call me Fred

It's been almost six months since I last updated the pandemic diaries. And as fitting a note as that would have been to end on, the diaries, like the pandemic, haven't exactly ended, but they've definitely slowed in frequency of entries. On the heels of this article in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller, I'd planned to write a little more about how the last school year was surprisingly challenging given most kids, both of mine included, returned to in-person school with little or no interruption all year, as I described to Claire when she interviewed me for the article in April in response to this Twitter thread. A few weeks later, she had the data to back up what seemed initially like an atypical experience (compared to stories about the many working moms, in particular, who felt they had no choice but to quit their jobs during the pandemic in order to care for children, facilitate distance learning, etc.). Turns out I was not alone in feeling more drained after kids returned to school than when they were home doing remote schooling the year before, nor was my experience of not only continuing to work but actually taking on added hours and responsibility, all that unusual, after all. 

But then the school year ended and some of those emotions diminished as I transitioned into summer mode. Now that another school year has started, some of those feelings have returned. I think what happened for me shortly after winter break is that kids returning to school freed up some mental bandwidth to look around and realize that while kids being back in school in person was great for so many reasons, things had not, in fact, gone back to any kind of pre-pandemic "normal." After-school options were minimal while expectations around productivity at work, like traffic, were pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels. It's kind of like how the brain can only really focus on one major pain source at a time. If you have, say, chronic lower back pain due to mild arthritis and then suddenly experience a flare-up of sciatica (I'm old, okay?), while dealing with the latter the former will seem to go away. But as you get the sciatica under control, the mild back pain will inevitably return. Likewise, once the daily demands of distance learning were gone, I had time to look around and see that a lot of other stuff in my life was falling apart, all while the infrastructure to support working parents, shabby as it was pre-pandemic, was still almost nonexistent (kids were back in school but there were very few after-school options, so good luck with work after about 2:45 pm every day).

We're now 8 weeks into the 2022-23 school year (Oakland starts and ends early). My son is, somehow, in high school(!!). My daughter finally got a spot in the after-school program. I am no longer, as the article states, "a training coordinator at a gaming company." I'm now a Global Operations Lead for Professional Training, which is...basically a training coordinator. Over the summer I studied for and passed PMI's Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam. I moved from independent contributor to manager and, for a week or so, I was a people manager with no direct reports. Best of both worlds, I joked! Then my manager left the company and suddenly I have a couple of people reporting to me, I'm actively hiring, and oversee an entire program of about 100 third-party trainers with no support staff, all on top of what I typically do every day for the past three years. Welp. It's been kinda nuts, but, not unlike how I felt when presented with the opportunity to transition from part-time to full-time during a global pandemic and halfway through a full year of distance learning, scarred perhaps by my hummingbird approach to "career" and the challenges of looking for a job after any kind of break or deviation from an otherwise linear path, I feel like I have to take full advantage of these professional opportunities even at the expense of my creative goals and, some days, general physical health and mental well-being. 

I've been thinking about work-family balance a lot over the past week since I attended CCA's "Rooted" ceremony on the Oakland campus. I worked at CCA (California College of the Arts and, formerly, Crafts) from January 2015 through August 2017. Working alongside folks who'd been there for literal decades, it probably seems like a blip. But for me it was a really significant chapter in my work history in both positive and not so positive ways. Prior to CCA I ran my design micro-biz on Etsy. Prior to that, MFA in hand while the great recession unfolded, I had every intention of teaching art at the college level. Ha! The job I eventually landed at CCA was very similar to work I did before going to grad school: administrative in nature and specifically supporting upper level management and board members. It wasn't my first choice. But I was perfectly qualified and it was at an institution I still greatly admire. Not a bad runner-up, right? Well, long story short, it was really hard for me to feel satisfied with such a behind-the-scenes role at an art/design college where I would have much rather been teaching or managing programs or doing really anything more directly related to students and the kind of teaching and learning going on there.

I quit five years ago with nothing else lined up to spend a year (one year eventually turned into two) resetting as both a parent, spending more time with my youngest before she started Kindergarten, and as an artist, spending more time in the studio we'd built in our back yard the year before. I spent most of the second year thinking about how artists support themselves financially in the making of this podcast. When season one was done and I still hadn't figured out how to monetize anything I was doing creatively, I started looking for work yet again. I eased, with some luck and a little nepotism, into the job I have now. It's not any more creatively satisfying than the work I was doing at CCA. But unlike all the arts jobs I've had, at my current gig, I have no problem being the person behind the scenes making sense of the chaos. I'll never be a programmer and I'm totally okay with that. If anything, I'm further removed from the "art world." And perhaps that's why I really enjoyed but ultimately felt a bit out of place at the ceremony last weekend. It was a little like seeing an ex-lover or friend out in the world after a breakup or a falling out. I feel like I've grown so much as a worker over the past three years at my current gig and thanks to two years of working really hard for free, frankly, before that (more time with the kids, podcast production, and lots of volunteering). But being on the Oakland campus brought back feelings of inadequacy while simultaneously longing for a sense of belonging that only those who went to school there or had worked there longer than me and/or who were still working there could legitimately claim (these are my feelings; I'm not necessarily speaking for other participants).

I suppose it's an extension of how I've always felt with respect to anything art-related. Desperate for validation as an "artist," while keeping the "art world" at a distance, using defense mechanisms to cope with relentless rejection, dramatically swearing off the whole thing every few weeks. Toward the end of the ceremony, during which the bell that CCA founder Frederick Meyer would ring to bring the community together 100 years ago would be rung for the last time on the Oakland campus, a white bird (was it a dove or a pigeon?) started flying around the redwoods outside Macky Hall. It criss-crossed the lawn as it flew from tree to tree and as Lisa Jonas (an artist I interviewed for my podcast) concluded her closing remarks it landed on the wooden arch built from wood reclaimed from redwoods lost to disease over the last couple of years. It was a too-perfect ending, the white dove everyone believed it to be symbolizing peace, at once acknowledging our mourning for the Oakland campus while releasing us of our ties to this legacy in order to make room for new and future opportunities in San Francisco. But, Oakland Animal Services volunteer that I am, I couldn't help but think that "dove" looks an awful lot like the white pigeons we've had at the shelter lately. And if that bird was a lost pet trying to find its way home, well, that is a whole vibe that is, you have to admit, also kind of accurate. 

But maybe I'm projecting. Maybe I'll always feel like an outsider who doesn't fully belong, incapable of appreciating a magical moment for what it is, skeptical that what I'm seeing is "real" and not, in the words of magician Schmendrick, from The Last Unicorn, a "disguise...for those eager to believe whatever comes easiest." Maybe there's simply more symbolism for me personally in the fact that my first job out of high school was at Fred Meyer, Pacific Northwest grocery chain, and CCA was started by Frederick Meyer, a connection I only recently made when my husband pointed it out after hearing me describe the ceremony, the bell, and the dove. Maybe, when it really comes down to art and work, in a world of doves, I'll always feel like a lost pigeon.