City Miles: Reflections on my Taylor Swift Birthday

Somehow, my 42d birthday has come and gone – now over a month ago – while my hopes for carving out a bit of time to pause, catch my breath, and find something to say about it have to date been, shall we say, forlorn.

So now I try again to fulfill that promise I made over a year ago to stop waiting to find time. Finding time these days is like finding a crinkled $20 bill in the pocket of laundered pants. It’s nice when it happens, you shouldn’t come to expect it on a regular basis, and more often than not you spend it precipitously and don’t get much in return.

But rather than bemoan my status quo, which is by any account a pretty lucky one, I welcome 42 like the Who’s welcomed Christmas before the Grinch brought back all the loot. Stripping my life down to its essentials, my hands are still clasped and swinging.

Looking around at all my equally 42 year old friends, I’d say we’re all weathering things pretty well. Or at least, no one has given up and started wearing only elasticized waistbands. If we’re resorting to reading glasses, they are very hip and edgy looking. An upcoming beach vacation still gets us in the gym, as we debate the relative sexiness of tankinis, as well as scenarios under which a bikini might still be aesthetically palatable. These often involve lighting, strategically draped towels, and backing out of rooms.

It is, as the kids say, all good. But one can be happy and still be honest, so here are my top 5 Truths as I barrel past my Jackie Robinson…..

I’m Aging in City Miles.

It’s a well known phenomenon for cars. You might only have 42,000 miles on your odometer, but if you’ve spent them in abrupt starts and stops, jerking around tight corners, or braking for what might be a parking space but turns out not to be, you may as well have logged 70,000 in some mythical, uncomplicated countryside. At some point you accept that this is just the road you chose. Some of those screeching halts brought you to your senses. Some of those illegal U turns put you exactly where you’d hoped to be, at your uniquely impatient and uncompromising pace. It is no longer worth squinting at your wedding photo, taken just 8 years ago, and assessing how you felt and looked and woke and slept before it all really took off. And if you’re honest, it started before that, like the night your cab got rear ended in Adams Morgan, and the ambulance took you to the ER, and that guy you still couldn’t quite figure out rushed to your side.

And he’s at least half to blame for the next truth…

The Kids Take Their Toll.

These kids couldn’t be…. well, they couldn’t be any more.

They are so cute. So sweet and fun. They’re so clever.

They are so very very very needy and a bottomless pit of attention seeking and demand.

They’re so smart!

They’re not smart enough to know what treasures I would heap upon them if I got to sleep til 8:30 on a Saturday.

They’re growing so fast!

Not really.

My children have been little and needy and cute and clever and challenging forever. There has never been a moment that this has not been so. Back to the Paleozoic era my daughter has been demanding seltzer water with a necessary but somehow insufficient and unsatisfying “Pleeeeeeze?” She will do so until Amit and I take the big dirt nap, or the apocalypse, whichever comes sooner. My sweet, speech-delayed son will use the word “cars” as the subject and predicate of every sentence he will ever speak. He will be at the altar by his besotted bride, and after she gives her heartfelt vows, he will flash his irresistible smile and dreamy brown eyes, and respond, “Cars…. CAAAAWWWWS. Blue car. Taxi car!” The minister will smile, shrug, and that will be that.

This is the time of year when parents who are bringing their kids to college write beautiful and heartfelt essays about how quickly it all went, this blip of 18 years. Michael Gerson just wrote a great one, and I am sure he meant every word of it, but he’s also clearly broken with the conservative line on recreational, mind-altering drugs. Or else he just hasn’t spent a recent morning at Chez Mehta, in which case he would be dialing his wife and exclaiming, “Honey, forget all that sentimental crap! It was really awful a lot of the time! We just forgot! What movie should we go see tonight?”

The other morning I had to track down my husband, who had shifted to Devan’s bed after she arrived in ours at 3 am with a fabricated bad dream. When I checked my morning email, I was shocked to find that he had sent the Gerson piece to friends saying how poignant it was. Then I saw that the recipients were two sets of friends who had just done the college dropoff. When I asked him if he could in his wildest dreams imagine that emotion, we both got our best laugh in weeks. For now the dream is a dropoff at a dorm and not juvie. The dream is getting rid of the Diaper Genie. They seem equally daunting and – based on current data – have equally mixed odds.

Give In to Taylor Swift.

If you don’t have kids, you might still be trying to avoid her, and I get that. But as I assess the options, and some of the plastic backpack appliques in Devan’s 1st grade class, I’ll take Ms. Swift any day. This young lady can write a song, my friends, and it will not involve foul language, sex, or anything that celebrates being mean. Speaking of mean, I wish I’d long ago had her fabulous ode to the karmic, fry-serving future that every childhood bully will meet.

Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city, and all you’re ever gonna be is mean.

Man, do I wish I had that in my arsenal back in junior high.

Devan also figured out all on her own that, among her instrument choices, the guitar is really the way to go, because the great rock stars – i.e., Ms. Swift – play guitar AND sing. To that list I will add, when she can get it, the greatest talent of all: song writing. With music “producers” considered the actual “artists” these days, no one can deny that this girl who sits down and writes it and feels it and plays it is the real deal.

And if you listen hard, she will still speak to the weary and aged. Case in point: ever since my friend Karen and her daughter Charlotte first played “22” in my car, Karen and I rewrote the lyric and sing it at top volume:

I don’t know about you…. But I’m feeling 42….

This makes Devan crazy, which makes me giggle and commit to it all the more. She can’t imagine being 22, much less 42, and really, neither can I.

Ms. Swift, though you’re too young to remember the Doobies singing, Jesus is Just Alright With Me, that’s how I feel about you. You should probably back off the Kennedys, but otherwise, rock on.

Keep the Right Doors Open.

I have long since learned how and why to let go of friendships. There are the ones that have grown toxic, that return less and less even as they draw deeply into your reserves of patience, empathy, tolerance, money. There are the ones you just outgrow, without malice or spite. But then there is that third category, the people you never wanted to lose but somehow have nonetheless. These are the ones your mind wanders to, maybe on a Sunday afternoon when you have a spare 20 minutes to yourself.

I met Venu in August of 1996, on the first day of orientation at Harvard Law School – a scene that Reese Witherspoon would later nail with startling accuracy in “Legally Blonde.” We were an odd pairing, the tall, Irish girl with no style, and the Punjabi powerhouse sporting the latest looks from Armani Exchange. She had crazy credentials – Truman Scholar, London School of Economics, a stint tending to refugees in Bangladesh. She didn’t wear them on her sleeve.

Like most great friendships, we just clicked. We made honest but brilliant fun of each other. I could tell it to her straight that she was once again falling for the guitar playing phony, and that she really needed to clean her bathroom. She tried mightily to get me to upgrade my wardrobe and mocked my sartorial efforts with loving bemusement, such as the time she yelled clear across our Property lecture hall: “Caroline, you’re wearing a skirt!!!!!!” I doubled over laughing then and there, because really, she was one of only four people in that crowd of 140 who mattered to me.

In fact, Venu is the biggest reason I remember that 1L year – or really, most of law school – with any levity. Though there were highlights, in large measure that first year was a nasty brew of impenetrable reading assignments, obnoxious and sharp-elbowed classmates, and an outsized focus on status and grades. What better time to find a person who was glad to throw on pajamas and watch some Wallace & Gromit.

Looking back, though, how funny it is that we thought we knew real stress, or that we believed we were testing the limits of our will or abilities.

That would all come later.

We would be at each other’s weddings, and later send the baby gifts, but in all the months and years between I regret to say we – mostly I – let our friendship fall into that third category. About six weeks ago, Venu called me to say she’d be in Washington and would love to get together. I was humbled, grateful, and so excited. In the next set of days, in the many hours we spent reconnecting, I learned what profound struggles and challenges she had been dealing with in the last set of years. I marveled anew at her extraordinary spirit, passion, insight, and love.

As she left for the airport on Sunday afternoon, I knew I had just learned something important.

I used to think that the key to friendships like mine and Venu’s was low expectations. Now I think that I was just trying to let myself off the hook, as the daily toil made it so damn understandable that I not only owed phone calls but hadn’t even met new babies. In fact, what I harbored was the highest expectation of all: that all those unreturned messages and emails and months without contact wouldn’t lead her to conclude that I just didn’t care. I actually held the greatest of expectations: that her heart would stay open to me, and that she knew mine would to her.

People often say that the best of old friends are those with whom you just “pick up right where you left off.” But the greater gift is to pick up where you in fact are, and to bring the best of yourself to the effort, and to take whatever snippet of time you have to live in the joy that drew you together long ago. That didn’t happen by chance for us. It happened because I found such a friend as Venu some 17 summers ago.

Thank you, LV, for picking up the phone.

It Can, and Does, Turn on a Dime.

For some set of weeks and months, including when I started writing this post, it felt like we were stuck. [I will save for the next post my son’s first week of preschool, the attendant and unexpected necessity to potty train him in three days’ time, and his leaky yet heroic strides into big kid-dom.] Somehow, we let work dominate our summer, finding only stray bits of time to get the kids and ourselves out of the grind. We poured about 130 bowls of breakfast cereal. We pumped dozens of one liter bottles of seltzer on the SodaStream. As autumn neared, we checked off the school supply lists and procured the new backpacks.

As I said at the outset, I am graced beyond all measure that this is my status quo. But sometimes it is hard to measure progress until it is right in your face, or in this case, on the face of a six year old.

Devan has been wanting to lose a tooth for about a year, as one by one her preschool and kindergarten compatriots marked that rite of passage. There have been several false claims of wiggliness, which I indulge as wishful thinking and reassure her that it will all happen in time.

As an adult, it is very hard to imagine what the appeal is: oral pain, some blood, and then the gummy gap into which you stick your tongue 1000 times until a new, sharp, bony intrusion starts to fill in.

As a parent, you marvel at all you did to try to ease those baby teeth into place, soothing her cries, rubbing her gums with Orajel. You charted the first five or seven in the baby book mouth diagram, and then you lost track. But each one was a marker. The solid food options expanded.

Tonight, I was greeted at the door by an irrationally joyful first grader with big news.

It’s one on the bottom, and it is undoubtedly moving. “For real this time, mommy.”

For real, indeed, this meeting and parting of flesh and bone. As real as anything, most of all the change that comes when you make room for it.