Life seems all so predictable, until it’s not.
Joy Covey was by all indications smart, ambitious and successful. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she had made Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Business Women in America while not yet 40, during her tenure as Amazon’s CFO. She was also a committed environmentalist, serving as treasurer for the Natural Resources Defense Council post Amazon. Her life ended abruptly in a freak accident in early September, struck by a car that had lost control while riding her bicycle on a country road outside San Francisco. She was just 50 years old.
5 pm and I’m on the Thursday train home from Paris, also in September. It has been a few days on campus tipping back into the rhythm of work, the first key to the office lock since early August. I’m struggling to bid farewell to the summer laze, the bright afternoons floating around some lake with my kids, the warm Mediterranean evenings shared with friends over dinners and drinks. But back to work we go, …or to school in my kids’ case, to our structured days and weekly commitments.
My work situation has tempered notably over the past 5 years, since turning 50. Gone are the endless early hours and late days, the weekend deliverables, the recurring confrontations and restless nights, the parenting through Skype and the missed birthdays. Gone too are the generous paychecks that bought our home and cars, put our children in private city schools, paid for beachfront holidays in Hawaii with nanny in tow. It’s a trade of fleeting indulgence for deeper significance.
I will go out on limb here and presume that Ms. Covey was in a good place financially. CFOs of multi-billion dollar internet empires tend to be very well compensated. As for me, I am neither semiretired nor financially independent. A son has just started college (who would have imagined that?) with twins in junior high school. Financial obligations continue to multiply, yet I’ve chosen this moment to pull back from the big push and my prime income generating potential. Is this decision foolish, selfish, or the move of a sage and aging idealist? Opinions welcome.
We want to believe that our years ahead will be linear and predictable when in fact they are random, fickle. We want to believe that there will always be time for meaningful engagement and memories with those we love when in fact the only certainty is uncertainty. We can commit our best years to the office and then run out of time. We can cut back early and risk our long term security. Which side of that impossible balance point have you selected?
I am driven now more by my eulogy than résumé (to quote Arianna Huffington, click here to read her recent essay). Taking on the work week of my former career(s) would void any chance of playing hands-on superdad at a time when a lot of hands on is required. Each morning starts at 6 a.m.; breakfast together and a walk with my twins through our beautiful Aix-en-Provence to their bus stop. Lunches are shared regularly with my oldest son and a chance to relive my college youth through his experiences as an incoming freshman. When not teaching, myself, there is time for morning strolls to the farmers market, butcher shop and boulangerie, basket in hand (a supreme joy for any foodie like me). Dinners mainly are prepared at home with healthy stuff from the day’s hunt, and not ordered out or rushed through in a fluorescent-lit fast-food booth (not that my kids would complain about a bit of McD on occasion). Homework is done collectively, play dates arranged, weekends planned, an occasional movie shared, then iGadgets collected (grumpily I may add) before bedtime. We’re scattered about the apartment, the 4 of us sharing 2 bedrooms and single bath, comfortably. It’s a rich life without the riches, and I sleep well hoping (praying) that on some unfortunate day many, many years from now, one of these 3 will stand before the friends and family gathered here todayand say “he was a great dad.” That works for me.
And then I fell in love
On a completely different note, I’ve written before about the great pleasure of writing letters with a quality fountain pen (for a link to Back to the Plume, click here). There is deep satisfaction as well in preparing meals with great equipment, and worth every penny if most nights are spent behind the counter (and between 8th grade geometry questions). My trusty French Sabatier chef knife had been the kitchen cornerstone for the past 10 plus years, and at a steal of a price. It wasn’t the easiest blade to keep sharp but I’m a loyalist and considered the extra effort a sign of my commitment to our relationship. After using a sturdy Wusthof while helping prep at a friend’s home this summer, I decided that an upgrade was long overdue. My new MAC Santoku 18 cm is an incredible tool: razor sharp, light and maneuverable, comfortable in the grip. It slices, it dices, it’s a Lamborghini after years behind the wheel of a Nova. Each knife is handcrafted in Japan and guaranteed for longer than I’ll be safe with sharp objects. Not cheap, but when amortized over a few hundred uses a year, tens of years, it’s a worthy investment. Bill’s kitchen tip of the day. Allons-y, à table!
Originally published on 29 October, 2013