Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Good Etiquette

When I accepted a job as a summer associate at Ropes & Gray for the summer of 2007, I knew little about what the job actually entailed. To be honest, I hadn't done too much research on the whole thing, and now that I think about it, that seems pretty irresponsible. It also seems kind of stupid especially because in order to begin that job, I had to resign from another job that I loved. But in all honesty, at the time, I figured that it would be wrong to pass up a job shoveling shit (sorry kids) if it was for the amount of money that Ropes was going to pay me. If I hate it, I thought, I'll just tough it out for a few years, pay back all my loans, and go back to teaching. In retrospect, this reasoning horrifies me for too many reasons to explain, but nevertheless, it's the truth. 

At the same time, I was really excited for a new adventure and my enthusiasm in my interviews was sincere -- at the time I really did think that I would like that job. Admittedly, I never gave the shoveling shit metaphor to any of the attorneys involved in the hiring process, but when I said that I was excited to start my legal career at a big law firm, I really wasn't lying. 

Looking back, I should have known that I wasn't the big corporate law kind of girl much earlier than I did. Actually, I think deep down I probably knew it right away, but it took a while for it to fully register. If I had to name one of the first times I started to realize that I was in the wrong place, I think I could. It was during the summer of 2007 at a presentation by a woman named Mary Crane. 

By no means do I mean this post to be a knock on Ms. Crane. I know basically nothing about her except what I just read on her website and what I remember from the presentation that she gave to me and approximately 180 other summer associates over five years ago. In fact, I even forgot the woman's name until a solid Google assist tonight. I remembered that she was a chef at the White House and that her presentation had been on the topic of business etiquette and those two bits of data were plenty for Google to hit on her name. I love Google.

I'll never forget Mary Crane's presentation because it was the first time I asked a question in front of all of the summer associates. Ms. Crane had been teaching us all we needed to know about proper business etiquette from whether or not women need to wear nylons to how to make a cocktail party into a successful business initiative. For someone like me who wouldn't wear nylons in the summer for a couple thousand dollars and for whom a cocktail party means, first and foremost, free cheese, I wasn't picking up what this lady was putting down. 

Then there was the etiquette straw that broke my rude little back. While on the topic of networking at business cocktail parties, Ms. Crane explained the dangers of holding a drink in one's right hand. This, she cautioned, makes the right hand cold and wet which is never what one wants before a handshake. So our little army of new lawyers was supposed to always keep our drink in our left hand and our right hand primed for a quality hand shake with our next best business friend. Without time for my internal edit button to flick on, my hand shot up. So are you saying we are not supposed to eat anything then? I asked. That's right, she answered, and went on to explain why eating hors d'oeuvres at business events is a very bad idea. I don't remember all of her reasons. But I do remember that while she was talking, I felt completely out of place. I loved boxing out my siblings when the chips and spinach dip hit the kitchen island and since high school, Brianne and I considered (and still consider) Papa Gino's an awesome luxury. If my new employer saw this type of etiquette crap as important, I was doomed. 

Clearly I'm not a huge fan of proper etiquette and mostly it's because I think that if people have good, honest, and sincere intentions then stuff like nylons and cold hands shouldn't make an ounce of difference. This attitude is probably why I don't worry much about my bald head making people uncomfortable. Like no one's ever seen a bald head before? Funny, I see them every single day. They just usually happen to be on men.  

Nevertheless, I'm not much of a social renegade either and sometimes I wonder if I'm getting the cancer etiquette right. For instance, I have no idea what I should do with all of the tupperware that we have gathered over the last few months from all of the delicious meals that people have cooked for us. I've saved every container, mostly with post-its inside with the name of the person from whom it came. But I wonder if these people will think I'm totally compulsive if I coordinate getting them back their plasticware.  

Then there's the How are you feeling question that I know I botch every time it is so graciously asked of me. Oftentimes I feel crappy in all sorts of weird ways but I don't want to burden the asker with that information. If I fake it and say that I feel OK, I then wonder if I'm doing a disservice to other chemo patients by portraying this whole process as something easier than it really is. I usually give some middle of the road answer and then end up thinking I sound like I'm complaining, which I hate. I have no idea where I'm going with this paragraph and I should probably just delete it. Especially because now people are going to think that I'm judging them and the questions they ask me even when those questions are as simple as, How are you? Really, I'm not doing that. I'm just typing random thoughts while my kids sleep and my husband plays hockey. 

Anyways, another piece of cancer etiquette that I'm really curious about is the old fashioned thank you card. I really wish I could just pause time and sit down and write hundreds of thank you cards. There are so many people to thank for so many different things. I have so much that I want to write to these people and I have received (as yet another fabulous gift) the most perfect stationary on which to write it. But when I go to sit down and start, I get really overwhelmed by how much there is to say and how impossible I feel it is to properly say it. So I stop and I wonder if anyone would care if I just skipped the whole process. Or perhaps it's like a wedding gift and I get a year. I have no idea. 

Like lots of people, I try to send out an annual holiday card (although they became New Years cards for a year or two when I was really busy at work). So I thought maybe I would do a little hybrid holiday card / thank you card thing. But is that cheating? Where is Mary Crane when I need her? 

Finally, I am getting to the thing that I actually sat down to write about. (Scary that everything before this was basically an afterthought which is perfect proof that I really can't turn off my brain.) For the last few weeks, I have been receiving one or two pink envelopes in the mail every single day.

Here are just a few of the contents of these fabulous pink envelopes: 

Another envelope included a 1980s lyrics quiz. (For example, try this one -- "The phone rings in the middle of the night, my father yells, 'What you gonna do with your life?'" How about this one -- "My baby may not be rich, he's watching every dime." I love these songs!)

And here are two of my favorite cards from a stack I got today:

Another day I received pages of great quotes including this one I totally loved, "We never really grow up. We just learn how to act in public." And yet another envelope contained a list of funny little notes that kids wrote to God including, "Dear God, Who draws the lines around the countries?" I had so much fun opening up each one of these letters and I had even more fun tonight going back through them. 

I've mentioned before that I don't want to use this space as a place to thank people. Not only does it feel a bit cheap, but I know that no matter how hard I tried, I'd miss someone. The truth is, however, that every single day, I am brought to tears or total speechlessness over someone's kindness and generosity towards me and my family. Today alone, it happened three times. Literally, three different times today I had to catch my breath after witnessing the power of someone's goodness and I could have written tonight's blog about any one of them. Each time after I collected myself, I stopped and wondered, What in the world could I ever do to properly thank this person? A long personal thank you note wouldn't even do the trick, never mind a post to the blogosphere. When the whole world and I played PowerBall a few weeks ago, I thought maybe all that money could help me with my Thank Yous. But shockingly, I didn't win. All of this got me thinking about etiquette. Because sometimes, even the best etiquette in the world (or the biggest lottery jackpot) just isn't going to be enough. 

So tonight I decided to write about my mystery notes. Because the mystery notes are, in a way, awesomely representative of the kindness that I've seen over the last few months. Each one is so unique, so generous, and so sincere. They make me laugh and they make me cry (good cries, mind you). They make me smile and they make me think. Most of all, they make me feel so special and so alive. 

I have no idea what little angels are sending me those pink envelopes. In a way, that makes them even more precious. Because there is something kind of magical about any example of giving something without getting anything in return. I can't send those angels a thank you card even though I want to. They have literally transcended all possibility of proper thank you etiquette. Pretty cool. 

This week a friend shared this quote with me: "Holy angels never draw attention to themselves. They typically do their work and disappear." I am surrounded by angels and there's no way any holiday card, thank you note, or poor combination of the two will ever do justice to the generosity my angels have shown me through their pink envelopes and countless other gestures. Maybe there is no real etiquette when it comes to cancer. Maybe we just need to leave etiquette to the summer associates at big corporate law firms. Meanwhile, the rest of us can eat free cheese, drink with either hand, and be merry. 


  1. Hahahaha! Very funny and very touching! You should read John Grisham's The Litigators to see how much he hates the big law firms, you may be writing a book, next. I can't believe they would not want you to eat anything when you are having drinks and probably need to drive home. Etiquette, shmettiquette! Miss you, we need to get together somehow and have some good laughs. xoxo

  2. Hi Tara,
    Laura from Bowdoin here. I too have struggled with thank yous. I read recently that in this day and age email thank yous are ok. I try to write heartfelt notes via email and address the many kindnesses that have come my way that way. I think the lack of a real note will be forgiven, and I feel a sense of completion when I know I have sent thank yous. I had my 5th of 6 chemos the same day you had your 3rd of 4 I think. Take good care.,,,

  3. I am sure I speak for many when I say your full recovery will be thanks enough, so use all of your energy for that instead of on worrying about thank yous.

  4. Does your sister having cancer get you out of doing wedding thank you cards? Because its five months after my wedding and I haven't even bought the cards, nevertheless written one. Clearly I didn't get the good etiquette in the family :)