I am a big fan of the Thursday Next series, the alternate reality, extremely British series by Jasper Fforde. Last year, I read his new, even more insane book, “Early Riser“:
The basic premise of “Early Riser” is that everyone hibernates, like bears, through the winter. Society is therefore structured around the hibernation season: eating more leading up to winter, surviving the winter without starving to death, and shutting down everything that isn’t absolutely essential during the winter season. For those of us with seasonal depression, this actually sounds like a fantastic idea as it would relieve 100% of the pressure on us to function during the winter months.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a society structured around winter hibernation, and as a result, I have to keep functioning until the time change and vernal equinox in March. With depression though, I have to expend twice as much energy to accomplish what feels like half as much work. It is difficult to start an activity or action, and I do not feel any sort of joy or sense of reward from completing it. With the commitment level that I have in my life, I then feel stress, anxiety and guilt for not having completed the tasks that I owe to other people, whether that is at my paying job, my volunteer work, or to my family. The resulting pressure mounts up over the next few months and by March, I’ve usually hit a wall:
This year, however, I’ve been blessed in that spring seems to have come early to the Northeast. The weather this weekend has been sunny and brisk, but not freezing. The world is filled with light and early blooming spring flowers. I feel like I am waking up, like my hibernation is over, like it is mentally safe to emerge and take back on my usual day to day existence without having to fear that I won’t be able to honor or complete my commitments. We may be doomed to changing weather patterns in the Anthropocene, but at least the 2020 weather patterns are benefiting me personally!
Still. I wouldn’t mind a hibernation period every winter. I would love it if nothing was expected of me every winter for about three months, while I slept and allowed my brain to rest and heal itself. Perhaps someday I’ll be in a position where I can align my life with the seasons, allow myself not to fight and struggle as hard as I can against the constraints of depression every winter. Perhaps I am made to hibernate. Between the idea of hibernation, and the concept of literature as a driving force of society, Fforde is onto a lot of alternate reality ideas I would be happy to get behind.
Many, many years ago, back at a small agency called Integrated Media Solutions (now integrated into Assembly at MDC), one of the agency owners thought it would be smart to put “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters around the office. My immediate smart-ass response was to purchase a “Now Panic and Freak Out” T-shirt
It’s a good thing that I still have that T-shirt, because this mentality has taken over the entire world this week as the coronavirus panic spreads across continents. My college friend who is now in Basel, Switzerland is waiting to be put on quarantine. My former co-worker in Melbourne, Australia is trying to buy supplies at the local grocery store only to find bare shelves. And here in New York, lines for Trader Joe’s are two hours long, while the Park Slope Food Coop volunteers frantically try to keep the shelves stocked. Y’all, it is not even a real apocalypse and you’re all terrifying me in your survivalist style hoarding.
I am rationally not afraid of COVID-19: Paul and I are both young-ish and in good cardiovascular shape, and this particular disease only manifests as a bad cold in 80% of the population. What is terrifying is the global response that triggers my anxiety from years of reading flupocalypse novels. I’ve read The Stand at least four times. Station Eleven captured me with the intensity of its characters and vision, an elegy for the world as we know it today. Severance struck me with the comparisons of nostalgia and routine comfort to a fatal disease. All of these are haunting novels that portray the extreme transformation of the human aspects of the world due to the spread of a highly contagious flu, and I have absorbed each of them. Hence my low grade fear and anxiety as everyday people around the world engage in preventative actions that could well be from any of these books. It is too easy for my brain to connect the coronavirus preparations being taken in NYC to plot points taken out of an apocalyptic narrative.
Most recently, I read Kimi Eisele’s The Lightest Object in the Universe, which is described as “hopeful apocalyptic fiction” for its depiction of communal living and support among neighbors. However, the book opens with a quick history of how the infrastructure fell apart, depicting a series of economic and environmental factors, including the flu, leading to the breakdown of electricity and supply chains:
Eisele’s factors are more Snow Crash than the Stand, with hyperinflation and oil supply chain breakdown. While the complete breakdown of the supply chain and power grid may be unlikely in the immediate future, the impact of the coronavirus on the world economic markets has made me feel that we are all more financially vulnerable than we would like to think we are. Seeing the impact of the virus on the world’s economies, combined with the obvious drain on the supply chain from stockpiling for quarantines, it is a reminder that the reason dystopian fiction sells so well is because we are always only two steps away from society potentially breaking down, with or without without the electrical infrastructure we’ve built on for the last century.
In the event of a breakdown of society in the U.S. though, my family unit is better poised than most to survive thanks to our experience in the Scouting and Guiding systems. I have never been worried about mine or my loved ones’ survival. Rather, I have been worried about having to deal with everyone else acting like a crazed maniac in irrational attempts to survive. Seriously, New Yorkers, you are buying bottled water and stripping stores bare over one confirmed case in Manhattan where the woman is already quarantined. Stores are sold out of what I still call “SARS masks”, even though less than half the population bothers to get a flu shot. I can’t find the statistics but I would bet money that the same people who are preparing for the flupocalypse are also not washing their hands any more frequently than before. What kind of mayhem would result if this disease had a higher mortality rate than 2.4%?
Fear of the disease has become irrelevant in the wake of the imminent disease strike in NYC though, so we’re preparing for quarantine at home. We’ll stock up on dried beans and rice, canned tuna, frozen and long-life storage vegetables. We’ll prep to work from home, or to have stores around us closed, because we can. I am more concerned for those who cannot take time off, or who cannot afford to stockpile, or both. Food pantries are worried about providing supplies to people in case of a quarantine. Care workers, especially those working with vulnerable populations like the elderly or hospitalized, are already underpaid and given little time off – is it any wonder that the outbreak in Seattle is centered around a seniors care facility? We have set up a society where we have a massive working population whose pay and vacation are so limited that they literally cannot withdraw from contact with others at the risk of food and shelter insecurity. It is meaningless to have a quarantine in a society with this level of inequality. Perhaps, after all, a societal collapse is not only imminent, but needed: a panic and freak out for the ages.
So begins one of my favorite tweets about the disastrous (for Peloton) commercial from Xmas 2019:
It’s that commercial people reference when I admit that I got a Peloton for the holiday. Of course, my husband did not buy it for me. Rather, I convinced him that we needed not only to spend the cash on the bike, but also to subsequently create space for it in our small Brooklyn apartment:
Still, I feel like unjustifiably self-indulgent for just having this thing. Part of that is that the bike is the only luxury product I’ve ever bought. My clothes are bought on sale. We drive a Honda Civic. I fly coach and use miles like they’re the new green stamps. I meal plan so we don’t have to spend money on takeout or waste food. Even my road bike is a Craiglist purchase. The Peleton bike is an insanely expensive toy when juxtaposed with our generally non-luxury lifestyle. It’s also a lot of money that isn’t going to better works: money that I am not donating to charities or even saving for my own retirement. It’s money I could have donated to actually help people.
This is, of course, part of my own hangup over making a good salary when millions of Americans do not. Paul reminded me that I earned the money for this bike. I don’t disagree, but I also feel it’s unfair that I was able to earn this money when thousands of people work just as hard as I do, at equally challenging jobs, and do not receive the same compensation. If I am fortunate enough to be making money that I do not need to survive as part of my job at a media agency, should I not be contributing more of that money to help people and sharing my good fortune with the world?
Despite this line of thought, my altruism was short lived. I realized that I loved the bike as soon as I got it. The instructors are cheerful and encouraging. My favorite is the woman who is now a professional cyclist because she was told her thighs were too thick for ballet or modeling, who talks about her professional cycling career, emphasizes results over body size, and shares enough of my GenXer taste in music to make all my workouts joyful. Even with other instructors though, the workouts are always a dance party on a bike, because I can preview the playlists to make sure I will have fun. Some people may be riding the Power Zone Endurance Rides; I am riding the “90s Pop Ride”. When “I Love Rock And Roll” played in the last few minutes of today’s 80’s ride, I breathlessly tried to yell along while pushing up a hill at a high cadence, watching my heart rate spike up to 92% of max, joyful to be pushing myself up that freaking hill.
There’s also a gaming element to the Peloton software that isn’t unlike the SoulCycle model in the leaderboard competitive model. I generally ride in the top 40% of riders; the top 30% of women my age. I am also constantly trying to beat my own PRs, to output more energy than I did the time before. The rides also have suggested resistance and cadence added in the on-demand versions, so I can clock whether I’m where I need to be for metrics. The whole thing appeals to the data nerd part of me and the competitive instincts in me. It’s hard to resist that design.
Finally, I just like biking. Biking is what I apparently built my body for as a teenager, and now that’s just literally how I roll. I am a better athlete on a bike than I am without wheels: as a runner, I run very slowly, as a cyclist, I’m actually average. It’s joyful, to me, to feel my body, the body I have always been told isn’t fit, isn’t capable, roll up an imaginary hill faster than I did the day before. My body is fit and is perfectly capable of cranking out these rides, and I love being able doing so without leaving the house or worrying about being late to a spin studio. I still feel somewhat guilty for even having this bike, but for the joy it brings me, it’s worth every penny I paid for it.
The last few years have been a time for me to reconsider some of the myths and false truths about myself, a time to look at some of the narratives I’ve either been told, or have told myself, or both. It’s been a time for me to consider whether or not I actually am the person I told myself I was, and what my actual priorities should be. In some of these cases, this has led to me reclaiming parts of myself that I let go along the way. In others, it’s led to me challenging statements that I heard in childhood, and realizing the resulting narratives I created were false all along. It’s been an uncomfortable process in many ways, but one I’m grateful I had the catharsis to begin.
The most difficult parts of this process have been when I’ve challenged an assumption about myself, and taken a series of actions accordingly, only to find out what I believed about myself was actually the truth the whole time. This has been most evident in the case of my career. I challenged the assumption that I was a career driven person back in early 2017, when my career started floundering and going off course as I was assigned to role after role that was just not a fit for me or my skillset. I questioned whether or not the mis-matches mattered, because the disconnect resulted in a lot of free time for me. I was, after all, working from home, on clients where I wasn’t the right fit and wasn’t actually needed. This lack of work engagement gave me more time to do things like cook dinners for my men, or start entirely new Scout groups in Brooklyn. It was a shift in work/life balance that I would have thought I would actually welcome, until it made me miserable.
As that balance continued to shift in 2018, and I grew more miserable with my job, I questioned whether I even wanted a high pressure career. After all, I thought, maybe I only believed I was a career person because I had always believed it was the option with the most security for my adult life as an independent, single woman. Throughout my teens and twenties, I assumed I would not be capable of attracting a partner who could be relied on to support me financially, making a career a necessity. Therefore, was I career driven because I always thought I would be, or was I career driven because that’s actually who I am?
In a turn that will be surprising to absolutely no one, it’s the latter. I am career driven because I like being challenged. I am career driven because I need a place to put all my energy. I need that kind of week in, week out, year after year, life-long challenge. There are days when I question whether I am in the right career, but there is no question that I need a career.
So when my career started foundering, and I no longer had a direction to go in, it wasn’t an assumed identity that was hard-hit, it was actually part of my real personality that was suddenly aimless and drifting. And while I have thrived for years on a sense of being useful and necessary on any given team, realizing my sheer uselessness on client after client made me feel like a failure. My challenges in 2017 and 2018 weren’t about doing positive, valuable work, but were instead about proving any value for my paycheck, in a context where that was almost impossible. If I was less career driven, perhaps I would have been able to ignore those negatives and focus on the positive of my changing work/life balance. Instead, I became despondent and hopeless until finally, I realized I had to change jobs.
Now, a year later, I am back on a productive career track, an asset to the agency I work for, a valued part of the client-facing team. I am back on the life-long quest for more knowledge, more expertise, to be better at what I do. There will always be days when I question whether this is the right path for me, but sometimes, just being on a path is more than enough. And so, the assumption I challenged, and regained, is that I like to work, and I love that my work takes the form of a career in which I can continue to grow and evolve.
And so, when I look back at 2019, the theme that stands out the most is that I proved, to myself, that I am a career person. I am ambitious, although, as I said once, I am more ambitious for knowledge than power. Power is nice in that it represents security, as does money, but what I really want is learning, and given that my brain felt somewhat stretched out for most of 2019, I am getting plenty to learn. I took on this new job and met its challenges. I adapted to a new role, and in some ways, adapted the role to me and my skills. I leveraged all my expertise in new situations and was successful in many cases as a result. I can be proud of myself for not only the work I do, but also the context of the self-discovery that came with it.
This weekend, I found myself with an unexpected block of time on my hands. OMD closed on Friday for the day, giving me a four day weekend. Originally, I had planned to go to a BTC3 camp in Virginia, as a trainer, to assist there as needed. (“BTC3” aka “Brownsea Training Camp v3.0” is the B-PSA weekend experiential training for leaders). However, with 12 trainers and only 7 attendees, I wasn’t actually needed at the camp. Still, I wasn’t particularly needed at home, either: both Ben and Paul have gone to Pittsburgh for the weekend to visit Paul’s family. Without work, without my men, without even my friends (who all left town this weekend), I was suddenly left with four days of unscheduled time.
Fortunately, I have never had a problem filling time. I always have a zillion things I would like to be doing at any given moments, but due to the limitations of time and energy, I find all those things difficult to actually get to in the course of a day. So I promptly filled up the weekend with a whole list of things I wanted to do, and then got to about half of them, which is par for the course.
I started my weekend, however, in Pennsylvania, visiting my friends the Northeast Commissioners for B-PSA. Basically, it was Scout nerding out for sixteen hours. As the NYC Commissioner, I oversee the biggest concentration of Scouts in the Northeast, and working through how NYC as a District works and integrates the Northeast as a region has required some discussion. Also we all love talking about just general Scout stuff, like hikes, songs, skits, get togethers…and that’s just for the adult Scouts. Talking about shared visions for our particular organization is also one of my favorite things ever, and I loved being able to visit my fellow Commissioners and talk through all the things we want to do.
Also, we got to go to Longwood Gardens, which is seriously like an American Versailles, except it doesn’t have a chateau. But it does have both formal water gardens as well as meadows and treehouses. It reminded me of Versailles because it had both sides of the planned garden experience: the formal gardens, and the composed countryside, almost like Marie Antoinette’s hamlet
After walking the gardens though, it was time to say goodbye. My fellow Commissioners were packing up their Pathfinder and Timberwolf and heading to BTC3; I was heading home to NYC. Of course, despite the day off, I was still on a schedule: I had had to cancel my Thursday lunchtime session with my anxiety therapist due to a client call no one else had the knowledge base or authority to cover. I had rescheduled to Friday at 4:15 and, assuming that I might not have time to go to Brooklyn and park the car, I chose to pre-book parking as close as possible, near my office in Lower Manhattan. And the timing actually worked out perfectly: despite a slowdown in the Holland Tunnel that appeared during my half-hour snack-and-pee-break in New Jersey, I made it to my appointment at exactly 4:18pm.
After I finished at 5pm though, that was when my free time really started. I had the car parked until 10pm, was already wearing my workout clothes, and had taken advantage of a ClassPass “two weeks free” offer. It was time to go do some sort of trendy workout where I would be the oldest and heaviest person in the room! Enter FitHouse!
I then decided to get a CitiBike, which I almost never use because I prefer my own bike. CitiBikes are heavy, and it is almost impossible to feel like myself when riding one. I’m used to flying down a street, leaning over my handlebars, my center of gravity ready to swerve between cars, my hands and elbows loose to absorb shocks when I hit NYC potholes. CitiBikes force me to sit up straight in a way that makes it impossible to merge with the bike like it’s an extension of myself, like how I feel on my bike, plus I have to have my arms out with my elbows almost locked, which is much more jarring. However, needs must when in the city, and I just wanted to get from Tribeca to Bryant Park with a stop at Trader Joe’s for a picnic.
Why Bryant Park, you may ask? Bryant Park was where I was going to see the “picnic performance” of Othello, a Shakespeare play I had not seen before, but one where I was very curious to see. Why did Shakespeare choose to tell the story of a black man? How did this reflect the emerging globalization of the times? What cliches about racism remain consistent to this day about black men? Put into the modern American context, Othello raises a lot of questions – which may be why the play directors chose modern America military dress for the men, with white outfits of varying modesty for the women.
After Othello, I was out of time on my parking, and so, I headed home: across the Brooklyn bridge, back to Prospect Heights. One thing I had not considered, however, was the impact of the West Indies Celebration on my neighborhood at the beginning of the weekend. I had expected more people coming in towards the end of the weekend, especially on Sunday night when the celebrations run all night long, and on Monday when the parade goes down Eastern Parkway two blocks away. I had not, however, considered that all my neighbors would have friends and family visiting, and my street would be so short on parking that cars would be double parked, possibly waiting hours for spots. I know in theory that two million people show up each year to celebrate West Indies culture, but I had neglected to consider that many of them would be arriving via car for the weekend. Cue twenty minutes of desperate circling, before eventually catching a car leaving a spot a quarter mile away.
And then, that was it: the end of Friday, of Day One. I always miss my men when I’m away from them, but it was so nice to be spending the day knowing that just because I was on my own, did not mean I was taking time away from Paul and Ben to do so. I see so little of my men on a day to day basis – between work and school, we’re almost like roommates during the week (and I have a whole comedic monologue about what a terrible roommate Ben is). I’m therefore reluctant to spend time on my own, away from them, when they’re available for me to spend time with. This weekend, however, there was no option for me to be with my family. There was only my time, and how I would spend it. And with Friday over, I was very content with the choices I had made for that time.
I generally try to keep my birthdays somewhat low key these days. While they used to be long-weekend all-singing-and-dancing productions, these days, they are more like me trying to hide from what I think is unmerited attention
After all, shouldn’t my mother be getting the credit for my birthday? I mean, it’s HER birthday tomorrow, and she likes to say I was her early birthday present, but honestly, she did the work to build me and should therefore get the celebration. (Ditto my son. Why am I not the one being celebrated every June?)
I thought I was getting away with a quiet birthday this year, with the celebration focus on my mother. On Saturday we all celebrated Mom’s birthday at the Oak Bay Marina restaurant, aka The Place We Have Gone On Fancy Occasions Since 1982. The big difference now, however, is that the kids meals are composed plates representing miniature versions of the adult meals, and not the dry hamburger I was so excited to get as a kid.
At the end of this delightful meal, we sang happy birthday to Mom, with only my son and nieces chiming in “AND YOU”, meaning me, at the end of each line. The focus remained on my mother and her milestone birthday!
I was also very quiet in my birthday party this year: I invited less than ten friends to just come get a drink at Bearded Lady around the corner. We had a really lovely time too: the conversation flowed well and the cocktails were exceptionally well crafted to match. But in my haste to get out of the office in time for said happy hour, I mentioned to my two group directors (with whom I form a triumvirate) that I was leaving early for my birthday. They asked why I didn’t say anything, and I grinned, and just explained that every year on a new job, I always manage to fly under the radar for my birthday. It was on Monday, but I thought I was safe!
Then today, I was dragged into what I thought was a Client Innovation Day planning meeting, only to be joyfully surprised by MY ENTIRE TEAM singing Happy Birthday…complete with Melissa’s Gluten Free Cupcakes and a birthday card and drawing:
I am sorry to say I was so surprised that I did tell the guys they were the worst for tattling on me, but I said it smiling. I really need to be more gracious when people throw me a surprise party. I did let them know I was teasing and then sent a separate thank you email telling them how grateful I was not only for today, but for every day. I do actually really love this team a lot – it’s a HUGE operation with no end of craziness but it’s really become a work family over the last few months.
So while I am no longer throwing crazy house parties, or taking a whole crew of people to Bats Day, I am still #blessed enough to have people who want to celebrate me even as I try to hide.
EDIT: I would have had this up half an hour ago, but I got distracted looking for Bats Day photos and ended up organizing Google photos instead for ten minutes, and then I clicked over to Facebook and ended up reading THAT aimlessly for twenty minutes. ALL THESE SITES ARE BAD NEWS.
So last year I had a milestone birthday. It was therefore somewhat anticlimactic to have a non-milestone birthday on Monday, that I celebrated with zero fanfare or expectations. (Also, we were fantastically jetlagged on Monday, so there was minimal celebration other than ordering Bareburger for pickup and passing out)
It is usually at my birthday that I take stock of my life and where I am in it, and I think this photo sums it all up:
This is me with my goofball son, in BC last weekend. I am tired but joyful because I am with my baby – and my family. I don’t look pulled together , and I don’t particularly care. I do not need to look pulled together, I just need to be pulled together enough to engage with the people I love.