The Mile High Club

31 05 2009

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I’d been there less than 10 minutes, and already my face hurt. This was to be expected, as I’d been fake-smiling way too much. The fake smile is  something you must master when your spouse is a doctor, and you become by default the trophy wife/arm candy/gold digger accompanying him to all of his professional shindigs.

I’ve been going to these things for more than a decade, so by now, I’d become pretty familiar with what to expect: walk in the door, realize how many women went with backless dresses and how woefully underdressed you seem by comparison, shake hands with the chairman of the department, trade a few embarrassing stories about your kids, gorge on hors d’oeuvres, and then find the table closest to the door so you can slip out early without most people noticing.

The conversation at these gatherings has been something I’ve long wished I could bottle and sell, because believe me, it would soon put the makers of Ambien out of business. This one is planning an exquisite wedding for her son and lovely daughter-in-law at the art museum (aren’t all daughters-in-law lovely at first?); that one has been trying to sell his boat for months now, but can’t find any suckers takers in this market.

But now aside from the requisite face tightening I experienced on walking through the door, this party last night was different. I met some interesting people there, including:

  • An octogenarian who, in addition to practicing medicine, is writing a book about anesthesia during the Civil War. He misses the days when he was able to haul himself out to Civil War reenactments.  He doesn’t miss the days when work was your life, and anyone expecting otherwise could kiss a bright future goodbye.
  • A middle-aged woman who was two weeks away from her next medical mission in the Dominican Republic. During her last trip, a few members of her crew got heat exhaustion. To go out early in the morning or late at night would be missing the point, she said, because if you’re going to talk to people about God, you need to be out when they are.
  • A couple who have five children ranging in age from 20 to 3. I asked the wife how she could go back to the diaper stage having spaced the children out as they had. “Oh it gets easier,” she said cheerfully. “The older ones can do for themselves, and they help with the younger ones.” Then she lowered her voice and leaned in across the table. “Of course, it makes it hard to breastfeed because there’s always so much else going on, with schedules and all,” she said, mouthing the word “breastfeed” as there were a number of men at the table, and she was wearing a low-cut paisley dress with spaghetti straps.

Aside from these, there were gay doctors, amateur stand-up-comedian doctors, smokin’ hot doctors, manic doctors, wandering eye doctors, obnoxious doctors, rely-too-heavily-on-alcohol-to-loosen-up doctors. They come in all flavors. Choose yours wisely.

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Class Clown or a Big, Fat Bore?

28 05 2009

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Today was the last day of school, which meant teachers sent home the last report cards. I love the “teacher’s comments” section. Very telling.

Juniper’s said things like, “a joy to teach!” and “delightful!” 

Roofie’s teacher made no secret of his behavior issues. In the second-to-last term summary, she wrote, “Really work on thinking before you act- self control!”

She offered a more charitable review this time, but it left me feeling uncomfortable anyway. It said, “I’m glad you were in my class this year. You always kept things interesting!” 

Kept things interesting. That was very…diplomatic.

Look, I am sure that if I took him to his pediatrician about possible ADHD, we’d walk out with a prescription. He has organization issues, he doesn’t finish his work on time, he disrupts class…

But if he were medicated, would he be as fun and as charming as he is now? I mean, his classmates all wrote letters to one another for an end-of-the-year gift, saying nice things about each other. All the letters were bound with a twist tie, the cover laminated yellow and green. His letters all say the same thing. Here’s a little sample:

-You are very funny because you make funny noises and funny faces. You play funny game with me.

-You are very smart. You are a very good friend. You are the funniest person in the class!

-You are a nice friendly dude and you are hallareous.

-You are so funny. The minute I saw you I knew you were going to be funny. I like you as a friend a lot.

More than one letter from a classmate has characterized him as “off the wall.”I suppose that’s better than being “off the hook” or worse, “off the CHAIN, yo!”  

Would a medicated Roofie be that much fun to be around? He might grow to become a model student, but would he be a bore? I don’t know what’s worse.





Get Busy

26 05 2009

Before I left my job as a newspaper reporter three years ago, I drafted a list in a little spiral notebook. The list contained all the things I would do with myself if I took the leap into freelance writing. It said:

  • join a women’s soccer league
  • more time for piano
  • work out more often
  • read more books
  • take a knitting class

One thing is glaringly absent from that list: professional goals. That’s because I had none, or to be exact, I’d set the bar so low that it wasn’t even worth noting. All I wanted was to get published in one or two national magazines or newspapers. In my first year as a freelancer, I managed that much, plus I got my start in public radio.

At the time I drafted the list, I wasn’t even sure I was going to leave my job. It was sort of an exercise in what-ifs. And if that list were a checklist, with the exception of the knitting class, I’d have checked off every one of those items by now. (Mom taught me to knit later. Turns out I’m not much of a knitter. I can’t sit still long enough to really work at it).

Now I’m back where I started. Lately, things have shifted so that I’m again wishing I had a little more time for nonwork-related pursuits. There’s a Jenga-like stack of books piling up on my nightstand. It was two weeks before I had time to watch Forgetting Sarah Marshall (fortunately no late fees with Netflix). And we’re ordering in more because I barely have time to cook. Why? Because I’m busy. Very busy. It was a given that as a freelance writer, you’d experience ebbs and flows, ups and downs, periods when you’d have work followed by the inevitable dry spell.

And God knows I had them.

I didn’t do well with the lulls. I’d feel depressed and unmotivated, so it was a vicious cycle. The less motivated you are, the less you seek out new work. And so you find yourself in a perpetual funk.

But since 2009 kicked off, work hasn’t slowed down. That’s a good thing. I changed up my game plan. Here’s what works for staying busy:

Plan ahead: Always think ahead to the time when you won’t be swamped with assignments. Set aside some time every week to pitch at least one new assignment for the future. There’s a chance you might end up with overlapping deadlines, but so what? When work comes fast and furious, embrace it. You’ll become better at managing your time and dealing with pressure.

Give encores: In my first two years as a freelancer, I made the  mistake of working with a media outlet once, and never pitching them again. And it wasn’t because of any bad experience like waiting three months to be paid or anything like that.  I was just ready to conquer the next frontier, so I didn’t give repeat performances. BIG mistake. Cultivate those relationships. If they liked your work, they’ll probably hire you again and again. But if you disappear off the radar, you likely won’t have that option if you pitch them an idea a year later.

Network: So you’d sooner die than have to peel off another one of those “Hello My Name Is” stickers and stand around doing something weird with your ams. Get over it. You will hate the idea of networking. You will hate the energy drain that comes when you’re getting ready to network, searching out directions to your networking event, deciding what shoes to wear to your networking place. You’ll stress out wondering if you’ll know anyone there, or whether you have spinach stuck between your teeth. But most times, you’ll find it’s worth it. You will either walk out with a story idea, or a great contact. The new antisocial you might even find (gasp) a friend. Bottom line is that you’ll dread going, but on the way home, you’ll be covered in afterglow.





Narcisist

22 05 2009
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Andrew Keen
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Gay Marriage

Am I one? Are you one? TMI, as in Too Much Introspection. Couldn’t help it. On Thursday afternoon, I attended a talk by Andrew Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur. Keen will do that to you.

Recently I saw a really funny New Yorker cartoon showing a man and a woman at a table in a restaurant. The man says to the woman, “Enough about me, but nothing about you just yet.”

That’s sort of how Keen views Web 2.0: give everyone a megaphone, and let them go on living just as isolated an existence under the illusion that they are connecting with others.

He’s developed a reputation as a curmudgeon (it’s near impossible for him not to sound snarky with that lovely English accent). Reading his book, it becomes clear why he’s viewed as such a cynic, especially by social media gurus. He slams Wikipedia, along with the hordes who have squeezed into the blogosphere as self-proclaimed “experts” and “journalists”, all the while spreading lies and misinformation.

Before Keen’s talk, one person said he was beyond curmudgeon. “He’s a dick,” this person told me.

I’d watched a video of him on the Colbert Report, and figured that assessment couldn’t be too far off the mark.

But hearing Keen talk about Web 2.0 as a playground for narcissists made sense. One person suggested that social media was about communication and collaboration. Keen disagreed, arguing that much of it is about getting people to hear ones own views (or in the case of Facebook, which Keen characterized as a “farce”, having people see your photos, your status updates, your links). I agree. I mean, how else does something like the 25 Random Things become such an instant sensation? (Here’s Joel Stein’s clever take on Facebook’s ’25 Things’ in the Los Angeles Times)

He said the Internet is a great marketing tool, nothing more. Those looking to start a venture ought to think physical, not digital. There isn’t much money to be made in the virtual world, Keen said.

So how is it that Keen likes Twitter? It’s the 140 characters rule–it forces one to write short. After all, Keen pointed out, even Nietzsche’s writing suffered when he started using a typewriter.





Seeing Stars

20 05 2009

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My son fainted at school today. “For like, maybe, 13 seconds or something,” he told me after school. It happened during lunch. And the really disturbing part? He brought it on himself. Apparently he and his friend had a contest to see which boy can hold his breath the longest.

Roofie won.

“I started feeling dizzy, and then I started to fall back, and so I tried to hold onto the table,” he said.

“And then?” I asked.

“And then I hit the back of my head on the seat behind me, and the next thing I know, I’m on the floor on my back. I didn’t know what happened to me,” he said.

By this point, I was fully freaked out, but I managed to say calmly, “And then what?”

“It was like I went to sleep. Then, like, a few seconds later, I opened my eyes. I asked everyone what happened, and they told me I fainted.”

What bothered me most was that the way he told it, it was the most amazing experience life had to offer thus far, the sort of out-of-body trip one would expect at a Phish concert. I was afraid that in his little 7-year-old mind, it would become a sort of game, a thrill somewhere on that continuum with the choking game and Sharpie huffing.

“Did your teacher notice?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “I woke up before we were going to line up.”

Oh thank God, I thought. I could just see the note I would’ve received following that incident. No need to fatten up his file this late in the school year.

I told him what he did was extremely dangerous, and made him promise me he’d never do it again. He looked at me solemnly. “I won’t,” he said. “Promise.” This is one promise I hope he keeps. If not, I’d like to at least do the honor of choking him myself.





For the Love of Chicken Salad

19 05 2009

I’m a sucker and a wimp. A WIMP, I tell you. Today was the day I was going to walk into the botanical gardens volunteer appreciation luncheon and turn in my pseudo-resignation. And I couldn’t do it. Just couldn’t. Because there was the head of the education department at the front door smiling warmly at me. Then he said–get this–“Hello, Gigi. I haven’t seen you since the salamander festival. We missed you there.”

And there was my docent partner from last year, who was mysteriously reassigned to another docent team this year. Curses. I miss her.

And the guy in charge of wildflowers with his adorable, trendy glasses and not-so-subtle glance down at my, um, name tag. The name tag, incidentally, was meant to be worn around the neck, hanging from an elastic band that was so soft around the neck it was almost silky. Damn them. Always paying attention to the smallest detail.

Then there was that chicken salad on multigrain bread that I ordered, which was everything I’d hoped it could be. As if that weren’t enough, my box contained a giant chocolate chip cookie, Baked Lays (that’s right, Baked), fresh fruit (the stuff you hate to cut up yourself, cantaloupes, melons), and on the table, huge, sweaty jugs of sweetened AND unsweetened tea.

So I downed my worthy-of-a-last-meal-before-execution boxed lunch and listened to a presentation about proposed changes to the gardens. Treetops this, new greenhouse that. Yada yada yada. And then the moment of truth. I went to slip out the back door at 12:57 while the presentation was still going. The program was set to end at 1. I just needed not to make eye contact with anyone on the way out, and all would be well. But the director of the docent program stood at the back door. She was tall and thin, and she had cropped silver hair, like my old fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Mulligan. “Here, take this as a token of our appreciation,” she whispered. I looked up at her and offered a reluctant smile. Were her eyes turning liquidy? Unbelievable.

She handed me a $20 coupon off any class offered at the gardens, and the clincher–this little fake bird in a mossy bird’s nest, wrapped in a plastic bag with earthy ribbons. Why, why did I go? I should’ve known I wouldn’t stand a chance.





Unproductive=bad

18 05 2009

Let’s just call today an unproductive day. Called a few sources, arranged another interview, played phone tag with someone I’ve been trying to reach for weeks now. Here’s one solid thing: I was home for the air conditioning guys, who were making their second visit in a week’s time (Take two on the repair they didn’t quite make last time. )

And I went to the gym.

Like I said, unproductive.

But I wonder how this day measures up to a typical day in an office. There were days like this in the newsroom, when sources weren’t calling back, I wasn’t making headway on any stories, and the clock just seemed to tick-tick-tick away.

Of course, when you’re freelancing, you don’t have the same distractions to numb you from your day of non-work, namely a group of ready colleagues who shared your poor work habits. There’s the watercooler, the coffee machine, the vending machine, the fax machine–and at every turn there are…people. On my way back from one of these mini-excursions, I’d glimpse someone’s monitor, this one shopping for shoes, that one checking the Yankees team roster.

There are still distractions galore as a freelancer (no, not Oprah). There’s the dog that needs to be fed or walked or trained to sit on command. There are those red lentils on the counter I’ve sworn for weeks I’d make into a soup, but haven’t because red lentils are just intimidating, OK? And there are videos online–good God almighty are there videos– the little deer who slides in through the doggie door and the continuing saga of Jon and Kate Plus 8 and Jon’s sweet revenge on Kate and her little snide remarks and utter contempt, and his eye rolls. You’re not fooling anyone, you two.

See what I mean? The Web is toxic. But I did take the dog out for a long walk. I did make time for myself to go to the gym. And it was the first day of crisp, bright sunshine after what seemed like weeks of heavy downpours and thunderstorms. That’s right, I enjoyed it. Isn’t that the beauty of a freelance life? I’d say this is one of the great payoffs.