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Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

Hello, friends. It’s been a year this week since I was furloughed (which seems both impossible and about right). The first few months were a different kind of limbo than the one I find myself in now, mostly because I was hoping to go back to my job at Berklee eventually.

As you know, that didn’t work out, so I’ve been hitting the job hunt hard every week (or what feels like all the time) for months now. And it’s exhausting.

I’ve always appreciated the boundaries of the 9-to-5 office job: I want to have a job where I can work hard, even occasionally go above and beyond, but then I want to leave work at work. I’ve never wanted a high-powered communications director job, because I’ve worked for those folks and I’ve seen what it entails: they are always on call, nights and weekends, especially in times of crisis. Similarly, I never really wanted an all-freelance life, because of the constant hustle it requires. You’re always looking for your next gig, even while you’re juggling the ones you’ve got. And if you swap applications and interviews for projects, the job hunt can feel exactly like that.

I get job alerts from several places in my inbox, so I see them at least once a day during the week. I’m always combing job boards, talking to friends and connections about the kind of work I want, working on cover letters, trying to imagine a different life. I’ve had several interviews lately (yay!) and those require both prep and follow-up, both of which I’m happy to do (and sometimes it’s even fun). But the cumulative effect feels like a lot of hustle for (so far) not much payoff.

Several of you readers have advised treating the job hunt like a 9-to-5, and I’m doing my best to limit the hours it dominates both my time and my brain. I generally take breaks on the weekends, and during the week when I need it or when there’s something special going on. I’m trying to remember that more effort doesn’t always equal more results. But I know I’ve got to keep hustling until I find my next gig.

I’m willing to put in the work, but for today I just wanted to say: the hustle is constant. And it can be tiring.

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I watched Runaway Bride a few weeks ago, because I desperately needed to laugh and feel like part of a community, and a visit to Hale, Maryland, sounded just right. The community there – the women at the hair salon, the bakery where people buy muffins and trade gossip, the multigenerational town softball game – is one of my favorite parts of this sweet film. Peggy Flemming (not the ice skater!), played by Joan Cusack, is my favorite character: she’s hilarious and wise, and such a good friend.

As with You’ve Got Mail, there is a love story here, but I find it less important (and, frankly, a little more troubling) the more times I watch this movie. Richard Gere’s character, New York journalist Ike Graham, is so convinced of his own importance that it’s refreshing to watch multiple women – including his editor and ex-wife, played by Rita Wilson – take him down a peg (or smack him with his own newspaper). But the main character, and the one in whose journey I’m most interested, is Maggie Carpenter, played by Julia Roberts.

When we meet Maggie, she’s running the family hardware store; she clearly enjoys her work and her customers, though we find out later that she’s also there because of her dad’s drinking problem. She’s also getting ready – for the fourth time – to get married. She has never been able to go through with it, and later in the film, as Ike Graham predicts, we see her run again (this time from him).

Her fifth failed wedding finally prompts some much-needed introspection: who is Maggie Carpenter, and what does she actually want? I love the scene where she’s prepared about ten different kinds of eggs to try, since she’s been ordering whatever her current guy wanted for years now. She goes for long solo runs, finally confronts her father about his drinking, and places her lamps made of industrial parts up for sale in New York stores. She doesn’t blow up her life entirely, but tries to figure out if it’s actually the one she wants – or if she has simply been living by everyone else’s expectations for far too long.

Maggie didn’t grow up in the Bible Belt, like I did, but her rush to the altar – not because she necessarily wants a wedding but because that’s what everyone expects – rings true for me. I went to a small Christian college in Texas where “ring by spring” was not just a catchy phrase but a real phenomenon. (My ex and I, at 24, were actually the last couple in one of our groups of friends to get married.) There is so much pressure for women to conform to the cultural norm – in this case, a big white wedding to a handsome man – that there’s not always a lot of space to figure out what you might want instead.

At the end of the film, Maggie comes to New York, having figured out what she wants – namely, eggs Benedict, and Ike – and made the decision on her own terms for the first time. I love that she quotes his proposal speech from earlier in the movie, but I love even more her admission that she didn’t know herself, not really, and that she needed to before she could commit to another person. (The journey is often longer in real life, of course, but this is still the movies, and we know these characters are heading for a happy ending.)

When Maggie ran away from the altar all those times, she was instinctively backing away from the wrong men, but I think she was also running from a deeper truth: knowing, and liking, yourself can be much harder than meeting all of society’s expectations for you. I never ran from a wedding, but I did get divorced after more than a decade of marriage, and the last two years have been (among other things) an exercise in getting to know myself and the kind of life I actually want.

I’m not sure if Maggie is still running the hardware store, working full-time as a lighting designer in Manhattan, or doing something else altogether. I hope her marriage to Ike brought her years of happiness; they make each other laugh and keep each other honest, which I think is important for love. But most of all, I hope she kept following her own inner compass, wherever it led. And as with Kathleen Kelly, my hopes for Maggie are also, ultimately, my hopes for myself.

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computer tulips hpac

It’s the question at the heart of every application process: what if I get rejected?

What if I do all this work on a cover letter and my resume, and the HR person or hiring manager tosses aside my carefully polished materials? What if they pass me over without a second thought, or – almost worse – what if they take the time to interview me, and then decide I’m not who they are looking for?

It happens, of course – often multiple times in every job hunt. It happens in our lives, too: not getting picked for the team, getting dumped or brushed off by a potential partner, drifting apart from or being excluded by our friends. It’s easy for others, especially those we love, to say “it’s not about you” when a person or organization rejects you, and most of the time there’s some truth to that. But no matter the type of rejection, it still stings – even if you know there were other factors at work.

Real talk: some days the fear of rejection is enough to make me want to slam my laptop closed and just stop putting myself out there for employers to dismiss. Some days the form rejections from application portals slide off my back (this is rare; I’m a sponge, not a duck), but more often, they have a bite. And it’s always disappointing when you’ve made a connection with a real person or group of people and you get an email or a phone call beginning with, “I’m sorry…”

I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) to really believe – and remember – that while rejection stinks, getting turned down for a job doesn’t mean I am not qualified or experienced. It especially doesn’t reflect on my worth as a person (more on that in a future post). It’s also not the end of the world, as my mother would say, and it definitely is a signal that I need to keep going. Sometimes, repeated rejections or disappointments have even nudged me to consider new possibilities: as a girlfriend noted last week, rejection can be redirection. (Case in point: my string of layoffs and struggles working in higher ed communications are part of what prompted me to cast my job-search net wider this time around.)

Some days, though, as my friend Stephanie noted recently, rejection just sucks and there’s no silver lining. I think it’s important to name that, too. Rejection may push us in new directions, make us stronger or simply remind us that we can get through hard things. But sometimes it’s just that: hard.

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upper west side view

Of all the late-nineties rom-coms featuring plucky heroines, adorable New York apartments and lives full of utter charm, You’ve Got Mail might be my favorite.

I saw it in the theater as a teenager, and have watched it countless times since – with my family, my girlfriends, by myself. I remember the days of dial-up AOL and the magic of finding new friends online before social media, though I am about 15 years younger than Kathleen Kelly. I once spent a weekend on the Upper West Side visiting some of the movie’s iconic locations: Cafe Lalo, Zabar’s, Gray’s Papaya, the 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. (I did not see Joe and Brinkley, but you can bet I looked.) I still have the soundtrack on CD, and New York in the fall definitely makes me want to buy school supplies.

You’ve Got Mail continues to charm me for so many reasons: the witty, perfectly timed dialogue; the cozy bookshop packed with beloved children’s classics and kind employees; the epistolary love story (though I have thoughts, these days, about Joe Fox and his personal ethics). But the more time I spend with it, the more clearly I see what my friend Kari noted years ago: in addition to a classic romantic comedy, it is (in Kari’s words) “a moving portrait of a woman who is going through a crisis of vocation.”

Kathleen has always known she’d run The Shop Around the Corner; she started helping her mother there after school at age six, and never left. We don’t even know if she went to college, or entertained other dreams for her life. She has grown up shaped by this bookstore and this neighborhood, and she would happily go on selling children’s books there forever. But she is not given that choice: Fox Books moves in across the way, and its big-box appeal (coupled, no doubt, with rising rents and the lurking shadow of Amazon) forces Kathleen to make a decision she never foresaw: “Close. We’re going to close.”

I’ve thought about Kathleen a lot this past year, as the pandemic has upended so many of the jobs most of us believed would bring us stability and security. I was furloughed from my higher ed job last May, then finally laid off in January after months of waiting. This wasn’t the first time, though: my last few years in higher ed have been marked by uncertainty and change, including two previous layoffs and a few temp gigs. The thing I have been chasing – meaningful work that provided a steady paycheck and health insurance in an industry I thought was stable – has turned out not to be so reliable after all.

“What are you going to do now?” a customer asks Kathleen as she rings up books (and stuffs in a box of Kleenex) at the closing sale. She gives a vague but honest answer: she’s going to take some time. We see her doing just that in the last third of the movie: reading a thick novel at a coffee shop, buying plants and produce with Joe Fox, heating up a bowl of soup and sitting on the floor in her apartment to eat it and bask in the sunshine. I suspect she also must have done some grieving. She must have wondered – what now? Earlier in the film, she had wondered in an email if her life’s smallness meant it didn’t have value, or that she lacked courage. Now, that life is no longer available to her, and she has to figure out the next step on a road she never saw coming.

We don’t get a tidy resolution of Kathleen’s career story; we don’t get to see her take her next professional step, though she hints that she’s working on a children’s book. I hope that whatever she does next, it is rich and satisfying and allows her to use all that experience from decades of working at the store. I hope her previous life leads, in both good and surprising ways, to her next one. I hope she realizes how brave she truly is – as Birdie tells her, “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life.” I hope she’s happy with Joe, of course, but more than that I hope she is fulfilled in her own skin and satisfied with the way she gets to spend her days.

My hopes for Kathleen, of course, are also my hopes for myself. (Isn’t that what we do with our heroines – see ourselves in them, and then project our own hopes onto them?) In the wake of an extremely difficult year, I am hoping – and searching – for a steady paycheck, for sure. But I am also hoping for work that gives me a rich, satisfying, joyful way to spend my days. I think Kathleen would approve.

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darwins scone stripe journal coffee shop table

One of the most exciting things about the job hunt is also one of the hardest: imagining a new, possible life both before and during the application process.

A certain amount of this is necessary, of course. Before I apply – before I invest the time into combing an organization’s website and writing a cover letter – it makes sense to consider whether the job is a good fit. Am I qualified? Does it sound interesting? Would the commute (when we go back to office life) be workable? Does the organization seem like a place I would want to work? The answer to all these questions has to be “yes,” or at least “maybe/probably,” before I even open up a new Word doc and start trying to find the name of the hiring manager.

For me, it’s sometimes tougher after I’ve applied – or in that strange limbo period between a first-round interview and whatever happens next. Sometimes I try to picture what a day or a week in that job would look like. I always go on Google Maps to check and double-check the potential commute. If it’s an organization where I know someone, you can bet I ask them what it’s like to work there. But all of this is purely hypothetical at this stage. And it can require a lot of emotional effort.

When Kathleen Kelly has to close her bookstore in You’ve Got Mail (more on this in a future #romcomrewatch post), Birdie invites her and Christina over for tea. “Closing the store is the brave thing to do,” Birdie declares over Earl Grey and scones. “You are daring to imagine that you could have a different life!”

Kathleen is disinclined to believe her, at that moment (and I don’t blame her), but Birdie’s words have come back to me in many contexts over the years. Going to grad school, changing jobs time and again, moving to Boston, getting married, deciding to get divorced, starting a new relationship – in all of these instances, I have dared (sometimes still am daring) to imagine that my life can look different than it did. Sometimes that’s exciting. Sometimes it’s daunting. More often than not, it’s both.

It can be a real bummer to invest time and energy into applying for a job and then imagining how that life might look, only to find out you didn’t get it. (This has, obviously, happened to me more than once.) But I don’t want to stop imagining potential lives, because the alternative is to just apply mindlessly – or settle – for whatever comes my way. And I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to believe (despite the evidence, some days) that a thoughtful, curious search for a new job is better than a robotic one. I want to go toward work that interests me, even delights me, or at least has the potential to do so. And that only happens, I think, with a bit of imagination (and a lot of Internet searching/letting friends know I’m looking/pounding out cover letters).

So, at least for now, I’ll keep daydreaming a bit about possible lives as I keep tweaking cover letters and scouring job boards. Hey, at least daydreaming is fun.

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cafe lalo table berries teacup

It’s no secret I love a good romantic comedy, and there are a handful from the ’90s and early 2000s that are particularly close to my heart. Nora Ephron’s films did more than anything else to shape my early visions of New York City. (I once spent an entire solo weekend on the Upper West Side pretending to be Kathleen Kelly.)

During the pandemic, I’ve revisited a few of my favorites, and here’s the thing: I find myself less interested in the love stories these days than in the other elements of these women’s lives.

Part of it is simple familiarity: I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail dozens of times. I can pinpoint the exact moments when sparks fly between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Runaway Bride. I know just how Miles, that sweet film composer played by Jack Black, charms Iris (Kate Winslet) without even meaning to in The Holiday. And my entire family can quote the “leaning” scene (along with the hilarious family dinner dialogue) from While You Were Sleeping.

I don’t have to wonder whether or how these characters are going to fall in love. (Though I have to admit my 2021 self cringes a little bit at the sheer arrogance of a few male romantic leads.) But I am interested, now more than ever, in these women as real people: not only in their romantic adventures, but the struggles they face in the rest of their lives.

I want to know what Kathleen Kelly ended up doing after she had to close The Shop Around the Corner. I want to see photos from Lucy and Jack’s honeymoon in Florence, but then I want to know about their life together: future family holidays, the next step in Lucy’s career. I wonder if Maggie Carpenter was content running the family hardware store for the rest of her life, or if the edgy lamps she sold in NYC – and her love affair with a New York writer – catapulted her into a different career. And I hope – so much – that Iris, buoyed by Miles’ love and Arthur’s friendship and the gumption of a thousand Old Hollywood heroines, never let any man dim her brilliance ever again.

It’s a new month, and I need a new blog series, so for the next few Mondays, I’ll be diving into some of the films I adore, and musing on the other parts of these heroines’ stories: work and career, family and identity. I hope you’ll join me. It’s going to be fun.

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Let there be new flowering

Let there be new flowering
in the fields let the fields
turn mellow for the men
let the men keep tender
through the time let the time
be wrested from the war
let the war be won
let love be
at the end

I read this poem on Natalie Jabbar’s excellent poetry blog the day after the Derek Chauvin verdict (which was also the day I got my first vaccine). It made me straight-up cry. Let love be at the end.

April is National Poetry Month, and I have been sharing poetry – with an emphasis on women of color – here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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Generous Listening

A conversation can be a contest,
or a game of catch with invisible balloons.
They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,
sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,
and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.
You toss a phrase and understanding blooms
like an anemone of colored lights.
My mind fireworks with unasked questions.
Who is this miracle speaking to me?
And who is this miracle listening?
What amazingness are we creating?
Out of gray matter a star spark of thought
leaps between synapses into the air,
and pours through gray matter, into my heart:
how can I not listen generously?

I found this poem via On Being’s poetry archive; I’ve heard Nelson on their podcast before. It seems to me – in a year marked by isolation and loss – that we especially need generous listening right now.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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job hunt woes: the waiting.

You knew I was going to write about this, didn’t you? It’s inherent in most job searches: the time between sending out applications and getting a response, especially the one you want. And it can feel endless.

Some organizations send an auto-reply, letting you know your application has been received, and on very rare occasions I’ve received a “Thanks” email from a real live person. But there’s always the moment of Now what? after hitting “Send” or “Submit” on the application, knowing it could very well be weeks before I hear back, if I hear back at all.

There’s plenty to do while I wait, of course: researching and applying for other jobs, writing blog posts, doing freelance work, running, yoga, washing dishes. But some part of me is always waiting – not just for any job, but for the right job – to call me back and prove to me that the effort I spent crafting a cover letter and polishing my resume is worth it.

Waiting can be difficult at the best of times, even when you’re waiting for an outcome that’s likely to be good. With the job hunt, of course, there’s no way of knowing what will happen, or when. This additional lack of information (and control) can make the waiting even harder.

Job hunting often exposes deeper fears and frustrations about my life, and it’s especially true in this case. While I wait for my next job, it can feel like I’m waiting for my life to resume: to come out of that strange in-between limbo that sets in between jobs, especially as the pandemic drags on. It can feel like my worth is primarily tied up in the work someone will (eventually) pay me to do; more on that in a future post. It can feel like an exercise in futility, putting in energy and effort and creativity with no guaranteed return. And it can feel like this strange, in-between life will continue indefinitely.

As I keep sending out applications, I’m trying to acknowledge the waiting: it’s just part of the process, as in so many parts of life. I’m also trying to fill my days with things other than job hunting (morning runs, afternoon walks with friends, freelance gigs and enjoying the springtime are good for this). Some days the waiting is a steady background hum; other days it’s louder, more insistent. But I know I have to keep waiting, and working, until I find the next right thing.

How do you deal with job-hunt waiting, especially when it feels endless?

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It used to be a kind of game: I’d sit in meetings, especially ones marked “strategy” or “content,” and mentally (or sometimes physically) take note of every empty word or phrase my colleagues, or especially outside consultants, used to talk about our work. Words like stakeholders, platforms, multi-channel, workflow and especially content. The words ask and creative used as nouns; the word language used as a verb; acronyms like KPIs and ROI and SEO. I’ve even heard a few like operationalize (what?).

All of it makes me itch – it seems like a false, too-easy way to get away from talking about what we’re really doing (writing stories, interviewing people for podcasts, creating websites and brochures) and why we’re doing it (to get students to enroll, to advertise events or programs, to inform and entertain our alumni or other audiences). Jargon is also a way to exclude people: it’s so easy for students or new colleagues or even experienced folks not to know what you’re talking about. It’s gatekeeping language, often used to self-aggrandize or hide problems, and it is bland and impenetrable as tofu.

This is a problem as I continue the job hunt, because most of the job descriptions I’ve seen contain a fair amount of jargon. I can translate it, and I don’t fault them for it, necessarily, but the jobs I’m drawn to tend to be the ones whose posters write clearly and concisely about what the job actually entails. If a job description is stuffed full of hyphenated phrases with no real meaning, I’m wary of both the job and workplace it’s trying to describe.

While communications work in general is a bit more abstract than, say, serving coffee or teaching a yoga class, it does include measurable, concrete tasks along with the broader work of “strategy” and “ideation.” I don’t want to work at a place where people are so wrapped up in high-flown phrases that they’re unable to define what they actually do. We are all human beings who live in a tangible world, and I believe it’s important to talk about our work in human (vivid, interesting) terms. I also believe we should be able to laugh or roll our eyes at ourselves when we do get tangled up in jargon.

Have you run into long-winded, abstract job descriptions in your own searches? (Please tell me I’m not alone.) And other than a well-practiced eye roll, what is there to do about it?

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