There is no “later”

IMG_5380More than six months have passed since my last post, when I was feeling stuck in a rut and short on viable options. It wasn’t just me—Jeff and I were both asking ourselves and each other hard questions about where we wanted to live and what we wanted to do with our lives. We felt like we were running out of time to accomplish all of the things we want.  At that point, we had been in New York City for more than three years, and while that in itself seemed like a monumental accomplishment (moving more than 1,500 miles from the only place we had ever really lived, making new friends, finding new work), it was starting to feel like the only thing we had accomplished in a long time.

Our creative pursuits had floundered, and I, at least, was doubting if my pursuits were even worth perusing. Everything seemed a little exhausting. My job was exhausting, every new job I considered sounded exhausting. Writing—supposedly what I really wanted to do—sounded exhausting. Even the world of food and agriculture, an arena of advocacy that had consumed my professional and volunteer time for a decade, was starting to bore me.

Since then, a few things have happened. First of all, it stopped being winter. That helped. But long before the snow  melted for the last time in late March, I had made a few improvements to my mood. First of all, I managed to take two whole weeks off for Christmas. Then, I found an entirely new job. And before starting my new job, I dropped everything and went to England for a couple weeks, just to clear my head among Peter’s daffodils. More on all of those things later.

What I really want to talk about now is my inbox. The first time I heard someone refer to the psychic weight of his digital files, I felt sorry for him. What a sad thing to say, what a first-world problem. But slowly I  realized there were all sorts of things in my life that felt heavy. The sweater in my closet that I kept because it was a gift, even though it didn’t fit well, felt heavy. The tent Jeff bought me for my 22nd birthday that we have never used, felt heavy. And my inbox felt heavy.

I know many people who use their inbox as their sole email storage system: Things get tagged and shifted, but nothing ever really leaves, and it balloons to 1,100 messages, maybe 11,000. That’s not my issue. I’m a firm believer that an inbox should be for incoming things and action items, and I try very hard to keep mine to one page, aka 50 conversations. Note that I said I try. But even when I’m successful, at every job I’ve ever had and even in my personal life there are always messages that sit in the bottom of my inbox like stones, sometimes for years. At first, they are reminders of things I need to do—not now, but soon—but after a few weeks (or months or even years) they become reminders of my failure. They are usually small things—articles I once intended to read, files I need to file, graphics that need one word edited.

Every now and then I do a big clean and shave my inbox down to just 20, maybe even 15, messages. I toss the old stones at the bottom. But when I was getting ready to leave my last job, I realized that there was no reason to leave anything in my inbox at all. If my coworkers needed to reference something later, they would be better served if I filed everything in folders or dealt with it myself before leaving. And as for dealing with things myself, well, this was my last chance. I only had a matter of days left to do everything I would ever do with that inbox and all of the requests, reminders and ideas inside of it. And that’s when I had one of the most empowering realizations of my life: There is no later.

Without “later” there was only “now,” only what I could do and what I couldn’t. I realized that “later,’ while giving the appearance of lightening my load, was actually like carrying around a giant backpack that I tossed way too many things into.

Despite how obvious this idea was, I had a hard time getting my body to obey. It was almost as if muscle memory was kicking in, telling me to procrastinate just a little bit more, to come back to an email when I was less tired/less bored/less distracted/had more time. But there was no more time. And for a person who is obsessed with options, having none was actually liberating. Many of the messages turned out to be small things, even things I could delete without any action. A few triggered regret or required acceptance. Over and over I told myself, “there is no later, there is no later.”

By my last day, I had done it—I made it to inbox zero. “There is no later” was a tiny mantra for my digital liberation, and it began to seep over into the rest of my life. In a way, time was my  problem all along. For so many years there was so much time: time to build a career, to write a novel, to have a family, to make friends, to settle in, to up-root, to buy, to sell, to move abroad, to move home. I’ve done a lot of things I’m very proud of, but somehow the things that are closest to my heart are always shifted into the “later” category, and over the past year or two they have sat on my heart like stones. So heavy.

I’m afraid, even as I write this, that I won’t succeed in lifting them, that change and rest and summer have buoyed me, but that over time I will grow complacent. “Later” will creep in, and I will lose faith in myself again. At least I’ve gotten to the bottom of the problem, I’ve turned the stones over in my hands. I know their shape, and I know their weight. At least for now, there is no later.

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Getting your good food job

IMG_1794 Maybe its because I live in hipster-saturated Brooklyn or because most of my friends hail from the world of food, but it seems like “good food” jobs are in high demand: cheese monger, farm apprentice, farm to school advocate (that’s me!). Luckily, it seems to be a growing field, although we could have a whole separate conversation about how sustainable or lucrative it is for those who make it their life.

I think a lot about how I got here and what advice I would give to anyone hoping to join me. The nonprofit I work for has done a lot of growing, and over the last three years, I have been on at least six different hiring committees and reviewed somewhere between 300 – 500 resumes and cover letters. This doesn’t make me an HR expert, but every, single time there is something about the process I am eager to share. Best practices and patterns emerge. Specifically, it has led me to think a lot about how to get a job in the world of good food or, for that matter, in the world of good-anything. Here are six things I contemplate every time I face a pile of resumes:

1) Be a do-gooder who can do something.  If you want to build a career in the world of social good, think first about what you can do, then develop your do-gooder street cred. This means you need an education/skill/trade that you can bring to the table and apply toward the cause you believe in. Note that skill and talent are not the same things: I don’t care if you have an eye for design if you don’t know Illustrator inside and out. If I’m reading your job application, I do care that you’ve demonstrated your passion and gained valuable experience working on a farm or in a hip and socially conscious bakery, but I care even more that you are a proven fundraiser/editor/designer or whatever I’m actually hiring you to do every day.

2) Would you rather bake the bread or organize the bakers? Try to find out if you need to have your boots on the ground to feel fulfilled or if you would derive more satisfaction from knowing your work has a broader (if sometimes less tangible) impact. You might not know for sure until you give each a try, and you will probably find yourself shifting roles over the course of your career. That’s okay.

3) I want to see your skills. Don’t make me read your cover letter or even your work history to know for sure if you are an expert at Photoshop, Salesforce or animal husbandry. I want to see those details spelled out, clearly and upfront. Depending on the vibe of the organization, don’t hesitate to throw in a few “bonus” skills, like pottery or fermentation, that indicate you are an interesting and well-rounded person who will be fun to work with.

job collageProudly wearing my “dragon’s tooth” at the end of a successful Urban Agrarian farmers’ market season and getting some love from lambs at Shelburne Farms

4) Brag specifically. In your work history, don’t just list tasks and things you were in charge of, also list major accomplishments and try to throw in some numbers. I want to see “300 percent XYZ” and “gain of 4,500 Blah, Blah Blah” as well as things like specific media outlets or partner organizations you have relationships with. Ladies, this one is really aimed at you: In my completely unscientific survey of resumes and interview subjects, men do a LOT more specific bragging, and it makes them seem like real achievers. Women are much more likely to use phrases like “supported my team” and “helped build.” Obviously, you want to come across as a team player, but also grab what’s yours and brag about it!

5) If you can’t sell yourself, I can’t trust you to sell my organization. This is true not just for sales jobs but for any position with a public face, especially communications, marketing, fundraising and leadership. I know this is often easier said than done, but be confident, make your skills and accomplishments easy to find in all of your materials, and also make sure that any websites and other communications channels you are in charge of are in good, working order. A web developer once tried to sell me on his services, but when I clicked the link in his email signature to visit his online portfolio, half of the pages weren’t working. Don’t be that guy.

6) It isn’t enough to dress for the job you want, not the job you have; sometimes you have to DO the job you want, even if it isn’t yours yet. Start your own thing, find a niche and fill it, work above your pay grade. The world is full of fledgling organizations where you could quickly talk your way into a volunteer position as “director of marketing” or “distribution coordinator.”  That’s how I became the outreach manager of the Oklahoma Food Co-op, and its how Jeff became founder and editor-in-chief of his own online magazine. I’ve also started a community garden, worked at a farmers’ market and organized a local-food distribution site. Work hard, even before someone is willing to pay you. This tip isn’t necessarily fair and it certainly isn’t easy, but it is part of the mantra of self-made men and woman since the beginning of time. If you are on the right path, it might not feel like work at all.

I might have a job, but I haven’t lost touch with the fact that’s it’s hard out there. So even if you are doing all of these things and more, don’t beat yourself up over every failed application. Follow what fascinates you. Work hard. Learn things. Meet people. I’m not saying you’ll get rich, but your career will coalesce into something you can be proud of. For more of my thoughts on working with do-gooders, check out this post from my archives.

Note: These are my opinions, based on my experience with multiple organizations, and they do not necessarily reflect my employer’s hiring practices or views. 

On discovering America

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I think there’s a deeper lesson to be learned from this article about why the Japanese – an advanced, seafaring nation – didn’t discover America. First, let me summarize the key points: The Japanese had everything they wanted, right there on their little archipelago, and what they didn’t have they could obtain from China or Korea, so there was no need to hit the high seas. And what were the Europeans doing when they “discovered” America? Searching for a shortcut to Asia so they could bring back spices. Asia was it, the place to be in the world of commerce.

I can’t help but picture a 15th-century Japanese man swinging his fist and saying, “aw shucks!” because let’s face it, America turned out to be a pretty big win.

And I also can’t help but think that on a much, much smaller scale, this little drama plays out over and over again in each of our lives. When we are  comfortable—when we have all the saffron a decent person needs—we stay home. Worlds go uncharted, seas go un-sailed. Make no mistake: There is something to be said for staying put, for raking zen gardens and tending our hearts like perfect bonsai trees, but to do so requires intention. I hope that I can learn to relish days that taste a little dull because they will send me in search of better salt.

Just my luck

photo 2Last night I watched the sun set for the first time in 2014 as my plane made its final approach to LaGuardia. We landed, I got my bag and headed to the taxi line, where I found, mercifully, far more cars than people and no wait whatsoever. The driver even seemed to understand where I wanted to go and how to get there.

Then, in the airport exit lane, the car stalled. The driver immediately restarted the engine, and soon we were pulling onto the highway, but it was clear that all was not well under the hood. There was a gentle rocking sensation, like riding with a grandmother who keeps her food hovering against the brake pedal, and I started to picture myself stranded on the side of the BQE, so cold without my hat and mittens that even the glittering skyline across the East River would offer no comfort.

“Just my luck,” I imagined myself saying while recounting what was  about to become a harrowing travel ordeal. Then I gave myself a mental slap in the face. I hate the phrase “just my luck.” I think it is stupid, illogical, inaccurate and, most of all, unhealthy. The thing is, we never say “just my luck” when things go well. When my plane landed safely and ahead of schedule, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When my bag arrived quickly and undamaged, I didn’t say, “just my luck.” When there was no line for a taxi, I didn’t say, “just my luck.”

I have long referred to my outlook on life as logical optimism. I believe that, most of the time, it is only logical to believe that things are good and disasters will be avoided. Jeff is often annoyed by my Spock-meets-Pollyana worldview. When Jeff tells the story of the three wrecks he had in his Ford Ranger, it is the tale a little truck that was plagued by misfortune. The first time he told me the story I said, “You are so lucky – I can’t believe you had three  wrecks and emerged without a scratch!” Even the truck was okay, although Jeff did spend all of his savings on repairs.

I have long believed that the stories we tell about our own lives, in our heads and to other people, shape not just the perception but the actual direction of our days. According to this story from NPR, there is research to back me up. The general gist of it is that when we tell ourselves that our sorrows and misfortunes are overwhelming or unique to our individual experience (“I’m never going to make friends” or “I’m the only person here without friends”) we have a hard time overcoming them, but when we reframe the narrative (“Everyone has trouble making friends at first”) we not only feel better in the short term, we also achieve more and see concrete returns. But really, you should listen to the story – it involves the phrase, “I pooped on Frankenstein.”

Telling stories is a defining part of the human experience. How often have you started crafting a story (or Facebook status) before an event took place? Our desire to have something to tell can lead to a lot of whining. On-time arrivals, wine bottles that don’t break in transit and cab rides that are short and fairly priced don’t make good stories because they are such common occurrences. Most of the time, things do work out. But when disaster strikes, why do we frame ourselves as victims instead of heroes? I’m not a Greek scholar, but I don’t think, “just my luck” is how Odysseus described his 10-year journey home from Troy.

I contemplated all of this during what turned out to be a short and uneventful ride home, and when the car finally lurched up to the curb outside my apartment , I said to myself, “just my luck.”

“Nothing new”

IMG_2965A few weeks ago, my friend Kathleen wrote a blog post about why “crazy busy” is a bad stock answer to the stock question, “How’s life?” It reminded me of  this New York Times article, which went viral last year. (Side note: My friend Jessica read this article aloud to me straight from the Sunday paper while we waited at a bus stop in Boston, so every time I think of the article, I mostly think of her.)

I actually have a different but also bad stock answer to the “How’s life?” question: Nothing new!

This question, while obviously well intended, always gives me a tiny moment of panic. Part of it is that I feel pressured to tell wonderful tales about the awesomeness of New York City despite the fact that most of my days look like this. But mostly I think I’m afraid to say something real. I’m afraid that the person I’m speaking to won’t want to take the time to listen to more than a stock answer, or that saying something really good will seem like bragging while saying something sad will be a downer. That’s bullshit.

From now on I want to say something about joy or beauty or perhaps even utter boredom, which let’s face it, is even less acceptable to express than despair. I want to say, “A little raccoon grave was the most beautiful thing I saw last week.” Here are a few other things I want to say:

  1. Nine years in, my marriage is bringing me more joy and comfort than ever. I’m not sure how and I’m not sure why, but it is making every other piece of my life better. “You know, this might actually work out,” is one of Jeff and I’s running jokes.
  2. I feel like a juggler at work—not overwhelmed but definitely maxed out. I also feel more motivated than ever to really knock my projects out of the park.
  3. I keep having dreams about my grandmother, who passed away in June. For some reason thirst is a reoccurring theme in the dreams. Once, for example, she taught me how to make the perfect limeade, and I woke up wanting her and limeade so bad.
  4. I’ve visited Brooklyn Bridge Park about nine times over the last six months, and every time it knocks my socks off.
  5. I was fairly obsessed all summer with sucking the marrow out of every warm day, and I’ve been viewing the return of fall and winter with utter dread. Recently, however, I’ve finally moved through all the stages of grief (Denial: I could still make it to the beach one more time! Bargaining: I promise to wake up earlier and take the dog to the park if only it would just stay warm! etc.) and arrived at acceptance. It had something to do with remembering the existence of hot chocolate.

We have a table

SeptemberBlogDSC_0016We bought a table, and it has sort of changed our lives. I LOVE it when that happens, when I can drill down to the heart of something, find a simple solution and make it happen.

We moved Jeff’s big desk all the way to Brooklyn because he loved his desk, and we had just bought it. You can’t sell something you’ve had for less than a year, right? It had to go in the living room because our second “bedroom” is a windowless space with just enough room for a giant wardrobe, Jeff’s bike and a queen air mattress (as needed.)

But having Jeff’s office in the living room left no space for a table, so we ate at our kitchen island or on the couch, side by side, not facing each other. Meanwhile, Jeff was always complaining about the fact that I would walk through his “office” while he was working, and I was always complaining that he would shut the curtains , because it turns out Jeff doesn’t like working in front of windows. But what could we do? It’s not like we live in a capitalistic society where furniture and bicycles can be easily bought and sold. Wait, what was that last part?

Long story short, we solved a whole slew of problems at the same time (well, it took a few months, but still.) We sold our too-small bookshelves, the bike Jeff wasn’t really riding and the desk that was too big. We bought locally made, custom bookshelves (which were a steal!); a smaller desk that fits in the space where the bike used to live; and a table and chairs!

On weekends, we sit at the table all. day. long. We linger over pancakes, then we linger over wine. Once, we played Scrabble while facing each other like real humans. Jeff and I love nothing more than long conversations—it is the foundation of our entire relationship. We needed this table and these chairs. We needed a comfortable space without any screens.

I feel like life is full of things that seem non-negotiable or impossible, when in fact they just require a little creativity and commitment to a new idea. We hemmed and hawed over the cost of the new furniture (me especially), even though we were offsetting the expense by selling some old things. But this table was absolutely a quality of life issue, a relatively small thing that has made a big difference!

Here’s the before and after of our living room (since, obviously, the before and after of my happy soul is invisible):

LivingRoomBeforeDSC_0177SeptemberBlogDSC_0010

Two first dates

IMG_2097I feel like I am riding a whole wave of love from the universe at the moment, and I am trying to recognize it with all the gratitude in my heart without fearing the inevitable shifting tide that is always part of life. Exactly four years ago I had a week that felt a little like this—in fact, it was such a good week that it has lived in infamy in my memory as The Best Week Ever. There was travel, there were parties, new friends and very old friends, a stellar (literally) meteor show, even a new car. It was like winning a game show.

So what happened last week? Several things, but first and foremost, I went on two really good first dates.

I’ve never actually dated as an adult, but every time I talk about the struggle of making new friends I sound like a dating cliche. I’ve met lots of nice New York women in all the usual places—the farmers’ market, walking the dog, at food events and cocktail parties—but I have found it nearly impossible to take things to the next level. Information is exchanged, we friend each other on Facebook, but then what? Contacting someone you hardly know and proposing that you get together can seem so insurmountably daunting. Laid bare. Like you are admitting straight out—to the very person you want to impress—that the conversation you shared over wine/cookies/dog poop was the closest thing you’ve had to friendship all week. Nothing makes me feel more vulnerable. And yet….

I realized years ago that I deeply appreciate people who are able to communicate directly, so I’m striving to be the kind of person who will tell someone straight-out, “I really like you, and I still don’t have a very big community of friends here. Would you like to get together sometime?”

It sounds easy, but oh the fear of liking more than you’re liked, of loving more than you’re loved! It happens in all stages of friendship. I think most of us never quite get over the childhood fear that we are not our best friend’s best friend, or the more adult fear that loving someone platonically, and admitting it, really is okay. I heard something on a podcast recently (The Moth?) that really broke my heart: A man said that young men are drawn to war in part because it is the only place where men can love each other fully without the fear that they will be misunderstood. When your life is in another man’s hands and you are cocooned in all the machismo of an armored tank, then you can relax and love. Then you can let your guard down.

Women have it easy, comparatively. And yet.

This past week, however, I fought the good fight. I met honesty with honesty. Pizza was consumed. At one point I marched myself up to the door of a new neighbor who I hadn’t seen in two months, and I knocked. In less than five minutes we’d made plans to go to the beach, where we laid (almost) bare in more ways than one. Sunburns aside, it was a very, very good day.