Resolved.

The most common complaint you will hear from lawyers in private practice is the requisite hourly and daily accounting for our time. This results, however, at year’s end, in a near perfect graphing of how one has spent each of the 365 calendar days, at least professionally. Whether you hit your target hours, or fell short, or surpassed them, there laid before you are the clients and projects and trips where you lived out a year’s days and nights. Each has a tidy number next to it.

Each year, the founder of our firm invites a group of lawyers and accounting staff out for a nice lunch just before December 31. It’s both a celebration of a successful year and a sobering reminder that when the calendar page turns to January, all our labor, all the little beads we have dutifully placed in a jar called 2013 are emptied out, and we start all over again.

A more raucous year-end lunch is the one I will have today with Sylvia, at which she requires us to make fabulously unlikely predictions for the coming year, usually focused around celebrities and the royal family. She has already let slip her own blockbuster, so readers, if and when Bruce Jenner starts going by “Brenda” in 2014, you heard it here first.

And so the year ends.

It is always striking to me how different January 1st looks from late December. For one thing, it is the day I take down our Christmas tree and bid what seems like an increasingly abbreviated farewell to my beloved ornaments. The earth, and our little piece of it in Washington, D.C., still sits in the same celestial position as it did at Christmas. But the light seems changed. My office will look different when I return. Devan’s backpack will be cleared of tinsel and cookie detritus, and – eventually – she will return to the second part of her school year, the months of Martin Luther King, and Lincoln, and hearts and shamrocks.

Kian will resume doing whatever it is they do at Montessori.

It is both comforting and distressing to think that what I will be doing tomorrow, and every day after, from hearts to shamrocks to eggs to beach towels, is dropping more of those beads in the jar. We crave the new and thrilling, but we – I – so readily default to the known. I know well that it is up to me to decide what colors and shapes those beads will be. There is no one else who can grasp my particular jar and give it a shake, or hold it up to a sunny window to see what light it casts on my wall. That is my challenge, and dare I say, my resolution.

This ritual of making New Years resolutions evidently took deep hold on our species some time ago. As it turns out, overfed Americans swearing off the Red Bull and cheezy puffs for a few weeks are just putting their own mark on a rite that dates back centuries. Per Wikipedia, the ancient Babylonians made promises to their gods at the start of each year that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus, for whom the month of January is named. And here’s my favorite: in the Medieval era, knights took the “peacock vow” ” at the end of the Christmas season each year to re-affirm their commitment to chivalry.

How awesome is the peacock vow?

I need a freaking peacock vow.

Or maybe I need to start with something closer to home. For these resolutions have less to do with looking forward than looking back in reflection. We don’t pluck aspirations from the thin air as much as we mine them from the rubble and ruin of mistakes and the times we fell short. There is no debt to pay without the moment you let yourself get in over your head.

On the other hand, maybe our resolve can also be born of seeing something in ourselves of which we can be proud, a recognition that we did one or two things right and vowing to keep doing them. If that is so, then I will spare the reader my ample pile of regrets and missteps and share just two things I did right this year and why, if I carry them forward into 2014, those beads might drop with more purpose and joy.

Therefore, be it resolved:

One morning a week, barring unforeseen events, I will staff the Kiss & Go. This involves opening the car, van and SUV doors of the families arriving at Devan’s elementary school. The entire commitment is 20 minutes, from 8:30 to 8:50. I started doing it out of freeloader guilt, feeling it was unfair that these well-intentioned parents hoisted my girl out of our car in rain or shine, while I had yet to take a turn. But like so many great things, the return on this small investment proved to be startlingly profound. It’s not just the sweetness of lifting the smaller ones out of car seats, collecting the princess or Star Wars backpack, and watching with satisfaction as one after another ascends the steps to the playground safely. It’s the unity of purpose among every grown-up huddled at the wheel, and the few of us lining the sidewalk, and the teachers and staff waiting atop those stairs. It’s the eye contact with the parent who is late for work, or who will return home to a pile of breakfast dishes, or who just had the morning argument over why the homework never makes it into the folder. It’s the piece of peanut butter toast lying on the floor mat. It’s the thrice a week Kiss & Go angel Tony, decked out in his Redskins jersey despite one crushing Sunday loss after another, telling every harried family to slow down, take their time, and don’t forget that one last kiss. You can’t help but offer a brighter soul to the world when you’ve just spent 20 minutes aside a real live knight, living up to his peacock vow.

And be it further resolved:

That those same children I hoist will be assured a full-time music teacher, and won’t lose their Chinese teacher, because of a 35-year-old tradition known as the John Eaton Christmas Tree Sale, of which – in a spasm of September earnestness – yours truly became the co-chair. And so it was that I spent the first two weekends of December selling some 400 trees alongside my fellow public school parents, braving snow that turned to the dreaded wintry mix, keeping spirits bright with carols and a fire pit. At first, Amit admired my plucky enthusiasm. Then he questioned my mental health. Eventually he just wondered when the hell I’d come home and help take care of our kids.

But I was hooked.

Need to know the difference in scent, needle color, needle retention, or branch strength (“So, tell me about your ornaments…”) among a Douglas Fir, Balsam, Fraser, Blue Spruce, Concolor, Canaan or White Pine? I strutted the lot with this and other newfound knowledge, like how our power saw gets jammed if you put the whirring blade anywhere near stray twine on the tree. Power saw. I used a f—ing power saw. “Need a fresh cut? I’d say probably two inches, just above that knot. What’s your stand like?” Hour upon hour, as the cash box filled and the day waned, hundreds of neighbors and alumni of this little public school came and overpaid wildly for their holiday sentry. Many shared their own memories of working the sale.

And for the first time since becoming a parent, I was one of those mothers who took charge of something for my child’s school. By letting my hand go up at that meeting back in September, I finally embraced some of that work that I told myself I was just too busy to do. The cards went out very late. Gifts to Boston got Fed-Ex’ed, and ones here at home got wrapped late on Christmas Eve. But some of the last beads of 2013 were deep green, and bluish-silver, and I will feel them in my fingers as I sit with every other all too busy parent at the spring musical.

So that’s where I begin, with car doors and pine trees. Some borrowed objects returned, and a few debts joyfully paid. It’s a start.

The light pours in from the southeast window of the living room, right where our 8 foot Balsam stood. And the jar sits emptied.

Time to go fill it.

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.

The Limits of Leaning In.

You know that old adage, no one on her deathbed ever wished she spent more time in ‎the office? Well, turns out there is one person who may wish just that, and she’ll wish it ‎not just for herself, but for you, too. She just wrote a bestseller about it. ‎

I should start by confessing that I was, and probably still am, in the wrong frame of ‎mind to absorb and respond to Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In. For some months I avoided ‎it, casting hairy eyeballed side glances at the book as I clomped along the pocked ‎sidewalk on Connecticut Avenue, where we are lucky enough to still have the brick and ‎mortar KramerBooks. For months that impossibly un-tired visage smiled back through ‎the window, undaunted. ‎

Lean In.‎

I hated the title. It still provokes this outsized reaction for me:‎

Fuck Off.‎ ‎

I blame Sandberg’s publicists/agents/editors/other people. And yet, like others, I have ‎taken perverse pleasure in perfecting my counter-title:‎

Why Don’t You Lean In for Both of Us.‎

Jump Around. Jump Around. Jump Up, Jump Up and Get Down.‎

Roll Over, You’re Snoring.‎

My Kids Just Eat Carbs and Miss Me.‎

If I Keep Working This Hard I’ll Never Know How to Dougie.‎

As fun as it is to make fun, the peanut gallery is no place to stay in a discussion that ‎cuts to the core of how we as women experience our lives, distribute our energies and ‎labor, and navigate a still very unequal society. I have also been heartened by how ‎loud and sustained this discussion has become of late, launched in significant part by ‎Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic that dared to rip off the scab that never ‎seems to form long enough to heal the skin under it. I remember reading the Slaughter ‎piece a few days or weeks before it was everywhere, nodding throughout in agreement. ‎For all her critics’ observation that she lacked empirical data, everything she said about ‎reaching and surpassing her maximum and needing to make a major adjustment sure ‎as hell rang true to me. But I didn’t see what was so revolutionary about it. ‎

A week or so later, the managing partner of our firm asked me what I thought of it. My ‎first reaction was surprise that he had read it and wanted my view. Something had ‎shifted. Indeed, despite my own reactions and the criticisms to follow, it has to be a net ‎positive that the broader public is gobbling up these writings, arguing over them, ‎dissecting them, spitting, yelling, guffawing, amen’ing, whatever. ‎

Finally, enough people I love and respect asked me what I thought of Sandberg’s book, ‎and so as tempting as it was to regurgitate the comments I’d picked up from pundits, I ‎put my hard earned $24.95 where my mouth was and read it.‎

There are many, many important and painful truths in this book. The research notes ‎are a bibliography of must-read studies in gender bias that every parent, worker, ‎human should take time to grapple with. I was blown away when Sandberg ‎described a speech she heard in college about the prevalence of successful women ‎believing that they are really a fraud, that sooner or later someone is going to come ‎along and figure out that they don’t belong where they are or deserve what they’ve ‎achieved. I can’t tell you how many women I know, myself included, who have ‎struggled in exactly this way. And I raged anew at the smart-for-boys, pretty-for-girls ‎ideals that are reinforced in our culture, supported by our commerce. I needed a stark ‎reminder that they are ready to prey upon my 6 year old daughter, who right now ‎openly discusses the challenges she will face balancing being President and an artist. I ‎nodded vigorously at the observation that the single most critical decision that a woman ‎can make if she chooses a career and family is who her partner will be. I winced in ‎recognition at the data on how women underestimate their contribution, how we ‎underpromise then overproduce, and demand less financial reward and promotion. ‎There is good stuff here, no question. ‎

One point that Sandberg makes early on, however, is that all advice is autobiographical. ‎To respond to this book, then, you must first process how you relate to one Sheryl ‎Sandburg. And if you haven’t done so yet, I suggest you do it soon, because this book ‎is clearly her Audacity of Hope, and you can’t read it – particularly the Acknowledgments ‎‎- without concluding that this woman has come to play on the big stage. [Hilary, take ‎note: Sandberg makes about as many references to her time at the Treasury ‎Department as she does to her years at Google. Just saying.]‎

Particularly for women, the audience whom she beseeches not to fear, reject or flee ‎from their own presumptively stratospheric and rewarding careers, it is absolutely critical to ‎take one’s own measure of Sandberg. So to my mere mortal sisters, non-TED talk ‎givers, fellow bunion sufferers, I say this: consider the source.‎

Here are some things about the source. ‎

Sheryl Sandberg’s siblings gave a toast at her wedding, saying “we were Sheryl’s first ‎employees.” She admits having taught them to “follow me around, listen to my ‎monologues, and scream the word “Right!” She’s embarrassed about it now, but on the ‎other hand, she’s pretty sure she wouldn’t take so much heat for it if she’d been a boy. ‎She’s probably right about that. ‎

Sheryl Sandberg has a color-coded filing system and takes great pleasure from ‎reorganizing her closet. Speaking of filing, file those facts away for when she later ‎quotes Nora Ephron and urges you to “embrace the mess.” ‎

Sheryl Sandberg loves motivational phrases, particularly the ones on posters that adorn ‎Facebook’s offices, where she is awesomely motivated every day by her work, the ‎thousands of employees she has hired, and the amazing Mark Zuckerberg. Her ‎favorite is, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” It is strange that she has landed ‎on that particular question from which to draw inspiration, because one searches in vain ‎for an iota of fear or risk aversion or humility born of failure. Keep searching. Because there is scant evidence that Sheryl Sandberg has ever failed at anything.‎

Her college thesis advisor? Larry Summers. Gave her the first big break as his ‎researcher at the World Bank. She killed it. On to Harvard Business School, one of the ‎top seven in her first year class but too daunted by gender-influenced shame (a point ‎that absolutely resonated with this reader) to admit it. On to McKinsey, then back to ‎DC to join Summers at Treasury. Chief of Staff at Treasury. On to Silicon Valley, for a ‎brief chat with Eric Schmidt, CEO of the “then relatively unknown Google,” who told her ‎to take any seat on the “rocket ship,” which she did. Some years later, she turned ‎down several CEO offers to become COO of Facebook. ‎

Think that last move was a bad idea? Of course not, but Sheryl Sandberg still wants to ‎tell you how others did, and that they can all eat it. “At first, people questioned why I ‎would take a ‘lower level’ job working for a twenty-three year old. No one asks me that ‎anymore.”‎

Sheryl Sandberg’s big regret? Not the failed starter marriage, which she touches ‎upon, but largely to explain why she didn’t accept Summers’ first entreaty to come help ‎him run the Treasury Department. Sheryl Sandberg’s big regret is that in the earlier ‎years of her career, she did not sleep enough. She now knows that more hours of ‎sleep translate to greater productivity. For anyone who has interviewed a job candidate ‎whose “biggest weakness” is simply being “too focused” or “a perfectionist to a fault,” ‎you will relate.‎

This is Sheryl Sandberg. She should not apologize for it and is deservedly proud of her ‎accomplishments. And as a woman of my own accomplishments, including equally rare ‎and expensive educational opportunities, powerful and name-droppable mentors, the ‎whole nine, I as much as anyone should be cheering this woman on. I really should, ‎and I’d like to think I am, deep down. She’s also given me the data to suggest that if I ‎am tempted to dislike her, it’s because of her success. That’s chapter 3. I wouldn’t ‎dislike her if she were Howard instead of Heidi. ‎

In the end, though, the question is not whether I’d invite Sheryl Sandberg out for Gimlet ‎Night with my ladies, or whether she’d attend one held anywhere but Davos. The ‎question is whether her advice is separable from her biography, whether the author’s ‎lack of relatability strips the book of much-needed accessability. I would like to think ‎not, though in the later chapters Sandberg’s stories of triumph over mommy guilt, ‎housework imbalance, workplace miscommunication, child care challenges (Facebook ‎is so family-friendly, she can just bring those kids in if she feels like it, and Mark ‎Zuckerberg even gives her son fencing lessons!!)….start to read like one of her favorite ‎motivational posters, a utopia that can come from brainstorming, freeing yourself of ‎fear, marrying a completely loving and supportive partner…. and cashing in a few ‎Google stock options. ‎

The book suffers most when Sandberg veers from the realm she has so impressively ‎and deftly conquered, and the skills and instincts she drew upon to do it. Having ‎acknowledged that we can’t “have it all,” she falls victim to trying to “say it all,” to cover ‎every base in ways that seem contrived and fall flat. ‎

Her attempts to use humorous anecdotes to prove to overstressed mothers ‎everywhere, “hey, we’ve ALL been there!” are funny, but unfortunately not in the way ‎she intended. Example: one day she brought her son to school wearing a blue T-shirt, ‎only to be reminded by some stay at home mom that the kid should be wearing green, ‎because it was St. Patrick’s Day. That’s her story of dropping the ball for her kids. ‎Meanwhile, last week I had Devan’s school call me, because the after-school Chinese ‎class had actually ended the prior week, and therefore my child had been deserted for ‎the last hour with no ride home. [That’s a parenting fuck-up, Sheryl. You don’t want to ‎go toe to toe with me on this.] And Sandberg can’t shed her positive, earnesty ‎earnestness and espoused support for all women long enough to call that ‎sancti-mommy who has nothing better to do than obsess over holiday theme-colored ‎clothes the asshole that she clearly is. No, instead Sheryl points out that this lady does ‎a lot of worthwhile volunteering in the school and really helps the community, and that ‎she Sheryl validates and celebrates that choice. ‎

Except we know for damn sure that she doesn’t. There is NO way that yoga pant, ‎Sheryl-judging stay at home mom is Leaning In.‎

Similarly, each time Sandberg tries to prove her awareness that most women lack ‎anything close to the resources she enjoys, it’s pretty cringe-worthy. Yes, I see you all ‎out there. I get it. Did I tell you about how when I was Chief of Staff at Treasury I “ran ‎point on some smaller projects, including the administration’s proposal to promote the ‎development of vaccines for infectious diseases?” The book takes a “hey, look over ‎there!! Is that a giant purple elephant??!” quality to discussions of working class ‎women, single mothers, and the fact that, more than anything else, vastly different ‎points on the starting line of life predict whether women have a career or a punch-the-‎clock, hope not to get injured on the assembly line, j-o-b that barely feeds their family. ‎

Her thesis is that things will improve for women – for people – everywhere once there ‎are more women leading companies and governments. I would like to think that is true, ‎and yet, Sandberg herself cites more data that women who reach these objective ‎measures of success tend to suffer a weird amnesia that leads them to underestimate ‎gender discrimination. And, unless we adopt other stereotypes – that women tend ‎toward nurture, empathy, inclusion, and community – why would we assume that those ‎who attain tremendous money and power will behave any differently than men once ‎they get to join them at the top? It would in some sense be more congruent with her ‎message to ask why a woman can’t be just as ruthless and self-interested as a man. ‎

Sandberg’s personal example of women in leadership making things better is designated ‎pregnancy parking at Google, which lived on after she asked Larry and Serge one day if ‎they could make her pregnant schlep across the lot a little less brutal. But she sees no ‎tension in rallying to the defense of her friend and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s non-maternity leave, ‎ignoring that leadership might create responsibility that transcends what she indignantly ‎argues should be Mayer’s personal choice and no one else’s. Here’s a question, ‎though: why couldn’t Mayer just do what she was planning to do – “take a few weeks and I’ll ‎work throughout it” – without announcing it to the world? Sandberg’s argument that so ‎long as Mayer left maternity policies in place for others at Yahoo, there should be no ‎issue, doesn’t pass the straight face test. Earlier in the book she puzzles over the phenomenon of unused vacation days, yet she fails to see the connective thread to the Mayer maternity leave conundrum: that resistance to taking time away from work is not a matter of policy as much as one of custom and expectation. As I read the situation, either Mayer had to quell investors’ fears ‎about hiring a very pregnant CEO, which is one problem, or she chose to set a harsh ‎and even dangerous example to women in her field and beyond: You want to run with ‎the big dogs? Skip the Sitz baths. ‎

Of course, what Sandberg’s contribution and Mayer’s example share in common is the ‎apotheosis of work, which brings me to the heart of the matter. Sandberg’s thesis is ‎this:‎

‎”Women are surrounded by headlines and stories warning them that they cannot be ‎committed to both their families and careers. They are told over and over again that ‎they have to choose, because if they try to do too much, they’ll be harried and ‎unhappy. Framing the issue as ‘work-life balance’ – as if the two were diametrically ‎opposed – practically ensures that work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over ‎life?”‎

That’s it, in a nutshell. Sheryl Sandberg truly believes that women are shortchanging ‎work in their lives. Work is losing out. ‎

I said at the beginning of this post that I’m maybe the wrong person to properly assess ‎this book, but that isn’t really true. As a partner in a law firm, a mother of two young ‎children, a wife, a sister, and a daughter, I’m actually in the perfect position to respond, ‎and what Sandberg is saying does not accord with my experience. Not in the least. ‎

First, no one told me, much less over and over again, that I had to choose work or ‎family. They would not have dared, and that is a good thing in some ways, and a bad ‎thing in others. In three years at Harvard Law School I did not witness or participate in ‎a single discussion about whether my professional choices would or might have to ‎encompass the added and extraordinary work of raising children. In fact, such talk was ‎like the third rail – no professor or advisor would dare go there, at the risk of appearing ‎to discourage women students. In retrospect, I appreciate the attempt to treat us ‎equally, but I regret not putting some time and thought into it back then, when the slate ‎was still sort of blank, and I had a lot of free time to just talk with smart and passionate ‎and creative people.‎

I haven’t heard many voices urging me to choose family over work since then, either. ‎Devan was one year old when the job market tanked in 2008, and those women I know ‎who did opt for a temporary “off-ramp” were in fairly dire straights and scrambled – ‎some successfully, some not – to be rehired as lawyers. The messaging to me was, ‎appreciate that you have a job, work harder at it to be among the indispensable, and try ‎to ignore that gnawing feeling that comes when you don’t know your kid’s shoe size.‎

For better and for worse, work takes precedence in my life, in my husband’s life, and in ‎the lives of most everyone I know. The structure of private law practice demands it, ‎because at the end of each day my time must be accounted for, and it is allocated to ‎individual clients for billing, or else, it is for all intents and purposes wasted. That billing ‎drives my compensation and chances of promotion, period. Since I had my kids, I am ‎pretty relentless about making every hour at work “count.” At the same time, the firm ‎has offered, and I have taken up, greater administrative leadership responsibilities, ‎which are non-billable but which give me a broader and more powerful profile in the ‎organization. I am lucky to work with great people who have trained me and supported ‎me and pushed me. ‎

But in the pie graph of my life, it is not work that is getting squeezed. And while ‎Sandberg would experience me as an unfortunate stereotype of the working mother ‎who is harried and, at times, unhappy, I am not a victim, nor do I regret most of my ‎choices. I have an amazing, supportive partner who took fabulous care of our children ‎and home when I was in Chicago for a three month trial last year. He did it with grace ‎and never questioned that I would go, that I would be checked out and Leaned In (long ‎before we knew there was a term for it), and that I would excel on behalf of my client. ‎Sandberg would be psyched to hear this, but she would cringe at what I say now: this ‎professional highlight devastated me as a mother, and a year later I am still struggling ‎to get my bearings again. This process is hampered, admittedly, by a smart and ‎emotionally savvy 6 year old future president who has (even recently) laid such doozies ‎on me as: “Mommy, when you were in Chicago, it felt like you had died.”‎

That’s not a wrong-colored t-shirt moment. It is a moment that Anne Marie Slaughter ‎captured and dared to describe as different for mothers than it is for fathers. She took ‎some hell for that, but I agree with her. And while Sandberg cites data suggesting that ‎children do not suffer cognitively, socially or behaviorally by having a non-parent ‎primary caregiver, she doesn’t give much consideration to the entirely separate ‎question of how we leaned-in women experience loss by being away from our children. ‎What if the question was not whether our children would still thrive with two full-time ‎working parents, but how we as adults will remember or not, rejoice or not, regret or ‎not, the finite snippet of time in which these beings we created seem to want and need ‎us the most? Is that just mommy guilt to be managed away, or am I entitled to a full ‎and honest evaluation of my life as it truly is, including how I thought I would experience ‎parenthood? And if, in the end, I decide to leave something on the table in my ‎professional life, have I set all womanhood back by doing that?‎

I can hear Sandberg saying, “Of course not! That’s not what I said!” ‎

But it kind of is. ‎Sandberg’s take on choices is like Orwell’s pigs: They’re all equal. Some are just more equal than others.

It may be that Sheryl Sandberg simply experiences life at one end of the internal ‎conflict spectrum, and that’s that. But her message is now out there, and it is open to ‎interpretation by ambitious women everywhere, like the young associate I met a few ‎months ago. She was the junior member on the legal team defending a huge ‎corporation in a civil suit. My client was a fact witness, a retired executive ‎who would be deposed in the litigation. The deposition was in Indianapolis, in a ‎nondescript hotel conference room. It was a fairly minor footnote in the context of the ‎larger case, and for that reason this associate had been given the opportunity to be first ‎chair. She was prepared well beyond what the task required, as she would only ask my ‎client about six softball questions at the end of the seven hours of questioning by the ‎plaintiff. But her legs bounced with nervous energy, and she worked up the nerve to ‎tussle with opposing counsel here and there. I liked her a lot, and we had gotten to ‎know one another a bit. We were about halfway through a long slog of a ‎day when she checked her cell phone at a break. Her face suddenly fell, and her ‎shoulders slumped. I asked if everything was ok. She said, “my baby just took her first ‎steps.” I said the only thing I could think to say. “I’m so sorry. It really sucks to miss ‎that.” She shook off the emotion, as she needed to, and said, “Well, I guess this is my ‎Lean In moment!!” ‎

We put our mikes back on, and the deposition resumed. She asked her six questions ‎and did a fine job. We made haste to the airport, where she debriefed with the fairly ‎intense male partner from her firm, and I found a seat at the Champs Sports Bar and ‎ordered a sauvignon blanc. It was Friday at six; I would definitely miss bedtime. I ‎called home to wish goodnights as The Humpty Dance played fairly loudly in the ‎background. ‎

As I sipped my wine, I thought of this young woman lawyer, and I wish I had said more. ‎I wish I had told her the truth, or spoke my truth, as Sandberg would say. I should ‎have said, no, this is absolutely not your Lean In moment, though if you choose to stick ‎with this profession, you will have them. I’ve had mine. I cross-examined a ‎government cooperator for two straight days and left him in bloody tatters across a ‎courtrroom floor in Chicago. You will know it when it happens, and it will feel great. But ‎this deposition, these 9 hours including breaks in Conference Room B at the Marriott ‎Indianapolis-North? This ain’t it. This is what’s called a straight-up grind of a ‎business trip. This is a day that you hung in there, which is three quarters of the battle. ‎

As one who has been at this a bit longer, I should also have told you that you will not ‎feel any better by lying to yourself. This is and forever will be the day your daughter ‎took her first steps. I guarantee you that one day you will not remember the name of this case ‎or who you deposed, but you will remember that. Get a good night of sleep, for tomorrow you will wake up to an official toddler. And at some point, know that you are entitled to – and should – turn over these facts and take their measure, not to dwell but to look at all of this in the bright light of day. But right now, let this just be a day that you did ‎your job and did it well. And if it helps at all, you are more than welcome to lean on me.‎

‎ ‎

Blood, Sweat, Tears and Mercies in a Tragic Week in Boston

The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven   Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

 – William Shakespeare

 Mercy may be a strange way to begin a reflection on a week of carnage in my steely and wonderful hometown.  Certainly, no mercy was shown for the young and promising lives stripped, first on Boston’s most glorious festival, its annual day of days, and then in the flurry of violence carried out by two brothers in the days to come.  In any other year, and every year of my remembering, the mercy of Patriot’s Day was primarily of a city emerging from winter’s fierce and unrelenting grasp, turning its face to the sun, and, if we are honest, doing what it does all too rarely, acting downright midwesternly in its neighborliness.  Indeed, one of the worst affronts of this attack was the widespread recognition that Marathon Monday has always been rooted in, but bigger than, Boston, a day when we host one another in a different kind of fellowship, a day to see in the runners  – from Kenya, or Nigeria, or Spain, or North Carolina, or California, or Dorchester  – the same courage and fortitude that set young men onto an open field in Concord, to take on an empire, on the day for which this day was named.

There was no mercy for a small boy who had just hugged his father at the moment of triumph, or for two young women with their lives laid out ahead of them, one of whom came from China to continue her education.  There was certainly no mercy for Sean Collier, the MIT policeman whose baby-faced visage looked so instantly familiar, because if you are from this place, and happen to descend from one of its larger and best-stereotyped ethnic groups, the phrase “like the map of Ireland” has long been assigned to your face, as it has been to mine, as it could only be to his. He was in his patrol car, guarding a place that itself welcomes the minds and talent of all the world.  He was from Boston, and of Boston, and he was playing his part in making it the beacon to the world that it is and always will be. 

I started this week sketching out a post about my own Marathon memories:  the annual family trips to the starting line in Hopkinton, which was just a few miles from our home; the law school “skip days” to catch the Sox game, drink some beer, feel the sun, and exit onto a street scene of pure jubilation, as the lazy but proud lifted the weary but determined runners through their last few miles. 

In the years my brother ran, we spread out along Heartbreak Hill with our “Go Judga” signs.  In his first year, my dear friend Sylvia – content to sit out her 30th or so marathon – jumped in at Newton to run the last 8 miles with David, tearing from one side of the street to the other to get the crowd to yell his name, grabbing the water cups so he could just keep a straight and steady course.  That same year, my dear college friend Greg ran his first Marathon too.  He fell prey to one too many Freeze Pops being handed out by the grade school kids on Comm Ave.  His final miles were not pretty; they involved puke and a healthy dose of regret.  We met them all, though, in their victory.  At the finish line.  

Like everyone else touched by Boston’s best day, I have my memories.  And so, like everyone else, I have shell shock from this week.  There are some kinds of displacement that never let you reopen yourself to the same sense of permanence, some moments in which you know that as many times as you will return, you will never inhabit a place as you did before.  Indeed, it can only be the version of myself that came to be after 9/11 that instantly understood the text message from my cousin, which buzzed my phone to life last Monday as I sat at my desk:

          we R ok.  With yr brother in Newton.  Horrible.

That was my first news that someone had decided to try to turn this day toward darkness, to kill and maim at random on our day dedicated to triumph, perseverance, love.

Their failure, of course, is that the gentle rain of mercy never faltered, and only graced.  As strangers fell on one another with unimaginable pain at the blast, just as many appeared to peel them apart and press their own clothes onto wounds that would otherwise have been fatal.  It was a mercy that this very event draws hundreds of medical personnel and volunteers ready to give aid.  It was a mercy that this city is home to so many hospitals that to hear the roster of places to which the wounded were taken was like an embarrassment of riches.  MGH.  The Brigham.  Beth Israel, where six years ago my own father was brought back to life after weeks in the ICU.  Boston Medical Center, which will always live by its old name, Boston City.  New England Medical Center.  And on and on and on.  This week, here in Washington, there was a radio piece about how poorly we could respond to a similar attack, measured only by the sheer number of beds at elite hospital trauma centers.  In Boston, we watched as one brilliant surgeon after another appeared before the news cameras to say, yes, this was a horrific tragedy, but no, they were not overwhelmed or overtaken by it.  They were prepared, they did their job, and now their patients were awakening, so many without limbs and forever changed, but overwhelming these doctors with their gratitude to be alive. 

On Thursday, there was an abrupt pivot.  I was waiting for a bus at the bottom of Porter Street when I first saw the suspects’ photos on my IPhone, making that V with my thumb and index finger on the screen to try to enlarge them.  From that moment on, a weary, healing but enraged city had a mission, though no one could have known what would play out in the 24 hours to come.  Amit and I went to bed that night after a grim but seemingly random piece on the evening news recounted the shooting of an MIT police officer.  When I woke up, Amit had already absorbed the nearly inconceivable turn of events, and knew enough to steel me for the fact that the danger now apparently focused on a small city called Watertown. 

My sister and her husband live just on the border of Watertown and Waltham.  In complete bewilderment I flipped on the television – any station would do – to see images of the Arsenal Street neighborhood, now the center of a massive manhunt for the surviving brother.  From 500 miles south, it was impossible to grasp.  From just a mile or so away, Christine agreed that it was impossible to grasp, seeing these storefronts that are the landscape of her every day, the assembly of police and military force unseen in our lifetimes for such an event.  She was calm.  We both agreed that it was highly unlikely that this guy could walk up her street and –  what, knock on her door? –  at this point.  But who the hell knew?  She assured us she was fine and said she just hoped there would be no more bloodshed.  I told her that, if she had to, she should send her cat Doc out into the street to draw the fire.  That cat would send nearly anyone in the other direction.  It helped us both to laugh a little.

We waited all day Friday.  We met the brothers’ high school classmates.  We met their uncles.  We met an aunt who refused to believe a word of it.  We saw prom pictures, yearbook photographs.  We met the younger brother’s classmates at UMass, the ones who played soccer with him just last week.  Meanwhile in Watertown, the SWAT teams knocked on doors, covering a 20 block radius that just barely missed a certain block and a certain yard with a boat stored in the back.

That night, we had several relatives with us, including my parents, two aunts, and two uncles.  We celebrated Devan’s 6th birthday for probably the third time that week.  She was born on the day of the Virginia Tech Massacre.  I will never forget taking it in and just as quickly turning it off, so I could turn to the business of bringing my baby daughter into such a world. 

At around 8, as I put my 2 year old son to bed, my mother came in to hug both of us.  At that point, there was a stand-off, and it was unclear whether the 19 year old boy in the boat would be coming out alive, or whether he would join his brother in death. 

I said, Mom, I know this is going to sound strange.  But all I can think about right now is their mother.  It can’t be that she wanted this for them.  It can’t be that on the day she gave birth to them she could ever have ascribed hate to their tiny beings or believe that in the space of an instant they would both be gone, that she would be the mother of two mass murderers.  I’m not saying he deserves to live, and he must face what is coming.  But all I can think of is being the mother, and maybe the only person on the planet pleading for mercy for that kid. 

My mom responded, well, all I can think about is the mother of that 8 year old boy.  Yes, I said, I know.  Believe me, I know.  But right now I am thinking about them both.

The end came with yet another mercy.  No more bloodshed.  In the trauma centers of Boston, the perpetrator lays alongside his victims at the Beth Israel.  The very best nurses and doctors tend to him, change the dressings on his wounds, administer his medicine.  In hospital room upon hospital room across the city, there is grief and bewilderment and hope and reunion and above all, the certainty of struggle to come.  In the churches and funeral homes of the dead, there is only the mercy of remembrance, of faith, of community, but it all feels dwarfed by what is gone.

I come back to their mother, though I don’t know why.

I attended a dinner a few years ago, and one of the speakers was the father of a young woman killed in the Oklahoma City bombing.  He was a plain-spoken man who owned a gas station.  He told us about the daughter he had lost, a gentle and bright and giving soul.  Among her beliefs was a firm and resolute opposition to the death penalty.  Though he held a different view, this man honored his daughter’s memory and did not advocate for Tim McVeigh’s execution.  Instead, he found it inside him to go visit McVeigh’s parents at their home, while their son was awaiting his fate on death row.  I will never forget his description of the meeting, which started awkwardly and with understandable tension.  But then he sat at their dining table, looked up, and saw the framed high school photograph of their son, his daughter’s murderer.  He said that at that moment he realized that there were two sets of parents grieving that night.  At the end of the evening, he and McVeigh’s father embraced.  And describing that moment, in words that have lived with me since, he said he had never felt closer to God.  I wonder if anyone will live that moment of grace in all this.  I wonder if anyone has even thought about it.

Given that we are still getting some catharsis from things like this, I sort of doubt it:

welcome to boston

By the time I returned to the television, the people of Watertown were pouring out of their homes to thank the hundreds of police officers who had charged forward toward this guy, relentlessly, though they had good reason to believe he wouldn’t hesitate to take as many lives with him as he could.  

I called Christine, who isn’t a big Sox fan, and doesn’t have the accent, and probably hasn’t been to a Dunkin in the last ten years.  While she wouldn’t be joining the masses that night, she put it simply, and with pride:  “This is just so Boston.”  And it was.  A place that all who love it will now inhabit a little differently.  A place whose day of days will roar back, in triumph, and whose skin has been made thicker by the scar tissue beginning to form.  

To my beloved Boston, to all who are suffering, may mercy continue to fall like gentle rain.  It is, indeed, twice blessed.

 

April 30, 3013, Post Script:  News begins to emerge that, in fact, their mother may have encouraged their radicalism.  What a distortion of  faith that could corrupt a parent’s love.  Awful.   

Tidings.

Every year, just like I did as a child, I hope for a white Christmas.  To me, snow has always meant possibility.  When I was little, there was the prospect of reindeer tracks in the yard, sledding til our pants soaked through.   Now, as a weary adult, to be graced by a blanket of white must certainly mean that renewal and peace are still a possibility.  Like every culture’s variation on the late fall holiday, we tell ourselves that a white Christmas might help us better meet the darkness with light.  That in its quiet might be found a few stolen moments of serenity, even amidst this harried and hyped festival, this tribute to a baby born outside in the cold.

It being December 19, and with the thermostat hovering between the high 40’s and low 50’s, it would appear that Christmas snow is not in the offing this year.  Devan dons her winter coat every morning as she heads to kindergarten, but it often stays unzipped for the short ride to her school, the even shorter walk on which I accompany her to her classroom.  Her mittens and hat are dutifully toted, at my insistence, but the air has yet to turn sharp or biting.  We end the year in a tepid grey stew.

As I walk with her this week, my eyes connect with my fellow parents doing the same.  There is not a parent in this country who needs to speak the words we carry behind weary eyes, in our sorrowed glances.  “I know.”   We linger extra long at drop-off, we take three or four last furtive looks over our shoulder, and then we head off into our days.  But these are December days, and if we chance to see the sun at all, it will be at its lowest point over the horizon.  Indeed, it will set just a short while after school lets out.  It will be dark again before I see my children.  But with the grace of a merciful God, I will see them. 

Today I left work early.  I had promised Devan an evening at  Zoo Lights, the massive light display and makeshift mini-carnival that is the National Zoo’s homage to the holidays.  She was waiting at our front door as I slogged through it with purse, workout bag, and binders of what I’d intended to accomplish at the office that day.  With a quick clothing change, we were off.

To say the least, the evening turned into a comedy of errors.  First, my plan to park nearest the carousel, tubing course and train ride was apparently shared by several thousand other citizens of the greater metropolitan area.  By the time we made our way to a lot with a free space, we had nearly retraced our route back home.  Devan minded this not a whit.  She skipped onto the zoo grounds, holding my hand, reveling in a rare weeknight adventure that was sure to run beyond her 8:00 bedtime.  But as we passed the first few vendors,  I realized that I had no cash, and that to enjoy anything more than the bountiful light displays, wewould need to visit one of the two ATM machines hidden at inconvenient corners of the sprawling zoo campus.  As we passed one fun game and treat after another, I assured Devan that just as soon as we had some money, we would most certainly take that mother/daughter picture at the winter sleigh photo booth;  ride the gaudy festooned carousel at least 5 times; gorge on popcorn and hot cocoa, and generally live it up. 

To traverse the National Zoo from the northernmost quadrant (cheetah – needs more space) to the southernmost (lions/food court/better parking) can feel like walking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.  We had schlepped a good 3/4 mile downhill, barely stopping to take in the lights, when we arrived at the Mane Restaurant, which thankfully had a functioning ATM.  I was furiously punching the keypad when my phone rang. 

It was Amit, telling me that my Aunt Pat and Uncle John had just arrived at our house, Christmas gifts in tow, on what was – of course – the appointed night of their visit.   A visit long planned for this very Wednesday, and then promptly and firmly etched in my drained, overdrawn memory bank for ….Thursday.

I looked at Devan, who had already begun to dope out the turn of events, for she had heard my end of the conversation wtih Amit:   “Huh?!  What do you mean?  Oh….s—!  I blew it!  I so blew it!   Oh my god I blew it!!!   OK, we’ll be right there.”  And by “right there,” she knew I didn’t mean the carousel, or the giant snow globe with the dancing panda.

“Devan,” I said, “listen.  Mommy really blew it.  This was actually the night that Patty and John wanted to come see you and Kian.  Mommy thought it was tomorrow, but I was wrong.  They are at our house, and they have your Christmas gifts, and they traveled a long way to come see you.  So we have to go.  And we will take you to Zoo Lights another night.”

And then, in a season of miracles, I got one of my own.

“OK.”

I stared up the long, winding uphill path through the zoo, the same 3/4 mile we had just descended.  I thought of my wonderful aunt and uncle arriving, only to be greeted by our befuddled nanny.

“Devan, I have a great idea.  You ride on my back.”

She gladly obliged.  I hoisted her body onto mine, adjusted her legs as a belt around my waist, and checked the time on my IPhone. 

Then I started to run. 

 I ran past the rides, the families taking photos, the Panda concessions, the toasted chestnut stand, the popcorn we would have eaten.  With each stride, Devan’s 39 pound body thwacked against mine.  My heartbeat raced.  Suddenly,  for the first time in nearly a week,  I started to laugh.  I laughed at the chaos and disorder in my addled brain, at the fifty minutes it had taken us to park and walk to an ATM machine, only to head back to the car.  At the glorious absurdity that I was running uphill through the National Zoo at 6:56 on a Wednesday, wearing my very own girl cub, sweat dripping down my back.   In my peripheral vision blurred the dancing flower lights, the swinging monkeys, the blue elephants with their blinking trunks.  In the tree canopy above us, white lights were streamed to look like falling rain.  

Devan’s arms clung to my neck, at times a little too tight.  If it were any other week, I might have asked her to loosen her grip a little. 

We finally reached the car, paid the parking fee, and barreled toward home.  Through the windows I could see Pat and John, smiling and enjoying one of Kian’s hijinks.  We shared a few cookies and a little wine.  Amit and John talked politics.  Devan said not a word about missing out on the rides or the treats.

At bedtime, we did our nightly ritual in which we ask each other to name the best and worst parts of our day. Bests always go first.  Mine, as it often is, was cuddling in the covers with both Devan and Kian that morning, wishing the day might wait just a bit longer.  Then it was Devan’s turn.  She grabbed my face and said,  “Mommy, the best part of my day was still going to Zoo Lights with you.  You didn’t blow it.  It was great.” 

And just like that,  renewal.  With not a snowflake in sight.

To be sure, darkness abounds in these last days of this particular year.  It has proven impossible to simply move past a bottomless grief, which is not even our own, except that it is.  I spend a bit of every day imagining that Amit and I are standing in that fire station, desperate, waiting, and then undone. 

Then I resume my unimaginably graced life, which shines almost garishly:  a sparkling tree, an impromptu family dance party, all of it lit from within by two small faces with living breath that fogs up our windows. 

I don’t know how we will all make our way through the fear and pain and loss that is our due.  But in all my days to come, I hope to remember this crazy night.  May it remind me that it is rarely what we plan, or what goes off without a hitch, that brings what is wondrous – what might even be perfection.   Just look to the stories.  For I highly doubt Mary and Joseph’s birth plan involved a manger, or livestock, or a robed trio of visitors carrying impractical gifts like myrrh.  And something tells me the Maccabees would have liked to find more than one day’s worth of oil in the Temple.  But they lit what they had, and look how it all turned out.  

This is likely my last post of the year, so with it I send both a wish and – yes, Amit – a prayer.  I wish all of you grace amidst the unorchestrated, the unraveled, the unexpected.    I wish us all the courage that led every people on this earth to cherish a story of hope amidst the winter darkness.  

And I pray that in whatever hardship may come, that I will summon the joy of that run through the zoo, and that I will know and believe that I didn’t blow it.  I pray that when I am very old, I will still feel those hands on my face, and see their eyes, and feel their warm and perfect bodies as we huddle before the sunrise.  I pray that I may always find my way back to this light, for in it I am saved.

___________________________

Please consider joining the Million Child March for gun control:  http://www.kidsmarch.org/?recruiter_id=1993.

Searching for Words

For as little as I relish getting older, there are some graces. 

 One is that the passing decades of your life serve as shock absorbers, providing some immeasurable dulling effect against the sharp and bitter.  This phenomenon has physiological components.  One of the reasons that the little you couldn’t endure Brussels sprouts, or in my case, peas, is that your childhood taste buds experience them as they truly are, with all their pungent and dirty and slightly sulfuric qualities.  It’s an assault on your still too pure and honed senses.  As an adult, you can’t possibly simulate what these foods tasted like to your eight year old self.  The buds dull over time.  So you just chuckle, even marvel, at how much you used to despise that same vegetable that you now readily order as a side dish.  The taste is so mild that you add a little sea salt.  The chef adds a bit of bacon.  But try telling the eight year old you that one day she will pay her very own money, at a restaurant, for Brussels sprouts.  She will tell you you’re crazy.  You’ll both be right.

 What we ask our children to experience while they are still little is a very tricky thing. 

Foods may seem innocuous enough, but just track down my old babysitter, the then-teenaged Noreen Johnson, who must now be well into  her 50’s.  One night in about 1979, she dutifully fulfilled my mother’s directive that I must finish my peas.  I recoiled at everything about those peas – their texture, their pea green-ness, and most of all their taste.  Pushed to near hysteria over the notion that I’d never get to leave the table for Jiffy Pop and Gilligan’s Island, I forced those peas down my throat, and then promptly gagged and vomited across our linoleum floor.   Thus did I create my own cherished and guarded legend that I was “allergic” to peas.  I never had to eat them again, but I do, of course, preferably with a little salt and pancetta.

What can kids handle, and when?  The whole question is so relative to the circumstances into which they are born that the motivating event of this post just serves as evidence of how lucky my circumstances are.  But lately, a host of things have reminded me that my own senses aren’t quite as dulled as I might have thought or hoped.  So maybe I am extra sensitized to what Devan is being asked to take in.  Which brings me to the word search.

 A five year old’s backpack holds many wonders, many horrors, and lots in between.  The single mitten, the rotten half eaten food product… these are a given.  The treasure in Devan’s bag lies in the yellow folder labeled, “PLEASE RETURN THIS FOLDER TO SCHOOL!!”  Remarkably, though we may have occasionally let our car inspections lapse, somehow that yellow folder gets returned to school as requested, day in and day out.  Tonight, I extracted a packet of school papers that included a “circle a word” search entitled….forget it, I can’t even do it justice.  Here it is:

I will admit that my very first reaction was pride that my little girl had circled absurdly long  and sophisticated words like “Inauguration,” and “Documentary.”  As for the rest of Puzzle 25, doled out in a public school after-care program that includes children from roughly 4 through 11 years of age, I might have been just as composed and prepared if I’d found a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes in her Hello Kitty side pocket.  Staring at the paper, I felt that purgatory of bewilderment where you’re pretty sure something isn’t a joke while you’re still chuckling as though it is. 

 Yes, here it is, Devan, your first officially sanctioned, school sponsored “Special Occasions on the Television” word search.  Study closely. 

 HOSTAGES.

 CRIME.

 IMPEACHMENT.

 LOCAL DISASTER.

 PLANE CRASH.

 TERRORISM.

 WAR.

Ready, set… go find those words!!!  Wait, you’re only 5?  And you have no idea what these words mean, but you’re able to sound most of them out?   Well, pish posh, I’m sure your loving parents will be at the ready with a loving, comforting explanation of it all.  They’ll certainly put the “special” back into things like hostages and war. 

 And for my children, I certainly would try.  Parenting is, among other things, the simultaneous denial and imperfect management of a freefall into helplessness.  You scramble in the moment to give the comforting response.  Sometimes you lie.  Often you have to suffer anew the implications of what you are trying to explain, things you will unearth from hard-earned scar tissue, because your kids deserve some answer.  But what answer?  There is no meter to read whether those keen and honed senses can handle even a watered down version of pain, horror, heartbreak, loss.  You would spend everything you have, and borrow multiples of that, to never see any of it sink into their perfect and unfurrowed brows.  Now you’re asked to be the narrator.  The docent on the Word Search of Horrors. 

 You might stop to marvel that this is the same school that sends home multiple permission slips, that very much wants your considered thought and written authorization to take your child apple picking at Butler’s Orchard, or to Ye Olde Colonial Farm to watch people from olden times churn butter.  But that irony appears to be lost on whoever had access to a copier and had to occupy a slew of kids on a random Monday afternoon.

So you consider the list. 

 Maybe you could tackle just a few of these…

“PLANE CRASH?”   No.  No fucking way.  And let’s face it, she just wants to cross out the word sandwiched between “OSCARS” and “PLAYOFFS.”  Here’s a thought, Puzzle 25 drafters:  “PLANET OF THE APES.” 

 “IMPEACHMENT?”  Jesus Christ, I highly doubt too many kindergarten classes tuned in to the last one.  But I can lawyer my way through this one.  Any sentient child or adult is sure to lose interest within two minutes of my oral history of what our founders considered high crimes and misdemeanors worthy of invoking a congressional process whereby the House of Representatives must first vote to by a simple majority to bring articles of….. zzzz……

 One down, infinity to go. 

Let’s see here… 

“BLOOPER SHOWS.”   Dick Clark?  Bob Saget?  I shudder.  And isn’t this one atrocity that we’ve managed to eradicate over time? 

I’m suddenly thinking this word search was created around the time I pea-puked on Noreen Johnson.  Seems highly likely that the impeachment reference is more likely to Nixon than to Clinton, and you hardly ever see hostages on the evening news anymore.  And when was the last time you heard someone say, “hey, there’s a great ‘special’ on TV tonight?”

 “WORLD SERIES.”  Sigh.  A concept as likely to break her heart as many other items on the list.  Though I will reassure her that she was born into a wonderful, post-curse Red Sox era, that the 2012 season was an anomaly, that we can all learn a lesson from the ill-considered firing of Terry Francona, and that our family is finding a way to form a third identity as Nationals fans.  Daddy and I are even getting used to the pitchers getting a turn at bat.  Daddy’s Orioles?  A flash in a cheap and flimsy pan.

 “TERRORISM.”   Um….nope.  I’ve got nothing.   Check, please!

 You do your best, I guess, though in some moments your best is not going to seem up to the task.  Just as you must face that your children are constantly growing away from you, you swallow the far more brutal reality that their tethers strain closer and closer to a world featuring those special occasions on the television.  On good days, you embrace it as part of the bargain.  Not all days are good days.

 Devan, I suspect, lost interest in this word search the minute our nanny appeared to pick her up from after-school.  I had no way of knowing that it was one of those days I would desperately wish that it was my face she saw when she looked up from the task.  If I’d been home earlier in the afternoon, maybe I would have found the word search right away, still wet from her green magic marker.  But even if I had, we probably wouldn’t have talked about it very much.   Some words are just too hard to find.  

So tonight, we will take a pass.  We’ll take a pass on blindfolded hostages, war-ravaged despair.  Tonight I will simply hope, despite all that I know to be true, that some of these events go the way of blooper shows, or that I find some measure of wisdom and grace when they enter her consciousness and she looks to me for an answer.  But tonight she is still 5, and I am still clinging to every last bit of my waning control over what shocks get to enter her system. 

I tuck Puzzle 25 into my work bag.   Tonight it’s pancakes for dinner.

Election Day 2012: What is Missing, and What Endures.

It’s 11:08 p.m. on the night before election day.  Against my better judgment, I am watching CNN as Michelle gives a lovely and moving introduction to her husband, the love of her life, our President, Barack Obama.  He is before me now, giving the best and last stump speech his voice will allow him, to the people of Iowa, who truly did start him on the path to the White House, setting in real motion that crazy and glorious ride on which I was a giddy and full-freight passenger. 

 It all seems a lifetime ago.  Devan was just 18 months.  After tossing her into the air in her Obama onesie, thrilling that she might never know a country in which a person of color couldn’t occupy the Oval Office, we put her in her crib to watch the returns.  Like so many others, we celebrated the most profound moment of patriotic elation that I believe I will ever know.  I can say without irony or sarcasm that I am grateful I got to have it at all. 

 I will not use this space, or one of my few rare windows of writing time, to journal my own disappointments with Barack Obama.  Loyal readers of smartycaro (“Hi, Mom!!!”) know damn well whom I will vote for tomorrow morning, futile though the exercise may be in my disenfranchised, home-sweet-home District, where Obama beat McCain by about 96 percentage points.

 I am trying instead to imagine life two days from now, waking up on November 7, 2012.  In the best case scenario, we will have definitively chosen a president, albeit it one that half of our citizenry thinks should be relegated to that old dustbin of history.  But I want it to be done.  I want it to be done for a lot of reasons, but among them is that some people in my life whom I love deeply who are ….Republicans. 

Yes, America, in my very own life could lay the seeds of hope for bipartisan friendship and cooperation.  Or, maybe not.

 I speak primarily of my dearest partner in crime, Sylvia, code name Trixie, a/k/a Emma Peel.  It’s a funny thing.  Between election cycles, the countless hours, days and months pass without partisan resentment and rancor.  I could catalogue in volumes the things that we have done for one another, and they would be dwarfed only by that which we would do for one another.  We have trekked across continents together.  We have been each other’s comfort in times of despair. We have marked holidays and birthdays and births and deaths and have met up for 4,187 happy hours.  You will never meet someone who can throw a better theme party.

 In all times but these, we leave politics out of it.  It’s not even a conscious choice, because in the most profound moments, or the most delightfully frivolous ones, the business of living just lays claim on all our energies, not just obliterating but making a joke of political disagreements.  But the current quandary is this:   If need be I would lay down in traffic for her.  But if we lived in Ohio right now, I would strongly consider slipping something into her drink so she slept through election day.  I’m pretty sure she feels the same way.

 Yes, our respective temperatures need to come down before I can see Trixie, and a few others, again.  I miss them, but I need to be able to enjoy their presence without seeing Mitt Romney in a thought bubble cartoon over their heads.   It takes time, but it is high time to get back to that business of living.

 It is time for all this to be over, because having lived in this town through hanging chads, ten gallon hats, a stray war started for no good reason…well, the point is, the Bush years happened, and then Obama was elected, and nothing is perfect, nothing is clear, people are truly hurting, our diplomats were murdered in a place we should have secured better.  A chunk of Manhattan and New Jersey is under water.  So this time we stagger, regardless of the intended beneficiary of our vote, to that polling booth, clinging to an article of faith that it matters that we make it there at all.  We are all a little more clear-eyed, and all a little sorrier for it.

 This past Sunday, when I probably should have been canvassing in Virginia, I went with two friends on a day trip to the lovely hamlet of Frederick, Maryland.  We spent hours in an antiques “emporium” that stretches over several blocks.  The way it works is that dozens of people (whom you never see or meet, unfortunately) with furniture, art, objects, or clothing to sell rent “booths” within this enormous warehouse space.  It is like shopping at 200 little hole in the wall boutiques. 

 I had thought about inviting Sylvia along, and it was an excursion she would have loved.  I was trolling for cheap but interesting artwork for our house, and I looked forward to scouring for hidden treasures.  But half the fun was chuckling at the bizarre and the awful.  The crying clown portraits.  An oil painting of a gun, a jug… and another jug.  Thousands of Lladro dancing figures.  Display cases full of enough miniature civil war figurines to recreate the entire war between the states, and probably the War of 1812 too, if you weren’t a stickler for detail.  Your eyes dart from the sublime to the heinous, and Sylvia would have spotted even more at which to marvel. 

 But as it happened, my friend who drove us doesn’t know Sylvia very well, and she was amped up to eleven over the election, and thus our ride to Frederick was one of the high decibel rants that have marked so many of my social interactions for the past months.  And I certainly did nothing to put a cold compress on the situation.  After all, I truly do think Mitt Romney is a complete shithead, so why not say it for the 500th time to people who already think the same thing?  It would have been an onslaught for Sylvia, reinforcing her initial instinct to steer clear of her liberal friends a while longer, or a muted, stifled “let’s change the subject” ride for all of us.  Either way, it wouldn’t have worked.  And that is a shame. 

 It is particularly a shame because strolling the acres of that antiques mart went a long way toward restoring my faith that we may yet all find a way to work this out.  The personality of each little booth is different, and while it is true that we had to stifle laughs at some of the offerings, we did in fact stifle them, because it would be rude to laugh at things that others were admiring and considering for purchase.  Scores of people were searching for their own version of treasure, whether a fifty cent spoon, an old Life magazine, or a vintage armoire. 

 The most wonderful piece I bought was a charcoal sketch of a woman who looked somewhat sad, or disappointed, or maybe pissed off.  She was in a horrible frame with yellowed matting, hanging in a far corner of a deserted booth.  I fell for her instantly, and then (quite needlessly) panicked that someone else might be about to scoop my precious find, clearly an overlooked museum-quality portrait, bargain priced for just $30, plus the cost of reframing.  The young guy who got on a ladder to take it down regarded me with bemused disbelief: 

That one, ma’am?” 

 “Yep!  Isn’t she beautiful?”

 Last night, I opened a good bottle of  wine and considered my charcoal woman.  It was exactly fifty years ago that she sat for this portrait, in whatever exact mood it is that her artist captured.  Who knows what time of year it was, though she is wearing a turtleneck, so maybe it was late fall like it is now.  With a little help from the IPad, I learned quite a bit about what her country and world were serving up in 1962.  There were military coups in the Dominican Republic and Burma, and, in that year alone, the people of Rwanda, Burundi, Jamaica, Algeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and Tanzania declared independence. The term “personal computer” was first mentioned by the media.  Chile hosted the World Cup, in which Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 3-1 in the final.  It was a horrific year for airplane crashes:  by June, three Boeing 707’s had crashed and claimed 290 souls.  The first black student, James Meredith, registered at the University of Mississippi, escorted by federal marshals.  In September, Russia started arming Cuba, sparking the missile crisis which might very well have been at its apex as she sat there, as still as she could.  Maybe she posed as a favor for a friend, or an art student who lived in her building, or a lover, but amidst no shortage of chaos she sat, for someone who still had the courage to pick up a piece of charcoal and make something beautiful, taking it as an article of faith that it might endure.  

 She will now grace a wall in our home, which in two days’ time will either be part of Barack Obama’s second term or the inception of the Mitt Romney presidency.  She will bear witness to the day to day triumphs and perils of the Mehtas, a mixed race family of four living in Washington, DC, where we have waited too long, in too charged and personal a way, to learn who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania.‎

I can’t wait to show her to Sylvia.