Are you a Feminist?

I learned the power of this question when I was about fifteen years old. I was at a friend’s house and I overheard my friend asking her father if he was a feminist. Thereafter came a long, parched and silent pause. He did not want to say ‘yes,’ but he also did not quite want to say ‘no.’ This was many years ago, and I do not remember his ultimate response, but what stuck with me was that pause.

I am about to use a tired and cliche writing crutch, and for that I apologize to all the wonderful writing teachers I have had, but as there is often confusion and misunderstanding around this word (as well as outright aversion to using it) I think it is necessary. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of Feminism is: “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”

Last month Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, as he has done numerous times, made comments about the importance of feminism. “We men have to be feminists too.” The internet went nuts. However, he went further, saying that not only should men be feminists, but they need to say that they are feminists: “And it’s about time we said that more often.” Mr. Trudeau has backed up his words with actions by choosing to create gender parity in his cabinet, and when asked about justifying this choice he said, simply: “Because it’s 2015.”  I cannot applaud his actions in this area enough, but I want to go back to his call for men to self-identify as feminists, and encouraging them to talk to their daughters and sons about feminism. He credited his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, with helping him consider the example he sets for their son.

This got me thinking.

I grew up in a family with daughters, and we were raised by both of our parents to think that the sky was the limit. There was no profession we should not aspire to, no class we could not excel in, no activity we should not attempt because we were girls. I learned how to drive a pickup truck and stack cord wood. For Halloween, my sister dressed as a princess one year, and batman the next. My mom is strong (literally, guess who showed me how to stack wood?) and always pushed my sister and I toward our own strength and independence, and my dad pushed just as much for our careers and self-reliance. My dad has also commented, on more than one occasion, that he is happy he had girls and would not have known what to do with a boy. It is a joke, but I think he really means it.

This brings me back to Mr. Trudeau’s comments on men and their relationship to the word feminist. My dad is wrong about one thing, he would have known what to do with a son … teach them the same things he taught his daughters. Why not talk about equality with boys? We should be talking about what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man with everyone, because if women are set up to fulfill specific gendered roles, then men are too. And no one wants to be limited. We may not all be Canadian Prime Ministers who can take steps like cabinet appointments of women, but we can all start using language that reflects a commitment to feminism and not shy away from a term that simply means we are equal.

I understand that just using the word feminist will seem like too small a step to some – this post does not even begin to delve into the complexities of intersectionality and how race, sexuality and many other factors bear on inclusive feminism. However, I think  given the celebration over Mr. Trudeau’s comments, and the sexism rearing in the current Presidential Race, identifying as a feminist is a good place to start.

So if your daughter asks if you are a feminist, do not be afraid of the question, say YES!

 

Don’t Bring Roses to the Churchyard

 

 

Today would have been my Nana’s 95th birthday.

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If I close my eyes I can see her entire apartment. The plush, swivel, baby blue armchair near the television. The dozens of photos and cards lined up along the top of the miniature organ. The bathroom smelling of rose soap. The half dry geraniums leaning about the window above the kitchen sink.

This is not the room where my grandmother lived out the last few years of her life, or the house she had before, which I cannot remember. It is the apartment where she moved after my grandfather died. The place I went for sleepovers and holiday visits. It is the apartment that I still pass occasionally in my car, craning my neck to see if the new tenants have their lights on.

In this apartment she had exactly three children’s movies on VHS: a video of the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Muppets Christmas Carol, and a Looney Toons cartoon medley. I would sit under a knobby pastel afghan, watching TV with my sister, drinking cokes and sneaking extra peppermint patties from the glass candy dish beside the couch.

She never drank milk, but she always had some in the fridge with a tin of ovaltine in the cupboard. Her dining room table was the only place I ever drank ovaltine – I would not even know where to buy it now – stirring the swirls of powder round and round in her brown plastic tumblers. Of course, she bought the milk and ovaltine for me.

She was allergic to roses, but not any other flowers. At least that is what she said… a little puzzling given the rose soap affinity. But every time we brought her flowers we were careful to specify “No Roses!” to the florist, or to pull the rose-stems out of a grocery store bunch.

I should have showed her my wedding dress. For ten months, it hung wrapped in plastic and tissue at the back of the closet and I did not show it to her.

I wonder if I parked outside her apartment tomorrow, climbed the gray-carpeted stairs and knocked on her door what I would find. Would there be buttery green beans on the table, the local news blaring from the other room, and her enormous tabby cat glowering at me from under a chair?

Here is the recipe for her sandtart cookies… I don’t think she will mind if I share:

  • 3/4 Pound of Butter
  • 1 and 1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 2 Eggs
  • 2 and 1/4 cup Flour
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pecans

Cream the butter & sugar & vanilla, then add the eggs and mix. Next stir in the flour. Roll and cut into squares. Cover with sugar and cinnamon and place slivered pecan on top. Bake at 325 for approximately 10 minutes.

 

About that ‘Catcalling’ Video…

 

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I wasn’t going to post about the recent video produced by Hollaback, an organization dedicated to ending street harassment. You know… the one showing harassment of one woman over a ten-hour period. There are already so many opinions about it out there. But then I read some of the comments* about the video and my blood beat a little harder and my jaw clenched a little tighter. The comments that struck me were the ones griping – how is a man supposed to converse with women if not on the street? Shouldn’t she just be flattered? Is no one allowed to talk to anyone or make a pleasant conversation anymore? She is begging for the attention, what with her sexy, plain back t-shirt and jeans! Ugh.

Here is the thing, as many have already pointed out, far more eloquently than I, women know, women feel, that it isn’t just a pleasant comment. For example, recently I was heading to a meeting at around 7pm on a Thursday, just five blocks from my apartment. I reasoned that taking my car could lead to parking five blocks away anyway in a different direction, looking for a cab would mean standing on the street for a long time, and there were plenty of street lights so it wouldn’t be that dark. So off I set on foot. Halfway there, I turned down a block and the only other person on it was a man coming the other way. I assumed the usual woman walking alone in the city position, hands in my pockets and eyes on the ground. I assumed we would pass silently, maybe with a friendly nod, or at most a ‘good evening.’ Feet in front of me, he suddenly ducked to look into my face and yelled “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?”

This is what gets me about this whole debate on street harassment… context can be everything. The words “Hey there beautiful, what are you up to tonight?” are, in and of themselves, fine. Uttered at a bar, they may be a bit cheesy. Sent via text from a boyfriend or close friend they are sweet. Accompanying a guitar in G major and you have a pop hit. But on the street, when I’m alone, they is scary.

The internet is clogged with opinions about why such an interaction shouldn’t be considered harassment. For example, what was I wearing and was I seeking attention through my outfit? There is a blog, But What Was She Wearing dedicated to this ridiculous idea, where women can share their stories. For the record, I was wearing business casual slacks, button down, boxy jacket and my glasses. It isn’t about what women are wearing, but about so much more. Besides being annoying, being yelled at/followed/aggressively come on to in the street reminds women that they are vulnerable, that they may not be safe, because there are many women who have not been safe walking alone in the street. At least in my experience, a woman will not think ‘Gee, that guys thinks I’m sexy, how nice!’ upon hearing comments growled behind her about her posterior. Rather, she may think ‘I hope someone else starts walking here so I won’t be alone in this situation” while clutching her keys and quickening her pace.

But men are just trying to be friendly and connect… WHY IS NO ONE ALLOWED TO BE FRIENDLY ANYMORE?! I’m not saying this is never true, just that it is rarely true. I have never had a man on the street stop me to talk to me, comment on my outfit, tell me to smile, introduce himself, opine on my appearance, or whistle while I’m walking with my husband. So, either there is a hole in this argument, or men on the street are only trying to “connect” to women walking alone, because they don’t yell at women in couples and they don’t make comments at other men.

The sad thing is, it is possible to be friendly and interact with strangers without being creepy. Yet some creepers just ruin it for the rest of us. Obviously, even though I use the general term ‘men’ for this post, street harassment applies only to some men. And some men talk to women they don’t know, give them a compliment and it is taken as such – but again, context matters. To contrast my story above, I was walking to an appointment one morning in the same city when I stopped at a traffic light. There was a man sitting alone at a cafe table on the corner, feet from where I was standing, drinking a cup of coffee and apparently enjoying the morning. We were the only people on that particular corner, but there were people bustling along the other sidewalks. He smiled and said good morning, so I smiled back. He asked if I was headed somewhere important because I was dressed very sharply (in a suit), then told me to knock ’em dead and have a great week. I said thanks, also wished him a nice day. The traffic light turned, and away I went. Now I know that these stories have similarities – I’m alone both times, the man is alone both times, he comments about my appearance. But, the second interaction felt different because it started with just a smile, he didn’t get in my face, he only continued to talk to me after I responded, his comment about my appearance (although I could have done without it) was not sexual in nature but about being dressed to impress (in the business world) and looking confident. There was no lasciviousness, no mention of beauty or any of my body parts, no move to follow me, no intrusion into my personal space to force me to interact with him. It felt like a friendly conversation on a street corner on a sunny fall morning.

Obviously some women/people do not want to be talked to at all while out going about their day. That should be respected. Personally, I do enjoy saying hello to people, at the post office, in a store, or in an elevator – always nice to be nice, ya know? If, however, you can’t see the difference in these interactions described above, can’t tell that one of them is invasive, and imposes on me instead of an interaction with me, then maybe don’t try to talk to women walking alone on the street. It’s about respect.

 

*I’m not talking about the comments that pointed out the possible racial bias in the editing, even Hollaback has acknowledged the point and promised to do better.

 

Why I Am Asked My Age At Work

It is an unusually cool morning for late August, but, in my dress shirt, suit and makeup, I am grateful for the lack of typical Pennsylvania humidity. I stroll into the conference room, place my briefcase on one of the chairs surrounding the large dark wood table and extend a hand and smile to the older couple waiting nervously. The woman, dressed beautifully in a light sweater, her white hair pinned neatly behind her ears, is my client. She returns my smile, and says “I thought when we spoke on the phone that you were a young girl, just from the sound of your voice.”

Close your eyes and imagine people in various professions. First picture a librarian. Then think of how a nurse would look. Now envision a lawyer.

Let me guess, that last one is a man, wearing a clean, sharp suit and bright tie. Perhaps graying around his temples, perhaps already balding. His voice has deepened with age, and his eyes, while bright and playful are creased at the corners. Maybe he wears glasses, which he then pulls off in court and uses to point with for emphasis. His briefcase is worn from attending many, many, many meetings.

I am none of these things.

I graduated from college just as this county was tottering into the recession, and thus decided to postpone the ‘real world’ a few more years and pursue an additional degree. That was several years ago, yet despite years in school, and a few years working, I am usually the youngest person in the room. Different areas of law probably have varying cultures, some I am sure, are dominated by women, some by younger attorneys. My chosen area, however, does seem to have a high percentage of men matching the description above.

For the most part, being a so-called ‘young professional’ has not been a problem, although one attorney noted on the record that I am his child’s age – cue uncomfortable laugh. And of course youth, and the lesser level of experience that comes with it, can have advantages. Others in the field, even opponents, can be very encouraging, occasionally giving practice tips, or asking about my experience thus far. Being young makes you stick out as being new, and that engenders a certain amount of gentleness.

Where I am the most awkward, and aware of my age, is when interacting with clients. I feel that my youthful appearance somehow let’s them down. Often I interact with a client over the phone prior to meeting them in person. We have a great chat, we make a plan, we set a meeting, and then I show up. That is when they ask my age. I am quick to tell them that I am being supervised by a more senior practitioner. I waive comments off, saying that I look younger than I am. I have even told clients that I hope my appearance does not change their level of confidence in me. I am usually told that it does not, yet every new client has the same initial reaction.

In a world that is youth-obsessed in so many respects (see, any show on tv), it is a strange experience to find pockets where youth works against you. I spend my evenings at the gym or slathering on night cream to stave off wrinkles, but in the morning I choose conservative suits and solemn shades of makeup in an attempt to look more mature.

It is difficult to find fault with people for wanting a representative who looks experienced. Surely some day, when clients no longer bluntly ask my age, I will sigh and remember the days of being a young (new) lawyer. Until then, my girlish appearance is incentive to be very professional, so as to win their trust.

 

 

 

And they all lived happily ever after in his home town … When the Bachelorette Moves for Love

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Everyone should have a secret or two. Here is one of mine, sometimes I watch the Bachelor/Bachelorette. Not regularly, and usually not an entire episode, but over the years I’ve probably seen my fair share of glittery dresses, accusations of fakery and loooong pauses before roses are doled out. It’s fun, its full of drama and even though the point is to find a life partner/bestfriend/soulmate in a few short months on national television, it all looks a bit like a vacation. Sure, there are tears and triumphant declarations of love, but the same sentiments are expressed so often on the show, a show where few couples have actually made it, that it is hard to take everything seriously.

These Bachelor/ette shows have faced a certain amount of (often deserved) criticism over the years. Many of the viewers probably do not pay much attention to it – after all, it is the viewing equivalent of eating cupcakes, no matter how many times they remind us that it is serious for those involved! However, there is one conversation that gets me every time. And it always comes up, usually around home-town weeks when the contestants suitors take the Bachelorette home to meet the family. This trip sparks the inevitable conversation about where the blissful pair will live after everyone else is sent packing. And it usually goes something along the lines of:

Guy:    Hey, do you think you can handle moving to (my town) after we get engaged?

Girl:     Absolutely/Sure/Yes/Probably/I think so

Why is the woman always moving?! At first I thought maybe whoever is the Bachelor/Bachelorette gets to stay in their town, and any contestant that ‘wins’ moves? Not so. (See Ashley & JP). Then I thought maybe whoever has the strongest family ties in one place stays? No. (See Emily & Brad, she moved with her daughter). Perhaps whoever has the most settled career? (This season Andi talked over moving to Iowa, but I’m guessing she didn’t have an attorney’s license in that state yet).

I do not know any of these people, so perhaps they all had great reasons for making the moving decisions that they did. I’m not judging individual couples for their decisions – do what works – but thinking over the seasons I’ve seen, there is a pattern. And of course someone will have to move – if you throw together two dozen single people from across the country, they are bound to be from geographically diverse locations. I also haven’t seen every season (whew) so maybe there was a guy who moved for the girl, I’m just saying it doesn’t happen often on this show.

Here is the thing about last night’s Bachelorette finale, it is the first one that circumvented the entire issue of who will move, and where, and why, and when. (Actually, maybe it isn’t the first, but I’m not a reality tv historian, so…) Andi and her beloved are actually from the same city, as was mentioned on the show.  This led to a lot of sneaking around in wigs, and secret dates over the last few weeks, because even though they are engaged they had to maintain radio silence for ABC. This is either cute, or giving you flashbacks to that 11th grade boyfriend your parents didn’t like. The point is, she chose someone from her home town, so no one had to move. That will probably make it easier in the long run. It will also evades the first big, real decision that most Bachelor/ette couples face after the cameras are off.

Maybe it’s a coincidence. Perhaps I just happened to watch every season where its the woman packing her suitcases at the end, as they ride into the sunset. Kidding aside, I don’t know why the shows end this way – maybe ABC only casts women who dislike their home cities, maybe women on the Bachelorette are more willing to compromise, or maybe they feel like they are expected to?

Something to think about next season.

 

Confronting my Writing Consternation

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Yesterday I scooped up my laptop, grabbed a floppy sun hat and headed for the roof deck of my building. This was the day!I was going to start outlining the story that’s been percolating for a few weeks. I found a deck chair in the shade, facing the river, where I kicked off my shoes, opened my laptop, created a new doc and… nothing.

What is my problem? I was an English major in college, so I’m able to string a few words together. I even took creative writing courses! I wrote articles for my school newspaper, so I’m not afraid to have people read the words I’ve written. I also have a job that requires quite a bit of writing. So why is it that when I turn to story or essay writing I choke?

Instead of writing chapter one, I sat on my roof, watching the sky fade grey and contemplating this conundrum. And my conclusions are this … my writer’s block is fear based. Writing an article or drafting a document at work allows me to hide behind form, convention, and facts. The information is prescribed, I just need to make it flow. However, fiction is a wide open space waiting to be cultivated into anything. And that is where the problems starts and also the questions… Do I have a right to tell a story like this? Does this character seem to resemble my friend? Will people assume this is how I actually feel about said issues, when it is really just a character’s perspective? Is the plot too subtle? Too boring? Too poorly written?

Somehow in the last few years I’ve lost my writing nerve. It may take a bit of work, but my writing will turn out pretty boring unless I start taking a few risks.

So here’s hoping I get it back.

 

5 Years of Technology in 5 Minutes – my first smart phone

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Until a week ago, this was my phone.*

I’ve had this phone for five years, and it doesn’t connect to the internet, it doesn’t have email, it doesn’t do group texts and the photos it takes appear the size of a postage stamp before they become blurry.  But back when I got this phone, before smart phones were everywhere, I liked it.  It did everything I thought a phone needed to do; call and text.

Fast forward half a decade and smart phones are the norm. Call it invention being the mother of necessity, but it began to feel like not having a smart phone was actually having repercussions on my abilities to socialize and work.  Someone would send me an email and I would get it four hours later when I was back at the office.  If I was heading out to a meeting I quickly did a map search of the location so I could find my way there. My friends would make dinner plans by having a lengthy text battle in group message format to ascertain the where’s, the when’s and the who’s.  My strategy for this one was to wait out blank message after blank message until the torrent subsided and I could ask one friend where we were meeting.  It’s like everyone else was Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson, while I was still saying “Hey guys, what’s so wrong with the telegraph?”

So, after months (maybe years) of going month to month on my little Neon, I decided it was probably about time to update myself.  I went to the (insert cell phone carrier name here) store in the mall.  Why not buy online you say?  Well, because it took me until 2014 to get a smart phone – do I seem like the kind of girl who can jump right to the online ordering and registering of my new technology?! Anyways, I went to the store. The salesman was friendly, although he did call his fellow salesmen over to look at my phone, like I was on an episode of Antiques Road Show. “Larry come over here, she has one of the old green neon LG’s. I haven’t seen one of these in ages!”

It is a great jump to go from the technology of five or so years ago, to today.  The greatest leaps for me are the gps and the messaging.  Every app that I download wants to know my location.  If I’m buying shoes online, does the internet really need to know that I’m across town at a coffee shop and not in my apartment?  However, getting places is much easier with a little voice from the passenger seat prompting  “turn left in 900 feet.”  I can check the news whenever I want, my calendar sends updates to my email – these are all new things for me! But as for candy crush … I just don’t get it.

I was not fighting the new phone for any sentimental reason or because I don’t like technology  in general (to the contrary, everything else I have is pretty up to date), it just seemed silly to get rid of a phone that worked.  The problem is that what works in 2009 may not work in 2014, simply because everyone has moved forward in their communication methods.  The new technology becomes part of how we relate to each other. It is not only about being able to group message all my friends a photo of my cat at once.  It’s about communicating in a timely manner.  Years ago, someone sent you a letter and it travelled by mail to your door. Then you read it, wrote a reply and it travelled back to your friend or colleague.  With email and laptops that exchange was collapsed into a few hours. Now, the expected return time on a message or email is much shorter, given that you can receive an email anywhere.  I’m not saying that you have to respond to all communications right away, just that I’m happy I now have the option.

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*I know that having any phone is a privilege that I am afforded because I live in a country with cell reception, I have a good job, and I can afford it.  This post is not about having an expensive phone as a marker of status, it is about older cell phone technology vs. smart phones, and where that places you in a cell phone culture growing ever more accustomed to having a bazillion apps in your pocket at all times.

A Quiet Day In – Spouses Living on Different Schedules

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This week, my husband worked the night shifts on his floor at the hospital.  This means that he is at home all day and I am home all night.  It makes for a strange altered reality where you live with someone and know they have been there, sleeping in the home you share all day long, but when evening falls they are nowhere to be found.  That is, until the weekend comes around and I’m home during the day too.  It is now Saturday afternoon (a rainy one, at that) and our curtains are drawn, lights off, and I’m sneaking around the apartment in sock-feet cursing the loudness of the refrigerator door.

Having a nocturnal spouse is certainly an aspect of being married to a resident I had not anticipated.  The late nights – check.  The long hours – check.  The missed social events, stress, and exhaustion – check, check, check!  However, when we both have a Saturday afternoon off it feels like a waste to spend it with him sleeping all day and me then sleeping all night.  The obvious answer is to go out and do something.*  The other day I met a physician, recently done with residency, who counseled me that ‘having my own life’ is key.  She told me that not waiting around for the spouse who is extra busy to be home is important for creating space for both people.  She is right.  The first few months of residency, which were also the first few months of marriage, I tried to spend every free moment that he was not at the hospital with him.  It was hard.

Coordinating schedules between two people is difficult anyway, even without the ever-changing shifts of a hospital.  And the issue of how much time you have together v. how much you spend alone or with your friends is certainly not unique to marriages with odd schedules.  You have to do activities that are you just for you, so that you do not feel like you are just waiting.  Waiting for them to come home, waiting to get his schedule to book a vacation, waiting to make dinner.  I understand that this situation is especially applicable during residency, however I think many people in relationships struggle to find common time.  This means using time apart to do things for you, and time together be a couple.

Before we got married, someone asked us if the time we spend together is valuable.  I had never thought about that before.   Do we just vegetate in front of the tv, or do we talk and be present for each other?  It’s sort of a quality time over quantity time idea.  Since the start of residency, my longer commute and all of the preoccupations that go with both of our jobs, I will admit that there have been more evenings of dinner with the tv on.  However, we still make an effort to go out, to talk and to connect, which has become even more important now that out schedule so rarely align.

*I did go to the gym the today! See Resolution #3

Saying ‘No’ to Saying ‘Yes’

In the words of Rodgers and Hammerstein, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.”

For as long as I can remember, I have always had an issue turning things down – be they work obligations, extra-credit assignments in school, party invitations, missing an event or class I’d planned to attend, even casual get-togethers.

People love stating that saying ‘yes’ to everything opens your world to opportunities and new experiences, which it undoubtably does.  However, agreeing to do everything begins to add up – so where is the limit?  I took a course a few years ago, while still a student, on persuasive writing.  The professor informed all the eager students in my section that in a professional setting, or really any setting at all, people want to say ‘yes.’  Saying yes is easier, it’s fun, it makes you feel better about your decision.  The class taught us, among other techniques, how to craft questions that could always be answered in the affirmative, even if that answer was really a ‘no’ in disguise.  So I am certainly not alone in my aversion to saying ‘no.’

Perhaps saying no – picking and choosing each event, obligation or lunch date – is a skill.  In high school I never had to learn how to be judicious with my time.  The school schedule allowed students to pursue music on one afternoon and sports on another – so I could do both!  In college, there was mention of study-life balance as a concept, but there were also semester credit limits to keep us in check, and leave room for dorm parties and movie nights.  Life in your 20ies is a little less organized.  No one is going to tell you that you cannot practice volleyball on Mondays because you have a history test, or that you cannot take 22 credits and write your thesis (not that I ever attempted that many credits!) like the good ol’ days.  The world is full of possibilities, assignments and commitments, and I could say ‘YES’ to ALL of them!

It is not simply that I say ‘yes’ to events or work that I do not want to do.  I say ‘yes’ to things that are interesting or important to me or those around me.  I do want to finish that draft of the assignment for work, AND attend the volunteer event AND meet my friend from out-of-town for dinner, but I cannot do them all the same night.  So then I have to make a choice, and it’s this choice that leads to the stress.  First comes the anxiety about which event to choose, then comes the guilt about turning down the other obligations.  I know it sounds like I stress  a lot about trivial decisions (I’m not saying this is not true) but I also think it is a wide-spread affliction.  People generally hate disappointing other people, and saying ‘no’, we believe, inevitably means we are disappointing someone.

Since discovering my proclivity toward saying ‘yes’, I have tried to say it in more discerning contexts.  It is getting easier to say ‘no’ to an evening at a bar when all I want is bad tv, pretzels and my sofa.  There are two areas, however, that still trip me up.  One is saying ‘no’ to an ongoing obligation, for example, if I am working on a longterm project and have to miss a meeting related to it, I feel like I have failed to show my dedication.  The second is learning to prioritize social and family events, which is especially difficult if they are in conflict with work.  Simply because I could not make a housewarming party does not mean I do not care for my friend or her new 1 bedroom.  Skipping a meeting here or there to catch up on other projects or attend a family dinner does not mean I am not committed to work.  However, I imagine that practice will make perfect, and I will continue to ask myself what I really want instead of just blurting out ‘yes’ to every request.