Tuesday, March 19, 2013



One of the more unusual birthday presents I have ever received came from my son Gareth, who gave me the founding membership in a book club he wanted me to organize. In other words, I should found it, and he, and any others I invited, would become members.


I stalled for a few weeks, flattered to have been asked but disconcerted by the responsibility, and uncertain, in the vast world of fiction, of what book to choose.


Even more troubling was getting over my concept of reading as a solitary activity. I have often thought it is one of the most selfish acts. As a working mother of little ones, I remember locking myself in the bathroom to read. Even now I have to make an effort to put down the Sunday paper, look up and give the speaker my full attention, sternly willing myself not to look down at the tantalizing article from which I was so abruptly pulled.


The rules were the easy part: No book longer than 600 pages; each month brings a new book; members take turns selecting, from oldest to youngest. It’s best if the selector has already read the book, rather than waste a bad choice that no one has read. What’s less clear is what happens after everyone has read the book.


Is reading something I want to share? What if sharing somehow trivialized my one-on-one experience?  Would I be tolerant of the inevitable comparisons of books with the films that were based on them? How would I handle my impatience with interpretations that don’t comport with my own?  It is one thing to teach a class where I am the undisputed authority. It is quite another to do this socially, and worse still, with family.


The irony is that as a family we all love books and we all read. But do we all love to discuss what we’ve read?  What happens once we all agree that it was a marvelous book?  Will we be reduced to following some stupid outline of canned questions at the back of the book, designed for just such awkward situations? Or will we rise above it, and astound each other with the depths of our insights? Or will we end up shouting?

Of course one alternative would be to have no discussion, merely move on to the next month’s selection.


Very tentatively, I set off by choosing The Magus, by John Fowles. A book I have read, and one that usually makes the best hundred books lists, and one that would likely be a new discovery for the younger generation. I figured since Gareth dreamed up this idea, he was, in effect, asking me for a recommendation of book he should read, and I thought this would be worth his while.


I dutifully re-read it, surprised at how little I remembered, and at how differently I interpreted it this time around. At 19 I read it as a bildungs roman, envious of the adventures of Nicholas, wistful about his sojourn on a Greek island, entranced at the elaborate efforts to entice him into . . . well, what exactly? An adventure? A mystery? A trap? A psychological experiment?


I am aware that much hangs on this first meeting of the club. Its longevity will depend on how satisfying everyone finds this discussion phase. And to my surprise, I find I am actually impatient for the other members to finish this book so we can talk about it. I want to revisit some of the scenes that have multiple interpretations, about which I am still unclear. I want to know the impressions of my fellow members, and yes, probably argue with them.


But the book club is startng to feel like real birthday gift. I begin to see the possibilities of reading as a social, rather than solitary, act.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Winter’s End

The swans returned to the river today,
Stark against weak rays of afternoon light.
The only whiteness in a March landscape of gold and brown,
Reflected in winter-dark water.

They stood tall against the mat of broken reeds
Crushed under the weight of so much melted snow.

Necks stretching to the sky, then down seeking last year’s nest,

The old pines whisper “it begins again.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013


We often define heroism as embracing a cause larger than oneself, sensing what a group of people need and then, in an act of magnificent courage, speaking up for them against big power. These are stirring, emotional, game-changing moments, and often real people from real life are the inspiration for films that come later, such as “Norma Rae,” above.  

But what we’ve been seeing in the expanding debate on corporate women rising (or not) to the top is a far cry from any “Norma Rae” moment. It's more of a "me" moment, in which women who should know better become anecdotal. I’m saddened that so many highly educated and powerful women have decided to push aside the opportunity for a real conversation about work-life balance in order to perpetuate the story that corporations most want to propagate: They are saying, in effect, “There is no need for any change whatsoever in the corporate world. Corporations bear no responsibility for holding women back. The fault lies within women themselves.”   

This started a couple weeks ago when Marissa Mayer took some flak for ending telecommuting for her Yahoo workers. Much of the fallout was nasty and personal, and it provoked torrents of comments across the country.
Today, Erin Callan, former CFO of Lehman Brothers, asked rhetorically, in the Sunday New York Times Opinion section, if there is life after work. She recounts her time as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the end of a meteoric career track that left her no time for her marriage, for friendships, or even to have children. She describes how work-a-holism crept into her life, and recounts the times when she might have said no at the office in order to have a fuller life outside. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.” She ends on a sadder but wiser note. “Whatever valuable advice I have about managing a career, I am only now learning how to manage a life.” And that’s too bad, because her message is now being drowned out by Sheryl Sandberg.  

The COO of Facebook since 2008 got the cover of the NYT Book Review section for her new work, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, reviewed in the politest of tones by none other than Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of the Women Can’t Have it All article in The Atlantic.

Sandberg is bullish on work. She chides younger women for not leaning in, as she puts it, or going all out. “Don’t leave before you leave,” she warns. Her book is a sort of EST training for women who want to reach the top, full of helpful tips and upbeat slogans such as “Done is better than perfect.”

The fact that this debate has lasted through so many news cycles suggests something’s afoot. Callan and Slaughter are of one mind on the question of work/life balance for mothers – it’s impossible at the top. As long as corporations expect 60-80 hour weeks, leading cannot be combined with motherhood. They’ve taken some heat for being willing to say it, but they seem to think the question ends with their stories.  

Slaughter takes the gentlest of swipes at Lean In, calling it “a young woman’s book,” noting Sandberg’s balancing act was about children closer in age to the terrible twos than the terrible teens. Possibly true, but it’s an unhelpful distraction of “my kids are harder than yours” in a much more important debate. Slaughter is on more solid ground when she points out that Sandberg and Mayer are reassuring corporate America with their “no problem” message. No need to change or accommodate. The opportunity is out there, young women just have to take it. Look at us!

Indeed. Not one of these women exhibits a shred of social activism. None is calling for shorter work weeks, more available and affordable day care or elder care, longer maternity leaves, and/or flexible hours that make sense for families. The brightest of the bright are unable to think beyond their own stories.

None of them have become the Norma Raes of the 21st century, and they seem highly unlikely to climb up on a CEO’s desk and hold up a sign in these modern sweatshops that says: “Work-Life Balance!”

Readers are fickle, and there is limited airtime and interest in rehashing all the problems of all the women who work, even though they are very real. Every one of the women above missed a golden opportunity to expand an extremely limited debate about her own experience to bring forward the needs of the wider group. The New York Times, too, needs to get over its star-struck fascination for women CEOs and talk to rest of us. Everyone might be surprised to find that women are not nearly as desperate to reach the corner office as they are to just get to the office.