Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass., and has a decade of experience working in higher education. Georgy lives in Somerville, Mass., with her husband, two cats, and one-year-old daughter.
For a long time, I resisted carrying any sort of bag (purse, what have you). This meant my pockets had to do a lot of work. One of the responsibilities my pockets bore was carrying a small notebook and pen at all times. It was a new year’s resolution I made one year, and it sure as sugar stuck, for years.
I was always comforted by the familiar weight of the notebook in my back right pocket, knowing that any idea that came to mind could be captured to paper. Sometimes, it was a turn of phrase or a reminder to complete a task. Other times, it was an outline for an essay or a fully formed poem. The few times I lost a notebook, it was as if I’d lost my wallet — my very identity having slid out of my pocket, left on a bus seat or sidewalk.
Perhaps a few years later, I realized that I was failing to carve out time for one of my most vital activities: writing. So I established another new year’s resolution to change my weekday schedule. I began waking up at 6 every morning (being a morning person, this didn’t take too much to get used to), taking 30 minutes for breakfast and internet browsing. Then, starting at 6:30, I had a whole hour to focus.
Most mornings, that meant writing - whether it was a freelance article, a blog post, a poem, or something else entirely. Never work writing - just my own. One morning was typically reserved for a three-mile run. Then at 7:30, I showered and got ready for work, out the door by 8. I got so much writing done in that morning hour, writing that never would have come to life in my tired, distracted, or socially engaged evening state. This is a common strategy for a writer trying to find more hours in a day, but it was a transformative change of habit for me.
The most worthwhile acts of discipline in my life have been built around the curves, lines and marks of the written word. There’s been no way around it. I've learned that just because something is important to me doesn’t mean it’s easy to find the time or space for it in my life. I’ve needed to put in the work to give myself those opportunities. Because those opportunities make my life more meaningful.
So here we are, my last Pastry Box column. It’s been an incredible honor — and an incredible challenge -- to write for this space every month. In a way, it’s been a notebook in my back pocket, and it’s been an hour in the early morning. It’s been a necessary discipline. And like discipline often does, it’s afforded me a tremendous freedom.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that as this column concludes, we are looking at the start of another new year. Maybe it’s time for a new resolution.
All week, I’ve been exhausted. Like flat-out, fall-asleep-for-two-hours-at-8PM-sitting-up-on-the-couch exhausted. No volume of coffee has been able to prod me into a state of true alertness.
There are multiple reasons why, I suppose. My daughter is going through some sort of toddler sleep regression, prompting her to pad out of her room a half hour after bedtime to declare, “I’m all done napping,” or cry out at 5AM, “I WANT TO READ A BOOK!” Or the 4:30AM favorite: “I have a boogie.” This, of course, means I am experiencing a sleep regression, as well.
I’m also on the tail end of a massive and lingering head cold that knocked me off my game for a good two weeks. Let me tell you, co-leading a three-hour conference workshop on cold medicine (and flying back from said conference while not on cold medicine) are not experiences I’d like to repeat.
I also feel like I am just getting my feet back on the ground after a crazy fall spent riding a nonstop wave of deadlines, deliverables, presentations, conferences, and travel. The feel of a stable surface below me is comforting, but foreign, and I am still recovering my stride.
All week, the deadline for this column has been looming, like a thundercloud on the horizon. What invaluable system or framework have I developed for understanding my work, or the world around me? What experience, be it extraordinary or mundane, has transformed my perspective forever?
None. This week, I have no insights and I have no systems. I have no solutions to share.
Also, this week, everything seems fragile and uncertain. Everyone, it would seem, is either ignorant and crazy, or essential and unheard. Our values, the gravity that binds us to our purpose as a nation, feel tenuous. The fear and tension in the air is amplified by the gathering chill. And the backdrop of descending grey and bare, gnarled branches isn’t helping things much.
This morning, I looked around and everything just felt old and tired, and I wanted to run away.
But I didn’t.
Because my child will sort out her sleep. My body will heal. I will resume my regularly scheduled program, already in progress. I know these things.
And as precarious and unsettled as the world around us may be, we will carry on. We will challenge the ignorant and hold them accountable for their beliefs, and we will elevate the voices of those who struggle to speak for themselves. We will assert the necessity of our values, and we will not stray from them. We will gather together to fend off the chill, dissolve the tension, abate the fear. We will remember that the grey conceals a blinding, endless blue, and the bare branches are busy cultivating a brilliant bloom. I know these things, too.
I don’t have a four-step approach. I don’t have an epiphany. All I have is the stubborn determination to wake up tomorrow and try to do better.
As of this date, there have been 150 school shootings since 2013.
I’ve worked in or with higher education for more than a decade, and I love it deeply. Many of those shootings have taken place at colleges and universities, so every time word gets out of another shooting, my heart is sick. I feel helpless, scared, and angry.
And I’m not the only one. There is a deep kinship among people who work in this industry, which is more like a community than an industry, and an attack on one affects us all.
After all, as web professionals, we work alongside our users—the students, faculty, and staff who embody our institution’s missions. And we know the rhythm of a campus. It’s horrifying to imagine that familiar, comforting tempo irreparably disrupted by an act of violence.
In higher ed, you build systems to support the educational experience. And it is often said that the most important system you build is the one you hope you’ll never need.
It may seem strange, but when news breaks of a shooting or other crisis on a college campus, many folks working in higher ed digital communications will flock to the institution’s website and social media platforms. Because that’s the language we know. How are they communicating about this? How are they presenting this information? How quick and how responsive are the messages? How is their website holding up amidst the traffic surge? This is not Monday morning quarterbacking, per se, but rather a form of empathy. There is no judgment, only watchful concern.
After every shooting, the outcry is, “We must not let this become routine.” This is true. We can’t stand idly by and accept regular mass shootings on college campuses as a new norm. We have to lobby, to advocate, to call our representatives, to not let the topic recede into the tableau of “in other news.” But still, there is still so much we cannot control.
One thing that we can control, however, is doing our jobs really, really well.
We can fight routine with routine by building better communications systems and better processes, and internalizing them to the point that they become habit. In these circumstances, by spurring widespread awareness and prompting swift action, communications has the potential to save lives.
This may not be the reality we want, but it’s the one in which, for the moment, we exist. So we will do our damnedest to mitigate the impact of its unfortunate truths.
In the meantime, I know the tally will continue to rise. No. 151 is only days away. And there’s no way of knowing who or when or where. Or why.
So that's why another routine I need to instill in myself is to get mad as hell. To not shut up. To let myself feel that sick, twisted feeling in my heart because it reminds me that this is wrong and abnormal and horrific, that campuses are meant to be sanctuaries of learning and growth, and that no one should die for another person’s hate or pain. And to do this each time until there is no next time.
Do not be complacent. Get outraged. It's our job. It's everybody's job.
A work in progress
One of my favorite moments from a client stakeholder meeting over the past year came during a discussion with a group of undergraduate students. We were talking about the kinds of stories they looked for on their institution’s website, both as current and prospective students.
One student volunteered a perspective that made a lot of sense but I had never specifically heard articulated before. She said she wanted to see not just the stories of alumni who became incredibly successful- heads of companies or directors of national institutes - but those who were early in their career and still figuring it out, or even those who had gone through some kind of adversity.
In short, she didn’t want just the perfect stories, but the imperfect ones. She wasn’t just interested in the happy-ever-afters; she wanted to see the works-in-progress.
I recalled this exchange when The New York Times published this exceptional, must-read article in July, talking about how suicides on college campuses are influenced, in part, by the pressure to live up to the seemingly perfect lives that you see depicted via social media and other digital channels. When exposed to so many filtered, context-free snapshots of lives, some can’t help but draw comparisons to their own lives and feel at a loss.
I’ve been working in or with higher ed for more than a decade now, and I’ve seen (and told) a lot of stories. The most interesting have inevitably been the ones acknowledging that we walk complex, circuitous paths, like this 2013 feature from the University of Missouri about a transgender student’s experience.
We talk a lot about this idea of “authentic content,” and when you’re thinking about the stories we tell in support of our key messages, it makes sense to select stories that are real and relatable. But we’re still sometimes hesitant to paint an accurate picture of reality. Because reality means things don’t always work out like we planned. It means experiencing doubt, failure, or crisis. It means making a decision you regret, or changing your mind. It means that your ignorance precedes your enlightenment. It means being vulnerable and honest in ways that aren’t always easy. It means that people knock you down along the way. The outcome may be worthwhile, but the path is rarely perfect or easy.
I think about the student from that stakeholder meeting a lot. That Times article has also stayed fresh in mind, somewhat hauntingly. Because a lot of my job these days is thinking through how to use stories within a content strategy to communicate about an institution. And while I want those stories to inform, enlighten, and persuade, I don’t want them to alienate, disempower, or mislead. I don’t just want them to support a call-to-action; I want them to help people understand that, hey, amazing things are within your reach, but you don’t have to be perfect to get there -- because none of us are.
We are all imperfect works-in-progress. And that needs to be okay. We have a responsibility in our work to make that be okay.
I colored a purple car.
A couple weeks ago, I stepped out of the office, grabbed an iced coffee at the Au Bon Pain next door, and sat outside on the patio. Shortly, I would be joined by a social worker and a speech pathologist. I stretched out, relaxed and confident.
Flash back to more than six months ago, sitting cross-legged on my cramped living room floor with two evaluators from the local Early Intervention Partnerships Program. On referral from my daughter’s pediatrician, shortly after she turned 18 months old, she would be evaluated for her eligibility to receive support services for language development. After a battery of tests disguised as play, where I had to frequently fight the urge to exclaim “wait, she totally knows how to do or say that” or similar protests, she did indeed qualify to receive support for a mild expressive speech delay.
This was not a grave diagnosis. Z was (and is) bright, social, and healthy. But she was not acquiring language at the same rate as her peers. Would she catch up on her own? Maybe. Probably. But we decided to seek support.
I am lucky to live in an area where receiving professional support to help with her development is low-cost or even free, and readily available. Should she have had gross motor or other kinds of delays or disabilities, she could have received help with those as well. And thanks to knowing several other parents with kids around her age who received similar Early Intervention (EI) services, I did not feel a stigma in seeking them out for Z.
But the assessment weighed on me, and I can only wonder if part of that was because I ply my trade as a communicator. Without my words, I feel like I have little to offer. Selfishly and perhaps unreasonably, it seemed almost cruel that the communicator’s kid only reliably used a few words by the time she was one and a half.
This is all amplified by the inevitable comparisons you make between your kid and other kids. It’s so easy to put two kids of roughly the same age side by side and try to determine who is more communicative, more social, more physically adept, and so on. The comparison game is a losing game for everyone, since it is not a truly effective gauge of where a kid is at, but it will get you every time. I would cringe when a kid Z’s age or even younger could so much capably express themselves than she could, and I would be extra frustrated when I could not understand her needs or wishes.
I’ve talked to other parents who’ve struggled with well-intentioned comparisons against “the wide range of normal,” when sometimes that range didn’t apply to them. This can be difficult territory to navigate, fraught with strong emotions on all sides. It is disappointing to feel like your child isn’t normal and needs “special help.” What could I have done differently? You can’t help but wonder.
But as difficult as it was to accept the fact that we qualified for support, the support we received was great. Having Early Intervention available as an option gave us validation, information, strategies, and support. We established specific goals for the progress we hoped to see in the first six months. The social worker assigned to Z was flexible in being able to work with her in her daycare classroom. We chatted regularly about progress and strategies, and Z enjoyed her visits. When I finally, somewhat nervously sat down to make a word list, I found that Z knew more words than I gave her credit for. The list soon became not worth maintaining. Two-word phases appeared, soon to be replaced by the occasional three-word sentence, and we celebrated each step forward.
Back to the Au Bon Pain patio. It’s the six-month evaluation, looking back at the goals we established when Z began receiving services. As expected, she met all of her goals and is considered caught up to her peers in speech and language.
We now regularly have conversations about what she did at school that day (“I colored a purple car”), what she wants to do in the morning (“I wanna go to the baseball game and see the alligators,” obvs), what I should do (“Mommy, sit down on the floor right there, read this book”) and of course, the latest gossip on who-bit-who.
The progress she’s made and continues to make is remarkable. I’m proud. I’m relieved. I’m grateful. We are lucky to have these kinds of services available to us—I know not everyone does. And I am glad I wasn’t too proud or stubborn to seek them out.
Once we debriefed on Z’s communications progress, the EI staff and I set a new goal for continued services. But this time, we’ll be working on behavior. Since just because she may be able to communicate doesn’t always mean she wants to listen. Oh, toddlers.
I’ve been writing more poems lately. It’s always been the most effective way for me to effectively process my life and the world around me. (I’ve posted about this before, how being a poet shapes my work as a content strategist.)
If having a kid is like seeing your heart walking around outside of your body (spoiler alert: it totally is), writing a poem allows my brain to get out of my head and work out the equations of the world on paper. In the algebra of rhyme, syntax, meter, and diction, I can often solve for an elusive yet beautiful X.
There is something about sitting with a poem. When I was little, I used to gleefully accept my mom’s challenge to untangle some hopeless bundle of necklaces, links twisted and chains kinked seemingly beyond recovery. My sense of triumph upon seeing those necklaces eventually laid out—flat, straight, and distinct—could not be beat.
That’s how I feel when I am writing or revising a poem, as if my fingers are slowly but steadily retrieving treasure from what previously seemed to be a lost cause—that morass of thoughts and feelings in my knotted head.
Last week, I was working on a new project with one of our UX designers, talking through the homepage content hierarchy and presentation. Later, in presenting our ideas to colleagues, she said to me, “You wireframe with words.” I smiled. It was a great compliment. (Or perhaps just an observation. Either way, I was delighted.)
It's moments like that where the work feels not too dissimilar from poetry. In both cases, we are laying out language and structure to create a hierarchy of emotion and understanding. We are building a framework, a scaffolding upon which we will hang bedsheets and project our dreams, up which we will clamber to reach through windows of desire, through which we will squeeze and come out the other side simply because we can.
In those instances, even work can feel a little bit like magic.
A couple days ago, I was briefly called back to an old project—the client needed a new snappy headline for a page. I sat with it for a few minutes, fingers invisibly fumbling for words and eyes scanning messaging guidelines, until it came to me.
“Nailed it,” our project manager said, and I laid the newly freed necklace flat on the desk.
I started my career working in the online newsroom of the Boston Globe. I’ve long said that while I love the path my career has taken toward higher education and content strategy, nothing could come close to the thrill of working in a newsroom while a big story was breaking.
I was in the newsroom when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and the statue of Saddam Hussein came toppling down in Baghdad. I was manning the homepage when the Station nightclub in Rhode Island went up in flames and killed 100 people and when the shuttle Columbia exploded. I was working during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, and when the priest abuse scandal came to light.
Working during those times was exciting but hugely challenging. You had thousands of people coming to the homepage every minute—typos or open brackets weren’t an option. You had writethru after writethru coming over the wire, on top of CNN and news radio blaring and reporters and editors shouting and running around, and you had to sift through it all and somehow extract a cohesive synthesis of what the hell was going on. I didn’t pee during my entire shift the day of the Station nightclub fire.
It was exhilarating. But it didn’t leave any time to feel.
I remember on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, when it was time for the national moment of silence, I pushed my chair back from my computer and stopped what I was doing—but I was the only one. Everyone else kept thunderously typing, and TVs and radios stayed at high volume. After a few seconds, I sheepishly pulled back up to my computer and kept working. I remember watching the dismantling of that statue of Hussein on CNN, trying to make sense of the enormity of the moment, but not having the time or brain space to really do so as I formatted stories and scanned the wires.
Generally speaking, gallows humor was a necessary coping strategy. The news is really damned depressing, and if you don’t distance yourself from it to a certain degree, you can’t do your job, which is ultimately to help people understand what is happening in the world. And I took that job very seriously.
The other morning, as I scanned Twitter, I saw outrage at the events that transpired in Charleston on the night of Wednesday, June 17. A 21-year-old white man walked into an African Methodist church and shot nine black worshipers. The shooting is being treated as a hate crime, and the suspect is considered to be a white supremacist.
Nowadays, my day-to-day work rarely intersects with the major stories of the day. While I was privileged to begin my career where I did, I am glad that I am no longer forced to conflate my job responsibilities with my reactions to events in the world. Yet when a horrific event such as this comes to pass (which sadly happens far too often nowadays) I know who will be the most outspoken in reacting or sharing information, and it’s typically the people I have come to know professionally.
Whether it’s sharing an honest reaction to an unspeakable crime or being vulnerable in speaking about one’s depression or illness, I am grateful to work in a community where being human is okay, and being human is more important than being whatever your job title is. And it’s not just about feeling feelings—more often than not, these reactions spur action, advocacy, and awareness.
A professional in the field that I follow on Twitter has blithely remarked on occasion that she didn’t understand why so many people in this field wear their heart on their sleeve. Why would you expose your weaknesses? This is work, after all. We’re in this to make money. No one cares about your feelings. Your feelings are liabilities. Who would want to hire someone who has these beliefs, these limitations, these emotions?
I disagree. By owning our vulnerabilities, we find strength. By speaking openly, we build trust. By expressing our feelings, we grow more deeply connected to the world around us. Maybe that makes us better professionals—but most importantly, it makes us better humans.
My first job was working as an online news producer for the website of a major newspaper. After nearly three years, despite being in love with life in a newsroom, I quit -- for a variety of reasons, but one of which being my sense that an emphasis on web traffic and ad impressions was compromising my ability to guide readers toward the most relevant and meaningful news.
This was the beginning of me seeing through the ruse that our work was about code or pixels or words, and realizing that it is actually about people. I began to understand how every day we make decisions that, to varying degrees, impact people’s experiences and understanding.
So I fled to the nonprofit sector - higher ed, specifically. There, I found a place to hone and expand my craft where the motivations were loftier: knowledge, service, and community. “Mission-driven” felt a whole lot more comfortable to me than “profit-driven,” and I was in love with the educational mission my work supported. On difficult days, it made going to work worthwhile.
So, okay, maybe I was young and a bit (or a lot) naive. Now, of course, I know that no job or sector is wholly pure. There will always be a cut corner here, an ulterior motive there. We’re human, after all.
Where these two realizations intersect is where our greatest professional (and perhaps also personal) challenge lies: balancing human weakness and fallibility against the need to do what is right and what is best. A fairly tall order.
In my second higher ed job, I became incensed at some of the budgetary decision-making I witnessed -- vendors that were hired and gadgets that were purchased at great expense with no clear purpose. In content strategy, we talk about the value of purposeful communications, but this really brought it home. I was very conscious of the fact that our budgets came in part from the wallets of hard-working families, or even kids self-funding their education. We owed fiscal responsibility not just to the accountants and the auditors, but to the sophomores and their parents.
I think of this incident, and how it made me feel, often. Because it was about decisions. And our work days are comprised of dozens of decisions, strung together across meetings, conversations, emails, and deliverables. We decide what to say, what to buy, how to treat somebody, how to build something -- then tomorrow, we make the same decisions again.
But in every decision, whether it is ours to make or merely influence, there is an opportunity to be more mindful. Every decision presents us with the chance to be a better advocate. Maybe it’s speaking up more loudly about editorial priorities and purchasing practices, as I wish I had. Maybe it’s lobbying for accessibility best practices to be represented in a new design, encouraging a hiring manager to develop a more diverse candidate pool, designing more inclusively to avoid inadvertent triggers for trauma, or developing strategies to combat harassment at professional conferences.
So, while we may not all work at a mission-driven organization, all of us can still have a mission. And on difficult days, it can make going to work worthwhile.
What’s your mission?
There in buzzing bright pink above us, above the half-drained drinks and dog-eared songbooks and unread texts that littered the bar, these words rung true:
As you approached the pulpit to croon a ballad or belt out a rock anthem, the words' unwavering neon glow held fast.
Who knew in college that our careers would bring us here, where a tiny wooden box affixed to the wall concealed an R-rated diorama? We came from everywhere, and soon we would be flung everywhere again. But for the moment, we were all right there, together, with a naughty organist emcee and a songbook full of moments waiting to happen. And as you stood waiting for your turn to take the microphone and bare your soul in song to a crowd of friends and strangers in the boldest, bravest voice you could muster, these words were a constant.
And the next day we would take different microphones. The crowd would be less intimate, but more would be at stake. Our names would hang from our necks and our hearts would jump into our throats, as we again stood before a crowd of friends and strangers and shared different kinds of secrets, this time the ones by which we ply our trade. And the glow of these words would have somehow followed us across town, fixed above our heads, burned onto our hearts.
But at the moment, this greasy bar mike was the only one that mattered. And as you stepped to the pulpit with friends and strangers cheering you on and the hour growing later and the buzz yielding to adrenaline, you could not see those words as your eyes first scanned the crowd, then shut them away. But you felt their powerful pink presence as you opened your mouth and began to sing.
A Common Cause
A few months ago, our industry had a spirited but generally civil debate about codes of conduct at conferences, spurred by an article on A List Apart by Christina Wodtke.
There were rebuttals and counter-rebuttals. Strong opinions abounded. It was an important discussion to have, since conferences have such a key role in our professional space, and harassment can have a chilling effect for valuable members of our community. We need to work to make conferences safe, inclusive spaces for learning and networking. We’ll see in the coming months what, if any, changes result from the discussion.
I recalled that debate last month upon learning that a woman-owned Boston-area game development firm was withdrawing from exhibiting at a major annual gaming convention (held a couple weeks ago here in Boston) due to safety concerns.
The owner (and her family) have been the target of repeated threats and harassment over the past several months for her criticism of an ongoing campaign of hatred against women in the gaming world. She withdrew her company from the convention because she did not feel that her and her staff would be adequately protected by the on-site security service.
(For the record, here is the closest thing to the convention’s code of conduct.)
As I’ve continued to monitor events in both the video gaming world and my own industry, while coming to terms with my own experiences and failed feminism, I am not sure of much, but I am sure of one thing:
We are all having the same conversation. Just in different rooms, with different climates.
Our world of web development is not so different from that of game development. We all use pixels, words, and code to create immersive, goal-oriented experiences. We are all also grappling with systemic gender discrimination. Sometimes it plays out in voices not being heard, or unfair hiring and firing practices. Other times, grossly inappropriate or threatening behavior leaves people feeling disrespected, vulnerable, or unsafe.
When I look at the gaming world, where a machine fueled by pure, boundless vitriol is currently out to squelch every voice that dares to violate its protocol or call it to task, I feel like our shared concerns are playing out at an apocalyptic level. And it scares the shit out of me.
The more we look at this conversation as solely our conversation, the more opportunities we miss for progress.
That’s not to say I think we are purposefully wearing blinders to the plight of our peers. We’re not. But I do think we need to open our eyes wider and be aware of the depth of what is happening in our cousin industry. Because there is much for us to learn, sure, but hopefully also much we can do. Can we bring our voices to bear in raising awareness? Can we amplify the voices of those who are going hoarse speaking truth to power? Can we, as both professionals and consumers, demand more inclusivity, more tolerance?
Maybe, to start, can we simply listen?
But we’ve got to start somewhere.
Livelihoods – and perhaps lives – are at stake.
Enjoy the Silence
In many respects, right now, I am muffled.
It could be the seven feet of snow we’ve gotten in Boston over the past couple of weeks, which has crippled transportation and broken spirits.
It could be this head cold that just won’t go away, leaving me feeling as if my head is swaddled in damp cotton.
But the muffling with which this writing is concerned, is self-imposed.
See, I’m supposed to be publishing a weekly newsletter. But I’m not. And I’m okay with that.
Inspired and excited by similar efforts by friends and professional peers, I launched a Tiny Letter newsletter at the start of the new year. I revived my steadfast blog name from over the years and conceived a fun format. Friends old and new, colleagues, even strangers signed up. Every email notifying me of a new subscriber made me giddy.
It was not intended as a professional platform, but a personal one, where I could find a home for all of the random ideas, thoughts, and observations that didn’t have a home otherwise. Combined with a few other writing endeavors (including this fine space right here), I got excited about what, for me, would be The Year of Writing.
So far, I’ve sent two issues. It didn’t feel right, so I stopped.
Typically, I would be pretty broken up about Not Sticking To The Plan. (I mean, don’t I get paid to tell other people not to start newsletters then stop them two weeks later?) But I’m not broken up at all. I’m actually pretty content, even grateful.
Not sending the newsletter (I forget now what precipitated the first dropped issue) has been an exercise in itself. An exercise in self-restraint. An exercise in not feeling guilty. An exercise in remembering that my thoughts can be my possessions, not just wares for sale.
Because the world doesn’t always need to hear what I have to say.
That isn’t low self-esteem Georgy talking (for once). That’s the Georgy who’s actually taking some of her own medicine. All that shtick about “value over volume” and “think twice, publish once” that I repeat in content strategy talks and web publishing 101 presentations, wouldn’t you know, it actually has some merit.
Is this valuable? Is this worth publishing? Even now, I still need to ask myself these questions.
The format and schedule I’d devised were not a helpful structure in this case, but rather a trap. If I fell into it, I’d be pushing out newsletters just because I was “supposed” to, not because they were worth sharing with the world.
One day, I’m fairly certain, I will come back to my newsletter. Maybe I will buck the whole idea of schedule and format and make it something less predictable, more whimsical. Almost like those random, rambling emails old friends used to occasionally send to hand-cobbled distribution lists back in my earliest days on the internet, and you always smiled when you saw them in your inbox because you knew it would be a good read. Driven by the need to say something worth saying, not to hit a self-imposed deadline and fill an arbitrary need. It would be refreshing, I expect, to publish something so unbound, when my daily life is committed to developing more structured, strategic communications.
In the meantime, I sit here with my thoughts. Walled in by snow and sinuses, they give me comfort and perspective. I turn them over in my hand like found stones, and I smile.
On Being a Bridge
I practically grew up in a feminist library. Over the years, my mom accumulated an impressive collection of women’s studies, sexuality, and gender studies texts. Issues of Ms. Magazine lay around the house as casually as others might stockpile issues of People or Time, and she boasted a fond appreciation of Wonder Woman.
Despite this exposure, I did not emerge from adolescence with any strong feminist leanings. I had enough to deal with, what with my own process of religious discovery (and undiscovery) and wrestling with a self-esteem that just barely scraped the sidewalk, on my best days. It wasn’t a priority.
It didn’t matter.
As I advanced through school and my first jobs, I was aware gender discrimination was a thing, but it was not a thing I acutely felt from my first bosses (half of whom were strong female figures) or overall work environments. So my form of “feminism,” for what it was worth, was to proceed along my professional path in a gender-agnostic fashion. Just act like you belong in the room, and you’ll belong in the room. Gender shouldn’t be a factor, I thought, so just pretend it isn’t.
It shouldn’t matter.
When I started getting involved with the broader Boston tech and web marketing community, I started to encounter more points of view on the topic. I remember my first Podcamp Boston, when an impromptu “women in tech” session was held on the lawn outside UMass Boston, along the waters of Dorchester Bay. Women in attendance bemoaned the male-dominated industry, and in particular the unconference’s lineup which ended up having no female speakers -- when at an unconference, anyone who submits gets to present.
Well, some people pointed out, no women submitted talks! Yeah! I agreed. No women submitted talks! What are you complaining about? You have unrealized power! Just make it happen. I also remember one prominent Boston-area marketing pro at the time commenting, “I don’t care what’s between your legs -- I just care that you have good ideas and do good work.” Although I felt that the sentiment was crassly delivered, at the time I agreed with its spirit.
Because it doesn’t matter.
Later, I went out on my own as a consultant, I really didn’t consider how the fact that I was a woman factored into it. I wasn’t a “female entrepreneur;” I was just doing what made sense for me professionally at the time.
Then, I had a kid.
Professionally, it made sense to resume working full-time within an organization.
Suddenly, it mattered.
It feel trite to say that it took becoming a mother, navigating the boundaries of maternity leave, pumping, childcare, and parenting in general, to begin to feel these concerns more acutely. But I guess it did. Where I had returned to seek security, I discovered a new kind of insecurity. All at once, I was concretely confronted with the challenging career implications of being a woman. Or at least, I was realizing it for the first time.
It always mattered. It was always happening. I may have been luckier than some, but I had never been excluded from or immune to these concerns. It was just that I was finally paying attention. And I began perceiving some comments or feedback from colleagues in a different, concerning light.
I am sure that in the past I was dismissive or not wholly supportive when hearing concerns on these and related issues from friends and colleagues. For that, I am sorry.
But while parenthood began to open my eyes, they were flung wide when, as I wrote on A List Apart a few months back, a young woman working in the digital marketing space in Boston contacted me seeking a coffee date to talk about professional stuff. We didn’t have any mutual connections, so I wondered how she found me.
She said she did a search on Twitter for women in Boston with “creative director” in their bio. There weren’t that many of us.
(It turns out there’s even a conference championing female creative talent, the 3 Percent Conference, spawned in response to the 2012 statistic that only 3% of creative directors are female. Recent research indicates that number is now closer to 11%. Better, but still low.)
My first thought was, well, you should meet my boss, the actual creative director (my title is associate creative director), and also a woman.
My second thought was, wait, not everyone has my experience.
Not everyone has my experience.
One of the fundamental premises of effective web design and user experience, and I’d failed to truly realize it in a critically important context. My experience is just one data point. The story it tells is incomplete.
Suddenly, it matters. Except, really, it always has.
That means it’s time to change my process. Contrary to what I used to believe, fake-it-til-you-make-it is not a sustainable strategy, for me or anyone else. And when I think back now to all of those books and magazines that surrounded me growing up, I don’t think that reading them would have changed the course of my understanding or experience. Nor am I an activist like those authors.
But I am an activist in that I am in charge of my actions. I can start by practicing the most basic forms of activism: paying closer attention (to others and myself), being reflective, asking more questions, and passing fewer judgments. After all, as Dylan Wilbanks eloquently proclaimed last week, this is the year of empathy. And empathy is a fundamental kind of activism.
From there, I can help. I can support. I can speak up. I can counsel. I can be a link in a network. I can realize that my narrative is just a chapter in a bigger story, and the strength of my chapter depends on the strength of the ones that precede and follow me.
Each one us is someone’s connection to an opportunity. Each one of us is somebody’s confirmation that their goals are attainable. Each one of us is somebody’s validation. And this goes beyond “women in tech,” of course.
The most important responsibility we can assume in building a more inclusive and welcoming professional space is to realize and reinforce our role as a bridge for those around us.
Besides being a woman myself, I have a young daughter. She’s too young for me to know what direction her interests, much less her career, will take. But I have a vested interest now in making sure that when she reaches out into the world, that she finds what she is looking for. That she is welcomed. That she is empowered. That she is supported. That her path is clear, and her detours are self-chosen.
If she ever feels ill at ease, out of place, or discriminated against when pursuing her loves and interests, I have failed. We have failed.
Even now in writing this, I feel ill-equipped. I feel uninformed. I feel the bindings of those scholarly volumes mocking me from their shelves with all the history I don’t know, that I ignored. I feel like I’m the wrong person to be writing this.
But I am writing this. Because I am a part of the story.
I wrote this essay at 7:30 in the morning, while pushing my daughter in the stroller to daycare. I juggled my phone in one hand jotting notes while I pushed with the other, dodging sidewalk cracks.
I couldn’t set the idea aside until later, or else it would have escaped. And I couldn’t let my daughter idle on the sidewalk while I got it all down. I had to do both at the same time, wrestling words in one hand and the obligations of life in the other.
That’s when writing always happens, at least to me. It comes like a reflex to some unseen stimulus. Writing has rarely been something I could plan with a dedicated evening, a favorite beverage, and the right soundtrack (though I tried). It’s always been more like a summer thunderstorm, coming on suddenly and intensely, and over as soon as it began. (As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten a little bit better at predicting the weather, but I am no rainmaker.)
I know I’m not the only one for whom this is the case, which always gives me both comfort and amusement. Our collective attics are weighed down by unpublished chapbooks and spiral-bound short stories. Whether we were school newspaper editors, literary magazine contributors, or secret poets scrawling unseen volumes, so many of us share this writing past, this creative history, and in many ways it shapes our professional present.
For me, writing was always about searching for answers, trying to decode myself and the world around me. I was a reluctant journalism major because my practical side worried about the value of a creative writing degree, then the internet hijacked that career path. But especially early on, my heart was with poetry. I wrote a prolific number of poems through my 20s, getting a few published here and there. I flirted heavily with the idea of getting an MFA. But mainly I wrote it because I had to — it felt visceral and necessary. It took me a while to fall in love with journalism, but I was born enamored with poetry.
I once, somewhat cornily, described poetry as markup for reality. Hokey, yes, but also true. Meter and rhyme provide form, while language delivers meaning. In trying to make sense of an amorphous, chaotic world, it always helped me to pin it down in verse.
Today, as a content strategist, I do much the same. I strive to give information form and meaning, in the hopes of facilitating comprehension and action. While I rarely get the chance to work in verse, I feel like I apply my experience as a poet every day, in one way or another, whether it is crafting the perfect copy or helping to create an experience that is not just functional but meaningful, even beautiful. I feel that this description could easily apply to other disciplines in our field. And maybe not poetry for some — maybe playwriting, or short stories.
The most notable difference for us secret poets between then and now is we have learned the value of revision, critique, and collaboration. What was once a solitary act has become shared and public. The defensiveness with which we once protected our precious, perfect art has been replaced by the courage to kill our darlings in the name of making it work. We learned to look at a deadline as inspiration rather than waiting for a bolt from the blue.
In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe explained creative inspiration in a way that resonated with me.
The best songs are the ones I don’t have to think about, the ones I don’t over-think or have to craft in order to complete. I think the unthought songs, the ones that come pouring out of me, are more real: the vomit songs. Losing My Religion was a vomit song. Man On The Moon. Sad Professor on the last album. Those are the songs that are truly inspired, they just come pouring out. I don’t feel I’m a holy conduit to some bigger thing that comes dropping from the heavens. It’s just something that I truly believe is inside all of us, whether we can access it or not.
Now, I know that in the work we do, vomit songs typically don’t get the job done. But there’s something in that impulse worth retaining and nurturing — that spark, that creative reflex that likely drove many of us, down one circuitous route or another, to the desks we occupy today. There’s a place for that in our work, and it is still there whether we acknowledge it or not. That's how we are wired to create, whether it’s a poem or a wireframe. Like I said, I wrote this article at 7:30 a.m. on the way to daycare, in scraps of words and phrases in a Notes file. The (several) revisions came later.
Over the past 13 years, my career has already taken several twists and turns. But a little while ago, I realized something that gave me great comfort. In a sense, I saw the future. I knew with confidence that no matter what the rest of my career may bring, I will come back to words in the end. They will always accost me on the street, and I will continue to find ways to embrace them, even if the embrace at first glance seems more like a tussle. Technologies will come and go, but we will always need to bend words into meaning — I will always need to. To paraphrase one of my favorite poets, Anne Sexton, this story ends with me still writing.
The Professional Standard of Omnipresence
Last October, I participated in a panel discussion at the HighEdWeb conference about the challenges women face in the professional world. I sat in front of more than a hundred higher ed web professionals in a Buffalo hotel conference room beside some of the smartest women I know — some mothers, some not. I happened to be the only mother of a young child — my daughter was six months old at the time.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been away from her. Last July, when she was just about three and a half months old, I flew to Chicago and back in the same day for a paid speaking gig at a conference. My first conversation about the opportunity came on April 9, just two days before my daughter was born.
At 4:30 that morning, with the cab waiting in the dark to take me to the airport, my hand lingered on the doorknob. I could just not go, I thought. I could just stay. But I had a commitment to keep. I let the door close behind me and got in the cab.
I cried. I cried in the cab, at the airport, at the gate, as the plane took off and the rubber of the tires lifted off the earth and erased any possibility of me getting off that plane and going back home. I cried at O’Hare and I cried in the cab on the way to Evanston.
I pulled it together, shook hands, smiled, gave a content strategy presentation to a room full of advancement professionals, and earned my paycheck.
I went back to the airport and headed for the nearest family bathroom. Engorged, I pumped breastmilk while sitting on one of those toilets with the automatically regenerating toilet seat covers, facing my reflection in the dim, grimy light. I got back to Boston after 9 p.m. that night, my baby sound asleep upstairs, and fell into bed, exhausted.
When my turn came to speak in that Buffalo conference room, I related this story. I prefaced it by asking, “Who was in that great session at 11 a.m. on using Instagram in higher ed? Well, I wasn’t, because I was upstairs in my hotel room pumping breastmilk.”
With my baby just six months old, I had what seemed like an aggressive conference pumping schedule at the time — four times a day, at wakeup, lunchtime, dinnertime, and before bed, for the nearly six days I was away. But even that is less intense than what several working mothers do on just a normal day. For some, pumping breaks are a chance to catch up on Facebook in a clean and well-appointed mother’s room while pumped milk steadily fills bottles. For others, it’s a desperate affair in a poorly converted closet, amplified by heartache at not being able to produce enough milk to feed your baby.
Why do all of this? Pumping sucks. As important of an activity as it is, no one will say that they like pumping. Washing the parts, storing the milk, sitting there tethered to the pump and feeling positively bovine, not to mention the attendant hormones and emotions… it’s not fun. At all.
Maybe a better question is, why did I cry my way through O’Hare in July? Why did I interrupt midnight conference lobby shenanigans with my friends to go upstairs for a half hour and pump?
Before having a baby, I was everywhere — not just conferences, networking events, and, for a short time, consulting, but also on Twitter, in Facebook groups, blogging, you name it. I was spread thin and loving it.
I can’t do that anymore. I won’t do that anymore. But it’s a chronic source of professional tension for me, because so much of the nature of this work (or at least it has been to me) relies on omnipresence, or the illusion thereof. Omnipresence — as long as you use the opportunity to do or share something of value — gets you connections. It gets you work. It gives you visibility and a platform for your ideas. Omnipresence begets more omnipresence. And further down the rabbit hole we go, toward professional validation and success.
But now, omnipresence isn’t an option. Time is short. What can I sneak in during work hours, which are now made rigid by daycare dropoff and pickup schedules? What can I accomplish after bedtime, when all I want is to crawl into bed and hope to hell that teething doesn’t wake me up tonight?
By necessity, omnipresence diminishes, but the need (or pressure) to remain professionally relevant and present does not.
I remember one late night at a conference I attended the spring before I became pregnant, when I was still consulting. A few drinks into the evening, I unsteadily asserted that I wouldn’t let motherhood compromise my professional lifestyle, to which one child-free peer in the field guffawed. Her laugh frustrated me and motivated me at the time, but now I simply shake my head at my naivete and her sagacity.
There’s a lot said nowadays about “leaning in” and the like — about unapologetically pursuing what you want out of your professional life. But for me, it’s less about leaning one way and more about striking a balance. And as anyone who has walked a balance beam can attest, you always need to lean a little bit side to side, or back to front, to keep your balance steady.
Which brings me back to pumping. When I started writing this piece, that’s all I wanted to talk about. I wanted to prod conference organizers to encourage nursing mothers to attend conferences by designating mother’s lounges and providing refrigerator access for pumped milk. I don’t want it to feel impossible when in fact it is quite doable, so long as the venue and organizers are cooperative. I’ve been lucky so far.
But what I realized as I kept typing was that I can’t just write about pumping, whether it’s during travel or in the office. Because the very act is irretrievably bound up in the dilemma of the working mom. And we could fill a hundred dozen pastry boxes with diatribes on that subject — so we won’t.
Though I will say, hey, conference organizers (and client hosts, and bosses, and everybody, really) — do go to the effort to make nursing moms feel welcome. (Thanks, Google.) Because we’re all trying to find balance, and that can mean leaning whichever way is warranted at the moment. And one day, we’ll be needing to lean your way.
We can’t be omnipresent any more, which I learned in Chicago, but we’d like to be present here and there as much as we can, and that brought me to Buffalo. We’re definitely out there — the number of people who came up to me after that panel discussion in Buffalo convinced me of that.
And that’s what passes for balance nowadays. Sure, it’s a little Sisyphean. But pumping, for all of its frustrations and imperfections, helps us get closer to achieving it. While in one sense tethering us down, pumping also empowers nursing, working moms to go to work, to travel, to go out in the world and be a part of something outside ourselves, our kid, our family. And that’s important, and it needs to be protected and encouraged, because it helps us become stronger — for ourselves, for our kid, and for our family.
I’m trying to find other ways to bring my worlds together, to find that balance. This past April, I brought my then year-old daughter to a regional HighEdWeb conference. She met some of the dear friends I’ve made in the field over the years, schmoozed and charmed the room, and even got her first conference badge. Baby’s first taste of professional omnipresence. I hope she enjoys it for as long as she wants.