One Story Summer Writers Conference

I just got back from the One Story summer conference in Brooklyn and, despite being sick as a dog, I had a great week. I feel so lucky to have been able to do two wonderful (and very different) writing conferences this summer. Kenyon, as I blogged about, was emotionally and physically draining, but I learned a ton and left feeling energized and inspired. One Story was a cushier, more supportive environment, and I came home feeling confident and motivated (if a bit depleted by whatever mystery virus I contracted while in New York). The conference took place at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, a former factory converted into an art space (where One Story has its offices). The week consisted of workshop (critiquing each other’s manuscripts), craft lectures (from such awesome writers as Hannah Tinti, Ann Napolitano, and Patrick Ryan), meals, readings, and opportunities for industry mingling.

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The organizers of the One Story conference really made an effort to create a supportive, welcoming environment. The whole conference is made up of only twenty participants, which creates the feeling of a small, intimate community of writers. People in my workshop were incredibly kind, open, and generous. (And the staff gave us wine most nights, which helped.)

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One of the most valuable parts of the One Story conference, for me, was the industry component. One night, there was a panel and meet-and-greet with four editors from various publishing houses, and the next night, a panel and mixer with four literary agents. As a non-famous writer who works out of her home office, anything I can do to get my manuscript pulled from the dreaded slush pile is a bonus, so being able to pitch to four literary agents face-to-face is huge. (This also produced another positive: I was forced to come up with an elevator pitch for my novel, something I’d been putting off for six months or so).

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One night, we got to see Min Jin Lee, author of the wonderful family saga Pachinko, in conversation with Hannah Tinti at the Community Bookstore. Min Jin Lee was so down-to-Earth, funny, and frank; I loved hearing her perspective on the labor involved in researching and writing, on creating memorable characters, and on tapping into the emotional heart of the reader.

The week culminated with a participant reading, so I got up and read my fiction for the second time in my life. It was fun!

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I’m so glad I went to One Story and would gladly do it again. Also, being in Brooklyn gave me the opportunity to see my dear friend Claire and to meet, for the first time, one of my former editors at Previously.TV, Sarah Bunting. After working with Sarah off and on for over five years (and doing, among other things, the vaunted Andi Dorfman book club with her and my other former editor, Tara Ariano), I felt like I’d already met her, so it was cool to sit down IRL and have a drink.

Thanks for a great week, Brooklyn! It’s been real.

My week at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop

I spent the last week (Saturday-Saturday) at the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Gambier, Ohio and boy, was it a week.

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The week held so much good: inspiration, knowledge, friendship, solitude. But the week was also tough. I cried every day, for a variety of reasons: I missed Al and my kids (and I found being away from them particularly wrenching given the horrors that are taking place at our country’s southern border), my six-year-old laptop stopped working on the second day of the workshop, and I received a barrage of brutally honest and challenging feedback from my workshop instructor. The first few days were especially hard. After my computer died (and I feared I had lost all of my ongoing manuscripts — turns out they’d been backed up; thank God for Backblaze), I laid on my bare dorm room bed and sobbed on the phone to Al that I thought I’d made a mistake by coming to Kenyon. He did his best to talk me off the ledge but I was totally ready to stand on the outskirts of Gambier with my thumb out and hitch a ride back to Virginia.

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As the week went on and I emotionally calibrated to my environment, things improved. (I still found myself weeping when reading the news, but I’m pretty sure that’s a normal human reaction, given the circumstances). I had to let go of certain ideas and embrace new ones. I had to stop taking things personally. And I had to accept that I was not going to get a good night’s sleep on a squishy, plastic-coated extra-long twin mattress in a sweaty, cinder-block dorm room. Once I’d accepted the things I couldn’t change and began to stretch myself in new ways, I realized what a rare and wonderful opportunity the KRWW was for me. I am so glad I went.

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On Friday, I stood in front of the entire workshop and read a short piece of fiction that I’d written during the week. I hadn’t read my fiction in front of so many people before, but, surprisingly, the experience was more empowering than scary, once I was up there.

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I am coming away from the week at Kenyon with a whole new toolbox for writing craft, and a solid plan for revising my novel. It’s going to be a heck of a lot of work, but it’s also exciting to imagine how much my writing is going to improve. I hope to ride this wave of inspiration as long as I can. And now, off to revise.

Another small life (and writing) update

More good news in the realm of my writing career: this July I’ll be attending the One Story Summer Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn. When I decided I wanted to attend fiction workshops this summer, I wasn’t sure how many programs I’d get accepted to, which ones would work with my family’s schedule, etc., and I would have been happy to attend even one. In the end, I was lucky enough to have a number of options to choose from. I landed on Kenyon and One Story because they each offer something unique (and important).

Kenyon, as I understand it, is a generative conference, in which participants do not come in with manuscripts to workshop, but instead produce writing continuously during the week. The focus of the week is on craft, not the publishing industry. It’s exhilarating to think about having a full week to sit down and just WRITE. As it is, I have so little time to write — often my only writing time is while my kids nap — and getting an entire week just to learn and produce is a rare luxury.

One Story will be a different experience from Kenyon, in that I will show up with a manuscript to be workshopped during the week. The manuscript I’ve chosen to submit is the first 5000 words of my novel and I am almost paralyzed with anxiety at the prospect of allowing human eyes that are not mine to rest upon this thing. I’ve worked on this manuscript for well over two years and never have I let anyone read even a word  of it, so this conference in Brooklyn will be a (scary) departure for me. But I feel fairly certain that this is what needs to happen if I want to get my novel published, so I’m going to swallow my fear and just do it.

I’m excited about the potential this summer holds for advancing my future as a fiction writer. I’m also incredibly anxious about leaving the kids for a week at a time, twice. Al is a very capable parent and has a lot of support from our family, so I know everyone will be fine, but still — MY BABIES (*said in a shriek, with hand to forehead*). Wish me luck.

A trip to the Shenandoah Valley

This past weekend, Ewan was baptized (which is worth a whole separate blog post, given what a mess he was during the service) and my dear friend Karen was in town to serve as his godmother.

The baptism boy and his entourage.

The baptism boy and his entourage.

I don’t see Karen very often because she lives in California, so when I do see her, we try to make the most of our time together. This usually involves doing something active and then sitting around talking (and, duh, drinking wine). So, the day after Ewan’s baptism, we got in my trusty 2002 Camry and drove two hours southwest to Shenandoah National Park. I’m ashamed to say that in the almost-decade that I’ve lived in the DC area, I’d only gone to Shenandoah once before (and that was, like, three weeks ago). Boy, was I missing out. It is REALLY pretty, with tons of gorgeous views of soft green hills, forests, and rivers. 

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Karen and I chose the Whiteoak Canyon trail for our hike. It’s a 4.7 mile out-and-back loop, with the option to tack on an additional 2.7 (very challenging) miles at the bottom. We ended up hiking 5 miles — 2.5 miles downhill, passing a series of beautiful waterfalls, and then 2.5 miles back up. Obviously, the way back was a bit more challenging, but the thundering waterfalls kept things refreshing.

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After our hike, we drove through the park and stopped at a couple of overlook points, then stopped at one of the many wineries in the Shenandoah Valley, Gadino Cellars. I told Karen that wine-tasting in Virginia is not so much about the wine as much as about the views, which helps to set expectations. (Sonoma this ain’t.) But the wine at Gadino was pleasant, and we got to drink it while sitting outside and looking at lush, green hillsides dotted with vines.

After our tasting, we made our way to Sperryville, the cutest little hippie river town you ever did see. First, we stopped at Copper Fox Distillery. Neither of us are big whiskey people, but we sampled four of Copper Fox’s products and I actually liked them all. (Who knew?) Next, we wandered around the corner to Wild Roots Apothecary, which sells “herbal products, herbal pantry products and beautiful botanically based natural beauty products.” I ended up buying two oxymels, delicious, vinegary-tasting syrups that supposedly cure inflammation and a whole host of other health issues (sure), but mostly just tasted like yummy salad dressings. (I blame the whiskey for these purchases, by the way).

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Oxymels in hand, we headed for our Airbnb and got cleaned up before going to dinner at Tula’s Off Main in Washington (just up the street from the very famous Inn at Little Washington). Apart from the great quality time I got to spend with my friend of 15+ years, the best part of the evening was crawling into bed at 9:30 and getting ten hours of uninterrupted sleep. HEAVEN.

Can’t wait to get back to Shenandoah for some more hiking — and so glad I got to spend some precious time with my friend!

 

Life updates, spring 2018

It occurred to me the other day that I have not updated my blog in MONTHS. I realized that I should probably remedy the situation, but I quailed at the idea of writing some long book review or deep-thoughts post on, like, LIFE, man. So, I decided instead to do a little bullet-point post of stuff that’s been happening with me lately. (This is not unprecedented; when I first started this blog in 2012, I used to write short little posts about inconsequential nonsense all the time. Here is one on a hilariously named brand of South African crackers. And here is one on — no kidding — all of the chores and errands I had to do one day). Anyway! Here are a few things that have been going on in my life:

  • I’ve decided to get off my duff and attend a fiction workshop this summer. I’ll be attending the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Ohio in June. This means I’ll be spending a week sleeping in a dorm room on an extra-long twin bed, away from my kids and Al, a prospect which is both exhilarating and anxiety-producing. Hopefully I’ll come away from the week feeling inspired and having generated a whole lotta new fiction. More updates to come!
  • Since reading Back Sense, I’ve tried to stay physically active, but have struggled to find a workout that doesn’t jack up my back while giving me endorphins. (Pilates on the Reformer is great for the core, but it can be kind of tedious). Finally, in December I found Barre3, which combines elements of yoga, Pilates, aerobics, and ballet barre and is hard but fun. I much prefer it to other barre-based workouts I’ve tried in the past (looking at you, The Barre Method). And, bonus, the studio here in Old Town offers childcare! I have been going three times a week and I’m feeling strong. Plus, it gives me an excuse to wear cute grip socks.
  • In podcasting news, Whine & Roses is kaput, since Previously.TV decided to drop their coverage of all Bachelor-related shows (*single tear*). But since Whine & Roses met its untimely end, I’ve been a guest on both Extra Hot Great (discussing the Netflix dramedy Everything Sucks, among other TV things) and The Blotter Presents (discussing the classic, 2004 true crime documentary The Staircase), so check me out!
  • I’ve started keeping track of my reading. I read a lot (30-90 minutes a day, sometimes more, never less) and I wanted a record of what I’ve read so that I can look back and remember, if not, say, specific plot points or characters, the general idea of each book. Here’s a photo of my reading log, which shows that I’ve read 16 books since January 7, which comes out to roughly one book a week. At this rate, I’ll finish more than 50 books this year, and without this log, I won’t stand a chance at remembering all of them, let alone writing about them. (NB: I used to write a lot more fiction book reviews on my blog but I felt as if I was shouting into the void. But even if I never write another review again, at least I’ll have my own record of what I read).

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  • After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Catherine Price’s How To Break Up With Your Phone, I’ve been working hard to change my relationship both with my phone and the internet in general. In practice, this has meant deleting all social media apps from my phone (painful at first, liberating later) and spending way less time looking at social media sites on my computer. I’ve found that stepping away from Twitter and Facebook has lessened my interest in them; in other words, as long as I stay away, I find it easy to maintain my distance. But it’s SO easy to slip back and let them waste my time. I’m trying to find a balance between NEVER going on social media sites and spending hours mindlessly scrolling. Meanwhile, I was such an Instagram fiend and find it so addictive that I have deleted it off my phone and must re-download and sign in every time I want to use it. It may sound like a needlessly baroque way of controlling my social media usage, but it works.
  • I learned to crochet! Not much to say about it except that I’m proud to add another yarncraft to my arsenal. When the grid goes down, I’ll have no idea how to grow food or find clean water, but I’ll be warm as hell. Maybe I’ll knit (or even crochet, now!) myself a post-apocalyptic lean-to.

That’s it. You’re all caught up with my life. Byeeee!

Paradigm shifting books, part 2: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”

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I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.

I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.

Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)

The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.

I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)

My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.

Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.

Paradigm shifting books, part 1: Back Sense, by Ronald D. Siegel, Michael H. Urdang, and Douglas R. Johnson

To kick off 2018, I will be writing a series of posts about books that have radically shifted the way I look at the world. A forewarning: this post will contain a personal (and long) story of my struggle with back pain. 

I don’t remember ever thinking about my back until I injured it. As a high school cross-country and track runner, I’d been sidelined by all manner of leg and ankle injuries, including a stress fracture in my femur, but had never once had an issue with my back. And then, in the summer of 2010, I started having back pain. I’d joined a gym that provided free personal training sessions, and my trainer was intent on having me do CrossFit exercises, including Olympic weightlifting moves like deadlifts and snatches. One day, I was doing deadlifts when I started to feel a persistent ache in my lower back. I alerted the trainer, but he told me to keep going. So I did. A week later, I moved to Brazil for a six-month stint in my law firm’s São Paulo office, and found myself consumed by lower back pain. What started off as constant achiness in my lower back soon spread to my pelvis, and I worried that I had some sort of reproductive system ailment, like endometriosis. I made an appointment with a rheumatologist and, after several MRIs, it was determined that I didn’t have endometriosis: I had a herniated disk in my lower back, between the L4 and L5 vertebrae.

The day I found out that something was structurally wrong with my back was the day I started thinking of myself as a person with a Bad Back. And, in keeping with my expectations, my back has been a source of pain, both physical and psychological, ever since. In the seven and a half years since my initial diagnosis of a herniated disk, I’ve had ups and downs with my back pain. There have been long stretches of relative painlessness, in which I’ve been able to run, swim, bike, and practice yoga. But there have also been periods when I’ve had to curtail some of my activity because of pain. But until this past year, I was always able to remain active, even if I couldn’t do all of the things I wanted to do, like run longer distances or bend myself into certain poses in yoga.

The lowest of my low points, however, started last year when I was pregnant with Ewan. At 34 weeks pregnant, I sprained my sacroiliac joint (the joint connecting the sacrum with the pelvis) and for the last six weeks of the pregnancy, could not easily walk or climb stairs. The pain was searing, almost electric, unlike any backache I’d had before. I couldn’t pick up Lucia or do any physical activity. It was really, really hard. After I gave birth, the sharp pain went away and I was able to resume running and swimming. But then, in the spring of 2017, the pain started up again and I decided to seek the advice of medical professionals.

After many MRIs and x-rays, it was determined that I had seven (SEVEN) bulging disks in my back and neck, plus spondylolisthesis (a “slipped” vertebra), plus scoliosis. In other words, the experts told me, my back was fundamentally messed up and I might not be able to fix it. One physical therapist listened to my diagnoses, glanced at my MRI report, and told me that we could try to fix the issue through physical therapy, but it was likely I’d need to get surgery. And, she added, if I got surgery, I’d probably need to keep getting surgeries since they wouldn’t permanently eradicate my pain. I sought advice from three different physical therapists, a chiropractor, an orthopedic surgeon, and a physiatrist. They all had different, confusing advice. Some told me not to bend forward. Others told me not to bend backward. Several told me to avoid picking up or carrying my children. Some told me to swim. Others told me that swimming could severely injure me.

I tried everything to get better. I got a cortisone shot in my lower spine. I went to physical therapy twice a week. I bought back braces and ice packs. Nothing helped. In fact, things got worse. By the summer, I’d started to have traveling paresthesia: my arms and legs would go numb and tingly and I’d become lightheaded. It was frightening. Sometimes it would be my right leg and left arm, other times my left arm and right foot, or both arms, or both legs. My chiropractor became concerned that I might have multiple sclerosis, and ordered MRIs of my brain, cervical spine, thoracic spine, and lumbar spine. I spent three hours in an enclosed MRI machine, wondering if I would eventually end up in a wheelchair.

As it turns out, I didn’t have MS, or anything noticeably wrong with my nervous system or brain. A neurologist and an infectious disease doctor both gave me a clean bill of health. But I still felt awful.

I was so miserable, Al and my parents gently encouraged me to seek therapy. On my first session with my therapist, she handed me the book Back Sense and asked if I’d be open to trying it. I said sure — I had nothing to lose — and read it in one day. As soon as I read it, my pain started to lessen and my entire attitude shifted. A few months later, I am free of all neurological symptoms and can do many physical activities that I was sure I’d never be able to do again.

The premise of Back Sense is simple: what you think is causing your back pain is probably not causing your back pain. That is, most of the “structural” issues that people with Bad Backs are told are to blame for their pain are not actually the culprit. The real culprit is stress. In a certain type of person (and I am one of them), stress manifests as tense muscles in the back. The more stressed you become, the tenser the back muscles become, and the greater your pain. The way that you alleviate the pain is to practice mindfulness. You might still have some back pain, the authors point out, but that’s okay. Some muscle soreness in the back is normal and tolerable, and is not to be feared. And, most importantly, you must remain physically active. Inactivity will only make your pain worse.

I was initially resistant as I read Back Sense. I was convinced that its premise could not apply to my situation, given all of the many and competing structural issues I had in my back. However, the authors handily provide an index that lists many back conditions and explains why each is probably not to blame for back pain. This index includes bulging disks and spondylolisthesis. The authors point out that 60% of people with no back pain whatsoever have a disk abnormality (such as a bulge). I found this incredibly eye-opening. If there are so many people out there walking around with my exact condition and no pain, something else must be going on.

The more I thought about the mind-body connection, and how I was dealing with (or not dealing with) stress, the more things started to make sense to me. Months after reading the book and resuming my physical activity (and my normal life), I can look back on my low point this summer and see that almost all of the anguish I was experiencing was psychosomatic. It was real pain, and was actually happening in my body. But most of it was caused by my brain, not by any structural abnormality in my back. The most telling thing, to me, is that the horrible neurological symptoms I was experiencing — tingly, numb arms and legs and spells of lightheadedness — went away entirely and have not returned since I started cognitive behavioral therapy and read this book.

I highly recommend Back Sense to anyone with chronic back pain who is feeling hopeless. It is truly a paradigm shifting book, in that I now see my back — and thus myself — in an entirely new light. I no longer think of myself as someone with a Bad Back. I think of myself as someone who occasionally experiences back pain (and that’s okay). If you’re thinking that this book won’t apply to you and your specific back issues, it might not — but it probably will.

(One caveat: the authors do not address one spinal issue that I do have, which is sacroiliac (“SI”) joint dysfunction. This injury is very common in pregnant and postpartum women, and SI joint sprains, in particular, are very common among women in their second (or later) pregnancy. My non-alarmist physical therapist told me that the SI joint stays loose for up to two years after giving birth. When I’m having a bad back day, I’m now able to tell whether it’s generalized lower back achiness (which indicates muscle tension caused by stress) or localized pain in my SI joint. Even though the book does not address this particular injury, its framework has allowed me to take my SI joint twinges on board and not panic about them. Some back discomfort, I remind myself, is normal. My back is tough. This will be okay.)

 

 

A sexual harassment story

We are experiencing an interesting and refreshing cultural moment, in which sexual harassment has become a thing that we are talking about publicly. It’s remarkable; not only are we talking about it, but powerful men are being brought low by revelations that they’ve treated people (mostly women, but sometimes men) poorly. We’re finding out that powerful men from all walks of life — luminaries of the art world, successful businessmen, beloved politicians — have done awful, disgusting things with zero consequences. They’ve made degrading comments, they’ve touched and groped, they’ve exposed themselves, they’ve raped. They’ve wielded power to satisfy themselves and to make others feel small. They’ve been doing it for years, decades, centuries, but only now are we talking about it, or perhaps only now are we listening.

If you poke around the internet for even a few minutes, it becomes apparent that a lot of regular, non-famous, non-powerful men are surprised, even shocked, by these emerging stories of sexual harassment and abuse. I’m willing to bet, though, that not a single woman who has ever stepped foot outside her home is surprised or shocked by these stories. I am willing to bet that every woman has her own story (or, more likely, stories) of sexual harassment and/or abuse. These are stories that we don’t like to tell. They’re not fun. They’re embarrassing, even shameful. They make us feel stupid and small, looking back at how we were treated, how we let ourselves be talked to or touched. But now that people have started to bring these festering stories into the light, I think continuing to tell them is important. Exposure and momentum are important. And it can be cathartic to unburden yourself of some of the weight you’ve been lugging around by yourself.

But it’s also scary. I don’t want to be attacked for reporting what someone else did to me. And this is what happens, when people (especially women) speak up about being harassed. People who don’t want to believe them look for reasons to dismiss them, or silence them. Women who tell their stories are labeled as crazy, slutty, stupid, venal, asking for it. I don’t want to be accused of lying or profit-seeking, so when I tell my little sexual harassment story here, I won’t be identifying the man I’m talking about by name. It’s not worth it to me. But it is worth it to put the story itself out into the universe, even without the guy’s name. It’ll make me feel better, if nothing else. (Also, it would probably be REALLY easy to figure out who he is with basic internet research, but I’ll leave that to you, intrepid reader).

I’m sad to admit that I’ve been sexually harassed in some form in nearly every job I’ve had. Some of these instances were worse than others. Some I’ve probably forgotten. But the ones that really stick with me are the ones that happened to me early on, when I was just starting out in the working world.

A few months after I graduated college in 2005, I moved to São Paulo to take a job as a paralegal at an international law firm. I got the job through a Stanford alumnus who had somehow come across my resume. I’d already gotten into Harvard Law School but had decided to defer for a year, and this alum thought I’d be an asset to his firm’s Sao Paulo office. During the recruitment process, my future boss — let’s call him J — promised me a whole host of benefits: an apartment paid for by the firm, free meals, access to a car, fair pay. He set up a video interview for me with his bosses, the managing partners of the office. During the interview, one of the partners kept complaining that he couldn’t see my face clearly and wanted to know what I looked like. It was obvious from his repeated questions about my appearance during the interview that he wanted to make sure I was pretty. It made me squeamish, but I brushed it off, figuring this was the way of the world, especially in a Latin American outpost of a big firm. It wasn’t that bad, just a little uncomfortable.

After the video interview, I was offered the job and I accepted. I was giddy with excitement. I was willing to move to Brazil not knowing a single soul — I had never even met J, the guy who set up the job for me. It would be a grand adventure and a great learning opportunity. A few days before I was to depart for São Paulo, I contacted J, expecting him to let me know where my apartment would be and how I could access the car he’d promised me once I arrived. He informed me that I would be living with him until an apartment could be arranged. You might be thinking that this sounds highly inappropriate and unprofessional. It was. And it made me uncomfortable, just as the video interview had. But I felt there wasn’t much I could do. I was dependent on J to arrange everything for me. At that point, my Portuguese was rudimentary, I had never been to the city, I knew no one, and so felt I had no choice but to move in with J until he could sort out my living situation. I flew to São Paulo and took a taxi to J’s address. His cleaning lady let me in and showed me to the guest room. I was expecting I’d stay at J’s apartment for a couple of days, max. It turned out to be weeks. I felt so uncomfortable living there that I’d stay locked in my room, dreading coming out lest I run into my boss in his pajamas or worse.

I was miserable and asked about my apartment every day until finally, one was procured for me. However, J informed me, quite nonchalantly, that the firm would not be paying for my apartment after all. And the car? That wasn’t happening either. The meal vouchers he’d promised me? No, they couldn’t make that happen; sorry. And the fair pay? Also not going to happen. I was not paid enough to live on. My monthly rent consumed almost my entire paycheck, so I ended up with about $250 per month to live on in a very expensive city.

Here’s part of an email I wrote to my parents a few weeks after starting my job and moved into my own place: 

The apartment is still more expensive than I had bargained for. Now I have to pay for my utilities, which J assures me is cheap (under 100 R a month) but STILL. I almost started crying when [the office manager] told me that — I didn’t though, don’t worry Dad — because honestly. One thing after another. PLUS they require a 1000 R deposit, which of course the office is deducting from my pay, so in August I will only get paid 600 R. Ummm yes. And I haven’t even gone grocery shopping yet or bought myself a towel for the gym, although the flat has some old ratty ones in the closet. I know we will be able to cover all this and I shouldn’t get so worked up about stuff but it really drives me nuts that [the firm] thinks it’s ok to not adjust my pay when they know I don’t have enough to live on. J said in the elevator just now that he would see what he could do, and he thought maybe [managing partner] might give me a raise later on if I proved myself to be a good worker. I guess we’ll see. 

After being at the office for three months, I found out that my bosses were paying a male trainee (a similar position to mine) significantly more than me. I wrote my mom and told her about a conversation I’d had with the male trainee (let’s call him P):

P asked how much they were paying me, and I told him, and he was like, Wow, and I thought they paid ME nothing. So it turns out they paid him significantly more than me (I think like $2500 reais a month), for the same position. Should I bring this up assuming they decide to extend my contract? Because it seems entirely unfair that they should pay me so much less than they paid him for doing the same job… I am presuming it is because he is male. There is a very Boys Club attitude in the office, despite the fact that all the Brazilian lawyers here are female. There is no question that [managing partners] run the place, and they are very Old School with regards to gender, esp. [main managing partner]. Like remember when he interviewed me and was all put out that he couldn’t see me in the videoconference? Because it mattered to him what I looked like in his decision about whether or not to hire me! Anyway what do you think about the salary issue? It kinda pisses me off, esp. since I had a meeting with [office manager] the other day in which she informed me that I still “owe” the office and they won’t be paying me full salary till next month. Long story… oh and she tried to totally f*ck me over by saying that they were going to subtract my meal tickets from my salary, as if we hadn’t been over that before. I put my foot down with her and said that that was NOT the understanding, and she backed off and said, ok, ok, we’ll give you the meal vouchers. I mean, for Pete’s sake. I am trying not to obsess about money but I just feel like I am getting jerked around here. It’s a matter of principal more than of money at this point, because I understand that I am essentially paying for the experience of being here, but they shouldn’t be able to keep me as an indentured servant, you know?

My work life was miserable. I was constantly worried about money and my job performance. To try to save money, I would walk to and from work, over a mile along busy, sidewalk-less São Paulo streets. When a receptionist in the office found out I was doing this, she scolded me, saying that I could get robbed or even murdered and that I had to pay for a taxi instead, fim. I grudgingly agreed. Taxis were expensive and took forever in the brutal São Paulo traffic. I would watch the meter tick up and up and feel like I was watching my money trickle away.

I knew I was being treated unfairly but I was afraid to advocate for myself too strongly lest I be shipped back home, jobless. This was the headspace I was in when J started making inappropriate comments to me. One time, he asked me when I usually went to the gym. I told him I went in the morning. He said he would have to start going in the morning, too, so he could see me in workout clothes. “I bet you look really good in shorts,” he said. Gross. Another time, he said he was going to have a barbecue at his house and I could come, if I promised to wear my bikini.

Things got worse when one of my best friends came to visit me in Brazil. I was allowed to bring her as my guest to a fancy firm dinner, and we were excited to drink wine and eat steak with important lawyers from all over the firm. J made sure he sat next to my friend and hit on her mercilessly throughout the dinner. At one point, he told her, loudly enough for me to hear, “If you were my girlfriend, you’d eat steak every day.” She was 23; he was in his mid-thirties and divorced. Also, as a reminder: HE WAS MY BOSS. Later that night, J and another attorney invited themselves back to my apartment. The other attorney was married, and I saw him slip off his ring as he sat on my couch. They tried to make my friend and I dance with them. We were embarrassed and wanted them to leave. We finally got rid of them but not before the married guy tried to kiss my friend.

Then, my cousin came to visit. J invited us over to his apartment for a cocktail, and we went. While I stepped out of the room to go to the bathroom, my boss grabbed my cousin’s rear. When I came back into the room, she told me we needed to leave, right then, so we did. When she told me what he had done to her, I was livid. But I felt like I couldn’t say anything to him without risking my job, so I didn’t. Instead, I apologized to my cousin for putting her in that situation, and fumed privately, resenting him for being such a dickhead in every possible way while having so much power over my circumstances.

I worked in that office for nine months before I quit. I haven’t spoken to J in years. He is now pretty high up in the Virginia state government. Very accomplished. Very lauded. He ran for Virginia State Senate a few years back and lost (ha). I’m sure he’ll try again. I wonder how many of his female employees and volunteers and supporters he’s mistreated over the years. Probably a lot. And you know what? He’s just one small-fry example of this type of bullshit. He might not have the power of a Harvey Weinstein or a Roy Moore, but he certainly had a lot of sway over my life for the nine months that I was his (underpaid, harassed, fraudulently contracted) employee. The truth is, he’ll probably never face consequences for being a dirtbag. But I sure feel better for having written this. 

A short list of things I’ve felt guilty about as a mother

An abridged list of things I’ve felt guilty about as a mother, in no particular order:

  • Hurting my kid while clipping his or her nails
  • Letting my kid have a lollipop
  • Taking away my kid’s lollipop so she wouldn’t choke on it
  • Not potty training my almost-three-year-old
  • Not saying prayers before bedtime
  • Not saying prayers before mealtime
  • Not saying prayers ever
  • Letting my kid have the cheap plastic toy she asked for at the grocery store checkout
  • Throwing away said plastic toy a few weeks later while picturing the desiccated landfill it will likely inhabit
  • Giving up on cloth diapers with my second kid and going through approximately 75 diapers/day, plus approximately 4800 wipes/day, and once again, picturing that landfill
  • Letting my kid sit in a poopy diaper for longer than half an hour
  • Putting chocolate syrup into my kid’s medicine dropper
  • Letting my kids drink out of the same cup
  • Not talking to other moms at the park
  • Not talking to other moms at preschool pickup and dropoff
  • Not enrolling my kids in activities, lessons, or teams
  • Working
  • Not working
  • Letting my kid roll off a bed onto his head not once but TWICE
  • Having a toddler who hates vegetables, is obsessed with bread products, and loves grape Tylenol
  • Weaning my second kid at ten months when I breastfed the older one for over a year
  • Not ever learning how to wear a baby
  • Ignoring one kid while dealing with the other
  • Leaving my kids with my parents for the weekend
  • Skipping events because I’d have to bring the kids and I just don’t want to
  • Letting my kids “cry it out” during sleep training
  • Wasting money on cute but overpriced baby clothes
  • Not ever wanting to paint or do PlayDoh with my kid; I’d seriously sooner be waterboarded
  • Letting my runny-nosed kid go to school because she’s not THAT sick and I need this
  • Not washing my kids’ hands before every meal
  • Hiding my kids’ books that I hate
  • Not reading as much to my second kid as I did with my first
  • Not teaching my kids a second language
  • Wishing for time to speed up sometimes so that we could skip the chaos and go straight to the calmness

The end.

JUST KIDDING THERE ARE LIKE A MILLION MORE THINGS.

Reality TV is my sports

I’m not a sports-on-TV person. This fact, I’m sure, pains my father deeply, since he is the type of person who will watch almost any sport on TV, including wrestling and volleyball, as long as his beloved alma mater Penn State is involved. My mom, having been married to my dad for close to 46 years, has become a sports-on-TV fan through a combination of osmosis and Stockholm Syndrome. But despite my parents’ best efforts to inculcate me into the proud tradition of watching sports from one’s couch, I’ve remained anti-sports-on-TV.

There are a couple of exceptions to my no-sports-on-TV rule, of course. I always enjoy watching big-time marathons, especially the last couple of miles, because those athletes are super-humans and watching them run is a thing of beauty. Also, whenever the Olympics roll around, I, like all humans, will watch whatever random sport happens to be on TV and briefly become an expert in all of the technicalities of said random sport. Two weeks later, I will have forgotten all of it, as if the entire thing were but a fever dream.

For the most part, though, I don’t care about sports, like, at all. I don’t follow football, baseball, or hockey. I have no team affiliations. I am vaguely aware of when Stanford’s football team is doing well, but I’m never going to sit down and actually watch a game. I can’t name a single player for the Washington Nationals. I don’t understand how football works. I’m just not into it, any of it. (Lucky for me, I married a man who also couldn’t give a crap about sports, and we remain blissful in our shared ignorance.)

Until recently, I really didn’t get why anyone would ever care about watching sports. While I understood, theoretically, that other people gleaned enjoyment from watching, say, baseball on TV, I didn’t really get it. To me, watching an entire baseball game in all of its ponderous glory is the fun equivalent of watching five hours of CSPAN: that is to say, PRETTY GOSHDARN BORING. And the idea of keeping track of stats, joining fantasy leagues, reading articles, listening to sports radio? Frankly, it baffled me. “Who cares?” I’d think to myself. “There are no stakes here. These are grown men playing a game. None of this matters. Why would anyone waste time caring about these outcomes?” (I know, I’m fun).

But then, the other day, I had this epiphany: reality TV is my sports.

I was on a walk, listening to a podcast, when it hit me. The podcast I was listening to is hosted by a blogger (Reality Steve) who writes about (and spoils) all of the shows in the Bachelor franchise. His podcast mostly consists of interviews with past cast members of Bachelor-related shows, including people from many seasons ago. As I walked, I was listening to an interview with a woman, AshLee Frazier, who had been a contestant on Sean Lowe’s season of The Bachelor way back in 2011. (I blogged that season, by the way, in case you need a refresher.) As Reality Steve and AshLee discussed all of the drama that went down that season, including Tierra’s infamous (fake) fall down the stairs, I had this moment of lucidity in which I thought, “My God. This is how I’m choosing to spend my precious scraps of free time? By listening to two people I don’t know rehash something that happened on a reality show SIX YEARS AGO?! Shouldn’t I be listening to a TED talk or something?”

…Nah.

And this, it occurs to me, is how other people feel about sports. Diehard sports fans, like us reality TV fans, share a willingness to bury themselves in the minutiae of a particular brand of social entertainment, despite the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, none of it matters. In both cases, reality TV and sports, there are no real stakes: it’s entertainment. And yet, we get so involved as consumers, it feels like it matters. (Although one can certainly argue that both sports and reality TV hold up a mirror to our society and expose our collective strengths and weaknesses. But it’s mostly just for fun).

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much sports and reality TV have in common. Both involve participating in a shared social experience by observing. Ethical quandaries arise in both arenas (with sports, see: drugs, violence, rape culture; with reality TV, see: same). Tempers run hot. Memes are generated. People trade predictions, run the numbers, argue. You have your people that you root for and your villains that you hate. Sometimes you root for people that you know are never going to win. It’s always more fun to watch in a group. Alcohol and snacks add to the viewing experience. And I could go on!

After I had this (much belated) epiphany, I felt a newfound synchronicity with the sports fans of the world. Sports watchers and reality TV watchers should unite in our shared desire to waste our own time with televised frivolity. Because it’s not actually a waste of time: it’s fun, and sometimes, that’s all that matters. The TED talks can wait.