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.