A life's work that matters

Today’s opinion piece in the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin goes a long way toward answering a question I’m sure many of our family members have wanted to ask – why Washington? It’s such a fickle, hyper-political place, and “Washington journalists” are such a despicable lot. Whatever made us want to come back here 30 years ago, to raise our kids in such a fast-paced, high-cost environment?

Juliet’s answer, and ours, is that this is a place where our work could have a meaning beyond making a living. “It is cool to make fun of Washington’s superficiality and detachment from the rest of America,” she wrote, to chide the “Beltway-itis” that afflicts so many people who come to D.C. for a perhaps-limited purpose and then never leave. But by choosing to stay, disenfranchised though we may remain (as U.S. citizens who don’t have a voting representative in Congress), Robert and I have both had opportunities to do important work while raising children, now adults, whose cares and efforts extend beyond their immediate circumstances.

Juliet’s article more closely answers the question as it pertains to me because I have remained a journalist. I had found my way into a company (then known as The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. and now know as Bloomberg BNA) that aimed to disseminate information about how the government works, primarily to businesses and people for whom that information could make the difference between success and failure, profits and losses. For several years Juliet’s mother, Sophie Cook, worked there, too, as a lawyer with expertise in alternative dispute resolution who edited a publication on that subject. So, I would like to think that Juliet’s introduction to journalism as something of a “BNA brat” had some effect on her career path. (In truth, I’m sure it had more to do with the social consciousness of her parents and the environment they provided to help shape her character as she was coming up.)

In our case, I’m sure the work we did when our kids were young had something to do with their development into caring, giving people devoting their lives to helping others get through the challenges life presents them. Our dinner conversations would as often touch on Constitutional debates, becoming lessons in human rights and responsibilities, as on what they learned in school that day. We talked most nights about something to do with the government – in my case environmental regulation, science policy, and tax and in Robert’s case press freedom and the criminal justice system. We also talked about the societal ills facing less-fortunate populations of the District.

I’m not sure what would have become of Robert’s and my careers had we not moved back to D.C. in 1983, but I can tell you this much: mine would not likely have been in producing journalism that matters. BNA gave me the opportunity to develop not only as a journalist but also as a person. I simply can’t imagine what my career, or may life, would have been like had I stayed in Hartford, Conn.

Robert’s decision to go to law school was based on his desire, when he started, to carve out a niche for himself as a journalist, but his nine years as publications director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press gave him the opportunity and experience to specialize instead in something else: appellate ligation. Representing criminals in the appeals courts most likely did not enter his mind at that point. In addition to his law practice, he remains active in First Amendment law as well through the D.C. Open Government Coalition. His “work that matters” continues.

I’m sure all of those factors have had something to do with the people our daughters have become. Allison’s decision to go back to school in her mid-30s and earn a master’s degree in social work was a long time coming, but the seeds were planted long ago, perhaps at our dining table or otherwise in the social rubric of this city. Loren’s advanced degree in public policy and her career concentration in global health and development speak for themselves. I take no credit here – the hard work has all been on their part. We simply chose to raise them in an environment where what matters to others, their real concerns about how to get along in sometimes-hostile surroundings, also matters to us.

None of this addresses our decision (so far) to stay in D.C., with its fast pace, high cost of living, and disenfranchisement still affecting our lives. Perhaps I can write about that in another post.