Occupational escapism and bright skies

I once read an article about liberal arts colleges’ inability to prepare students for careers (of course I’ve lost track of the source and vehemently disagreed with most of the thesis anyway). The author took a dig about how it’s this baffling time where we tell students that their most important task every day is to read books, then we wonder why they show up to the workplace with no real job skills.

It has been my experience that a liberal arts and straight-up arts education has been invaluable in my career, and even though I will be paying for my degrees for the rest of my life, I have never regretted any of my education for even a moment.

I talk a lot with friends about how much I love my job, but I realize that if they’re mostly hearing stories about shipping and logistics and working super late, it may not come across as such a dreamy experience that a girl could have such a crush on. One friend asked me if I regretted not pursuing a career that used my degrees, and I was flummoxed because honestly, I draw on my experiences and education every single day.

As I tried to think of a way to explain the intricacies of how and why I love my job, I hit on something crucial: this job is the only one I’ve ever had where the principle guiding force behind decisions is purely aesthetic. Working in art or science, I saw again and again where vision got cut short and compromised by funding. At my job, the question is almost never about the bottom line, but more, “What is the most elegant and beautiful way to do this?” When you work with objects as important and unique as the ones that make their way across my desk each day, everything in support of them gets elevated. It is a privilege just to be there, let alone to play a daily role in making it run.

I can’t help but contrast the experience of being so immersed in design and luxury with times when I was working in A/R or retail while the store was struggling. I spent my days fretting over purchase orders and invoices, then went home to fret over my own finances. I had the very distressing impression that I would spend my entire adult life shuffling papers, reconciling balance sheets that never added up in our favor, and marveling at the way interest accrued so mercilessly. Part of what motivated me to go to art school was the certainty that I just wasn’t cut out for chasing money. If I was going to be poor anyway, I figured at least I could have beauty in my personal life.

But now, work is a holiday for me. Our office has the same rarefied atmosphere of my favorite museums and galleries, where you can actually feel the reverence and consideration for the pieces. I spend my days in a world where money is no object and the most prized commodities are proportion, purity, and vision. Whatever mood or weight I may walk in carrying, it almost always dissipates when I see a particularly beautiful photo, the way a stone catches light, or a designer’s sketch from 1925 of a bracelet that I’m holding in my hand.

This year my job took me to London and Paris already, and I’m returning to Paris for another 3 weeks this September. Just after that, Hong Kong. (I promise, we’ll talk about all this stuff soon.) I feel so incredibly grateful and happy at my job that sometimes I worry I will wake up and learn it was all an elaborate, exquisite dream.

When I had to leave school two years ago three semesters shy of a chemistry degree (for financial reasons, of course), I thought it was the worst thing that could ever happen to me. At the time I chose to interpret it as the universe telling me I was supposed to be on another path, but I was skeptical that it was really an opportunity and not just piss poor luck. Today I mentioned to someone that I never would have gotten my wonderful, lovely job if I hadn’t been looking at exactly that moment in time. And if I hadn’t been so fiercely motivated to keep from losing my apartment, I probably wouldn’t have even thought to apply for this job.

For maybe the first time since I was a child, when I think about the possibilities for the future, they actually seem limitless. It is genuinely exhilarating.

I am trying to make my life better

Aristide Maillol, Air, 1932, lead. Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, France.

Recently I heard an interesting metric for how busy one’s life has gotten when an architect said, “I can gauge how I’m doing by when I was last able to sit and watch a TED talk.”

I laughed that it was definitely more than a year for me and honestly longer than I could remember, by any metric, since I’d felt calm and like I had a decent stretch of free time to focus on my personal life. I mean, I’ve been trying to write this post since April.

Like most jobs, mine has times when it’s extra demanding and times where it’s a little calmer. Recently, it’s also started to include international travel, which is awesome beyond words (and of which, much more later), but also quite time-consuming. Right now I’m in the midst of one of the more demanding phases, which means working until 7:30 or 8 most nights has become problematically normal.

When I took a long hard look at my life this winter, work wasn’t the problem (I seriously love my job). More than anything, it’s been my commute. On a good day, it’s 2 hours each way. Frequently it’s closer to 2.5-3 hours or more. There have been times that I’ve gone to the opera and the journey home was longer than the performance. Times. More than once.

I love riding a boat as part of my commute, and I have mostly really enjoyed living in Staten Island, but I seriously can’t spend the rest of my 30s grumpily waiting in the Whitehall Ferry Terminal and wondering what it might be like to have time for a boyfriend and hobbies again. I hit my breaking point this spring, and I texted my mother, “If I ever seem to falter in my resolve to move out of Staten Island, please remind me of this night and the way it made me feel about my life.”

Moving in New York City is its own special kind of hell, and I’ve made it additionally challenging for myself because I’m flying to Paris like two days after my current lease ends (and I have an enormous amount of stuff to do at work in preparation for that trip). It was so tempting to just renew my lease again and suffer through another year of miserable commuting, but I’ve been repeating a mantra since February: I am trying to make my life better.

Every frustrating appointment with brokers, every stressful rehashing of logistics to organize the move, every time I want to curl up in a ball and cry or convince myself that maybe some people just don’t get to be happy:

I am trying to make my life better.
I am trying to make my life better.
I am trying to make my life better.

It is so, so hard to make one’s life better, but I know that when I get 4-6 hours of my life back every day (or at least 3-5) I am going to be so much calmer, healthier, umm, fitter, happier, more productive… It’s totally gonna be worth it.

Maybe I’ll even find time for some TED talks.

Racism is alive in Staten Island

This weekend I watched The Help with my mother (excellent movie, highly recommended) and afterwards got in a discussion of what it must have felt like to live during a time when systematized discrimination against a specific race or group of people was not only tolerated, but actively enforced as the status quo. We agreed that the US really hasn’t come as far as we’d like to believe, and we talked quite a bit about the instances of overt and more pervasive, institutionalized, or subtler forms of racism we’ve both seen.

“I’m so glad I live in New York,” I said, “it feels like we’re always a few decades ahead of the rest of the country, in terms of respecting each other and understanding how people should get along.” Smugly I added, “it feels good to be on the right side of history.”

Now I am choking on the irony, as I must completely eat my words.

© Associated Press, Segregation of Buses in Atlanta, The Freedom Mosaic

I lugged a suitcase back from New Jersey with me today, so I decided to take the bus home from the ferry. Our ferry was slightly delayed by the high winds and reduced visibility of an impending thunderstorm. A number of passengers were rushing up the ramps to catch buses, and I saw the driver of the S42 close the doors, then reopen them to let two white women and then myself on board. The driver slammed the doors shut the moment my suitcase had cleared the bottom step, and she accelerated so suddenly away from the curb that I nearly fell over as I inserted my MetroCard. The driver then slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the bus that was departing in front of us.

I looked through the door to see a black man about my age, wearing a suit and a white collared shirt. He looked as mystified as I felt about why the driver had shut the doors in his face when he was right behind me in the bus queue.

We idled behind the bus that had departed in front of us, then waited for the traffic signal at the end of the ramp to change, behind several cars and another bus. As we were barely ten feet clear of the bus ramp, the man had walked up to the door and asked the driver to let him on. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I saw him pantomiming about the imminent rain, how he didn’t have an umbrella, and he didn’t want to ruin his suit.

Other passengers encouraged the driver to let him on, saying the sky was about to fall out and we weren’t even moving. The driver said he could take the next bus (which would be in 15 minutes) and that “that stupid fool” ought to get out of the road so he doesn’t get hit by a car.

The bus proceeded around a curving road and the next two stops, then turned back toward the road that extends out of the ferry terminal ramp. The man had evidently run uphill on one of the one-way side streets to meet our bus at the third stop on its route. He stepped aside to let passengers exit out of the front door of the bus, then the driver shut the doors rapidly on him again before he could get a foot onto the step. The other passengers on the bus burst out into an uproar, asking what the hell the driver was doing. One woman said, “Oh come on, after he ran up this big hill, you’re going to be that mean? That’s just hateful!”

The man again looked perplexed, and the passengers around me said she would never do that to a white man.

“He’s not some saggy pants-wearing street type, he’s a good working man, he’s wearing a suit! Don’t treat him like that!” another woman yelled.

The driver said that she had the right to deny service to anyone she wanted and that she “didn’t like the look of him.” She accelerated again so quickly that several passengers fell off their balance, and she had to swerve and slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian and a car in front of us.

Amazingly, the man caught up to the bus again, and the driver let passengers off and closed the doors in his face a third time. By this point it was clear that everyone on the bus believed the driver’s denial of service was racially motivated. Several passengers told her they would be making complaints, and they took down her license number and information. They even tried bargaining with her, saying they wouldn’t complain if she would just let the man on the bus so he could get home already.

My stop was the next stop, and I took my time with my suitcase on the back steps, looking down the street to see if the man had been able to catch up to us again (I didn’t see him). As I was walking into the gates of my apartment complex, one of my neighbors who looked a few years younger than me leaned in confidentially to say, “I wouldn’t have let him on.”

“I’m sorry?” I said, not fully registering what she had said.

“You were on the 42 bus, weren’t you? That black guy?” she said.

“Oh yeah, that was nuts,” I said, worried where her tone was going.

“I’m just saying, with black guys like that, if they get angry? I wouldn’t have let him on either. Who knows what he’d do?”

“Yeah, umm, I don’t know,” I stammered, giving her a doubtful look and wondering if this was how all the other white passengers felt.

Did the other outraged passengers on the bus read my less vocal upset and expression of discomfort as some kind of support for the driver? Are white people actually super racist and I’ve just been deluding myself??

I was so furious at the driver and the way she made this man feel, intentionally or not, that I wrote every detail in a formal complaint letter to the MTA as soon as I got home. I have a hard time believing she pointedly denied him service three times for any reason other than his race.

I’ve regularly seen drivers wait for a passenger running down the street to catch a bus, I’ve seen them let people on at the end of the ramp at the ferry terminal, and I’ve seen them stop partway down a street when they realized someone was trying to catch a ride. I’ve seen drivers have so little regard for sticking to their schedule that they’ve made a queue of people wait an extra five or ten minutes in sub-zero temperatures so they could finish their cigarettes and have the full break they wanted. I’ve never seen a driver work so hard to outrun a passenger that she would endanger everyone else on her bus driving recklessly between stops, and I’ve never seen someone so utterly unconcerned with letting a whole bus believe she was denying service to a black man just because she could.

I don’t realistically imagine anything will come of my complaint letter, but I needed this man’s experience to be written down and to go on record somewhere. I needed the outrage that everyone on the bus felt at what seemed like flagrant racism to be expressed.

We may not have formal segregation anymore, but we still have a long, long way to go.

Mother Nature knows what she’s doing

A few years ago I was getting my hair cut, and the stylist asked if I’d ever colored my hair. Sheepishly, I recounted that time I thought I’d look better as a redhead, followed by that time in grad school where I lost my mind, dyed my hair Elmo red, then had to meet my boyfriend’s father for the first time and tried to cover it with some sort of burgundy, I don’t know.

“Probably for the best,” she said laughing, “you would only look natural as a blonde.” After a pause, she said, “Really, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing, you should trust her.”

Lately I’ve been having skin reactions to some combination of like sunscreen, benzoyl peroxide, makeup remover, or who knows what else. I have prescription lotion that’s supposed to soothe the reaction (in part because once upon a time my health insurance covered treatment but not diagnostics for allergic skin reactions), but now even the magical soothing lotion has been irritating my skin. Because of course it would.

It was clear that there was a combination of chemicals that was getting to me, and when I tried to start eliminating products, I was once again amazed by how many things come in contact with my face each day. I looked at my face scrub and saw 30-something ingredients, yeesh.

This morning I had a little Mother Nature spa session, attempting some detox and soothing with ingredients from my kitchen. I did a microdermabrasion scrub with baking soda paste (marvelous), followed by what sounded like a practical joke: smearing a banana peel all over my face to cover it in lutein and other antioxidants and fatty acids.

I also made a hair mask out of rosemary, coconut oil, banana, honey, and a bit of coconut milk (these are mostly green smoothie ingredients that I had in the fridge threatening to go bad). It’s maybe a bit sad that it took a hair mask to get me to use the immersion blender I’ve had for years. I also couldn’t help thinking (as I tasted a warm glop of it) that if it didn’t work as a hair treatment, this combination would make a truly delicious dessert.

I was happy to find that the baking soda + banana peel face treatment worked wonders. My skin was incredibly soft, smooth, and most importantly, not even remotely irritated anymore. It felt…new.

The hair treatment was a messy affair, and I was deeply skeptical as I was struggling to wash stubborn bits of rosemary out of the tangles. But once I finally got it clean, my hair came out fluffier, softer, and maybe even a bit shinier than before. It feels healthy and nourished, and it probably goes without saying it smells amazing.

So yeah, that Mother Nature really knows what she’s doing. Now I hope there is a more natural way to finish cleaning my bath tub.

Noise Canceling

One of the better investments in my peace of mind was a $7 pair of in-ear headphones. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the old Whitehall Street subway station was reopened and cobbled back into service. The trains make painfully loud high-pitched metal screeching sounds for a minute or longer as they come around the curve. I realized as my ears would ring all day that it isn’t just annoying; it’s physically damaging to one’s hearing.

I have never been able to wear standard Apple earbuds comfortably, and I found that I had to turn my iPod way louder than was sensible to try to drown out the sound, which was probably as bad as the sound itself. I researched how noise canceling headphones work and read that the ones that provide a physical barrier to sound, like earplugs, are often the most effective. These little green Panasonic ones, which may be a child’s size for all I know, worn with the smallest size pads, actually fit in my ears comfortably and cancel out the screeching trains and any other unpleasant sounds.

(Bear with me – there is an extended metaphor at work here.)

Some people add pleasant noise to life. It may be a tinkling crystalline melody at joyful news and exciting events in their lives or the deep bass line of a rich sense of humor and shared experiences of absurdity.

Occasionally people make discordant, screechingly unpleasant noise in my life. In years gone by, I tried to hum over it or pretend it didn’t bother me so much, but I see that this approach is just as ineffective as humming over the trains every morning. The noise isn’t just annoying; it’s damaging to my health and happiness.

Metaphorically, I ask these people to make a little gentler noise, or to maybe quiet some of the harsher tones. If they respond by making even louder, uglier noise, I realize now that I need to remove them from my life. I need to cancel the noise to protect myself.

It’s not pleasant to end relationships or cut ties with people. I used to always second guess my decisions and let the noise back into my life. But when I wake up and the ringing in my ears is replaced with clarity and peace, all I feel is immense, beautiful relief.