Waking Up from The American Dream

Today, we received notice for our annual lease renewal. Our rent will be increasing $170 a month to a total steal of $2465 for a one bedroom apartment, not including any utilities. If we lived in the city the same apartment would be at least $1000 more. That’s life in the most expensive area in the country — no matter how much you make, you’re still not making enough to afford the life you thought you’d have at this point. You just have to wake up from the American Dream and realize it’s just that – a dream.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be one of the few who is making a high salary — more than I could ever had imagined making and more than I believe I deserve. At the same time, I acknowledge that in order to afford a house here you pretty much need to be taking home $400k (as a couple) which isn’t in the cards for our future, despite my relatively very high income – even if I manage to find success and stability in my job. I realize that many others will never even make as much as I do, and I feel I make too much, but it’s a loop of relativity when I try to comprehend how much I’d really need to make in order to purchase a 3 bedroom house with a tiny backyard.

Do I need a 3 bedroom house with a tiny backyard? Even if I don’t, soon our rent, for a one bedroom apartment, will creep up to $3000 a month, even in the suburbs. We won’t exactly be priced out but we’ll be able to save less and less each year. At some point, I think we’ll have to accept that it’s time to leave. And with a total income of about $250k, we’re doing much better off than a lot of people who live here. It’s just not enough and it will only get worse as we attempt to start our lives together.

If kids end up not in the cards, maybe it’s doable. We can stay in a one bedroom apartment, no need to pay for extra space when it’s just us. We can live in a one bedroom for the rest of our lives. This isn’t at all the life I had imagined, but we can survive easily without that much space. If we do have children that changes the story quite a bit. I don’t see how we can have children and remain here, especially if I need to take time off for any reason. The pressure of being the breadwinner, especially suffering from severe anxiety, is too much. If I am responsible for me, myself and I — that’s no big deal, I can roll with the punches, live cheaply when needed, and just weather any storm that comes my way. With children, we need a much bigger security net. We’ll have to move. We will have no choice.

I write this at a time when many entry-level workers here are seriously struggling, unable to feed themselves or pay rent on minimum wage. I feel embarrassed to look at my quite high income and still feel so hopeless, because if I feel hopeless, how on earth is the rest of everyone supposed to feel?

I’ve come to accept that if I’m going to have children we can’t stay here. I don’t have a solution yet or an answer to “where to do we go,” but sooner than later we have to get out. I’ll very much miss the beautiful scenery and sunshine. I’ll look back on my 20s and be glad I had the opportunity to live in such a glorious part of the world. But it’s time to grow up and move out. Or, at least it will be soon.

People say to not worry about the future and to just live in the moment. I find it very hard to do that. We now face the choice of staying in our current apartment and paying an extra $2000 to do so next year (and continuing my 3 hour a day commute) or finding a place closer to work that will either be more expensive or less livable or both. We’ll probably just stay here for another year – neither of us wants to deal with moving, and $2000 doesn’t seem like that much compared with the inconvenience of finding a new apartment and lugging our stuff to it… moving isn’t free either. So we’ll probably give it on more year here and hopefully by the end of the next lease I’ll be pregnant and we can then figure out where on earth we’re going to live in the future (aka not California.)

I had hoped that I’d be at a point in my career where I’d feel so distraught over losing my job / career in order to have a family… but while I appreciate my job for what it is now, and really admire my colleagues and am so grateful for this opportunity… I have no personal investment in this career. I feel no sense of pride in my progress or role. In five years, to continue on this path, I end up in a leadership role were I will never fit. I acknowledge it’s soon time to leave. Right now, the best I can do is hold on for dear life, do the best I can, and try to save money by living relatively frugally and bringing in a good income where most of it goes straight into the stock market / my savings accounts. This may be my last significant savings opportunity in my life, given I plan to move to an area with a lower cost of living and obtain a job which pays significantly less in my next career move. My goal is still to get to $500k in savings before I make this move, and the goal is becoming much more dire given that I’m rounding the corner of my mid 30s and I know I can’t handle this life for much longer. If I can just hold out until $500k — I can completely shift my lifestyle to one of lower income and greater flexibility in another part of the country. We can live off of, say, $100k total across both of our incomes and still live a decent life. If we make more than that, great, but we don’t have to (or, in the case of staying here, I’d likely have to earn over $300k in order for us to hit the $400k mark and afford a small home.)

What was once kind of this running silent joke in my head about how one day I couldn’t afford to live here and that I’d move away is proving true. I guess what has changed is that I’m more ok with that than I was before. I used to think that I didn’t want to trade my career for a simpler life. I didn’t want to be one of those women who had kids and no longer had her own identity, especially a professional identity. But now, I don’t know, my professional identity is not who I am. Despite not making it to Hollywood or Broadway I’m an actress nonetheless, everyday portraying someone who I’ll never be. I’m over this obsession with what I thought was success. I have nothing to prove, no one to impress, no game to win. I have maybe 60 good years left on this earth if I’m lucky, and many fewer with all of my loved ones in good health. I hope to make the most of them, and it doesn’t matter if that occurs within a tiny apartment or a giant house. It feels good to finally accept that… to embrace the loss of this embedded classism my parents have taught me, to stop feeling like if I can’t maintain the level of comfort and luxury from my childhood that I am a failure. The only true way to fail is to lock myself into a life where I no longer have any reasonable options for escape.

Weddings are Dumb.

Ok, I’m at the phase of wedding planning where I genuinely want to quit – but I can’t, because, you know, multi-thousand dollar deposits and shit. While I always thought weddings were dumb, I still had my heart set on throwing a big party, wearing a pretty white dress, and being whisked away to some exotic destination for a honeymoon. Blah blah blah. Weddings are ridiculous. Well, they don’t have to be – small, intimate gatherings with close family and friends are exceptionally smart. Doing what I’m doing – dumb, de dumb dumb dumb.

There are way too many things to decide on for a wedding, and it’s all wasteful. Eventually, you just end up throwing money at things to make them go away. You end up over budget by far and you aren’t sure how that happened – except that every decision ended up costing you more than you expected. And because of all those costly deposits, there’s no turning back now.

But – on top of the craziness of the actual wedding itself – you have to do these nutso things such as PLAN THE GREATEST VACATION  YOU’VE EVER TAKEN IN YOUR LIFE (and pay for it) and PUT TOGETHER A “REGISTRY” OF ALL THE KITCHEN SUPPLIES YOU MIGHT EVER NEED WHILE WORRYING IF YOUR GUESTS WILL THINK YOU’RE CRAZY FOR PUTTING NICE THINGS ON YOUR LIST THEY CAN’T AFFORD.

If you haven’t guessed, I’m on the registry part of this adventure right now. Registries are bullshit. I don’t understand them at all. First of all, they’re supposedly for the SHOWER, not really the wedding, because people give cash gifts at weddings, unless they don’t, in which case they may give from the registry, or they may not. Well, the registry is supposed to be filled with things for the home that you need – but those things can be quite costly. It may make sense for someone at the wedding to gift you a $100 saucepan, but unless you have super wealthy friends that’s insane to expect at a shower. Meanwhile, that $100 saucepan can be found on sale for a much lower price if you were to buy it yourself, but you can’t exactly buy yourself a gift and ask your guests to reimburse you.

The whole idea of “here’s a list of shit I want now buy it for me” is absolutely ridiculous, but so is getting a bunch of shit you don’t want or need and can’t return because that’s rude too. You can’t fucking win.

I’m currently researching cookware. It so happens at 32 I’ve never invested in decent pots and pans or anything kitchen related (though I’ve managed to collect a large collection of cheap steak knifes for some reason, hmm.) Researching every single item you may want for your kitchen to select the best ones for your registry that people will likely not end up buying anything from anyway seems like a big joke. The biggest joke of all is asking for things that are part of a set – so if you get a few items from the set, you have to go out and buy the rest of the set on your own, which ends up costing you more than not having the set in the first place.

Of course, I’m grateful for any gifts that my friends kindly give us for our wedding. It’s more that I just think the whole idea of a registry is silly and I’m afraid no matter what I put on it I’ll offend people – but if I don’t have one then we’ll get who knows what.

On top of planning for the wedding itself, I’m starting to think about our honeymoon. I really would like to take a honeymoon because after 10 years of dating my fiancé and I still somehow haven’t been on an international trip together. Which. is. crazy. I want to take a significant trip but the timing just isn’t working out. I’m still so new into my job that I’m afraid to take that much time off, even if I asked for it when I started. Unfortunately because my wedding is on the other coast, I am going to miss a few days of work just around the wedding itself (I was hoping to work remote a week in advance of it to get on the right time zone and hopefully get over any sicknesses I might pick up on my flight since I often get sick when I switch coasts.) Before that, I need to get to the other coast for my dress fittings (twice) and so that will take a few days as well, even if I’m working remote I won’t be at the office so people won’t realize I’m working. I’m also hiring a team of employees who I can’t just leave for weeks at a time…

The original idea was that I’d take a brief trip right after the wedding for a week and then come back and take a longer one two months later. I just worry that it looks worse to come back from my wedding after a brief mini moon and then to take another two weeks off a few months from the time I get back. I don’t really have time for a honeymoon at all this year. We could wait until next year, but hopefully I’ll be pregnant by then. We could just do a week honeymoon which I know is more than most people get to take and would still be nice, but I see this as my last international trip until my kids are, like, 10 years old… so it’s important to me. I have a bunch of frequent flier miles saved up and I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. But time just isn’t working out. I guess I can just go ahead as planned and hope work is ok with it (I can definitely clock in a few hours while abroad) — I just don’t know if it even makes sense to go anywhere at this point…

I mean, I don’t even have time to plan this trip. I have some ideas – but, planning a 2-week international trip takes time. Time that I don’t have. Time that I’m spending on the wedding finding a last-minute florist and figuring out who will be doing makeup and hair for the bridal party and trying to sort out how to get to the other coast for dress fittings and a bridal shower and all this stuff that honestly I want no part of. I knew a wedding would be challenging to plan but I had no idea about the amount of stress it would bring. I realize I’m a particular sort of person and at some point I just need to let go, but god help me if I can actually manage to get through the next four months of my personal life while remaining a high-value employee at work (my number one priority) and planning a trip of a lifetime (and figuring out which stainless steel cookware is the best for our future cooking needs?)

Being stressed right now feels so ridiculous and yet – weddings — ugh.

The Point When Your Dream Ends and Someone Else’s Begins

How in one breath can reality shift from a romanticized daydream of being a somebody who creates to success begin defined by job title, income, and home furnishings? Of course, this didn’t all happen in just one breath, but today I stop to pause in half-congratulations, half-jealousy of a fellow graduate who has gone on to do great things in the arts and now, 10 years post graduation, has worked hard and created and become one of those people who I thought I aspired to be and I’ll never become because – why? Because I was afraid? Because I didn’t believe in myself? Because I didn’t know what I wanted. I still don’t. Perhaps I never will.

I could easily blame money – the fear of not having money especially – but that was never really primary to the equation. I never gave myself the opportunity to not have money. When I failed in roles that mattered little to me psychologically early in my career I just moved on to the next, each role one further step removed from my deep-rooted passion to make something form nothing and so on – no comment on whether or not I had or have the talent to do so. It doesn’t matter. I’m one of the everyman. No better or worse or different than the next person who is here and gone in the blink of an eye, atoms of self splattered back out to the universe in due time.

Every single day I lose more and more of myself. I try to tell myself that’s a good thing. That’s growing up. That’s being an adult. That’s taking charge of life – grabbing it by the balls and saying fuck you world I wasn’t supposed to do this well but here I am. I’m doing well at that game I didn’t have a clue how to play and fucking A I’m faking everyone out and trying my best when I’m not having panic attacks and somehow I convinced people to pay me a lot of money and now every day I wake up knowing that I’m not a good actor after all and the opportunity is slipping from my grasp yet again… but I never clutched it tight enough to feel so distraught about losing anything anymore. I am not directing a performance where opening night will make or break its run. I’m not painting a picture which might one day hang in a gallery somewhere and be talked about in schools. No one will sip tea and muse over by blue period… of marketing. That’s life. I should be so proud. So proud that I let go of dreams because I wasn’t confident they were even my own, and just said fuck it, I’m going to just do whatever it is the world will have me do and pay me for because that’s better than sitting on my ass, wallowing in self pity and drowning in my solitude.

But I’m always one step, one moment, one millisecond away from this inevitable crash which I return to time and again. It’s as frustrating and horrifying as it is soothing. It’s my eternal womb state to return to, when I am shaking so much I cannot do much of anything except curl up in a ball and cry, deeply wailing alone because I know that there including anyone else in this pity party would only be a childish, selfish activity outside of any paid therapy sessions remaining in my FSA funds. But there I am, a grow woman, falling apart again, just like she did at 5 and 12 and 15 and 21 and always. Growing up doesn’t really go up if you’re constantly falling down. And, I admit, there are so many times when it feels so hopeless. I have these serious deliberations with myself over whether or not it makes sense to keep trying, keep faking it, when I’ll just always be a lie. I’d like to think it’s imposter syndrome – plenty of women suffer from that – but trust me, it’s not. I’m not a fit for this world, but I also wasn’t a fit for any other.

My self worth is defined by my networth. I am $320k give or take in happy with myself at the present moment. I am what I consider approximately five years away from being destitute without outside help, and five years away from having too much pride to ask for any. I could maybe last for five years on about $50k a year and spend down my savings. I’m five years or less way from total failure. I don’t think I’d ever let myself get there, though. If things got that bad  – I don’t know what I’d do. But  I can’t fail like that, I have too much pride. I’d find some freelance work. I’d do something. I’d get another job. I’d pick myself up and walk again. I’d walk as fast as I could until I fell. Over and over again. For many years. Until it’s over naturally and no one can accuse me of being suicidal or selfish for wanting to disappear or any of that nonsense. I’d just be old and gone and have made it, have survived through it all – for what, these days I’m not so sure, but I’ll keep on running until I see that finish line and when I do I’m sure I’ll regret having wasted all that time sprinting with my eyes only half open.

I guess the short of it is that I have no idea who I am anymore. As a child I defined myself as an artist, even though I knew I wasn’t good enough to really BE an artist – but I wasn’t an athlete or mathematician or scientist or academic or much of anything else — I could only see myself as an artist and the only purpose of life was to create – to output something(s) unique that no one else could share. To give some gift that comes from my hands or my voice or my mind – because I was raised to think this is all I was worth, my entertainment value. And now, I wake up, I go to work, I crack a few jokes I probably shouldn’t be cracking in order to maintain my appearance as a senior business leader (as if I actually have that appearance in the first place is a funny and inaccurate notion), and then I come home, and I go to sleep, if I go to sleep, to do it over again.

When I have children this will change. My life will be for their dreams. And maybe that’s ok. I don’t want to push them towards any dream of mine that went unfulfilled. I know that’s a recipe for disaster. But I’m at this point where I feel so empty because I don’t have anything to care about. I could do a better job caring about myself to start, for sure, but I have so much to give externally and I can’t help but think that’s motherhood calling, hello biological clock. Or maybe it’s just what is feels like to truly mourn the loss of possibility, accept and embrace the status quo as my forever now, just suck it up and live without wanting life to be anything more than a collection of mundane moments with the occasional exceptional spark which warms the heart until the next one comes along.

 

Mozart in the Management Jungle

mozart-in-the-jungle

After a weekend of binge watching Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning Mozart in the Jungle, I felt equal parts saddened and inspired. Saddened, because the show follows the lives of artists — musicians — who dedicate their lives to creating. Their madness is enhanced for comedic purposes, yet the madness of a musician is something I mentally relate to far more than that of a CEO. However, I also found the show offering lessons in leadership, and a reminder that the conductor, while expected to be versed in numerous instruments and able to step in to play if needed, is considered successful as a leader, a director, an – orchestrator – not a musician, i.e., an individual contributor.

I’ve always wondered why conductors were considered so important — all they do, it seems, is wave a stick and keep everyone playing at the same pace. Perhaps they would make a bigger motion to increase volume, but it seems to be largely for dramatic effect. What does the conductor actually do? Why do orchestras — filled with musicians who can read music as well as most of us can read the English language — need a conductor to begin with?

My challenge as a manager is stepping away from my nature to be an individual contributor. Although in a small company, I cannot walk away from the individual contributor role entirely, my value is in being the conductor. With this in mind, I return to examining the value of a conductor – not as someone just waving a stick in the air in a marvelous rhythmic dance, but someone who is leading a team, interpreting the “best practices” of the music and adjusting with their vision, keeping everyone together, guiding them through to the final product. The conductor’s work and value, I’ve been reminded, largely is contributed before the product release (aka the performance.)

I think I’m actually a very good manager as a conductor, but when I’m trying to play the proverbial violin and trumpet and oboe at the same time, it makes it nearly impossible to conduct successfully. Although the conductor may step in to fill missing seats, it’s her responsibility to hire the right musicians and then inspire them to follow their greater vision. A manager must do the same thing. She must hire the right team members and determine what role they should play, how loud they should play it, and otherwise orchestrate the score of any given quarter’s objectives.

While business isn’t art, it’s still an orchestra of creation, and still needs to be conducted. Without a conductor in an orchestra, perhaps experienced musicians could play music – but they wouldn’t know which music to play, or how fast to play it, or what to do should one of their violinists get sick for an extended period of time. In romanticizing the life of an artist – which I do frequently – I find myself feeling most alive when I approach my own work as practical art. I can still bring the passion which a conductor brings to the stage in front of a large concert hall during a sold-out performance. I can inspire people to be excited to play their instruments from start to finish, even if they’ve played this score a million times. I can inspire them to think differently about the music, to hear subtle shifts in rhythm and composition, to try new things, take risks, and ultimately learn and grow and make the great music of increasing ARR.

In orchestrating a team, there is a musicality to the work, a rhythm which must be established, an ecosystem of players who must all come together to accomplish a common set of goals. So, while I likely lost the chance to live the life of the broke artist, I’ve gained the opportunity to make a new kind of music – one that 10 years ago I didn’t know existed. When I feel overwhelmed or frustrated or scared, I now close my eyes and imagine myself with a baton in front of an orchestra, and I examine by players as well as the notes written on the page, and with a deep breath, I lift the baton, and my team begins to play.

Life is Short and other things you already know…

When you get to your 30s, you realize that 10 years isn’t really that much time from start to finish. Somehow childhood seems so painfully long at times. The stretch between one birthday and the next can feel like a decade. Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like centuries. I remember very clearly sitting in class staring at the second hand slowly clicking its way around the clock. I wasn’t the best student in school, but I certainly was an excellent study of the glacial movements of a clock’s minute hand.

The last 10 years have been filled with plenty of ups and downs. My 20s had their fair share of crazy and now that I’m well into my 30s, I do feel that time of my life is over. And despite that probably being a good thing for my health and sanity, I still feel the need to mourn the departure of my extended youth. I don’t know how it happened so quickly, but it did. And just as the last ten years have passed by so quickly, so shall the next ten and the ten after that. It seems as if there is this cruel joke played on us by time, where all of childhood is leading up to this miraculous part of life where we are just-turned adults and free to be both adolescent and in charge of ever instant of our destiny all at the same time. Then, you’re 21, and, then, you’re 30 – a true adult with wrinkles suddenly etched into her skin, tired eyes and dull hair requiring specialized shine treatments to look half as youthful as you did just years earlier.

I’m less afraid of aging than I used to be. I’m still terrified of death, although in theory if my belief that one loses consciousness entirely and is just nothing for the rest of eternity, it should not be scary anymore than sad, and should not be sad any more than egotistical, as any sorrow for such departure is the same sorrow that should be poured onto thoughts of the world before one was ever conceived – but somehow that doesn’t seem sad at all, the infinity pre-dating our own birth.

Regardless of one’s sentiment towards our  inevitable mortality, we can likely agree that our time on earth is finite, and the years which we have in good health are even more greatly limited. We watch our parents age and part ways with the earth, which is horrible but at this age becomes part of the routine. Then there are the unexpected early departures — relatives who grow sick or lose their life in accidents that have no mental preparation. I’m fortunate to date not to have lost any loved ones, not even my father who was told seven years ago that he had no more than two years to live. But none of this luck can last forever. Life is this transient light which shines for only but an instant, and we must shine despite the lights of others dimming and, others, growing in luminosity all around us.

Nine years ago, I almost died. I don’t like to talk about the car accident I was in because every time I think of it I feel sick to my stomach, probably from minor PTSD. I was driving on a two-way highway when I was exhausted early one morning — I was returning from a work conference and hadn’t slept well the night before, and thought I was ok to drive home. I had just started driving only six or so months before, so I wasn’t the best driver yet either. My tire blew out, I had shifted to far into the curb in the center of the highway and my car skidded across the road and ended up spinning around and around in a ditch. I remember very clearly the dirt coming up so violently to the window as I spun to a stop, completely stunned. About a minute later, two cops came and knocked on my window. I was just sitting there – I was fine, somehow. I could have easily hit a car or truck in the lane next to me, or could have gone off a cliff if I had been on the other side of the highway, but somehow I didn’t hit anything as I skid down the road and into the dirt, completely unable to take control of my car.

I walked away from that accident with no damages to myself and barely any to my car. I was very, very lucky. I never told my parents or many people about it. I didn’t want to worry anyone. I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, or any close friends nearby. I told myself to forget about it, and I did, expect when I think about that day, and remember so clearly the moment when I spun around in the dirt until I finally came to a stop.

And that was nine years ago, but still it haunts me. But then, as I faced death head on, I don’t recall being very upset about the prospect of dying. I was scared, for sure, but I was extremely depressed at the time and thought to myself, in that moment when I was given a second chance, who would care if I was gone? I had never felt more alone.

The beautiful thing about being in a relationship en route to marriage is that you have this one person who cares not only whether you live or die, but who would notice should you be hurt or in need of help. And, in turn, you share that responsibility and that love. You have long left the family unit of your parents and siblings, and now you’re on your own, – and being on your own sounded great until you realize that means no one is looking out for you. When you have no family nearby, when your family barely thinks to call to ask you how your doing, and when you realize they never actually cared how you’re doing because they only value you for their narcissistic supply, you value relationships more than ever.

See, I was the girl who always thought she’d never get married. After watching my parents have violent fights since as early as I can remember, I thought marriage was a bit of a joke for most types of people, especially any with my DNA. I was hopelessly broken, unable to commit or to be worthy of being committed to. The best I could hope for was a series of heated relationships which would be entertaining, to soothe over the long periods of solitude.

But then, when I met my boyfriend, I realized that I could indeed love and be loved. We had a rocky relationship for a while – as we were both immature and scared to grow up, both coming from broken homes and lacking a solid foundation of familial stability, despite deeply longing for that sense of comfort and calm.

Now, deeply in love and on the dawn of my wedding year, I see this overpriced event as the entrance to this new phase of my life. It isn’t that much of a difference from today, but it is a commitment to a commitment. It is knowing that no matter how hard life gets, at least in our health, we have each other. And, just as one never mourns the time before she was born as she would thoughts of her future passing, it’s the worst feeling in the pit of one’s stomach to imagine one day losing your love; yet the thought of life before them is nearly impossible to recall.

When I stood beside my grandmother last year as they slowly lowered my grandfather’s casket into the ground, she shouted “wait for me, I’ll be there soon,” with tears pouring down her face. I had never witnessed such visceral grief. It was real, raw, and I understood, and I closed my eyes and could see years from now myself with the same deep sadness. I wanted to comfort her but I did not know how – how do you comfort a woman who will never again see the man she loved and battled with through that love for so many years?

And in the end, life is only worth what we’ve created and who we’ve loved. In the arms of my sweet future husband I finally know what love is. I can see living with him just about anywhere and together we’d be fine. That part of my life is great now, but I haven’t gotten to the other part – the part longing to create – to maybe make a mark on this world before I leave it. I often tell myself it’s silly to want this so badly, as in the meaninglessness of life, so too is creation pointless in our blip of existence on the infinitum of time. Is someone who is an artist, writer, musician, actor or designer any more of a successful, complete person than a person working to promote software? Anything s possible at any age, yet it gets harder as you grow older and get set in your ways. As I wait for a moment of inspiration, I know I wait for a moment that will never come.

But love did come, and with love comes the sadness of knowing one day the man I love, and I too will disappear from this earth, at least the parts of us which make us human. I try, now, to value each second together, as the clock no longer ticks on as slowly as a slug making its way across a sidewalk, lacking any noticiable forward momentum from the human eye. I watch my iPhone clock go from 6am to 6pm in what seems like an instant, and holiday seasons return in what feels like shorter than a month’s timespan (didn’t the Christmas lights just come down?)

Since there seems to be no way to slow life down, I only hope I can manage to make the most of it, to fight off this curse of depression, and to embrace my consciousness’s brief stay on this unlikely little home we call earth.