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.