Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Magic of the Outer Banks

I'm not really a joiner. My life in organizations has been a series of half-hearted attempts, most abandoned pretty quickly. There have been book clubs, yoga studios, houses of worship. None stuck for more than a few months. I did do a few years of volunteering for a non-profit, but managed to find reasons to kick that to the curb as well. My default has been a return to solitary walks, books, and making a living. Over the past eighteen years, I have grown a network in Fort Worth, but rather than being ready-made, it feels like I've put it together myself by dint of time and effort.

For the past decade, work kept me so frantic and continually tethered that I took it to be an identity of sorts. At bottom, I knew that it was a hollow commitment on the other end, and almost every day I felt like an imposter. Almost around the clock, I bounced like a pinball between gnawing anxiety and flat out panic. Surely, I reasoned through my cortisol haze, if I was spending my days, nights and weekends catering to to an organization, I at least I belonged somewhere.

A sage friend of mine told me fifteen years ago that I lead a charmed life. Through a divorce and a second stint as a single woman, I clung to this notion in spite of ample evidence to the contrary. Then I landed a dream job that both allowed me to support my children and travel the world. I soon learned the role would become my life.

Unlike many of my more dedicated colleagues, I did have the good sense to carve out a day or two after business travel to see some places. My long, post-conference walks took me through the streets of New York, Chicago, and Washington. I went to Asia twice, to places I never would have gone of my own volition. On the way back the first time, I met the love of my life. My world became gilded as never before.

Even though work was still my first thought in the morning and my last before going to sleep (not to mention the main subject of my routine rumination at 3 in the morning) I now had a reason to enjoy myself. Teddy and I jetted back and forth from Texas to Northern California, walked and talked and ate and woke to views of the Bay Bridge. A year in, he invited me to a family wedding in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where many of the people he holds most dear in the world are resident.

We drove from Norfolk to Southern Shores. As we crossed the Wright Memorial Bridge, so named for the brothers who first took flight, Teddy told me that it's the moment when OBX people know they are home. It was September, still warm and light-filled but mostly free of the pilgrims who travel there every summer to make memories on the beach.

Arriving at his sister's house, it was immediately clear that love was all around. They are not only siblings but the best of friends. Her house is frequently filled with a circle of friends and extended family, including their brother (her twin) and his wife. This squad has seen one another through young love, child-rearing, midlife, loss, and a whole lot of fun. That particular long weekend involved a series of parties with a cast of dozens who have all been linked for a long time through the good and the bad. They have deep history and are devoted to one another. I am an only child, and gatherings like this can put me into withdrawal mode. Even as an extrovert, I'm more sensitive than most to my perceived status as an outsider.

From the first moment, Teddy's Outer Banks family embraced me. And maybe for the first time in my life, I didn't resist being part of a tribe. How could I not want to join this club? We all talked and talked, drank wine, laughed, and danced our asses off at the wedding and during impromptu musical moments in the kitchen. Everyone greeted me like an old friend. On several days, Teddy went fishing with friends while I stayed home and checked email and made an appearance on conference calls. In the evenings, we all cooked together, ate and talked some more. I learned life stories. There was no initiation: if I belonged to Teddy, I belonged to them. On a quiet morning, we walked on the beach and for the first time I said I love you, though in my heart I had known it long before. We parted at the airport, and I remember leaving the ground and thinking, now I have this whole new circle of dear people, people I hadn't met a week ago. There was a certainty of belonging. It wasn't familiar, but it was real.

We've had other, similarly wonderful times with this crowd, including a trip to the Bahamas last winter for another wedding. Fun and love prevailed there as well, proving that the people make the difference, although pristine beaches and clear water don't hurt. I shed tears as I bid the group goodbye. This past summer, we took my children and one of their young friends to experience the full OBX deal. It my first visit since letting go of my identity as a corporate warrior.

This time, I worked for a couple of hours on a freelance deadline. But the rest of the trip, I luxuriated in beach, food and parasailing time with my teenaged children, my darling man, and all the people who have welcomed us into their orbit. After a week, we had to leave and head back to our real lives. I was assured by our gang that they don't enjoy themselves this much all the time, but I think they were trying to make me feel better.

Of course, part of the charm for us (and them!) is that we aren't always there. Maybe I am not so different from the pilgrims. In my mind, the OBX is a gauzy, sunlit place where everybody knows your name. I don't trudge through the quiet months when it rains and blows and the beach is empty. But then again, I have my people.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Reading Ahead: My Weakness for Spoiler Alerts

We just finished watching the first season of Bloodline on Netflix. I made it through several episodes more than once, as T's schedule didn't quite correspond with my son's, and my boy couldn't wait to see the end. I agreed. The Rayburn family runs an inn in Key Largo, and their long-buried secrets and dark resentments had captivated me. An only child, I've always found glimpses of sibling interactions like visiting a foreign country. For the first season at least, this show is an extended close up of four grown children acting out in spectacular fashion, complete with blame, self-pity, passive aggression, and epic self medicating. I can't stop watching.

As the arc of the story stretched toward a reckoning, I confessed to my child I'd read a full first-season synopsis and knew what would happen, though of course I wouldn't tell him. "Who does that?" he demanded. He couldn't understand why I would ruin it for myself. My reply was that once I knew the plot, I could relax and enjoy the characters, the dialogue, the details of the set. A few minutes later, I commented that the screenwriters for the series must have had some pretty jacked up families. "Yeah, they probably had mothers who read plot summaries instead of just watching the show." 

I didn't find out the gender of either of my children before they were born. I don't shake presents under the Christmas tree. There's no question I like to be prepared, but my point is that in some circumstances, it is actually possible for me allow a situation to unfold without fiddling with it. That all goes out the window in the face of dramatic narrative.

Rarely do I go to the movies, and almost never alone. Certain kinds of art (it doesn't even have to be all that good) have a profound effect upon me, a cause of great embarrassment from childhood. I'm fearful of the strong emotions movies often dredge up in me. I hate weeping in public. Vivid depictions of death or assault or anything to do with harming a child leave me dragging existential sadness around long after the lights come up. When I watch anything more potent than Something's Gotta Give at home, someone else has to be there. Not really to share the experience as much as to put up with my leaving the room during particularly violent or sad sequences, returning when the offending scene is over to ask for a brief update.

Books are different. First of all, I can always take a break if it's too much. Or read ahead, just a little. When I was young I did this routinely, until I read Henry James' A Turn of the Screw and, heart pounding, couldn't stop to do so because it was just so good. I recognized that when the story was cranking along, it was best to go with it. Also, novels are not an assault upon the senses the movies are, and I feel safer in my imagination. Still, it's a habit I have had trouble breaking.

I just finished two books of quality and structure that simply would not let me read ahead. Louisa Meets Bear, by Lisa Gornick, is a set of ten short stories that all stand admirably on their own. But read them in sequence, and it becomes clear there is a filament that connects the collection through overlapping characters mentioned in one and appearing in another. The relationships Gornick sketches are also held together by fragile means, and much of what transpires is about people trying very hard to be with those they love but never quite completely reaching one another. When reading these stories as presented and reaching the final one, the reader is rewarded with a deeply satisfying ending.

In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, our protagonist is Ursula Todd, also part of a messy family with a large brood and a couple of servants. The characters' natures are all fixed throughout the book: Ursula herself is intelligent and uncompromising, and her sister is happily domesticated and loving. Their older brother is odious, their father kind, their mother self-absorbed. There is an adored little brother called Teddy, a crazy aunt, an assortment of pets and always the desperate, grisly reality of London for those who remained during the Blitz.

The plot appears to skip a beat at the beginning. Did the infant Ursula die during childbirth, or did the doctor make it through the snow? Hanging in there, we realize that all the way through, the fate of Ursula and the others in her life is changeable. Did she marry a German who left her alone with babies as the borders to her homeland shut down, or did she remain a spinster having secret affairs? Does Teddy marry the girl next door, or is she murdered as a child? What Atkinson seems to be telling us is that life is consistent only in its uncertainty; turn down one block instead of another, and it could change altogether. Best just to let go and see what happens.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Approaching With Confidence

Taking leave of the corporate world and striking out on my own has thus far been much easier in practice than it was in contemplation. As I prepared to give up a regular paycheck to officially live by my wits, I had moments of emotional free fall. On occasions when those moments stretched into hours, I would call someone who had done the same thing and wouldn't have it any other way.

An acquaintance who nearly a decade ago started her own, very successful recruiting firm told me panic at the outset (and many times more) is par for the course. "But once you get that first check, you think, wow, I just got paid for this. My client thinks I am up to the task, so I guess I am." So true. Getting paid, once it started happening, made real what I'd set out to do.

I always admired my entrepreneurial friends, and that is even more true now that I've joined their ranks, if not their league. Those who make payroll and office rent each month and seem to go about life without heading into paralysis from that responsibility are, in the true sense, awesome to me. A few have assured me they have their own free fall moments and routinely wonder what on earth they were thinking when they decided to launch their own enterprise. But then, what else would they do? Go and work for somebody else? Hell, no.

The encouragement I've gotten from other independents has been heartening and a lot of fun. I've found an informal support network where professionals with complimentary skills make introductions. Referrals go to and fro. There are also the beginnings of formal networks; the Freelancer's Union offers resources, including benefits, for project-oriented workers. This space has advanced rapidly since the days when I dipped my toe in as a stay-at-home mother almost two decades ago, and instead of calling local publications and agencies, much of my work comes from people I will quite likely never meet in person.

A popular recent article on Fast Company is titled "These Are the New Rules of Work." The commute to an office, it reports, is nearing extinction, as work can happen from anywhere and churns on 24/7. In my corporate life, I managed international conference calls in the middle of the night from my kitchen and car, the airport, and a few other places I'd rather not name. People around the globe dialed in from bars, hotel rooms, security checkpoints and once, a train station, complete with blaring horn, in Copenhagen. (Even people with advanced degrees sometimes forget the genius of the mute button.) In that role, it meant I worked all the time. In my new one, I still put in long hours. But if I  walk the dog at ten in the morning, nobody cares.

The best piece of advice to me in this new phase has come from a longtime PR professional I hadn't seen in ten years. She kindly and immediately accepted my lunch invitation and was gracious with her advice. Her independent practice started when her now grown children were very young and she'd just moved into single mom status. "I figured out how much I needed to make, and realized that meant I needed three solid, regular clients. And you know what? I did it. The most important thing is to approach everything with confidence. Do that, and you'll get what you need." Still raring to go, she is now building a successful food photography business.

So far the only downside of my new work arrangement is too much solitude. When T is away working and my son is with the other half of the parental unit, the house is quiet. Really, really quiet. Last week I tried out a workshare space in the West Seventh neighborhood in Fort Worth. It's in a warehouse-type building and is tucked away behind a bustling retail area. For a remarkably reasonable monthly fee, I can perch in a comfortable common space and be around some young creatives. It's all new and exciting, and my first day I felt like the new girl looking around the cafeteria for any indication of welcome. I ended up having a great talk with a young business owner. He said, "I'm only 27, but I already know I don't ever want to work for somebody else." I plan to learn as much as I can from the cool kids. In the meantime, I'll pretend to know what I'm doing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

For Fathers

Mother's Day in the United States marks when the most flowers are sent. Father's Day is when the most collect calls are made. --Garrison Keillor

Depictions of fathers in traditional advertising are predictable and pathetic. A bumbling, rumpled man comes home from the store with nothing from his wife's list. He tries to use teenage slang, badly. To their credit, marketing departments recognize that women make 85% of household purchases, but it bothers me to see this persistent depiction in the face of abundant evidence in my own life to the contrary. (A great ad that swims against the current can be found here.)

Mother's Day means putting moms on a pedestal for one day. How we treat them the rest of the year is another story.

Father's Day, though, is a conflicted Hallmark moment. Each year, I read articles about fathers who withhold love and time, who choose golf over birthday parties, who leave wives and children to find themselves or to indulge in whatever they please. I am glad that people can be honest about their disappointments. My hope is that the dads who do the best they can are honored.

Through my love, friendships and work, I have seen a great many engaged, dedicated fathers. They spend time with their children, delight in them, and support them in ways far beyond financial. In some cases their time is split, whether through work or divorce, but they make the most of it and savor precious moments. I have seen my partner, T, and his daughter engage in a most wonderful and close relationship in her adulthood. Seeing them together makes me very happy.

My own dad has taught me many things. Like the caricatures on television, he didn't do so well when he had to cook when my mom was ill or away, which she very rarely was. But from the time I was very young we talked at length, and still do often, about what matters. When I was an adolescent, he gave me a sense that my opinions and drive were positives, even as I developed the sense that the world didn't necessarily appreciate outspoken women. He showed me by example how work could bring purpose to one's life and even improve a community. Best of all, he's made it clear he adores me for exactly who I am. I try to do the same with my own children.

One of my favorite pictures is of my baby daughter after her first bath at home. Her dad is holding her, and the happiness on his face is a sight to behold. He is talking to her, and in her sweet newborn eyes I see the beginnings of deep trust. Despite our differences, I know his love has prevailed in all he has done for her and her brother. Our children at this writing are happy and safe. They are a reminder to me that no parent, mother or father, has to be perfect. We just have to show up. Happy Father's Day.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Shedding My Skin

It's been almost six weeks since I underwent photodynamic therapy (PT) on my face, and I'm peeling prodigiously for a fifth time. A visit several months ago to my dermatologist revealed a number of precancerous spots. "I'm not going to have you come in every six months so I can burn those off," he said. "That is old school."

Instead, he would apply a solution called Levulan to my face, let it incubate for two hours, then shine a blue light on me for sixteen (not fifteen, not twenty) minutes. It would hurt a little. I would turn extremely red for a few days, then all of the cells, in particular damaged ones, even the tiniest, would be sloughed off for a week or so.  I was told after that, my skin would look amazing. When a woman in her late forties, especially one prone to considering her every pore in a magnifying mirror each morning, hears those words, she'll sign up.

A major, unequivocal caveat: no sun exposure for at least two days. I wondered about walking the dog. "You can. In the dark, in a sombrero." People who've just gone out to run a couple of errands or pick the kids up from school, I was told, find themselves in a whole world of hurt, with the Levulan reactivating and making a very strong chemical peel even deeper.

After being horrified by discussion group accounts of the procedure ("It felt like an iron on my face." "Worst, most excruciating pain I've ever felt.") and a handholding session over the phone with the nurse, I went in. The first part was easy and painless, and I set up camp in the waiting room, downing a couple of Advil, as had been cleared. T had dropped me off and came back for the blue light part. More handholding.

In the event, it was maybe a 3 out of 10 on the pain scale, and even then only on my upper lip. The hardest part was staying in for 48 hours. That, of course, and vanity. In many ways, staying in was a blessing, as I looked like a beet and would have frightened small children. (I should have locked up the mirror, but couldn't help myself.) As a dutiful little rule follower, I didn't even go out to get the mail. I cooked, but T took care of picking up the Boy from school and maintaining grocery and wine supplies. By the end of my quarantine, I hadn't been so excited to go to the grocery store since I'd been housebound with fussy infants.

All of this was done quickly in an effort to capitalize on a generous health insurance plan I'd had through Big Law. I'd been transitioning into my own company for several months, and was getting every medical need I could think of met before I left. It was covered, saving me $475.

I was also letting go of an identity that had prevailed for a decade and a half. Having a title containing the word global was pretty heady, especially when it was new. But it meant taking calls and answering emails at all hours of the day and night. Whipping out the company laptop in the middle of a long weekend--which might not have been a bank holiday for the many professionals around the world for whom I worked--had become a habit. Although it wore me down and I carped frequently about it, being needed and ever, ever so busy made me feel needed and important.

Leaving for real was harder than I imagined. I'd had a long time to think about it, and most all of my friends and close colleagues were aware. My last day, as I sent my final email on a project I'd been involved with for almost four years, I had a moment. But I was sitting in my kitchen, which has been mission central for the past several years of my Big Law life, and realized my day wouldn't change but for nostalgia. It didn't take long for me to jump into new things and relish the process of reinvention.

Tomorrow I have a client meeting and I am red and lizard-like once again, this after wearing SPF 50 and a hat every time I go outside. It is getting frustrating, but between peels, my skin has indeed looked great, and I've gotten many compliments. My dermatologist's office assures me this is not unusual and will end eventually. And my skin is notoriously sensitive, so no surprise that I am at the top end of side effects. I'm trying to take heart in the AMA's dermatology section statement that patients who have the most "exuberant response" to PT frequently have "the best results."

The whole thing is quite likely a sign that I need to worry less about appearances. Working from home has gone from a stigma to being pretty cool. I've heard from a good many colleagues and friends that they are envious of my new gig. I've picked up clients via LinkedIn and other connections, and have held team meetings in my dining room. I still have a stable of black dresses to wear to lunches for more traditional pitches, but am finding after fifteen years in the corporate world a refreshing lack of interest in that sort of thing. A recent article in Fast Comapny noted that the new rules of work included a change from "Where do you work?" to "What are you working on?" I'm getting interesting new projects all the time.

In the meantime, I'll explain away my snake skin as a side effect of a procedure, which sounds kind of Real Housewife-y, and assure everyone that eventually my skin will look amazing. And I'll wear my hat.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Coming Home

When my kids were little and we came back from a weekend away, they would immediately go to their playroom together. Sprung from their car seats, they would dive into happy games for a couple of hours, with no squabbles or pleas to me about unfairness marring the homecoming.

A couple of weeks ago I got back from a business trip to London. People who travel for pleasure but not business tend to think these things are glamorous, but most of the time meetings, like those at home, involve windowless conference rooms and tedious discussions, just with a nine-hour flight thrown in.

I did get to go out and walk a bit, but I was in the tourist district and found myself trudging with the masses up Regent Street, past Banana Republic and the Apple store. The air was thick. Even in posh Mayfair, every other doorway seemed to host a person who'd nipped out for a fag. When I got home and opened my suitcase, everything held a low level stench of cigarettes.

The transplanted Texan in me had an internal meltdown when I was walking between meeting sites and had my umbrella flip inside out and got a soaking in a downpour. Don't you people understand it's raining? Go inside! And while you're at it, start driving on the proper side of the road. The cars seemed to come from every direction, but never the one I was looking in. The sophisticated traveler in me apparently hadn't gotten on the plane.

Hyde Park was lovely, though, and I did make it into the National Portrait Gallery, completely free of charge and security, comparatively quiet to Leicester Square outside. Some of Lord Snowdon's photos were on exhibit, including a good one of David Bowie and a striking shot of a young Maggie Smith. She was not the tight-lipped Dowager Countess, but catlike and cool. Also smoking. As Snowdon was once married to Princess Margaret, I was hoping for lots of royal photos, and there were a few of a young Elizabeth II and her Prince and children, but this grouping stuck mainly to thespians and writers. The permanent collection had some wonderful paintings (two of Dame Judy Dench are terrific) and then there was the much-maligned one of Catherine Middleton. At least Kate knows what she'll look like when she is fifty.

Usually what saves me when I'm getting ragged is a good meal. I'd spotted a sleek Indian place near my hotel on Friday, and knew I'd have a few hours between meetings the next day. I skipped breakfast and looked forward to it all morning as I worked and then walked. After getting lost several times, by this time dizzy with hunger, I finally found it again on a quiet street. I guess the fund managers were all out at a shoot in the Cotswolds, so no point keeping it open. Back to the hotel for a sandwich from room service. That evening there was a private dinner I'd organized at the Mount Street Deli (the cost was a king's ransom) and the food and drink were indeed outstanding, the venue charming and warm.  Through the whole stilted meal, I wished I could enjoy it with T and good friends instead of people I worked for.

Eighteen hours later, I was in my own bed. I slept hard and, my body still on London time, woke early. It was Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day in Canada. T was due in from San Francisco, the Boy back from his dad's that evening, and a copy of Saveur magazine that had arrived while I was away inspired me to cook for my native holiday. I headed to Central Market, one of my happy places, shopped on a quiet early Monday, and was back to my happiest place, our kitchen, by ten in the morning.

I spent the day chopping and stirring and basting, the smell of bacon and onions and turkey breast filling the house. I got on FaceTime with my daughter and made a couple of calls for a freelance project, taking copious notes to compensate for my jet-lagged brain. After so much time immersed in noisy humanity, my inner only child relished the quiet and order, but by the time my fellas arrived, I was so very happy to see them. The meal was certainly nothing as extravagant as I'd had on Mount Street, but as I enjoyed it with my two favorite men, my contentment made me feel richer than a Fleet Street baron.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Room of My Own

My new office has a view into the backyard, overlooking the deck and a deep thicket of bamboo. The walls are painted light gray, and I have a new, spacious desk. A reading chair and an ottoman sit in the opposite corner. Black and white pictures from T's trips to Italy hang on the wall. Just sitting here gives me profound pleasure.

I've never had a special place to work before. Sure, I've had a desk, but it has sat in my various homes in the bedroom or a hallway. Working remotely before, most of my time was spent in the kitchen or at Starbuck's with my headphones. With two kids and three bedrooms, we didn't have the square footage, so I made do and got things done where I could. It seemed like an extravagance. Or maybe I just needed to be in the middle of things.

For two years after my daughter moved out to stay at her dad's full-time, there was an extra bedroom sitting empty. My son moved into her room, leaving the space at the back of the house empty, save for the cat. Last summer, we used it as a holding spot for the contents of the kitchen, as we gutted and rebuilt it into the beautiful heart of our home.

The cat was problematic. Beautiful, jet black and deeply affectionate, Midnight was terribly lonely when my teenaged son was away, as he increasingly is, even when he is staying at our house. She didn't love being outside, having been beaten up pretty badly by the band of ferals that overran the neighborhood when we first moved there. Inside, when left to her devices, furniture got scratched, and the big furry toddler that is our dog skirmished with her. The litter box smell was overwhelming. I dreaded dealing with it, and got tired of nagging my son to handle it. She took her loneliness out on the room, tearing up and soiling the already aging carpet. Midnight was a holdover from the divorce: in the process of the split, she showed up, a sweet young cat, and bonded with my little boy. I couldn't say no.

We told The Boy it was time to start looking around for a new home, as it wasn't fair to the cat. He nodded, but didn't say much. T made the rounds at assisted living centers to see if perhaps she could find a home being a loving companion to residents. We got one phone call, but it didn't go anywhere. I asked at the vet's office, and they gave me the number of a no-kill shelter. I couldn't dream of doing it. We decided on a Craigslist ad. T's daughter placed it, and said it was good that this wasn't Halloween, as people kill black cats around that time. I was clearly a terrible person.

T got a text one Sunday afternoon, and talked to a woman who wanted to know all about the cat and wanted to come over right away. I wanted to wait; T said no, she was ready now, and we needed to go for it. My heart was heavy as I gathered up the cat's toys, scratching post, food bowl, and vaccination certificate. The Boy was at his dad's, to be picked up the next evening. He wouldn't even get a chance to say goodbye.

The car was old, but it was clean. She was maybe in her early thirties, but the circumstances of her life were etched in her face. She was in sweatpants and an old t-shirt, and had a wild-eyed, squirming toddler by the hand as she approached the door. As she sat in the vacant room and held Midnight, who relished the attention, the woman got tears in her eyes. "I have three kids," she said, "but she's not for them. I want someone who will cuddle and love me." She wore a wedding ring, but there was such sadness in her voice.

Just like that, the cat was gone. Her new owner was thrilled that Midnight was spayed and had her shots, and we had a carrier that T put in the car. I was in the kitchen, crying. As usual, my man understood and gave me solace in his quiet way.

The pickup after Midnight's departure made us both apprehensive. The Boy knew something was up. "What?" I think he thought he was in trouble. We gave him the news, and he said, "Okay. I know we weren't spending enough time with her." A couple of hours later, we got a text from the lady, who said the cat was happily settled in her lap.

The painters came and pulled up the carpet. We got it replaced, and then T's furniture arrived from California, assimilating wonderfully into the space. I sat at my new desk, looking out the window and at the fresh flowers I'd put in a vase. T came in, beaming. "You deserve this," he said. "I am so happy you have a place to write."