Individualism vs. collectivism is a false choice

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy

Some people say the 2012 presidential race was a contest between worldviews. On one side is the collective view (represented by President Barack Obama), and on the other, the idea that the individual succeeds on his or her own (promoted by Mitt Romney).

Think of the sound bites we had on these themes - from Rep. Paul Ryan's admiration for ultra-individualist Ayn Rand to Obama's reminder that business people didn't "build that" by themselves. They had a country behind them.

Superstorm Sandy, as if on cue, blew in to provide us with daily reminders of how we need each other. Driving past a recently bisected tree that had been blocking my daily commute, I know: I didn't cut that.

Neighbors have been checking on one another's well-being. Even in the heat of the close presidential contest, leaders of opposite parties returned to civility. Perhaps New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who considered challenging Obama, understood that he might need the White House - whether it's inhabited by an R or a D.

In "The Social Conquest of Earth," published earlier this year, naturalist Edward O. Wilson argues that humans evolved as we did precisely because we have strains of both individualism and collectivism. Wilson, who has spent years studying ant colonies, updates the idea that the fittest individuals survive. In fact, groups in which individuals sacrifice for the good of the collective have, over millions of years, won out. "Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals," Wilson writes, "while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals."

Groups that are willing to share, to withhold individual rewards in order to further the growth of the collective, emerged from the evolutionary contest to become modern humans.

But we've retained characteristics of both, Wilson says. We are forever stuck in between selfishness and generosity. If we were all-out collectivists, we would cooperate robotically, like ants. As extreme individualists, humans wouldn't have formed societies where we specialize in healing, finding food and building shelters.

It's that tension of being stuck in between that played out in the presidential election - and will continue to bedevil us. What's the right place on the spectrum? Does it change after a hurricane?

Individualists say that when people are free to act in their own self-interest, society benefits. This philosophy promotes hard work and worries about creeping totalitarianism.

Collectivists point out the many things we accomplish together that we wouldn't do singly - efforts that spread the cost over many people and even many generations: medicine, the university system, roads and airports, our judicial system, arming a military, fighting fires.

People who hold the collectivist view fear that job creators want an excuse for greed and special tax treatment.

The great thing is that we don't have to choose between these views - no matter what you heard on the presidential campaign trail. Science argues for some of each.

So, what's it to be to lift us out of the Great Recession? Other catastrophes, like the Great Depression, have catalyzed collective solutions. We emerged with the Social Security Act and the GI Bill and a sense that we're in this together.

It's been difficult over the past several months to feel a sense of fellowship, however. I purposely didn't vote for either candidate in my Assembly district yesterday because I thought they made false, destructive claims about each other.

So, I'm glad it's the day after Election Day. Let's set aside fake choices and use all of our abilities to move on.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Is marriage becoming extinct?

As poverty grows and the gap between rich and poor widens, there's a narrative developing that women may have taken this equality stuff too far.

Today, 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside of marriage, compared with 17 percent in the 1980s. The decline in marriage leaves parents - mostly mothers - to struggle alone financially. Depending on which study you read, sociologists believe that single parenting accounts for 15 to 40 percent of a family's likelihood of living in poverty.

Even Isabel Sawhill, who directs the Center on Children and Families for the moderately liberal Brookings Institution, wrote in May that former Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago about Murphy Brown: Unmarried motherhood is a bad choice. Children who grow up poor more often act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of high school.

But this narrative implies that the rise of women's rights is to blame for all these changes - or that it is reversible. The bad news story also ignores the gains arising from the greater earning power of women, the looser divorce laws and the reduced social censure that have enabled so much single parenthood. The rate of domestic abuse has dropped steadily, for example, and women are less likely to commit suicide or be killed by an intimate partner.

Many single parents are raising wonderful children - I know several - but they don't have an easy job. We need to acknowledge that we are headed for a post-marital world, and adopt policies that will give the children of such families a better chance at a secure middle-class adulthood. Such policies will lighten the single parent's load, too, although that's no reason to oppose them.

First, we could educate teenage fathers about their responsibilities to their children. There's a lot of advice out there for girls but very little for guys. A man has the right to know whether he is the father, and to seek to be involved in raising the child. Men have a responsibility to provide financial support, and to see that decisions are being made in the child's best interest.

Counseling for couples planning to marry should be easily available. So many of us marry without a realistic view of how to live together. A handful of states - Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee - have passed legislation providing financial incentives for couples to participate in formal premarital education.

We must find other ways for kids to have more parental figures - if they can't have both biological parents - in their lives. For example, some builders have begun designing homes to accommodate multiple generations. Family rooms and dining rooms are larger, and the homes include two master bedrooms at opposite ends of the house, for privacy. Overall, the American housing market is trending toward smaller - but this home-sharing concept is part of the mix.

Living near extended family, having community centers and places of worship that attract all generations, extending the school day to accommodate extracurricular activities and homework help - these are also crucial.

If I hadn't met my husband and formed a traditional family, I may have had a child on my own. I was considering it in 1992, when the veep made his quip about Murphy Brown. Life's drive to recreate itself is very strong. That's something people don't mention often enough in these discussions.

If American marital norms are morphing into something we wouldn't have recognized 20 years ago, well, so be it. Let's take what good marriages have taught us about children's need for belonging and the influence of caring adults, and make sure we meet that need - no matter what forms our families take.

This essay was first published in Newsday.

Must the state drag parents into piercings?



The New York State Assembly passed a bill last week requiring parents to sign a consent form for their kids younger than 18 who want to have a body part pierced.

I don't normally react badly to nanny state imperatives; I don't miss the trans fats in my New York City restaurant meals one bit. But the body-piercing age limit struck me as intrusive.

It happens that the week before this bill passed, my 14-year-old told me she might like to pierce her upper ear or navel. Those seemed pretty tasteful to me, and more reversible than a tattoo.

"I suppose I should act shocked so you won't take your rebellion phase any further," I joked.

But this is serious. What right does the state have to insert itself into my job as a parent? Forcing my kids to ask permission would turn casual discussions about boundaries and style into high-stakes negotiations.

As a mother of teens, I see how important it is to them to develop their identities. And if everything they do to express themselves has to have a parental sanction - well, that's no longer self-expression, is it? At least, not a self-expression they are in charge of. It takes the freedom of choice out of the teen's hands and puts parents in the role of censor.

Would I be more concerned if my daughter wanted something awful, like nipple or genital piercing? Or an ear gauge? Absolutely. But then, she wouldn't be likely to talk to me about it. Let's face it, this bill could pretty much put an end to body piercings under age 18.

The bill is in the State Senate now, and it looks likely to pass before the scheduled adjournment on June 21. Legislators are under pressure after news stories in April revealed that kids as young as 12 were able to get body piercings for $20 in the East Village.

Some shops won't do the procedures on anyone who can't prove they're 18, and local laws in some places back them up. But there's no statewide minimum age, and if one parlor refuses to honor a young customer's wish, he or she can always shop around.

There is a certain logic in the body-piercing bill, since teens younger than 18 cannot get a tattoo, even with parental permission. The tattoo artist who breaks this law can fetch a class B misdemeanor, meaning a fine of up to $500 or as much as three months in jail. The body-piercing bill would carry the same penalties.

It's certainly hard to argue against parents being informed about body piercing, since it comes with health risks: allergic reactions, infections and scarring. Piercings can be easy to hide, but parents can watch for health problems if they know about them.

And piercing-shop owners may welcome the law. Who wants the legal liability for maiming or sickening a young client? They would probably be glad to be rid of the pressure to give a 12-year-old a tongue stud.

Katie Ragione at Tattoo Lou's in Selden says the shop already requires notarized parental permission for body piercing, and of those shops that don't, "we tell people to watch out for them." She's concerned that shops that cut parents out could be taking other shortcuts.

But it could also drive body piercing underground. Some piercers would still perform the work without parental permission, maybe at a far higher cost. Or, kids could simply grab a needle and an ice cube and do it themselves. If teenagers are determined to pierce something, they'll find a way.

Most other states have passed laws restricting body piercing for minors. Some Canadian provinces set the age at 16.

That lower age may just strike the right balance, and New York's legislators should consider that compromise. That would keep the younger kids out of the piercing parlors - and prevent the nanny state from treating older teens like babies.

Column first published in Newsday.

Study: More young women than men consider career important



It looks like Supermom is here to stay. Women ages 18 to 34, in a new survey, rated "high-paying career" high on their list of life priorities. For the first time, women in this age group outnumbered men in considering it important - 66 percent of women, compared with 59 percent of men. The last time this question was asked of this age group, in 1997, the sexes ranked "career" roughly equal in importance (56 percent of women and 58 percent of men).

At the same time, being a good parent and having a successful marriage continued to rank significantly high on everyone's list. "They haven't given any ground on marriage and parenthood," said researcher Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center, which conducted the study. "In fact, there is even more emphasis [on home life] than 10 to 15 years ago."

The story line over the past couple of decades has been that, for the most part, women would prefer to stay home with children. Those who could afford it were "opting out" of the workplace for home. The recent stir over Ann Romney's stay-at-home motherhood reawakened culturally conservative voices claiming that her choice is superior for women, and certainly better for kids.

But Parker believes that young women's expectations about the need to earn a paycheck are changing their attitudes. They were surveyed as the damage of the 2008 recession - dubbed the "mancession" for how men lost jobs disproportionately - was still playing out. "The reality is hitting women that they cannot rely on a male breadwinner," Parker says.

On a brighter note, she adds, young women have seen older women reap the fruits of workplace success and "are motivated to take on big roles." Women have been outpacing men for some time in earning college and graduate degrees. There are now three women on the Supreme Court, women play major roles in government, they're running large companies and building media empires - all of this inspires.

Pew also surveyed men and women aged 35 to 64, who responded at roughly the same rate (43 percent and 42 percent) that being successful in a high-paying career or profession is important. In 1997, middle-aged men greatly outranked women: 41 percent to 26 percent.

The big rise in middle-aged women who care about their careers probably reflects both opportunity and necessity, Parker says. But, you'll notice that young women are more positive about work than their middle-aged counterparts. Parker believes that the allure of "having it all" wears off once women are faced with the reality of supermotherhood. In fact, moms who work full time have told numerous pollsters that they would prefer part-time employment if it were available to them.

Often, scaling back from full-time work means a loss of health benefits, seniority, security and status. Employers as a whole could be doing a better job to help moms cope - and as the women in the 18-to-34 age group move up and have children, perhaps there will be more reason for employers to do so.

Governments could also be doing more to raise the quality of child care and birth leave support for both fathers and mothers.

Finally, individuals need to do a better job of thinking through their competing desires, and choose careers that accommodate parenthood well. Doctors, lawyers and accountants - and people who are willing to shift into lower-paying nonprofit or government sectors - often find more flexibility in their schedules.

Supermom is great as a concept - using all of your human abilities in a lifetime. But there's a lot more that can be done to take the risk and stress off parents' shoulders.

Essay first published in Newsday.

Adrienne Rich: A pioneer in writing about motherhood



The world knew Adrienne Rich, who died last week at 82, as a poet - influential, political, feminist, lesbian, anti-war, Jewish.

But her profound impact on my life came in the form of prose: a 1976 book called "Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution." Rich, who was a wife until her 40s and the mother of three boys, trained her rebel's eye on the mixed feelings that come with caring for babies and young children.

To be sure, Rich had her predecessors on this ground: Betty Friedan, even the humorist Erma Bombeck. And Rich inspired thousands who came after, from Susan Maushart, who wrote "The Mask of Motherhood," to the many parent-lit moms and dads writing and blogging today.

It's not that parenthood is awful, of course. It's that mothers were to an excessive degree expected to be "beneficent, sacred, pure, asexual and nourishing," as Rich described it, or they would risk disapproval. Rich was instrumental in shattering these public myths that made women feel privately inadequate and unnatural if they discovered any forbidden feelings in the nursery.

More important, this long march away from the perfect angel mother toward a more nuanced - if darker - portrait of parenting paved the way for recognition of postpartum depression so that women and their families could get help. Even the impossibly perfect Brooke Shields published an account, in 2005, of her postpartum depression, "Down Came the Rain."

Rich wrote looking back. She was 46 when "Of Woman Born" was published, and her eldest son was 21. "I only knew that I had lived through something which was considered central to the lives of women, fulfilling even in its sorrows, a key to the meaning of life; and that I could remember little except anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself: a division made more acute by the moments of passionate love, delight in my children's spirited bodies and minds, amazement at how they went on loving me in spite of my failures to love them wholly and selflessly."

She included journal entries from her days with babies; at one time her three sons were all younger than 7. The entries are startlingly candid: "Degradation of anger. Anger at a child. How shall I learn to absorb the violence and make explicit only the caring?"

"Of Woman Born" is sometimes overlooked amid Rich's 30 books of poetry and prose published over six decades. Its radical take on women's domination in a patriarchy is and was controversial. But the beautifully rendered descriptions of the inner life of this one mother, a poet, is what makes the book so reassuring to parents who can relate to the loss of independent identity and the isolation that comes with caring for a child.

What parent taking a phone call wouldn't recognize this passage? "As soon as [my son] felt me gliding into a world which did not include him, he would come to pull at my hand, ask for help. ... And I would feel [it] ... as an attempt moreover to defraud me of living even for fifteen minutes as myself."

Rich was born in Baltimore, and her father, a pathologist, encouraged her to read poetry from childhood. Her mother was a concert pianist. After graduating from Radcliffe College in 1951, Rich published her first book and soon after, married Alfred Conrad, a Harvard University professor.

They moved to New York in 1966. Four years later, Rich left her marriage, and within several months, Conrad took his own life. It's tempting to see the negative aspect of her writing as a product of this unhappy biography.

But most parents will recognize Rich's ambivalence as truth-telling.

Essay first published in Newsday.

Another mother leaves a great job

People leaving jobs for reasons they don't want to discuss often say something hackneyed about spending more time with family. But it appears that Michèle Flournoy literally means it.

Flournoy, 50, is a top Pentagon policy adviser and potential first female defense secretary. She announced this week that she will quit after the New Year to have more time with her three children, ages 14, 12 and 9. Her work for the Defense Department often runs from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and over many weekends.

Flournoy's work sounds fascinating. She testifies before Congress, and is strategizing troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's a lot to give up for three kids.

Which is why I love that she stated her reason so baldly: The work of being a mother is important, too.

It's possible there's more to her story -- who knows? But her public affirmation of motherhood is brave. It risks the anger of those who argue women can "have it all." Flournoy invites the envy of parents who have to work for financial reasons; she's married to a top deputy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. She risks instilling doubt in the junior women -- perhaps also mothers -- whom she sought to mentor and inspire. And she courts ridicule by the ignorant. Remember when talk show host Mike Gallagher called Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's three-month maternity leave "a racket"?

Highly visible women should keep talking about the importance of parenting, because they can have repercussions for working moms and dads who aren't among the power elite. There are many parents who don't have the protections of money or status to assert something so basic as the need for time away from a job to raise children.

And working people have ever less leverage now, as the depressed economy has "excessed" so many into the unemployment line. In the spring of 2009, a House subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), heard testimony from advocates that the dismal economy was pushing parents out of the workforce because their opportunities for flexible work schedules were drying up. Parents who had worked a four-day week, for example, found their employers suddenly requiring five days.

Sometimes, employers were trying to stretch to make do with the current workforce, because they didn't want to hire anyone new. But the result was often to upset a delicate balance and force the parents out.

Flexible schedules are rarely set down in writing and can disappear when an accommodating manager is replaced by someone less family-friendly. Another possibility -- and the one that most concerned Congress -- was that employers could be using the bad economy to discriminate against pregnant workers and parents.

Recognizing how precarious the work-family balance continues to be, some companies have begun making flexible work arrangements more formal. For example, KPMG, the audit firm based in Idaho, with offices in Melville, has a flexibility website where employees can explore compressed work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing and more.

Of course, accounting firms like KPMG battle notoriously high turnover, so they look for ways to retain employees. At other kinds of jobs, many workers don't even have paid sick days -- in fact, 47 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Department of Labor. We have a long way to go as a country that supports parents.

People like Flournoy should keep up the drumbeat about the importance of child-raising, reminding employers that parents have important work off the job, too.

First published in Newsday.

Readers respond: Students need layoff facts

Regarding the column by Anne Michaud, "Keep school budget talk out of the classroom" [Opinion, Dec. 8], I agree that children need to feel secure in school. Their focus needs to be on learning. A major part of that learning should, in my opinion, be relating knowledge to reality. What good are the three Rs if we don't see the issues that are facing us daily?

We live in a society that has a small percentage of people voting in general and school elections. This lack of response leads to lack of control over the direction our country takes and sometimes even to corruption in government.

It is imperative that our children learn to be good citizens and participate in our democracy. If this means bringing up budget concerns to students old enough to understand, then they should be mentioned. An open discussion talking about the whole process and not focusing just on layoffs, would be in order. This hopefully would bring students to begin thinking about mundane issues that our society faces on a daily basis. Opening their young minds would undoubtedly lead to a more involved electorate later on.

Steve Tuck, Huntington

If a teacher is asked a question by a student, shouldn't it be answered? I find it amusing that a person who contributes to Newsday's Opinion pages wants to now control the things we say in class. Newspaper columnists get their forum without any input from readers.

I find all the harsh rhetoric printed in the last several years about teachers "divisive, angry and unhealthy" as well. When class sizes are larger and programs are cut, remember the true culprits: the financial institutions and oil companies whose employees and owners still get record bonuses each year -- on average, more than teachers make in a year.

Rich Weeks, Middle Island

I believe that Anne Michaud completely missed the point. School budget talks allow Social Studies teachers to discuss relevant and current issues facing our communities. This issue lends itself to great discussions of limited resources, the role of the citizen in a democracy, economic choices and a whole host of other topics. This is what we call a teachable moment.

We do our students a great disservice when we try to shelter them from what is happening in the news.

Kathleen Stanley, Massapequa Park Editor's note: The writer is a high school Social Studies teacher.

As a teacher in a public high school, I feel that I need to explain why teachers sometimes discuss rules governing teacher layoffs (last in, first out) with their students. A lot of students don't understand the difference between being laid off and being fired. They just assume that when someone is excessed because of budgetary reasons, that person has been fired for cause.

I feel it is important to explain to students how tenure and seniority work. It's bad enough when colleagues are let go. I'm certainly not going to let their reputations be tarnished with misinformation.

The column is right in this sense, that younger children should not be frightened by teachers into thinking Mom and Dad hold the key to a teacher's survival, and children should therefore convince their parents to vote for the budget. It's a cheap ploy.

However, I also think that when students come to school and tell me their parents say I make too much money and have it really easy, that I should be allowed to defend my profession. I don't think it's inappropriate to discuss the realities with older students, some of whom will be able to participate in the upcoming budget votes.

Jeffrey A. Stotsky, Forest Hills

Paycheck Fairness Act wrong choice for women


Equal pay for women. What fair-minded person wouldn't favor that? Well, the U.S. Senate, for one.

Earlier this month, the Senate refused to consider a bill that would strengthen current law against gender-based wage discrimination. The bill was sold by its Democratic sponsors, including President Barack Obama, as a means of closing the pay gap between women and men performing the same job.

But even though often-cited U.S. Census figures show women still make 77 cents to a man's dollar, the Senate did the right thing.

Don't get me wrong - it's crucial that women are paid fairly. Women's earnings are more important than ever to support families. Dual-earner households have jumped to 46 percent of families with children, and last year, the number of married couples with children who depend exclusively on women's earnings rose 36 percent. And of course, many women are raising children alone.

For years, women's earnings made progress relative to men's, but those gains stalled in the early 1990s. The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to remedy this, in part, by making private salary information more public. The House passed the measure in 2009.

But a chief argument for the bill - that 77 cents-on-the-dollar figure - is highly misleading. It doesn't come from examining men and women in comparable work situations. Instead, researchers took the sum total of men's wages and divided them by women's. They didn't account for women gravitating toward occupations that allow for predictable hours, part-time schedules and other family-friendly attributes. Teaching, secretarial work, nursing - the traditional "women's jobs" are still largely held by women. The pay gap narrows with those caveats in mind.

Also, the bill is too intrusive on private business decisions. Employers would be required to prove a valid reason for pay disparities. But what if a company offers more money for work in a dangerous location, and more men volunteer? What if an employer gives a raise to a man to keep him from accepting a competitor's job offer? Does the company then have to bump up the salary of his female counterpart?

It's a utopian wish, perhaps, but merit should be the only basis for hiring and promotion. At least it's worth striving for.

Of course, there are valid pay disputes that women should litigate. But the Equal Pay Act of 1963 offers enough protection against pay discrimination. The new bill could unfairly disadvantage employers because it wouldn't limit punitive or compensatory damages. Companies might settle even weak claims to avoid a jury trial.

With the Senate's inaction, the Paycheck Fairness Act is probably dead. The wave of Republicans arriving in January means the new Congress isn't likely to take up this particular version again. Advocates for women and fairness should leave this flawed approach behind and work with the Obama administration on other critical priorities, like access to affordable child care.

Also needed are flexible workplaces that don't push women out of the workforce at childbirth, and allow them richer opportunities to re-enter their fields after time away.

Women also need to think more about the paycheck repercussions of their various choices in life, from pursuing degrees and training, to assuming that a male partner's salary will cover our household wage gaps. Too often, that's just no longer the case. Women need to be able to depend on their own resources for at least part of their lives.

Personal and political solutions - both are required to achieve real paycheck fairness.

Anne Michaud is the Newsday Opinion Department's interactive editor.

We middle-class Moms must make some trade-offs

Here's a post I wrote, published today on the NYT's Motherlode blog. I wrote this in response to a Mom's entry about her nanny, which you can read all about here. My two cents:

We're going through a time of change, where we middle class women find ourselves "required" to work and raise children at the same time. In some ways, our lives may be less fulfilling than our mothers'. It's fair for us to debate these issues here, out loud.

Having said that, I think that we're all going to have to accept the tradeoffs that our work-family situations require. It hurts me, sometimes a lot, that I'm not home with my two 'tween daughters. But I take strength from knowing that I am providing for them, materially, by working. These are competing feelings that I have to reconcile. When I feel that I've been too immersed in work, I cut back and take my kids out for a special day or weekend. I've sometimes changed jobs to have more time with them. I suppose that if I ever got to the end of that line of logic, I would join the radical moms I've read about who are growing their own food and rejecting consumerism and status labels. I'm privileged to have all of these options, but that doesn't make it easy or painless.

I also take solace in the idea that if our generation works through some of these issues, it will benefit our sons and daughters when they're raising families.

Joblessness, despair and a way out

I just finished listening to a podcast of Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning." I picked it up because several people I interviewed for my stories on long-term unemployment told me they had read it -- often with a hint that it had helped them overcome despair. It's a very difficult book to read because it begins with the horrific tale of Frankl's three years in Nazi concentration camps. I've actually tried to read it twice before and put it down. The podcast turned out to be a good option for me because it kept me listening. I had several "aha" moments learning about Frankl's ideas. Human anxiety can often be traced back to difficulties in knowing what gives our lives meaning, he says, a theory he developed into a full school of psychiatry called logotherapy. Frankl describes three paths to meaning in life. One is through doing -- finding meaning in creativity and work. The second is through experiencing, either love or art or natural beauty. The third is by being tested through suffering -- unavoidable suffering -- and keeping hold of one's dignity and humanity.

The long-term unemployed people I spoke with were clearly referring to finding meaning through suffering. Frankl discusses the depressing effects of job loss in a couple of places. I got the sense that reading Frankl's book had kept some of the people I met from committing suicide.

I marvel that our society treats unemployment so lightly when it has this sort of consequence for the people who go through it. The business world has fully embraced layoffs over the last couple of decades. It seems like a tragic direction.

My kids' homework changed my life

I'm working on a book that observes the balancing choices today's parents make between home and work. I used to be at one end of the spectrum, when my kids entered grade school, when it came to homework. Their teachers were telling me that this was work they should be able to accomplish on their own, and so I left them to it. But as I stand here today, with daughters in 5th and 7th grades, I am at the other far end of the homework spectrum. It all happened so gradually, so innocently....

I used to go out at night after work. I wasn't just hanging out with friends. I was a reporter new to NYC political circles, and I felt that it was important to get to know people so I could be plugged into what they were thinking and doing. It was also marvelous fun. New York is filled with fascinating characters who love to tell the story of politics as they know it -- both present and recent past. I had a professor in journalism school who used to say that you could walk down the streets of NY and pick up stories off the sidewalk, they were so plentiful. That's how the city in 2003 felt to me.

So, I was out two or three nights a week. But then I noticed that my older daughter wasn't doing so well in school. I thought, perhaps average is her best work. Maybe she's just not a student. But I began coming home more often at night to work with her, starting in about 3rd or 4th grade. It must have been helping, because soon I began to feel a tug in my chest every time I tried to go out and meet my political friends at an event. I became almost physically unable to stay away from home at night. I think other parents will know what I'm talking about.

At the time, I had this big, bald friend named Ray (hi, Ray) who would urge me to attend the events. "You have to get out and listen to what people are saying when they've had a couple of drinks," he told me. Constantly. He was saying this to me two or three times a week. I just couldn't do it. I tried meeting people for breakfast or lunch instead, which worked well enough. It was very hard when I considered that I might not be giving my very best to a job I loved.

Originally, I thought my daughter would need a year's worth of extra help from me, maybe 18 months. Then she would be on the right track. But she's in 7th grade now, and I'm still waiting to feel as if I can jet out on my own at night. It's not even that she needs me so much now. She has made an amazing transformation. She's serious about her work and so far this year has earned all A's (with just one C on an English paper. We'll do better next time!). I have to believe that my "sacrifice" helped her get here. But now her little sister needs the same focused attention from me and her dad. Our nights these days are turned over to homework, no questions asked.

I've even taken a more family-friendly job, and I no longer talk to Ray much. I've heard many of my friends' political tales many times over. But I miss that scene and wonder if I will ever get that kind of a kick from my work again.

Lost in suburbia

I recently visited my dentist. As I was walking down the hall, the receptionist asked if I'd like a magazine and suggested I choose something from the left-hand side where "Ladies' Home Journal" and "Home and Garden" were displayed. The other tier contained magazines about "politics and business -- boring stuff," she assured me. I considered saying something quippy about how I have been writing about politics and business for 20 years and don't consider it at all boring. I used to speak up more when I was younger, just to shake up people's perceptions. I look like what I am: a 40-something suburban mom. But that doesn't mean mommy and political junkie can't exist in the same person.

My quips have not succeeded in educating the world, however, and some days I choose to stop trying. The tide keeps coming back in to wash away my sand castles.

Also, I realize that the receptionist was trying to be nice -- something I appreaciate more now than at a younger time. She wasn't trying to make me feel alienated and freakish, even if that was the result.

It's been about 18 months since I stopped commuting from suburban Long Island into Manhattan. I miss it. Now it's suburbia for both home and work. All suburban, all the time.

I am not my job

Newspaper people are losing jobs left and right. And, you know, being verbal types, they are writing a lot about it. The Columbia Journalism Review is giving them a forum to sound off, called "Parting Thoughts." Most of the posts are good reads. But there is one I particularly enjoyed, by Todd Engdahl, a 31-year veteran of the Denver Post. Engdahl is merciless with people who don't adjust to the changing times. His post is entitled, "Sorry to be blunt, but get over it." Yes, it's a little journalist-style macho. But I loved this line (last paragraph): "Your job is not your identity."

For so many of us, this is what job loss is about, losing our identity. I was lucky in that I confronted similar identity issues when I had a baby and, about two years later, left my high-profile reporting job for stay-at-home mommy status and a little freelance writing. I suffered the entire meltdown at that time and so no longer have to worry about losing it ever again. (Maybe.)

For three months, my heart raced at odd times throughout the day. I saw a doctor, who gave me a portable device to record my heart rhythms. I would then connect the device to a phone and beam them in to the lab, as a sort of progress report. I believe the technical term for my problem was panic.

How much of this is going on with the current wave of layoffs? Do people become immune to it after being fired a few times? Or does it slowly destroy their souls?

Why do we judge each other based on our professional titles, anyway?

If you're out there reading, why not post some ideas on this.

The courtesy of a phone call

Today, Dan got a call from a recruiter who represents a law firm that interviewed him two days ago. The recruiter wanted to tell him that they were no longer considering him for the job. Possibly he's "overqualified." We were elated.

Don't get me wrong, we are long since past thinking "overqualified" is a compliment. It's simply something people say to mask a thousand reasons not to hire someone. It's just that those thousand reasons are all more difficult to say. "We realized that Jim's brother-in-law is a much better fit," perhaps. Or, "we hated your hair." Or, "our third-quarter numbers are in the tank, and we're freezing the hire." Who ever knows what irrationality lurks in the hearts of men? No, we were elated just to emerge from limbo. Overjoyed that someone took the courtesy to call. Because as any job seeker will tell you, much of the time, no matter how positive the interview, you are left to stew and wonder.

I remember when it was not this way. It changed sometime shortly after the turn of the century, or maybe right after Sept. 11 when everyone was hurting for many different reasons. Interviewers used to tell you when they would get back to you, and they pretty much kept their word. Even if it was a difficult call to make -- a "no" instead of a "yes" -- at least you knew.

Career counselors used to avise asking for feedback from employers who rejected you. Then you knew what to brush up on the next time. One time an executive editor told me I didn't seem to want the job enough. I didn't "reach across the desk" and grab him by the lapels. Seriously. Now, it's mostly just silence.

A silence that squeezes your soul like a lemon. I even prefer the lapel comment to silence.