“You can get with this, or you can get with that.”
I started this blog post last night when I didn’t really have the time to write it. I was swamped with work, and I deeply wanted to get some decent sleep. I got my standard two hours instead.
I am too tired to work tonight. I am falling over. My brain shut down hours ago. My eyes are quickly following. I can’t not finish writing this, though. I have to get it out of my head and on the page. It caused me such a sudden and surprising anxiety attack last night that rose up in my chest out of nowhere. As suspected, the anxiety was unfounded, but the whole experience has been on my mind all day and demands documenting. I realize now that this reckoning has been a long time coming.
I also need a nightcap in order to write this, so hold on for a minute while I pour myself a small manhattan in a juice glass with what was left of the Jim Beam and a year-old bottle of stale sweet vermouth that had the cap glued on tight. Yes kids, liquor really can go bad if you never touch it. Not really my finest hour drink-wise, nor what I had in mind, but whatever. That’ll do, pig.
Now, I don’t have much time before this thing starts to work, so here it is:
During the winter break between semesters, a professor I had last fall contacted me and asked if I would be willing to do a guest lecture about public media in an undergraduate class she’s teaching this semester. I was honored to be asked and jumped at the chance to be back in the classroom. I was also excited by the prospect of introducing young minds to the joys of public radio and television. I pictured myself at the head of a room full of desks occupied by dewey-eyed 20-something converts who would find themselves rapt at the wisdom dropping from my lips and compelled to leave the miasma of commercial media and follow me into the light where Morning Edition and Downton Abbey await them.
As the date approached and I worked to put together my lecture and its attendant PowerPoint, my enthusiasm turned to something more sinister: guilt. Once, and quite recently, the love of my life, I found pubmedia had been left on a shelf in my mind for ages now. I hadn’t researched or lectured on it since 2008. I hadn’t really talked or thought about it seriously since I turned my back on it in favor of academe a year ago. I was suddenly forced to dig back into my professional and personal past and resurrect a part of me that I had left out in the rain and allowed to rust. What had once been my constant companion, a major part of my own identity, was now a stranger to me. How could I teach what I couldn’t remember? What I no longer knew? Moreover, I suddenly had to confront the truth of the choice I had made.
Public broadcasting was my chosen career. I spent my 20s wandering through non-profits only to find my “true” calling into public radio and, to an extent, television, through disillusionment with my career, the milestone of turning 30, and the outpouring of emotion I and others of my generation felt at the death of Mr. Rogers. I realized that I really wanted what I did with my life to make an impact. That I wanted to work for an industry and organizations who did something about which I felt good and passionate. I wanted to have a hand in something that had touched me in an effort to return the favor and ensure the safekeeping of a community asset and national treasure. I walked away from a lucrative, but mindblowingly shitty, government-funded job to start over producing a local radio show. And I loved it.
I was a perfect and immediate fit with public radio. I went to work with a smile on my face every morning and still had it plastered on there when I came home late at night. I loved putting good programming I was proud of on the air. I loved being on the air myself. The best part of all is that I finally found the mentor I had been seeking in the incredible woman I had the good fortune to call my program director. She believed in me wholeheartedly, introduced me around as her new Bright Young Thing, and handed me challenge after challenge to tackle knowing I was up to the task. She fed my mind and soul, and with her at my back cheering me on, pushing me forward, I felt unstoppable. I WAS unstoppable.
My time in public broadcasting was one of the happiest times of my life. I felt good about my work, felt every day brought me something new and gave me new lessons, and I absolutely loved and adored the people I worked and volunteered with at various stations. They were my family. My big, dorky family where I could be comfortable being my big, dorky self. I spent every day at work laughing so hard that parts of my body hurt when I got home. We were all inspired by the chance to do something of value for our community. Even working at NPR on the national level, I still felt surrounded by people who cared a great deal about their work and gave it their all. I was intellectually and spiritually fed. I was home. It was heaven.
It even inspired me to return to school for a second gradate degree — this time in my new broadcasting field — so that I could work my way up the ladder to become part of the next generation of pubmedia leaders. I was going to run a station and change the world. I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted to be. I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end.
I went to school and wrote oodles of research papers about public radio audience analysis and management issues. I was on a singular mission, and everyone in the department knew it. Try as they might to interest me in staying on to do a Ph.D., I wasn’t biting. I was an industry girl, and I was doing that thesis, getting out, and returning to station life. And that’s exactly what I did. I even moved across the country and tried community radio. It wasn’t a fit. The passion was gone. The family was nonexistent. The economic downturn had dropped the scales from my eyes and made my job that much harder, made everything just a little less bright. I didn’t have my head and heart in it anymore, and nothing at my new station worked to change that. And so, I was already teetering on the brink when everything happened with Dad and the bottom dropped out of my life completely two years ago.
When the hammer fell, the first thing I did was leap from the precipice and out of my job. I had to unload some of the heavy baggage and fast if I was going to survive the big fall, and that seemed to be the crate easiest to push out of the cargo hold at the time. I figured I’d do my best to keep a hand in and pick up the pieces career-wise when the dust settled. All that matter at the time was that I figure out some strategy to make sure that I landed in as few pieces as possible myself. Can’t really do the sweeping when there’s nothing left of you to hold the broom. So, I cut the cord and didn’t really look back. And I’ve never regretted leaving that job. Never. Not for one minute. In fact, I celebrate it as one of the best and healthiest decisions I have ever made. It wasn’t public radio, and I was dying there. In that regard, Dad and everyone else I lost up until that point did me a huge favor. I didn’t so much jump as let them push me. It felt so good to just be able to let go and lose my damn mind for a while there.
When I began to wake up from the nightmarish liminal space that had become my life and my life a year ago, I, of course, started knocking on pubmedia’s door again. And they were receptive, but, man it was just not the same. I had turned in my keys and had to wait in line. And it wasn’t leaving the last job that did it. It was crossing the rubicon from public into community broadcasting. I had gone off the reservation. I wasn’t native anymore. I had been the walking undead in my industry for years without realizing it. No more handshakes or passwords. Outside looking in. I felt it immediately when interviewing, but it wasn’t just them. It was me. It was mostly me, in fact. I wasn’t sure I wanted back in. I talked the talk, smiled the smile, walked the walk, but I was a still a shell of myself. My heart wasn’t in it. I wasn’t sure I was passionate or convinced anymore. I could speak the language, but I wasn’t in the life, and they knew it. I still cared, but I was changed. I was…elsewhere.
And the elsewhere was the mistress I was already courting. I had had my epiphany that I belonged in academics seven months before. It came like a bolt from the blue standing on a college campus with a fucking gyro and a Coke in my hand. No one was more surprised than I was. The momentum from that point was lighting fast. The gravitational pull back to school was bonecrushing. I was shocked. I wasn’t going to do this. Was never, ever doing the Ph.D. You hear me? Never. Fucking. Doing. That. Shit. That was for masochists. Insane people. Societal dropouts. Hell no. Not me. I talked to friends who were doing their degrees. Who had finished their degrees. To former professors. They all chuckled at me knowingly and said, “Yes, we’ve known this for a while. We’ve always known you would do this. Congratulations on finally seeing what was right in front of you. What we all saw all along. Welcome to the Dark Side.” I felt like a heel. Felt like destiny’s plaything. Resented it a little. I’m all about the free will thinking I can do whatever I want and be whatever I want. But, they were right, I had been ignoring the voice telling me that I belonged in a college classroom that had been screaming in my head since I was a teenager. And by the time I was turning in resumes for station jobs the following spring, I had long-since sent in my application to the Ph.D. program. I was just playing the waiting game.
I started getting calls for the jobs the same time the acceptance email came from school. I had a week to get it together and decide. Things looked bad for pubmedia at the time — not just with me, but politically. Congress was battling over funding. The future of my chosen profession was in serious doubt. Part of me wanted to say yes to the work again and go charging in with guns blazing. I was so used to fighting everything that it seemed easy to just keep doing more of it. I was good at it. It was all I knew. It would be easy. More of the same. Only it wouldn’t be. I was in tatters. The battle scars of the past year just were not healing, and I had no gas left in the tank. Age and loss had changed me. Whipped a good deal of the fight out of me. It was just too hard, and I really didn’t want to do it anymore. I started to think in terms of long-term job prospects and career security, and retirement. One option yawned with opportunity and growth and satisfaction, the other asked me to squeeze back into a tight space and let everything be a challenge with no promise of anything. It was as though someone had pulled up one of those big highway signs with a blinking arrow up right in front of me pointing in the clear direction. I’ll admit it. I punked out. I cried about it for a week. Told myself it was about nostalgia and regret and lost love and a bunch of other bullshit like that that it wasn’t about at all, and then I dried my eyes and cut and run right back to school without so much as a fleeting glance over my shoulder at what was getting smaller by the moment in my rearview.
Now, here I am putting together lectures and lessons on something that I used to eat, breathe, and sleep, and it’s like it never happened to me. I could not feel more divorced. I realize that that is not really the case. I’ve consciously constructed a wall inside, and the cracks in it are what let the anxiety through. It’s where I feel that twinge of guilt. It’s that nagging little voice in my chest that says, “You fickle little bitch. You’re a fraud. School feels like it’s so perfect, eh? You’re made for it, right? Well, that other thing felt like such a great fit, too, didn’t it? Remember that? Which is it, then? How do you know? Or are you just convincing yourself to love the one you’re with?”
Am I a dilettante? A career slut? A master rationalizer? A traitor who didn’t want to dance with the one what brought her?
Truth is, I’m most likely a good person with several talents and her heart in a lot of “right” places. I won’t beat myself up about that part. The voice can try, but that isn’t what bugs me. It’s the detachment. The fact that there might not be a wall at all. The numbness might be actual and real. Maybe I cut it out of me along with a lot of other stuff that had to go, and only an empty space is left now. After all, I watched the industry I love chew up and spit out a lot of people I loved, too. And I had to stand by helpless. I don’t like that feeling. I don’t want to watch it happen to those I care about or to watch it happen to me. I’ve had enough to be sad about it. I just didn’t want to be sad anymore. Still don’t. And I’m not. I’m a lot of things, but I’m not sad, and a big part of that is because I made the right choice. I am a consummate survivor with the singular gift of re-invention, and those are good things. I know who I am, and I won’t apologize for her. I won’t feel bad about doing what it takes to get by and thrive. I am doing something I am really good at, and it’s something that empowers me and gives me a voice. I do find it telling, however, that I’ve completely changed my research focus so that it doesn’t involve pubmedia at all anymore. Ok, so I lied. I am a little sad about that.
I still love pubmedia with all my heart. I look back on it like one does on a good marriage that ended in an amicable divorce. We’ll have lunch from time to time to swap stories about the kids and always speak fondly of one another, but I think we both know it’s over.
There. I said it. That was really hard to admit.
The lecture went beautifully. Felt good to be in front of a class talking about a former lover I was once lucky enough to take for a brief spin around the floor. I dipped into something deep down in me and drew from the well, and my audience had no idea what was happening right in front of them. I played the role to perfection. Most of the students just sat there dutifully taking bored-looking notes, and the 75 minutes zoomed by. I did have one kid come up to me after and ask for my card. He wants me to help him work on getting a job in public radio. “Gladly,” I told him with a big grin on my face. As I handed over my card to him, our fingers brushed briefly. And I swore I felt a spark.