What about when work *is* balance?

I keep running into a common story about work-life balance. It’s a story about how ‘no one wishes they’d spent more time at the office,’ and ‘it’s not the most important thing’ and ‘I wanted to spend more time with family’ or ‘on the things that really matter.’ To go along with these stories, there are lots and lots of internet articles about how you should never check email before going to bed, or right when you wake up. You should let family time be family time, turn off the phone or turn on airplane mode, be present with your loved ones. Leave work at work. Also, you should meditate, and exercise, and eat healthily.

That’s common sense. That’s what we should all be doing, should all aspire to.

Right?

Right?

Shouldn’t we?

Family and life are more important than work. Work should be neatly boxed up, set aside.

Shouldn’t it?

I’ve pretty much believed that for my whole career, which is (wtf?!) a sizeable number of years at this point. Early on I worked hourly jobs, and that meant I had a baked-in mindset of either being ‘on’ for work or ‘off,’ rarely or ever in-between. I don’t generally work nights or weekends; I rarely checked work email in my off hours.

Then last year happened.

Last year was tough. It was tough on the family side and tough on the life side. Nothing went the way I planned. Bad stuff happened (and is still happening). I didn’t know – I still don’t know – what to do about most of it. I don’t know what will happen next, or where things will go. Some number of things will probably not end up in any way I think is OK. I’m not OK with how things are going, and I’m doing my best to turn them, but that’s hard, and in some cases just not possible. It’s exhausting, and it’s miserable, and I don’t want to be doing any of it. I am hanging on, but it’s not comfortable or fun, and it takes effort.

And none of that – not one single thing – has to do with work.

Work, in contrast to everything else, has been pretty much entirely lovely. I like my team. I like my job. It’s interesting stuff, I’m competent or good at it, it’s pretty much squarely lined up in the area of work I like best, where I think it’s important and I have some ideas but I don’t actually know how to do it yet – and I like the people I work with. I have solid professional support of various kinds and a network that I enjoy working with and I am actively looking forward to the next several months.

In other words, work is a real bright spot right now.

During one of the toughest weeks I’ve had, I started checking my work email right when I woke up, before I got out of bed. At first I felt bad about doing this – I should have work-life balance! – and then I realized that after checking my work email, I felt better. Calmer. Happier. More myself. Work email was a reminder that life wasn’t just the pile of rotten I was currently dealing with. Work email was a reminder that I was something other than the person dealing with that pile. Work email was a moment to slip into my other role, into the effort I wanted to be doing, into the person I like being, before taking a big deep breath and, strengthened, diving back into the rest of my life.

When the rest of my life was really tough, work was my lifeline.

I don’t quite know why I’m writing this. Things are so tough in California right now for so many people that I think I’ve been thinking a lot about how fortunate I am – and I want to express gratitude to the universe for that. I am fortunate to like my work. I am fortunate to like the people I work with. I am fortunate to like & get along with my family.

I am fortunate that when things are tough for me, I have this mental refuge to turn back to.

I know that many people don’t have that. I’m grateful.

And I’d like to remember and remind myself that common stories, even if they are often reasonable guideposts for life, may also be totally off-base for specific situations.

That’s all.

Small-town election notes

The election is coming up on Tuesday. In the small town where I live, there are five candidates for city council. Three are men, two are women. I didn’t know much about any of them going into the election, so this morning I spent a while reading about them online. I care about this town; I’d like to vote for people who will make good choices for it!

And here’s the thing: as far as opinions about any of the candidates goes, I’m starting from a blank slate. I’d like to give each of them an equivalent chance to get my vote. But two of the three don’t have “policy” pages on their websites, so by definition I have less of a sense of what they’re about.

Those two are the women.

Dammit.

Come on, feminism, shouldn’t you be able to do better than this?! I need to know what you’re about in order to know whether I want to vote for you! You’re just undercutting yourself here.

As a side note, this is much the same way I feel about Gavin Newsom not including a candidate statement in the voter information pamphlet. Really?! Come on. I know you have a track record but really?! Don’t just dial it in. Do better than this!

Also, back on the city council side, one candidate has a whole page on his website about what his two small dogs have taught him about life and how this informs his policy positions and approach. This is either completely awesome, or a total red flag. I’m still deciding which.

What would you replace?

Three hours before my flight was due to leave for Jakarta, my car was broken into and the carry-on bag I’d packed for the flight was stolen. I lost my laptop, work badge, e-reader, paper notebook and pen, favorite headphones, makeup, phone charger, international plug adapter, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, toothbrush, hairspray, scarf, eye mask for sleeping on the plane, extra socks, and antibiotics in case I got sick while traveling.

For a moment I thought, am I still going? But I still had my wallet and passport and phone, and because my suitcase was too big to fit through the car window the thieves had broken, I still had most of my clothes. I’m a big believer in momentum and at this point, the momentum of things said go. I called the security office at work to deal with the work side of things; my husband called the car insurance company to deal with that. And then we headed for the airport. My husband dropped me off – this was a work trip, not vacation – and I headed inside to check in for my flight.

This was when things got interesting. I’d expected that I could replace anything I really needed once I was inside the airport and past security – but the shops at SFO close at midnight, and by now it was 12:05 a.m. No paperback book or phone charger for me.

This was an odd feeling. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to having a large handbag with me most of the time, and I kept double-checking my wallet to make sure I still had it. It was attached to a loop handle around my wrist, so the odds I’d lose it were low, but still. I wondered if I was more shaken up by the theft than I realized. Maybe?

I sent my husband a text message saying everything was fine, then settled in to wait for the flight. Thirteen hours and I’d be changing planes in Taipei. In Taipei, surely there would be a place I could at least buy a phone charger.

I tried to figure out the odd feeling. Was it the lack of a backpack slung over my shoulder? (I’d liked my backpack!) The inability to write anything down, to think through what had happened or what to do next the way I do it best, on paper? The lack of anything to read? I’d turned my phone off to save battery; just in case I couldn’t get a charger in Taipei, I wanted to make sure I still had power when I landed in Jakarta. Supposedly someone would meet me at the airport to take me to the hotel, and I’d be meeting up with work colleagues once I was there, but still. The ability to look something up or call someone if something went off-kilter seemed worth maintaining.

What do you do on a plane flight with no book, no music, and nothing to write with? I don’t usually watch in-flight movies, but this time I did: I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2.. Meh. Then I slept.

Taipei: the flight landed so early that the shops weren’t open yet. I paced up and down the hallways, stretching out my ankles. The layover was nearly three hours. There was plenty of time.

Taipei airport is interesting and to me, uncomfortable-feeling. The ceilings on most of the concourses are relatively low; most of the places to walk feel very closed-in. There’s a central area with the airline lounges and food court that’s much taller, two stories, but the lighting is dim and as you look up at the ceiling, everything fades to darkness and girders. I saw almost no exterior windows. The whole thing feels post-industrial, or like a setting for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. On the other hand, there’s an orchid display and a Hello Kitty store and a small lounge with hand-carved wooden furniture and potted plants.

By now the stores were open, and I had to decide: what am I actually going to need? I don’t love shopping, and airports are pretty expensive places to buy most things. I wanted to keep my purchases minimal – but I also knew our agenda in Jakarta was packed full, and I didn’t want to count on having time to shop for anything specific while there. If I was going to need it during the trip, this was my chance.

I settled on:

  • A charger, cord, and portable battery for my phone. This was a work trip; I had to have some way to make my phone work.
  • A scarf. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and I might need to cover my hair.
  • A notebook and pen. I just feel too weird if I don’t have something to write with.
  • A small, professional-looking backpack. The trip would involve being out all day, and that meant being able to carry bottled water, the scarf, and so on with me.

It took me an hour and a half to track it all down, partly because while there were a lot of electronics stores, they all had slightly different options and the plugs in Taipei are different from the plugs in Jakarta, so I had to find an adapter, and then I balked at how much it cost. Happily a store clerk helped me figure out a cheaper option that still worked, based mostly on knowing which items had cables included vs needing to buy them separately. I am also pretty picky about backpacks. It needed to be a backpack for comfort, but again, I wasn’t up for spending a ton of money, I wanted it to be lightweight, and it needed to look more work-appropriate than hiking-appropriate. I would have bought a book, but the only English-language books I found were travel guides for places I wasn’t going.

At the end, I settled into one of the lounge chairs next to the potted plants and used my phone’s data roaming plan to purchase and download a couple of e-books. Now that I had a battery and charging cord, I could use my phone as something to read.

And then it was time to board the flight.

Jakarta was great – maybe a topic for another post – but the whole experience of first losing things I’d carefully chosen to taken with me, and then needing to quickly replace just the items that were most critical, based on a limited selection of things available, was also interesting. It’s easy to get pretty meta about minimalism, and do we really need all the things we carry, and at first I wondered if maybe this wasn’t some great life lesson about needing less. Did I really need a backpack, for example, or was the wallet I already had enough?

Then I thought a little harder about my role – professional woman on a business trip, intentionally going to learn about this part of the world – and what I was hoping for from the trip, and what would make that easier. And I realized that most of what I’d packed in the first place really was likely to be useful.

Maybe the lesson is more that sometimes, we’re already doing just fine.

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