We have a new nest. It's in St. Petersburg, and it has a pool, which is a huge luxury. It was built in 1940 and is in Historic Kenwood, which we love. Our new hood is artsy and progressive. We have a brick street. I always wanted to live on a brick street. It also has an annex, aka the studio. The annex is perfect for guests and daughters who are now away at college. We are also near some really excellent friends. We moved so my husband wouldn't have to commute 10 hours a week. We're still very near family, and we like this city.
But to state the obvious, Dante should have included moving in The Inferno. It's definitely one of the seven circles of hell. I hate packing and feeling disoriented.
We sold our old house, a 1957 bungalow that once belonged to my grandmother, and which we loved, to really nice people. We miss our old neighbors. We know nothing about the people we bought from, apart from the fact that they were a bit reclusive (this neighborhood knows everything).
They left no instructions about how the house works, apart from a pile of manuals — I've spent A LOT of time reading manuals. But they had very good taste. They liked Ikea, and put in hurricane doors and that pool, which is heated by solar. So thanks, guys. (But if you'd left the paint color names, life would have been a lot easier, as we now have to repaint everything. You had a LOT of art, and thus a lot of holes.)
So, after we moved house, two days later I packed up my car again and drove my daughter to Florida State University. We then began the manic race to get her dorm room as habitable as possible before I drove the four hours home to a house filled with unpacked boxes. Husband stayed behind (he couldn't fit in the car) and worked hard to lessen the chaos. He shows his love by feathering our nest (sorry) — he fixes things and make things nice. It eased the pain I felt due to exhaustion and that massive event of my daughter leaving home.
I know that empty nest syndrome is real, and I also know that it's been hard for my friends who have sent their kids off to college. But my God, you don't know until you know. Just as you can't tell a pregnant mother what it feels like to give birth — they have to just do it (and it's mean to tell them how much it hurts anyways, because it's not like they can opt out) — you also can't explain the feeling of having your heart ripped out as you hug your child before you walk out of the dorm that first time. My mother cried when I graduated from high school. I thought she was nuts. Now I get it. My friends who have done it get it, and provide the support and comfort. I am grateful. I will do the same for others.
That sadness makes no sense. You spend years preparing them for higher education, urging them on, helping them with applications, celebrating their wins, listening to them as they figure out who they are. Then, when they finally get what they worked so hard for, and what you helped them with, you cry about it. How utterly bizarre. Because chances are, if they were living in your basement (or in our case, our annex), then we all might not be so happy about it. They are supposed to become independent, to learn to solve problems, to form relationships with people you've never met — figure out who they really are, and want to be.
I cried hard. My daughter cried hard. We hugged hard. I drove in driving rain (so dramatic) for two hours, stopped at a McDonald's in the middle of nowhere, bought a coffee, and cried some more. Then I drove another two hours. When I got home, I was exhausted. I had that feeling that you get when you come home from a funeral. Weird.
But as the weeks have passed, it's gotten better. It's gotten easier. Because SHE has gotten better, and is settling, and her happiness is growing. Her homesickness is receding. She is learning how to function with 39,999 other kids. The academics is no problem; it's the new environment of a million things going on at once, and living with your peers. And fortunately, I actually like my husband. He's great company.
It's also a huge milestone. I gave birth. I wiped her nose and gave her hugs and time outs. I laughed with her and traveled with her and yelled at her. I loved — love — her more than can be quantified. And that period of birth to 18 is now over. It's such a cliche to say, Where did the time go? But there's a reason everyone says it. She has moved into the next exciting chapter of her life, and so have I, with my husband and friends and my own parents and siblings. Hell, even the cats have had to adjust. They don't know where she is.
And dare I say it, it's a reminder that we're getting older, like a milestone birthday. Which is perfectly fine, considering the alternative. There are still many exciting things to do. But like weddings, where you cry because you're happy for the marrying couple, you also cry when your child goes to college. My heart is happy, but there's a hole in it. Because of love. And that's okay.
“No particular accomplishments but she had lots of friends and loads of fun/See Ya!”—Freddie Webb, 92
I love that the hilarious, colorful Freddie Webb wrote this about herself, for her own obituary. And I also love that Dunedin, Florida, residents organized a golf cart parade in her honor, a couple weeks after she died on June 27.
The carts were decorated with an array of bright, shiny ornaments and stuffed animals, and the drivers wore quirky orange hats, like she had.
"Lots of friends and loads of fun." As I previously mentioned, I didn't personally know her, yet she inspired me to write about her (twice now) because her big smile, friendly wave, and perfect uniqueness—her utter authenticity—brought me joy. And spreading joy while reminding people through example to just be themselves is one hell of an accomplishment, Freddie.
You can read the Tampa Bay Times article about her tribute parade here. [Photo courtesy of Barbara Ferguson Carrier via the Tampa Bay Times]
I recently watched If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast on HBO. It's about a group of famous nonagenarians, and it examines whether you can still enjoy yourself at that late life stage. The documentary interviewed such well-knowns such as Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Betty White and Dick Van Dyke. The latter, besides being a bit of a cornball, is a wonder — the man moves like he's 35. And that's what he says is vital to enjoy your 90s: keep moving, and use your brain. (Meanwhile, Betty White is writing books like a demon.)
Since I think, as humans, we are generally wired to be afraid of aging, I found this film both inspiring and reassuring. Because what we can't avoid is that our bodies, like cars or pretty much everything else, start to act up a bit as we age. So Dick's advice is good, and since I have a sedentary job, I have to up my game on the moving front. I have a back full of hardware, thanks to spinal surgery, but that's not an excuse: I can swim. I can walk. I can run. I can cycle. I must do better.
And I can still wreak havoc if I want. In fact, I intend to. There was a woman named Freddie who was 92 in my small Florida town, and she was a rip. She died last week, and I shall miss seeing her. Freddie was a rule breaker: She zipped round downtown in her golf cart, which was decorated with plastic flowers, and she was always accompanied by big stuffed animals. She smiled, waved, and pretended as though she was about to run people over, and then swerved at the last minute while laughing her head off. She loved colorful, floppy hats. She loved color — in fact, she embodied color. She once gave a woman a ride, and Freddie drove her cart where she wasn't supposed to be driving it. The woman asked her, "Aren't you worried about getting in trouble with the police?" Freddie replied, "I'm faster than they are!" and let out a naughty cackle.
She was funny, and fun-loving, and lived life by her own rules. Some people would complain on social media that she was dangerous, or inappropriate, or a menace. I don't ever want to be that kind of person. I shall miss seeing her, and I won't forget her. If I catch myself feeling agitated because of pain, or complaining about having a sore back, or feeling tired, I'll think of Freddie, who was decades older than me. Then I'll shut the hell up, and get off the sofa and go have a good time, and perhaps break a few rules, and laugh my head off. Because we only get one go at this life thing. So I'd better start moving.
I would make a terrible police witness. If I witnessed a crime and had to testify, I would have to write the victim a profuse apology note for my crap observational skills. As I previously mentioned in an earlier blog, I need to pay a lot more attention to what's going on around me.
See, I have a tendency to live in my head. I have lengthy dialogues in there, as I suspect many people do, and sometimes, I'll even repeat those conversations out loud. In other words, I talk to myself a lot.
My husband (who has amazing powers of observation) has caught me doing this in the shower. He silently peeks through the curtain, not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining because he thinks he's funny (although I'm now onto him, so he can't scare me anymore), and says, "Who are you talking to?" The first time I was a bit embarrassed when he caught me, and now I don't care. "Myself! Duh! Get out!"
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to start reading a new book: How to Live, or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell. Chapter 2 is called, "How to live: Pay attention." That chapter might as well have been subtitled, "Michelle Lewis, I am talking to YOU." The French Renaissance writer learned to pay attention, halfway through his life, by deciding to write about everything. "Simply describing an object on your table, or the view from your window, opens your eyes to how marvelous such ordinary things are," writes Bakewell.
So I thought, Let's give this little exercise a go. Right now. If it worked for Montaigne in a tower in a 14th-century French chateau, then it might work in a 1957 Florida bungalow.
I work from home. I spend most of my day, and frankly, my evenings, in one room. The room is called ... surprise ... a Florida room. In Britain, it would be known as a conservatory. I look at these objects in this room, and the view outside, every day, all day, but I don't LOOK -- really look -- at them. And so that is what I'm going to do. Right now. Let's take a little trip round the ordinary, shall we?
So many words for just one room! It's hardly a tower in a chateau. And I sure as hell am not Montaigne. But there are so many memories and experiences in this room that span centuries, beyond my lifetime — of people I know and people I don't. If you put all the people who have touched every object into this room together, they'd barely fit. And if I don't pay more attention, then I will miss the narratives of everyday things if I'm always inside my own head.
This may not have been all that interesting to read, because these objects belong to me, and there are many houses just like mine — thousands. Millions, perhaps. But perhaps try this exercise in one of your own rooms. See if it evokes memories that make you smile, or think.
Montaigne was right: Writing really does open one's eyes to how marvelous ordinary things are. I hope it never happens, but perhaps, I'll become a better crime-scene witness, and ultimately, be more present.
"I'm no good at math."
I must have heard this come out of my daughter's mouth a thousand times over the years. When she was in primary school, she would hide behind the curtains and cry when it came time to review her math homework. She hated it so much, and there was no convincing her otherwise.
Then we moved to Florida from Britain, and she joined the international baccalaureate program at Largo High School during second semester, ninth grade. The IB coordinator took a chance on her, and into Algebra 2 Honors she went. (He warned me it was hard, and he wasn't kidding.) Unsurprisingly, it was a major shock to her system; it's hard enough to switch schools, much less countries. She failed math quiz after math quiz. But her teacher, Mr. Britton (no, the irony is not lost on me), wouldn't give up on her--he'd work with her, one on one, every Wednesday after school. Instead of making her learn American math methods, he adapted to her British methods. She passed Algebra 2 with a B, thanks to his patience and diligence. Then we found out he was moving to New York City, and I panicked--what would she do without him?
And along came Dee Baker, the new IB math teacher, from Virginia. She said on her first parents' evening that she decided to become a math teacher to help kids who hated math, because she hated math as a kid, too. Ed and I were blown away by her--she was inspiring, enthusiastic, organized and fair. She made math fun, but didn't put up with any nonsense. She demanded excellence with a smile.
Georgina was taught by Mrs. Baker for three years. Mrs. Baker taught Georgina not only math, but more importantly, persistence, patience and grit. She learned that hard work often pays off. As Georgina wrote in one of her college essays, "I learned that, 'Hey, I'm actually pretty good at math.'"
Mrs. Baker inspired a girl to excel in a subject that girls are taught from a very young age, with both conscious and unconscious bias, that they aren't very good at.
And this week, Georgina won a math award at the high school's annual awards ceremony.
I hugged Mrs. Baker afterwards, trying not to cry, and told her she changed Georgina's life. Mrs. Baker modestly replied, "She did all the hard work." I responded, "She used to hate math. You gave her the tools and the confidence to overcome her fear of math. Consider this moment one of those reasons why you do what you do--your influence on her will last her whole life."
And I speak from experience. When I was in ninth grade at Clearwater High School, I had an English teacher named Joyce Parker. We learned this week that sadly, Mrs. Parker has died. She was, in the words of my good childhood friend Peggy, a "tough cookie. She taught me the beauty of the five-paragraph essay." And my wonderful childhood friend Sarah Lynn, whose mother also taught English with Mrs. Parker, said, "Without her I would not have sought out Kipling when I'm in need of solace. We learned how to write properly and take care with our spelling."
Like Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Parker was kind, and she also didn't put up with any nonsense. I hated memorising Julius Caesar. I was bored by writing the root meanings of prefixes and suffixes on index cards. And yet I remember nearly all of them to this day (but of course forget where I've put my handbag). And as an editor and a writer, I use the knowledge that Mrs. Parker beat into me every single day of my working life. I liked her, and I respected her. She made me work hard, and I knew that the As I got in her class, I earned, just as Georgina did.
Teachers put up with a lot of crap. I know firsthand, because I trained as a high school social studies teacher. By chance, instead of a high school, I ended up at Forbes in New York, and the rest is media history. The hours teachers put in are long, they are underpaid, and the level of hassle is off the charts. And yet these wonderful human beings persist. They change lives. They make the world better. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Parker, you left your mark on many, many children. And Dee Baker, as with me and Joyce Parker, I guarantee you that Georgina will remember you, and still be using the tools you taught her, long after we are both gone.
Do you remember this 1970s Crackerjack TV ad? (If you don't, then just watch it. That's why I embedded it. You're welcome.) "Whaddaya call a kid who can swing like that? You call that kid a Crackerjack."
This ad popped up repeatedly during Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, and jealousy would surface. I would bitterly think, "What's wrong with me? How come I'm not really good at any one thing? I'm not a Crackerjack kid." I certainly wasn't that girl in the ad: I took gymnastics, and while I managed to learn how to do an aerial, I never could master a back handspring or the uneven bars because my arms were too skinny and weak.
My grandmother would buy me Crackerjacks. I'd first dig out the prize, then pick out the peanuts, and finally crunch the caramel-coated popcorn, all the while feeling like a fraud. And just as I embedded this charming ad for you, dear reader, that stupid ad has been embedded in my subconscious my entire life. Thank you, Crackerjack, for introducing me to Imposter Syndrome.
I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up, or who were driven enough to be truly amazing at just one thing. Crackerjack's ad preceded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours of practice" theory in his book Outliers by decades (I never would have practiced like that for anything anyways), and I didn't know at the time that it might have been helpful to weigh 50 pounds and have a Romanian gymnastics coach. I just thought you were born with extraordinary talent. What I wanted to do as a kid was watch TV, play with my friends, swim, and read a whole lot. But who got to be a Crackerjack kid for reading a lot? Nobody. But you might get a certificate from the library. (Maybe that's why when I was in second grade, I decided I wanted to be a librarian. That didn't work out.)
Fast-forward to college. I love history, and make it my major. I get a teaching qualification so I have an excuse to study history. We are in a recession when I finish graduate school with a second history degree. And after working in a group home with disabled adults (I loved it but couldn't support myself on it) and very successfully holding down a night job as a drunken barfly, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing, I got my first job in ad sales. That's what was on offer at the recruitment agency, and I grabbed it. It was a history magazine—close enough.
My resume is like a 19th-century traveling salesman's covered wagon: There's a little bit of everything in there. Writing? Check. PR? Check. Editing? Commissioning? Outreach guidance worker? (Yes, seriously.) Check. Check. Check. TV and film. Architecture. Travel. Alcohol. Business and productivity. Technology. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. Cancer research. Financial inclusion. I sometimes feel like that granddad who bores the pants off everyone at a dinner party because he's got something to say about everything.
And for a very long time, I thought this hodgepodge was a weakness. I wasn't an expert in anything. But then the internet and smartphones showed up. And now we've all got to keep swimming, like sharks, or we become obsolete, at least in my field.
So where do I want to be five years from now? (Yes, someone actually asked me that in an interview. Nil points for originality. I resisted the urge to reply, "Paying the fecking mortgage, mate.") I don't know. And I have now (mostly) made peace with winging it—or at least I've learned to live with the uncertainty. I bought a copy of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, to see what he has to say on the matter. The 16th-century French philosopher was frank, and I like frank. I'll share what I find out.
But as I said last night to my daughter's friend, who displayed her artwork, which explores her own existential crisis, at a beautiful exhibition put on by high school seniors, "I completely relate to everything you did here. It's okay to feel like this—it took me this long to figure that it's okay." She replied that she felt relieved that it wasn't just her. I hope she realizes that there are millions of us.
So, here's what I've learned so far:
My BBC iPhone notification pinged. Notre Dame was on fire. Cue nauseous feeling, like when the Glasgow College of Art caught on fire - twice. Go to Twitter, look at photos of the flames shooting out of the roof. Burst into tears when the spire falls, and sob for a half hour. Yell, "No!, No!, No!" at my phone.
I look at Slack, to see how my Fast Company colleagues in New York and San Francisco are scrambling to cover this horror with our unique angle. (I work from Florida. That's another story for another day.) Of course we need expert input, so architects/engineers/construction experts are discussed. I suggest my husband. (Hey Scott, who asked the headline question on Facebook: this is how it happened.)
Ed is a construction project manager at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He is also British-born and raised, having grown up in Essex, and before he went into management, he was a master plasterer. He knows how to parget. He renovated our Edwardian house in Saffron Walden. He also knew how my previous Tudor house was put together, and why the floors were slopey and what those funny carved symbols were by the wooden door frame and fireplace (answer: to ward off evil spirits). He taught me that my old walls were stuffed with horse hair for insulation.
When he and I spoke about Notre Dame, he instantly replied, "Renovations. Happens all the time." So he had a chat with Sean Captain, the writer of what turned out to be a super post. (Sean later quoted him a second time about how Paris could go forward from this tragedy, and bottom line, there's a heck of a lot of safety checks and testing to do before they even begin to plan. IMHO (and Ed's), President Macron's five-year plan is more than a bit ambitious.
So the first Fast Company story goes live, and the clever comms team at USF pick it up. That's where the fun began for Ed, and he got a taste of my world, and how quickly stories can move in media. Within hours, he had an interview scheduled with a radio station in San Francisco, the Tampa Bay Times, and the CBS TV affiliate, who came to our house and filmed him.
I gave him a crash course on being filmed (don't look at the camera; he did anyways, lol), helped him anticipate the questions journos would ask, and made ridiculous charades movements during his phone interviews to help prompt him. It was the first time our career worlds had truly collided, and it was frantic, funny, exciting and slightly stressful.
I always thought Ed and I could never work together; that we'd end up bickering. But we worked as a team, and it was a hell of a lot of fun. I'm also glad he better understands what I do; he's often said it's hard to get what I do all day on my Mac, as it's abstract, where what he builds is concrete (no pun intended).
And it just ever so slightly distracted from the pain of the fire of a beautiful building in a city I know ever so well, and sharing thoughts made us both realise that, in the big picture, this is yet another step in Notre Dame's evolution. It is not gone; it changes again. As it always have, and always will. Kind of like everything in life.