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À mon chevet: Becoming

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Over the course of the summer, the firm organized a series of events and outings for its associates, sending around sign-up sheets for anyone who wanted to go. One was a weeknight performance of Les Misérables at a theater not far from the office. I put us on the list for two tickets [...].

We sat side by side in the theater, both of us worn out after a long day of work. The curtain went up and the singing began, giving us a gray, gloomy version of Paris. I don't know if it was my mood or whether it was just Les Misérables itself, but I spent the next hour feeling helplessly pounded by French misery. Grunts and chains. Poverty and rape. Injustice and oppression. Millions of people around the world had fallen in love with this musical, but I squirmed in my seat, trying to rise above the inexplicable torment I felt every time the melody repeated.

When the lights went up for intermission, I stole at glance at Barack. He was slumped down, with his right elbow on the armrest and index finger resting on his forehead, his expression unreadable.

"What'd you think?" I said.

He gave me a sideways look. "Horrible, right?" I laughed, relieved that he felt the same way. Barack sat up in his seat. "What if we got out of here?" he said. "We could just leave."

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't bolt. I wasn't that sort of person. I cared too much what the other lawyers thought of me -- what they'd think if they spotted our empty seats. I cared too much, in general, about finishing what I'd started, about seeing every last little thing through to the absolute heart-stopping end, even if it was an overwrought Broadway musical on an otherwise beautiful Wednesday night. This, unfortunately, was the box checker in me. I endured misery for the sake of appearances. But now, it seemed, I'd joined up with someone who did not.

Avoiding everyone we knew from work -- the other advisers and their summer associates bubbling effusively in the lobby -- we slipped out of the theater and into a balmy evening. The last light was draining from a purple sky. I exhaled, my relief so palpable that it caused Barack to laugh.

"Where are we going now?" I asked.

"How 'bout we grab a drink?"

-- Michelle Obama, Becoming, pp. 103-105
Many friends have recommended this memoir to me, and it is a delightful read. Music was an important part of the future First Lady's background, from piano lessons with her mother's aunt, the daunting Robbie, to the love of jazz she inherited from her maternal grandfather, whom they called Southside. Mrs. Obama remembers fondly how her grandfather gave her her first record and designated a shelf where she could keep her favorite records to play when she went to his house. "If I was hungry," she writes, "he'd make me a milk shake or fry us a whole chicken while we listened to Aretha or Miles or Billie. To me, Southside was as big as heaven. And heaven, as I envisioned it, had to be a place full of jazz."

Of all the musical episodes in the book, though, my favorite is the one quoted above, where Michelle, at the start of a budding romance with an oddly named junior colleague at her law firm, walks out of a performance of the musical Les Misérables. Now that is good taste.

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