Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cry Baby

I’ve always identified with the Holly Hunter character in “Broadcast News”. She’d allow herself a brief crying session once a day. Affording herself that moment of weakness prevented her from completely falling apart as she embarked upon the challenges of life. At least that’s how I took it. She was so close to losing it at any given moment, but granting that release, that cleansing moment of tears in total privacy, was regenerative. Giving her just the bolt of courage, nerve, stability, she required to carry her through each trying day in the world.

I’m always on the brink of falling apart. At least that’s how it feels, though I don’t think I appear to be. Like Holly Hunter, I cry or want to at least once a day. I look at my kids while they’re sleeping and think of the heart break that will befall them, the joy that will flood their lives, the fact that they’ll grow old, and I cry. I look at my husband and I think how lucky I am that I found him when I could so easily not have found him and ended up with someone I didn’t love or no one at all. On the way to work, I think of the day ahead and the criticisms and pressures I will surely endure with a calm smile and a nod and an “I understand. I’ll get back to you.” And I cry a little. At least on the inside but often on the outside too.

I feel like crying regularly. But I don’t. My defense is to keep myself moving. By throwing myself into the heat of battle, I force myself to keep on keepin' on. Because who would drop their sword, sit down and say, “I give up! Take me!” when a warrior is charging at them with a deadly weapon? No one! You fight! You keep going going going until you’re slain! You defend yourself to survive. The moment you stop, you die. If I stop, I’ll fall into a heap of unproductive, paralyzed weeping. And “die.”

From the moment I wake up and drag myself from my bed, I’m on the move. I’m tired, of course. It’s 5:45 in the morning. But I eject myself from the warmth of my bed and my husband, into the cold of the morning. I make the coffee, make the kids’ lunches, unload the dishwasher, take a shower. All by 6:15. Busy! Then I drink my coffee, check my blackberry (work email), check my personal email, do my face, my hair and get dressed. 6:45. If the kids are awake by then, I make them breakfast. Pancakes, French toast, eggs, whatever they ask for. It’s a treat for mommy to be home in the morning to make breakfast. I’m happy to oblige. If they do not wake up amidst my morning flurry, I slip out unnoticed to get to work early and finish answering the prior day’s late night calls and emails from Singapore and Brussels and London before my work day officially starts. A clean email box before 8:30 is my goal. Then I can start the real work. Meetings, negotiating, presenting, writing. Before I know it, it is 5:00 and I haven’t cried once. I haven’t even teared up. Except that one teeny tiny little moment where I felt my dignity slipping through my fingers as I took the blame for someone else’s mistake to save face for the team. It would have been more undignified to hurl blame in said other’s direction. Thus, I swallowed my pride and took it. Like a man. Or a woman, I suppose. A man probably would have blamed the other person.

If I’m lucky, I’ve snuck in a workout at lunch and a chat with a friend or two during the day to keep me sane. Now it’s almost the end of the work day and I’m winding down. But before going home, there’s the email box and voicemail to contend with. Can’t leave the office with unanswered emails. That would make the next morning’s tasks too great to bare prompting floods of tears on the way to work. An hour or so of deleting, responding, ignoring, filing keeps me dry-eyed the next day. Delete delete delete. I’m a serial deleter.

6:30. I can leave. I race home to be with my family for dinner, for homework, for straightening the day’s mess which I haven’t been there to see being made. Whew. At 8:30 or so, I collapse on the couch to watch one of my favorite reality shows. “Biggest Loser”, “Top Chef”, “Project Runway”. Something inane enough to erase the day’s happenings and take my mind off of the frantic day ahead. By 10:00, my heart has stopped pounding, my pulse has slowed (hopefully, or I won’t be able to fall asleep). Sometimes, when I lay down, I’m reminded of the fact that I have a big deliverable due, that the family’s finances depend upon me being able to keep going, that someone is disappointed in me (me?), that I'm probably about half way through my life (if I'm lucky enough to live to 78), that I'm almost too old to have more children (when the hell did that happen?). And I weep just a bit, before closing my eyes and falling off into an all too often troubled dream state.

And then the alarm at 5:45. Sword wielded and ready to go.

The closest I’ve ever come to actually falling apart was when I quit gymnastics. I couldn’t imagine what my future held, my parents and coaches were devastated and disappointed in me. I felt like a total failure. I stayed in bed for three weeks sobbing as I tried to fathom a future for myself. Everything I’d ever known was over. Others my age were stepping into life for the first time as they entered college. I felt like I was going off to a retirement home. Sometime during the course of four years of college, I realized I had a lot of life ahead. But it took a lot of crying to get me there. There was one other time I nearly lost it. After I had my second child, Wyatt, I slipped into a postpartum haze; the lack of sleep, the lack of activity (days consisted of nursing and rocking a baby for the most part) elicited gushing tears. I rocked and fed and cried. I was a puddle. Thankfully, my dear friend Rae saved me. She pulled me from the depths. She interrupted the stillness that was giving me too much time to think. To stew in the horror of all the things that could go wrong, that could befall my sweet baby Wyatt. We walked, we talked, we moved. And I was fine.

My husband often tells me to slow down. “Relax,” he urges. I can’t. If I do, it will all be over. I’ll wind down and descend into gasping sobs, a pile of useless mommy. I must keep going. I’ll keep slaying dragons until one eats me whole.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Mixed Race Democratic Couple's Quandary

My husband sent me an email on the day of the California primary which I'm sharing below. We'd been debating for weeks about how we'd cast our votes. In the past, we'd always voted for the same candidate. And that candidate had always been fairly left of center, as the saying goes. We didn't even vote for Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco mayor who openly challenged California state law to legalize same sex marriage for one now famous long weekend. No sir, he wasn't liberal enough for us. We voted for Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, Ralph Nadar's current running mate. Yes indeed. That's how we roll.

But this time, I thought, maybe we'll part ways. Black guy, white lady. You can see how I considered we might finally veer away from each other (politically) in the course of this election. Alas, our bond is deep. He sent me this note while I was at work, having cast my ballot early that morning after encouraging him to consider the white lady candidate. I'd made one last plea, more in jest than with any sense of hope that we might both vote for Clinton.

(Bear with the first part; he's a programmer. Read on through, it's really funny. I think so anyway.)


"What do I do? Oh my word.
I have long had a sure fire methodology, nay algorithm, for voting for people in elections:

foreach candidate c;

first, if ( c is women )
and ( c is hot )
or ( c was once hot )
or ( c is liberal )

next, if ( c is black )
and (c is not Republican)
// I hate black republicans, effin blupublicans.
and ( c is not too black or religious )

next, if ( c is brown ) pick();

next, if ( c is liberal ) pick();

next, if ( c has a cool sounding name ) pick(); end;

This has been simple and effective for 20 years of voting. I have never deviated from it.

I like to redress historical hypocritical discrimination with reverse discrimination, I just adore reverse discrimination.

Not that I don’t like white guys, I do, many of my good friends are white guys, seriously.

So, this has got to be an election made for me.
It’s Super Tuesday. I’m a Californian.My vote matters.

Clinton? Obama? Easy. Well, months ago it was.

Woman. True.
Liberal. True.
Once Hot. True.
Currently hot. True.
That’s right,
True. Dammit,
Cougar. Grrrrrrrr.

What happened to me?
I know not what kind of Purple Lipped Mojo Obama’s slinging?
But, somehow, he slung it on me,
And I’m starting to believe.
I believe.
Take me home to, Oprah, I mean Jesus, I mean Oprah.

You can’t hide from the truth.

So I started to believe.
New world, Black Man, Multi-racial, Well educated, Cool. Mulatto Yo.
Obama and me could be pals. Maybe even an older brother he could be for me.
The older brother that I never had.
Someone to buy me beer, or help me with high school debate tactics. Keep me focused on my studies. Give me the brotherly guidance and confidence I’ve always lacked.
Where were you Obama,
I needed you!

Do I really like Hillary? Or do I just not want to admit to myself that I love Obama, for fear that my love will not be reciprocated.

Am I just afraid to hope, to dream, that someone like me could be pres-o-dent? Has our time come? Is post-racial America here today?

No. Not Yet.

Not yet not because there is something wrong with Obama, or America, or me, but all of us.

Not yet, for the same reasons that I find Obama appealing. The same reasons America,
Or some of America does.
That he is in the mold of MLK.
Great Orator, Inpirational,
Smart yet accessible.
When we are ready to accept some boring black guy,
then we are in like Flynn.

But Hillary is boring.
We know it. She knows it.
She’s not sexy to most,
Me excluded.

And yet, we are ready to accept her. That’s progress!

Ok. That’s all bullshit.
Me trying to get on NPR.

Who do I want running things?
A white woman. That’s right, dammit!
Like my momma. (Sorry momma)
Like my wife.
Why would I want
a effin nigga running things
Sure he’d legalize pot,
But that don't mean shit.

I’ve lived with white women most of my life, except for college (when I could have used one or two), and the time I lived in a ½ bedroom shitbox in Oakland, and let me tell you I have had an okay life, really.
So, America let’s live with Hillary for four years and you could do okay."

He sent this missive with a cell phone snapped photo of himself voting for Hillary. With a big grin on his face, ballot propped beside it with black-pen-filled-in-arrow clearly visible. I was proud. My black husband voted for the white lady. I voted for her too, despite Northern California's obsession with Obama's message of ill-defined CHANGE. We like white women in my house. They get shit done.

I'm Stressed

Lately I’ve been extremely stressed. This term is overused in our world so I try to avoid saying it. I don’t like feeling unoriginal. People claim to be stressed simply by the mere fact of being expected to do their jobs. Something goes wrong at work, employee #1 is asked to correct it. “I’m stressed!” employee #1 squeals. That’s like a fireman being alarmed by the fact that he is being called to put out a fire. That’s the job requirement. It is an expected occurrence. Why so stressed? You get my point. People abuse the phrase, so I try to abstain from uttering those frantic words. Most importantly, I try to refrain from feeling it. I workout, I breathe slowly, I attend the occasional yoga class. I enjoy a glass of wine in the evenings after work.

But this time, I can’t resist the avowal: “I am stressed.” Everything seems to be converging. I have a book coming out in about a month. And I find out about an executive level position – a dream job - that I’ve been wanting for quite some time. You guessed it. In about a month. Add to that, I have kids that are growing up (makes me sad), needing to do lots of activities like karate and baseball (how to get them there with all this other stuff going on?! Oh yes, my husband generally takes care of that), a husband to at least pay some attention to, a house to clean (hubby takes the lead here, but I have some annoying particularities about how it’s done, so I do those things myself), a mom who’s recovering from a miserable year of finding out she had lung cancer and battling her way back to health (we hope) and friends to call back or just call (I need my friends! I can’t stop talking to them just because I have a lot to do. What will happen when I really need them? What if they need me right now but they are too depressed to reach out for help?) And this is my last year in my 30’s. I just turned 39. Already the anxiety over 40 is seeping in. Will I have enough time to do all the things I want to do? Life is short, after all. This is keenly felt at the approximate mid-point. Especially if your mother has just faced a life threatening illness.

It’s the perfect storm, a confluence of circumstance. Sometimes I feel like I might go crazy. My brain is never still. The thoughts feel like they could leap from my head, crack my skull, ooze through my ears, burn my eyeballs, scorch my hair follicles. My churning mind is hot and in motion constantly, creating friction in my body. I chew my lip, I pick my fingers, my body racing to keep up with my exploding cranium.

The job thing is particularly unnerving. Because I am the only internal candidate, my entire existence at work is a test. Every meeting, every memo, every comment must be pitch perfect, to impress the powers that be. An external candidate doesn’t face that kind of demanding interrogating reconnaissance. He just comes in, does a few one-hour interviews. And they decide. My entire ten-hour workday for the last few months has been a giant interview. After a presentation I gave the other day, I asked one of the senior executives in the company why he’d attended as his presence was not required. “I wanted to see you in action,” he responded. Again? You see me in action all the time. You’ve seen me in action for the last nine years that I’ve been at this company. Are you going to go to Mr. External Candidate’s place of employ and watch him present to a roomful of people? I think not. You’ll trust him when he says he’s poised, influential, a leader. I have to prove it again and again. It is really getting to be more than a girl can take.

Alas, my competitive nature keeps me in the game. I can’t throw in the towel. I’ve come this far. It just wouldn’t be me to say: “You know what? Not now. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve got a book coming out. Give that job to someone else! I’ll take the next high level position that just happens to be perfect for me." (This would be about the time of the next solar eclipse, or when pigs fly, or when it’s a cold day in a hell – choose your ‘its going to be a very long time’ metaphor. They all fit the bill.)

Nonetheless, the other day while I was driving to work at 6:45 – I have a lot to do if I want to get this job – a fleeting, earnest thought entered my mind. Maybe I should pass on the position. Just let them pick someone else. For once in your life, Jen, would it be so bad to not try to win? And really, I wouldn’t be losing if I passed on the position. I’d get to keep my current job and it’s a great one. I like the people I spend my days with, I enjoy about 75% of the content (which is a pretty high percentage I’d venture), and I am paid quite well. This unfamiliar thought made me shudder. Not keep trying? Not keep pushing? Not keep moving up, up, up? If I stop moving, mightn’t I die? It has always felt that way.

I forced myself to consider this as a real option because even without the pressure of this pending job, I’ve got a lot to be anxious about. The book will surely cause some controversy. I’m going to have to face angry gymnastics coaches, riled up gymnasts defending their sport, hard hitting interviewers who want to know if I made any of it up, like so many memoirists these days. I could take it easy on myself, for once. Continue in my current role, while contending with the launch of the book, the struggle to sit down and write another, and sending my youngest off to school for the first time. C’mon, Jen, just chill.

I sat with that idea for all of twenty seconds. It didn’t feel right in my head, so distant from my standard approach. I felt a little cockeyed as I veered the corner onto Sansome Street, where my office building resides. I coughed as if I'd just taken a shot of whiskey, exorcising the concession speech from my body. I shook the doubt from my mind as I remembered just how much I can take. At only 11 years old, I endured the pressure of competing in my first national gymnastics competition. At 16, I braved competing in the World Championships despite the fact that I was scared shitless: performing on the world’s stage with a national team coach that seemingly hated me and an entire universe of athletes that were WAY better than me. At 17, I fought back from a supposed career ending injury – a broken femur – to win the title of US National Gymnastics Champion. There were times when I was competing that the nerves seemed to overtake my body, lodge in my throat, choke my airway. And somehow, I always pulled it together. Shaking legs, blurry vision from near tears brought on by nerves, hallucinations of disastrous performances. These conditions prompted poise. All the chaos inside somehow forced me to get it together. It’s not that I didn’t feel miserable anxiety. I just learned to harness it to motivate me. I was known as a girl who didn’t choke.

By the time I pulled into the parking lot at work, two minutes after my “take it easy, Jen” chat with myself, I’d resolved to go for it. Of course. There’s just no other way for me. I’d be denying who I am if I didn’t embrace the fantastic manic chaos of striving. And if I don’t get the job, I’ll rest for a moment. Then I’ll brush myself off, go do the required interviews and press tour for my book, and dive headlong into another challenge. I’ve got 40 years left, if I’m lucky. I’ve got a lot to do.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Best Review Ever (from my dad)

My dad sent me a letter just the other day. A real letter, not an email, that included his take on my book. A review of sorts. Here it is:

"My daughter’s graphic memoir is not only about the win-or-else culture of juvenile sports, but it is also a reflection of the muddled blueprint for parenting that frequently leads to unintended consequences. Most of us “want it all” for our children, but we had better be careful of what it is we want. The ambivalences of child rearing can be daunting, and Jen’s tale should be an omen for all would-be stage parents. I am forever chastened by my former preoccupation, yet I feel vindicated by the wonderful woman my daughter has become."

I feel obliged to share it here because 1) a father’s review probably won’t show up on any book jacket; 2) I was so moved by it. What a lovely commentary about a book that shines the harshest of lights on your very own parenting. I hope that what comes through in the book is that my mom and dad embarked upon my gymnastics as supportive and committed parents but somewhere along the road to what turned out to be nowhere, they transformed into slightly psychotic stage parents. Their own passions and desires got mixed up with the intense love parents feel for their children, and the ratio somehow shifted to create something of a bad recipe. Throw in my own compulsions and competitive ire and I’m pretty convinced that this thing could never have turned out any differently than it did. And, lets face it, raising your children to become happy, healthy, self-sufficient adults that contribute to this world we live in in a positive way and raise productive children of their own, is the main point of parenting. So hats off to you dad (and mom, of course.) This whole gymnastics thing was a hiccup along the way. And really, one could argue, adversity leads to resilience, so lets just say you planned it that way?

My point is this: what a great dad. He read something – which, truth be told, I was fretful about him reading – that was highly critical but filled with love and equal accountability, and all he could feel was pride. Not anger, not humiliation, not defensiveness. Just pride and love. If that’s not a great dad, I don’t know what is. I hope I can parent in such a selfless manner.

p.s. Dad – I think you should write your own book about parenting a super competitive, obsessive compulsive child. It can’t be easy.