I canceled my wedding

When I was 24, I canceled my wedding ten days before it was to happen. For many years, it was hard for me to talk about. Whenever it came up, people would generally express enthusiastic support or sympathy and I’d smile slightly to show appreciation, but internally, I was wincing. It took more than ten years to get over my feelings of shame and guilt. It took me that long to look back on my actions with any amount of objectivity or compassion.

Mark was my first boyfriend. He was adorable, quirky, fun. I fell in love with him when I was a sophomore at Duke. He had just graduated and wasn’t yet sure about which career he wanted to pursue, so he continued working at his former summer job as a big rig driver with a local moving company. I think he’d concur that our shared adventures in that 18-wheeler were probably the highlight of our relationship. (I wrote briefly about that in my story “Truckin'”)

Three years after that, Mark was accepted at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, so we moved to California. At the new student orientation, one of the speakers offered the depressing statistic that most couples at the onset of law school are unlikely to stay together through graduation. We looked at each other; “not us,” we scoffed. A few months later, we were engaged.

While Mark attended law classes during the day, I worked at a children’s theatre company. While he studied diligently every night,  I attended rehearsals for roles I landed in local theatre productions. As I re-discovered creative expression through acting, Mark immersed himself in facts, logic, and argument. His quirky humor and adventurous spirit began to give way to a stoic and serious demeanor.

I knew the rigors of law school were tough, so I tried to provide him with support and encouragement. Yet, I felt restless. I yearned to expand and explore. I shared few of my own experiences with Mark, because law school was all-consuming. If he wasn’t in class, he was in the library or with a study group. Weekends were no different. I barely saw him. He’d apologize for his distracted state and his full-throttle focus on the law and I’d tell him that I understood.

I could make excuses about our situation being temporary, but at the same time, I felt like our paths were becoming more and more divergent. I’d been determined to support him, but now I was wondering, what about me?  I began to feel like two people: my old, predictable self with Mark, and my new, growing self in his absence. I began thinking about the fact that he was my first and only boyfriend; that we were still young and finding our way. I loved him, but getting married suddenly felt like a bad idea.

Our wedding day was fast approaching. Plans had been made and guests invited. I felt queasy and riddled with fear. He’d been my everything for five solid years. What was I going to do? For the first time since we’d been together, I felt utterly alone, facing the world and my life head on. I felt like I was living in a thick gray fog of foreboding.

Two weeks before the wedding, I called my mother.  When she asked me how I was feeling as the wedding approached,  I tried to lightly express my feelings of apprehension, as if they were probably normal or not to be taken too seriously. She  immediately got to the heart of the matter. She made it simple and practical and real. “This is your life, Johanna,” she said. “You need to do what your heart dictates. It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Don’t go through with it if you’re not ready.” Her sympathetic and loving tone touched me deeply. Then, she dared to present the option of a cancellation, as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It’s only money,” she said. “I think I can get deposits back, and if I don’t, it’s okay.” Perhaps this was why I had called her in the first place, a sub-conscious need to get consent.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I hadn’t even thought about the deposits. These things were frankly the least of my concerns. The anxiety over possibly canceling our wedding had nothing to do with money or with canceling all the scheduled plans. I barely even thought about the guests. The only thing on my mind was Mark. How was I going to tell Mark. I was about to devastate the person I loved most. He had been my best friend for five years and now . . . what?

Time was ticking. Every time I pushed myself to say something, I felt sick to my stomach and could barely open my mouth to talk. The wedding was now ten days away and the pressure was overwhelming. I was swimming in so much anxiety that I couldn’t eat. No one else was going to do this for me. I had to battle my overwhelming anxiety and speak up.

I pushed myself to speak after dinner one night. “How are you feeling about the wedding?” I asked, while we were washing dishes. My entire body was shaking, but I pretended to be calm. I was hoping he’d give me an easy out. “Fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. He looked at me. “Why?” he asked. I felt woozy. I wanted to take several really deep breaths, but I continued to control my voice and sound calm. “Oh, I guess I’m just having those feelings people talk about.” And from there it went. Second by agonizing second.

“What feelings?” he asked. “You know, second thoughts. Fear. Haven’t you had any?” I tried to ask innocently. “No,” he said. He couldn’t have made it any more difficult. A panicked conviction took over and I realized that I had to pounce right in. NOW OR NEVER. I honestly don’t recall what I said next. It’s like when you’re in an accident and you don’t remember the moment of impact. I remember rambling and mumbling and trying to temper my beating heart until he finally asked me the question: “Do you want to call it off?”  This is when my memory kicks back in. Like the moment after the accident, when you come to. “Yeah,” I said, shaking, and now crying, apologetic.

He was calm. He did not get angry or turn inside himself and brood, which was more common for him. Remarkably, his focus was on my own well-being. I guess my agony was palpable.

We stayed up through the entire night. It felt like we were on a hallucinogenic drug or living in a twilight zone. Both of our emotions were raw. We talked, we cried, we chain smoked, we held each other. When I finally fell asleep just before dawn, Mark stayed up. I awoke a few hours later to see him kneeling before me with a breakfast tray holding a five-page letter, a plate of food, and flowers. In the letter, Mark expressed his deep love for me and beckoned for me to give him another chance. It was like beauty and pain blended in a horrible and exhilarating cocktail. The horrible feeling of knowing this man loved me so much, and the awareness that I was still going to call it off, was horrid. And you talk about courage. His letter was an act of love that I will never forget.

“I think we should still go to Durham,” Mark said about the location where we were to wed. “The flight cancellation fee will be ridiculous. We might as well go. We can visit with my family. It’ll be good.” I couldn’t believe that he thought this would be a good idea. The last thing I wanted to do was bring myself that close to the plans I’d canceled, to be around his family at such a vulnerable time. How could Mark consider it? I even wondered if I felt worse as the canceller than he did as the cancellee.

He was determined to keep his itinerary and fly to Durham, with or without me. I understood that he needed to be with his family, but I couldn’t bear the pain of going along.  My friend’s dad, a doctor, kindly offered to write a medical note to the airline (I don’t recall what he wrote, something about an infection and not being able to fly), so I could avoid the cancellation fee for my ticket.

The flight was a red-eye. I drove Mark to the airport and parked in the lot, wanting to be by his side until the last possible minute. He took his small bag of clothes from the trunk and half-smiled as I closed it. “There should be two of these,” he said. I had been forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back through the drive there, but now, with those words uttered, I could do it no longer. He laughed a little when he realized how raw we both were, how difficult it was to find a way through this emotional process. We held hands and walked to the airline counter, where he presented both of our tickets and I presented my letter from the doctor. As the airline attendant read the letter, Mark looked at me. “You can still go,” he whispered. I shook my head, not wanting the attendant to realize it was really an option.

The doctor’s letter served its purpose and I got a voucher. Mark got a boarding pass. With fifteen minutes to spare before he had to board, we walked outside and leaned on a railing watching the planes in the dark beyond. He gave it one more shot. “Come,” he said. “It’ll be fine. Come.” I kept nodding my head no. I began to cry again and the valves wouldn’t close this time. We hugged our goodbyes and he turned to go inside and board the plane.

Alone, detached, I walked back to my car, acutely aware that this moment marked the start of a new chapter in my life. I started the engine, crying so hard now that I was gulping for air. I hoped that I could compose myself after a few minutes, but it wasn’t happening, so I drove very slowly down the freeway. An airplane engine sounded in the black expanse above me and I looked out the window to see a blinking light in the sky. Maybe it was his plane, or maybe another. I was now bawling so heavily that I couldn’t see the road in front of me. I was in no shape to drive, so I immediately pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway. It was 11:00pm on a weeknight and there were barely any cars on the road, but I felt safer there. I remained there for ten more minutes before I was able to get a hold of myself and start driving again.

A few weeks after that fateful night, I moved into my own apartment, and several months later, we officially broke up. I moved to Los Angeles to study acting, and he graduated from law school and began working as an attorney. We dated other people, but we stayed in touch. We both came to realize how much we missed each other and how rare it is to find the kind of connection we’d had. We began talking on the phone more often. Then, we began to visit each other on the weekends. Another year later, over the phone one night, he joked about becoming engaged again, and in a careless moment, I agreed. When I landed the role of Catherine in “A View from the Bridge” at Palm Springs Playhouse, we decided I’d move in with him, since he was now an attorney in Palm Springs and his place was just 20 minutes away.

It took no time to recognize that there we were again; him in his world of fact, proof and precedent, away during the days; and me in my world of emotion, creativity and catharsis, away during the evenings. It occurred to me finally that what we had most in common now was the connection from our past. It was a very special and rare kind of connection, which I realized after dating other people, but those magical days in college and that particular time in our lives was the reason it took hold. Years and experiences had taken us in other directions. We’d each changed and grown; were no longer as in synch. Without any hesitation, I initiated the conversation about canceling our second engagement, and Mark again was calm in his response, though this time, he agreed.

We broke up for good then. I moved back to L.A. where I proceeded to make a living as an actor, and Mark eventually opened his own law practice. We remained in touch and occasionally talked on the phone. Once, when he was in L.A. on business, we met for lunch. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my own love life, but he shared stories about the woman he was dating. He’d been seeing her for a while and I liked hearing that. I wanted him to be happy.

About a year after that, I got word from a mutual friend that Mark had eloped. Just hearing that news felt like heavy sandbags of shame toppling off of my shoulders. Within mere seconds, I was breathing easier and standing taller. It was as if I’d been holding my breath all that time. (Mark later told me how it happened: one sunny afternoon while they working on their garden, his girlfriend dared him to get married, and he took the dare, driving her straight to the courthouse. This happened on October 16, he told me. My birthday.)

People tend to respond to my canceled wedding story with a congratulatory tone. A surprising number of married people have also added, “I wish I’d done that.” It’s shocking to hear that said so plainly and so often. Talk about a reality check; evidence that my act of canceling had served as a powerful, pre-emptive strike.

Canceling a wedding so close to the date is nothing I will ever care to congratulate myself for doing, but I did learn a very difficult lesson: to thine own self be true; even if it’s excruciatingly painful.

– Johanna

’tis the season

Season’s Greetings! Isn’t it lovely to see all those lights? Patti and I agree that Christmas lights are probably our favorite decorations. They’re festive and bright and twinkly. Quiet and radiant. I love them.

Christmas marketing started awfully early this year. It was really disturbing to see Christmas advertising before Halloween. Aren’t Christmas festivities supposed to officially begin the day after Thanksgiving? Can’t we just celebrate one holiday at a time here? Undoubtedly, the state of our financial markets helped to dictate the early campaign to push consumers to BUY BUY BUY. It’s just disappointing. The emphasis on consumerism and that push to purchase has been out of control for a long time. The sad thing, in my opinion, is that people are literally buying into it. They’re buying the notion that purchasing is the key to creating happiness. That getting someone that hot new product or that expensive item, is the most emphatic way to say “I love you.” I ponder how it used to be, before credit cards were the norm. The simplicity of it all. The real connection between what we could afford and what we purchased. But those days ended a long time ago…and now, look at the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

A friend recently said that he wasn’t going to let the push for purchasing ruin his holiday spirit. He loves Christmas and he loves celebrating this season, and he said he was going to make it his own, regardless of incessant TV advertising or the early onset of merchandisers’ holiday music. He didn’t want capitalist pushers to mar his spirits. I think this is the key for all of us. Plus, we can all relate to that sense of social pressure during the holiday season. It doesn’t matter what religion we may practice or whether we purchase each other gifts. It’s that whole sappy notion that is somehow driven into us that we’re SUPPOSED to be festive and happily family-focused during this season. Unfortunately, that notion backfires and often creates an opposite effect: melancholy, because the truth is, it often doesn’t pan out that way.

If you’re among those that are feeling that pressure this season, don’t let it get you down. Remember that the true spirit of the season is about love and peace and charity. There are plenty of individuals out there that have tragic family histories, or at the very least, truly dysfunctional families. (We hear that term all the time and wonder what functional is supposed to look like, right?) It’s not about pretending that your family is where it’s at. Or buying things you can’t afford and making yourself miserable with the debt later. My friend is right. Celebrate the season your own way. Allow yourself to bask in whatever makes you feel happy and warm and fuzzy. Know that you are loved and allow yourself to bask in the glow of that feeling. Surround yourself with those that bring out your sense of gratitude. And while you’re at it, donate what you can, be it time or money, to a cause you support.

BTW. Our Guest Column this month features a greeting from Anne Made Cards. There’s still time to get greeting cards if you haven’t already. Her cards are fabulous. Check it out!

Peace on Earth. Good will to women. And all those that love them. 🙂


Election 2008

Patti: I can’t believe the day has finally come and gone. It seems like it took so LONG to get here – election day! Johanna and I couldn’t let this pass without some sort of mention, so we thought we’d talk to each other here in this column about our impressions from both coasts — East and West!

Johanna: My  mother, who is 82 years old, told me that it reminded her of when Kennedy won.  The jubilation, the sense of hope.  She said she’d forgotten how that felt until Obama won on Tuesday.  She noted how he’s inspired so many young people and how Kennedy did the same thing.  “John and Jackie are coming back to the White House,” a friend of hers said yesterday.

Patti: You know, I thought about that. I was pretty small at the time, but I remember how people talked about it. I gotta say, it was pretty exciting that people were spontaneously celebrating in front of the White House — totally unprecedented! I can’t believe I didn’t hop in the car myself and head on down there, but I had to catch an early flight the next morning — god, I’m lame! (But still working on fabulous!) As it was, I was up until after 1 a.m. listening to speeches — how could you not? What a historical moment. I definitely envied you West-coasters, though, who were getting it in prime time!

Johanna:  It was truly FABULOUS.  I watched the election coverage at a friend’s house, with about ten other people.  We were tuned into Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  When Stewart just announced that Obama had won, we jumped out of our seats cheering and clapping.  We heard some cheers coming from outside the house and went outside on the landing to see other families coming out of their homes and cheering.  When Henri and I drove home to Berkeley, all cars on the road were honking in joy and when we finally got into bed later that night, we could hear the cheers of UC Berkeley students, who had poured into the streets.  In fact, a Cal freshman that I know told me that she was getting into bed in her dorm room at around 11 p.m. and when she found out fellow students were headed out, she said, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and joined them.  I’ll attach a snapshot she took on Telegraph Ave. at midnight.

Patti: This election wore me out. As I get older, the negativity takes more and more of a toll. But when I went to vote –which, let’s face it, had a slightly different feel to it this time than in elections past with the huge turnout — I felt like I was honoring all the women who came before me and made it possible for me to be standing in that line at all. They defined fabulous, and they endured some of the most humiliating and dehumanizing treatment imaginable –incarceration in jails and insane asylums, starvation and force feeding, beating, you name it.

I just feel I have to talk about the suffragists here. I don’t want people (women, especially) to forget  their bravery and how much they put themselves at risk for all of us women to have the vote. If I voted for no other reason, it would be that. And please don’t call them suffragettes! That was a derogatory term made to diminish them and make them seem less consequential. just silly little girls. I’ll get off my soapbox now, but I did want to talk about that and give them the recognition they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m good with the way the election turned out, but I can’t wait until our president is a woman, though!

Johanna:  Very good points.  It’s so important to remember our history as a gender, because it can be taken for granted.  I think about Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan.  I think about the fact that women’s rights was considered “radical.”  We still have a ways to go, mind you, but it’s thanks to women like that, who were willing to stand up to what was conventional and accepted, and to rock the boat, if you will.  I fight complacency.  I try every day to remember all that happened before my time and all the energy and sacrifice that others made, in order for my way of life today to even be possible.  I try to fight my own fights in the same way, remembering that though the causes may not be understood in today’s conventional society, there’s a bigger picture here.  Rights and equality and compassion for all.  That’s the bottom line.  But don’t get me on MY soapbox!  My goodness.  

This election gave hope back to people who lost it, or more, never even had it in the first place.  Did you know that 69% of first time voters in this election, voted for Obama?    

Patti:  That’s pretty great! When do we get to start calling him Barry, like Michelle does? 🙂 Sorry — I felt the need to lighten this up all of a sudden. Hey, did I tell you I wrote myself in for State Board of Education? I just didn’t really like the people running, and Washington, D.C. schools are in a heck of a state. I figured I could do at least as well! DTBF! It felt kind of fun and empowering — I don’t know why it had never occurred to me before. Maybe you can manage my campaign next time and I can make an official run!

Johanna:  I love it!  I told a few people about that.  I think that was a wonderful idea.  Patti for Board of Ed!   BTW.  Before we get off the women and politics subject, two sites I suggest to check out.  I’ll refrain from describing them to keep the text short here.  Definitely worth a click!   What’s Your Point, Honey? and A Single Woman (we’ve mentioned that one a few times.  A film directed and produced by our DTBF sister, Kamala Lopez.)

Patti: I’m glad you included those links, thanks! By the way … I know all of you have voted in different ways for different things this election, and some things went your way and some things didn’t. It’s pretty much the same for all of us, I guess, and a little painful when we are voting with our hearts. I feel sad that gay marriage didn’t fare well in a few states, among other issues. I was thrilled with Prop 2 out there in California, though, right, Johanna? That must have been pretty thrilling to live in a state that is saying yes to humane treatment of animals — and “yes” by a landslide! You must be pretty proud! And Question 3 in Massachusetts! The cruel sport of greyhound racing will be a thing of the past next year in that state! Those are just a couple of the things I’m happy about.

All in all, I’d say I’m feeling more optimistic now than I have in a long time — I think people daring to be fabulous is making a difference — standing up for beliefs that we thought wouldn’t have even have had a shot a few years ago. That reminds me — if you have an election day related story to share, please send it to us! Maybe we’ll include them on the site! I can honestly say that in the long time I have been voting, I’ve never heard so many people say in different ways how empowered they felt. So share your story with us!

Johanna:  Proposition 2 was a big victory in California.  Residents of this state were given the opportunity to declare that the treatment of factory farmed animals matters, despite what the industry standards might be.  Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the reality of the suffering that is endured, so there was some satisfaction in seeing the ads that showed even the tiniest glimpse of that world to people who never realized this was the case.  I do want to say one more thing about this, before we close on this column.   I’ve heard a few individuals actually compare Prop 2 with Prop 8, expressing their disappointment that animals got the vote when gays didn’t.  I am befuddled by this comparison.  Why must they be opposed to one another at all?  

I think this year’s election and Obama’s victory has already become one of those “where were you when?” stories.  I’d love to receive stories about your election day experiences.   Post them as a comment below this column, or if you want to expand on them, perhaps as a DTBF story submission of your own!  

Patti: I don’t know what to say about that comparison, Johanna. Yes, I do. It’s never Fabulous to wish that, because you were not treated kindly, that someone else who did receive a kindness shouldn’t have been able to receive it in the face of your own disappointment. It is just. not. cool.  And Johanna, I totally agree with you. I think people will be telling stories for a long time about where they were, what they were doing, who they were with on election night. Except me. i was being too dull at home in my jammies.

I’d like to say just one more thing before wrapping this up. If any of you have volunteered on any campaign doing the hard work of phone banking, door hanging, or whatever, or worked on any election as a poll worker or on a GOTV effort — you have looked around and saw that the great majority of those doing this work were WOMEN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   Women … make… it … happen.  I just had to say that. It’s true.

Johanna: Amen, sister.  Or rather, Awomen!   We’ll wrap it up on that note and look forward to your stories!

Dancing on the Rooftop

Image: “Dauphine,” by Teresa Moore.

I danced on my roof tonight. Yes , I actually did.
I live in a nine-story building. A lovely generous person plants that roof each summer with a beautiful potted garden – it’s a place I always think when I am there, “why don’t I come up here more often?”
This afternoon it rained hard – thunder and lightening, diminishing to a soft sprinkle that left the evening air cool and fresh, and perfect for reading on the rooftop. My book, The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, was striking cords in my psyche left and right. The view – a gorgeous panorama of all of Washington, D.C., its trees and monuments and houses and churches. The air was clean and fresh. I was sore but relaxed from an earlier intensive dance workout.
Then it hit me. The urge. To dance. On the rooftop.
“No, I can’t, someone might see.”
“It’s dusk. And no one is looking all the way up here.”
“Someone looking out the window in the next building might see.”
“Then they’ll be entertained. For free.”
“No, I can’t. I should read.”
“OK, go ahead then. Read.”
I kept reading. But my legs and body protested and yearned to move in that cool, fresh air, over that wide expanse of open, rain-puddled space, among the pots hibiscus and lantana, way up high over the city, over George Bush and Dick Cheney, and high gas prices cellulite and everything else.
I danced. Flamenco, modern, jazz. It didn’t last long, but I did it. I’d get all poetic and tell you how fabulous it felt – wind in hair, open arms, blah, blah, blah – but we both know that would be crap. Well, it was kind of fabulous, actually, but also silly and a little embarrassing. And fun. And it really did feel good. If I had been five years old I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. So why would I now? Exactly. We should just dance if we freaking feel like it. Damn it.
I’m going to do it again. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Three Cheers for Dara Torres!

What about 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres beating women half her age and qualifying for her fifth Olympic Games? Dara is the mother of a two-year-old girl. She’s undergone several surgeries in the past year; a rotator cuff surgery in November and several surgeries on her knee.  The last one was only five weeks ago. Yet, there she was this past weekend, not only winning the qualifying 50 and 100 meter freestyle finals, but beating her own times in the 100 freestyle from her Olympic swims in 1984 and 2000. She holds the world record for the 100 backstroke, too. Talk about an inspiration.

(The photo included here is from USA Today, taken two years ago.  That’s Dara with her daughter, Tessa.)

“A Swimmer of a Certain Age” appeared in the New York Times Magazine on June 29th, before she won her qualifying races this past weekend.

Of course, there are cynics who believe that she has to be doping in order to win like that, at her age. Undoubtedly, those claims will surface throughout the media in the months to come.  A feature in the Austin-American Statesman appeared on Monday, addressing these claims and her responses.  The article is entitled, “41-year-old Olympic swimmer: Too good to be true?”  It mentions that Dana categorically denies doping, continually offering to be tested anywhere, at anytime, for anything, in order to prove her point.  An excerpt:

“As part of the new USADA program, Project Believe, she’s one of about a dozen athletes who gets blood and urine taken at any time.  Sometimes she’s asked to go to the nearest lab.  ‘It’s a pain,’ she said.  ‘But I asked for this and I want to prove that I’m clean, so to me it’s worth it.”

We’ll keep watching Dara in Beijing and wish her fabulous success!


Female Afghan Sprinter in a race against hate

Yesterday, the San Francisco Chronicle featured a story about Mehboba Andyar, a female Afghan sprinter who, despite all cultural and personal threats to her pursuit of the Olympic dream, has continued to train for, and will now compete in, the Beijing Olympics. Andyar truly dares to be fabulous. Her courage and her conviction are an example for all.

The article is pasted, below. Please share your comments with us! Also, click on the link to the Chronicle and offer your comments there, too.

Female Afghan sprinter in a race against hate
Nick Meo, Chronicle Foreign Service
Friday, April 4, 2008

(04-04) 04:00 PDT Kabul, Afghanistan —

Many athletes at the Olympic Games this summer will undoubtedly have overcome numerous obstacles to represent their country in Beijing. But only one has been forced to endure a hate campaign.

Sprinter Mehboba Andyar has received threatening midnight phone calls, been jeered at by hostile neighbors and harassed by police. The anger is directed at the 19-year-old runner for being Afghanistan’s sole female Olympic athlete. In a conservative Muslim society where few women have roles outside the home, many Afghan men believe females should not compete in sports.

“There have been so many phone calls from people saying I shouldn’t be an athlete. There are often strange men hanging outside my home,” she said. “Sometimes stones are thrown at the windows at night, and we have had threatening letters. I don’t worry about these threats, but if my family didn’t want me to go (to Beijing), I wouldn’t.”

Neighbors scream abuse and threaten her with physical harm each time she leaves her small mud-brick home in a Kabul slum to run. Last month, police officers arrested her father after a neighbor complained that Andyar had been entertaining strange men. Even though she was merely giving an interview to a French journalist and his translator, she says the police hauled the three men to the station. They were soon released after the precinct police chief intervened and apologized, she says.

Since the announcement early this year that she would represent Afghanistan in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races, the determined Andyar refuses to be intimidated.

“I knew that I would have to be strong to be a runner in Afghanistan,” she said. “At least my family and fellow athletes support me and want me to run for my country.”

To be sure, she does have some male supporters, especially among the young and educated.

“If a woman likes sports, she should do it,” said Naimullah, a 24-year-old university student who goes by just one name. “Afghanistan is changing. In a few years, people won’t think this is anything unusual.”

When Andyar arrives in Beijing to compete against the world’s top runners who have honed their skills at some of the world’s best facilities, she knows she has little chance of winning a gold, silver or bronze medal.

“We don’t expect her to win,” said Habibullah Niazi, a member of Afghanistan’s Olympic committee. “But participating in the Olympic Games and running as an Afghan woman athlete is an achievement. All sports people support her. Unfortunately, many of the people do not.”

Her interest in running began under the fundamentalist Taliban government in 1998, when she began jogging around the family’s enclosed yard in Kabul to avoid the patrols of the Taliban’s religious police. Aside from banning television, movies, music and kite flying, the Taliban prevented girls from going to school or work and participating in sports.

When the family fled to Pakistan, her father couldn’t afford to join an athletic club where she could train properly. Instead, she ran at a park in Islamabad.

Today, Andyar trains on a cracked concrete track in the same national stadium the Taliban used for public executions. The track, bordered by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire, circles a patch of dried yellow grass where boys play soccer. She dons a track suit and head scarf and plans to do the same in Beijing.

“I am an Afghan, so I have to dress modestly,” she said. “It is my culture.”

Her training regimen is often interrupted by dust storms that sweep through the city. And to avoid the neighbors’ wrath, she runs along potholed streets near her home at night while they are watching popular soap operas, maneuvering around trash piles and open drains.

Later this month, the Afghan and International Olympic committees plan to send Andyar and the only other member of Afghanistan’s Olympic squad – a 20-year-old male sprinter named Massoud Azizi – to Malaysia to train at adequate facilities. There, coach Shahpoor Amiri hopes Andyar will be able to focus on running.

“She is an inspiration,” Amiri said. “For us, it is enough that an Afghan girl is going to the Beijing games.”


This article appeared on page A – 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Observing Our Apologies

I read a Q&A column with Natalie Portman in this week’s Time Magazine. One reader asked her this question:

“What have you learned about yourself by portraying powerful women?”

To which she replied,

“It has encouraged me to say things authoritatively. Often women preface what they say with ‘I know this might sound stupid’ or ‘I don’t mean to be aggressive, but…’ I tend to do that, so it is great to have the opportunity to play a leader.”

I thought about how true that was and then continued with reading the magazine. Well, in the few days since I read that column, I have become startlingly aware of my own tendency to apologize. Apologize when unnecessary, I hasten to clarify. It has happened enough times for me to self-impose an internal alarm whenever that word comes out of my mouth, or as in most cases, when it came out in the text of an e-mail. I’m training myself to sound that alarm and simply ask myself, “is it truly warranted? Or am I making less of myself because I’m nervous about the response?”

Apologizing is often a way of playing ourselves down and letting the listener, or the reader, know that we put their opinions above ours. In essence, it relays that we are either slightly embarrassed or ashamed to be putting that person on the receiving side of our question or request. Unfortunately, Ms. Portman is correct in stating that this is something many women do. We don’t dare give ourselves the right to just state something, or simply ask.

When I am asking for something and I sense that it may ruffle the other person’s feathers, I have a tendency to apologize. Even if I think it’s their job and my right and there really is nothing wrong with asking.

I heard my internal alarm when I was prone to another apology yesterday, and it occurred to me that the trigger comes from a deeper place. Perhaps it’s a place of connection; a place of compassion. That’s assuming the best, of course. We just don’t like to make others feel uncomfortable or unhappy. Right? Anyone who’s had any bit of self-therapy will admit that’s nonsense, though. Shouldn’t we assume for them the same privilege we grant ourselves? That is, allow them to be accountable for their own response, to deal with things their own way, and to let them handle their own issues without our automatic need to make it all OKAY?

Diplomacy is a delicate art form. Somewhere between directly or aggressively stating something on the one hand, and prefacing the request with an apology (or three or four) on the other…well, therein lies the charm. After all, tact and consideration should never be under-rated.

We each know our internal buttons. When we are acting consciously, I believe that each one of us has an intuitive sense of when we’re apologizing simply to appease a discomfort that we ourselves feel in the process of asking or suggesting something; not necessarily because we are truly SORRY to ask. (Otherwise, why ask?) Generally speaking, we don’t want others to dislike us or to say bad things about us later. We want to be liked at all costs. We mean well, after all. So we apologize as our way of showing that.

Auto-pilot apologizing holds us back in more ways than I think any of us realize. If we continue to introduce our requests with an apology, we’ll continue to back down and give someone else the go ahead, simply because their personalities seem stronger or more forceful, or more notably, because we’re concerned with making sure we’re liked at all costs, even if what we’re asking for is a completely professional or logical request and in no way inappropriate.

I encourage all of you who have this tendency to start observing yourselves more consciously. Ask yourselves if the apology is truly warranted, or whether it’s that auto-pilot trigger. I believe that the more you practice, the taller you’ll stand.


Again, Gloria Steinem Says it All

DTBF contributor Anne Singer alerted us to this outstanding New York Times op-ed that Johanna and I felt was too important to not reprint here. Gloria Steinem, besides being my personal hero since the ’70s, has graciously given DTBF permission to reprint an essay from one of her many books, which we plan to do soon. In the meantime, please read her wonderful words here and remember that we still have a long, long way to go. We can’t be complacent. We are women, and if we want to lead – we have to Dare!
~ Patti


January 8, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
Women Are Never Front-Runners
Correction appended.

The woman in question became a lawyer after some years as a community organizer, married a corporate lawyer and is the mother of two little girls, ages 9 and 6. Herself the daughter of a white American mother and a black African father — in this race-conscious country, she is considered black — she served as a state legislator for eight years, and became an inspirational voice for national unity.

Be honest: Do you think this is the biography of someone who could be elected to the United States Senate? After less than one term there, do you believe she could be a viable candidate to head the most powerful nation on earth?

If you answered no to either question, you’re not alone. Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House. This country is way down the list of countries electing women and, according to one study, it polarizes gender roles more than the average democracy.

That’s why the Iowa primary was following our historical pattern of making change. Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

If the lawyer described above had been just as charismatic but named, say, Achola Obama instead of Barack Obama, her goose would have been cooked long ago. Indeed, neither she nor Hillary Clinton could have used Mr. Obama’s public style — or Bill Clinton’s either — without being considered too emotional by Washington pundits.

So why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one? The reasons are as pervasive as the air we breathe: because sexism is still confused with nature as racism once was; because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects “only” the female half of the human race; because children are still raised mostly by women (to put it mildly) so men especially tend to feel they are regressing to childhood when dealing with a powerful woman; because racism stereotyped black men as more “masculine” for so long that some white men find their presence to be masculinity-affirming (as long as there aren’t too many of them); and because there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

I’m not advocating a competition for who has it toughest. The caste systems of sex and race are interdependent and can only be uprooted together. That’s why Senators Clinton and Obama have to be careful not to let a healthy debate turn into the kind of hostility that the news media love. Both will need a coalition of outsiders to win a general election. The abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that.

I’m supporting Senator Clinton because like Senator Obama she has community organizing experience, but she also has more years in the Senate, an unprecedented eight years of on-the-job training in the White House, no masculinity to prove, the potential to tap a huge reservoir of this country’s talent by her example, and now even the courage to break the no-tears rule. I’m not opposing Mr. Obama; if he’s the nominee, I’ll volunteer. Indeed, if you look at votes during their two-year overlap in the Senate, they were the same more than 90 percent of the time. Besides, to clean up the mess left by President Bush, we may need two terms of President Clinton and two of President Obama.

But what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t.

What worries me is that reporters ignore Mr. Obama’s dependence on the old — for instance, the frequent campaign comparisons to John F. Kennedy — while not challenging the slander that her progressive policies are part of the Washington status quo.

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

This country can no longer afford to choose our leaders from a talent pool limited by sex, race, money, powerful fathers and paper degrees. It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: “I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.”

Correction: An earlier version of this Op-Ed stated that Senator Edward Kennedy had endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. He has not made an endorsement in the 2008 presidential race.

Gloria Steinem is a co-founder of the Women’s Media Center.

It’s the Holidays Already! (How did that happen?)

I am always ambushed by December. It seems so far away, then there it is — right on top of you, another year almost over. That might actually mean something if I didn’t believe like Einstein that time is not actually linear. OK. I really do believe that, but the fact is that my human brain can really only comprehend time if I follow the linear convention and count weeks, months, and years to mark my progress.

So as 2007 draws to a close, we are excited to look back over the DTBF year. We have been lucky enough to have had the most wonderful contributors during the year – Annie in Washington, DC, Molly in Mexico and Chicago, Katie in Napa, California, Corrie in North Carolina, Diana in New York City, Karen in New Zealand, Renel in San Francisco, Kelly in Santa Clara, and Ginny in Sonoma. We also had a lovely reprint from Doris “Granny D” Haddock. And we had a wonderful contribution from the incredible Gretchen Wyler, published just two months before we lost her to cancer. What an amazing sisterhood of women are represented in the Dare To Be Fabulous guest column. If you haven’t yet read some of their stories, we would encourage you to do so, as well as catch up with past years’ columns. (You can find them archived on the Guest Column page.) Johanna and I are so proud of all of these fabulous women, and so honored they have shared their stories with us.

We are continually encouraged and inspired by the intelligence, courage, imagination, humor, and sheer fabulousness of the women we have come in contact with through DTBF. We have noticed a trend in the use of the word “fabulous” – a trend that equates fabulous with physical beauty and diva-like behavior (not that that isn’t fun! ) but our definition of “fabulous” is in the stories submitted by our readers. Be yourself. Be kind. Be brave. Be generous. Be funny. Be imaginative. Be real. Be fabulous. And don’t let anyone stop you!

Tell your friends about us – submit stories and add your comments to the columns. We look forward to what 2008 will bring, and you are all part of that! Happy holidays to all of you!

Peace and DTBF!

Image: “Persephone” by Teresa Moore (Teresamoore.com)
Because I think pomegranates are just so Christmasy!

Walking up a trail

Walking up a trail, the crisp cold air on my cheeks, watching each rock as I navigate my way, step by step, and around the bend, I notice that I am smiling. A broad, happy, easy, natural smile that matches the beating of my heart and tells me I am one again. Deep breath in, hop onto a rock, step over some boulders, and out again. Birds singing. A breeze. THIS, I remember, is where I am happiest. Moving through Nature. Joining it. Beholding it. Immersing myself in such a way that I not only commune, I honor.

For some people, it is a Church where they find solace and spiritual connectedness, a path and an answer to the whys and hows that inhabit their thoughts. For me, it is a walk upon soil and granite, distant from the tether of humanity. There, I find bliss in the simplicity of my breath and the cadence of my stride. My thoughts inevitably whirr in the first mile, my ego baiting for resolutions on things of the past and future. On and on it goes, in circles and around again, thinking of choices I’ve made, pondering their merit and possible changes in plan. I think of people I know, how I am and how they are, and what that all means, and what do I do with it. After a while, as my heart beat starts to lure my thoughts toward my body, I start to notice my surroundings more. The colors. The temperature. The topography. And then, at some point, I realize, it’s been many miles and I forgot all about myself. I forgot that I had a self-identity. I was simply in the moment, breath in, breath out, engaged with my surroundings, taking one step at a time.

Today, I was in the Sunol Wilderness. I craved hot weather and sun, after a week of heavy bay area fog. I longed to feel the reality of summer. Under the hot sun, I walked along trails that meandered up and around the many rolling hills of mustard colored grass. Cows crossed my path, watching me ever so carefully to ensure that I was no threat. I whispered to them that I was not. I thought of Franz Kafka’s quote, “Now I can look at you in peace. I do not eat you any more.” Nevertheless, a calf was nearby and I knew the sentiment wouldn’t hold much value to a defensive mama. I veered to the left when I saw the little one, black and white, and averted my gaze from his mother’s intent glare. All is well here, I relayed to her in thought. I am your friend. I will do you no harm.

Hiking in wilderness is my meditation. My re-connection. My way of disengaging from the I, and all of my ego’s desires to make things work, make things fit, make things right with society. Questions of how do I fit in dissipate as a true outer connection is borne.

I came upon no other people on my hike today. Just me, the vast sky above, the sloping hills all around me, and the cows.

Seven miles and I was centered again.