#ProjectRoadWork

A Change of Plans

Last Thursday, as I lay facedown on the chiropractor’s table for my regular adjustment, my doctor’s business partner made small talk while he checked exactly how different my legs were in length this month. He was helping out, getting me set up with the electric muscle stimulation pads that would loosen my lower back and shoulders over the next 10 minutes, until my doctor could come in, perform his usual six to eight cracking maneuvers and send me on my way.

“Do you get the weekends off?”

The question wasn’t quite so easily answered as he might have expected. We’d been discussing the amount of time I spend sitting, standing, or lounging at a computer. Also the horrific cold that continued to plague me 10 days after its onset but that had not, thankfully, turned into either the sinus infection or walking pneumonia raging through the area along with the unseasonably unsettled temperatures.

“As long as I get everything done. I mean, I work for myself and I try to plan for that, because otherwise I might go completely crazy.”

He gave a knowing chuckle.

The fact is, 2018 was an excellent year for me financially. However, it cost about six straight months of weekends and evenings because everything opened up at once. Time costs health and emotional and spiritual well-being, especially when you work in isolation much of the time.

Just consider: I started this post around Halloween. It’s been on my to-do list to finish since then. For those counting, that means it’s taken two and a half months to find the time to write a post the content of which I already knew.

And that’s an indication of a real problem.

So there are some changes in the works. I am:

  • Closing the book on this blog as you’ve come to know it. Instead of fracturing my attention into the blog and other writing, I’m shifting my writing energy toward pitching and placing my work in paid or monetized venues. I’ll still link to anything that makes it into publication from here and I may make a post now and again to provide updates about changes in work, progress on books, or other major developments.

  • Scheduling to set hours. I like having a fairly routine start to my day. I like being done with work for others by late afternoon. And I need evening and weekend time to pursue my own endeavors, which might be as simple as reading a book (something I haven’t done more than once or twice this year). So I’ve done the math and figured out that my weekdays need to contain about six to six and a half hours of paid work, on average, most of the year, to make my revenue goals. Unless there is a vital reason to break that pattern, I’m scheduling that amount of work each day and then writing “-NO MORE-” on the next line in my planner. Business admin, sales efforts, and my own writing all happen outside that time. And by protecting the time I work for others, I protect the time I need to work for myself.

  • Rethinking technology. Until now, I’ve been riding the wave of hardware and software and apps and things and stuff like most everyone else who works in tech-adjacent fields. However, I’ve never taken the time to kill all of the interruptions. I’m investigating how to use the minimum number of tools to achieve maximum benefits—and how to use the tools to create a virtual workspace so I have a way to “leave the office.” Different user profiles on my computer? Working on it. Even the simple decision to set my phone to “nighttime” from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. means that texts, especially, don’t disrupt my downtime.

  • Letting productivity gurus lead the way. I don’t much care how other folks do things. They’re them and I’m me. Lately, though, I’ve been surveying suggestions from a few productivity folks who value both work and healthful living (emotional, physical, spiritual). While I may not follow all of their tips, I’m finding some encouragement for the rest of the steps I’m taking. It’s good to be reminded that rest and following one’s own interests are valid and necessary pursuits.

  • Changing the scenery. My work doesn’t require me to be in one place, so I’d intended my 2017 research trip to lead me somewhere new. Because it didn’t—at least as quickly as I’d hoped, I’ve felt a sense of suspended reality for more of the last 15 or 18 months than not. There have been exceptional moments with my folks, but beyond that, very little to mark the year. I look forward to the spring with a mixed sense of excitement and trepidation, because I’ll finally shift my base of operations two time zones west and a few climate zones south. By making some of these other changes in the meantime, I hope I’ll be able to better balance my work with new opportunities in my off time when I get there.

For now, thank you for staying up to date with my many ramblings. Stay tuned for links and updates as the year moves on!

Hanging With My Clan

“You need a guy who gets the musical side of you.” My writing classmate lobbed the comment into conversation over fish tacos in a suburban Halifax bistro two summers ago. It smacked the table like a cod hitting the deck.

I have no recollection of the topic at hand, except that it was totally unrelated. Most of my memory of that meal centers on the third member of our party incrementally ramping up her level of Francophone-and-restaurant-professional indignation at our server’s glacial pace, and all three of us repeatedly checking our watches, lest we miss our residency’s keynote address by one of Canada’s most respected nonfiction writers.

My friend absorbed my stare of abject confusion and my awkward chuckle. I will never know exactly why that thought popped into her head (or out of it) at that particular time. There’s a chance it had to do with a boisterous singalong at the pub sometime during that residency, but I can’t be certain. Still, it’s come back to me on a couple of occasions since then.

One was when I found myself chatting with a stranger on a train outside New York City. I’m usually a pleasantries-and-silence sort of seatmate, but if someone wants to chat, I’m up for passing the time. In this case, an older woman had sat down next to me. She was headed to see her family. I was meeting my cousin to catch a matinee of Come From Away on Broadway. Questions about the show turned into rambling chatter about music. As I described my young “drum dudes,” as I called my elementary and middle-school Scottish drumming students, she pointed out how clear it was that I truly enjoyed working with them, and how refreshing that was to see. I supposed, at the time, that was true. I did genuinely enjoy watching the kids learn new skills … both as musicians and as part of a corps, as teammates, as people who could respect one another’s contributions and personalities, different though they were.

The most recent reminder descended this weekend. After several months of flat-out, all-consuming, all-colliding work, I’m starting to emerge from my cocoon. So, when I found that two of my former pipe majors and a former bandmate would be playing a Celtic traditional music concert at one of my usual haunts on Saturday night, I decided to head down and hang out with the crew. Another former bandmate and his family, along with the family of one of my former co-instructors also arrived, and we all got to have a good catch-up.

I was reminded that I’ve been lucky enough, through the years, to play in pipe bands with a host of extraordinarily talented musicians. Bagpipes and drums attract their fair share of rogues and rakes and unsavory individuals. They also attract an unusually high number of prodigies, honors students, sensitive souls, brilliant brains, and upstanding characters. The competitive side of the genre doesn’t always bring out the best of the participants (myself, for example). But the broader playground is full of good music, good people and good fun.

After seeing my friends put on their usual stunning performance (and wishing the audience was both more ample and more animated), I put myself in the car and took myself up the road toward home. I realized that I was smiling at nothing as I cruised along through the fall darkness, just enjoying the residual warmth of the greetings, the hugs and the grins.

And I realized that for those who know me as the serious, calm and measured problem-solver, it might be a bit hard to picture me clapping loudly to reels, swaying and stomping along to jigs, or belting the chorus to a favorite song. While, on the flip side, the people who know me as a musician have seen me grinning and winking, hooting and hollering in beer tents and kitchens … and they’ve seen me being focused and serious on the music and the logistics, too.

Which means, in fact, that my friend in Atlantic Canada may have made a valuable observation, as odd in timing as it was. After all, if only the music and arts people get to see me as a whole person, then maybe I should be spending more time with music and arts people.

Newly Sharpened Pencils

"Don't you love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address."

Such is the line from You've Got Mail, which sets Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan on a movie's worth of identity discovery.

This being the day after Labor Day, it does seem like the leaves should take on an orange tinge, the temperatures (and this summer's choking humidity) should drop, fresh-pressed cider and warm cider donuts coated in crunchy cinnamon sugar should make an appearance on my table, and, yes, I should stock up on pens, pencils, high-quality notebooks, and loads of folders. I settled for checking out my options for a 2019 wall calendar online, instead.

September hasn't really been the beginning of something new to me for more years now than it was the start of something new. But the old feelings and fond memories are still there.  

And, in fact, this very day marks the start of my fourth year of self-employment. It's hard to believe I've made it through three whole years so far, increasing my income each lap around the sun, and have reached a point where I'm using words like "retainer" and "annual contract" when I talk to my most prolific clients about their plans for 2019.

This summer, I took a look at a possible full-time position that interested me because of the way it could have fit into some larger plans. And for the first time, I realized two things. I didn't have to take it or even apply for it, because I'm doing fine and have ideas for the future. And the salary and benefits package would have had to be stellar to replace both the flexibility and time I have available more often than not and the income I make, which covers the benefits I need. Needless to say, it was an eye-opener.

Flexibility and time have been in short supply this summer, with 60- and sometimes 70-hour weeks being the norm for the last couple of months. But the trade-off is that, when I'm hanging out in Acadia this fall or baking pies all day long on the day before Thanksgiving, my computer will be off and stowed away, my phone will be on silent, and I'll be sniffing balsam branches or eating a ramekin of baked pumpkin pie filling without a thought for things happening inside the little machines. 

In reality, this summer didn't shape up the way I wanted it to or the way I expected it to. And so, when I felt the hard press of burnout a month ago or so, I asked myself, "Who's the boss of me?" When I looked around and found no one nearby, I reminded myself, "I am! I'm the boss of me!"

That's when I started looking at Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, to reinforce money habits and to speed up the processes of replacing my car, funding a move, building a substantial savings buffer, and paying off my two debts (grad school loans). 

It's when I decided to switch to a paper planner that encourages organization around priorities before time, with the goal of making my day-to-day management of projects and commitments more intentional and more concrete. That, in turn, supports the setting of some kind of routine, which is something that can easily disappear when a person has no one else's schedule bumping alongside their own and no one watching them arrive and leave. 

It's when I reined in the "ice cream and Cheetos are the antidotes to stress" style of eating that just leads to feeling much, much worse. And when I began to schedule my days to include a good workout right before lunch any day I'm home for the appropriate window of time and the heavens have not opened. Both of which led to signing up for the string of 5K runs/walks that will take me from late September through the end of October. Slowly, ploddingly, but outdoors and moving. I've even determined exactly how far I have to go out and back on the local trail to get in 5K, and that has become my goal for routine exercise, whether walking, following C25K cues, or eventually running the whole way. (I put in nearly that distance just walking around the fairgrounds at a festival on Saturday. In flip-flops.)

So my fourth "fall" has begun, in the school sense, my new planner indicates. Unlike my fiscal quarters, which blindly follow the IRS, my planning quarters are now set up to echo seasonal activities. Fall spans Labor Day to Thanksgiving. Winter reaches from the first acceptable day for Christmas tunes through the end of Ayyam-i-Ha. Spring reaches from the first day of the Baha'i Fast through Memorial Day. And summer, as it should and always has, includes June, July, and August.

My pencils are sharp. My planner is ready. My running shoes are on. Here's to Year Four.

What Is Accomplishment?

Click! That's the sound of the return key submitting the last of four 5K registrations for the month of October, following on my first one in close to 30 years, which will take place the last day of September.

Seeing as how I'm all of a couple weeks into a couch-to-5K program, that might seem overly ambitious. But I figure, if I'm going to be going out and huffing and puffing my way through 3.1 miles once or twice a weekend anyway, I might as well get a t-shirt for it (or a lobster roll ... or support the organization of which a good high school friend is now the executive director).

Three years into self-employment, my day-to-day wardrobe is made up nearly exclusively of Levis jeans (winter) or jeans shorts (summer) and Old Navy tank tops (summer) or a variety of souvenir t-shirts (winter). I have a pair of slacks. I have a couple of dresses and cardigans. I have a blazer. Variety comes from earrings (most of them gifts from my parents), bracelets (most of them picked by me to go with earrings I already have), and shoes (which are about to undergo another purge because I can't walk in heels, except cowboy boots, so I don't need to own heels).

On one of my last visits with my folks, I mentioned that I'm attempting to learn how to enjoy experiences rather than shooting to win. I've never had a hobby that wasn't competitive. Well, cross-stitch, possibly, but it's been a long time since I had the patience to sit down and create something lovely, despite having a number of half-finished projects stowed away in a box.

Cross-country skiing rapidly went from "just for fun" to racing. Initially, I won. And then it became clear that I had great technique, but not the endurance to win. The long overdue asthma diagnosis didn't help in the brutal cold of the Northeast, which was a far cry from the milder air temperatures in the Sierras. It wasn't fun anymore.  

In high school, I found that I actually was a pretty good sprinter. Not great. But respectable. That explained a lot. My body composition is designed for bursts of speed, not for long, slow burns. And sprinting was fun. Technically, I think I lettered, even, but I never got my letter because I was at a pipe band event during the track team's "mandatory" end-of-season BBQ.

Through much of the same time and well beyond, in fact, I was also playing with competitive pipe bands. Even the concept of competitive music seems ridiculous, and, to some extent, it is. But as with athletics, the competition feeds improvement. At some point in time, though, unless you're immersed in the musical world, the competitive aspect of the "hobby" creates friction with the requirement to do well in every other thing in life, especially the career that makes the hobby possible, and especially when the hobby leads to finalist spots at the World Championships. The job or the hobby or both stop being fun.

There are so many accomplishments summed up in the paragraphs above, but I didn't appreciate them much because they weren't the right accomplishments. I, or we, didn't win. Who cares if I could be used as a master-class model of technique if I came in last? Or if I ran well enough to letter if I didn't win? Or if I taught a generation of brilliant drummers if I myself didn't have a title to claim?

So. I'm looking at redefining accomplishment for myself. This 5K situation is just one example. They're just more workouts. Some of which will expand my available winter wear while decreasing the size of said wear. The accomplishment, as someone who currently weighs the equivalent of two fit female runners, is in starting, because I am and have always been very self-conscious about how I look, even when there was less of me to see. Finishing them will be awesome and worthy of cheers. Beating the easy goal I've set for myself (under an hour, while I may still be run/walking) will be terrific. Beating the stretch goal of getting under 50 minutes and then under 45 will mean that I'm running the whole thing and that's fantastic. Go me! Eventually, I'll be running them at the speed of a normal person. I have zero aspirations of winning.

The same is true of every other effort. Yesterday, I actually met both my calorie and macro counts, which never happens. And I wasn't hungry. Woohoo! Today, I'm on track to cross off everything on my to-do list, which is possible only because I decided that I'm not going to be reactive to every demand from every direction all the time. Yay! 

There should be t-shirts for more of this stuff.

Stuck

That's the word of the year. This is the first summer in about seven that has been bereft of fun activities, following a winter and spring that were similarly ... well, blah. 

The absence is made more evident by the "Memories" page on Facebook. That's where I see photos from this time last year, when I was mid-roadtrip and soaking up the cool Oregon air and good company on my native coast. Or both of the years prior, when I was completing graduate residencies in the Canadian Maritimes. Or the year before that, when I spent a week exploring Acadia National Park and the surrounding rough edges of Downeast Maine. Or the year before that, when I was skipping around Glasgow and Edinburgh in the lead-up to a stellar World Pipe Band Championship showing. Or the year before that, when I was able to tack on a couple extra days before a work meeting in San Francisco, so I could see cousins and college friends after 15 or 20 years apart. 

"But, weren't you just in Albuquerque?" It's true, I was there for the two weeks straddling Memorial Day. But there have been a lot of 60-hour work weeks and missing weekends or holidays since then. It's also worth remembering that I had some free days out west, but I was also working half the time I was there. It wasn't a vacation so much as an investigation of a change of scenery.

And it's a change of scenery I'd like to explore more. In fact, all signs seem to point toward New Mexico, despite daily life pulling against me like a mud wallow on a pair of loose boots.

What do I mean by that?

On a day when I was seriously beginning to question whether I could continue to stretch both ends of my days to meet the needs of a colleague and a client, a car turning into the gas station ahead of me had gleaming yellow New Mexico plates ... in rural, northeastern New York state.

On the day when I learned that a possible opportunity in Albuquerque wasn't as good a fit as I had anticipated, and before I'd said anything to anyone, my phone dinged with an out-of-the-blue text from a friend in New Mexico, just offering a summertime hello.

And this past Saturday, while I was standing in line at the recently opened Blaze pizza shop (a chain I first visited with friends out west) on my single break from two more solid days of working when I didn't think I would be, my phone lit up with another out-of-the-blue message from another friend, offering suggestions for places to plant myself in the high desert.

I should be making decisions about that next move right now. In a measured fashion that I couldn't apply last year. I should be making plans. Knocking on doors. Setting up dominoes and knocking the first few down.

Instead, I'm standing in mud and trying to peer into the future. Will my clients still be onboard with me working that far away? I've certainly been floating it past them for the last year. For a couple, it's fine. We don't need to be in the same place. For a couple of others, it should be fine. I know it's workable because I've worked with distant teams before. But I don't know whether their comfort zones will stretch that far.

One thing I do know is that long-distance moves from the Northeast are inadvisable between December and April. Snow and ice make the process of driving a truck and trailer cross-country hazardous and unpredictable. So it's either go late this fall or stay put until next spring.

Do I really need to stay here to make sure next year's contracts are squared away? The idea of sticking around through another icy winter is soul-crushing. More wasted time. More isolation. More going through motions that never seem to change. 

Decisions don't come easy. And right now, I am stuck.

Taking a Free Day

"I want ... to sleep." That was the thought that rolled through my mind when my alarm went off at 7:30 on Sunday morning. I hit the stop button and pulled the covers back over my head.

My calendar for the last couple of months has been packed straight through from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day, including weekends. On the days when it had any gaps, one or two of my projects in progress overflowed their allotted slots and I shuffled anything shuffle-able off to another day or night. The only exceptions have been the couple of weekends I ran away to my folks' place and the one afternoon that I set aside for a long-overdue visit with a friend over iced tea.

Sunday, I'd intended to get up, drive to the Battlefield, go for a hike, come back, and continue with the ongoing home inventory and photograph-and-document archiving that I'd hoped to finish months ago, and then spend a couple hours transcribing interviews for my book, and sort through and categorize research materials so that I can get back to writing when I can wedge that time into my schedule somewhere. At 7:30 that morning, I tossed that plan out the window. One more "have to" and I was going to lose my ever-loving mind.

Instead, I caught another 45 minutes of sleep. I read the news. I broke down the small cardboard boxes that had collected in an armchair during the last few weeks, sorted through untold days' worth of junk mail,  and took the overflowing recycling tub to the container outside. I put away the clothes, sheets, and towels that have been washed over the last fortnight, but only made it from the dryer to the chair next to the dryer. I washed, dried, and put away the load of laundry waiting in the hamper. I jammed the long-waiting "plant nanny" watering stakes into my neglected lemon tree and mini rose bush and tipped the long-necked, cobalt blue glass Saratoga bottles (bought just for this purpose), filled with tap water, into place in the hopes of keeping both small bits of flora alive by providing support for my lackadaisical houseplant tending. I put away a week-old stack of clean dishes, ran a full load of plates and bowls and silverware through the washer, and scrubbed down the neglected stove top, counter, and sink. I registered for my doctor's new patient portal, wrote out the payment to my eye doctor for my most recent visit, and finally let my computer run the update that's been popping up reminders for days.

After that, I sat down on the couch and went through the copy of Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover that I purchased last month. I took four pages of notes, then downloaded the worksheets provided on the accompanying website.

Unlike many of the people who share their stories in Ramsey's book, my interest in his method isn't driven by wild overspending and crushing levels of credit card, car, and mortgage debt. I did the bad choices thing during my 20s. In 2006, I got serious about my finances and, through a combination of low-fee balance transfers to consolidate debts, a reasonable amount of frugality, long-overdue career (and salary) advancement, and a desire to be free of the weight of monthly payments, I managed to work myself completely out of debt by about May 2015. I celebrated by using cash to buy a long-desired kayak and car rack.

I spent about three months debt-free, and then took out the first of two fixed-rate graduate loans to fund my MFA, while I started my self-employment. Now, three years on, I've realized a few things.

First, my gross income last year (and on track this year) is about equal to my gross income my final year as a full-time employee. Of course, I pay a greater percent in taxes and have to fund my own healthcare, retirement, etc., so ideally, I'll work my way up to about 130 percent of that number on a sustainable basis as time goes on. But at least the model is sustainable.

Second, self-employment makes lenders run the opposite direction. I could make peanuts and have a seriously damaged credit score, but as long as my income came from someone else's payroll, I could get approved for a loan at a quasi-reasonable rate. However, I don't make peanuts and long ago fixed my credit, but because I work for myself, no one wants my business ... or they want to charge me an atrocious interest rate. This is a problem for consolidating and refinancing my grad loans, for replacing my eight-year-old car, or if I ever want to buy a house (and, by extension, when I want to rent a new place to live). So, I've already determined that my best path forward is to reach the point where I just pay cash for everything, including large purchases.

Third, I don't mind a certain amount of risk in investing, but in all other financial situations, I don't want to owe anybody anything. That is, in part, because I'm a woman. It's in part because I think our entire economic system is eventually going to tank, and cash will be the way to go. It's in part because I had to fight for months or years for every raise (except one) I ever got in a traditional workplace, so I don't see "more money" as a given, ever. It's in part because I've already gotten out of debt once. It's in part because I can live on a very conservative day-to-day budget that relieves the pressure to maintain a stratospheric and ever-growing income. And it's in part because, while I live comfortably now, I don't have the type of retirement reserve that will allow me to live freely in the future.

All of those considerations are catalysts for my refocus on financial freedom. So is one more. It's one that Ramsey never addresses in his book. He talks a lot about married couples and about the need to agree. But he doesn't address the unique challenge of being a person who is on their own and looking ahead  to a time when they will likely be bereft of any immediate family. Looking at my bank accounts now, that's terrifying, even without the sorts of debt that instill panic in Ramsey's case study subjects.

As my last few months have been marked by an increasing sense of a lack of control over everyday life, they've been marked by an equal awareness of the need to establish a more stable financial footing.

I like the idea that pretty much everything I've earned or will earn is on me. At the same time, as I went through the book, I was reminded of a former coworker who successfully completed Ramsey's program. When I met him, he had finished a military hitch and a bachelor's degree and, at two years older than I, was starting his first civilian, degree-required job. When we started the hiring process, the salary being considered for his position (the least-experienced on the team) was the same as it had been for six or eight years. It struck me as low for where we were and when, so I conducted a salary and cost-of-living study, looking at Bureau of Labor Statistics ranges for similar positions in our market, checking census records for local rental costs, and cross-referencing economists' recommendations for the percent of salary that is responsible to spend on housing. I made the argument that we should raise the starting salary by about $7,000 to $8,000 to ensure the candidate could responsibly support himself near the office. The company leadership agreed and made the change. Over the next several years, through a life-threatening illness, marriage, the welcoming of a child, a house purchase, and a couple of job changes, that coworker made his way totally out of debt by following Ramsey's method.

What's interesting is that, when the company hired that coworker, I was making the very salary he was granted, despite having been onboard three years longer and having a total of eight years more experience. I give all credit to the company leaders, who adjusted my salary immediately and commensurately when they realized the implications of raising the bottom rung. Still, I sometimes wonder whether I might have walked a different financial path over the last 20 years if someone had proactively looked out for my well-being in one of the two jobs held before that one. I'll never know, of course, but it's an interesting thing to consider. (And, for the record, all of my bosses in my first two jobs were female, so please don't make an assumption about why someone didn't proactively speak up on my behalf.) 

In any case, the same company that heeded my advice about the salary issue was also the most fiscally responsible I've ever known. The finance team reimbursed staff out-of-pocket costs within three days and paid vendor invoices within seven. Profit sharing was egalitarian and transparent. Peer-nominated and tenure-based awards were generous. Charitable giving was a huge part of the ethos and a matter of great pride. Most importantly, though, the company didn't use credit to make acquisitions. It used a combination of cash and private arrangements with the sellers. I admired the financial wherewithal. I also never questioned whether my paycheck would bounce.

So, for me, the appeal of Ramsey's methodology lies in the logic. The idea of moving to a full cash lifestyle calls to my sense of self-determination and stability. I've seen what that can look like and, with my long-range fortunes dependent entirely on myself, I think I have better odds of a future life of comfort if I start making the shift now. Perhaps the first few months will be slow or even backwards, but then I'll be pulling myself up by my own bootstraps. 

Figuring out that vision seemed like an awfully good way to spend a free day.

To Share or Not to Share ...

There are moments in any self-employed person's life when it's tempting to share lessons being learned, and at the same time, there aren't enough verbal twists and turns in the universe to avoid implicating the lesson sources.

I'm at the point of collision of multiple different endeavors (related both to work and personal pursuits), all of which are teaching me much while simultaneously raising my stress level to DEFCON Kilauea. Remember, kids: Money can't buy happiness, but it can buy time and shore up security.

Suffice it to say that a 24-hour clock is insufficient to support everything I'm trying to do ... and likely will remain insufficient for the next seven to 10 years, because most of what I'm trying to do is of the marathon variety.

In any case, some lessons are self-inflicted and some come courtesy of the outside world. Here are a few I'm facing at this halfway mark this year:

  • When you live and work in the same physical space, do not think that a couple of small air conditioners can replace central air. They cannot. You may become angry on principle.
  • "Words" and "publication-quality writing" are not the same thing, but many people will never understand the implications of that difference, no matter how many times you explain.
  • You will never relax unless you are with other people, because your brain will not shut off without an external distraction. Schedule external distractions. Extra credit if they don't focus on food (or for those who drink, on drinks).
  • It is impossible to drive a project successfully from the back seat. You will frequently find yourself in the back seat.
  • There is a good chance that you will always want to be doing something, professionally, other than what you are doing, professionally. For me, "something" includes search and rescue, paramedic/EMT, archaeologist, park ranger, immigrant assistant, puppy minder, and part-time cowgirl, part-time dolphin trainer. I should have started earlier for most of those. 
  • Urgency is relative. It is often inversely proportional to the objective importance of the task at hand and your ability to make an impact.
  • As an M&Ms ad once said (and I paraphrase), if the recipe says to bake the cookies for 20 minutes at 250 degrees, don't try 10 minutes at 500 degrees ... and definitely don't try 5 minutes at 1,000 degrees. The same applies to time and energy spent on anything worth doing.

And on that note ... it's time to pull on my big-girl boots and cowgirl up.

Bulls and the Blood

This weekend, as I was hiding from the sticky heat that's overtaken the Northeast, I stumbled across Fearless. And so the Brazilian contingent of PBR competitors kept me company while I reorganized a closet and sorted some pictures and contemplated this week.

For my friends who don't track with such things: PBR is professional bull riding, not Pabst Blue Ribbon. Just to be sure we're all on the same page. 

My thoughts turned to my options for Independence Day. For many years, I spent the holiday like most people do, with family, friends, fireworks, and strawberry shortcake from whichever local group was serving up bowls at the fireworks. ("Oooo! Aaaaah! Looky here!")

For even more years, the holiday was a blur of two or three parades in a day and racing from one to the next on the backroads in cars full of bandmates in sweaty wool. July 4 is right up there with St. Patrick's Day and Memorial Day for bagpipe bands.

Then I stumbled into an insane agency schedule that stressed me out by making me skip parade commitments to stay on top of work commitments. And unfortunately, since going out on my own, that pattern has continued. Without the natural holiday structures offered by local family or a tight-knit social group, this has become one of several holidays that I always intend to take off, but that, in reality, become just one more workday (albeit one without emails and phone calls).

That is the case this year. I'll be working on a project tomorrow and then, whenever I'm done, tackling some neglected chores around the house. There is something of a trade-off. I will absolutely not be working on the Baha'i holiday next Tuesday. And I fully intend to run away early next Friday to spend the weekend celebrating my dad's birthday. 

Still, none of that really makes up for the fun that comes from being free when large numbers of other people are free. Which is why, as I watched world class bull riders dance until the buzzer set them free, my music-associating brain first took me to Garth Brooks: "... it's the bulls and the blood, the dust and the mud, it's the roar of a Sunday crowd ..."

Which made me think how very much I would really like to be spending my Independence Day in jeans, tank top, and cowboy hat or ballcap, with a boot up on the rails and screaming myself hoarse. Calf roping. Barrel racing. Steer wrestling. Saddle broncs. Bareback. Team roping. Bull riding. Chris LeDoux blaring out the speakers. The smell of warm livestock and dry grain. I'm all about it.

Independence Day, to me, is best when spent as far as possible from a computer screen. Covered in dust. Sunburned right through my sunscreen. Happy as a clam.

Relevance

His name was Lupe. One day during second grade, I think perhaps in the fall, an administrator walked him into our classroom and, in a low voice, introduced him to our teacher. 

He stood in silence and looked at the floor, while we looked at him. Nikes or some similar 1980s tennis shoes. Dark jeans a little baggy on his slender frame. Leather belt. Tucked in neatly, a long-sleeved, western-cut cotton plaid shirt, pearl snaps fastened at the wrists and all the way to the neck. Black hair neatly cut and combed into place. 

In our classroom in the Nevada desert, the deep tan of his skin wasn't what set him apart. After all, generations of Mexican immigrants and Basque shepherds populated the valley and several of our classmates were members of the local Paiute tribe. 

Instead, what was different was his language. Lupe spoke no English. Only Spanish. The job our teacher gave us that day was to help him learn our language. She would help him with his schoolwork. We would be his friends. And that was that.

Everyone wanted to help Lupe learn his first English words. And we all wanted him to know that we were his friends. That we wanted to help. That we wanted to play. That we wanted to learn about him, whenever he could tell us something. 

It was no secret that Lupe was the son of migrant workers. After all, who else picked the alfalfa and onions and garlic that blanketed the fields around town? The grown-ups might have known whether his family had the right paperwork. To us kids, though, that didn't matter. He was our gift, and until he disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived, we had a job to do.

I believe in obeying the laws of the land. And I believe in the need for borders, as well as protection at those borders. I also believe that we have an awful lot in our country. More than we need. More than enough to share. More than enough to offer asylum to refugees fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries.

So, when I look at the faces of the kids in detention centers, whether with their parents or not, I can't help but think that they are our gift. 

And we have a job to do.

Outward Focus

I don't drink black coffee. I don't drink coffee as a rule, unless it involves espresso, steamed milk, and a large quantity of chocolate. Whipped cream is always a good addition.

I am also not the poster child for full plates of breakfast at the designated breakfast hour. In my childhood, breakfast might have been a freezer burrito, or Campbell's Bean with Bacon Soup, or whatever else my mother figured I would eat. As an adult, I may eat breakfast if it's a muffin or something that requires a similar lack of thought and planning. Or I may just give up the struggle and wait 'til lunch.

Yet, for a new friend, I slid my way out of a cozy bed last Sunday at an hour that's really only appropriate for fishermen, donned acceptable attire, and rolled down the road to a breakfast venue that served eggs of nearly any description. In my case, that translated to a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a croissant and some excellent hash browns. And coffee, because I wasn't the one pouring and awake seemed like an excellent plan.

The conversation was interesting. My friend is an artist and, due to the nature of the global markets for traditional handicrafts, it's beneficial for him to be in the Southwest. From a personal perspective, though, that means spending most of his time away from his wife and sons, who remain in their South American homeland. It's clear that he misses his family, especially when he talks about his boys' interests in robots and how the younger can't quite assemble the complicated pieces the way his older brother can.

What struck me most, though, is something I've heard so many times from my other friends who've grown up outside the U.S. While every place and every culture has its own issues, my home country presents notoriously difficult situations for children and teens, as compared to more traditional societies and locations. My friend and his wife made the decision for their kids to grown up in a place that provides the values and structure that they want to pass on to the next generation. 

Over the course of my lifetime, that concept is one that has largely slipped out of our national discourse here in the U.S. No wonder we have a shortage of skilled laborers and a dearth of tradesmen. No wonder no one wants the bedrock jobs that lend stability to society. And no wonder our current national vision is generally fractured and perhaps universally stuck someplace between navel-gazing and underwater basket-weaving.

Here's the thing. The U.S. is only the center of the world on our own maps and our own TV screens. We, as individuals, are only the stars in the stories we tell ourselves. As a result, those stories are as good or as bad as we make them.

So, what happens if I stop focusing on how things affect me and start focusing on how they affect you? Or how they affect my friend? Or his family, far away and across borders?

How might my perspective change about:

  • Nuclear brinksmanship and grandstanding?
  • The rights of women to escape and seek security from systemic domestic violence?
  • The intentions of indigenous people to worship in the places they consider sacred? 
  • Respect and healing between members of the human race who wear different skin tones?
  • The relationship between consumerism, greed, poverty, and the dignity of humankind?

How anyone thinks politics and protests are the answer to any of these questions is beyond me. Addressing issues like these starts way down at the ground level, deliberately changing the people with whom we spend time, the way we form friendships, the way we listen without preconceived ideas about whether someone is "right" or "wrong," and the way we stand firm in respecting one another's realities, especially if they're not our own.

Do children in America still learn the quote attributed to Voltaire, Patrick Henry, and a variety of other names: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"?

Do we still picture the steadfastness of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers standing their selected patch of ground in the heat of battle?

Do we still learn the poem, The New Colossus? Do we know what it means? 

What do we, as a people, stand for? Not you. Not me. We. 

Perhaps it's time we stop seeking truth and love in the dust. Perhaps it's time to look outward and see what we find.

Flatlander

The temperature outside right now is about 90 degrees, headed for 97. As it has been for nearly all of the last two weeks, the sun is shining brightly with only a whisp of a cloud in the wide, blue sky. The exception to that streak was Sunday, when the high was about 80 and the afternoon saw a couple of downpours and an hour or so of big, fat, scattered rain drops. The puddles evaporated by the time my friends and I finished dinner.

This morning, I tidied up my Airbnb and dropped my trusty Dodge Dart at the rental car lot at the airport. Here at the airport, I chowed down on half an Albuquerque Turkey sandwich (read: avocado, sprouts, tomato, green chile ... and some turkey), and will soon board the first of two planes that will wing me back to the Northeast. Six hours after that flight leaves, I'll land nearly at bedtime in the Eastern time zone, with a solid 40-degree temperature drop.

I have mixed feelings about all of this. In part, that's because I'm fairly exhausted. While I love being in New Mexico, I have crammed six-and-a-half very full days of work, two hurry-up-and-wait days of travel, and six-and-a-half days of visits, meetings, introductions, and adventures into a two-week period. I missed meeting some folks I very much wanted to see. And I trod through places and talked with people I didn't know existed. Despite having the most welcoming and homey Airbnb I could imagine, I was still conscious of being in borrowed space. At ease, but not relaxed.

While I'm eager to get back to my "stuff," my friends-for-a-while-now, my summer plans, and my slightly convoluted schedule of work in progress, I also want to gorge myself on the new experiences, camaraderie, culture, and lessons to be gathered here. And, I now have a whole new set of dominoes to line up, besides the ones that are already in place. 

I've been saying for years now that my life is desperately in need of a change, since it didn't follow the love, marriage, kids, family path that I had always envisioned. Setting out into self-employment was part of that. So was taking my MFA and starting the long and winding road toward authorship. So was the surgery that confirmed I am 99.99% unlikely to have children of my own, even if I eventually find "the guy," as painful as that is to admit. So was last year's round-the-country road trip to sate both research needs and wanderlust. So was this year's rededication to improving and expanding my professional range.

Perhaps the next change is this one. Blending my western roots and my eastern existence in a whole new place where I never thought to be, let alone to feel at home. Here where everyone from acquaintance-friends to an aboriginal maker of storytellers have offered a heartfelt, "I hope you move here!" in parting. Here where park rangers and visitors alike have hollered out dinner suggestions and favorite places. Here where one friend's promised to treat me to breakfast next time, two more are already keeping their eyes out for suitable housing, and another's cooking up plans for movie nights and music.

And where do I stand on this subject?

Inshallah, as my Persian friends might say.

Or, in the vernacular, the good Lord willing and the creek don't rise.

Having a Shy Day

There is a difference between being an introvert and being shy. I have the great joy of being both, although I fake both extroversion and a lack of shyness on a regular basis.

For the last week, in fact, I've been "on" more than off. At 5 a.m. last Tuesday, I was thanking the TSA agent who waved me through the body scanner and earning a smile by wishing him a good day. By 8 a.m., I was nearly halfway to Chicago and gaining a laugh from the flight attendant when I complimented the elaborate twists worked into her long, black hair and wrapped into a coronet around her head. Within hours, it was the cabbie at the airport and the thoughtful car rental agent in the middle of Albuquerque. 

I've had the great joy this last week of two delicious dinners with friends whom I can't help but adore, simply because they are unabashedly themselves. Forthright, opinionated, generous, welcoming, and ever so fun. I've spent a day at the zoo with another friend, her wonderfully strong granddaughter, and her smart, kind, super-fun great-grandson. I've visited with a third friend whose resilience is inspiring. And I've started getting to know an acquaintance who has met my California cousins. 

I spent a couple of days and a few extra hours working. I chatted with expert artisans and watched skilled dancers. Yesterday, I thought perhaps I'd take myself to one of the pueblos for an arts and crafts show, because, why not check out something new?

But I didn't. Instead, I found myself on the couch with a slice of cold pizza yesterday morning, staring at the map and contemplating the prospect of wandering up the road on my own. I already have two potentially "on my own" days planned this week. The notion of one more seemed suddenly and completely overwhelming. My faux extroversion plummeted. At the same time, the notion of meeting an acquaintance for a snack and bevvie yesterday evening sent my shyness spiraling upward.

Thanks goodness for good naps, good work, and good movies, which recharged my extroversion battery. Thank goodness also for good conversation with a new friend, which brought my shyness back down to a manageable level.

There is, I think, something to be said for having a shy day now and again. It's a reminder of what can trap a person in the most familiar mindset, or place, or perception. It's also a reminder of why it's so important to challenge all of those things. Even if you might not know exactly where to start. Even if you have to take baby steps to break the mood ... like today, when I'm taking the scenic route to Santa Fe. I'm giving myself permission to skip shops and just hit museums, if I want to do that. Or to decide when I hit the bottom of the mountain whether I want to chance the vertigo and panic attack that a solo drive drive 5,000 feet up to the summit may trigger. I only have to do what I want to do. And that's okay.

Consider This the Soft Launch

As promised, the new website is now live! It's not yet perfect, but it's live! Sort of like Dr. Frankenstein's gruesome buddy.

Things to note:

  • I'm still proofreading (cross-eyed, at this point) and tweaking the language here and there to better describe what I do, how I do it, and why it's valuable to the people who hire me.
  • I'm adding testimonials as I go, but decided to launch with the basics and insert the quotes from happy people over the next few weeks, after I've dug through my emails to find them!
  • The navigation is super different. Please explore! You'll see that the blog is no longer right up top. Instead, it lives within the section that has to do with my own writing projects. That's because I rarely write about communications and marketing. Instead, this is for the people who want to see me as a writer/thinker/author person.

Feel free to let me know what you think. Or not. New websites are nifty, but this was a utilitarian upgrade, so perhaps not as fascinating as a really substantive change! 

Mind the Mess

Thanks for your patience, friends! It's been a few weeks since my last post and it will be another week or two before I post anything of particular interest.

When I launched this website and blog nearly three years ago, I had just gone out on my own and I was at the beginning of my graduate work. My goal was to create a workable presence for the short term that would serve both my book-writing audience and my communications audience equally. And that's exactly what I did. 

Now, a year after my graduation and three full years into self-employment, it's time to kick things up a notch. That's why I'm reworking, rewriting, and relaunching my website. There will be more space devoted to the services I offer clients, with a special section just for the writing I'm doing on my own, including this blog and updates about Mr. Khanjani's Roses.  

Until I get it all finished and switched on, you may notice some weirdness. Just pretend there's a skink crawling around in the background, messing up the code. Once I find him and get him out of the works, everything will be all pretty and good to go. (There will be another slight update later this summer to reflect some new branding, but that will just be about appearances.)

Stay tuned for a fresh look soon!

Looking Back at Love Languages

A battered index card slipped out of the blue plastic folder I'd dropped on my desk a few days ago. Just one more piece in my ongoing tossing of things I've picked up along my way. 

As I glanced at the names and descriptions on it, I instantly found myself back in a friend's cozy, bright living room more than a decade ago. Nineteen friends and family gathered every week for nearly all of 2006, some driving from an hour away after work each Wednesday, to study together amidst uproarious laughter, rapid shifts in conversation, and whatever snacks the lady of the house had picked up on her way home.

One particular night, the group's facilitator (and purveyor of snacks) mentioned that she'd been reading The 5 Love Languages, which had made her curious about the way our group members might align with the different "languages" described in the book. We tended to go off track at the slightest opportunity, so we all set aside our materials for the evening and agreed to identify our preferences and discuss them. It seemed, after all, like a fun way to learn new things about old friends. 

The goal was to identify the way we each preferred to receive love, which may or may not have echoed the way we demonstrated love for others. It was no surprise that the group's best distributor of hugs preferred to receive physical contact. Nor that another, always willing to pitch in and help, liked to receive acts of service. Four more valued receiving quality time, marked by undivided attention and the sharing of thoughts uninterrupted. The largest number, seven, preferred to receive words of affirmation, whether compliments, encouragement, gratitude, or acknowledgement.

Then there were the four of us who most preferred to receive tangible gifts ... or treasures, or any expressions that someone was or had been present. We took a fair amount of razzing, especially since none of us were the type to ask for gifts nor the type to expect them. It also sparked quite a lot of discussion about exactly what gifts are. 

One friend of mine was surprised that I, the person who deals with words, didn't gravitate toward words of affirmation. I remember explaining that working with words was the very reason why I didn't care for them. That I understood how words could be used as a commodity to make people do or think what the speaker wants them to do or think. In the context of receiving love, I didn't trust pretty words tossed out into the air. 

When someone takes the time to handwrite a card or even type an email, though, words might count as a gift, at least in my opinion. So could the fortune from a fortune cookie, a flower picked from the yard, a pebble lifted from a path, a tiny bundle of leaves, or the pocket-sized Dala horse that accompanied me on last summer's travels. Gifts, after all, have everything to do with thoughtfulness and care ... and nothing to do with the hard dollar value of a particular thing.

Already far off track that evening long ago, we carried on exploring how we each preferred to receive an apology. A few wanted to receive sincere words of regret. A couple preferred to receive a genuine promise to change. None, interesting to note, wanted to receive someone's acceptance of responsibility or for someone to admit wrongdoing. The conversation there had to do with the lack of a change in behavior.

The remaining nine of us preferred to receive an apology in which someone demonstrated action and made restitution in some way. Of course, we all noted, we didn't want to have to explain that to whomever had wronged us. We wanted them to be of such character that they would, of their own volition, right the wrongdoings. 

As I flipped the card over in my hands the other day, that was the idea that stuck with me. Ultimately, whatever way we prefer to have others interact with us, doesn't it all come down to character?

If ... Then ...

On this grey northeastern day, complete with actual slush (slush!) falling from the sky, I once again reminded myself of the adventure I've been on these last five years. And the adventures yet to come. 

Everything ties together in unexpected ways, like a giant, never-ending logic problem. It's only with the benefit of hindsight ... and four to six months of winter ... that the patterns become clear.

If I had been content with my semi-predictable office job, then I never would have jumped into a less-predictable office job.

If I had found that less-predictable office job totally fulfilling, then I never would have gone in search of a master's degree.

If I'd been denied access to the MFA program at King's, then I never would have had the courage to go into solo work, nor would I have given myself the time to start working on the book that continues to take shape.

If I hadn't been working on the book, then I would have missed the opportunity to learn so many details about stories I'd known in general for a lifetime, or to make so many friends and writing allies, or to fall in love with a beautiful Canadian city on the edge of an island on the edge of North America.

If I hadn't gone into solo work, then I wouldn't have been free to take on a harebrained research idea at the conclusion of my studies.

If I hadn't pursued that harebrained idea, then I wouldn't have realized how much stuff I'd collected through the years, or how much I needed a fresh start, or how cathartic three months and a car full of necessities could be.

If I hadn't spent three months driving around the country, then I wouldn't have realized that North Dakota is stunning, or that eastern Montana looks like Nevada, or that Idaho tries to kill Eastern drivers, or that I have bridge and cliff issues, or that SFU has an on-campus hotel, or that Seattle is super-hilly, or that the Oregon coast is the most relaxing place in the world, or that California's not the same without Grandpa Mel, or that beat-up pickup trucks and cowboy hats can be accompanied by country or Tejano and they're still just right.

If I hadn't had to balance work and research and driving and planning, then I wouldn't have had to find a way to avoid southern California at the same time I avoided a diagonal swath of overpriced eclipse lodgings.

If I hadn't decided on Tehachapi and Laughlin and Flagstaff, then I never would have found my way to the one place in the country that I had no particular desire to go.

If I hadn't spent a week in the oldest new place I'd ever been, then I never would have realized that Albuquerque feels like a place I've always known.

If I hadn't been enchanted by Albuquerque, then I wouldn't have had such a great visit with an old new friend, or met a new new friend with whom I share old new friends, or spent all one day baking in the blazing sunshine amid flora and fauna and a fantastic zoo train.

If one of my old new friends hadn't been taken down by the heat, then I wouldn't have been wandering around plazas and patios by myself late on a Sunday afternoon, which made all the difference. 

If I hadn't left Albuquerque, then I wouldn't have cruised across the open grassland of Texas and Oklahoma, or stumbled across the Ozarks where I did not expect to find them, or arrived outside Chicago wishing to be literally anywhere else.

If my contact for the Chicago conference hadn't been translating for displaced neighbors in the middle of a hurricane in Houston, then I never would have realized how out of place I truly was.

If I hadn't felt so out of place, then I never would have shared a table with a lovely family at IKEA, who restored my faith in basic courtesy with smiles and quick translations.

If I hadn't wanted to avoid the awkwardness of conference programs, then I wouldn't have been able to experience a late summer sunset at the Mother Temple of the West.

If I hadn't needed to kill time before my next scheduled interviews, then I wouldn't have spent a week in Nashville.

If I hadn't been in Nashville, then I couldn't have caught up with one of my favorite childhood pals, nor stumbled into two of the most delightful and useful research interviews of the whole trip.

If I hadn't completed those interviews, then I couldn't have taken the backroads through the grassland and mountains of Tennessee and Kentucky and Virginia.

If I hadn't stopped for three days in a mountain hotel in Virginia, then I wouldn't have met my deadlines and I wouldn't have gotten sick.

If I hadn't gotten sick, then I would have been much more fun wandering the battlefields in the Virginia Piedmont and visiting friends in DC and I wouldn't have been so afraid that I might have infected my interview subjects in DC and Philadelphia (as well as my wonderfully welcoming hostess).

If I hadn't spent the next six weeks in familiar territory, then I couldn't have realized that I needed to get my ducks in a row before changing everything altogether.

If I hadn't found a place to sit still and get things done this winter, then I couldn't be planning for my next small adventure right now, reading calendars of events forwarded by a new new friend, comparing travel plans with an old new friend, crossing important tasks off my lists, thinking about coffee options, and counting down days. 

And if I wasn't doing all of that, then I couldn't be clicking through Trulia and planning my next big adventure ... in a place that sees far fewer grey days and nearly never experiences slush falling from the sky.

The Human IKEA?

For the last several days, my living room has smelled of birch veneer and plywood. That's because I was in Boston for the weekend, which provided the opportunity to veer sideways and take my list of IKEA needs to what I fondly think of as Little Sweden.

I've been considering for some time how to make sure I can actually get to my office supplies and files and writing books. And printer, for that matter. In day-to-day life, I just carry around my laptop and a Staples ARC planner. But sometimes, I do need to use a Post-It or my stapler. Stowing them in plastic tubs stacked to chest height behind other things was not proving an appropriate storage plan. 

Enter the Kallax system of versatile cube shelving, with drawer inserts and seagrass boxes to reduce my exposure to the dust that rivals only cats, according to my allergist.

Do I live at least three hours from the nearest IKEA store? You betcha. Could I have had some pieces of this system shipped to me? Sure. All pieces? Of course not! Besides, a $5.99 plate of chicken meatballs, gravy, lingonberries, mashed potatoes, and veggies doesn't arrive with every shipment. But it does accompany every visit to Little Sweden. 

In this case, Sunday at IKEA Stoughton was less packed than it could have been. Fresh off 45 hours at the Boston University/Boston Globe Power of Narrative conference, I needed the chance to process the reflections offered by exceptional writers. Strolling through the ruthlessly organized showroom and marketplace offered that opportunity.

The weekend didn't provide "lessons" so much as "refreshers," which was encouraging. It's been 20+ years since I took a basic journalism class, after all, and more than a year since I completed my master's in creative nonfiction. I'd spent much of the conference mumbling vague answers to versions of, "What do you do?" But more on that in a minute.

I realized as I looked back at my notes that I'd jotted down amusing turns of phrase more than useful information. That might have been because much of the content seemed to target the students in the room more than it did the folks who'd been working through the practicalities of the field for years. I spent a chunk of my time comparing notes in my head between the stringent requirements of reporting hard news and the freedom that a book's artistic structure offers to a writer.

Case in point? Sacha Pfeiffer (Boston Globe Spotlight team) and Emily Steele (The New York Times), who are both brilliant investigative journalists. discussed the need to get their sources on record describing in clear and clinical terms how they'd been touched by priests and celebrities. The point was to fully convey to their readers exactly what the level of abuse was within the power dynamics they described. Meanwhile, I was thinking about my specific decision not to press my sources about the details of their torture sessions, but instead to take my readers right up to the line where a source's eyes plead not to go further ... and then to use exposition gathered from in-depth, verified testimony to describe the nature and pattern of torture techniques in the same prison in a similar timeframe. It's a technique that works to preserve dignity and reveal truth in a book, but not in an investigative news article or series.

So what were some of those turns of phrase I mentioned?

  • "We come to these things to rub shoulders with people and maybe pick up a couple of things." - Barry Newman (Wall Street Journal), describing the purpose of professional conferences
  • "I say what I want to say, even though you know these wingnuts are gonna call your job." - Best-selling author Roxane Gay, explaining her perspective on whether she considers her audience's potential reaction when writing her essays
  • "I hate that word, peg. 'What are you going to peg it to?' I'm gonna peg it to fuck all, that's what." - Roxane Gay, getting into the relationship between her personal essays and news and current events
  • "Narrative can be the enemy of truth." - HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, on the need for straight reporting as well as narrative technique
  • "News is what happened yesterday. It's always past tense. If you hear somebody talking in the future tense, turn that shit off. It's opinion." - Senior News Researcher Caryn Baird (Tampa Bay Times and Politifact), describing the importance of vetting facts before reporting anything (and facts are things that have happened, not things that might happen)
  • "You're the intelligent agent. The computer is stupid." - Caryn Baird, on the need to search alternate spellings, time ranges, locations, and more that a computer can't currently suss out
  • "I use the 'if you give a mouse a cookie' approach to sources who distrust the media or you." - Claire Galofaro (Associated Press), explaining how she introduces herself and starts a conversation, then asks if she can take notes, then asks if she can record
  • "My opinion doesn't matter. I'm just one person." - Ellen Gabler (The New York Times), on separating personal feelings from her role in reporting a hard news story
  • "I don't think we're advocates as journalists. I think we're truth-tellers and we need to remember that." - Claire Galofaro, describing how she approached writing about life in Appalachia amid the current political environment (and drew heat from both ends of the political spectrum, which told her she'd achieved her goal of balanced reporting)

Over my plate of Swedish delights, I considered the range of fascinating details I'd picked up throughout the weekend. Something that stood out was the way in which some of the women attendees asked their questions of the speakers. 

One mentioned the challenges of "asserting while female," while others seemed to be looking for permission from an authority (whatever that means) to do ... something. I don't even know what. I just know that I've never been aware that I was supposed to wait for permission from anyone, for anything. So I haven't. Perhaps that's among the reasons why I infuriate everyone I know at one time or another. 

So why had I been dodging questions about what I write all weekend? I told you I'd get back to this. Well. Because when I did my undergraduate work and even for several years after that, I wore my white hat. The journalist hat. The truth-teller hat. The principled realist hat. And then, 15 years ago or so, I stumbled over into custom publishing, sponsored content, and content marketing. While it was a necessary financial decision, it also felt like a sell-out. To someone trained as a journalist, marketers wear black hats. They spin the truth. They set out to alter opinions. They obfuscate. And nothing will make a trained-journalist-turned-marketer feel the weight of the black hat more than returning to the land of the white hats. 

That is, after all, a good part of why I went back and got my MFA ... so that I could begin to bridge my way back to a white hat. It's also why I am much more comfortable working under my own name ... so that I have some control over the companies with whom I collaborate as a marketer and can don a semi-altruistic grey hat.

And with all of those thoughts swirling in my head, I prepared to set off into the depths of Swedish Furniture Disneyland in search of my multipurpose shelving system. It could be a bookcase. With the right pieces, it could be a hutch. Or a sideboard. Or a room divider. Possibly a Murphy bed. It could, in fact, be hacked into all sorts of furniture and decorating solutions.

Professionally, I think, that's me. I span the gamut. Bridge the gaps. Combine skills and experiences, theory and knowledge. And offer something not just general, but in fact, able to be reconfigured and redeployed in all sorts of situations and circumstances. I am, perhaps, a human IKEA, in the sense of writing and content. I just smell less like plywood and particle board.

Where to Go From Here?

Yep, this week I've been asking the big questions. That's what happens when my to-do list is so long and varied that it seems impossible, winter just keeps going, and I'm nearly sitting on my hands to keep from spending money on anything not directly related to upcoming travels, necessary office organization, or the acquisition of a kitchen table ... in that order. 

Paralysis has essentially set in at the worst possible time. Exactly when I need to be launching forward on multiple fronts, I'm standing in one place and spinning in circles, it seems. My brain won't settle down, my body is too settled down, and my heart (as always) remains an unreliable contributor to the conversation. A bad combo if ever there was one.

I've decided the best approach is to continue to pare down things I don't need in the five categories of "stuff":

  • Physical stuff, which I've been jettisoning with a fairly high degree of comfort because I'm not using it, I have no one to pass it down to, and someone else might love it dearly and let it serve a purpose that I no longer do.
  • Digital stuff, which is threatening to drown me, since it's so easy to bookmark or capture things "for later." I have files that I still need or want to keep, just in case. I also have far too many photos that have never been culled, lots of bits of info that I used and forgot to delete, and work files that I will never have cause to consult again, ever.
  • Mental stuff, which I stockpile without effort or consideration and which then turns me into a human encyclopedia open to everyone I know. And I'm not just talking about work details that I need to retain for my clients' sake. Oh, no. Details of medical procedures. Lists of things I want to do or try. Dates and names and places and interesting bits of trivia and song lyrics and family lore and accents and ... it's rather exhausting to be on constant recall, honestly.
  • Emotional stuff, which I've done a decent job of trimming, pruning, and tossing over the fence in recent years in the name of bygones and openness. I just haven't replanted anything in those spaces. Which has both allowed an encroachment by the physical, digital, and mental ... and also left me interacting mostly on the surface. It's not my natural depth and it's deeply unfulfilling.
  • Spiritual stuff, which might seem strange coming from someone who doesn't shy away from talking about the interconnectedness of spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental realities. But I still need to gather up all my own garbage and periodically find a convenient spiritual dumpster into which I can offload it. Of course, this gets tied up with the emotional stuff too ... it's why I value close and meaningful friendships or relationships and shy away quickly from insincerity.

With luck, just picking away at those five fields will uncover some gems of opportunity and energy, some new ideas to pursue, and a few nuggets of shimmering gold inspiration. 

And if that doesn't work, then when I have a few days off while I'm in New Mexico this spring, I'll find a bench in the sun in a plaza somewhere with Andean music or Tejano or a brass band or strings and I'll park myself there for an afternoon to think and plan and watch the world go by ... and remind myself what it feels like to be going somewhere.

A Little ... and Slowly

Yo entiendo más que yo hablo. After an eight-day streak of racing through the beginner and intermediate sections on Duolingo, the app tells me that I am 50 percent fluent in Spanish. I'm guessing that's the half made up entirely of reading and listening comprehension. I understand more than I speak.

"You read in Spanish today. Is that because you love it or because you're trying to preserve a family connection?" The friend who asked the question slips seamlessly between unaccented lower-48 American English and the bright, fast roll of an adopted West Indian home, so it's a fair question.

Being a child of Northern California and the western Nevada desert, I spent my earliest days surrounded by the reassuring sound of Mexican Spanish. At the gas station, in the grocery store, on the street ... over the burritos on the coffee shop's weekly buffet. Some of my classmates were first- or second-generation American. Others were the children of the migrant workers who tended and harvested the broad fields of green alfalfa and pungent onions on the outskirts of town.

A continent away, when it was time to choose a language to study in school, I had only two choices: French or Spanish. Many of my classmates chose French, thinking they'd never use either, but at least we were closer (by far) to Canada than Mexico. I, of course, chose Spanish. Not only because I preferred it, but because I was certain that it would be useful. French is common among diplomats. Spanish is common among humans.

Thus began six years of study in junior high and high school, followed by four years of study in college, leading to a minor in the subject, despite never using it outside a classroom in the northeastern United States. In all that time, I had one or maybe two instructors who were native speakers, and one or both of them spoke the fast Spanish of the islands. All of my other instructors spoke Spanish as a second language, picked up in an organized fashion in Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, or Thpain. They didn't speak the language I heard in my head. Yet still, when I was in high school and stood to read a prayer at a Baha'i event, a Colombian friend of my family looked up to see who the Mexican girl was. 

Is there a family connection to the language? Only tangentially. People are frequently disappointed when they see my last name and anticipate meeting someone Hispanic, only to find my pale Irish, Swedish, English, western European face in the room. For that, I give credit to my great-great-great grandfather Magnus. A mercenary with the Swedish army during the Napoleonic wars, the unfortunate man bore a too-common last name. [NOTE: A cousin has informed me that Magnus was too young for the Napoleonic wars, and was a hussar, or mounted soldier in the light cavalry.] And so, being assigned to a garrison where, we presume, he was one of several with the same name, he was given what's called a "garrison name." In short, in the days before service numbers, the Swedish army would simply and legally change soldiers' last names to make them distinct from one another. 

Magnus was given the last name Gomez. Unlike most soldiers who legally switched their garrison names back to their original last names when they left the service, Magnus decided to keep his. However, when he went to register it at the local parish, the Right Reverend Whomever pointed out that no Swede would be able to pronounce it, because that lingual construction doesn't exist in the Swedish language. Thus, we acquired a "T" and became Gometz.

My entire family is a little contrary about quite a few things. I come from a long line of people who simply don't follow the rules. Or, more correctly, they don't see the rules as they're blasting right past them. So I have no doubt that Magnus kept the name because it would annoy someone or otherwise set him apart from the crowd.

Perhaps the Swedes could have used a rudimentary Duolingo so that they would know how to talk about ducks and bears (not a frequent topic that arises in my life) and wine and beer (neither of which I drink, so, again, not exactly useful). I'm finding that the app is helpful at jogging my memory and recovering skills that are about a half-step above "Where's the bathroom?" 

What it's not doing, though, is improving my ability to pull words and sentences out of thin air when I might speak to someone who thinks in Spanish, even if they speak English as well or better than I do. Perhaps that's part of what appeals to me so much about the move I'm considering. It offers a little bit of a fresh start and a re-do at the same time, putting me someplace where more than one set of my skills might be brushed up and put to work for the benefit of myself and others. 

For now, though, my answer to all questions about moving plans and "Do you speak Spanish?" remains, "Un poco, y lentamente." A little ... and slowly. With luck, I'll have better answers, faster, after I visit my potential new home this spring.

'Little by Little, Day by Day'

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. The words, in my mother's handwriting on a hot pink index card, stood out from the surrounding phone numbers, notes, and directions. The small slip was one of many tacked to our kitchen bulletin board, within arm's length of the phone attached to the wall. I saw it daily from the age of 9 or 10 until the board and its contents were downsized and eventually entirely removed from the family environs, along with the corded wall phone they accompanied.

I don't know where, exactly, Mom had come across the phrase, or when. But I do know that she was quite taken with it, because it was apparently something Abdu'l-Baha often used as a guide for how to go about completing a Herculean task. It's akin to the familiar business advice that the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.

That's where I see myself at the beginning of 2018. As much as I would like to be raring to go and full of excited energy, as I have been at the turn of recent years ... I'm just not. In fact, I'm battling the periodic depression that runs through half of my family. Don't be alarmed: It's not the critical, existential crisis type of mental illness that requires professional intervention. This just makes each day both too long and too short, amplifies each emotional trigger, and makes me feel as though I'm slogging through never-ending mud. I've been through it before and I'm sure I'll face it again. At least this time, I know what it is and I can fight against the urge to let it drag me down (onto the couch, with pints of Ben and Jerry's and all the sappy movies ever made).

If you're a long-term reader of the blog, then you know I don't make "resolutions" for the new year. But I do set a few goals around which I can focus my energy. Unlike the last couple of years, when I've attached hard numbers to these efforts, I'm concentrating on progress this year. After all, I need to push myself, but I also need to cut myself some slack. Little by little, day by day. 

So, here's the list I've tacked to the kitchen wall:

1. Develop and stick to a healthy routine. I'd like to say that my lack of an existing routine is due to finishing grad school earlier this year, spending three months working at an incredible pace, spending four more months on the road, and then moving into a four-walled backup plan. But the fact is, when you live by yourself for a really long time, it's easy to lose track of "good" routines because there are no external influences on your habits. Approaching each day in a measured and predictable fashion, though, redirects my focus to simple steps that show real rewards. Not only does a healthy routine keep the depression issues somewhat controlled, but it mitigates the desire to become a hermit by preventing the inevitable self-castigation and withdrawn socialization that follow more indulgent living. That's why I'll be doing my best to stick to predictable sleep, nutrition, and exercise schedules this year.

2. Find a place to call home. As much as I am happy to have a place to live right now, it's not home. My landing here serves some essential purposes, but it's a one-year, temporary solution (given the heating system and the rare cold streak this winter, that's now evident). I'd also be lying if I said I didn't fear getting stuck here; a year is a longish time and circumstances can change quickly. That possibility is really doing a number on me, right now. So to keep that feeling from winning, I'm tentatively making plans to be back out in Albuquerque this spring to investigate an actual move in detail ... complete with LLC information, real estate chats, pipe band introductions, and a round of visits to the local Baha'i communities. At the same time, though, I'll be seeking out free or low-cost events with my friends right here, because if I don't make that effort, I can go weeks without speaking to anyone except the checkers at the grocery store. And, in an effort to stay sane, I'll start planning and packing for a November move in August. If all goes well, I'll head west; and if not, I'll at least find someplace that feels a little more "me."

3. Build the business with long-term contracts. I like having a mix of projects in the hopper at any given time (I'm line-editing a book this month, among other things!). I'm also a fan of predictable cash flow. So this year, I'll be taking the practical step of making sure my moderate ongoing costs are covered every month by ongoing engagements with a few different clients. I'm nearly there already, between firming up plans with a few existing folks and reaching out to new prospects, especially during the next couple of months. To make it all work, I'll be experimenting a bit to see what sustainable schedule will let me produce the highest quality work most efficiently ... while giving me the freedom to go outside, even when my planner seems full. That should allow for plenty of less predictable work endeavors, too, built on a stable base. I'll leave the elimination of net 30 terms for another post! 

4. Prepare the book for print as best as possible. There are an awful lot of people looking out for this book and I feel very much behind. I've decided to force myself through an exercise that may seem crazy, but should get things moving. This week, I'll rework the structure (again), with the summer's trip to guide me. Through the rest of this month, I'll transcribe my interviews, thereby overcoming the inertia that set in because I'm not a very fast typist and I don't like my own voice. There's no option but to do it myself, though, because I can't use a transcription service due to sensitivities around information and sources, as well as the English spoken with a heavy Persian accent (go figure). Then, starting in February, I'll be writing five pages per day, no more, no less, until the middle of April. It can be absolutely horrible, and that's fine. I have to get the manuscript through what amounts to a security review to ensure it won't put people in Iran in danger before I can start seriously querying agents and publishers, and I can continue editing and refining during those months. So the goal is to get a rough draft into review this spring, while I turn my attention to chasing down possible agents and refining the proposal.

5. Stabilize finances and planning. Everybody has self-soothing techniques when they are sad or stressed. I, for example, try to organize every aspect of my world to perfection. That's very time-consuming. So I'm going to square away the area I revisit most. To make it work, I'll be doing my best to stick to a modest budget that allows for purchasing needs but makes me identify and delay the purchase of most wants. Sounds like fun, right? Well, fun takes different forms. In this case, I'll have a much better view of what a normal year looks like (less the fun, chaos and expense of the last two). It should let me max out my contribution to my solo health savings account in the first half of the year and fund my next move in the fall. Anything else I save can go toward filling my emergency savings and paying off a chunk of my graduate loans. All of which increases my ability to start looking forward again. 

All of this sounds very ambitious, I know. But if this year is going to be good for anything, perhaps it's advancing where I am in each of these areas. I've already got my eyes fixed on a check-in for myself at Naw-Ruz, New Year in the Baha'i calendar, which falls at the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere and involves a lot more sunlight and the promise of temperatures above freezing. 

Kam kam, ruz bih ruz. Little by little, day by day.