Tags: business trip, the publishing industry, what does an agent do?
The publishing industry is almost exclusively based in Manhattan. There are a few holdouts, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and some smaller independent presses here in Boston, but the big players — Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc. — are in New York. As a literary agent, my job is to find great writers, help them develop their manuscripts and/or book proposals into scintillating, compelling pitches, and then to go sell those manuscripts or proposals to editors in New York.
Each major publishing house is divided into imprints. For example, Random House has three major imprints: the Random House Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and the Crown Trade Group. And within each of these three major imprints are lots of sub-imprints, each with their own personality and bureaucracy of editors and marketers. If you are a writer of literary fiction, publishing your novel with the sub-imprint Alfred A. Knopf, a division of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, would be a dream. If you’re writing a book about food and health, the Ballantine imprint under Crown might be your home. And this is just one publishing house. An agent must learn what kind of books the different editors at the different imprints are acquiring and, in doing so, find the right editor and right home for her author.
Are you confused? Yes, me too. It is a bit overwhelming at times, but you do learn by osmosis and immersion. Every time I travel to New York, then, I’m meeting with editors at the various publishing houses. I actually printed out a map of Manhattan and highlighted each of the major publishers, and I keep this homemade map over my desk so that when I plot out my trips I know that it would be impossible to meet with someone at Harmony Books (a Crown imprint at Random House) at 11 a.m. up at Columbus Circle, have lunch with someone at St. Martin’s near the Flatiron Building, and then make a 2 p.m. meeting at Viking (a Penguin imprint) down on Hudson & Houston. Instead, I try to plan a day visiting a number of editors at one house or at most two houses in close proximity, such as Simon & Schuster (Rockefeller Center) and Harper Collins (53rd & Fifth).
These meetings take place either in the editors’ offices or over coffee or lunch or drinks. Editors need to acquire books. They get these books from agents. I may have the next “The Help” in my list. So it is ostensibly worth their while to take me to a nice lunch. In turn, I find out about their preferences. For example, I met with an editor yesterday who used to be a magazine editor at Details and GQ. He acquires only nonfiction, and journalistic, narrative nonfiction at that. So I’d never pitch him a novel. I met with another editor who acquires mostly fiction, specifically what she (wonderfully) describes as “car crash fiction” — a book which, when you read it, is akin to driving past a car crash: you can’t look away and you think, “Wow, I’m glad that wasn’t me. And yet I can’t stop thinking about what happened.” I would never pitch her a Grisham-esque thriller or “chick lit” (but that’s fine, of course, because there are hundreds of other fiction editors who would love such titles).
Then there’s also general networking and client cultivation: I meet with current clients, potential clients (people I’m wooing!), other agents, and other contacts, such as staff and professors at Columbia Journalism School who may be able to refer clients to me.
This is a job for an extrovert. Fortunately, I am one. I’m energized by New York, and I’m energized by speaking with smart people and hearing their ideas and discussing that which I have always loved more than perhaps anything else (inanimate, of course): books. But it’s also a business, and a business at which I very, very much want to be very, very successful. So I’m “on” all day long. I’m lugging a heavy bag around New York in heels (must rethink the bag; definitely would never rethink the heels!), hopping on the subway, using Starbucks restrooms. Some trips are day trips, but if I have to stay overnight I’ll take the train out to New Jersey and stay at the most comfortable hotel around — Chez Mom. Then I’m on a 7 a.m. commuter train back into the city with all the bankers.
Is it glamorous? Certainly more so than tax law. But it’s also work, and when I’m in New York, I work hard.
Tags: will I make friends in the suburbs
There were approximately 20 children at my house today. There were pigs in blankets, cupcakes, cookies and juice boxes, footballs flying around the house, balloons being popped by rowdy boys, my son grabbing sugar cookies off the counter and eating them in one bite.
For this I blame my friend Melissa. Her daughter is about a month younger than mine; her son about a month younger than Little O. Like me, she moved from the city to the suburbs not long ago. When I saw her at our college reunion this spring, we caught up on our respective suburban lives. I confided that I wasn’t yet sure I loved the ‘burbs. I missed the city and my friends there and that I could stroll to the playground or Starbucks and inevitably run into someone I knew. In the ‘burbs I felt somewhat lonely and, as an extrovert, somewhat adrift in a car-dependent world seemingly dominated by stay-at-home moms.
She was having the opposite experience. “I have never been so busy in my life,” she said. What are you talking about? I said. “I am more social than I ever was in the city,” she replied. Surely, I suggested, this is because you moved back to your hometown; you must know tons of people.
“Nope,” she said. “I hardly knew anyone. But I’m aggressive. Listen, if you meet someone nice at Starbucks or at preschool, get her number and then text her the next day. Get coffee. Or better yet, wine.”
Really? I said. You’re truly that forward?
“I go on dates,” she said. “Basically: You’ve got to stalk.”
We’ve now lived here for two years, and I’m finally feeling like every time I go to the grocery store I run into someone I know. But when I saw my friend again a few weeks ago she asked me about my social progress. “Eh,” I admitted. “I’m a working mom. It’s hard to grab coffee.” She raised an eyebrow, clearly insinuating that I was being lame. So when I got home that night, I bit the bullet: we were going to have a Sunday afternoon Patriots party. I invited some neighbors and some friends we had gotten to know poolside at our little swim/golf club over the summer.
Everyone one could attend, it turns out. So some Barefoot Contessa chicken chili, a seven-layer dip, and Costco artichoke spread later, there were some 12 families, with on average two children each, at our house. I think my kids are going to wake up puking at 2 a.m. from all the sugar, but hopefully they’re too tired to do so.
Oh yes we did. Patriots balloons.
Little Bug impatiently waits for our guests.
Tags: leaving Big Law
Tomorrow is my last day at the firm. Yes, it has been a few weeks since I posted — and, obviously, I’ve been busy. I decided to pursue what I hope will be a truly life-fulfilling path — the one I almost decided to follow after my maternity leave. I do not regret returning to my firm, though. Not one bit. I leave knowing I have left nothing on the table. I leave having been re-immersed in tax law and hard work. I leave having reestablished my professional and personal connections here.
I’ll write more about my new opportunity soon — next week, in my week off between jobs. Right now, however, I’m sending almost three years of files to records, having good-bye coffees and lunches with the colleagues who have become my friends. And I’m surprisingly emotional. Change makes me anxious, even good change. I am not sorry I’m leaving all this behind. But what is “all this”?: A huge, multinational law firm in a gleaming high rise. A nod of recognition when I tell people where I work. The confidence that came with knowing that, after years of professional hopscotch, I actually was capable of landing a prestigious job. (“Prestigious” — I feel the need to surround that in quotes, recognizing all of the external validation implied by my last few sentences. But it’s true! I’ll admit it! I’m proud that I work(ed) here.)
No, I’m not sorry to be leaving on my own terms in an anxiety-producing economy. But I’m still nostalgic about the milestones. I came here with one baby, I leave with two. At times I felt like I did a good job. Mostly, I felt rather stressed, but that, too, is part of the fun of being a BigLaw attorney — you can sit around and kvetch with your other lawyer friends about how stressed you are. Highlighters and sticky tabs and blackberrys and binder clips; empty Starbucks cups, free dinners after 7, free cab rides after 8; the same turkey wraps at every department lunch. Getting into my car with NPR and a mug of coffee and seeing my skyscraper in the distance as I headed for the highway, wondering what would happen today. Seeing the clock tick towards 5 and wondering if I’d be able to leave in time for bathtime.
Oh, I have so much more to write about this experience and the one that lies ahead. But right now I’m strangely overwhelmed. I ache to talk to my father, to compare my corporate law experience to his, to dissect it in a detail that only another corporate lawyer would want to listen to.
Tonight, some law school classmates who work here are buying me a glass of wine; tomorrow I’ll have a farewell lunch with some friends in my department. Saying goodbye can be strange and awkward, but I hope and trust that my new job will be a bridge to maintaining these connections. It still doesn’t feel real — seven years ago, almost on a whim, I decided to take the LSAT and take control of my life. Without this experience I don’t know that I’d have the confidence to maintain that control and take the leap I’m taking now — out of BigLaw towards a big unknown. I’m nervous and nostalgic, but also grateful and proud.
Tags: caffeine detox, caffeine withdrawal, detox, Starbucks
I woke up this morning inspired by this. You see, I was at the doctor again yesterday, getting another prescription for another ear infection. I really want to feel healthy again, to feel inspired, to feel fun, to stop complaining and being short-tempered at home. I’ve been thinking that maybe I should tweak my diet a bit — less lattes and red wine and cheese and Wheat thins, more spinach and almonds. So I skipped the coffee this morning. I didn’t have any immediate or debilitating caffeine withdrawal symptoms, but it was sort of a bummer nonetheless.
I mentioned this to a friend over email this afternoon. Knowing that my health and the general winter malaise had me sort of in the dumps, she generously and genuinely pepped me up over the course of a lengthy back-and-forth. She said: “Don’t be crazy, girl. You love your cup of coffee on your way to work. You write essays about it. You have a blog category dedicated to it.” Well, she didn’t actually write this, but it was the subtext of her much more articulate message, which was: hang in there, make time in your day to exercise (which I have not been doing, of course), and don’t deny yourself some pleasures. And then she sends me this:
Does the sight of a Starbucks cup make anyone else’s heart race, just a little bit? (If not, do I have a real problem?) Thanks for bringing me back to my senses, E — erstwhile champion of smart dialogue and smart women. This picture perfectly captures — on so many levels — why we are friends.
In all seriousness, though, has anyone else ever given up caffeine and found it worth the short-term (long-term?) denial of pleasure? Have you ever changed your diet and found it made you healthier (please say no)? What else are you doing to stay healthy and peppy in this grim winter grayness?
Tags: I hate winter in New England, iPhone, Patriots playoff fail, Starbucks
Oh my goodness the weather is depressing. During last week’s blizzard, all the snowplows in our town converged to push all the snow from our street — yes, all of it — into our yard. (Our Christmas tree was on the curb — I do not think we will see it again until April.) Yesterday at work, I was startled at my desk several times as huge chunks of ice fell off the skyscraper office building and hurtled into my window. Today as I drove into the city, it was just wet and gray, the skyline covered in clouds. I’m sick, Tim’s sick, the kids don’t sleep through the night (if one does, the other does not). I mean, I could go on with the boring complaints, but everyone in the Northeast is singing the same tune. And we don’t even have playoff football to look forward to on the weekends.
But guess what? Guess what happens today? Read here for a more technical explanation, but, in short, I can now buy Starbucks with my iPhone. My two most coveted modern luxuries have joined forces, and so it’s like I’m getting my coffee for free. Or, at least I’m not forking over a debit card, which makes it seem free. Remember when we were younger and movies depicting “the future” would have people looking at each other as they conversed over television screens? We were like, Whoa, no way. Now I can do that over my phone — my phone that is not attached to a cord and that I carry around with my everywhere and with which I buy Starbucks. How did the future get here? Sometimes it still gives me a little thrill. And right now I’ll take them where I can.
Tags: New Year's resolutions 2011
You know I love New Year’s resolutions. Two years ago, my resolutions were clearly defined and yet highly unattainable. Last year, they centered around simply finding happiness (hot showers, more wine, more yoga…). I understand why people eschew resolutions in that they set unachievable expectations, leading to disappointment, etc. etc. Looking back over the past two years, it’s clear that I’m not one who makes resolutions and actually sticks to them, but I do get a lot of pleasure out of making them (in that I set up some sort of idealized vision of the future?). This year, I’m less able to articulate my New Year’s resolutions — I have some vague ideas about living more simply, lowering instead of raising my expectations, and trying to exist in some sort of more tempered universe. Of course, in the back of my head is a little voice saying, “Run more! More yoga! Spend less money!” but at the end of the year that included birth and death and health issues and lots and lots of sleepless nights — and somehow, in the midst of it all, a growing sense of contentment — I’m going to resist the urge (at least publicly) to enumerate my Resolutions.
Instead, my friend Lindsey had a fun and introspective little survey/questionnaire on her blog this morning, which I’m going to adopt. I’m answering these less thoughtfully than I otherwise might (blogging, as I am today, in the short window of Little O’s nap!) But maybe that will make my answers more honest.
What did you do in 2010 that you’d never done before? I spent seven months as a stay-at-home mom. I took a weekend trip to Florida with my college girlfriends. I participated in a competitive blogging challenge. I went three (almost four — since September 1, basically) months without running. This last one sounds like a crazy thing to list, but it actually imparted to me an important lesson. I used to think I needed to exercise for weight-maintenance. Eleven months of nursing, however, took care of that for me, and I realized that running in fact gave me much more than the ability to wear skinny jeans. If I have any resolutions at all for 2011, it is to remember that running keeps me sane, not thin.
Did you keep your new year’s resolutions and will you make more for 2011? Of course not. And of course — albeit with a more measured approach, I hope.
Did anyone close to you give birth? Yes! I did! But also my sister. And several close friends and seemingly half the tax department at my firm (literally — nine women in my relatively small department had babies this year!).
Did anyone close to you die? My great-uncle. And, just last week, a close family friend.
What countries did you visit? None. Sigh. Again, if I do have a resolution for 2011, it is to “remember Italy” (a metaphor and theme in a striking book I read recently, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is by Laura Munson — see Lindsey’s interview with her, here) — although in my case, it would “Remember Paris.” More on this in another post.
What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010? Patience. Acceptance. Faith. Confidence.
What was your biggest achievement in 2010? Having a healthy baby would have to be it. But I’m also proud of myself for going back to my job. It wasn’t clear I was going to, but I do think it was the right choice, and perhaps the first time in my life I’ve done something truly rational, career-wise.
What was your biggest failure? A few work-related ones come to mind. But mostly I regret the times I’ve been short-tempered with Little Bug and a less-than-present daughter, sister, friend, and wife. I didn’t put down my iPhone/work email enough to stay focused on my family.
Did you suffer illness or injury? I feel like I’ve been sick a lot this year — an immune system no doubt compromised by severe sleep deprivation and preschool germs.
What is the best thing you bought? My iPhone and Pilates. (Am I a yuppie or what?)
Where did most of your money go? Starbucks and J. Crew. Ha ha, just kidding. Sort of.
What did you get really excited about? My girls’ weekend in Florida. My husband would tell me that I’m being all “Joy Luck Club,” but oh, god, there was something so refreshing and invigorating and inspiring about spending three days with the women who were with me when I became the woman I am, the women who have been there for me for the biggest hardships and greatest joys in my life, the women with whom I speak an abbreviated shorthand language and who can finish my sentences. And now, at this stage of our lives, the women with whom I can discuss my career, daycare, siblings, husbands and parents. Even though they may not be part of my day-to-day life, the are a part of the foundation of my life.
What song will always remind you of 2010? Have I listened to so little music that I can’t answer this? Probably, however, something country (since that is all Tim and I seem to listen to these days). I really like that song Welcome to the Future by Brad Paisley, though I suspect that was not released in 2010. OK, so, maybe I’ll make another resolution: listen to more music. It makes me happy — just as Glee made me so so happy this year.
Compared to this time last year, are you:
— happier or sadder? Happier
— thinner or fatter? Well, as I was eight months pregnant, this isn’t really a fair question!
— richer or poorer? It’s probably not a good thing that I can’t really answer this literally, but I imagine that since we spent most of 2010 paying two mortgages, poorer!
What do you wish you’d done more of? I wish I’d written more — here on this blog and elsewhere. I have a great idea for another blog, but I can’t seem to find the time to make it happen. I wish I could let myself go with my children — really play with them, focus on them wholly, without thinking about what’s next (be it cleaning up lunch, or what’s for dinner, or how much work I have, or even who has posted what on Facebook).
What do you wish you’d done less of? I wish I had spent less time agonizing over my job — both preemptively before I went back and then also on a daily basis once I was back. I think it affected my relationships with my family. It’s just a job. It’s not the greatest, most important job in the world, it’s not the end of the world, and I’m not a victim. I have to remember this.
How did you spend Christmas? As we do every year, in New Jersey, with my whole big crazy family. We snuggled in during a blizzard and took Little Bug in to New York City to the Museum of Natural History the day after the blizzard — rather ill-advised when it took us 4.5 hours and four different trains to get home!
Favorite TV program? Glee and The Good Wife.
Favorite books? I actually had a lot of time to read and finished more books than I have in years, both fiction and nonfiction. In the former category, the three books that stand out are: Dear Money by Martha McPhee, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. They weren’t earthshaking, but I just loved each one. In the nonfiction realm I really liked No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin (the Roosevelts on the home front in WWII) and The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison.
Favorite films? I only saw one movie in the theater this year — Eat, Pray, Love. (But I loved it. Sue me for my questionable taste!) Recently, I’ve seen The Town and The Kids are Alright on OnDemand, and, surprisingly, liked both (as you know, my taste in movies runs towards the saccharine, e.g., Eat Pray Love…)
What did you do on your birthday and how old were you? I can’t even really remember my 36th birthday! Luckily, I blogged about it. It was spring, and I was still home on maternity leave, and Tim took me to a local Italian joint for dinner because I was craving a real Bolognese.
What one thing would have made your year more satisfying? Just knowing from the start that I was going to go back to my job and that it would all be OK.
How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010? I have to divide this in to two parts: January – September and September – December. In the former, it was black yoga pants and spit-up stained black t-shirts. In the latter, it was black Theory pants or skirt and cashmere cardigans or blazers.
What kept you sane? Red wine. For reals. And phone calls with my mother. Daily, sometimes twice a day. Also, emails and texts from my hilarious friends.
Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010? You are not your job. In fact, I suspect that nobody really cares what you do except for you. You’re not a victim of some amorphous FIRM that is out to get you (a la John Grisham?) — you’ve made your choice and you can unmake it at any time. You’re not trapped. Also, even though you may get frustrated that your husband doesn’t like to hash out the nuances of your day, he is listening. More important: baby boys may not sleep and pre-school girls may whine, but it’s all doable. You can be much happier being grateful for what you have than wanting more, more, always more — this easier said than done, of course, especially for me, but slowly, slowly I feel like I’m on the verge of grasping this. I haven’t actually grasped it yet, but at least its a tangible concept now, something I can turn over in my mind, rather than something completely inaccessible.
Sick Little Bug, with the “ellie”, watching our favorite movie, Madeline. Actually, her favorite movie might be anything featuring Dora (groan). But this is mine!
We’re all a little run down at our house. As usual, I packed too much into our Thanksgiving weekend. It was wonderful: we visited with my baby nephew and a whole slew of Murphys and beloved cousins; we invited some of our new neighbors and friends over for cocktails (so adult! so suburban!); and we celebrated my brother-in-law’s 40th at an 80s-prom-themed birthday, complete with 80s DJ and several costume changes for the birthday boy (insane). Against my better judgment, I sent Little Bug to school yesterday with tired tired eyes and feeling slightly warm (I asked repeatedly if she wanted to stay home but she begged to go to school), and so of course by 9:30 the head of the school called to say she was running a fever and had to come home.
She is inordinately sweet when sick (so much so that we realized yesterday morning that she was probably ill when she kept repeating over and over, “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy. I love my baby brother…” etc. etc.). This morning it was difficult to walk out the door when she kept running over for “one more big hug. No, wait, just one more kiss!”
As is often the case, though, by the time I got to work and navigated the Starbucks line downstairs, my mind was focused on my day’s client meetings, conference calls, and revisions. By the time I rode the elevator up to my office, with its sweeping views over the Charles, the Salt and Pepper Bridge and MIT, and the airport, I was happy I was here. Happy because sometimes I still get a little thrill that wait, I’m really a lawyer. I wear lawyerly clothes to work (today: Theory shift dress, black tights, heels, and a tweedy, Chanel-esque [emphasis on the “esque“] jacket in honor of my client meeting). I have conference calls and meetings with clients in glassy conference rooms on the top floor of our skyscraper building. I write and say things like, “It is reasonable to conclude that…”
Yesterday, I looked on as a very senior partner marked up a document I had drafted. His lawyerly edit marks mirrored those my father used to scratch on the reams and reams of documents he brought home. Again, I thought: I’m a part of this tribe — a life so familiar to me as a child, but one that I still can’t wrap my head around that I actually inhabit and perpetuate.
My mind will, of course, be half at home all day, thinking of my sick little girl. But I also know that, all the usual BigLaw firedrills and false deadlines and general anxiety aside, I do like what I do. And this is what is sometimes very hard to reconcile with my life “at home.”
Tags: return from maternity leave
Trapped in the playpen
I’m currently on a reduced-time schedule at work. (They call it “part-time”, which makes me cringe, since I work more than 40 hours a week.) My firm, in addition to its very generous maternity leave policy, has a return-from-leave policy by which, for your first six months back from leave, you can work almost any schedule you want, down to 50% time. As many families know, ramping back up from maternity leave is difficult: if your baby is anything like mine, you’re still not sleeping very well; perhaps you’re trying to pump; perhaps you’re still sorting out daycare. I think that, prior to this policy, many women came back to the firm and immediately quit under the pressure, or perhaps they didn’t return at all. (And, yes, I do realize how great this policy is. Sounds almost socialist, no?)
I’m currently working 75% time, meaning I work Monday-Thursday, 9-5. Of course, as any attorney will tell you, reduced time is not really reduced time unless you are quite strict about saying “no” to work. I am still so junior that I find this almost impossible to do. Therefore, probably three nights a week, after I get home at 6 p.m. and put the children to bed, I work until 10 p.m. or later on my laptop. But what this policy does let me do is walk out the door at 5 p.m. without any guilt (kind of). And it give me Fridays. Though I have ended up billing two or three or sometimes four hours almost every Friday since I have been back, I do so while O is napping, sitting in my home office or at the kitchen table, clad in yoga pants and drinking coffee.
And then the rest of the day is mine. The entire day, in fact, has the air of a surprise holiday, like a snow day. We don’t rush in the morning. I let Little Bug sleep as late as she likes. I make her breakfast, NPR on the radio in the kitchen. Little O and I drop her off at school, usually at least a half-hour later than her normal drop-off time. Then Little O and I hit Starbucks and maybe the grocery store. We play before his nap (these days, playing consists of him trying to crawl up the stairs and me pulling him down). During his nap I work, or clean up the house. When he wakes up we do errands or just play before picking up Buggy at 1. While he takes his afternoon nap, she and I read books or maybe even watch a show for “quiet time.” Once he’s awake, we walk to the library or have a playdate. Then it’s dinner, bath, bed.
Of course, I’m checking my work email (on my laptop, on my iPhone) all day long, and dashing off a response here and there. Most people at work now remember that I’m not in the office on Fridays. I have to be available, but I don’t have to actually work.
But I love these days. I feel as if the weight of the world is off my shoulders. I am on the floor with the children, we sing and dance. I catch up on my favorite blogs. My People and US Weekly arrive in the mailbox. I have the whole weekend head of me.
And I ask myself: would I feel this anxiety-free, this happy, were every day like this? Meaning, of course, were I not working and home with the children. And, of course, every day wouldn’t be like this. Or would it? If I let it? I’m dreading March 1, when my six-month post-parental leave period is over and, more likely than not, I will be expected to work full-time again. (One argument in favor of going back full time is that I’m pretty much working full-time hours anyway, so why not get paid for it — but I cherish these Fridays so much that I wonder if it’s not worth the pay cut.)
Sigh. I’m a grass-is-greener kind of person — if I could change one thing about the way I am wired, it might be this restless tendency to wonder “what if?”.
Tags: Five For Ten
I can barely type the four letters, l-u-s-t, the topic for today’s Five for Ten. Oh, these Momalom girls are smart, setting us up with fun topics like happiness and then making us squirm or blush. Or is it only me? A (former) good Catholic girl raised in a repressed Protestant society has trouble with this. We’re not supposed to think about lust, right? Or talk about it, or, for goodness sakes, blog about it publicly.
When I lived in Paris for a few months in the summer of 2001, I attended daily French language classes. One day, I asked the teacher why everyone in Paris chain smoked. “What about cancer?” I demanded. “Don’t you care about the children? About second-hand smoke?”
“You Americans,” she responded (at least, this is how I think the conversation went — the French lessons never quite took me to any level of proficiency). “You get cancer not from the smoking but from your repressed, Protestant lifestyle. We don’t get cancer because smoking relaxes us; we enjoy it.” The other students around the table — Japanese, Mexican, Israeli, Russian — nodded in agreement. Now, I had recently lost my father to lung cancer, but I also had been suspecting (and still sort of do, in the face of all rationality) that it may not have been the smoking itself that brought on the cancer that killed him. If there were ever a living emblem of the harms of Protestant repression it was my father. As the weight of collective condemnation fell upon me, the lone American in the French classroom that day, I wondered if she had a point.
In her “lust” post, one of my favorite bloggers, Launa (she of “Wherever I go, there I am“), writes of the attention her handsome husband has received from other women during their sojourn in France. Women with glossy hair, tight jeans, leather jackets, and no doubt fabulous lingerie beneath it all. Women for whom lust — be it their hidden underwear or their overt flirtation with married men — is a part of a sensual lifestyle (one in which, apparently, smoking does not cause lung cancer). Why don’t we (we, as in American women but more specifically we as in “I,” a repressed former Catholic) make the same effort to embrace, as opposed to stifle or ignore sexuality? I could go all political and link this ultimately to the absurdity of not teaching sex education in schools among many other ridiculous societal responses to our collective Protestant roots, but I’ll go back to my first point: my difficulty even writing on this topic of “lust”.
I could get around it by talking about my lust for life or lust for Starbucks or lust for reading or whatever, but that would be ignoring the decidedly sexual connotations of the word. And this brings me to a larger issue, which is writing about sex in general. One of the reasons I wonder if I could ever actually write a novel is: what about the sex scenes? You kind of need to have them, right, or else your novel will seem inauthentic because sex is everywhere? But what if your mother reads it? Your grandmother? What if every boyfriend you ever had thinks it is about him? Even if everything you write is the products of a healthy imagination, everyone will wonder, think, assume it is you.
Who cares? you might be thinking. Is that so bad? For me, yes. But maybe this is a first step. I’ll try it one more time:
(Today’s Five for Ten topic is Happiness)
I have a birthday this week. Today, in fact. I can no longer claim I am in my lower- (or even, really, mid-) 30s. I have wrinkles on my forehead and my dimples seem to be elongating into deep smile lines. I’m in the midst of the three-month postpartum hair evacuation. (My hair quite literally falls out in clumps with every shower.) While supposedly I have lost all of the weight I gained with the baby, things have settled a bit differently. I’m not sure my clothes quite fit correctly (e.g., button-down blouses and jeans).
Here’s what else is going on at 36.
Coffee. My automatic coffee maker is getting more attention than Starbucks. This, for those who know me, is shocking. But I can no longer think clearly without a cup of coffee right away. Like, there is no time to even get to Starbucks. My mother always said, “I just can’t function without my first cup of coffee,” and I kind of laughed at what I thought was motherly exaggeration, but I get it now. Before Tim leaves in the mornings (which is usually while I’m still tucked into bed with the baby), I beg him to throw the coffee. Now, we did buy one of those coffee pots that you can program to turn on automatically, but far be it from me to actually remember to do so each night. I read recently that one tip to getting your baby to sleep through the night is to give up caffeine entirely. Ah, the Catch-22.
The ‘burbs. In addition to a grill and a swingset, we now also own some patio furniture and all sorts of lawn equipment (long and short trimmers, a fertilizer spreader, etc., et al), and we drive around town critically noting other people’s yards and gardens. And I think I am becoming more sure about our new town. I can still hop on the Red Line and into the city in 15-20 minutes (the other night I even visited a friend up the northern reaches of Cambridge via the Red Line!). I’m also slowly starting to meet some “friends” in town, as people start to emerge from the long winter. No one that I could call up yet and invite over for dinner, really, but perhaps a playground date. One friend, herself now a two-year veteran of a different suburb, tells me that I have to be extra bold when making new friends. “Get their cell numbers and text them!” she told me. “You have to stalk at this stage in life!”
Along those lines, at 36, with small children, I’ve realized that one’s social life necessarily revolves around others with children the same ages or else one actually will have no social life. Getting together with other couples, then, goes something like this: 8:30 a.m. brunch at the diner or 11 a.m. lunch at someone’s house while the preschoolers run around in the sprinkler (extra points when Bloody Mary’s are served along with the coffee) or a 5 p.m. barbeque. And, of course, even these earlier get-togethers happen more frequently than “date nights” because it is easier to drag the children along than deal with a babysitter. Some of my close friends have children older than mine, and some have no children, and — while they remain dear friends — we just do not get together as couples. It’s easier for me to see these friends one-on-one (and, since that in itself involves leaving children home with either Daddy or a sitter, this does not happen as frequently as I’d wish).
Little buglets and the existential questions they raise. I have really enjoyed this time at home on my maternity leave. Does this surprise me? A bit. I had looked forward to not working perhaps more than being at home (there is a difference). But it turns out that I like knowing what my daughter had for lunch (because I made it) and what time she woke up from her nap and, especially, our car rides home from preschool when, on the verge of her nap, she tells me (somewhat deliriously) about her morning (“Remember, today, at school when we learned about spider webs and CHARLOTTE’S WEB and horses eat HAY and pigs eat SCRAPS and Michael Foley liked the ORANGE popsicle best but Michael Murray liked the green one…”). At the same time, I do know that for various reasons I’ll be going back to work in the fall. I had told myself that I wouldn’t even think about work, or what comes next work-wise, until Little O was three months old. So only recently have I started to reconsider the inherent value in being home with one’s children versus the continuity of one’s career, and the conversations this balance has started with friends — both close friends and people with whom I’ve become reacquainted since having children — have been provocative and encouraging.
One close friend accurately and bluntly identified one of the issues I grapple with the most — that of affirmation (whether internal or external) of my law degree. She told me, “You have to ask yourself whether you are always going to want to wear a t-shirt that proclaims, ‘I made law review and worked at [BigLaw Firm].'” This from a woman who used to manage billions of dollars before leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children — but who would never, ever mention this unless you got to know her and asked. She lives in the present, and I so admire that, and her point to me was whether, if I pursued a career that was less intense, I’d always be justifying my decision. Or could I accept that different choices provide meaning and value in different ways. [The subtext to this, I feel compelled to point out — again — is that I have a choice. I’m not talking about the “Mommy Wars” choice to work or stay at home, but, rather, knowing that I do want to work, to choose in what capacity I will do so: big, fancy, stressful job with lots of cache, or a less-stressful, less-lucrative job that would allow me to work part-time but that may not “use” my law degree? Obviously, the former is attractive to me for all of sorts of intellectual and self-validating reasons and the latter attractive because, as it turns out, I like spending time with my children.] These are the more weighty issues that preoccupy me at 36.
The less-weighty issues include:
How many followers do I have on Twitter? Why didn’t I think of the concept behind my new favorite TV show, The Good Wife, before its writers? (I should have.) Did I waste money on my Kindle because the iPad is so much cooler and I want one? When do I make the seasonal switch from red wine to Oyster Bay Sauv Blanc? Are all the inchworms falling from the sky going to destroy my trees and how many carpenter ants should one see in one day before calling the exterminator (two? six? ten?)? Can I sneak in a run before the babysitter leaves or should I suck it up and take out the double-jogger? When will my hair stop falling out? Will I ever, ever sleep past 7 a.m. again? Should I go to BlogHer in August? Should we have our neighbors over for cocktails, even though we don’t know very many of them? What is the suburban protocol after one moves to a new neighborhood?
In Conclusion. At 36 I am: a woman with two advanced degrees, two children, two mortgages, and two cars. I am still a voracious coffee-and-wine consumer, reader, and pop-culture junkie. I used to be a voracious yogi and runner, and while I miss the intensity of these pursuits, I can accept why I had to dial it down. I love my family fiercely, including my large extended family of aunts and uncles and sisters and step-parent and my many, many in-laws. I love my friends, too, in ways I could not have foreseen a decade ago. I notice that I am getting older chronologically in that those close to me are getting older, too — my children, my parents. But I don’t mind it, really, and I do like the mellowing part — more so mind than body, of course. My sister remarked recently that I’m so much more relaxed these days. Maybe this is because I’m on maternity leave and not working, but I’d also like to think it’s just me.