Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Lives of Others

I'm listening, as is my habit, to NPR as I sit with my glass of grape and write a post.  I'm hearing interviews by brave journalists in Libya, which sound similar yet much more alarming than those several weeks ago from Egypt.  The people with whom these journalists are speaking are even more brave.

I remember when the tide turned in Europe, seeing the jubilant Berliners dancing on the crumbling wall, the Velvet Revolution in Prague.  This only a couple of years after a serious man with Elvis Costello glasses and a black turtleneck spoke to my American politics class in 1987.  He told us things were changing, and we were transfixed by this person from what then was a vast unknown place.  I remember a woman in another of my classes saying, "I don't know much about the Eastern Bloc, although my brother did spend some time behind the Iron Curtain." Now, twenty years later, I don't think she was showing off, but at the time she seemed impossibly sophisticated to me.  At any rate, at the time it seemed that things would never change, at least to me.

In the movie The Lives of Others, the characters are terribly careful with one another, and not in a kind way.  They take painfully incredible care about what they say, even within the walls of their own homes, with good reason, since the walls do have ears. As audience members, we know the punchline of the drama that takes place in East Berlin: the regime, rotten to the core, will fall. This makes it only a little more bearable to watch characters live in fear that their neighbors, their co-workers, even their lovers, will betray them.  As I watched it--possibly the best film I have ever seen--I wondered yet again if I would have had the courage to stand up. 

I've always said that great men make awful husbands, knowing  I've internalized my father's warning: "Don't turn into a do-gooder."  This means, in my family, people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, people who simply aren't sensible.  But life in Canada (and my adopted home, the United States) means while there may be cause for outrage, one can march in the streets without fearing for one's life.  So even if my dad rolls his eyes, we can still do it.  No small thing.

The people in Tripoli and Cairo may not be sensible, but their resolve awes me.  I also remember Tiananmen Square and how the uprising there was crushed.  So, what would I do?  My nature is to survive and take care of myself and those I love. But I doubt I could stand up. I have friends who I am certain, if placed there, would have been in the French Resistance, and yet I can only imagine ingratiating myself with a well-placed Nazi general and checking on the cyanide capsule in the heel of my shoe. 

I don't feel good about this, but hope that my recognition of it at least means I am experiencing empathy for these people who want better lives for themselves and their families.  Maybe the stomach-churning agony I felt when watching The Lives of Others would kick in if in a future life I am placed in a place where I have no freedom to say what I wish.  Maybe I would be brave enough to camp out in a city square or report on those people with the guts to stand up.  I hope so.  In the meantime, I pray those fighting now win their right to speak their minds and live their lives, and know I am incredibly fortunate not to have to make such a choice.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Another Juggler's Confessions

"Everything will be fine" was not a possibility that had occurred to me.
--Tina Fey, Confessions of a Juggler

Mothers worry.  Fathers do too, of course, but us moms seem to have a particular ability to tie ourselves up in knots over whether we are doing a good job or not.  Although my evidence is purely anecdotal, my guess is that most of us have come to expect a regular hour or two of worry in the middle of the night. 

I myself try to devote at least part of my nocturnal brooding to issues outside of these sorts of unbidden questions:  When did I last change the furnace filter? Should unplug the almost-empty beer fridge in the tool shed? What happened to that pair of black pants I keep in the back of the closet for when it's February and those extra pounds of winter weight have made getting into the four other pairs I own a matter of too much information for anyone seeing me wear them? 

I go through phases where I worry intensely and exclusively about work.  But mostly I worry about the kids, or really just the many, many ways in which I am no doubt failing them.  The bifurcated life of a co-parented child, for starters.  The fact that I cook for them but that, because of evening work/school/extracurricular issues and the occasional blog post to be written, we don't often sit down to eat together. My inability to remember the names of many other mothers at school. The things I say in traffic. 

Reading Tina Fey's essay in the current issue of the New Yorker cheered me, not just because it is funny, which of course it is, but because I realized that even fabulously smart and talented women with rapier wits and bodies fit to wear Calvin Klein on the red carpet lie awake and wonder if they are bad mommies.

Fey is agonzing over whether to have a second child or to stay in the hunt for the few remaining parts left for women of a certain age. (Her definition of the show business definition of "crazy" is hilarious, but only because it's no doubt true.) She doesn't take herself too seriously, but since actresses are a lot like professional athletes, with a much shorter career period in which to make real money, she's trying to be pragmatic, especially now that she's passed the four-decade mark. 

And Fey's husband? Like all the nice ones, he just wants her to stop agonizing. Lovely of him to wish for it, but good luck with that, buddy.
 
I did the second kid decision crisis a long time ago, with equal agonizing though needless to say lesser career considerations. I have moved on to worries about teenage testoterone levels and how they combine with motor vehicles, how an eleven-year old should spend his summer while allowing me to be gainfully employed, and whether my laisser-faire attitude about homework will continue to be rewarded by good grades now that high school is in clear view.  Never mind how much cars and college tuition cost. Those nights don't involve going back to sleep at all. 

Luckily for me and every other harried parent (is there any other kind now?) the days are often so long and exhausting that we manage to sleep right through.  Sometimes this is best, for I know I lose precious time and energy in the worrying and don't actually enjoy what happens when I am with my kids.  I try to remember what John Lennon said: life is what happens when we're making other plans.  And of course, as Fey's doctor told her, either way it will be fine.  Easy for her to say.

Friday, February 18, 2011

All Too Human

It was his first State of the Union Address.  George Stephanopoulos was a youngster, in his early twenties, working in the White House, and he'd been slaving for weeks with POTUS on his speech.  Later lore would have Bill Clinton rewriting drafts in the car on the way to the Capitol, but on this occasion he had simply overwhelmed his aides with multiple drafts and left them to send it to the Teleprompter. 

Not long into the speech, young George has a horrifying realization: an earlier draft was scrolling before the eyes of the leader of the free world.  In front of the nation, the President of the United States was reading the wrong speech. And it was George's fault.

"This," he stammered, "is the worst thing that's happened, ever."

His older, freakishly calm colleague looked over at him and said, "Well, the Holocaust was pretty bad."

Point taken, but not until afterwards as Clinton walked by George and gave him a pat on the shoulder. He may have noticed or maybe he didn't, but the speech had gone well and he didn't care. In his 1999 memoir, All too Human,  Stephanopoulos breathes the rarified air of the Oval Office and spends the entire time feeling inadequate. 

We all want to do a good job and be indispensable.  Today I had a George moment. I got in over my head and a colleague, younger yet more seasoned in this field--ouch--helped me pull off a project.  I hope at some point it all comes out in the wash, but it was a reminder that no matter how well I might do generally, it's what I produce on a given day that matters, at least to the people I work for.  It doesn't matter to them if I am a good mother or a wise friend or can put a great meal on the table.  They don't even care if I write a good blog post, for crying out loud.

I want to be all those things--writing a post my readers enjoy is one of the most satisfying activities in my life--and yet also be exceptional at my day job.  Those who I know who are exceptional in their careers do it pretty much single-mindedly, though, and they don't bother with gardening or volunteer work or puttering around with language. They don't make a lot of mistakes, at least to my eyes, but my bet is that their particular, minor gaffes seem huge in their own eyes.  It's not a big deal, until it happens to you. At those times, I remember the words of the colleague, and think, Sue, get over yourself.

As I get older all I learn from my blunders is that I make mistakes, and I always will. I make them, sometimes, for the wrong reasons--because I am tired or distracted, because I sometimes don't believe something matters enough to give it all I've got. But often I fall a bit short because I take on new challenges and am less afraid than others to fail, whatever that means, and am fairly frequently out of my depth.

But I take care not to screw up because I believe rules are for others but don't apply to me. Those seem to be the ones people have a harder time bouncing back from. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Forward

Every city has a word.  So says the Roman friend of Elizabeth Gilbert in her memoir Eat, Pray Love.  The rest of the book leaves much to be desired, but I really loved this notion, especially when he asks her, "What's your word?" 

Rome's word, says he, is sex.  Gilbert extrapolates that New York's word is achieve. In my experience, then, Chicago's word is overcome.  When I lived in Toronto, its was derivative.  I think that's changed, but I haven't yet spent enough time back again to know what it is now. And Dallas? Envy. This is what drives it to such ostentatious lengths.  My own town of Fort Worth, at the opposite side of the Metroplex, has taken me more time to figure out, if only because I live inside it. 

This past weekend, I went to a charity fundraiser.  Suddenly my little preschooler is entering high school, and I am starting to run into people I haven't seen since before kindergarten.  So off I went to bid on silent auction items and eat mediocre Mexican buffet, and to watch people.  It had been so long with many of them that I had to explain that I am no longer married, a story I wish I didn't have to tell yet again, as there is still that too-interested, at-least-it-didn't-happen-to-me look.  "Is it good or bad?" one fellow asked.  "It just is." I shrugged, truthfully. 

Everyone looked a little older, me included.  And then I saw the couple hosting and evidently chairing the event (I confess I still haven't pored obsessively over the brochure to determine what was clearly to the assembled crowd a pecking order of monumental importance) and had a bit of a jolt: I'd known both of them, years ago, when they were married to other people.  Before my own union dissolved, I had watched one of theirs implode, followed a year or so later by the other.  They've been together since and have assiduously pursued legitimacy, and this event was clearly a very important moment for them. 

I talked to others, who were still pretty much working at what they'd been doing when I knew them a decade ago, and I thought about what that might be like.  My personal life, after a period of disarray, hasn't turned out to be what these folks would consider redemptive, which I guess would mean my being married to a doctor or a fund manager, though my occasional romantic entanglements, my tidy little house with dog and kids as much as possible, are awfully nice.

Key is that my work has taken a satisfying path. Several people from my past, when we spoke the other evening, looked at me with a bit of disbelief, followed by a nod of well then, when I told them I'd moved from the biggest game in town to one of the biggest on the globe.  I work with a group of people whose resumes and work ethic make mine look pretty sad, so I forget that it's an accomplishment.  My year looks to have some offshore travel in store, and it's fun to contemplate. In the Fort Worth fundraiser circumstance, this leaves me with little to discuss with people I don't know well. 

This is a great city with a tremendous quality of life, so good that people sometimes go away, but not for long.  Those with real cachet have been to the outside world and lived in New York or DC or Atlanta, but they've inevitably been pulled back.  I love this little universe, but I know I can keep one foot outside.  So I've realized that Fort Worth's word is stay. Mine? It's forward. So far they are compatible, but time will tell.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Plane Spotting

When I was roaming around Europe two decades ago, my traveling companion--a fellow tree-planter named Margo who looked a bit like Cindy Crawford and drew men in droves--and I would sit in whichever train station our Eurorail passes had stopped us and pass some of the time watching people and speculating about who they were and what they were doing. As we were twenty two years old at the time, much of what we made up was about people's love lives. Margo had significantly more material to offer than I did, but I pretended sophistication. Our main focus was on the young, since in the arrogance of our own youth we assumed anyone over maybe thirty-two didn't have much going on.  But really when we looked at their lined faces and heard their impatient sighs we realized that life had knocked the corners off of each of them and we didn't much want to know what lay ahead. 

I still love watching people, although I find airports in the US provide much less to work with than did Continental train stations.  There are the road warriors wearing, unselfconsciously, their headsets, all the time. These people know where the free power outlets are at each of their habitual gates at O'Hare and DFW.  They bark aloud about metrics and strategic plans and fiscal year goals and laugh conspiratorially.  There are the older ladies who have been on planes a handful of times in their lives and are worried about making their connection to Oklahoma City or El Paso so they can see their grandkids. They are the ones I dread sitting beside as I try, usually without success, to doze off for an hour or two.  But then the interesting characters: a sixty-something nuclear engineer who hopscotches around the globe because his profession is in demand as many countries have determined the relative virtues of heavy water; and the charming gentlemen, approaching eighty, who lives in Palm Springs with his wife of fifty years and still, after a successful career as an in-house counsel, still sits on corporate boards and flies around the country and world managing his affairs.  I love these stories, and am flattered the tellers think me wise enough to comprehend the complexity of their journeys.

One of my markers of who might be interesting is what people are reading.  Those Kindles and iPads make it much harder for me to engage in book snob profiling, but it's still fun on occasion. A fellow beside me last week was holding a hardcover entitled: "People Are Stupid, and I Can Prove It." True, perhaps, because he's been published and at least one guy bought his book.  The reader wrote, in the handy note area, his goals: "Lose weight. Save money."  Radical stuff.  Behind us, two other travelers were waxing poetic about Dan Brown's latest and something that gave rise to The Secret book. 

At some point, I hope to travel enough to meet a war journalist or a cast member from Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me or maybe just someone who reads the reviews in the New Yorker.  It's possible there were some of them among the rumpled people from the gastrointestinal pub in Washington, but they didn't talk to me because of my faux fur vest.  Fair enough.

Friday, February 4, 2011

ABAB (Always Bring a Book)

I can't remember which book I read where the narrator's father told her, ABAB. "Always bring a book," he said, "and you'll never lack for a friend."  Yet I remember the line, which rang true for me. In the prehistoric, pre-Facebook age, it was my habit to have something to read no matter where I went.  On the school bus and later on the street car. Now it's for the airport and when I eat out alone on business trips, though I cop to updating my status from my phone. 

In DC this past week, I marched ten blocks from the Firm's office to a well-reviewed spot called, on its website, a modern, gastronomic pub.  The photos showed a cozy place where patrons could rent a personal Scotch cabinet.  They had bangers and mash and Shepherd's pie, and it was around thirty degrees with flurries, a departure from the shirt-sleeves weather I'd left in Fort Worth, so I decided I would go with my university years' formula of a long walk followed by comfort food and a stout beverage. 

The place, called Againn, was more modern than pub, and the bar was sparsely populated with the earnest, self-important types that in my brief experience fill the ranks of organizations in the nation's capital.  There wasn't a cute outfit or a decent haircut in the place, but they all seemed quite impressed with themselves. My white faux-fur vest was, judging by the nasty glares I got, not quite faux enough.  The bartender was capable but aloof, so conversation was going to be out of the question.   Luckily I'd brought with me Charles Portis' novel True Grit.  My son and I had seen the movie the weekend before, and I fell under the spell of the language in the new version, which I understood to be true to the novel. 

I looked over the barkeep, who was closing in on thirty but sporting bloodshot eyes and bedhead--not attractive or age appropriate, but I guess having his job in a city of overachievers could drive a guy to a routine of self-inflicted pain--who had finally asked me after five minutes if I wanted a glass of wine.

I turned my attention back to the text.  Mattie...you are a pearl of a great price to me, but there are times when you are an almighty trial to those who love you.  This is such a lovely way to tell someone they are a pain in the ass. Even better: From time to time he went there to pay attention to a lewd woman. 

One of the benefits of being a middle-aged woman sitting at a bar, particularly when one is armed with a book and a pair of reading glasses, is that no one suspects me of being a lewd woman. In fact, no one pays me much attention at all, unless it's his job. So as I ate the admittedly fine Shepherd's pie (lamb and a lot of garlic made the dish) and enjoyed delicious prose, I put my invisibility to good use to eavesdrop on the young women clad in unimaginative Ann Taylor sale rack ensembles. One was waiting for her new boyfriend. She was talking about how she didn't know how into her he was, and then she and her friend commenced to harping about some girl at the office.  I have twenty years on them, and I thought, I have been to this movie before.. Then I settled up and walked back in the snow, fortified by the good meal and the prospect of a very, very nice hotel room. Another perk of middle age.