A Little Bit of Wonder is where I journal about the somewhat roundabout way that I have been working to establish a career and a strong sense of self--I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about "direction" and "identity." I have a Master's Degree in Literature, but I'm no longer working as an English Professor; I'm starting the next step in my life as I work to establish a career as a writer in the non-profit sector.

At my companion blog, Little Wonder's Recommended Reading, you will find reviews for both books and other blogs that I enjoy. The two blogs are inter-linked, so you can access my reviews and reading challenges from the sidebar on the left.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Inescapable Grief

The last three weeks – the first three weeks at my new job – have gone pretty well overall. I’ve genuinely enjoyed myself as I have started to learn my new responsibilities; I’ve gone to several training seminars on grant writing in downtown NYC, posted my first few web articles on the organization’s website and sent out my first email newsletter. I’ve had fun getting to know my co-workers, and seeing as how I feel pretty satisfied with where I’ve landed, I’ve already begun nesting. My office is decorated with photos from my wedding, black and white snapshots of my grandparents and the obligatory Audrey Hepburn calendar. I’ve also stocked up on Jolly Ranchers, Home-style Popcorn and about ten different kinds of tea. I’m prepared for the afternoons when the munchies hit or my blood sugar starts to dip at three o’clock: I’ve even got chocolate covered pretzels stashed in my desk drawer.

Here I am, ready to become an expert on grant writing, public relations and marketing via social media. I’m excited to get started on the research that will help us write grants, reel in volunteers and set up a more targeted and effective (not to mention stylish) Facebook page. And I feel good about the fact that is all be for a worthy cause. But some mornings – just after I’ve put on my mascara, of course – and sometimes while I’m driving home on the New York State Thruway, I start to sob.

I’m not crying because of my job – I’m crying because my grandparents would be so proud and excited about my job and I can’t share it with them.

It was only a year ago that I was still able to call up my grandparents on my way home from work, and after asking me whether or not I was keeping my husband in line with a good smack every now and again, my grandfather would hand the phone to my grandmother. Grandma would then spend the next half an hour asking about my students – she remembered a lot of the details that I had told her about different students’ learning disabilities and how I was working with each one of them to improve their writing skills. She didn’t know their names, of course, but at that point, she was still able to keep them separate in her mind by what she knew about each one.

One of the great things about these conversations was that she was fully convinced that I had teacher super-powers. This is probably why I get grand, over-blown ideas about what I can accomplish, in fact – because of her unfailing belief in my ability to save the day. Even when I would get discouraged about the progress that one of my students was making (or not making), she would tell me, “You just keep working with her. She’ll come around in time, since you’re giving her extra attention.” Of course, my grandmother was no expert on learning disabilities or education – but she believed that I knew enough to do my job even better than the average teacher. And she loved that I was helping people.

But last March, my grandpa’s prostate cancer had finally spread to his bones and what had been a manageable condition now kept him confined to bed and in incredible pain. Radiation treatment didn’t really help – but it tired him out and made him even more miserable. And going back and forth every day to visit her husband in the hospital and then the nursing home, my grandma grew weaker and more confused. Her dementia, which had been progressing fairly slowly, grew worse because of all the stress.

Grandpa passed away last May, and Grandma followed five months later in October. I think she just decided it was time to go – her husband and all her oldest, closest friends were gone, she was losing the ability to take care of herself or even think clearly and despite all our best efforts, it was difficult for us to spend enough time with her. She needed constant care, and one of my family members could only be at the nursing home with her for a few hours each day. (I cannot express how much I hate that I live five hundred miles away from my family and could not be there with her.)

My grandparents have always been a huge part of my life; they babysat me at least three or four times a week when I was growing up. We went to the mall, out to dinner, to playgrounds and amusement parks and concerts...

Then they drove an hour out to Ypsilanti every week to visit me while I was in college. My grandma has always been one of my best friends – she was my favorite shopping partner, bought me my first mini-skirt, and even picked out my husband. I always let her take credit for that one – she was so proud of deciding that Jeremy was the one for me. “Don’t let him get away,” she told me, and I could only reply, “I’ll try not to… but there’s only so much that I can do.” Even so, she taught me a few tricks that apparently worked, because here I am married to the man of her selection.

So in 2010, I lost two of the people who have been the most influential in shaping who I am: the things that I believe and the ways that I understand the world, the ways that I act and the things that I treasure. They have always been a part of me because I have absorbed everything that they taught me, everything that they were and are, so completely into my own identity. I was in love with all the details that they could tell me about their courtship (see photograph); I wrote it all down in a book during college. I was always asking them questions about the Great Depression and World War II; my husband, my brother and I all liked to hear my grandpa’s army stories. From the time that I was young, they taught me to be a responsible, caring person – mostly through their own examples.

I could go on and on about how they were incredible role models for hours, but the main point is that they were amazing people who generously gave of themselves, serving their community and loving their family and friends with open, over-flowing hearts. So I know that my grandparents would be incredibly proud of what I am doing now; they would be first of all excited that I had earned a job based on my skills as a writer, and they would be thrilled to see me using my skills to help other people.

I can picture them – my grandfather would look like he was going to bust all the buttons on his shirt, with his giant grin breaking through his usually reserved nature. My grandma would be practically bouncing around, even at 90 years old. And she would be glowing. That’s really the only word that describes the way that she used to look when she would attend a performance, award ceremony or graduation for us while we were growing up. Glowing. Like one of those Day-glo Glow-Worms from the 80s. Beaming with pleasure that her offspring had accomplished what she, with her limited education, could not. People keep telling me that they would be proud of me, as though I need to be reassured – but I know better than anyone what they would be saying to me every day if they were alive right now.

My grandparents are a part of me, perhaps as no other people are a part of me. But now that they have died, what that means is that this grief is also a part of me. Sometimes it’s a dull ache, like the beginning of a cramp that you know will get worse even if you pop a couple of IBu Profen. Sometimes the grief is sharp and fast, as though I’ve sliced open my palm; it throbs and then grows numb. Sometimes it’s strangely combined with joy – tender grief and this delight bubbling up inside me that I believe I can sense what they would be saying and doing.

I think that grief is now an integral part of who I am as well, and so sometimes, when I am driving home from work, I think about what I would tell my grandma – I bought this green vase to put on the bookshelf in my office, and I brought in a blue glass candle holder that catches the light and refracts it all over the office. She would want to know how I was decorating the place. I wore a black and white striped collared shirt today, and a sparkly gray scarf. She would want to know what I was wearing. I think I need to get a darker shade of lipstick to match my dark winter clothing. She would offer to buy me a new tube of lip gloss at Clinique.

In these moments, I let the waves of grief wash over me as I'm driving home from work – and I realize that I don’t ever want to stop having these conversations with my grandma, even if they are really conversations with myself. This grief is a part of me now, a part of my identity just as much as everything that my grandparents taught me. And it may be painful, but I want the grief to remain part of my identity – because the alternative is forgetting everything about them that was so beautiful, and I’m just not willing to do that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green

She had gotten used to the byline, “Lois Lane, Investigative Reporter,” which looked real sweet on the front page of The Daily Planet. She worked her way to the top on her own – and she was used to getting all the credit for herself.

“It was nothing,” she tells her colleagues as they applaud her. The newsroom erupts in cheers after her latest exposé breaks, but despite her modesty, you can tell that she’s eating it all up from the wide smile on her face. She loves the attention, the notoriety. She loves the solo recognition.

Then Clark Kent shows up.

From a small town in Kansas, he might as well have been fresh off the boat, as far as Lois is concerned. But even though he only has a few articles from the Borneo Gazette to his name, he somehow wins over Editor-in-Chief Perry White – and suddenly the displeased Lois finds that she has a new partner. “Kent is a hack from Smallville,” she tells her boss, refusing at first to work with the handsome but inexperienced boy from Kansas. “Smallville. I couldn’t make that name up.”

When Lois finds that she can’t avoid the pairing, she gives Clark a huffy speech: “Let’s get something straight. I did not work my buns off to become an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet just to babysit some hack from Nowheresville…. You are not working with me, you’re working for me.” She pointedly informs him that he is way out of his league before they ever hit the streets together. No way she wants to share the byline with the guy she calls Mr. Green Jeans. "I am the top banana," she tells Clark – and with good humor, he confirms, “You like to be on top. Got it.”

But even though Clark Kent may have been “green” when he first arrived in Metropolis, having secret superpowers helped him climb the ranks faster than some of the Daily Planet’s less fortunate employees. Jimmy Olsen, for example, was always pitching story ideas and being told to go back to writing obits or fixing the Chief’s golf clubs. If someone wanted to hide information from Clark, he could always melt the locks on their file cabinets, listen in on their conversations with his super-hearing, or use his X-Ray vision to see what was going on behind all those closed doors. And presto – he has a career as an investigative reporter, without working nearly as hard as Lois had. Clark didn’t spend very long taking crap as the “junior reporter.”

It’s probably going to take me a little bit longer to adjust to the “reporter” part of my new job as a communications/public relations person, though. I have the enthusiasm – just no super-powers. I feel a zillion times more vulnerable than Kent when he first arrived in Metropolis.

In fact, I feel more like Deb in the first few episodes of Dexter. Deb is a cop assigned to vice at the start of the series, but desperately wants to work homicide. When she stumbles in to a serial killer case, she wants Dexter to help her figure out her next move. “Can I bounce some ideas off you later?” she asks him. “You know I always get smarter when I’m talking to you.”

“You just need a little more confidence,” he replies, a little insensitive despite his best efforts to help her reach her own potential. I’m not sure that I can define the look on her face when he says this – I think it’s a combination of disappointment, hurt, uncertainty, and even fear.

This is a mix of emotions so confusing and powerful that it can throw many of us for a loop, so you have to feel sorry for Deb. She remains hesitant, continues to stutter and stumble even after she is reassigned to the task force on the serial killer case. She asks for Dexter’s help several more times, then embarrasses herself during a meeting when she can’t clearly express the strategy for investigation that she and Dexter put together.

I know that feeling – that uncertainty that holds you back, that keeps you from acting on your gut and doing your job.

Last Friday, we held an event on the campus of our organization, and I had two main roles: to help take care of last minute details so that the event would run smoothly and to “report” on the event so that I could later write it up for our email bulletin, website and print newsletter. While the guests arrived, I was running around hanging parking signs, xeroxing extra fliers and getting coffee for the speakers. No problem. That’s the easy part.

But once all the guests had gone through the buffet line and were enjoying their breakfasts, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. It wasn’t time for the speakers to begin their presentations yet, but I couldn’t think of any questions for them. I had stood with one lobbyist for several minutes, making small talk about the buffet and wracking my brain – but I didn’t come up with a single question of substance.

But even though I wanted to sit down for a moment and rub my aching feet, I had the nagging feeling that I should be going out and talking to people in the crowd. Wouldn’t Lois Lane be asking questions? I thought. Wouldn’t she be gathering background information and looking for an angle?

I stood up and surveyed the crowd. Being new to the organization, I had no idea why any of these particular people had been invited to the event or who I should approach. The best idea I had was to ask my boss who from amongst the guests might be a good person to interview, although by doing that, I risked creating the impression that I couldn’t take care of my job independently.

I decided though, that since I had only been on the job two weeks, asking for a little direction would be okay. My boss was gracious – but distracted. “Oh, I know who you should talk to – you should talk to Betty…” she said, pointing across the room. “The woman with the short hair and the red sweater.” But that was the only description that she managed to provide before an important donor claimed her attention.

At that point, I had two options: I could either wait for my boss to finish with one donor and hope to get more of an explanation before someone else needed her for something, or I could simply go interview Betty cold turkey. Be like Lois Lane. I told myself. Wasn't that what you were just blogging about? Be bold. Go ask the woman questions.

“Excuse me,” I said, when I reached the woman with short hair and a red sweater. “My boss suggested that I come interview you for the piece that we’re writing up about the event, but honestly, I’m not sure why.”

That opening line ended up working much better than I expected, and I learned a lot of interesting things from Betty. None of those things made it into the short article that I wrote for our website, but I’m hoping that I can include some details from our conversation in the (longer) print newsletter that we will put out in July. Betty also introduced me to someone with whom she works, who likewise was very interesting to interview.

I haven’t tried to write a journalistic piece or report an event in years, but even though I felt more than a little bit rusty, I’m pleased with how the day went and the kinds of details I was able to jot down in my little reporter’s notepad. And yes, I got myself a little notepad. If I’m going to pretend to be Lois Lane, I’m going to go all out and accessorize. With those props in place, I feel ready – and that feeling is absolutely the same as being ready to do a job, right?

So here I am, notepad in hand, ready for the next story. I’m looking forward to the day that I’m not so green, though, and not so hesitant. I’ve got to plunge right in and ask questions – just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

Monday, February 21, 2011

One, Two, One, Two

I’ve been thinking lately about different ways that a person might define him or herself. For the last several months, I’ve been obsessively focused on my career because I’ve been in the midst of a career change, but I’ve been vaguely aware that it’s probably not healthy to define yourself solely (or predominantly) by your job, even if you hold the same position for thirty, forty, even fifty years. It’s hard not consider yourself first and foremost a teacher, a musician or a scientist when you’ve invested so much time and energy into a particular field like that and I’ve devoted myself to literature and teaching for so long that even when I no longer consider myself “Professor Schultz,” I still find that I can’t seem to separate my identity from stories, books and writing.

Even so, I know that there is more to me than a career, or even a long-standing and passionate interest that motivates my particular career choices. After thinking about the lives of my grandparents, who were generous, servant-hearted people, I’ve concluded that one alternative means defining an individual is by examining the ways that a person treats other people (see my post on that subject here). Our actions toward our friends and family will, if we look closely enough, reveal certain things about our character.

But my husband took me out to Greenwich Point Park on Long Island Sound this weekend, and as we sat by the water, I started to think about how certain sensations could also be something that connects the dots between many moments in a person’s life. A smell, a sound or a song – if experienced repeatedly, any of these could provide a link between different events in our lives and help make an individual moment more significant for us.

When my husband and I drove out to Greenwich Point Park, we found a beach unlike any that I can ever recall visiting before. There was no sand and very little grass – the entire shoreline was covered in shells. Just mounds and mounds of shells, which covered even the narrow parking area. This difference was exciting enough to propel me out of the car and into the cold wind, at least long enough to grab a couple of the shells and sparkling pieces of granite.

But the wind was far more blustery and cold out on the Point than we had anticipated, and we weren’t dressed warmly enough to enjoy walking along the shore. So we retreated to the warmth of our little Saturn and simply sat in the parked car by the water. We rolled the windows down about a half an inch and sat listening to the sound of the waves – and that’s when my sense of familiarity began to grow.

I don’t mean that I was experiencing déjà vu – it was not the sensation that I had been to this beach before. But it was the same sound of the water lapping against the shore that I have heard so many other times; the sound gave me the sense that this beach was tied to all the other beaches that I had visited, and that this moment was tied to many other moments that I have spent by the water.

“Do you remember,” I asked my husband, “the time that we went to Port Huron in March? It was so cold and everything was iced over. I was sick. My nose was stuffed up and I was incredibly miserable, but I went because you wanted to see the water so badly.” I paused, then added as an after-thought, “I love you a lot, you know, to go out like that in the middle of winter when I was sick. Especially the middle of winter in Michigan.”

“And do you remember,” I continued, “the time that we went to the beach and the wind was so strong that we had to sit with our heads under your jacket? We made ourselves a little tent to keep the sand out of our eyes, but we were determined to enjoy the beach, since we had driven all the way there already. I don’t remember where we were, though.” I paused, then observed, “We are such determined beach people.” I gestured to our current soundings. We were, after all, sitting by a shore that was partially iced-over.

“We both love the water,” he said simply.

And it hit me at that moment that this is part of who I am, who we both are. It may even be something that draws us together – the comfort that we are both able to draw from that sound of the waves on the shore, the need to listen to that particular natural rhythm.

In her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf, who is one of my favorite authors, relates that her “first memory, and in fact it is the most important of all my memories… is of lying half asleep, half awake, in a bed in the nursery at St. Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach; and then breaking, one, two, one, two, behind a yellow blind… of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive. I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written, in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me.

So it seems to me that a certain kind of person is drawn to that sound of the waves; that sound means something to me, to my husband, to many people. The sound is a constant – even if I go to the beach with different people, or to different beaches. Although I can’t express exactly what it means, the sound of the waves is something that ties together many moments of my life.

But it is not only the sound of the waves that seems to have the power to connect the dots between different moments of my life. I experienced a similar nostalgia when I returned to my grandparents’ apartment after my grandmother passed away last October. The space itself started to become foreign and uninviting once many of their things were packed up in boxes, but then I went into the bathroom. I noticed a particular, familiar click of the latch as I pulled the door shut behind me. The fluorescent light began a well-known hum when I flicked the switch, and the faucet made an oddly comforting sound as I twisted the knob. Then I listened to the creak of the cabinet door as I moved it back and forth. These sounds suddenly brought to mind the nights that I had stayed over at my grandparents’ apartment – I was reminded of the excitement that I felt when I stayed up until midnight with grandma watching I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore on Nick at Nite. I suddenly remembered the sneaky thrill I felt when I crept past my sleeping grandfather in order to use the bathroom during a commercial break.

I am not sure that I can explain how these sounds help define my identity, either. But the click of that door latch and creak of that cabinet are noises that tie together many special moments of my early life, when my grandmother and I stayed up late at night and no one else seemed to be awake; it was then that we shared a secret little world. The excitement that I felt during those sleepovers is the same excitement that I felt when I tried out my independence in other new ways – like sneaking out to see a movie or go to a party when I was in high school. And because it was my grandmother who taught me to be more independent and a little bit naughty (even though she was mostly a very proper lady), every time I try something new out on my own, the exhilaration that I feel reminds me of her.

In that way, so many moments of my life seem connected, and even the most disparate events seem to create a pattern. Just like the repetitive sound of the waves on the shore: one, two, one, two, one, two.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Thread that Runs Thoroughout

This post is dedicated to Xiaoyan, whose comment gave me a new way connect the dots between my own questions and two of the people that I love the most.

After realizing that a career as a college professor was no longer a realistic option for me, I struggled to find a new direction. At times, I felt discouraged by the thought that my life has had no clear, consistent focus. When the depression would lift, I could see that teaching and writing were two skills that I consistently used in various jobs and personal pursuits, and so I searched for a way to continue using one or both of those things in a new career field. Happily, I have found what (so far) seems to be the perfect new niche for me – a job in communications and grant writing for a non-profit organization. In my previous blog entry, I even wrote that as I start to fulfill some of the responsibilities of my new job, I have been able to see connections to my past aspirations – specifically, my childhood desire to be like reporter Lois Lane.

But a friend of mine posted a response to that entry that got me thinking. She wrote: “It's very nice that you're able to connect what you do now with your childhood dream/ambition. It seems you have always identified yourself mainly as a writer trying to use your words to make a difference. I've gone through many more identity changes…and now I'm really having trouble answering the “who am I?” question.

After reading that, I started to wonder what I would do if I hadn’t been able to find a job that matched my interests and skills so well. By connecting the dots between my childhood idol and some of the “reporting” that I will be doing in my new career, I have been able to find a thread that runs throughout the whole fabric of my life. But are there other ways of linking your different experiences? And why is it so important (for many of us, if not all) to find a connection like this between the past, the present and the future?

It has to do with, as my friend stated, the “who am I?” question. It’s difficult to feel like you understand who you are if you cannot find something that holds everything together. Human beings use all kinds of stories in order to give their lives meaning – it could be religion or history; it could be science or group-identification. But I think that most of us want to find consistency, a theme for our personal story, a narrative that defines our goal and purpose. Most of us feel better if we can say, “this is who I am” and “this is what I do.” So if you don’t rely on a consistent career path to help you define yourself, what kind of a thread or theme can you trace back through your life? What else can you use to help you determine the kind of person that you are?

The truth is, there have been many people who have not had the opportunity or the luxury of defining their identity through a “career path.” Throughout history, there have been a lot of people who were simply born into a trade – if a person’s father was a baker, he became a baker; if a man was a butcher, his son followed suit. Many people haven’t had to wonder about how to define themselves; they simply accepted the situation into which they were born. I sometimes wonder how I would feel if someone just handed me a butcher knife and expected me to learn how to slaughter a pig, simply because that’s what my father had done for a living. I'm fairly certain you would find me passed out in the corner of the butcher shop after a test run.

Of course, society evolved. Many people stopped invariably teaching their children the family trade, and while some people might have still defined themselves (or others) as farmers or factory workers, I wonder if many middle-class individuals relied on their jobs to understand themselves the way that so many career-driven young professionals do today. Some people never had the education or job training to establish themselves in a profession. They worked odd jobs all their life, or took a series of unrelated positions as the opportunities presented themselves. This was the situation for my grandparents – particularly my grandmother, who worked as a telephone switchboard operator, a sales clerk and a secretary. Because of my grandparents’ examples, I have the idea that the people of their generation didn’t tend to rely on a job to define themselves.

For example, even though my grandfather remained in the same line of work for many years, I don’t think about him as simply a Telephone Repair Man – and I don’t think anyone else does, either. After briefly working on an assembly line at a Fanny Farmer candy factor, Grandpa got a job with Bell Telephone and remained with the company for 38 years, so he had more of an opportunity to establish a career than my grandmother. He had to learn specialized skills to do his job – they didn’t yet use cherry pickers, so he had to climb telephone poles with special spiked boots, and once he was up there, he had to deal with all those wires. When he went overseas during World War II, he was part of a communications unit that was responsible for maintaining telephone operations between different parts of the Allied forces. So his commitment to telephone communications could be seen as a thread that ran throughout the different parts of his life.

When I think about my grandfather, however, I think about him more generally as a handyman. His career with Bell Telephone was only a part of that. Grandpa knew how to make things, fix things, run and maintain things. He built the tire swing in our backyard and a three-story Barbie house for me out of bookshelves. He always took my car for an oil change and mowed the lawn at my parents’ house. He trimmed the bushes, raked the leaves, and kept everything in the workbench neatly organized and labeled. He also did all kinds of work for my uncle and aunt’s business and volunteered for odd jobs and janitorial work at our church.

If you want to understand who my grandpa was as a person, you have to know that that he was a handyman – and you have to understand why he did these things. He used his skills as a handyman to serve our family and our church because that was how he showed his love and commitment to people. He checked the fluid levels of my car so that I would never run out of oil and get stranded somewhere when the engine conked out. He brought an extra half-gallon of milk over to our house in the middle of the week so that my mother wouldn’t have to worry about going to the grocery store after work. He wanted us to be safe and happy; he was the patriarch of our family and to him that meant being a consistent, thoughtful provider. He had no objection to women having careers, – he just believed in serving the people that he loved in as many ways as possible.

Once his cancer kept him confined to his bed, I could tell that he didn’t really want to stick around much longer – not just because he was in pain, but because he couldn’t be himself any more. He couldn’t take care of us. “Where have you been?” he would fret if we didn’t come to the nursing home until late in the day. “I’ve been laying here worrying about you people.” I could barely keep from crying when he said things like that. Here he was, in so much pain from the cancer eating away at his bones, and he was worried about us. That was just who he was, though – the welfare of the people that he loved was always more important to him than his own welfare, and he had to express that in certain ways. He had to be able to mow the lawn or run the errands – he had to be able to keep things working. He had the heart of a superhero and the practicality of a working man.

And so my grandfather’s example has taught me that it’s not your career-oriented actions that define who you are as a person – it’s all of your interactions with people and the way that you live up to your responsibilities. Whether or not you have a career, I think you can define yourself as a specific kind of person by examining the ways that you treat people, the types of things that you do for those that you love, the ways that you enjoy yourself and bring happiness to others. [My grandmother also helped to teach me this, and I will post more on that next time.]

I only hope that as I work to define myself both in and outside of the workplace, that I can consistently be a loving, unassuming person like my grandfather. It might be too much to ask me to be unassuming – but I really hope when I look back on my life, I can trace a thread that I shows I consistently, patiently serve other people.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Little Bit Like Lois Lane

Before there was Buffy, there was Lois Lane.

Lois first appeared in Action Comics No. 1, which was published in June of 1938, and she wasn’t a push-over even in the late 1930s. She has only appeared in five frames of the story before she slaps a rude and unwelcome suitor across the face, then she stomps out in a huff because Clark Kent hadn’t stood up to the man on her behalf.

“Be reasonable, Lois,” says the undercover superhero, who wishes to avoid a scene. “Dance with the fellow and then we’ll leave right away.”

Hands on her hips, she replies, “You can stay and dance with him if you wish, but I’m leaving NOW!” And then comes the SMACK.

When she’s around Clark, she’s a sassy career girl – but she melts like a Hershey Kiss on a hot summer day as soon as Superman swoops onto the scene. And although I didn’t grow up reading the original comic series, the Lois Lane that I knew was very similar: both a high-minded feminist and secret romantic, a hard-bitten journalist with an idealistic dream of making the world a better place.

I was ten years old in 1993 when Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman was first broadcast on ABC, and my family soon started watching the show every Sunday night. For several years, it was an important tradition – pop a bag of Orville Redenbacher, stretch out on the couch, and enjoy the antics of Dean Cain (Clark), Teri Hatcher (Lois), John Shea (Lex Luthor) and Lane Smith (Perry White, now styled as an Elvis-impersonator).

I already invoked the image of Wonder Woman in a previous entry, but Lois Lane is actually a much more accurate role model for my career path and a much more important idea in the history of my writing career.

When I was in junior high, I wanted so badly to be Lois; she embodied or had so many of the things that I desired for my own life. Here was an independent woman, a career writer campaigning for justice. She had found a way to use her words in powerful ways that had a fairly immediate impact on her community and earned her a certain amount of prestige as well, which she leveraged on behalf of other people. Here was a working woman who was determined to be successful, and although she felt torn by the desire to be involved in a romantic relationship, she refused to compromise her goals or her integrity. She seemed like a superhero in her own right, brandishing the power of the press.

My high school didn’t have a school paper, but when I got to college, I found that my roommate was a journalism major and worked for the university’s newspaper. I signed myself up right away – I was going to be a reporter just like Lois Lane.

Of course, then I discovered that journalism is nothing like creative writing. I had been accustomed to writing lengthy, rambling journal entries and poems with drippy romantic phrases, which I dedicated to the current love of my seventeen-year-old life. Working for a newspaper, though, you have to squeeze most of the who, what, when and where into the lead sentence, then explain the how and why in fairly concise terms. I was disappointed to realize that as a journalist, you haven’t got the ability to pussyfoot around with poetic language and metaphors like a teenage girl alone in her room with her diary. So, after writing exactly two articles for the news section of the Eastern Echo, I decided that maybe I should try my hand at being a theater and arts columnist instead of a feature writer. But as a college freshman, even that seemed like too much work because I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy the performance – I had to be turned on during the whole show. Since at that time, I was mainly concerned with enjoying myself – like most college freshmen – I dropped that gig pretty quickly too.

Of course now, I live much more in the real world.

After four years of undergraduate education and two years of graduate school, I’m a much more serious researcher and writer. I still love poetry, but I understand a lot more about what makes language a powerful tool. A well-written proposal or argument may use a few poetic or unusual images, but mostly relies on clarity and the immediate deployment of those cold, hard facts. I’m back to the who, what, when, where, why and how. I’ve just learned to enjoy the process of relating those things with as much of a creative spin as I can muster.

And now I’ve got the opportunity to be a little bit like my childhood role model Lois Lane: I got to “cover” my first “story” at work yesterday. Of course, this meant walking over to the alternative high school on the campus of our social services organization so that I could watch the reading teachers award their high achievers of the marking period, which doesn’t exactly seem like front page news. Yet in a way, it is – these are kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have struggled a great deal with their academics in the past. To earn the attention of a teacher or a mentor shows great progress in their ability to remain focused and pursue academic goals that are extremely important for their future success. So while I may not yet be uncovering ponzi schemes or assassination attempts like the dogged Ms. Lane, my little blurb in the electronic newsletter might play a role in encouraging these students toward further success.

It’s a little thing, a baby step, but it feels good – like I’m about to embark on something bigger. Once I figure out how to put together the newsletters, pamphlets and other publicity materials for our organization, I think I’ll be helping the campaign to uphold “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” just like Supes and his feisty girlfriend. I’ll be doing essentially what Lois does – telling people’s stories in order to give them a voice, find help and justice for others like them. I have a bigger opportunity to try this out on Friday, when I am covering our organization’s “Legislative Action Day,” a fairly important event for our department and our overall establishment. I’m excited and a little nervous – and I’ll try to calm my nerves by picturing Teri Hatcher with a pen in hand, scribbling down notes at press conference.

It’s funny how at first I thought that my career change would be a tragedy, a jarring disconnect from the previous directions and pursuits of my life – but now it seems like I have always wanted this job, always been preparing for it.

I can finally try my hand at being Lois Lane.

(Of course, this is a very high-minded, idealistic way of thinking about my job... but that's a topic for another post.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

To My Husband, the Feminist

A few months ago, while I was still working part-time as an English Composition professor, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who is similarly working to build a career as a writer. We have a lot in common – we’re both married to scientists who have had to support us as we try to establish some sort of career for ourselves in a field that is difficult to break into and isn’t very lucrative. We both have struggled to consistently pull in a decent paycheck. And we both have felt frustrated and guilty that our husbands have been the major breadwinners – we were raised, after all, as feminists. Nobody should have to take care of us, right?

Yet I had to confess to her that I had started to contemplate throwing in the towel on this “career” thing and becoming a full-time housewife – it would just be easier than having to backtrack and start a whole new career AGAIN. I had become fairly frustrated with my own situation by last fall; I had been unable to find full-time employment without a Ph.D. and I was facing the prospect that even if I earned a doctorate, I still might not be able to get a full-time professorship. There’s just simply too much competition out there, vying for a very few teaching positions. And honestly, I was starting to enjoy the days of experimenting with new recipes, taking mid-morning walks, running on the grocery errands myself, doing laundry and reading novels. I could get used to a schedule that involved taking care of all the tedious chores so that my husband didn’t have to worry about anything when he got home – while also having plenty of extra time that I could dedicate to book blogging and Dexter.

This admission felt like a shameful confession, though; I told her I was starting to feel like a “failure as a feminist.” (Read her thoughts on our conversation here.) We women are supposed to be gung-ho career types these days. If you choose to be a housewife because that’s what you enjoy, then you’re not a failure. But what if you start off pursuing a career and then hit a glass ceiling – or a brick wall? What if you just can’t cut it in your chosen career field? You’re good – but not good enough. There’s too much competition and you haven’t managed to claw your way to the top of the pile. What if it’s only at that point that you choose to become a housewife, just because it’s easier? The idea of extra time for novels and movies was tempting, but I knew that I would loose respect for myself if I just gave up the idea of a career entirely.

What compounded my frustration with my job situation and made me truly miserable, though, was that my lack of steady income had started to cause a lot of friction between my husband and myself. He truly wanted me to pursue my dream of being a Literature Professor and he had been very supportive over the first five years of our marriage, as I applied to graduate schools, earned my Master’s Degree, applied to Ph.D. programs and took a couple of part-time teaching gigs to gain experience and build my resume. But when we found out that I had basically no shot at competing for full-time professorships in the New York Metro Area (because most applicants already have their Ph.D.), he wanted me to change my career plan. He would send me emails full of job listings – mostly marketing and public relations positions.

I tried to be gracious, but inside I was screaming, no, no, NO! I’m a TEACHER. That’s who I AM. I am not a marketing strategist; I am not a speech writer. I am a TEACHER. Again, that’s WHO I AM. This has already been decided and established.

Of course, I have already mentioned that I probably rely too much on my “career” to define my identity, but I really don’t know how to avoid doing that. I become extremely invested in whatever I am doing with my time, and I had invested a lot in earning my Master’s Degree and learning how to run a classroom.

But I really did try to be gracious – because I understood his frustration and felt pretty darn guilty. My husband is a feminist, too, and he had not signed up to take care of his pretty little wife in a 1950s-style marriage. (The poor guy had not chosen right for that set-up, anyway – he’s a much better cook than I am. I tend to dry out the chicken, burn the bacon and have absolutely no clue how to spice/flavor anything. I just dump in a bunch of salt.) My husband had married me expecting to get a partner. Someone to help him pay the bills and take on approximately half the chores. Someone to share the weight, so that it wasn’t all on his shoulders. And that’s what I agreed to do when I married him – share the weight. So far, though, I think I’ve been more of a load to carry, as opposed to someone who is helping him carry the load.

So this fall, I had to face the facts – I’ve been both a bad feminist and a bad wife. At least that’s how I felt, since I wanted to prioritize my career over being an equal partner financially with my husband (bad wife) and then I wanted to give up my career when I wasn’t finding success (bad feminist). This was an incredible identity crisis – especially for someone as pie-in-the-sky ambitious as I am, someone so determined to be good at everything she does. I dream big and I talk big; I always imagined myself changing the world. But I’ve learned in the first five years of my marriage that it’s hard enough to make sure the bills get paid – never mind being some kind of social justice superhero. My new job is the closest I’ve ever come to finding a way to make money while saving the world – and we’ll just have to see how much of the world I am really able to save. But up to this point, I’ve been sailing along and ignoring what was probably obvious all along: that there just isn’t a big enough market for Literature Professors. I was sacrificing some of my husband’s trust in order to pursue a dream that at some point became unrealistic.

If I had given up the dream of being a professor because my husband just didn’t want me to pursue that route, then I would have been a failure as a feminist. But I’ve sense come to realize that switching gears doesn’t make me a failure – it makes me a pragmatist.

And it has nothing to do with my feminism – my husband had to do the exact same thing. He earned his Ph.D. with the intention of being a Psychology Professor and Researcher; he had to start looking for jobs out in the corporate world because he realized that it might take him years to find a teaching position that paid enough money to cover the bills and offered benefits. He had to compromise too – and he did it for me. He wanted to make sure that I would have health care, enough money to pay the doctor’s bills and insurance to cover the cost of all the allergy medications that I take daily. He had to be realistic and gave up his original dream a lot sooner than I did.

So this Valentine’s Day, I wanted to post about my wonderful husband – not because he bought me flowers or candy (which he didn’t, anyway) and not because he brought me perfume and lotion (which he did, for the record) but because he was grown-up enough to give up his dream to make sure that I would stay healthy, and because he was enough of a feminist to let me pursue my own dream for a few years longer than he was able to pursue his. He’s given me things that have been so much more valuable than flowers or candy, and in return this Valentine’s Day, I am finally becoming what he has always wanted – now that I have a full-time job, I can be a real partner.

Feminism is all about equality, anyway.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Wonder Woman & the Non-Profit Sector

It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.

— Samuel Johnson

I found this quote on the opening page to Writing for a Good Cause: The Complete Guide to Crafting Proposals and Other Persuasive Pieces for Nonprofits by Joseph Barbato and Danielle S. Furlich. This is one of a couple of books that I picked up to help me learn the ins and outs of my new job as a Communications Associate and Grant Writer for a social services non-profit.

Johnson’s quote is an incredibly idealistic statement, but one that I have always believed in one way or another. From the time that I first set my sights on becoming a novelist (something that is less of a priority now, but still a goal) I knew that I wanted to write books that changed people. Books that made them laugh and think and cry and ache inside. Books just like the ones that I would read in bed with a flashlight. Books that created an expansive feeling in my chest, as though there was a balloon in my heart that someone kept inflating a little more, a little more… Yes, I have long thought that the writer’s duty is to make the world better, whether it is by telling an important story in a novel or a news article, or recording a beautiful sensory moment in verse.

So a writer’s job is to create expressive prose and use stories to help readers build a compassionate understanding of people who lead different lives in different worlds than their own – but I have always thought about this as an artistic endeavor. A noble pursuit, but one that often leads to destitution. Plenty of people have lived as starving artists in remote cabins and cold apartment garrets in order to write their beautiful stories and heartbreaking poems – so many works which have been incredibly important to the development of human society. I’ve always admired the authors who have stuck it out under these types of circumstances – but I have to admit that I always end up asking my grandmother or my husband for a little bit more money to tide me over to the next pay check (whenever that might come). I’m not the starving artist type. I can’t write if I’m hungry – thus the need for a “real” job.

As I am reading this book, though, I suddenly find this idealistic, naïve sentiment – that a writer is an agent of change – being paired with a job that actually earns me a decent paycheck. The book talks about transformation through the written word as not just an artistic ideal, but as a “duty.” Like I and all my colleagues can be superheroes, wielding the written word as a mighty weapon. I’ve had enough experiences with saying the wrong thing to know that words can be very powerful – statements and stories can be agents of both positive change and painful (!) negative consequences. But I’ve finally landed a job where my words can make a positive, tangible difference in people’s lives – and I get paid. This seems a little bit miraculous (although I have to take into consideration that much of the actual work of a grand writer is somewhat tedious, so it’s not entirely perfect).

I read the quote again: “It is always the writer’s duty to make the world better.” Talk about stroking the old ego. You’re special, Lauren – you can’t work for an air conditioning company or a corporate headquarters. (Well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along…) You have a responsibility to put your words to work for the GOOD of all mankind.

Here comes the newly empowered Wonder Woman… and her inflated sense of self.

The Introduction for Barbato and Furlich’s book continues stroking my ego:

Let’s deal with an assumption that pervades most fund-raising offices. It is this: Anyone can write. The gobbledygook we all encounter in office memos every day gives the lie to those three words. Yet the notion that anyone can write, and presumably write well, persists. The personal computer, which allows us to move words, paragraphs, and sections any which way and to remove and add words with great ease, has given even more power to the idea that we are all writers… [but] it is an assumption made only outside the world of professional writing: Editors of newspapers and magazines and at book publishing houses are well aware that not everyone can write… [and that] stringing words together with an occasional period is not writing no matter how pretty it looks when it comes out of a laser printer.

In other words, Lauren, you are special. You don’t just string words together and add periods here and there for effect. You have a craft. A craft that may not pay very much when you produce fiction, but a craft that is appreciated in other sectors. A craft that will earn you respect and a paycheck, now that you've found this job, because not very many others can write as clearly and as persuasively as you can.

I don’t need to feel important for what I do, though – I need to feel that I’m good at what I do. I’m the kind of person who, if I decide to spend my time doing something, wants to be really good at it – whatever it may be. So now I have this image of myself as Wonder Woman, with several lofty long-term goals. I shared those aspirations with my boss on Friday, and with an enthusiastic smile she told me that she’s “all for it.” I don’t think she was just humoring me, either. If you’re really good at your job as a grant writer, it is possible to achieve the kinds of things I mentioned to her:

My Long-term Goals

1. Get our organization into national publications like the New York Times and Time Magazine (more publicity leads to more donations, which means that the organization can help more people).

2. Get our organization funding from wealthy, high-profile grantmakers like Oprah. Yes, I said Oprah. I’m going for the big guns.

I may not get the president of my organization all the way to Oprah’s television studio in Chicago, but I’m not going to worry about mud on my face for posting these ambitious (ridiculous?) goals, either. You’ve got to aim high to get anywhere in life. It’s kind of like Les Brown said: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.” Except really, he got it backwards – you should aim for the stars, which are infinitely farther away. Hopefully if you aim for galaxies far, far away, you’ll land on the moon, which is still a pretty big accomplishment. C.S. Lewis, my absolute favorite author, similarly said, “Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”

Well, Wonder Woman can fly, can’t she? So here I go, the new author-superhero, launching myself into the work of grant writing. Hopefully I’ll make it far out into space – and with any luck, my inflated ego won’t weigh me down too much.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Changing the Roll

Stop for a moment and picture those public restroom toilet paper dispensers that hold four rolls of toilet paper. These machines allow the maintenance staff to load up the TP once a day, which is of course handy for them. But what about the poor saps using the public restroom? Have you ever been stuck trying to rotate these dispensers and start a new roll?

Moving the new roll into place isn’t really so difficult – the problem is that you have to reach up into the dispenser and try to peel the wrapper off the roll, then try to find where the new roll of paper starts and pull it off from the rest of the roll. Of course, you can’t see what you’re doing very well because the roll is up in the machine, which is made of semi-opaque plastic, so basically you’re sitting there, picking at the toilet paper and hoping desperately that you will be able to find the start of the roll. Eventually, you may get frustrated and decide to just rip at the toilet paper wherever, shredding it and pulling it off in uneven clumps, but at least getting some TP off the darn thing.

It occurred to me today that starting a new job can be a little bit like using one of these dispensers.

At first, things start smoothly. You rotate the new roll into place. You meet people, get an ID badge and a corporate email address and a phone extension. You check your email – only two messages, one from your boss and another from the only co-worker that you know. You are handed a packet of materials to read, in order that you might familiarize yourself with your new duties. You start slowly, wanting to absorb all the information so that you will be fully prepared to do your new job to the best of your ability.

Then you sit through a two day New Employee Orientation, which is a little bit like pulling the wrapping off the new roll. It’s necessary in order to get to what you actually need to get to – the job underneath. (I could say more on NEO, but I will refrain for now. No matter how yawn-worthy, these types of orientations are necessary.)

After orientation is over, you plunge into the world of your new job – you’ve suddenly got a to-do list. Actual responsibilities. But without having performed these duties before, you’re a little unsure of how to go about doing them. The best way to learn, though, is to just do them. This is like picking at the roll of TP, shredding it at times. There will probably be a bit of a mess at first, a few less-than-successful attempts, but hopefully after a bit of picking at it, things will start to unroll properly. You’ll get into a groove. You’ll know what you’re doing.

I am about to begin the picking and the shredding – wish me luck.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Gothic Tale

I have been dreading the prospect of being chained to a desk from nine to five. I have avoided traditional employment in the business world for most of my life. But once I started applying for corporate public relations jobs, I was anticipating that once I became an office drone, I would at least be able to write some sardonic blog posts about the monotony of it all. It would be commentary hopefully as depressing and hilarious as Office Space. After two days at my new job, though, I am starting to think that I may not have much of a reason to complain about monotony – and I certainly don’t think I’m going to experience any depression over the futility of my work.

First of all, I don’t work in an office building; I work in a yellow brick mansion constructed in the late 1880s. Formerly our organization’s functioning orphanage, the beautiful manor house has been converted into the administration building. Its three-story façade is impressive and even a bit intimidating; it reminds me of Manderley in Daphne de Maurier’s novel Rebecca and Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Although many of the rooms have been subdivided into offices with drop-down ceiling panels and fluorescent lights, graceful arched doorways and the original (albeit somewhat chipped) pattern of floor tiles remain intact. Some of the larger offices and public spaces still have beautiful leaded glass windows and to get to my office, I have to climb a wide, winding staircase with an iron scrollwork banister. The property is set right on the Hudson River and the windows along the western side of the mansion look out over the water and at the sheer face of the Palisades Cliffs, which right now are partially covered in snow and looking even more stark than usual. The atmosphere has a slightly romantic, slightly ominous feeling; when I am sitting in my office and the wind comes across the river, the mournful blustering sound of it makes me feel a little isolated and forlorn. I do not mind, though – I felt a shiver of excitement today as I listened to it, imagining that I really was tucked away in a corner of Thornfield Hall and hearing the wind come across the barren English moors.

A little atmosphere can go a long way to breaking up the monotony of office life, so instead of a sardonic blog post about my first day at work, I could write you a haunting Gothic tale – and I can even include a ghost story. While the building was still functioning as an orphanage, there was a fire on the third floor which trapped and killed several of the children. Instead of rebuilding the destroyed section, the organization simply had it demolished it – I suppose it was cheaper that way. All that is left of the former level now are staircases that climb up to a non-existent third story, which is strange enough. But some employees swear that even though there are no longer any children in the building, they have sometimes heard in the stairwell a little girl calling out, “There’s a fire! There’s a fire!” from somewhere above the second story landing.

My Gothic tale also contains a mystery – the mystery of the previous Grant Writer’s identity and disappearance. As I am introduced to other employees, my co-workers keep informing people, “This is Lauren. She’s taking Natalia’s place.” People nod, smile, and welcome me. No more is said about Natalia, though, and this brief but constant allusion has made me curious – who is/was this woman that I am replacing? How old was she? What did she look like? What happened to her?

Natalia is such a pretty, exotic name that sparks my imagination on its own, even without the mystery of her disappearance from the organization. When my brother and I were young, we used to watch a movie from the early 1980s called Condorman. Starring a young Michael Crawford, Condorman is a wonderfully ridiculous flick about a comic book illustrator who is mistaken for a CIA agent and must help Natalia, a glamorous KGB agent with almond-shaped eyes and full lips, defect from the Soviet Union. While Crawford bumbles through the adventure, Natalia remains striking in every scene and cool as a cucumber. I have therefore always been fascinated and a little bit in love with that name.

I am doubting that Grant Writer Natalia was quite as exotic as Michael Crawford's sexy KGB agent, though. I was able to discover only a little about my predecessor while cleaning out my new office – she had left behind some cobwebs and some odds and ends, most of which I swept into the dustbin. I was amused to find a Xerox of her hands, though, set on the copier in such a way as to make a heart.

Natalia had also bequeathed me a bunch of colorful paperclips in the shapes of stars, hearts, musical notes and fists making a thumbs-up. Finally, I found a stash of fortunes from Chinese fortune cookies, but none of them were very interesting. I was a little bit disappointed – I was hoping that she had saved fortunes that were particularly unusual and might yield a clue about her personality. They were all trite sayings like, “Happiness isn’t an outside job, it’s an inside job.” I suppose these fortunes do reveal something about her – she is the type of person that enjoys platitudes. So, what I had uncovered about her thus far was that she likes cute paperclips and clichés.

I decided to ask my co-workers about her, which finally dispelled the mystery. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to ask,” I said, letting my voice trail off for a moment. “But Natalia – what happened to her? Why isn’t she working here any more?”

There was a pause, and then one of them said, “Well, Natalia… she got fired when…”

My breath quickened: I was about to hear something juicy.

“Just kidding,” he said with a laugh. “She decided to back to graduate school.”

I let out a slow, slightly disappointed breath. My Gothic tale has lost a little steam at this point, since the disappeared young woman hasn’t met a mysterious or tragic end of any kind. She picked up and went of her own free will, leaving behind her paper clips, a Miami sweatshirt, and a cheap, dusty fake chrysanthemum plant. But I still have my ghost story and the sound of the wind across the water.

As you can see, my job hasn’t robbed me of my imagination or the literary side of my identity as of yet. The atmosphere of the organization has, in fact, nurtured my story-telling nature. If my soul is sucked away by this desk job, it will have more to do with an encounter with the ghosts of the orphans than the monotony of any desk work…

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