Winter Wünderkind

I am now deep in the throes of my third winter in Iowa, friends and neighbors. It’s been an unremitting schedule of awful, marked by long stretches of daytime high temperatures in the single digits and wind chills in the double digits below zero. I learned the term “Polar Vortex,” and used it in conversation without pointing out that it sounded like a sex game for Arctic explorers. It was either a snowy landscape, or a screenshot of a weather forecast that might have come from Hoth. I think we can agree that I made the right call.

Between an unreasonable number of regular snowfalls, we’ve been treated to surprise storms that have swept in without warning to snarl traffic for hours, and a few random days where the temperature spiked near 50°F, teasing us with a glimpse of spring before sneaking up behind us and trying to drown us in freezing slush. On more than on occasion schools have been cancelled not by snow, but because the projected wind chill was considered life-threatening. Our front yard looks like it could comfortably support a whole family of yeti, and we’re expecting to be sweeping snowmelt off the sidewalk on Independence Day.

Despite the grinding cold and the socks that are always damp and the toes that never quite thaw, I can’t help feeling oddly, incongruously fortunate. Not only because I have a warm, cozy house (and a wonderful woman and two football-sized lumps of feline fluff with whom to share it), but because I’ve had the ridiculous good luck to be eased into it.

My first winter was really only a slight hiccup between fall and spring. It only snowed a handful of times, and it was never cold enough that walking to work was a major hassle. I can’t count how many times I was told that I’d picked the best possible year to move to the Midwest. Last year was incrementally worse: more snow, colder temperatures, and significantly less snickering about the “realness” of my Iowa winter experience.

This winter has been a constant shovelful of snow in the junk, but if I’d gone through it only a few months after moving here, I might have been tempted to lay down in front of a snowplow and hope being crushed to death might feel slightly warmer. As it is, I’m drastically uncomfortable, but I feel like I’ve worked up (or down) to it. I’ve had some time to toughen up, and it’s made this year a lot easier to handle. So consider this a vague and grudging expression of gratitude.

And if it gets much worse next year, look for my wallet in the red smear behind a salt truck.

How’s The Job Hunt Going?

There are few gestures so loaded with simultaneous promise and peril as asking someone who’s been out of work for awhile how their search for a new job is going. It is, of course, very kind and considerate that your friends/peers/acquaintances are interested in how this big, important, possibly life-defining thing is progressing. So what could make an otherwise thoughtful question so fraught?

In a stupidly overbroad way, looking for a new job is a bit like recovering from major surgery. If you’re healing up from an emergency organectomy, the process is kind of awful. There will be some victories along the way, but the day-to-day generally sucks. Something similar can be said of job hunting. Especially if you’re currently unemployed, casting about for a new position is a slog. Not only is it a lot of work finding and applying for jobs, but you’re dealing with the constant anxiety of financial insecurity. You’re also trapped in a continuous loop of excitement and disappointment, psyching yourself up for each new possibility, only to face (another) rejection.

Until it’s done. Once you’ve got a job, you’re relieved and excited and the news is good. Up to that point, your progress is measured by small victories (job openings found, applications finished, interviews landed) and many more disappointments (jobs already filled, applications that never garner a response, interviews that don’t pan out). Would I rather be healthy and job hunting than recovering from surgery? Of course. It’s an analogy, and not one that’s intended to diminish anybody’s health challenges. I’m just saying that, in both cases, if someone asks you how it’s going before the process has reached something resembling a satisfactory conclusion, your answer is liable to contain rather more uncertainty and disappointment than is strictly pleasant.

All of which makes framing a response a considerable challenge. If you’re anything like me, you’re painfully conscious of not being too negative all the time. You’re desperate not to be a burden or a pain in the ass, and you really don’t want to bum out somebody who was kind of enough to show an interest in your situation. You’ve also completely internalized the idea that nobody gets a job without networks and connections and introductions, and come on, who wants to help out (or hang out with) some doofus who’s whining all the time? So whenever someone asks about your job hunt, you duck and weave, trying like mad to put a good spin on an otherwise stressful and depressing situation. Then you go home, and quietly (or not) freak the f@#k out about your latest “we heard from many talented applicants” letter.

The thing that you (and by “you,” I mean “I”) need to keep in mind is that most of the people who ask are genuinely curious about what’s going on in your life. A handful of the people who ask might just be making conversation, and will bolt at the first sign of negativity or frazzlement. But it’s far more likely that they’re asking out of actual interest/concern. Unless you’re shrieking or sobbing or somehow blaming them for your setbacks, chances are they’ll be able to handle some honest vexation without making a panicked exit. A certain amount of composure is a good thing, but if you’re pretending that everything is super peachy all the time, you’re doing friendship wrong, and slathering on a bonus layer of added pressure that’s both unproductive and unnecessary.

All of which is a long way around of me telling myself to stop being so scared to admit when I’m discouraged. The middle ground between utter stoicism and abject fatalism isn’t actually as elusive as all that. I’m lucky enough to have people in my life who care enough to ask how I’m doing; I need to trust them (and myself) enough to give them an honest answer.

My Tea Ritual

After doing some reading about the variety of ceremonies different cultures have that celebrate the brewing and consumption of tea, I realized that I have a pretty consistent little ritual of my own. It’s rather intricate and involved, so feel free to shorten/excerpt/adapt it to your use.

  • Without averting eyes from computer screen, lift mug to lips. Vaguely think “dry.” Set mug back down on desk. Wait approximately five minutes.
  • Without averting eyes from computer screen, lift mug to lips again. Vaguely think “thirsty.” Set mug back down on desk. Wait approximately 10 minutes.
  • Without averting eyes from computer screen, lift mug to lips a third time. Tip head back far enough that tea bag slides out of mug into teeth.
  • Spit tea bag back into mug. Look into mug for approximately 30 seconds, hoping with all your heart that some tea will appear in it.
  • Stand up from desk. Carry mug into kitchen.
  • Fill electric teakettle at sink. Accidentally overfill. Pour out excess water.
  • Start electric teakettle heating.
  • Remove spent teabag from mug and carry to trashcan.
  • Immediately prior to putting teabag in trashcan, remember that we’re composting those now. Change course and place teabag in compost bin.
  • Place new teabag in mug. Stand aimlessly for a moment, listening to the kettle heating up, before going back to desk.
  • Approximately 15 minutes later, realize that water should have boiled by now. Go back out to kitchen to find teakettle has reached automatic shutoff, and is quietly ticking to itself as it cools.
  • Restart teakettle. Force self to wait while water reboils.
  • When kettle stops again, pour boiling water over mug. Go back to desk while tea steeps.
  • 20 minutes later, without averting eyes from computer screen, attempt to lift mug to lips. Wave hand ineffectually at least thrice through the spot the mug usually occupies. Look over at flapping hand, realize that mug is still sitting on kitchen counter.
  • Shuffle back to kitchen. Retrieve mug from counter. Sip carefully enough to keep from spilling, but not carefully enough to avoid scalding tongue.
  • Grab two ice cubes from freezer, place in mug.
  • Carry mug back to desk. Sit down, placing mug in traditional spot.
  • Without averting eyes from computer screen, lift mug to lips.

Let’s Do This

I’ve been sharing random details about my situation as they were relevant, but I think it’s time to tell the complete story. The TL;DR version is short. My job has ended, and I’m looking for something new. If you want the rest of the context, keep reading after the jump.

Photo by Dan Chibnall

Photo by Dan Chibnall

I moved to Des Moines in August of 2011, to take a job as the Director of Research and Programs at the American Judicature Society. My primary work was studying judicial selection (how judges get to be judges in the first place). I conducted and managed grant funded research, wrote articles and opinion pieces, gave public presentations and legislative testimony. I also wound up writing press releases, updating the website and social media feeds, and the other things that people do at understaffed nonprofits.

I have to confess that I made the move somewhat reluctantly. After living my whole life near Philadelphia, and in the city proper for seven years before and after law school, my conception of Iowa was entirely consistent with my East Coast snobbery. I expected to be bored out of my skull, surrounded by people for whom corn (and the growing thereof) was the most exciting thing in their lives.

Instead, I discovered a vibrant, diverse, engaged community, with opportunities to experience culture, art, food and entertainment in an atmosphere that lacked a lot of the pretension and self-importance of a place like Philly. I’ve met some wonderful people, made invaluable personal and professional connections, and begun to identify with the community in way that was entirely unexpected.

Early in the summer of 2013, I found out that AJS was moving to Nashville, TN, and my position was going with it. I was faced with the prospect of starting over in another unfamiliar city, or staying in Des Moines and finding a new job after the end of September. Neither option was exactly exciting, but after a lot of thought, the safety and familiarity of the job didn’t mean as much to me as the people and organizations that have become a part of my life in Iowa.

What’s important to remember when I talk about Des Moines is that I haven’t exactly grown out of my elitism. I’m still very much a city person. I value a certain amount of culture, sophistication and tolerance. Des Moines has all of those things in abundance, and it’s become a place that I’m proud to call home.

The last thing I need to make this place perfect is a job where I can challenge myself, put my skills, education and experience to good use, and hopefully give back to this community that I prize so highly. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m confident that it’s out there, out here, in this city that I’m so happy to be a part of.

Come on, DSM. Let’s do this.

I Don’t Write Enough

Yes, I’m busy at work, and yes, I’m under a lot of stress, and yes, I’m mired in a half-dozen other necessary things aimed at ameliorating some of that stress. But god damn it, I haven’t written anything (beyond a handful of halfway amusing social media posts) that wasn’t for work in almost a year. This is unacceptable.

Why is it unacceptable? It’s not as though the public is clamoring for my creative output. There’s not exactly a serious demand for another blog post/hastily sketched comic/sarcastic bit of advice. If I surrender to the creeping stultification of age and anxiety, would anyone actually notice? I am far too old and anxious to delude myself that they would.

The reason it’s unacceptable is because I’m consenting to the complete waste of whatever nascent talent and creativity I actually possess. Like any skill, being pithy and/or clever and/or informative and/or eloquent needs to be practiced. By letting whatever meager ability I had lie completely fallow, I’m allowing it to wither, and the longer I neglect it, the harder it will be to revive it. If I permit my schedule and my anxiety (not to mention my abject fear that I’m not half as clever as I think I am) to keep me from at least trying to reconnect with those abilities, it’s only going to get more difficult.

So here’s what I need to do. Fucking write once in awhile. Or more than once in awhile, but c’mon, we both know I’m not going to suddenly overcome every hangup I have about how much I suck and pump out a novel or something. Let’s try a baby step or two, shall we?