Day Fourteen: Soothsaying With Comment Threads

This morning, Husband & I were standing in the kitchen, both feeling glum. I started it.

“I’m worried about this client I have, love.” I threw a few cashews into my mouth and looked to him, expectantly.

“What’s wrong?”

” I’m working about 20 hours a week for him, for free. My retainer’s run out long ago at this point. And there is still so much work to be done. On the one hand I feel like it’s giving me an education in researching how to start a non-profit, and I really believe in what he’s doing.”

“I know you do.” He piled a banana, blueberries, baby carrots, and oats into the Magic Bullet for his technicolor breakfast shake.

Yeah. But I don’t know if I can keep doing this work for free.”

He scooped out two tablespoons of peanut butter and flung them into the bullet. Most of it stuck to the spoon.

“But you know, sometimes you have to work for free to get the experience, especially when you’re just starting out yourself.”

“I mean I understand putting in sweat equity at the start, knowing that something’ll come of it soon – but with no end in sight?  I need to put work into starting my own business – not somebody else’s.”

“But you don’t even know what Pedalogical is.” He licked the spoon, blinking innocently at me.

This is a touchy point in our conversations. This time I tread around it slowly, instead of smashing my foot in it angrily, which I usually do. I threw some more cashews in my mouth and chewed, hard.

“Well, yes, I am trying to figure out what the scope of my services is – but I don’t think that working for one client, part or full time, for free, is what’s going to help me figure it out.”

“I feel you. But I also think about – I mean, what does it take to get over the hump?”

“What hump?”

“Like, the hump of inefficiency. The hump of things not being run effectively. I keep asking myself that at work. I don’t know.”

I leaned back on the counter and circled my finger around the lip of a water glass.

“Well – I think you’re in my least favorite position. You have a lot of responsibility, and little authority. You’re constantly coming up against Karen and Dan, who make crazy decisions that impact you.”

“I guess – but there must be a way to subvert that.”

He took a final gulp of the brown smoothie and put the bullet, streaked with carrot and peanut, in the sink.

“Subvert what?”

“Leaders like that – people – some way to get around that kind of leadership, decision-making.”

“Yeah. I think it involves getting in at the ground level and working 50 hours a week to establish things properly. For free. Like I’m doing – but then it comes with all the pitfalls that come along with that.”

“Well, it’s like with teaching, with the teachers in charter schools – you know, people saying ‘Oh my god. It is so good, what you’re doing – wow. Thank you. You are really transforming children. But fuck no would I do that. I mean it’s great that you’re doing that. But no. No way – not me.'”

“Quite.”

He turned to face me, leaning on the opposite counter, and sighed.

“I feel like I keep bouncing from shittily-run organization to another. From one school to another. And then it stops when what, you end up at a charter school that demands 80 hours a week from you? That glorifies it? That takes that as the sign of good work – not what you produce, just that it’s consumed your life, that you’re reallyreally dedicated? That can’t be the solution either.”

“I absolutely agree – I don’t think that’s the answer.”

“But then what is? Musn’t there be something in between a shitshow and 80 hours a week?”

“There is. But I don’t know how we get there while still working with the people and causes we want to work with.”

We stood there; leaning; confused; quiet. It felt like late afternoon already. The clock read 7:50. We were already tired.

The dogs broke the silence, as they’re so good at doing, by climbing up our legs for a pet. It broke the trance, and we gathered our bags, hats, phones, keys, gloves, selves.We parted ways, and I came to the cafe down the block. After meandering aimlessly through some websites, signing up for a Startup Business training I found on Eventbrite, I decided to finally get down to the task at hand – writing my post for today.

I didn’t feel much like it, though. Shouldn’t I be working? Is doing this blog work? In the eyes of others? In my eyes? If my own husband doesn’t think my business makes sense, what is a group of entrepreneurs meeting in the library for a free workshop going to do for me? Should I be working on my business, instead of wasting  my time with a blog? Should I be working for someone else, instead of wasting my time with my business? Is this just self-indulgence posing as entrepreneurial spirit, sitting here staring out the window, drinking a big coffee, thinking about myself a lot?

I was feeling dejected and aimless and sheepish. I sat in the corner table so I could look out the window and type. But typing came slowly, and the conversation of the baristas at the moment didn’t help:

“My ex boyfriend? He is like, an alchoholic? SO I went to his apartment yesterday, and he was like, passing out on the sofa, and was like, ” Wah. I’m hungry.” So I was like, “OK,’ and he was like ‘order me food?’ and I was like, ‘OK,’ so I like, ordered him thai, and then he was like, still so crazy, and he had tattooed himself again – the first time he did it he drew this like, Cookie Monster tattoo? But this time it was a bike chain, like around his ankle, and it was like, insane. He is, like, so fucking crazy.

Um, why do you like this guy?

I don’t know!

Because you’re retarted?

I don’t know! HAHA!

Oh. My. God. I haven’t had coffee yet! I just realized!

OHMYGODMENEITHER!”

IS THIS MY OFFICE?

Trying to ignore the screaming banshees of Generation WHY!?, I turned to the comment threads from my last week of posts, with an aim of pulling out threads that spoke to me, and then laying them out together to look for patterns. This is one of my favorite things to do with text and ideas, and one of the things that brings me both peace and excitement. I decided that today’s post would be a Convo on Comments – I have been so astounded by the comments coming in, and wanted to take the time to read through them all at once, and give them their due replies.

And to my total shock and delight, my soothsaying yielded both relief, and affirmation. There, in the comments from the past 10 days, were direct responses to the malaise that been bogging me down today.

Michael – my stylish, Chewish friend who has designed Four Seasons hotels in Southeast Asia, lives in a tidy 1-bedroom in the West Village that is like an Apartment Therapy porn soundstage, and is one of the more professional people I know, in that he takes himself seriously, and is taken seriously – spoke to our kitchen conversation this morning. In response to my wondering whether or not I should be the marketing chairperson for my civic association, he wrote:

I work for a startup right now. Our temporary office looks a lot like that. It’s windowless and depressing and part of me feels like if I sit here too long I’ll either become glow in the dark or I’ll sprout like a potato. And it’s an uphill battle that feels totally landmine. Cue a Stevie re-write, “The landmine’ll take you down…”

But that said, the responsibilities that you’ll have around design & signage can create major, major impact and visibility — literally on the streets. Look at what the Obama campaign did in 2008 with the power of design. It seems small, but something as visually impactful (gross, not a word) as signage and design could be the bait to get people to pay attention to this committee in a major way. You got the vision for that and it’s yours for the making/taking.

One thing I wondered, when reading this – and asked in a follow-up reply is: When is the uphill battle worth the schlep, and when is it best to get your Sisyphusian-ass back to ground level? What makes you want to stay? What lets you know that something small and dingy is worth sticking around for? Is it the people? The cause? The way of life it affords you? I’d still love to know the answer.

I took a sip of my cold coffee. I was starting to feel a little better, despite the congealing splenda lump I had in my mouth (my recompense for lingering at this table for 3 hours and just buying one cup? Fine, I’ll take it.). Even serious people I respect found themselves in startup work situations that might feel less like Netflix and more like Kozmo.com.

I kept reading, and it kept getting better.

Rudy (who is going to get a whole dedicated to him one day) is a new friend who seems to have one of his 2-inch long manicured fingernails in every civic pudding in town. He’s an activist, drag performer, board member, gender theorist, future politician, and general neat guy. One of the things he said, in response to my post on Obama’s Civicization, made me feel better on this wayward morning:

 He wasn’t born into or groomed for the Presidency. He wasn’t rich. He was a hard working, smart, wonkish guy, drawn to something that spoke to his core purpose, even if he couldn’t articulate the work he was doing OR what his purpose was. It just reaffirms the way that I follow my gut, and trust that what I’m doing will work out just fine. I don’t know anybody in the world – and I’ve looked in lots of odd corners – that has done what I aim to do.

Then, almost as though in direct reply, I scrolled down and found Stacey – The Collegiate – writing on slacktivism and passion. She wrote:

The idea of focusing on the why, not the what, is so, so fitting. I never really considered that. If you’d ask me why (somehow, nobody ever does, unless it’s in the context of “good god, why prisoners?!”), I think I could list a million and two reasons. But the what is always the issue.

And I think this goes far beyond myself; being a college student, there are plenty of people I associate with who don’t have a name for what they’re doing, but are forging ahead in doing it anyway. For so many of us who aren’t following the carved-out paths of doctors, or engineers, or other careers that tend to have a fairly clear laid plan of the steps that need to be taken and the positions that exist (not that this is a bad thing, I wish I had that!), it can be extremely difficult to explain the draw of our interest. We strive to not fill old positions, but to create new ones and bring new ideas and solutions, and that means a job title on a resume doesn’t always mean much.

There’s no real set way to approach getting “there” (wherever “there” may be), but I think ultimately, it’s important to put 110% into whatever paths and choices I make. I know I have a pretty difficult road ahead, but I don’t think you can get anywhere without a strong belief in what you want to achieve.

It gave me great comfort to know I have strong company in the land of the ill-defined, as well as in the world of makeshift offices. Now that I was starting to feel a little less like a lifeboat bobbing on the ocean, I started to see more comments that added to our conversation in the kitchen this morning.

Husband, in his first comment on the blog (thanks, boo!), wrote in response to last week’s Dvar Torah:

When expectations are unclear, then chaos rules.

Of course, clarity can be a problem, too. Who defines such clear expectations? Who is the “teacher”? Who gets to defines the norms by which we act?

The Brahmin? The preiests? God?

Why not us?

This got me thinking again about that space between entropy, and bureaucracy. How do we find work that is demarcated by clear expectations, which we also buy into? If we are required to make the expectations, does it give us too little direction? If someone else makes the expectations, do we end up in a “landmine” situation populated, as Rudy describes, by leaders who ” remind me of battered wives that won’t leave or alcoholics that haven’t hit rock bottom – sad, vampiric of your energy, and a waste of time until they’re ready and willing to change.”

I found the start of answer in another one of Rudy’s comments.

I’ve insulated myself in a group of people and organizations that were highly effective – working in city government and making appreciable change, seeking and winning elected office, making art and not being starving artists, and being nimble, passionate non-profits that got stuff done. They were the antidote to the miserable sad sacks that have the we’re-always-the-underdog chip on their shoulder to the extent that they don’t want to get better.

Everyone is looking for committee members, board members, PAC chairs, etc. Eventually you stumble into the one(s) that is/are the right fit for your passion, skills, and temperament. (And once you find one, the next and next and next all tend to fall in line.) That will probably change and grow over the course of your Civicization – I’m glad to be a witness to and even be along for the journey.

This was hugely encouraging. Continuing to explore my comments, I saw that  I got my first comment ever from someone I don’t know (yet!) in real life yesterday – Brian Goldthorpe, who posted about my Brian Sims piece yesterday, and started this awesome Facebook exchange (!!!)

I share this a) because it is REALLY exciting to me, and b) it gives me a little more to sink my teeth into, in regards to what Stacey & Rudy (and, I think implicitly, Michael) said about forging a new path – even if you can’t quite put what you’re doing into words – YETallowing yourself to be guided more by a moral compass, and less by street signs, will keep you moving in a direction that you can feel good (albeit unclear) about. And, slowly but surely, through interactions with others, a picture of what you have to contribute, and how best to do it, will become clearer.

Patrick, in one of his many moving replies in the past ten days, shared an experience from his youth, when someone else’s moral compass pointed her in the direction of him. Coming from a completely different angle, it still drove the point home.

I slept in my car and worked my butt off everyday. One day I came from work and my car was gone. I sat on the curb and cried like a baby. It was all I had and everything I owned was inside. My boss lady happened to see me as she was leaving to go home. She looked down with disgust and asked what happened. I explained through tears. She grabbed my hand, marched me inside and handed me a room key and told me that it was only temporary until I got my car back. Then, she did something I will never forget. She grabbed the phone and called the police. She asked for someone by name, told them about my car being towed and said she was bringing me down there to get my stuff right now and it better be there. She did, and it was. I worked for that woman until I got on my feet and found a better job. She taught me about civic responsibility and she would not be the last person to help me.

I have been very fortunate in my life and I would not be here if it were not for so many others who cared enough to be kind and to be responsible for someone else that they didn’t even know.

I believe in helping others. I give money where I can. I have often given money to street people who haven’t asked – I never did, even when I had to sleep under the AC boardwalk. The simple answer is: They need it and I happen to have it. Nuff said.

Questions that I still am thinking about, though:

– How do you know when the uphill schlep is worth it, and when you’re wasting your time?

– How do you move towards being better able to define what it is you’re doing? How much does it matter?

– Where is the line between self-obsession and self-refinement, when your self is also your business?

Thank you for everyone who has posted comments – they are fortifying me as I look to make sense of this new chapter in Philadelphia, and I can’t wait to keep reading and learning from them!

OK, time to pack up this office and move to my second location – the kitchen table, with the puppies, where I’ll work on my “real” job of designing some workshops for a charter school, looking for non-profit grants, and signing up for more strange conferences which I’ll tell you all about. Not sure if I’ll be able to make it through the day without a running monologue from the coffee girl about whether she should shave the left or right side of her head, but I’m going to do my damndest!

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3 thoughts on “Day Fourteen: Soothsaying With Comment Threads

  1. “How do you know when the uphill schlep is worth it?” When you are huffing and puffing with every step, but smiling all the way. You’re only wasting your time if you aren’t learning anything and – as my best friend says: If you’re not learning, you’re dead.

    I’ll think about the next question for tomorrow.

  2. Being (newly!) 21, I have a pretty short life experience in regards to “breaking out” of adolescence–you are certainly much, much further along than I in terms of adulthood!

    I bring up adulthood because I think it’s a relevant point. Growing up, we become very accustomed to having direction, fixed schedules, and generally knowing where we’re going to be in a year. It’s comforting. We know that a teacher or a parent or some form of (free) mentor is always available, someone who has experience in what we’re worried about.

    Applying to college was scary, but I had plenty of cousins (!) and teachers to guide me in how to choose where to go and about the process in general. Looking back, applying to college was fantastically easy. Why was I complaining so much?!

    I only wish it were that easy now. I’ve unfortunately become comfortable with having direction and having guidance in whatever I’m doing or wherever I’m going. I’m used to having clear-cut steps to follow. Don’t get me wrong, I believe I am thoroughly lucky to have had such a wonderful support system. But now, for the first time in my life, I absolutely have no idea where I’ll be in a year (literally and figuratively). Not only is that totally terrifying, but I’m also totally unprepared to handle it; hello, bottled up anxiety about the future!

    Despite all of that, though, I have this innate sense that somehow, I will succeed. It might take some tears and low points, but I can’t see myself ever letting me down, and I believe you’re the same way.

    I think if you keep trying to give yourself an explicit definition to what you’re doing, it will just become more and more discouraging and you’ll fall into the mindset of, “I actually have no idea what I’m doing.” That said, instead of defining what it is, try defining what you hope to achieve, and work from there.

    As far as knowing if the journey is worth it, I don’t think it’s possible to know. But I think that if you went back in time and asked any successful people like the Google creators or Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook, I doubt they’d tell you they were going to be hugely successful million(billion?)aires in a few years. I think the only way the uphill trek wouldn’t be worth it is if you go into it expecting to fail or expecting to just reach “average” and then set up camp. I think that the further you go in the journey, the more you’ll have a sense of “is this worth it?” I know that when I’ve reached a point where nothing is working or I’m starting to run the risk of hating what I’m working on, then I know that I’m wasting my time and it’s time to try something different.

    Getting started and on your feet is always the hardest part.

  3. A good schlep is usually a blind schlep. I have quite a bit of sympathy (pity?) for
    a generation that is so obsessed/has been made to be obsessed with success as counted by money, “success” in business, professionalization. Mark Zuckerberg? Really?
    Doesn’t anyone care about writing, art, music, community? About trying things out and trying them on? How can you possibly tell if the schelp is worth it until you’ve done the
    schlepping? But, oh, please, shoot me, too, if we’ve lost the ability to try it and fail, or to take time out to see what’s on the side of that mountain.

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