Category Archives: Notes of a She-Hack


There are a couple of things that I’ve been meaning to mention.

First, Dawn let me know a while back that a book called Mothering and Blogging: The Radical Act of the Mommyblog quoted this blog in its introduction. (Dawn contributed a chapter to the book.) They used a couple of lines from the end of this post, which I wrote as I was beginning to discover the wealth of blogging moms online. Being a small part of the activist and academic discourse about this kind of writing is no small validation for me. Like so many other mom bloggers I read, I’ve thought about shutting this place down in recent months and creating something else… maybe something more anonymous where I can let it all hang out, or something more commercial. For now, I feel there are still possibilities here, as long as I keep myself from getting mired in feelings of obligation.

Second, speaking of other ventures, I have been putting some new energy into my Auction Chronicles experiment. I originally opened it because I wanted to experiment with manipulating templates and managing content in WordPress. And because many, many moons ago, in my early career as an alternative weekly staff member, I was one of the writers of a weekly crime blotter of the weird called The Naked City and I wanted to take a stab at writing potentially funny armchair anthropological stuff again. Not to mention a little pop culture stuff, because I have a kabillion clips of that order, but I’ve been in the education and fine arts corner for a while.

Third, I need work. My husband needs work. None of our projects are quite where they should be time-wise, a couple of my spring gigs have yet to actually pay me (which has me thinking that they might not, in fact, pay me), and things are, frankly, kind of scary. I am bursting with some ideas and while I’ve had more than a few middle of the night panics, I am hopeful. I know how to do lots of stuff online. Even, like, editing photos and cross-testing them for different gamma settings because I am more of a geek than you will ever know.


P.S. I am approaching my 500 post milestone. Any ideas about how to observe it?

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Things I’ve considered blogging about and haven’t

What happened when I tried Zen meditation.

Things that are hard about being close to people who are in recovery.

Why I don’t like arts festivals very much.

Overprotective parenting.

Why are love interests circa age 20 looking me up this year?

I like my Lama, she helps me understand anger.

It is important to have a good bra.

Music by muy macho dudes who are gooey in the middle is awesome.

Thanks to Mark Bittman, I’m trying “less meatatarianism.”

Lewy Body Syndrome.

Two weeks of no preschool and I can’t wait for camp to start.

Disadvantages of intelligence.

I want to give up writing and take up decoupage or photography or landscaping or solar panel
installation or almost anything that isn’t so unpredictable.

Competition gives me kind of an ulcer and how oh how on earth am I going to reconcile that with having a son when no one sells t-shirts for boys over 40 pounds that don’t have sporty crap on them?

How does this president keep managing to do and say things that I thought were too much to ask of a politician for most of my life?

I like to watch extremely stupid things on television.

People who want to help you can mess you up sometimes.

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I’ve been spending a lot of time with my hands in projects that yield results that I can see and touch lately, like wallpaper stripping and framing my kid’s art and painting giant suns and taking pictures and throwing things away. I’ve spent years writing about other people and sometimes long to do something that doesn’t involve thinking about other people, something that makes me the electricity instead of the circuit. I’m not sure which one this blog is.

Post ideas cross my mind several times a day. I have mental stockpiles of unwritten ones about deadbeat clients and exuberant editors who don’t realize you never went to “J-school.” And college peers who turned me off by trying so hard to convince someone that they are interesting that they wore eccentricity like stocks in the campus commons. I keep discovering that many have managed to convince more than a few someones they are interesting.

I’ve been contemplating starting a league of difficult people because so many seem to be drawn to me that I can only draw the conclusion that I am one of them. Have I ever mentioned how much I hate gossip? I really hate gossip. Or that I’m not easily offended? I’m not easily offended. I think if I felt offended I’d be more inclined to gossip.

There could be a million more posts about my son, because pushing four is so brilliant and tumultuous and precious and electric and strange, but complicated. I am good at illuminating other people, especially him, to the point where I disappear, and I’m feeling less like being invisible these days.

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I’ve been blogging less and working a lot more lately, which is turning into quite a juggling act.

Happily, somebody noticed. A few weeks back, I found out that my colleagues at KnowledgeWorks and I won a national award for our storytelling project about urban high school reform. Yay us!

Incidentally, our editor’s very first children’s book is out today! Find it at your local independent bookstore. Yay Linda!

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Falling down, getting back up

I started this month with the best of intentions to post here daily, and, despite a late start, keep up with the Shredheads. I did seven straight days with Jillian Michaels and I felt stronger, leaner, more energetic and awake. Then my knees started buckling. I sputtered in and out of the workout, missing days, then stopped completely for three or four because going down the steps was beginning to hurt. A lot.

But not exercising made me cranky and unpleasant to live with. So, I’m back at it after doing some research about how to avoid knee injuries, strengthening my knees with other small exercises throughout the day, making sure I drink plenty of water just before and after the shred, getting back on glucosomine supplements and deciding that if I repeat butt kicks in lieu of jumping rope (which is one of the things that really hurts) I’m still getting my cardio. I’ve also yanked out several other lower-impact yoga videos I own to do if my knees need a break for a day. (I’ve found that gentle 20-minute yoga in the morning still gives me extra energy.) I’m going to stick with level one for a couple more days, so I can just watch level two and think ahead if about any additional modifications I may need to make. (Reading the other Shredheads‘ reports definitely has me worried.)

One thing is certain, though. My mind has been permanently changed when it comes to the direct benefits of higher intensity exercise and my ability to get it without a gym membership or a bunch of expensive equipment (Granted, I still long for my own elliptical trainer and a Wii, especially since I found out that Jillian Michaels has a Wii program). I drink more water, eat healthier food and sleep better on the days I do the workout. I don’t sit down as much. I walk more. I just feel better.

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How to be decent when people you know are laid off

I’ve been watching with sadness this week as our local daily newspaper announced the layoff of 45 editorial staff members, including two people that I’ve known (and did a fair amount work for) for years, along with many others that I’ve been less formally acquainted with.

I’ve gone through the experience of a layoff twice in my career. Once when the alternative weekly I wrote for folded, and again when the national corporation that owned the online city guide I edited decided to roll up most of its local offices. Both experiences were hard for different reasons, and good things did come out of them. They also made me keenly aware that a lot of people are clueless when it comes to talking to someone who has just lost their job.

Since the job loss news just keeps coming, here’s my unsolicited advice about how to be decent to people you know (or worked with) that have been laid off:

1. Don’t treat them like they are contagious or too fragile to touch. If you think you don’t know what to say but that person has meant something to you professionally or personally along the way, making the effort to call or write or somehow say even “I don’t know what to say” is better than not hearing from you at all. Losing a job (even if the job was awful) deserves some kind of ritual observance because an era of that person’s life has been extinguished. I know that the people who took the time to say “you were really great at X, and I’m sorry this happened” to me, or who offered any kind of assistance when I was on the unemployment curb, no matter how small, gave me memories that are more vibrant to me now than any of the bad stuff that’s happened in my career.

2. If you offer yourself up as a listening post, make sure you’re prepared to actively listen and expect that the person may have some intense feelings. It’s disconcerting when someone offers up a shoulder to cry on who really just wants an excuse to hear him- or herself crack-wise and to drink a lot. (That said, some people cope best through humor, in which case the cracking-wise/drinking plan may be in order.)

3. Point out silver linings if you see real ones, but avoid the pat “everything happens for a reason” line. Sometimes that reason is the shortsightedness or mismanagement of people who still have a job. And even if it isn’t, it may be years after you’ve received that pink slip before you are able to see it.

4. Call them again in a few weeks. If you’re laid off en masse, you sometimes have people to commiserate with immediately, but that support system may fade. Once you’ve made it past crisis mode, that’s when things are sometimes the hardest.

5. Buy them lunch. Pay back that $5 you borrowed now. Write a letter of recommendation (or maybe a quick reference on LinkedIn) while you’re thinking of it. And don’t offer to do any of these things in a moment of sympathy if you aren’t really going to follow up.

Anyone else have some advice to share?

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I’m stuck

Tangled up in pillows and blankets, I think “I’m stuck” was the first sentence my son ever uttered.

I’m feeling that way lately with this blog. I’m editing posts in my mind to the point that when I’ve opened the browser and started to write, they’ve been whittled to a sentence. When that’s all I’ve got, I tweet instead. Other posts are unprocessed, deemed too long or too personal before I’ve even typed the first letter.

I’m going to try to kick myself back into shape with a little NaBloPoMo.

This month’s theme is “Giving up.” Hopefully, I’ll be able to give up my internal editor and get myself writing again.

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Deliver me from orange juice

Beyond being buried in snow for solid parts of the past couple of weeks, we’ve been on the fever-go-round. I’ve spent the last five days in bed myself and am still so congested that it looks like I’ve been thrown down the steps on my face. I am behind on everything, which is the worst part of being self-employed in this time, when being self-employed looks scarier than ever. Luckily, I work well under pressure, when I am well enough to sit up and work.

Dan and Dec have been better off than I have for the past couple of days, and passing the time in interesting ways. If you visit, your arrival will be heralded by this musician:
Peace out.

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Aspiration: Read more, read well

I produce and ingest hearty portions of all of the major Internet food groups daily: tweets, shared items and updates on Facebook, a wide variety of blogs and news aggregators. From any of those starting points, the web can go on and on and on. Sometimes that leads to the sublime or the merely entertaining, but sometimes it gives me the same feeling I invariably get if I dare to visit the snack counter at the movie theater. When there’s too much junk in what I read, I see it in what I write, and how I feel – sort of intellectually bloated and greasy, with way more butter than I was expecting.

One of the easiest tasks I’ve assigned myself on the quest for imperfection in 2009 is to walk away from the chutes and ladders of the web and over to a chair and ottoman that I’ve cleared off for myself, where I can read actual books with pages and ink beneath the glow of a warmly shaded lamp. And especially books that aren’t carved into multiple essays, which have been the ones I’ve had the most hope of finishing in the last year or two. I can be enormously popular in my house, thereby often unable to complete my own sentences, let alone read anyone else’s.

So I’m trying to find things that are nourishing – not necessarily new or topical or even about things that I’m interested in. What I want to read is good writing that glides and bounces and pivots and moves. If the most lyrical book that I can find is about slime mold, then I will read about slime mold.

I’ve started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which is open and friendly and airy, and has been a nice transition from erratic essay reading, since she’s written it as though it was a string of prayer beads from a Meditation Mala. And it’s about a woman in her 30s on a quest for self-discovery, therefore not really remote to me (like slime mold) at all.

But I have a stack of three books that have been nagging me to read them for years – books that I couldn’t bring myself to look at as a pregnant woman or a new mom. I already felt vulnerable in a way that made me cry at insurance commercials and unable to read too far beyond headlines for a long time after the 2004 election. I didn’t want cynicism or anger or fear in the placenta or the breast milk, so I went cold turkey on my news junkie ways. I turned away from violent movies and shows and stories. Sad ones too.

Besides, I worked as an observer in a couple of the district’s poorest urban high schools during these years. My child was nearly lead poisoned. My very kind and loving dog went through miserable pain with bone cancer before we had to make the awful decision to let him go. My husband lost his business of 20 years to little more than greed. There has been plenty of death and illness in our family, and a few deaths among friends, particularly those who couldn’t beat the demons of substance abuse. So… reading tales of loss and tragedy hasn’t seemed like it would be particularly appealing or cathartic or helpful, no matter how compelling the narrative.

But now my boy is a preschooler and we know how much of nothing and everything that we are in the face of the universe. And we have a new president coming in who wants to steer us away from oblivion instead of into it headlong. And so I can be brave again in the face of literature, particularly the non-fiction variety that I tend to prefer.

I can read By Her Own Hand by Signe Hammer – the memoir of a woman whose mother inexplicably killed herself. I read an excerpt of the book a few years back and the imagery and rhythm of the prose startled me – not in its pain, but its buoyant childhood images. And I can read Newjack by Ted Conover, who worked undercover as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year, and whose New Yorker essay “Trucking through the AIDS belt” has been haunting me for years, because of one person he drew vividly in that story, and the choppy rhythm of those African roads.

And then, most frighteningly, I may read The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, by Genevieve Jurgensen, who had two daughters that were killed instantly in a car accident in 1980. I heard her read an excerpt from the book on public radio (maybe on This American Life?) soon after becoming a mother myself and I nearly threw up, so I think I need to read it.

I’m also piecing through Mark Bittman’s Food Matters because I read that it was the most practical book about environmentally conscious food buying and preparation out there. And I plan to read a few of the stories in the traditional Blue Fairy Book to remind myself what fairy tales were to me as a girl, because they didn’t always have happy endings or clear-cut heroes and villains. I may reread A Wrinkle in Time because it’s been 25-30 years since the last time and I don’t remember it so well. And chances are good that I’ll use one of my next coupons on one of James Morrow’s book, because I love me some complicated religious science fiction/humor.

And so, if, by any chance, you’ve made it all the way through this long-winded post, tell me: What book(s) have you read, whether it was last week or twenty years ago, that had a profound influence on your sense of language? If you had to pick a couple of the books that most made you want to write (or to read more), what would they be? Have you ever met a book with a subject that you thought would bore you, but instead, it ended up making you turn off your phone so that you could read it in peace?

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As I was cleaning on New Year’s Day, an old cookie fortune flittered out of a pile of papers onto the floor. “You’re a perfectionist,” it said, in deceptively friendly typeface. “Don’t spoil it.” I think I saved it because it is obviously the most annoying fortune ever.

If you looked at my house, my car, my fingernails, my life – “perfectionist” is probably one of the last things that would come to mind. Unless, maybe, you know something about perfectionism.

In action, perfectionism doesn’t really look like “a place for everything and everything in its place,” although I suppose that it might for some people. It has more to do with deluding yourself that it’s possible for everything in life to be perfect — you, your environment, your career, your relationships — and punishing yourself or paralyzing yourself when it isn’t.

In my life, this has manifested in simple ways, like letting my desk or the kitchen sink or a room go to mayhem before I put them back in order, because I won’t do anything until I think I have set aside enough time to do everything. (Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness, motherhood and the Flylady* have helped bring me miles past where I used to be on this.) Or sadder ways – I don’t want to go out as often, because I’m not the skinny minnie I once was or because I think people won’t accept me because I talk and think too much about being a mommy. Or I don’t invite people over unless I know their perception of “disaster area” is similar to my own. Or worse.

Writing has always been a space where I’ve felt willing and able to do battle with perfectionism. And I think that it is one place where I’ve managed to whip it more often than it’s whipped me. About a year ago, a friend joked and called me “the great, glorious she-hack” while we were talking, then immediately worried that he might have offended me. Maybe it was because we were in the basement of a Buddhist temple at the time (where ego is often more in check), but I felt, and assured him, that I wasn’t. “I think I might put that on my business card,” I joked.

I think I’ve learned to rein it into something useful in writing and research – a sort of meticulousness or attention to detail that I usually give to the story first and the writing second. Mistakes happen, you cop to them and you write again. But that has been a long, weird and sometimes painful process. I’ve had editors change things for seemingly no other reason than to have done something. I’ve had copy editors edit mistakes into my work and survived the embarrassment.** And I’ve lived with the demands of writing for the space allotted, not necessarily to the story, for much of my career.

If I let perfectionism control my writing, I would never have been able to make a dime doing it without tearing all of my hair out. I would have had to go into academic writing, where there is more editorial control, or become a weekend novelist who made her money in landscaping or as a circus clown. Instead, I have become the “great glorious she-hack.” It’s not on my business card, but it is one of the titles I give myself on my rotating email signatures. If I could make my expectations of life more like my expectations of writing, I think I’d be a healthier person.

My spider senses are up about this because I’m beginning to see signs of perfectionism in my son. Many skills come to him easily, and some of the ones that don’t can give him emotional vertigo. Before the holiday, one of his teachers told me that perfectionism is common in oldest (check!) or only children, who often compare themselves more to adults than to other children. And the two things she told me I could do to help him were to praise the process when he worked hard on learning something and to model failure for him.

As grating as that cookie fortune was, it was fortuitous that it fell down n front of me on the one day when I’m usually consumed by contemplating resolutions and consuming good luck food. And this year, I was feeling like a failure because I was in a terrible, fatigued mental space that did not lend itself well to reflection.

It helped me resolve to not have resolutions this year, because the very nature of resolutions predisposes me to failing – or not accomplishing as much as I would like to – in an ungraceful or unforgiving way. Aspirations, on the other hand, are less quantifiable and forgiving. I can advance a psychic millimeter or a light year – all that matters is that I advance. Or move on if I do not or cannot, because that would be an advancement too.

And so I am figuring out a few aspirations for myself, some of which I will share here in the next few days, or weeks, or seasons. Feel free to join me if you’re so inclined. I’d love for us to help each other to not be so hard on ourselves.

* The Flylady’s prose is a more than a touch precious, but her ideas about managing domestic life in the face of perfectionism are sound. My Christmas tree hasn’t come down yet, but my sink is very shiny. I currently like being in 75 percent of my house, and that’s not so bad.

** Note to editors I work with who read this blog: These things have not happened with anyone I’m currently writing for. Seriously.

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