Work Week, 4th week of July 2019

These guys come to the park every Saturday to take their model boats out on the pond.

Last month, a reporter from the New York Times called. He’s doing a book on college affordability and wanted to pick my brain about one of my articles. It was a great chat and at the end of it, he asked to be put on my newsletter distribution list.

Newsletter? I have a blog and an active presence on four social media platforms. Now, I need to produce a newsletter, too? Sigh. How does anybody find the time to get any paid work accomplished, if we spend all our time creating free content to promote our paid work?

Well, it’s the way of the world. I’ve been thinking about how to do it, so it doesn’t cripple me and helps promote my f@cking brand.

I’m too old for this brand stuff. You can’t be an influencer if your neck sags below your chin. That thought set me into a tailspin last night. But let’s not talk about that. Let’s just say that whiskey was involved.

There was some buzz last week about Graydon Carter‘s new newsletter. Since I don’t have a staff of 30, I’m not going to do anything like that. Do you subscribe to any newsletters? Anything I should check out?

One of the things that I want to do on this blog and on the newsletter is give a little more info about my work week. Well, 90 percent of my work week is boring as hell — read tweet, answer tweet, write a paragraph, find a snack, question my life choices, write another paragraph, read a tweet from a person who causes me to feel deep envy and resentment, eat chocolate, send the six hundredth email to the secretary of a superintendent of a large school district to set up an interview, and so on. You don’t want to hear about that.

But 10 percent of my work week is super interesting. I talk to smart, energetic people who really care about kids and want to make the world a better place. They’re charismatic and charming. It’s truly amazing that I get paid to talk to these individuals. I try to convey all this awesomeness in my articles, but I never can do it justice in part because of space limitations. Maybe I will give more of the backstory of my articles in the newsletter.

Even though I’m not working on reporting gigs this summer, I am doing some prep work for articles in September. This week, I talked with a professor, who specializes in trauma experienced by immigrant children, and a president of a community college, who is setting up a new jobs program for students who are falling through the cracks.

Another fun task that I do from time to time is help out fellow writers. This week, I read a draft of a book and gave input. It was a good read, and led to a whiskey-fueled debate with Steve last night.

As I mentioned, I’m taking a break from reported pieces for the summer and writing personal and opinion pieces about parenting and education. I wrote a personal essay about a terrible experience that we had on the flight home from Europe earlier this month. I slowly edited and tightened the piece throughout the week and sent it to editors on Thursday.

Huffington Post bought it in seven minutes, which is a personal record. The editor and I took care of business — contract, bio, picture, edits, title, essay image — in record time. It’s coming out on Monday at 9am.

Things don’t usually happen this quickly. Two finished articles of mine are on deck for publication I hope sometime this summer . I do enjoy speed. Sometimes when there’s been too long of a gap between reporting and publication, I forget what I was talking about and lose the passion for the topic.

But it’s a Saturday and I really shouldn’t be sitting at the computer. When Steve gets back from the barber shop with Ian, I think I’m going to take the boys for a hike. I need to sweat out last night’s toxins.

Enjoy your weekend!

Conference Culture

Last Sunday, I took a train down to Baltimore for a writer conference. I was already super sick with a head cold, but I thought that with a solid night of sedation with NyQuil, I would be functional for the first panel on Monday morning. I ordered soup for room service that night and downloaded the HBO app on my iPad, so I could watch Game of Thrones in bed.

Soup and drugs weren’t enough. I was pretty much sick the whole week and in danger of public fainting. Luckily, I was staying the same hotel as the conference, so I would take frequent naps in between conferencing. I’m sure I infected half of the writerly community in the country. Oh, well.

This conference was perfectly lovely. Nice people. Mostly women. Lots of POC. It was very relaxed. It was for that niche area of writing that I do, so it was very small.

I’ve been going to conferences since my first job in the late 1980s, when I was a computer book editor at Simon and Schuster. My boss used to put me and the other editorial assistant — a va-va-voom blond with a trust fund — on display at our booth at trade shows to lure the big named computer geeks into writing books for us. We all got drunk at the blackjack table in Vegas and were complete idiots.

Later, I went to a couple decades of academic conferences. Back in the early nineties, the pol sci conferences were a hundred percent old white dudes in tweed jackets, a handful of the up-coming young white dudes in khaki’s talking about regression charts, and me who showed up wearing ripped jeans and combat boots. The next time, I dressed better, but I was always an outsider at those conferences.

When I started leaving academia, I went to some writer and blogging conferences. It was a huge shock, after all the years of stuffy academic conferences. At my first blogging conference, there was a booth where you could take a selfie with Pioneer Woman in front of a butter display. Down the aisle, the Trojan booth caused a stampede when it handed out free dildos and lube.

I’ve always wanted to write an article called, “A Dozen Lanyards,” where I would attend and write about twelve of the wackiest conferences in the country. I mean all conferences are weird to a certain extent. There’s the Queen Bees who are happy to be sitting at the popular table and the insider/niche/nobody-cares-outside-that-conference-room jargon and gossip. There’s the stale air and insulation of the environment. The bad food and the crappy book bags. The bad social skills and gaffs. The billions of dollars generated for the hotel industry.

But, right now, I’m just happy to be home.

Ageism and Sins From the Past

Last month, I went to the dermatologist for the “Redhead Checkup.” Because redheads are so prone to skin cancer, we’re supposed to get a full body examination every year. All those years at Seaside Heights in the 1970s and 1980s, when I lay on the beach covered in baby oil trying to get a “base tan” are coming back to haunt me. One time, my sister’s friend from South Africa, Samantha, convinced me that the best way to tan was to cover myself in melted butter.

I used to get such bad sunburns that I would blister and get fevers. My mother would cover me in a paste made out of baking soda and Noxzema to relieve the heat. The tops of my ears and my feet would burn. The part in my hair. That sensitive spot behind the knees.

So, I go for my check-ups, and they’ve mostly been okay. After my teen years, I spent most of my time in a darkened library, so the damage wasn’t too bad, I think. My sister who liked to sunbathe, once got such a bad burn that she once had a two inch black spot in the middle of her back. It was probably a third degree burn. My dad, a fellow redhead, has had big chunks of the skin on his nose removed. My friend, Suze, another member of the redhead club, was a lifeguard in high school; she’s had a chunk of her forehead removed.

But last time, the doctor found a suspicious mark on that sensitive spot behind my left knee. So, I’ve got to get it removed at 9:00 am today.

Getting chunks of my skin removed is part of the indignity of getting older. There are others.

When I met up with writer-type friends at bars or restaurants this winter, the topic of conversation very quickly turned to plastic surgery. They’re all more highly placed than I am and feel under pressure to look good in front of a camera. Because writing isn’t just writing anymore. It’s also selling your word and your thoughts on cable television. I’ve been getting lots of advice on the benefits of fillers and botox.

Meeting up with my cousins at a brunch in New York City last month, my 40-year old cousin, who isn’t in the industry but lives in a Real Housewives of Florida sort of community, told me about all the work that she’s had done on her face. Her face is as smooth as a baby’s ass.

Many of my friends have kids who are nearly done with high school and are entering college, so they want to go back to work. Because we really can’t have it all at the same time, they did the mom-thing, and now they want to return to work.

Returning to work after years on the school drop off line is brutal. The worse-off ones are those whose prior work and education experience makes them overqualified for basic office or retail work. Also in trouble are those who used their free time to help out the schools and volunteer for parent groups, instead of working part-time. They have nothing to put on their resume. With part-time work, you can fudge your resume enough to make it look like you’ve been working full-time, and might even be able to scrounge together some references.

A former mom is death on the job search world.

And now we are looking at candidates for 2020. I have been sickened by the press’s reaction to the older women in power, like Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren. Warren, who was a darling in liberal circles for years, got a big “meh” from liberal pundits when she announced her candidacy. Sure, that Native American DNA video was dumb. But she has tons of experience and real knowledge about Wall Street and economics. She should be HOT, instead she’s a NOT.

Why? It’s because she has wrinkles, and her voice warbles. She’s old. And she’s a woman.

Old guys get a free pass. Biden and Sanders are old as dirt, but the public still loves them. Sanders’ fly-away white hair is just fine. Nobody suggest that he put poisons in his face to smooth out his wrinkles.

Ageism and sexism runs rampant throughout our society, and nobody gives a shit.

Meanwhile, I am growing older. I have to deal with humiliations like spots on the back of my leg and the inevitable questions that a 30-something interviewer is going to ask me about the gaps on my resume. “What exactly were you doing between 2008 and 2011?” I WAS TAKING CARE OF AN AUTISTIC KID AND TEACHING MYSELF HOW TO WRITE IN ORDER TO HAVE A SOME SORT OF A JOB WHEN I COULDN’T PUT MYSELF ON A NATION-WIDE JOB SEARCH FOR AN ACADEMIC JOB, OKAY? CAN I REPORT YOU TO HR FOR ASKING PERSONAL QUESTIONS? No, I won’t be able to say that.

Thirty years later, I’m paying for the sins of my youth.

Hunting Stories

A website that I occasionally write for asked me to do something on special ed. They are particularly interested in the urban school district that I taught at 25 years ago. So, I had to track down possible interviewees who weren’t afraid of a media exposé and were interesting. No biggie!

Also, this outlet likes upbeat stories that highlight innovations, which is cool, so I had to track down someone who had inspiring stories to tell about kids who are desperately poor, probably homeless, possibly abused, with intellectual disabilities, maybe physical disabilities, and definitely emotionally disturbed.

Took a few weeks to find the right person, but I did it. She’s a principal of a public school in the South Bronx that is the home of 600 kids who have gotten kicked out of regular schools, because their needs are so great. She called her students as “her babies.” Woot!

I might have to ask for hazard pay for this article, because I could get assaulted by the students, and my car might get stolen, when I go there to do interviews. (Not joking.) But it sounds fun, so I don’t care.

Because I started work at 7:00am today, I was all done by noon, so I went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to get my mother a hard-boiled egg cooker for Christmas. It’s not exciting. But she’s 83 and that’s what she wants. I’m supplementing that gift with some cute dessert plates in a cobalt blue.

Christmas decorations are smeared all over the house, so I tried to neaten up the boxes and ribbons. It was too big of a mess to finish in an hour though, and I had to move on to the next chore… Dinner.

I had some leftover chicken stew, but not enough for a full meal. So, I made some fresh mashed potatoes and added it to the leftover stew along with some frozen peas to make a Shepard’s pie. I’ve got a salad, too.

On Tuesdays, I have to make dinner in the middle of the afternoon, because Ian has a drum lesson between 4:30 and 5:15. Lou the drum teacher just prepped Ian for his audition for the winter musical. I think he’s going to make it. The timer on oven just went off, so I should go and feed him before Kristina does reading tutoring with him at 6:30.

Well, this is a rambling “day in a life of a freelance writer/mom/blogger” blog post. Hope to be back later.

Obligations

I spent two weeks tracking down a story that I heard from a friend. This then led to several conversations with three other people. I’m weaving their stories into an article right now. Today is rough draft day.

Rough draft days are always the worse. Partially, it’s because the writing process is never easy. Collecting information is fun. Editing is a bloodless, mechanical process. But writing that first draft is always tough, and requires many treats to get one through the process.

Also, on rough draft days, I’m weighed down by crafting the story in the right way. Writing up people’s stories is a major responsibility. When I’m interviewing people, I get them to trust me, and they tell me their truths. After twenty minutes, they warm up to me and tell me everything. It’s like a priest’s confessional. There is a vulnerability to the interview process.

Can they trust me? At some point, they decide yes and tell me everything. No money is exchanged. They share, because they feel they must. At the end, I sometimes hear a note of worry in their voices. Did they really tell me all that? How will I tell their story? Will I portray them as a villain or a saint? Subtle variations of language can a picture in twelve different ways.

I sometimes think about writing fiction, but conjuring up alternative realities requires a power of imagination that I don’t possess. But I think that there is less responsibility with writing fiction, than non-fiction or journalism. Nobody can be hurt by your words. No real person at any rate.

So, I have some obligations to this blog and to the unanswered e-mail in my gmail account, but those obligations must wait. I have to do the right thing for people who talked to me and trusted me this past couple of weeks. I have to tell a story.

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.

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.