Thursday, January 23, 2014

An Attack of Pronoia

A car that is even older than mine.

Just because you're pronoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to help you.

Sometimes the randomness of the universe works in my favor, and if I decide to pounce on the opportunity, I can make more things happen in my favor. Take today, for instance. My dentist's assistant called me yesterday to tell me that they needed to reschedule this morning's appointment, which left me with a good deal of "found time". My car was due for an emissions inspection, and my driver's license was set to expire next month, so I decided to use the morning to take care of those two things. And maybe some of the afternoon -- you hear all these horror stories about people waiting in line for hours.

Today is Thursday, a nondescript kind of middle-of-the-week-ish day in the next-to-the-last week of the month. All the government offices closed down on Tuesday because of a snowstorm, but that was two days ago, so maybe any backlog would be at least partly cleared. It was bitterly cold out today, so maybe less hardy souls would not be venturing out. Besides, it wasn't going to get any warmer before the deadline for my car inspection, so today was as good as any.

My friend Lauren had told me to go in the middle of the morning to avoid all the people taking care of their inspections before they headed off to work and all the people taking care of this on their lunch breaks. I headed out from home about 9:45. My side street was covered with a thin layer of hard-packed snow, left behind by the snow plow. Once I got to the main street, though, it was clear sailing. I made it to the emissions inspection station just after 10:00. There were no lines, but each of the inspection bays had a car in it -- except one. In I went. My car passed the test, I paid my fee, and off I went. It was now about 10:15. Unheard of! I've never gotten in and out that fast.

I drove a few yards down the street and turned into the next driveway -- the Motor Vehicles office. The parking lot was filled with parked cars and cars cruising around looking for a parking spot. I chose a row with no cruising or waiting cars, and headed toward the far end. An open space beckoned to me. Handicapped only? No. Reserved for staff? No. In fact, no signs or special markings at all, just an ordinary empty parking space. In the front row. Just a few yards from the door.

I went inside, got a ticket with a number on it, and found an empty seat in the waiting area. Near the front. With a good view of the "now serving" screen. I pulled a magazine out of my bag and began to read. A woman's voice announced over the PA system that the credit card system was down -- all payments must be by cash or check. I peeked into my wallet -- yes! I had visited the ATM not too long ago, and I had enough cash to pay my fee. A little after 11:00, my number was called, and I went to the service desk. Passed my vision check, verified my information, had my photo taken. The first printout of my new license had a scratch on it from the printer, so the woman behind the desk had to print a new one.

While she was doing that, another announcement came over the PA system: all staff members using the driver's license system had to log off immediately. Oh no! But just after the announcement, my new license popped out of the printer and it was un-scratched. The woman behind the desk was none too pleased about having to log off and wait for an indefinite time, since it meant that everyone after me was going to be frustrated and impatient. "It's my lunch break anyway. I think I'm going to take off," she said.

New license in hand, I got back into my car and headed home, arriving less than two hours after I had left, with my new emissions certificate AND my new driver's license. The only downside is that my license photo shows a much less perky, unlined face than I had 10 years ago (the last time I was required to have a new photo). But it's the face I have now, and I'm good with that.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The hat with the purple feather

Last Sunday, a little incident concerning a hat with a purple feather came back to visit me, and it reminded me of how the most seemingly insignificant things can change a person's life. It's a scary thought, but also a great source of validation and inspiration.

These days, it takes a bit more effort for me to move from "isn't that an interesting thought" to actually logging on to the blog site and typing up a new blog entry. I'm building a freelance writing business, and writing that doesn't involve a paycheck and a deadline tends to get put off until some ambiguous "later". The hat incident converged with several other "interesting thoughts", and together, they pushed themselves up to the top of the do-list. So here's a new blog post.

I started this blog partly to keep my friends and family updated on my "reboot year" and partly to help me think my way through the process. In hindsight, I see that this was the "ground school" part of my flying lessons. I had originally intended to spend the first half of 2012 resting and recovering, the next six months a looking for a new job, and then get back to work sometime in 2013. Life had other plans for me.

The more I got into my 2012 reboot year, the more I realized that I would need the entire year to rethink my goals and priorities, train myself to think in new ways, and discover parts of my life that I had mistakenly left behind when I got all wrapped up in the work mentality that is typical of Washington DC. I thought a lot about what I wanted to do with what's left of my life, but I intentionally didn't look for specific job postings.

I spent the first half of 2013 doing career research, looking for opportunities, going on networking interviews, answering job ads, and generally gearing up to re-enter the workforce. I was having no luck at all in landing a new job. I suspect that I'm just too old and expensive for a lot of employers, and I'm not up on things like "user experience" and "search engine optimization".

2013 was the move out of the ground school classroom and into the cockpit. The place where the ideas and theories were put into practice and where I began to test things to see what actually worked and what didn't. I was starting to wonder if I would run out of fuel, crash, and burn. Again, life had other plans.

That summer, I went to a party celebrating a friend's 25th wedding anniversary. I had worked with Beth for several years when I first moved to the DC area, and we stayed in contact ever since. Toward the end of the party, Beth made a point to take me aside and talk to me. "Mike's looking for writers. Would you be interested?" Mike had been my boss when Beth and I worked together, and he was now freelancing for the website of the organization we all used to work for. In essence, I would be doing a small part of my old job, working for my former boss and with my former co-worker (Beth was freelancing for them, too). Luckily, my old job had been a very good experience, and so I was glad to say yes. I contacted Mike and offered my services. That little freelance gig now brings in enough money to pay my grocery bill every month, and it gives me a chance to browse around in all of the scientific journals published by the organization.

A few months later, Lori showed up at my religious community, and she liked it well enough to stay and become a member. Our Community Leader found out that Lori was working for the same organization where I had previously worked, and she introduced us and asked if we had worked together. Lori and I had been in different departments, but when she found out that I was a science writer, she asked if I would be interested in taking on some assignments for some projects that she was working on. Sure, I said, and now I'm writing career advice for college students. Some of what I write draws on resources and research tools that I have used for my own career development -- I'm getting paid for my own job search.

Shortly after that, Tom posted an ad with a professional society that I belong to, soliciting freelance writers for two ongoing assignments. I had written a feature article for his magazine about ten years earlier, when I was trying out freelance writing as a sideline to my full-time job. Back then, I had decided that I couldn't handle full-time work and large freelance assignments at the same time, but now that I'm not working full-time, I decided to respond to his ad. I mentioned my previous writing assignment with his magazine and explained my situation. A few days later, Tom contacted me and offered me the more advanced of the two assignments -- writing regular feature articles for the magazine. I recently submitted my first article, and the check is going to cover my mortgage payment and condo fees.

The point is that all these opportunities grew out of things I've been doing all along. I had no idea at the time that my friendships, my little experiments, and even my struggles would be the seeds of the work that is providing for my needs now. It wasn't my intention to become a freelancer -- the very idea terrified me. But now that I've decided to take this thing seriously, the opportunities are beginning to come. The seeds I planted unknowingly have taken root, grown tall, and started to bear fruit.

My "year off" was not a temporary break, after which I would return "once more into the fray". It was the first step in an evolutionary process that would lead me toward a new stage of my life, and the ripple effects of the things I did years ago have come back to find me.

Which brings me to the hat with the purple feather. Last Sunday, my friend Shirley said, "I have to tell you something. I don't think I've ever told you this before, but I have to tell you now." Several years ago, I facilitated an Artist's Way group at the Washington Ethical Society. To get people to sign up, I was asked to give a short pitch for the group at the Sunday meeting, and I walked up to the front of the room wearing a poet's hat -- a black felt beret with a big purple plume -- that I had bought at a Renaissance festival. The hat got a laugh, and it got people to listen to my short description of what we would be doing in the group.

Shirley was very new at WES, and she wasn't sure if she would continue to attend, but the hat with the purple feather piqued her curiosity. She signed up for the group, which inspired her to take her talents as a collage artist to a much higher level. She also got to know some of the other WES members through her participation in the group, and she decided to become a member herself. Through her participation, her daughter has now begun to attend WES, and she is now an active participant in several of the programs.

I wasn't trying to change anyone's life when I decided, almost on a whim, to wear that silly little hat. I just wanted people to sign up for my group. The ripple effects happened outside my awareness, without any effort on my part besides just showing up and doing what needed to be done. Facilitate a little group, write a little magazine article, make time for chatting with friends. Life takes care of the rest of it.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Might as Well Jump

Last week during her talk at the Washington Ethical Society, Mary Herman shared a couple of compelling images from a television show she had watched recently. It's so easy to turn animal behaviors into metaphors for life in the human world, but in this case I think it's apt.

The first image is that of a tree frog. Ordinarily, this little frog lives high in the treetops in the tropical rain forests. Hopping is rather precarious in this situation, so the tree frog has sticky pads on its hands and feet (do frogs have hands and feet? It seems odd to call them paws) that let it work its way from branch to branch. Every now and then, the frog has to beat a hasty retreat to escape from hungry birds and snakes. It needs to put as much distance as possible between itself and the predator, and it needs to do it quickly. So the frog takes a dive. It lets go of the branch it's on and goes into free fall.

Suicidal, right? No. Remember the sticky hands? The frog just waits until it sees a better leaf or branch, puts out its hands, and grabs on. Some tree frogs even have webbing between their fingers and toes that acts as a kind of parachute, buying them more time to look for their next perch on the way down.

Jumping requires letting go. No second thoughts about how far you're going to fall before you land again (or splat). Leaving behind all the tasty tidbits on that branch you worked so hard to climb up to. Once the frog lands, it finds itself in a new situation. New neighborhood, new sunlight patterns, new locations for the food and water, new neighbors to adjust to (or flee). No regrets, life's different now, move on.

The second daring amphibian is the pebble toad, who lives on the rocky heights of the Venezuelan mountains. Again, this is a neighborhood where hopping is an iffy proposition, so the toad climbs the mountain slopes. In one particularly dramatic video clip from the BBC, one of these little guys makes his way to the top of a ridge, only to meet a tarantula coming at him from the other direction.

So the little toad goes rigid, leans back, and bounces down the mountain, off a cliff or two, and into a waiting pond -- more like a puddle, actually. The pebble toad is so small and weighs so little that all the bouncing around doesn't hurt it. It doesn't stop to grouse about all the lost status and progress, it just does what it needs to do and begins again. That's life. This kind of strategy doesn't work if you're one of the big guys. When you're higher up on the food chain, if the free fall doesn't kill you, it will certainly incapacitate you and make you easy prey for something else.

People aren't frogs and toads. We do, however, find ourselves in situations where the real danger is in clinging to the familiar, clutching our hard-earned status, hesitating at the thought that we might fail utterly. Letting go requires knowing how to use the advantages that we carry with us and having the willingness to start all over again in a new situation.

I get up, and nothing gets me down.
You got it tough. I've seen the toughest around.
And I know, baby, just how you feel.
You've got to roll with the punches to get to what's real
-- Eddie Van Halen, "Might as Well Jump"

Friday, September 27, 2013

Life is What Happens While You're Making Other Plans

I haven't posted here in a while. I'm in a bit of a transition period, and I'm not sure where it's going. My original intention was to take some time off and get my head together. Then, I would do some networking, send out some applications, and land another job.

So far, my head is a bit more together than it was when I started this whole thing. I am clearer on what it is that gives me a sense of purpose, what it is that gets me "in the flow". I am taking better care of my health, physical and mental. I am no longer a slave to the clock, and I'm not constantly drowning in a sea of stress. I have time to actually think.

I've been doing a lot of networking as well. Informational interviews, attending conferences and seminars, doing volunteer work, talking with friends. Reconnecting with colleagues in person and on social media.

I've been sending out a lot of job applications and resumes as well. I'm keeping my LinkedIn profile current, and I'm posting links on my website when my freelance pieces are published. But after nine months of actively looking, I haven't landed a job-type job.

Instead, I'm finding enough freelance and temp work to keep myself afloat. I have signed on with a temp agency, and almost immediately, they found me a month of almost-full-time work at a decent hourly rate. It  was the same type of work that I left behind -- not the sort of thing that I would want to go back to permanently, but interesting enough to revisit. Counting the commute, it took about 11 to 12 hours of my day, every day, five days a week, just like my old job. But my co-workers were nice, the money was good, and the work was tolerable.

My freelance work is a bit more satisfying -- I'm writing short articles about recent scientific publications, geared toward a scientific audience. I also just finished a magazine feature article for college undergraduates, summarizing the various ways you can discover what kind of a career really motivates you. (Pretty much what I've been putting into practice these last couple of years.)

In between all that, I've been keeping up with the long walks and time with friends and all the rest of it. I've had to drop the yoga classes for now because I've had some other expenses that I needed to take care of, but I look forward to getting back into the yoga as soon as I can.

Last week, I spent four days in Austin. Andrew De Leon released his first album, and a dozen of us
from his little Twitter community came to his release party. We came from California, Maine, Quebec, and everywhere in between. What a grand time that was. Even though most of us had never met in person, we were not strangers. It was like summer camp, making our plans for the day, hanging out, messaging each other -- what time should we meet for lunch? Whose turn is it to drive? This little band of Andrew-fans are my friends in the truest sense of the word.

We had a little pre-party party on Friday, when we stopped by the Moose Lodge just to see if we could find the place, and wound up meeting all of Andrew's family (they were setting up the party). Andrew's mom called him at home, and he hurried out to meet us. He is a total delight, as are his cousins Josh and Eric and his uncle Rey (his collaborators on the album), his parents, aunts, uncles, and all the others. To me, that was the highlight of the trip, since it allowed us to talk, and dance, and laugh on a more personal level. We also met Andrew's friends Jaime and Meigan, who feature prominently in his YouTube chats, the following night. The actual party on Saturday was a great celebration -- lights and music and excitement. It was Andrew's moment to shine.

I also reconnected with a classmate of mine from junior high and high school, whom I had only seen a few times since graduation. Fred is one of the best people I know, and it was such a joy to see him again. He had lunch with my friends and me, and my friends all think he's wonderful. He even stopped by the album release party for a little while, much to our delight.

So right now, the universe is taking care of me. I don't know where I'm going. Maybe this is my life now. I'm OK with that. I have good people in my life, and my bills are getting paid. There's no grand "Ta-da!" moment to mark the end of my sabbatical. Rather, it's a gentle blending of one stage into another. And that's OK.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

What with all my online and dead-tree subscriptions and social media "follows", I get a torrent of articles every day. Every now and then, some chance juxtaposition will grab my attention and tell me more than either article would have on its own. This happened on my Twitter feed over the weekend.

One article, from The Atlantic, was written by a woman who describes herself as "just shy of 40 years old". She mused about how her definition of happiness had evolved from "the high-energy, totally-psyched experience of a teenager partying while his parents are out of town" to "the peaceful, relaxing experience of an overworked mom who's been dreaming of that hot bath all day".

She cited a study done at Northwestern University that scoured 12 million (!) personal blogs to see what words were associated with happy experiences, correlated with the age of the blogger. Younger bloggers, they found, described themselves as "excited, ecstatic, or elated -- they way you feel when you are anticipating the joys the future will bring - like finding love, getting ahead at work, or moving to a new town".

"Older bloggers were more inclined to describe happy experiences as moments of feeling peaceful, relaxed, calm, or relieved - they way you feel when you are getting along with your spouse, staying healthy, and able to make your mortgage payments. This kind of happiness is less about what lies ahead, and more about being content in your current circumstances."

The examples cited in this article fit pretty well with the stereotype of getting old and boring, slowing down, finding contentment in blandness. No doubt, many parents who are crossing the portal into middle age associate happiness with a nice warm bath and no kids yelling "Mom? Mom? Mom?" from the other side of the bathroom door.

As I ease into my late 50s, I have no desire to resume the energetic pace I kept up 30 years ago. However, staying healthy and keeping up my mortgage payments are more a baseline between me and unhappiness than a source of actual happiness. That's like saying I'm content that I can still dress and feed myself. I may reach that point some day, but I'm nowhere near there yet.

These days, I'm less concerned with owning the newest car, showing my employer that I can give 120%, or trying to make myself look like the models in the fashion magazine (thank goodness for that!). With all that out of the way, I have more courage to pursue my own projects and ambitions. I'm willing to take risks that would have (and did) terrify my younger self. I'm willing to go all out for the things that I told myself I would do "one of these days". Like quitting a well-paying job that was draining the life out of me, with no new job lined up, in order to develop my creative side and look for ways to build a truly fulfilling and useful life. There's nothing like a glimpse of your own mortality to kick you into high gear while you still have a high gear.

Perhaps I think this way because my life hasn't been a long linear progression of advancements and material acquisitions. I've been through downsizings, layoffs, recessions, stagflations, you name it. I've learned the hard way that "security" isn't really secure. You can do your best for an employer who turns around and fires you for no other reason than to reduce head count. You can invest as wisely as you know how for your future, and see it wiped out overnight by high-stakes derivatives traders and greedy bankers. The house you proudly invested in and maintained so lovingly can be transformed instantly into a pile of rubble by an electrical fire, tornado, or flood.

I know people whose main goal is to hang onto the status and possessions that they have built up over the years. Often, there is a subtle sense of terror underneath the veneer of prosperous contentment, born of a realization of just how easily these things can be taken away.

I know other people who accept the impermanence of their circumstances, and of life itself. These people radiate a deep sense of serenity. They know that whatever happens, they will find a way to deal with it. They invest in relationships, appreciate living in the moment, and take joy in working toward their highest ideals. Oh yes, they pay bills and make home repairs and invest for their later years, but those things are merely the infrastructure, not the source of their happiness.

The second article I mentioned was much more inspiring to me. It's a post on my colleague Denise Graveline's blog, The Eloquent Woman. Denise describes a commencement speech by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 74-year-old president of Liberia. Sirleaf is about as far from the stereotype of Gramma in her rocking chair as you can imagine. She began challenging her country's status quo in the 1970s, and in 1980, she fled the country after speaking out against the government then in power. Note: she was 42 at the time, slightly older than the mom in the first article who finds happiness in the bathtub.

Sirleaf returned to Liberia at the age of 47, and was subsequently placed under house arrest, followed by a prison sentence after she made a speech insulting government leaders. At the tender young age of 67, she took office as the first female head of state in Africa. She is one of three people who share the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work".

Denise quotes a part of Ms. Sirleaf's commencement address to Harvard University's class of 2011:

The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is pursuing her bliss by leading Liberia into the future. She has risked and lost everything -- several times -- and come back stronger than ever. I imagine that she takes a day off now and then to enjoy her grandchildren, or the simple pleasures of sitting in her garden. But being content with nothing more than quiet nights at home petting the dog? Hardly. Maybe the author of the Atlantic article will rediscover her inner fire once her kids are on their own. Or maybe she will just schedule another spa day and settle down with a good book and a glass of chablis.

I think I'm somewhere in the middle. I've never been driven into exile or sentenced to prison for my beliefs, but I'm not settling for bourgeois blandness either. I have things to do, people to see, much to accomplish in the time I have left.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Beyond the Formula

I haven't been posting as often lately because I've been pulling together a draft for a book based on my experiences over the past year-and-then-some (among other things). I was making backups of the postings from my old blog, and I ran across this. It was a good reminder from 2009 me to 2013 me, and I'm sharing it with you here. As proof that this sort of thing actually works, the first piece of fiction I published (in Fiction on the Web, the venerable short stories website) was born of a mental riff on "Phhhht".

Thursday, March 5, 2009
It's OK to Play
Every now and then, I get an aha! moment. Not always at the most convenient times, but worth capturing and remembering even so. I got one of those last night as I was reading myself to sleep, and it woke me up again like a persistent toddler about 5AM today. And now, here it is almost 9PM and the idea still sounds good to me, so I'm passing it along to you.

I'm in an extended conversation these days with some fairly serous, highly educated folks, who want to nurture and develop their creative talents. Some do it for their own pleasure, and some as a way of expressing their deep, important capital-T Truths to those who come after them. The pleasure folks seem happy with craft projects and dabbling and just enjoying things in general. The capital-T Truth people are a bit disdainful of the whole thing, because you see, they are past that childlike stage and they must devote their time to perfecting their art. All that inner child stuff and writing with your non-dominant hand and representing your dreams in sand trays is all right if you are a blocked artist, or a mere hobbyist, or a beginner. Once you get past that stage, there is serious business to be done.

The aha! came as I was reading David Jauss' "Alone With All That Could Happen". The third chapter -- the one that talks about rhythm and flow. He starts out talking about the writing techniques of varying one's sentence lengths and cadences to influence the pace and fluence of the story, then moves on to the pacing and flow of chapters, sections, entire books. It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to go back to that short story with the ending that doesn't quite work and diagram it to death to see what's wrong with the danged thing.

But then. Jauss starts talking about the "musical unconscious". Stories that exist in a sort of pre-verbal language before the words form around them. Writers walking around going, "aah. aah." because the story has an aah in it, but they don't know if it's a cat or a camera or a hammer. Apparently, he has some scientific studies to back this up. The mind is equipped with an inborn "assembly language" (to lapse into computer-speak), an internal operating code that requires an interface to translate it into English, or French, or Navajo. A rhythm that you recognize but can't quite articulate.

And that's why we dabble and play and indulge the goofy thoughts, odd sound effects, warped observations, Dali-esque dream sequences. These are a way of speaking with and listening to the pre-verbal utterances that come from so deep within that we aren't even aware of it most of the time. Didn't you ever wonder why your best story ideas came at the oddest times and places? Why the title of someone else's play turns into your very different novella. Why your neighbor's whiskey bottle collection in his living room window grabs you by the lapels and forces you to remember something you dreamed 3 years earlier. Why that poem or book chapter seemed to write itself, relegating you to the role of stenographer?

Haven't you ever read prose where the technique was flawless, but it seemed flat, lifeless, derivative? The author has Tolkien's technique down cold, but the writing doesn't draw you into that magical world. The whole thing has a paint-by-numbers feel to it, and you can see the bits of technique poking out like outlines on a badly doctored photograph. Like a Beatles tribute band that gets all the notes right, but doesn't make you wanna dance like John, Paul, George, and Ringo did. Skim through the editors' preferences in Writer's Market and count how many times the phrase "writing class" is used in a snarky way.

No, technique and polishing and crafting all come later. You start with the 3AM idea, the bit of a song stuck in your head, the "aah, aah", the drumming of your pencil on your desktop. You go with the goofy, the skewed, the "where am I going with this". And you let it grow unhindered until it's strong enough to withstand your pruning and trimming. Would you prune a half-inch seedling?

Yes, you can try to emulate the masters. Learn from their success. By all means. But if you don't start with your very own inspiration, anything you do will look like a knock-off. They said it first, and they said it better. You start with your own stuff, and even if what you wind up with is a little rough around the edges, it's yours. Go back and look at those masters. Didn't they speak with their own voices? Wasn't that what made them great?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Elevator Speech

In the spirit of casting one's bread upon the waters... Here's my "elevator speech", what I'm looking for career-wise. I'm actively looking for work after my renewal year, and it always helps to let people know what you're looking for. Feel free to pass this along, even if you don't think you know anyone who could use this. You never know, after all.