Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's Life About, Anyway?

My guy often bemoans the fact that when he gets together with his family (every holiday - his mom likes holidays) they seldom talk about things that, in his words, mean something. Big questions, things like what life means, what they honestly think, what ticks them off or delights them in a cosmic sense.

We all get trapped in that mundane conversation sometimes; it's safe. It's unlikely to lead to choppy waters if you stay in the shallows talking about traffic on the highway this morning. And it's deadening.

My daughter was visiting this week and I am happy to say we seldom get stuck in the shallows. She's 21, that age where all the questions are big and the answers are murky. This time her dilemma was one that got me thinking, too. It mirrors my own questions. I bet you've thought about it, too, if you're at all out of step with mainstream culture.

"Should I be planning for a career," she wondered, "or should I be planning for a future that interests me?"

Now don't bother objecting that those don't have to be mutually exclusive; we know. The problem is that for a person who apparently should have been born in the sixties, the professions of today hold little appeal. Lawyer? Economist? Doctor? Teacher? Politician? She sees their value but also sees them as intrinsic parts of a system that she thinks is inherently wrong; a system that holds profitability as its highest value.

She is considering the growing field of sustainability, a place where she sees a possibility of doing work she finds interesting as well as making a positive impact.

But here's the basic problem as she explained it: Do you pursue a career to make money, have a nice place to live and a nice car and spend your life working to hang on to them, or do you create a life that needs little and allows you to breathe, to enjoy the hours of your day and pursue your interests? Do you work in an office and make the big bucks, or do you live on an organic farm commune and dig in the dirt for your keep?

She tells me the organic farm idea is catching on with some kids- it even has an acronym: WOOF. Work On an Organic Farm.

Can you blame them? The job market is atrocious - I listened to an NPR interview with Georgetown law graduates who took on massive student loans anticipating six figure jobs when they graduated. They can't find any. And they think they probably won't; when the economy recovers, the big firms will hire students in that year's graduating class, students who intern with them and who they can train from the start.

So here's my daughter, midway through college, intelligent, idealistic and considering a completely alternative lifestyle. Part of it is the influence of friends, of course, but part of it is something that resonates with her. How do I know? It strikes me, too.

And here's where it gets a bit rattling. I spent my life managing to stay on the fringe of the system; I was a journalist, a teacher, a mom. I was connected, but I never worked in places where I felt immersed in the corporate world. I do now.

I get up early every day, slip into my torturous but very attractive high heels, grab my jacket, slip on my security pass, throw my blackberry into my briefcase and commute to a very nice high rise office where I have a lovely office. I sometimes have to go to New York City and go to our sister office on an upper floor of a very tall building. I am up to my neck in the corporate world.

It's not bad. It's different. The people are great, there's a work ethic and a commitment to doing a good job that I admire. But there are very clear, unwritten laws. Thou shalt not submit anything that has not been edited by at least two other people. Thou shalt maintain a paper trail. Thou shalt always consider any new idea from a dozen angles and vet it through at least that many people. Once part of the system, there is a heavy pressure to not rock the boat, to do a good job without making big waves.

I can understand why. Yet it also stifles creativity. I've heard management almost beg employees for ideas, yet no one wants to stick their neck out and offer one.

And is this where I belong? I rationalize, telling myself that I have spent a lifetime skating across systems that swallow other people, and this is just an interesting and very useful experience that suits my purposes for the moment. I'm still working on radio as well, I'm still writing a book. Who knows what happens once the kids are out of college?

Yet it makes me think about my daughter's question. What's life about? Jobs like mine are about security, making enough money to cover whatever bills exist. Security is a good thing, but it doesn't seem compatible with a life that's full, that's challenging, that's interesting.

And damn it, I demand that of my life. Apparently that's a gene you can pass on to your kids.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

So This Is How The Big Kids Do It

Working for a large organization is different. For me, anyway. My experience has been in newsrooms, which resemble nothing so much as classes for gifted kids; everybody's smart, everyone wants to excel, everyone gets excited about the assignments.
Nerds, really. I fit right in.

There are over five hundred people working for my new employer in just my building. There are more in other locations. And the reality of what it means to join them is beginning to sink in. It's an adjustment.

Here's what's the same: the people are smart. They want to do a good job. They buckle down and work on a project with a clear sense of personal investment. That's my experience since I'm here.

What's different is that individual sense of achievement. Everything is done together, projects are divided among several people. There is limited opportunity to just plow into a project and see it through with the knowledge that its failure or success is due to my own efforts. And there is little opportunity to have any personal victories. That's my experience so far, though I see that my job does offer a places to shine.

And what surprises me is that's important to me. I'm not an egotist, or at least I never thought I was. But I love the highwire balancing act that puts me out all alone on the wire, with a chance to crash to earth or step, victorious, to the other side. I won awards for my work in journalism and much as I pooh poohed it, that was really satisfying. My award in this job will be my continued employment. Maybe once in a while someone will say "good job".

I think I'll be okay with that once I'm confident enough of what I'm doing to know when I've done a good job. I at least have to be able to pat myself on the back. Right now, I'm still not even sure of that.

I'm trying. I'll say that. I'm working, I'm learning, I'm proposing ideas and I'm jumping into projects whenever asked. But what a strange feeling to spend an hour racing against the clock to pull together material and not be sure that what you're doing is exactly what's required. And then to get no feedback except that some of it is included in the final product which five people all contributed to.

Am I looking for someone to pat my head and tell me I did well? Yipes. I hope not. But it's possible.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

I got to spend the afternoon with my two kids for Mother's Day...that makes me very happy.

After they took off, I started thinking about my own mom. I can't spend the day with her; she's been gone for almost ten years now. But I still think about her- all the time.

She loved elephants. I'm not sure why. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest; a fondness for cows or pigs (she had a pet pig once named Henrietta) might be more understandable but no, she loved elephants.

She was musical. If you sang a song, she could sit right down and play it through with accompaniment on the piano. She had an amazing ear, yet she always thought she should take lessons so she could "really" play.

She played trombone in a dance band when she was young and learned to play guitar, fiddle, banjo and harp when she was older.

She loved trashy romance novels and had a massive collection of Harlequin romances. She went through a few summers where she read every Barbara Cartland romance she could get her hands on, even as she laughed at them.

She was interested in the nature of reality. She read Edgar Cayce, Jane Roberts' Seth books, all kinds of books on the paranormal. She had a reason; from an early age she saw and spoke with the dead. You don't have to believe me. She did.

My dad was a doubter until she had a conversation with his long-dead grandmother. She told him things about the summer home he'd visited as a child that he hadn't known, things he couldn't confirm until he checked with his aunts.

After that, he listened to her.

She was religious, too, a devout Roman Catholic. But at the end, both her belief in the paranormal and her faith deserted her; she was afraid to die. That broke my heart.

I read a lot of books about theories of the afterlife after she died and one that comforted me suggested that people who'd died traumatically were cocooned in the afterlife; kept in a peaceful sleep in which their "souls" healed from the pain and fear they'd felt, waking only when they were healthy and fearless again.

I hope that's what happened for my mom. I miss her and I've never felt her presence since she's gone. But I believe she's now part of everything around me and with me, my kids and everyone she loved.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Son

My son turned 23 yesterday. He's an immensely tall, lanky young man with a square jaw, a razor-sharp mind and a soft heart. He has been one of the great love affairs of my life, along with his equally exceptional sister.

His arrival changed me forever, as I'm sure it does most parents. Until that point I was the most important person in my life. But he began to move into first place even before he was born; with every kick I felt, every turn, I knew there was a person in my life now who was going to need me to be a far better person than I'd ever been before. He was going to trust me to take care of him, keep him safe and help him navigate this confusing world and I couldn't let him down. I had to grow up.

I was struck yesterday with just how surprising life really is. I was taking a walk on my lunch break, walking up the hill to the state capitol where all the workers in their suits were lined up at the food trucks. I'm one of them now; me, the bohemian who conformed even while she railed against it. I finally know it's just a costume, one I take off when I get home. You bet I can wear your high heels for awhile, pal.

I walked down into the neighborhood where my son's father and I lived when we were first married and looked at the brownstone that was our home. And I wondered if anyone had told me everything that would happen in the intervening 23 years if I'd have panicked.

"You'll have two children and you'll adore them. You'll worry about money a lot. Your parents will get terminal cancer before they're 75 and you'll take care of your father after your mom dies, you'll get divorced. You'll get back into journalism, meet a musician, fall in love and live together. You'll sing back up on his new songs and they'll be on the radio. You'll host and produce a syndicated radio show. You'll write a few books and finally get an agent when you write non-fiction. Then you'll get a swank press job in a building where you need a security badge to get from floor to floor. And you're not done yet."

Much as we try, we really can't begin to predict where life will take us. And if we live by the eleventh commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Bore God", it's going to be a wild ride. But nobody said it wouldn't be scary, that it wouldn't hurt.

I imagine hearing all that 23 years ago, as I sat in my hospital bed with my newborn son in my arms. I suspect I'd have hidden under the covers. It doesn't sound so bad when I write it down, but having lived it, I know that it was more than I would ever voluntarily take on. I have never been that grown up, though I do my best.

Back then, that small person with the surprisingly wide eyes was all the responsibility I could handle. And even that was frightening some times, when I worried if I knew what I was doing, whether I was choosing correctly, whether my mom instincts were enough to keep him safe as he grew into the remarkable person I knew he was.

No, back then it was enough to hold him close and watch William Shatner overact in Star Trek.

"See, little man? This is fun stuff. You're going to like it."

He does.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Multi Tasking With A Multi Pass

I'm two weeks into the new job. I've made a huge transition: from a work-at-home, two deadline a day gig to a one hour commute to a job with a random pace and many mini-deadlines.

The first week was hell. I was stunned; rolling out of bed, putting on my power suit and wandering through the halls of this massive organization, meeting scores of people and not remembering any of their names.

Week two was better. I'm starting to make associations, I'm starting to understand how it all works and that's good because that's a major part of my job. I'm almost used to walking in heels again.

The commute isn't bad, either, because I had a plan: I'm going to finally learn to speak other languages well. I can stutter in French and Italian, just a little. But I couldn't be considered bi-lingual by anyone who knows what that really means.

So midway through week one my first CDs for "Spanish for Idiots" or something like that arrived. Every morning the unnamed English-speaking host and Luis, my Spanish speaking guide, teach me new expressions. I learned the days of the week, months of the year, infinitives, and how to say "I want", "I like" and "I'm going to." Put that together with the infinitives and you can say quite a lot.

There's a woman on these CDs too and I hate her. Luis speaks clearly, enunciates, and makes sure every syllable is understandable. Then this woman butts in with her mouth way too close to the microphone and zips through something that I can't understand at all. "How do you say, 'Please help me I'm having a seizure?' the host asks. "Mmmmnphhhhgrrrrabbblppppph!" she says.

Fortunately, she doesn't talk much.

Then there's the adventure of the new computerized toll pass. It's a little plastic box into which the information of how many tolls I've prepaid is programmed. "Convenient!" the state proclaims. "Cheaper, too!"

It comes in a plastic sleeve with a warning that it must be kept in there if you don't want it to be read by the scanners. So that must mean that even though they tell you to stick it to your windshield, the scanner might be able to read it anywhere in the car, right?

Well we had to try, didn't we?

We held it up to the windshield for our first pass through a toll both and voila! We were in.

So for our exit, we tried holding it down lower. Like cup-holder level. It didn't work. And we got a note on the toll machine that said to call the state.

I freaked out. I hadn't had this thing more than half an hour and I already had a violation?

"Don't worry," my guy assured me. "I'll make the calls and handle it. If there's a fine, I'll pay it."

He felt responsible since he'd had the brilliant idea of testing the pass's range.

He called the next day and said he got a harried state worker who was not at all amused by the story, but told us they'd let us slide this time.

"Stick it on the windshield!" he advised.

But now we're wondering. Could it read it through a doughnut held against the windshield? How about a piece of tinfoil? What if you held your hand between the pass and the scanner? Could it read it?

Don't you want to know? Quiero aprender.