Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Passing Moment

I see him out of the corner of my eye as I walk across the playground. The meter maid, stepping back into his little white car. And D says, "Are these two hour spots?" I look at my iPhone to see it's 12:11pm, and I try to remember when I parked my car. Shortly before 10am, surely, because I arrived early to help set up right after buying a blueberry scone for my son at Pannikin. As she keeps swinging her daughter on the swing, D says, "Have we been here more than two hours? I think he's just marking the tires." Before she completes her sentence, I'm already rushing across the playground to grab my keys, back towards my car, out the playground gate, as I yell out to my 3 year old, who's climbing a truck, "I'll be right back! I'm just moving the car."And I yell at D to keep an eye out for him.

As I near my car, I run around it quickly to see if it has any white chalk slashes on the tires. Seeing none, I jump in my car, turn on the ignition, and back up, catching my breath and reminding myself to check the rear. I pull out and inch just three spots over. I put the car in park, step on the parking break, step out of the car, look over to the meter maid to make sure he's not already issuing tickets, and head back toward the playground gate.

I'm just a few steps away from the gate when I see my son through the fence, his eyes darting, tears streaking down his little face, his mouth open in a cry, his arms outstretched, and his little legs scurrying as fast as they could across the playground, across the stretch of the fence, like a caged animal, caught on the wrong side. I hear his cry, panicked, desperate, piercing through the giggles and the laughter of the playground. I rush across the sidewalk, open the gate, and run down the steps, calling his name. His eyes meet mine, and he keeps crying his panic stricken cry, a scream muddled with Mommy, you left me, you left me, Mommy, you left me, as tears stream down his face, his mouth still agape as he gasps for breath. As soon as I'm on the ground, I crouch down and he throws himself into my arms, and I wrap myself around him, assuring him, no, no, Mommy wouldn't leave you. Did you think I was leaving without you? Mommy has never left you anywhere, have I? No, little guy, we're going home together. I just had to move the car, did you hear me? I just didn't want a ticket. Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry.

My words aren't enough to soothe him, as he keeps crying, and I keep holding him as I repeat myself. His little body shudders as he sobs, and I pick him up and carry him across the playground to sit on a bench. There, he quiets, and his little friends come over to hover and soothe him in their 3 year old ways, a little tap on the back here and there, a few slurred "Are you okay," their eyes wide with concern and fear.

A few minutes later, he's already running across the field, throwing a ball, yelling for his turn.

On our way home, I pull in to a frozen yogurt shop and let him load his cup with chocolate frozen yogurt, sprinkles, mini gummy bears, mochi, and some sugary flakey cereal that I can't even name.

More than twelve hours later, I'm still replaying the moment in my head, still desperately sorry. I think that image will be forever etched in my mind, like the time he got his little fingers jammed in the hotel door in Hawaii as I stood just a foot away from him and his fingers swelled up like mini marshmallows.

I think about the burdens of parenthood, the power we have to cause this level of panic, this mini earthquake in their world. To induce a level of anxiety that we ourselves no longer understand. How easily these moments can come, when you are caught in a moment of distraction, when you have momentarily fallen out of focus. It makes me shudder to think of all that could happen -- and not fully relieved of all that hasn't.

I think of him sleeping in his Lightning McQueen bed. Through the door, I can hear him breathing, rolling around now and then. He seems so fragile, so vulnerable, still so little. And I think of all that is in my power to do, how I have to be more careful, more protective of the little person that he is.

It is 3 in the morning, and I'm just sitting here, thinking about these things and waiting for my son to awake, to run into our room, giggling as he usually does, announce that he is awake at the top of his lungs, jump on us with his boney knees and elbows, slither into our comforter between me and Jeff, and relentlessly tap my shoulder as he asks, "Mommy, can you turn so you can look at me?" And when he does, I'll turn as he asks, press my cheek against his, and hold him a little longer and a little tighter than I usually do.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Revisiting

A few months ago, I started getting that feeling -- that panicked, suffocating feeling that you get when you feel time running out. I rushed to my computer and counted down the remaining days. A little less than two months. Not even eight full weeks. Just 54 measly days.

I mapped out a plan. Hit the gym every day. Alternate between days of cardio and strength training. Eat less. Eliminate all carbs. Don't eat after 6pm. Shed at least a pound a week. Get rid of all the fat in my upper arm and my midriff. Get my hair done. Find a dress.

That was all I had time to do. In less than eight weeks, we were flying out to Chicago for my 20th college reunion. Eight weeks weren't enough to fashion a new career, publish a book, or make a documentary. Not enough to become a CEO or an activist or a social commentator. Not enough to establish a village or even a non-profit. Not enough to fulfill any of the aspirations I had set out for myself in my 20s.

But it was enough time to transform myself into a beach babe. And failing that, the least I could do was try to look as good as I did in my facebook profile photo.

Going back for a reunion, especially after 20 years, is not for the feeble minded. It takes guts to face all those people who heard you talk about all the things that were wrong with this world, and all the things you were going to do to fix it. It takes guts to face that 20 year old idealistic self who thought the world was populated with idiots, especially all those who submitted blindly to the slavery of law firms and investment banks. It takes guts to go back and show all that you haven't done with 20 years of your life.

I have little to show for myself these days. No job. No social accolade to speak of. No presidential award of honor. No honorary degree. No peace corps stint to brag about. No travels around the world worth mentioning. Yes, a law degree, but I am not a partner or a GC or even a lowly associate. I guess I could brag about the well publicized termination and 100K down the drain, but I already bragged about them at the last reunion.

At the least, I am married and have two beautiful children, but I learned not to treat such things as accomplishments when we read Virginia Woolf during my sophomore year.

I thought about skipping the college reunion. But months earlier, when the reunion was merely an enticing idea in the distant future, I had foolishly signed up to participate on the reunion committee. And volunteered to prepare the reunion memory book. And had goaded all of my friends to show up or consider themselves dead in my world.

The eight weeks breezed by -- more quickly than I would have liked. I downloaded My Fitness Pal on my iPhone. I hit the gym as often as I could. I even lifted weights. And weighed myself every morning. And tried on all the dresses I owned.

The day before we were scheduled to fly out, I weighed myself in the morning as usual, right after I peed and pooped and right before I was weighted down with excess water from the shower. The scale showed the same number as the day before. Just 3 measly pounds less than what it was eight weeks ago.

I threw a couple of outfits in the suitcase because I couldn't decide which looked worse. And packed the prettiest dresses for my little girl with matching hair clips and sweaters. I made sure to pack my son's hair gel and his most fashionable polo shirts and plaid shorts. Then we set off for my past.

Chicago was just as I had remembered it, and completely different. We landed in Midway Airport, where I had arrived alone in the fall of 1989 with just two suitcases to see me through the year. To get to the hotel, we drove down Lakeshore Drive, where I had cruised up and down with friends as we searched for restaurants at 2 in the morning after a dance party or another. The next day, while my son napped in the hotel with Jeff, I pushed my daughter in a stroller down Michigan Avenue, where I had wandered as a lost 20 year old, dressed in an oversized men's sports jacket, thinking about Foucault, Levi Strauss, and Emile Durkheim.

The next day, Jeff and I dressed for the class dinner. I was grateful for the cooler weather, which allowed me to wear my completely black outfit with more generous covering. I put on a little more make up than usual and the new hoop earrings I had picked up that afternoon at Nordstrom. Before I stepped out of the bathroom, I looked at myself in the mirror and practiced my smile. To my surprise, the person who smiled back looked pretty good. Maybe it was the lighting in the hotel. Or the extra layer of mascara. Or the hoop earrings. But I didn't see the extra ten pounds glaring back at me. I saw a little glimmer in my eyes and excitement.

The evening passed much too quickly. It was filled with squeals of delight, hugs, giggles, clicks of the camera, and too many glasses of wine. We talked about the old days, gossiped about people we knew, gushed about how the other looked, and listened to stories about families, job headaches, and infertility problems.

To my surprise, no one even asked about my career. Or if they did, it was so nonintrusive that it didn't register. I don't think it was because no one cared. It just didn't come up. Maybe because we had too many other things to talk about.

The next day, Jeff and I drove to the campus and watched our kids run around on the quads where I had spent many afternoons buried in a book or engrossed in some conversation about the meaning of life. We stepped into Harper's Library, where I had passed countless nights trying not to nod off as I attempted to finish the paper due the next day, where I had painstakingly worked on my literary magazines, where I had suffered my secret crushes. We walked down the streets where I had found life at its most intense and had tried to savor it as long as I could.

That evening, a bunch of us gathered at my old roommate's house in the suburbs and watched our kids play with each other as we bantered and chowed down Giordano's pizza.

I don't know why I expected the reunion to be some resume comparison event. I have never related to my friends through the lens of our accomplishments, so why did I expect it to happen now?

It is my own self-consciousness, my own internal conflict. It is true what they say. No one else obsesses about you as much as yourself. I don't have it all together, at least not at this point in my life, but it was okay. It didn't get in the way of anything because no one really cares. At least not in that judging way. And what a relief to find out.

It was good to go back. To see my friends, to revisit the campus, to have a chance to think about the person I used to be and the person I am now. Sometimes I miss that person I was -- that intense girl so determined to be independent, so unwilling to expose any vulnerability, so serious about living my life. But I realized that I like the person I am now. More settled, a little more secure, and willing to show my vulnerability. And a little more forgiving, even of myself. Maybe it's a sign of happiness. Or even maturity...

* * *

(Here are a couple of photos of my kids making themselves at home on my old campus. It warmed my heart to see them there.)




Google-

Here's a post I wrote on Kimchi Mamas on Google's refusal to let me open a profile on Google+ (or Google- as I now like to call them).

Friday, August 9, 2013

Something Funny

This made me laugh, and I had to share:

The other day, my husband Jeff was helping our 3.5 year old get dressed after a bath. As Jeff started to help T with his shirt, T started farting.

I said, "Uh, oh, do we have an emergency here?"

T said, "No, it's just my body telling Daddy to put my underwear on first."

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Now...

In 2008, I was fired by Paul Hastings three days after I returned to work after having a miscarriage. The firm knew about my pregnancy - and my subsequent miscarriage. I thought the firm's timing of my termination was deliberate and to put it mildly, insensitive. In response, I wrote a lengthy email detailing my perspective of the situation and turning down their offer of three months severance in exchange for an agreement promising to keep my termination and the firm's handling of the termination secret. That email went viral.

Even now, five years later, when Above the Law happens to reference my email, traffic to my blog spikes. I'm sure many are curious. Whatever happened to that woman? Did she get her ass kicked? Did she show them by going in-house and refusing to hire that firm? Did she ever manage to land another job interview? Does she regret what she did?

Like the thousands of comments that my original email spurred, I'm sure many of these questions have nothing to do with me. They are more about the reader's own concerns and anxieties. What happens to an employee who sticks out her middle finger at her former employer? Does she get away with it? Or is she shot down to wallow in her own remorse? What can I do to protect my own job, ensure I make partnership?

Well, I'll tell you what happened to me. For a brief period after the termination, I worked on a few projects as a contract attorney. Then my friends started referring clients to me, and I handled my own cases until my son was about a year and a half. It started to feel overwhelming to handle my own cases solo while also raising a child, so I decided then to refer those cases out and become a stay at home mom. That's what I have been doing for the past three years.

During that time, I also had a second child. My days have been filled with trips to Sea World, to Legoland, the San Diego Zoo, and playdates. I have time to read with my children, to answer all of their questions (and there are plenty from a 3.5 year old), to prepare their snacks and their meals, to bathe them, to roll around in the sand and to giggle with them. I wouldn't have traded that time for anything. Not even a law firm salary.

I've also had the luxury to think about what I want in life. And I've allowed myself to admit that I really don't want to be a lawyer for the rest of my life. I've always known that, but it's another to decide to act on that -- to give up that bar membership, to dismiss the 100K in student loan as just a minor financial miscalculation (and thank goodness I paid off my debts within the first three years of my practice), to decide that the three years spent in law school wasn't really a terrible waste of time since I learned so much.

I may have arrived at this decision even without the Paul Hastings incident. But it certainly made it easier. I saw a different perspective to what it means to be a stooge in a big law firm. The people who were involved in my termination were not evil. I actually liked them as individuals. But maybe the type of people who succeed in that type of environment are those who simply go along with whatever is asked of them. Not raise a stink. Be a good soldier. Check your spine at the door.

I remember participating in our litigation department meetings in the few months leading up to my termination. A few associates in our department had stopped showing up for work, and no one knew what happened to them. Did they quit? Did they get fired? Did they transfer? What happened? Well, we figured they got fired because some associates stayed in touch with them, but no one knew of the circumstances. During our department meetings, I remember raising my hand and asking about those associates who disappeared. I directly asked, "Are we having layoffs?" Several of the partners acted astounded that I would even think that the firm was having layoff, but refused to acknowledge that those associates had been fired. The department head simply said that he could not talk about them because the information was private.

What was amazing about those meetings was that no one -- not even one other associate -- was willing to ask questions about what was going on. Maybe some already knew the details because they were friends with those who left. But I know many other associates were in the dark with me because I had asked around and no one knew. I was astounded that I was working in an environment where people were afraid to ask basic questions about their job security.

After I left, a few of the younger associates thanked me for asking those questions at the department meetings that they said they were too afraid to ask. It says something about today's corporate environment in America that people can't ask basic questions -- that my one email should spur such interest and such a reaction.

For me, it was a healthy experience. I not only gained a new perspective, but I now feel more confident about myself. I feel like I can do so much more than I thought myself capable of doing. I also left the firm with a healthy sense of respect for myself. I can speak up for myself, and I can defend myself. That feels pretty good.

I'm trying to figure out my new career. It hasn't been easy trying to fit that in while I'm also taking care of two little ones. At the same time, it's a luxury and a privilege. Not many people are in a situation where they have the means to stay at home with the children and the means to invest in a new career. I feel blessed every day.

I'm just living my life. And trying to be a decent human being and a good citizen. And use my time wisely. All that good stuff. Not too different from what you are probably doing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

An Unexpected Sweetness

My dad is a bit shy. And a little awkward. In a crowd, he'll be standing near the periphery with a big grin on his face. And twenty minutes later, he'll still be there, with the same grin. Without even a drink in his hand.

He never drives the car over the speed limit, even when other cars backlog behind him, honking, and they finally pass, revving up their engines and craning their necks to see who the hell drives at 55mph during rush hour.

His weight never fluctuates. For most of his adult life, he weighed exactly 120 pounds, a slight weight even for his 5 feet 4 inches. Now in his 70s, he has the shape of a skinny pre-teen. At mealtimes, he used to lecture us never to eat until we were full. Just stop before you fill up, he advised, because your stomach needs time to register its fullness. He rarely eats dessert, never a bite after he brushes his teeth, and rarely snacks, only relenting when my mother goads him repeatedly.

When we were in elementary school, he was the guy who doled out our extra homework. He filled up pages and pages of composition notebooks with math problems in columns so perfectly straight that you would have thought he used a ruler to guide his handwriting. When writing his checks, he always wrote in perfect block letters that I have since seen from some other engineering types.

During his 50s and 60s, he spent most of his days hunched over a table shaped like an ironing board, surrounded by tubes of chemicals. I never learned the names of chemicals, but I knew they were noxious. He used them to clean the mounds of clothes that arrived by armfuls everyday at their busy dry cleaner. He went over each piece of clothing slowly, meticulously, as if he were studying some engineering problem to be solved. The clothes came out perfectly, but his fastidiousness irritated my mother, who often complained that they could leave the store at a reasonable hour if he simply worked faster.

When he returned home, he holed up in the bedroom to count the day's earnings, dollar by dollar, quarter by quarter. He logged the earnings into a composition notebook, in the column next to the date, along with the number of the day's customers. When he finished, he placed the notebook next to the other two dozen he had maintained for the past 20 somewhat odd years of running the business.

Then when he had free time, he read the New York Times from beginning to end, with the paper spread out in front of him, a dictionary to his right. If we ever needed to know anything factual, like the population count of the people in Indonesia, we would ask him first before consulting the encyclopedia, because he often knew the information on the spot. He would tell us what we needed to know, along with other tidbits, like its status as the most populous Muslim nation.

I never quite know how to interact with him.

He is the guy who established the rules in our household. The one who refused to let us grow out our hair because he said it would interfere with our studying. The one who refused to let us wear makeup. The one I was reluctant to show my report card to when it had anything less than straight As. The one I was afraid to ask for permission when I was asked to go to the senior prom my freshman year.

While growing up, my sister and I huddled around our mom to chat, but never our dad. We told our mom about our daily lives, and he learned about our lives through our mom. And when we needed his permission for something, we always asked our mom, and a day or two later, she would tell us his response. Even these days, when we call, he says a perfunctory hello and hands the phone over to my mom.

For most of my life, I rarely made physical contact with him, except for a stretch when I was in the second grade and decided that we should kiss our parents goodnight before going to bed as I had seen on TV. Even now, whenever I have an occasion to part from my parents, I give my mom a hug. But with my dad, I give him a quick bow of the head and an awkward, half-hearted wave with my hand as I mutter "bye" in English.

We grew up hearing stories of his upbringing, of how he lived in a room in someone else's house as a child so that he could be closer to his school instead of walking miles each day. Of how he moved in with a doctor family in Seoul when he was accepted into a university in the city. We accepted these stories as an explanation for the state of our relationship.

When my son was first born, my dad came out with my mom to help. While my mom hurried around to help with the cooking, the cleaning, and all other tasks that go with running a house, he sat around, unsure of what to do with himself, first clutching my copy of The Aquariums of Pyongyang and then the week after, The Rape of Nanking. But the minute we stepped out with the baby in a stroller, he claimed his spot behind the stroller. You walk, I'll push, he always insisted. No, no, Dad, I would say, it's okay. You guys walk and enjoy the view. He would refuse to release his grip from the stroller, and I would relent. Then we would walk, my mom and me, purposeless for a change, and my dad steady in his role.

During those walks, my mom never failed to remind me how he had never pushed a stroller when we were little, and how he never held a newborn until I popped my son into his arms the day he was born. When we were little, my dad was often abroad, sent to work in places like Europe and Japan. My mom told us of how my sister cried when she first met him because he was away during her birth and for the first months of her life. I didn't understand how long that was until I had my own children and found out how long it takes for infants to develop stranger anxiety.

This past month, we stayed with my parents in New York for a couple of weeks. My 18 months old daughter had met my parents a few times before, but this was the first time she was old enough to interact with them in more substantive ways than just crying or smiling at them.

The visit started out as expected, with my mom cooking up a storm and fussing over the kids and my dad just smiling from the periphery as our kids roamed around their house and reached for everything within grasp. Even though there were four adults and just two kids, we at times felt outnumbered. When my mom scurried into the kitchen to prepare this or that dish or cut the fruit, I always rushed in behind her to help, which left Jeff to play defense with two kids in a house with exposed stairs, doors that jam little fingers, and glass objects waiting to fall on their heads.

The first day, my dad, in his effort to help, scooped up my daughter before I even had a chance to explain how shy she is, how she hates being picked up by anyone other than me and Jeff, how her petite figure belies her ability to scream. Miraculously, she did not scream. Or reach out to come to me. Or bury her face in her hands to pretend that she didn't see my dad. Instead, she just sat there, nestled in my dad's arms, looking as natural as an owl on a branch. She stared back at our baffled faces with a look as if to say, "What? What are you looking at?"

The strangeness continued when my mother picked her up. Whimpering, my daughter reached out not for me, but for my dad. Once ensconced in his arms, she stopped whining.

As the week continued, our daughter surprised us even more. During meal times, she repeatedly blew kisses at my dad -- and only my dad -- and waved her tiny hand at him as she whispered "Hi, Buji" in her abbreviated version of Harabuji, Korean for grandfather. My mom would interrupt my dad in the middle of his slurping and say,"She's waving! Wave back! Blow her a kiss!" In the minivan, she often tipped forward as far as her seatbelt would allow to look for him and giggle as soon as their eyes met. Whenever my dad wasn't in the room, she looked around, whispering, "Buji, Buji." Then when he appeared, her eyes lit up, and the flurry of kisses and waves resumed. She soon discovered his hiding spot, behind the desk in my old bedroom. As he sat there reading the New York Times, she ran in and crouched down to tip her head to meet his face. Once in position, she dispensed more kisses and hellos, and ran back in every few minutes until he finally gave up and came out carrying her in his arms.

My baffled mother asked her daily, "What about me? I'm the one who feeds you. Aren't you going to come to me?"

In my Facebook posts, I refer to my daughter as my angel. She seems like an angel now more than ever. She's tiny, weighing no more than 20 pounds, with a vocabulary of 50 or so words. She loves to say "neigh-neigh,""moo-moo," and "no, no!" She eats everything in birdlike nibbles, except for bratwurst or salami, which she devours like a starving hyena. This little being somehow arrived with a secret knowledge of our needs, our shortcomings, and the magical power to free us from the way we thought we were supposed to be. It is a sweetness and a generosity I had not anticipated -- and a filling of sorts, a filling we had all been craving but had not known until now.