The Perils of Empathy

(This is what spring looks like in Berkeley — wisteria blooming everywhere.  This post, though, is not about wisteria, in case you are wondering.  It is about the work/life balance and the way you have to shore it up all the time.  But there is a wisteria metaphor in the post, because it seemed like a good idea to have a goal in writing it:  to work in my favorite vine somewhere.) 

It was a phone call I’ve been putting off returning for weeks and weeks, a call to a woman I don’t know, a woman with whom I have in common a single person:  our lovely housekeeper and general childminder and morning helper, Lucy. 

Lucy works for us at various times during the week.  Every time she walks into our house I want to hug her.  She’s hugely helpful and she is the reason I’ve been able to work, and have children, and write a novel, and be relatively sane through the year of having cancer.  Lucy also works for the other family.  Let’s call the woman in that family Tessa, shall we? 

The message Tessa left was that she wanted to “close the loop” on “scheduling matters.” I hadn’t known the loop was open.  In fact, I didn’t even know I was inside a loop.  My heart sank.  It was obvious what Tessa really wanted.  She didn’t want to get clarity about something, and she didn’t want to “check in” as she said.  She wanted my permission to rearrange the arrangement that’s been working so well for us.

My first thought, after deciding that I don’t like Tessa because she is not straight up, was that changes in my schedule are between me and Lucy, not me and Tessa.  If Lucy wants to do something different, then she is perfectly capable of changing things with me. We’ve done it before.  I am not scary.  

After this weird loop-closing message, I asked Lucy if she wanted to change her schedule.  She made a face, as if to say, that woman is making me nuts.  She did not want to change anything she said.  She is fine with her work and her timing. 

Having learned that the person who does this work is happy with it, I ignored Tessa’s call (and the one she made a few days later) for twenty two days.  What I found more difficult to ignore is that I know she has two young children, is on maternity leave and is going back to work pretty soon.  She also has a husband, a guy I suspect doesn’t do much to help out around the house and who sees the work/life balance as her problem.  He also yelled at Lucy once (she blurted this out one day when I asked her how she was), so I am not inclined to feel charitable where he is concerned.  I know that this whole weird “closing the loop” call is Tessa’s way of trying to arrange things so she can work and parent.  The trouble is that she’s trying to work out this balance by unbalancing my own teetering effort.  

And that’s where empathy becomes perilous.   For a very long time, I responded to the knowledge that someone is having trouble by becoming so invested in helping them get out of it that their trouble became my own.   My own troubles and needs?  They did not seem to exist anymore.  

This is the sort of thing that made me a terrible litigator.  When the client’s trouble became my trouble it was as though I was the one being accused of terrible wrongdoing.  I would be defensive and upset every time I responded to the lawyer on the other side.  Never mind that I was not the one who displayed the poor judgment that got the client to the place where they needed to hire my law firm to defend them.  Their mistakes felt like my own.  Their setbacks?  Mine. 

Gradually, and mostly because I stopped doing that kind of work, it dawned on me that someone else’s trouble was not my trouble.  It was generally not my fault, and although I could feel sympathy for the person in trouble, I did not need to become them.  I could say, you and your lawsuit live over here — in a place that is not mine.  You got yourself into this mess, not me.  There is a hand gesture that goes along with this thought.  If you have trouble with this issue, you might want to try it:

Cup your hands together, and place the trouble you have been taking on inside the space in your hands.  (Obviously, you must pretend, this being a symbolic exercise.)  Now stretch your hands as far away from you as you can — across my desk is where I mostly do this.  And then gently deposit it all at this far away place.  Now sit back and repeat after me:  This is not my trouble.  This does not belong to me.  It is not of my making, nor is it my fault.  I can help, if I choose to, but only if I am clear that this is not my trouble. 

Knowing where I end and others begin has been the single biggest challenge I have faced as an adult.  That, and learning not to eat every last  bite of the chocolate cake just because I can.    

And so it is with Tessa (the trouble being her own, I mean — not the cake problem).  Her work life balance troubles live in her house.  Mine live in mine.  And in this case, I will not unbalance my own house in order to make her life easier. 

And that is what I told her on the telephone.  I could feel her efforts to entangle me in her world — to ask me about how I had arranged things, to see if maybe I was not needing what I think I need, to ask if I could do without a little of what I’ve arranged so she could have some of it too.  Wisteria is like this.  It’s a vine — if you look closely at it you’ll see the wonderful way it’s been engineered, with little sharp hook-like twigs all along it, hooks that grab on and don’t let go.  It’s beautiful though, and it drapes itself around the front of your house in the places you’ve decided you want it to be draped.  If you don’t want it someplace, you cut it back.  You are in charge of it, as you are in charge of most things in your life, because that is what it means to be an adult.

I know it sounds cold, but I did not give Tessa much more than an inch of frontage to hook onto.   It has taken a long time to achieve some serenity and balance in my life.  I will not give it up.

There is, of course, another subtext here, which is how it can even be the case that Tessa and I can decide something like this.   I said, over and over, this is not really our decision to make, although I am happy to tell you that things are working beautifully for me.  Lucy is the master of her work and her schedule.  If she wishes to make a change, then she and I will discuss it.  Not you and I.  This is another topic for another day — how we should behave in the face of the fact that we cannot control what other people decide to do.  And in writing about that, I will try to work in some reference to the Meyer lemon bush that is also ripe and beautiful this lovely spring day, and has been well worth waiting for through the long, cold wet winter. 

From Eminent Victorians to The Daily Show: The Art of Biography

I’ve finished re-reading Eminent Victorians and sit here in a fog of spice cookies and lemon glaze to make my report. I’ll begin by saying that twenty years ago my first reading of this wonderful series of biographical sketches was impoverished by the fact that I had no idea Strachey’s brand of biography was in the least unusual. And that, dear reader, is what I’d like to talk about today.

Strachey’s subjects are four Victorian notables, people who accomplished remarkable things in their lives, and who were models of probity and seriousness. I imagine that before Strachey came along these sorts of notables were written about as exemplars of virtue, as heroes. And although Strachey did see them this way, his contribution to the art of biography is that he also found all that energy and probity amusing and he wasn’t afraid to say so.

His piece on Florence Nightingale, the one woman in this group, is my favorite because he manages to give us her story straight and with sympathy and also to get across just how terrifyingly efficient and single-minded she was. This comes across throughout the sketch, but it gets particularly funny when Strachey talks about the period late in her life when Nightingale became interested in philosophical and theological questions or, as Strachey puts it, “Having set right the health of the British Army, she would now do the same good service for the religious convictions of mankind.”

And so she did, but in her own unique way. Here’s what Strachey has to say about that: “Yet her conception of God was certainly not orthodox. She felt towards Him as she might have felt towards a glorified sanitary engineer; and in some of her speculations she seems hardly to distinguish between the Deity and the Drains. As one turns over these singular pages, one has the impression that Miss Nightingale has got the Almighty too into her clutches, and that, if He is not careful, she will kill Him with overwork.”

The Victorian age also saw the conversions of Newman and Manning to Catholicism, a serious enough topic. What’s wonderful about Eminent Victorians is that Strachey finds the ecclesiastical establishment as amusingly hypocritical as Trollope did. Here’s a description of Cardinal Manning’s machinations in Rome, as he maneuvered himself closer to power by ingratiating himself with the Pope’s private secretary, Monsignor Talbot. It’s a long passage, and I don’t want to just dump it on you, but it’s worth reading, because it’s very typical of the sort of thing Strachey does so well:

“Monsignor Talbot was a priest who embodied in a singular manner, if not the highest, at least the most persistent traditions of the Roman Curia. He was a master of various arts which the practice of ages had brought to perfection under the friendly shadow of the triple tiara. He could mingle together astuteness and holiness without any difficulty; he could make innuendoes as naturally as an ordinary man makes statements of fact; he could apply flattery with so unsparing a hand that even Princes of the Church found it sufficient. . . . With such accomplishments, it could hardly be expected that Monsignor Talbot should be remarkable either for a delicate sense of conscientiousness or for an extreme refinement of feeling, but then it was not for those qualities that Manning was in search when he went up the winding stair. He was looking for the man who had the ear of Pio Nono; and, on the other side of the low-arched door, he found him. Then he put forth all his efforts; his success was complete and an alliance began which was destined to have the profoundest effect upon Manning’s career, and was only dissolved when, many years later, Monsignor Talbot was unfortunately obliged to exchange his apartment in the Vatican for a private lunatic asylum at Passy.”

This is a description worthy of Mark Twain, who was a master of the deadpan moment at the end of a passage, and of the deployment of the rhetoric of seriousness to show just how utterly ridiculous a person or idea really was. The only thing is, Eminent Victorians is not fiction. And that’s Strachey’s achievement: he chose to be biting and amusing in a genre that, before he arrived, just didn’t do that kind of thing, or at least not as far as I know. It was as though he’d showed up at a society wedding wearing a swimsuit.

Although that was shocking then, we’ve pretty much come to see this sort of thing as the norm now, almost 100 years later. (Eminent Victorians came out in 1918.) There are, of course, outposts of high mindedness that could do with a little infusion of wit: academic writing (and no, I’m not talking about our academic friends like litlove, dorothy, ms. make tea, kate, the hob, my friend Catherine) and children’s textbooks, come immediately to mind. My own work writing about the law also calls out for more recognition of the ridiculousness of the human condition.

Okay, so here’s where I get to The Daily Show. If I had to point to someone who I think is a descendent of Strachey, I’d choose Jon Stewart (for those who don’t know: Jon Stewart is the very funny anchor of The Daily Show, the Comedy Central send-up of network news programs so good that many people use it as their primary source of television news.) Jon Stewart’s appeal is that he’s working in a medium that demands its subjects be treated with gravity, and he refuses to deliver that. He gives us something better, of course: he gives us the raised eyebrow.

Stewart’s subjects, of course, aren’t anything like the Victorians, people who, though flawed and full of themselves, had some sense of ethics, and the public good. Instead, Stewart’s material includes people like George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, people about whom there is no greatness, just banal and tragic incompetence. I suppose that might explain the absence of linguistic wit on the Daily Show. Words aren’t really necessary in the face of people like these. A laugh is guaranteed simply by repeating what they’ve said or done in public, and then raising an eyebrow and looking straight into the camera. Night after night, all Jon Stewart has to do to get a huge response is show someone from the Bush administration speaking and then ask, did he really say that?

So here’s my final thought.  One wonders: if Jon Stewart had different subjects with which to work, might he be able to rise above the eyebrow and really exploit his talent for wit, as Strachey did? As it is, ours does not appear to be the time for words, but a time when the raised eyebrow and the straight look are more than enough, because words are both too much and too little for the un-eminent figures of our new century.

Imminent Victorians

Okay, for starters, I know it’s Eminent Victorians. But it’s next up on my list of books to write about and so …. you know. (Sorry. Nothing is un-funnier than a pun somebody tries to explain.)

I’ll begin by saying that Eminent Victorians is part of a larger reading plan for this month, a month when I’d like to re-read a few things I first read in my twenties. I wonder how well those books will have worn twenty years later. I did this a bit over the spring and summer, and even gave it a name: the Madeleine Project. But I haven’t done as much of it as I’d like, and since it’s cold outside these days, and the fireplace looks so warm, and I’m taking things a little slower, it seems like an ideal month to re-read.  (In fact, I’ve just noticed I’m in great company:  Dorothy and Danielle have both written about books they’d like to re-read.)  

And now, on to the book: Eminent Victorians, for those who don’t know, is a series of biographical sketches written by one of the Bloomsbury notables, Lytton Strachey. I’ve always wondered how his last name is pronounced, so I googled it. It’s strakey, which rhymes with flakey. (As in, doesn’t post on a regular schedule, doesn’t stick to the same topic and has been known to make really stupid jokes.)

When I read Eminent Victorians twenty years ago, I loved the piece on Florence Nightingale (I even wrote down something about how Nightingale saw God as a glorified sanitary engineer and so she felt free to boss him around just like she bossed everybody else in Victorian England around.) And I had no idea things went so badly for General Gordon, having never heard of General Gordon and not knowing the British military had such a hard time of it after the American Revolution.

I was also unaware at the time that these sketches were considered sort of shockingly modern, something I’ve since discovered, mostly through reading about Strachey in the context of Virginia Woolf, who thought at one time she might marry him. (Good thing that passed, is all I can say.)

The copy I’ve got this time around is illustrated, so there are interesting pictures of the notables Strachey writes about. They certainly look stuffy –especially the ecclesiastical figures he spends a good part of the book talking about. Or maybe the pictures were chosen to emphasis all the Victorian stuffiness that Strachey was reacting against.

The question I’d like to answer is this: just exactly what did Strachey think “un-stuffy” looked like? Strachey, at least from his photographs and the things I’ve read about him in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, was a bit of a piece of work himself. So how he goes about kicking aside the traces really interests me.

I hope it interests you, too, because that’s what I’m devoting my next post to. (By the way, the sketch of Strachey you see at the beginning of the post is on the cover of his letters, which look quite interesting.)

Scenes From A Walk

It is difficult to remember sometimes how thoroughly children inhabit a world that is not our own. The other day, walking with my youngest son, this was more obvious to me than it usually is.

He brings a weapon on our walks, and clears the woods of nests of villains. The terrain is rugged, and there are a lot of places for the enemy to take refuge. You have to be alert for them at all times. They’re a tricky bunch, professional soldiers who want to take over the lovely land we’ve lived on for generations and generations.

Here, he’s looking down at the tower where his family stays, safe from their enemies. He’s from a long line of leaders, and he’s made his fortune inventing things “people can really use.”

At the top of the hill, he looks across the land and sees that his people are safe.

It is a good day when the land is at peace.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, if that is a holiday you’re celebrating tomorrow, and whether or not you are, at some point in the next few days, go out for a walk and try to remember how the world looked to you when you were seven, when anything was possible.

How Many Times Did You Laugh Today?

There’s a commercial that plays on the radio here in the Bay Area, sponsored by a local hospital in its campaign to encourage healthier living, that got me thinking this morning. Apparently, when you’re five years old you laugh about 3,000 times a day. By the time you hit your forties, that number has dropped to 14. (Typing those numbers, I realize one of them couldn’t possibly be correct. That’s the number for the adult. Fourteen strikes me as high. I’m guessing it’s closer to two, and you only get there by counting the grim laugh that escapes from you when you get your property tax bill in the mail.)

Anyway, I thought I’d respond to these statistics by doing a little Laughter Audit today. So far, I’ve counted the following Laughter Moments:

  • three Laughter Moments in child’s school conference. One being a laugh of relief when parents heard child described, without a hint of irony, as a “Scholar and Gentleman.” Second laugh came when parent pointed out that there were six teachers and two parents in the room and that was plain scary. Third laugh, and best of all, came when parent told teachers –ten minutes into praise of child — that they’d better escape while they (and child) were ahead. Teachers laughed at this suggestion, meaning child had managed to get through term without getting in any fights with other children and had basically turned in homework on time. (I’ve just remembered one other Laugh Event: in parking lot after school conference, father of genius child describes him as “fruit of my loins.” Mother laughs and says, “everyone knows genius comes from maternal line.” Father, as I recall, doesn’t exactly laugh. Small smile.)
  • two laughs at conference in chambers at the court where I work. Cannot repeat either, because they were law jokes, and so only funny to an extremely limited number of people, people many believe incapable of ever being funny.

So, okay. That’s five. That’s a bit pathetic, as it’s currently 11:57 a.m, pacific daylight savings time. Obviously, I’ve got some work to do today. I’ll report back at 5:00. In the meantime, go out and look for laughter of your own. Feel free to report back; perhaps a cumulative laughter audit will get us somewhere close to that of a five year old.

Allrighty, it’s 5:30 (PST). Laughing began in parking garage on way home. Odd guy who works in garage was signalling people to the exit by doing funky chicken dance.  A Bay Area moment:  no one can just be a parking lot attendant.  There always has to be something more, because one’s personhood cannot be suppressed by one’s day job.

Home after school, I notice that, with children, many Laugh Moments  have to do with, well, excrement. Several jokes about bodily functions, more than I’ll actually admit, occurred blindingly fast.  No wonder five year olds laugh so often.  Put a bunch of them in a room and the amount of bodily function jokes must be huge.  In our house, there was much laughing after each and every one of these jokes.  And I’ll tell you right now, not a single one of them was particularly new.  However, I’ll admit I do find this sort of thing funny, although it’s my job to act like I don’t. Still, the fruit of my (well, my husband’s) loins apparently were blessed with my humor genes, which is to say we all like pretty much the same really stupid stuff.

Let’s see, oh, a conversation with an older child in which older child complained about younger brother being terribly immature, in a way he was not when he was that age:  “mom, he can’t even tie his own shoes. And he can’t just USE the bathroom, he has to talk about it. A lot.” Several moments of laughter, which I should have suppressed because it’s not nice to laugh at the fruit of your husband’s loins, but really, I’ve noticed these two attributes of terrible immaturity seem to be evenly spread throughout the male line in our household.

In an effort to game the Laughter Audit (and at least see if we can approach the laugh per day numbers of, say, a mirthful young adult), we’re going to watch our netflix movie at dinner tonight. And no, we don’t do that all the time. It’s plain weird having the computer on your dinner table, which is the only way we can watch dvds. It’s like having a super geeky dinner guest at your table.  One who doesn’t eat  but just watches you.   We’ve been on a Sitcoms-From-Days-Gone-By kick, so tonight it’s Leave it To Beaver. We’ll see. I like the Beave, and sometimes watching the parents interact totally cracks us up, so different are they from we.

Happy Evening (or morning or afternoon, depending on your time zone, of course), BL

Mid-Century Pleasures

Generally, the 1950s conjure up images of frozen women dressed in poofy pastel party dresses, lips composed in tight smiles, valium or booze keeping them still and uncomplaining, men with pipes in their mouths, absolutely dominant in the workplace and at home, lots of cardigans and golf on the weekends, and white faces, everywhere you look.

In fact, as Patrick of Anecdotal Evidence recently pointed out, huge things were happening in the 1950s, subversive things, fun things. And so this got me thinking — if I was allowed to import a bit of that time into this one, what would I chose? Well, I’d pick midcentury office supplies — and midcentury work habits.

In my office I’ve got the sleekest, sweetest tape dispenser, one that says something important about that time. Which is that sex can exist beautifully under the surface. It’s there in the curved line of this object, dispensing tape and eroticism at the same time. (There’s something a little scary and weird lurking in that sentence, but I’ll just leave it there, in a 1950s kind of way.) It was certainly a time when sex was not in your face every time you turned around. And yes, I know, repression is bad — but so is the sexualization of everything and everyone under the sun.

And then there’s the fountain pen. It says, I’m not in a huge hurry. I can take my time thinking about what I want to say. In a world where writing tools consisted of fountain pens, sleek ballpoints and really stylish typewriters, and idea distribution was pretty much limited to stamps and envelopes and slow boats to Europe and the occasional very expensive phone call, no one would be able to instantly deliver a hasty ad hominum attack on a work colleague. If someone in Brussells wants to tell me what an idiot I’ve been, that news won’t arrive for weeks and weeks, well after everyone’s forgotten the incident (or maybe after it’s already been fixed) And the sender will most likely have forgotten too, so in all likelihood such messages just wouldn’t be sent. And if the colleague was a bit closer, there was still a code of communication that made ad hominum attacks much rarer than they are now.

And how about working habits? We’d all be heading home at 5, from jobs that are relatively secure. (And because this is the 21st century, we’d all be able to interview for and secure those jobs, never mind our color, or sex or country of origin or religion.) And we would never, ever work on the weekends. Ever. Unless we loved our work so much that we wanted to, which is different from having to.

Thank you for allowing me to indulge in this utopian moment. I’m sure there are as many holes in my argument as there are in Ward Cleaver’s cardigan (the one he’s been wearing since the late 1950s.) The weekend awaits and I hope you’ve got at least one pleasure ahead of you. (And one other thing: A post related to this topic can be found over at What We Said, if you’d like to chat about mid-century sexuality.)

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving

Wallace Stevens’s lovely poem, Sea Surface Full of Clouds. I haven’t thought of this poem in a very long time, but I was reminded of it recently by this terrific writer.

I guess my affection for Stevens is clear. He was the first poet I felt like I understood  — maybe because the poems I first read were the accessible ones and so gave me the illusion of mastering a difficult poet:   Sunday Morning, The Snow Man, and Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.

Stevens was a lawyer. He wrote his poems while he walked to work through Elizabeth Park in Hartford and then he had his secretary type them up. He kept his life as a poet and his life at the insurance company pretty much separate. He loved France and the French. He also really liked good food, and he loved Key West, and he wasn’t above asking people to send him parcels of interesting objects from places like Ceylon and Japan. He didn’t travel, not physically anyway. The next book I write (after I finish radiation therapy and get done with the elusive last few chapters of The Secret War) will be about him.

Here’s the poem:
Sea Surface Full Of Clouds, Wallace Stevens


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate
And gilt umbrellas. Paradisal green
Gave suavity to the perplexed machine

Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the morning blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’était mon enfant, mon bijou, mon âme.

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night.
At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck

And made one think of chop-house chocolate
And sham umbrellas. And a sham-like green
Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine

Of ocean, which in sinister flatness lay.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,

Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’était mon frère du ciel, ma vie, mon or.

The gongs rang loudly as the windy booms
Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms.
The gongs grew still. And then blue heaven spread

Its crystalline pendentives on the sea
And the macabre of the water-glooms
In an enormous undulation fled.


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck

And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine

Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure

Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’était mon extase et mon amour.

So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,

A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.
A mallow morning dozed upon the deck

And made one think of musky chocolate
And frail umbrellas. A too-fluent green
Suggested malice in the dry machine

Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem.
Who then beheld the figures of the clouds
Like blooms secluded in the thick marine?

Like blooms? Like damasks that were shaken off
From the loosed girdles in the spangling must.
C’était ma foi, la nonchalance divine.

The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn
Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing,
Would—But more suddenly the heaven rolled

Its bluest sea-clouds in the thinking green,
And the nakedness became the broadest blooms,
Mile-mallows that a mallow sun cajoled.


In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown… One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers—cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

The photograph at the top of the post is San Francisco City Hall a few days ago. There were so many clouds, dark clouds, and under them a kind of saturated blue you only see in the fall.

What I’ve Stopped Reading

Reading, as Dorothy recently pointed out, has its phases, ushered in and out by one’s attention span, which in turn is influenced by what is happening in life outside the reading chair. And so it is that sometimes I have gone for long stretches happily turning the pages of big books. And then weeks or months go by when all the words I need can be found in the New Yorker and Dorothy Sayers. And quite often, the back of a cereal box is good enough.

This rise and fall in attentiveness is as normal as the change of seasons. But also normal, although a little rarer, is when a certain type of text becomes something we know we no longer need. Like an unreliable boyfriend, some reading material will seem to meet your needs, but then it begins to exact such a toll or bore you to tears, which might be the same thing, and so a break-up is inevitable. Here’s a list of the things I’ve given up, permanently, I’m pretty sure.

  • Political Blogs. Before the 2004 election, I read Daily Kos, and The Talking Points Memo and the many links on their sites not just religiously but obsessively. The buzz and hope and hype on those blogs was intoxicating. But then, after the election, people who’d loved John Kerry suddenly hated him. There was a lot of anger and angst. It made me feel awful. But what really made me stop going there was when I posted something and someone was just so gratuitously MEAN to me and then another person did the same thing. It wasn’t a nice place to spend time in. And I didn’t need that. I want kindness mixed in with my political chatter. Now I know that’s not going to be possible and I have returned to the New York Times and a really large dose of scepticism about everything I read there.
  • Books about writing. For several years, I read a lot of books about writing. They were helpful, sometimes inspiring, and every once in a while led me in a very wrong direction. But that’s not what put me off them. What happened is that I reached a saturation point with them. I discovered there isn’t any more room in me for more information about how to write a story. Now, what’s needed is story writing.
  • Cooking magazines. This might be temporary. But I’ve cancelled my cooking magazines in favor of just, well, cooking. A little like the books about writing category. I can never give up cookbooks though.
  • Best Seller, Much Buzzed About, Contemporary Fiction. The Secret Life of Bees, The Three Junes, things like that. After reading several disappointing books in this category, I realized I don’t have time to wade through the mediocre to get to the great. It’s a little like when you’re single and you decide you really, really don’t need to date anymore because you already have a lot of great friends to hang out with (I can always re-read Jane Austen, I mean), and when there’s nothing to do on a Friday, you are fine being on your own (there’s always the cereal box). The truth is, when something really good comes along, someone will point it out to you. Or it will find you. That way I don’t miss things like Sebald’s great book, Austerlitz or the fun of Alexander McCall Smith.
  • Legal advance sheets. These are the reports of the most recent cases to come out of our state court and the federal courts. If you don’t keep up with them, they start to multiply, like dust bunnies. A few days ago, I recycled a pile of them and felt great about it. And then it occurred to me that, like good contemporary fiction, the good cases rise to the top. My colleagues tell me about them. Or I’ll find them when I’m working in that area.
  • Book reviews. I like the ones I read on your blogs better.
  • Fashion magazines. Charlotte has become my fashion goddess. Don’t mix pink and black and you’re home free.

Oh, and one other thing reading related — this morning, I picked up the September 2006 issue of Poetry magazine, a magazine I like because it doesn’t require a huge commitment of time. And there was a review of Seamus Heaney’s new book District and Circle. It’s a book all about something I’m in love with: objects — how they outlive us and contain us. I’m thrilled to have been reminded this is out there to be read, and that I can read it, because I’ve made room for it by abandoning Daily Kos and In Style and The Secret Life of Bees.

Daily Bread

It’s extraordinary, really, how much beauty there is in the course of an ordinary week. Here are some things I found on my camera from this week, one I don’t think I’d remember as being so lovely, but for the evidence of so many tiny moments of happiness.

Naturally, I made lunches out of that bread.

And we celebrated. My husband’s 47th birthday, for which chocolate was the only acceptable gift. From Bittersweet, a nice shop dedicated to exotic, interesting, very chocolate-y chocolate. Yes, dear reader, I led him into temptation.

We also celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. (That’s us, in the tiny wedding picture. On the bales of hay? My mother and her sister, in 1934. Behind her, my husband’s mother when she was a little girl.) The flowers came from the farmer’s market we went to on Sunday. They’re a wonderful autumn color, I thought.

We went on a hike one evening after work  and looked out across the bay toward San Francisco. It became dark very quickly. You can tell fall’s approaching.  There are other signs of fall in the leaves on a few of the trees in our neighborhood, but mostly, fall makes itself known by the changes in the air and the light.

On Wednesdays, in the plaza I cross to get to my office, there’s a farmer’s market. There are still berries to be had, even though it’s October.

Thursday, I got my hair cut in Union Square, sort of ground zero for the cable car line. I never notice them, except today when I heard this one coming down the hill behind me, its bell being rung by an enthusiastic conductor.

I also went to a wonderful exhibit of quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. And that’s what I’m going to write about this weekend, if I have time. Quilts and race. But this morning, I just want to record that our daily bread, what we never notice about where we live and how we go about our lives, is something for which I’m very grateful.

Ten Cents an A

There are lots of things about being a parent that aren’t so great: breaking up brawls, teaching people how to eat with utensils, waking up in the middle of the night multiple times because someone’s teeth hurt, explaining over and over why you can’t call your brother a bastard, that sort of thing. The sheer physical and emotional drudgery of parenting is overwhelming sometimes — who knew you’d spend a decade between your mid-thirties and mid-forties (having chosen to have children late) actually carrying other people around?

But one of the consolations of being a parent is the many chances at redemption it offers you. If your own parents’ chosen method of discipline was humiliating, you can do it differently. If you didn’t like camping in the rain, well, you don’t have to foist that on your own children. The trouble is, though, that sometimes you are guided by instinct and then you miss completely your moment of redemption.

That’s what happened last night when my eleven year old son told me he’d gotten a “C” on a math test. (A C, for those of you who are not American, is for scores in the 70-80% range.) He hadn’t studied, he said, because his smaller brother had wanted his company. This is the first year they’ve ever gotten grades, and they’re still feeling their way. He honestly didn’t know what the “C” might mean in our family.

But I did. And that’s how I came to say something (several times, in fact, because I wanted to make sure I was understood) I wish I hadn’t: I expect each of you to get A’s. Always.  

I knew from the look on their faces, the crestfallen look on the boy who got the C and the look of horror on the face of his twin, who often cannot even FIND his homework, let alone do it perfectly, that I was headed somewhere wrong. It took me a few moments to see it and for that I am grateful, because when you can see yourself heading in the wrong direction, you can sometimes steer clear of the cliff you’re about to throw yourself off.

Let me say that I did get A’s. My entire childhood. I got a dime for each one of them and a lot of parental and teacher approval. I was a younger child and that meant a lot to me. I was quiet and neat and obedient and I watched the adults like a hawk to figure out what would please them.  As a result, I was awash in dimes.

My sons are not like this. They’re wild and messy.  Sometimes they’re pretty clever. Other times you wonder how they can dress themselves in the morning. I have tried to get them to be otherwise, but they resist with so much gusto, that I can’t quite bear to squelch their messiness and noise with the weapons at hand.  (Cutting off food, or access to the computer, for example.)  Also, over time, I have seen that my own pursuit of the A meant I missed out on something that really matters to me now. I didn’t write, the way I’d wanted to when I was a child, because I wanted to succeed in the world: I wanted the adults to give me dimes. They did not give dimes for stories.  I became a lawyer instead, the career that’s designed for people who know how to and need to get A’s (and the dimes that morph into dollars). It took me years to make space to write. I regret that, but not so much that I’m paralyzed by it, or unwilling to try to fix it.

Yesterday, though, I saw where it started — with my parents’ reaction to my grades and my own hunger to make them happy. And I also saw how that could go wrong for a child who isn’t neat and obedient. This is the place where they begin to define themselves as stupid beause they don’t happen to have the skills that make you a success in school (those skills include the ability to focus on things you’re not always interested in, neat handwriting, a body that can take sitting still, and a natural interest in topics that not everyone finds interesting, like the dates when things happened in history.)  I don’t want it to be like that for them. 

And so we crafted a makeshift family policy around grades last night, one that I hope makes room for them to be who they are, but also encourages them to develop discipline, a character trait that will help them in whatever they choose to do. It’s this: You must do your homework and study for tests as well as you are able. If you do your best, that is enough. But, while you do that, you must be on the look out for the thing you love to do. Because that’s your real job as a human being: to find something — maybe even more than one thing — that gives you so much pleasure that when you do it (and if you’re lucky, earn your living at it) it doesn’t feel like work, but like play.

And that’s it. The grade is secondary as long as you have done your best. How’s that? It may seem like a small thing, but it was a moment of redemption that more than made up for the nights of being wakened by small people with toothaches. The hard thing now will be handling my discomfort with grades that are not always perfect, and letting my children choose vocations I’m not so sure about.  I don’t think that’s going to be easy.  I don’t want them to be feckless people, or people who don’t know how to care for themselves or earn a living.  I wonder how I’ll feel when they come to me and say they’ve taken a job in Alaska working on a fishing boat so they have time to write music.  Perhaps this will be a moment of redemption.  That’s my hope, anyway.

(I’d like to add that my own parents’ love of learning and delight in scholary success was also a gift to each of us.    They took us to the library every week and never told us what to read or what not to read.  My father read all the time and was an example of how much you can discover about the world from books.  My mother worked really hard at her jobs with real integrity.  And she is very, very good at math.  The money for the A’s?  I’m sure she thought it would be a good way to teach multiplication.) 

This Morning the Writing Cafe is Serving…

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s wonderful autumnal poem, Her Kind. The recommended menu while reading this poem? Pumpkin bread and hot apple cider. (Tea is an acceptable substitute for the apple cider.)

If you’d like to assume the persona of the writer, then you’ll have to put on a slash of lipstick. Your menu would then be a cigarette and a glass of scotch. Don’t be Sexton for too long, though. It was a lot of work being her and it did not end well. But while she was able, she managed to transform the nightmare of mental illness into art. And that is something to be celebrated this autumn morning.

If you’d like to hear Sexton read this poem, you can do that at the Academy of American Poets website. And if you’d like to know more about Sexton, Diane Middlebrook’s excellent biography is a good place to start. The biography made a little bit of a splash when it first came out because it’s based in part on tapes Sexton’s analyst made of their sessions. It’s a compulsively readable book. And Her Kind is a wonderful, accessible poem made to be read out loud.

Her Kind, Anne Sexton

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

(Without question, because of its chill factor and wildness, this poem is on my list of 100 favorite poems. I’m now up to 5 of 100. Maybe getting up to 25 or so would be a good winter project.)

W is for ….

I saw this yesterday, while I was lazing around and it seemed to sum up something essential about where I live. Simply put, people around here don’t like George W very much. And they are fine saying so. All the time.

The car sporting this bumper sticker was an old, dusty Volvo, protected by someone’s Triple A membership. It’s okay around here to drive an old car. Volvos go without saying. Let’s not discuss the latte. (I must say, though, that a child at one of my twins’ school said, when he saw my husband’s beat- up old BMW pull into the carpool pick up line, “My playstation cost more than your dad’s car.” He wasn’t from Berkeley.)

Pretty soon the Berkeley City Council is going to offer some kind of referendum about whether or not we should impeach President Bush. It’s the sort of thing people in the rest of the country love to laugh about. And it really can be terribly irritating and holier than thou around here.

But I still love living in Berkeley. There is the most fabulous food to be had right down the street. We live in a garden of Eden, the place where so many lovely fruits and vegetables are grown, quite a few of them organic. Plus, the view from the hill I hike up is stupendous. There are so many great independent bookstores it’s hard to decide where to go to buy a book. It smells like jasmine at night. And the things that grow like weeds in my yard are actually sort of exotic like Meyer Lemons and bougainvillea. There’s windsurfing out our door, for those who windsurf (all males in our family windsurf. I do not.) The mountains are beautiful. Did I mention the food?

Which brings me to my topic today and no, it is not food: where on earth do we get our political ideas? How did I grow up to be the openly liberal person I am, when several, very smart, kind people in my family are not?

Growing up, I always thought my father was an impressively liberal person. By that, I mean he exuded a distrust of authority (probably because of his experiences in the military) and he believed in the power of the written word. You could tell because he spent a lot of time sitting in a comfortable brown chair reading things like Russian grammars and Nietzsche. He shocked us all when he decided he was an atheist. (It was 1970. My mother had always marched all five of us children to church every Sunday without fail. My father sat in the car and read the paper while we went to mass. It was a fine example of religious tolerance.)

I probably read more into my father’s admiration for Rush Limbaugh and dislike of Democrats than I should. Maybe what he doesn’t like about Democrats is that they’ve failed to really follow through on their promises of creating a better society. The Republicans have never made any such promises, so there’s nothing to resent about them. Not everyone in my family is a Republican. My mother doesn’t say a lot about how she votes except to suggest that she sees her role as cancelling out my father’s vote.

No one ever told me how to vote or which political party to join. Because I live in Berkeley now, I get some grief from a few of my siblings for being reflexively, unthoughtfully liberal. It’s true: it’s never occurred to me to be any other way. I think I’ve chosen my political path for the simple reason that I feel happier being a liberal, when that means being generous, trusting, community-oriented, and accepting of differences. I’m well aware that Republicans can share those very same qualities.  Sometimes the differences lie in how those ideals are executed.  It’s also true that I’m embarrassed by the preachiness and stupid ideas, by the elitism, and the cowardice of the Democrats. But those are qualities shared by both parties, which is to say that Democrats don’t have a monopoly on being sheep-like or stupid.

What interests me is how our children will turn out. My own sons don’t like George Bush, the way you don’t like the “other” sports team. But they haven’t at all sorted out what they think. They’re beginning to though. Yesterday, one of my older boys wanted to go into San Francisco to take part in a rally “against America.” That really bothered me. I told him that he’s an American, and he can’t really rally against his own country. The country is not its government. In fact, demonstrating against the government is as American as baseball. Turns out, it was a march designed to protest our government’s refusal to do anything meaningful to stop genocide in Darfur. And it took place during school hours.

The answer: no last minute rallies, and hardly ever when there’s school. I wonder how many other parents in America had to make up a rule like that, on the spot, yesterday afternoon? And that’s the last thing I love about living here: it’s a rich and complicated environment in which to grow up. My kids have to think about homelessness because they know homeless people, they think about race, because we live in a racially mixed environment, they know about wealth and its problems and benefits because there are a lot of wealthy people around here, and they see it butting up against poverty in a way that just calls out for some kind of explanation. It’s an explanation I imagine they’ll have to come up with for themselves. And maybe it won’t be the one I end up with. But they will get to their political views thoughtfully, I hope. And that’s really all you can ask.

It Was Only a Matter of Time

until Robert Service and Roland Barthes were invoked in what is becoming a sort of Laziness Project, although the word “project” does not quite satisfy me. Project is too industrious-sounding for a post that relies entirely on other people to speak for me.

Let’s begin with Robert Service. It cracks me up that a man with a last name like that would become the poet laureate of idleness. This is a top 100 poem too, to prove there is a place in the BlogLily canon for silliness.


Let laureates sing with rapturous swing
Of the wonder and glory of work;
Let pulpiteers preach and with passion impeach
The indolent wretches who shirk.
No doubt they are right: in the stress of the fight
It’s the slackers who go to the wall;
So though it’s my shame I perversely proclaim
It’s fine to do nothing at all.

It’s fine to recline on the flat of one’s spine,
With never a thought in one’s head:
It’s lovely to lie staring up at the sky
When others are earning their bread.
It’s great to feel one with the soil and the sun,
Drowned deep in the grasses so tall;
Oh it’s noble to sweat, pounds and dollars to get,
But – it’s grand to do nothing at all.

So sing to the praise of the fellows who laze
Instead of lambasting the soil;
The vagabonds gay who lounge by the way,
Conscientious objectors to toil.
But lest you should think, by this spatter of ink,
The Muses still hold me in thrall,
I’ll round out my rhyme, and (until the next time)
Work like hell – doing nothing at all.

Your reward, dear reader, for making it this far is Roland Barthes who, evidently, gave an interview in which he discussed his views on laziness with an eloquence and vigor that might lead one to conclude he wasn’t really talking about the sort of laying about practiced by people like me, but was really demonstrating the more conscious embrace of idleness practiced by the French which would explain why he’s got an entire theory going here to describe the act of looking out the window for several hours while doing nothing more taxing than drinking a soft drink and writing a sentence that you are too slothful to even bother to punctuate.


Reclining on the flat of my spine, BL


Looking Out the Window

That’s what I’m doing today, as often as I can.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat in the shade at my son’s school, the sounds of soccer practice in the background, and read eight pages of The Three Musketeers, and a paragraph of the Book of Tea (BookMooched! and recommended a long time ago by Ms. Make Tea Not War). This is from the Three Musketeers (the new Richard Pevear translation):

…d’Artagnan turned out to be, morally as well as physically, an exact copy of Cervantes’s hero, to whom we so happily compared him when our duties as historian made it necessary for us to draw his portrait. Don Quixote took windmills for giants and sheep for armies; d’Artagnan took every smile for an insult and every glance for a provocation.

Wonderful, don’t you think? There are hundreds more pages, but I know I’m going to like this. (Underneath The Book of Tea? A Boden catalogue — the children’s clothes are nice, and this is the first time I’ve seen the adult line. I was struck by how much a catalogue is about selling you a way of life. And that Johnnie Boden sounds a lot like J. Peterman.  The catalogue text is very chatty.)

In Praise of Sloth

Have you ever noticed that when we make fun of people who multi-task, it’s often in a way that’s a little bit admiring? It’s sort of like how you feel about the guy who juggles chain saws on Venice Beach: I wouldn’t want to do it, but wow, that is certainly amazing. This is the mom equivalent of the chain saw juggler: a woman piloting a mini-van, dressed to the nines for work, throwing juice boxes over her shoulder into the back seat, thrusting her dry-cleaning at someone who runs out to her car to get it so she doesn’t have to stop, talking all the while on a Blackberry and putting on eye shadow with the brush clenched between her teeth. (That last move is not, strictly speaking, possible unless you have a specially engineered, curved eye shadow brush, and that woman probably does. She bought it while she was buying Christmas presents, a late birthday present for her best friend and getting her pants hemmed.)

I think we could all benefit from embracing sinful laziness. And not just the kind of laziness that is actually just a rest between massive efforts to catch up on things, but true sloth, which is without guilt, without an end in mind, without any goal but to have no goal. You can’t see this, but I’ve been looking out the window wondering what that might look like. Maybe because I’m a sort of industrious person, and one who feels guiltily unproductive as a way of flogging myself into accomplishing even more, I am not certain how to go about being more slothful. This has not stopped me from trying. Here’s my action plan (the truly slothful do not have action plans. the rest of us, though, have to begin somewhere):

  • Ping-pong. This summer, I bought a competition sized ping pong table. It’s German and it’s beautiful. It took my industrious husband an entire morning to assemble it, but it’s so well made (and it folds up in half for storage under its very well made cover) that it will last forever. We also have enough paddles and balls for everyone to play forever. I mention this because I believe one of the keys to sloth is to have plenty of diversions available when you think you maybe should be alphabetizing your spices. When that urge comes over you, all you have to do is find a person who’s willing to play ping-pong. (Or scrabble, or monopoly or Parcheesi, or poker.) Games. There is always someone in our family who is looking for an excuse not to take a bath, or clean their room, or do their homework. They are the Sloths in Training, the Young Pioneers Who Stayed Home (being too lazy to get on the wagon train). They will always be available to play games with you.
  • Never, ever eat standing up. And don’t eat until as many people as you can rustle up in your family are sitting down with you. And then chew your food. Sloth and gluttony (which is really, to my mind, just the normal voluptuous experience of enjoying your meal) are important partners.
  • Lose your cell phone. I know many people aren’t good at this. I, however, am. I can never find my cell phone and, periodically, that state becomes permanent. It’s good not to be easily interrupted when you are busy being idle. The people who are looking for someone to bring the snack to the PTA meeting will move on when they see how hard you are to get in touch with.
  • Go to the movies. A lot. Enough said.
  • Stay in bed. Read in there. I know this isn’t supposed to be good for people who have trouble getting to sleep, but I love reading in bed.
  • Engage everyone else in slothfulness. There’s nothing more inhibiting to a good lazy day than an industrious person cleaning up around you. Tempt them into evil. I mean, suggest they go for a good long bike ride, so you can laze around in peace.

That’s it. I’m too lazy to think more about this, or to go look up the origin of the word sloth or to even think about what other deadly sins I would like to embrace.

Wishing you a lazy day,