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. 

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.)

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.)