Wednesday, February 27, 2013


I’ve been struggling with Marissa Mayer all week.  The CEO of Yahoo, who famously took a full two weeks of maternity leave and installed a nursery next to her office, pulled the plug on telecommuting for her employees.  Those defending the move are full of justifications: these were mostly underperforming and deadwood employees who needed this kind of shove to push them out the door; it’s important that everyone be together to work collaboratively; and Yahoo, Google and other high tech companies already provide free food and free gyms on their campus-like environments, so what’s the problem?
I’m reminded too, of the Atlantic Magazine piece by former State Department Policy Planning Director, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who wrote “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” She quit her dream job in Washington to return to Princeton, back into a tenured position, where she could be more of a mother to her two teenage sons. That article led to lots of hand wringing about work-life balance.

Neither woman speaks to me. Mayer is too draconian. I can almost buy in to her theories about needing to see colleagues face-to-face, but it's clear she has another agenda  when she won’t grant even one day a week for telecommuting. And Slaughter loses credibility when she drops name after name as illustrations of her points. Unfortunately Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Mary Maitalin and Michelle Flournoy don’t share the problems of most working mothers. Slaughter's solutions -- time your babies and freeze your eggs -- are too calculating by half, and while she focuses on the interesting shift between her generation and the next, she never questions underlying assumptions about how we organize our work.   
All my life I’ve railed against the inflexibility of the five day, 40 hour work week. I’ve fumed about it in traffic jams, plotted dentist appointments around it, and chafed at the insanity of trying to make the dynamic life of a family fit into this archaic and highly inconvenient framework.

I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard plenty of water cooler conversations over the years from colleagues who had child care problems, elder care problems, their own health problems, commuting problems, and other difficulties that made the imposition of a 40 hour work week feel like a prison sentence with weekend furloughs.
As a younger woman I was certain that we would conquer this problem in my lifetime. When technology revolutionized just about everything in the workplace, I thought that telecommuting would go from a trickle to a torrent. I saw more pregnant women in the workplace, and I thought job-sharing would soon be commonplace. I believed that more part time jobs would open up – quality part time jobs, not clerical ones. I imagined that the reward for the technological revolution that took place in my lifetime would be lives richer in leisure, education, and connectedness, and the rat race known as a woman’s lot would ease up. 

That none of this has happened leaves me baffled. The fact that many of us are working harder and longer than our mothers leaves me stunned. The boundaries between work and home have been erased, and not to the benefit of the home.
There is no enlightened benevolence, no ethos that gives higher value to humans than to technology. Instead, the tools we are given have become electronic leashes to keep us near at hand on evenings and weekends.  As a girl, I remember my father shouting to me and my brothers when the phone rang, “I’m not home.” He was outraged that anyone would intrude upon his evening. No such boundaries are permissible today. I wonder what he would think, watching me cook with a phone in one hand, a laptop open on the table, texting while setting the table. Multitasking seemed like the mark of a highly productive person at one point in my life. Now I see it as the mark of a misguided fool.

A vacation no longer means that you are really away. There is an expectation in many fields, that at a minimum you will still check your emails, and it would be nice if you joined meetings via phone or Skype. We bow to the principle of collaborative work so loved by Marissa Mayer and spend entire days meeting with various teams. That leaves only the wee hours for the lonely individual side of the equation, which is when and how the real work gets done.

Despite fuming over Mayer's edict, the rationale side of me cannot wholeheartedly condemn the idea that people who miss meetings miss everything. They miss the "kremlinology" of people dynamics. Who sat where? Who talked too long? Who rolled his eyes? Who left early and who gave off the silent but unmistakable vibe that the person at the head of the table is an idiot? I've navigated my careers by reading the tea leaves and excelling at meetings. I'm not sure I would be able to do this as a telecommuter.

And must creation always be the act of a loner? Don't those teams Marissa loves actually make the
magic through which new ideas come forth? Sometimes, certainly. There is undisputed value when highly intelligent people bounce ideas off each other. 
But the dicussions swirling around Mayer, Slaughter and others miss another point altogether. What is it we call work? What do people actually do for 40 hours? The lucky few who create for a living can indeed do their work anywhere -- in the shower, in the car, in their nightgown. But much of what we do at work has nothing to do with the act of creation. We file, sort, fill out forms, serve clients, and keep records.   
No wonder most of us still feel like wage slaves. The promise that tehnology would not only shorten work, but remove the drugery from it is still unfulfilled. And how appalling that these tools and technology have not made us any more intelligent when it comes to policies about working. What would it take for Yahoo to reinstate telecommuting? What would it take for industry to offer more part time jobs and opportunities for job sharing? Would it kill us all to work a little less, and maybe a little better? What would it take for all of us—including those like me who complain the loudest – to turn off our phones, shut our laptops and set work aside?   

Until we are more courageous we will continue to plod along, as dumb as beasts. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013


INTRODUCTION – 16 Measures of Strings

In a bit of car radio serendipity, we happened to hear Mozart’s Concerto for Horn in E flat Major, k417, on the drive in this morning. The performer hit every note, but in my mind's ear this piece is haunted by all the mistakes I used to make. 

This was my piece. I played it for countless auditions, practiced it constantly, and staunchly defended the merits of the 1953 Dennis Brain version, which I grew up on, against later recordings by Barry Tuckwell and Hermann Baumann. There are few things in life I know so well.

The horn was more or less placed in my hands by a loving dad when I was not yet 9 years old. No one I knew had ever heard of a French horn, a fact that filled me with pride. No mundane violin or flute for me! The public school had to order one, and for some reason they picked a B-flat single horn. No one plays this anymore, and probably no one did back then. But until I got my own horn midway through junior high, this was what I knew.

Over time the horn became entwined with my own identity. I carried it to and from school, developing calluses from the bulky, uncomfortable shape. I knew exactly how to heft it in its case so the bell wouldn’t knock against my knee.

As I became a teen, I realized the horn was my ticket. Soon I was auditioning for every kind of youth orchestra, honor orchestra, and summer institute. Always with the Mozart.

My dad drove me to scores of rehearsals and auditions, and in the days before cds and iPods, we’d listen to classical music on KFAC, hoping for good symphonies with great horn parts, and please would they not play opera. 
FIRST MOVEMENT: Allegro Maestoso

As I change lanes, we are well into the first movement. God, this was hard to learn. I remember how I worked to play it by ear off the Dennis Brain record, on the phonograph in the corner of my bedroom.  It was a year before I got the sheet music. Trying to get the runs right, I lifted the needle over and over, eventually creating more skips than notes. But I got it, sort of.   
I loved everything about the horn. I carried a little notebook in which I recorded the names of all the orchestras in the U.S. and all of their principal horn players; all the brands of horns, and every other bit of horn trivia I could sweep up. Nowadays this would be accomplished in 30 minutes on the Internet, but at the time, the horn, the notebook, and orchestral music were my passions.

Because my instrument was unusual, and because my identity was so closely tied to the horn, I had the conceit that I too was unusual. No instrument could ever be as magical as the horn, and no one could play it with a sincere and pure heart, as I was certain I did, without having some of that magic rub off.

The horn took me places I was sure I never would have reached on my own: golden grass pastureland surrounding the still-new Cal Arts; a college band tour to Switzerland; my first gig at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank, where I earned $20 for playing third horn in Brahm’s "Nanie."

I joked that I wanted to be a “rich and famous horn player,” but I also thought that if I said it like a mantra, it might come to pass. An Alexander horn, made in Germany, topped every Christmas and birthday list for years. I never really thought I’d get one, but I wanted it on record that I had the good taste to want one. When I finally got a used Conn 8D I was enormously proud, spending hours rinsing it through the bathtub, greasing the pipes, and restringing the valves, over and over. To this day the smell of valve oil sends me back.  


Getting close to exit 15. This least favorite movement just doesn’t speak to me. It’s merely a bridge between the first and third. Lots of long tones and slow notes, going nowhere. Then it repeats. But wait … the Rondo is coming!

In those years, my life was all about music, and music was the only way anything significant ever happened to me.

My Uncle Bill sent me a check for $50 dollars for some occasion, and I recall spending it as carefully as a pensioner at Charles Music Store in Glendale, buying records of horn concerti – both Strausses and the Hindemith, and Benjamin Britten’s lovely Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with Alan Civil on horn. I also pulled lots of orchestral excerpts out of the sheet music bins. I knew I’d wait years before having the chance to perform so many symphonies with fine horn parts, and I was in a great hurry.  

I spent a steamy summer practicing in my room in our un-airconditioned house, longing to open the window, but scared that our German neighbor, out by his pool, would instantly recognize the solo from Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and what if I faltered on that high A?

I played through the repertoire with a frenzy that summer -- the horn solo form Dvorak’s New World, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet; Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Brahms’s first, then his fourth, and more and more and more.  I had no context and had not yet heard all these excerpts in a full orchestral setting, but no matter, I was learning my craft.

My life was becoming ever-more layered with musical events. I saw movies such as Fiddler on the Roof and then Song of Norway downtown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I heard concerts at the Wilshire Ebell, the Scottish Rite Auditorium, and of course the amazing Hollywood Bowl, which gave me magical summer nights, I was sure, because I played a magical instrument.


As I move into the left turn lane, I wondered why I fixated on that very difficult first movement, which opens with three successive long runs. Why did I not play the Rondo? It’s fast, fun, and friendly. Even if I cracked the high b flat, it gallops along at such a pace one would hardly notice.

And then one day my horn betrayed me.

The painful truth was that I was never really that good. I had some technique, thanks to starting so early, but once I was in my teens I was overtaken by all-too-frequent surplus trumpeters who got moved to horn, as if it was some nasty second-choice instrument. I hated them.  

It was not for lack of practice or dedication, not for lack of wanting it. It is simply a heartbreaking fact that we are not always good at what we love.  

The signs were there – losing my third horn seat to an upstart challenger. At another time and place, in the absence of the first chair, having the chance to hit the solo in Beethoven’s Pastorale and blowing it. Carefully counting 53 measures of rests and then – oh no! missed the cue!  I couldn’t believe my horn was letting me down. Surely I just needed more time to practice, or a better instrument, or …

The end came when I was least prepared.   

For a while all was fine. I spent much of my 17th year pregnant, and then one night, unable to stand the solitude and isolation of the apartment any longer, I appeared at Cal State Long Beach for the Wednesday open night rehearsals, hoping I would pass for merely fat. Nonetheless, I played well enough to get the offer of a seat in the band that would be making a trip to Europe in March, just a few months after the birth of Andrea. I went, played in Switzerland, and found a friend in Karen, who loved the horn as much as I did.

I thought my life was back on track, but then we moved to the Valley and I ended up auditioning six months later at Cal State Northridge. Again the Mozart, of course. I got through no more than four measures when the conductor decided to turn my audition into a lesson. I felt the stunning humiliation of having been unimpressive. How could it be that he felt the need to teach me the finer points of this piece, when I had played it for so many years?

I eventually made the drive home, put the horn in a closet from which, at least figuratively, it has never emerged. I put away too, a time in my life when all things still seemed possible, when something akin to magic was always around the corner, and when music was never absent. And I never again believed in anything as treacherous as the horn again.    


And here I am, a middle-aged woman, driving through tears, unable to explain to my husband why I snapped off the radio at the last note of the Rondo.


Sunday, February 17, 2013


This is the day that comes every year for New Englanders, in which we all know that winter has overstayed its welcome.

I can see the blue plastic-wrapped New York Times, tantalizingly poised at the end of the driveway.  Getting it would mean getting dressed, pulling on the wretched boots and then slip-sliding on treacherous ice, hidden by four inches of new snow. Gwynnie and I just cleaned the driveway yesterday – as best we could -- taking advantage of barely above freezing temps to chip away, with spade and shovel, like archeologists in search of black asphalt so we could stop slewing around the curves. So much for yesterday’s work.

Gareth, too, spent the better part of a morning digging out one of the cars that had slid across the stone barrier (now encased in ice) onto soft soil of a vague garden area that exists only as a twinkle in the eye of the landscape architect, no doubt off in some tropical clime. 

Indoors, even the cats are grumpy. They have abandoned the dignity of the elderly to scrap like a pair of toddlers, tired of being housebound and deprived on the sensory stimulation of a quick morning trip outside. I offer them an open door just in case and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.  I retaliate by noting they should have been replaced long ago with a nice retriever, who even now would be eagerly padding across the snow, fetching me my New York Times, insanely grateful for the chance to have been asked.

I’m tired of heating bills that go higher and higher. I am tired of a winter cold that will not end. I’m tired of power outages that seem to come with each new snowfall. I’m tired, too, of the ridiculous traffic on Mass Ave., only made worse by cops, which has occurred in part because there is nowhere to put the snow, and now there is no right lane. I’m tired of being a pedestrian, faced with climbing himalayas of snow mounds just to cross the street. Tired of having the edges of my pant legs caked with snow, ice and mud every day.

I’m tired of getting all those spring gardening catalogs, so welcome back in December, which merely taunt me now. I toss them with nary a look. The beautiful aquas of Florida, the apricot hues of Hawaii, these are not the New England colors of mid February.

Here, the snow sucks the color out of the atmosphere until even the evergreens are reduced to a nondescript dark.  Our monochrome landscape is white and gray against various shades of “dark.”

I turn to astronomy in desperation. Sunrise comes a minute earlier each day now, sunset a minute later. Soon we will have 11 full hours of daylight. Time is on our side.

And, there is one more little thing which helps; a single sign of spring to which I am pinning all my hopes. My little indoor orange tree, all on its own, decided to put forth blossoms. We nearly lost it in the last power outage when the inside temperature fell to 40, so it had a week of vacation in Andie’s breakfast room.  It lost a few leaves to the frost, but it is stubbornly clinging to its blossoms, which seem to grow each day.

As I cough, blow my nose, and apply more lip balm, I look forward to the little plant gradually opening its blossoms, which may pull me through this interminable winter.  


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A few years ago, I had a colleague who was determined to learn horseback riding. She took lessons on weekday mornings and sometimes she arrived at the office looking the worse for the experience. I told her I admired her spirit, and she suggested I join her. I surprised myself when I told her that there were things in life I simply wasn't going to get around to doing, and horseback riding was probably going to be one of them. Not that I had anything against it, but simply because, with each passing year, life ceases to be the blank canvas with limitless possibilities we thought we saw in our youth.  With time, the limits just become easier to see. We realize the canvas was never really blank -- just smaller than it used to be.
So yes, this is a birthday column written by a former little girl who imagined that it was only a matter of time until her birthday, sandwiched between Lincoln's Birthday and Valentine's Day, would become a holiday in its own right, making a trifecta for a grateful world. By the time the little girl turned 13 on Friday the 13th, no other date for a birthday was conceivable. And so for years, boyfriends and then husbands have inwardly groaned as they shopped to find gifts not just for a birthday but for Valentine's too. And somehow the gifts were important, validating the uniqueness of the day.
I remember my 30th birthday for one detail -- I decided to have a martini. I had sensed the mystique of martinis early in my twenties, but I decided such a celebrated drink required gravitas on the part of the drinker and that perhaps by 30 I would have developed it. As with most things one puts off too long, the moment was lost. Martinis aren't really my drink and I remember that birthday chiefly for the disappointment of finding that out.
But sometimes finding a new limit brings freedom. I remember going along on a family skiing holiday in Canada. Many things about the hotel were charming, particularly the custom of wearing pajamas to breakfast, something all the guests did. Less charming was the frigid wind, icy slopes and my struggle to stay upright in a sport I suddenly realized I loathed. Finally, I had enough. I realized that I had the right not to ski any more, ever again. Henceforth I would bring stacks of Agatha Christies and read all day before the extraordinary stone fireplace. To this day, when anyone talks of skiing I feel positively gleeful that I am now free never, ever, to have to do it again. 
I know that skiing, horseback riding and many other sports fall into people's bucket lists -- the hundred or so things they want to do before they die. I have been very fortunate to have avoided those lists, if only because the foreign service and serendipity were far better providers of adventures than any I could conjure. But if there is such a thing as an non-bucket list -- things one tries once (or never) and resolves never to do again -- then I will confess that I have been building one for years.  And what better day than a birthday to add a new item, something else never to be done, to the growing list?

And let's face it, birthdays cannot retain their little girl character forever. There is something unbecoming about a grown woman worrying about presents, anyway. These days my husband is too ill to remember such frivolities. Any celebrations will have to be postponed to the weekend. One child is working, one has an evening class, and I have a terrible cold, so the day will pass unnoticed.  It's not that I am afraid of counting the years -- 56 this time -- or having the little heart sandwiches. I will be glad to use my day, whenever it comes, as an excuse to bring the family together.

And very quietly I will consign another activity -- mountaineering, perhaps, or learning Russian -- to my non-bucket list.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


Although I didn’t know it at the time, I first came face to face with a thin place in a remote village in Castilla la Mancha, in a place called Atienza. The concept of thin places was new to me – or at least I never knew that there was a name for them.

Some thin place spotters imbue them with a mystical, religious quality, but I seem to discover thin spots that are encumbered more by history than by any sense of piety. Nonetheless, they give the eerie experience of being in a part of the earth very near the edge. Let me tell you about two of them.

Harold and I stumbled on Atienza the way we did most things in Spain – driving across the plains of Castilla with an openness to whatever might come next. We climbed over a broken castle that looked fine from a distance but was more than half rubble up close.

I stood in the crumbling keep of the tower on the hill and listened to the wind turn corners. The Spanish sky, which seemed to stretch all the way to France, grew darker with the burden of a storm front. Our little Renault cinco, parked far below, was the only modern object around. There was not a soul to be seen. We were utterly alone. Miraculously, there were no plastic bags fluttering by, no empty coffee cups, no man-made litter of any sort. Touching the broken rock walls seemed to connect us to a part of Spain we’d never felt before. The present moment fell away and the stillness of the place seemed to enter inside of us, making us quiet for a long time.

But not all thin places are so remote and austere.

Years later, we pulled into an historic hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan, itself a mystical creation in its own right – one of the deepest lakes in the world, ringed by villages of Mayans who speak neither Spanish nor their neighbor’s indigenous dialects.

The hotel was built from the ruins of an old Guatemalan coffee finca, and it had a small museum of old farming implements, along with a leather carriage, in a corridor off the reception area. It also had preserved three sides of a wooden barn wall, and here was my second thin place.

The wall was filled with pencil signatures of all the people from the old coffee families from the turn of the century. With names like Smith, Hempstead, Koch, and Kleinschmidt, they told the story of the Germans, French, Brits and Americans who had a hand in crafting Guatemala’s export coffee industry. The pencil messages recalled the goings and comings of older children, off to college in Massachusetts, then home again for the holidays.

I stood transfixed before this wooden barn wall, tracing the family lineages. The more I looked, the more names became visible, some badly faded and half invisible. I realized that the entire wall was filled with the penciled scrawlings of family members.

Occasionally I’d find the briefest of messages which had to do for narrative. “Tante Ellen here for the holidays. “John Smith, home from Boston.” Was Tante Ellen from Hamburg? Was John at Harvard? I felt a sort of desperation to know more and more. The need to leave behind a record seemed an important rite for the families – something they did compulsively, as I could see as I peered closer, finding scarcely any area that was blank.

The wall was well known among Guatemalan elites – the family names were as good as the best from DeBrett’s or an American Who’s Who. I asked Guatemalan friends for more details about the name wall, as I came to call it, and I heard second-hand stories of wild Christmas parties and New Year’s dances on the shores of the lake. I imagined elegant women and men, and could hear the music magnified across the water; lanterns sparkling against the black lake backdrop. I could see too, the indigenous servants of that era, resplendent in huipils woven on backstrap looms; padding silently from room to room.

While our own children cavorted in the hotel pool, I visited the children’s name wall over and over again, lacking the archival knowledge of what ought to be done to preserve all this; recording names, ages and years in a notebook; looking for the oldest entry, (1906) looking for surnames of people I knew in town. The children’s name wall pulled me back into a past that seemed far more meaningful than any touristic activities over that holiday weekend.

And that was how I came to utterly lose myself in this second thin place, where the seams that separated the past from the present seemed to have frayed, allowing me a glimpse from either direction.