I Want It All

OK, with a title like that, I know I’ve created some expectations. So here it is, for your enjoyment:

Now on to the real content. I’ve realized something: I am Jay Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby has been one of my favorite books for years. I first read it, like so many other Americans, in high school, in my junior year English class, and I fell in love with the lushness of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose, the elegiac plot, the picture-perfect depiction of the American Dream.

So I’ve read the book. I am the proud owner of a T-shirt printed with its text. I rushed to the theater when, last month, the new Baz Luhrmann version of the film came out, and I read the book again after, just to see how the two compared.

But it wasn’t til recently that I realized why, exactly, I loved The Great Gatsby — and, for all my English major-ing over the years, I have to say it wasn’t why I thought.

It was because I completely, 100% refuse to accept the ending as an ending. Because, optimist that I am, I saw the epic failure of the American Dream presented in the book as a failure, yes — but only for Gatsby. Of course I saw his personal failings; of course I saw the shallow opulence he so blindly followed after; of course I saw that what he was doing was wrong, and could never, and should never, succeed.

For him, that is. But for me? For me, it would be a completely different story.

I still believe in the American Dream. I still picture my future all in rosy hues, with me living the dream of the modern, educated woman in the post-feminist era: married, with kids, and flourishing at the top in my career. I, like so many others in my generation, have grown up being told that I could do anything I wanted, if I just tried.

And I have tried, and so far, it has seemed true. I sailed through college. I found rewarding (though unpaid) internships in my field. I landed a Fulbright scholarship. I  traveled. I  found at least a steady trickle of paid work in my field. I formed meaningful and loving relationships with some absolutely incredible people.

But the more I look around, the more discouraged I get about the future of my American Dream. I read articles like this one, which bring to my mind my college sociology professor, telling the class that women today absolutely cannot have it all — they always take a cut, either in family life or in professional life. It worried me then, but I pushed it to the side. But if, as recent studies show, even women in “liberal academia” get marginalized for having a family, how much worse must it be in the business community I hope to join?

Because, of course, I must join the business community. I am passionate about the publishing world, to begin with, and want nothing more than to join in; beyond that, though, it is equally important to me to have a career that I love as it is to be able afford to live the life of having a career and a family.

And being able to afford it is the trick: to have it all in today’s society, it’s generally accepted that traditional domestic roles will be, at least in part, hired out to others. Nannies will help with the kids; gardeners will help with the yard work; housecleaners will help with the chores; restaurants will help with the meals. I don’t want to be affluent for affluence’s sake; I want to be affluent so I can have a family as well as a career. As Nancy Folbre put it in her recent article in The New York Times:

Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

The stakes, for women, are high. The choice is this: Have an incredible career which can support your desire for a family, or forget the idea of a career altogether. All or nothing. No pressure.

This is, I’ve realized, is one of the reasons I love Seattle so deeply: It shows me what my life could look like, if I get it right. I have spent the majority of my time in this city in some of its richest neighborhoods, working as a nanny, providing one of the many services that make it possible for the women here to have everything.

Here I see the rebuttal to the claim that women can’t have everything; here I see women who are succeeding in their careers and in their family. As a nanny, I have seen what a household looks like where both spouses have careers they enjoy and that pay well; I have even had the privilege of seeing families who manage to do that without sacrificing their children’s wellbeing. I’ve seen those who make it into that exclusive club; I’ve seen that it is possible for a woman to have it all.

And I want in. That is my Daisy Buchanon, with money in its voice, ever beckoning me on to an imaginary future. But will it be imaginary? Or will I make it in; find that elusive job that will allow me to work in an industry I love and succeed, even as I, eventually, have a family, too?

Am I as blind as Jay Gatsby, chasing an illusion that can never be caught? Or will I, as I have always chosen to believe, succeed in my pursuit?

Can the American Dream be caught? Is it possible, in today’s society, for a woman to have it all? It is; I have seen it — but will it be possible for me?

These are unanswerable questions, I know. The only way to answer them is to stride forward, pursuing my dreams in the best way I know how — and hope there is no Nick Carraway lurking around the corner, ready to document my hopeless chase.

Parkinson’s Law

Since I started this blog last year, I’ve learned something about myself. Basically, that without a solid schedule, self-imposed or otherwise, everything in my life grinds to a halt.

Case in point: my blog postings, and lack thereof. I can write everyday, if I want to. I proved that in Taiwan, when I blogged daily for an 11-and-a-half-month stretch, Internet access or no, with minimal damage to my sleep schedule or mental stability. Then I came back from Taiwan, engines raring to go, and started this blog. And Idid well at it at first–I posted often, and I was Freshly Pressed after just a month on the scene. I was elated.

But, over time, my life got more cluttered, and my postings got more erratic, to the point where they stopped for months together. I’ve just come out of one of those stretches, in fact. Looking at my archives links now makes me depressed.

My posts have lost all meaning...

My life has lost all meaning…

So what happened? I lost the structure in my life.

In Taiwan, I blogged. Daily. It was what I did. It was a murderous self-inflicted posting schedule, an imperative I had dared myself to do because it sounded hard, and I knew I would never be willing to let myself down by failing it. And, rain or shine, eventful day or dull one, I would sit at my computer and I would write–something. Anything. Sometimes good, sometimes laughably bad. This, they tell you–and, indeed, I told myself–is what writers do. They write, full stop.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 8.39.14 PM.png

I didn’t realize, though, that writers write because of a decision they make to write. Writing will never just happen. Writing must, always, be a choice, a challenge, a conviction that writing for the sake of writing is worth it. It needs dedicated time, a dedicated mind, and a dedicated purpose: to improve.

After last summer, I lost that. I forgot. My life came at me willy-nilly, and I left it at that. I started freelancing, with my clients rarely sending notice beforehand, on the expectation that, whenever their manuscript came across my desk, I would drop whatever else I was doing and finish their work, pronto. And I did. I skated from deadline to deadline, indulging myself in the luxuries of unspecified work schedules by wasting hours of my time and spending late nights finishing things I should have finished days ago.

I never missed a deadline. My work was good. But, by ignoring the necessity of structure in my life, I lost hours upon hours of my life, hours that could have been spent with friends or reading or in advancing my career or writing blog posts, all poured down the drain of unstructured time; all left at the altar of procrastination.

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors...

All lost in the sands of mixed metaphors.

Yet even then, I did at least have my class schedule. I knew I had to be somewhere from 10:30 til 3:45 daily, and my freelancing work had to fit around that.

But my classes ended in mid-May, and as the last vestiges of my structured life fell away, I noticed something: I was getting less done. It made no sense. For the first time since I began freelancing, I was having trouble meeting my deadlines. Sure, some of them had shifted up a bit in the week, but that wasn’t enough to explain it. I could actually feel my work getting less efficient. Simultaneously, I felt myself growing bored.

And then it struck me: I’d lost my structure. I’d suddenly been handed my days, wide open, on a platter, and I had no idea what to do with them, so I did nothing. I was experiencing Parkinson’s Law, and the answer to my dilemma suddenly became clear: make myself a schedule. Put in place artificial time constraints. Maybe install Anti-Social.

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking...

Yes, we are now at the point where society has dubbed it necessary to pay people to stop us from social networking…

So I began blocking out my days, with specific and achievable work goals for different portions of the day, and the same sorts of work at the same times of day. Now, for instance, I write my freelance articles after lunch. I wake up around the same time everyday, and go to sleep approximately eight hours before that. All my work is set to be finished on an orderly timetable of my own device, and well before my official deadlines.

What productivity looks like.

What productivity looks like.

And, already, it’s working. This post, in fact, is part of the fruit of it.

Blogging is important to me. Blogging well, and constantly improving my writing, is even more so. And I am now making the decision, once again, to blog regularly. Not daily this time, but at least twice weekly: I will now publish at least one post on Tuesday, and one on Saturday.

(Yes, I know this is being published on a Sunday. I couldn’t wait til Tuesday. Besides, I said at least twice weekly!)

I refuse to waste my days, or to get done in four hours what should be done in one. In high school and college, I overloaded my days with classes, work, and extracurriculars, and became an expert in getting a lot done with no time. (This is not an uncommon effect; it is part of why studies show that students who work get better grades than those who don’t.) I spent years learning to multitask and learning how to get a lot done with no time; now, I am learning to get a lot done regardless of how much time I actually have.

Paradoxical? Perhaps. Necessary? Definitely.

My life is now scheduled again, and my stress and boredom levels have dropped as my productivity has skyrocketed. Case in point: this is my second post in three days. With my structure back, my life has returned to regular operating capacity. Life is as it should be.

And even if it weren’t, I’ll be back to a regular daily routine next week, as I start a new job. Parkinson’s Law, your days are numbered.

Piecework

What do you do?

It shouldn’t be a difficult question. It never used to be: I was a student. For years, I was a student–for as many years as I can remember anyone would be asking me that question, I was a student. Sure, I was some other things, too–college is certainly not free here in the USA–but explaining my modgepodge of jobs then came secondary, if it came at all. What did I do? I was a student.

Then, I graduated. And then, for a year, another easy answer: I’m an English teacher. Or, if I thought it would mean anything to whomever I was speaking: I’m a Fulbright scholar.

Now, though? Now, such facile answers seem like pots at the end of a rainbow; now, an answer to this question requires a few minutes of your time, and possibly more than a few clarifying questions.

Or, “What do I do, what do I dooooo?”

What do I do? I’m a hyphenate. To be more specific, I’m a writer-writing tutor-college application consultant-transcriptionist-proofreader-editor; oh, and also, a student at a ministry school. A very difficult-to-describe ministry school, as luck would have it. (I should add blogger to that list, but clearly, with all these hyphens, those that come sans pay have been slipping.) And I’m applying to graduate schools, since you’re asking, and therefore obviously care deeply about my personal life.

My personal life. Not pictured: me

So, it’s complicated. When people ask me what I do, I prefer to turn abstract, and to tell people that my job is like a patchwork quilt, with dozens of little squares sewn together to create a motley arrangement that somehow, (usually) pays the bills.

My life, everybody!

It’s funny, though: when I began this post a month ago, I began it with somewhat of a sour attitude, somewhat of a sense that my crazy, hyphenated world was something to be looked down upon, or to be avoided at all costs. But the truth of the matter is, it isn’t. The truth of the matter is that it rocks.

Why? Well because, ultimately, all this piecework means one thing, and one thing only: I’m doing it.

Right now, I’m making a living doing what I want to do. I’m using my English major, consistently and in several different venues, and getting paid for my expertise in each of them. Sure, none of them are full time jobs with benefits, but they are enough, and they allow me to be one of the apparently tiny proportion of college graduates who are actually using the skills they learned there out in the real world.

And, beyond just being allowed to use my expensive education for something, I’m doing what I want to do, at what is likely to be one of the only times that I’m free to do so. Honestly, what I scrape in through my jobs isn’t much–but it is enough to finance me, living on my own with roommates, taking little trips every now and then, going to a school that I chose, and applying to other schools that I’m choosing. I can flit about and do what I please–on a limited budget, sure, but how many other jobs do you know of that allow you to work from wherever you happen to be? Freelancing may not be steady money, or a lot of money, but it takes the “free” in its name seriously.

My life now isn’t easy, and it isn’t the typical “success” I was taught to strive for. But it works for me, and for where I am right now, and it has provided me with the amazing opportunity to be fully me, doing what I fully want to do, right now.

What do I do? I follow my dreams. And you?

Paralysis

Tomorrow is Monday. And what are my plans? Well, I’ll meet a friend for coffee in the morning, and I’ll do some mowing and/or log pulling for my dad in the afternoon. That’s it. That’s my entire fixed-point day–two tasks.

I hate this. Like, really, truly hate it. I am now, for the first time since I was 12 and took my first summer job picking blueberries, unemployed. And yes, I know, that’s part of life, particularly in today’s [insert expletive] economy, but what sucks most to me is not just that I’m unemployed, but that my psyche seems dead-set on keeping me that way, undercutting any attempts I make at employment with a simple, deadly question: Is that really what you want to do next? Is it really what you should do?

And the truth is, I don’t know–and, until I do, I am absolutely petrified to take a step in any direction, for fear it will prove to be the wrong one. I spend my days looking for jobs, saving them, and then go back through them second-guessing: do I want to go back to Seattle? Would I be OK moving to New York? Would I actually be able to handle that role? I sit down daily to write emails to my professional contacts, only to wonder: if they respond, what then? Am I looking for a job if they have one, or just a bit of professional advice? Would it be better to contact this person now, or later, once I know a little better where I am, and where I am headed?

I have always been one to over-analyze things and, objectively, I know that that is what I am doing now. The answer to most of my questions is actually “yeah, I think I could handle that.” But the terrible truth is that when I have little with which to occupy my time, what else can I do but think, and what else is there to think about but why I am sitting around jobless? It’s a vicious cycle: job-free time leads to over-thought; over-thought leads to paralysis; paralysis leads to more job-free time.

Lesson learned: there is a reason I kept myself so busy for the eight years of high school and college. The reason is, I do better when I have things to do. Despite my introvert’s need for alone time to rest and recoup, I am still happier when I’m up early, occupied all day at school or work or in extracurriculars, and have just a few moments to myself every night before I drop, exhausted, back into bed. I never thought I would miss a life when, as in high school, I sometimes wouldn’t see my house in the daylight for weeks, or, as in college, I would sometimes find myself stumbling in around 3 or 4am on a production night at the paper, with a test and work the next day. But I do.

For now, I can at least add one more item to my to-do list: overcome my paralysis. Get stuff done. I don’t even care what it is anymore, it’s just time to start applying, and emailing, without looking back, until there are no more jobs to apply for and no more contacts to reach out to. What do I want to do next? I’m sure I’ll figure it out soon. And, since the problem isn’t quite what I want to do, but what I want most to do, the most obvious solution is and must be explore all the options and see which ones actually are.

So, no more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. No more over-thinking. Dang, this is hard…