Super Creepy Handball Courts

This will probably come as a surprise to many, but off and on for nearly a year I worked at a gym.  A gym!  You know, where The Sports and stuff happen.

Now this was not some state-of-the-art facility full of the latest and greatest in athletic equipment.  No, it was Henry Crown Field House, the “new” gym at UChicago during my time there as a student in 1998-2001.  The “old” gym – Bartlett – had been completed in 1904.  Hence, Henry Crown – built in 1931 – was new…ish.  I just learned today that the second story was only added in 1976, as evidenced by the amazing photo below that shows a bulldozer going to town on what would soon be basketball courts.  Amazing!Henry Crown Field House renovation 1976Somehow I ended up applying for and getting a job at Henry Crown as an attendant or assistant or whatever it was they called the people who sat at the front desk and made sure no one entered without their university ID.  It was a pretty sweet gig all in all.  I almost always worked with at least one other person, some of them more entertaining than others, of course.  Friends would stop by and chat, we could work on homework during the slow times, and for the most part we got to sit down on tall swivel chairs, save for the times when there were towels to be laundered.  Plus, I think I made something like $8/hour, which was good money for a student in 1999 (and is still sadly only slightly less than the current minimum wage in Illinois).  Like I said, pretty sweet.

The only times that I somewhat dreaded were when I worked the closing shift which, once I became a supervisor, was probably a couple of times a week.  Closing the gym entailed making a sweep of the entire facility to ensure everybody had gone home for the night.  If memory serves me, we closed at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, so about 10 minutes before closing I’d start making the rounds and turning off lights as I went.  The other person would stay back at the desk to make sure nobody else came in.

The upstairs was easy because usually it was configured as one big open space and the light switches were all together in one corner.  Downstairs, however, was another matter, owing to the handball and racquetball courts.  Not all of them were used for those sports – the rowing crew had their machines in a couple of them and there was maybe some storage in another – but nonetheless I had to walk along a narrow corridor with eight little doors and check to make sure each court was empty before turning off the lights.  Some nights I was convinced that this was how I would meet my death.  You know, because crazed axe murderers tend to hang out in college gyms and then wait for unsuspecting attendants to walk along during their closing shift before jumping out and hacking them to pieces.  You know, like that dog in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Clearly, nothing close to that kind of scenario ever took place, but I was still spooked for just a couple of minutes every closing shift when I had to walk that hallway.  Occasionally there would still be somebody in a court who didn’t realize it was closing time, but almost to a person the gym users were polite and quickly headed out into the dark night so we could lock the doors and go home ourselves.  Speaking of locking the doors, we did that from the inside using just a simple Allen wrench.  We’d check the doors one last time then part ways and walk back to our respective dorms.

I haven’t been in Henry Crown since 2001, but from the outside it looks virtually the same.  I’m sure the computers and washing machines and ellipticals have been replaced and updated, but I would bet money the doors still lock the same way.  Wonder if the students working there these days still get a little spooked by the handball courts.  I’ll be they do.

Salary: $8/hour (I think)

Hours worked: Early mornings and late nights, probably on average about 20 hrs/week.

The parts I like to remember: It was always a bit weird to see a Nobel Laureate from the Econ department pop in wearing a t-shirt and spandex in preparation for their racquetball game with, say, the chair of the English department.  My favorite person who stopped by, however, was a former professor of mine, Charles Gray, whose 11th Century Church Law class I remember as being way more fun than it should have been.  He’d wear shorts and a safety loop to keep his glasses on as he slowly jogged around the upper level for 30 minutes or so.  I don’t think he ever recognized me as having been in one of his classes (he was at least 70 by the time I even met him), but knowing that such a preeminent scholar was walking through the turnstyle always made me smile to myself.

The parts I’d like to forget: Towels on towels on towels.  And the smell of the chemicals we used to wash them.

“Nordstrom Hosiery, Emily Speaking”

I said those four words in my dreams for years because I said them so many times over the course of the summer of 1998.

Circle_Centre_NordstromMy first real job ever was as a sales associate in the hosiery department at Nordstrom in Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis.  How luxurious!  Working downtown!  In a department store.  It was pretty much my dream job at the age of 18.  Oh how quickly reality set in.

I had been extremely fortunate in that my parents wanted me to focus on academics and extra-curricular activities in high school, which meant that I didn’t have to work on top of going to school.  The week after graduation, however, it was job time!  There was only one place that I considered working: Nordstrom.  From the moment that store opened in Circle Centre in 1995 I had been obsessed with it.  They originally had a Collectors department there that carried super high-end designers whose creations I’d only ever seen in the pages of Vogue.  That section became the St. John department after just a few months (apparently there’s a limited audience in central Indiana for Junya Watanabe – who knew?), but Nordstrom was still a magical place filled with shiny baubles, shoes in my size (11/12), MAC cosmetics, and an actual pianist!  I knew I had to work there.

I had dreams of evening gowns or maybe the Savvy department with younger designers but the only opening available was in hosiery.  You know, socks and tights.  Hmm…  Not exactly the glamorous entry into the world of fashion that I’d envisioned, but still I was going to be working at Nordstrom.  A real job, with a real paycheck, was mine.

I got lucky in that my manager, Erica, was beyond fantastic.  As an 18-year-old naif with little work experience, I could have easily stumbled, but she made sure I shined.  I quickly learned about deniers, control tops, and the power of selling in multiples.  We switched out displays on plastic legs, fluffed up socks just so, and generally did every imaginable thing possible to make hosiery look sexy and appealing.  The long hours on my feet were totally tolerable – the department was on carpet and I didn’t run around in high heels anyway – but the utter boredom of weekday evening shifts sometimes took its toll.  Luckily I still had plenty of high school pals around to stop by and a couple of my coworkers had friends who worked elsewhere in the mall so they’d pop in on their break.  On really slow evenings I’d wander over to the makeup department right next door to test out a lipstick or gossip with the Estee Lauder gals.  Sometimes I’d test out fragrances or just chat across the aisle with the women’s shoe salespeople, who were also next to us.  Overall it was a pleasant way to pass the hours as a first time full-timer.

Something else interesting happened, however.  I was recruited to attend the “Nordstrom Future Leaders” (or something along those lines) workshop, an all-day event in which we learned about career opportunities in the company and how those might fit into our professional development goals.  I’ll admit, there were times when I was tempted to think about fashion or retail as a long-term career option.  Those were the days when we were super busy (Anniversary Sale time, special promos) or when our buyers and vendors stopped by with new product. Those hours flew by in a snap.  But on the days where I had to slog through my customer book making phone calls about the latest new nude shade from Donna Karan, I was thrilled that I’d be heading to college in a few weeks.  For many of my coworkers, the Nordstrom hosiery department was the end of the line, not the beginning.  They were smart, hard-working women who had chosen their vocation but I’m sure still grew tired of the long hours and irregular schedules just as I did.

I learned so much that summer.  The first time a guy came in to buy hosiery for himself was a real eye-opener for me.  Turns out several of the well-known local drag queens would only shop at Nordstrom, plus we carried the widest range of sizes.  At 18 I just hadn’t considered that scenario before.  And I thought it was awesome.  I also learned how much it sucked when my paycheck was smaller because I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn a good commission, or realized the hit my paycheck would take when I took a couple of days off.  I had lived a pretty comfortable life and was still on my parents insurance and driving our third family car to work, so the true realities of what it meant to be supporting myself on my own were a few years down the road.  But still.  It was an amazing, life-changing experience to be working at Nordstrom.  I felt so grown up, so smart, and so in control, three things every teenager longs for.

I returned to the hosiery department over breaks and holidays in college a few more times before moving on to the lingerie department when Erica received a promotion.  But that’s a work story for another day.  Hard to believe it’s been two years since that Nordstrom store closed at Circle Centre.  It was a part of my history, a great part.  And I still miss it.

Salary: Around $7.25 hour + commission

Hours worked: Because I didn’t have anything else to do that summer besides pack for college (which, let’s be honest, consisted mostly of picking out which fall outfits to take with me), I worked nearly full-time hours, although only on a semi-regular schedule.  Unless there was a convention in town, the slowest days by far  were Sunday afternoons.

The parts I like to remember: A great boss and co-workers One time a classmate from high school stopped by to say hi and brought me a Godiva chocolate, which I thought was super-cool, mainly because I rarely at anything fancier than a Kit Kat at that stage of my life.

The parts I’d like to forget: Inventory!  In those pre-smartphone, pre-touchscreen days, inventory meant sitting on the floor and counting out every pair of socks and hose and tights.  We closed down early one night and everybody and their Mom (no, literally my Mom helped out, as did a couple of other coworkers’) sat around counting and recording for hours…and hours.  That’s an experience I don’t hope to repeat ever again.

The Window Washers

I originally started this particular blog for a couple of reasons.  One was to explore what “working” meant to me.  At the time I was struggling a bit to find my professional identity, having moved back to Chicago from DC after losing a job for the first time in my life (the organization closed) and with no immediate prospects for full-time employment on the horizon.  In the course of just six months I had done the following:

  • Em Hall in the Chicago Sun-Timesstarted a marketing certificate program at University of Chicago’s Graham School
  • wrapped up my final days as new media director at my last job in DC
  • worked part-time at the German Christmas Market in Daley Plaza (and made it into the Sun-Times to boot!)
  • survived a marathon round of interviews for a small agency that – after their request for a seventh interview came in – so frustrated me that I politely removed myself as a candidate; a girl can only take so much
  • survived two days of four-hours-each interview rounds with 10 different people at a nonprofit; didn’t hear a word back until months later when I received a generic email thanking me for my time…all eight hours of it, I guess
  • continued consulting for a client back in DC
  • collected unemployment for exactly one week
  • participated in a graduate student’s research because she was offering a Starbucks gift card in exchange for my time (in my feverish attempts at cost cutting I had temporarily switched to fixing only instant coffee at home…I know)
  • made coffee dates to network with any and all people I knew in Chicago, most of them being my sister’s friends (this was my excuse to use my Starbucks gift card)
  • went on another interview; took the position; quit the position two weeks later; was immediately hired back as a consultant (I still do work for them today)
  • started volunteering with Hyde Park Cats and the DuSable Museum
  • took on consulting work for another client in DC
  • went on an interview so wretchedly boring that the only thing I remember about it is that the green tea they offered me was really delicious
  • accepted one of my two current positions, which is as the part-time marketing manager at a theatre
  • questions and re-questioned every single decision I’d ever made in my whole life
  • found some sense of peace in knowing that even without a full-time job and benefits and a crystal-clear 20-year career plan, things would be okay

Phew!  Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.  Now on to the second reason I started this blog, and that’s to recount all of the wild and crazy work adventures I’ve had so far in my life.  Once I start rattling off the list to somebody they’ll say, “Oh wow!  You should really write this down.”  And I think, I should.  And then I don’t.  So this blog can begin to help rectify that.  Plus it’s a welcome distraction from my actual work sometimes.  Ha!

Right now – in between crafting the scintillating sentences of this very blog – I’m sitting in my office on the 15th floor of a not-at-all-fancy building in Chicago’s Loop and watching one window-washer work his magic on an adjacent building.  I work at a lovely non-profit downtown three days a week (it’s another part-time job I took on in May) and until I worked here I realized a few things: I have never had my own office before, I have never worked as high as on the 15th floor of anything, and window washers SCARE THE HECK out of me when I don’t see their ropes and they start squeegeeing away at my windows.

I wonder, Do they count their day in minutes or hours or number of windows washed or number of people they cause to jump out of their seats (ahem) or some other form of measurement?  What is it like to be hanging from the side of a building all day?  Do window washers experience the same sort of petty office disagreements and coworker squabbles that seem to occur in every organization?  Or is their job just really awesome and independent and the type of thing that they can leave behind when they step off their platform after a long day of hanging in the air?

In moments of work ennui I often fantasize about being a bus driver or a pet groomer or maybe a yoga instructor, jobs that I perceive to be the kind where you can leave work at the office at the end of the day.  I know that’s completely untrue – everybody stresses about their job at some point in their off hours – but I often can’t help but wonder if my professional life should have taken a different direction and that one day I’ll wake up to discover I’ve been doing the wrong thing this whole time.  What if?

But that’s not very useful thinking and I try to check myself when I fall into it.  The truth is, I really enjoy what I do most days, and I’m lucky enough to have worked with some amazing people along my entire job journey.  In upcoming posts I’ll be telling their stories, as well as recount some of my fun adventures in the office, on the sales floor, and – once – behind the wheel of a John Deere Gator 4×4.  First up: my stint as a hosiery saleswoman…

Back to Work

Want to know how easy it is to fall out of the habit of blogging regularly?  Very easy.  Honestly I don’t know how some of my colleagues in social media do it.  After a day full of posting, tweeting, commenting, writing, editing, re-posting, re-tweeting, updating, and monitoring for my two full-time part-time jobs, two freelance gigs, and a host of passion projects (ferals, feminists, philanthropists, et. al), it’s sometimes all I can do to “Like” a Facebook photo of a cat.  Seriously.

Being a marketing-type gal requires a multiplicity of skillz these days: I gotta be up to speed on myriad social media sites, mobile apps, digital trends, best practices in communications, worst examples in website design and – of course – I must be adept at wrangling BIG DATA (I put that in all caps to emphasize JUST HOW BIG IT IS).  I often equate my career choices to choosing to run on a hamster wheel for all eternity.  Sometimes I envy Sisyphus’ task.  How does one person make a difference and get their message through the endless onslaught of content?  I’ve chosen to work exclusively for/with non-profits and small businesses (remind me to tell you about that time that I flirted with the idea of being the community manager for a major brand…and sold a little bit of my soul in the process), but even that’s not enough.  If we’re not garnering enough website traffic, bringing in enough donations, getting enough click throughs on our newsletter, or going “viral” with our social media content, then I feel like a failure. I mean, not a massive failure.  Just a tiny failure.  A failurette.  Ein kleiner Ausfall.  Un échec minuscule.  You get the idea.

That’s why it was so nice to step away from it all for one weekend.

RFAC shelterI owe a lot of people a huge thanks for their support of Ride for AIDS 2013.  The amazing donations, the kind words (even after I changed from being a rider to being a crew member), the general you-are-awesome-ness that infused the entire weekend: it was just what this gal needed.  This may shock some of you, but I only managed to tweet a few times over the course of an entire weekend!  Otherwise I was checking in riders, hoisting banners up in the camp shelter (you can see my handy work in this pic), driving a golf cart, driving a 15-passenger van (a li’l ironic that the person with no car ended up doing so much driving, eh?), hoisting myself onto the top bunk, dining in a “mess hall,” spending time in nature, and generally engaging in activities that are mostly foreign to my grown-up, urban(e) existence.  I even stood in close proximity to a camp fire!

Ride for AIDS weekend was actually my first time at a campground, as far as I can remember.  Sure, there was percussion camp, but we stayed in dorms, because we were band nerds and therefore not well suited to the elements (too much humidity would’ve warp my timbale sticks, duh).  And I did some outdoorsy 4-H stuff, but my favorite projects involved shopping and…shopping.  So there’s that.  But as far as spending time in the middle of nowhere (sorry Elkhorn, Wisconsin!) with sometimes spotty cell phone service and way more exciting things to do besides post status updates to Facebook, well, I can’t remember a time during my career that I’ve done that.  I managed to step off the hamster wheel for a few hours.  And it was awesome.

Bike to Work Day: Take Two

There I was again: suited up, helmet in hand, tennis shoes double knotted, messenger bag all packed to bike to the office, just as I had been nearly two weeks ago.  Only this time was different.  This time I had my new (to me) bike securely locked up in my living room (yes, I locked it up inside my locked apartment inside my locked building…remember what happened last time?) and after quickly adding some air to my tires, I was on my way.  I was actually biking to work!

The first 1/2 mile was great.  Because I like to head south to hit the Lakefront trail, I pedaled over to 55th Street with nary a care in the world.  Biking is easy!  But as soon as I hit Promontory Point and headed north it hit me: a 15mph headwind that’s more or less a fact of life when you’re near Lake Michigan.  I mean, that’s nothing, right?  15mph.  But for this girl – biking along the lake front for the first time in over a dozen years – it was tough going for most of the ride.  Small hills became mountains.  Seemingly every other cyclist passed me as if there was no wind at all.  There was even some gal wearing jeans and riding an old-school cruiser bike with an air of insouciance that practically screamed, “I could be going much faster, but I’m too cool for that.”  I think her bike had a banana seat and streamers, but I can’t be sure.  Hey, at least I was able to pass her.

A view from the South SideI purposely did not look at the clock before I left or along the way.  Even the mile markers were just approximations of distance traveled because I hadn’t paid attention to the mile marker at 55th Street (it’s 2.5 mile, if you’re riding north).  But it was better that way.  I wasn’t crunching numbers or frantically calculating how much longer I had to fight the wind.  In the brief moments I was able to coast down a hill or take respite as the path lead through a few of the wooded or more sheltered areas along the path, I was able to remember just how fun it is to bike the Lakefront.  Even on an atypical July morning like today, when the birds were scarce and the sunshine nonexistent.

Once upon a time I was in good enough shape (and had enough time on my hands) to rollerblade from Hyde Park to Grant Park.  This happened one year for Taste of Chicago and I remember it vividly because a friend of mine biked and I rollerbladed along with him. Then, after we’d enjoyed a few overpriced but delicious items of food, the heavens opened up and let forth a deluge.  He rode is bike back in the rain but I was relegated to a soggy seat on the 6 bus…in rollerblades.  Perhaps I should have planned ahead more.

But what a memorable adventure that was!  And I’m sure this morning’s ride will stick with me for a long time as well.  As I said in an earlier blog post, this a time of change for me – at least I hope it will be – and doing Ride for AIDS Chicago is just one step along the journey.

Okay, so back to this morning’s commute.  Wind burn: check.  Exhaustion: check.  Brief thought of exiting the Lakefront Trail at 47th Street and catching the 6 bus: check.  But those thoughts all disappeared as I hit Lake Shore Drive and realized my trip was almost over. Dare I say it… That went by rather fast.  As I rolled into the Millennium Park Bicycle Station I was actually feeling good.  No, make that feeling great.  There may have even been a little swagger to my step as I dismounted and headed to the locker room.  On my way out of the bike station I smiled at a guy locking up his bike and I’m pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing: how superior we are for having biked to work!  Amazing what a little exercise and endorphins will do for one’s ego.

My work day’s about half over now and although I sit in front of a computer for most of it, I don’t notice anything different.  No leg cramps, no back pain, no overwhelming need for a nap (well, no more so than most days).  I mean, it’s only 10 miles from my place to downtown, but it’s something, right?  And all that wind is surely a good training exercise.  I still have a long way to go before the 13th, but I’m biking back home tonight, biking to the north side on Friday, then doing a 40 mile ride on Saturday morning.  Get excited!  And I’ll continue to repeat the mantra that I said to myself this morning when yet another gust of wind rushed toward me: It’s okay, Em.  You got this.

I’m riding 200 miles in support of About Face Theatre and other amazing community organizations in this summer’s Ride For AIDS Chicago.  If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page.  Thank you for your support!

Yep, my bike was stolen

So what had happened was…I decided to bike to work today as part of the aptly named Bike to Work Week.  I woke up this morning already anticipating the rapturous blog I’d write about my beautiful ride up the lakefront.  I was going to share a photo with you of the Chicago skyline as viewed from the South Side.  I was going to pat myself on the back for completing another training milestone as I prepare for Ride for AIDS Chicago. I was hoping for the cycling equivalent of a “runner’s high” to spirit me through the long day that lay ahead of me. I was, as my sister might say, totes excited about biking to work.

Let me paint a picture for you.  I was decked out in what passes for “serious” riding gear for me (so what if my spandex capris are from Old Navy?) and on my way over to the secure bike room in the other building of my apartment complex to air up my tires.  Then an all-too-familiar scenario unfolded: as I approached the bike room door, I noticed it wasn’t fully closed.  And when I went to put my key in the lock, the door freely swung open.  I looked over to where my bike is usually locked and saw only my Kryptonite cable lock, dangling pathetically with the 1/2″ cable cut clean through. It was basically just like this:

Le sign. It happened. Again.

I calmly walked back to my apartment and dialed 911.  The dispatcher put me through to the non-emergency line and a friendly and sympathetic officer walked me through the police report process, a process I’m all too familiar with.  I provided as many details as a I could, staying calm and even cracking jokes.  Just like I had the first time my bike was stolen and an officer came over to my apartment to file the report (those were the days before 311 or widespread computer use).  Just like I had when – a month after the stolen bike incident – I was mugged at gunpoint and flagged down a cop car in the next intersection over and filed a police report and looked at books of mugshots and went to a line-up at the local precinct.  Just like I had when – several years later – the door to my apartment was kicked in and all of my electronics were stolen and the forensics team dusted for fingerprints and the cops left me with a broken front door that I had to repair myself.  It’s fine.  These things happen and we take care of them and we move on.

But the thing that riled me this time was that my bike was locked to the wall in what was supposed to be a locked bike room, which was in a locked building.  Turns out the bike room had been broken into several days ago, but nobody had notified the tenants, save for a single sheet of paper taped to the back of the door by someone who doesn’t even work on site.  Again, I calmly picked up the phone and called the 24-hour maintenance hotline to report that the door was still broken and, yes, mine was one of the stolen bikes and, yes, it would have been nice to have been informed of a break-in when it actually happened and not to have stumbled upon a broken lock when I was ready to ride into work for the first time since I moved here.  The guy on the phone and the woman who works in the on-site office were extremely apologetic and neither of them knew the door had been pried open (or even about the theft!), so at least that’s getting fixed today.

I hung up and threw myself a pity party for approximately 45 seconds.  Then I got over it.  Procuring a new bike would be easy: Blackstone Bicycle Works is in my neighborhood and everybody raves about how great they are, plus their refurbished bikes start at around $100, which is great.  I have renter’s insurance, which might help me recover some of the costs of the stolen bike, which wasn’t even an expensive bike to begin with.  And nobody (as far as I know) was hurt when the crime was perpetrated.  So, not that bad.

Em Hall Ride for AIDS ChicagoPLUS, I had to remind myself why I was even biking to work in the first place, and that’s to train for Ride for AIDS Chicago 2013.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’m doing the ride for a number of reasons – not all of them are altruistic (I’ve already lost 5 pounds!) – but foremost is to raise money for About Face Theatre (where I’m the Marketing Manager) and TPAN, two amazing Chicago nonprofits that are doing important work for this city and beyond.  As the name of the ride implies, a portion of the funds raised will go directly to people living with HIV and AIDS in the Chicago-area, a reality that affects us all, whether we realize it or not.  And the statistics are shocking: 35% of gay black men in Chicago are HIV positive and the HIV infection rate for heterosexual black women in DC’s poorest neighborhoods has doubled since 2010.  In the UK, heterosexual women over 50 make up the fastest-growing group of those living with HIV.  And Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for an astonishing 70 percent of all AIDS deaths in 2011.  So yeah, a stolen bike is definitely something I can deal with – gotta keep some perspective.

This doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed in whoever took these bikes and whatever it was that drove them to steal them. This doesn’t mean that I’m not disappointed in myself for not springing for the U-lock that I know I should have gotten a long time ago.  But I’ll get it over it.  I’ll move on.  And then I’ll hop on my new bike and start pedaling away, training for my ride and looking forward to the day when biking to work becomes a regular occurrence.

I’m riding 200 miles in support of About Face Theatre and other amazing community organizations in this summer’s Ride For AIDS Chicago.  If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page.  Thank you for your support!

Don’t Leave Me Alone

I managed to enjoy working from home for approximately one week.  That’s how long it took me to memorize my daytime TV schedule: NBC for the Today Show (hour three being my favorite since it features Willy Geist) and Access Hollywood Live (Billy Bush is kinda creepy, amirite?), then over to ABC for The Chew (anything with Clinton Kelly is a-ok by me), then to CBS for The Talk (don’t ask), back to NBC for Steve Harvey and Ellen (those shows have way more in common than I thought), then it was time for news and primetime programming.  Wake up the next day and start all over again.

I came to loathe this routine.  I mean, I had enough work to keep me busy for several hours each day – and I did my job just fine – but it was a monotonous and lonely existence for a couple of months.  I did my fair share of work at the library or in coffee shops, but you can only sip a cup of tea for so long, plus dragging around a laptop and power cord all the time got old.  At this time I was working remotely for my last job in DC and although Gchat and G+ Hangouts made it easy to feel connected to distant colleagues, it just wasn’t the same.

I soon found myself staying online nearly all the time, whether I had work to do or not.  I craved some sort of interaction from the “outside world” and I missed my DC friends.  I felt more useful – not just as an employee, but as a person – when I had five chat windows open and texts firing back and forth.  See!  People want to talk to me!  I’m still at the proverbial popular table!  (Even though it was a table for one.)  I mostly stopped reading my daily newspaper, breaking a habit I’d had for over a decade.  Without a commute, it was easier just to settle down with a cup of coffee and Facebook status updates every morning.  How terribly edifying.

Whatever was going on was not good.  I was sleeping poorly, worrying about my current job and my still-nonexistent future job and generally getting way too much into my own head for even the smallest things, especially regarding electronic communications.  Had my last instant message conveyed that I was joking or did I come off sounding like a jerk?  Did that email convey the urgency of what I was requesting?  Should I text this person to make sure they have everything they need for the meeting tomorrow?  And on and on it went for nearly two months.  I didn’t get terribly down about it, though, because I knew the situation was temporary.  But still, by the time I returned to working at an office, I was more than ready to jump out of bed, get dressed in pants with a non-elastic waistband, and bid the kitties adieu for a day full of face-to-face interaction with real people.

Alone Together by Sherry TurkleI was thinking back over this (mercifully brief) time in my life the other day while listening to a podcast of Fresh Air from last year.  At my last few jobs in DC I was fortunate enough to be able to walk to work and podcasts were something I’d found helped keep my mind sharp during all those hours of pounding the pavement.  Still an avid pedestrian and podcast listener, I’ve enjoyed catching up on years’ worth of Terry Gross interviews, as I never really listened to this show before.  The podcast that popped up the other day was an interview with Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, which addresses the digital dependence that so many of us have formed in such a relatively short amount of time.

I highly recommend you listen to the interview – I haven’t picked up a copy of the book – or at least read the accompanying online article where Turkle shares among other insights the cultural shift from ‘I have a feeling, I want to make a call’ to ‘I want to have a feeling, I need to send a text.’  Whoa.  That part hit home.  How many times had I reached out digitally during my work at home days because I was bored or lonely or just found myself with my own thoughts for more than a few minutes?  I want to have a feeling.  Her statements also explain the seemingly endless parade of cryptic Facebook posts designed to elicit sympathy from one’s “friends.”  And what else could explain Facebook’s decision to let users select their “feeling” from a drop-down menu of options, over 1/3 of which express negative emotions?

If Turkle’s interview doesn’t sufficiently make you reconsider our always-online-but-not-really-connected existence, then I offer as Exhibit B Jonathan Safran Foer’s recent New York Times op-ed “How Not to Be Alone.”  Are you sensing a theme here?  Foer presents the concept of “diminished substitutes” and explains how evolving technological advances in communication have actually served to make us ever more disconnected.  Cancelling dinner is now accomplished with a single text message followed by the relief that we don’t have to see face-to-face the person whom we’re brushing off or letting down.  Parents obsessively browse their emails from the sidelines instead of watching their kid’s soccer game.  And on and on it goes.  The problem is that “with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.”  I want to have a feeling.

I’m not here to advocate that we revert to some antediluvian existence of fax machines and party lines, but I have been reflecting on my own need to feel connected, to feel feelings, and realizing that technology is neither a facilitator of nor a substitution for actual relationships, be they work, personal, or just casual acquaintances in my neighborhood.  At my current jobs I convene no conference calls unless absolutely necessary. I make a conscientious effort to try to communicate via face-to-face conversations or telephone calls whenever possible, which is really tough because I partly work remotely for one of them.  And I’m lucky enough to work with people who take seriously the notion that everybody deserves a break in their workday.  Just yesterday three coworkers and I went out for tea, pausing to sit a few minutes in Daley Plaza.  Those moments of sunshine and lighthearted conversation were probably some of the most enjoyable of my whole day.

As much as I love texting (and I love texting), I’ve come to the realization that it’s no substitution for authentic conversation.  Most importantly I no longer stare at my phone or Gchat hoping to have a feeling.  And if I find myself once again in the position of working from home at some point in the distant future, I’m confident that I’ll approach it in a different, more balanced way.  Less Billy Bush and Steve Harvey, and more face time with clients and friends.  Now that’s a good feeling.

I’m riding 200 miles in support of About Face Theatre and other amazing community organizations in this summer’s Ride For AIDS Chicago.  If you’d like to donate, please visit my fundraising page.  Thank you for your support!