Friday, August 28, 2009

Other People and Their Stories

Every morning I'd get back from my laps and I'd see her, the mom with the baby in the stroller doing her daily walk around the neighborhood. We'd wave, two moms in shorts and tees, sweaty and a little red in the face from the exertion and heat. Me, unencumbered, she, pushing the stroller.

Child in stroller is such a stage and age. Any parent knows it.

When I had my first baby the awesome commonwealth of Massachusetts offered a lovely one year postpartum support and parenting program in the form of a mom-and-me program once a week at the education building adjacent to our local hospital. It was, of course, free. I came for one "give it a shot" group and stayed for the whole year and beyond. In my memory, when I pushed a stroller around the neighborhood, I always had at least one mom from a community of these moms with me.

One time I walked with another mom on a gorgeous path through a park and her son reached out and held my daughter's hand. They were six months old.

One time the stroller mom walked past me as I headed in to the house and as I waved I had this compulsion to ask her if she ever wanted to walk together. Then I thought twice.

Where once upon a time, that walking time was communal time, now it is solo time for me. I listen to my music or podcasts and simply am -- just me, just doing my thing, not serving anyone. I am no longer a stroller mom. I push my children in other ways, now.

Anyway, I don't know her story. She looks content as she walks and she has never reached out to me beyond that wave. She never even hesitates or pauses, never lets her eyes linger as I stand still in my drive, my walking finished.

In the evening I often share other people and their stories with my husband. As a commuter worker, it is often his only connection with the people we know in our community.

I have the G-rated stories that I tell him at dinner or while the kids are around.

"H, C, and K are in class together this year," I'll share, "I bet they like that since they all know each other and it's their first year in elementary school."

Then there are the PG-13 and up tales. Things I save to relate until after the kids are in bed.

". . .she went through all that and then the client didn't even pay. I don't know what gets in people's heads!"

". . .but she seems pretty sure that they'll go from separation to divorce. The daughter told Patience, and I found myself trying to explain why some moms and dads can't stay married. The thing is, I had no answer for any of her questions."

Sometimes, we know just enough of other people's stories to be a menace. Sometimes we know not enough at all. Sometimes it seems as if it's a road game -- we're in cars sharing the road together. I know what kind of car you have and the color, but I don't know why you bought it or its relative value in your life. I think I know who you are by how you drive, but it's always so much more complicated than that. But as we speed down the street, we really are in a game of defense, and we haven't the time to try to think more deeply about who our fellow drivers are and what their stories are.

Once upon a time it seemed like I asked more. I recall many times being rebuked by others for doing so, "Julie! Those lane lines are there for a reason! You need to stay in your own lane!"

Eventually, I have.

I wonder if that pleases them, now.

Me? I'm more like the guy I met not too long ago in the airport. Circumstance had us trapped for a while, so we made the best of it chatting, instead of drawing solid white lines through iPods and books. (And I confess to being quite adept at drawing those solid white lines, often enough.)

We veered from one crazy story to another. In the end, one hour's talk had me knowing a lot about his verbs, even if I didn't know so much about his nouns.

I said, "I didn't really fear for our lives, but there is definitely something about being stopped by rebels with machine guns and bribing yourself away from them with wristwatches."

"I'd never thought about going to Central America for that reason," he said, "But my wife does really want to go to Egypt, in theory."

"Morocco is on that list for me," I said, "Although to tell the truth I really think the coolest trip would be going from the Mayan pyramids to the Egyptian ones, back to back. What a basis for comparison."

"We did go to Mexico," he said, "But you can't believe what happened there..."

As we queued up to board the plane and got back into our own lanes, he said, "I haven't had a talk like this since college!"

I smiled in understanding and shared enjoyment. We had even attracted other passengers who moved out of their lanes to join ours.

Sometimes there is something to be said about merging. Sometimes there is something to be said about abandoning mature respect for lines and lanes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why Playing the Whore Card in Reference to Mombloggers is So Not Cool

I'm really really glad I missed BlogHer this year. Every account makes it sound like a Self-Righteous Fest rather the the community building, sharing, learning, and fun I expect from that event. Then, that spilled over into the rest of the online community, and now moms who blog have garnered a reputation for being greedy, graspy harpies who cage fight for minor pieces of swag, like deranged parents beating one another up for the last Cabbage Patch doll.

Way to further the rep.

Even if people had fun -- and good for you -- clearly there was a major undercurrent I had been calling Culture Clash (which provided private amusement because it dredged up funny old 80s bands to mind) but have now begun calling the Whore Wars. You can subtitle it: That Same Old Mean Girl Judge and Jury Fest We've Had Since 5th Grade.

It's because yesterday someone played the whore card in reference to the mombloggers + PR + Review = Sometimes Profiting/Being Compensated While Blogging.

Don't be a whore, this person entreated.

ACK

ACK ACK ACK ACK ACK

Let's be honest here for a minute. Who sees big bloggers making a bit of a living at this and doesn't wish for that, just a little? Who loves blogging but doesn't wish to earn a little something from it, too? Who found a passion in blogging and doesn't want to succeed at it, grow in it, go to the next level? Who NEVER EVER wants to earn something for doing something they love?

You are welcome to head back to your ashram, my friend. Go in peace and with my good wishes. Maybe I can be you in my next life.

Okay back to the rest of us.

I started this blog as a business. It was intended to boost business, keep a Web site fresh, etc. I started it to promote some of my artwork and my other services. I started it because I intended to require my authors to promote their works via blogs. It was the Hot New Marketing Model and before I asked someone else to do it, I needed to know how to do it, and whether it was reasonable, and how to do it well. (Also, members of my writing group such as Halushki and OmegaMom had talked it up as such a positive medium and experience. It sounded like a Can't Lose proposition. And it has, in fact, been a Win! On so many unexpected levels.)

It evolved into a more personal venture because I moved most of my business work elsewhere and also I learned a large number of crucial lessons along the way that caused me to change direction and refine my strategy.

Writing is a business for me, and my sidebar clearly says so.

I had no ethical dilemma about putting ads on my sidebar. Why in the world wouldn't I grab the chance to augment my effort with income? I put effort into this, writing is my business, and my goal has always been to earn from it. The fact that I discovered this was a wonderful way to interact with a marvelous community was a bonus.

My family still needs to eat.

I had no ethical dilemma about trying out products and reviewing them. I personally prefer personal recommendations and reviews from people I know to any other criteria for selecting a product, service, or serviceperson. (Why do you think Angie's List is so successful?) I bought Ecover dishwasher tablets because someone on Twitter assured me they were good, and if I liked the dish soap, I'd like these too. I bought the A/C I have because the Small House movement recommended several models for good price and good green status. It helps me.

By the same token, I like to tell people about things I particularly love -- such as the Spanx Bralellujah which is the BEST bra I've ever met (and no, I got no free products or entreaties for reviews, but if I had I'd take it in a New York minute) -- in the hope that it helps them.

Believe it or not, I consider this part of being a member of a community.

It was never a question to me whether I ought to accept any sort of profit or compensation for effort I make from this or other online writing.

When it was an ethical dilemma for so many, I was boggled. Seriously.

Think of me what you will, but it sort of felt like a more erudite airing of the young babysitter who says, "Oh I don't know, whatever," when asked how much her time is worth.

It also smelled a bit like a prettily wrapped but still sexist package: why are women expected to contribute out of the goodness of their hearts? Why is receiving compensation a prospect that somehow corrupts what they do and makes them into whores in the eyes of their community?

It boils down to this for me: I want to earn from this OR I don't. The don't side is fair enough, but it isn't, in my opinion, an ethical question or a question of right or wrong -- it's an "I don't want to be obligated in any way."

Because the truth is, if you accept a job -- whether it pays in money or product -- you do accept a degree of obligation (or at least I do in my mind). I'm not per se obligated to write, or write positively, or on a timetable, but I do accept trying out the product, service, etc. I understand that by forming a relationship, I've agreed to Having Expectations on both sides.

Like I said...I'm a professional and this is a business. I know how to go about my business.

But now you've got the "it's for fun only" camp and the "this is a good business model" camp clashing, and suddenly you have insults such as "selling out" and "lacking integrity" being hurled until you reach the crescendo: whore.

A profitable venture is not inherently ethically wrong or lacking in integrity.

Yes, I wrote a positive review of a Ridemakerz event because it was an AWESOME experience for the whole family. I would never have tried that if they hadn't invited me. I subsequently had my kids' birthday party there and more parents found out it's fun. It felt like such a win-win.

Now I have paused to ponder that people I know and respect in the blogosphere consider that "selling out" and even possibly being a "whore."

That's so sexist and insulting. It really, really is.

Whore is, by its very first definition, about women: 1 : a woman who engages in sexual acts for money : prostitute; also : a promiscuous or immoral woman

An immoral woman. A woman who accept money for an effort. A woman who makes money from blogging is a whore, is immoral.

It sounds an awful lot like slamming a glass ceiling down hard and judgmentally on a group of people who have, by dint of a sexist workplace, already had to choose between career and family, and yet, by dint of wonderful technology and new marketing models, found a way to eat her cake (be at home) and have it too (contribute financially to her family and maintain her skills and independence).

Women, more specifically moms who blog, have begun succeeding in this market in major ways.

Suddenly, we have discussions about integrity and ethics and trust and ruining community. We use the whore word.

So some people aren't doing it "well" or meeting someone's standards. I have faith that this is a majorly impressively intelligent community and those who do it well and with integrity will succeed, and we'll begin avoiding those who do not meet those criteria. From backchannel discussions and intelligent conferences such as Mom 2.0, I know people know the difference between honest and with integrity and not. I know people I know who are doing this as a business are already employing personal integrity and standards.

Implying that it is otherwise on the whole has, I think, contributed to many negative perceptions, loss of opportunity, created an unnecessary divide within the community, and, I'm going to go ahead and say it, added to the National Advertising Review Council’s investigative units decision to impose rules, regulations and limits on bloggers that no other journalist or writer has, even when doing the exact same thing!

We're shooting ourselves in the feet, folks.

I bet some bloggers decided to forego any compensation, even if they needed it, because they were scared of alienating their community. Would you EVER ask that of ANYONE else?

"Dear Free Monthly Community Newsletter That Is So Wonderful to Read and So Useful to Me, Please quit running ads, I find them distracting, junky and they ruin my trust in your content. It makes you a big sell out. A whore."

"Dear NPR...please quit doing pledge drives. I know you need money to operate and bring me all that great content I ove and rely on, but I just hate it when you ask me for money. You bunch of whores."

ACK!

ACK ACK ACK!

Let's be reasonable. It's the business model, friends. I agree: some will do it well, and some not so much. You can trust spots like Cool Mom Picks, for example, and bloggers you know and like. You may not prefer it when they do things for compensation, but let's be fair, okay? Blogging takes time and ultimately it costs. It's okay to profit a little from it.

Let's roll back the debate, and stop using pejorative, sexist insults such as whore.

Instead of judging, asking "should we," and stating moral imperatives, why don't we instead use our voices to say "hey this one was good, and I like it when, and these are the best Dos in my opinion," and help each other grow and develop constructively.

It's not reasonable to ask people to stop or to make big soapbox ultimatums about refusing to cross paths with people who profit or advertise. You can do it, but it's not reasonable. It's not going to stop. I won't quit. I need an income. I know I'm not alone.

But we can -- and should -- speak up about when things are done well. It's new, this business model, and we can shape it positively instead of trying to destroy the opportunity, each other, and our community with glass ceilings and judgments.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Acceptance...sort of

The other day I was looking at this gorgeous house. It was my ideal sort of house: sort of large and rambly, older but fully restored with the same character and time period architecture, a flowy floor plan but with a fair amount of openness, and lovely furnishings...just nice enough to be nice but not at all out of a catalog or showroom. Homey. Classy. Clean. Lovely.

All of the sudden, with a hitch to my stomach, I thought, "I am just never, ever going to have a house like this."

For a second, I mourned.

I am never going to have a house like that because my husband is an architect and I am a writer, and we will likely never make That Amount of Money necessary.

I am never going to have a house like that because my husband is an architect in the same way a doctor is a doctor and a plumber is a plumber: they do grand work for everyone except themselves.

I am never going to have a house like that because I am Decoration and Flair challenged. I even once took a couple of courses at a junior college and a weekend seminar from a furniture design place to try to get some basic skills. However, I stand before you Not Like That At All, you know, all Good At Decorating. Mostly I find stuff a big fat bother that needs cleaning and so forth and I don't like it.

I am similarly DIY challenged. I'm not motivated nor do I have the drive or skill.

For these last two points, I can do it, if I put my mind to it, but mostly, to be honest, I don't.

I am never going to have a house like that because our children are just like us, only maybe a little bit worse. We all live much, much more in our heads and in the ether out there somewhere than in our actual home. I think I am the most homey and I say that knowing full well it is a pathetic statement.

I have a million things I'd rather do than tend my home. I'd rather read a book, take a nap, go for a drive, explore a trail, try a new restaurant, talk to a friend, write anything, volunteer, help a cause....

I am never going to have a house like that because I am who I am and I have chosen my life as I have.

As things stand, I either do it myself or find a new level of income and pay someone.

Except, if I earn more money I'd rather take a trip with my family. I'd rather send my kids to music lessons. I'd rather pay for private school. I'd rather take a class.

I have a million things I -- if I'm honest -- would spend money on than tend my home. If I'm honest, we could -- if our house were a bigger priority -- have saved money to do things for it. Instead, we've spent that money elsewhere, which I think says a lot about our priorities.

We haven't been terribly good, truth be told, accepting this with grace and alacrity. That's because in our area, homes are the priority. We've gotten that message loud and clear our entire lives. We hear it now as people we know renovate, remodel, redecorate and otherwise make their homes very nice.

"Oh we ought to see about doing that," we say to one another, half-heartedly, in that "oh someday we ought to weed the garden" tone of voice. You know the one, the "yeah, it's a should but not ever likely to be a will" tone.

We're always slightly apologetic and occasionally mildly fretful about the state of our home. I do think both of us wish we could do better by it. Sometimes, we'll get aggravated or chastened enough and we'll start saving or making a plan, which we always end up abandoning because something else comes along.

When we recently took a trip, we stayed in a Small House. This is a whole movement, the Small House movement. It's about being green, and lowering our carbon suckage. I liked how do-able that house felt. I have not felt do-able about a house since we lived in a one bedroom apartment, actually.

"I wish we had this house," I said. The family agreed.

That means we want about 800 square feet on a lot of land, with two bedrooms, a loft, one bathroom, and an open kitchen-living-family space. Like a cabin. Little House in the Hill Country.

It could be the inexpensive do-able home base that we returned to from every other place we'd rather be and all the other things we'd rather be doing.

Or not -- maybe we don't really want that. Maybe it just seemed perfect for our vacation.

Mostly, I'd like that grace, that acceptance of this is who we are and this is what we have and we're good with that. We need new floors, if you measure by fancy Jones standards, and new windows. Our cabinets could use freshening.

Instead, my husband is having a holiday with the kids while I go to a conference.

At my age, it seems as if you must let go one by one (or in batches) of things you dreamed of or thought of when you were younger. Many of those things are surprisingly easy to let go of.

With time I expect the rest of these will float away too.