Monday, June 30, 2008

The Need for Speed

Las Vegas is the only place I've ever driven where people routinely drive under posted speed limits. This probably isn't the result of an excess of caution or a desire to save fuel by going slower - on the highways, people dart all over the road as speedily (and as blindly) as maniacal bats out of hell. But on main thoroughfare streets, nearly all of which have six roomy lanes as well as wide, convenient and separate left- and right-turn lanes just about anywhere you might think of wanting to turn, drivers tool along between 30 and 35 mph even though the speed limit is 45. Often, there is one such stately driver in each of the three lanes going your direction. It's like being behind the front phalanx in some sort of boring parade. You're just stuck.

I've been trying to figure out why anyone, faced with a stretch of open road, wouldn't promptly accelerate to the speed limit. (I don't wonder why the slowpokes can't just get themselves the hell into the right lane where they belong. It's plain when you look into their windows as you pass them that they are simply oblivious, sometimes because they're gabbing animatedly on cell phones, sometimes because they just have that look of a person who might as well be living alone in the world for all the consideration he/she shows for everyone else.)

I think the explanation may have something to do with how people react to wide open spaces depending on whether they've always had them or never had them. Those of us who spent most of our driving time on narrow, crowded Eastern or Midwestern streets where the traffic usually moves like molasses if it moves at all, can't help feeling a surge of joy, followed instantly by a surge of acceleration, whenever we see in front of us a stretch of open road. Is there anything more wonderful to a Chicago commuter, for example, than a sudden multi-car-length open space after an hour of crawling along on the Kennedy behind the same bumper? I don't think so.

(It used to take me hours to get bumper sticker slogans out of my head. Why is it so hard to stop reading those things over and over and over when they're emblazoned on something peeling off a bumper a few inches in front of your car? During my commuting years, I developed a whole theory about the mean-spirited "mine is better than yours" theme that characterizes so many bumper stickers, but that's a post for another day.)

Unlike drivers accustomed to very little in the way of opportunities to go 45 mph on city streets, people who learned to drive in the wide open west (or have assimilated it better, evidently, than I have) respond totally differently to the chance to go fast. They seem to feel no need whatsoever to take advantage of it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I met a wonderful woman two years after I started practicing law. She was also a corporate lawyer, fresh out of law school, who joined the firm I was with. I thought she was terrific from the instant we met. She had the sharpest, wittiest, most ironic sense of humor, a quick intelligence, and more than the usual allotment of plain good sense. She was tall and lanky (to this day, I have never met a woman who looked better in a pair of jeans), and she had twinkly blue eyes and a shock of smooth blond hair cut perfectly to compliment her delicate, high-cheekboned face. We soon became friends outside of work as well. We liked each other's husbands (not always a given) and they liked each other, too. In fact, they developed a close friendship quite independent of us and it flourishes to this day, 27 years later.

For some reason I forgot long ago, my friend and I took to walking home together after work. Well, not home exactly. We'd leave our offices at Dearborn and Madison in Chicago's Loop and walk up Michigan Avenue to Water Tower Place, where she would head east to her Streeterville apartment and I would jump on the 135 bus up to Belmont Harbor.

On those walks, we talked about anything and everything, and the conversations were so engaging that I never even noticed the actual walking. (Anyone who knows me knows that I rarely walk even a block without complaining, and that was only slightly less true 27 years ago. Trudging, especially for over a mile through heat, humidity and Chicago's pedestrian traffic, has never been a favorite activity of mine. Add to that the more formal work clothes and shoes we wore in the 80s and you'll get an idea of how truly great our conversations were.) We cut the more pompous of our colleagues down to size, we solved legal problems, we griped about the illogicalities of our work environment, and we plotted strategies for our careers and our lives.

I'm convinced that those conversations were a big part of what set us on the road to career success. Having similarly-situated girlfriends is necessary to flourishing in settings where we are not the norm, where the rules were not written by or for us, and where we have to question our instincts because, however solid they may be in other arenas, they are not usually hardwired for naturally understanding how to succeed in male-dominated work environments. During the early years of my career, I felt like an impostor most of the time and, occasionally, like an unwelcome interloper. In addition to being incredibly supportive and reassuring, my daily conversations with my friend as we walked up Michigan Avenue kept me sane, grounded and focused. They helped me be happy at work. And they were the inspiration for the "girls club" scenes, which I loved writing, in A Merger of Equals.

After a few years, I had a baby and left the firm for a more workable schedule at a company in the suburbs. Not too long after, my friend did the same. She and her family moved west of the city; I had moved north with mine. We saw each other frequently at first, then less frequently, then rarely, although we always stayed in touch through our husbands, if not directly. I have never forgotten or stopped being grateful for our years of working together and walking together.

My husband and I have just flown home from my friend's heartbreaking funeral. Heartbreaking because she was a superb, intelligent, humorous person the world shouldn't be without. Heartbreaking because she was much too young and she spent the last two and a half years in a nasty battle with cancer. Heartbreaking because she leaves behind three amazing daughters and an exceptionally wonderful husband, as well as siblings, a parent, nieces, nephews, and countless friends, all of whom will miss her terribly. I feel incredibly lucky to have had her as a close friend and colleague when I needed her most.

Requiescat in pace.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

You Exist Even if We Aren't Watching

I just read a post written by my favorite of the bloggers I don't know personally in reaction to the apparently now infamous May 25 story about blogging in The New York Times Magazine. My husband left the magazine on the coffee table for me to read a few days after May 25, but I wasn't intrigued enough to pick it up and start reading the story until today. Having now read both the story and my favorite blog-stranger's take on it, I have to say I'm utterly mystified.

These young women (interesting writers, both) seem to crave not approval, but notice. Like little children at play who scream "Watch me! Watch me!" every five seconds (sometimes exuberantly, sometimes with panic), they seem uncertain that life without an audience is worth the effort or, for that matter, even real.
Overlaying and permeating their musings, like glaze on a cake, is a yearning for the validation of their existence that only other people's awareness of it can provide.

Why do they need this, I wonder? Why do they lay themselves bare to attract it? Why are they willing to endure savage commentary to assure themselves that they have it?

Of course, I too use my private life as fodder for my writing. My innermost thoughts, feelings and experiences (including the intimate and embarrassing ones) inform, and sometimes appear in, my books and essays. But their purpose there is to make the writing true and compelling, not to assure myself that I exist or to draw attention to me personally. I love the freedom of anonymity.

I can't imagine merging my private life and my blog, not because (or only because) I have no desire to lay myself bare on the Internet or, for that matter, to be famous. I don't merge them because the privacy of my private life is what allows it to flourish. Its privacy enhances its immediacy, its authenticity and its meaning to the only person who needs to find meaning in it - me.

Perhaps this is simply the difference between a 54-year-old who has already enjoyed/endured enough notice from other people to last her comfortably for the rest of her life, however long it may last, and someone in her 20s who is, evidently, somewhat unsure about what form her career and life will/should/can take.

Maybe it's all connected somehow to social life having evolved from entirely face-to-face interaction to largely electronic interaction where no one has to know the real you and you can create any persona you like (at least until you're outed). It's hard, not to mention really rather inappropriate, to discuss the intimate details of your life face-to-face with any but your closest friends. Those of us who grew up in a face-to-face world are, I suspect, as unlikely to share intimate details over the Internet as we are to discuss them with the cashier at the grocery store or our colleagues at work.

But if your social life is conducted more from a keyboard than a larynx, maybe you don't feel the same inhibitions. When you're as satisfied with a typed "Hahaha" in response to your joke as you would be with a guffaw and the sight of someone's face creased into the wonderful-to-see lines and angles necessary to produce laughter, maybe it's not such a leap to skin yourself alive in public.

That still doesn't explain the need for external validation of one's very existence, though. I totally understand craving approval. Who doesn't crave it at least occasionally? But approval is not the same thing as notice, or even celebrity. Both linked articles evince a depressing suspicion that a life has no satisfactory meaning and possibly no actuality if no one else notices it. This goes well beyond the old "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?" conundrum. (BTW, d'uh. Obviously, it did. The existence of sound doesn't depend on the presence of ears to hear it - it's only the meaning of the sound that requires ears and the consciousness that goes with them.)

Two very successful 20-somethings told me over lunch recently that they know many people in their generation who can't overcome a certain aimlessness and lack of passion for their careers and their lives. My lunch companions said they thought a big part of the problem was that young people feel overwhelmed by all the options open to them and incapable of choosing among those options and getting on with their lives. This is hard for any Baby Boomer, especially a woman, to hear. We would have killed for the options available to today's version of our 22-25 year-old selves. (As one of my 50-ish male friends said when I repeated this to him, "That's total crap! What a bunch of crybabies! How can having lots of options be a bad thing?!")

Now I'm thinking that there's a similarity between responding to virtually unlimited options with paralysis and needing other people to assure you that you actually and meaningfully exist.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our faith in internal standards. What happened to to living your life and pursuing your dreams and making your contribution to satisfy yourself? What happened to using your own ears to validate your existence and suss out its meaning? Other people can't really do this for you, and why would you want to let them even if they could?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Peach-Colored Glasses

I swim every day in a very dry climate with very hard water, so I go through swimming goggles at a robust clip. I've been alternating between the same two kinds for years, and I usually get them with either clear or blue-tinted lenses. For some reason, the last time I ordered I decided it would be fun to try different colors. And it is fun, too, but I just opened a brand new set, this one with peach-colored lenses, and was totally taken aback when I put them on. They tint the world the oddest color. It's like swimming through nuclear winter.

My perception is probably somewhat influenced by the spate of World War II movies I've watched recently, but the sight of bright blue skies, palm trees waving in the wind, and sparkling water all tinted peach is actually rather unsettling. It makes me want to look around for the mushroom cloud. On the plus side, though, the second I take the goggles off, real colors seem extra vivid and beautiful, as if they've been polished.