Aspirations

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Someday….

Someday I will be a morning person.  I will jump out of bed before the sun even rises, lace up my running shoes, greet the day with the chirpy birds, and let the pink glow of the sun warm my soul as it lights the sky.  Upon arriving home, I will feed the chickens and barn cat — respectively thanking them for my eggs and for killing the rats.  Then I will feed the house cats and take a moment to appreciate the happiness they bring to my life.  Exercise, gratitude, and chores complete, I will shower, shave, and be ready to greet my waking family with well-groomed joy knowing my day has begun with no sleeping-in or running-late guilt.

Someday my body will be a temple.  I will feed it nothing but wholesome food.  All the fruits and veggies it can take.  Eggs from my beloved chickens.  Cheese from cows lovingly hand milked in pastures where they eat nothing but all organic free range vegetation.  I will cook my own meals, and when I can’t, I will only eat at restaurants that also consider my body a temple worthy of local low-carbon-emission produce.  Occasionally I will allow myself a treat of a single square of bitter dark chocolate, so I can savor both the sweet of the dessert and the bitterness off mistreating my temple.  The only beverage I will ever drink is pure clean water from glass containers.  I will exercise everyday, but vary my routine from running to yoga to Pilates to ensure my cardiovascular health, flexibility, and strength.

Someday I will be on time to everything.  After my blissful morning and my temple-worthy breakfast I will drop my child off at school exactly seven minutes early.  Time for her to play a bit, and visit with her friends.  Then when the bell rings I will walk my perfectly dressed self — in a size six, a slim nonjudgmental size — to my car and drive to work, arriving exactly at 8:30.  People will depend on me, knowing if they schedule an 8:30 meeting I will be there nonplussed and ready to face whatever challenge they need faced.  After working an 8 hour day — not including the 0.5 hours spent enjoying the wholesome lunch I packed, then walking around the park to clear my mind — I will be waiting for my daughter at 3:00, just as the bell rings, to walk her home from school.  Hand in hand, we’ll talk about her day and my day as we much on fresh vegetables from our garden.  She will have friends, I will be successful at work, she will be successful at school, and we will be so proud of each other.  Then I’ll drive her, and all her friends, in my electric vehicle — powered by solar panels installed on our home’s roof — to whatever practice she has that day:  carpooling to ensure our position in the social hierarchy while minimizing our carbon footprint.

Someday I will make good use of all the time available to me.  While my daughter practices I’ll be using that time to write my novel, do grad school homework, catch up with beloved friends and family, or knit scarves for the poor.  However, I will willingly pause to talk with other sports parents where I will be modest about my child and supportive of their children and their worries about traffic.  I won’t squander time dinking on my phone, talking to parents who make me want to stab my eyes out, or half-listen to eye-stabby parents while dinking on my phone.  I will be present and understanding.

Someday my evenings will run like clockwork.  After practice, I’ll enjoy a wholesome meal with my family.  We will all eat exactly the same thing, correctly proportioned to our body mass index.  Dishes will be cleared, washed, and the kitchen will be cleaned in harmony, then everyone will sit down to homework.  (Well, everyone but my husband who will enjoy a well deserved hour of rest watching some sporting event, but he will not be too loud or too emotionally attached to the event.)  Homework done, my daughter will bathe, and I will read aloud to her for 20 minutes.  Then she will make her lunch, brush her teeth, brush her hair, put on pajamas, and deposit her dirty clothes into her hamper.  She will go to sleep by herself in her own room in her own bed after reading to herself for exactly 10 minutes.

Someday my late nights will be all my own time.  Having accomplished everything I needed to do while in the office, I will spend 45 minutes catching up with my husband.  2.5 times per week we will have age-appropriate sex.  Sated or not, I will then spend a few hours editing my novel, writing a blog post, or drafting a new short story.  Sometimes, I will work a bit on a knitted gift for a friend, or hand-write a few thank you notes.  Occasionally I will document my day’s accomplishments in a perfect Instagram shot or Tweet.  Before bed, I will do a quick clean up of the house – filling the dishwasher, folding laundry, picking up clutter, sweeping, and wiping down counters and other surfaces – before reading for 30 minutes and then drifting off for an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep.

Someday….

Midlife Experimentation

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I was almost 15 years old when Dead Poet’s Society came out.  It was a movie that spoke to me.  I was deep into my persona as a thespian: on my way to playing Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.  Simultaneously I was moments away from diving into AP Chemistry and Biology.  There was nothing I couldn’t do.  The world was pure possibility.  I would make my life extraordinary just like Robin Williams character demanded of his students.

A month ago I turned 43. For the past few years I’ve found myself desiring change.  Not little change, like a new shampoo, but big fundamental change:  a new house, a writing career, or at the very least a new office at work.  Being a responsible adult married to a super-duper-risk-adverse responsible adult meant the change has been slow coming, but incrementally it’s come.  First, I decreased my work schedule to 32 hours a week, so I had a day to focus on my writing.  That has been going well.  I submit my first completed short story to a journal this past Thursday, and have another short story in the works.  Meanwhile, the first draft of my novel is slowly becoming a second draft.

Tomorrow the next phase begins.  I’m starting graduate school at a local university with a college that’s dedicated to working adults.  My degree program is in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  For the lay person that’s a degree in making maps using computer software.  The college I’m going to has a master’s in creative writing, and while that’s intriguing, it doesn’t help me with my day job, and my day job is the one that allows me the ability to both pay for my degree through tuition reimbursement and write one day a week.  (Also, don’t tell anyone this part, but I have a non-fiction work I want to write that’s very dependent on me honing my GIS skills.)  So I’m starting with a practical degree to see if that quiets my need for change.

My mom went back to school later in life.  Interestingly, as she and I were chatting I realized that she started her undergraduate degree program at 42.  Isn’t that weird?  That we’d start such a big change at the same time in our lives a generation apart?

No.  It’s not weird.  I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and the truth of the matter is, our American middle-class lives are built around 20ish year cycles.  Your first 20 years you are educated.  If you only graduate high school you are done in 18.  If you do post-graduate work, it might take you 28 years.  But in general, you complete the education phase of your life around 22-24 years old.  Then you start the work phase.  

I graduated college at 23.  Now, 20 years later I’ve done the working thing and understand how to succeed in the workforce.  I also know what would be required of me to become a high level manager or director.  With that knowledge comes a complete lack of interest.  For me, the rewards do not balance the required sacrifices of time and family.  My next phase of life will not be a slog toward executive.  On the other hand, while I like my current job, I can’t imagine doing what I do now until retirement without new opportunities to grow and change.  I’m wondering what the next 20 years holds.

Of course, I’m not the only one to get antsy when my early 40s show up.  The words mid-life crisis exist for a reason.  My need for change makes me empathize with the stereotypical 40-year-old male of my parent’s generation.  If I was the sole breadwinner with a house full of kids I might have purchased a sports car or had an affair with my secretary to force a change from the inevitability of 20 more years of sameness.  My own desire for something different felt like a crisis a year ago.  But then a wise woman (our family therapist) told me that now was the time to make a change.  While my daughter wasn’t a teenager.  While my husband’s depression was stable.  Because, she said, you never know when life is going to throw you a curveball and you won’t have the opportunity to make your life better.  I know now that she told me that while facing her own cancer diagnosis.  She died earlier this week.

Her legacy to me was allowing myself to enter an experimentation phase of my life.  Will I make it as a writer?  Will I get a break and be a novelist for my next 20 years?  Probably not, since few people make it as a writer, but I don’t want to close that door before I try to open it.  Will I be a geospatial data expert and solve the world’s future transportation problems using maps and visualizations?  That’s a direction I can see pivoting my current career.  Maybe I’ll make amazing connections at my university and become an adjunct professor in addition to my current job.  When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree 20 years ago I was voted “most likely to become a professor” so maybe my classmates knew something I didn’t.

I’m so thankful I live in an enlightened time  and work for an enlightened company so I can take the heartfelt advice of a trusted advisor.  What will I be when I grow up?  A writer?  A professor?  A map maker?  All of the above?  In some ways I feel like my decision will be a tribute to a woman who guided me through the hardest times of my life.  I want to do right by her last words to me.  I do not want the second half of my life to be a story of quiet desperation.  I want to accomplish another iota of what I am capable.  I want another opportunity to strive for extraordinary.

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Quotes from Dead Poets Society (1989) and screenshots taken from IMDB – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097165/quotes.

 

Writing away the soul raisin


Have you read the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel?  It is one of my absolute favorites.  I’ve read it, listened to the audio-book, and am now experiencing the joy of studying it in my apocalyptic fiction class.  If you read it, be warned it won’t wow you out of the gate.  It’s a long slow dance of a book, and you won’t even recognize there is music until you are a hundred pages in and the true melody isn’t apparent until over 200 pages in.  But I think the symphony she creates is worth listening to on repeat.

I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed.  Do you know what I mean?  They’ve done what’s expected of them.  They want to do something different, but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they are trapped….

I love the story because it’s an apocalyptic mystery punctuated by eye opening life lessons.  One chapter, in particular, speaks to me in such a way it is literally life changing.  Literally, literally, not like Gwen Stefani in The Voice literally.  (Gwen, your head has never exploded.  Just stop.)

…because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mean distraction.  You know what I mean?

Section 4. The Starship.  Chapter 26.  Page 160.  No spoiler alert here, other than the life changing kind of spoiling.  Clark is heading in to do his job.  He conducts assessments of executives who need to improve and then makes a plan for their improvement. In this chapter he’s interviewing someone who works for the unnamed executive.  Her words cut through my soul.

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I have moments when I love my real job.  Moments when I feel important and valued and when I honestly believe I am making the world change for the better.  I love my team and the people I work with completely.  But… but… we work in renewable energy.  We are largely federally funded.  The bottom is falling out of everything.  Our leadership team changed and no longer values managers, like me, but values self-managing PhD’s and I have nothing but a bachelors of science.  I have indirectly been told that I am not qualified and not worthy.  The bureaucracy becomes oppressive and there are days, weeks, months when I can feel my soul shriveling to a tiny soul raisin in my gut.  There is enough good at work to keep the soul raisin from drying up completely, but I don’t want to live with a soul raisin.  I dream of a soul grape or, can you imagine, a big plump soul watermelon that fills my entire body cavity.

…they are like sleepwalkers…and nothing every jolts them awake.

So last week I made a change.  A scary brave change.  I dropped to 32 hours a week.  I gave myself a gift of Thursday, so that I can write.  So I can try to publish that short story that is almost perfect.  So I can write the second draft of that book that calls to me on my 45 minute commute to and from work.  So I can finish that second novel that just recently developed a muse who will not shut up.  She’s throwing books in my way that inspire me.  She’s providing workshop comments from my class that make me want to sob with the joy that somehow my story is pouring out my fingers, onto a page, and translated through reader’s eyes to something even better than I imagined.  Stephen King wasn’t kidding.  It’s magic.

So here I am.  I’m doing it.  I told my boss.  I told my boss’s boss.  I told my team.  I told them I am taking time off to pursue a masters degree – which I will get to – and to write.  (The masters degree makes the whole thing more legitimate to the engineers, and will be relevant to book three.)  I told them there was a novel that needed to be edited and another to finish writing.   And like most big announcements it had grown so much bigger inside me than it actually was outside of me.  People were kind.  They were interested.  They said they were jealous of my passion.

…he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  What was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?

So here we go.  I’m promising myself a year.  A year to finish what I have started.  A year to write, edit, submit, get rejected, network, and see where this journey takes me.  And even if at the end I don’t end up with a book anyone else will publish then I will do it myself, and I will do it having grown a grapefruit of a soul.  Because I want to live all of my life and I want it to be filled with awe, joy, and inspiration with a tiny contrast of drudgery.  The drudgery is still important, because if all you know is joy and a watermelon soul you can’t possibly appreciate it, right?

Now, time to write.


Credit for all quotes go to Emily St. John Mandel and her glorious Station Eleven.  Thank you for the amazing book, and for providing words to convey my unhappiness,  which motivated my change.

Management Monday

I’ve been throwing around the idea of starting a regular blog post about my 9-5 job.  I manage a team of web developers, analysts, database administrators, designers, web strategists, and QA personnel.  Everyone’s asleep now, right?  Everyone has moved to the next blog already.  Dear God, please don’t tell me she is going to bore us about management.

Wait though.  In real life, I care deeply about the twelve people I spend 8 hours a day with.  I get bureaucracy out of their way so they can do amazing work.  I search for opportunities to make sure that they have the absolute coolest projects to work on.  When their personal lives fall apart I make sure they have meaningful work with whatever bandwidth they can give, and I remind everyone to be kind to each other, because we are all human beings.  I’ve called my team one by one on a weekend when our coworker passed away, because who sends that in an e-mail?  I help them learn and capitalize on their strengths and find them partners to shore up their weaknesses.  I inform everyone that “we all do shit work” but no one on my team does all the shit work.  I have spent 8 years trying to create a team who cares about their work, each other and delights our clients.  Rumor has it I’m not bad at my job.

I swore I would never be a manager.  I scoffed at my managers in my early twenties.  I rolled my eyes as they slinked out of the office at 6:00 or 5:00 or (gasp) 4:30 when my day was easily going to last until 9:00 or 10:00.  I railed that they were never with us when we worked Saturday and Sunday.  Early in my career I was a technology consultant where my worth was literally determined by the number of hours I put in: I got paid for overtime and we billed by the hour.  I made money and my company made money when I worked constantly.  My claim to fame is that I worked a 116 hour week once.  Yes, I collapsed getting out of bed one morning and was stuck on my Sioux Falls hotel room carpet for an hour until my legs decided to work, but I went to work that day, dammit and didn’t mention my collapse to anyone.  I barely remember the managers who told me I “exceeded expectations” and that my areas for improvement were “to clone myself,” to “do a better job coloring my spreadsheets,” and to “stop rolling my eyes in meetings.”  Want to bet I rolled my eyes at that comment?  I was a workaholic who turned out reams of code and could optimize any process you handed me, making four hour reports run in 4 seconds.  People put up with me and I did what I needed to do with little support from above.

In hindsight, the managers in that job weren’t set up to succeed.  They were expected to work the arduous hours I did, but they were 5 years older.  They had young families, but couldn’t be honest that they needed to slip out to go to their kid’s doctor’s appointments or school play.  That was career death.  No one was willing or able to stand up to the consulting machine and say “We are all humans here, can we be kind to each other?”  The company was set up for retirement at 40 and the only way you achieve that is by working all the hours most people work by the time they are 65 in 15 less years.  You could have a personal life at 41, except you really can’t live that way.  Eventually I left when I started realizing that I wanted a life outside work too.

Two jobs later I was told that a first level management job was going to be posted and that no one else was going to apply, and no one else did.  I found myself in charge of a team and I stumbled through two life changes simultaneously:  learning how to be a manager, letting go of measuring my worth via my own personal accomplishments, and learning how to be a mother, letting go of measuring my worth via my own personal accomplishments.  All the while, the voice in the back of my head kept taunting me with that line from the monster.com Superbowl commercial, “I want to claw my way up to middle management.”  Was this what I really wanted in my life?  (Oh man, I just watched that commercial again.  It is so gut-punching.)

Like most people, I have no good answer to the “what do I want with my life” question.  I don’t have the wisdom or the perspective to say if I’m in the ideal job for me.  I am happy I made the transition to the manager role and am really proud of what our team has become.  I enjoy being involved in the decision making process, the business development process, and the people development.  I feel like a fraud, because I don’t have an MBA.  Everything I’ve learned has been through books, trial and error, and instinct.  I long for personal accomplishment still, but often when I try I just become a logjam in all my other roles.  All that said, I feel like I have some stuff worth sharing:

  1. How do you decide if a job is right for you?
  2. Should you work in the public or private sector?
  3. How do you find work life balance?
  4. How do you help your manager give you a more constructive performance review?
  5. What tools are out there to learn your strengths and what do you do about your weaknesses?
  6. Oh crap, I’m a new manager, what do I do?
  7. Competition or collaboration?
  8. When do I know it’s time to leave my job?

So I’ll spend a few months trying this topic out and see if there is any interest.


 

The insight from today’s post?  We are all human.  Try to be kind to each other.