The Golden Door

Although it has only been two weeks since Donald Trump issued the executive order banning travel to the United States for citizens of certain majority-Muslim nations, it feels like months have passed. I have spent those two weeks volunteering at my local airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, with an impressive ad hoc team of fellow lawyers who are deployed to assist those who have been caught up in the travel ban. It is, without a doubt, one of the most reaffirming things I have done in my 12 years as a lawyer. As I recount the story, please know that the views I express below are my own.i-got-this

I will go ahead and betray my own position on the executive order by stating that I believe it was too broad in its effect, too clumsy in its implementation, and too hardhearted in its intent. I think it is a good exercise as a nation to constantly review our policies and procedures and to make sure they are achieving their ends. For that reason I encourage frequent review of our immigration policy to strengthen our borders and ensure that our policies are firm but also fair. America is an exceptional nation because we insist that the means to our ends uphold our values of liberty and justice for all.  This executive order did not reflect these values, and for that reason, I grabbed my laptop, a power strip, extra phone chargers, and a large coffee and I set out for Newark Liberty to lend my law license to the pursuit of justice.

 

My experience with what is now lightheartedly (sort of) referred to as The Law Firm of the Resistance started the Sunday morning after the order was signed. I had been increasingly distressed by the developments over the weekend, and by Sunday morning I was sufficiently disturbed by what I was seeing that I decided it was time to jump in, even though I have no immigration experience. I can research and write, and with some guidance I can understand enough of a new area of law to be helpful to those who are experts in it. I jumped onto the Facebook page of Lawyers for Good Government, and navigated into their subpage dedicated to the immigration ban (yes, it is a ban). I read through about 12 hours of posts to discover that a massive network of stewards and protectors of our democracy sprang up overnight to defend our Constitution and the vulnerable individuals who were impacted by this ban. And then I cried, but not out of defeat or sadness at the situation we suddenly found ourselves in. I cried because this was the part in the movie when all hope seems lost, but the underdogs come from behind and band together to right the wrong and thwart the injustice, and some inspirational music plays over the scene to tug the heartstrings of the audience. All I was missing was the inspirational music as I sat in my pajamas on a cold Sunday morning, watching justice prevail. Although two weeks have passed since that morning, I still intensely feel the hope, pride, and awe that I first felt upon reading the posts on that Facebook page. I have never been more proud of being a lawyer.

I have clocked two shifts at Newark Liberty, and will do my third tomorrow if the current stay of the ban is overturned between now and then. On top of working at the airport, I also monitor our email account during the day and triage requests for help that come through there, and I help run our Twitter account (@EWR_Lawyers).  Volunteering at the airport has been pretty uneventful. Newark is a quiet place to be, compared to some of the larger airports like JFK (@nobanjfk) or O’Hare (@ordlawyerhq). We weren’t filing habeus petitions or running to the courthouse. We mostly monitor incoming flights for affected travelers, and keep tabs on the latest status of the ban, which airports are hassling people, which airlines are letting visa holders board planes bound for U.S. airports, and passing that information on to travelers. What I found truly amazing in this experience is the level of behind-the-scenes organization and coordination that is occurring among lawyers across the country to address this issue. Lawyers of every stripe are connected through a Facebook group and a Google group, and subgroups within those groups are established for each airport. Most have coordinated social media campaigns, and as time has passed, the airport groups has started reaching out to each other on Twitter with legal updates, requests for help, and words of encouragement. There are a few Twitter accounts, like @HelpTheLawyers, that amplify these messages to a broader audience. There is a daily all-airport conference call where the “on duty” lawyers call in with updates on affected passengers, interactions with law enforcement, legal updates, and supply requests. Since most, if not all, detainees have been released following the initial implementation of the ban, we have functioned more as observers at the airports, reminding Customs and Border Protection that someone is watching. In the early days of the ban when litigation was necessary, there was impressive coordination between the airport teams and the ACLU and International Refugee Assistance Project as to who was filing what kind of suit and where, so that work was not being duplicated and the message and strategy were clear and coordinated across the country.

This random group of what may at this point be thousands of lawyers that has coalesced seemingly out of nowhere is a remarkably effective group. They took a chaotic situation and made it into an organized and effective force of advocates, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice wherever they are needed. As others joined, the organization and structure held so that numbers added strength and depth, rather than chaos and disruption as sometimes can happen. It was inspirational to step back and see this coordination and information sharing occurring across practice lines (many of us are not immigration or civil rights lawyers), big law firms, solo practitioners, public interest firms, difference experience levels, and geography. It’s basically a civilian force of protectors of the Constitution. Today it is the immigration ban; tomorrow it may be some other issue. Regardless, this force is ready for it now. When I think of the implications of this group of at-the-ready lawyers, armed with their logic and deep understanding of the Constitution and our system of laws and government, I understand the point Shakespeare was making when he had Dick the Butcher proclaim in Henry IV, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I have had several friends take back their lawyers-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean jokes in the past couple of days.

Before I close, there’s one more point worth noting from this experience, and that is the diversity of the lawyers battling at the front lines of this fight. I still haven’t met everyone in my Newark airport group in person, but the individuals I have worked with at the airport are a beautiful representation of a cross-section of America. I sat at our makeshift clinic table by Green Beans Coffee in Terminal B and looked at who was there with me: of our two Arabic interpreters, one was a first generation American whose parents immigrated from Qatar, and the other was a young white guy who went to an elite northeastern college. Our lawyers included a married couple who were both Punjabi by ancestry, but who had grown up in Iraq and still had parents living there (parents who, under this ban, could no longer visit their children in the U.S.). There were two immigration lawyers, one of whom was Latina and worked in Biglaw and the other for a nonprofit. There was a lawyer who had come out of retirement and dusted off her law license to be there. We also had a female Egyptian lawyer who works with refugees, a young female lawyer who works in the Newark public defender’s office, and then me–a Jewish tax lawyer recently transplanted from Texas. I know it’s cliched to say, but our diversity really is our strength. It was necessary to have all of those voices at the table when formulating a response to this situation.

I will cherish this experience, and I’m so glad I stepped away from my known world of tax law and into the unfamiliar territory of immigration and advocacy. I think the last two weeks have had a similar effect on lawyers across the country as they arrived in droves to help. We have woken up from our corporate slumber to answer the primal call of our profession: defending our system of laws and using them to advocate for others. I suspect many of us will continue this work as we turn over in our minds this renewed understanding of our role in American society.

Al Chet

Sometimes it feels like the Cosmos is a fan of themes. I often joke that obscure legal transactions come in twos, but it also seems that other events in life also seem to whirl together in an eddy of space-time now and again. That happened this week when I read a particularly thoughtful piece by motivational speaker Tony Robbins about forgiveness (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/f-word-youre-trying-ignore-tony-robbins), right on the heels of spending 25 hours fasting and reflecting on my own shortcomings and straight-up failures on the Jewish day of atonement, Yom Kippur, and right before I read an article posted by my dear friend Liz about the infamous Mom Guilt (http://www.mamamia.com.au/career/lean-in-women/). After reading the article that Liz shared, I reread Tony’s article about forgiveness in a new light: finding greater satisfaction and meaning in life comes not just from forgiving others, but (and perhaps most importantly) from forgiving ourselves.

Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement.  On this day, Jews pray to G-d to forgive our sins. This list is long (here’s a link to one version of the list: http://www.aish.com/h/hh/yom-kippur/guide/Exploring_the_Al-Chet_Prayer.html), and the process is pretty rough. Ten different times over the holiday, you pound your fist on your chest over your heart as you say out loud every sin on the list. Not only that, but you directly ask individuals you have wronged over the year for forgiveness. It is a difficult time of year because it causes one to focus on one’s shortcomings, failures, etc., as a friend, parent, child, employee, employer, community member, and human being. But at the end of the day, forgiveness awaits.

I think the notions of expectation, failure, and (hopefully) forgiveness apply to almost anyone with any sense of drive, ambition, or expectation of themselves. Our world is one of high hopes and goals. Every start-up founder dreams of nailing that pitch and securing Series A funding from that prestigious VC fund. Every doctor hopes they are the pioneer that life-saving technique. Every lawyer has visions of making that case-winning argument. Every parent hopes they’ll never yell at their kids in a destructive way. Every friend aspires to be that friend who is there at every moment for their friend in need. Every spouse tries to be that person their spouse thinks they are (same goes for dog owners). Some of us aspire to go to the gym as often as we are supposed to. Others hope they won’t crash their diet in a moment of weakness when eating seems to be the only thing that feels good. Some hope they’ll never have that drink “just to take the edge off.” Or that drug.

Life is hard. Some days it feels like you’re running a track that has a hurdle set up every 10 feet; as soon as you clear one, you’re trying to navigate the next one. Tony’s article made a great point: sometimes those hurdles are set up by other people, and we should change how we approach them. We can see those hurdles as one of two things: an obstacle put up to impede our trajectory, or an object that tips that trajectory further upwards: something that helps us grow, strengthen, and improve in order to face the next hurdle. Tony’s article tells us to look for the positives in the obstacles that are thrown our way by others. Rather than seeing them as things that slow us down, they are things that make us stronger, more resilient, and in some cases, give us insight into how to handle the next problem we’ll face in our lives. This is a fantastic message, and one we can all take to heart. Growth, not grudges.

But let’s switch gears and talk about ourselves. If I’m looking at a .25 mile track of my life with hurdles all over it, chances are about 85% of those were erected by me. The other 15% fall into the category described in the paragraph above–those set up by other people. If I’m smart, I’ll take Tony’s advice and try to grow from those 15%. But what of the hurdles I set up for myself? These are different. These aren’t really hurdles in the same sense, because they aren’t obstacles to me achieving my goals. No, these hurdles are my goals; they are the lofty expectations of myself that I hope to clear on the track. I set them up, so I beat myself up even harder when I can’t leap over them. This happens on a daily basis, which brings me to the article that Liz posted.

The article’s focus is moms who are struggling with either side of the terrible mom coin: working mom vs. stay at home mom.  I’m not going to get into the whole Mommy Wars thing, because that’s not the focus of the piece. The article’s audience is moms who are struggling with feeling like they’re not meeting an expectation they’ve set up. If they had a career prior to baby and their body and soul, but perhaps not their mind, is telling them to stay home a bit longer with the baby and “lean out,” so to speak, they are struggling with this because boss, co-workers, other professionals in their sphere are telling them they shouldn’t.  If they have been home with the baby for a few months are are itching to get back to work, society is telling them they are wrong for not enjoying time home with the baby and not making the most of it. Shame! Shame! that they “lean in” in baby is not yet weaned. The focus of the article is moms who are setting up hurdles based on what they think is right or what they’ve been told is right or “normal,” and who are tripping in the most gangly, uncoordinated, awkward way possible over those hurdles of “good mom,” and not getting anything from it. Sisters, have I ever been there. On both sides with my two kids.

But this isn’t just about how moms fail to meet their own expectations–that article just happened to be timely and relevant.  We ALL fail our own expectations. Every. Damn. Day. I have a great list of mom failures (including forgetting to sign my daughter up for after-school care–not realized until I got a call from her school asking who was picking her up. I also forgot to sign her up for pizza lunch on Fridays, and failed to send her with a lunch on that first Friday). And I yell, and get frustrated, and roll my eyes, but I have lots of other failures. I fail my spouse with frustration, displaced stress, and lack of (or delayed) appreciation for the many times he is simply a wonderful person. I fail my friends by not being there for them when they need me. After my daughter was born, my best friend’s father passed away suddenly, and I simply was not there for her because I was overwhelmed with juggling parenthood with a demanding job. It was inexcusable in my mind, but I still make that excuse like it makes it better somehow to someone. Not to her, and not to me.  I fail my partners and my clients when the other side of my life pulls at me and I sacrifice productivity for family or friends. I have put at great risk a long-term and very valuable mentor relationship in part because of my own pride and stubbornness.  This is my al chet; my confession. For all of these sins, pardon me, forgive me, atone for me. But most of all, I must forgive myself. Back to Tony’s piece…

There is much to be gained from forgiveness, particularly in forgiving ourselves. Failure is part of life. We will fail ourselves, our friends, our coworkers, our spouses, our children, and countless others. The key to success is achieving growth from that failure. We can sit and beat ourselves up over our perceived or actual inadequacies, or we can use those moments when those inadequacies are revealed as a path for growth that helps us get to a point where those inadequacies are kept at bay, and in their place are our strengths.  This is hard to do because it requires that we (1) admit that we failed, (2) recover from that failure, and (3) maintain enough ego to recognize that there is a lesson to be learned from the failure.  Many people never get to step 2, and even more never get to step 3.  I personally think the key to getting as many people to step 3 as possible is supporting one another and admitting failure to our peers who are experiencing it, and sharing stories of how we overcame and grew from it. The more horrible and cringe-worthy the better! We are all in this together. In a world of curated Facebook profiles where everyone appears to have the perfect life, family, and background, and curated LinkedIn profiles where everyone has a failure-proof pedigree, it’s up to us to pull back the curtain of perfection and show that failure is not something to be ashamed of, but something to grow from. In order to do that, we have to be open to growing from our own failures; in order to do that, we have to forgive ourselves for our failures. Growth will come from this, and then we can be thankful for the experience that led us to that growth. Here is Tony’s advice, applied to our own failures (brackets mine):

“So pick [a failure] in your life today and go blame [it] for [its] impact on your life. Blame [it] intelligently and consciously. Tell [it] all the good you have because of the “gift” [it] gave you. This kind of blame makes forgiveness automatic because instead of expecting anything, you are appreciating [its] impact. Try it for a week, and use the F words of Forgiveness & Faith (and their partner Gratitude) [towards yourself] to set yourself free. Whatever that thing is you’re hanging onto, just let it go and find the good.”

Throughout the year, we have the opportunity to learn from our shortcomings–as long as we are willing to admit them and forgive ourselves for them.

Shana tova umetukah! Have a good and sweet new year, and may we all practice forgiving ourselves!

Pass-Throughs and Income Inequality?

I haven’t parsed through the original report, but this all seems a bit misleading. The point about how corporate tax reform is tricky without including pass-throughs is well-taken and is definitely correct. But the data in this report doesn’t really tell the whole story when considering the tax rates on “enterprise” versus the tax rates on entities when claiming that there is “foregone” tax revenue or that the use of partnerships over corporations has some causative relationship with income inequality (the article didn’t actually say that, granted). The majority of these partnerships that are “reaping huge tax breaks” are just holding companies for family assets, most of which are capital assets that generate capital gain income. You’d be a fool to put those in a corporation and suffer ordinary income tax rates on that income, then the double-whammy of dividend tax rates on top of it when you distribute the income. The alternative in those situations is not that these assets would be held in a c-corp, but rather that they would just be held in trust or outright, thus still providing beneficial capital gains tax rates to the owner. So I wouldn’t consider the tax revenue differential on holding those assets in partnership vs. c-corp form to be foregone tax revenue.

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.businessinsider.com/corporate-pass-throughs-cost-treasury-billions-2015-9

And here’s the report: http://conference.nber.org/confer/2015/TPE15/Cooper.pdf

I’ll read it and come back with additional thoughts/corrections/comments.

What’s worthless, and what’s not right.

Judgement is worthless. Judgment is not right. Judgments about worth are made about friends, colleagues, co-counsel, opposing counsel, and even me. The phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover” should just end at “Don’t judge.”  There are countless examples on the web where snippets of insight are given to us where we are momentarily able to see past someone’s exterior and into the inner battles they are fighting. A perfect example was this Humans of New York Post: http://www.humansofnewyork.com/post/119034791406/we-broke-up-when-she-left-for-the-peace-corps. This is a tragic story, and as with all HONY stories, just a guy you might pass on the street. Perhaps he wasn’t as friendly as you wanted him to be. Or maybe he couldn’t make up his grief-stricken mind when ordering his Starbucks, thus making you two minutes late to your next appointment. You mutter under your breath, “Ugh, this guy is worthless.”  I have heard this phrase “he/she is worthless” so often, and it makes my stomach churn every time I hear it.  Nobody is worthless. Nobody. That phrase should be expelled from use. Everyone is worth something to someone.

What is it for something to be “not right?” I hear this phrase, too. “That’s not right.” Always in judgment. Yes, I realize the irony of sitting here in judgment of those who say it. There are things that are truly “not right.” Murder is not right. Rape is not right. Injustice is not right. But we’ve stripped the gravity from this phrase by applying it to the banal or uncomfortable. Someone has violated the social mores with which you’ve been raised, and that’s “not right.” Someone didn’t invite all 24 kids in your child’s class to the birthday party, and that’s “not right.” No, it’s not “not right.” It’s gauche, it’s a faux pas, it’s some other judgmental french word, but it’s not “not right.” “Not right” is a moral judgment that is tossed around too frequently. It imparts an artificial moral status to an action that doesn’t call for it. It inappropriately raises something that we don’t like to something that violates a moral boundary. I wish I could never hear used again unless under appropriate circumstances.

Monday Morning Dead Horse Beating

I will start off by saying that the legal industry’s business model sucks. The billable hour isn’t good for lawyers or clients, and while many have tried, we haven’t yet come up with a viable alternative. Lawyers are expensive, and we are often only brought in as a last resort when things have gotten out of the client’s control, which makes the impact of our cost feel that much worse for the client. I always feel a great sense of satisfaction when I can help clients out of a tough situation, but then feel bad when I have to send them what is often a larger bill than I’m sure they would like. I know my value, but they don’t always. And that’s ok–I’m not in the position where I feel like I need to justify my worth to clients who don’t get it–but I can’t help but feel frustrated that they don’t know what they just got.

The clients who would benefit the most from solid legal advice from the start are often those who don’t have the funds to pay for it. I get it.  So enter the startups who are nobly trying to commoditize the legal industry to help bring the law to those who don’t feel they can afford it. LegalZoom, Clerky, and now StartUpDocuments, are in this space. I will just say this very predictable and oh-so-cynical-sounding phrase: you get what you pay for.  I am sure I sound like the old guard protecting my cherished bill-by-the-hour-and-screw-the-client territory, but it’s just true. If you’re cool with living with the result of incorporating your business–your baby that you plan to grow and nurture into a thriving example of your hard work and intellect–for $279 dollars, alright. But understand that all you are getting for that is a form.  And for some, that form will be just right and exactly what they need. For some, if they had spent two hours with a lawyer at $400/hour, that lawyer might have told them that they need to be in a Delaware c-corp. That’s $800. Then that lawyer might have drafted the documents and sent that individual on their way. That’s another $1500 (and used to be MUCH higher, btw).  If that person skipped the lawyer part and paid $279 for document incorporation through one of these legal startups, they’d be better off. But they got lucky.

The problem with many of these startups, and the reason actual lawyers are still valuable, is that the client doesn’t always know what they need. I hate to sound patronizing, but it’s just true. I may go to the doctor’s office thinking I have it all figured out, but I might have been way off on my initial assumption of what was wrong with me, which then skewed the rest of my analysis. It’s the same for law. These companies market their product to “startups.” Well, what if you’re not a startup in the way that they mean it? You might be starting a new business, and perhaps you’re even seeking a seed round, but does that put you into the relatively narrow definition of “startup” as that term is now used? What if you’re in an industry where it would be absolute stupidity to be a c-corp (real estate, oil & gas, etc.). If you get that initial analysis wrong and then incorporate as StartupDocuments suggests–as a Delaware c-corp–then you are screwed if you decide to change your tax status later. A conversion to a partnership will be a deemed sale of all of your company’s assets. A deemed sale is a very, very bad thing if you’ve built up some value. Basically it is a sale for tax purposes, meaning you’re taxed on the gain, but it’s not a sale for your bank account’s purposes. You haven’t sold anything, but the IRS says you have, so you have to pay tax on the gain without actually receiving any proceeds from a sale with which you could pay the tax. Bad news. That’s just one example of many in the list of things that can go wrong from bad incorporation advice.

So maybe the Delaware c-corp is the right choice for you. But oops! You didn’t realize that you actually needed more than one. There is often a benefit to separating intellectual property from other assets of the company, particularly when you might want to sell the operating assets but retain the IP to collect a royalty stream. Well, in an asset-for-stock transaction, you can do that sale on a tax free basis (either a “C reorganization” or a “forward triangular merger”), assuming you have housed the IP in a separate entity. If you haven’t, you’re at the mercy of the buyer to agree to an “A reorganization,” which many won’t due to the requirement to assume seller liabilities. If you can’t get that straightened out with the buyer, you’re looking at gain on the receipt of buyer’s stock you’re receiving in the sale, but no cash with which to pay the tax on that gain.

And just one more comment on internet lawyering in general: Someone I met at a startup event here in Austin called me the other day to ask about reincorporating his company in Texas from California. He had been doing internet research on how to do it, and had come up with something that was essentially a corporate dissolution and then reincorporation in Texas. This would have been detrimental from a tax perspective, when there’s a much easier, tax-free way to accomplish his goal. We had that figured out in 15 minutes on the phone, after he had done hours of online research.

Bottom line is that it is almost always worth your money to spend just a little bit of time with a lawyer before engaging in any DIY or docs-in-a-box legal work. At the very least, the lawyer will help you identify your needs and the path to a solution.  It’s up to you at that point to determine if you think the lawyer will continue to bring enough value to your situation to justify the additional costs. If you don’t think they will, then at least you can say you’ve made that decision in confidence, and you’re only out a couple hundred bucks. If you think they will, then you’ve probably just saved yourself thousands of dollars in repairative legal work, despite the fact that the bill will be more than the cost of the docs-in-a-box.

Try this one weird trick for professional growth!

In any high-pressure professional career, failure isn’t an option. We are taught that we have to execute every task, every project, with laser precision and succeed each time at completion. There is no room for error. The best professionals in our chosen careers–those whose articles, white papers, and blog posts we read religiously for guidance–have made it to their stations because of their flawless execution of tasks throughout their careers. This is what the rest of us must do to get where they are.

Man! It was really hard to write that with a straight face! It’s true, though, that failure isn’t an option–it’s a necessity. Everyone fails, and they do so many, many times in all aspects of their lives. Sure, successful completion of a task reinforces something that you’re doing right, and that’s important. We need the confidence that comes from knowing we’re on the right track. But failure is hands down the best teacher there is. When you fail, you feel like the world is ending. Like you are the biggest moron on the face of the planet. You question your abilities and what you thought you considered your expertise and knowledge about whatever it is you failed doing. You beat yourself up and are seriously thinking that maybe whatever credentialing agency issued your professional license must have mistakenly overlooked your obvious flaws. Your internal monologue goes something like this, “Well, I sure fucked that one up. Let’s see, what else can I use this degree for? Because clearly I should not be a  [insert profession here].” You feel like nobody can trust you to do anything right, and that you can’t trust yourself either. You second-guess everything. You wait for the other shoe to drop, because if you messed up these couple of things, surely you messed up twenty others that just haven’t yet revealed how truly unqualified you are.

Yes, failure produces a really horrendous and unbearable internal monologue. Add to that the disappointment of those who were let down by your failure. Your boss, coworkers, clients–there’s never just one person your failure affects. So while your brain is yelling at you and telling you how much you suck, so are these outside parties. Right after failing, you just want to crawl under a blanket and hide. You think of how nice it would be to just buy some acreage in Montana and live off the land, with nobody to disappoint but yourself.

Yeah, failure sucks–which is why it’s so great, assuming you use it as a tool for growth rather than let it beat you down. The best way to fail is to say, “Fuck you, Failure! I’m going to make you my bitch!” It’s like in those movies where the hero takes the villain’s weapon that he’s using to destroy the earth, and instead tinkers with it a bit and ends up saving the planet and destroying the villain. That’s what failure done right can do. We destroy the villain by making sure we don’t make the same mistake again (although in all likelihood, we might). We save the planet by using our experience  to grow personally and to help others learn from our mistake. The personal growth comes only when we acknowledge that failure is a part of learning, and it’s not something to fear, nor is it necessarily a reflection of our abilities, our drive, or our suitability for a particular career. We grow from failures when we don’t let it overshadow all of the positive elements we bring to the table, and we don’t let it shake our confidence permanently. And then if we want to really double down on our conquering of failure, we use it to teach others so that our mistake is not only valuable to us, but to others who might find themselves in the same position down the road.

Failure works as a teaching tool if we don’t run from it. When we fail, we have to acknowledge and accept the failure, and then figure out why we failed. There are root causes to failures which must be identified. Sometimes it takes multiple failures to start to see a pattern. When that happens, its important to work to understand the failures. This may require some quiet time to allow reflection, but in order for reflection to be successful, we have to be over the “beating yourself up” phase, so that we don’t try to justify the failure or explain it away. We have to be prepared to embrace it, and to be prepared for all the yucky feelings that might involve. It’s really, really hard. But just like working out a muscle, that momentary pain only makes us stronger and better prepared for the next time. In addition to reflection, we have to be willing to seek analysis from those who watched us fail, or who were affected by our failure. This will also suck, big time. It’s the whole “You let me down” thing all over again, but this time directly to your face. Just remember, you are a muscle! This makes you stronger! But not in the CrossFit way, because that shit is bad for you. In the yoga sort of way. I mean, Destroyer of the Universe pose is pretty uncomfortable, but dammit if it won’t make you strong as hell.

All of this is easy for me to say and to tell someone else to do. For whatever reason, I’m able to shake off those initial feelings of utter incompetence pretty quickly and launch into the “let’s learn from this so I hopefully don’t do it again” phase. I don’t know who gets the credit for that, but I’m thankful that’s how I’m built. I realize that not everyone is that way, and many people are opposite to the extreme. I look at my daughter, who is 6, as an example of someone who doesn’t handle failure well. She has a hard time trying new things because she wants to be a master immediately, which is rarely the case, of course–she’s 6. Six year olds have only mastered whining and saying inappropriate things at exactly the wrong time.  She didn’t want to sign up for soccer because, having tried it once and not been the best in the group, she decided she was bad at it. Maybe it’s hard to appreciate the learning process at six years old, but it’s definitely an issue for her. Hopefully with our guidance she’ll eventually come to learn the value of failing, and will ultimately become more comfortable with it and its role in success.  For now, though, she has very high expectations for herself, which is good, but her self-confidence is tied up in immediately meeting those expectations on the first try, which is not good (for her).  So we have to work on getting her comfortable with failure, and divorcing failure from her self-esteem.

I know there are plenty of adults out there with the same issue. There is a definite spectrum of being comfortable with failure, and each end probably has a hard time telling the other how failure is appropriately handled. So maybe I’m just one asshole at one end of the spectrum making gross generalizations about failure that won’t translate to those at the other end. In that case, I’ve failed at this post.  In any case, I’d love to hear input from how others approach failures–minor and major–and what the outcome was, both in terms of personal growth and professional growth. I welcome your comments, stories, experiences, etc. in the comments.

Dogs. And mine in particular. He turns 14 tomorrow.

 

Life is a little different when you’ve shared it with a dog. You become more vulnerable because you’ve opened your heart to a creature over whom you don’t have complete control, and who, in most cases, will not outlive you. You bring them home as a puppy, or a young dog, or an adult dog, a rescue pup–however you find them—and you care for them.  You make a promise to meet their needs and to love them and to let them love you. And one day you come to the horrible realization that their absence will tear a huge hole in your heart. And the worst part is that, unlike with human children, you know that their demise will come before your own. You complete each day with your fur-child knowing that love and suffering run a parallel course over your heart. Grief is the bill that comes due for love.

But oh, do they ever make it worth it. Us dog people have had varying relationships with our dogs, depending on when they came into our lives. For those of us who have never lived a day without a dog, we might recall the dogs of our infancy. These are the dogs we were raised with, from the day our parents brought us home from the hospital. We owe the most to these dogs because, if you were like me, you were the baby that replaced your parents’ first “baby.” We kicked these dogs off of their pedestal in the worst way possible, but they still loved us. They licked us when we cried. They grudgingly tolerated our uncoordinated and primal urges to grasp whatever was in reach, and to pull it hard.  When they heard our first cries, they ran to our parents with looks and whines of distress, as if they really felt our pain. “The pink thing is upset,” they barked. “You must fix it. NOW!” they insisted, with an urgency that our parents certainly didn’t experience when our younger siblings came along. These dogs passed when we were 7, 8, 9, maybe 10 years old. We might remember their death as the first somewhat traumatic experience of our lives–the first notion that something could be taken from us with permanence; something that we could not get back with good behavior.  My dog of my infancy, Muffin, died when I was in 2nd grade. I have vague memories of her, but I know I loved her, and the finality of death became real to me for the first time when she passed.

The dogs of our childhood occupied a different space than those of our infancy. We might remember the day these dogs came into our lives like younger siblings. For those of us who had not experienced an actual younger sibling, this was our first taste of not being at the bottom of the household hierarchy anymore. Our growth from child to adult tracked their journey from puppy to senior.  We actively played with them, dressed them up, had some responsibility for caring for them—much as one would a younger sibling. We were their packmates, and quite often they were our partners in crime.

Coco is the dog of my childhood. We got her—a neurotic little cockapoo—when I was 5 years old. She was a great dog, despite her poodle-oriented neuroses. Coco and I grew up together. Although she was an insolent teenager several years before I was, we still got each other. She wasn’t “my” dog by any means, but she and I had an understanding that we would tolerate each other, and possibly that we would plot against my parents. I loved her, but I was still too self-centered and young to dread her demise, although I certainly knew it was not far off by the time I left for college. Coco died that fall, my freshman year at Emory. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her since I was half a continent away, and maybe that spared me from some of the grief, but it was still raw and real, and I felt her loss for a long time.

What of the dogs we have as young adults? These dogs become our rocks. Whatever trials and tribulations we faced as children and teens were dwarfed by those of our adulthood. For many of us, this period in our lives was the first time we navigated the world completely on our own. We were out of our parents’ homes and out from under their watch. Our mistakes were real and bore true consequences. It could be an exciting time, but there was always an element of fear attached to this new independence. We had real responsibility for the first time. And with that, we felt adult enough to care for another living being on our own, so we invited these puppies along for the ride. They became a constant in a period otherwise marked by big changes. We loved them so deeply because they were truly ours and we were truly theirs. They depended solely on us. We made lots of mistakes with them and felt bad for those mistakes, and they didn’t even have to forgive us because they were just that faithful and trusting that they were blissfully accepting of our mess-ups (more so than we were of theirs—RIP at least 8 pairs of shoes, one pair of glasses, countless books, one paycheck, one CD (?!), several area rugs, and mornings of sleeping in).

These are the ones whose demise inflicts real pain. The hole they rip in our hearts is huge and gaping, because we fully turned those hearts over to them. The love is full, deep, and unconditional, as is the grief when they leave us. It just can’t be any other way, or you’re not really experiencing all there is to life as a dog owner.

Nathan is the dog of my young adulthood. He is a dog among dogs. Nathan has been there for all of my major life events as an adult. I adopted him from the Atlanta Humane Society right after I graduated from Emory. I was 22 years old. He was 6 weeks old, and weighed just south of 5 pounds. I could hold him in one hand, except for his ears, which were about the same size as his body. Kenny raised him too. When I was at work during the summer after college, Kenny watched him, and grew to love him. He’s the dog of both of our young adulthoods. Nathan was there when I started grad school. I cried for hours into Nathan’s fur when I missed Kenny while I lived in Tennessee and Kenny lived in New York. And cried even harder into that fur when Kenny and I broke up.  But life came full-circle, and when Nathan and I moved to Austin so I could start law school, Kenny also moved there to start architecture school, he and I, and he and Nathan, found each other again. And we were a family again—a family of dog-people and a dog.  And then Kenny and I got married. And then we had Jackie and Ben.

Nathan is the dog of Jackie’s infancy. She will remember him in the same way that I remember Muffin—fondly, but without as much emotional attachment. She loves him, I’m certain. But he loves her more than she even knows. Nathan created a job for himself on the day we brought her home from the hospital. He was her protector. I’ll never forget when she was back in our room at 4 days old in her bassinet, when my sister-in-law entered the room late at night to see her for the first time. Nathan was perched on our bed, and when Lauren entered, he leaped at her with teeth bared and growling until he realized who she was and backed down. Kenny and I realized then that Nathan had adopted Jackie as his own baby. He slept next to or under her crib or bed every single night from that day until she was 5 ½ years old and we moved her into a room with her toddler brother. She is back in her own room now, and Nathan is back to sleeping on or under her bed. Nathan has never been as protective of Ben as he has been of Jackie, but I think he still considers the two of them his “pack” and watches over them accordingly—and then some.

Nathan has developed a tumor on his adrenal gland that has spread into his vena cava and renal artery. Jackie is 6 ½, and Ben is almost 3. Ben is blissfully unaware of Nathan’s mortality, and may not remember him at all when he’s older. Jackie will be quite sad when Nathan dies, I’m certain, but she’s still too young to feel the dread that we feel leading up to that day—the dread that comes along with sharing your life with a dog.  The fact that he will not outlive her is shocking news to her that I’m not sure she has totally comprehended, so the pain is a bit more momentary, perhaps, than the pain that Kenny and I feel.  With every oncologist appointment, every sonogram, every blood test, my heart sinks a little because I know we’re now on borrowed time. But the beauty of knowing that is that we are granted the opportunity to make the most of it and savor every minute we have with our little corgie mutt. We have a chance to give him a beautiful end of life, where he is spoiled to all ends, gets table scraps and home-cooked meals, gets to sleep on (and shed his hair all over) our pillows, and gets a lot of extra scratches behind the ears, belly rubs, and car rides, and I fully realize how lucky we are, as not everyone gets that opportunity. We are sort of managing our grief through this process—focusing on and savoring the opportunities that we have with him rather than dwelling what we’re losing in the end, and I love that.

Nathan is 14 years old today. Happy birthday buddy, and I am so grateful for the role you play in all of our lives.