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What's so great about the Ivy League anyway?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's So Great About The Ivy League Anyway?

Everything.  And nothing.

Everything. In my humble or elitist opinion (take your pick), a good education is both very costly and utterly priceless.  Maybe I am an odd bird, but I loved school.  I loved Dalton.  (And, yes, it is part of the Ivy Preparatory School League in athletics; why would I make that up?)  And I loved Yale.  And I loved Columbia. Yes, these happen to be Ivy League schools, but any good school (and there are so many) will do.  Some of the smartest, best people I know did not go to an Ivy (hello, Dear Husband).  And some of the most maladjusted, lost, and sad people I know did go to an Ivy (not dumb, will not name names).

If you are lucky, an Ivy might teach you:

1. How to write.
2. How to read.
3. How to think.
4. How to tailgate.
5. How to craft a resume.
6. How to schmooze.
7. How to BS artfully.
8. How to drink coffee.
9. How to drink beer.
10. How to hide your deepest insecurities.

Nothing.  It is a myth that an elite education is the ticket to utopia, to happiness.  There are things for which no league can prepare you.  Important things. One such thing? Life

No school will teach you:

1. How to take a risk or take a compliment.
2. How to laugh loudly or love deeply.
3. How to find truth or a good man.
4. How to have a happy birthday or a happy marriage.
5. How to birth a baby or a book.
6. How to survive a bad breakup or a brutal hangover.
7. How to toilet train a toddler or train the toddler within.
8. How to let a child separate or watch a parent die.
9. How to handle vicious criticism in life or on a blog.
10. How to stop lying and start living.

This Makes Me Sad

These days, I bill it as research.  But in all honesty, I (like so many of you) am curious about the existential plight of others.  Why?  Because it sheds light on my own.  And, ultimately, on what it means to be human. 

So, every now and then, I log onto TruUConfessions and read strangers' anonymous confessions about their jobs and bodies, about being single, or a bride, or a wife, or a mom, or a military wife.  (Don't read that last one too often.)  

This one made me particularly sad:

I used to be pretty. I used to be smart. I used to be successful. I used to have great clothes. I used to be fun. I used to have friends. I used to feel sexy. I used to travel. I used to read. I used to have energy. I used to dream.

I don't know this person.  Or maybe I do.

It could have been you with the deep wrinkles and screaming kids at Starbucks.  It could have been you in the pinstripes and sneakers who yelled at me for no reason at the grocery store.  It could have been you sitting at your desk, scrutinizing the story that is life for that inevitable and honest typo. It could have been you over there getting that midweek spa pedicure, your face buried deep in the rainbow pages of a celebrity mag.  It could have been you who reads this now and thinks: that wasn't me, but it sure could have been.

The sad and simple fact: depending on the day, depending on the alignment of our cosmic clouds, it could have been any of us.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Addiction Fiction?

I haven't been on a real vacation (think: sun, sand, sangria) since before Toddler was born.  But I do go on a number of staycations everyday.  Where?  The Internet.  And on these little trips, I learn things.  And meet people.  And have conversations.  And write little stories. And see new things.  

And then I log off and I'm right back in the comforts of my own home. Without a sunburn.  Not bad.  Not bad at all.

So, apparently I am the prime example of the isolated, rookie mom, who turns to the world wide web to find a sense of connection, of belonging.  Uh oh.  I am a member of an ever-expanding population of what are being deemed Internet addicts.  Lisa Belkin explores this phenomenon over at the Motherlode in her eye-opening piece New Moms and Internet Addiction wherein she showcases fellow mom and former blogger Rachel Mosteller's recent Parenting article. Mosteller examines just why young moms are susceptible to that blue glow.  She identifies Three Reasons Moms Are Addicted to The Internet:

(1)  "I feel like I'm going crazy" 
(2)  "I can be a different person"
(3) "I have so much to do!" 

Do these sentiments sound familiar?  Of course they do.  But you know something?  I'm a Mom and I can make lists too.  Here is my list, admittedly more nuanced, of half-baked points that I think Mosteller and so many others are ignoring:

(1) Spending hours on the Internet is probably like drinking too much coffee;  it is not particularly good for your health. But calm down. It's not the Swine Flu.  Sure, it might give you that false buzz of belonging that will fade, but so what - it gets you through that day.

(2) Most of us do not -- and Mosteller admits as much -- resort to drugs to keep us awake longer so that we can surf the web.  Sure, there are those that are truly, and problematically, addicted to the Internet (but per my Internet research (ha!), there are also pour poor souls out there addicted to tanning, and talcum powder, and crunching ice)

(3) So much of the dialogue out there in this seemingly "half-empty" age focuses on the abuses, on the negatives.  The fact that we are zoning our kids out or neglecting our day-to-day duties.  What about the fact that the Internet allows us to reconnect with lost friends, or research a chapter of the book we are writing, or engage in CONVERSATION about things that matter to us -- albeit in the nebulous territory of cyberspace.

(4) This Internet v. Reality is not an either-or proposition.  We are not always embracing anonymous buddies on the Net at the expense of engaging with the real world out there.  Plenty of us have friends, the living and breathing kinds with names and families and jobs and problems, whom we speak to and see on a regular basis.  And (gasp) we also like to wander around and gather bits and pieces of serious and silly information, or philosophical insights, or ideas on the Web.  

(5) Have we ever thought that we might be smarter, savvier, better-informed parents and people because of the Internet? We are not all online seeking up-to-date news on celebrity baby names (although that is sometimes fun).  Where else can I research potty-training and dairy allergies and preschools and Plato? 

(6) I learned how to write a novel on the Internet.  After spending a short time at a law firm and realizing quickly that that was not the life I wanted, I took a risk.  I decided to dream big.  I said: I am going to write a novel.  I took online courses at Gotham Writer's Workshop where I interacted with students from all over this great nation and world.  One of my Gotham professors Russell Rowland, himself an esteemed published author who lives in Montana, became my fiction mentor.  And my beloved novel BlackBerry Girl would not exist without the encouragement and e-editing of this Montana man (whom I have never met in real life).

Now if there is truly an addiction to surfing the Internet that is spreading like wildfire among new moms and old moms and non-moms out there -- and maybe there is because I am quite adept at fooling myself and cooking up rationalizations for my own actions -- this rookie blogger secretly hopes you have it.   Or get it very soon :)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Belly Envy?

[A quick disclaimer: This stunning ultrasound? It's neither Toddler nor Baby.  I'm not that crazy.]

I am clutching my BlackBerry extra tight these days.  Why? A couple of my very best friends are about to go into labor.  One with her first baby and one with her second.  And just as I craved the odd egg sandwich or glazed donut or Tootsie Pop during my latest pregnancy, I find myself salivating for details.  The more, the better.  And maybe it is a bit odd, but I want to know numbers, about dilation and effacement and softening.  I like to hear about contractions -- the Braxton Hicks and the big-time.  I like to hear about what's in the hospital bag. Maybe this isn't so weird?  I'm a writer after all.  I love details.  The more obscure, the better.  I love to see the poetry in the everyday.  

You know what is a bit weird?  That I am envious.  Of the profound fever of anticipation.  Of the glorious mystery.  Of hearing that first primal cry.  Of seeing what the creature looks like for the very first time.  Of changing that first tiny diaper.  Of swinging that car seat over the threshold for the first time and saying, "welcome home, baby."

And six months out from all of this, I wouldn't go back.  So maybe envy is not the right word.  I'm happy to be right where I am. Baby is sitting and babbling and as of today eating (okay, spitting) oatmeal.  Toddler is a sassy spitfire, in love with her sparkly sunglasses and a stone lion on our sidewalk named Steinway.  It doesn't get better than this.

But I guess I am excited for my friends (and sister) and frankly every pregnant woman I see waddling by my Starbucks window.  Because for each of them, in a matter of minutes or hours or days or months, life's best adventure will begin.  Or begin again.  And when I allow myself to dream big (and shouldn't we all?), sure,  I imagine published novels and book signings and good reviews and maybe a motion picture.  But if I squint hard and envision the most beautiful future, I see something more.  I see bellies and births and babies.  

But now, entrenched in this poetic, borderline pretentious, present moment, I will make do with the beckoning buzz of my BlackBerry and the blissfully good news it brings me.

Monday, April 27, 2009

When Practicality Runs Amok

"Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning," declares Columbia University's Religion Department Chairman Mark C. Taylor in his NYT Op-Ed End The University As We Know It.  In this provocative piece, Taylor bemoans the impracticality of the contemporary mass-production university model, noting that it produces a product (smart, specialized souls who are candidates for teaching posts that don't exist) for which there is no market and burnishes skills for which there is dwindling demand.  Furthermore, Taylor highlights that this inefficient system costs us (sometimes in excess of $100K in loans).

Taylor offers six steps to begin the reinvention of the wheel of graduate education.  These steps are intriguing, often insightful, approaches to shifting away from an entrenched status quo of professor-cloning and complacency.  I particularly like the advice that Taylor gives his students: "Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.” 

Now my admittedly emotional response to Taylor's practical prescriptions:

(1) Yes, the bottom line is always beckoning.  But aren't there some things -- like passionate academic inquiry, however obscure -- that are priceless? And should remain so?
(2) People have never gone to graduate school for practical reasons.  They are not under the illusion that there will be a bevy of teaching spots to pick from at the other end.  They devote years to studying their subjects because they feel they have no other choice, they are passionate, they often wouldn't be happy doing anything else.
(3) A precious few of us spend our days thinking creatively.  Overhauling the university system, making it more streamlined and efficient and collaborative, might very well stifle the little inventive thought that is going on.
(4) Perhaps we should focus our attention on the arguably more practical forms of higher education.  The ones that produce "products" for which there is a "market" and "skills" for which there is consistent "demand."  You know -- the systems that are spewing out dozens of corporate lawyers and plastic surgeons and investment bankers?  Now, I'm not sure who's to blame for this fierce financial crisis, but I'm pretty sure that grad students studying the nooks and crannies of literature and philosophy and history didn't sink the ship. 
(5) I know this is a bad economy.  I know that we are becoming accustomed to conceiving of almost everything in terms of the Market Metaphor.  But we are not talking about Detroit.  We are not talking about assembly lines and cars.  We are talking about people.  And ideas.
(6) Professor Taylor is a smart and accomplished soul who has enjoyed the freedoms and inefficiencies of the very system he now attacks.  Or, more fairly, re-imagines.  Now I hate cliches (almost as much as I hate practicality), but I can't resist: What happened to not biting the hand that feeds you?  Okay, maybe he's just nibbling.  But still. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday School

It was a good day.  A sunny and sweaty day, full of smiles.  The girls are fast asleep.  And Husband and I are on our way soon.  And though I have a lot of fun ideas percolating, I am feeling rather tired and uninspired.  And dizzy with that feeling of generalized anxiety that there are a lot of things I should be worrying about, but somehow I am too exhausted to identify what those things are.  

So, instead of leaving you all sans Sunday post, I engaged in a little real-time research to see what others out there are stressing about on this spring Sunday.  I logged on to YouBeMom, an online parenting forum and asked: What is your biggest source of anxiety right now?  And within ninety seconds (you've gotta love the Internet), I got the following responses:

And there you have it.  A snapshot of the Sunday Stress Spectrum.  There is always something to worry about.  And always will be.  That marriage.  That job. That lack of anxiety. That fatal flu. That family.  That future.  That economy.  That temperature.  That sale.  That babysitter. That final exam.  That next phase.  That baby.  That affair.  That imagination.  That sleeplessness.  That renovation.   

We worry about big things.  And little things.  On Sundays.  And all days. To worry is to live.  To live is to worry.  On that profound note, I will call it a night.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Mommy Needs A Margarita

The girls and I have been on our own for 34 hours and 24 minutes.  But who's counting?  

Nanny had a much-deserved day off yesterday and Husband made a quick trip to Bucknell to receive an alumni award. This girl time has had some predictable and unpredictable effects on me:

First, the predictable.  I find myself missing Husband.  And Nanny.  And clean hair.  And spit-up free clothes.  And adult conversation.  (And, yes, I am acutely aware of the fact that many moms, maybe most moms, endure much longer stretches of time alone with their kids.  Many, again most moms, do not have delightful nannies and super hands-on husbands.  So, I am happy to admit that I am both fortunate and perhaps a tad spoiled.  Okay, enough of the disclaimers.)

Now, the more bizarre.  I find myself thinking of the media's Bad Mommy du jour Madyln Primoff (the attorney mother who kicked her bickering teens out of the car).  Okay, I do not just find myself thinking about her.  I find myself (gasp) sympathizing with her.  Calm down, let me make my case.  Of course she was reckless and went too far.  Of course.  But she is not just human.  She is a mother.  And a partner at a law firm.  The media seems especially outraged at this final fact; God forbid a woman with a higher education and a high-wattage career lose her cool on occasion like the rest of the population.  As Romi Lassally stated earlier this week in her compelling Huffington Post piece, "Women like Primoff are expected to kick butt at work with a Fembot-like smile while simultaneously ruling the kitchen in an apron and high heels cooking organic dinners for the whole family."  As someone who did a short stint at a big law firm, it seems to me that law partners -- who spend long hours dealing with difficult clients and colleagues and cases --  might be especially apt to snap.  So, yes, this five second lawyer has a shred of sympathy for this woman.  Sue me.

One other bizarre effect this mommy marathon has had on me?  I'm craving a margarita.  A big one.  Frozen.  With salt. And I don't drink margaritas. Or like them.  

Maybe, just maybe, tense mothering moments make us do things we wouldn't otherwise do.  Like kick our kids out of a car.  Or salivate for the odd salty cocktail?

As I finish this post, I am sitting on the hardwood floor.  Baby sits to my left in her BebePod seat thing that looks like a lime (maybe that's what triggered the hankering for Jose Cuervo?) and Toddler sits to my right on her pink plastic potty. And the doorbell rings.  And Nanny walks in.

And now.  I will post this.  And begin to worry about how it sounds.  And shower.  And kiss my darling babies goodnight.  And go outside.  And savor the dregs of the day's sweet sunshine. And find me that margarita.

Friday, April 24, 2009


I just got a fortune that said: You would make a good lawyer. 

The Affluenza Vaccine

"We have too much stuff,"  says environmental heavyweight James Gustave ("Gus") Speth.  Speth's simple words belie his sparkling CV (current Yale Forestry dean, co-founder of the NRDC and World Resources Institute, top Carter adviser, Dad's college buddy and colleague).  "We have to get over this epidemic of affluenza."

Speth uttered these insights as a panelist during yesterday's Spring Environmental Lecture and Luncheon at the American Museum of Natural History.   Apparently the term affluenza (per Professor Wiki, a portmanteau of affluence and influenza) has been kicked around by anti-consumerism advocates for quite some time.  But this is the first I heard of affluenza (and the groovy word portmanteau).

After consuming a lean and green meal of free-range chicken and acai sorbet under the big Blue Whale (where Husband and I celebrated our wedding 4+ years ago!), I went home and looked up affluenza and found the following definition:

Af-flu-en-za n. 1. The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses. 2. An epidemic of stress, overwork, waste and indebtedness caused by dogged pursuit of the American Dream. 3. An unsustainable addiction to economic growth. 4. A television program that could change your life.

Now I'm not quite sure about the life-changing television part, so feel free to ignore it.  But the rest sounds a tad familiar, doesn't it?  We are buying bigger and bigger houses and buying more and more stuff.  Stuff that Speth contends isn't making us any happier.  What makes us happier?  Other people.  Warm interpersonal contact.  Having someone to talk to.

I sit here typing away in my living room amid the day's Toddler Tornado, a scattered storm of stuff, wishing there were in fact an affluenza vaccine.  And if there was,  it wouldn't just be administered to the old and the young and the pregnant.  It would be offered to all of us.

For now, we should perhaps all check out Speth's latest book The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (Yale University Press) wherein he urges us to conceive of a non-socialist alternative to our capitalist system.  No, it doesn't sound like a fluff-fest, or a candy beach read.  But if we don't listen to Speth and his conservationist cohorts, we might just end up with a lot of meaningless stuff and no beaches left to read on.  (Okay, on which to read.)  

The Happy Headache Begins

"Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction." Pablo Picasso

After a lovely almost-two-year-waiting-game, work officially began yesterday on our new place! Last night, Husband and I waded through the devastation depicted here, giddy with excitement that this is actually happening.  Now everyone I know who has weathered a gut renovation has some sordid saga to tell me -- of blown budgets and improperly-installed tiles and last-minute leaks. And everyone seems to agree on one point: this process, however smoothly it proceeds, will entail a constant stream of headaches.  And, yes, they are probably right.  But sitting here, buzzed by morning coffee, I look at this picture -- the storm before the calm -- and smile.  

For those of you who know better, please allow me my delusions for a few minutes. And check back every Friday morning for an update on the Happy Headache!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Dora Dilemma

National Turn-Off-Tune-In Week began Monday.  Apparently, I missed the memo.  But thanks to Lisa Belkin over at The NYT's Motherlode, I'm now aware that for the past three days, it was my mandate to forego the flatscreen.  Oops.

Truth is even if I had gotten this message (one endorsed by a bevy of authorities from the American Medical Association to the American Academy of Pediatrics to the National Education Association to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports), I probably wouldn't have listened.

Why?  Sure, the numbers are alarming.  Children are watching more television than ever and, alas, as Belkin notes, attention spans are shrinking as waistlines expand.  She offers a few lovely stats: (a la TurnOffYourTV.com):
  • Number of 30-second commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000.
  • Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 38.5.
  • Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680.
No, none of this is good.  But I will continue to let Toddler and Baby watch as much Dora as they want.  And I will also continue to spend many more than 38.5 minutes per week conversing and cuddling with them. As Belkin so eloquently states, "I have come to question rah-rah, all-or-nothing statements for subtle situations."  We are always eager to point a finger, aren't we?  I'm no expert and I'm not quite sure what the problem is, but I don't think we can blame it all on that poor little bilingual girl with the bowlcut.

Toddler knows the alphabet, and how to count to a very high number, and what a chinchilla is.  Why? Because we are stellar parents? Maybe.  Because she is a language and learning sponge? Perhaps.  Because I let her tune in from time to time?  You betcha.  

Now, I'm not advocating that all kids should be able to watch TV all the time.  I know there are abuses here.  There are plenty of issues that need to be looked at.  But I do advocate, as Belkin does far more compellingly than yours truly, that we get past this black or white, turn-off or tune-in, all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all way of seeing the world.  It's all about the greys, baby.

Short and Tweet?

The slow trickle continues.  A few days ago, I sent my Agent the link to this blog.  And held my breath and let those trademark tidal waves of worry buffet me: Is the site too edgy?  Are the topics alienating?  Does anyone care what I have to say?  Thankfully, a response came in short order.  She likes the blog!  Now this is incredible news as she is at the helm of my very rookie literary career.  BUT.  She had a comment.  And said comment was something along these lines: Your posts should be shorter.  People are on Twitter these days and they don't have tolerance for longer essays.  And though a fan of the longer, more meandering, philosophical essay, I knew one thing and knew it immediately: she was right.  And another thing hit me: maybe I should check this Twitter thing out? Perhaps there is no better way to practice spewing exceedingly short and meaningless bits of personal information into the atmosphere? 

Maureen Dowd's Op-Ed To Tweet or Not to Tweet got me thinking that it might behoove me to start tweeting if not just to experience first-hand another seismic shift in technological tectonics.  Is Twitter just the latest and greatest avenue for celebrity chatter and self-aggrandizement?  Is its popularity problematic evidence of society's shrinking attention span? Dowd asked Twitter's founders (whom she deemed quite charming unlike their invention): "Was there anything in your childhood that led you to want to destroy civilization as we know it?"  And they laughed it off.  But is this tweeting thing a laughing matter?  Not sure yet.  But if Oprah and Agent deem life tweetworthy, then maybe, just maybe, I can be convinced.  

How's that for short and tweet?  No, it's not under 140 characters.  But it's a start.

[Okay: indulge this philosophic-meanderer in a few more characters, will you?  An Earth Week Inquiry: Why is it that so many  modern technological toys (think Apple, Mac, BlackBerry, Twitter) are named to conjure natural goodies -- like lush fruits and sweet birds?  Is this meant to distract us from the fact that these are decidedly unnatural gadgets?]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

When Life Gets Heavy, I Get Highlights

The morning at Dalton was nothing short of wonderful, but I wouldn't say it was easy.  Why is it that the hardest and heaviest things we do in life are also the most memorable and rewarding? 

So, what did I do after this meaningful celebration of Dad's legacy?  After hearing a wonderful panel of environmentalists speak about sustainability?  No, I didn't rush home and switch out my energy-inefficient bulbs.  I went to lunch with Mom and then shoe shopping.  And then I went to Oscar Blandi to go a little more blonde-y. 

Now Dad would never approve of this.  Not on Earth Day. Not on any day.  I hear his voice now: Maidy-Bunks Picnic (you've gotta love nicknames), don't mess with Mama Nature.

But even with his crackly voice echoing in my head, I marched right down Madison and right up those steps and right toward that swiveling chair and I let the genius man (Kyle White) work his magic, twisting my hair into tiny tin foils.  And a little while later, I walked out, my hair and my mind a bit lighter.  And as I hailed a taxi cab to take me home to my waiting baby girls and inefficient light bulbs, I was still thinking of Dad.  And it occurred to me that wherever he is fly-fishing these days, he is looking down (or up, or sideways) at me, Daughter #3, with his blue eyes and philosophical fire and silly faux tresses, enjoying one of those big bold belly laughs I miss deeply.


This is Dad.  He was known to the rest of the world as Strachan Donnelley and to his grandchildren as Potsie.  But to me, he will always be Dad. Not my Dad.  Not my father. Just Dad. Plain and simple.  Just like he was.  Kind of. Okay, not really.

Dad died (or as he would say turfed it) last July after fighting a valiant battle against stomach cancer.  He was the sun around which we Donnelley girls orbited.  Needless to say, this has been an impossible year for us.  But we are chugging along, living life, smiling and laughing and yes, crying.

Don't get used to this.  There will be very little on this blog about Dad, the most brilliant insecure Ivy Leaguer I've ever known.  Why?  Because Dad was suspicious of modern technology. He would hate that my forthcoming novel is now called BlackBerry Girl (when he read it, it was still called Finding Prudence) and he would cringe at the very thought of a blog. And Dad was intensely private about his life and his family.  But about his passions -- humans and nature -- he was unflinchingly public and proud.  

Today is Earth Day and my beloved alma mater Dalton is honoring Dad by naming the day, and today's Sustainability Day symposium, after Dad.  And perhaps as you are reading this, I will be standing on stage in the auditorium where I used to trumpet proudly.  My hands will be shaking as I speak into the microphone and try futilely to capture Dad. But everything I do say is fit to print right here.  And if you didn't know Dad -- and maybe even if you did -- my words will prove cryptic.  But if any of you other than my sisters spend the time reading them and you get a taste of who Dad was and what he was up to, then I have accomplished something.  And if you are intrigued (and you should be), you will visit the Center for Humans and Nature, and learn a bit more about Dad and the Center he founded all too recently, the only Donnelley baby he didn't get to see grow up.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Dalton School

On behalf of all of us Donnelley girls – and boys – past, present, and hopefully future, I want to thank Dalton for honoring Dad, his love and his life, his work and his wildness, on this important day.  I am humbled to return here, to this school I loved, where I laughed and learned for so many good years.  And I am humbled to return to this stage where I spent a handful of evenings playing my trumpet in the orchestra.  And on those evenings, Mom and Dad would sit in the audience just as you are now.  And no matter how we sounded as we fumbled through the 1812 Overture, Dad would listen.  And clap.  And hug.

This was Dalton Dad.  He believed in this school enough to send us here, one after the other.  He applauded the diversity of the Dalton ecosystem, the music and the ideas that emerged from that priceless mixture of good teachers, and good students, passion, and big ideas.

And Dad was all about big ideas.  One of his many mantras was “Ideas matter.” He spent his life exploring what he called Louisville Slugger ideas. And, fittingly, one of his biggest, baddest, most profound ideas was that of Orchestral Causation, the concept that each of us here, in this auditorium and in this world, is part of something much bigger than ourselves. 

If Dad were here, he would urge us to, and these are his words: “Imagine a musical, orchestral performance, say Verdi’s Requiem.  What factors are at play?  There is Verdi, the composer; the musical score, the conductor; the orchestra and the chorus; the soloists; the members of the audience (each with different musical ears and personal concerns); the orchestral hall with its acoustics; the wider world in its present and cultural moment; and no doubt more.”

And Dad, the Metaphor Monger and Marginalist, would get riled up.  He would jingle the loose change in his pocket, and fiddle with his loyal Parker pen.  He would flip clumsily through yellow legal pad pages full of his illegible and brilliant scribble.  And he would look out at us and probably call us rookies, which would be both true and a true compliment.  And he would shake that fatherly and philosophical finger as he began a riff that would confuse and enlighten and inspire, “We humans still consider ourselves at the center of all things significant and meaningful, right in the middle of the frog pond… [and] there is a problem at the center of the frog pond, that small section of the natural orchestra which refuses artfully and harmoniously to blend in with the others, risking discordant cacophony in following its own tune…”  His blue eyes fierce and his mustache dancing, he would deliver his final exhortation, “The grand symphony of life and its future is being seriously marred and degraded.  If we humans do not tune in, the pond might become frogless, humanless, soundless.”

But it wouldn’t be final and he wouldn’t stop there.  No, he would continue. He would call in reinforcements, his philosopher friends – Heraclitus and Leopold and Mayr and Darwin of course.  He would remind us that we are complex organisms, part of ever-evolving and delicate biotic communities, of Nature Alive.  That we should be plain citizens of the land and not its conquerors.

And he would tell stories, wonderful stories. About mayflies and Mother Nature and mountain rainbows.  About prairie ball fields and pintails.  About wild turkeys and Old Gobblers.  He would tell you just why Kansas was on his mind. 

And in the end, you would be left a bit dizzy, delightfully disoriented and certainly invigorated.  And you would wonder what had just happened.

And I am Dad’s daughter, so I will not stop here. I will tell you what just happened.  I will do something that Dad would never do: I will offer a translation, a more earthly version of his lofty musings.  I will boil it down for you.  Here’s the deal. 

What we do matters.  Who we become matters. We must think big thoughts and lead rich lives. Lives beyond the beckoning bottom line.  We are not just Daltonians, destined for greatness, but organisms destined for danger -- if we don’t get our act together, if we don’t adjust our moral compasses.  We are part of something bigger, far bigger, and far better than just ourselves.  Bigger and better than grades and graduations and Ivy League Schools and Wall Street stocks and high wattage careers. 

Beyond the seats of this darkened auditorium, and the classrooms of this fine school, and the concrete of this great city, there is an Earth, a natural world, that houses and humbles us all.  A world that is full of intrinsic and limitless worth and wonder.  Worth and wonder that it is our sacred duty to recognize and revere.  To celebrate and sustain.

What I wouldn't give to be sitting out there where you are.  In the audience. Listening to Dad fumble profoundly through his Ignoramus Overture like I once did mine.  But, alas, here I am living and honoring the most inconvenient truth of them all: that Dad, my fly-fishing philosopher Dad, is not up here and I am not down there.  But as Dad would say, “No matter.”  And as Heraclitus would say “The way up is the way down.” 

This Earth was a better place with Dad on it.  And now he is gone.  But his wise words and big ideas will live forever in the walls of this school and the winds of this world and the worlds of his Donnelley women.  His lunchpail legacy lingers in the continued work of cherished colleagues, in the laughter of loyal friends, and in the bottomless blue eyes of my baby girls.

Let’s take care of this Earth, its fundamental goodness and fierce wildness.  An Earth Dad loved madly and unconditionally.  And almost as deeply as a sixth Dalton daughter.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Ticker Makes Us Sicker

Yesterday afternoon, I did something I vowed to stop doing.  Something I have gotten a lot better about not doing.  I checked the DOW.  Down a splendid 289.60.  Cheers.  Immediately, I was struck by a wave of nausea.  A very familiar wave of nausea.

The economy.  Yuck.  For months now, it’s as if all of us Americans, yes all of us (welcome to the club, guys) are pregnant with a baby we didn’t quite plan.  And, worse, we don’t know who the father is.  Was it Slick Willy?  George W?  Homeowners? The banks?  Now, it doesn’t quite matter; the cells are multiplying, limbs are flailing, we are repeatedly getting kicked in the gut, our ribs are sore; the thing’s got a life of its own.  We wake up, blissfully foggy, at times unaware of the purchase this creature has on our lives and then, we do stupid, predictable, everyday things: we turn on the TV, we surf the web, we grab a paper. And bam, we’re headed for that toilet. 

Fun way to start the day.

Thankfully, we all have a good and benevolent doctor, albeit a rookie, to tell us that the nausea is exceedingly normal, that it will pass, that if we snack on salty things and hunker down and keep our eye on the prize, we will be okay.  And, desperate and pale and fat under those standard issue hospital gowns, we (okay, only some of us) tell him: “Do what you have to do.  Tax us.  Spend.  Bail out the bozos.  Just make this go away.”

And our doctor nods bravely. Fear and wisdom glisten in tired eyes.  He flashes a smile, winning and genuine.  And though he probably doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing (who does?), we listen to his soothing tone.  And we don’t know why but we feel better.  And we think, at least we are getting good medical care.

I gave birth to Baby six months ago.  You wouldn’t know it by this schizophrenic weather but, alas, it’s Spring.  And I’m beginning to feel freedom again.  After the birth of Toddler two years ago, I spent my hours sans babe doing what other spoiled first-time mommies do: I shopped Columbus Avenue, washed improvident $20 chopped salads down with a glass of Sancerre (only one of course, I was breastfeeding!), I got manicures with friends.

But now?  Other than typing caffeine-fueled rants like this at my local Starbucks and chipping away at my next manuscript and taking care of the babies, I go to the gym.  Why?  One, it’s cheaper.  Two, it will help me get back in shape and if I can no longer buy designer skinny jeans willy-nilly, I will get myself some skinny legs.  But mostly, I go to the gym because at the gym I am surrounded by other people (admittedly privileged enough to be at the gym smack-dab in the middle of the workday).  People who are white and black, young and old, fat and thin, blonde and brunette, famous and jobless, and somewhere in between.  I go there to escape a few things for a few hours. The babies I love.  The worries I don’t.  This vomitous, illegitimate economy.

But on those flat screen TVs that once splayed silly soap operas and reality shows, newscasters wear severe pin stripes with their severe frowns.  And in the bottom half of every television that stock ticker mocks us, doing its subversive dance.  Up and down.  And down.  And down some more.  And even if we keep those TVs muted, an ominous voice carries:  Try to relax, foolish one.  Your portfolio was burned in half.  That home in which you raised your kids and your grandkids visit at Christmas time?  Might not be yours for long.  That splendid nanny who is at home with your two baby girls while you indulgently tone up your postpartum thighs?  Even you can’t quite afford that.

And I am not immune.  I listen to my iPod and read my book, my legs spinning fast, my body going nowhere.  But every few minutes I look up and squint.  And there it is: the ticker.  And part of me, the feral, uncivilized part of me that is bohemian and insane or maybe totally sane, wants to rip out the headphones and jump off the arc trainer and stand atop the water fountain for an impromptu town meeting and break the zen-like-gym-silence and tell all of these sad and nauseous people, pregnant with worry, to STOP.  Don’t kowtow to the DOW.  Turn off the ticker. 

The ticker only makes us sicker.

This is not about denial, friends.  Mine is not a sob story.  My sacrifice: foregoing the marble countertops in my new apartment.  But I feel sick just like you. 

We cannot ignore the economy; the creature’s within us, creating irreversible and sobering scars, giving us stretch marks and wrinkles.  We are not going to say screw you and hit the bottle or slurp sushi with abandon.  We are going to keep taking those prenatal vitamins.  We are going to be responsible critters.  And nurture the little sucker who makes us all miserable.  Because, right now, we have no choice.

But that doesn’t mean we have to lie on the couch, clutching our swelling belly, bemoaning the cruelty of it all.  That doesn’t mean we have to spend every moment whining or cursing life.  That doesn’t mean we need to hinge our daily happiness on those fluttering little green numbers that follow the little negative sign.

Because you know what?  At some point, this dreaded pregnancy will be over.  And it might be more than nine months.  And labor might suck.  Royally.  And, surprise! We might end up with octuplets.  But, at some point, it will be over.  Pound by pound, we will lose the pregnancy weight and feel the flutters of freedom once more.  And we will once again buy homes and sip Sancerre and splurge on totally unnecessary pairs of skinny jeans.

Right now, it’s hard to believe but some day, we will wake up and feel okay.  The morning sickness will be gone and maybe we won’t even remember how ill we once felt.  And, even stronger than before, we Americans will smile again. 

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