

Ham’s research went beyond that of CFOs.  It also looked at CEOs and linked management results with their level of narcissism.  Narcissistic CEOs—those with larger signatures—tended to over-invest in riskier projects and received higher compensation despite poor financial performance.

Why did the researchers focus so much on signature size?  According to Ham, it was one way to “capture narcissism.”  They couldn’t simply ask top corporate executives to submit to a personality test.  So they used signature size as a proxy for the level of narcissism.

In other research, the team paired student volunteers, and asked them to allocate $5 between themselves and their anonymous partners.   After that assignment, the students had to fill out a personality test and sign their names.  The result?  Students with larger signatures tended to be more narcissistic, and the more narcissistic participants were more likely to keep a larger share of the $5 for themselves and to misreport how they allocated the other half of that amount.

Ham doesn’t advocate that corporate boards avoid hiring as CEOs and CFOs everyone with a large signature.  It’s not that simple.  A single narcissistic CFO might benefit the company in ways not measured in this study.  But Ham concluded that corporate leaders should be aware of their colleagues’ narcissistic tendencies in order to keep “appropriate checks and balances in place.”

Wow.  I think this research can be extrapolated to the heads of entities other than corporations.  For example, the current occupant of the White House likes to show off his oversized signature on whatever documents he signs.  His large signature is just one indication of his level of narcissism, which is related to his eagerness to embark in risky projects, to misreport how he allocates funds, and to cover up his past mistakes.

As for keeping appropriate “checks and balances in place,” we might as well forget it.  Where are the other leaders of our government—in particular, those currently belonging to the majority party in Congress–who could exhibit some strength of character and insist that “checks and balances,” a long-held principle of our democracy, are observed?

They’re nowhere to be found.

I’m wondering just how big their signatures are.

A new book you may want to know about

There’s one thing we can all agree on:  Trying to stay healthy.

That’s why you may want to know about a new book, Killer diseases, modern-day epidemics:  Keys to stopping heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity in their tracks, by Swarna Moldanado, PhD, MPH, and Alex Moldanado, MD.

In this extraordinary book, the authors have pulled together an invaluable compendium of both evidence and advice on how to stop the “killer diseases” they call “modern-day epidemics.”

First, using their accumulated wisdom and experience in public health, nursing science, and family medical practice, Swarna and Alex Moldanado offer the reader a wide array of scientific evidence.  Next, they present their well-thought-out conclusions on how this evidence supports their theories of how to combat the killer diseases that plague us today.

Their most compelling conclusion:  Lifestyle choices have an overwhelming impact on our health.  So although some individuals may suffer from diseases that are unavoidable, evidence points to the tremendous importance of lifestyle choices.

Specifically, the authors note that evidence “points to the fact that some of the most lethal cancers are attributable to lifestyle choices.”  Choosing to smoke tobacco or consume alcohol in excess are examples of the sort of risky lifestyle choices that can lead to this killer disease.

Similarly, cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the heart and blood vessels–share many common risk factors.  Clear evidence demonstrates that eating an unhealthy diet, a diet that includes too many saturated fats—fatty meats, baked goods, and certain dairy products—is a critical factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. The increasing size of food portions in our diet is another risk factor many people may not be aware of.

On the other hand, most of us are aware of the dangers of physical inactivity.  But knowledge of these dangers is not enough.  Many of us must change our lifestyle choices.  Those of us in sedentary careers, for example, must become much more physically active than our lifestyles lend themselves to.

Yes, the basics of this information appear frequently in the media.  But the Moldanados reveal a great deal of scientific evidence you might not know about.

Even more importantly, in Chapter 8, “Making and Keeping the Right Lifestyle Choices,” the authors step up to the plate in a big way.  Here they clearly and forcefully state their specific recommendations for succeeding in the fight against killer diseases.

Following these recommendations could lead all of us to a healthier and brighter outcome.

Kudos to the authors for collecting an enormous volume of evidence, clearly presenting it to us, and concluding with their invaluable recommendations.

No more excuses!  Let’s resolve to follow their advice and move in the right direction to help ensure our good health.

 

 

 

 

Pockets!

Women’s clothes should all have pockets. 

(A bit later in this post, I’ll explain why.)

I admit it.  I’m a pocket-freak.

When I shop for new pants, I don’t bother buying new pants, no matter how appealing, if they don’t have pockets.  Why?

Because when I formerly bought pants that didn’t have pockets, I discovered over time that I never wore them. They languished forever in a shameful pile of unworn clothes.

It became clear that I liked the benefits of wearing pants with pockets.  Why then would I buy new pants without pockets when those I already had were languishing unworn?

Result:  I simply don’t buy no-pocket pants anymore

Most jeans have pockets, often multiple pockets, and I like wearing them for that reason, among others.  (Please see “They’re My Blue Jeans, and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To,” published in this blog in May 2017.)

Most jackets, but not all, have pockets.  Why not?  They all need pockets.  How useful is a jacket if it doesn’t have even one pocket to stash your stuff?

Dresses and skirts should also have pockets.  Maybe an occasional event, like a fancy gala, seems to require a form-fitting dress that doesn’t have pockets.  But how many women actually go to galas like that?  Looking back over my lifetime of clothes-wearing, I can think of very few occasions when I had to wear a no-pocket dress.  As for skirts, I lump them in the same category as pants.  Unless you feel compelled for some bizarre reason to wear a skin-tight pencil skirt, what good is a skirt without pockets?

Cardigan sweaters, like jackets, should also have pockets.  So should robes.  Pajamas. Even nightgowns.  I wear nightgowns, and I relish being able to stick something like a facial tissue into the pocket of my nightgown!   You never know when you’re going to sneeze, right?

Did you ever watch a TV program called “Project Runway?”  It features largely unknown fashion designers competing for approval from judges, primarily high-profile insiders in the fashion industry.  Here’s what I’ve noticed when I’ve watched an occasional episode:  Whenever a competing designer puts pockets in her or his designs, the judges enthusiastically applaud that design.  They clearly recognize the value of pockets and the desire by women to wear clothes that include them.

(By the way, fake pockets are an abomination.  Why do designers think it’s a good idea to put a fake pocket on their designs?  Sewing what looks like a pocket but isn’t a real pocket adds insult to injury.  Either put a real pocket there, or forget the whole thing.  Fake pockets?  Boo!)

Despite the longing for pockets by women like me, it can be challenging to find women’s clothes with pockets.  Why?

Several women writers have speculated about this challenge, generally railing against sexist attitudes that have led to no-pocket clothing for women.

Those who’ve traced the evolution of pockets throughout history discovered that neither men nor women wore clothing with pockets until the 17th century.  Pockets in menswear began appearing in the late 1600s.  But women?  To carry anything, they were forced to wrap a sack with a string worn around their waists and tuck the sack under their petticoats.

These sacks eventually evolved into small purses called reticules that women would carry in their hands.  But reticules were so small that they limited what women could carry.  As the twentieth century loomed, women rebelled.  According to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, dress patterns started to include instructions for sewing pockets into skirts.  And when women began wearing pants, they would finally have pockets.

But things soon switched back to no-pocket pants.  The fashion industry wasn’t a big fan of pockets, insisting on featuring “slimming” designs for women, while men’s clothes still had scads of pockets.  The result has been the rise of bigger and bigger handbags (interestingly, handbags are often called “pocketbooks” on the East Coast).

Enormous handbags create a tremendous burden for women.  Their size and weight can literally weigh a woman down, impeding her ability to move through her busy life the way men can.  (I’ve eschewed bulky handbags, often wearing a backpack instead.  Unfortunately, backpacks are not always appropriate in a particular setting.)

Today, many women are demanding pockets.  Some have advocated pockets with the specific goal of enabling women to carry their iPhones or other cell phones that way.  I’m a pocket-freak, but according to recent scientific research, cell phones emit dangerous radiation, and this kind of radiation exposure is a major risk to your health.  Some experts in the field have therefore advised against keeping a cell phone adjacent to your body.  In December 2017, the California Department of Public Health specifically warned against keeping a cell phone in your pocket.  So, in my view, advocating pockets for that reason is not a good idea.

We need pockets in our clothes for a much more important and fundamental reasonFreedom.

Pockets give women the kind of freedom men have:  The freedom to carry possessions close to their bodies, allowing them to reach for essentials like keys without fumbling through a clumsy handbag.

I propose a boycott on no-pocket clothes.  If enough women boycott no-pocket pants, for example, designers and manufacturers will have to pay attention.  Their new clothing lines will undoubtedly include more pockets.

I hereby pledge not to purchase any clothes without pockets.

Will you join me?

 

 

Happy Holidays! Well, maybe…

 

As the greeting “Happy Holidays” hits your ears over and over during the holiday season, doesn’t it raise a question or two?

At a time when greed and acquisitiveness appear to be boundless, at least among certain segments of the American population, the most relevant questions seem to be:

  • Does money buy happiness?
  • If not, what does?

These questions have been the subject of countless studies.  Let’s review a few of the answers they’ve come up with.

To begin, exactly what is it that makes us “happy”?

A couple of articles published in the past two years in The Wall Street Journal—a publication certainly focused on the acquisition of money—summarized some results.

Wealth alone doesn’t guarantee a good life.  According to the Journal, what matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it.  For instance, giving money away makes people much happier than spending it on themselves.  But when they do spend it on themselves, they’re a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel rather than material goods.

The Journal looked at a study by Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which found that people may at first think material purchases offer better value for their money because they’re tangible and they last longer, while experiences are fleeting.  But Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.  We even get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do from anticipating the acquisition of material things.

Another psychology professor, Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, reached similar conclusions.  He found that people make a rational calculation:  “I can either go there, or I can have this.  Going there may be great, but it’ll be over fast.  But if I buy something, I’ll always have it.”  According to Gilovich, that’s factually true, but not psychologically true, because we “adapt to our material goods.”

We “adapt” to our material goods?  How?  Psychologists like Gilovich talk about “hedonic adaptation.”  Buying a new coat or a new car may provide a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.  Experiences, on the other hand, meet more of our “underlying psychological needs.”

Why?  Because they’re often shared with others, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.  You also don’t feel that you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses quite so much.  While it may bother you when you compare your material things to others’ things, comparing your vacation to someone else’s won’t bug you as much because “you still have your own experiences and your own memories.”

Another article in the Journal, published in 2015, focused on the findings of economists rather than psychologists.  A group of economists like John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, concluded that happiness—overall well-being–should not be measured by how much money we have by using metrics like per-capita income and gross domestic product (GDP).  “GDP is not even a very good measure of economic well-being,” he said.

Instead, the World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored, ranked countries based on how people viewed the quality of their lives. It noted that six factors account for 75 percent of the differences between countries.  The six factors:  GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.  Although GDP and life expectancy relate directly to income, the other four factors reflect a sense of security, trust, and autonomy.  So although the U.S. ranked first in overall GDP, it ranked only 15th in happiness because it was weaker in the other five variables.

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia and co-author of the World Happiness Report, incomes in the U.S. have risen, but the country’s sense of “social cohesion” has declined.  The biggest factor contributing to this result is “distrust.”  Although the U.S. is very rich, we’re not getting the benefits of all this affluence.

If you ask people whether they can trust other people, Sachs said, “the American answer has been in significant decline.”   Forward to 2017.  Today, when many of our political leaders shamelessly lie to us, our trust in others has no doubt eroded even further.

Even life expectancy is going downhill in the U.S.  According to the AP, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing for decades, but 2016 marked the first time in more than a half-century that it fell in two consecutive years.

Let’s return to our original question:  whether money can buy happiness.  The most recent research I’ve come across is a study done at Harvard Business School, noted in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.  Led by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans, it found that, in developed countries, people who trade money for time—by choosing to live closer to work, or to hire a housecleaner, for example–are happier. This was true across the socioeconomic spectrum.

According to Whillans, extensive research elsewhere has confirmed the positive emotional effects of taking vacations and going to the movies.  But the Harvard researchers wanted to explore a new ideawhether buying ourselves out of negative experiences was another pathway to happiness.

Guess what:  it was.  One thing researchers focused on was “time stress” and how it affects happiness.  They knew that higher-earners feel that every hour of their time is financially valuable.  Like most things viewed as valuable, time is also perceived as scarce, and that scarcity translates into time stress, which can easily contribute to unhappiness.

The Harvard team surveyed U.S., Canadian, Danish, and Dutch residents, ranging from those who earned $30,000 a year to middle-class earners and millionaires. Canadian participants were given a sum of money—half to spend on a service that would save one to two hours, and half to spend on a material purchase like clothing or jewelry.  Participants who made a time-saving purchase (like buying take-out food) were more likely to report positive feelings, and less likely to report feelings of time stress, than they did after their shopping sprees.

Whillans noted that in both Canada and the U.S., where busyness is “often flaunted as a status symbol,” opting for outsourcing jobs like cooking and cleaning can be culturally challenging.  Why?  Because people like to pretend they can do it all.  Women in particular find themselves stuck in this situation.  They have more educational opportunities and are likely to be making more money and holding more high-powered jobs, but their happiness is not increasing commensurately.

The Harvard team wants to explore this in the future.  According to Whillans, the initial evidence shows that among couples who buy time, “both men and women feel less pulled between the demands of work and home life,” and that has a positive effect on their relationship.  She hopes that her research will ameliorate some of the guilt both women and men may feel about paying a housekeeper or hiring someone to mow the law—or ordering Chinese take-out on Thursday nights.

Gee, Ashley, I’ve never felt guilty about doing any of that.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a pretty happy person.

How about you?

Whatever your answer may be, I’ll join the throng and wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of the Sexes: One more take on it

When Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs on a tennis court at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973, I was miles away in San Diego.  I’d just finished teaching a class of law school students about Poverty Law, and I was blissfully pregnant with my first child.

I was watching the clock, assessing the time it would take me to drive from the law school on the beautiful campus of the University of San Diego to our recently-rented apartment in seaside La Jolla.  Waiting at home for me was my handsome and super-smart husband Herb, finished for the day with teaching math students at UCSD, the University of California at San Diego.

We were both Professors Alexander that year, and I took delight in answering our phone and hearing a student ask to speak to “Professor Alexander.”  My somewhat amused response:  “Which one?”

Herb had snacks and drinks ready for the two of us to munch on and imbibe during the televised tennis match.  The drinks included nothing alcoholic for me.  Not because the medical profession had pronounced that alcohol was detrimental for growing fetuses.  As I recall, that came later.  I avoided alcoholic drinks simply because I had no desire to drink them during my pregnancy.

Was it instinct or just dumb luck?  When we later that year saw the film “Cinderella Liberty,” in which an often-drunk woman’s pregnancy ends in tragedy, my choice to avoid alcohol was clearly vindicated.

I drove home from USD with as much speed as I could safely muster, arriving in time to watch the much-hyped tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.”  In the 2017 film that tells the story of the match, Emma Stone captures the Billie Jean King role perfectly.  She portrays with aplomb not only King’s triumph over Riggs in that tennis match but also her initial uncertainty over her decision to compete against him and her continuing struggle to ensure that women’s tennis be given equal status with men’s.

As one of the estimated 50 million viewers who watched King on ABC television that night, I can’t imagine any other Hollywood star assuming the role with greater success.  Emma Stone embodies Billie Jean King to perfection, and I hope her performance garners the attention of countless moviegoers, including many too young to remember  the match that took place in 1973.

Steve Carell carries off his role as Bobby Riggs in the film equally well, depicting the outrageous antics of the 55-year-old Riggs, who initiated the concept of the “Battle of the Sexes.”  But the focus here has to be on Billie Jean, the Wonder-Woman-like heroine of her day.  By accepting Riggs’s challenge, and then defeating him, she became the mid-twentieth-century symbol of women’s strength and perseverance, advancing the cause of women in sports (and in American culture at large) as much as she advanced her own.  Watching the battle on TV with my adored husband, my hoped-for child growing inside me, I was ecstatic when Billie Jean defeated Riggs before 90 million viewers worldwide.

As my pregnancy advanced, I was frequently asked by complete strangers, “Do you want a boy or a girl?”  I took pleasure in answering “a girl” just to see the reaction on the faces of the nosey parkers who clearly expected another response.

I was in fact hoping I would give birth to a healthy child of either sex, but I knew that I would treasure having a daughter.  When my beautiful daughter was born about seven months after the Battle of the Sexes, and when her equally beautiful sister arrived three years later, Herb and I were both on top of the world.

Maybe watching Billie Jean King in September of 1973 sealed our fate.  We really wanted her to win that battle.

Did the endorphins circulating inside me as we watched Billie Jean triumph produce a feeling of euphoria?  Euphoria that later led us to produce two Wonder-Woman-like heroines of our own?

Maybe.

Tennis, anyone?

 

Reunion-worthy clothes: A follow-up

In my last post, I described my new strategy for purchasing clothes:  I ask myself whether they’re reunion-worthy.

I adopted this strategy for the first time before a class reunion a few years ago. Pondering what to wear to the reunion, I decided to no longer fill my closets with clothes I wouldn’t wear to an event like a reunion, where I wanted to look my absolute best.

Recently, when another class reunion loomed, the issue was once again front and center.

Now that (more recent) reunion has come and gone, and my strategy proved to be a huge success.  When I packed for my flight to Reunion City, USA, I selected only reunion-worthy clothes to wear during the reunion weekend.  And I think I accomplished my goal.

In photos taken during that weekend, I look simply smashing.

Now let’s focus on another question:  What about those duds you and I still own that are NOT reunion-worthy?

I have two suggestions.  My hope is that you’ll adopt your own version of one or both of them.

  1. Donate non-reunion-worthy clothes to charity.

I have a longstanding policy of donating to charity those clothes I’m no longer wearing.  I  donate still-attractive and wearable items of clothes (as well as shoes, costume jewelry, household items, books, and a whole host of miscellaneous stuff).

I prefer two nearby charities.  One favorite is Goodwill.  This is a venerable charity organization that channels clothing and other items by selling them in their stores to those who want to acquire these items at rock-bottom prices.  Goodwill also plays another role:  It will happily take possession of almost any electronic device you no longer find useful.  It apparently hires people who know how to extract usable parts from these devices, working or not, and repurpose them for the greater good of humankind.  Bravo!

My other favorite charity?  The Discovery Shops that dot the landscape in the Bay Area.  Discovery Shops are attractive stores filled with beautiful things donated by people who decide to pass them along to others and, at the same time, support an important goal.   Because Discovery Shops are affiliated with the American Cancer Society, the money raised in their shops supports research aimed at defeating the scourge of cancer.  I donate to Discovery Shops the most desirable items I no longer wish to keep but sincerely believe would enhance someone else’s wardrobe or home.  Passing them along this way makes me feel great.

  1. Create a “jettison pile.”

Some years ago I created what I call my “jettison pile.”

My jettison pile serves a valuable purpose, a purpose that benefits not only me but others as well.  The end result resembles donating to charity, but in practice it operates somewhat differently.

First, I periodically review my wardrobe and set aside clothing that has become less and less useful to me.  These are usually clothes that are somewhat ill-fitting or no longer suit my lifestyle but are okay to wear one more time when I’m traveling.  I’ll add clothes like these to the jettison pile, and next time I prepare for a trip, I’ll throw some of them into my suitcase.

Then, when I arrive at a destination, I jettison them.

I often jettison them as I depart from a hotel room.  I’ll leave them in a neat stack for the cleaning staff with a note that clearly states something like the following:  “These items are for you if you want them.  I no longer need them.”

In a foreign country where I know the basics of the language, I’ll try to write my note in that language.  If I don’t know the language, I’ll ask English-speaking staff at the front desk to help me write my message.

Jettisoning clothes (and sometimes other small items, like an extra flashlight) serves a double purpose.  I’m leaving things for cleaning-staff people who may be able to use them, or who know someone else who can use them.  (Of course, they have the option of dumping my stuff in the trash.)

I benefit as well.   When I leave these things behind, I make room in my suitcase for new things I acquire during my trip, like souvenir t-shirts or books about local sites or……well, you get the idea.

On a recent river cruise, a young woman from a not-very-prosperous country was assigned to clean my cabin.  I’d prepared for the cruise by bringing very nice but no-longer-wanted-by-me tops, pants, skirts, nightgowns, and miscellaneous stuff.  When the cruise ended, I left my cleaning woman two shopping bags full of things she could either use herself or pass along to her family and friends.  And I now had newly freed-up space in my cases for things I’d acquired during the trip.

Passing things along this way seems to be another good choice.

Please decide what works best for you.  Just remember to make choices that bring you joy!

 

But Is It Reunion-Worthy? (updated for 2017)

 

I’m fed up with closets stuffed with unwearable clothes.  Before I make another purchase, I’m asking myself:  “Is it reunion-worthy?”

Let me explain.

I’ve never been a big spender.  Au contraire.  I’ve always relished hunting for earth-shattering bargains.

But things have changed.  When I go shopping, I have a compelling new reason to think carefully before I buy.

My class reunion.

With a class reunion looming, the prospect of seeing my classmates has led me to rethink how I shop for clothes.

That’s led me to scrutinize my entire wardrobe.  After browsing through a closetful of things I wouldn’t dream of wearing to my reunion, I’m launching a whole new wardrobe strategy.

The new standard for my purchases? Are they reunion-worthy?

I’m a lifelong bargain-hunter, and a favorite pursuit was scouring the racks of reduced apparel at stores ranging from Macy’s and Nordstrom to small local boutiques.  The result?  My closets are filled with bargains that I never wear.

Not that they don’t fit me.  Okay, I’ll admit that a few of them don’t.  I bought some of them in those giddy moments when I actually thought I was going to wear a size 4 again.  (I can dream, can’t I?)

But even those that fit me perfectly tend to inhabit my closet, unworn.  They looked terrific in the dressing room.  Was it the soft lighting?  Was it the “skinny mirrors”?  (Remember how Elaine on the ‘90s sitcom “Seinfeld” accused Barney’s of having skinny mirrors?)

I happily toted my bargains home.  Then came the moment of truth.  I emptied my shopping bags and tried everything on again.

Sadly, by the time I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and concluded that some items didn’t flatter me, the time for returning them had expired, and I was permanently and unalterably stuck with them.

Now with my class reunion coming up, and with closets full of things I wouldn’t dream of wearing when I get there, I’ve launched my new wardrobe strategy.

Here how it works:  I’ll view each potential purchase as something I’d actually wear to my class reunion.

We all know how we want to look at a class reunion.  Whether it’s high school, college, or any other reunion, we want to look fabulous.  Every item has to show us off to our best advantage.

Remember those classmates who were slim and sleek when you were kind of puffy?  Mercifully, thanks to your fitness regime and a healthier diet, you’ve pared down your poundage, and you want everyone to know it.  Is there any question you’ll view every possible purchase with that in mind?  Just ask yourself, “Does this make me look as slim as possible?”  If not, don’t buy it.  It’s simply not reunion-worthy.

Then there’s the question of style.  Take a good look at those clothes that haven’t been stylish for a while.  Do you really want to wear them at the reunion?  Doubtful.  They’re not reunion-worthy.

This awakening has taught me a lesson, and you might benefit from it as well.  Just start taking this approach to everything you buy.  So what if an outfit’s been reduced from $200 to a rock-bottom 39 bucks.  Don’t buy it unless it’s reunion-worthy.  That sweater or jacket you fell in love with at the store?  Even though it’s terribly chic, it’s styled for someone with a totally different shape.  Forget it.  It’s not reunion-worthy.

Shopping online might present a challenge.  You have to take a chance that something will look great…and willing to send it back if it doesn’t.

It’s probably easier to hunt for clothes in your favorite brick-and-mortar stores.  But when you do, try to remember our newly-minted wardrobe strategy.  You’ll finally have closets no longer stuffed with unwearable clothes.  They’ll be filled instead with only those clothes that make you look terrific.

I hope to have a great time at my reunion.  Just in case you’re wondering, I plan to look smashing–garbed in my reunion-worthy duds!

 

[Earlier versions of this post appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on this blog.]