Thanks, BlogHer ’14

BlogHer 2014 San Jose

I can’t believe how much I’ve missed this.

I started blogging in 2001. I was living my sister at the time, and our entertainment routine was to rent a random horror movie at the Hollywood Video and watch it while slamming Pixie Stix, making snarky commentary, and laughing our butts off. It will not surprise you to learn that we also watched a lot of MST3K. We thought we were pretty entertaining and I made websites for my day job, so we decided to start writing some of our rants down and They’re Coming To Get You, Barbara was born. It looked like this. screenshot

This was before WordPress, before blogging conferences, before Twitter, Facebook, or even MySpace. We never, ever worried about who was reading us, we were just writing because we loved it. Over the course of 5 years we reviewed over 400 movies, we had indie filmmakers send us their stuff to review, we went to a horror conference and met Leatherface (he was so nice!), and we even gave a presentation on types of film zombies to a Stanford immunology class. The professor had read our stuff and contacted us, so we made a slideshow with a zombie hierarchy with film still and references, and we totally grossed out the class by serving white chocolate cordial cherries painted with food coloring to look like eyeballs. It was a blast.

Reading that paragraph right now and remembering how much fun we had with it, I’m shocked at my decision to just give it all up when I became a mother. I don’t even remember giving it much thought. For some reason I just said to myself, well obviously I don’t have time for THAT anymore, and that was it.

I did start keeping a personal blog and that was something, but since it was 100% focused on my son, it never carried the same kind of personal joy for me that They’re Coming did. My routine was I spent all day caring for him, and then gave myself the assignment of spending my evenings documenting the day. I was essentially approaching motherhood like a very intense seminar, and I am very good student so I gave it all my attention and took copious notes.

I had a second child, and when my sons were four and one I looked up and realized that I had spent the past four years as a person without a hobby or a purpose outside of her children and I kind of snapped. I went back to work, I regained some of my old professional skills, learned many many new ones, and slowly started to come around to the idea that it was ok for me to have things in my life that I do simply because I enjoy doing them. Not for my children, not for my husband, not for my job, but 100% selfishly for ME.

I’ve attended two other BlogHer conferences before this one. My first was in San Diego in 2011, and I was there as a brand rep for my job. My second was in New York in 2012, and this time I was there for myself. I was still mid-freakout, so I pretty much hid in the corner and talked to maybe ten people over the course of the conference.

This time was different. This time, I talked to people. This time, I walked through feeling socially awkward and allowed myself to make to connections. This time, I felt like I found my people. And I looked around the room more than once and asked myself, why did I ever give this up?

I don’t have the answer to that. But I can tell you that even though it feels like the indie web is being swamped by branded bullshit, what I saw this weekend made me believe that independent voices can and will take their space. And I want to be a part of that.

So thank you, BlogHer ‘14. I’d like to close with the top 5 reasons this weekend was the BEST.

  1. I went through at least 125 business cards which I think means I must have talked to 125 people, and I’m not sure how that is mathematically possible but there you go.
  2. I made friends in the bathroom, outside the expo hall, walking down the street, sitting at lunch, getting coffee, in the elevator, talking about prom dresses 50 feet from Reverend Run.
  3. No really, these women were amazing. Super-duper awesome, A++, would friend again.
  4. You got me so far out of my comfort zone I spend the entire conference wearing a floral crown.
  5. You got me so super far out of my comfort zone that I ended up part of a self-titled #renegadechampagne crew hosting a pop-up bar in the hallway. I can’t even describe how much fun it was to have this random collection of people who self-sorted purely on the basis of being the kind of person to say yes when a crazy woman in a floral crown offers them a champagne cocktail. As it turns out, that is a FANTASTIC way to discover people you really want to talk to.

Renegade pop-up bar at BlogHer14

So even though it’s time to return to real life where I don’t pour champagne in hallways, I want to keep that feeling going. So if you’d like have a conversation about motherhood or blogging or horror movies or pixie sticks or really any damn thing you think is interesting, hit me up and let’s talk. I’ll be the one in the crazy floral headdress.

Closing party at BlogHer 14

The Woman’s Dress for Success Book

The Womens Dress for Success Book by John T. Molloy, 1978

This is The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, first published 1978. I am in love with the duel photograph on the cover, especially the part where this woman is standing up at a board meeting wearing a white muumuu and holding a glass of wine. I’m basically 100% anti-professional by the standards of this book, and even I know that you should always hide your work wine in a travel mug (kidding! totally kidding!).

I’m also delighted by the knowledge that in 1978 America had a best-known clothing consultant. I wonder how many aspiring clothing consultants he beat out for that title. (Apparently it was a fair number judging by the cranky footnote on page 30 disavowing affiliation with other speakers or consultants.)

As wonderful as the front cover is however, it cannot hold a candle to the creepy Svengali pose selected for the back cover.

The Womens Dress for Success Book by John T. Molloy, 1978

Please, ambitious American career woman, allow John T. Molloy to gently cradle your shoulders and mould you into the high-powered executive he knows you could be if you’d just stop dressing like a tramp.

This is the beginning of the introduction, p 15-16, which I need to quote in full because it’s wonderful.

The Mistakes Women Make and How to Correct Them

This is the most important book ever written about women’s clothes because it is based on scientific research, not on opinion.

The advice in this book will help women make substantial gains in business and in their social lives. It should also revolutionize their clothes-buying habits.

Most American women dress for failure. I have said that before about men, and research shows it applies equally to women. Women dress for failure because they make three mistakes.

1. They let the fashion industry influence their choice of business clothes.
2. They often still view themselves mainly as sex objects.
3. The let their socioeconomic background influence their choice of clothing.

The only reasonable alternative is for women to let science help them choose their clothes.


In other words:
1. Ladies, the problem is not that the playing field is massively tilted against you, the problem is your failure-clothes.
2. Conform.
3. Conform!

Half of me is really enjoying reading this, and the other half is horrified by how recent the advice sounds (aside from the bits about acceptable ways to tie the scarf on your power suit).

Take Your Space

Oxford College Glee Club 1913 by Miami U. Libraries

I was an a cappella nerd in college. I should that add that at this point (i.e., back in the dark ages), there were few groups less cool than the a cappella nerds. I mean, we were less cool than the musical theater society. Really, really uncool. This is before Pitch Perfect, before the Sing-Off, before Glee, before American Idol (which granted is not a cappella but at least brought vocal performance front and center). And we were serious about our nerdity. We’d do a concert and them immediately go to the after-party and spend the entire night drinking rum and cokes and singing at the top of our lungs. (In fact, after a couple of these in a row, my sister refused to accompany me to any more parties on the grounds that they are incredibly boring for people who might like to talk or dance or do anything else but sing Journey songs.)

Now, collegiate a cappella has its own set of conventions. And of course those conventions were based on the origins of the art form, which in the case of collegiate a cappella involves a bunch men from a prestigious East Coast school standing in a line singing barbershop chords. If you’ve never experienced this, please enjoy the Yale Whiffenpoofs singing their signature closing number “The Whiffenpoof Song”, which they have been singing since 1909 (not kidding).

Of course things loosened up a bit between 1909 and when I joined the scene, but even so most groups still looked a lot like these guys.

The Stanford Mendicants singing in sport coats
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

That’s the Stanford Mendicants. I’ve been to their alumni shows, so I can vouch that they’ve basically looked like that since the 70s.

When I started singing, it was widely accepted that mixed-gender groups (or heaven forbid, all-female groups) were just never going to be as good as all-male groups. Because I was an aca-nerd, I would be part of these discussions and hear things like “No offense, but male voices just blend together better”, and “No offense, but women’s voices just don’t have the purity of male sopranos”, and “Sorry, I just don’t like the sound of women’s voices – no offense”.

Now, these arguments are clearly sexist and stupid. In fact, just go listen to The Real Group as a palette cleanser from that nonsense.

But what’s interesting is the underlying assumption of what makes a group should look like. Because the gold standard of a cappella was defined as a group of 10-14 men standing in a line singing, that’s what all the groups strived to look like, even if that vision was (a) not possible because women and (b) not desirable because it didn’t fit the group’s strengths. I have some very embarrassing pictures of my mixed-gender group wearing neckties and collared shirts, because that’s how we thought groups were supposed to look. We did doo-wop choreography because that’s the way it was done. In retrospect it was totally absurd how strictly we adhered to these unspoken conventions, without even realized that’s what we were doing.

And lest you think I’m just talking about ancient history back in the 90s, please just take a look at the terribly-named acoUstiKats on The Sing-Off. Same preppy look we aspired for, same testosterone-fueled performance, bunch of yelling in the backgrounds, bouncy tenor up front (not to mention the offensive song choice). Feel free to turn it off after the first 8 bars, you’ll get the idea.

I was thinking about this recently because of a workshop run by a leader in women’s a cappella, Lisa Forkish, and the video I really wanted to share in this essay. Please go listen to this amazing cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, which she arranged for her group, The Riveters.

What I love about this arrangement, aside from the fact that it’s gorgeous, is that it has nothing to do with the conventions of “normal” a cappella. (Alert readers will note that this is not a collegiate group, but since most singers get their start in college groups, the performance and arranging conventions tend to carry over into the pro and semi-pro worlds.) For starters, there’s no bass line. The chords are beautifully arranged but it’s not done in the transcription SATB+solo style of collegiate groups. It’s a new sound. It’s theirs.

In her workshop, Lisa was talking about ways to grow women’s a cappella. And one of her main points was, take your space. Of course a performer has to take her space on the stage. But the part that really spoke to me was the point that to succeed you have to take your space creatively as well. Trying to re-make someone else’s art is never a path to excellence. And the problem for women in a cappella, as in so many other endeavors, is that the history was created mostly by men. And as in so many other fields, it’s easy to lose perspective and believe that the way things are done now is the way that things have to be done in the future.

So that is my lesson for the day. Take your space. Make something new. Don’t ask permission. And sing.

Featured image: Oxford College Glee Club, 1913
Image source: Miami University Archives

On Rules and Doing It Wrong

Woman reads while baby sleeps - advertising image from c. 1949

At heart, I am rule follower. I can’t watch sitcoms because the social rule-breaking makes me cringe, not laugh. I never ever cut in line. I was the kid in school who had to do every assignment perfectly, and would fall apart if I missed the mark.

So when I had a baby, naturally I flipped the hell out. I desperately wanted someone to tell me how to raise this terrifyingly small human, to tell me how to do it RIGHT.

And boy howdy, I discovered that the world is full of someones who just couldn’t wait to tell me all the ways I could fuck this up. Every new mother I know has gone through this painful introduction to this endless stream of advice and fear.

Looking back, I can’t believe how much time I spend reading this stuff. I remember late nights where I would tell myself I’d just read through one more topic, one more post, and THEN I’d go to bed. (This is an unfortunate side effect of having a compulsion for completeness – online message boards are infinite, so you are never complete, so you had better just keep reading and reading until you fall asleep on the couch. Fun!)

I think my need to understand the rules is why I also have a need to buy every vintage etiquette book and how-to manual I can get my hands on. When I hold a Sunset Magazine’s guide to good hostessing (circa 1943) in my hands, I picture a young mother sitting at her kitchen table, flipping through looking for answers. She wants to be a good mother, a good wife, a good friend. And the advice she’s getting is both hysterically funny and heartbreaking, because it’s all terrible. It’s terrible advice, and she shouldn’t listen to any of it – because really, what did the editors of Sunset know that she didn’t. Nothing.

It makes me want to give that long-ago young mother a hug, then give myself (circa 2007) a kick in the pants, and then take out a billboard on Highway 101 that says THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY.

(Except when it comes to standing in line.)

(Featured image: Woman Reads as Baby Sleeps from Photographic Advertising Limited
Image source: Collection of National Media Museum on Flickr)

What I learned from Martha Stewart at BlogHer ’12

Martha at BlogHer 12

To set the scene: a ballroom full of women here to learn & be inspired, and on the stage is Martha. Martha! She’s friendly, she’s funny, she’s enthusiastic, she’s wearing fabulous orange pants.

And she delivered on the inspiration. The moment that made me want to stand and applaud was her reaction to this not-too-veiled snark during the Q&A.

Hey Martha, you are so good at so many things. Tell us something you’re terrible at.

Her response?

*thoughtful pause*
Well, I guess I’m terrible at things I haven’t tried yet.

She didn’t apologize. She didn’t giggle. She was handed an incredibly strong cue to put herself down, and she very politely declined to take it.

This resonated with me because I struggle with taking credit for work I’ve done. I can know perfectly well that I’ve done a great job, but I still have to fight the instinct to respond to a compliment with, “Oh, it was nothing.” And I have that instinct even though I know that by saying that I’m putting myself down. I know that I’m diminishing the value of my work in order to make the other person feel better, and that by doing that I’m diminishing my own value.

What made me crazy about that question is that if Martha Stewart were Matthew Stewart, nobody would ask him to apologize for being driven and successful. He would be admired for it, and so should she. In fact, I admire her more because I know she had to learn how to turn off those voices telling us to take that step back; telling us that making other people comfortable is more important than going out there, taking charge, and creating something amazing.

So Martha, you keep on being awesome. I will make it my homework to replace that put-down voice in my head with a new voice, one that keeps reminding me to NEVER apologize for being awesome. And the next time I get a compliment, I’m going to smile and say, “Thanks. I really worked hard on that.”