Career, Determination, Parenting, Things I Can

47. Things I Can Celebrate: A New Morning

Tomorrow begins the new schedule. It’s my first official day on the campus just a few miles from my house.

The office waiting there is a loaner crammed with British academic journals belonging to a professor on sabbatical. Two other advisors will share the space with me on alternating days. The phone will remain our Oxford colleague’s line, and the computer being delivered this week lacks monitor and a printer connection.

My fellow advisors and I should receive an actual office assignment in January. That said, the building itself is so old, its cinderblocks and scarred linoleum are next up on the university’s demolition list. We might be in our “permanent” space for all of a year before the wrecking ball arrives. Then we’ll squat somewhere else on campus for the duration of the construction.

What fool would give up five days a week in an office all her own in a new building with reliable technology, functional windows, and a full kitchen just a few steps down the hall?

The fool who prizes time far more than space.

This is the same calculation that led me to withdraw my offer on a 2-bedroom, 2.5-bath, end-unit townhouse with a yard and a ridiculously affordable mortgage payment. That fantastic find was perfect except for its zip code. Another 10 miles west beyond the town where my son was in school, where we had begun building a life, might add another 30 minutes to a commute that was already taking 45. And that’s just one way.

The people who loved me helped me count just how many days of my precious life I’d be signing over to the VDOT highway system. Every minute in my car or on the metro is one minute away from my kiddo. Or away from my pace, my dance, my words, my breath. The true cost of all that space and grass was my relationship with everything I love.

That’s just a tad too pricey for me.

Instead I bought the condo within two miles of the metro and a few blocks of Bug’s school. I pay more money for less space. It’s been two years since I signed, and regret has yet to find my address.

Tonight, Bug buzzes through the house long past his bedtime. He’s laying towels to the dog’s crate as red carpet and lining the walls with nightlights. He piles extra pillows in under her blanket. Her food bowl and toys make their way into the room, creating a dining nook in one corner and a play zone in the other. He flips the blinds closed and clicks off all the other lamps. Shutting us in, he names my bedroom Noodle’s “Royal Palace,” and there in the shadowed light, he performs his karate kata for the recumbent queen while I intone an ancient ode.

On any weeknight before this, I would snap and fret. Get moving, Mister. Bedtime. Now. Because every minute awake is a minute less sleep, and that adds up to another morning late for work.

But tonight, I remember what waits for me tomorrow. Then I remember again when we’re brushing teeth. And again when I sit here to write. Each time, the realization cools and soothes, like air, like the grip of cramped wings unfurling from my shoulders.

Each time like the first time.

Tomorrow, enthroned on a busted office chair in my palace of mold, I will be exactly where I belong. The journey there has taken 5 years of muscle topped with at least as many months of luck. Doesn’t this happen on long rides? You see only when you’re well on your way that the landscape is changing right under your feet, and now you can map out a shortcut.

The race to the metro to grab a parking spot before they fill, to grab a seat on the train before the guy behind me does, to power the two blocks to the building before the clock strikes nine. . . That race is on hold. Tomorrow will be an easy shot to my son’s school where I can visit him in the cafeteria at lunchtime if I get the urge. Where I can arrive well before the closing bell to ferry my young prince home.

Tomorrow is the gift of inversion. Instead of giving myself to the clock, the minutes offer themselves to me.

This means the night is ours for wandering.

And the morning is mine for setting the pace.

Career, Things I Can

29. Things I Can Fix: A Technical Glitch

Because I trudged out of the office late on Friday with at least 7 hours of work stuffed into my backpack
Because my son and I were both so wrecked at the start of our weekend, all we could do was pick and gripe at each other until 20 feet at least separated us during our evening walk
Because on Saturday morning, I was crying before I’d even gotten out of bed
Because the relentless pressure from work hadn’t abated during the night
Because my kiddo and I have outings already on the schedule for this sunny spring weekend
Because the week ahead at work is a vise grip on my mood
Because a roomful of PhDs can’t screw in a lightbulb
Because Sunday afternoon is not only my last shot at getting all the work done for Monday, it’s also my only shot at sharing this one weekend with my only boy
Because even though my 9-year-old laptop finally decided to glitch out on the VPN program that allows me to work from home

there is no way
no way on this green and fragrant earth
I am taking my son with me to the office
to hack through the ever-thickening tangle of tasks.

Because life is too
other than this,
too mine.

Because this computer is still a machine after all
an engine
a cotton gin
with codes and circuits that may be labyrinthine but they are also decipherable
fixable.

Because I demand my weekend back.
My sleep.
My body.
Because despite the persistent phantom grip of performance on the back of my neck

these ribs this brain this family

these two days
belong to me.

So I run
outside under thawing sun and whipping wind.

I don safety goggles and drill holes in plastic buckets and turn black soil and drop in tiny rosemary seeds.

And then
after my son falls asleep, I come here
to this ancient, groaning, overheating machine and look and look and look
through security settings, Norton and Spybot
without a map
or a Rosetta stone for these codes, no
I read Cervantes at bedtime and dance to The Knife by candlelight.
But lyrics are no use now.
The only thing is to dig deep
and say
I can solve this
I will solve this
control panel, google, cut here to paste there, reboot, download,
adjust settings, override

Until
Your remote session has been established. For security purposes, please close this browser window.

Tomorrow, I will sit here next to snow pea tendrils crawling toward the light,
the dog splayed out and baring her pearly pink belly to the southern sun,
my kiddo secreted away in his Blanket Palace reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid
and I’ll work.
I’ll work on my Sunday
which may be a sin or it may simply be
what’s needed.
But because I fixed what was broken,
it’s my Sunday
to work as I see fit.

Brain, Career, Things I Can

28. Things I Can Carry Through: This, to its End

Gaslight /ˈɡaslīt/
verb
Alternative: “ambient abuse.”

1. A form of sophisticated psychological manipulation intended to cause a victim to question her own sanity
2. Withholding factual information from, or providing false information to, a victim, having the gradual effect of making her anxious, confused, and doubtful of her memory and perception

The President has advisors and a staff of dozens to function as his external brain. The rest of us are stuck with this measly glob of gray matter. That, and whatever spreadsheets and task-apps we’ve managed to cobble together.

On the hostile shores of the 9-hour day, another question lands. Another and another. Almost none need a simple response. Almost all demand contortions of reason and planning that border on the gymnastic. The terrain is littered with the debris of the unfinished.  Continue reading “28. Things I Can Carry Through: This, to its End”

Career, Things I Can

22. Things I Can Glimpse: The Cathedral

To be deep in the overwhelm requires not just doing too many things in one 24-hour period but doing so many different kinds of things that they all blend into each other and a day has no sense of distinct phases. Researchers call it “contaminated time.”

– Hanna Rosin, “You’re Not as Busy as you Say you Are” at Slate.com

I click send on a project that’s consumed most of the morning. Before a sense of pride dares peek up out of the foxhole, another directive slams down from above. In an email, a whole group of colleagues receives word that I will provide them with a collection of updated materials by Monday. I’ve been copied in on this but not otherwise warned. At least seven major deadlines are breathing down my neck, and they all come between now and the start of next week.

Aside from those concrete projects, the inbox is spilling over, three people are waiting for replies to pressing questions, and a series of delicate emails is in the queue. These will undoubtedly trigger frustrated comments and several more rounds of correspondence.

Numb to every bit of it, the only approach is to keep moving. I open the folders and start to plow through the documents.

Then I stop.

What happened to what I just finished? All that work, and that’s it?

Click, then gallop on?

We rush from one demand to the next, never giving ourselves time to pause when one task is complete. Many of us don’t celebrate our significant achievements, let alone our everyday ones. We may mark milestones when large public hoorays are called for — retirement party, anyone? — but in our headlong race forever forward, we fail to keep our eyes open for smaller signposts of success.Hell, this year my birthday came and went all but unacknowledged. It stings if I think about it, but who has time for thinking?

So this time, I stop. Only for a moment, I turn and walk over to my office window. The one small project I completed this morning took quite a bit of creative effort. It was, in fact, a noteworthy application of skills I’ve grown over 4-1/2 years at this job. A small smile warms me. I whisper to my quiet self that I just whipped out a bit of handiwork I couldn’t have conceived of in 2010. That is really something.

Across the hazy March sky and the greening city below, my gaze dips and lifts. The National Cathedral stands on the horizon as it always does. The scaffolding is off the towers. The branches of its neighboring trees are still bare. A little light scratches across the rooftops and then disappears.

Just one small slice of pride.

This is my gift. Overdue, but so very welcome.

Career, Learning, Things I Can

9. Things I Can Forgo: Lunch

Lunch is an hour. And it’s a break.

Sacred cows no more.

Lunch hour goes.

(Not the food part. I’m too fond of my fuel.)

Today the forecast was 47 degrees and wet. I trotted off to work in a thin sheath of a raincoat. At 5:30, I stepped out into wind that cut like knives. My neck shrieked. The puddles had turned to ice. Each dark step to the metro scoured my skin.

During the intervening 8-1/2 hours walled in by steel and focus, temperatures plummeted and dragged the sky down with them. I had no idea. Despite a window that can carry my gaze to where the National Cathedral rises on the hill, I didn’t see the dimming light. Despite a city outside my door where I can walk for miles through parks and neighborhoods, I didn’t feel the creeping frost.

This ignorance is the price of determination.

I shouldn’t be proud of giving up my lunch hour. An earlier me would have tsk-tsked today’s me for misplacing priorities and neglecting health. For the four years I’ve held this job, lunch hour meant walking, no matter the weather. My credenza drawer hides an iPod, running clothes, both sunhat and umbrella, both towel and soap (you never know). These feet memorized miles of concrete. Co-workers praised my dedication to fitness.

Truth is, lunch hour walks were my secret recipe for sanity.

All that walking was a way of holding on to my center while the world rushed and tilted around me. It’s easier to sprint across the wire, especially if you don’t look down. First was our imploding family and livelihood, then moving here, then divorce, then working and all that comes with doing that as a single mom trying to establish a home and a way forward. A leaden fear of financial and familial ruin saturated every moment. So I kept moving, walking, and peering anywhere but right here.

Meanwhile, something changed. Like that weather rolling in when I was facing the other way, the very world shifted into a new alignment.

The daily work — the professional this-and-that of making ends meet — began to propagate. Seeds I didn’t know had been germinating started to push through the surface.

Lunch hour used to be for air and breath and body. It was a standing date with my very own self.

Now lunch hour is for asking the next question.

(Which question, you ask? That one. The one dancing just out of reach. The one that barely has a shape yet.)

An opportunity emerged during a team meeting. My department needed someone to teach. I resisted until my Mister reminded me that I do, in fact, have most of what it takes and the resourcefulness to go find the stuff I don’t. So I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the exchange of ideas, loved making it up as we went.

Before the final class, an opportunity popped up on my voicemail. This one was even more impossible than the last. In a windowless classroom with a sputtering overhead projector — the kind that uses actual transparencies — someone had to guide the learning of 27 visiting faculty who could barely speak English.

With guidance from the dear ones, I agreed to it, and it ate up all my time, and I was exhausted, and the extra pay didn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

I loved it, loved the students, loved the tangled and unmapped journey.

Before the final class, another opportunity strolled into my office. This was a role supporting our school’s search for a new dean. It would be a politically delicate, thankless, administrative nightmare on an accelerated timeline. I considered it, negotiating right up front with the school leadership while doing so.

I took it, or rather, it took me: It eats up all my time, and I’m exhausted, and the extra pay doesn’t even begin to cover the hours committed.

And I love it, insanity and all.

Something is growing here.

Maybe it’s just a calcification of the soul-jarring careerism that infects the Washington DC region. Maybe I’m turning into yet another stressed and stretched professional Director of (Insert Abstract Administrative Jargon Here) who’s just wearing the same grooves a little deeper into the city sidewalks.

Or maybe it’s the Powers That Be taking advantage of a semi-competent masochist with something to prove.

Secretly, though, I think it’s something else.

Whatever it is, it’s growing right here, in the place this woman inhabits.

Despite all my foolishness and self-inflicted handicaps, novel ways emerge to apply the skills I’ve been accumulating. Even though the tough spots make my head throb and my heart race, it’s thrilling to come upon a problem I simply cannot solve, yet I must solve it, and I somehow know I will solve it, even if it comes to jury-rigging a fix.

Every time I figure out some new mix of tools and techniques, new places to apply them appear. The marvel of this chapter in my too-much-of-a-life is that I keep bumbling into the outer limit of my talents and capabilities, only to find that it’s a membrane and I can push right through.

For the first time in years, I have more in my sights than just getting through the day upright.

Now I want to know what these hands can really do.

Lunch hour is a standing date with possibility.

Lunch hour is one more wide-open chance to ask the next question.

(What are the Things I Can?)

Where the unknown is unnamed, give it voice.

Where answers are missing, reach.

 

Career, Home

Welcome to Munchkinland

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”

-L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

I had not entertained the possibility of defeat. In the six months since making an offer on the one condo we could make our own, I had only allowed Yes and its ilk to join me on this convoluted voyage. At every twist in the yellow road, I simply closed my eyes for the half-second required to tap heels and picture home. Square shoulders, gather senses, and press on.
 
Until the letter arrived.
 
One slim envelope, and not a surprise, turned up in the mail yesterday. “Your application for credit has been denied.” No big deal. I pulled the plug on the quasi-approved loan after it became clear the short sale was going to eat into my finances for another month or three. Two banks on the seller’s end are duking it out over a piddly $3700 discrepancy in the assessed price of the home. Meanwhile, my lender is awaiting word from a county engineer indicating that recent repairs at the complex pass muster. The county engineer, whose name and number I scrounged up in my determination to gain some semblance of control over the situation, takes my call but to no avail. Her hands are tied as she awaits word from the property manager indicating the dispute over rehab costs is resolved. The property manager refuses to say spit because the complex is involved in legal proceedings.
 
To tip the whole endeavor into emerald absurdity, my bank started charging me $450 every two weeks to extend a loan with no fixed end date. I made the harrowing decision to let it all slide for a month and then reapply. The dream condo is still under contract with me, though, so I trust this is merely a waiting game.
 
Perhaps my trust has been a fool’s errand.
 
When I open the letter, an entirely different story tumbles out. My lender has denied my loan not because I failed to extend it but because of a laundry list of credit problems. In the nine months I have been working with this bank – my bank, the one I have used for insurance and checking accounts and credit cards for 15 years – not one of these issues has surfaced. Too many credit inquiries? Too much money in rotating accounts? Insufficient collateral? How is any of this possible, and why has no one mentioned it before?
 
A breeze from the open window lifts the pages from the bed where I have dropped them. I can’t bear to look at those terse, typed lines. The simple goal of buying a home blurs and retreats. Without this, there is, quite literally, nothing.
 
Nothing but here.
 
It’s not as if another place is out there waiting, one that’s just a little less expensive or a tiny bit further from my son. Not a single local condo even at the outer reaches of my price range has been listed in the past three months. The only affordable properties are an hour’s drive away. As the weeks of economic recovery tick by, the asking prices at the low end are ballooning beyond reach.
 
Let’s not get into a discussion of rental costs. I can actually afford (just barely) a mortgage and condo fees. Stick the extra few hundred per month on top that local landlords demand and I cannot even squeeze Bug and me into a one-bedroom, let alone a place where we can grow.
 
Mother’s day just passed. I had started to believe those friends that generously reached out to tell me I am a good mom. I can’t help biting back the response: So the f**k what? What does it matter? Sure, I love my kid and give him a decent-enough life. But what to make of this this very basic metric of providing? What to do with this failing grade? I cannot afford a home for my child.
 
As the breeze scatters pages around my room, every mistake I have ever made pushes up like a twister and tilts the world. That knotted string of poor decisions spills out behind me. At any point, I could have chosen differently, chosen more wisely. Chosen to fight harder for the marriage. Chosen to nourish my own career instead of Tee’s. Chosen to pursue an MBA or a teaching degree instead of my indistinct master’s in nothing remotely marketable. I could have decided to stick with the GIS which came so naturally instead of foregoing it for dance and revolution. I could have studied harder, maintained a professional network, written about something substantial, stopped hiding. Could have stopped pouring energy into worthless shit like gardens, bread, mountains, books, and friends. Cut short the conversations. Culled the flourishing heart.
 
Gotten to work.
 
Then, perhaps, I could have the capacity to reach this one simple goal. I might be able to provide for my son.
 
As it is, I have to live at the front end of this frayed string. I try to braid it into some sort of rope to haul Bug and me up and out of this spinning house and onto a patch of solid ground. It splits in my hands. It shears to nothing.
 
Paper and sisal. Me, suddenly trapped in a tiny bedroom not even my own. Stunned into paralysis. Now how to proceed? The choices I make today, are they similarly foolish? I can’t begin to understand how my credit is rated poor. Aside from a car I paid off in 2006, I have never held one penny of debt. I pay my cards in full each month. I have no college loans, no collections agencies after me. Somehow, I manage to maintain small but steadily growing balances in retirement, 529, and brokerage accounts. Ample funds to cover expenses both planned and otherwise are a click away every month. In fact, my checking now has more cash in it than I’ve ever seen in my life, squirreled away there to cover 20% down on a vanishing dream.
 
My credit is poor, quite simply, because I am.
 
A good-enough job for the Commonwealth of Virginia is barely sufficient for a single woman to survive. It falls short of thriving, and barely enters the ballpark of getting by when a kid is added to the equation.
 
Yet, I had I assumed my choices are the right ones for right now. The daily mile to and from the metro saves me $5. Taking breakfast and lunch saves me $10 or more. My hair looks like a factory-floor mop squeezed a few too many times through the rollers because I refuse to put money where the payoff isn’t evident. I hold onto a low-paying job with good benefits and flexible hours so that I can pick up my child at the end of the day and still have time for a conversation with him over dinner. We spend our weekends wandering the woods or roaming the neighborhood, eschewing outings that require a fee. All the small sacrifices, the little denials of indulgence, the hand-kneading of the pizza crust from sourdough starter and hand-making of Christmas gifts, because I believed that simplicity could lead Bug and me to the place we belong.
 
But what if I’ve been wrong?
 
What if it is cowardice or stupidity keeping me quiet in my room at night writing poetry? What if contra dancing and nighttime walks are just time – precious, would-be productive hours – tossed in the garbage? What if I have only been avoiding the hard work of launching a real career? A girl’s got to pay the bills. This isn’t a game anymore. I don’t get to make decisions based on what feels good or what compels that tenuous aspect called “spirit” (something, as it so happens, I don’t even believe exists) to roam those lush meadows of the imagination.
 
And now I wonder what it would take. Which missing part drives me to Oz to tap the source? I fear I lack in every regard. My loose, anemic heart has not loved self or son enough to get past my idle ways. My brain has languished in a vacuous, quasi-childhood of pleasure instead of erecting bridges with industry and precision. And my courage? Never has it been emptier than when I have tried to draw upon it as I lurch towards the lip of necessary change.
 
Without doggedly pursuing these attributes, why would I expect to find my way anywhere more substantial than Munchkinland? How could I have been so silly as to think I could tap my heels and carry us home?
 

Career

Happy 100 Days: 35

This morning, the boss-lady walked into my office to wish me a happy birthday. I reciprocated by wrapping her in a giant hug.
 
“Thank you so much,” I said.
 
“For what?” She laughed as she tried not to spill coffee on me.
 
“For being the best supervisor a girl could ask for.”
 
“Oh!”
 
“You help me realize there is no limit to what I can do here. You encourage me to find my way to do great work while giving me room to take care of my family, and you are also just a super nice person who is fun to work with.”
 
She started to tear up. It was really sweet. I told her that I have conversations about work with friends. Every time I mention something about the way my boss has gone to bat for me, given me flexibility in my schedule, or helped me think through a mistake, I watch my friends’ faces fall open in amazement.
 
“What?” I always ask. “What’s the big deal? That’s not normal?” They look at me like I just announced I’m dating Matthew McConaughey.
 
I realize how good I have it. My job keeps getting better. The main reason for that is because I work for a superstar with a big heart.
 
“You’re just really good at what you do,” I said. “I appreciate you making this a great place to work. Thank you.”
 
“It is a great place to work,” she grinned.
 
“So you can’t leave. Ever.”
 
A pause. “Yeah, well.” She took a sip of her coffee. “I am contractually obligated to be here through May 2013.”
 
I’d better make the most of the next six months.
 

Career, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 37

Happy News of the Day: The Powers that Be approved the promotion! This was my official first day as Director of PhD Student Services. The real fun begins tomorrow when I cruise the main campus schmoozing with folks in the know about future projects. Onward and upward!
 
So-So News of the Day: For all his sweet talk, the sexy condo is out of my league. The seller’s broker came back today with word that a $6000 special assessment for new staircases has to be included in the purchase price. The gal who owns it was supposed to have been making monthly payments but has not paid a single penny. The bank will not approve the short sale without the buyer taking on the assessment. That would be me, except that it won’t be me. Also? The condo fees were listed incorrectly. They are actually $117 higher per month than advertised. A chunk of change that size can choke you in a year or three, never mind a few decades.
 
I would have to live on credit cards and ramen for the next 10 years to afford it. So, today, I bid this dream a sad farewell. Goodbye, bamboo floors! Au revoir, living room dance space! So long, staggering mortgage and second job!
 
It’s not quite a heartbreak. A little heart-squeeze, perhaps? The regret is mixed with a dollop of sweet relief. It’s nice to be able to imagine a Christmas with gifts again.
 
I met my agent at another cute little place this afternoon. The price is right and it’s a decent location but the traffic NOISE NOISE NOISE is unbearable. Tomorrow, we head out west again to another property which would require a commute. It is not quite as burdensome as many of the places in my price range, though, and the neighborhood is close to several of Bug’s and my favorite parks, shopping, and rec centers. Also, it is 1140 square feet with fireplace and a fenced back patio. We’re still talking condo-ville in a car-clogged area, so I’ll have to see if the property itself is enough of an oasis to make up for the shark-infested surroundings.
 
Rain and snow are churning just beyond tonight’s clouds. Once the slop starts to fall tomorrow afternoon, I will have the perfect opportunity to see just how much road-time those two hundred square feet are worth.