Tag Archives: career

Slow Lane

You may have noticed that I’m posting a little less these last couple of weeks. Or you may not have, in which case maybe you’re not paying close enough attention, but I’ll pretend you didn’t say that because it hurts my feelings.

Here’s why: I’m trying to finish my play. Or give up on finishing that play right now and turn my attention to the next play in the meantime. So I’m spending a chunk of my day on the play and a smaller chunk on the blog, which means possibly less for you to read right now but massive fame, fortune and pictures of me collecting my morning coffee in People Magazine later for me, so which would you pick?

Actually, I’m not sure when the last time I saw a playwright in the pages of People was. Wallace Shawn and Tony Kushner just aren’t that photogenic. I’m sure Mamet’s been in there at least once though and Sam Shepard‘s definitely made the cut, although neither of them for writing plays I’m sure. Hmm. That is disappointing. But that means there’s an opening, right? I could be the Diablo Cody of playwrighting. Without the stripping, of course.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress there. The playwriting, not the stripping. There won’t be any stripping, so stop asking.

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Note to Self: Autumn Goals

It’s been a rocky week, Chez Emma. The end of summer usually gets me in the mood for new beginnings and back to school Members Only jackets in colors like Spice Bush and Brownage, but I can’t seem to grab on quite yet. Maybe it’s because most of the country is in the grip of a very still-summer heat wave or because, as usual, the San Francisco weather is passive aggressively kicking off my days with a blanket of grey clouds. There’s never anything cozy about the grey weather here. It doesn’t drizzle and it rarely rains, so you’ve no excuse to curl up with tea and Cary Grant. Here, the greyness just pouts like a spoiled child who is neither charming nor cute but controls the room through sheer force of ill will.

When it arrives, the autumn feels to me the way I imagine the New Year should: full of anticipation and excitement with the shiver of new opportunities in the air. At the beginning of January, I’m either hungover from Christmas or on the road, and I spend New Year’s Day making the obligatory lists of resolutions without the motivation to do anything about resolving them. Who wants to go to the gym or climb Mount Everest in January? No one, that’s who. Maybe if my resolutions were something wintery and within reach, like, “Get a kitten,” or, “Have some cocoa,” I’d get off my duff and get to it, but I’m too overachiever-y to pull up with something like that. I end up setting goals that are either way too broad or way too specific, like, “Win a Pulitzer,” and “Don’t forget to call Nicole.” Sometimes, I throw in a vacation destination or two, just for good measure. Clearly, in the wetness of midwinter, I’m in no mood to step back and take aim at my future.

Last January, I tried something new. I labeled a set of vases and a champagne cooler with different categories – Job, Travel, Wedding and so on – and R and I wrote down individual goals on Post Its and dropped them in the appropriate container. My thought was we’d get all the stuff we wanted to accomplish out of our heads and into the world and after a couple of weeks, we’d have a few drinks and pick a couple reasonable ones from each category for 2009. That two-step process was clearly too much for us. I sorted the contents of the vases about a month ago and found a Post It in the Wedding bunch that said “CPR” in R’s handwriting. Either he was being sarcastic or he’s got some ideas about what’s going to go on at our wedding that need to be discussed.

When I was about twelve, I figured out how to handle Lent, that next season of promises made and often unkept. The Catholics had abstention all sewn up with their fasting and fish, but we Episcopalians weren’t all up in the ritualized self-denial, leaving me to come up with something original to deny myself. There was candy, but that was crap because who can give up candy? Ice cream likewise. Beating on your sibling was frowned upon year round. What was left that was possible without requiring an inconvenient amount of suffering and self-denial?

I must have been in about sixth or seventh grade when I thought of the ideal solution: aim for something that was pretty well under my belt already, like giving up yellow mustard or heroin. Foodstuffs were low-hanging fruit since I could include things I already didn’t eat and things I’d rather not continue to eat: fruitcake, mushrooms, pudding, anchovies. I’d struck on what the self-help and team management books proselytize: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based goals (or SMART goals, for short). The relevancy might have been a little lacking, but I had the rest of them down.

The winter months clearly aren’t the right time of year for me to stiffen my spine and get down to business, so September has become my January.

Right now, though, there’s too much on my autumn list, too many things waiting to get sorted when the crisp fall weather rolls in in a few weeks. What I need to buckle down to is somewhere between Everest and yellow mustard, a few – maybe three – things I can sink my teeth into as we roll through the end of 2009. If I can get there, I can kick off 2010 with a sense of achievement and maybe a kitten.

Here are my current candidates:

  1. Go to Thailand.
  2. Finish Draft 1 of my new play.
  3. Sort out the renter’s insurance.
  4. Start a salon. (Think Dorothy Parker not AquaNet.)
  5. Climb Mount Everest.
  6. Double traffic to my site.
  7. Settle on a date, location and budget for our wedding.
  8. Get a new cleaning girl.
  9. Drop usage of the word “like” to a level I can tolerate when I hear myself on tape.
  10. Global peace.

That sounds do-able, right? Four months? Sure. Although you’re right: the renter’s insurance thing is pretty complicated.

OK. I’ll go for 2, 4 and 6, with a side dish of 7. Global peace is a Christmasy thing anyway.

Career vs. Calling

If you’re lucky, your career and your calling are one and the same. However, despite all the advice on bookstore bookshelves and daytime talk shows to follow your bliss and get down to the business of starting your own rock quarry, mail-order marshmallow shop or edible book emporium, most of us hold down day jobs we feel we can’t afford to leave behind. The barrier might be a psychological one in some cases, but in most I’d bet it’s a financial one: it’s hard to see how you’d get by on a diminished salary (if you’re on your own) or on just one (if you’re in a couple).

I was in that boat until February. Having held increasingly well-compensated jobs for twelve years, it was hard to imagine how we’d do if I left my salary behind so that I could get down to the business of doing what we think I was meant to do instead (be a writer, that is). In my case, the push came in stages over a couple of years: a six-month break before my last job, concern about moving into that job when I took it (since it was so similar to the previous one), mounting distress that the position wasn’t what we’d hoped, and so on.

The same week I left my job, 30% of my company was laid off. Granted, it’s a different thing to plan to leave and do so voluntarily, and to be suddenly escorted out of the building, but in both cases you wake up the next morning with a different kind of day ahead of you. What are you going to do now?

Marc Colucci made a documentary about what some of the 70,000 laid-off creatives from the advertising field have done with their unplanned freedom. I hope the feature is as inspiring as the preview: “I got laid off and I started doing my life’s work.” Hooray freedom!

(thanks Molly)

Barcelona: The Return

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All my Barcelona notes are going to be out of order because, well, I’m back and I just can’t manage trying to post-date all the things I noted and did, so we’ll have to backtrack together.

It’s an odd thing, the being back. It’s grey summer in San Francisco, for one, and not sunny and 72, which was the uniform forecast for every one of my ten days in Spain. Ah, San Francisco, you frigid bastard. At least the two places share a certain seasonal predictability.

The oddity is exacerbated by the full 26 hours it took to get from Barcelona to San Francisco. That seems excessive in this day and age, no? Shouldn’t there be some kind of teleportation available? Or at least a slide of some sort, maybe one of those tube slides that ends in a big swimming pool of multicolored balls. An Ikea/Chuck E. Cheese type re-entry would take the edge off the jet lag, I’d think.

Here’s the oddest thing about being back: aside from the surreal exhaustion, I’m not all that upset to be home.

And by “home” I don’t mean “in San Francisco” but “back in my apartment hanging about with R and my writing at an ungodly 5AM.” (Even after eight years I can’t bring myself to call California home. Me and the west coast are an unfortunate mismatch, like lasagna and motor oil. They both have their place but it’s probably not together.)

Re-entry used to leave me unhappy and ragged, and included the occasional crying jag on the plane or the day before in some pretty park over a light lunch. (I don’t recommend that last as a way to end your time on holiday. I can say with authority that the summery appeal of ripe cantaloupe with slivers of prosciutto is significantly undermined when one of you is sniffling about the meaning of life into her napkin.)

Partly, I was the same as everyone else: leaving vacation behind for early morning commutes and dentist appointments is no pleasure. But my displeasure was magnified because I was coming back to San Francisco, a city I can’t seem to like, and because I was returning to a series of jobs that held no permanent grip on my interest.

Flying into SFO felt like I was being suffocated: I’d moved to a place where I couldn’t take any air into my lungs without taking everything I’d never aspired to with it. Like the belief that you’re entitled to have your own garage when you live in a city, that being laid back is a virtue, that BART’s nine stations in the city limits count as a subway system, that it’s OK for a driver to stop dead in traffic when she’s missed her turn, that a city without at least one world class theater counts as having a significant cultural profile, that garlic ice cream is not an affront to garlic and ice cream. And on and on and on.

I felt like I’d accidentally moved to a small town, with all its silent bourgeois expectations and pressures, after swearing I’d never live in one again. It made me not a little ill.

Now it’s different. To a large extent, I’ve given up on San Francisco. It is what it is. It’s always going to be provincial and think that it’s not, and I’m never going to love its hippie soul or its yuppie reality. That’s OK. As long as I can write here and be with R, everything’s all right.

The writing makes the material, surprising difference. When I lived in New York and wasn’t writing for a living, at least I was where I felt I belonged and was supported by a striving environment. Not so here. When I was part of the Silicon Valley machine, I was afraid that the sheer volume of days spent in a city so uninterested in what makes me who I am, so unlike who I am, pretending to be someone I am not, might actually add up to my being someone I am not.

Now that I’m writing, that anxiety has dissipated. I’m here at my desk in the unwelcome grey, surrounded by unopened mail, illegally imported cheese, and customs forms fixated on swine flu, and I’m not devastated. In fact, I’m glad to be back and writing. Excellent news all around, yeah?

(Especially about the cheese. Because that could have meant jail time. Which would have meant limited access to cheese. And nobody wins there.)

Hipster Terrorist

An earnest, baby-faced hipster reading A Tale of Two Cities, just asked me to do him “a solid” and watch his stuff. He’s been gone for 10 minutes. Do you think there’s a bomb in that knapsack?

What would a hipster bomb look like? An explosion of fixed gear bikes, unflattering haircuts and size 0 jeans that will blast us all to Williamsburg?

(Related: why are they called hipsters when none of them have hips?)

I looked up “do me a solid” because I’m a part-time nerd. According to the Urban Dictionary, it comes from Seinfeld, which is so not at all a hipster source, but Juno picked it up and voila, hipster lingo.

“Juno” has caused a new wave of youngins to say this who have never used the term before seeing the movie, which has caused people who have used it prior to stop using it immediately. Take the term you fake ass scenesters.

I got called out last night at dinner for only liking things as long as no one else knows about them. For instance, I introduced everyone I know to Eddie Izzard and Flight of the Conchords based on obscure shows I saw before they caught on in the U.S. Now, I keep tabs on them like that high school boyfriend you wish well with his over-tanned wife and four kids, but I refuse to scramble for tickets to sold-out shows. They know I loved them first. We both know it. I won’t stoop.

Partly, I blow them off now because I’m too cool for school. I admit it. But as we chatted about my too-cool-for-school-ness, we agreed that, for a lot of those groups and comics, it’s not just that they got popular, it’s that their work is not as good now that they’re on a corporate, money-making schedule. First album = a lifetime of material honed down to the best punchlines. Second album/TV show = a year or two of material they’ve had to crank out between talk shows and premieres and appointments with their personal fingernail consultant.

It’s the common arc of success. Friends takes off, quirky humor falls by the way side and everyone yogas up and gets incongruously sleek for a group of downtowners. The baby boomers start out righteous and angry and turn into the greedy, self-serving cokeheads of the ’80s when they get money and responsibility.

It’s not a good model, but all of us who are struggling artists really wouldn’t mind crossing that gift basket divide and getting the ego-buffing and fashion-enhancing rewards. Also, who has the kind of time to work up 18 years worth of material before producing our next big chunk of work? No one, that’s who.

So what to do?

I have a plan. I’m going to hoard my most brilliant material for my sophomore outing. I’ll get rich and famous on my second-rate work and then WHAM! I’ll deliver a kick ass second act that will make everyone wonder how I cooked up all that amazing work while it looked like I was basking on private islands, staying at wildly pricey hotels and winning things.

Don’t tell anyone, OK? Just go with it.

American Day

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Lunch? Hot dog.
Dinner? Pizza.
Dessert? Ice cream.

OK, I take that back. It wasn’t ice cream. It was sorbet. Yes: I eat sorbet and drink lattes and (wish) I dri(o)ve a Volvo.

(Scratch that. I drove a Volvo to Wyoming. It was radically uncomfortable. I wouldn’t buy a Volvo. I’d buy a Mini. Or a Saab. One of the old ones that looks like an egg. Maybe the old Saab is the new old Volvo.)

…Does that make me a yuppie? (young urban p(p)rofessional + (e))

Except I’m not “a professional” anymore. I’m still “professional” but no one’s paying me for it anymore, so the noun’s migrated to an adjective.

Since no one’s paying me for anything at all, the noun is “Emma.”

Yuemma.
Yemma?
Yu(e)mmmm(a).
Pronounced “Yummmm…(ah!)”

Human Resources

To clear the paper rubble from my desk yesterday, I started through a stack of papers from the job I left six weeks ago. Look what I turned up.

I’m thinking two things:

  1. If I’d seen this sooner, I could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble.
  2. If I’d seen this sooner, I could’ve caused a lot more trouble.

Another Opportunity Missed

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Too late did I review my email and locate R’s note, pointing me in the direction of the next step for my career: the Department of Defense has been looking to fund someone capable of developing “Efficient, Highly Maneuverable Artificial Fish for Stealthy Surveillance“.

“OBJECTIVE: Design, build and test a new generation of low cost, energy efficient, silent, agile artificial fish utilizing multiple degree of freedom muscle-like actuators and shape changing body and fins.”

Submissions closed in 2008. I’m so 2000-and-late.

First of all, who doesn’t need efficient, highly maneuverable artificial fish for stealthy surveillance? I could absolutely use one of these for any of my many secret plans. Which I can’t tell you about. Because they’re secret.

I know what you’re thinking: how will my surveillance fish do if it runs up against my hearing cat in the course of a mission? Well, I’ll tell you. That one’s on me. Like any good “parent”, I’ll just have to make sure everyone has their own space where they can feel good about themselves and not overshadowed by the other “child’s” accomplishments.

I hope the winner of the contract has the foresight to develop on-land capabilities for the fish, or at least a self-propelled tank or something, so the stealthy surveillance isn’t limited to bodies of water. Because there’s not a lot at the top of my “need to know” list that’s water-based.

Schadenfreude

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I know it’s not nice to take pleasure in the failures of others (idea here, failure here), but what if the other we’re talking about was a huge jerk? Doesn’t that make it a little bit OK? Or less not OK at least?

Yes, I know, I should be a bigger person than that but until I am, can I just for a small moment enjoy the fact that his rich-kid, capitalist idea fell flat on its face because he was a terrible friend? Not that that second thing is a result of the first thing. I’m not all born-again, hand of revenging God, etc.. But the part of him that had the vacuous business idea might be the same part of him that sucked when we were friends, right? RIGHT?? Yes. It might. Thank you.

So now that that part of him’s gotten the smackdown, I’m going to say that we’re even. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to be out from under the tiny hammer that was lying in wait for him in my memory of his being rotten to me.

Now let’s move on. Tea, anyone?

Nerve

Yeah, I’ve lost that. I used to have it. Now? Gone.

Me ten years ago: Yes, I am going to go Rollerblading in traffic! In Manhattan. At rush hour.

Me on Saturday morning: No, I do not want to climb up that six feet of embankment…overlooking a sheer drop to the ocean…that is marked with a sign warning me of possible death.

I did it anyway, but only because I’m stubborn.

Me: I think my nerve took off when I got seriously injured. It proved I’m destructible.

R: You were always destructible.

Me: Before, “destructible” was theoretical.

R: Only to you. Normal people know they’re destructible without having to prove it.

That’s a valid point. Maybe I just got lucky all those years, not getting killed and so on, pushing an envelope that didn’t need pushing.

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“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
– G.B. Shaw

I’d like to have my nerve back, but, in hindsight, that particular nerve was definitely tied to willful obliviousness to risk, mostly physical. You can’t be courageous and think a lot. The thinking will get you in trouble, without exception, whether it’s stepping off into the void of actual air (trapeze) or into the void of the unknown (in my case, writing and not corporate life).

If you remain rational, you remain cautious. There isn’t a way to think through to a successful outcome on anything you haven’t tried. You can see it in the distance maybe. You can state a goal, have a plan even. But you can’t taste it yet. You can’t know that you won’t fail or fall. Your mind and, likely your parents, will remind you – with the best intentions – of the likelihood of risk ending in broken bones.

Here’s my Monday morning calculus on risk:

  • Which risks are needless? Recreational risk is optional. Changing your behavior to save your marriage or changing your career to save your sanity are different. Taking someone’s word for the hot stove is probably fine but staying in a dead-end job that you hate are too different categories that deserve different consideration. Decide what’s actually important to you. Be smart.
  • How risky is it actually? Get a second opinion: maybe you are safe and you’re just risk-averse or just used to your current situation. Maybe you just like standing right side up on solid ground but you’ll have a safety net and health insurance.
  • Mitigate risk where you can. Bike helmets? Yes. Vaccines? Yes. Full-body scans every month or cryogenic freezing after death? Ummmm…
  • Related: see the small. Build up to it. Take the first steps first. Focus on the next step in front of your foot. Get in shape for the big risk and when it comes, it’ll only be the final step in a series of small, daily steps.
  • Figure out how much risk you think you can stomach. Risk a little more than that.