Saturday, March 20, 2010

Girls' Guide to Being Jack Bauer

Recently, I started carrying a 4-gig USB drive in my purse. For what reason, I know not. It isn’t for work or school, but perhaps for something larger. Perhaps it will come in handy should I be called upon to save the world.

But other than my ability to quickly download data from a terrorist’s hard drive, I’m woefully unprepared. And if my experience organizing potlucks and bake sales and office Christmas parties is any indication, saving the world will best be accomplished as a team. So, my fellow women (or at least the half dozen who choose to skim this blog entry): Let’s acknowledge that it was fun shopping for shoes we didn’t need, it was fun spending Christmas Day in our PJs watching Keira Knightley movies, and it was fun amassing throw pillows in shades of avocado and dark avocado. But it’s time now to leave all that behind, and embrace the Jack Bauer in each of us. Consider this a primer.

Jack is prepared for anything. He speaks four languages. He pilots planes and helicopters. He’s well versed in military strategy, current events, history, psychology, culture, politics, and protocol. He can hotwire a car, treat a sucking chest wound, and decrypt your encrypted files. To get up to speed, you’ll need a carefully selected reading list, a dozen college classes, and a few hundred hours of professional instruction. More importantly, though, Jack adapts quickly to changing situations. And so do you! As a woman—and perhaps as a wife and mother—adaptation is your strength. Remember when your mom left her entire estate to The Mormons, because a couple of bored missionaries offered to mow her front lawn one autumn afternoon? Remember when your first husband announced he was gay, then straight, then gay again? Remember when your eldest daughter dropped out of medical school to pursue her dream of playing the didgeridoo professionally? You adapted!

Next, Jack is physically robust, with muscles aplenty and a low body-fat percentage. As women, we probably can’t match that. As middle-aged women, we’d look silly trying. However, we each have a personal best, and there’s no good reason not to achieve it, and soon. When Katrina hit, perhaps you felt inclined to join other civilians rescuing abandoned pets; when the earthquake ravaged Haiti, perhaps you imagined yourself donning a Kevlar vest, strapping on an AK-47, and protecting much-needed food supplies from looters. So did I! But those dreams were soon quashed by the realization that my overweight, hypertensive self would merely get in the way. Also, I have only the vaguest idea what an AK-47 is. So, there’s much work to be done on this front. There’s a slightly smaller gap between fantasy and reality as we examine his third essential attribute…

Jack is emotionally robust. He doesn’t whine, burst into tears, or crawl into bed when things fail to go his way. He might want to, but—always the soldier, always the stoic—he refrains. He doesn’t have a never-quite-satisfied need for praise or reassurance. He doesn’t need others to agree with him or validate him. He’s the opposite of needy; he’s self-contained and interior. Next time you find yourself complaining about the raise that should have been yours, the son or daughter who didn’t call on your half-birthday, or the diminishing space between your bust line and your waistline, ask yourself WWJBD, and then spend an afternoon at the shooting range. Speaking of the shooting range…

Jack is dangerous. Like James Bond without the lame jokes, or Jason Bourne without the pesky memory loss, Jack is formidable. Granted, he has trained as a Special Forces soldier, and has worked for the CIA, FBI, and Counter-Terrorist Unit. I have not. It’s never too late, though…not for any of us. Self-defense is offered as a community ed class, and shooting ranges often advertise Women’s Night. The very earnest can seek out professional instruction in hand-to-hand combat and evasive driving techniques. Consider it an exciting alternative to spa day. And don’t worry for an instant about losing The Cute, and being mistaken for Rosa Klebb in “From Russia With Love.” Because…

Jack always looks terrific. Sure…he’s dressed for a particular brand of sexless action, in sturdy shoes, boot-cut jeans, a leather belt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and a canvas jacket. But he’s handsome, comfy, and protected from the elements. He has plenty of pockets. Most importantly, he’s not hampered by his fashion choices: His clothes increase—rather than decrease— his ability to respond effectively in an emergency. Add a little color/pattern/texture/shine to his outfit, and you, too, can be ready for anything. And unless you’re about to go through airport security, consider the ultimate accessory: a knife strapped to your calf. And jettison that most nonsensical accessory: the clutch. Instead, opt for something that leaves both hands free (see below).

Jack wears a canvas cross-body, chockfull of world-saving gizmos. It contains a laptop, a USB drive, an extra cell-phone battery, a monocular, a knife, a gun, and extra ammunition. In all likelihood, it also contains sunglasses, leather gloves, phone chargers, cable ties, waterproof matches, first-aid basics, a flashlight, several hundred dollars, and a couple of energy bars. Just imagine how powerful you’ll feel—how powerful you’ll be!--when equipped thus. You’ll never miss your Great Lash mascara or your Arby’s coupons.

Next, Jack keeps his word. Like other characters of the same ilk (Robert Crais’s Joe Pike, Robert Parker’s Spenser and Hawk), Jack does what he says he’ll do. He doesn’t agree to anything frivolously or casually, whether he’s talking to a girlfriend, a terrorist, or a Commander-in-Chief. He values the truth; he has no time for bullshit. How refreshing! How freeing! Let us commit to be trustworthy, to be true. Let us allow no exceptions.

And finally, Jack doesn’t engage in small talk or gossip. He’s comfortable with silence, with an unexpressed thought. It bothers him not at all that friends or strangers might perceive him as cold, unfriendly, or too intense. He’s not exactly humorless, but he doesn’t attempt to amuse by quoting lines from sitcoms, SNL sketches, or standup comedy routines. He avoids distractions; he doesn’t embrace them (despite ever-increasing encouragement to do so, especially among middle-class and affluent Americans). We can make these fairly easy changes, and we can make them today. We can take a break from the chatty, outgoing, beguiling, pleasing self we perfected in high school, and find a quiet place—a slightly menacing place—inside.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t choose a female role model. I mean, Peta Wilson portrayed TV’s deadly Nikita, and it seems that Angelina scores a new ass-kicking role every year. However, both women routinely squeeze into size-zero black leather pants. That seems more difficult, really, than learning to disarm a nuclear device.

And perhaps you think I’m attempting to diminish the importance of traditional feminine strengths such as nurturing, peacemaking, multi-tasking, and ovulating. I am not. Women—now more than ever—are an efficient lot. We can embrace both ways of being.

There’s much to be done, so let us begin. And since luck favors those with mental agility and sufficient bone density, let’s make significant progress before menopause looms large. Master one area and then move quickly to the next. And it won’t hurt to occasionally yell “Drop your weapon!”—to the postal carrier, the receptionist at work, the cat. Embrace the spirit of being Jack Bauer, and the rest will follow.

Monday, March 15, 2010

P.S. Please Write

Most people are thrilled to receive an unexpected letter in the mail…not a bill, not an ad, not a notice that the cost of your strep test was applied to your deductible, but a real letter: a friendly, chatty missive from someone you care about, from someone who clearly cares about you. It can be typed or handwritten, organized or rambling, intimate or not-so-much, but it should have meat and meaning, and it should cause the reader to settle in for a moment to enjoy. Some tips:

Embark with enthusiasm. “Hey you!” or “My dearest—and my loveliest—aunt” or “How do I love thee? And, more importantly, when and where do I get to love thee next?” Let the reader feel adored from the onset, and assured that he or she has your full attention. Stifle any tendencies on your part toward aloofness or sarcasm. Remember: A good letter always flows from an open heart.

Capture the moment. “I’m at the computer, listening to a pre-disco BeeGees CD. Henry’s in the garage changing the oil in the Corolla, and the twins are napping.” Or, “I’ve been in bed all day with Salinger’s short stories, and now I’m depressed, and all. I’m wearing those PJs you sent for Christmas. God, I miss you.” Then, capture a slightly broader moment: the movie you watched last night, a failed attempt to make ice cream at home, your child’s latest unreasonable fear. Depending on the recipient, mention your mammogram or the NCAA standings.

Write the way you talk. If, in conversation with a friend or family member, you’re stilted and humorless, write that kind of letter (but not to me, okay?). If, in conversation, you’re candid and gregarious and you seldom finish a sentence, write that kind of letter: “The other day, I was at the grocery store buying tampons and a case of Mexican-style stewed tomatoes because they were on sale and you’re never gonna guess who I saw. Becky Callahan, you know, the student-council secretary when we were juniors? And she had four kids with her, and the youngest was sucking on a Lion King toy…Simba, I think. I said hi, but she obviously didn’t recognize me. Well, maybe she did, and just pretended not to…” Like that.

Don’t be afraid to bond. “This is what I like about you.” “This is what I’ve learned from you.” “This is what I remember most fondly about our time together.” And don’t spare the details; when you think you’ve provided enough detail, go ahead and provide a bit more. Take a moment to say thank you for a long-ago gift or compliment or piece of advice. Allow yourself to tumble into love with this person (even if it’s your mother-in-law, and even if the feeling is fleeting).

Ask questions (but only if you really care about the answers). What have you been reading? What have you been watching? Which celebrity would you choose to be the father of your child? If you were to move to another country, which would it be? What’s your take on the health-care debate? Have you come across a really good recipe for low-fat cheesecake? Think: What is the most intriguing thing about this person? Follow that lead.

Divulge something. Describe the romantic details of your first date at age 15, the time you dropped a full tray in the college cafeteria, the time you ate a dozen glazed donuts for lunch, the time you checked out the men’s room when you were working alone on a Sunday afternoon. And feel free to ramble for a moment. Describe your dream last night, your take on the Kennedy assassination, your recent (brief) foray into vegetarianism. Reveal yourself in all your goofy, messy, joyful glory.

Share a quotation. It broadens the scope of communication by inviting a third person to the table. I like Thoreau, but I usually opt for Leonard Cohen (especially if the letter has become too cheerful). Or quote someone from your household: “Tom says ‘Hi, Mom!’ He says thanks for the $33 you sent for his 34th birthday. He bought a package of socks, a bottle of pinot noir, and two apple fritters.”

Imagine your letter being read aloud. (I imagine my letters being read by Mr. Darcy to Miss Bennet.) A good letter will be tucked into a pocket to be reread in a more private setting, like a bathtub, or a parked car, or a grassy meadow at dawn. Take the time to make the second reading worthwhile: “I’ll never forget that night you made me a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Remember? It was August, and it was raining, and we’d been to the nursing home to visit my grandma, who was dying…” It isn’t necessary to hold back. Really…it isn’t. “Remember that first time I said I love you, and you said thank you, and I stood and pulled the sheets off the bed to wash them, and you said don’t be like this, and I said don’t tell me how to be goddamnit…”

Assume the letter will be saved. Maybe it seems unlikely today, but a good letter can survive decades; it can survive marriage, divorce, an out-of-state move, the occasional house fire. So take a minute to review the big picture. Mention a war in which the country is engaged. Mention the latest political scandal. Mention the price of a new pickup truck, a one-bedroom apartment, a gallon of milk.

And save a copy for yourself. This is a journal entry of the best kind, especially if you were forthright and revealing (and of course you were). Years from now, when you’re home alone, you can eagerly retrace the to-and-from steps of a relationship, whether it was with your mom who died unexpectedly, a lover who dumped you unceremoniously, or your best friend from college who was at your side on both occasions.

Before sending, and if you feel so inclined, add something extra to the envelope. Enclose a snapshot, a recipe, a $2 bill, a coupon or free sample, some postcard stamps, some stickers, a paint or wallpaper swatch, an editorial from the Sunday paper, a magazine article, a snip of something from your herb garden. Stuff that letter. Nothing says “I love you” like extra postage.

“They don’t need to be immortal, just sincere,” says Garrison Keillor, about letters. So write! Today, spend 44 cents and half an hour delighting someone and, perhaps, learning a little about yourself. Start with “Hi there” and don’t stop until you find yourself describing the weather.