I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.

Parkinson’s Law

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve learned something about myself. Basically, that without a solid schedule, self-imposed or otherwise, everything in my life grinds to a halt.

Case in point: my blog postings, and lack thereof. I can write everyday, if I want to. I proved that in Taiwan, when I blogged daily for an 11-and-a-half-month stretch, Internet access or no, with minimal damage to my sleep schedule or mental stability. Then I came back from Taiwan, engines raring to go, and started this blog. And Idid well at it at first–I posted often, and I was Freshly Pressed after just a month on the scene. I was elated.

But, over time, my life got more cluttered, and my postings got more erratic, to the point where they stopped for months together. I’ve just come out of one of those stretches, in fact. Looking at my archives links now makes me depressed.

My posts have lost all meaning...

My life has lost all meaning…

So what happened? I lost the structure in my life.

In Taiwan, I blogged. Daily. It was what I did. It was a murderous self-inflicted posting schedule, an imperative I had dared myself to do because it sounded hard, and I knew I would never be willing to let myself down by failing it. And, rain or shine, eventful day or dull one, I would sit at my computer and I would write–something. Anything. Sometimes good, sometimes laughably bad. This, they tell you–and, indeed, I told myself–is what writers do. They write, full stop.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 8.39.14 PM.png

I didn’t realize, though, that writers write because of a decision they make to write. Writing will never just happen. Writing must, always, be a choice, a challenge, a conviction that writing for the sake of writing is worth it. It needs dedicated time, a dedicated mind, and a dedicated purpose: to improve.

After last summer, I lost that. I forgot. My life came at me willy-nilly, and I left it at that. I started freelancing, with my clients rarely sending notice beforehand, on the expectation that, whenever their manuscript came across my desk, I would drop whatever else I was doing and finish their work, pronto. And I did. I skated from deadline to deadline, indulging myself in the luxuries of unspecified work schedules by wasting hours of my time and spending late nights finishing things I should have finished days ago.

I never missed a deadline. My work was good. But, by ignoring the necessity of structure in my life, I lost hours upon hours of my life, hours that could have been spent with friends or reading or in advancing my career or writing blog posts, all poured down the drain of unstructured time; all left at the altar of procrastination.

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors...

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors.

Yet even then, I did at least have my class schedule. I knew I had to be somewhere from 10:30 til 3:45 daily, and my freelancing work had to fit around that.

But my classes ended in mid-May, and as the last vestiges of my structured life fell away, I noticed something: I was getting less done. It made no sense. For the first time since I began freelancing, I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. Sure, some of them had shifted up a bit in the week, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. I could actually feel my work getting less efficient. Simultaneously, I felt myself growing bored.

And then it struck me: I’d lost my structure. I’d suddenly been handed my days, wide open, on a platter, and I had no idea what to do with them, so I did nothing. I was experiencing Parkinson’s Law, and the answer to my dilemma suddenly became clear: make myself a schedule. Put in place artificial time constraints. Maybe install Anti-Social.

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking...

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking…

So I began blocking out my days, with specific and achievable work goals for different portions of the day, and the same sorts of work at the same times of day. Now, for instance, I write my freelance articles after lunch. I wake up around the same time everyday, and go to sleep approximately eight hours before that. All my work is set to be finished on an orderly timetable of my own device, and well before my official deadlines.

What productivity looks like.

What productivity looks like.

And, already, it’s working. This post, in fact, is part of the fruit of it.

Blogging is important to me. Blogging well, and constantly improving my writing, is even more so. And I am now making the decision, once again, to blog regularly. Not daily this time, but at least twice weekly: I will now publish at least one post on Tuesday, and one on Saturday.

(Yes, I know this is being published on a Sunday. I couldn’t wait til Tuesday. Besides, I said at least twice weekly!)

I refuse to waste my days, or to get done in four hours what should be done in one. In high school and college, I overloaded my days with classes, work, and extracurriculars, and became an expert in getting a lot done with no time. (This is not an uncommon effect; it is part of why studies show that students who work get better grades than those who don’t.) I spent years learning to multitask and learning how to get a lot done with no time; now, I am learning to get a lot done regardless of how much time I actually have.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.

My life is now scheduled again, and my stress and boredom levels have dropped as my productivity has skyrocketed. Case in point: this is my second post in three days. With my structure back, my life has returned to regular operating capacity. Life is as it should be.

And even if it weren’t, I’ll be back to a regular daily routine next week, as I start a new job. Parkinson’s Law, your days are numbered.

Brothers

I have dozens of brothers. No, not biological brothers–I’m not a part of one of those 20-person families that get reality shows based around them; of biological brothers, I have just two. But men who I care about deeply and who I know care about me? Of those, I have dozens. If only I hadn’t wasted nearly 20 years getting back here…

This is decidedly NOT my family.

I started out alright. Growing up, I was a tomboy. I had two brothers, no sisters, and we lived in the country and were homeschooled when we were young–what else was a girl to do? (For the record: NO, I did not get to do school in my pajamas, and NO, we were not one of those families who dressed in matching denim and never left the house. See caption, above.) But as a result of hanging out with my brothers a lot, for the first many years of my life, most of my close friends were boys. It just wasn’t a big deal; we had a lot of fun together, and that’s all there was to it.

Until I reached 2nd grade, that is. In 2nd grade, my already-logical mind came to an apparently logical conclusion: I was a girl; therefore, my friends should be girls, too. So one Sunday after Sunday school, I marched up to my best friend at the time, Micah, and told him I was going to start hanging out with girls instead of him.

Sooooo, never speak to me again. Mmkay?

Potential psychological scarring to Micah aside, I was pretty happy with my decision for the next couple of years. I became more “girly”–though not much, as my hatred of dresses, pink, and other stereotypical “girl” things proved, together with the “tomboy tests” I put my friends through–and pretty much avoided the boys who had been my best friends before. I learned to live in a world where girls were friends, and boys fell into one of three categories: relatives, cute boys, and my brothers’ friends. (For reasons related to the growing up and ew-gross-my-brothers’-friends-have-cooties process, those two last categories were–usually, though not always–kept pretty separate.)

This lasted for far too long. I kept guys in boxes well into high school; looking back, I can think of one good male friend from high school (another Micah, oddly enough), and just a few male “friends” of any sort. Mostly, the guys I was friends with were my friends’ boyfriends.

And then we would stand around posing for color-coordinated group photos.

College was hardly better. Like many small liberal arts schools, my university suffered from an ever-increasing gender inequality, by which I mean that when I entered school, the women-to-men ratio was roughly 60-40; when I left, it was rounding 70-30. Then there was the fact that I was an English major, further skewing the numbers to the point that, as my floormates and I joked in an on-campus skit competition, I would see more male landscapers on campus than male students.

Add to that the fact that it was a small private Christian school in which a good portion of the women attending (not me) were determined to get a “ring by Spring,” and what you got was not exactly a healthy environment for making male-to-female friendships. Any contact with the opposite gender had the question of a romantic relationship implicitly present; I rarely saw girls and guys hanging out together for any other reason, though I was jealous of those who did. And, as in high school, most of my own male friends were my friends’ boyfriends.

It’s only awkward if you make it awkward!…or if they break up during the photo shoot and you’re left just standing there…

As an upperclassman the dynamic shifted slightly, as I drifted into a few extracurricular activities where there were–gasp!–men involved, but in general, my paradigm for male friendships was very much as it was when I was 7: I was a girl (or “woman,” as I would now be quick to point out), so obviously I hung out almost exclusively with other girls.

As it happened, this was one of the only areas in my life that was not shifted by my time in Taiwan. Our group of ETAs in Fulbright consisted of 12 people, of whom just two were men–and I rarely saw them. Apart from them, my friends and I had a guy friend in Taipei we would visit occasionally, but that was it. My co-workers and roommates were all women, and so were the vast majority of people I got close to there. No brothers to be found.

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority...

A small portion of our group. Note the overwhelming female majority…

Then came this year.

I spent the year (after much deliberation) at a ministry school in California, and my one year there taught me more about having brothers than I had learned in my previous 23 years of experience with *actual* brothers.

It’s odd, really: ministry schools are notorious for the same spirit that permeated my university; even the school I was at is jokingly called a “school of marriage” instead of “school of ministry” by some of its attendees.

But that was not my experience. No; instead, for my nine months at school I was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of some of the most quality men I had ever been in contact with–truly incredible guys, who were confident in who they were, knew how to take responsibility, knew how to respect and love others well, were proactively improving themselves, and were incredibly attractive, to boot–and I wasn’t dating them. Any of them. Ever.

Instead, I was forming some of the deepest and best relationships of my life. I was learning to be a sister, and learning what it was like to have men who valued me deeply for who I was, no strings attached. And I learned how incredible it is to have wonderful relationships with men–to have brothers. If any of them were interested in me, I don’t know, and to a larger extent than ever before in my life, it didn’t matter*: I just loved, and love, these men, regardless, and I knew they loved me.

And they just kept adding to the ranks. There were the guys from my “brother” house, an obvious addition. Then the guys from the newspaper crew we formed. And the guys from our core group of 70. And friends of friends. And friends of roommates. For the first time in my post-7-year-old life, the men in my close group of friends may actually outnumber the women.

462427_10200509413170734_940975462_o

A few of the amazing men (and women) in my life…

574738_10151524766872518_1741942262_n

A few more of my awesome friends…

603837_4814982539740_38175589_n

…and a few more!

And that’s just a small sampling of the many, many incredible men in my life. Men with whom I can hang out, and with whom I can share life, and whom I love and know love me, no matter what. And having those friendships, those brothers, is one of the best things I’ve ever discovered.

So, to my brothers: thank you! Thank you for being you; for being my friend; for teaching me so much about what real men look like, and what it looks like to have healthy relationships with them.

And, to my seven-year-old self: What were you thinking?!?!

*A post for another time: why the “friend zone” doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist.

How old are you?

“Can I see your ID, please?”

I look back at my escort, picking up his beer without a question, then back to the woman before me, dressed in colonial garb and, apparently, expecting me to whip my ID out of some cleverly-concealed pocket in my bridesmaid’s bouquet.

“Um, I don’t have it with me right now,” I say, gesturing to the stairs at the end of the aisle that I finished walking up not more than 30 seconds ago.

She doesn’t miss a beat. “OK, just come back when you do.”

“OK…”

I turn to walk away, but she stops me: “Take the drink; just come back when you have your ID.”

Back in the staging area of my friend’s wedding, I fume as the rest of the bridal party has a nice little laugh at my expense. I’m still young, I know, but yet the two bridesmaids who actually are underage made it through without a second thought.

“Hey, it’s a good thing,” one of the groomsmen tells me; “It’ll be a compliment when you’re older!”

Yes, but I’m not older yet–and, from the looks of things, I might never look to be.

I’ll like it when I’m older, I’ll like it when I’m older. This little maxim has never been quite satisfying–some promised future appreciation can’t help a lifetime of being offered the kids’ menu when you’re 14, having a drivers license picture in which, everyone agrees, you look 12, though you were 16 when it was taken, and being mistaken, even after graduating college, as a high schooler. As a kid, you measure age in halves and quarters and months; as an adult, you want to be past being questioned on such subtleties.

And it happens all the time.

I pull out my drivers license and a friend catches sight of it–“Oh my gosh, how old were you? 7?” 16. I describe what I do, and someone asks if I went to school for that; I say yes, and they say “Wait, how old are you?” 23. No, not 19. Yes, I know I look younger. Sigh.

I’m 23. And 23 is not old, I know. Not even remotely so. And most places claim they card anyone who looks younger than 35; so, in theory, I should be more worried if I don’t get carded.

But 23 is still a heckuva lot older than 19. As a 19-year-old, I was living away from home for the first time, still figuring out what this whole ‘college’ thing was and trying to stay afloat. As a 23-year-old, I have worked (and paid) my way through college, spent a year on my own living and working abroad, and begun to discover what it is to live as an independent adult. The span of those four years mean so much more than whether or not I can legally drink in America: they represent a huge part of who I am, what I know, and what my character is like.The maturity gap between what I look to have experienced and what I have experienced is immense, and that’s what bothers me.

At dinner tonight,a friend tried to encourage me, noting that, as soon as I start talking, you can tell I’m not 19. And that’s something, I suppose, but let’s face it–those all-powerful first impressions are formed long before anyone says a word. This is especially pertinent given the fact that I am currently single. Because let’s be honest: if the guys who think you’re their age are actually way younger than you, and the guys who are actually your age think you’re way younger than them, you’ve got a problem. Especially when you consider that women mature faster than men to begin with, and that in your early 20s, age matters more in this sort of thing than it will in a few years. Again, sigh.

I’ve put a fair amount of caveats into this post; yet I know that, for those of you reading it who are older than me, this all probably still sounds immensely childish. I know that–in your heads, if not in the comments–there will be many of you echoing the old It’s a good thing, and you’ll love it when you’re older! bit. And I’m sure you’re right. But I’m not older yet, and I’m sick and tired of not having even the years I do have counted for me, along with all the lessons, memories, and personality-shifting moments they brought with them. My age is part of who I am, and I long for it, like the rest of me, to be known.

So please spare me a few moments of self-pity for years of being thought less of–after all, I’m only 23, so I’m still allowed to complain, right? No? OK then, just pretend I’m 19. Everyone else does.