THE LONG RUN

Alex

Credit: the always-amazing Instagram account of Alexandra Valenti.

Here is something I think about a lot.

Is it better to have a body-centric job, or a mind-centric job?

I wonder about this because (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned somewhere before) my creative brain is basically divided into two halves: the writing side, and the movement side.

During times of physical stillness, pregnancy for example, I list far over to the writing side, and become a little story pitching machine. Then, the gears shift, a baby is born, and I swing back to the aerial dance side.

Rarely, if at all, do I devote absolutely equal energy to the two.

Anyway, I’ve been a freelance writer for almost two and a half years now, which is actually the longest I’ve had any job. Since my early 20s, something always happened around the two-year job mark that made it impossible to go on: the gears ground down, I got tired of the work, and subsequently tired of myself. I’d bitch and whine to whoever would listen, develop a growing sense of inauthenticity, then chastise myself for being ungrateful that I had work at all. Then a client would send me a passive aggressive email, I’d mentally punch them in the face, and the whole gross process would start over again.

But then!

The clouds parted, I became a freelance writer, and I don’t have those feelings anymore. I totally, unabashedly love my work, and when I hit the three-year mark I’ll buy myself balloons and send all my clients gushy thank-you cards.

So when I look far off into the distant future, I think, “writing FOREVER! This is how I shall earn my keep. Forever.”

Until, that is, something like this happens – in 2012! – and I think…”uh oh.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been knee-deep in aerial stuff, or maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too much Black Mirror, but I have this growing suspicion that in the future, professional pursuits involving the body, rather than the wits, may be the way to go.

Now, we should probably stop right there and establish that the mind/body dichotomy is a false one. Everything involves both all of the time.

Still, though. I have mostly a speculative, but somewhat substantive, fear of the digitization of jobs, including my current one. Ross, my husband – a music teacher, I might add – says that’s silly.

But, Bill Cosby (stay with me here) couldn’t have predicted the Internet. Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, all the men whose past sexual sins are now coming to light, just didn’t know that we’d have these crazy machines in the future. Machines that would give us an audience, shift the balance of power, and enable us to tell anyone’s secret that we wanted to.

Which is all to say (in very bizarre fashion) that even though robots doing our jobs sounds like Jetsons stuff, maybe it’s not so nuts after all?

Here’s another way of looking at it:

Algorithms can deduce and replicate patterns. (I think.) They are predictive in a way that white-collar professions, especially those in tech or finance, also are. Tech/finance folks are also extremely innovative, of course. But they are diagnosticians, studying trends and predicting the future based on information that they have today.

Now, I do not know HOW Narrative Science (robot doing my job in the future) “automates” stories. But I believe it extrapolates from data, and rarely do their stories make mistakes.

But when you perform a body-centric job, especially if it is performative in some way…it is the small mistakes that makes things delightful.

Can you write a code for “human” mistakes?

I don’t think you can.

And this is what gives me pause.

Often, in this culture, we view performers, teachers, caretakers, yogis, etc. as idealists, rather than savvy business folk. At least I do. I think: “now, how long can you reasonably keep doing that? How long until your body gives out? Maybe find a job that you can always do even when you’re tired and broke-down, hippie artist person?”

But in the end, will hippie artist people who use their bodies for work have the last laugh?

Especially if it turns out that we can keep on using our bodies a lot longer than we think?

As it stands, I make a lot more money writing than I do for aerial work. But maybe that won’t always be the case. I guess my central question is: if info gathering and its attendants (data interpretations, trend projections, “narrative generation,” etc.) becomes cheap and easy work to perform, and is thus devalued, will the human touch become more rare? More valuable?

Will we be so sated by accuracy, that we start craving human slip-ups? Or at least the potential for slip-ups?

The sung note just a hair off-key…the flash of uncertainty in a teacher’s voice…the guitar string that snaps…the dancer’s foot with one funny, funky, unpointed toe – will these be our gems?

What is the work that you absolutely, cannot, never ever digitize?

That is what I’m wondering.

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UP IN THE AIR

I often feel as though I have a secret life, a life I don’t share that much online.

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Maybe because it’s hard to put this practice into words, or maybe it’s hard to verbalize in an authentic way how much important things mean to you.

What I’m talking about is aerial dance, an adventure that started for me as part of a 2011 New Year’s resolution to try new things. And, lacking the capacity for moderation – this is the same person who pursued a whole Master’s degree in Victorian Literature, after all – I went all in.

After about a year or so of training, my friend Susan and I started performing on silks around town, doing bar gigs with short ceilings and tipsy revelers. More recently, we started booking corporate shows (higher ceilings, equally tipsy people), and the last one happened September, 2013 at a yacht club out in Lakeway. Unbeknownst to me, while I was swinging around in the air for a bunch of oil and gas types, Nico was a little gestating bundle of cells.

Cut to me, several months later, full belly, stretching holes in the leotards I stubbornly refused to take off. I didn’t really know what to expect from pregnancy, and you know what? It might be better to go in blind. Armed with enough information, reasonable women can go totally insane while pregnant, and I know this because I went occasionally insane. My thing was constantly needing reassurance, from Ross, friends – even complete strangers – that I wasn’t killing my baby (me to Juiceland employee: is your juice pasteurized? Can I drink unpasteurized? DO YOU KNOW, EXTREMELY TAN 20 YEAR-OLD? DO YOU KNOW?!?).

But aerial silks and pregnancy? Ok, I knew (aka: my OB-GYN lectured me until I knew) that had to be a tiny bit dangerous. I tried for as long as I could, but at six months in, my belly made it very clear that it was time to slide off. I still wore the leotards.

Now, if you met me in real life, you’d think to yourself: “that’s a reasonable person, right there!” But the truth is, I am actually given to obsessive tendencies that are kept extremely well-hidden. I say this to help paint an accurate picture of my journey back on the silk, which did indeed involve lots of obsession. As well as lots of cursing.

All told, I took about a half-year break from the cloth. And when I first got back on, I could climb, kind of!, but that was about it. Most importantly, I couldn’t go upside-down, at ALL, which is somewhat crucial.

However! I had a support system: my new aerial dance company.

It’s name is Rapt Aerial Dance, and it was started by my girl Susan, along with a couple other silks friends. We get together and practice at Vamps Dance on the east side, and along with some truly wonderful private classes at Four Elements, it was by being around these people – these incredibly strong, intimidatingly talented, frequent-upside-down-going people – that pushed me to recover.

(I hesitate to even use that word: “recover.” It makes it sound like baby-having is a form of trauma, doesn’t it? How about we say…”heal.” That’s better, isn’t it? Less images-of-blood-and-afterbirth-inducing?)

Anyway. On Nico’s three month birthday exactly, I could go upside-down again, and on her five month birthday, I could pretty much do all the stuff pre-pregnant Tolly could do. In fact, motivation for any aerialists out there who get knocked up: my body forgot a lot of its preprogrammed bad habits! My wonky toes? Pointed. This spin-around-horizontally-on-top-of-a-silk-knot thing that I could never, EVER do in the past? It is happening! I try to play it cool on Sunday nights when the company gets together and practices, but inside, there’s a huge party going on every time I accomplish a simple breakthrough. And these people – my achingly beautiful, fellow company members who can do anything, ANYTHING! – held the space while I clumsily stumbled my way back to silks competence.

I’m willing to bet that if you aren’t into this weird hobby yourself, you know someone who is, or, you know someone who’s generally into physical movement. Like I said earlier, it’s tough to verbalize how thoroughly silks changed my life. You know that “tech loop” Portlandia skit? That was me! Me before silks! I could DIVE INTO the Internet and never come out. But silks got me back into my body, and it was waiting for me after Nico exited my body. My silks family was waiting for me, too.

On Thursday, we launched a big fundraiser campaign for Rapt. Eeek! Scary! Scary as in exciting. Here’s a little video we made for the fundraiser, which explains the things we need money for, and also gives you an inside peek into the company and where we rehearse:

We are small, we are very dedicated, and we are extremely passionate. We’re having a huge fundraising party in January at Brazos Hall!

But for now, we are pouring our hearts and souls into this fundraiser campaign. Click here to contribute, and to support the arts in Austin. I am hugging you as you do so.

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WHAT IS “PROGRESSIVE PARENTING?”

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Nico and Ross, Monday.

For a while, I’ve hesitated to write this blog post. Partially because I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe the way I was feeling, and partially because I was afraid of pissing people off. I believe I’ve got the former figured out now. The latter remains to be seen!

Anyway, the question I’ve been circling around and around as a rookie parent is: what does it mean to be a progressive parent?

As an Austinite, and left-leaning person in general, my knee-jerk response is:

*organic food

*cloth diapers

*breastfeeding, but if we have to do formula, we’ll make it ourselves out of goat’s milk

*baby wearing

*A charter / private-ish school for Nico when the time comes

*Either no vaccines, just some vaccines, or hand-wringing and fear if we do in fact vaccinate (note: we have).

These are all things that we do with Nico, and I love them. We probably won’t stop.

But they are also big, flashing markers of social class. And that is what I’m conflicted about: not about having the resources to do special things like private school or organic food, but because I have this sneaking suspicion that by diverting these resources to Nico and Nico alone, I’m taking away resources from larger systems that could make things better for EVERYBODY’S kid.

Allow me to explain.

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So that whole set-up sounds pretty damn self-important, right? Yeah. It does. It also sounds like Ross and I are kinda rich. We’re not, but we’ve admittedly got a lot of great things going for us lifestyle-wise: we both work from home, we live in a city where access to organic food and alternative education is easy, we have parents who bought us a monthly subscription to a local cloth diaper service (I love you Mom and Dad).

As I say, I looooove all these things. Love ‘em! Baby wearing shouldn’t be a political choice, but let’s face it: it is. I feel more crunchy or natural or just “better,” for some vague and not well-thought out reason, when I put Nico in a sling and carry her around that way. (I also like kissing her fuzzy baby head.)

But lately, I’m beginning to feel like my draw to crunchy/natural/Dr. Sears-esque stuff may not in fact be “progressive,” if by that term, we mean “progress for all.” I guess what I’m getting at is: opting out of more traditional, mainstream, and government-involved systems of childrearing has become synonymous with “caring.” Because I care, I won’t vaccinate. Because I care, I won’t enroll Nico in public school. Because I care, I won’t make a fuss out of the fact that no soy-free formulas exist in the U.S. formula market (more on that in a minute); I’ll go out and buy pricey ingredients for a goat’s milk (soy-free!) version and call it a day.

I’m troubled by the fact that it’s that way.

There’s a book out there by Emily Matchar called “Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity.” It’s pretty fascinating, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the whole thing, there’s a pretty bracing paragraph at the end of her chapter titled “DIY Parenting,” which I read while I was pregnant, and read again the other day:

“In the twenty-first century, parents with resources and education feel they can best protect their child by “opting out” of the system. If the government isn’t doing a good job at regulating the food supply, then parents with money and education can buy organic, local food from the farmers’ market. If the schools aren’t good, parents can homeschool or choose a charter or private school – weathy parents are “abandoning public education,” Golden says. If parents worry about chemicals in household products, then those with the time, money, and inclination can make their own cleaning products or buy pricey VOC-free rugs and paints. Which is all well and good, but these options are not so freely available to working-class parents with less time and money. They’re the ones who will be left behind if we collectively abandon the effort to push for better social and governmental solutions.”

A-ha, there it is: “they’re the ones who will be left behind.” That is what’s giving me pause, now that I’m a parent.

Matchar is basically saying (I think) that in our move to privatize parenting, we’re creating a competitive market for those who can enter it, and generate demand for better food/school/etc. And trust me, looking at Nico each day, I want to sing to her sweet little face: “only the BEST for you, baby! Corn syrup solids shall never pass these lips!”

But again, back to my central question: is that really progress?

I don’t think this is a simple question with a simple answer, so I’m putting this post out there mostly as a way to start a conversation. I am genuinely curious to know how parents who think of themselves as “progressive” define that for themselves, and I apologize right now for the abundance of scare quotes in this post, which is making the whole thing sound more sarcastic than I want it to. But by using those quotes, what I’m really trying to signal is the fact that I’m not convinced by current definitions, and am ready for other interpretations.

Now, full disclosure: this post has also been written by a card-carrying Democrat, so in theory, I’m a fan of social systems. But in practice, am I really supporting them as a parent? Not really. Am I agitating for free, quality child care? No, I’m pre-registering Nico at a neighborhood Montessori. This isn’t anything I feel guilty about when it comes to my own child – I can’t wait to see her carrying home her special little books! And singing her special little Montessori songs! It’s going to be so freakin’ cute and I think about it all the time.

The thing I feel guilty about, though, is that it took me this long to even stop and consider that this lovely, early school experience isn’t normal, and perhaps it should be.

Here are two more examples of parental privilege from my own life, the way they got complicated, and the way I now see those complications as good things:

1. BREASTFEEDING VS FORMULA: When I was pregnant, I reflexively thought I would breastfeed Nico exclusively. We still do breastfeed, but she wasn’t gaining weight quickly enough, so her pediatrician asked us to supplement with formula. I cried about this for about a day, feeling like a failure. And then, I got over it.

Now forgive me, non-parents, if I lose you here: this next part might be pretty boring. But (whips the chair around backwards), we’re gonna talk about milk supply! PARTY!

Long story short, my supply was low, and at first I projected all kinds of evil thoughts on Nico’s pediatrician for telling me this. Typical mainstream, Western doctor, I thought. Only going by the weight percentile chart. When was that thing created, anyway? The ’70s?

But once I got over myself and we gave Nico some formula, she was, in general, a happier little baby. Exclusive breastfeeders might argue it’s because formula takes longer to digest, resulting in short-term satisfaction and long-term obesity. Maybe they’re right. But if there’s anything I’ve learned about being a parent, it’s that you can find scientific studies to back up basically any point of view, and just as many scientific experts who can point out why the studies that oppose your point of view are flawed in their methodology. So…I’ve let it go.

Anyway, because this post is about class more than anything, we should point out that exclusive breastfeeding is definitely a privilege of mothers who can afford to live this way, i.e., nurse their babies every few hours. This is not to say it’s wrong, it’s just to point out that in the crusade to exclusively breastfeed, we should be real about the class of people that is even able to do this. (The other way you can make exclusive breast milk happen as a working mother is to pump a LOT at your job, which may or may not be possible in one’s particular work setting. So bottom line: a lot of people have to do formula because it’s the only practical way they can also go to work and earn money.)

So what was I really lamenting in giving Nico formula? Health-for-baby guilt, or class guilt? Probably a bit of both. In fact, definitely a bit of both, because as I mentioned earlier, we’re totally doing the DIY goat milk formula thing which pacifies both my class reflex to pay for better (“better”) solutions, and also my genuine befuddlement that formula, even the organic kind, has about 80 ingredients and that seems weird.

2. VACCINES VS. NO VACCINES: The lion’s den of parental ideology! Here we go.

So we ended up saying OK to Nico’s first round of vaccines, except for one which was against an STD that neither Ross nor I possessed. By now, you’re all probably familiar with the debate surrounding vaccines: there was that study linking vaccines and autism which was later dismissed, but anecdotes linking the two are still out there scaring people (including me).

I know parents who don’t vaccinate, and they aren’t refusing because they scare-quote “care,” but because they care! Genuinely! They don’t want to give their kids autism, and I completely, 100%, totally get that. Oh man, I get that so hard.

The second half of this debate is now starting to emerge, though, and it’s the resurgence of diseases like whooping cough, and that scares me too. There are basically no good solutions here, because you feel like an asshole parent either way.

We went with the vaccines, though, in a collectivist spirit. Am I still a little bit terrified of mercury in vaccines? Yes! Holy shit, yes! But do I also think that the issue has gotten politicized, and that maybe it’s time to not be so reflexive in our immediate dismissal of vaccines, or to think of those who decline them as more “progressive?” As more “caring?” As more left-leaning and therefore more embracing of natural things?

Yes.

I want to think of myself as progressive, caring, left-leaning, and embracing of all things natural. Parenting yields a whole host of egoic concerns, and these are mine, the labels I want to stick on myself.

But I also want to (cue violins) live in a world where the collective, social solution is actually one that we can trust, ‘we’ meaning families of all classes. And I guess I want to shift the locus of what it means to be a progressive parent to a more activist, populist approach, rather than creating my own sparkly baby bubble that Nico alone benefits from. I’m not sure what that approach looks like, yet…voting for people who support child care initiatives?

Signing petitions that ask for corn/soy/whatever ingredient to be taken out of formula?

Actively seeking out good public school options for Nico, rather than just assuming they’re “lesser” and thereby diverting both my child, and taxes, away from what could be a really neat experience?

Being part of the social media conversation that asks doctors to keep on educating us about vaccines?

Maybe it looks like all of those things. And, maybe it looks like things I haven’t thought of yet. But let me know – please let me know! – if you have ideas.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go dress Nico in a yoga onesie.

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HOW WRITING GIGS HAPPEN

Austin

Austin Kleon and I, promoting literature.

On Wednesday, I was inspired by author/speaker/creativity dude Austin Kleon, our guest this week on Statesman Shots. In the mode of his new book, Show Your Work, and also because I’m trying to get back into the swing of blogging more regularly, I thought I’d share a quick post about a particular writing gig I scored recently.

As any freelance writer can tell you, writing for high-profile sites are like the pot of gold at the end of the blogging rainbow. We put our work out there for months, often years, shouting into the yawning void for anyone who will listen. We hope that one day, our words will fall on the right pair of ears, and we’ll be invited to contribute to The Hairpin, or This American Life, or Modern Love. Everyone I know wants to write for Modern Love.

The problem is, it’s often unclear how one makes the leap from blogging to uptown classy, website property writing. In my case, it almost always come down to relationships.

My latest gig is with The Atlantic, reporting for the health section of their website. My first piece was on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust too much, and I’m reporting a piece now on the effects of capital punishment on prison wardens. I do most of my reporting with a baby on my lap, who nurses happily while Mommy discusses hardened criminals.

Now between you and me, the pay is just OK. But! The writing is still worth it, because I’m trying to expand my “beat” from Austin-y stuff to broader cultural issues: health stuff, sociological stuff, and sometimes TV stuff. Also, if you told my 25 year-old self – who would have been crazy thrilled  to get a byline just about anywhere, including your refrigerator door – that I’d get to write for The Atlantic someday, I would have died, revived myself, and died again. What I’m saying is, I’m not complaining.

So how did it happen? Here’s how:

A few months ago, I was part of a storytelling night for Austin Bat Cave. It’s called Story Department, and takes place once a month at Home Slice Pizza. I was very pregnant/hormonal/bloated at the time, but thought, what the hell?  This was probably the last time I’d get to do something like this for a while, with a baby coming and all. So I went, and told the story of attending a naked yoga class. (More on that in a moment.)

There in the audience was a fellow writer for The Atlantic, a guy named Jon Fortenbury. He wrote me after the event to say he liked my story, and we set up a coffee date / networking meeting of sorts to talk about freelancing. So we traded editor names over cappuccinos, then nervously pumped each other up over email for the next few days:

“Hey, have you pitched Salon?”

“Yeah. Haven’t heard anything. You? The Atlantic?”

“Same. Here’s what my pitch said. It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid.”

Writers are very insecure.

Anyway, fortunately – we both got accepted! So the moral of the story is: go on those coffee dates. With other writers, I mean. Mine each other for contacts, then exploit those contacts. It’s an economy of connections.

But the second, and what I consider to be more important, moral of the story?

Go to a naked yoga class.

By which I mean, your metaphorical naked yoga class. Keep your ears open for that irrational, scary experience that you would normally never do but would make an amazing story, then go do it. Exploit it for material. In absence of great connections / an impressive degree from a journalism school / an internship at The New York Times, I find that weird, unique, off-the-wall material can also open doors.

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Wholly unrelated, but can we conclude with a baby picture? Can I exploit my child for your love and Facebook likes? OK, let’s do that:

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In the words of my wise friend Jason Silverberg, “this is what I’m like now.”

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MY TRAVEL GUIDE TO AUSTIN

Since mainlining episodes of The Millionaire Matchmaker over last month’s maternity leave, I often forget that I still have a brain. But I do! [Taps finger to temple]

Before binging on trashy TV, I produced a couple of pieces of work that I’m pretty proud of. Here’s the first one:

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I wrote a travel guide to Austin! It was released by a cute little publishing company called The HUNT Guides and required me to sample roughly 50 restaurants in two weeks, including places like Qui and Swift’s Attic. Life is just so hard sometimes.

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I was familiar with a lot of these businesses already, but did uncover some surprises along the way. Case in point: north Austin’s Tomodachi Sushi, which is not only beautiful, but peddles delicious specialty rolls with names such as Say My Name!!! and Who’s Ur Daddy?!? (basically, each roll gets three punctuation marks). The chef explained the sushi names to me this way: “we wanted to make them memorable.” Sir, you were successful.

We – and here I mean my buddy Amy and I – also got to sample Noble Sandwich Co., i.e., the Uchi of sandwiches. Everything, right down to the thin-sliced pickles, is made in-house and is so fresh and tasty you just can’t even believe you’re eating a sandwich. The humble sandwich! That most utilitarian of meals! It is made special here. Transformed into something beyond its quotidian status. So good, it inspires me to use words like “quotidian.”

Alas, there were several new restaurants in the works that weren’t quite open by the time I finished “research:” chavez, LaV, Odd Duck. What a shame, The HUNT Guides will just have to hire me again to write the next edition!

You can order the book here, and I believe it’s also being carried at local bookstores. I’ll update this post once I find out.

UPDATED 7/3/14: BookPeople‘s got it!

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I also wrote my first article for TheAtlantic.com, where I am now a health correspondent! It was a story on Williams Syndrome, a condition that compels people to trust – even when they shouldn’t – and is something I’ve wanted to write about for years, ever since I heard about a little girl with Williams Syndrome on NPR. My piece explores what it’s like to hold down a job when you have Williams Syndrome (tough), and the steps individuals with the condition have to take to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of at work (many).

I’m now working on my second piece, which is about prison executioners, and in a scene suggestive of my new life I started research for it the other day with a baby on my lap. “Hello, may I please speak to Mr. Jail Warden?” [Baby cries in background] “Oh, he’s not there? Can you – oh hang on, just have to position my nipple…get the whole areola in her mouth…THERE!  Yes, I’ll leave a number. Hey, you still there? Hello?”

I officially return back to work today, which means I’ll be picking back up with my copywriting clients and continuing to report that piece. Ross and I are extremely lucky in that we both work from home, so we take shifts looking after Nico while the other one does their job. It’s been ok during our practice runs, but poor Ross, who lacks breasts, is faced with a screaming newborn from time to time. She likes to head bang his shirt, and is clearly thinking: “HEY!!!!! I’m TWEAKING!!!! Milk please!!!”

We’ve improved the situation with a breast pump however, which took me a few weeks to face down, but now enables me to hand milk to Ross and have him feed her. She likes to look up at him while nursing, and (encouragingly?) grab his chest hair, as if to say, “I knew you could do it.”

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