Category Archives: the third act

Bright Girls Grown Up

Most of my female friends are pretty smart women. And most of them don’t give themselves enough credit. At worst, sometimes friends seem to engage in a race for the bottom: “I’m the dumbest!” “I’m the least successful!” “No me!” Humility is a good quality, abject self-abasement less so.

A lot of women I know could identify with these questions:

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the Bright Girls — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.

I’ve entertained a variety of theories about these issues: maybe women are discouraged from succeeding, maybe women are acculturated to believe they should not be ambitious or put themselves forwards, maybe women are multi-tasking and set lower goals accordingly. And I think, yeah, maybe, but as a daughter of 1970s feminism I feel like those factors are not as powerful as they once were.

Another possible factor comes from the “Mindset” school of development:

What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls in ability, nor in past history of success. The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty — what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result.

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: More often than not, Bright Girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

While I have been, at times, ambitious, hard-working, and willing to keep chipping away at a challenge, I have also let a setback lead me to question myself: “I’m not as smart as people say, and now they’ll know it.” “I guess I wasn’t meant to reach this level of accomplishment.”

Those “greatest hits” of the tween and teen years play in our heads as adults too, and sometimes when we’re feeling uncertain it’s easy to forget that we control the volume and the power switch. That’s one reason I love reading stories about people who make dramatic midlife changes, people who live for years as one type of person who do something dramatically different: NFL cheerleader to anthropologist, screenwriter to Senator, oil company executive to noir fiction master.

Changes like those can’t happen for people stuck with a particular idea of who they are.

How many different ways have you filled in this blank: I’m not a ( ) person. Which one would you like to let go of?

Full article, “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” here.


Once More Out of the Cave

Back in the early 90s I went to see a staging of the Broadway version of the Who’s Tommy—a soundtrack for my childhood—and the lyrics seemed radically revised. Freedom didn’t just taste of reality, it tasted of “normality.” Tommy, the deaf dumb and blind kid, tells Sally “The point is not for you to be more like me. The point is . . . I’m finally more like you.”


I think I was about 24 at the time, and Pete Townshend would have been in his mid to late 40s when he revised the old lyrics for a new show. I thought then, “Wow, that must be what it is to get old. To make this music relevant for him now, it has to be a story about conforming rather than about liberation.”

(Or maybe about it was drugs. The plot never made much sense.)

(ps you really have to watch that. It will probably explain a lot about your parents.)

May God grant that I age as well as Pete Townshend, obviously, who probably still has more stamina than me. And who knows what he did to make a show that would sell on Broadway.

I haven’t swung quite so far as Tommy did, but lately when I hear new music on the radio, I try to compare my response to it now to how I might have responded to it then. Just as when I hear a song from the 80s, sometimes I think, “Wow, that song sounds so different to me now.”

It’s fitting that I heard of Mumford and Sons from my high school nephew. I love the song “The Cave”: I can imagine myself as a young woman listening while trying to make a decision about leaving college as a sophomore (I did go back), or taking a leave of absence from grad school (ditto), or leaving a job search behind and committing to freelancing full-time (it stuck).

I listen to this song and I see a young woman in a tiny apartment on the phone, trying to convince a well-meaning friend or family member that despite the risks, everything will be OK. I see a desk covered in dorky affirmations—”You will. . . because you can!”—and a brutal 24-hours-solid of crying after a particularly epic failure.

My life lacks that level of drama now, but the song still speaks to me as I think it would have then. Crawling out of the cave of high school, of sadness, and now out of those early high-contact years of parenting: it’s all another chance to rise up and walk out into the light. I love that this song threads those moments together and connects me to that restless, excited, fearless energy of the young me.

I also love cute boys with English accents and long hair. Some things never change.

Do listen now to what you did then? Does it sound the same?

Where Has the Passion Gone, Ctd.

Thanks to everyone for chiming in on the passion questions: so many good thoughts! Feel free to add more!

Kato said something that I have wondered about but not wanted to believe:

Just like there is less drama in our lives at 40, maybe the same is true of passion? In other words, it’s not that we don’t encounter drama or not that we don’t have passion, but it’s more that those blood boiling moments aren’t as consuming as they once were. Maybe it’s a positive? We just THINK we should feel passionate when wisdom and age and perspective is the real achievement?

There’s a clear logic to that. And I’m not disagreeing, I’m just wondering, if that’s true then why doesn’t it feel like a positive?

Where does the restlessness come from, and what satisfies it, even in the short term?

It’s like I have that old familiar itch, but trying to scratch in the same way doesn’t quite work anymore. But I’m still itchy.

the sound of one shoe dropping

I was taking a shower the other day and thinking about how great things are in my life and how blessed I am, when I got that superstitious feeling, “Things can’t really continue to be this good, can they? When is the other shoe going to drop?”

Hold on. Wait a second. What about breast cancer, a bilateral mastectomy, and chemo? That is Imelda Marcos’s closet of shoes. How am I feeling so blessed and lucky at the same time I am shampooing my bald head?

My therapist thinks I tend to minimize the bad things in my life and he hopes I am not just ignoring them or not allowing myself to feel bad. But, of course, I can feel bad. Sometimes, when I am in the shower, I cry instead of smile. (The shower faucet is, apparently, my emotional release valve.) And, not too long ago, I went through what might have been mild depression for almost year as I dealt with estrangment from my biological family. I remember hanging up holiday decorations and starting to cry so hard that I almost fell off the ladder.

That was a bad year for me but I got through it. Eventually I started to notice the sun shining down on me and the birds singing their whippoorwill tune. Then I began not just to notice the bounty and beauty of the universe, but to revel in it, and I recognized that I had turned a corner and I was back to my “disposed to be happy” self. In fact I was better, because I was taking better care of myself. Then I wondered when the other shoe was going to drop.

But haven’t I had enough footwear dropping on my head my whole life, what with my Dickensian childhood, my failed relationships, the career and financial difficulties, and then cancer? Alas, no. I don’t buy that. Life has both a right foot and a left and that shoe of unhappy surprises, disappointments and despair is going to keep hitting the floor. That is just life.

But maybe I can stop listening for that other shoe, worrying about it, apphrensively. Because I have had a lot of adversity in my life. And I am still here. I think I can have confidence that I will get through it, whatever life throws at me. I’ll pick up that shoe and run with it.

Where Has the Passion Gone?

Dear Tabby,

You helped inspire this post. And no, it is not about sex or even romance, though you obviously could inspire either of those things. (rawr)

It’s about those passions that keep you going through the day: the thing that keeps you happily up at night, the thing you don’t have to put on your to-do list because you won’t forget it, the thing that makes you ignore the passage of time.

I have had very few men in my life (and I’m not just saying that in case my mom is reading). I have had a lot of passions.

Music was my passion for a long time. I was a music major for a while in college, and I practiced up to eight hours a day between singing and piano. Then writing took over and music faded. I had always written, but I dove into fiction with, well, a passion, at least for another few years.

But I had also discovered philosophy, especially philosophies of language and culture. Suddenly my world was crackling with significance, and it seemed as if my infinite appetite for systems and theories—just say it, my intense nerdiness—might have a home.

And on and on it goes. Academia, vegetarianism, babies, homemaking, yoga, cooking, homeschooling, community organizing: I jumped into all of these things with an intensity that is, to people who don’t do intensity, a little hard to understand. And it is even harder to understand when that intensity just stops.

It used to bother me when it stopped, because it stops pretty cold sometimes. It’s like you said, Tabby:

When friendships faded or changed, I felt like I had failed somehow.

All that time and energy put into a relationship, a career, a hobby, a “calling,” and then it ends—what a waste. Or at least, that is what I thought for a long time. But now I see that just like friendships, some passions aren’t meant to last, but they are wonderful while they are there.

And also just like friendships, you have to nurture them in the midst of all the crap that interferes. Otherwise you find—as I have in the last few years—that the few passions you have left are looking rather lifeless, and for some the fire has just plain gone out.

So now, friends, I’m a little stuck. I’m a person who’s always been driven by intensity, but I’ve got nowhere to put it. Maybe I’m like a midlife cougar, hoping to find an all-consuming romance when I ought to be grateful I have someone to go to Home Depot with of a weekend.


But I’m not ready to give up yet. I have high hopes that, once I let go of those old interests that aren’t doing it for me, something new and shiny is going to catch my eye. It might be the start of a beautiful relationship, or it might just be a torrid and short-lived affair, but I think passion—probably a lot of passions—is still out there for me.

Are you doing anything to keep your passions alive? Or are you, like me, a little at sea without an intense love to throw yourself into?

[By the way, if you are an intense person or are a person perplexed by living with an intense person, check out Lisa Rivero’s blog Everyday Intensity]