Next Steps and a Brief Note

Hi, everyone. I thought I would quietly ghost this site, letting it diminish down into the corner of the internet it basically always was—a place to preserve a certain voice and feeling of a certain moment in our lives, and no more. But then this happened. #Trumpocalypse. The reckoning. Not just with that man-cheeto, but with the very serious question of why half of America decided to vote for him. I was ready to let a new job, a new city, and a new career path distract me from the simple act of writing community into existence, but no longer. I will make time. We will write. And I’ll be honest, we no longer have the funding structure that bound my team together in concrete monetary ways, but please know that the values which knit us together are stronger than ever.

Below are some preliminary ways to get involved and help bolster the social justice movements and ideals that Trump and his coming administration have threatened. This is a storm we can weather, but only if we tell ourselves we can—even if we don’t believe it right now. I am simultaneously numb with shock and horror at the America we woke up to yesterday, and galvanized to action. I feel a fire in my blood. Do you? Continue reading “Next Steps and a Brief Note”

A Brief History of the Cat Lady

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From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, countless thousands of cats across Europe were tortured and burned to death alongside the women whose “familiars” in witchcraft those cats were presumed to be.  Sometimes the cats themselves were believed to be witches.  The women were usually single and often elderly.  Medieval and Early Modern society’s mistrust of single women, cats, and any bond between the two lingers in today’s conception of the “cat lady.”  Like her persecuted “witch” predecessors, the cat lady is our culture’s envisioning of the woman who has failed to remain within the social order, who lies precariously outside it.  Continue reading “A Brief History of the Cat Lady”

Game of Thrones: An End of Season Recap

Or, as a friend once called it, “stabby castles.”

SPOILERS AHEAD
I recently wrote about the exciting potential of the early episodes of Game of Thrones season 6, and the second half of the season more than fulfilled the promise of the first half. The last two episodes in particular were each better than most full-length movies. (Also, we got confirmation of the most important of all fan theories: the one regarding Jon Snow’s parentage.) When I wrote about the first half of the season, I mentioned the surprising amount of female wish-fulfillment fantasy it contained; with the second half of the season, the dark side of that wish fulfillment became clear. We were given what we wanted—Sansa’s revenge on Ramsay Bolton, Arya’s on the Freys—only to feel how dark and morally murky our satisfaction with such scenes became. Continue reading “Game of Thrones: An End of Season Recap”

Getting Angry at Strangers

Over the course of my late twenties and now into my thirtieth year, I like to think I have become increasingly confident and assertive.  There is one area, however, in which I still find myself feeling helpless and inadequate: I have not learned how to effectively communicate anger.  This is particularly the case in situations in which it is appropriate for me to express anger toward someone I don’t know.  I have recently gone through two minor ordeals, one of which involved someone trying to cheat me out of a significant sum financially, and the other of which involved someone making a professional mistake that could have physically and psychologically harmed me.  I am not satisfied with my responses in either case, as I think they were governed by the difficulty I have in finding an appropriate way to express my anger.

The first of these occasions was the more mundane; it began with a sudden billowing of smoke from the front of my car as I arrived home one day.  I assumed my car had overheated, and waited till the smoke had stopped before driving it to the nearest auto repair shop.  The mechanic I spoke to that day looked under the hood of the car, and explained to me that one of my radiator pipes was cracked.

As he spoke, the mechanic was no doubt sizing up my petite blonde self, my Bambi-like stare as he explained what he was seeing under the hood, and making fairly accurate assumptions.  My PhD in English literature would not help me here.  When it comes to cars, I conform pathetically to sexist gender stereotypes.  The car mechanic could probably have told me there were unicorns waltzing in my engine and I would have asked the price to have them removed humanely.

But the cracked pipe seemed—and probably was—plausible, and he said it could be repaired for $170, and would be ready that day or the next.  It turned out, however, that he would need to order the part, and thus the process stretched out over five days in which the mechanics were (they told me) waiting for the arrival of the apparently rare and elusive radiator pipe.  On day four, I was informed that the price would double, as the other radiator pipe, it had now been discovered, was cracked too.  I accepted this, mildly annoyed but still basically believing I was being told the truth.

On the fifth day, when I called—and when I was finally able to reach someone who seemed to know what was going on—I was told my car would finally be ready at 4:00 that afternoon.  I showed up at that time, desperate to have my means of transportation back.  Instead, I was told that now that the pipes had been replaced, the mechanics were able to see that the radiator itself had a small leak.  They would need to replace the radiator, which would require them to order one from Indiana and would bring my total up to $1,200.  I still didn’t believe that they were outright lying to me, but I am a graduate student, so I don’t have that kind of money readily available, and I was frustrated at how they’d kept stringing me along. 

Thus—much to my dismay—I found myself overtaken by one of my least attractive habits, Angry Crying.  In such moments, my very dislike of making a scene only makes me more frustrated and makes my crying even harder to stop.  I managed in the midst of this to tell the mechanics that I would pay them the $300 or so for what they’d already done and take my car somewhere else.  I drove off in a car that did not smoke at all, but I was fuming.

My father ended up taking my car to a mechanic he trusted.  That mechanic said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my car.  Probably the initial radiator pipe had been the only issue in the first place.  But, naïve as it may seem, I was shocked that the first repair shop had tried to cheat me to such a degree.  Car mechanics don’t have the best reputations for honesty, but I still felt amazed that, had I had the money, they might have convinced me to order a new car radiator for absolutely no reason at all.

My car is running fine.  But I wonder why, in moments of deep frustration, all I can do is cry.  It would have been appropriate to express some anger to the men lying about my car, and certainly afterwards to write a scathing review of their business online.  But in those moments when some frustration that has been building inside me slides into anger, that anger always takes me by surprise, and my coping mechanism is a highly ineffective one.

***

The second event made me less angry, though it threatened me with more harm.  It left me for most of a day in bed, sleeping or too tired to move.  I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and that is very, very fortunate.  If I had had to go to work that day, or drive anywhere, or do anything at all, I would have been unable to do so.  I woke up at my usual (early) hour, but right after breakfast I felt exhaustion seeping through me.  Instead of getting dressed, I got back into bed, intending to close my eyes for a few minutes.  Not long afterward, my mother walked past the room, and I made some feeble excuse for not being up.  She laughed it off as me needing to catch up on sleep.  “I feel like I could sleep all day,” I said, perplexed.

Hours passed, and still the warmth of my bed exerted an irresistible pull on my limbs each time I tried to rouse myself.  I was starting to get worried.  My mother kept checking on me, asking if I felt sick, but I didn’t—just bone weary.  I tried to think of some reason for such intense fatigue, assuming it was somehow my fault.  Perhaps I’d accidentally swallowed an extra pill when taking my anti-anxiety medication that morning, though that was not a mistake I’d ever made before. 

Things got worse.  When I dragged myself down the hall to go the bathroom I realized I was stumbling around as if drunker than I’ve ever actually been.  I was dizzy, my vision blurred.  I fell.  My mother found me lying on the bathroom floor, and by then she was worried too.  I heard her speaking to me as if from a great distance, though I couldn’t see her through the stars floating in front of my eyes.  She tells me I asked her “Is that you, Mom?” but I don’t remember this.

It got through to me, as my mother led me back to bed, that she was asking if I wanted to go to the hospital.  I don’t know what or if I answered, but I remember how impossible a feat it sounded to get up, go somewhere, and answer questions.  I slept some more, roused only later by my mother to eat lunch, which I did without noticing the taste.  Finally, in the early afternoon, an idea penetrated my foggy brain.  I remembered that it was the first day I’d taken a pill from a new refill of one of my prescription anxiety medications.  The pill had looked different than usual, but I hadn’t thought anything of that at the time I took it, knowing that sometimes pills can look different when pharmacies get the medications from different manufacturers.  But now I went back to look at the pill bottle, and took out one of the strange pills.  As I ought to have done that morning, I read the description on the back of the bottle of what the medication was meant to look like.  The description was of a white, round pill, like the one I was used to taking—not the oblong yellow pill I now held in my hand.

At first I mistrusted the evidence of my eyes.  But I carried the mystery drug to my computer and Googled the numbers printed on it.  I felt a thrill strangely like vindication when I saw that the pill I had been given was not only not my usual anti-anxiety medication, but was in fact a serious anti-psychotic drug. (It was also a fairly high dose, I later learned, particularly when combined with my other medications).  I had found the explanation for what I was experiencing, which was a huge relief.  But the discovery also brought a chilling sense of recognition.  As a teenager recovering from anorexia, I’d been put on a medication to keep me calm and compliant.  I think I was on it for about a year.  It wasn’t until I was a college student taking Abnormal Psychology, when I saw that medication listed in my textbook, that I discovered that it was an anti-psychotic.  It was not the same one I had now accidentally been given years later, but it had served a similar purpose.  In sedating me it had leeched my will, my energy, my fighting spirit.  Perhaps that was for the best for me in the long run.  But even now I resent it, and those feelings were churned back up by the familiar enforced lethargy I was now struggling to shake off.

This is no means an attack on psychiatric medicine, which has been invaluable to me for years as I have battled chronic anxiety and depression.  Medications that allow you to be yourself, less prey to the distortions of mental illness, are wonderful things.  But there are also cases in which psychiatric medication is used primarily sap you of self, of will, of control.  The line is a thin one, and differs in every case.  But for me this pharmaceutical mishap was a reminder of a time when I felt that line had been crossed.  In both cases, I had unquestioningly taken what I was given, and was left powerless.    

Within twenty-four hours, the drug had pretty much left my system.  It took a few more hours before my concentration and focus fully recovered.  I soon returned to the pharmacy to exchange the incorrect medication for the correct one.  The pharmacist who had filled the prescription was there, apologetic.  My mother, possibly Earth’s least vindictive person, had nevertheless felt that he should lose his job over this.  But standing in front of him, hearing him apologize, I didn’t know what to say that would be worthwhile.  “I lost a day of my life,” I told him.  He apologized again.  I asked for the number of his manager, which he gave me.  And I left. 

I never called that number.  Nor did I ever put up a negative review on the auto repair shop’s website.  In the case of the pharmacist, I don’t actually want him to lose his job.  I hope he will be more careful, but his actions were accidental.  They also weren’t sexist.  It made no difference that I was a woman and he a man, unless you count the fact that women are more often diagnosed with mental illness, and so are perhaps more likely to be the victims of this kind of mix-up.  The auto mechanic’s actions, on the other hand, were malicious and probably sexist, as he saw a young-ish woman and assumed (sadly, correctly) that he could invent complete falsehoods about her car’s condition and she would believe him.  In both cases, I haven’t pursued any further action—besides writing this article.  Maybe this is due to weakness or laziness, but it’s also due to what was ingrained in me growing up: that I shouldn’t complain, cause a fuss, or stir up trouble.  I can be pretty assertive defending people or causes I care about, but expressing anger on my own behalf still makes me feel uncomfortably like that unpleasant kind of person: shrill, suspicious, impolite, rampaging.  Basically, the stereotype of the angry woman. 

I have written before about being a recovering good girl, and perhaps these two experiences happened to help me on my path.  I don’t intend to become paranoid that everyone is either conning me or incompetent, but I will focus on asserting myself on my own behalf, and reminding myself that doing so is not rudeness but basic justice to myself.  Ladies, let’s look out for ourselves, and, just as importantly, let’s speak up for ourselves.  We don’t have to be helpless in the face of our own anger or in the situations that provoke that anger.  In this one area, I am still working on finding my voice.  And I may also try to learn something about cars.   

Game of Thrones: A View at Mid-season

Tuning into Game of Thrones tonight? Of course you are. Peep I.C.’s mid-season write-up before you do! You won’t regret it. It is known.

Warning: Spoilers for Season 6, Episodes 1-5 of Game of Thrones

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Throughout the first half of season 6, Game of Thrones has been giving its viewers what they want (with some exceptions: RIP Hodor).  The most obvious example is Jon Snow’s resurrection from the dead in Episode 2, an event all fans fully believed would happen while remaining very anxious that it might not.  This season has also briskly rearranged the chess board by wiping out some of the old guard: along with the death of Stannis Baratheon last season, Balon Greyjoy, Doran Tyrell, and Roose Bolton have all now met their demises.  Perhaps most importantly, however, Game of Thrones has positioned its female characters as the most powerful in the game.

In general, this season has emphasized women’s power; Entertainment Weekly pointed this out even before the season started, announcing that women would “rule” Season 6.  They were right, and it’s unfortunate for viewers like those at The Mary Sue that they gave up on the show last season.   From the minor to the major, female characters have been taking control, even having a “renaissance of the ‘Dames of Thrones,’” as Laura Bogart at A.V. Club puts it.  So far, we have seen Ellaria and the Sand Snakes seize power in Dorne through a quick and bloody coup.  Melisandre may have revealed vulnerability in her despair—and in the revelation of her true age—in the first episode, but by the second she had raised someone from the dead.  Cersei’s grief at her daughter’s death quickly sublimated itself into a return to her usual determined scheming, precariously aligned with the equally cunning Olenna Tyrell.  There’s a new red priestess who has managed to shake Varys’s self-assurance, something viewers haven’t seen before.  Meera and even Leaf of the Children of the Forest have had their moments of heroism.

Then there are the long-suffering Stark sisters and Brienne, who are all coming into their own.  I’ve written before about Sansa Stark’s potential as a heroine, and this season she is more than fulfilling that promise, as other viewers, including Casey Cipriani at Bustle, have recognized.  Some even declare her the best character on the show, and the one who has grown the most.  She has played a central role in three of this season’s most moving and emotionally rewarding moments so far.  The first was Sansa and Brienne exchanging their vows of loyalty as lady and knight.  (This followed a sequence so typical in most fantasy series but so rare and precious in this one, of a knight riding in at just the right minute to save a lady—in this case, Brienne rescuing Sansa from recapture by Ramsay Bolton.)  Finally, Sansa was out of the hands of sleazy or sadistic men, and instead had the protection of a fiercely loyal female knight in shining armor determined to protect her. 

A second deeply cathartic moment soon followed, with Sansa’s reunion with her (supposed) half-brother Jon, whom she urges to help her retake Winterfell from her former tormentor.  She even gets the chance, in another crucial scene in episode five, to confront Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish for putting her in the power of the Boltons.  She forces him to confront not just the emotional, but the physical pain she endured.  She emphasizes that some of that pain involved things “ladies don’t talk about,” but she is not ashamed to bring them up; the shame is all, rightly, Littlefinger’s.  While her lie to Jon about her meeting with Littlefinger suggests she may not have fully severed the latter’s puppet strings, she is undoubtedly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

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Photo via Twitter @TheDove_Stark

The show sets Sansa’s impressive and hard-earned courage alongside Arya Stark’s accelerated training as an assassin in Braavos and the return of her eyesight.  Arya has reached a cross-roads where she must decide what her identity will be from this point forward—will she remain Arya Stark, or become No One, as she must to serve the Many-Faced god?  Will she sacrifice her own moral judgment, and her own quest for vengeance?  While we have yet to learn the full significance of the choice, it seems clear that what she decides will have impact on the story as a whole.

While the entire season has been putting women front and center, nowhere is women’s power more emphasized than in Episode 4, perhaps the most compelling episode of the season so far.  This is the episode in which Sansa’s bravery and queenliness shine through, as she plans to return to the place she has just escaped, telling Jon Snow: “I want your help, but I’ll do it myself if I have to.”  In this same episode, Osha heroically sacrifices her life out of loyalty to the Starks, and Margery Tyrell and Yara Greyjoy (Asha in the books) reveal themselves to be more determined than their brothers to keep playing the dangerous game of thrones.  (Interestingly, though, Theon has never seemed more mature as a man than when he shows himself ready to support his sister’s authority in the face of those who mock the idea of a female ruler.)

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Photo via Twitter @Daenerys

And then, of course, there’s Daenerys. Men on the show are constantly underestimating Daenerys, and one of the pleasures for female viewers is seeing those men turned to cinders when they do so.  Dany spends the first three episodes of the season captive to the Dothraki warlords who verbally assault her and threaten her with rape.  At the end of Episode 4, they argue her fate amongst themselves, and are astonished when she dares to ask, “Don’t you want to know what I think?”  Naturally, she is told her voice means nothing, and when she suggests that only she is fit to lead the Dothraki, they respond with threats of brutal assault.  “Did you think we would serve you?” they sneer.  “You’re not going to serve.  You’re going to die,” she tells them, overturning all the torches and burning them all to the ground.  She, the blood of the dragon whom fire cannot harm, emerges unscathed.  All the Dothraki outside fall to their knees in awe and reverence.

Why is that scene so spine-tinglingly wonderful, even for someone who would happily dispense with much of the violence on this show?  I think it’s because Dany has been forced to put up with the kind of macho BS all women have to put up with, but especially when they dare to exert authority or just to use their voice in public.  Women who speak up for other women on the internet or other public forums are particularly often silenced by barrages of hateful and threatening comments, and sometimes by actual physical violence.  That’s what gives such sweetness to Dany’s being able to dismiss her captors as “small men,” and to turn their intended violence back on them.   She does so instead of attempting to flee with her would-be rescuers, Daario and Jorah, and without even the help of one of her dragons swooping in.  This is a specifically female brand of wish-fulfillment fantasy.  And that’s not something a Season 1 viewer would ever have expected from Game of Thrones.

New York Street Style: May

Our photographer B.C. took to the streets of NY to capture the last days of transitional style. Take a peek at these looks before you slip into something a little more summery!

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Women at Work: Tess (Cobbler/Shoemaker)

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Editor’s Note: I’m excited to present our third interview in the series! (Check out 1 and 2 as well!) We talked to Tess, who works in a rather unusual industry—as a cobbler’s apprentice. As someone who knows basically nothing about the handcrafts industry, it was cool to talk to someone who is following such a unique path. Read on below:

What do you do for a living?

I’m a cobbler’s apprentice right now. Cobbling doesn’t have an educational requirement/school, so everyone tends to start as an apprentice.

What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Tess GobeilI am admittedly still learning and there is an insane amount of little things to memorize. Typically, I come in and am shadowing someone for the day, whether that is on the glueing side of the shop, or the finishing side. I often am helping someone work through their rack of shoes, and in down time, I am doing a lot of varied shop prep work. This has included stuff like cutting and glueing new rands for rock climbing shoes, cutting down large leather pieces into small leather heel pads, taking the stock order weekly, preparing halfsoles to be used for those day’s shoes, etc.

Something that I really love about the work is the variety and that I have yet to have one day that was the same as the one prior.

How did you decide to become a cobbler’s apprentice? How much longer do you have as an apprentice, and then what is the process like after that? How much do you make?

Last year, I was working in a handmade papermaking mill, doing mostly bookbinding type work, across the country from where I live currently (which is also where I grew up). I had a partner back home, I wasn’t feeling fulfilled at work, and I was just ready to leave town. I knew I wanted to keep working a workshop environment but I was hoping to keep away from heavy trades (like carpentry, welding, etc) because those don’t interest me much. I ended up cold calling a bunch of cobblers in the city I wanted to live in, and it worked out for me!

As it is, somedays I am given a few pairs to do repairs on. Right now, it’s mostly simple stuff, basic hand-sewing and glueing, sanding things down, etc. When I am fully trained, it will look pretty similar to what I do now, except more work and more complicated work. In the morning, I’ll be assigned a much bigger pile of shoes to work through, aha.

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Right now, I make 12$CAD an hour (9$USD) but I’m told that gets raised pretty regularly, after training and assuming I’m still doing solid work.

I’m definitely the baby of the shop still, so it’s hard to say how long I will be apprenticing for! Probably six months to a year, if I had to estimate.

Very cool! I feel like not many people our age are in touch with this kind of smaller-scale craft work. Are you worried about the growth of your industry, or are you not planning to stay in it definitely?

I’ve had a pretty niche set of jobs and I really strive to stay connected to smaller crafts, because I think they are really valuable as an industry (even if it’s a small one). I’m definitely intending to stick with cobbling. In school, I actually studied papermaking but when I went to do it as a “career”, it just wasn’t for me. So it’s been really encouraging to find something with some familiar hand-skills, that I really love.

In regards to growth, I am not so worried. There has been a big push on online fashion communities, that appears to be trickling into the mainstream culture, that we should be buying buy-it-for-life and better quality products in general. Ideas like this are imperative to cobbling continuing to strive, so I am very grateful for a shift.

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Was cobbling traditionally a male-dominated field, and how does it compare today? Do you see any gap in wages between men and women in your field, or any other areas where you think the conditions for women could improve? (I.e. Things like maternity leave?)

Cobblers themselves are mostly men, I’d say. It’s hard to say why exactly, other than it’s a blue collar industry. And realistically, it’s also one that isn’t very innovative or having changed much, so I sense it isn’t one that has really made a shift to encouraging women to get involved. As well, lots of people aren’t sure how to break into the industry. Our shop is about 20% women, which is pretty low compared to other industries.

Something that our shop does that I really appreciate is always having a cobbler on the front intake counter. This position rotates every shift and that person is also working on shoes in between customers. As a woman, this feels like it reinforces that we are not just cashiers or front-of-house people, but that we also are the ones doing the dirty work.

I would say that the majority of cobbling shops are one-man-stands, ran by slightly older gentlemen who have been doing it a really long time. It’s going to be really interesting to see how the industry evolves over the next 20 years.

I don’t see any wage gaps, but it may also be because the industry is so small and there are so few people really vying to get into it. Most people are hired as apprentices by a man in his one-man-stand, so there aren’t a lot of fellow female coworkers to compare wages with, unfortunately.

Tess is making a pair of shoes from scratch and documenting the process on tumblr. You can follow along here!

Atlanta Street Style: April

Get your life.

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Know some stylish folks in #ATL? Tag us on instagram @acrocollective or use #AcroStreetStyle!

 

On Turning 30

Thirty was the dead end of narratability for female protagonists until the twentieth century. By thirty, the heroines of my most beloved novels are either long married or long dead. Either way, there is no more story to tell about them, as they have reached a sublime and static state beyond narrative. Like fairy-tale princesses, they have ridden off into one sunset or another.

All this has of course changed. Fictional female protagonists, like real women, now have flourishing lives after thirty (and after marriage). But women are still raised with the awareness that our society has assigned us expiration dates, even if that date is now later than thirty.

by I.C.

On April 23 this year, I turned thirty.  Prior to that day, on the few occasions that I mentioned the upcoming birthday to other women, they gave a slight wince of commiseration.  They knew this was a birthday that must come with mixed feelings, at best.  Turning thirty represents the crossing of a bridge, invisible but very real.  On the other side I find myself the dreaded femme de trente ans.  A woman of a certain age.  When I was younger, influenced perhaps by too many historical and literary idols whose flames had burnt bright and briefly, I thought it was rather unromantic to live much past thirty.  Then again, when I was younger, I couldn’t actually envisage myself ever being thirty.

Thirty is the age that has traditionally marked the end of youth.  Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, turns thirty in a novel all about disillusionment and disenchantment with youthful ideals.  “I just remembered that today’s my birthday,” he recounts himself saying, and thinks grimly: “Thirty.  Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade… Thirty– the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”

It’s a difficult birthday, and, whatever Nick Carraway might say, harder for women, in whom our culture so fetishizes youth.  In the nineteenth-century novels that have been my personal and academic staple, this birthday marks the end of the age of marriageability for women.  Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion generously announces himself ready to marry “anybody between fifteen and thirty.”  In Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Lucas’s sense at age twenty-seven that thirty is fast approaching partly motivates her agreeing to marry the pompous Mr. Collins, whom Lizzie has already rejected.  Charlotte cannot afford to be “romantic,” unlike Lizzie, who is “not one-and-twenty.”   Similarly, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the narrator intones: “At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact.”

More generally, thirty was the dead end of narratability for female protagonists until the twentieth century.  By thirty, the heroines of my most beloved novels are either long married or long dead.  Either way, there is no more story to tell about them, as they have reached a sublime and static state beyond narrative.  Like fairy-tale princesses, they have ridden off into one sunset or another.

All this has of course changed.  Fictional female protagonists, like real women, now have flourishing lives after thirty (and after marriage).  But women are still raised with the awareness that our society has assigned us expiration dates, even if that date is now later than thirty.  (Amy Schumer’s “Last F**kable Day” sketch famously skewers the expiration dates arbitrarily assigned to female desirability.) Furthermore, it’s hard to get past the idea of this particular birthday as a sort of milestone or benchmark.  A lot of us use thirty as a deadline—whether for marriage, starting a family, or reaching a certain place in our careers.  We feel like we should have our personal and professional lives mapped out by the time we’re thirty, or at least have found some stability in those areas.  Twenty-somethings, even those in their late twenties, can laugh about not having their lives together, about not feeling like an adult.  But no one thinks that’s cute when you’re in your thirties. 

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Thirty in our culture ideally means empowered adulthood.  In the 2004 romantic comedy Thirteen Going on Thirty, an awkward teen wishes herself to the pivotal age of thirty, when her career (if not her personal life) has all the trappings of success.  Last year, I read Elle Magazine’s triumphantly titled “This is Thirty!” September issue, its cover featuring Keira Knightley, who turned thirty that year.  If one reaches thirty with Keira Knightley’s impressive resume and astonishing beauty, it may be easy to embrace the birthday with grace confidence.  For me, I’ll admit, it hasn’t been so easy.

One of my own personal “deadlines” for years has been to get my PhD by or at age thirty.  This one actually looks like it will happen.  But as I plan to walk across the stage at my graduation ceremony this May, it’s possible that while doing so I will still feel like a failure. That PhD has turned out to mean none of the things I thought it would mean, and the rest of my life is in a slightly tumultuous state.  I have to accept that turning thirty is not a stopping and resting point, but a period of transition, of enforced dynamism, of change and even transformation.  Sometimes it feels like I’m in free-fall, shoved off the path I’ve diligently pursued for years.  As someone who is less inclined to embrace change than to be dragged toward it clawing and clinging like a cat to the familiar, this is especially difficult.  But I know that at thirty, I’m only beginning to write my story. So I’m trying to see thirty as a beginning, not an end. 

Perhaps the key to finding empowerment in a “benchmark” birthday like thirty is not in trying to dismiss it with an “age is just a number” or “thirty is the new twenty” attitude.  Maybe it’s more empowering to actually embrace turning thirty as a sort of day of reckoning: specifically, of reckoning up your life, your accomplishments, and weighing them in the balance against the dreams that have sustained you.  We gain so much self-knowledge in our twenties, putting us in a good position at thirty to look hard at our life choices.  If our lives don’t match our dreams, it’s time to reevaluate one or the other.  It’s not easy.  And we need to have compassion for ourselves in the process—that isn’t always easy either.  But comparing ourselves to our best possible selves is certainly a more positive mental task than the tempting but toxic one of comparing ourselves to other people—their accomplishments, careers, relationships– at the same age.  If we use this birthday as a chance to focus on our own paths, to consider honestly how to better align our lives with our goals, and if we then have the courage to act on that assessment, there’s promise in thirty.  There’s hope to be found in it.  Even if you don’t resemble Keira Knightley.