Friday, July 29, 2011

Caryl writes: She's got style. And power. And our admiration

I admit it: I have a new girl crush. I am always looking for role models, women who just don’t just look good for their age (don’t you hate that back-handed compliment?) but just look good. Period. And, if a woman can combine style with substance, feminity with feminism, panache with power, well then I am totally besotted.

The woman I admire most at the moment is Christine Lagarde, a fifty-five year old French lawyer and the newly appointed director of the International Monetary Fund. (Yes, she replaces Dominique Strauss-Kahn who is awaiting trial for sexual misconduct.)
Lagarde is our first 2nd life style icon. She’s has a distinguished resume: head of the international law firm Baker & McKenzie and France’s economic minister. She was the first woman to hold both those positions and with IMF, she has hit the trifecta. See her front row center at the recent G20 economic summit in Korea. When asked what advice she’d give the second female economic minister to attend the previously all-male forum, she paused for a moment and then said: “You don’t have to behave like the boys.” Women have an advantage because they don’t have to worry about keeping their “libido and the testosterone” in check, according to Lagarde.
But she doesn’t throw out the men’s wear with the men. Lagarde knows how to rock a little black suit -- whether it's with pants or a skirt. She knows how to accessorize too. She keeps the jewelry simple—earrings always, a brooch or pearls, scarves big and in bold colors, and shoes that allow her to climb stairs as well as the ladder. She often carries big, beautiful handbags --including a Birkin. Lagarde’s fashion palette tends towards black, white, and grey. (At least, that’s what I like her in. She goes a little frumpy in beige and navy.) Great white coat, huh?

And, her eveningwear is quietly glamorous.

She’s not afraid of patterns...
...or baring her arms...

...or getting wet . ..

... or even traffic. (She plans to ride her bike to the IMF offices in Washington, D.C.)
So what makes her a 2nd life style icon? Her style is ageless, timeless, and yes, grown-up. It helps that she is tall and thin and, of course, French. Her number one accessory is confidence. She had the courage to go gray early. Other qualities that all of us second lifers can emulate regardless of our nationality and vital statistics: her perfect posture, her winning smile, her impeccable grooming, and her dedication to fitness. She swims daily and does yoga—and don’t forget she’ll be biking to work now. The divorced, mother of two sons with a big job and a full life is a perfect example of unflappable, casual elegance. And, if you don’t believe me, look for her soon in the pages of Vogue, the American bible of fashion. She was shot for an upcoming profile/fashion story (think Kirstin Gillibrand, Hilary Clinton) last week in her DC office. But remember you saw her first at Second Lives Club.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Maryl writes: “Childhood complete”

That’s what my 19 year-old daughter said to me after watching “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” the final episode, last week. She deemed to go to the movie with me because she was feeling a bit glum and wanted to get out. Lana had a challenging first year away at college and is contemplating a year off before returning. Back to that in a moment. We had sat in that same theater nine and a half years ago with a dozen of her middle school friends after a tea party at our home and a white (it had to be white!) limousine ride to the theater for her 10th birthday party (pictures below) and our own little premiere of the first Harry Potter movie. They all grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron Weasley (Lana’s fav, another redhead) who are off to college on their own or already starring on Broadway and in other films. (Lana met Emma Watson, who played Hermione, on the streets of Providence, RI this year and affirms how unassuming and likeable she is. Also, it’s true Daniel Radclilffe, Harry of course, is extremely shy and Thomas Felton, Draco Malfoy the bully, was the nicest one on the set. Go figure.)

So the three Potter stars are on their way but now to my daughter. Her childhood may be officially over but the maturing and learning are still in play. Despite the vast effort that was put into last year’s tribulations over college applications and acceptances, I would support another game plan as long as we can come up with one that continues her developmental progress and ends with a college degree not too far into the future. Of course, what’s the rush anyway. College doesn’t guarantee you a job and the future you designed for yourself these days. It doesn’t even grant you an apartment of your own upon graduation. The latest statistics tell us that 85% of college grads move back in with their parents because they just can’t find jobs. (See Caryl’s Odyssey II post for her thoughts on this subject.)

Thomas Friedman wrote in a NY Times Op-Ed piece recently that the old career goal of climbing the corporate ladder is over. Now college graduates and anyone looking for gainful employment for that matter must consider inventing their own jobs within companies or with their own start-ups. LinkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman recently coauthored “The Start-up of You with Ben Casnocha. They advocate a new mind set as well as skill set to compete for jobs of the future. Because of the uncertain and rapidly-changing conditions we do business in today we need to think and act more like entrepreneurs who start companies with no assurances of their chances of profitability. Hoffman advocates experimenting, adapting and taking your next steps based on that learning. You also need to network and be informed about where the growth opportunities are inside which industries and then define a way that you can add value that no one else can. “For entrepreneurs it’s differentiate or die – that now goes for all of us.”

Entrepreneurship is near and dear to my heart you may recall. I can attest to the fact that at least half the presenters doing pitches at the various entrepreneur meetups I attend are fresh out of – if not still in – college. That says to me that they are learning the basic start-up skills while still in school and aren’t being prepped for bolstering the weight of old corporate structures and business processes. Good for them and woe to the rest of us that have to unlearn what we knew as religion - endeavoring to keep our rigid org charts in order, employees appraised and graded and PowerPoints polished. This paradigm shift is not just for the newbies. We all must learn to network outside our immediate comfort zones, attend panel discussions and seminars and keep our skills uptodate. In fact this week I’m attending a web programming seminar for non-programmers with my goddaughter who is just starting her first real staff job after freelancing for a few years and making a complete move from an analog to a more digital profession. My goal is not to become a coder but my businesses are built on the internet and I know those recent college grads will be a bit more nimble than me in getting their prototypes off the ground. 

But back to Lana again. She’s not even halfway through college and struggling to find her place in the world. Maybe she’s already seen that a college degree isn’t all you need to get where you want to be but try to get someone to read your resume without that credential. So she’s looking into gap year programs, part-time jobs, non-matric college courses, internships (more suggestions anyone?) and willing to try new things. It’s frustrating for her and like most young adults she has little patience. But where I think I can help her is with grasping the importance of being resilient. Friedman agrees we need it now more than ever in a climate that doesn’t immediately recognize the value of our individual talents and ideas. Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, the internet radio service, that just went public, had no luck pitching his idea to over 300 venture capitalists at the start. Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" was rejected 38 times before being published. Even J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter’s creator, was turned down by twelve publishing houses and after she found one was told not to quit her day job. So inventiveness and resilience gave us Harry Potter, a beloved novel and music on our PC’s. I guess Lana and I can stick it out a bit longer.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Caryl writes: You can go home again

This weekend I went home for a high school reunion, more accurately the coming together of a group of women who formed a club when we were in our teens and named ourselves “Women of the World” – or its acronym WOW. We came together at the lakeside cottage of one of our members, a delightfully idiosyncratic summer house built by her father-in-law in the 1950s when the American dream was alive and well. On this sultry summer weekend being at a lake in Wisconsin--a state where only last year the Democrats walked out (and into Illinois)--was like being in a time capsule from a more optimistic time.

Almost every house including the cottage where we were staying was flying the American flag. (Red, white and blue bunting was also prevalent.) Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness seemed to be in full swing. Anywhere you looked there were intact families, their adorable children splashing about the water, unworried about the failing education system; boaters and jet skiers skimming the lake unconcerned with rising oil prices; all of them basking in the hot sun and hyper humidity unperturbed about the thinning ozone. The free world with its almost double-digit unemployment, depressed housing market and -- oh yes, climate change (was it really105 degrees?) seemed far away. This was the America I remember growing up in the Midwest. Open another Bud Light, fellows, life is good.

But it was not the post-millennium America I left a few days earlier on the East Coast. Suddenly, I was nostalgic for my youth when life was simpler and the future was promising. I tried to bring it back by reminiscing with my former high school friends. Of the 10 original WOWs, only half were present. (One of us teaching in Japan sent a letter updating the facts of her life post earthquake. Included in the post were delicate paper fans we immediately put to use.) First, we remembered Beanie who had died last October of lung cancer after decades of working as a physical therapy aide in the public school system and with no health insurance. None of us were immune from disease. Among the group's collective health problems were two women with ovarian cancer, one with breast cancer, one with thyroid cancer, one with a brain tumor and another with a debilitating auto-immune disease.

All of us in recent years have passionately embraced Michael Pollan’s mantra: eat food, not too much, mostly plants. Ordering meals out, not to mention grocery shopping for the weekend, was an ordeal: no gluten, no sugar, no processed foods, no dairy. No CHEESE in Wisconsin? Come on . . . . At lunch, at a local restaurant in this farmland community, we ordered chicken. It came with a choice of sides: Mashed potatoes? Baked potatoes? French fries? Do you have a vegetable, we inquired? Oh yes, said the pie-faced waitress. Corn!!! For an extra couple of dollars, we ordered broccoli that arrived swimming in butter. The basket full of sugar iced cinnamon rolls was free.

Back at the cottage, air conditioners blasting into the night, we discussed our lives. Among the five of us present-three were straight (two married, one separated) and two gay. One of the gay Wows had married her partner last month when the Illinois laws changed to permit such civil ceremonies. The other was in a long-time committed relationship in a state that forbid such unions. For the first time together, we discussed such un-fun topics as pensions, and Medicare, and Social Security—things our parents may have taken for granted but were currently at risk. And there were heartfelt worries about our children for whom the American dream was becoming a nightmare. Even with their college degrees, jobs were rare, pay was low and benefits almost non-existent.

On Saturday night, all of us packed a healthy picnic dinner and several bottles of wine and headed to a picturesque site by the lake to hear an outdoor concert that reprised favorite songs from a favorite singer from our twenties: John Denver. It was a beautiful night on the grassy lawn, the lake was calm, fire flies flickered, children giggled, peace and love reigned. The night was still hot. It wasn’t the weather but rather our lifelong friendships that warmed our hearts. In a few days I would be leaving on a jet plane . . . returning to my real life, and a threatening and threatened world. Don't know when I'll be back again. Oh babe I hate to go.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Maryl writes: Personal Style is in your closet

Met Exhibit
I’ve been thinking about personal style lately.  Maybe it was spurred on by my perusing Inès de la Fressange’s Parisian Chic” guide, referenced on the 2nd Thoughts page.  Maybe also viewing the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and “L’Amour Fou,” the recent documentary on Yves Saint Laurent, made me curious too.  Both designers broke the rules and changed the way women dress.  Personal style encompasses more than the clothes we wear but we have to make those style choices every day and that is how others judge us whether we care or not. 

Met Exhibit
I stare into my closet and realize that my personal style has not really changed but evolved over time and not just because I now don yoga instead of office attire each morning before taking my place at my laptop. I still follow fashion but as we shed our former roles and responsibilities, our wardrobe morphs as well. There are less codes I need to follow so I’m free to differentiate myself even more and in a manner that makes me feel more comfortable both physically and psychologically. We entered the corporate world suited and shoulder padded to death. McQueen’s gazelle-horned tailored jacket may have cracked the glass ceiling but the damage could have been irreparable. (Can I get that in black without the antlers, please?) 

His Met exhibit was pure theater, something to behold and there were even a few ensembles I could have worn to the office. But McQueen didn’t look at haute couture as being as transitory as it is or an end unto itself. He said, “I think the idea of mixing luxury and mass-market fashion is very modern - wearing head-to-toe designer has become a bit passe. It's a new era in fashion - there are no rules. It's all about the individual and personal style, wearing high-end, low-end, classic labels, and up-and-coming designers all together.” So maybe my Michael Kors sheath dress that I wear with sandals I found at a discount outlet, beaded necklace from a trip to India and earrings from Claire’s fits McQueen’s definition of modern. And my Galliano wool and satin jacket with my jeans and Pumas are mixed up enough as well. Most importantly, I feel appropriate, a bit edgy and myself in these outfits, which I’ve had for several seasons now, and never that I should have worn something else. (Know that feeling?)

Yves Saint Laurent broke fashion barriers too. He has been credited with making women feel more comfortable and elegant wearing pants to work or out for the evening as well as for play. We may have forgotten but pants were fairly taboo in the workplace up until the 60’s and 70’s. (Come to think of it women were pretty scarce there too at least in management positions.) Saint Laurent slimmed down menswear silhouettes to fit the feminine shape and introduced the “Le Smoking” tuxedo jacket in 1966. The stylish pantsuit followed and women wore them wherever they pleased. He designed for the fashion-conscious working woman with a modern spin and a touch of fantasy. "For a long time now," Saint Laurent said, "I have believed that fashion was not only supposed to make women beautiful, but to reassure them, to give them confidence, to allow them to come to terms with themselves." His designs were based on this notion and were in sync with the newly found success women were experiencing in the corporate world around the same time.

Met Exhibit
I believe styling your wardrobe is a creative process. The most mundane tasks can be more fun if what you’re wearing makes you feel fabulous. McQueen also said, “For me, what I do is an artistic expression which is channeled through me. Fashion is just the medium.” If we still believe that the “medium is the message,” then let’s start communicating that this passage of life is indeed more fun and fabulous than what preceded. "Every woman in the world, sometimes without even knowing it, has something in her closet inspired by Yves Saint Laurent," said the American designer Michael Kors. So mix it up; go look in your closet!

Recap of links: 
1)   Inès de la Fressange’s “Parisian Chic” guide reference 
2)   Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of
3)  Yves Saint Laurent documentary, “L’Amour Fou
4)  YSL "Le Smoking" jacket

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Caryl suggests: Summer Reading.

Summer days are longer but my reading time seems shorter. (By the way, that's not me in the gold lamé bikini. I still read hard-bounds, not e-books.) As long as its daylight, I seem unable to pick up a book. What to do? Against my usual reading patterns, I've been sampling short stories--or at least stacking them on my nightstand. Over the weekend, I dipped into The Empty Family, a collection from Irish writer Colm Toibin. I fell in love with Toibin last year after reading Brooklyn, a quietly profound coming of age story that's not much longer than a long short story.

In this new collection, Toibin writes masterfully about the fragility and vulnerability of family relationships and the secrets we keep and the lies we tell to preserve them. "The Colours of Shadows", for example, recounts the deathbed promise a nephew tells his aged aunt who took him in as a child when his mother abandoned him, a promise forged in love and loyalty and one that he will not keep. In "The New Spain", a prodigal daughter returns to her childhood summerhouse after a decade in exile and finds the family she left no longer her family and herself a stranger in her strange homeland. Alone and estranged, the family fireworks behind her, she feels not turmoil but peace. Writes Toibin: "As she raised the glass of cold beer to her lips, she felt a contentment that she had never expected to feel, an ease that she had believed would never come her way." Toibin’s gift is that he brings into the open the ambivalent feelings we hide and the desires, longings and loneliness we feel about our families. The Empty Family fueled the realization that even the shortest story can be long on truth, potent and enduring despite its length.

Also on my nightstand are two more short story collections: one from a relatively new author--Carolyn Cooke--and the other from a long established one--Margaret Drabble. I finished Carolyn Cooke's first novel Daughters of The Revolution ironically on Father's Day this year. The book's protagonists are fatherless daughters, the setting the environs of a New England prep school, and the time the 1960s, an era of tumultuous social change. I loved Cooke's insights and often loved her writing but I can't say I loved the book. It read more like connected short stores than a fully developed novel. But there was talent there so I bought her debut book, a collection of short stories titled The Bostons. This little gem deservedly won the O. Henry Award, the LA Times Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year commendation.

Margaret Drabble is no stranger to awards. With 17 novels and numerous other contributions to English literature over the past half-century, Drabble was made Dame of the British Empire in 2008. But she is hardly known for her short form fiction though she has practiced it throughout her career. A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman (do you not love the title?) is her complete collection. In a homage to the writer and the stories, Joyce Carol Oates wrote in a recent New Yorker review:
Read chronologically, these fourteen stories move from youthful, romantic yearnings and adulterous nostalgia to middle-aged disillusion with marriage and the freedom of the older, independent woman. There’s an ironic cast to Drabble’s calculatedly “happy” endings that suggests a perspective not unlike Jane Austen’s. The most gripping story in the collection is the title story, an intimate account of a beautiful, accomplished wife and mother whose husband’s love dwindles in proportion to her success in broadcast television. In Drabble’s hands, this demoralizing anti-epiphany becomes a moment of liberating self-realization, one that will leave the “smiling woman” forever changed.

Tonight when the sun goes down, I am going to meet Dame Drabble if only for a little while.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Maryl writes: About enLIGHTenMEnt

Finding your next big idea and how to embrace it in this part of life can be especially profound and exhilarating. It’s more than an aha moment; it’s enlightenment. So as I recently prepared for and moved through my July 4 holiday weekend, I found myself involved in experiences centered around light. It started off with not your ordinary yoga class. This one took place as we circled around Leo Villareal’s “Volume,” a three-dimensional matrix of mirror-finished stainless steel and over 20,000 white LED nodes programmed by software that cycled through patterns and movements set to pulsating music. The piece has been described as “a dazzling tone poem that draws the viewer into a deep, abstract space as it warps temporal and visual perception.” The meditating went easy that night.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Caryl writes: Riding the Waves

Nothing says summer like a frolic in the surf-- even if the water temperature was 55 degrees as it was Father's Day weekend. My friend Kayte, also 55, didn't mind. Throwing on a bikini and dashing into the waves made her feel alive and ready for an endless summer. That weekend was pure bliss as I helped her open her beach house and prepare for her much-awaited season of family togetherness.

Kayte is a single (and always working) mother of two children--a teenaged daughter (you know what that's like) and a just turned 21-year-old son who was currently completing a rugged 78-day survival course in the Australian outback and due to return the end of June. With dreams of the long 4th of July weekend ahead and her family intact, Kayte could hardly contain her excitement.

Then she got the call. Her son had been hospitalized with an open wound and a staph infection. He was indefinitely banned from flight. Kayte jumped on the next plane and within a day or two if you count the time change, she was at his bedside on a distant shore. Just yesterday--more than a week and much worry later, I received this email: Alas, medical clearance and on our way home tonight! I am ravaged by the experience, but fine knowing the beach awaits me... what a dark abyss down under...emerging to the light..

I thought about our time together two weeks earlier at the beach, the tide coming in and out, the powerful surf slapping into us with cosmic force, the exhileration of surviving each wave, the anticipation of another right behind it. There was a time not long ago, when the metaphorical waves could flatten me--wave (breast cancer) after wave (my firing) after wave (the dissolution of my marriage) after wave (my parents' deaths) left me not just weakened but despondent.... In my second life, I've learned to ride the waves, to stay in the super-charged, alert to all life's moments between them. There will always be another wave. But the joy of conquering the one just behind us is incomparable, and the knowledge that we will be standing stronger after the next is both the challenge and the satisfaction of a second life.