It’s Time to Retire the Term “Maiden Name”

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Last names and marriage are a tricky issue for women. Some of us (me! me!) choose to keep our names, others choose to adopt the names of a spouse. Still others choose to hyphenate, or invent a new shared last name, or just drop the last name altogether and go first-name-only like a pop star. Whatever a woman does with her name upon marriage, though, she must choose that path. Unlike most men, who can default to keeping their own names (a convenient cultural norm), women must proactively make a decision. This is one of those instances in which choice and freedom are at odds with one another.

No matter your personal opinion on the Name Game, however, there should be one thing on which we all agree — “maiden name” is a stupid phrase. I’m keeping my name, and it’s not my maiden name. It’s just my name, and I’m not a maiden. I don’t even know what a maiden is in this era. The whole concept of a maiden — a pure, unsullied, unmarried girl — fails to make sense in a world where men and women are supposed to stand on equal ground.

We should also be weirded out by the way the word “maid” sneaks its way into the conversation, a reminder of our historical insistence that women are for cooking, cleaning and minding the kids. Is a maiden just a maid in training? I don’t want anything to do with that. That’s not a knock on maids, who do a difficult job and should be well-compensated for it. It’s a knock on the idea that all women should just be unpaid maids. Maiden, indeed.

Have I mentioned that I’m 33? That seems like an advanced age for a maiden. Does that make me an old maid? See what happens when you start referring to women as maidens? Suddenly 33 seems ancient. The average American woman gets married just shy of 27, so apparently we have a lot of old maidens running around.

I’d tell you the average age of marriage for men, but why bother? They get to be men whether they’re married or not. There’s no such thing as a bachelor name. Men just get to have names. They don’t have to make a shitty choice upon marriage about whether to keep that name, or adopt a brand new name in order to ensure that their family and future children have a shared name.

[Side Note: My fiancé, who is both awesome and rational, made no fuss about my decision to keep my name. Instead, he noted reasonably that since he had no interest in changing his name, he could not expect me to do so. And that was the end of that.]

So don’t ask me what my maiden name is, because I don’t know what you’re talking about. It just sounds like a lot of nonsense to me.

Ladies, Pay for Your Own Damn Drinks

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There are lots of things men can do to make the world a more equal place — promote women in the workplace, give us equal pay, and take responsibility for childcare, among others. I’m a proud feminist and I fully support all of these things. But the cause of gender equality is not a one-way street. Ladies have to get on that road, too, and I recommend we bring our wallets.

I don’t offer a lot of dating advice, since I was never terribly good at dating. But I do have one tip for women out there:

Pay for your drinks.

That goes for your dinner, too, and your movie ticket and your popcorn. You don’t have to be fussy about it. Just take out some money and pay for shit. If you hate splitting checks, just take turns picking them up — you can pay for the tickets and he can grab the concessions. Or if he buys cocktails on Date 1, you can pick up the burgers on Date 2.

Honestly, I don’t really care how you go about it. Just pay for things. You don’t have to pay for all the things — getting treated is one of the nice things about relationships. But pay for some of the things, ideally about half of them. No one needs to take out a calculator, but if you care about equality, try to make it feel equal.

This might seem obvious to you, but plenty of your fellow ladies disagree. A recent study by researchers at Chapman University found that a majority of both male and female respondents still adhere to a dynamic wherein the man foots the bill:

Consistent with conventional norms, most men (84 percent) and women (58 percent) reported that men pay for most expenses, even after dating for a while. Over half (57 percent) of women claim they offer to help pay, but many women (39 percent) confessed they hope men would reject their offers to pay, and 44 percent of women were bothered when men expected women to help pay. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of men believed that women should contribute to dating expenses, and many feel strongly about that: Nearly half of men (44 percent) said they would stop dating a woman who never pays. A large majority of men (76 percent), however, reported feeling guilty accepting women’s money.

[emphasis mine]

Listen, everyone likes getting stuff for free. I don’t blame women who reach for their wallets half-heartedly, hoping their dates will insist on paying. I’ve been with my boyfriend for five years, and while we both pay for things all the time, I know we also both really like it when the other person insists on paying.

But this is the statistic I don’t get: Forty-four percent of women were “bothered” when men expected women to help pay.

What the what now?

Why would it bother you that someone expects you to sometimes pay for your food and entertainment? Are you a small child? Grow up. I get not really wanting to pay, but getting offended because a man doesn’t want to finance your entire relationship with him is about as retrograde as it gets.

I’ve heard plenty of excuses for this kind of behavior, and they’re all bullshit. Some argue that since women are expected to spend more money on their appearance, men can pay them back by footing the bill. But this is essentially a defense of the status quo. If you justify your free drinks based on the fact that you feel social pressure to dye, wax, buff, and manicure yourself into fighting shape, then how will we ever fight the ridiculous beauty standards that produced that pressure in the first place?

I’ve also heard sensible women (and men!) say that men should pay early on in relationships to prove that they are serious about their interest in a woman. I have some sympathy for this argument because I’ve been out there, and it is true that sometimes it’s hard to tell if a guy actually wants a relationship with you. It’s a tricky problem and one of the hardest aspects of dating.

You know who else has this problem? Men. While women are sometimes stereotyped as gooey creatures who all want nothing more than marriage, anyone who has spent more than 20 minutes in the company of actual women knows that’s not true. Plenty of women play the field, and lots of them will bide their time with a guy even if they don’t see a future with him. And that guy might have a hard time telling the difference between a woman who really likes him and one who is ambivalent.

I know I said I don’t give dating advice, but here I go anyway: there is no special trick to dating, and there’s definitely no shortcut to finding the right person. You can play these little games about who pays and who calls who and turn dating into a test of affection. And it might work! And it might not. It’s a crapshoot. Sometimes you get burned and sometimes you get lucky. Dating is trial and error.

That’s why expecting one gender to underwrite the whole endeavor isn’t fair. You don’t know if this is your future husband or just some guy whose name you will struggle to remember a year from now. And he doesn’t know either. So to keep it all on the level:

Ladies, pay for your own damn drinks.

Meta Review: Pregnant Pauses

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Perusing online product reviews is one of my favorite activities. I can vicariously experience the thrill or disappointment of purchasing without spending any money. More importantly, online reviews are often accidentally hilarious.

Today’s selection is a review of Anthropologie’s Leopardo Sweater Dress (see what they did there?), currently marked down to $99 from $178. I love puns, cashmere, cats and sweet pre-holiday deals, so it’s right up my alley. But luckily I checked the reviews, because it turns out that Leopardo is a two-timer. Reviewer Leopardspots1 writes:

I was so excited about this dress until I saw it in the window of the maternity wear store, A Pea in the Pod. Seriously?!

Love the idea of this dress and the quality is nice, but it’s such a turn off to know it’s being sold as maternity wear as well. It seems like that’s something Anthro should look into before they buy stock of an item. Gorgeous fabric and I like Velvet designs, but I don’t want to walk into work matching with the pregnant woman in the office. Such a huge let down. :(

I ought to be offended on behalf of pregnant women (also known as, statistically, most women at some point in their lives).  What does this lady have against the gestating? I don’t see how winding up in the same outfit as a pregnant woman is somehow worse than wearing the same outfit as a non-pregnant woman.

It’s also odd that the reviewer seems to believe that all clothing should be segregated into maternity and non-maternity, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Is she aware that even if this dress were not available at a maternity store, pregnant women are allowed to shop at Anthropologie, and could still choose to wear this dress? Pregnant ladies are already restricted in what they can eat, drink and do; are they also banned from shopping anywhere except A Pea in the Pod?

But mostly I’m just amused by the ludicrous nightmare world the reviewer has conjured for herself.

I envision Leopardspots1, decked out head to toe in leopard-patterned clothes, jauntily marching into work. There, she encounters her worst nightmare — her lone pregnant colleague, wearing the exact same collection of spots. A crowd gathers and Larry, the crass jerk from Accounting, starts chanting “cat fight, cat fight” under his breath.

Just as it’s about to come to blows, Leopardspots1 and her pregnant adversary realize that the odds of finding another person as obsessed with leopard as they are is quite slim. They embrace and become close friends. Leopardspots1 knits a leopard-patterned onesie for the little one. Their families vacation together on an African safari. Eventually they leave their office jobs and open a clothing boutique devoted entirely to animal prints, where maternity and non-maternity clothes intermingle unabashedly.

I might actually buy the dress, even though it’s only available in petite sizes now. I bet it would look cute with boots.

How To: Make Yourself Feel Confident

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Every once in a blue moon, I feel like a super star.  I do something really well, and people notice and tell me I’m great, and it seems like I can do anything — start a business, write a novel, drink an entire bottle of wine. I try to use these flashes of seemingly unlimited confidence to tackle the hard stuff — ask for a raise, finish a tricky project, learn a new skill. But inevitably, the feeling fades.  I go back to my usual self, kind of unsure if I’m getting anything right.

It’s hard to get things done in this state of mind.  Self-doubt is a mean companion, undermining even your best efforts at competency. If I’m facing a tough deadline at work or trying to tackle a new skill on the trapeze, the last thing I need to be telling myself is, “Too bad I always fuck things up.” And yet… that’s often what runs through my mind, even though I’ve succeeded at lots of things in my life. I too easily forget about my victories and instead dwell on the nagging sense that I’ll never achieve my goals.

Recently, a friend showed me a pretty obvious, but brilliant, trick for shutting that self-doubt down. It’s easy — particularly with the help of modern technology — and effective:

Just remind yourself of how good you are.

First, a little context. My friend and I were getting ready for a little flying practice, as in flying trapeze practice. I’ve been flying for about five years, for her it’s been even longer. You’d think after 5+ of training on an apparatus, and hundreds (maybe thousands?) of trips off the board, it would be easy to do.

Not so — right now I’m pretty nervous to fly. There’s no particular reason for these nerves. It’s just that I’ve been doing more and more flying “out of lines” (without a safety harness or a lines puller to slow me down as I hit the net), and as I’ve become more independent on the trapeze, I’ve had a crisis of confidence. What if I mess up? What if my aerial training doesn’t kick in, and I freak out and hit the net at a weird angle? Despite the fact that I’ve worked hard to prove to my coaches and colleagues that I can be trusted with the responsiblity of flying sans safety lines, sometimes I have trouble proving it to myself.

My friend wasn’t having the same crisis, exactly. She was just having trouble motivating. When you fly all the time, you’re not always in the mood. Like training for a marathon or learning a new language, flying is really damn hard. Sometimes you’d just rather take a bath than climb a 30 foot ladder and jump off a platform while holding onto a swinging bar.

But my friend is clever. If you want to be good at something really hard, you have to learn how to motivate. So she pulled out her phone and started watching old videos of herself flying, successfully.

Confidence is about perception.

My friend understands that self-doubt is just a feeling, not a fact. Remind yourself of the facts. She did this by looking at old videos, conveniently stored on her cell phone. I could do the same, or I could go low tech and just talk through my last successful catch with a coach.

If I can use this trick to get myself swinging high in the air, it should apply to lots of other, less dramatic, tasks. To prepare myself to write this post, I went and read a few I’m proud to have written in the past. Looking at my successes quieted my “Failure!” voice, which created enough space in my brain to actually conceive and write a post.

Whatever it is you’re trying to work up the courage to do, go find concrete evidence of your ability to do it. It’s harder to doubt yourself when you are looking right at a clear refutation of that doubt.

Of course, this raises a key point: what if you’ve never been successful at this task before?

All is not lost! No one is born competent. You have to work at it. If this is your first stab at something tricky, remember: this is where confidence starts. You try, you learn, you try again. Eventually you get good. And once you’re good, you can always look back on those successful tries as evidence. Go make some evidence.

Excel (A Poem)

The spreadsheet is orderly
As spreadsheets must be
All the little boxes stretching out into infinity
Past the monitor frame, through the desk, through the window, through the Earth
“We are endless!”
They call out, uniformly

I fill them up
with all the disparate pieces of my life
My “project”
I let the orderly little boxes stretch from my fingers to my toes
Sic them onto the mess and watch as it is gobbled into their borders
“I am bound!”
I sing, boundlessly

The mess is unwieldy
Too small in parts and too big in others; it clings to the old ways
The messy ways
Always drifting across the lines and slipping out of place
I lament the resolute refusal to belong anywhere in particular
“I am limited!”
The mess cries in defense

A deadline looms
And I tremble at what it means
Judgment day
Demanding a final, if imperfect, order be imposed
We scramble, the mess and the boxes and I, to find accord and marry our disparate visions
“It doesn’t matter!”
Bellows the deadline

It just feels that way

Health Insurance Sucks, But Obamacare Makes It a Little Bit Better

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Beginning on January 1, 2014, I will be enrolled in a health insurance plan.  This should be a mundane fact, unworthy of mentioning, but it isn’t.  I have been uninsured for the last eight months, ever since I was dropped from my former employer’s plan after being laid off (fun fact: I was let go just after completing open enrollment in late 2013, so I wasted several hours evaluating my company’s new plans and selecting one, only to lose it two months later). Getting laid off is awful. Losing your health insurance as a result of getting laid off is just salt in that wound, a constant reminder of your new status on the fringe.

I can already hear the tsk, tsks.  You lost your job and didn’t immediately secure health insurance for yourself?! Irresponsible! And there’s some truth to this. I have spent most of these eight months without health insurance worrying about the fact that I don’t have health insurance. I think of this era in my life as “That Time When I Would Have Preferred Death to Injury Because I Could Not Afford the Hospital Bill.”  What a fun, exciting time.  Here is how I spent it:

Step One: A Few Carefree Hours. Just before losing my health insurance, I milked it for almost all it was worth. I updated prescriptions and had a check-up. When my insurance lapsed, I wasn’t that freaked out because I had a clean bill of health. What could possibly go wrong? Hint: everything, which is why health insurance exists.

Step TwoGoing Outside. Oh, shit. Have you ever noticed that the world is full of things that can maim you? Cars, angry dogs, poorly maintained sidewalks? Escalators are death traps, if you think about it, and I recommend that you don’t think about it. I took a part-time job as a photographer to help cover costs while I job hunted, and it required me to climb up ladders and into lofts and scramble across nets. These are fun things to do! But they are slightly less fun when you are constantly worried about imminent maiming.

Step Three: Exploring Shitty Options. Having determined that life without health insurance is risky and nervewracking, I looked into my options for individual health plans. They were terrible! I could stay on my employer’s old plan through COBRA, but my out-of-pocket costs would have been $700/month. What a perfect solution for the recently unemployed person trying to keep expenses down while she job hunts.

The other alternative was Washington DC’s pre-Obamacare insurance exchange. There, I found plans ranging from $100/month for bare-bones coverage to $500/month for decent coverage. I probably should have just signed up for one of these plans to assuage my imminent maiming fears. I actually went through the process of applying for a cheapo plan, but then…

Step Four: The False Hopes of the Almost Employed. Have we discussed the emotional and financial roller coaster that is job hunting? No? Let’s do it.

After six weeks without health insurance, I found myself right on the cusp of a new job. This right-on-the-cusp status lasted two whole months. I kept putting off buying a plan because it seemed like I was maybe two weeks away from starting a new job with health insurance. And I was! For a long time. During this period, I not only worried about developing a mysterious tumor, I also worried about getting in a car accident while driving to interviews.

Another fun fact: stress weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. I seemed to have a permanent head cold during this time. Nothing impresses potential employers more than a pocketful of tissues and the sniffles.

Step Five: Employment! With a Catch. I finally became a fully employed person again in June. This was a great relief, especially because it coincided with my landlord jacking up the rent. I was also getting really bored. Looking for a job is a job in itself, but it’s a really dull one.

So then I got health insurance and everything was great, right? Nope. Because even though I was working 40 hours a week (sometimes more), I was not a full-time employee with any one company.  I now split my time between my photography job and a new consulting gig, and while together they pay the bills, neither one involves enough hours to get me on the company health plan. Back to the individual health care market I went.

Step Six: More Shitty Options. Back on the pre-Obamacare exchange, I found my priorities had shifted. Now that I was making an actual livable wage, it seemed short-sighted to sign up for some cheap insurance plan. Instead, I started really examining the more expensive plans in detail, weighing monthly premiums and deductibles against actual coverage, co-pays, and exclusions. It was a mess. I came close to just packing it all in and signing up for some plan in the middle several times, but felt frozen by my lack of knowledge.

This paralysis wound up being a good thing. It turns out that many of the plans I considered didn’t meet the requirements of Obamacare, and would have been cancelled this fall under the new regime. The downside, of course, was that I spent several more months uninsured, worrying about every stomach ache (ulcer?), headache (brain tumor?) and joint pain (torn ACL?).

Step 7: Obamacare, a Big Hassle With Results. Open enrollment for individual health insurance began on October 1st. It took me a month and a half to navigate the system, getting approved to shop for a plan, find a plan, and finally enroll in a plan.  But today, I did it. Annoyingly, it doesn’t kick in until the first of the year. I just have another month and a half of fear and then I can be maimed in a car accident, no problem.

The process of enrolling was frustrating, I’ll admit. DC’s new exchange website, while not nearly as plagued as the federal one, is full of glitches. I had to fill out the same forms several times, and sometimes I’d log on to look at plans and would be kicked out with no explanation. These are all problems that need to be fixed, and I really wish they’d invest more heavily in making the technical stuff work before they launched the program.

But… I have health insurance. And thanks to Obamacare’s minimum requirements for all plans, I can feel confident that my coverage won’t be completely awful even though I still don’t fully understand it and probably won’t until I need health care and have to negotiate with my insurer to cover it. At least I know my plan had to pass some standard before it could be offered.

So, yes, complain about Obamacare. The roll out has been terrible and it needs to be fixed. But don’t act like everything was great before, and this new law is ruining our healthcare utopia. The American healthcare system is deeply flawed, particularly for people like me, who lost their jobs or don’t qualify for an employer-sponsored plan. Obamacare takes actual steps to address these deficiencies. If you’ve never worried about having health insurance, maybe you don’t care. I hope you never have to find out. For the rest of us, at least this administration had the courage to try and do something to make it better.

How To: Get Things Done (Helpful Tips for Congress)

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We all have those days when we can’t seem to get anything done.  Congress has had a lot of them lately, so I thought I’d offer a few productivity tips I’ve developed over the years to deal with my own procrastination, obstinacy, and refusal to just do what needs to be done.

To Do: Three-Item Lists

I am an epic maker of “to do” lists.  When my boyfriend and I host parties, the list of house prep activities has five categories and more than forty items.  I’ve never actually scrubbed the baseboards in the house before a party, of course.  We’re lucky of half if that list gets checked off.  But it makes me feel good knowing that I thought about it.

When it comes to work, however, a lengthy list of things to do can get in your way.  At the moment, I probably have 14 things I could or should be doing for work.  But there’s no way they’re all going to get done today.  And I hate looking at a long list of stuff I’m never going to finish — it’s just dispiriting.

So a few years ago, I came up with a method where-in my daily “to do” lists for work never have more than three things on them.  Fourteen things to do is to many, but three sounds just manageable enough.  Today my list is:

  1. Get up to date on copyright permissions requests (done)
  2. Write blog post (doing)
  3. Finish revision of Harvey ball chart for Power Point (uuuuuugh — still to do, and yuck, don’t make me explain what this is)

If I get them all done, that’s a productive work day right there.  Sometimes, I get it all done by noon, and then I make another three-item list.  Sometimes, nothing gets done.  Those days are the worst, but there’s always tomorrow, when another manageable list of three items (not fourteen) awaits me.  It’s all about motivating and staying on task, and I’ve found short to-do lists help me do both.

How This Helps Congress: Are you all trying to do too much?  I think you might be — passing a budget and repealing the Affordable Care Act and maximizing your television exposure and memorizing meaningless talking points… it’s too much!  And that’s before we even get into things like John Boehner’s daily spray-tan.  Might I suggest scaling back? Here’s a manageable list of things Congress could conceivably accomplish today:

  1. Keep the federal government open.
  2. (Optional) JB daily spray tan.

Think on it, Congressfolks.

Listen to Oprah: Reflect on Your Accomplishments

The Oprah Winfrey Show ran from 1986 to 2011, from my early childhood to my early thirties.  As a result, I am well-schooled in everything Oprah: the Secret, contradictory weight-loss ideas, books that make you cry, and all of Her Favorite Things.  I recently put this knowledge to good use by adopting an Oprah-approved tip from the late 90s (I can’t tell you what episode, or even the context of the tip — it all just oozes together into a vanilla-candle-scented Oprah melange).

Every evening, I list all the “good things” about the day.  These can be things I got done (like checking off all three things on my list), or just something nice happening to me, like getting a compliment.  The point is to put each day in a good light by reflecting on what went right.  I find this method of recording my days superior to a traditional diary, because it prevents me from bitching about stuff that doesn’t really matter.  I don’t need to dwell on the jerk who cut me off earlier today, or how bad my Harvey ball chart looks.  I’d rather spend my last waking moments thinking about the good stuff, like this:

  • Rocked conference call with market research client
  • Caught my Aussie whip out of lines, twice!
  • Drinks with D
  • Got up, made the bed, and ate real breakfast before 8am (personal best)

This doesn’t sound like a productivity tool, but it has turned into one.  By focusing on what I’ve accomplished or what is going well in my life, I end each day thinking optimistically about what might happen tomorrow.  As Oprah obviously knows, staying positive and feeling confident are important keys to success.  Thanks, Lady O.

How This Helps Congress: Negativity abounds in the 113th Congress.  It’s easy for Senators and Members to spend their days thinking about how the country is being destroyed by the opposing party and plotting revenge.  But the result of such negative thinking is a sense — I’m sure you’ve felt it — that this Congress can’t do anything right. Some positive thinking might turn that around!

Given the difficult spot Congress now finds itself in, I should note that sometimes it takes effort to find the positive in the day.  That’s when I resort to congratulating myself for at least trying.  For instance, yesterday Congress was unsuccessful in passing a budget.  But at least they tried, right?  Right?  (Hmmmm.  Oprah would NOT be impressed.)

Change of Venue (and eat something!)

When all else fails, I move.  I don’t leave the country or anything, but getting out of the house does wonders for someone who works from home as much as I do.  For instance, after a morning of phone calls, I hit a wall around lunch time.  That’s why I’m typing this from a Noodles & Co. in Pentagon City.  Now that I’m off the couch and happily ensconced in fast casual dining comfort, this blog post practically wrote itself.

When you change venues, I recommend incorporating a meal or at least a snack in the deal.  I can’t believe it took me more than 30 years to figure this out, but a lot of times when I feel hopeless or miserable, it turns out I’m just hungry (or, more aptly, hangry).  A bowl of pasta and a Coke will fix my mood faster than a spot of chocolate after a dementor attack.

How This Helps Congress:  You just have to leave the House.  Really.  Grab some enchiladas at Tortilla Coast with Paul Ryan.  Or maybe just continue on down the road and right out of town.  You can find pasta or enchiladas in lots of places outside the nation’s capitol.  So just take a break — I’m sure someone (perhaps someone more reasonable) will be happy to cover for you in your absence.

How To: Make People Pay

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I’m still figuring out how get people to pay me the money I believe I’m worth, though I’m getting better. My latest role model in that evolution is Flannery O’Connor, the wickedly clever and often twisted author of stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, it turns out, was pretty damn good at getting paid.

In an entry in The Hairpin‘s “How Other People Do Money” series,  Brooke Hatfield describes O’Connor’s often aggressive approach to making money:

O’Connor didn’t beat around the bush in her first letter to her first agent, Elizabeth McKee: “I am writing you in my vague and slack season and mainly because I am being impressed just now with the money I am not making by having stories in such places as American Letters.”

Classic O’Connor — blunt, surprising and funny. It makes sense that the author carried her brutal honesty from her work into her business life. According to Hatfield, O’Connor had hustle that would rival some of her most memorable characters.  In addition to demanding to be paid for her writing (sometimes quite well), she shrewdly diversified, collecting income from real estate investments as well. Though she struggled with financial difficulties throughout her short career, owing to high income taxes and medical debts for treatment of lupus, O’Connor set an example for women and creative workers (or anyone, really) to know their worth and demand compensation for it.

I wouldn’t mind a smidgen of O’Connor’s business acumen (and while I’m wishing for things, maybe a dash of her literary brilliance as well). Her willingness to demand, in frank terms, that she be paid for her talent and work is inspiring. It’s time to forget what I’ve always been told about getting along and start channeling a little bit of Flannery.

Nice is Cheap

Reading O’Connor isn’t always pleasant. Her characters are often hard and unkind, and are often found in unsavory situations. There is no sweetness to her writing, and no one would ever accuse her, or her stories, of being nice.  But that is precisely the appeal.  O’Connor’s writing reveals greater truths about humanity because she rarely bothered to dress it up with niceness. Those who paid for her writing were paying for its brutality, not its prettiness.

Yet women are generally expected to be pretty and nice. Perhaps that’s why we still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Maybe that’s why old men are always telling us to “smile more!” And as Kate Bigam reminded us in a post on Hello Giggles earlier this year, some people still think it’s just not ladylike to swear (to which Lady Bigam responded, “Fuck that”). A lot of women, myself included, feel pressure to be nice all the time, in everything from our writing to our salary negotiations.

I wasn’t born nice (I can be kind of tactless , really), but as an adult woman I’ve learned that a lot of folks prefer me if I seem that way. I’ve had to cultivated a friendly smile and pleasant small talk in order to survive interviews and dates and public transportation. Niceness is a good way to minimize unnecessary conflict, but it’s also a terrible way to get what you want.

For most of my life, I’ve handled salary negotiations by essentially asking for “whatever you think is fair.” The result was okay five or six years ago, when the economy was chugging along and companies were flush. I’m good at my job, and employers were happy to pay a fair wage for quality work. The economic downturn has changed that dynamic. Companies have seen their revenues dip (particularly in the legal sector, where I work), and are trying to keep overhead down. It’s no longer enough to expect a fair wage; you have to be willing to fight for it.

The Power of No

So once the niceness is gone, what’s left? Choice. The best part about realizing you don’t have to be agreeable is the opportunity to disagree. Twice in the last year I’ve been offered jobs I didn’t want to take. Both jobs would have solved an immediate concern, but neither was offered at a rate I found fair. Like O’Connor’s preoccupation with the money she was not making from American Letters, I found the shortfalls in these offers too large to ignore. I turned them down.

Does that reasoning sound selfish, entitled and irresponsible? Sometimes even I think so. Saying no to job offers (in this economy, after all) sounded crazy to me, even as I did it. But I’m resourceful, and I always find a way to pay the rent. I’ve simply decided I’m no longer going to accept less than I expect in payment when I know I always exceed expectations with my work. I may never have written Great American Literature, but I am very good at my job.

Saying no has had the added advantage of leaving me free for something better. By refusing to compromise, I now find myself in what might be my ideal work situation: working part-time doing something I love (taking photos at a circus school) while devoting the rest of my working hours to interesting consulting projects  for which I’m paid at a rate I set, based on my experience and skills, as well as the type of work being done.

Money is More Than Money

Hatfield writes of O’Connor: “the uncompromising mind behind some of the last century’s finest writing believed firmly in that mind’s financial worth.” When you think about it this way, getting paid doesn’t sound so crass. Money is simply a symbol, a stand-in for things of genuine value. Talent, time, effort and experience are all valuable; asking for money in exchange for that value shouldn’t be embarrassing, and it shouldn’t be viewed as a sign of entitlement. Refusing to pay for that value, on the other hand, is shameful.

How Flannery O’Connor Did Money [The Hairpin]

How To: Overcome the Burden of Privilege

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Thanks WordPress for including this post on Freshly Pressed!  And welcome to all of you who clicked on the link and took the time to read.

I’m not in the habit of giving advice, because most advice is bullshit.  Half the time, the advice giver is just trying to justify her life choices by advising you to follow in her footsteps.  The rest of the time, she’s trying to justify her bitterness by recommending you do something different than she’s done.  Either way, most advice isn’t about you — it’s about the person giving it.

I can’t, however, ignore a plea for help like the one currently issuing from Thought Catalog, where young Kate Menendez just wants to live her life in peace.  But she can’t, because all the poor people she knows resent her for being born into wealth and privilege. Ms. Menendez is “tired of feeling self-conscious” about her privilege and its trappings (which include a high-rise apartment and nice clothes).  She writes, “What do you suggest I do about it?”

Oh, Ms. Menendez — I’m so glad you asked!  I have a few suggestions for you.

Prove Yourself

By your own account, Kate, you have had the great fortune of being born into comfortable circumstances.  Your parents have ensured that you will complete college and graduate school debt free.  They have seen fit to house you in a safe building, and made sure that when you go out in the world, you will set your best foot forward.  This is generous of them.  They clearly want to see you succeed, and are happy to spend much of their hard-earned money doing so.

One option would be to ride that gravy train as long as you can.  I wouldn’t judge you for it.  Just kidding, I totally would!  But who cares what I think — a free ride is a free ride, and few of us get the chance at one.  If you like this sweet deal your parents have offered, take it.

But your essay indicates that you want more.  You’re not satisfied to simply have a comfortable lifestyle provided by your parents.  You need people to respect you.  You need your doorman and your classmates and the people who interview you to believe that you, Kate Menendez, are more than just a lucky girl with wealthy parents.  The fact that you desire respect speaks well of your character.

The problem is that you think people should do this just out of the goodness of their hearts.  Please, you say, just lay off.  Well, Kate, my dear, there is fat chance of that.  The world can be a harsh place.  Just ask your classmates who are forehead deep in student loans and panicked about how they will ever afford to pay them off, much less have a family or achieve some semblance of financial security.  Better yet, ask the millions of people in this country (billions in the entire world) who spend some portion of their lives without adequate food or shelter.  Life’s a bitch, Kate, and nothing is free.

If you want respect, step up.  You say your parents “demanded” to pay for your college education.  That’s great!  College is ridiculously expensive.  But now it’s time to cut the cord.  Give Mom and Dad back that credit card we both know they’re paying on your behalf.  Get off the family cell phone plan.  Move out of that nice highrise apartment, get some roommates and a part-time job, and start paying your own rent.  Stop buying all your suits from J.Crew and get comfortable with outlet stores.

Does this sound just awful?  Why struggle when your parents are offering to make your life easier and more comfortable?  Wouldn’t it be even more ridiculous to turn down your privilege, when so many others would love to be in your position?

Maybe.  But you have to choose.  You can’t live this comfortable life on your parents’ dime and also expect me to think highly of you.  As long as you, an adult, are allowing others to pay your way, I’m always going to respect you a little less.  And regardless of what you achieve, I will always assume that it happened, in part, because you got lucky.  If you can’t live with that, get rid of a little of your comfy privilege and see if you can work it out on your own.

And if you can’t bring yourself to give up those sweet J.Crew suits…

… Stop Caring What I Think

Why does it even matter to you that your doorman (supposedly) gives you the side-eye when your clothes are delivered?  Why is it so important that when your friends commiserate about their crippling student debt, you be able to participate?  Your life sounds pretty sweet to me — nice home, nice clothes, limited financial burden and lots of opportunities courtesy of a pretty elite education, from what I can tell.

First off, I’m a total stranger with very little power in the world.  If I’m bitter or resentful towards you, it doesn’t impact your experience in life one iota.  Your doorman?  He probably doesn’t give two shits about your packages.  Even if he does, you get that his job is to serve you, right?  He’s not your buddy.  Move on.  As for your peers, real friends won’t need to you to lie about your circumstances, even if they’re jealous.  It’s actually more disrespectful to pretend you’re as hard up as they are — just own your situation.  You’re the one in an enviable situation, not them, so why are you acting as though their financial burdens make them better than you?

Actually, I think I know why.  You,my friend, are feeling a little guilty.  See, you have actually figured out that the world is a bit unfair, and that you are benefiting from that unfairness.  You just got lucky!  And all these other people, including your doorman and some of your friends, aren’t so lucky.  This is causing you some discomfort, in which case I recommend that you…

Suck It Up

I know very little about life, and am unqualified to tell anyone almost anything.  But I do know this — mental and emotional distress are just things that happen, to everyone.  Adulthood only increases this distress, both in frequency and intensity.  You feel weird about your privilege.  Guess what?  A lot of the people you perceive as resenting you feel weird about their lack of privilege.  That woman at the interview who eyed your brand new suit with envy?  She worries that she doesn’t dress well enough at her job, and that in inhibits her ability to move ahead.  Your doorman worries about getting fired because he looked at one of the building’s tenants wrong, and he worries about finding another job in this crap economy.

Your essay on Thought Catalog is going to get a lot of mocking.  All of the people mocking it are freaking out silently about something — relationships, money, family.  Everyone has to deal with occasional (or sometimes frequent) anxiety, guilt, or insecurity.

You can take two things from this.  The first is — you’re not as alone as you thought.  Here you were, feeling like an alien because of your good fortune.  It turns out, you’re just a struggling human like the rest of us.  Your essay was probably the result of an impulse to share that distress with others, to obtain some validation for those squirmy feelings of class guilt and isolation.  You won’t get it, of course, because you failed to consider your audience or put your problems in perspective.  But your impulse to share your burden is universal.

The second take-away is related to the first.  Just as you’re not alone, you’re also not special.  You think that just because you sometimes feel ostracized for your privilege, you have the right to demand that everyone you come into contact with pack up their own worries and insecurities so that you can feel more comfortable?  Good luck with that.  Unless you’re willing to give up the trappings of your comfortable life, you will just have to learn to live with the resentment many of us feel towards you.  Develop a thicker skin.

Being Privileged Is Not A Choice, So Stop Hating Me For It [Thought Catalog]

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