Saving Face

Chapter 18
Novels, stories, and more.
Oct. 23 2009 6:44 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

I walk into the foyer, slide my laptop bag off my shoulder, and take a deep breath. One more radio interview pitted against some knuckle-dragger from a fathers' rights group and I'm going to need to borrow some of Ellie's diapers. I take a deep breath and look around at the mess my once-immaculate home has become. If I didn't know better, I'd say we'd been burgled. Or at least invaded by Lego-wielding Visigoths.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

I've been blogging from one coffee shop or another all week, and now piles of sweatshirts, toys, and papers are accumulated on every flat surface. This has led to a general absence of flat surfaces.   Piles of unopened mail suggest that I am now missing things and poised to miss other, more important, things.   Wet laundry sits getting moldy for days without being transferred to the dryer, and baskets of clean laundry have sat at the bottom of the stairs for so long that we all just haul out our clothes from there every morning.   We've upped Danny's hours significantly, but there are things you just can't ask a manny to do, chief among them being air-drying your bras. In all the years Danny has worked for us, the word bra has never once been uttered aloud by him or by me. I plan to keep it that way.

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I hear Ellie bump down the stairs and catch the flash of pink tulle as she hurtles into view. She has a new bandage on her left shin that I know nothing about. I am not taking care of these people anymore. The case of her Tragically Missing Tutu was resolved last night only after many tears and recriminations. Sam has already normalized the fact that I don't pick him up after school anymore. Danny does it, and Sam appears to be all right with that. As he races through the kitchen, he stops to ask me where I have been all afternoon.

"Working, baby. At a coffee shop," I answer.

"Oh," he says, thinking for a second. "Do you sell coffee now, Mommy?"   I laugh and try to flatten the lick of his hair that sticks straight up in back. I'd probably have less stress and a fatter paycheck if I whipped up chai lattes all day. I idly wonder what Cole would think of my vocation if I got a cute little nose piercing and a butterfly tattoo on my ankle.

Instead, I've suddenly become the kind of mom who arrives home at 6:30 p.m. and wonders, just as my own mom used to, what's for dinner and who's going to make it.   Cole is recovering from his loss in the Kayne case by diving headlong into the appeal. That means it's frozen turkey chili for the kids and me two nights in a row. I head to the freezer, dislodge a large Tupperware, and put it in the microwave to defrost. "Danny?" I call into the other room. "Are you sure we can't start paying you extra to cook dinner?"

"Hah!" he replies. "Only if you want the kids to go into orange-powder shock from too much mac-and-cheese."

Oh well. Probably for the best, since all my weeks of work for BarCzar have netted us less than Danny's salary and barely enough to afford takeout Mexican food. I tell him to find something on the Sprout channel for the kids and try to excavate clean dishes and silverware. The thing that's surprised me about my return to work is my inability to stop thinking about it when I walk in. I'm checking e-mail every 15 minutes—something for which I used to berate Cole. But I don't want to miss a press call, and they come at the strangest times. Snooze = lose. I've done three more cable news shows—only one of which was on the economics of the Laden divorce—as well as at least two radio shows a day, every day. They often pit me against the distant pre-Cambrian relatives of Spencer Buckley, but I am, so far, holding my own.

There aren't enough strong women's voices in the media, I think. Not on law. Not on business. Not on the economy. I've tried to tone down some of the strongest grrrrl power stuff in my media appearances and blog posts, if for no other reason than to reassure my husband that I have no plans to leave him. But the more I read my e-mail, the angrier I get. The minute the courts get involved, women start to lose ground and the legal system doesn't seem to recognize that a woman is biologically hardwired to give up everything she's entitled to, just to keep her children.

If I could use Splitigation to persuade every woman in America to a) keep a separate bank account her husband knows nothing about and b) sock away at least six months of living expenses there just in case, I think I could stave off a lot of future pain and suffering.   It's not that all husbands cannot be trusted. It's just that it's impossible to tell from the sepia-toned wedding photos which ones can't.

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It's Friday, and I'm back in D.C. for my power lunch with Zoe Fine, at which we are meant to be discussing the future of Splitigation. In my view, that means we're here to talk seriously about money. But Zoe seems to thinks it means talking seriously about how I should work harder for much less money.

She picked a trendy Asian restaurant near Metro Center. I order soup while she gets a ton of sushi. Zoe eats only the insides of her sushi rolls,   and she has stacked up a rather enormous pile of smoke rings of rice as she talks, without a pause, about co-branding, cross-platform optimalities, video opportunities, reader participation via Facebook and Twitter, and live chatting.

"I'd need a team of interns to do anything like that," I interrupt her. "Plus an advanced degree in Web development because I barely understand how to work the caps lock key on my keyboard."

"Look, Erica, this is all about branding, and your brand is superhot right now. But one little blog isn't worth anything until you kick it across multiple platforms. You need to be doing a lot more than a little writing and television. You need a YouTube video. You need a podcast. You need to be thinking about writing a major, major, book. And I am looking into a sort of edgy newly single mom's clothing line for you at Kohl's. I'm thinking of calling it Laughing Last.   Fabulous, no?" She sucks a line of cucumber and shrimp out of the center of a maki roll   and looks at me expectantly.

A line of divorcee fashions? Is she kidding? I look down at my navy skirt and white cashmere turtleneck. If I've learned anything at all from Marina's near-miss-divorce, it's that newly divorced moms mainly need tiny short skirts and plunging necklines. Not my style.

"That all sounds really intriguing, Zoe," I say, "but I am already working at least six hours a day on the blog and the media stuff. And before I start designing bras that burn themselves in protest, we need to rethink my compensation here."

"Erica, Erica," she says, in her world-weary voice—of which I have quickly grown weary—"we talked about this. We don't do money at BarCzar. Nobody does money. Even California tried to issue IOUs. We are getting your name out there. How do you put a price on that? Two weeks ago nobody had even heard of Splitigation."

"And today, I am driving 80 percent of BarCzar's traffic," I say. "I represent 100 percent of the traffic coming over from the networks and YouTube. You know I look at the traffic numbers, Zoe. BarCzar has become a viable business in the last week wholly as a result of my labor."

"Well, that's great and all, but next week we launch our elder-care blog, It All Depends   I guarantee it's going to be hit candy in the 70- to 90-year-old demographic . Look Erica, everyone here is totally, totally grateful for your hard work on Splitigation, but you need to be a bit more realistic about the current economic situation."

"I am being realistic about it, Zoe, which is why, if you can't pay me more than just milk money for my almost full-time labor, I need to go back to a law firm job right quick. My nanny makes more than I do right now! You can't treat this as if it's a serious Web site if you're going to pay your talent like summer interns. I'm not sure what other bloggers are doing to make money, but they probably don't have mortgages and car payments and college funds. I am not in a position to do this purely recreationally any longer. That's why God invented pedicures."

"Look, it's just not there."

"I need $15,000 a year, Zoe.   That's a serious bargain for BarCzar, and it's the minimum that I can accept. I could make exponentially more than that working part time at a law firm. Between the huge uptick in your traffic and the new advertisers that have flocked to the site, that seems more than fair to me. If you can't make that work, I have to walk away. I don't want to do that, but I need to be earning an income that signifies something close to my worth here.   And if I can't take the blog with me, it'll just die on BarCzar when I go back to a firm."

I don't know why I think it might mollify Cole if I were earning enough money to call my writing a serious job.   But it's not really possible for me to ask that he take me or my work seriously when right now my blogging costs our family more than it nets us.

Zoe inhales deeply and stubs out a sliver of cucumber in a small bowl of wasabi. I can see the fight's leaked out as well and she nods curtly, looping her hand in the air for the waitress to bring the check. "I'll scare up the money," she says. She's not happy with me. It feels pretty good.

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Splitigation

I've been giving a ton of thought to the issue of prenuptial agreements, in large part because we as a society are so strangely willing to discuss sex before marriage but we can't bring ourselves to talk frankly about money. If you are bringing to your marriage a lot of assets, or your children, or your own business, a prenup probably makes good sense for you! 

So why can't we talk about it openly? Because the mere thought of a prenup crashes into the pink tulle Barbie Camper wedding fantasies we've been gorging ourselves on since we were toddlers.

Look, I am the first to concede that the very existence of a prenup creates a legal issue ripe for over-lawyering. An angry spouse and overzealous attorney can persuade themselves that they can invalidate the thing in a way that drains the marital estate and inflates the attorney fees. But on balance, a prenup makes a lot of sense and forces a couple to be completely transparent about their assets and expectations in advance of the wedding.  

Now I know there are some romantics out there thinking that marriage is just about love and that a prenup is essentially a promise that the marriage will fail.   But especially if one party is giving up an income for the sake of the marriage, isn't that a financial arrangement that should be handled coolly and yes, contractually?   Back in the day, your great-grandma would just give you a diamond bracelet to keep for yourself, "just in case."   For all the sparkly tulle, it's worth remembering that throughout history, even U.S. history, marriages were first and foremost a legal contract between families, a way to arrange for the distribution of assets and provide for heirs. We've layered the whole idea of marrying for love over the marriage contract, but I don't think marriage is about love alone.   In a truly strong relationship built for the long haul, does this not represent the perfect opportunity to express the very embodiment of a couple's love and solidarity? I think so. Let me know if you disagree!  

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When I wake up at 6:45, I reach for the iPhone on the bedside table. This morning's offering from Whit Campbell is time-stamped 4:22 a.m.: Good morning, Momzilla. Way to go on the prenups post. So when can America see you again? Can't wait to get you on the show for round two. Even Spence has requested you by name. And this time, I will personally debrief you ahead of time. :)  

You would think that 4 a.m. is when he sleeps, if he sleeps at all, but often I find two or three e-mails from Whit when I wake up, musing on the news of the day or offering feedback about something I posted on the blog. They are invariably flirty, cute-ish, and short, and I have taken to reading them in the bathroom, in the wee hours of the morning, or in parking lots because reading them tends to lead to sudden bright red splotches on my neck and chest that I'd just as soon not have to explain to Cole. I quickly read the message again.

"Debrief? Debrief?" The welts on my neck are so red and so hot I suspect I'm melting parts of Greenland. Cole sleeps peacefully beside me, unaware that his wife is having an e-mail affair with a CNN producer who may well be 14 years old. I try to put Whit Campbell out of my mind. In the manner of seventh-grade girls everywhere, I have a self-imposed rule wherein I always wait five hours before responding to him.

Cole and I are hosting a small dinner party tonight, in honor of Bob's return to the law school next week. I have a million things to do to get ready, none of which involve handcrafting tiny appetizers, which I am lazily defrosting from Trader Joe's.

But first I need to check my traffic and my reader mail.

***

Dear readers: What advice might Bob have for Erica? And is Erica selling herself too cheaply? Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.

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