Making it home

My neighborhood, on lockdown

My Coolidge Corner neighborhood, on lockdown

On Monday, the bombs exploded. On Friday, the city was put on lockdown, and on Sunday I boarded a plane to fly across the country to a place I’d never been.

It was a trip I’d planned for a long time to a place – Portland, Oregon – that I’d long wanted to visit. At the same time, as I finished up my packing and managed a last few errands, I found myself wishing that I wasn’t going anywhere at all. What I wanted was normality – a return to the usual routines of writing, work, and friends.  It was then that I realized, with some surprise, that this place I’ve been living since September has come to feel like home.

For my friend Jan, the Boston/Cambridge area has felt, from the very beginning, like where she was meant to be. “Cambridge is the first and only place I’ve felt like I belong and where I’m entirely comfortable in my own skin,” she wrote last week, in the dizzying days after law enforcement staked out the Cambridge residence of the alleged marathon bombers.

My own relationship with the area has been both slightly longer and far more fraught. It began back in 1978, when I arrived on the Harvard campus at the age of 18, a serious, shy Midwesterner abruptly catapulted into a foreign land. In the 20th-century intellectual history class I took freshman year, our professor lectured on the 1897 novel Les Déracinés, about seven young provincials who lose their way after arriving in Paris, the price of having been torn away from their native traditions. That word stayed with me— déraciné, unrooted. I certainly wasn’t living in France at the turn of the century.  Still, I knew what it felt like to be alone and unmoored.

I did not cope especially well. I went to a lot of parties, and I began a drinking career that would last through my mid-30s. I recall a couple of half-hearted visits to Harvard University health services with no notable results. Some two decades later, Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven would chronicle a murder-suicide in one of Harvard’s undergraduate houses. An Ethiopian student, lonely and unstable, stabbed her Vietnamese-born roommate to death then hung herself. Reading Thernstrom’s account of the systemic failings of Harvard’s psychological services, I would nod my head thinking, yes, this is what it was like.

Being young, confused, and far from home, bereft of support structures—it’s never been a recipe for happiness. Yet why do some triumph against all odds, while others self-destruct, while still others lash out violently with tragically horrific results?

By all accounts, the ethnic Chechen Tsarnaev brothers were considered friendly and well-liked. What series of events led to them to mutate from seemingly assimilated immigrants to murderous bombers? While the answers may never be fully known, a history of uncertainty and dislocation is unlikely to have helped.

Wherever you go there you are. The more I reflect on that neat aphorism, the less true it seems. For many of us, and for many different reasons, home is not a place to which we return, it is something we create, and that act of creation takes energy, resources, and support, along with that undefinable and elusive thing called luck. When I moved back to Boston this last time, I had all of these. I know what it’s like not to: It’s really, really hard.

Perhaps the most iconic photo to emerge from the marathon bombings is the image of a man in a cowboy hat leaping to the aid of a critically injured victim, having beaten down flames and tied a tourniquet to one of his partially severed legs. We now know that the rescuer is Carlos Arredondo, a 52-year-old peace activist who’d already faced more than his share of personal tragedy. Nine years ago, on learning that his 20-year-old son had been killed by Iraqi snipers, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Two years, ago a second son committed suicide, having never recovered from his brother’s death and father’s resulting meltdown.

How do we account for this sort of gorgeous alchemy? If Arredondo had become a terrorist, we would have no shortage of ready explanations. But instead his anguish fueled a passion to save and rescue. “Cities are not resilient, people are. And, sometimes, they are not,” wrote Boston journalist Elaine McNamara. The journey from despair and loss is both profoundly personal and unpredictable. Wrong turns happen. Not everyone makes it back.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Trojan Horse

Sheryl SandbergHaving already read the book and heard the interviews, only two things caught me by surprise last Thursday when Sheryl Sanderg brought her Lean In roadshow to a theater in my neighborhood.

First was The Dress, a form-fitting little black number, at first glance unremarkable in this era of Corporate Alpha Female 2.0, where sexuality is proudly featured rather than downplayed—unremarkable, that is, until she turned her back and disclosed a gold-toned zipper running from top to bottom. (And before you get all “You-Wouldn’t-Be-Talking-About-What-She-Was-Wearing-If-She-Were-A-Man” on me, let me be clear: If Barack Obama showed up in a traditional suit with a contrasting zipper running down its back, I would remark upon it.) For me, this took the outfit from Seen This Before, to WTF. It seemed to be demanding some sort of response, though I’ve yet to figure out just what.

Second, and far more significant, was Sandberg’s pointed reference to how companies are quickly moving to adopt the Lean In model—which, depending on your perspective, could be either a great thing or a very ominous sign.

I’m of the second view. Let me explain why.

Women’s workplace initiatives of the sort that began to take root during the booming 90s—the period during which I practiced law in a large New York firm—focused on helping women balance motherhood and career. Being single with no kids, I always had my issues with this exclusive focus (I want to write a novel! What about flex-time for that?), but all in all, it was a big step in the right direction. There is more to life than work. We need to recognize that.

Enter Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In phenomenon.

While purportedly respecting – even celebrating – the diverse choices women make as they balance family and career, Lean In’s core message is something very different. “Life is a race, Sandberg is telling us, and the way to win is through the perpetual acceleration of one’s own labor: moving forward, faster,” writes former Facebook employee Kate Losse in her terrifically trenchant and insightful piece in Dissent “The real antagonist identified by Lean In then is not institutionalized discrimination against women, but women’s reluctance to accept accelerating career demands.”

You may think this is a great way to live or a terrible way to live (and research suggests that most women with young kids will go with the latter), but that’s not what primarily concerns me here.  Rather, my concern is that Sandberg’s prescription purports to be something that it is not – and in this guise is drawing support from women whose lives it’s just going to make harder.

The following exchange is instructive on this point.

Responding to an audience question about navigating both motherhood and overwhelming work demands, Sandberg essentially said that women need to do a better job setting expectations and boundaries, noting that she herself manages to make it home for dinner with her kids.

What she didn’t mention was this (from page 133):

“Facebook is available around the world 24/7, and for the most part, so am I. The days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or vacation are long gone. And unlike my job at Google, which was based almost exclusively in California, my Facebook role requires a lot of travel.”

The Lean In website currently lists dozens of business partners including financial institutions (American Express, Bank of America), big law firms (Skadden, Sidley Austin), consultants (McKinsey & Company), and other large businesses (Pfizer, AT&T). These institutions doubtless already have women’s and other diversity initiatives. What will the Lean In movement contribute – and what will it take away?

Women with full-time jobs and outside lives have very limited bandwidth. Here’s my, admittedly pessimistic, prognostication: The conversation about leaning in will slowly but surely supplant talk about on-site child care, work/life balance, and other “family friendly” policies. (As for the would-be novelists among us: As you were.)

I can’t help but think that Lean In offers a feminism tailor-made for our New Economy—one where the primary beneficiaries are companies, not women. Through the magic of Lean In, women’s initiative costs – poof! – transform into corporate profits. The Greeks left their model horse outside the gates of Troy and pretended to sail away. As for us, we have more clues than the Trojans did. We know who’s still hanging around.

Replica of the Trojan Horse at Troy, Turkey

 

When walking is working (plus an invitation)

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

My friend Marci Alboher – vice president of Encore.org and author of the terrific new Encore Career Handbook – recalls the moment she realized she’d landed in the right workplace: It was when she discovered that business meetings routinely took place over long walks.

“Walking is a great way to be creative,” she observed. “That’s how I knew I was in the right office culture.”

These reflections came as we finalized plans for this Tuesday’s Encore Town Hall in Newton, Massachusetts, the latest leg of Marci’s national book tour. The topic: The growing wave of people moving into public service in the second half of their careers—and how you can join them. (More about the book here.) I’m excited to be interviewing Marci and also moderating a fascinating panel of people who have made—or are making—the shift into encore careers of their own. If you’re in the area, do try to join us! While the focus will be encore careers, the advice will be valuable to anyone in a career transition or contemplating one.

Finding satisfaction at work can be a complicated undertaking. It’s not just what we do but also where we do it and why. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately in the context of my still-pretty-new job at Harvard School of Public Health. Why am I so much happier here than I’ve been in other jobs where the substance of my work wasn’t all that different? As I wrote here, I think the answer lies in workplace culture.

But what is workplace culture?

For starters, it’s far more than office perks—and if we start confusing the two, we’re likely to get into trouble.

“Free sodas are not workplace culture,” Vicki Brown quipped on LinkedIn, in response to my previous post.

“A ping pong table, laundry service, or free coffee is not company culture; not linked to core values and guiding principles,” tweeted Vala Afshar, author of The Pursuit of Social Business Excellence.

Core values and guiding principles, yes: I think he’s on to something. Sometimes perks and policies reflect these. Other times, they are simply an overlay, a calculated distraction.

Shortly after I got off the phone with Marci, my boss appeared in my office doorway for our weekly check-in. He was hoping to do it quickly since he wanted to head out to the Clover food truck to pick up lunch.

“What if I walk over with you, and we can meet that way?” I asked.

This sounded like a great idea to him, so that is what we did. For me, it was another sign that I too have landed in the right place.

Join us in Newton: The Encore Town Hall is just days away—on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, from 7-9pm at Lasell College’s deWitt Hall. Space is limited. For more information or to register, please click here.  We hope to see you there!