Monday, June 24, 2013

Supermoon and the Stanley Cup

Since May 9, 2013, "normal life" has been in an extended holding pattern. That was the day that I unexpectedly lost my full-time job and embarked on an exhausting scramble for temporary solvency and long-term employment security. These two goals overlap in the slightest of ways: the former designed to supplement unemployment insurance benefits and keep my household afloat, the latter a strategic, big-picture mission intended to provide career and bottom-line satisfaction for the next five years or so. The tension between these two immediately necessary concerns has resulted in late nights temping at a digital advertising agency in downtown Chicago, while slotting in phone and face to face interviews wherever possible. I have in the past likened my daily life to that of a plate spinning act on 1970s oddity fest, The Gong Show, but now the analogy has never seemed more appropriate.

The plates that I've had to let drop over the last six weeks include some serious sacred cows: the more-effective-than-antidepressants exercise routine, the bandwidth to visit my Cousin Carla and her latest arrival, my new nephew Bradley and the treasured romantic partnership, currently molting between first year infatuation and the steady, cohabiting rhythm of daily routine. Under different circumstances, today would also be a day of hitting "refresh" every five minutes on, awaiting a series of key decisions from the Supreme Court of the United States that relate to marriage equality, affirmative action and the college admissions process and more. Instead, I am staring at my Gmail inbox and waiting for the phone to ring, having completed the final interviewing stage with two very different, yet equally exciting companies. The fact that both of these outfits gave me a Friday deadline for determining a soul-crushing return to square one, versus a buoyant restoration of dignity, has done little to stop me from staring at the kettle. 

As I stumbled in the door last Friday afternoon, bleary-eyed and exhausted after four consecutive days of branding and advertising in front of committees with the power to render me professionally relevant again, I promised myself a break. Two days of relative normalcy where I would sleep, immerse myself in the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run and see what all the supermoon fuss was about. The edge-of-seat freneticism would surely return Monday morning (yep).

Wikipedia describes the supermoon phenomenon as "the coincidence of a full moon or a new moon with the closest approach the Moon makes to the Earth on its elliptical orbit, resulting in the largest apparent size of the lunar disk as seen from Earth." I think this makes a great metaphor for the professional crossroads at which I sit. Will the specter of possibility, looming large above my head, sit with fleeting promise before retreating unmemorably back into its regular position? Or will I be able to capture and hold that energy, bigger and brighter than I was before?

The Stanley Cup Series offers another accessible parallel for present circumstances. For it was Summer 2010 when I last cheered the black and red on their way to an eventual championship - the last year I faced a fork in the career road. Inside a foundering marriage, underpaid and underwhelmed in a full-time position afield of my stated goals, I channeled hope into the Hawks' improbable ascent. If a team that had been so terrible for most of my life could reach this ascent, surely anything was possible.

The last time the supermoon was visible was May 2012. So here we all are again: the bright, beautiful celestial body reminding humans of their innate smallness, the upstart sports team attempting to prove that their first trophy of the decade was no fluke, and me, the struggling writer desperate for additional career path vindication. The moon left its aesthetic imprint on those who ventured outdoors, not to be seen again until late 2014. The Hawks return to Beantown for Game 6 after dominating the Bruins at home last Saturday, momentum decidedly on their side. And me? Well, even I have learned never to count myself out. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mad Men Season 1: The Temp

Although I have 12 years’ expertise in the fields of Corporate and Marketing Communications, I have historically been locked out from positions where “agency experience is preferred.” I’ve never understood this. What is the difference, I ask you, in positioning a brand for an internal client (your own company) versus an external one? In either scenario, failure to get it right puts you at risk of losing the “account.” In fact I would argue that when the client is your boss, you have a lot more at stake, like your job and health insurance. As the character of Don Draper likes to say, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” At an agency, client dissatisfaction is a blow, but there will be others.

Officially, I should not face this exclusion dilemma anymore. I’m heading toward the end of my fourth week as a temporary Proofreader at a high-profile digital advertising agency in downtown Chicago. Initially, I was only supposed to last five days but after converting a weeklong job into half of that time, the invitation to stay another week has been regularly repeated.

Of course as a rabid fan of the popular AMC drama Mad Men, and gifted with a wistful imagination, I was certain this was my chance to make like a swinging Madison Avenue power player. Visions of barking at my “girl,” commanding “Get me Jaguar on the phone! Now!” swam in my mind. Late morning cocktails, afternoon naps on the office couch, exquisitely tailored suits. Oh the fun I would have – minus the constant plumes of cigarette smoke.

Turns out that life at the bottom of the ad agency food chain is not the flashy glamour fest I envisioned. While I do get the late nights at the office and the free catered dinners that accompany after hours drudgery, I am not exchanging witty banter with Roger Sterling, getting soused on Old Fashioneds or engaging in blame game pissing wars with the accounts team. I look and feel much like Peggy Olson did on that very first episode of MM – nervous, ponytailed, possibly overdressed and eager for adventure, only to experience it vicariously by observing the insiders.

At the very least my expectations of boisterous office horseplay have come to fruition. It is Thursday afternoon and I have witnessed all of the following this week:

1.     A gentleman doing a non-contextualized soft shoe atop a conference room table.
2.     Mail cart drag races down the hallway, complete with crashes, injuries and first aid relief.
3.     A sleep-deprived intern walking into a glass door.
4.     Furtive office flirting replete with closed doors and hushed whispers.

It turns out that being an observer of chicanery, a chronicler if you will, rather than a direct participant, suits me. I don’t know these people and when my assignment ends, they will fade into my memory just as I will escape their collective consciousness. I have no real stake in the game and that permits me to let the experience wash over me, evaporating on my skin, leaving no permanent stain. I pause. I share a good-natured grin with other bystanders. I go back to my temporary desk.

Only an updated resume will prove I was here. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Best Blog in America?

Four and a half years ago, in the middle of January 2009, I began my blogging career with these words:

"I'd like to thank my dear younger sister for letting me in on this action. I don't know about all that 'smart one' stuff since she is the one who got something off the ground that I have only talked ad nauseum about doing myself. I may have the Master's in English Lit., but sometimes we overeducated end up being the most stagnant."

And it's true, without that first push toward online confession from my younger sister Jennifer, I have good reason to doubt that I would have let a closet writer's burning ambition see the light of day. I earned a comfortable living in those days as a manager of corporate standards, and came home each evening to make dinner for my then-husband. I had a clearly defined purpose that hid rather well some painful internal chafing. I was not! (screamed my buried soul) cut out for paperwork, motherhood and meal planning. There is nothing inherently wrong with those roles and for many women, filling them provides intense personal satisfaction, but the farther I traveled down the path of rote domesticity, the closer I moved to its expected tollgates, the more certain I became that I was lost.

Jenny knew it. And she wouldn't let me pretend otherwise. If I were lacking in personal bravery, well then she'd start the blog, give it a name and a theme and set me up as an administrator. No slouch a communicator herself, she produced the first few posts - in the voice of a harried, swamped suburban career woman, wife and mother - and challenged me to set myself apart.

That original blog, Which End is Up!?, "An in-depth look at the life of two very different Chicago sisters as it happens," evolved over time, eventually becoming the one-voice forum that I secretly believe Jenny always intended it to be. Months passed and as I gained a following, confidence and a certain amount of prolificacy, I migrated over to the Open Salon platform where Contemplating the U.S. Navel was born.

Through practice and self-discovery, I discovered a genuine passion for deconstructing our nation's increasingly fractured and broken political system. A long series of posts examining these themes led to professional recruitment from RootSpeak magazine in the form of a weekly column. When RootSpeak went on hiatus, I landed at PoliticusUSA where I've enjoyed my largest readership to date. That first push toward blogging from my baby sister has led to a diverse and satisfying professional writing career that includes national awards for journalism (the explosion of urban agriculture), newsletter editing (PenPoints, the quarterly communication of the Illinois Woman's Press Association) and theater criticism.

And now it is in June 2013 that I have a sense of a fledgling communications career (because a writer can never be too comfortable or established) coming full circle. For it is this year that the contest judges of National Federation of Press Women have deemed this very blog the best in the nation.

I still can't quite process and accept the mind-bending honor. For writing without varnish (and some in my life might argue, too nakedly) about the triple challenges of alopecia, cancer and divorce in 2012, I will travel to Salt Lake City to receive a honor the Becky of January 2009 could only experience as a daydream.

It's beautiful and satisfying whenever one's work is recognized by an esteemed body, but when that work is the very lifeblood and selfhood capsized across the screen, the victory becomes so much more gratifying - and humbling. The award I will collect from the NFPW at the end of August is not just a celebration of my words, it's a vindication of my voice, my experience. The emotions and thoughts I vomit onto the keyboard nearly every week are my most authentic self and somehow, a conglomerate of respected peers have deemed that worthy of consumption and acknowledgment.

I never got into blogging with ideas of grandeur. I always assumed that if anyone outside my immediate family read the words, I'd already won. Blogging was therapy, a way of wondering aloud on so many topics: "If this is how it's supposed to be, then how come...?"

But it now appears that the attempt to make sense of my self and the world around me has spoken to others. When I read this judge's feedback, I cried for that young, inexperienced 2009 self who had no idea she could use prose to speak to faceless others, badly inept at self-expression as she'd been to that point:

"This writer has no problem tapping a vein and bleeding onto the page, but she does so with humor and style. My kind of writing! Definitely worth the prize.""