Grabbing Life by the Balls

Like everyone else, I was crushed by Anthony Bourdain’s death this weekend. Here’s a blog post that I wrote about his book, Kitchen Confidential, back in 2003. (Gee, I’ve been blogging for a long time, haven’t I?)

I think that’s little that we can understand about his death. Everybody’s depression is unique; we can never understand the demons that lurk in someone else’s brain. But what we can take away from his story is the passion that he had for life. That curiosity. That drive to do something new, to meet new people, to go places, to speak out about wrongness in the world. Unbeknownst to his fans like me, he juggled passion and despair    until he couldn’t any longer.

RIP, Tony. He was a local guy who done good.

I’ve been going back and forth within my own brain this week about what my next move should be.

Last week, I did what I love doing. I wrote an article. I talked with really smart people who taught me new things. The fact-checking process was intense – every word, number, comma was questioned by more super smart people, but there is also something thrilling about making it through that clothes wringer and making it out alive. The next person who shouts “FAKE NEWS” should just bite me. Seriously.

So, I’m doing what I like. The article will come out at some point, maybe today or tomorrow. And I’m lucky enough to get published at a place that will make sure that lots of eyeballs will see it. I have two or three other topics in embryo and a book proposal that I’m shopping around. In between articles, I can sit on the sofa and read the pile of books on the coffee table and on the iPad that range in quality from mindless fun to inspiring.

And at the same time, I can do it from home. I can stop working at around 3:30 and take Ian to activities. I can make dinner. I can go for a run in the morning. If the car breaks down or Ian’s bus driver flames out, I am around to handle the crisis.

But all this flexibility comes with a cost. There’s not much money in freelance writing, and there’s a lot of hustling. Maybe it’s time to take a less interesting, but full-time job at a foundation or a think tank in Manhattan. Farming out my household and parenting chores to others would be a necessity. I would have an hour commute on a good day. I have no idea who would make dinner, if I didn’t get home until 7.

I’m going to give myself one more year of writing full time to see where things go. I’m shutting down some of the volunteer work that I do in the community, so I can devote more time towards that goal. I want to squeeze as much awesomeness out of the next year, before I do something simply for a more regular paycheck.

23 thoughts on “Grabbing Life by the Balls

  1. Good luck. That sounds like a good plan.

    I’m doing job hunting right now. I’m trying to get more money without losing the flexibility I have now. I need to buy some land so I can build a cob house in the woods.


  2. In that same phase of moving from part-time to more traditional full-time. Happy to chat more offline at some point…


    1. Thanks! The amount of childcare that I would need to get Ian to all of his summer camps is staggering. I’ll figure it out, but I’m curious how you’re doing it. We’ll chat.


  3. Good luck!

    Regarding “fake news”–not every outlet fact checks like your magazine, especially not with breaking news. The reason “fake news” has gotten traction is that quite a number of outlets that ought to know better have not been prioritizing getting things right the first time.


  4. Are there non-glamorous but better-paying places that you can build into your portfolio?

    Once upon a time I got a really good rate covering the biotech industry here for a trade publication back in the States. Nowadays, various bits of corporate writing help to subsidize the time I spend commenting on blogs looking after the kids when the school day is over.

    The well-known places all seem to pay less because they know you get to add, “has also written for The Famousest and Exciting Monthly” to your bio and then parlay that into writing for more staid places that also pay more.


    1. Do the airline magazines pay well? They’ve always seemed to me to have the kind of dullness that costs extra.


      1. I just can’t make myself write for bad journals websites any more. I’ve done it. I hate myself afterwards. I would rather take a retail job that write for bad websites or places with no traffic.

        Like I said, the status quo is good for the next year. But then change.


      2. They probably do pay decently. Chances are good that they are farmed out to an agency that specializes in such things. If the airline actually runs it, it’ll be housed in their communications department. Either way, it’s corporate PR writing.

        The last time I was on the commissioning side of that desk, NY-based PR writers were asking two bucks a word. They weren’t getting it from me; the guy who brought in a lot of the English-language work in our shop was notorious for under-budgeting his bids, so I didn’t have that to offer anyone.

        I don’t hate myself when I write for corporate communications departments, and I definitely didn’t hate myself for working for a trade publication. I feel like my bills are getting paid.


      3. I wasn’t getting paid even close to $2 per word, but it wasn’t corporate work. I never did that. (Don’t want to say more.) It was only slightly better than the income from the prestige journals. And it was a lot of hassle to write for that audience. I wasn’t allowed to write in multi-sentence paragraphs. I couldn’t figure it out.


      4. Right. $2 a word, Doug! Really? That’s awesome. I was probably getting about .30 a word at one place. Another place paid me about $1 per word, but the editor kept changing her mind about what she wanted, so I had to keep rewriting it and interviewing more and more people. I’m sure I made less than minimum wage on the last article.


      5. Well, two bucks a word was what the NY PR people were asking for. I couldn’t pay it, so I have no idea if they got it from anyone else.

        I got about half that for the trade publication, which was great, because it was steady. They wanted general updates every week, and full stories whenever companies did particular things that the editor gave me very clear guidance on (raised €XY in investment, had compounds go into advanced Phase II or Phase III clinical trials, etc.). In a universe of about 400 companies I was looking after, those milestones came up pretty regularly. It was a very good gig for a couple of years. I gave it up to go full-time with the agency where I had been editing and leading full-on magazine projects.

        Trade publications in areas where you have demonstrated expertise — education, elections, policy regarding both of those — might be worth looking into.

        On the corporate side, clients can be as bad as flaky editors. The agency I worked for in Munich once had a four-page brochure on computers go through 28 rounds of approval because there was some kind of pissing match going on internally at the client. Future contracts specified how many rounds of client changes were included before additional charges applied.

        Anyway, I’m looking for full-time things now because my main freelance clients have changed bosses and are pulling things back in-house. I’m not really positioned to wait the two or three years until a new person rotates into those positions, looks at head count and personnel overhead, and decides to farm the tasks out again. Job hunt, whee!


  5. I’ve been surprised by how much Anthony Bourdain’s death has hit me. Then I realized – he’s the reason I up and moved my family to China for a year; in talking to people who were in my Fulbright cohort that year, there were others who felt the same way. Without him, I never would have thought it possible that a white woman from the suburbs might be able to do that. But I did. And every time we traveled to somewhere new, the first thing we did was to look for a Bourdain show to guide us. It’s strange to be so sad over the death of someone I didn’t even know, but he had a really profound impact on my life. Like so many others, I’ll miss him. A lot.


    1. I felt that way about Steve Jobs — felt like his attitude toward tech and design changed my life in a very personal way.


  6. Ooooh, I love me some time reading really old blog entries, mine or other people I know, like you! On August 1st, 2003 you wrote (talking about the time you had your Peruvian baby sitter and her dissertating hubby over):
    “There is so much wasted energy and brain power at graduate schools across the country. So much tragedy. So many lives ruined. People are being trained for jobs that don’t exist, but don’t learn of that fact until 10 years later.”
    Sadly, this is still mostly true 15 years later, although I think that now the kids start graduate school more aware that there is no academic job at the end. I, for one, tell them that very bluntly. Your adventures in NYC with a baby and a pre-schooler are fascinating! I also loved reading your post about going to the conference. I haven’t been to a large conference in two years… Sigh… but at least I have work until May 2022.


    1. It’s especially fun (and weird) for me read to those old posts. When I started blogging, people, we were really, really, really poor. Like my parents dropped off bags of groceries kind of poor. It was temporary poor, but still.

      What I regret most about all that, is that we were too stressed out to appreciate our kids and our lives fully. And it was senseless stress. Nobody forced us to go to graduate school. We could have used our brains for less prestigious, but more profitable careers.


  7. The thing in your Twitter bar about Harvard admissions reminds me of my definition for “middle class white person.” You show them a picture of a classroom with white kids and black kids, they talk about standardized testing and STEM. Show them a picture of a classroom with white kids and Asian kids, they talk about the importance of extracurriculars and character development.

    So much less intrusive than trying to figure it out by asking questions about income and wealth and the like.


  8. I really liked your Word Gap article. It does very well at explaining how hard it can be to go from research results to policy and how easy it is to somebody to abuse the results in the service of dumping all of the blame on the poorest or weakest.


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