You know that secret shiver of delight you get every time a woman you know only remotely succeeds brilliantly at something? I'm kind of starting to like it.
I'm in the car with Ellie, en route to the Charlottesville airport. It's been six months since the demise of my so-called media career. I soldiered on with Splitigation for a few weeks after that last Spencer Buckley appearance, but my posts had started to get weedy and tendentious and you could basically watch the traffic drop by the thousand every time I wrote the words "it's complicated." Eventually, even Marina stopped reading and I knew it was time to pull the plug. But then that's the nice thing about the blogosphere. You can just disappear one day and nobody notices. It's like graduating from college. The world just swallows up the empty spaces you've left behind. BarCzar hired a college sophomore with a sexting blog.
Ellie is kicking the back of my seat and singing "Single Ladies." Sometimes I miss her early mime days. Danny left us for med school, full of apologies for Quid Pro's rear-guard action against my honesty and integrity but secretly relieved to be done with all the recent drama of life at Hirshblatt Manor. I wish I could tell you that Amanda herself was busted shortly after the law school event for running a high-priced prostitution ring or selling Adderall to undergrads, but I hear she made good grades, got a great job offer, and will win a coveted appellate clerkship. Law school's holy trinity. She'll learn.
"If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it," Ellie's belting out behind me. Why is it that little girls can go from Pull-Ups to pole dancers in under a year? Sam has had such a good long run of toddlerhood and little-boyhood. Meanwhile, my Ellie is already begging for a navel piercing and Miley Cyrus concert tickets. Do all second children grow up so much faster? Or is just girls?
Marina won a major national design award with a nice big whomp of cash to go with it. She flirted briefly with the idea of buying a winery, but we settled for a long weekend at a spa that serves mojitos. Bob is great. Boring as always. He told a joke in class and nobody laughed so he put it on the final exam. He and I both learned something huge about Marina this year. She may be made of feathers, but somehow she's still our rock.
In that same spirit I can't confess that I resolved my own career confusion by launching a lucrative home-based organic Spam company or opening a daycare in my basement. I did start co-teaching a clinic at the law school with Kate on women and domestic violence. It has been a huge amount of work at the start but we're hoping it will get easier as we figure out what we're doing. Every time I start a sentence with the words "men are pigs," Kate has my express written consent to poke me in the upper arm with a spork. It still happens with some regularity. I've learned more from her and from Cole about the real failings of the family law system than I could have thought possible. And it has less to do with sexist old judges and money-grubbing expert witnesses than I knew. These are mainly good people, charged with doing truly terrible work. There's just no sane way to break a home into two and no sane reason to force it together. Divorce court is about ripping out the seams after two people have already torn the garment to shreds. Show me a system that can do that sanely and humanely.
Every once in a long while I get a call from some cable TV booker who's forgotten to take me off her contacts list. I decline. Now that I have so much more to do every day, I'm a lot less busy. I have two life rules for myself: I no longer treat my children as though they are the objects standing between me and my ability to sort and put away their toys. And three times a day I take a deep, deep breath and ask myself: Am I doing anything stupid right now? Much of the time, the answer is no. When it's yes, I call Cole. He also has my explicit written authorization to poke me in the upper arm with a spork.
We stop at the arrivals door and I turn around in my seat to face Ellie. "Honey?" I wheedle. "Please don't sing the part about a man on your hips when Franma comes out." I think for a minute. "Or about the tight jeans?"
Yup. Frances is in town. She's come down much more often since things went off the rails last winter. Especially those first few days when I couldn't get out of bed. While it's true that my mom's version of quality time with her grandkids still consists mainly of reading to them from antitrust treatises with the occasional interruptions to yell at Fox News, she has been a lifeline. I used to say my mother was wise about the law but useless about life, but she's proven more thoughtful than I am at both. I still think she's wrong about most things, including Hillary. But I don't think she's to blame for any of it.
"Franma!" shrieks Ellie, as my mother appears on the sidewalk next to the car. I hop out to help her with her bags and she kisses me and compliments my boots. "Thanks," I smile. I may have ditched the career but I most definitely kept the shoes.
"How was your flight?" I ask, hoisting her suitcase into the trunk.
"Typical. Nasty. Brutish. Short. Where's Sam?"
"We're getting him next." My mother climbs in on the passenger side and turns around to tickle Ellie's feet. "Hi General," she grins. She's taken to calling Ellie "General" in the hopes that my daughter will one day be one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Hi Franma!" hoots Ellie. "Listen: Here's a man that makes me then takes me. And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond."
My mother shoots me a look. I shrug sheepishly, turn the key in the ignition, and point the car toward the airport exit.
"How's Cole's appeal going?"
I smile. I tell her that Cole is poised to make new custody law in Virginia, and he couldn't be happier about it. It may be the most important thing he'll ever do in his career and nobody will remember his name for it, but he really could change the way judges look at relocation cases. It's a start.
Cole still finds the act of moving his dirty ice cream dish from sink to dishwasher completely baffling. But he's also stopped blasting through the house like the Tasmanian Devil 15 minutes before bedtime. He cooks dinner sometimes. He's taken over the grocery shopping. It's still nothing like an equal division of labor. But I no longer have the sneaking fear that I am his maid or his mother. You want to know what I told him about Whit? I told him everything. On closer inspection, my own e-mails to Whit were mainly just juvenile and pretentious but not improper. The worst part was explaining how I felt about Whit's. Then we had some bad days and then some mediocre weeks and after a month there wasn't much left to say, so we moved on. It helps that I never laid eyes on Whit Campbell. Someday when I'm brave enough to finally joke about it I'll tell Cole my burgeoning suspicion that Whit looks like Carrot Top crossed with Kim Jong-il.
As I turn left on Hydraulic, I tell Frances about how hard we've been working to get the law school clinic off the ground, and she asks the right questions about funding and administrative support. Then I tell her we've had a string of UVA babysitters in to watch the kids while I'm working but we still haven't found anyone perfect. The kids seem to do an enormous amount of "baking" with canned frosting and watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. Frances reminds me that I grew up that way and I turned out OK. I open my mouth to argue with her but I realize she's right.
Frances turns to Ellie in back and asks her, once again, what she wants to be when she grows up. "How about a diplomat, Ellie? Or a forensic accountant?"
"Counsel, you're leading the witness," I grumble. As I pull into the pickup lane at Sam's school, I can see him standing out front holding what looks to be a dinosaur diorama the size of a small parking structure.
"Come on Ellie," coaxes my mother, one last time. "What do you think you want to be someday?"
"Oh, anything," shrugs Ellie.
I smile. "Anything," not "everything." It's a start.
Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.