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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Same Great Blog, New Location

This is just a note to any followers and visitors of this page that I have moved! I hope that you will follow me at my new location: on WordPress. I have set this page to automatically forward to my new location, but I encourage you to save the new page and visit me there. I would love to hear your thoughts. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Curses and Cures: A Story of Trains, Lost Things and ... Mayo

For the longest time, my husband and I had a running joke about me losing my car in mall parking lots.

Of course, rather than admitting to a poor-to-middling sense of direction, I decided that I was cursed. Then one evening, I was wandering through the parking garage of the Galleria in Houston with a coworker looking for my car, and to save face, I shared with her my story about the Parking Curse. She laughed and rolled her eyes, but played along.

Weeks passed before my coworker confronted me in the hallway one afternoon.

“Hey, you gave me your curse!” she says.

“What curse?” I like to forget about embarrassing things like losing my vehicle.

“Your parking curse. I lost my car at the Galleria today, and it’s your fault.”

I admit, I couldn’t hide my grin. The Curse had finally been broken. I had passed it along to someone else, and I was free. After that, I went weeks—months even—without losing my car.

I would like to say that I have never lost my car again. In fact, I will say that, but I advise you not to believe me. Still, there was something to this “curse” thing in my head.

Not long after I shook free of the Parking Curse, I acquired a new scourge, this one sandwich related. I named it the Overdressing Curse after I had a good four- or five-time streak going. Basically, anytime I ordered a sandwich anywhere, it would have an excess of mayo and/or mustard.

But Jessica, you might be saying, that is just American food. Maybe you just like less dressing than the average person. And you may be right. However, the reason I feel justified in making this claim, is that in most cases, I had a control group—another person at the table also eating a sandwich, sometimes the same type of sandwich—and they did not have a cup of mayo oozing out of their lunch’s back end. Over and over again this happened, until I was positive it was my new curse.

During this dark time, I had many electric yellow shirt stains and went through copious amounts of napkins. I even did something I had never done before…asked for “light” condiments (please). When things became desperate, I tried to pass the curse on to my husband, but he never took the bait. Eventually, the curse waned, although from time to time it reemerges to remind me not to get to cocky—and to bring an extra shirt just in case.

My theory about curses was always lighthearted until last year. I was going through a frustrating time as a writer, filled with rejection and defeat and derailed goals. Things were getting serious.

Around the same time, a new curse emerged. I call it the Train Curse. The first day I was stopped by the train on my way to an appointment, I sighed, turned up the radio and tapped my fingers impatiently on the steering wheel but let it go. When I was stopped again on my way home, I bemoaned my bad luck but shook it off. But then it started happening day after day—even if I left ten minutes earlier, ten minutes later, or took an alternate route—there it was: the train.

After a couple of months, I was beside myself cursing and railing against the Fates. To me, the train now represented all of my frustrated goals, all of my dashed hopes. My life wouldn’t get better until I could break the Train Curse. Silly as it was, I believed it.

Was it going to be a good day? Would I finally have a breakthrough? Only the train knew. And every day I met the train, a little hope left me. Today must not be the day.

The first day I managed to miss the train or beat the train, you would have thought I had made the New York Times Bestsellers List. I called my husband to tell him the good news. And then a day became a week, and I was sure it was a sign. Life was looking up.

But lately, I have been meeting the train again, sometimes three times in one day. And funny enough, it has been a rough few months, and I could feel the Curse bubbling up from deep in my psyche. The fear, the anger. This time it is different though.

When I meet the train, I laugh. I mean, deep belly laugh. If I am honest, it kind of tickles me. My curses are meant to be playful and silly, not drenched in existential angst.

“Ah, the train. We meet again.” And I snap a photo and text it to my husband.

Now, when I see the train, I see it as life telling me to take a breath, slow down, and be in the now. For the next three minutes or so (definitely “or so”!) I can’t move forward, I can’t go go go. That decision is out of my hands. But I can be with what is and choose to be okay with it.

And if I’m patient, the train will pass, and life will move again. It always does.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Defense of the Liberal Arts

So April is National Poetry Month, and I thought it would be a great time to discuss something that has been on my mind a lot lately: the disappearing liberal arts education.

Last year, Forbes reported that only 1.6 percent of hiring managers actively sought out candidates with liberal arts degrees, preferring instead engineering, math, computer science and business (actually, practically any other major). Plus, 64 percent said they would consider someone with no college experience at all. Yay for the unschooler, but what the what?!

This kind of statistic is disheartening to someone like me, who is proud of her BA in English. And it’s sad not just because I believe I am a valuable contributor to society and I am proud of the quality college education I received, but also because I see the reverberating effects in the corporate world. Decision-makers in business are increasingly not putting a priority on the creativity, communication skills and well roundedness that a liberal arts education provides.

In fact, American entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen was recently quoted as saying, “I’m sure it’s fun, but the average college graduate with a degree in something like English is going to end up working in a shoe store.”

And while the media lauds the idea that one in four self-made American billionaires is a college dropout, what many people may not know is that among the top 100 billionaires, more hold arts degrees than math, science, finance or economics. Yet STEM continues to get priority over liberal arts programs at several universities...and when it comes to a paycheck.

I have nothing against STEM. We need STEM, and we need STEM opportunities for women. And true, engineering degrees still remain a top choice for as a major because of their high-earning potential, meanwhile, liberal arts degrees continue to sag in value. But we don’t need a country full of only engineers and MBAs. Visionaries exist across the disciplines, and the value of a degree shouldn’t just be its earning potential anyway.

We need to defend the value of a liberal arts education in our universities and our businesses. Yes, we want college students to get a degree with value, worth the investment, and a degree that can get them a job. But if we reduce our universities to technology and trade schools and gut them of classic education, we are missing the point of what higher education is all about.

A vibrant workforce is a diverse workforce with a rich background not just in finance or technology, but in the backbone of life and culture—philosophy, history and literature.

As Robin Williams’ character, Professor Keating, states so eloquently in Dead Poet Society: "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

So in honor of the month, unleash your inner poet, and also embrace the inner poet in the workplace.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Why You Shouldn’t Save It for Later

But sometimes all those books come in handy!
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hoarding.

No, I am not in any danger of having a house filled several feet deep with old newspapers, empty pizza boxes and cat poop. Or at least, I don’t think I’m in danger of that. I am guessing the man currently tunneling through an apartment piled to the ceiling in filth at one time didn’t think he would ever be living like that, and yet…there he is.

No, I am thinking about my own personal hoarding demon. Perhaps a more insidious form of crazy because it’s less obvious. I am thinking about the way I endlessly pin things on Pinterest for “later” that I never look at again—clothes, decorating ideas, DIY projects and recipes. I am thinking of the GB of emails and files I have saved to “read later” and for projects I never get around to. I look at the box of “too small” clothes in the spare closet that I might fit into again one day, and the box of “too big” clothes I may have to wear again one day.

Then there’s the “just in case” food storage rotting away in the cupboard, the flower pots I bought for an herb garden I haven’t started…yet…two years later. The cracked watercolors and warped paintbrushes I have lugged around since college through several moves, packing and unpacking but never using. Because one mysterious and magical day, I will have time again to paint and have a garden and do all of the cooking and DIY projects I imagine I could do…probably in the same imaginary world where I am a size 2 again.

Mostly I think about why I keep all of these things. I know the reasons I give my long-suffering husband, especially about the piles of cooking magazines and endless Tupperware collections. I tell myself I am being thrifty, not wasting or throwing away “perfectly good” ratty towels and squeaky shoes, and how I will need all of these things later. Probably tomorrow actually. But why am I really hanging on?

The cats enjoy when I hoard boxes.
I remember during our last move, I finally went through a bin of old college notes and papers I was saving for when I went to grad school. And I couldn’t just throw the entire bin away, I had to pour over old handwritten notes I didn’t even really understand anymore. I wasn’t throwing away college notes and papers, I was throwing away a dream, a dusty, deteriorating dream that sat in a closet too long.

The other day, I was trying to remember some Shakespeare minutiae during a random conversation. I can’t even remember why it was so important that I recall a bunch of factoids from an old college class, but it suddenly struck me how much I had forgotten about a subject I used to be very knowledgeable and passionate about. I finally had to admit that I wasn’t sure anymore.

“You know, you can’t hoard knowledge,” I said to my husband, feeling a little deflated. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

This realization is disheartening. A part of me wants to save as much as I can—ideas, things, plans—when they’re available, and even if I don’t use something for a decade, it should still be shiny and new and just as useful as the day I stored it away. But in real life, that doesn’t happen. Pant seams fray, that gaudy “gold” ring turns brassy, the colors fade on that poster you planned to frame eventually, and the last few drops of your favorite perfume sour while you wait for the special occasion to use them.

I don’t understand what fears of mine are being assuaged by holding on. But I am starting to understand that if you hang onto something that you aren’t using, you are wasting it. And by the time you finally get around to using it, there probably won’t be much left to work with anyway. If you don’t use it, you lose it, even if it’s still stowed safely in a drawer somewhere waiting for the perfect moment.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Truth About Writing for Hire

I spent a few years working in the oil and gas business, and when people asked me what I did for a living, and I told them I was a landman, the reactions ranged from confusion to boredom. Or the always fun joke, “You mean, land-WOMAN?”

Now, when I tell people that I am a writer, inevitably the reaction is very positive. People get excited, ask questions, and tell me how lucky I am to be able to work from home. (And oh, they have a book they are going to write, and could I look at it?)

But the reality of the writer’s life, which first prompted me to change professions a few years ago, is that very rarely can the full-time writer support themselves writing just what they want to write. Friends are shocked when I tell them that article I wrote in blah magazine was not something I chose to write about. It was assigned to me, with a word count and often, specific editorial direction. And more often than not, isn’t what I would write if I had any say about it.

A few months ago I was assigned an article on getting back in shape after having a baby. I don’t have any children, so I decided to ask mothers who were friends of mine on social media to write about their experiences with post-baby fitness. The response was overwhelming, and I was struck by the unrealistic pressures many new mothers experience right after having a baby.

I then interviewed the owners of yoga studios and gyms around town and got some wonderful stories from them about their own struggles and realizations about post-partum fitness. Most of the stories focused on the mother’s need for emotional wholeness more than fitting back into their pre-pregnancy jeans in six weeks. And if anything, these women often resented the media pressure to “bounce back” like so many magazine celebrities immediately after giving birth.

I tell you all that to say this: I didn’t get to write about any of that. My editor wanted a 300-word article listing fitness centers around town that offered post-baby fitness classes. And that is what I gave her. And this story is the same story as so many other article assignments I’ve had over the years.

That is what writing for hire is like. All the stories I want to write remain mostly untold.

Years ago, when I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor, one of my jobs was to interview emerging artists for a short column. For most of the artists I interviewed, I had just 250 words to write about their art and career. I was still a newbie, so I would spend 30 minutes to an hour on the phone with every one of them collecting fascinating stories about why they became artists, what they love about their craft, career setbacks and often, many stories that were personal and that I knew were not meant for sharing.

I didn’t realize at the time how little of those interviews would actually make it into the final piece. Each month as I struggled to cut 750 words down to 250, I learned how to find the essential truth and wonder about every person’s story. It was a great but hard lesson. And I don’t think anyone I have ever interviewed will ever understand how painful it is for me, as the writer tasked with telling their story, to keep editing and cutting down the story far past what I wish I could share. Or worse, I don’t even get to share the story I want to tell at all.

This is the writer’s life. I spend most of day writing about things I don’t care about, or if I do care about them, I can’t write about them in the way I would like. And for this privilege, I am asked to charge less than what I am worth, wait months to be paid and sometimes not even get paid at all. Many times I don’t get any feedback: “Great piece.” “Nice work.” or even “That sucks, please try again.” And some days, like today, I find out something I wrote and am very proud of isn’t going to run at all because of an editorial goof.

So why do I write? Some days I don’t know. Maybe it is the naïve hope that one day, I will actually be able to support myself while writing what matter most to me. (And some days I wonder what it is that even matters most to me. What would I write about if I could write about anything?) For now, I take comfort in the little victories—the interview where I really connected with my subject, the chance to tell someone’s story that needs to be told, or the opportunity to eat good food and get paid to write about it.

Why do I write? I ask myself this question every morning.

I write to connect with people, to understand them, and have the privilege of sharing their stories. I write to connect with you, to understand you and to hopefully have the privilege of writing something meaningful that touches you.