Self Employment

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!

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

A Word About 'Mentoring'

About 10 years ago, give or take a few, I got an email from the head honcho in my office, which was one of three across the country that made up an ambitious, culture-driven marketing company. Two of my colleagues received the same message.

We were all women. We were all managers of teams and or task sets. We were all invested in what we did. And we were all acknowledged as valuable contributors in one way or another. 

We all, also, had no idea why we were being summoned to the principal's ... erm, chief strategy officer's ... office. We were pretty sure that none of us had done anything to jeopardize the health and well-being of the business. And none of us could recall having irked the same person or group of people in recent days. (We all routinely irked someone, just not the same someone at the same time.)

Together, our crew of 30-something females jogged up the steps to the glass-walled office above the bullpen in our retrofitted factory office building. One slim, high-strung, tall and blond, in conservative, very fashionable business wear. One strong, dark-haired, in a trendy casual outfit that belied her art career. And me, calmer, shorter, wider, and (never the clothes horse) likely in jeans and a sweater, because that's what I almost always wore.

Our CSO met us at the door. Then in his early or mid-50s, he bore a striking resemblance to an outdoor catalog model. Whip-smart, generous, ethically tough (and ruggedly masculine, athletic, and well-dressed), he no longer inspired awe among the three of us. We'd all been there for close to or just more than five years. And while we didn't always agree with his decisions, we certainly respected them and granted him a degree of trust that he'd earned by sharing the reasons for those decisions ... even the ones with which we disagreed.

With varying levels of grace, we dropped into the armchairs and sofas in his office. I teased the boss about knowing how meetings with no topic on 15 minutes notice were rarely good. He grinned and got right to the point.

The leadership team guarded the company culture with a remarkable level of zeal. Once a year, the entire staff, in all three offices across the country, took an exhaustive survey that gauged satisfaction and areas for improvement. The whole staff saw the results and the comments, every time. Staff volunteers joined managers and executives on task forces mandated to improve troubling situations or to investigate options and ideas. 

In the most recent survey, there had been a couple of comments about the lack of female leadership or mentorship. When the executive team got together to discuss the results, they looked around the table and noted that there was only one woman among the four or five faces. (The chief financial officer, widely respected as a brilliant financial mind, compassionate and dedicated team leader, talented triathlete, and all-around good egg.)

We nodded. In a growing company spread across two nonconsecutive time zones, the executive team was admirably small, with widening, cross-office circles of senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors/managers, and specialists ranging from senior levels of experience to fresh-from-college assistants. 

Our fearless leader dove into the issue at hand. "Well, the executive team was discussing ideas about how to improve that situation. The idea of creating women's groups in each office came up. There was some thought that it might give women the opportunity to get to know one another better, to talk through challenges, mentor one another, build a network ..."

We three women assiduously avoided one another's eyes as we listened to the idea and the rationale for it. The one man in the room began to develop a mirthful twinkle.

"I said I wanted to talk to you three before something like that rolled out. There are a few others being consulted in the other offices, too. So, what do you think?"

"Fuck that!" 

"Yep. What she said."

"No fucking way." 

We all remained totally relaxed in our seats, a leg tucked up in the chair here, arms folded there.

"And that's why I asked the three of you!"

All four of us roared with laughter, exchanging understanding glances around the room. 

After the first reactions burst forth, our conversation turned respectful while remaining candid. All three of us thanked the CSO for asking our opinions and explained that we didn't just answer for ourselves, but for the women reporting to us. We expressed our gratitude that the C-suite had taken seriously the concerns in the survey and recognized the need for some level of attention that they, nearly all men, might be ill-equipped to provide.

Then, we pointed down to the open office space below. Of the 35 to 40 people at our site, only somewhere between four and seven were men, including the one speaking to us, and that stasis had existed for years, even with staff turnover. Every senior-level manager and all but one manager at our level, in our office, was female. One of the other offices skewed more male across all levels; the other was more evenly weighted. But in our office, the last thing we needed were more women exerting their personal opinions about professional growth.

All three of us explained that we wanted to learn from the people who did what they were doing best, whether they were women, men, or salamanders.

What we didn't want to do was to make institutional the unique challenges that often arose in a female-dominated workplace: cattiness, insecurity, a double standard for mothers and childless women, and the sense that senior women or entrenched peers sometimes felt threatened by forthright and rising talent. In short, we wanted those senior to us to advocate for and encourage us the same way we all tried to advocate for and encourage the women and men reporting to us. If anything, we explained, we actually found the executive team, men though they were, more invested in the unique talents and success of people at our level.

We also discussed the fact that we rarely noticed whether we had men or women on our teams, unless we were dealing with a client who disregarded the female team leads. We kidded our CSO about sitting at the table when we needed his backup. That's because, when we asked him to attend meetings with clients who responded better to men, he arrived smiling and suave. Then, he introduced us like rockstars and deflected every question posed to him to the team member best suited to answer it. It just so happened that every one of those team members were female.  

I don't agree with everything the man did. Nor everything the rest of that C-suite did. It would be nearly impossible for that to be the case! 

For me, personally, though, our CSO was quite possibly the first person in a leadership position who verbalized a challenge that I have always faced. In reviews from my peers, I sometimes ran across the word "condescending." I don't doubt for a minute that I may have, at times, sounded condescending (or even been condescending). More often than not, though, I was actively trying to avoid triggering that perception. 

That particular leader finally put together that his wife, an accomplished and respected university professor, also often faced the impression that she was "condescending." Having heard her speak, he'd realized that what he considered sounding "knowledgeable" and "authoritative" was what her reviewers (and mine) deemed "condescending." Therefore, while it was something to be aware of, there was only so much that I could or should change.  

By taking the opportunity to help me polish my rough edges and excel in the areas where I was naturally inclined, he helped me build a great deal of confidence and experience. His interest, guidance, and compassion have stuck with me.

I dislike the word "mentor," as a general rule, because it still implies an ongoing hierarchical relationship. I prefer "friend" or "colleague" or "compatriot." But whatever the name, the task is still the same. It's not just upon the student to learn, but upon the more advanced student to teach, and to open doors, and to support development.

I've tried to do that for the women and men who reported to me or with whom I interacted. Sometimes, I think I succeeded. A few years ago, a bright and very capable college intern was taking notes for me during a series of interviews with world-renowned scientists at a global corporation. I told her before we walked into the room that I wasn't introducing her as an intern, and that if she heard something that she thought needed more detail, she should ask a follow-up question. Months later, long after I'd forgotten the event, she gave me a note thanking me for making her feel like she was a real member of the team and belonged at her place at that table. 

With all of that history behind me, it's no wonder that a Facebook post this morning caught my attention. It announced a new initiative from Lean In called #MentorHer. It's a movement encouraging men to mentor and advocate for women in the same way they may mentor and advocate for other men.

It appears that an unanticipated, but predictable, ramification of the #MeToo efforts is that men in the workplace are avoiding one-on-one interaction with female colleagues and subordinates, out of fear that the situation will somehow be misconstrued. This does a great disservice to businesses as a whole and to women who may (as I did) rely upon their male colleagues to help them blaze their own trail.

Clearly, the answer isn't to shut women out of what's considered "normal" interaction. Instead, it's to become even more invested in the success of capable women in all fields. And, it's to change the idea of what "normal" is, so that it's no longer defined by gender, but by capacity, capability, and character. 

Green Smoothies Haven't Killed Me Yet

If you'd told me two weeks ago that I'd be voluntarily blending up spinach and some variety of fruits (including bananas) and liquids each day, the look on my face would have said, "You're nuts." But it's becoming my new normal. And it's not nearly as disgusting as expected.

Why, of all the things, am I writing about spinach smoothies this week? Well, because life is busy, the weather's been very cold, and small successes are worth celebrating. 

Early January, I rapidly try to process all of my remaining tax tasks from the last year, while scheduling new projects to start about mid-month. Cabin fever sets in hard and I pine for opportunities to get outdoors without chancing frostbite or a tumbling skid down the uncleared sidewalks. 

So, in an effort to avoid going entirely stir-crazy, I'm concentrating on creating small habits that I can build on later. The smoothies are part of that. Trying something new, figuring out which flavors and textures I like, and doing a great job of getting nearly the daily recommended servings of fruits and veggies. 

The bonus is that I can sip my breakfast in front of my computer while I crush through the early January financial exercises. Yesterday, for example, I successfully unsubscribed from several services I don't need (both professional and personal), completed my business and personal budget guidelines for the year, and exchanged a bunch of emails about upcoming projects. All before noon.

Still haven't mastered the ability to launch myself out of the cozy covers early enough to get a workout in before my smoothie. But I'm working on it. And that won't kill me either.

The Quiet Week

This morning, I had every intention of rolling out of bed bright and early to get a head start on the day. Instead, when the sweet sounds of "High and Low" rolled into the room, I poked my nose and eyes out from under three layers of quilt and blankets, confirmed that my room was definitely cool, if not cold, and that the quality of light through the blinds promised frigid sunshine rather than another morning snow. Then, with apologies to Joshua Radin, I tapped stop on my phone, flipped the covers back over my head and granted myself 45 extra minutes of sleep. 

It's rare that I do that on a weekday. Even though I work for myself (and by myself), I aim to be at my desk and functional no later than 9 a.m., so that at least part of my workday is in sync with my clients. Around lunchtime or after, I often change things up. I'll run errands when shops and offices are empty and then come back to the screen in the mid-afternoon or evening for a while. That lets me roll with clients in different time zones or who are on rush schedules that require turnaround after they leave their desks for the day. Or, I might eat lunch at the computer but finish up the day in the mid- to late afternoon and turn my attention to housework, some unpaid pursuit, or in the summer, a little outdoor adventure. 

Sleeping in throws off the rest of the day, so I avoid it except on weekends. And this week. This is the quiet week. Some of my clients are closed between Christmas and New Year's Day. For others, I'm covering for people who are away. And, in general, anything that hasn't started yet isn't starting right now. 

So I cut myself a break. Unless I'm on a firm deadline, a little more sleep is okay. I try to line up everything that comes next, but I don't necessarily start it. This year, I'm slowly tackling the transcription of this summer's interviews so I can get back to writing my book over the course of the spring, with fingers crossed that Mr. Khanjani will be released in the meantime. I'm also puttering away at office organization and decorating, now that everything's unpacked. And, as has become my habit, I'll spend New Year's Day figuring out what gets my attention in 2018 and straightening up all my finances and taxes for the coming year. 

This week is not one of my favorites each year. As much as the professional value is incalculable, it's too quiet on the personal side. I am usually entirely alone. My parents were here for a few days, leaving on Christmas Eve to beat the snow, since this isn't really a holiday we celebrate amongst ourselves, anyway. And for the rest of the week, it's too easy to find myself thinking of long-ago holidays with my grandparents, all four of whom are now gone. Or of laughter and parties with now-distant or departed friends. It's too easy to see ahead of me about two months of icy cold, wind, snow, and holidays that I last anticipated when I had them off from school or received punched-out Valentines from classmates. Now, I know I'll spend these months with my head down, plowing forward toward the relief of Ayyam-i-Ha, the 19-Day Fast, and springtime. 

So this week, I'll take things a little easy. I'm savoring leftover pilaf, enchiladas and chili. Watching the yellow wax windows of my tiny sandcast casa glow each time I light the wick. Continuing to spend my evenings watching NCIS from the very beginning, despite having seen it almost completely from the very beginning when the episodes aired. Reading The Little Book of Lykke, just received today thanks to a fortuitous pre-order. And reminding myself how lucky I am to have a quiet week to set me up for a productive, calm, and creative year.

'We Do Business for Profit'

The issue of business ethics has come up in my conversations quite a lot recently. It being the end of the year, I've been finishing projects for some clients and scoping upcoming work for others. Because of the role I fill for most of them, that means doing a little consulting about organizational change and corporate goals alongside the projects of the day.

In the course of these chats, I often hearken back to lessons from a former employer. One of the most meaningful was summed up eloquently in the beginning of the company's mission statement:

"We do business for profit. First yours. Then ours. ..."

That's not altruistic. It's simply factual. We did, indeed, do business for profit. We weren't working for free or from the goodness of our hearts. However, we also understood a deceptively simple concept, which was that guiding and advising our clients to make decisions that were good for the health of their businesses earned trust. That, in turn, drove the health of our own business.

What did it look like in a practical sense? We told clients if we thought a decision wouldn't generate a positive return on their investment. We looked at how best to help clients achieve their goals while saving money. We looked for efficiencies in our own processes and helped clients rework theirs to find even more efficiencies. We made things right if we goofed up. And we involved our clients in our charitable efforts.

Let me be clear: It was not utopia. The difficult aspects were similar to those in any business. But the transparency in running the company (in nearly every situation) created an entire staff of people who understood more than a little about corporate finance and held a high ethical standard for the treatment of coworkers, collaborators, and clients. Perhaps that's why so many have gone on to successful solo careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and leadership in a wide variety of organizations ... and why so many of us jump at the chance to work together even now.

The first time I was introduced to the mission statement, I so appreciated the way it put priorities in the order that felt right to me. Even now, this is the way I work. I prefer to be straightforward with a client and recommend a less-expensive, more effective approach, even though it means I might receive modest payment for the job. Why? Because it's just the right thing to do.

Whether I build a longstanding relationship with the client or simply earn a reputation as someone who works ethically, as long as I put my clients' interests (or, in the case of agencies, their clients' interests) first, I go to sleep at night feeling just fine about my efforts.

That's a lesson I think we can all take to the bank.

Uff Da and Up Helly Aa

Every now and again, folks ask me why I write more about life experiences, book writing, and my experience as an author newb, and less about the things I do that actually make money. After all, content marketing, sponsored content work, writing, editing, and communications strategy consulting is kind of my jam. Shouldn't I be spouting all of that wisdom?

The answer is a little more complicated than a straight-up yes or no.

First, I get paid for that wisdom because I'm a fixer. In fact, that's a big reason why I went freelance a couple of years ago. A fixer is the person in a particular role (and often not the role that's supposed to be responsible), who gets called when one or more of their collaborators are flat-out stumped. He or she can cut through the hemming and hawing, set a path, define a strategy, ask new questions, or Google it (fer pete's sake) to help clear a roadblock. 

A fixer often can't turn off what others might assume is "playing devil's advocate" or "always having to be right." So, as a staff member, she or he may annoy the bejeepers out of colleagues, throw off the curve for hourly estimating ("I'm done already. What's next?"), and become someone everyone respects but no one likes. As a freelancer, a fixer is often very well-liked and a welcome addition to temporary teams. After all, she or he will swoop in, help make things better, and leave. Confident, happy, reassuring, efficient!

Since I hung out my own shingle, I've been very fortunate to receive plenty of calls and emails from former coworkers who went on to other endeavors. They reach out to me, specifically, when they reach the stumped point. "Our advancement office needs ..." "I don't know what I'm dealing with yet, but we're gonna need you ..." "So we got this RFP and I don't know how to ..."  

That means I tailor the wisdom to my clients' specific needs. I don't believe in one-size-fits-all writing, editing, or strategy ... which is typically what winds up in blog posts. Instead, I believe in discussing business goals, challenges, resources, preparation ... all of the pieces of the puzzle. In initial meetings with clients, before they ever pay a cent or even have a contract in place, I try to provide some value that can help them as soon as they walk out the door or hang up the phone.

Second, marketing is manipulation. Folks don't like to hear it, but it's true. Marketing is the art of manipulating people to do what you want them to do, while making them think it was their idea. It can wear a white hat or a black hat. I've worn both.

I prefer the white one. That's another reason I chose to go freelance. Slowly but surely, I'm gaining more control over the projects I take on and the tenor of the relationships I form with clients. I'm also starting to dabble in the shift back to the storytelling, journalistic writing I originally loved. The kind that's less about manipulation and more about elucidation. 

As a result, I have a pigheaded resistance to marketing-as-usual. I work in communications. I specialize in making complicated things easy for people to understand. 

You want the big secret of marketing? It doesn't matter what you say. It matters what you do.

Run your organization responsibly, provide a valuable product or service, and treat both your customers and employees like they matter. That's. It. I can help you talk about that once you're doing it. What I can't do is wave a shiny wand and make everything okay if you're not on the up-and-up.

Finally, I prefer to work with people who know me. That doesn't mean I don't want to meet new people! But it does mean that I am a whole person, and so are each of my clients and each of my collaborators. If someone gets sick, takes a vacation, needs to make a soccer game, or whatever, it's not a crisis. It's life. We can handle it.

That's why I write about other things in my world. Where I am, what I'm observing, stuff I'm learning, how I'm feeling, things I'm writing, what I'm celebrating. I expect to learn the same about my clients. It helps me know how to plan ahead and how to interact with different people.

So, what's up with the post title? I just happened to be feeling a little Viking-y today.

Uff da is a Scandinavian-American expression picked up from Norwegian immigrants. It's used exactly as it sounds ... kind of like an oy vey for the Norsk, Dansk, and Svensk set.

Up Helly Aa is a festival in the village of Lerwick, in Shetland, which involves much merrymaking and the burning of a life size, floating Viking galley. It takes place at the end of January. (Along with the Chincoteague Pony Swim in July, it's one of the events I would most like to attend, but that's not the point.) This year, it's the time by which I hope to have a number of administrative, work, book, and life ducks in a row. Which I will likely celebrate by setting something more modest aflame, possibly while wearing a Viking helmet.  

Stuck in the Middle With Me

It's been a month and a week since I last wrote a blog post. I would like credit for the several times I've sat down, opened the laptop, logged in, and drummed my fingers on the keyboard, however.

What have I done in the meantime? Altered my path two-plus times to avoid bobbing and weaving hurricanes. Spent most of a week working on deadlines in a hotel room in the Blue Ridge (which the window indicated were lovely). Wandered battlefields in Virginia with one of my closest pals. Spent most of another week working and exuding vast quantities of viral fluids in a hotel room just beyond the Beltway. Blew my nose for several more days at a friend's home outside Philadelphia. Visited my old haunts to catch up with clients, friends, and medical folks. And now I'm in the blazing leafy beauty of coastal New England, working some more and visiting with family. 

Of course, most of my time in the latter half of the trip has been devoted to debating what comes next. Everything I own, with the exception of what I've carried in my car these last few months, remains in storage. I remain entirely in limbo. And my two most desirable locations are the middle of New Mexico and the seacoast of New Hampshire/Maine.

Considerations include client diversity, cash flow, cost of living (and availability of rentals to the self-employed), tax ramifications, ease of travel, book contacts for research and acquisition, outdoor fun availability ... and, let's be honest, the desire to keep exploring. Welcome to the place where freelance life and writing life collide!

At the moment, I'm seriously considering finding furnished lodgings back in my old neighborhood for the winter. My responsible streak is showing, I know. That plan would allow me to avoid a temporary change in business arrangements and buy me a little time to offload more furnishings, identify a place to live, make moving plans, approach more diversified clients, and move the book forward significantly.

For the long-term, though, returning to my long-time neighborhood is not on the table. I've done my best these last years to shake off the predictability and general malaise; I certainly don't want to wrap them around me again like a heavy sleeping bag.

So, what's next? To quote Winnie the Pooh: "Think, think, think."

I Want to Stop There

At the end of this week, I will have been on the road for two months. I've reached a point where I routinely don't know what city I'm in, nor what day it is. Time zones are irrelevant (I've been an hour behind myself all day today). So, I'm giving a quick recap of the important stuff this week!

I've answered any number of questions:

  • "Do you really not have a home right now?" That's correct. I have an address, courtesy of wonderful friends, and my belongings are all in a storage unit, but I have no actual home.
  • "You're driving around the country alone?" Yep. When you're not attached to someone, that's pretty much the default setting for any length of drive, whether to the store or the opposite coast. Bonus points for the two or three very not-scared-of-anything men who have followed up with, "I don't think I could do that. I'd be too scared!" 
  • "What kind of book are you writing?" It's a true story about an Iranian man in his mid-80s, who is currently in prison, nine years into his sentence. He was arrested on false charges and tried without due process because he's a member of the Baha'i religion, which is a minority there. But throughout his life, he's been an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has constantly served those most in need, and I'm writing about that legacy. 
  • "How are you supporting yourself?" I'm a self-employed writer, editor, and content strategy consultant, mostly in business communications and marketing, and I'm working on existing contracts while I travel.
  • "Is your husband Persian?" (Specifically, I got this one several times at a conference for Persian emigrants since I clearly am not Persian, do not speak Persian, and was not with a Persian.) Nope. No husband or prospect thereof, Persian or otherwise, at least right now, as far as I know.
  • "What would you like on that?" Mayo, mustard, pickles, lettuce. Or in New Mexico: green chiles.

I've realized several things:

  • It takes nearly as long to plan or rejigger trip stops as it does to actually drive from place to place. I've explained to folks that this is both the best-planned and worst-planned trip of all time, and that my time is basically split between driving (50%) and a combination of planning, working, and chasing research contacts. The opportunity for sightseeing is very limited, so I've tried to make the most of the rolling views out the windows.
  • By my observation, the people who live in areas hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are not "victims" or "suffering" until you get to Missouri and points north and east. In New Mexico, the rest of Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Kentucky, at least, they are "neighbors," "people," "citizens," "residents," and "folks." Using language that indicates an "us/them" dichotomy ("they" are "victims," "we" are "#blessed") makes it okay for separation to develop between groups. On a small scale, it's a representation of what's wrong with our worldview(s) on any number of issues right now.
  • The things folks put on their cars and trucks make no sense. Confederate flags in a non-ironic manner? It's been 170 years or so; we need to move on. Giant American flags on poles mounted into the trailer hitch? Unless you're leading an invisible cavalry charge up the freeway, just say no.
  • The best way to understand an area is to turn off the iTunes and turn on the radio. A country's worth of country stations and I am pretty solid on regional agriculture, income levels, local concerns, and musical tastes. I've also added a couple good ol' tunes to my playlist. And I'm completely hooked on "No Such Thing as a Broken Heart" (been hearing it nonstop for 60 days) and "Greatest Love Story" (which first entered my consciousness somewhere around Fresno on a sunny, 104-degree cruise down CA-99).
  • I am very comfortable where cowboy boots, jeans, and cowboy hats or ball caps are the uniform of the day. Pickup trucks are good. Corrals are good. Anything with hooves is good. Spanish is good. Sadly, we've mostly, though not entirely, priced the people who have such things out of the vicinity of oceans and beaches. 
  • Truckers are better drivers than most folks on the road, most places. Yes, I would be the little blue car who will pass the trucks on the uphill but fall in line on the downhill. Why? Because the uphill is just a matter of speed maintenance, so if I pass, I'll stay ahead. The downhill is a matter of gravity, and I have no desire to race. In the Siskiyous, through the Cascades, through the northern Rockies, over Snoqualmie, over Tehachapi, over the Sandias, truckers stay to the right on the uphill and rarely impede the flow of traffic, and engine brake on the downhill to maintain a controlled descent. Very pleasant, very safe, very easy. I-81 in the Appalachians? Not so much.

I've put a smattering of things on my "want to" list:

  • More time on the Oregon coast
  • More time in New Mexico
  • More time in northern Arizona
  • More time in North Dakota
  • Cesar Chavez National Monument
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Glacier National Park
  • Crater Lake National Park
  • Okay, so mostly, I wanted to pull off the road at places where I could go hiking and rambling around, but I didn't have time and it would have been unwise to do so alone.

In any case, I still have miles to go before I sleep. And I have to figure out where I live, before I sleep, too. 

Hitting the Highway With #ProjectRoadWork

Over the last month, whenever I've told anyone what I'm planning, I've expected to hear, "Have you lost your mind?" So far, though, every single person has either responded with excitement and delight, or asked me if I'm excited. The answer to that is, "Yes, sort of. And also terrified."

That's because I'm veering off the traditional, pseudo-settled, and adult path. In fact, I'm hurtling off the merry-go-round in a way I couldn't have begun to imagine even a year ago, let alone two or three. 

You see, good stories, like lives well lived, demand some risk.

From the moment I decided to write Mr. Khanjani's story, I've begun to grow accustomed to throwing everything into the air and trusting that it will come down where it should. (If you now have the old Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," running through your head, I'm right there with you.) 

So far, that approach has worked out just fine. Masters degree: done. Gainfully employ oneself: done. Pursue health: working on it. All of these things have required forethought and flexibility, of course. But in general, each one has set up the next, and a certain amount of trust, prayer, and gut instinct has led me in what seems to be the right direction. Robert Frost would be proud. 

Now it's time to push the envelope. In order to finish the first full draft of the book and start pitching agents before the end of this year, audacity is required. So, in just a few weeks, I'll be embarking on a two- or three-month road trip around the U.S. and southern Canada to interview people who knew Mr. Khanjani, beyond the individuals with whom I've already spoken. While I may still have to make a few targeted trips after that, or conduct a few interviews over FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, this will put me in a very good place to round out the story.

That might not seem like anything out of the ordinary, until you realize that I'm doing it without a net. I'm putting all of my worldly goods into storage and even selling or giving away a few things. After eight years in one place, I'm letting my lease expire. And I'll be working from the road with a few select clients. Thank goodness for Airbnb, Hotel Tonight, Priceline, and friends with couches.

What happens next? Well, I'm hoping that somewhere along this transcontinental jaunt, I'll find someplace I might like to live or someone who inspires me to stick around for a while. This is lifetime move number 21 for me, if I counted correctly, and I'd like to make sure there's a point to it. So as I'm writing, working, and exploring the continent, I'll be trying to keep my eyes and heart open (a challenge!), while also investigating fallback locations near oceans. 

At the moment, my soundtrack is Lauren Alaina's "Road Less Traveled." For an introvert with a shy streak and only half a plan, it's a good anthem.

Now, for the hashtag. At the prompting of my classmate and pal Karalee, who ran away from home and embarked on "Project Friend" a couple of years ago, this combined research trip and quest now has a name. "Project Interviewing People With Accents" is way too long, so #ProjectRoadWork it is. Yes, I'm working from the road. More importantly, I'm accepting that both book and life are under construction this summer.

I hope you'll come along for the ride.

How Escapism Fuels Creativity

I thought about titling this, "Teen Vampires Are My Spirit Animal," but that seemed a little too much, even for me. In recent weeks, though, my entertainment viewing has almost exclusively comprised all eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries ... and I'm now well into the second season of The Originals. Bear with me. I swear there's a point to this.

After I sent in my last MFA assignment a month ago, I took a very short, but deep breath. Then I started making lists. What comes next professionally. Geographically. Physically. Spiritually. In research. In writing. What I have. What I want. Who I hope to find. What adventures I seek. 

Of course, in no time, the immediate priority bubbled up, and it was good, solid work. So the lists sat. I made a little progress on one thing or another, but without passion or direction. Part of that was just the inevitable easing of focus at the end of a two-year endeavor. And part of it was that I didn't let myself truly relax, knowing that I have a brief vacation coming up soon enough.

My brain seemed hyper-aware and never off. In an effort to slow the roll, while tackling administrative tasks or in spare moments at the end of the night, I turned to NetFlix and the allure of supernatural dramas with no redeeming social value. As in, most of the plot lines feature a few deadly sins and several that may not be deadly, but sure ain't good. Plus skewed loyalty, odd interpretations of love, and seriously maladjusted family dynamics. Also romance, chivalry, and somewhat cracked fairy tales.

The technique did its job. Even through such a busy time (which is nowhere near its end), I've been able to snag glimmers of inspiration. Solutions to writing challenges in the book have come to mind here and there. Thoughts about how I'd like to tailor my professional life. Ideas for how to make my next brief step into the nomadic life. By letting at least part of my brain flit off into the stories on screen, I freed up a little bit of creative battery power.

It was only after I met up with two of my high school friends (one of them actually goes all the way back to fifth grade) for dinner last weekend that I realized why the televised undead, specifically, seemed to generate that response. Between the chicken flautas and the hysterical laughter over a nesting duck, it occurred to me that my friends and I had much more in common with our younger selves for those few hours than we did with our everyday lives. There was something freeing about that, as much as there was in the perpetual youth of the vampire crew.

I read so often about people taking long breaks to reset their minds and refocus their creative energy. I absolutely agree that's valuable and ideal. I certainly wouldn't turn up my nose at the opportunity to relocate to beachfront property with no responsibilities for an extended stay. But for me, and for most people, that's not exactly a practical or realistic option at any given time. We find ways to mimic the effects of a physical escape by taking a mental one and reaping the rewards. And when prayer or meditation is already in one's bag of tricks, one's mental escape may involve weeks of TV vampires. It's all good.

When It Rains, It Pours

I should have remembered. Over the last month or so, I've thought of that phrase numerous times and pictured myself thumping my head against my desk. The subject of my should-have? That the second quarter of the calendar year is bananas for freelancers of all sorts.

This is something I realized last year. Just as my spring MFA term wound down, assignments and requests flooded my inbox. April, May, and most of June remain a blur of projects and activity. At the time, I couldn't put my finger on why that was so. Now, I can.

I work at the intersection of two types of work. One involves articles and interviews that go on year 'round, but have a special sort of uptick in the last half, or last quarter, of clients' fiscal years as they are trying to justify the next year's budget requests. The other includes large-scale content strategy and development projects that typically get started, after some form of RFP or bidding cycle, in clients' second fiscal quarter, before their budgets are depleted.

Most of the first type of clients don't work on a calendar fiscal year. And most of the second type do. Making April through June and, to a slightly lesser extent, July through September, prime time for the self-employed and strategi-creatively minded.

From the freelance perspective, that translates to a state of being that can best be described as "make hay while the sun shines." In other words, work can become nearly all-consuming while it's abundant and available, because there is no guarantee that the phenomenon will reoccur. It's a very good challenge for me to have, since it means I can plan to take research trips that feed the book at other times of the year, under far less stress. 

This year, though, I'm also doing my best to keep a healthy focus on the rest of life even during this busy time. Some things do matter much more than work. After all, without a healthy body, an enriched spirit, and a little bit of emotional magic, what are we working for? 

The Joy of Opposable Thumbs

Technology  and I are usually fairly good friends. After all, I am kind to my electronics. You never know when they might stage a revolt and take over the world, though. In my case, that revolt is currently in progress. 

It all started last Monday, when I was working away on the last set of revisions on the last chunk of material I needed to turn in for my Master of Fine Arts, so that next month, some lovely folks from Dalhousie and the University of King's College can hand me a pretty parchment. At the same time, I was doing some initial planning for what promises to be a busy few months of freelancing. 

All of of a sudden, my faithful and long-lasting computer ground to a halt. And I mean, full stop, not playing, restart me or bid adieu to anything getting done.

Only it wouldn't restart. Two days of severely hampered workarounds and frustrating visits to electronics and hardware stores later, I had a snazzy new computer on order. You can't buy a snazzy computer at the local Apple Store anymore, I learned. You have to order anything above the basic option online. That part was easy. I wandered off to borrow a friend's spare laptop for the week or two until my new space gray beauty arrived. 

My cheerful acceptance was ruined when my credit card company declined the charge for the computer. Sent me a text message asking if I meant to spend such an obscene chunk of money. YES, I chose from the menu. They sent me an email asking the same thing. YES, I chose from the menu. Still, the charge wasn't accepted ... and my card was restricted.

Saturday, a phone call theoretically should have led to an accepted charge. But it didn't. Yesterday morning, a phone call had the same result. Still, the charge was rejected again in the afternoon. I called again. The card company called Apple. No one knows why the charge wasn't going through. Long story short, Apple had to cancel the order and create a new one. My fingers are crossed that it actually arrives.

In the meantime, I'm using a borrowed computer for work things and my phone for quick email checks and typing this blog post. 

The whole thing has been a good reminder that the more our world relies upon technology, the more vulnerable we are to the complete disintegration of industries when that technology fails. Not just the computer that spit the bit, but the financial and commerce systems that can't communicate with one another. Certainly a big thing to ponder, especially for someone who has a foot in both worlds. 

That's why, today, in the midst of workarounds, I'm giving thanks for opposable thumbs, wall calendars, planners, and patience.