Monday, January 14, 2013

Moderation and Mentors

I have always marveled at people who are good at moderation. You know, those people who can be satisfied with one brownie and not want the whole rest of the plate; the people who can watch one episode on a DVD series and not want to stay up for hours watching three more. I am not one of these people, but so wish that I could be.

Unfortunately, I have a more addictive type of personality. If I like a song, I play it over and over until I totally kill it; if I like a meal at a restaurant, I order it every time I go there; if I find a delicious new ice cream flavor (still Edy's mint cookie crunch), I buy it every week. Seriously, I wish I could master moderation. Wait, there I go again. Correct that -- rather, I wish I could even just moderately be good at moderation. Yes, that's it.

This personality trait is part of why I have always worked more than full-time. At Ropes, several woman I knew worked a reduced schedule -- "60%" or "80%" -- but I never thought I would be able to do that. First and foremost, we didn't think we had the financial flexibility for me to take a pay cut for a part-time schedule, but even if we did, I didn't think I'd have the personality for it. Plus, at Ropes, I thought it would be next to impossible to do my job part-time. Clients paying $500-$900 per hour just don't want to hear that I don't work on Wednesdays, and for that amount of money, I don't blame them. Most of my projects didn't lend themselves to waiting and the culture around me didn't seem to have much tolerance for it either. At Ropes, since I always figured that I'd end up working full-time, I decided that I may as well be paid for it. For these many reasons, I never took any part-time opportunities even though they were, in theory, available to me.

When I returned from maternity leave with Annabel, however, I did apply and receive approval for a "flexible schedule." I was still full-time, but a committee of partners officially approved of me leaving at 5:30pm, remaining somewhat offline until 7:30pm (when my kids went to bed), and then logging back on after that -- Monday through Friday, and of course on the weekends whenever necessary. Leaving at 5:30 often meant that I'd be up past midnight to make up the time for leaving early.

When I left the Prudential Tower at 5:30 for the 5:45 train, I got home around 6:40, and since Annabel was exhausted by 7, I didn't get enough time with her. But it was better than not seeing her at all, and I always remembered that most people don't get to leave work much earlier than 5 anyways. Through this "Impact program," as the firm called it, I also had a partner assigned to help me work through work-life balance issues. This partner was honest, very kind, and had a great sense of humor. Unfortunately, she wasn't based in Boston and I barely ever got to work with her. It's hard to build a real relationship over the phone.

To be clear, the Impact program definitely helped me. I didn't feel guilty leaving the office at 5:30 even though everyone else was still there. But it didn't help me find a balance with which I felt truly comfortable. And it never helped to convince me that I could be happy as a partner at Ropes & Gray or any big international corporate law firm.

When I was leaving Ropes, I had a couple of exit interviews in which a partner or a professional staff person asked me questions about why I was leaving. I explained that I couldn't see myself as a partner at Ropes so it was time to go somewhere that would better fit my personality. I explained that I was really excited to join a firm where I could see myself staying, and even more, where I could see myself being happy years down the line.

*  *  * 

On my first day of interviews at Verrill Dana, I met with several people, and it would be fun to write about any one of them (I may just do so one day after I've run my ideas by them -- I try never to surprise any of the subjects of my writing). Tonight, however, I want to write about one person with whom I met that day -- Mark. I've introduced Mark before, in an August 2012 blog linked HERE.

My 30-minute interview with Mark didn't feel like an interview at all. It just felt like a great conversation with a really smart and really nice man. He asked me about being a teacher -- one of my most favorite conversation topics -- and he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. And he told me about his work and it sounded fascinating.

Aside from my gut instinct that it would be awesome to work with Mark, I found countless other reasons why I wanted to make the leap from a prestigious, nationally-recognized health care group to a relatively new and evolving group in a satellite office of a mid-size Maine-based firm. On January 17, 2012, I started my new job, and since then, my experiences there (and, ironically, not there) have done nothing but confirm that it was the best move for me.

The week before last, I went into the office to talk to Mark, my official and unofficial mentor, about my work schedule when my medical leave ends in a few weeks. We talked until the conversation felt complete, not until the clock struck a certain time. I told Mark about something I had been contemplating -- working only four days a week and taking the fifth day to continue my writing. Mark is a loyal follower of this blog, so he already knew how much this space means to me. We talked about how I wasn't ready to give this up, and that I wanted to work on my novel and some other writing. Mark's response was priceless -- not only was he completely supportive, but in a much more eloquent way, he said something like, Really we should all take more time for those things that make us really happy. I couldn't agree more.

That conversation with Mark was life-changing for me, as was the subsequent support of my other colleagues at the firm. And so I am in the process of formalizing my plans for this reduced schedule. Of course, I will take a 20% pay cut to do so, but as Brian said, We'll make it work. 

Before I was diagnosed, Mark told me about some of the more difficult times in his life. Mark is a hemophiliac and in the 1980s he contracted HIV and hepatitis C through blood transfusions that he received for his hemophilia. He told me about having young kids back when HIV drugs weren't what they are now -- when he wasn't sure he would make it. I remember those conversations when I'm in my dark moments and I feel like no one could understand how scared I am of life and of death. In those moments and in many others, I am so thankful for meeting Mark. In fact, I still marvel at the fact that my path crossed his at this particular time in my life.

In my second week of work, Mark broke his femur. Thank goodness, it happened just blocks away from the Brigham. A broken femur is terrible for anyone, but for a hemophiliac, it could have been especially tragic. I was crushed by this news, and devastated that Mark was enduring more pain.

Somehow, just ten days later, I was at Mark's house and we were hard at work on a project that we continued to work on together through the summer. Every few weeks, he and I worked from his dining room table and discussed issues big and small. I met his lovely wife and his two kids. He introduced me to coconut covered M&Ms and a shop near his house that makes the best paninis. I saw that Mark works hard, but he still loves things like painting, reading, writing, and playing board games or Chess with his kids.

Mark is brilliant -- and not just the went-to-Harvard-for-more-than-one-degree kind of brilliant, although he did. He's the kind of brilliant that allows him to cut to the heart of an issue instantaneously, while I'm stuck in the weeds of the details. And he's the kind of modest that allows him to guide me out of the weeds to a better understanding, while never making me feel stupid (even though I sometimes am). All the while, he's even funnier than he is smart. Before I met Mark, I never knew there was so much room for humor in the law and some of his replies to group emails have had me in tears of laughter. It's a refreshing realization that we can do a serious job but not take ourselves too seriously.

Mark is also as thoughtful as they come. He sets aside quality time to write birthday cards to his friends and he speaks of his wife like she's his very best friend. His family comes first for him, and he made clear that mine should come first for me. I'll never forget one afternoon when Mark was in my office and the phone rang. I saw that it was Brian and when I said so, Mark got up to leave even though I told him that he didn't need to. I answered the phone to be sure it was nothing important and when Brian said that it wasn't, I hung up and Mark and I continued our conversation. Mark will never know how much it means to me that he does things like wait a minute while I answer the phone and talk to Brian.

Although I had never entertained the thought until just a few weeks ago, I'm thrilled about this opportunity to take a day away from work every week to write. At the same time, I'm not good at giving only 80% to anything. Last night at "Teddy and Granddad's Patriots party," my family clarified for me that on this schedule it's not that I would be putting in 80% of my effort; rather, I would be giving 100% of my effort, just 80% of the time. That was kind of an epiphany for me.

A year ago, I was sitting in exit interviews at Ropes & Gray talking about where I could and could not see myself in the future. I was planning for years down the road, even decades. I'm almost embarrassed by the cavalier old me who used to speak in those terms; by the young woman who expected so much time. I don't take that time for granted anymore, although I have faith that I will get it. Especially because in these last six months, I have earned it.

Now I'm slowly opening my eyes to the light outside of my cancer cocoon. The light is bright, which is wonderful, but sometimes I feel like I need to squint. If I try to plan details of my life years down the road, never mind decades, I feel a wave of fear and anxiety. Then I feel myself moving back into a small dark space. So I'm not ready for distant future plans just yet.

And I'm definitely not ready to stop writing. Maybe that means that I haven't healed yet, or maybe it means that I have. Maybe it means that I've found a balance that I wasn't able to find before; I'm not sure. But I am sure that I will return to work at a more moderate schedule so that I can keep writing. And I know that as I do so, my mentor will be there cheering me on, and giving me a shining example of what it means to be a great writer, a great lawyer, a great teacher, but most of all, a really, really great person.

I cherish the card from all of my colleagues that came with unbelievably generous gifts.  This was Mark's note on that card. See what I mean?


  1. Tara,
    I have read many of your blogs and never commented. Tonight Michael sent me the link to read this one. You write so beautifully and say things that are so TRUE. You have found your place in the world and right now as I see it, it couldn't be better.
    Again, thanks for your blogs, your inspiration and just being haven't changed since high school. You are one amazing lady!
    Big and even bigger hugs,
    Mrs. B

  2. Tara,
    Your blog has been a new place with familiar feelings for me. I am an 8 year survivor of stage 3 ( briefly bumped to stage 4... long story). We are informed by mortality rate pies that do not reflect the amazing progress we have made with this disease. When I was first diagnosed I asked a friend, a survivor, if there was ever a day, an hour, a moment, that she did not think about cancer. She was 10 years out and she said "months go by." I couldn't believe it. It took some time for that to be true. You will grow old. You don't have to be more grateful than anyone else for the privilege. Be proud of your brave fight and and allow it to get smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror.
    You are so alive, your writing reflects that. I think the instinct is to try to appreciate each moment (bald, with mouth sores and nosebleeds... and the constant threat of your own mortality...hah). Allow for the greater possibility of your own survival. LIve as if.... isn't that how it was before? Being wrong then didn't change that. The quality of your life returns when you can embrace the probability, just as you did before diagnosis, that you will be a grey haired old granny.
    I have every confidence that you will will prosper.
    I am now, very recently...a granny.

    1. What an incredible comment...I am in awe of you -- such a warrior! I can hardly believe that minutes could go by, never mind months, but you give me great hope. You are a beautiful writer and I have read this comment so many times because every sentence means so much. "A grey haired old granny" -- now that is a dream come true. Enjoy your new little blessing. I am so happy for you. Thank you again for these priceless words.

  3. I got goose bumps reading this post as I had one of those "ah hah" moments where things all seem to make a bit more sense. Although the circumstances you've been through since August are from from ideal, it seems like they have also brought you so many positive things as well. BTW, Mark sounds like an amazing - and talented -person! Congrats on your new schedule and bright future!
    Michelle (and daily blog reader!)