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.

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When To Walk Away

One of my worst character traits is that I am unable to stop persuading people that I am right about something and that they should like me. When people disagree with me, I think that I simply haven’t explained things well and if I only just explain again using better words, they will see the logic of my argument and want to be my best friend.

This sort of reasoning often leads to one’s head banging up against a brick wall.  Unpleasant, indeed. I had two instances like that yesterday. I’ll tell you about one.

So, the school district commissioned a report on the special education system in town and found it lacking. After living in this town for six years, I have 100s of anecdotes from our own experiences or others that go beyond the scope of the report. Let’s just say that there are kids in dark places in the school building who are being babysat and not taught.

Now, my kid isn’t one of those kids. He’s in a really nice school. Whatever that other school doesn’t provide, I do. I hire tutors. I drive him to activities. I connect with other parents to find the best programs for him. I would like the district to provide him with extra reading help and after school activities, but in the whole scope of things, he’s okay.

So, while my kid is fine, others aren’t. So, I keep opening my mouth and complaining at school board meetings in front of cameras. That doesn’t make me popular with local school leaders. And it doesn’t benefit my kid. I really need to stop talking, but I can’t. Incompetence and inequity drives me crazy. Like I said, it’s a character flaw.

Alright, let me hint at problem number two that led to further head banging yesterday. So, I have a good story about an urban school district. I know it’s a good story, but I’m having a hard time convincing other people that it’s a good story.

One of the issues, I think, is that it is about urban schools. So, I’ve been writing about education for six years now. If I write about middle class suburban parent issues — School sports: Good or Bad? School Report Cards Suck: A Plan to Get Rid of Them — I get lots of hits and links on Facebook. If I write about city schools, there are crickets. No love whatsoever.

Why don’t people care about city schools and the millions of children that are educated there? I suppose it’s for the same reason that it took so long for people to care about the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan. Those kids look different from the middle class people, who read the articles in the magazines that I write for. They are far away. Their problems are different. And their problems seem too monumental to change. People don’t want to read sad stuff.

But I’m really committed to telling this story about city kids, so I’m going to do a little PT Barnum on it and keep selling and selling and selling. Because that’s what I do.

Life and Work

Yesterday, I finished the rough draft of an article that has been killing me for three weeks. The editor can’t look at it for another week, so I have a nice reprieve. I don’t want it to come out until after the holidays anyways, because nobody reads online articles in December.

Tomorrow, I’m going into New York City to watch a video team prepare a short clip on an alternative school. I’m supposed to write an accompanying article for the video, but I won’t have to do much until January.

So, I’m finally able to get my holiday chores in order. I’ll run to the mall in an hour, after the Adobe technical team and I hash out the last issue with transferring my old computer applications to my new computer.

I need this day really, really badly. We’re all off our game here with my work and Steve’s. Steve got a nice promotion this week. Yay, Steve. But he’s had a couple of late nights with holiday parties and all that, so I haven’t had his help with Ian’s homework and kitchen cleanup. He’s going to have more responsibilities at work, so that means more for me at home. Which is fine. It’s not like I have two little kids with one being very autistic-y anymore. I can get a full day of work done in my little office and get to the gym and make dinner.

In the early days of Apt. 11D, I was very frustrated by my inability to make progress professionally while having responsibility with the kids. Poverty made things more complicated, because we couldn’t afford help; we lived in an area that only had very expensive help.

Autism made things even more complicated, because nobody could help. If Ian threw up in the school cafeteria, because of food sensitivities, only I could drop everything to pick him up from school. Only I could go to the IEP meetings. Only I could calm him down when his anxieties got the best of him. Only I could understand his garbled speech. We’re in a whole different place now. Today, he plays with the school marching band.

Steve and I were thinking about poverty this week. When we were finishing off our dissertations and Jonah was a toddler, we survived in New York City on $30,000 for the whole year. Even a couple of years on, when I first started blogging here, we made very little. We’ve been thinking back to the poverty years and how time-consuming poverty was.

Being poor meant some obvious hardships. I had one pair of shoes. I returned Christmas presents in order to buy diapers. We didn’t go to restaurants. No vacations. But it also meant that I had to get WIC to purchase baby formula. That took time. I had to walk twenty blocks to Columbia Presbyterian, talk with a bureaucrat, attend mandatory lectures on health, get the vouchers, walk to a supermarket that accepted the vouchers, haul the supplies back to the apartment.

Doing laundry was horrible. After a week with a kid with a stomach virus, we would have to carry all those stinking clothes and towels down four flights of stairs and around the corner to the laundromat. I couldn’t carry it on my own, so laundry had to wait until Steve could help. We would spend all Saturday afternoon in the laundromat, while pushing Jonah around on the wheelie laundry carts.

We couldn’t afford the fancy pre-school at the hospital, so I had to walk Jonah to the cheaper half-day school which was almost two miles away. Ian would be strapped to my stomach in one of the baby sacks.

I got shingles from the stress.

Why did we do that? We were in our mid 30s. Other people our age had nice jobs in law or business. Many already owned their own homes. As “smart” people, why were we living like that? We didn’t have much choice. We had to dig ourselves out of the hole that we got in by spending our 20s in grad school training for jobs that didn’t exist.

Being bourgeois now has meant that I can buy an extravagant coat for Steve for Christmas and replace my computer without excessive stress. We’re not so rich that we can afford a private college for Jonah or a new car for Steve, but we’re coat and computer level secure. It’s nice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to write about in 2018. I think it’s going to be mostly about people like the 30-year old me, not bourgeois me. I don’t make a lot of money with writing, but I do have a nice soapbox. I’m going to put a laser focus on those issues in 2018. It will be fun.

The Crippling Impact of Parental Stress

After Ian’s driver got him at 7:15, I answered e-mail, arranged the time schedule for the day, and wrote for 30 minutes on my pet article. (I’m not pitching it to a magazine until it’s entirely done, which is always risky. Still, I love this article so much that I’ll just put it on the blog, if I can’t find a professional home for it.) Then I went for an hour run. For the rest of morning, I checked off items — a combination of work and mom chores — from the daily schedule. I’m so damn productive that I want to barf.

Why am I getting so much done? Well, I have been much better about running and healthy living shit. Seriously, it makes a difference.

I also have a lot less parental stress in my life. Keeping a teenage boy on target for an elite college that is affordable is VERY HARD. There are landmines everywhere. There are so many ways to royally screw up, so the only recourse is moving the entire family to rural Manitoba. And there are so many dumb chores — chauffeur duties, SAT dates, prom tux measurements, physics projects, cross country banquets, college tours, German verb conjugations. All that is done. Thank God. I know he’s sweating his way through college level calc right now, but it’s not in front of me, so I can’t worry about it. Much.

Ian has been on auto-pilot for two years ever since we moved him to his new school. But before that, he was in a bad situation, which required tons of meetings and advocates and coordination. I have more driving duties now that he goes to a school that’s farther away but that is the extent of my stress. He’s getting a good and appropriate education right now. He’s super happy. Thank you, baby Jesus.

We won’t have to work about college applications, GPAs, or tux measurements for Ian. In a way, that is sad. But in a way, it’s GREAT. He’ll be in school until he’s 21, so we’ll have worries then. But that’s far away.

All that stress was fritzing out my brain. Constant adrenaline rushes. And you never knew when a crisis would pop up. So, I was always on guard, always ready for the next battle. Now, I’m getting my shit done. I’m booked with work until Thanksgiving.

I also have the brain space to take care of the little OCD tasks that make me happy. I replaced all the bath towels in the house. The boys with their damn acne cream trashed all the towels. Now, each bathroom has its own color.  The boys have white, so I can bleach the towels every month.

I also take the time to get a manicure every week. I’m finally establishing a skin regimin to include a quality neck cream and visiting the dermatologist for a regular redhead spot check up.  I’m drinking more water. I rearranged our bedroom furniture. All these little girlie changes make me very happy.

Taking a step back. Schools shouldn’t make us sad, but they do. That’s crazy.

My Own Grit, Or Lack Thereof

One of my goals for this summer is to find common themes in the little articles that I wrote this year and put together a book proposal. I need an outline and two chapters. I have the rare luxury of full days with few parenting responsibilities. For the next three weeks, Ian is in full day camp with a bus. Wahoo! Jonah needs some oversight, and he’s buzzing around in the background distracting me, but it’s not huge. I should be able to do this.

I’m trying really hard to get organized. Every morning, I sit down with the calendar program and plan out the day with goals and benchmarks. I reread Steven King’s book, On Writing, to get inspiration. I’m using the special writing software.

But it’s hard. I still don’t have a routine yet. I did a lot two weeks ago, had several days of other responsibilities, and then completely forgot what I was doing. I’m a mess without deadlines.

A freelance office space is opening up downtown. I might rent a desk there just to get away from the house.

Curious

A couple of months ago, I stopped writing things that I thought other people wanted to read, and started writing stuff about topics that I found interesting. It’s much simpler. No more mind reading and second guessing. No more self flagellation if an article didn’t make it to a top ten list.

Now, I write about I want to learn about or people that I want to talk to. It’s really fun. With the Atlantic title, even super busy people return my calls. I’ve met some real characters in the past year. People have cried. I was offered a bribe.

One of my favorite pieces to research was the one that I did on Sesame Street and autism, because I met so many inspirational people. Actually, I think I cried during one of those interviews. I talked to one woman who organizes Broadway-frendly shows for autistic kids in her spare time. I also talked to a representative from the Yale Child Study Team who provided technical support for this Sesame Street initiative. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I had a kid with autism. When she offered to put him on the top of their two-year waiting list for an evaluation, I quickly said yes.

Next week, I’m working on a piece about hunger on college campuses. It’s going to be a tough week to squeeze in interviews, because we’ll be in New Haven half the time, so I’m lining up tomorrow’s early morning phone calls right now.

 

Be Nice at Work

Christine Porath has an interesting article in the New York Times about workplace rudeness. She thinks that incivility at work contributed to her father’s death. She points to studies that show that incivility causes workplace errors and undermines creativity.

Examples of workplace rudeness include: • Interrupts people, • Is judgmental of those who are different, • Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions, • Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others, • Fails to pass along necessary information, • Neglects saying please or thank you, • Talks down to people, • Takes too much credit for things, • Swears, • Puts others down.

When Steve left academia and moved to the corporate world, he thought that there was less rudeness in the corporate world, because social behavior had more rules and interactions with associates were more public. There wasn’t the corporate equivalent of “this is the stupidest thing I ever read” comments at an academic conference. After a while, Steve found that there was rudeness in the corporate world, too. It was just subtler.

And then there are internet comments. (Not here, of course.) This year, I had to block a few people on Twitter, because my articles enraged them so much that they felt it was necessary to send me emojis of faces with tongues sticking out. Niceness is such a far away goal for the online writer. I would settle for happy emojis.