Ambition, Food, Love, Loss

The bar at Prune, courtesy of their website.

It’s not really fair for one person to be so ridiculously talented in two wildly different disciplines. Gabrielle Hamilton is a chef’s chef, cooking food that is inventive, unpretentious and sublime. And her writing is lyrical, evocative and moving.

Her piece in the New York Times Magazine about closing down Prune, her East Village restaurant of 20 years, in the wake of the shutdown of New York City is sad, beautiful, bracing and somehow still hopeful.

The first paragraph will make you catch your breath. She is about to layoff all her employees and she dreams that she is unable to save her two children from dying. It is arresting in its powerful imagery. And it lays bare the lie we’ve all been made to believe about mothers and ambition (namely that motherhood damps down women’s ambition — it doesn’t).

I ate at Prune twice. Once in its early years. Once almost exactly a year ago.

After 9/11 I remember thinking about Windows on the World. I’d had an amazing meal there and often thought I should go again. But anytime we were able to go out we picked somewhere else. New York has so many restaurants. There will always be another time. Until there isn’t another time.

New York can be a hard city to love. You can go to a restaurant for years — decades! — and then, one day, poof! and it’s gone. The list of places that I still miss, still think about … Mayrose, Tramps, Da Silvana (a local place in Queens), Les Halles, Bluewater Grill, Coffee Shop (now a Chase bank!).

And yet, the reckoning has come. What will be left when we can finally lift up the grates again? Hamilton’s hope that she can reopen, reimagine, revive. It’s a hope I share. I’ll go back! This time I promise I won’t allow myself to think that there’s always more time.

What It Means to Have Empathy

Sometimes it’s enough to just be there. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

This editorial in today’s WSJ (subscription required) really resonated with me. For those not willing to pay to read, I’ll summarize: The classic for formula of responding to someone’s sadness (over just about anything) is to say “At least,{insert much, much worse thing they could be suffering}.”

The author allows that while this sentiment is often well-intentioned it is never comforting. Being reminded that others are worse off than you are is the opposite of empathy.

I take a less generous view. I think too often the “At least” construction is, if not quite malintentioned, often a bit of one-upsmanship. “Oh yeah, well I know someone who has it much worse than you do.” That goes triple if the example of the worse thing is being experienced by the speaker. “But what about my pain?”

But even if the intentions are good, it’s worth thinking about why empathy is so hard. It’s very difficult to know how to comfort someone in distress. Telling them it could be worse seems like it might obviously be helpful. But it’s actually the VERY opposite thing that is helpful — acknowledging that the thing that sucks for them really does suck.

Before I had my daughter I lost a pregnancy. It was very early, which is the thing you are supposed to tell everyone so they know it wasn’t “that bad.” In fact I’m sure I’d had that very thought many times when I heard about an early loss — “At least she wasn’t further along.” I hope I wasn’t dumb enough to say that to anyone but I may have been. But after my loss I learned the right thing to say. “Oh my gosh, that really sucks. I’m so sorry for you.”

That’s it. That sucks. It sucks for you and so it just sucks. Period.

Believe me, I don’t need to be told that it could have been much worse. I’ve read stories about women losing babies in their fifth month — one such story almost made me pass out on a train. I get how much worse — physically and emotionally — it could have been. But it was still awful.

There are so many awful things now. My 12-year-old daughter may not go to summer camp — she’s been looking forward to it and will be crushed if it’s canceled. My 10-year-old son is unlikely to go back to school — it will be his last year in this school building so he may never see his teachers again. These are such tiny, tiny tragedies against the backdrop of so much human misery. And yet, to them, and to the mom who allows these little pieces of her heart to walk around on the outside, they are devastating.

No one wins the contest of “who has it worse.” Yes, many of us are very lucky right now — free from virus, in safe homes with plenty of food and incomes to support all of those things. And sure there may be times when there is a need to remind someone of their privilege relative to others. But it doesn’t need to be a contest.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s emotions. The “at least” construction tries to put the other person in someone else’s emotions. This is the lesson I learned from my loss: Having empathy doesn’t require you to understand an experience. It requires precisely the opposite, the understanding that the other person’s experience is what matters to them.

The months to come will give us lots of chances to practice empathy. If we collectively get better at it that would be a remarkable upside to a situation that has so many downsides.

The best writing on Elizabeth Warren

Like this sticker? You can buy it here. There’s also a bleeped version and lots of tees, totes, etc.

If you are a feminist who’s struggling to understand how it’s 2020 and we are still unable to allow a woman to lead the US, these pieces might provide insights, clarity, and sympathy. Or maybe misery just loves company.

Vox: What Elizabeth Warren’s loss says about us

Gail Collins: The Presidency Is an Old Boys’ Club

Rebecca Traister: Why Would He Lie? and The Third Rail of Calling “Sexism”

Connie Schultz: A Not-so Super Tuesday

Teen Vogue: Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign Was Doomed by Sexism

The Atlantic: America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence

Cosmopolitan: Stop Lying America: You Were Never Going to Vote for a Woman President

Jessica Valenti: It Will Be Hard to Get Over What Happened to Elizabeth Warren

I’m sure I’m missing some. If you saw something awesome, send it to me and I’ll add it.

Valuing Women as Women

Brit Marling as Prairie Johnson in a scene from “The OA.”Credit…JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Brit Marling had an essay in the NYT Sunday Review titled “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead.” The entire essay is worth a read, but my favorite line was this:

“Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: ‘Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.’”

When I think about the gains women have made — and we’ve made plenty — so much of it is about achieving what men achieve and doing it the way they do.

I’ve always bristled at the idea that the reason women haven’t reached the top of so many professions is because they simply have different, nay nobler, aspirations. Isn’t being a stay-at-home mother so much more fulfilling than running a Fortune 500 company? It’s a false dichotomy, for starters, pitting motherhood against achievements in a way that we don’t do for men. And of course the answer for some women is “no” and yet we are still where we are in terms of women’s representation. I’m perfectly willing to concede that no, not every woman wants to be a CEO. But neither does every man. And I am willing to bet a big amount that there absolutely are at least 250 women who would relish the challenge for running a big company. So the “women just don’t want that much power/responsibility/stress” just falls apart pretty quickly in my view.

But I also bristle at the idea that men are the standard against which we should measure ourselves. As this earlier Times column noted, “As a rule, anything associated with girls or women — from the color pink to domestic labor — is by definition assigned a lower cultural value than things associated with boys or men. Fashion, for instance, is vain and shallow, while baseball is basically a branch of philosophy. Tax dollars are poured into encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects, but no one seems to care much whether boys become nurses.”

I want to live in the world where women and girls are valued, truly, really, honestly, as equal to men and boys. The world where that equality does not require women to be more like men.

The Joy of The Joy of Cooking

My copy of The Joy of Cooking is the 1997 version. There’s a simple reason for this: I was working at Simon & Schuster that year. There are few perks in publishing but a key one was free books. I think everyone in my family got a copy of that book for Christmas that year.

There’s a new version coming out this year. The WSJ has a wonderful piece {paywall} about it as the cover of their Off Duty section. This newest edition is overseen by John Becker, the great-grandson of Irma Rombauer, the author of the first edition.

Cookbooks are one of the rare bright spots in publishing (another is children’s books). People still buy cookbooks. This is true even while recipes remain one of the most popular offerings of the internet. (When I was at iVillage the three most popular search terms were sex, chicken and pregnancy. I’ll let you make of that what you will.) But how long will it remain true? And what will be lost when we cede every last bit of our lives to the hive mind?

Mr. Becker’s wife, Megan Scott, makes the point that Joy is for everyone not just trying to figure out what to cook, but how. “We’ve done so much research to find the right answers and get the best information we can get,” she tells WSJ. “The algorithm isn’t picking out the right answer [but] the most popular one.”

I still use my copy of Joy pretty regularly. When I’m looking for the “right” version of nearly any recipe it is usually my first stop. (My second is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.) As we near the end of 2019 the publication of a new Joy feels hopeful to me. There is still a place for authority and expertise. There are still right answers. We can debate what the right answer is — but if you are debating the right way to cook a turkey maybe we can start by at least considering the expertise of the guy who has roasted a lot of them using every method to arrive at the optimal one.

Women Aren’t Broken, Let’s Stop Trying to Fix Them

I have a few obsessions and one of them is a reflexive distaste for the idea that any problem that women have can be solved by women being … different. Better. Using different words, getting more education, standing up for themselves. The list goes on and on.

This editorial in today’s Sunday Review articulates one specific piece of this — the basic idea that if women asserted themselves they would get the raise, the promotion, and would not be a victim of harassment. This is all nonsense of course since women do ask for raises and promotions and definitely say “No.” to harassers. But the myth persists — if only they asked … more nicely, less nicely, some other, unspecified but definitely different way.

The writer flips this entire notion on its head — maybe the problem isn’t women. Maybe it’s men. Or, to put it better: maybe prizing everything men do, say, think while also denigrating everything about women is the actual problem.

I remember thinking this when Kate Middleton married Prince William. There were stories about women planning to get up at 3am in the US, organizing viewing parties where everyone would dress up and drink tea, that sort of thing. And then the stories and commentary inevitably turned to criticizing the frivolity of it all. Women just want to be saved by a prince. Caring about a huge, expensive wedding is just so … shallow.

And yet. When men go to some kind of sporting event in a crazy outfit with the teams logo and colors painted across his face that is viewed as silly, perhaps, but not as evidence of some basic lack of value. We certainly don’t believe that a guy who engages in this kind of trivial ritual can’t also command an executive meeting on Monday. 

It’s not easy, but it is possible

Photo credit: Jared Soares for The New York Times

In the tributes to Cokie Robert there were many mentions of her pioneering work as a women in journalism. 

But I was struck by a comment from Mary Louise Kelly, a reporter for NPR on the Brian Lehrer Show:

What resonated with me here in the NPR newsroom yesterday was listening to all of the 20 and 30 something women who as I say many of whom did not know her or did not know her very well they were all talking about her as a mother and as a woman as much as her journalism. And how she did not make it look easy or effortless to do both, to be a great journalist and be a great mom, but she made it look possible. Which, when she was doing it, her kids were young, was revolutionary. And which is still really hard. Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.” 

Making it look possible is a very powerful way of kicking doors down.

I try to model this in my own life and career. No, it’s not always easy to be the CEO of a start-up nonprofit, with two kids, a husband with an equally demanding career. But it IS possible. And it’s also full of joy, at least for me. 

So, thank you, Cokie, and the many other amazing women who show us that it is possible to have a rich, full life full of professional accomplishments, warm family relationships and faith (she was a devout Catholic). When you focus on what matters to you and to those you love you can have it all, all at once.

Is Vacation Homework Training Our Kids To Be Workaholics?

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

My family and I took a trip to Miami for February break. We did something we don’t always do, which is we decided to really try to max out our time in Florida. Meaning we took an early flight out on Saturday morning and weren’t schedule to come back until Sunday afternoon.

It’s worth noting, before I go on, that this vacation scheduled stands in contrast to Europeans who tend to take two-week “holidays” — as often as three times per year! — and many of them book the travel such that they are just barely skidding into work on Monday morning. Work to live, as they say.

So it’s safe to say I was feeling a bit dismayed when my 11-year-old daughter, a sixth grader, came home in a flustered panic with a collage project that was due the Monday after the break. Are you kidding me? We rushed to print out pictures since it wasn’t really practical to try and bring this kind of project on a trip.

And I found myself wondering — does homework during a school vacation teach kids to be workaholics? Many Americans bring their work with them on family trips — you see them on laptops by the pool, on phone calls at the beach. We both praise and lament this state of affairs in our typically schizophrenic way. Is all this frantic work-work-work good for us? Almost certainly not. So why can’t we give our kids a break for a week?

By the way, I think work done over the summer is a totally different ball game. Of course I think the fact that schools close for three months of the year — when the majority of parents work — is insane on its face. We’d be far better off if American schoolchildren had year-round school with regular breaks that were real breaks. There be no need to worry about skills eroding if school vacations where only a week or two at a time.

But even in the current reality, there’s no reason to give projects during regular one or two-week long school vacations. Maybe they can learn a more valuable skill — how to relax!

In The Room Where It Happened

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

The cover editorial in today’s NYT Sunday Review asks “Who Is Going To Save The American Family?

That’s a loaded question if ever there was one, and the editorial is written by a conservative woman who has predictably conservative answers. The decline of the American family is the fault of feminists. By sending women into the workplace we’ve created a “two-income trap” where families can no longer survive on one income. And this is a problem because, you see, men want to be breadwinners and women want to be caregivers.

The two-income trap is real, but what the analysis is missing is discussions of what has caused men’s wages to fall. It’s not women entering the labor force.

But the piece is also missing any discussion of how women would gain true economic and political power within a system that is bifurcated by gender. It’s all well and good to say that being a mother is “the most important job in the world,” but that doesn’t change the fact that women are underrepresented, relative to the population, in all spheres of influence. Yes, of course this means political power, where despite significant gains in 2018 (notably on one side of the aisle) women are still less than 50% of elected representatives and we’ve never had a women president. (Despite many qualified female candidates, 2020 isn’t looking great for that to change.) But I also mean power more broadly. Women hold fewer than 5% of Fortune 500 spots. Most estimates put women at 15 to 20% of C-suite positions. Women of color, of course, have even less access to power.

Does that matter? I saw “Hamilton” on Broadway last night. My favorite song, by far, was “In The Room Where It Happened.” It is sung by Aaron Burr and it’s his lament that he was not in the room when Hamilton and Jefferson made a deal to move the capitol to Washington, D.C. He reprises the song later, when he’s running for President, because he wants to be sure he’s in the room where it happens.

Women need to be in the rooms where stuff happens. Where laws get passed. Where corporate decisions get made. It matters. Nancy Pelosi remarked that when she first ran for Speaker it was Democratic men who asked her “who said you could run?” They pleaded “Just tell us what you want and we’ll do it.” Um, I don’t think so.

Does this mean we need to turn every American woman in a corporate wage slave and every American family into stressed-out hamsters running on a never-ending wheel of bills? Of course not. But there are plenty of proposals that would support all families and also support women who want to participate in civic and corporate life. And, by the way, policies that would support men who want to play a greater role in the lives of their children.

It strikes me that we are at a point in our cultural history where we could start to think different about our economy, family life, and gender roles in ways that would open up a lot more possibilities for everyone. Harkening back to the ideas of Phyllis Schlafly isn’t the way forward — it is literally the way back.

Why Is This Schedule “Crazy”?

Photo Credit: Rugile Kaladyte for The New York Times

As a working mom I’m pretty obsessed with other people’s schedules and routines. So the headline Sarah Sellers and the Craziest Schedule in Running caught my eye. It’s the story of the young woman who came in second in last year’s Boston Marathon and also happens to work 30 hours a week a nurse anesthetist.

It is certainly unusual for someone to be an elite athlete and work near full-time hours. But is it “crazy”? The evidence that it is: She gets up at 4am to run on the days she works (she generally works 3 days a week in 10-hour shifts).

But putting aside the early wake up for a second, let’s do the math. If she works 30 hours as a nurse and puts in another 40 hours of running/training that’s 70 hours. I’m guessing she doesn’t actually work out 40 hours, but I’m throwing in time spent getting massages, foam rolling, stretching, whatever else she needs to do to be an athlete at that level. I’m probably still over estimating, but let’s go with it since, for some people, elite running is their full-time occupation.

Now, let’s say she sleeps 8 hours per day, that’s another 56 hours per week. Let’s throw in another 21 hours per week for the stuff of life — housework, eating, grooming, etc. That’s 3 hours per day, likely more than adequate given that neither of her jobs requires the elaborate grooming that a woman with a corporate job might have and she doesn’t have children. That leaves her with 21 hours per week — 3 hours per day! — for whatever else she wants to do. Read, knit, write, paint. You can do a lot with 3 hours per day.

Yes, the days she works at the hospital sound long. A 10-hour day is long no matter what else you are doing. But the other 4 days of the week sound — again, to quote the Times story — “downright relaxing.” (I see that snark, NYT.) But they do! She does hard workouts on Thursday and Friday, does a long run on Saturdays and doesn’t run at all on Sundays. Presumably if she found the early wake ups on Monday through Wednesday that terrible she could trade at least one of them for runs on Sundays. I’m going to trust that it works for her.

Look, the truth is that the average American watches 35 hours of TV per week. A point that Sellers hints at with this quote: “Nothing against full-time runners,” she said. “I honor what they do, but it seems like they have a lot of Netflix time.” What’s crazier — continuing to build her medical career or watching 30 hours of Game of Thrones?