Like a Fine Wine
I have been on the job in my new position for three weeks, and it never fails--I walk through the door to my house and declare, "I love my job!" I mean, that's great, right? Everyone wants a job they love. But I don't just love my job. I love the opportunity it gives me to be myself to the fullest extent possible. I really feel like I have been waiting for this nexus of opportunities for my whole professional life.
I've always had a mind for big things. In high school Anne and I sat around dreaming up "Spirit Week." Fast forward 15 years, and "Spirit Week," (with it's class competitions and bright, enthusiastic displays), is a veritable institution at my high school. In college I successfully convinced the Academic Dean to let me design my own major. It was 2002, and people struggled to wrap their brains around "Community Health." Today, the First Lady has taken on the mantle of promoting how important the built environment and the amenities therein are on the health of the residents. After college I participated in a variety of clubs and programs for up-and-coming nonprofit professionals. From our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed twenties, we have evolved into 30-something leaders of our respective industries. In grad school my friend Liz and I would take the theories we learned from the likes of Frank Hritz and the late, great Ted Bradshaw and extrapolate on the amazing things we would do to apply those lessons to the real world.
And then I got to the real world.
I applied for four jobs at the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency during my last year of grad school. Needless to say, I REALLY wanted to work there. I learned all I could about the 13 redevelopment areas and the dozens of projects. I was so excited about the synergy of the joint powers model that pooled both human capital and financial capital of six separate entities. I finally managed to land a job, (which ironically was the bottom one on my list), and started the same week I celebrated my 27th birthday, did my thesis project defense, and bought my first house. It was a momentous week, to say the least.
I was in for a rude awakening, though. I was stunned to find out that the ideas of a junior analyst fresh out of grad school didn't carry the kind of sway I naively thought they would. Surprise, surprise. But in my five years there, I learned many important lessons. I developed tenacity from surviving the worst economic downturn of my lifetime--and STILL managed to close deals. I cut my teeth on incredibly complex projects, with intricate financial layering and numerous feasibility hurdles. Most importantly, I cultivated patience and humility. Being the youngest and least experienced in my department within a large bureaucracy, patience and humility should have been a forgone conclusion.
I think that all those lessons were just what I needed. I learned tenacity, patience, and humility, AND I gained valuable technical skills throughout. Armed with my new personal and professional skills, I have now been given the opportunity to exercise all those qualities that are so very me: enthusiasm, optimism, sociability, and ingenuity. I have been waiting my whole professional life to get totally juiced about an idea, see the possibilities for it, bring in the players who can bring it to fruition, and create something that has not been done before. However, 20-something Bernadette just did not have the knowledge, life experience, or personal fortitude required to bring projects of this scale to fruition. It just wouldn't have happened.
I was watching "Family Feud" one day, and the top answer for "The age at which a woman is most fascinating" was 30. I think there is something to that. But maybe 30 is just the starting point. Like a fine wine, I think I have just turned the corner from glorified grape juice to a smooth spirit. Hopefully, I too will only get better with age.
Good Luck, Bad Luck
For her birthday last year our friends got Zen an adorable storybook called “Zen Shorts” in which a lovable panda tells three young children Zen Buddhist-inspired parables. My personal favorite goes something like this:
A farmer’s horse ran away.
‘Oh what bad luck!’ declared his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ he simply replied.
The horse returned the next day and was followed by two wild horses.
‘Oh what good luck!’ said his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ said the farmer.
His son tried to ride one of the wild horses. It bucked him off, and his leg broke.
‘Oh what bad luck!’ exclaimed his neighbors.
‘Maybe,’ he responded.
The army came to conscript soldiers, and the farmer’s injured son was passed by.
‘Oh what good luck!’ his neighbors said.
‘Maybe,’ he replied….
This short story teaches us that perspective is more significant than the event itself, or put even more simply, events are not good or bad—they just are. “Zen” is actually a nickname for a family name which was actually supposed to be our daughter’s middle name. However, her moniker is a wonderful and simple daily reminder to think/do/live simply.
It has come in very handy recently. I was planning two birthday parties for Zen, and I was being thrown a baby shower as well. I am in my third trimester, and although I feel every additional missed hour of sleep, pound gained, and new miserable side effect of late pregnancy, I was looking forward to leaving work nearly a month before my due date to rest up and spent time with my daughter.
Oh what good luck!
Meanwhile, I was already bracing myself at work for the busiest two-week period in the last three years. I was the project manager of a complicated and politically-charged deal that needed to close. A few weeks prior the co-worker who was going to take over my projects while I was on maternity leave went on extended medical leave, leaving me burdened with a workload I had previously passed off. And then to top it all off, I was issued a layoff notice on March 5.
Oh what bad luck!
I notified my friends and colleagues that evening, and the next morning I had two potential job offers. The following week I had two interviews and two leads on jobs within the agency I was already working for. Yesterday I received three job offers and one pending job offer.
March has been the craziest month of my life. It has been overwhelming, frightening, thrilling—all wrapped up in one. Upon hearing that the state had dissolved redevelopment and essentially decimated my entire industry last year, I have been riding a roller coaster of emotion. I spent nearly six months unsuccessfully looking for a job before I just decided to get pregnant, but it wasn’t until I had an actual job loss that I would face a flurry of job offers.
Perhaps it’s not by chance that the name we’ve selected for our son means “bravery in the face of adversity.” Like Zen, his name will hopefully provide a daily reminder to carry on throughout life’s trials with confidence and grace.
I want to marry the nanny.
I fantasize about marrying the nanny.
Let me be clear, I'm not a disgruntled husband pining after some hottie European college student who plays dress-up with my daughter. On the contrary, I found a loving, experienced, down-to-earth woman who has become the integral third parent in our family. When Erika arrives in the morning we sit at the breakfast table and chat about the celebrity news du jour. I give my daughter a kiss and a big hug, and then she reaches out for Erika and waves bye-bye to me. When I come home from work Zen chatters excitedly in gibberish to me about her day at the playground/waterpark/zoo. The house is tidy, and the daily chores are done. Like a caring relative or mentor Erika gives me insight into my daughter's development and offers advice that helps me be a better parent. As I have had to deal with difficult situations over the past year, (like family drama or putting my trusty 16-year-old dog to sleep), she has been there with a kind word or a hug. She sends me picture messages of my daughter doing silly things throughout the day. We text each other about trash reality TV over the weekend. She brings me desserts. I bring her flowers. We share recipes. If were weren't straight married mothers, I would think this was a match made in heaven.
I read an article today by a woman who has had 10 nannies in 7 years. She was complaining about the nightmarish caregivers who have paraded through her life, and I was shocked and dismayed. First of all, I would never leave my child with someone I couldn't trust. When I went through the process of finding the right caregiver, I did extensive research, visited three licensed daycares, found 50 nanny candidates, interviewed eight candidates, and ran background checks on five. More importantly, when I finally picked the person I would trust with the single most important thing in my life, I committed myself to treating her with the level of respect that job deserves. My child's caregiver is responsible for her physical, emotional, and cognitive development on a daily basis. She is the protector of my child's health and safety when I am not there. That is a more venerable job that my boss, my physician, the neighborhood police officer, and the president combined!
It is very hard to be a working mother. That is a painful but brutally honest statement. The only way I can juggle the many hats I wear is to have a third parent in the household. I have given a lot of tips to fellow new mothers about everything from prenatal fitness to breastfeeding to how to use baby carriers. However, the single greatest piece of advice I can give to any mother is this: find a good caregiver. Whether you are a working mother, stay-at-home mother, or anything in between, you will need a break from your child for a variety of reasons--and needing a mental health break is a totally legitimate reason. As a mother, there is no worse feeling than being nervous about an irresponsible relative babysitting your child while you go on a date with Daddy, or feeling guilty about leaving your child at a daycare that you suspect is neglecting your child (or worse!) while you are at work.
Have reasonably but responsibly high standards for your sitter, nanny, or daycare provider. Communicate your expectations clearly and preferably in writing--even to your own mother. You would be surprised what other generations or cultures think is acceptable. Mike has fed Zen chocolate bars for breakfast. Most importantly, treat your caregiver with the utmost appreciation and respect. They deserve it.
Eat. Pray. Love.
When I was a kid we had a traditional dinnertime. To be clear, my parents were divorced and family meals usually consisted of Hamburger Helper and Tang or Whole Milk shared around a dilapidated breakfast nook that was older than me after a minimum of two afterschool activities each night. For all his iconoclastic and liberal musician tendencies, my Dad held fast to a handful of traditional values, including holding family meals sacred. What do I mean by sacred? I mean that we all sat down at the same time and no one got up until everyone was done eating. I mean that you finished everything on your plate, no questions asked. I mean that if someone called, Dad usually ignored the phone, and on the rare occasion that he actually answered, he politely told the caller, "We are eating dinner right now. We'll have to call you back."
And I loved it. I loved our family dinners. I really appreciated a quiet space, away from the chaos and busyness and distraction of everyday life. I liked that we gathered together as a family, shared the trials and triumphs of our day, and smiled and laughed--a lot.
Numerous studies have shown just how important shared family meals are. This simple activity improves communication, good manners, healthy eating habits, and a whole host of wonderful things, from teaching toddlers about using utensils to reducing suicidal tendencies in teens. The studies show how important it is, and my own personal experience validated this. Accordingly, I very deliberately instituted mealtime when my daughter was old enough for a high chair. I noticed several things about creating a sacred space for mealtimes. First, Zen is utterly captivated by the seemingly mundane items and tasks involved in cooking and eating. It started when she wanted to use my fork to feed herself. Then she started grabbing food off of my plate. My cousin was dumbfounded when she joined us for dinner one night and watched Zen grab a piece of spinach covered in caeser dressing of off my plate and happily munch on it. She also loves the cooking part of it. When she was smaller I would stick her in my Moby Wrap so she could watch me chop veggies and saute them in a skillet. On a whim I let her munch on a piece of red bell pepper once, and she gnawed on it for several minutes. Now that she is older I have begun cooking in full view (and reach!) of her high chair. The other day I gave her her own chopped veggies, a mixing bowl and spoon, and a couple of spice containers to shake into her bowl. She was just in heaven.
One of the unplanned results of this activity is that I am eating healthier. I have always been one who hates cooking, loves the social aspect of going out to eat, and always picks fried and cheese-covered options when given the choice. This is pretty much the trifecta of unhealthy eating. But when Zen was starting on solid food, I patiently slaved away every weekend, buying locally-grown organic produce, running steamed veggies through the food processor, and packaging homemade baby food in individual containers for the week. The process became a labor of love, and I found myself loving the (forgive the pun) Zen-like process of it. I also unexpectedly found myself developing healthy habits against my better judgment. I got more active in backyard gardening and became something of a local-food foodie. While I cooked for my dear daughter, I would sometimes snack on the slices of fresh white peaches from the Farmers Market near my office, steamed squash from our backyard, and roasted sweet potatoes from the Urban Farm Stand I volunteered at. As she got older, I would notice a disconnect between the take-and-back pizza on my plate and the assortment of chopped produce on her tray. When she grabbed things off of my plate, I would cringe as she grabbed fried whatchamacallit and shoveled it in her mouth. If it wasn't good enough for my daughter, why was it good enough for me? I was already deliberately trying to set a good example for her by bringing her to the library for story hour every week and bringing her along with me on runs in the jog stroller and bike rides in the trailer. Shouldn't I also teach her healthy eating habits through my own example?
A third result is that I am setting better lifestyle habits for our family. Before I instituted family meal time, I wolfed down a donut or muffin at my desk at 9 am and Mike would grab a Venti Nonfat Chai and a Pumpkin Scone on his way to work. In fact, when we got back from our honeymoon the girl at our local Starbuck's affectionately started referring to me as "Mrs. Venti Nonfat Chai." I loved the result of our family dinners so much I started enjoying breakfast with my daughter. I like having gibberish conversations with her while I eat an unhurried meal. I get to savor both the food and the quality time. I think her nanny subconsciously started coming in 10 minutes earlier to join us at the breakfast table to tell us about the funny comment her husband made the night before or the celebrity trash news du jour. Even Michael--who is consistently running late--enjoys coffee from a French press now and snacks and snuggles with Zen at the table before he leaves for the office. And like dinner, I am eating much, much healthier. I make pumpkin pancakes with flaxseed and whole-wheat blueberry or zucchini nut muffins on the weekends, freeze them, and enjoy yummy, healthy, satisfying breakfasts with a side of fresh fruit during the weekdays.
Surely, it is too early to tell whether any of this will have an effect on my daughter's relationship with food or her connection with family as she progresses into her school-age and teen years. I do know that the sacred space my Dad created for our family is something I treasure to this day, and I suspect that it will be the same for my own daughter.
I took time off over the last several days to spend time with my brother, (who is visiting from Boston where he is attending law school), and a friend of mine from high school, (who has been working for the USAID office in Budapest and hasn't been back to visit the States in 7 years). I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with each of them, not only because I enjoy their company, but also because they helped me see my surroundings through new eyes. Certainly, Boston and Budapest are entirely different places--culturally, geographically, etc--but the perspective of these two Nor Cal ex-patriots remained pretty consistent. I've put together the following list of things big and small that Ray and Suzi particularly missed about our state.
Diversity: California is a diverse place. I brought Suzi to the annual Jazz Festival in Old Sacramento, and we came across the Syncopating Sea Monkeys, a great high school jazz band who apparently hail from the high school a mile from my house. The set we heard was performed by a white female vocalist, an African American male drummer, and a brass section consisting of an Asian female, a Russian male, and a white male. Where we were standing a middle-aged hippie invited a senior woman to swing dance and a Latino couple with a baby was swaying to the beat. California has been a "minority majority" for years, but recent studies have also shown that we have more age diversity than the rest of the country, resulting from aging baby boomers and fewer immigrants and young families.
Food: I have never seen a place that had as many Farmers Markets as we do here in the Central Valley. We have a huge ag sector that ranges from small family-run operations to small organic teaching farms to extensive commercial farms. The Pacific Coast and our rivers have excellent fishing opportunities (well, when we aren't having water wars, but that's another story), and in my personal opinion Ghiradelli chocolate, Its It Ice Cream Sandwiches and San Francisco sourdough can't be beat. Blend all that with a plethora of ethnic foods and spices represented by our many immigrant populations and ad a dash of world-class chefs from places like Napa and you have a recipe for amazing! I'm getting hungry just thinking about it all!
Santa Cruz: Lake Tahoe. Crissy Field. Mount Tamalpais. Half Moon Bay. The American River Parkway. Thanks to the movement of tectonic plates and the efforts of generations of conservationists, we have breathtakingly beautiful place to get our nature fix.
Sunshine: 'Nuff said.
Smiles: Blame it on the weather--Californians are nice. When Ray and I went for a jog passersby smiled and nodded to acknowledge our presence. The waiter gave recommendations on margaritas to Suzi with a friendly grin. The deli staff at the grocery store and I swapped stores about our toddlers. At McKinley Park I stumbled across a drum circle and participated in an impromptu game of Capoeira interspersed with playing frisbee with a 4-year-old boy.
So what if our state budget is a travesty and our former-action-star-turned-governor has a trail of illegitimate children? So what if I have to pay a whopping 10% in sales taxes in SF? I am so fortunate to be able to take day trips to the multitude of festivals, national parks, and world-class cities within 100 miles. In 50 years politics and the economy will be a small footnote to the memories of people I've met and places I've seen right here in my own backyard.
The 80/20 Rule
As an unapologetic Type-A working mother, I frequently get overwhelmed by how much I have to do and how much I want to do but can't--and these ostensibly opposite thoughts often cross my mind at the same time. Just last night I was complaining to my husband about how I wish I spent more time with my increasingly curious daughter, but at the same time I am frustrated by how much I have given up for her, especially in the way of fitness and community work.
But then I remembered the 80/20 rule. It goes something like this: if you are doing your best 80% of the time, forgive yourself for the remaining 20% of the time that you are not up to par. Let's say you're on a diet--that would average out to a "cheat" day one afternoon a week if you were sticking to your veggies and healthy proteins the rest of the week. If you've been working 60 hours this week, it's okay for you to space out during your third evening meeting in a row. You get the picture.
This rule especially hits home when it comes to motherhood. My daughter was screeching in the car seat a few days ago because her singing puppy had fallen on the floor for the seventeenth time as I was trying to navigate the Highway 80/5 junction. I took a moment to breathe and remind myself that I was in the 20% zone. I've spent countless hours making homemade baby food from locally-grown organic produce, even despite the fact that I hate to cook. I bring her hiking and to the zoo and to the beach and to the river. If I spend 80% (and maybe even 95%) of my time being a good mother, I can let her cry over spilled puppy for 5 minutes. I'll still be a good mother.
Honestly, I don't feel like a good mother all the time, but I am fortunately blessed with wonderful friends, whether they are mothers or not, who remind me in ways big and small that I am indeed doing a good job. At her little boyfriend's birthday party I spent a solid 2 hours running around after Zen. She had only just turned 1 year old herself and yet there she was doing the craziest things, namely stepping on paper plates of food an unsuspecting guest left on the lawn and climbing the giant inflatable slide--yes, I said CLIMB, as in she was scaling the nearly vertical slide while school-aged kids tried to slide down. I went home pretty exhausted that evening. The next day a pregnant friend told me that she watched me play with Zen at the party, and that she hopes to be a mother just like me when the time comes. A teacher friend who was at the party commented that she loved the freedom I gave her; I'm pretty sure that she was the one whose plate Zen stepped on. Yet another guest saw me nearly a month later and told me that her husband said that he wanted to have a little girl as beautiful as mine--the same one scaling the slide, believe it or not.
Back to the 80/20 rule. I don't remember 100% of the things my parents did. In fact, in the grand scheme of things I probably only remember a few snippets of my childhood. But what I do remember really sticks with me. I remember the big breakfasts my Dad would make on weekend mornings. He would play acoustic music on the radio and fling giant pancakes across the kitchen like frisbees. He called them "Uncle Buck" pancakes because he got the idea from the pancakes John Candy flipped with a snow shovel in the movie. I remember my Mom, who was arguably the most popular parent at my elementary school. She was the Girl Scout troop leader for probably 50 girls, and for our world heritage celebration she taught my schoolmates how to dance the tinikling, a Filipino cultural dance with giant bamboo poles.
I figure that if I am an excellent parent (or project manager or runner or friend, for that matter) at least 80% of the time, chances are that one of Zen's few early memories will be of being awestruck by the flamingos at the zoo or fascinated by the Chinese lion dancers at the Pacific Rim Festival--or maybe simply snuggling into my arms as I read "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to her yet again. I know those will be some of my favorite memories in 20 years.