Archive for the 'Life and Career' Category

Cookies, and working from home.

Three Girls Bakery in the Pike Place Market has delicious cookies. They taste like they are 50 percent butter, and the texture is a perfect combination of softness, firmness, and chewiness. This is the third day in a row I’ve stopped there for an afternoon snack.

This is one of the reasons I love working at home so much: when I was ready for an afternoon break today I decided to walk through the market to pick up what I needed for dinner and look for stocking stuffers. I also found a good new source of Sichuan peppercorn for my Chinese cooking experiments, Market Spice. All in all, it was so much nicer than taking the elevator down to a Starbucks and back up to my office without going outside or seeing anything different on the way.

I also took a break this morning to try to make my cat ride the Roomba, which obviously is very important and would never happen in an office.

Now I’m just wasting time, and I should either go for a run or go back to work. I suppose this is the peril of working from home, along with never taking a shower or wearing anything but yoga clothes.

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Seeking alternatives to the office life.

One of the main reasons I decided to start freelancing was to get away from working in an office Monday through Friday, 9:00-6:00.

I didn’t like sitting in an office every day, all day. I was physically uncomfortable; it seemed like I was always cold, achy, tired, or hungry.

Worse, my schedule ate up all of the time in which I felt creative and focused. By the time I left work (feeling guilty because it was too early and I wasn’t billing enough hours), ran or went to yoga, and had dinner, it was 8:00 p.m. at the earliest. I might work an hour or two more if I had to, but I couldn’t start on a non-legal project that required inspiration or creativity or focus.

I beat myself up about this for a while—comparing myself unfavorably to friends or acquaintances who could work a 50-hour week at a regular job while writing a book in the evenings and sleeping only five hours a night—but I think I’ve accepted it. I need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. I like to exercise every day. I like to cook. I like to wander.

Because I wasn’t getting any satisfaction or fulfillment from my job, I decided I had to make room in my life to spend time in ways that would give me satisfaction and fulfillment.

It’s working, more or less. I’ve had more time and I’ve spent much of it reading, writing, and thinking. But in this, as in everything, I’m assailed by self-doubt. I waste too much time, and a critical voice inside regularly pops up to tell me that the way I am spending my time is silly. That it is not adding anything to the world. That it will never lead to anything.

Plus, everyone else I know works full-time in an office and is fine with it, making me wonder what is wrong with me. (This is almost certainly not true, but sometimes that is how it seems.) Right now, it’s dumbfounding to me that so many people feel that way, but thinking about this today I remembered my last job before law school, writing proposals and doing other marketing tasks for a school bus contractor.

I never minded going to work, and I felt like I had plenty of time. After work, I sang in a chorus, went to regular yoga classes, and tutored kids in reading. It probably helped that we all left at 5:00 on the dot, and also that my then-boyfriend had a totally different schedule. A stand-up comedian, he often worked at night and always stayed up late. Though our different schedules started to feel lonely after a while, they also gave me more time free of the distraction of someone to hang out with.

I think the key difference, though, was that I was young, and never thought of the job as permanent. I knew I’d be moving on, probably to graduate school or some other adventure, and I did, leaving after two years to go to law school.

So maybe I shouldn’t rule out office work and a 9-5 schedule per se. Maybe there is an office job out there that will feel like an end in itself, that is enjoyable but not too stressful and that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something I care about while I’m in this world. Until I find that, though, I’m going to focus on work with a different schedule so that I can continue to make space for exploration, joy, and quiet.

People named Roger are evil.

When I was younger, I wrote all the time. At nine, I wrote Trixie Belden- or Encyclopedia Brown-esque stories featuring my friends. When I was 12, my stories briefly turned lurid and grisly, full of human sacrifice and cannibalism.

At 13 or 14, I turned to fantasy and romance. My heroines had names like Jethany and Ember, and the stories frequently involved an evil uncle named Roger. I had never kissed a boy, so the romantic bits were vague.

Many of my stories were transparently modeled after whatever book I had just read and loved, whether consciously or unconsciously. I tried on the voices of L.M. Montgomery, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Madeleine L’Engle. Once I got caught writing in class and the teacher confiscated my work in progress, thinking it was a note. After class, he gave the pages back and told me I should keep writing. I remember thinking he didn’t realize how closely it was inspired by a book I had just read, and feeling a bit like a fraud.

Then I went to college, and my life immediately grew more engaging. I had more friends, I went to parties, and I kissed lots of boys. From there, it only got worse. Men continued to take up my attention. I had “real” jobs, finally got to do some traveling, lived in cities, and fell in love. While I still spent plenty of time dreaming, my actual life absorbed me.

And I decided that I had written when I was younger only because I was so very bored, so full of longing, so very much wishing for my life to be different. When my life became different, I didn’t need writing any more.

But now, I don’t know. I’ve been trying to write fiction again, even though it is like pulling teeth. This morning I’ve washed the dishes, cleaned out the refrigerator, organized the bedside tables, trimmed dead leaves off the fresh flowers on my dining table, swept the bathroom floor, and eaten two brownies. And looked up weather records to see if this is, actually, the coldest Seattle spring/latest summer in memory. And went hunting to figure out where my kitten is able to disappear to so completely in my 700-square-foot apartment (in the back of the closet, in my husband’s shoe). Ah, procrastination.

Taking a stand for a slow-paced life.

The other day I saw this comment on Facebook: “Show me a mom who isn’t pulled in a million different directions and I’ll show you one boring person.”

I had an immediate negative reaction, even though I’m not even a mom yet. I’ve never really felt pulled in a million different directions, and I don’t want to feel that way. Does that make me boring? Seeing that comment brought back feelings of guilt and inadequacy I struggled with while deciding to leave full-time legal work.

My first law firm job ended abruptly, when the national law firm I worked for suddenly folded, leaving 700 attorneys and thousands of staff jobless. At the time, I felt lost and confused. I wasn’t excited about going to work at a new law firm, but I felt like I should, and I didn’t know what else to do.

I twiddled my thumbs for a month or two, and then went on a vacation. I went hiking in New Zealand with a group of mostly women from all over the world: Canada, New Zealand, England, the Netherlands, Australia. New Zealand was beautiful and laid-back, but the best part of the trip was that I suddenly felt like myself again. Here were women who were smart and pleasant and interesting, and also between jobs or careers. Or, they came from a culture in which it was normal to take a five-week vacation once or twice a year and work 35-hour weeks. After two years of trying to fit into a world in which I didn’t belong, I could breathe easily again. I stopped feeling like a weirdo because I was unemployed and didn’t really like my career anyway.

Still, I decided it was best for me to try to get another year or so of experience at a smaller law firm, and I did. I stuck it out for almost two more years, though I spent much of the last year having mini-breakdowns behind my closed office door and crying to my patient husband at night. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right for me, but I didn’t know what to do next. I started seeing a career counselor, and decided to work as a freelancer.

There were many reasons for my decision, but one was that I didn’t like my lifestyle. I felt like I was always rushing and that I had to be very focused and scheduled to get everything I wanted to do done. I felt like I was on a treadmill, the weeks passing each one like the one before. I decided I’d rather make less money in exchange for a more relaxed, less regimented life. (Of course, I also felt like I was devoting too much time and energy to something that didn’t give me back that much in return other than money. My job just didn’t make me feel good about myself, or proud, or satisfied. If that were different, maybe I would have been able to put up with the rest).

In reaching this decision, the biggest obstacle wasn’t overcoming my own drive, or fears about money and security—it was the feeling that I should want to be a successful lawyer. That I was weak, or weird, or lazy for choosing something different.

Career counseling helped me get over those feelings, and when I did, it was crystal clear to me how I wanted my life to be different. I want to be relaxed, and present, with time to have fun, travel, have weekend adventures, cook, read, and write. I didn’t want to spend every day in an office sitting at a desk.

It can feel really good to be too busy. It can make you feel important, and and needed. There’s a sort of energy and high that comes along with living at a fast pace. It’s also more in sync with our culture, which favors workaholism over leisure. As a society, we admire the mother who works full time, sits on a few boards, and coaches her kid’s soccer team, and the trial lawyer who gets up at five a.m. to train for triathlons, spends the day in court, and runs a business on the side.

So, there have been times when I was pretty content just because I was busy. But there was still something missing; it was empty. If I’m rushing around and packing my days full of activities, I want it to be with activities that bring me joy and satisfaction. Lacking that, I don’t want to palliate myself with busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. I want to spend my time deliberately. I don’t want to be pulled in a million different directions.

But that comment stirred up the old fears and doubt in me. Am I lazy? Am I boring? No, dammit! (Er, I hope not. It’s kind of a struggle).

Taking stock.

I stopped working three months ago. It’s been a surprisingly busy time, encompassing the holidays, an engagement, and assorted projects, but I’ve started to feel a bit aimless in the last week or two. I’m going back to work for a while starting tomorrow. With the wedding two weeks away, it feels like a good time to take stock.

What I’ve done:

  • Planned a pretty nice wedding weekend, if I do say so myself.
  • Started a blog and spent at least one day a week writing. Well, almost.
  • Found the kind of work I wanted: a five or six-month gig with lots of big writing projects and nice attorneys to work with.
  • Cooked for a lot of people for a weekend at a ski lodge—a lovely experience that I probably wouldn’t have taken on if I had been working full time.
  • Found once-a-week volunteer work that will allow me to explore a different type of legal work than I’ve done before, and help people at the same time.
  • Lots of yoga and running. Not surprising, because these things always work for me.
  • Read some books. I think I’ve been reading more than I used to, though it hasn’t been life-changing. Awakenings blew my mind the most. After reading The Year of Living Biblically I decided to re-read the Bible and it turned out to be fascinating, but I’m still in Genesis. I need to get the e-book version so I can read it in public.
  • Cooked tons of tasty food. But I don’t think I’m cooking more than when I was working. Then, I needed the pleasure of cooking more to feel like myself, but now I worry about it being a time-filler and I don’t cook every day, or even most days.
  • Wasted a lot of time on the internet. I think a little bit of mindless internet browsing is a fine treat, but there’s no question I’ve been overdoing it. Too much reading about television shows and weddings.
  • Learned how to put on makeup. I went to a MAC counter and acquired a whole new set of makeup and some instructions. I had never done this before; I was pretty clueless and using stuff I’d had since college. It might seem like a small thing but I’m enjoying it and I think it was long overdue.

What I haven’t done:

  • I haven’t spent any time listening to the German language CDs on my iPod. I planned, if I gained a good basis in the language, to reward myself with a month or so in Berlin taking language classes. But it hasn’t been a priority at all. If it’s going to happen, I’m going to need to figure out a way to fit it into my life and make it a habit.
  • I haven’t written any fiction. This is probably first on the priority list from here out. Like learning a language, I’m going to have to make an effort to fit it into my life and I haven’t yet.
  • I haven’t read quite as much as I thought I would. I thought I might have so much free time that I would just spend whole days reading whatever struck my fancy. This hasn’t happened more than 2 or 3 times. I don’t know whether I’ve been putting my time to better uses, or just filling it up.
  • I haven’t stuck to a daily yoga practice. I bought a book, Om Yoga, for a boost in terms of structure and ideas for a daily practice. The book is helpful, but the daily practice is not happening. I’ve been going to classes about twice a week and practicing at home maybe once a week.
  • I haven’t been vigorously trying to develop business. I’ve been doing the minimum. I think this is because I’ve had other priorities, and I’m okay with that, but I know it is also possible that I just don’t want to do it. I am going back to work just as it feels right, so no harm done yet (probably).

My assessment: I’m happy with where I am and how I’ve spent the last three months.

For the next month and a half, I imagine I’ll have to focus on the wedding, honeymoon, work, and volunteering, and there won’t be as much time to explore new things or start any new projects. But I want to be mindful and be prepared to set new goals in a couple of months when the wedding is over and I’ve settled into a work routine.

I like cooking better than going to court.

Last week, I cooked for about 80 people at a ski lodge over a weekend. Then, I went to court to evict someone.

Both experiences involved hard work and stress, but the results were pretty different. I learned more about myself, and how I want to spend my time.

I volunteered to cook for the weekend at the ski lodge (which is, amazingly, entirely volunteer-run). The most I had ever cooked for was 15, and we expected at least 60 at the lodge. We ended up having 80-120 at different points throughout the weekend.

I started preparing weeks ahead of time. I put a lot of thought into a menu that would be relatively simple to make for as many as 60 times the number of people I usually cook for (i.e., two).

I made a spreadsheet with all of the ingredients for each meal, the number of people for each meal, and the estimated quantities per person. I learned this way that I needed, for instance, 683 slices of bread and 485 ounces of beans. I got a food worker’s permit and scoured the internet for advice on cooking in large quantities. I started shopping two days ahead of time and went to five different grocery stores (with a couple of panicked last-minute runs to my local store as the numbers kept growing on Friday afternoon).

I had a knot in my stomach and a stress-induced headache when we headed up to the lodge on Friday night. But once we started cooking on Saturday morning, my tension mostly went away—although I worked pretty steadily throughout the weekend and I didn’t fully relax until Sunday lunch was over. Everything went smoothly, the food seemed to go over well, and there was plenty of it. I was never faced with 100 hungry, grumpy skiers. Instead, people seemed happy.

And it was fun. I wore my cute apron from Anthropologie. I liked serving the food, especially warm chocolate chip cookies. Simple, but who doesn’t love ‘em? I took joy in the six lovely and organized bowls of spices—cumin, oregano, salt, chili powder, cocoa, bay leaves, and cinnamon—I measured out before preparing three huge batches of chili.

I’ve felt proud ever since. Being able to provide food for 100 people for a weekend makes me feel good about myself. It makes me happy.

Then, I spent Monday preparing to go to court for a hearing on Tuesday. My fiance owns a few rental properties and had to evict a tenant. We’re both lawyers, so we decided to muddle through it ourselves. I have experience with litigation and I have more free time, so I took the lead.

By Monday night, I was pretty miserable. I was tired of trying to figure out exactly what paperwork we needed, of organizing copies of documents, of preparing for everything that could come up. I felt a lot like I used to feel when I was hating my job: like there was a black cloud of misery hanging over me and shadowing everything.

In the end, of course, it was no big deal. The tenant didn’t show up and we got the outcome we wanted. But I don’t feel like I did after cooking. I don’t have the same sense of pride and happiness. I’m glad it’s over and I won’t be happy if we have to do it again.

It strikes me now as a nice controlled experiment in another way, too. Handling the eviction was exactly like the parts of my job I didn’t like: going to court, and in a type of proceeding and case I’d never been through before. But, I was doing it completely voluntarily, to help someone I love, and I had a fairly direct financial stake in it. Despite these things, I still kind of hated the experience. It solidifies for me that while there are aspects of legal work I really enjoy (writing, analysis, research), I don’t want to go to court or be on the front lines, as it were. I just don’t enjoy it, and I don’t get satisfaction from it.

It just might be better to put my energy towards things that do make me happy. It seems obvious in retrospect, but I’ve been working on figuring this out for more than a year.

Things I’ve learned since leaving my job six weeks ago.

1. It’s cold in my apartment during the day. It’s winter, and the thermostat is set to come on for a short time in the morning and then again in the evening. I haven’t bothered to change it since I started spending most of my days at home. The thermostat is complicated, and I’m more apt to adapt to my surroundings than try to change them.
I was cold all day in my office, too, and it was one of the things I hated about work. Now I’m still cold, but it is better because I can put on snow boots, a wool hat, and a blanket when I’m sitting at the computer.

2. Our maids clean the apartment awfully quick. We have a team of maids come in once a month so we don’t have to worry about things like vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning the bathroom. This made a lot of sense when we were both working full time, and the apartment always looks great after they come.

Yesterday was the second time the maids have come since I left my job, and both times I left and tried to keep myself busy until they were finished. I gave them two hours the first time, and about an hour and a half the second time.

Both times, when I returned, they were gone without a trace. Now I wonder how long it actually takes them–an hour? 30 minutes? This makes me feel like I should start doing it myself instead of paying $120 every month.

3. There are a lot of homeless people at the library during the day. Really, I always knew this, but it was brought home to me yesterday while I was there hiding from the maids and taking advantage of the free wireless.

I am assuming that these people are homeless based on the way they smell, and I’m a bit self-conscious about that after reading an entertaining book called “The Dirt on Clean,” by Katherine Ashenburg, which makes some interesting points about the sociological aspects of ideas about cleanliness and hygiene. In particular, the book makes the point that at least since the 19th century, upper classes have held the belief that lower classes smell different (read worse).

But I think it is true that the library is full of homeless people and you can tell that they are homeless because they smell different than people who have daily access to oodles of hot water and clean clothes. And it is another thing I love about libraries, because it seems too good to be true to me that all of those books and other resources are truly free and available to all of the public.


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