Category Archives: women’s issues

THE SWEETEST VOICE

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Every Sunday, for the past 17 years, my mother’s garrulous voice has greeted me at the end of the phone line. I will have just waken up, most likely to a sunny Californian day, while she will be getting  dinner ready, in her cozy apartment in Italy, the curtains drawn, the tv humming in the background. For 17 years, her voice has embodied my connection to a home that is no more, to a family than hangs by a thread and a love that has survived intact the wrath of my teenage years and my many moves.

The slight shrill in my mother’s “hello” will let me know immediately that everything is fine, while a more subdued and lower tone will presage unpleasant news. A brief humming just before she speaks, her trademark hesitation, conveys trouble, somebody else’s trouble typically, while the mention of my full name prefaces a question she is loath to ask.

That voice that praised me, scolded me, lulled me to sleep, admonished me and, above all, loved me is the voice I hear in my head every time I think of my mother. It’s part of my being as much as my own voice belongs to me. Someone told me that,  when a loved one dies, the first thing we forget is the sound of their voice. No photograph can give it back and, while recording devices can preserve a sound for posterity, they are a far cry from  accessing a memory at will as we go through our day. If all goes according as nature intended, my mother will die before me and the morbid thought of the loss of those Sunday phone calls has crossed my mind as I watch the two of us age.

After much prodding on the part of both her daughters, we convinced my mother to spend a couple of months  in Los Angeles with me, rather than her customary two weeks. As I write or make dinner or even while I putter in another room, I can hear my mother softly singing or talking to the dogs as she stubbornly cleans and irons and tries to make herself useful. It’s hard to resist her happy sound, not to yield to the high tones or the broken notes, especially when she ventures outside to shout for the dogs, who probably disappeared chasing a rabbit or a squirrel. The concern I hear in her calls is the same she couldn’t disguise whenever I tiptoed through the front door, late at night, back from another revelry in my college years, letting me know she had waited up (although she always denied it in the morning).

And then the more placid “Good night” or “Here you are, you scoundrels” will follow, her worries assuaged by our return, everything and everyone once again where they belong.

 

The sound of her presence has brightened my house and made those who inhabit it, human and canine, happier and calmer. I believe it’s because the melody of her speech is irresistible and has the power to draw us in. It will be a much emptier shell when she leaves – the dogs’ snorting, the bubbling of the fish tank and the humming of the fridge will go back to being my day’s soundtrack. Until I reach for that phone and wait for the long, ringing tone of Italian lines and the shrilly “Pronto” will let me know everything and everyone is where they belong.

 

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Filed under Parenting, women's issues

THE LONG GOODBYE

Shortly after graduating from college, having decided to move to England with a vague and optimistic master plan on how to succeed in the music industry, I did the rounds to say goodbye to a number of professors I had particularly liked during the years. While visiting my French professor who, on hindsight, I liked more for his dashing looks than for any Proust he might have taught me, he asked me what I thought was a strange question: “Why would you leave a place where you can be a Queen Bee and move somewhere where you will be a nobody?”. I was slightly stumped at the time – other than a need to follow my instincts, I wasn’t quite sure why I was going. Call it wanting for some new experiences, broadening my horizons, or just being young and foolish, I knew I had to leave my hometown and move on.

As I live in a personal belief system that won’t allow me to look back, question decisions and play the what ifs game, in my world that original decision worked very well for me. I don’t know what kind of Queen Bee I would have become if I had stayed but I have certainly transformed into a butterfly, perfectly happy with my imperfect kingdom.

That question posed so long ago recently resurfaced when I decided to leave my latest job. I had been with a generous and interesting company for over 8 years; I was respected and beloved by my staff; I had a dream commute (not something to discard when living in LA) and I could have comfortably stayed on for many years to come. None of those thoughts did indeed cross my mind when I was mulling a change; rather, I was reminded of them this when the time came to say goodbye to my coworkers and clients,  a process that seemed to stretch beyond the last day and was filled with tears and vaguely nostalgia. I knew it was time t face new challenges, reinvent a third act that, on paper and rationally, has very few reasons to succeed. But how do I define success? Is it the paycheck at the end of the month? The number of people who will like me on Facebook?

On my last day, I told my mostly young staff not to forget their dreams. Ever. To water them a little bit everyday and to go after them, as outlandish and improbable as they are, because no one else will do it for them. In the end, it’s no so much the dream itself that matters but our willingness to embark on the journey to get there. That the “there” might not be the one we had originally envisioned matters little – we will have changed in the process and that is what I am seeking with my “foolish” choice.

It was probably foolish to leave a career path that a couple of university professors were more than happy to guide me on and to go fold children’s sweatshirts in a clothing store in London, pinching pennies to afford some meat  now and then, all the while sending handwritten and made-up resumes to every single record company, recording studio and management company in town, trying to get a foot in the door. It turned out I got both feet in, happy to relinquish the Queen Bee position to someone else who, I am sure, enjoyed it a lot more.

 

 

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DIAMONDS MIGHT NOT BE A GIRL’S BEST FRIENDS


In case you haven’t noticed, recently it was the 50th anniversary of Norma Jean Baker’s death. Marilyn Monroe. Words and pictures and tv shows abounded in the last few weeks, most notably reviewing the case of her death, accidental or otherwise. While I am at work, I think my mother must have gobbled up too many of these shows, because yesterday, apropos of nothing, she came out with “Would you take me to see Marilyn Monroe’s grave site?” Say what?

I am not one for cemeteries. Countless visits to Paris never inspired me to trudge to Pere Lachaise and even when staying in Highgate, London, I never made it to the famous graves. The Hollywood Forever cemetery, sprawling green hills where many beautiful and famous are laid to rest, will attract the likes of me only because of their movies on the lawn programming. But how can you refuse one’s mother? A brief internet search informed me that Ms. Monroe’s latest abode is not at the Hollywood Forever, as I suspected, but at the Pierce Bros. Memorial Park, right in the heart of Westwood.

And sure enough, located behind the Wilshire corridor’s skyscrapers and not too far from UCLA, is this quiet oasis of green, enormous Jacaranda trees and simple crypts dating back to the ’30’s, with  more contemporary and much more lavish granite tombs in a newer addition (that is where you will find Farrah Fawcett, for example). It’s actually quite serene – not that I have given much thought to my burial (or cremation as the case may be) but this is a cute little place where to end up, if one really must.

Another use for lipstick

Marilyn’s tombstone, I believe arranged by Joe DiMaggio (the source of this tidbit is my mother and her tv shows and wholly unverified by me), is simple: just her name and the two dates book-ending her life. One or more women felt inspired to dab bright red lipstick and kiss the marble. Some flowers were left in the tiny vase. That’s it. Not sure what I expected but, if she is looking from somewhere, I think Marilyn would be pleased with the location and the little bench right nearby (erected in somebody else’s memory), where a stream of young girls kept on replacing one another, paying their respects to a star who, if alive today, would look incongruous within the parameters of our skinny and toned female ideals and where an airhead (real or made up) has little place in what we find attractive.

Uneducated maybe, but certainly not a airhead, I think Marilyn would be bemused by the throngs of females of all ages who keep her myth alive. Because it’s women who are drawn to her movies, her rag to riches story, her sad ending. She might not be the poster child for anything we apparently stand for but she left an image of unabashed sexuality not to be ashamed for, and the impression that a strong mind  can get you anywhere.

Three Italian young men took pictures and, upon hearing me speak Italian, asked me if I knew where Roy Orbison’s tomb was. Not a clue but their Lonely Planet stated he was also buried there. A funeral in the Persian section of the cemetery was wrapping up and I felt like I was intruding by peeking at grave stones of people I didn’t know. Although, we all knew Marilyn – she gave women, in her own way, a legacy of independence. And that is no small achievement.

 

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Filed under Los Angeles, women's issues

WORKING IT OUT

The alarm clock went off at 5:45 this morning. I dragged myself down the stairs, sleep still in my eyes, for a pre-work yoga session with my iPad (some apps are indeed useful), under the vigilant gaze of Ottie, strategically positioned in front of the open window, trying to catch whatever early morning breeze he could get. The yoga lady in the animation video, and her steady and soothing voice telling me to essentially do the millionth push-up when my arms already ache, is not helping the overall feeling that I should have stayed in bed for an extra 45 minutes. And then I think of my toned arms and I give in to her instructions.

I am not obsessed with exercise the way I used to be in my 30’s but I do make a point of finding time for a workout of some sort between 3 and 5 times a week. With a full-time job that can have crazy hours, driving distances that need to be factored in my social life, two dogs and a house to run it can be easy to find excuses not to work out, hence the early morning sessions from time to time. Going to a proper gym has rarely worked for me – my local yoga studio, 5 minutes drive from my house, is all I can muster. A gym would require a 3 hour time commitment I can rarely spare. So I get creative: besides a mix of hard-core and tamer yoga sessions at home or with a teacher, I stocked up on dance aerobics dvd’s and invested in a good pair of shoes, years of Pilates have left me with a solid mat work I still practice, I sprint and jog with the dogs up and down the surrounding hills where I live. If I am anywhere near a pool and nobody is watching, I will push myself to see how many laps of my shoddy swimming I can get to. Sometimes it’s challenging to find the motivation, sometimes I am really good at talking myself out of it but, mostly, I do it. Just like in those Nike commercials. Why? I have recently wondered.

Common sense and doctors tell us we should. I live in a city where looking fit and youthful has become a tourist landmark. It makes me feel good. These are all valid reasons I am sure I share with many of you but when I stopped to really think why on earth I would willingly rise before the sun to work out, I found a subtle shift in  motivation. In my ’20’s, 30’s and, possibly even 40’s, I wanted to look good – I wanted my legs to be mini-skirt worthy, my  butt to look perky in jeans and leggings, my abs to shine under cropped t-shirts. In essence, the motivation, if not explicitly, was sexual. Look at me: I could be your worthy mate, for a night or a lifetime.

Now that I have finally gotten to the point where that kind of validation has no meaning anymore, now that I am old and confident enough to like most of who I am and live comfortably with what I don’t, I really do it for myself. Now that I wouldn’t dream of wearing cropped anything or any skirts above the knee (unless thick tights and boots are involved –  maybe), it’s just for my  own pleasure that I gaze at my flat stomach or wear a 20-year-old pair of jeans.

 

Image Credit: Freepik.com

Last week  I noticed a co-worker, a bit on the heavy side, wearing a pretty white blouse I complimented her on. Yesterday she sported a lovely embroidered top that revealed her recent weight loss. She has still some way to go to get to where probably she wants to be but her pride and satisfaction make her glow and she has clearly rewarded herself with some new clothes. Herself, she is doing it for herself which is the biggest motivation of all.

 

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WIPING THE STRESS AWAY

Not quite this relaxed

“You look so good!” a few people remark “Even your voice has changed”

“How so?” I ask

“There is no edge to it”, a colleague volunteers, which makes me wonder at the harshness of my voice on any other day.

The truth is that, since I took the decision to leave my job, I do feel like my stress level has decreased substantially. On my days off, I don’t check e-mails or voice mails, I don’t think about work at all, really. And, guess what?, when I walk back into work, the place is still standing and nothing much has changed since I left.

I did love my job and the powers that be above me only occasionally made my life difficult. Since I started to let go, gradually, I realized that all the stress and the worries were created entirely by me. Or mostly. My sense of duty, my need for perfectionism and the possibility of staying connected even when not at work, created the perfect storm that made me feel like I had to be the boss, even when I was walking my dogs, or lying on the couch reading a book.

I am under no illusion that I will not feel stress ever but, watching first hand, in these last few weeks, how my mild detachment had a positive impact on my life (and the lines on my face) will hopefully be a good reminder on how things should be. Walking away from perceived difficulties can give us the perspective we need to find better solutions. The same adage that” nobody is irreplaceable” can be turned into “nobody needs to connected 24/7”. If my sense of duty plays a large part in my behaviour, I also blame these ridiculous work ethics that have become the norm in most industries.

Today I walked away from the kitchen at 1 o’clock, during the lunch rush, to have lunch with a client. Not that I would choose to do that on any given day but we were fully staffed, everyone was in a good flow and I had no qualms sitting down to enjoy some of our food. “Call me if the places catches fire”. And I meant it.

When I got back an hour later, the restaurant was still there, in the same flow. What a surprise!

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THE DIRTY BUSINESS OF LOVE

Drawing – aldrinbogi.com

Love is a dirty business. As women, fresh from the indoctrination of fairy tales and happy ever after stories, we embark on finding true love early in life, whatever our idea of it might be. Boys….not sure what boys are after once they figure out the best way to satisfy their hormonal needs but, judging from the brisk business of dating sites the world over, they are also looking for love in all the wrong places.

Love is not for the faint of heart. We post flattering photos, write clever and witty profiles about ourselves, about our likes and dislikes, our material and spiritual goals and, by so doing, we hope to separate the wheat from the chaff, trimming our search down to the truly desirable (or so I am told, as my information in this department is purely second-hand). This process is not so different from inhabiting the facade we all create to interact with the world – be it business, friends or lovers, it’s the best of us we want everyone to see. Therein lies the problem.

First of all, forget giving it a try with someone with whom the proverbial chemistry is not there on the assumption that it might grow on you. No, it won’t . Like animals in all kingdoms, our mating rituals are determined by hormones, pheromones and chemical reactions – whether you belive on the fittest of the species theory (i.e. who can give us the most babies) or not, our first instincts are all based on physiological reactions, so there is no point denying that urge or pretending it will develop. It’s what happens after, once the bouquets of flowers have faded, the romps in all corners of the house decreased, the life stories start repeating themselves and we are simply left with each other.

Love is hard. Walk behind the Hollywood set of our cleverly put together facades and we are confronted with the less desirable facets we hope our partner will take in his/her stride. That moment of reckoning is bound to happen to all of us, over and over again, blissfully married or dating for ten minutes.

Love requires an enormous amount of letting go: of ourselves, of our preconceived notions of what a relationship should be, of our plans and, above all, of our ideals in the love department.  Compromising and acceptance are par for the course but what  I am talking about is the crude and impossibly difficult unveiling of ourselves in front of another human being. This is me, with my very packed Samsonite of fears, shame, rage, meanness, vengeance, criticisms, treachery, humiliations and bad intentions. Behind my brilliance, my accomplishments, my beauty, my riches, even my Zen attitude to life, this is the miserable sod I can sometimes be. Now what?

Love takes courage. Twice. The courage to love not only another human being’s imperfections but also their darkest corners. And the courage to believe that we can be loved for all our appalling shortcomings.

 

It would be tempting to put all that in the next Match.com ad. But, then again, why spoil the surprise?

 

 

 

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CAN YOU PLEASE LEAVE ME IN MY BUBBLE?

Happy bubbles

If you are a male reader, I beg you to stop reading now. There are images of your woman you just don’t want ingrained in your mind. Go have a coffee and I will see you tomorrow. If you are a girl of any age, carry on – you might recognize or see your future yourself.

This morning, battling LA traffic trying to reach the office of my gyno, I thought back at the time of my first period, age 13. It was a Sunday, I was in the back of the family car, on the way home from a day trip to Florence, my little sister napping next to me. Once inside the house, there was a surprise in my panties. I knew what it was, girls talk, but my mother wasn’t extremely helpful – with only some tampons on hand and pharmacies closed, she couldn’t think of anything better than handing me a huge wad of cotton wool to put between my legs. I felt I was sitting on a saddle and mentally reminded myself to avoid scheduling any major life events on a Sunday.

Thirty years or so later, I am driving to the gyno because my super regular, trusted periods that invariably followed the moon cycles, have become wacky. I know where this is leading to but I am living in a heightened state of denial, still convinced there might be a medical explanation. “You are all good!” she announces cheerily, brandishing a gigantic white and blue vaginal wand that would put any vibrator to shame. “But what about my wacky periods?” “Do you have any other symptoms? No? You will just have to grin and bear them, you are peri-menopausal”.

In sign of protest at this unwelcome piece of news, instead of hurrying to work, I veer into Pain Quotidien, the rip-off Belgian chain known for its wonderful bread, the quaint communal tables and the coffee served in those adorable French cafe au lait bowls that get me every time. I blow $10 over a small cappuccino and two slices of rye bread with butter and jam, all organic – mind you – breaking my golden rule of keeping dairy and wheat at a minimum in my daily diet. The coffee brings me back to a state of denial, in which I decide that this peri-menopausal state will last for a good 10 years. I am finally ready to face the rest of the day.

Fast forward a few hours and, in a (unwelcome) case of serendipity, a very pleasant looking lady zeroes in on me at work, while I am on my break, sipping coffee in the sun. In the space of five minutes, this stranger manages to tell me she is turning 60 tomorrow, she is a breast cancer survivor, she is on Weight Watcher (although she looks extremely slim to me) because she wanted to look fabulous for her birthday.

“You know, menopause made me gain 1 pound a year. You’ll see, I was as slim as you (she still is). You need to start taking calcium now because you have small bones and all your bone mass will be lost in the next few years. And go for the hormone replacement therapy. I look way better than all my friends who don’t do it – their skin sags and they look old. And the hair, the texture of the hair changes, mine became curly and it was as straight as yours.  And, my god, the mood swings, I kept crying all the time”.

At this point, I just want this lunatic to go away, breaking as she is into my denial bubble, where I carved a very comfortable place for myself. But nameless lady is relentless. “It just sucks, I am so depressed at turning 60”. I tell her she looks pretty wonderful to me, in her white skinny jeans and a powder blue top that matches the color of her eyes but I know that, no matter how sincere my compliments come across, they won’t lift her funky mood.

“Start taking your calcium” she insists, finally walking away. I feel like I have been inducted in another secret society. From the one of budding breasts and knowing smiles to the one of sleepless nights and hot flushes. I slowly go back to work, closing behind me the door of my denial bubble. Just watch me, 10  more years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THAT SPECIAL BOND

If I were to explain the game of Mrs. Fish and the Butcher to anyone of sound mind, they would cast doubt on my sanity. Only one person in the world would understand – my sister. Because it’s she I would play it with on Sunday mornings, still in our pyjamas and intent in getting out of bed as close to lunchtime as our mother would allow us.

My sister and I, despite the 7 year gap that separates us, always shared a bedroom. And, even with a house that allowed for plenty of space, I never thought of asking for my private room. When my sister was very little, I relished telling her horror stories of monsters and menacing men lurking in the shadows, scaring her out of her wits, or tickling her until she cried for mercy or, worst of all, pretending to be dead until she burst into tears. I was mean. But she paid me back in kind as soon as she was old enough to call my bluff.

Because of the age difference, we never attended the same schools, shared the same friends or lived through the same experiences at the same time – there was no way for competition to develop, which might have strengthened our bond and allowed for an unquestioned acceptance of each other. I know I betrayed her when life tugged its cord and demanded I become my own individual, and I will never forget the look on her teenage face when I told her I would be leaving the country shortly after college graduation. Disbelief gave way to anger – how could I leave her in the middle of the detritus of my parents’ marriage, with a mother too depressed to take care of her and an absent father? But leave I did and we never shared a house again, save for the her visits to London and Los Angeles and a few odd vacations here and there.

Our life trajectories couldn’t have been more different but we share the same stubbornness and punctiliousness, the same eyes and the same voice (now hers more gravelly from smoking). Above all, what I came to understand over time is the intrinsic knowledge of each other that we have. My sister might not be the recipient of the infinite details my best friends have been collecting for years but she never had to learn to know me. To her, I just am. The product of a family, a place, an upbringing, rules, habits and conventions that are second nature to her just as they are to me. No explaining needed. We come from the same seed, we used to fall asleep staring at the same ceiling, roll our eyes at the dinner table over the same tired jokes and indefatigably test our mother’s unconditional love.

These days, if my mother suspects something is amiss in my words, she will call my sister to dig for the truth, and vice versa, always finding the same impenetrable shield “I have no idea what you are talking about”. Ingrained habit. Deny even if caught red-handed. And always, always, have each other’s back.

 

 

 

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THE ART OF DOMESTICITY

I woke up with the hint of a cold, under an unusually grey sky. Even when work does not beckon, a guilty factor starts to seep in and prevents me from staying in bed past 8 am. There is so much around the house that needs to be done and that keeps being postponed for (my) very valid reasons.

After breakfast, in a burst of energy, I wash all the winter blankets (even if rain and cold are predicted for the rest of the week); clean the A/C filter (on which I notice, for the first time in 8 years, the sticker that says “clean once a month” – well, I get to it once a year); sweep the balcony; vacuum and generally clean up the kitchen; water the outside plants (I know, it’s going to rain but it makes me feel better) where I notice an empty flower box outside the bedroom. I could cut a geranium from the garden and re-pot it but I have no idea how such things are done – I could win an award for the most ignorant gardener in California. My plants flourish because the weather conditions are foolproof.

ehow.com shows me how such things are done, step by step, but I don’t recognize half the words and tools so, on my way back from the grocery store, I stop to pick up an already rooted geranium for $5. I believe it was a wise investment that saved me time and headaches – of the garden variety ones.

At the end of the day, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Is this what my mother felt at the end of every day, while we were growing up? I learnt to despise housewives early in life (sorry, Ann Romney). As a sneering teen-ager, I wondered what purpose or meaning women, like my mother, could find in keeping house, feeding brats, ferry them to all sorts of activities and start over the next day. I knew I wasn’t born for many things: becoming a sailor, a mathematician or a housewife never made my top 100 list.

(Un)fortunately for me, when I left home I realized I couldn’t live without a decent home-cooked meal once in a while and that a less than spotless bathroom gave me the creeps, both factors which pushed me to learn the basics of cooking and cleaning (that was after the cereal and milk dinner phase that lasted a good five years).

As I plunged my nose in the stack of freshly laundered blankets, nearly a lifetime later, I am asking myself whether anything has changed. I am preternaturally grumbling that I don’t have enough time to get anything done/fixed/ironed/organized around my house. Would I be happier if I could spend my days ensconced here, organizing linen by color, labelling spices, alphabetizing books? All secret quests of mine.

I love my house – and it works reasonably well because I happen to be a highly organized individual but, if I could stay home, a lot more could be done.  Would I ever learn to fix the plumbing, paint walls and knit? Would I actually want to? Probably not. But, like all secret fantasies, I like to keep them alive and stashed for a rainy day.

 

 

SIST

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FRIDAY MUSINGS AND SILLY DREAMS

The extra-sized white envelope inside the mailbox was a surprise. The name and address were handwritten and the post stamp indicated the letter had travelled all the way from Italy. Who gets handwritten mail any longer? If I think of all those letters I penned in my youth, to friends, lovers, family, I become a touch nostalgic.

I recognized the handwriting on the front at first glance – you are not friends with someone for over 30 years without absorbing certain details on an intimate, visceral level even if, these days, the bulk of our communication is carried on through e-mail. Inside, one of my oldest and best friends, lovingly folded a full page of Repubblica, an Italian daily, with a black and white photo of a famous person I used to have an enormous crush on and whose face is now being used to advertise jeans. I smiled, remembering a time when life’s difficulties comprised nothing more than balancing a checkbook (perpetually empty) and getting over a heartache.

I tacked the photo by my desk at work, certainly not because the crush still has merits (and, sadly, the object of my old desire is no more) but to remind myself, while I slog through e-mails, recipes, whining staff and the like, that life is too short even if you live to a hundred and that dreams, no matter how silly or improbable, are at the heart of our existence, the driving force behind who we are. Impossible or unattainable are not adjectives we should ever ascribe to our dreams. The point is not whether they become true or not but what we do, along the way, to try and reach them. The process will transform us and, sometimes, will transform our dreams too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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