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."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When Your First-Born Leaves for College

It's the scene I've dreamed about since the day she was born. My daughter, delighting in showing me around her new home, a college campus. She is talking a mile a minute, giving me historic details of the beautiful grounds at the University of Arkansas, nestled in the Boston Mountains in the charming town of Fayetteville, and dating back to 1871.

Two weeks ago, her dad and stepmom did the hard stuff, driving a loaded car six hours and saying goodbye. I would have cried all the way home, and was grateful they took on the task. Instead, T and I got to see her settling in; our excuse for a visit, her birthday. Her boyfriend of a year--a bright, capable, and (best of all) calm, young man--is also attending, and when we met them for dinner the night we arrived, it seemed we were socializing with an adult couple, and that she had grown up in a fortnight. I remembered her summer before kindergarten, a time I thought I might reach the end of my parenting tether, only for her to grow into a delightful little girl after a few weeks of big kid school.

--Old Main, University of Arkansas

Not long ago, I visited my alma mater after almost two decades away. As T and I walked around the ivy-covered campus at Queen's University, I recollected how anxious I had been; as a kid from the sticks and holding a keen sense of the social pecking order, my status was surely that of an imposter, and it was only a matter of time before I was found out. It was exhilarating to be around all of these brilliant people, though, and eventually I realized that just reading and writing all day was a luxury I might not enjoy for a long time to come. When my years at school came to an end, I grieved it deeply. The time was coming to face the real world, and fear reared up again with a vengence.

Talking with my daughter over the weekend, I saw a woman with a plan. She said that people look at her sideways when she raises her hand in class to ask a question. Oh, you're the girl I was so in awe of, said I, truthfully. (This elicited a proud smile.) Her confidence has always awed me, as she's been in possession of it since she was a toddler.

On Saturday, the kids decided to go to a football watch party, as the Arkansas Razorbacks were playing Auburn. T is much better-educated than I, but he did it the hard way and didn't get the idyllic undergraduate experience of my youth. College football in the South is a thing unto itself, though, and Texas has taught me what little I know. But I love the game and find the tribal customs behind it fascinating. We decided to hit the sports bar near our hotel to catch a bit of it ourselves.

From a quiet parking lot, we entered a riotous, noisy sea of red. The second quarter had just started, and it looked as though the underdog Hogs, as they are called in local parlance, had a chance. Hope was in the air, and it was making its voice heard. We managed to find one seat at the bar and procured a weak Margarita. The drive began, and so did the call. "Soooey. Sooooooey." T had that wide-eyed look he gets, the one that makes me hysterical with laughter. Watching all of these fans in the grips of the fight song, he was like Anthony Bourdain on location, a stranger in a strange land.

At my daughter's birthday dinner that night, she was telling us about friends who are off at other colleges, and wondering aloud about some of their decisions. "She doesn't know what she's doing," said my daughter about one. I looked askance. She smiled. "Well, maybe I don't either, but at least I act like I do." Fake it 'till you make it. If only she had been around to give me this wisdom when I was eighteen.

The world of work offers us very few clear victories, and on a daily basis, parenting gives us even fewer. Sometimes, though, our children give us moments that rival a Nobel Prize. Watching my girl this past weekend, I know I must have done something well. Until the inevitable bumps ahead, I am going to rest on my laurels for a bit.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Life's Been Good to Me So Far

At a party this past weekend, a friend was talking about aging."My friend is a doctor, and he's this Ironman kind of guy. But still, he says the human body is built to last until age 45, and then we're pretty much wired to break down. It's possible, though, that modern medicine can keep us alive until a hundred."

We were gathered to celebrate the End of Summer, which in Texas means it's still another kind of hundred (degrees to be precise) but still, the kids are going back to school. For most of the crowd, it's the start of senior year of high school for at least one of our children. though three of us, including me, were talking about our first born children heading off to college. Another friend was absent, having just lost her mother.

The friend with the depressing news about the whole group living on borrowed time is facing down her own parents growing older. Her father is still active in his profession, but her mom is battling dementia.  At these times, people in marriages seem to close ranks--after all, what do we children understand about spending over half a century together? My friend lives 1,500 miles away and wants to find help to assist her father while he is at work, but he insists there is no problem. The worry is overwhelming. What if she fails to head off a serious issue at the pass? Yet, her parents want to manage things themselves.

Lately, parties seem less about having a great time than a kind of therapy session for all included. We talk about teenagers and parents, and who's had a health issue. Eventually we get around to books and movies, thank God, and there is actually something fun to discuss. I even found talking about what I do for a living turned out to be a respite from the general conversation.

It's not that my friends are boring: quite the contrary. We've all traveled and read and eaten well. It's just that we're squished by the demands of our current demographic. Our kids and parents need us to varying degrees, but they don't think so. Until they do.  At the same time, we're trying to figure out how to pay for everything and maybe retire before we are quite old ourselves.

T is a bit older than me, and I see he and his sister and her friends in a different place. They've lost parents and in some cases spouses, but have hung together and watched it all. Now they are heading into weddings and grandchildren, the sweet stuff. It's time to celebrate together and really appreciate these happy moments, knowing how to savor them with the awareness that we never stop worrying about our loved ones. Like my friends and I, we are there for each other, which is as much as we can do.

As for me, I am still skeptical that eating well and exercising every day won't help me live longer. But I'll concede that this attitude has its limits, because just going hard every day at work and beating myself up if I don't drink my 3.5 liters of water or do my planks or floss isn't really going to help me have more years, let alone happier ones. This weekend, I saw friends at the party and had real, relaxed visits with two others. Maybe the gift of middle age, if there is one at all, is the realization that making time for supporting our friends and sharing their happiness is what we'll remember when we're old. Let's hope we get that privilege.