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In an effort to re-start my personal blog, and to focus my mind for the coming year, I’ve joined the #Reverb10 project, in which bloggers write on a prompt for every day of December. I’m posting right before I go to bed at the end of my December 1, even though it’s past midnight and the calendar says December 2. I plan to write every night this month before bed—maybe earlier sometimes, but #Reverb10 is likely to be my bedtime musing most nights.
December first’s #Reverb 10 prompt is: One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
This was a year of trying things out. In 2010, I’d come to see that my plan of living from house sit to house sit, rent-free, living on very low income, had become more a form of hiding than a way of exploring what life had to offer. The fully nomadic, low-money-usage life may have had things to teach me, but it had outlived its purpose. It was time to try something new.
On the other hand, I knew I still didn’t want a conventional life. Near the end of 2009, I turned down a full-time ad-agency proofreading job (at the height of the recession!) because it didn’t offer to teach me anything I needed to learn—but also because, I realized, I really couldn’t imagine working a standard, 9 to 5, office job ever again. I wanted to expand my career(s) and be part of the economy, rather than avoiding needing or using money.
To that end, I spent 2010 trying things out. I found wonderful mentors in two of my major writing clients, and now I’ve learned corporate ghost blogging, taking my freelance writing career in an entirely new, constantly educational, far more lucrative direction.
I tried living in one place, sharing a cabin in Evergreen (a gorgeous small town in Colorado’s foothills) with the boyfriend I met in the second half of 2009. From that, I learned that Evergreen was too far from the hustle and bustle of Denver city life for my taste, and my romantic relationship worked better when we lived in separate homes.
I slowly tested my acting skills in new directions, too. The start of 2010 found me in Chicago auditioning for MFA acting programs . . . to no avail. I learned that my lack of formal theater education, and probably my age, make it extremely unlikely that I’ll ever be accepted into such a program. I’ll have to find other ways to take my acting to a higher level. Back home in Denver, I experimented: I acted in my first scripted stage show in three years. I became a regular in children’s murder mystery shows. (Yes, there are such things. Don’t worry—we murder fictional adults and let the kids solve the cases. No children are murdered.) Most amazingly, I learned how to help train police officers by playing realistic characters in crisis—mentally ill people, the developmentally disabled, and people who were very angry or severely traumatized.
I spent the 2010 trying new things in all kinds of directions, still not sure what was the right path to focus on.
On New Year’s Day, 2011, I’ll already be at Shakespeare & Company, a Shakespeare festival theater company in the Berkshires, working my ass of in their month-long intensive training program for professional actors. I’ve known for three years now that this is what I most want to do with my acting career: perform live, on stage, in the classical and other brilliant plays done by Shakespeare festivals. Giving up on MFAs, I’ve chosen the most direct route I can find: the highly-respected, Shakespeare-specific training of Shakespeare & Company’s 40-year-old Month-Long Intensive program. I still don’t know exactly where my acting will go when I finish this “acting boot camp” and return to my regular life, but I’m confident that what I learn in the Berkshires will help me map my course.
Corporate blogging will continue to be my bread and butter from February on. I’ve already arranged with my best client to pre-write the blogs that will go live while I’m at business further as soon as I’m back home. I also plan to start writing fiction again—once my favorite art form, but one I’ve neglected since college. I haven’t felt I had the concentration to write my own stories these past . . . too many years. It’s time to find my focus again.
As for my home, when I finish my actor training, I will still have a home to come back to. I’ve been renting a room in the house of an old friend from high school, and I love it here. I’ve actually unpacked and set up furniture. I have a home base to help me focus on my next direction . . . or directions.
And my love life? That’s the one area of my life I don’t think I have the power, or good reason, to try to direct.
There are drawbacks to freelancing (financial ups and downs, feast-or-famine schedules, condescending credit card companies), but there are many rewards, as well. Perhaps the greatest of those is being able to choose every project I take on, and sometimes being paid to do things I would love to do whether or not money was involved.
For example, I often do small projects for Sounds True, the spiritual and self-help publisher where I’ve once had the privilege of working full-time. Lately, I’ve been transcribing installments of Sounds True’s weekly podcast, Insights from the Edge, for posting on their web site. In these podcasts, Sounds True Founder and CEO Tami Simon interviews great thinkers who’ve created audio programs (lectures and lessons on CD or downloadable mp3) for Sounds True. Three weeks ago, I was particularly excited to find that Tami had interviewed Vicki Robin, who, with the late Joe Dominguez, co-authored Your Money or Your Life. I was being paid to listen to one of the great heroes whose ideas had informed much of my adult life! Check out the interview here.
Tami’s interview celebrates the release of the updated, 10th anniversary edition of the Your Money or Your Life. I remember when the book first came out, when I was a 20-something, deep in college studies and deep in anxiety, wondering if I would ever figure out how to handle my own finances, live free of family support, and take care of myself. I read the book, began tracking my expenses, and have never looked at a job offer or a price tag in the same way since. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this book changed my life, or more accurately, that it did a great deal to shape my adult life.
Vicki Robin and her coauthor, the late Joe Dominguez, taught me to see money as something I (or someone, such as my parents, who have given me many generous gifts over my lifetime) traded hours of my (or my loved one’s) precious, limited life to gain. They also taught me that credit is a form of indentured servitude—a harsh way to put it, but it is signing up to work for many hours, often hundreds or thousands of hours, to pay off a debt—not free money. And best of all, they taught me that true financial independence—defined not as having mountains of money, but as being wholly in control of one’s own financial life—is possible. Creative lifestyles can be fun and freeing, the “American dream” is not a dream for one, and a sustainable world for all is possible.
I was delighted to trade my life energy for money when it came with a chance to listen to Vicki Robin expanding on the ideas from this life-changing book. The interview is a nice introduction to the Your Money or Your Life philosophy, and an interesting listen (or read, if you prefer—just go to the podcast page and click “Read the Transcript” to see my handiwork). I encourage you to check it out.
I came back from my summer adventures in San Francisco all excited about renewing my commitment to my blog, and then I proceeded to not post for two months. My apologies. I have been busy, and scattered and confused, building up my life again back home in Colorado: finding work, finding more work than I expected and gratefully lapping up every opportunity, reconnecting, bouncing from house sit to house sit and remembering why that made me feel flustered and out of sorts … Mainly, though, I’ve been uncertain about the direction of this blog.
I’ve been reading some fantastic popular blogs of late, from The Comics Curmudgeon and Medium Large, to RedheadWriting and SEOmoz, to the Tim Ferriss’ blog and I Will Teach You to Be Rich. Each blog has a specific focus, an overall message and reason for being. Does mine? So far, I’ve felt unfocused, writing on whatever happens to spark my mind. I wonder whether I should stretch for a gimmick, find a way to promise my readers that I will make them rich (as soon as I figure out how to make myself so) …
But the fact is that I already have a focus for my blog. I have a very strange life. I don’t have a job. I don’t have a mortgage, and I don’t have a lease. More unusual: I don’t want any of these things. I make money, I sleep in safe and comfortable places, and I feel wealthy. I also feel creative, excited, and grateful about my life overall. While my lifestyle is far from unique—in fact, the “joyfully jobless” (as author Barbara Winter calls freelancers and entrepreneurs) are far more common than Americans tend to think. I expect that people in creative housing situations—house sitters, eternal travelers, and those who live in non-house, non-apartment homes like RVs, cabins, mini-houses, and such—are also far more common than we tend to think. Still, there’s far too little talk about the alternatives to the standard American dream of “get a job, work all day Monday through Friday for 50 years, then retire completely; while you’re at it, buy the biggest house you can mortgage, as soon as you can.” As the business world shifts, that dream is becoming increasingly impossible, and I’ll argue that it was always impractical. There are many other ways to live, and many that are not only safe, responsible, and relatively comfortable, but also fulfilling and joyful. Simply blogging about my own life experiments, and those of others I learn about, I’ll never run out of things to say.
There is another reason, though, why I’ve been unsure about this blog: It’s out there for anyone to see. I have a feeling all of the ideas that make me interesting and readable are the kinds of things any proper American should be keeping secret. We’re constantly being told to watch what we write on the interwebs, lest we be unemployable for life. Dates, too, can Google and judge, as can potential roommates, landlords, creditors, anybody. The more unorthodox opinions I share (meaning everything that differentiates me and makes me worth reading), the more I mark myself as a freak. Will I ruin my future chances by expressing myself too widely? Telling people about my odd lifestyle, how I turn down “good” “permanent” jobs, how I hop from home to home and work project to work project, has already started an argument that nearly lost me one of my best friends, and is obviously starting to worry another (more on him next post).
After careful consideration (two months of it!), though, I realize that any job, any business partners, any date or friend or roommate I’d ever really want to be with had best be willing to accept me as I am. I am a responsible, intelligent, hard working, sane, and happy person. I also happen to like exploring unusual ways of making a life. I’m willing to tell the world about that.
One of my favorite web comics put it better:
I haven’t blogged for three and a half months. I think I had a good reason: I put my entire life on hold to pursue a dream. I told my freelance and pet sitting clients I’d be away, I let my awesome roommate/landlady find a new renter, I put even more of my stuff in storage, loaned my car to my mom, said goodbye to my friends, and headed off to San Francisco for the summer. Why? Following my stated goal of kicking up my acting career, I applied for the 2009 Summer Training Congress, a seven-week professional actor training program through San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. To my great surprise, I actually got in! I set off for two months in a huge, new city, to spend my days steeped in what I love most: acting. For me, it was a dream come true, and a life so different from my usual Colorado ramblings that it felt like a dream.
Knowing that, with nine-hour days of extremely active training, plus rehearsals, plus getting lost and overwhelmed in the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, I let the Nomad blog slide all summer. Instead, I kept those friends who were interested updated with Facebook and Twitter updates (I could handle 140 characters occasionally, but not a whole essay). As with my trip to Portland, this adventure brought out the paradox of blogging an unusual life: When life is at its most interesting, I’m too busy living to blog about it.
It was an amazing summer. I made wonderful new friends and impressive contacts, learned more about acting and Shakespeare and voice and speech and text and the power of movement to communicate than I ever thought I could cram into my being in two months, fell head over heels for a San Francisco novelist, lived in two fantastic apartments and one awful one, got to know San Francisco’s many neighborhoods, marched as Batgirl in America’s biggest Gay Pride Parade… and I may someday write about some or all of these adventures.
For now, though, I’d like to start processing my challenge of the moment: Having put one’s life on hold, how does one ever get it going again? After a summer of tuition and San Francisco prices, my non-retirement savings are nearly gone (and I’m still not touching my retirement funds, no way, no how!). My freelance and pet sitting clients have learned how to live without me for two months. I’m now sleeping in the storage-stuffed guest bedroom at my mother’s house. My car has been diagnosed with a terminal case of “Chevy Metros weren’t designed to last for more than 188,000 miles. It’s time to let it go.” I haven’t knitted in months (!) and I’ve lost my guitar callouses. I still don’t have a play to act in. Some of my Colorado friends know I’m back in their state, some don’t. My long-distance friends have fallen out of touch while I was overwhelmed with theatre thoughts. For the first time in years, I actually have a steady, fairly awesome love life, but it’s a long-distance one—as my mom likes to sing while giggling at me, “I left my heart in San Francisco.”
Still, life looks good to me, not just because I’m still high from my summer of acting and adventure, but because this life is full of possibilities. In the next few months, I will have to find new work, a new home (or rebuild my house sitting lifestyle), and a new (to me) car. I plan to jump start my art life: land some acting roles; publish more articles, stories, and knitting designs; and finally learn to jam on my guitar. I plan to reconnect with and better appreciate the people I hold dear, and keep in touch with all of the new friends and admired acquaintances I met in San Francisco. Oh, and I plan to convince one adorable novelist that, once he finishes his MFA in San Francisco this fall, what he really wants to do is move to Colorado. Hey, it can all be done, and given my list and my life so far, it’s sure to be an interesting ride.
Intrigued? Welcome back to the blog. I promise to post about updated on my life’s reconstruction, plus some related (or not so) great ideas from the rest of the world, with new posts coming at least once a week, and usually more often. Thanks for reading.
I’m just recovering from a miraculous lesson in gratitude. Last week’s events made me suddenly notice how much joy I get from something I’ve always had; something that I depend on, many times every day, for earning money, for pleasure, for art, for independent travel, for everything; something a great many people don’t get to enjoy: having strong, healthy, working hands.
Last Tuesday, I got calls from two clients, a brand-new one and one of my best and longest-standing ones, each asking me to complete a large transcription job. The deadline to be done with both jobs was Saturday night, just four days away. To meet the deadlines, I would have to be typing every moment that I was awake and my hands were unsure and strong enough to do it. It made for a strange week, but feast or famine is the nature of freelance work, and I was delighted to have so much to do (and income, and a great new client, to boot!) and determined to make the very best of it, so I typed. And typed. I typed until my wrists felt tight and strange, every muscle in my hands was sore, and my fingers started missing the keys. Then I went out and bought a wavy ergonomic keyboard and a pair hand-supporting spandex gloves, then typed until my hands gave out again. I spent the week typing, resting until my hands worked again, then typing some more.
And in this way, I realized how marvelously gifted I am to have strong, healthy hands. With all the punishment I gave my hands last week, I never felt numbness or outright pain. I do not have carpal tunnel syndrome—lucky me! I was just tiring out my muscles. As I rested my hands, desperately trying to think of something to do, I realized that most things I love to do depend on my wonderful hands. For example:
• As I started the week of typing, my hands were already tired from the stage combat seminar I’d taken the weekend before, in which I learned to safely load, unload, store, and use guns for theatrical purposes. We loaded and unloaded various types of handguns over and over again, fired them in many situations, pulling back slides, cocking hammers, pulling triggers, carefully and gently guiding hammers back down to keep loaded guns from firing as we carried them to the stage. As I cocked a revolver with one thumb, the very tough lady fight director standing next to me (and struggling with her own gun) said, “Well look at you with your strong hands!” I glowed, proud of my powerful little thumb.
• I credit the guitar, a love I found just five years ago, with building the strength in my hands. I play almost every day, fingerpicking, doing bar chords, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and trills, making strings ring out with my tiny little pinkies, as well as my other fingers. Last week was the longest I’d gone in five years without playing a guitar. My hands couldn’t handle even the simplest chords.
• I didn’t blog last week, or write anything personal, except for the occasional very short email. Normally, I spend hours of personal time on my computer each day, emailing friends, doing silly things on Facebook, writing short stories, blogging, applying for more freelance jobs… My world changed completely when I couldn’t type anything but the urgent work at hand. I felt lost, isolated.
• In normal times, I knit almost constantly. I knit while I read books and internet articles. I knit while I talk on the phone. I often knit while I edit, letting the motion of my hands focus my brain while I read the text, dropping the knitting whenever I need to make a mark. While resting between transcription sessions, I tried to watch TV, but it felt too strange. I was too used to knitting while I watched.
• Last week, I was sitting for my favorite cat, a friendly, purry, silky longhair who loves petting, brushing, and roughhousing. I struggled to brush him once a day, and I let him hang out on his enclosed porch too often, feeling guilty that I couldn’t play with him as much as he or I would have liked.
• I like to go to my local recreation center (whatever locality I’m in) and lift weights twice a week. This week, I didn’t go, as I couldn’t trust myself to safely hold the weights. I couldn’t even do yoga, which is notoriously hard on the wrists. Strong hands make it much easier to maintain strong legs, arms, backs, abs, and so on.
• In fact, I didn’t go much of anywhere last week, as safe driving requires a safe grip on the steering wheel. I ran errands only when I was feeling rested.
• I often walked to the coffee shop on the corner, or the diner down the street, to gingerly hold a coffee cup or a fork over an omelet, amazed at how difficult even eating can be when you can’t trust your hands. I watched with envy as the diner cooks chopped, flipped, and grabbed handfuls of food. I goggled at the waitress as she carried a platter of heavy dinners.
I missed my strong hands every minute of those days, and my mind opened in wonder as I remembered that many people live like this every day of their lives. My grandmother, who crocheted the way I knit, lovingly, constantly, had to stop ten years before she died, because arthritis made the movements too difficult. A good friend of mine has a condition (tentatively diagnosed as lupus) which makes her hands tire after a few hours of work, tiring the rest of her body, as well. This woman is a professional cake decorator, a mother with an adorable baby to play with, (How do you lift something as precious as your child when you can’t trust your hands?) a household full of chores, and, fortunately, a loving and understanding husband who lends his hands when hers are too tired. I know artists with rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve read about Les Paul, [wikipedia link] the inventor of the electric guitar, who still finds ways to play, even though his hands are now frozen, arthritic claws. And there are many people the world over who create rich, important lives, even though they have only one hand to work with, or no hands at all.
After last week, I am amazed at these brave and resourceful people, and most of all, I am grateful that, for this stage of my life, at least, I don’t have to find a way to live without my strong, flexible, wonderful hands. I love my hands! I am in awe of my ability to play my guitar and my mother’s piano, to knit, to drive, to hold a baby, a kitty, a pen, or a fork, and to type these lines. I am definitely a fan of having hands!
It’s been over a month since my last post, but I’m here again, and here to stay. As I look back on my misspent month of March, I keep thinking of the 2004 movie The Forgotten, in which (spoiler alert, though it’s a spoiler for a terrible movie, and so no great loss) Julianne Moore plays a mother who is part of an experiment run by aliens from outer space. The aliens have set out to prove that Earthling parents can be made to forget their children entirely if one just hides the children and messes with the parents’ minds. Moore’s character refuses to forget, no matter what the aliens do or how many of her fellow humans (including her psychiatrist and her son’s father) insist that her son never existed. Then the aliens have to kill her because, you see, otherwise she would be proof that the experiment had failed.
And that’s what I hate about that movie, and about any argument about science that fails to understand what science is and isn’t, or how a scientific experiment, or any experiment, really, works. Here’s the deal: An experiment is simply trying something to find out what would happen. To be a scientific experiment, you would make an educated guess (hypothesis) as to what would happen, and then try something to find out if your guess is right. (To be truly scientific, then you would have a large sample for the things you’re testing, and at least one control group, but I’m digressing now.) And what if your guess is proven wrong? To a true scientist, or anyone who loves the true nature of an experiment, that’s wonderful! Whether your guess is proven right or wrong, the experiment is a success. You now know something new. Going back to the movie, the aliens have succeeded in finding out that not all humans can be made to forget their children. The experiment was a success. The only failed experiment is one that tells you nothing.
How does this explain where I’ve been all March?
Well, I tried two experiments in the realm of moneymaking, or attempts to get something resembling a “real job.” The first was blogging for Examiner.com as the Denver Knitting Examiner, which sucked up what little time and mental energy I had after my day job (more on that below), and got me just a few readers. Since Examiners are paid exactly one penny per page view, I made less than $0.50 per 200-1,000-word, researched, originally written blog post. Based on the statistics on my start page, this is about average for the site. It may have been worth my while anyway if I was having fun, but my posts on the very narrow topic of local, current, knitting news bored even me. Finally, on a particularly stressful day, an Examiner editor wrote to complain about the capitalization of my posts’ titles, which did not fit Examiner’s unusual and bizarre-looking official style. She further said that she had “fixed” them for me, but when I went to my site, I saw that she had no understanding of grammar and parts of speech, so the new headlines didn’t fit Examiner.com’s style, my style, or any grammatically consistent style. I thought of sending her a copy of my copyediting resume to establish my credentials, and then arguing with her, but I realized that I really didn’t care. Based on my first experiment, Examiner.com is, to my mind, not worth the effort I put in, or any effort at all. I’ve shut down my Examiner page. I may write for pay by page view sites with different structures in the future, but the Examiner’s setup did not work for me. I’m much happier writing my own blog, for free, than writing the overly constrained one for pennies…or for promised pennies. I’d like to publicly note here that Examiner.com never paid me even the $10 or so I earned during my month with them.
My other experiment was taking a temp receptionist position, for $10 an hour, with an old friend of my dad’s and his wife in their accounting firm. (All of Dad’s friends are old friends, since he’s been dead for 20 years now.) I might have known better. Because I haven’t been making much money, and I’ve begun to feel guilty about not having a regular job, I tested some long-standing assumptions: 1) I hate reception work, especially when it amounts to writing down messages for one or two people who simply think they’re too special to answer their own calls or use voice mail, and I can do nothing to help the caller, myself. Such jobs make me feel like an impediment to any real accomplishment, stress me out, and piss me off. 2) I won’t work for less than $12 an hour, unless the job really is volunteer work for a cause I care about. Less than that makes me resentful, and isn’t worth the time away from my freelance gig hunting. 3) I am fascinated by almost every field of endeavor, but accounting bores me to tears. I can just bring myself to do my own taxes each year because I like being a law-abiding citizen, but I can’t bring myself to care about anyone else’s taxes or day-to-day finances.
I wondered if I’d been cheating myself out of opportunities by clinging to these assumptions, so I took the job. Now I’ve confirmed all of them. I hated the job, and it sucked the life out of me so that I could barely get keep my Examiner blog going and keep up with my stage combat class (more on that in a later post), let alone find any other freelance work or do anything else for fun. I also added one more assumption, now proven, to my list: 4) I should never work for those people, and should be wary of working for any of my parents’ friends. While there is hope that people older than me, and even people who knew me when I was nine years old, might be able to see me as a peer, an intelligent, educated, skilled adult worthy of respect and empathy, my bosses were not such people. In the four weeks I was there, they didn’t bother to pay me, ask for my timesheets (which I’d compiled on my own, unasked), or tell me when I would be paid. They often set up my work so that I was alone in the office, waiting for someone to come by to pick up a check or some financial papers, and unable to take a break and get my lunch (while they were out to lunch, themselves). When I spoke sharply to the telemarketer who had called me back six times in a row and then started to swear at me, one of my bosses chastised me for “shouting at callers,” and continued to bitch the incident daily for the next three weeks. When, exhausted, I accidentally locked my keys inside the office as I was leaving on a Friday night, trapping me in the office building (as I couldn’t drive anywhere, and if I left the building, couldn’t get back in), I called one of my bosses for help. Her first suggestion was that I camp out in the lobby for two days until the cleaning crew came by on Sunday. When I pointed out that I actually had a life and responsibilities outside of her office (not mentioning that I also like to eat at least once every 48 hours), she seemed surprised, and suggested I call AAA, have them break into my car, and ask them to hotwire it so I could drive home. When I pointed out that AAA doesn’t hotwire cars, nor does any legal business, she told me to call a locksmith. Only when the locksmith arrived three hours later, charging me $40 (half a day’s salary, before taxes) to tell me that the only way in was to destroy the lock, did she agree to drive for half an hour to unlock the door with her key. And when I quit the next week, pointing out that this job was killing my freelance business and thus losing me money every time I came in, and I gave them two weeks notice to find and train my replacement (a job that could be done in two hours by calling any temp agency, as I told them), they replied, “Well, two weeks would put us right up against tax day. I don’t think we’ll bother to find I replacement. I think we’re going to, um, go ahead and, ah, have you just work the two weeks and be done with it.” I thought for a moment that they were joking, but then I realized that these people didn’t know what a podcast was, what iTunes was, or how to use Google, let alone how to quote Office Space. They weren’t joking. The next day, I brought in my organized timesheets with a note pointing out that Colorado labor law requires them to pay me by the 10th of the next month, and a letter of resignation that carefully explained the point of two weeks notice, that it was a courtesy and not a requirement, and that I was taking mine back. At the end of my work day, I announced that I was never coming back, left my letter and timesheets on my desk, and I was free.
I learned a good deal from that experiment, annoying as it was. I’m tempted to take other assumptions from it, such as: 1) I’m not cut out to hold any job, 2) I hate answering all phones, 3) I can’t stand anyone my parents would associate with, or 4) I should avoid all accountants, but none of those is true. I just shouldn’t do that exact type of job, for $10 an hour, or for those people. Ah, and most important: If a job sucks that much, I can leave, and I will. Life is too short to lose money hating one’s job.
My next experiment: I wonder if someone would hire me to deliver pizzas, and if I’d like the job. My hypothesis is that I’d have fun, and make pretty good money. I’ll tell you what I find out in a few weeks.
Last Saturday evening, I played chess in a cafe with the friend I play with on most Saturday evenings. She was telling me about her search for a telephone customer service job, as she has every Saturday since she was laid off in October. She was slowing down out of pure despair—why send out more resumes if nobody answers? Just then, another friend happened by. After exchanging the usual hugs and hellos, I asked how he’d been, as I hadn’t seen him for months.
“Oh, you know,” he said, “Still looking for a job.”
Still? The last time I’d seen him, he’d been very gainfully employed.
“Oh, really?” said my friend. “It has been a while. I got laid off in August.” He went on to explain how jobs were scarce in his field, mechanical engineering, as they are all around. Then he and my chess buddy exchanged creative ideas for paying their mortgages, (She was using expensive early distributions from a 401k, and he, cannibalistically, a home equity line of credit.) and praised the glories of antidepressant drugs.
The next day, I called another friend to ask if he was up for Sunday morning coffee, our weekly ritual. He said he wasn’t, because he, along with his company’s entire sales department, had just been laid off. Being an introvert, he wanted to absorb the shock by avoiding all of humanity for several days.
I started to worry about my friends, and about the state of the world. In addition to the many unemployed, I know homeowners who are stuck in houses they can’t afford but can’t sell, successful self-employed renters who can’t buy homes because mortgage lenders are now too careful, and workers at non-profits who are watching annual budgets shrink, wondering if there will be enough left to pay their salaries. It looked like a dark and scary time, indeed…
…until yesterday and today, when I had more in-depth conversations with those friends. Now another pattern stands out more strongly than fear:
• Over coffee, the “out-of-work” mechanical engineer told me about the inventions he’s come up with in his free time, and his plans to get them to market. He also told me how he’s analyzed his investments (Playing the stock market is one of his many hobbies.) and how excited he was about buying now, at what may be the bottom, before President Obama gets sworn in and his HopeTM drives prices back up again. Then my friend
offered me ideas on how to market the knitting patterns I’m always making up, and encouraged me to look into monetizing my blog.
• I’d been worried about my newly-unemployed introvert friend, so I was relieved to get an email from him. (He still didn’t feel like talking.) He told me he’s spending most of his time in his living room, which doubles as a recording studio. A songwriter and musician, he’d been meaning to work on a new album for months, and now he finally has time. It will surely be colored by his feelings of loss and worries about money—and the fact that he’s now spending all of his non-recording time listening to Joy Division, (I’ve got to keep an eye on that boy!) but in any case, his muse is working overtime. I can’t wait to hear the album.
• Yesterday at noon, I got an out-of-the-blue call from another friend, one of the non-profit workers who’d been wondering whether he would soon be non-salary. He’s still wondering, but he’s largely forgotten about that, as he’s very busy figuring out what would completely different career path he should take next. He’s reached the top of a steep learning curve at his current job, and now he’s wondering whether to go back to school so he can do biological research, and how to fit that in with his family life, his job, and his growing career in experimental jazz. He’d called me, not because I had the faintest idea what he should do, but because I love hearing all of his ideas, and bouncing them off me helps him organize his own mind.
Taking them as a whole, I have to say: Damn! I have cool friends! On top of that, I’m noticing a larger trend here, and it’s an exciting one. Yes, the economy is in the toilet, yes, jobs and loans and charitable donations are hard to come by, but this is, above all, a time of incredible creativity. We’re being forced by economic realities to move in with people we normally wouldn’t meet, take very odd jobs, and create our own side ventures just to keep our heads above water, not to mention our juggling of debts and strange ways of paying them. In addition, laid-off employees finally have time to remember their passions, be they music, woodworking, painting, or communtiy theater. We also finally feel we have time to volunteer to help each other out—nothing puts our misfortunes in perspective like helping someone even less fortunate.
I figured out, nearly four years ago now, that having an ordinary, day-to-day job was not for me, so I’ve been experimenting with other ways to live. Now that the usual way of making a living is hard to come by, more and more people are joining me in the experiment, and I’m seeing some amazing ideas. Yes, the economy is in trouble, but I think we’re also in for a gorgeously creative time. I can’t wait to see what the world comes up with.
As you may have guessed by now, I have trouble answering the common icebreaker question, “So, what do you do?” I do almost anything legal that I can convince people to pay me well for, and a lot of other things that nobody will pay for, but that are fun all the same. My favorite answer to this question, though, is, “I’m a freelance writer.” It’s true. And my most public, most brag-worthy writing is the work I’ve done for the Denver/Boulder version of The Onion A.V. Club, which has recently changed its name to Decider Denver.
Got all that? Let me take it slowly: We all know and love The Onion. If you flip halfway through any issue of The Onion, you’ll find a section that’s no longer parody, but real articles, all about entertainment—music, movies, games, TV, sometimes even books and theater. That’s The A.V. Club. In the back half of that section, you’ll find A.V. Club-type content that’s specific to your local city, which is now called your city’s Decider.Make sense now?
I’ve been writing an article every month or so for the Denver/Boulder A.V. Club (now Decider), and it’s the most fun I’ve had writing for money so far. I’ve interviewed playwrights, directors, Molly Ringwald (yes, really!), and the fight director for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and written it all up in the hippest way I knew how. (Yes, it was a stretch. Hey, that’s what made it fun.) Sadly though, for the first two years I freelanced for them, the local content was only in print, not on the web, so I couldn’t point my friends and potential clients to my marvelous works after the week they first appeared on newsstands. I could only brag, hoping people would take me at my word.
Well, all that has changed. The Denver/Boulder Decider is now online, and I can now point you to one of my masterpieces. Yes, it went up last month, and it’s now out of date and in their archives. I’m still learning how to navigate the new site. I hadn’t been sure that my piece had actually been published until my paycheck arrived today. Ah, well, new technology has its learning curves. The point is that you can see that coolest thing I do for pay right here. Note my honest-to-goodness byline right under the photo caption. Cool, huh?
Happy new year!
I’m not always a fan of New Year’s resolutions. We all tend to make cliche ones (“I’ll lose weight” or “I’ll be a nicer person”) and then immediately ignore them. Lately, though, I’ve been setting down some lofty, but exciting goals for myself, and now looks like the perfect time to share them with … well, whoever, if anyone, is reading this blog. Keep me honest, folks. Knowing that someone is out there watching me, ready to be disappointed in me if I should fail to meet my goals, will spur me on. If you’d like to share your goals with me in the comments here, I promise to cheer you on, too. Let’s make this the best year of our lives! All righty. Here’s what I have in mind for 2009:
- Get my own home. This is part of the plan that I came back from Oregon with, and I still haven’t completed it. I’m tired of jumping from house sit to house sit, having nowhere to sit still, to organize my mind and my stuff. Still, I’ve been stalling because it’s hard to go from paying no rent to coming up with a check every month, and to go from total freedom of travel to, possibly, living with a lease. It’s time, though. What I’m doing now: Today I turned in applications for two possible rental homes—both rooms in houses with roommates. My recent employment and rental history (or more to the point, lack thereof) make me an unlikely choice, but I’m hopeful that one of the two landlords will be willing to take a chance on me. This should make a big impact on my effectiveness, my peace of mind, and the next resolution, which is:
- Get rid of all of my extraneous material stuff. The room in my mother’s house that she kindly lets me use for storage is full of some pretty strange junk. There’s the usual knitting fanatic’s stash of yarns and needles just waiting to be made into something wonderful (and half-done somethings wonderful waiting to be finished), and there’s the layer upon layer of boxed-up life necessities that I haven’t needed in my nomadic days (dishes, bedsheets, and such) or haven’t used because I haven’t been able to find them in years. There’s clothing so out of date that even I would be ashamed to wear it. Weirdest of all: When I was a teenager, my mother dealt with the junk mail and miscellaneous papers that piled up on the kitchen table by shoveling it all into a grocery bag once a week or so, then dumping the grocery bags in my room. There’s a sea of them still in there: college application packets, homework that my brother or I had to do again because we couldn’t find it, catalogs from 1991. That room is an overwhelming place, altogether, but it’s time I cleared it out. I want to own very little, and to know where everything I own is, and why I own it. What I’m doing now: See above. My main excuse for not sorting through this stuff already is that I don’t have a space of my own to spread it out in, or to organize it back into. Once I have my own home, I’ll have no more excuse. I can use the process of unpacking and moving in to unpack everything, then get rid of all of the stuff I don’t want.
- Become a much better guitarist. When I first took up guitar four years ago (!), I learned fast, practiced nearly every day, and had some great teachers. Now I haven’t taken lessons for nearly two years, and I’m thoroughly stuck in an embarrassing beginnerish state. I barely know how to play, and I haven’t gotten any better for a long, long time. I’ve started practicing more regularly, but I don’t even know what to practice anymore. This is made more painful by the fact that several of my friends are really amazing musicians. I want to be able to jam with them, to play out with pride, and to see myself growing again. What I’m doing now: So I just need to find a good teacher and take more lessons. I have a place in mind, Denver’s Swallow Hill Folk Music Association, and I promise to call them tomorrow.
- Become a much better fiction writer. This doesn’t say much, as I haven’t written a fictional story in years. In high school and college, I always seemed to have a natural aptitude for fiction, just waiting to be honed with a lot of practice. It is just a matter of practice. I need to make a point of writing often, make fiction part of my life again. What I’m doing now: I’ve dug up my favorite books of writing exercises. Starting tomorrow, I’ll practice writing for at least a few minutes a day … most days … barring emergencies … okay. I promise I’ll write something today, before I go to bed.
- Attend advanced professional actor training. This is an extension of the acting portion of my post-Oregon plan. I auditioned for lots of plays, and plan to continue auditioning, even though I haven’t been cast in a play yet (unless one counts the many murder mystery shows I did this holiday season, which, I suppose, I should). I took one acting class, which was okay, but I want more immersion and more challenge. My goal now is to get into and attend one of the many professional-level summer intensive actor trainings I know of around the country. There was one in Denver, but word is that it’s not happening this year. Now I’m looking at programs in San Francisco (my top choice so far), Chicago, and New York. What I’m doing now: A local teacher who I’ve worked with and grown to respect offers coaching in such things. I’m going to email her tomorrow and find out if she can advise me.
- Pay better attention to friendships and potential friendships. In my little brainstorming notebook, where I first came up with these resolutions, this was a very specific resolution regarding my treatment of one particular friend, but that’s too private a detail to post on a blog. Besides, I think the more general point is the best one to keep in mind. Here’s the crux of the story: Over the holidays, an acquaintance that I don’t see often (because he lives halfway across the country) blew into town for a few whirlwind days with all of his Colorado friends. When I saw him again in person, he acted like he was one of my best buddies in the world, and to my surprise, I realized that he was absolutely right. It turns out that the boy is a total nerd (a wonderful thing, in my book), much smarter than I ever gave him credit for (and I’d always thought he was pretty darned bright), and fun in the quirky, goofy way that I click with most. This just blew me away. I had a wonderful time, and even as he flew away to visit other folks in other places, I was excited to have discovered such a compatible, fun, brilliant friend—but why hadn’t I discovered him before? I’d hung out with this guy off and on for years. He’s a high-school buddy of one of my best friends on the planet. Why hadn’t I noticed the possibilities before? Who knows how much fun, brilliance, support, and inspiration I’m missing out on with everyone in my life? I promise to pay more attention to people this year, to appreciate them more. What I’m doing now: I’ll call my far-away friend in a day or two, when I’m sure he’s back home and settled in, (I can’t remember for sure how long his trip was. I’m not good at paying attention yet.) to remind him that I’m glad he’s my friend and ask how 2009 is treating him. I’ll also remind myself daily to pay more attention to all of the people in my life.
- Complete the Body-for-LIFE Challenge. Really. This is a scary thing to say in a public place like cyberspace, because it’s a big commitment, but I really do want to do this. For those of you who haven’t seen the bestselling books or heard the hype, Body-for-LIFE (BFL) is a 12-week fitness program used, largely, to advertise EAS Myoplex brand nutritional supplements. I first heard about it six or seven years ago, when the boyfriend I was living with tried to get me to do the challenge with him. Our efforts fizzled, mostly because the relationship wasn’t going well and I didn’t want to spend that much time with the guy. Still, I learned a lot about the program, and I came to respect it. Yes, it pushes products, but the supplements are good and helpful ones, as far as I can tell, and they aren’t necessary to complete the program. The program, itself, is a simple, easy to follow (and easily available online and in library books) combination of exercise and nutrition. Body-for-LIFErs do short, moderate workouts six days a week, lifting weights (which I actually enjoy) and doing their choice of cardio exercises, starting at whatever level feels challenging to them and gently increasing intensity as they grow stronger. Taking classes or meeting with personal trainers to learn correct form is strongly encouraged. Eating is sensible, and involves real food in small, balanced meals including protein, carbohydrates, and lots of vegetables. Unlike the plan I tried last time I really thought about improving my body, (when I was about 20. Step one: Berate self for not looking like Kate Moss. Step two: Stop eating entirely for two weeks. Step three: Try eating. Get severe stomach pains. Throw up. Step four: Terrified, learn to eat again. Give up on dieting. Step five: Berate self for not looking like Kate Moss …) Body-for-LIFE could actually teach me to kick my junk food habit, while making me strong enough to do all of the adventurous things I’ve been wanting to do, if only I weren’t such a wimp. Some examples: Surf all day long. Rock climb. Snowboard. Cross-country ski. Spend a day snowshoeing with my super-tough buddy, Brian, and not once have to ask him to slow down for me. What I’m doing now: I have to do some preparation for this. Over the past few months, I’ve slowly trained myself to run for 20 minutes straight, (Yes, I was an incredible wuss to begin with.) as I’d like to use running as my main cardio exercise. Now I’m working on gently weaning myself off Pepsi, as it’s not on the BFL menu, and right now, I’m so thoroughly addicted that a day without caffeine is a day spent in bed with a withdrawal-triggered migraine. I’ve also checked out the latest BFL book, Champions Body-for-LIFE, from my local library. In about a week, I should be caffiene free, studied up, inspired, and ready to get started.
- Start my own business. This one is scary to say out loud, too, as it will require a lot of learning and a good amount (for me) of financial risk. And yes, I realize that I have my own business already, sort of, by selling my time as a freelancer. What I have in mind here is my own business selling something besides myself. I’ve been reading about internet stores, marketing ideas for new gadgets, manufacturing, packaging and selling information (e-books, craft patterns, informative audio, etc.). I don’t know what I’ll sell yet, but this year I plan to give an online retail business a try. Whatever happens, I’m sure to learn a lot. What I’m doing now: I’m reading books on small business, and contemplating. Actually taking this huge step will wait until I’ve landed a regular home and settled into it. I intend to cherish the time and energy I save on packing, unpacking, and driving around, and use it to take this leap.
This post is exactly 2009 words long. Happy New Year!
My apologies for being silent so long. I’ve just finished a month-long temp job, the kind I like least: I was doing work I didn’t like, using none of my most unusual and marketable skills, at a company who had hired more help rather than figuring out why their processes didn’t work in the first place. It was the kind of job that reminds me why I try so hard to avoid getting a job.
Meanwhile, I was extra busy, and extra well paid, in every “free” moment I had after work, because opportunities were suddenly pouring in for all of the strange things I do for a living besides sitting at a desk and working a “regular job.” Here’s what I’ve done for money, though not as a job, in the month of November so far:
• transcribed a nine-hour audio program on holistic health so my friends at my former employer, Sounds True, could write well-informed catalog copy about it
• wrote two theater features for the brand-new Denver Decider web site
• acted in three murder mystery dinner theater performances, all holiday parties for various companies
• took care of cats and a house for one weekend
In these economic times, when everyone is arguing over whether we’re in a recession or a depression, and just how bad things are going to get, I’m being begged from all sides to come to work, but only for the strangest jobs I know of—which, fortunately, are also the most fun jobs I can imagine (so far. I’m working on improving my imagination). My employed friends are watching their companies’ budgets carefully, slyly looking at “help wanted” ads in their off hours, and waiting for the axe to fall. One dear friend, for whom the axe has already fallen, has spent over a month sending out her resume, which is overflowing with experience in telephone customer service—a very practical and useful skill, one would think—with no job offers. She’s just signed up with a temp agency, but she’s counting her pennies just in case the temp jobs have dried up, too.
I’ve tried over the past few months to land a “normal” job. I have to admit that I do miss the illusion of security—the health insurance plan that will try its best to deny coverage if anything serious happens to you, the regular paycheck (unless there are layoffs, pay cuts, or your company invokes its right to fire you for any reason), the regular schedule and regular people to see every day. I miss having a job to tell me where to live, when to get up each morning, how to plan my day … but apparently I don’t miss it enough to make a solid effort at landing one. Besides, such jobs are becoming more rare, and economists expect them to be even harder to come by in the near future. Like my telephone-expert friend, I’ve sent out carefully-written resumes, mostly with no reply.
Instead, I get calls from friends and past clients, I notice Craigslist ads and notes on writers’ and actors’ web forums, and I think of ideas like: If I want fingerless gloves, why not knit some this weekend, write down the pattern I’ll make up for them, and sell it on Etsy? Wouldn’t Decider love a blurb about that funky new gelato shop I just discovered?
Perhaps the world is shifting more towards creative, oddball work. It’s more likely that my oddball brain (and outward personality) are better attuned to such work. In any case, it looks like boom time for me, if only I put my focus in the right direction. Here’s the kind of offers I have coming up:
• It’s the holiday season, and every cat lover needs a cat sitter. I’ll spend this weekend and a bit of next week with the same cats I care for every Thanksgiving, and I expect to be busy with kitties at least through New Year’s Day.
• The Decider needs content, and based on what my friendly local editor tells me, the opportunity is limited only by my ability to come up with fun, funky things to write about. Here’s how it works: The Onion has long had a section in the back of the paper (and buried within its web site) called the A.V. Club, which contained real articles about entertainment—famous bands, new books coming out, the history of The Simpsons, and so on. In the back of The A.V. Club was more real information about local happenings in whatever market the paper was going to. (Denver/Boulder Onions, for example, had different back sections from Seattle Onions.) Sadly, the local versions never appeared online. For the past two years, I’ve been writing the occasional theater interview for the Denver/Boulder A.V. Club, carefully grabbing physical papers and scanning my clips into my computer for my portfolio. But now, at last, they’re putting the local information online, under the new name Decider. Some features and blurbs will still appear in the back of the back of printed Onions, but far more information will be available on the new web site. It still pays well, is still run by the friendly, helpful, very bright editor I’ve been working with these past two years, and now it’s begging for more content. I’ve get to get brainstorming.
• The murder mystery company I’ve been working with, through Denver’s Adams Mystery Playhouse, assures me that, even with the stock market falling, they expect to have plenty more corporate parties coming up in December. The bulk of my income this coming month may actually come from three nights a week of putting on a cocktail dress, feather boa, and fake Southern accent, and murdering a fictitious person with my Tic Tacs.
All of this makes me wonder how many of us are looking to the wrong place for our livelihoods. I’m far more successful when I embrace my weirdness and learn how to market it. What might other “normal” folks be missing by trying to fit in?