On Not Losing Hope

A lot has changed in the world since I moved to Seattle and got my first job at a video store in 1990. My first resumé was typed on a typewriter that I rented for a quarter at the public library. The old downtown library looked more like a library and less like a spaceship than the new one.

The economy was terrible in 1990. I was lucky to get a minimum wage job at Tower Video with no previous experience. I had been applying for jobs for a month with no luck, and I was about to run out of money. I wasn’t going to be one of those people who moved to Seattle from Idaho only to move back a few months later.

It’s scary to be unemployed and staring at the bottom of your bank account. I’ve been there a half dozen times or more now. My most recent job ended on Tuesday, and here I am again.

In the 1990s I quit jobs. Each job I left in favor of something slightly better. I wasn’t very ambitious back then. I left Tower for Kinko’s, which I left for a desk job in the basement of an independent comic book publisher. I quit a job for the last time in 1999. I didn’t have a plan at the time, but I knew I wanted to be part of that whole internet thing.

In 2000, we used the term “new media” a lot. We dreamed of a world where you could watch videos on the internet. We all learned html and got jobs at startups. I worked at a small interactive agency for just over a year before I was laid off for the first time. As you may recall, the economy imploded around that time. In the end, the company I had worked for was shut down.

I have now been downsized five times, through three shutdowns and two economy implosions. It hasn’t gotten easier, emotionally. Every time it feels like losing a family and going through a breakup all while fretting over money. It has gotten easier financially, thankfully, as my salary level of responsibility have increased. But no matter how much I have in the bank, it’s finite. I could calculate exactly how long I could continue to pay for rent, food, my phone, and the internet… but I’m not going to. Yet.

What I have learned is that I will be fine. Every time I go through this it’s painful and terrifying, but every time it has led me to something better. I’ve survived as a freelancer for over two years all told, between employers. My resumé is jam-packed with goodness. Despite the madness over at Microsoft, the job market in Seattle is pretty healthy right now. The recruiters are coming to me.

Over the last 14 years of employment rollercoastering I have learned how not to lose hope. In the grim fall of 2009 when all of the banks were failing the job market was more or less non-existent, I survived. It seemed like the economy might never recover, but it did, and I found a new role that was perfect for me. That led to my most recent position, which I loved.

What makes job-hunting both extra challenging and kind of thrilling for me, is that I’m not a specialist. This makes things difficult because despite over 20 years of work experience, I don’t have the one thing I can hang my hat on. I have plenty of talent, competence, and intelligence, and this means I thrive in most roles I choose to take on. But employers are more often looking for a specific skill set. On the other hand, whenever the need is for someone who is a little bit this, but also a little bit that, I might be the perfect candidate.

I don’t know exactly what’s next. I haven’t even started looking in earnest and I’m already getting interest from recruiters for positions that are very close to right up my alley. What I don’t want to do is jump into something I don’t love. I’ll be doing some freelance writing and testing the waters. Am I ready for a Google? I’d have a hard time stepping away from tech innovation at this point, and there is something appealing about going to a bigger company that is less likely to fall apart in a couple of years. I’m also a bit nostalgic for agency work where there are more opportunities for creativity.

I’m not going to say that I trust the universe to take care of me. The universe can be shifty. But I trust myself to figure something out, like I do.

I’ll Walk, Thanks

On hot summer days in Coeur d’Alene during my childhood, I walked to the beach barefoot. It was about six blocks from my grandparents’ house. First I had to get across the packed dirt and gravel driveway where grandpa parked his excavating equipment. Then there was a short section of unpaved road on Lost Avenue, with more sharp rocks and sticky oil spots, then it was just smooth, hot pavement all the way to Sanders Beach. Sometimes it was so hot that I had to scurry from shady patch to shady patch. The coarse, rocky, glacial sand that makes up the beach was the final obstacle. I had to run to the water to avoid burning my soles, all the while looking for broken glass. The relief of standing in that chilly, clear water is not something I can compare to any other sensation.

I didn’t much care for wearing shoes as a kid, much to the chagrin of my grandma, who was worried (rightfully) about splinters and broken glass and germs. She made a little tsk noise whenever she spotted the black soles of my feet. I used a pumice stone to rub off the layers of dirt when I took a bath.

My feet have always been my primary and favorite mode of transportation. There have certainly been times when walking was the only option and I would have preferred a ride, but for the most part I love to walk. Some of my favorite childhood walks were parts of annual rituals. On May Day, my aunt would take me and my cousin for a walk in the woods across from my grandparents’ house to pick wildflowers for May baskets. When the leaves changed in the fall, grandma and I would go out collecting pretty leaves to press between sheets of waxed paper and flatten in books. Grandma also liked to walk through alleys to see what people were throwing out, on the off chance she might find something good. And of course the most fruitful walk came on Halloween, when I would return with a pillowcase full of candy.

Neither my mother nor her mother ever learned to drive. My mom tried, a couple of times, but she gets panicky even as a passenger in a car. She ended her pursuit of a driver’s license after she ran her friend’s car into a telephone pole and totaled it while having a panic attack. Grandma seemed satisfied using grandpa as her chauffeur, and occasionally she would walk to the drug store, or even call a cab to go run an errand. She was a borderline hermit, so not being able to get around easily didn’t bother her. Ironically, grandpa Frank both ran an excavating business and collected vintage cars, so there were always about a dozen vehicles around that only he could drive.

The morning after my grandma died, in the pre-dawn sub-zero hours, my mom and I went for a walk. It was my mom who showed me that walking could be a form of therapy… and it was also a form of independence. In my teen years, walking downtown to buy a new novel at the Bookseller or a record at Total eclipse became my favorite pastime. I would sometimes buy a $4.99 paperback and take it to the little café where they sold French pastries and sit there on my own, reading and eating a Napoleon. I already had a pretty good idea of who I was at fourteen.

I did learn to drive. I made it through driver’s ed (barely), but since I lived in a car-free household I didn’t get to practice, and after I moved to Seattle I let my license lapse. I learned again in my late 20s, after depending on public transport and my ex-husband for many years. In retrospect, it feels like the driving lessons were part of my escape plan from the marriage. Things fell apart shortly after I got my license, and I left with my very first car: an old Toyota Camry. I’m a decent driver, but both traffic and freeways stress me out… so I prefer to walk.

The idea that every adult is entitled to — and in fact needs — to own a car is a new thing, and largely an American thing. If you think about it, it’s really pretty ludicrous. The resource usage is huge, health and safety risks are high, and it’s a financial burden for most people. And yet we convince ourselves it’s a “need” and not a ridiculous luxury. Of course, American cities were largely designed to accommodate cars (and not so much humans). If you can’t afford to live near your work, or if you have kids, it does become something close to a necessity.

My liberal education started early. I was in the gifted children’s program, and in our tiny weekly meeting we would do fun thought experiments like, “what would happen if every adult in China owned a car?” Bad things, it turns out. Like polar ice caps melting and cities so polluted it’s dangerous to go outside. But of course that’s just extremist… oh, wait. That’s happening now. The American way of life is spreading, and that is fucking terrifying.

We can’t afford for the rest of the world to treat car ownership like we have since the 1950s. In fact we can’t afford to keep doing it ourselves. And we’ve known that for years! But infrastructure hasn’t changed to support car-free living. There’s not a rail system like they have in Europe, and most cities struggle with public transportation. Car sharing is available in some areas, but if you’re stuck in the suburbs you’re pretty much living in the land of parking lots too big to walk across to go to the store across the street.

I don’t own a car anymore. My Toyota  was totaled about 3 years after my divorce. My neighborhood is about as walkable as you can get, and if I want to go on a road trip there’s a rental car place within walking distance. There’s also Zipcar and Car2go and Uber for everything else. And Postmates. And Amazon Fresh. The idea of paying for parking, insurance, car payments, gas, and maintenance sounds… not worth it. But I seem to be relatively alone in that point of view. Maybe because I never got used to depending on cars to get around? Even when I owned a car, I only actually drove it once every week or two.

I walk a fair amount in my daily life, but when I travel, I spend hours walking, sometimes randomly exploring, other times with a destination in mind. In Barcelona I sprained my ankle walking down the stairs to breakfast. I was in so much pain I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk at all, but I pulled myself up and gingerly limped down to the dining room. The plan for that morning was to go to Sagrada Familia. After taking my time over breakfast, I decided to carry on with my plan. It was just one change on the subway.

It was a pretty bad sprain. Every time I put weight on that leg the pain was intense. I hopped down to the subway on one foot. Of course the connection to the second train required a quarter-mile underground walk that isn’t visible on the subway map. By the time I emerged in the shadow of that melting spire, my ankle was blue and swollen to twice its size. I would have given anything for a cane. But I hobbled through the breathtaking cathedral-in-progress… each step a religious experience in itself. I found a pharmacy, learned the word “aspirina,” and made it back to my hotel without crying. I spent the rest of the day wrapping cold cans of Estrella in a towel on my ankle, then drinking them when they got warm.

This was just a reminder of how much things change when you can’t walk (as much as usual). It was a painful inconvenience, but ultimately I healed and walked on. My biggest fear (well, top 5 anyway) is that I’ll lose mobility when I get older. Walking has always been my independence.

Tonight, I will walk to see a concert. Tomorrow morning I will walk to work. If I’m not too exhausted by Monday, I will walk home from work, too. Wherever I go, I’ll walk.

In Which I Explain My Lack of Babies

Today I saw a headline on the internets: “Cameron Diaz Defends Her Childless Status,” and I thought, why on Earth does she have to defend herself for that?

I haven’t given birth to any babies (or kittens for that matter). I am 42 years old, and if all goes to plan I never will give birth to any babies (or kittens). This is not because I hate children, or put my career first, or don’t have access to sperm, or want to party every night, or can’t afford it. It’s because I don’t want children. As hobbies go, I’m more likely to pick up needlepoint or learn martial arts than raise children full-time.

I don’t feel that Cameron Diaz should have to explain herself, and nor should I, but I’m going to try. It feels like we still carry around this sociocultural idea that women must want to reproduce… or there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. And it seems the vast majority of women do want to reproduce (or at least that’s what they say). Those of us who don’t either lack some vital nurturing instinct or we’re lying.

I beg to differ. In my 20’s I kind of thought I would have a baby one day. Just  one — let’s not get carried away! Around the age of 26, I even kind of had the urge to get pregnant. That weird craving for tiny toes to put in my mouth. But I wasn’t particularly motivated, and my-future-ex-husband was nowhere near ready for that conversation. By my early 30’s I had decided: I don’t want babies.

There wasn’t a life-changing moment or tearful conversation. I just thought about it one day and realized I like the shape of my life without babies. My life wasn’t/ isn’t perfect, but when I envision my perfect life it does not include 3AM feedings or potty training. I admire people who go through those years of transitioning a squalling lump into a small person. But I don’t envy them.

Maybe if I hadn’t gotten divorced at 32 I would have changed my mind. I had to decide whether to allow my biological clock to influence my forays into dating… and I didn’t. Women in their mid-30s who need to get pregnant asap are not fun to date. But honestly, I was more relieved than disappointed to let go of that possible future.

My mother is mentally ill, and there is more mental illness in our family history. If I had children, they would have a higher than normal likelihood of suffering severe mental illness and/ or substance abuse issues. I don’t think genetic roulette should keep anyone from having children, but if my child became mentally ill it would feel like punishment. I already lived through a childhood with my mother.

I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist. I don’t see us doing enough to stop the domino effect of climate change, and while I don’t know if we’ll see apocalyptic floods, fires, droughts, and famines in the next 50 years, we will see some degree of all of those things. People who have kids must think about that… and they must assume that the future will somehow turn out to be floating cities and robot maids. Otherwise, I can’t see how they’d feel comfortable sending their offspring toward a future when they may not be able to go outside half of the year and have to fight starvation every day… during their golden years.

When people asked (and they magically stopped asking when I hit 40) whether I wanted kids, I generally responded, “I can adopt in my 40s if I decide I want that.” And if I become independently wealthy I might consider doing so. More likely, I may get involved with someone who already has kids. 75% or more of men in my dating class are divorced with part-time kids. I’d be a good stepmom, I think, provided the kids aren’t totally obnoxious.

I don’t think it’s strange to live a life without children or the idea of children as a central pillar. In fact, it feels a bit healthier than the people who jump through emotional and medical hoops to produce offspring. But different people have different priorities, and I have profound respect for those who decide to be parents. I just hope they have the same respect for those of us who choose not to.