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.

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!

What’s so hard about taking a break?

I’m in this marketing certificate program at the University of Chicago’s Graham School right now and I have to say that being back in a classroom suits me well.  It’s a very different environment than my first go-around at UChicago as an undergrad.  Students are far more likely to be carrying around Marketing case studies than The Marx-Engels Reader (imagine that!) and the instructors are highly accomplished professionals who are more likely to drive a luxury SUV than possess a PhD.  But it’s great.  My classmates are lively, our guest speakers are engaging, and even though it’s the first time I’ve paid entirely for education out of pocket, it’s absolutely worth it.

During class earlier this week one of our guest speakers revealed that it was actually her last day at her current job and that she had a six week break before she started her next one.  Six weeks!  Jaws slowly dropped in a combination of jealousy and disbelief.  My instructor commented something to the effect of “Studies have shown that that’s the only time you can really relax, when you’re in between jobs, but you know you already have the next job secured.”  Heads nodded, still not able fully to comprehend the idea of being blissfully unencumbered by work emails for more than six minutes, let alone six weeks.  And with that the guest speaker walked out the door, possibly 20 pounds lighter than the rest of us.

Japan Airlines and MicrosoftThis morning on the bus I was reflecting on that quick interchange in class when I saw an ad for Microsoft Office 360, of all things.  The ad caught my eye not because it was advertising software that nearly everyone uses at some point in their working life, but because the “Japan Airlines” image caught my attention.  The juxtaposition of exotic travel and a mundane office product was timely.  I thought, “When’s the last time I went on a proper vacation? Or even staycation?”  Even though I had a couple of weeks off in between jobs when I moved to Chicago, that time was consumed by job hunting, almost to the point of obsession.  And I spent an inordinate (and probably unhealthy) amount of time reading Gawker’s absorbing series “Unemployment Stories” which was alternately terrifying and slightly encouraging.  But at no time did I consider myself on a break from working.

As long as I can remember during my professional career (i.e. not grad school or hourly jobs), I’ve taken off just the weekend between ending one gig and starting another.  Oh, except that one time when I took off two weeks between jobs…in order to write my Master’s thesis.  I know what you’re thinking: that Em Hall sure knows how to relax!

But there’s no reason to punish ourselves for stepping away from work emails and an office environment for a break, even on a regular basis.  I’m lucky enough to work at two jobs now where getting out of the office – whether for professional development, special events, or just a mental break from the cacophony – is actually encouraged.  What a gift!  And I’m really glad that our guest speaker shared with us that she felt no guilt for a six-week break.  She shouldn’t!  Nor should any of us.  I’m not looking to change jobs any time soon, but I know that when I prepare for the next big adventure in my life, I’m going to take some time to myself, to honor all that I’ve accomplished and celebrate what’s yet to come.

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!