A MURKY FUTURE
by Jennifer Nelson
I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, until the morning I started bawling in the newsroom.
Tears gushed down my face, blurring my vision as I struggled to read my interview notes for an article about a local accounting firm. The clock was ticking. In an hour, my editor would scold me for tying up the editorial process and accuse me of slacking off.
Come on, just start typing.
Certainly, I could do that. After all, I had penned stories for the business journal for almost two years—and I had never missed a deadline. The adrenaline always kicked in when I had to produce copy.
I closed my eyes, searching for a Zen-like state that would allow sentences and paragraphs to flow effortlessly as they usually did. At one time, the newsroom had been my salvation, a place where I’d bonded with an all-male editorial staff while my marriage dissolved. But now, new owners were bombarding reporters with requirements for more stories. I couldn’t hack it. I was a failure.
Hunkered down at my desk, I squelched my sobs so as not to be overheard whimpering like a trapped animal. Mark, behind the cubicle wall to my right, was conducting a phone interview. No sound came from Scott on the other side. He was probably out on assignment. I was safe. I could escape without anyone noticing. The article about Melissa Rosenberg’s successful accounting firm would just have to wait.
The fresh air would clear my mind—and blanch my rose-colored cheeks and blood-shot eyes. Gingerly, I peered over my cubicle as I wiped tears from my eyes and stood.
“Where are you going?” Scott poked his head above the cubicle wall.
“On a walk.” What the hell! Why wasn’t he out? I lowered my head so he couldn’t see my face.
“Is everything okay?” he said.
The usual “fine” that spilled from my lips regardless of my troubles at home refused to come. “Not really. I should go.”
The ever-affable Scott approached me, a look of concern on his face. “Maybe you want to talk about it. I can join you on a walk.”
“Don’t you have a story to write?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I should confide in him. For a long time—ever since my husband and I had separated—I’d taken care of problems on my own, not relying on others to ease the burden.
“That can wait. I’ve never seen you this upset.”
“I need to get out of this place,” I said, sniffling. “I can’t go for long. John wants the story on Rosenberg.”
Honestly, I no longer cared about Melissa Rosenberg growing her accounting firm into a multi-million dollar operation over four years. I was pissed at how I had called her three times before she’d released the company’s revenues and profits—without those figures, John would not run the story. Didn’t she understand we were a newspaper not a public relations firm? Scott grabbed his windbreaker from the coat rack; we descended the narrow staircase in the three-story, downtown building.
Outside, the warm, spring air refreshed me. I glanced at the cloudless blue sky. It wouldn’t be long before we were blasted with heat and humidity, just around the time of my divorce in late June.
“At least, it’s not raining,” I said, in a feeble attempt to start a conversation.
“I can see why you’re anxious with all the changes at the magazine,” said Scott, a thirty-something want-to-be hipster. “I’m feeling it too.”
Trust Scott to cut to the chase, though the break-up of my marriage also weighed on me. “It’s insane what they want us to do now. I can’t write three stories a week and two or three briefs every morning.”
Scott nodded. “You can do it. Just interview fewer sources—and pick stories that are easy hits.”
“I’m already doing that,” I said. “And I’m completely stressed. I don’t want to cover events superficially, but that’s exactly what we’re now doing.”
“We had it good with George.”
George, a former Time writer and founder of the business journal, had trusted his staff to cover industries in depth—and had given us time to craft insightful, analytical stories. The new owners believed readers wanted shorter stories—and more of them.
“Why couldn’t George have waited another couple of years to sell the paper?” I lamented.
But, George’s wife had complained about being the paper’s office manager, and had convinced her husband that it was time to retire to their Block Island home. It had taken George two years to find a buyer who’d agree to his terms and conditions—except those maintaining a reasonable workload for reporters.
“The new owners don’t seem that bad,” said Scott, his curly blond hair glued to his head. “You’ll get used to them. You’re a hard worker.”
“But, I can’t work until 8 at night. I need to pick up my kids at 6.”
“Could you come in early in the morning?”
“Not really. I get them off for school at 8:15.”
As we walked rapidly, I looked at the beautiful tree-lined street. The ash trees stretched upward, their branches strong and sturdy as if they could handle any disturbance.
“I just don’t know if it’s worth it,” I said. “Maybe I should start looking for another job.”
Scott sighed. “I’d hate to see you go. You’re a good reporter. And you like journalism.”
The snuffling resumed. “You’re right about that.”
Scott recommended that I not rush a decision. With time, he felt I could adjust to the workload, though initially I’d need to work longer days. Was there a babysitter who could help out for a month or two?
His suggestions made sense to me. But would I ever get used to cranking out three stories a week while raising three young children?
Scott gallantly opened the building door, gesturing me to enter. “If something’s bothering you, I’m always up for another walk.”
What a sweetie! I nodded, almost bursting in tears again. We climbed the staircase to the second floor. “Is my face red? It always gets red when I’ve been crying.”
“A little. But it’s fine.” He patted me gently on the back before returning to his cubicle.
In the upstairs’ bathroom, I splashed water on my face and caked powder on my checks to hide all signs of distress. Scott would keep quiet about my issues. No one else needed to know how I was drowning at my job.
Over the next few weeks, I churned out a slew of stories, viewing myself as a machine on an assembly line without any respite from production.
I no longer chatted with reporters, took hour-long lunches with colleagues at Attilios, or pondered over company reports. I interviewed sources in less than thirty minutes—on the phone, never in person. I allotted an hour to write a story—at most eighty minutes—as I raced to complete an article every day. Bathroom breaks were limited to five minutes, twice a day—and I never peered over my cubicle to gauge how others were coping. I evolved into an overworked and under maintained robot, my worth measured in terms of efficiency and productivity, not quality.
But I managed to leave the office at precisely 5:00 p.m. I couldn’t keep my kids waiting at their after-school care program. The few times I’d been late, I’d gotten dirty looks, and a warning that if this continued I’d be charged extra. Besides, my children deserved a mom taking care of them for at least a few waking hours. Their father, too occupied by a business career, couldn’t be counted on to pick them up by 6:00 p.m.
Back at home, I quickly prepared dinner: macaroni and cheese, ready-made ShopRite meatballs with pasta, and take-out pork fried rice. As the kids got ready for bed, I snapped at them for dawdling. Couldn’t they hurry up so I’d have a few minutes to read some newspapers to get ideas for future business stories? I’d lose my patience when Patrick, 8, couldn’t find his pajamas, or Emily, 10, refused to go to bed, or Nicholas, 9, teased his brother. Couldn’t they just behave like little angels? I was too exhausted to handle even the slightest misbehavior.
Regularly, I fantasized about quitting my job. Why not move to my mother’s mountain retreat in Lake Tahoe where the children and I could live rent-free? There, I’d write for the newspaper The Bonanza and only have a couple of stories to pen weekly. But my children’s father wanted to see his kids regularly; he’d be devastated if we moved away, a lost Nordic soul with no joie de vivre. Besides, after the divorce, I couldn’t legally relocate unless I got a job with a comparable salary that would allow a certain standard of living. A weekly newspaper wouldn’t cut it—nor could I uproot my kids from all they’d known and loved.
So, I had two choices: adjust to the demands at The Business Chronicle or find another job. No matter what, I would bust my butt to hand in stories on time, and hope that the stress didn’t lead to a nervous breakdown. Long term, I worried I would become a basket case. But I wasn’t thinking that far into the future. Take it day-by-day. Keep in check my exhaustion by not overscheduling myself on weekends. Most importantly, maintain a positive attitude that I could do it all.
At work one day, after a restless night of pondering my future, I approached Bill, a senior writer and editor. The door was open to his private office, meaning he’d welcome visitors.
“How can I help you?” asked Bill, a scholarly gentleman with a law degree, looking up from his computer. “Sit down. I hardly see you these days.”
“There’s too much work,” I said, sitting in a chair next to his desk. “I barely have time to breath.”
Bill leaned back in his chair, and chuckled. “It’s the new regime. They’re cracking down on us. You’re keeping up with the work. John hasn’t complained about you.”
I breathed in deeply. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up. I’m completely stressed out. I lash out at my kids. I’m always rushing. I don’t have a second of down time.”
Bill stared at me, his kind blue eyes sympathizing with my plight. “You’re not thinking about quitting, are you?”
I sniffled. “No, I need a job. You remember that I’m getting a divorce next month.”
“You could change your mind,” he said, pushing back from his forehead his thinning blond hair.
“I’m not sure I will. We haven’t lived together for years.”
“You never know.”
“I feel so drained. I used to have fun in this place. Now it’s a grind. It’s just story after story with no time for reflection.”
“I agree. Our new leader doesn’t want analysis. It’s tough for me too. But I’m getting used to it. Just report less and write more. That’s the winning formula.”
I smiled—and I appreciated the simplicity of his solution. “It sounds like you’re talking about winning a car race.”
It was his time to laugh. “Jen, it’s hard for you because you have to leave early to take care of your kids. You’re under time constraints. I don’t have that responsibility. This might not be the right job for you. Maybe you should consider teaching.”
“Teaching?” I asked incredulously. Didn’t he know how I’d disliked teaching in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer after college graduation? That had been twenty years ago—perhaps I’d never mentioned that to him.
“Why? What’s wrong with teaching? Remember how your predecessor Sarah left here to teach Spanish at a public school?”
I nodded. “She likes her new job?”
“From what I understand, she’s very happy. She earns more money, works fewer hours, comes home when her kids do, and gets better retirement and health care benefits. I don’t think she misses this place one bit.”
“Her kids are young, right?”
“I think so. She was always pressed for time—just like you. Now, she’s found a way to balance raising a family and earning a living.”
I rubbed my forehead, thinking about the benefits of teaching, but my heart rejected such a move. “I like reporting and writing.”
“For the past month, you haven’t been happy. You don’t smile anymore and I can’t remember the last time I heard you laugh.”
He was right about that. I wasn’t enjoying life. I felt like a slave to the newspaper. It wasn’t fair to my children to devote so much energy to my profession. These years would zap by, and I didn’t want to regret being an absent mom. Did it really matter that my sense of identity came from being a journalist, and that I’d committed to the profession when I’d gotten a masters degree in journalism form Columbia? How many sacrifices was a job worth? Weren’t my kids as important as my job?
“You know Bill, I used to wake up in the morning super excited to be going to work. I loved this place. I wanted to see you guys and go out and report on companies. It was the best.”
Bill frowned. “It’s changed—and I’m not sure it’s for the better. It is what it is. I’ll stay around for a while. But I’m also thinking about exploring other opportunities.”
My eyes brightened—it wasn’t just me who was considering a change. “Where would you go?”
“Perhaps Washington. I’ve been contacting government agencies. Maybe I could be a spokesperson or work in communications.”
“That’d be quite a move.”
“It’s tough breaking into government work. But for you, teaching might not be that bad. You could teach English—and French. I seem to remember you speak French. There will be job openings this fall.”
As Bill talked about the benefits of being an educator, I saw how it could work. I had a degree in English and I’d learned French as a child, though I hadn’t used it in years.
“So, your French is little rusty,” said Bill. “You’ll remember it. You’re going to know so much more than anyone in high school.”
I glanced at my watch—ten minutes had vanished and what had I accomplished? No words had been written, no source interviewed, but Bill’s insight had given me hope. Perhaps I should consider teaching. It would be a way to see my kids more often. Teaching couldn’t be nearly as stressful as the newsroom. Was it so important to be passionate about a job once I had kids?
Nevertheless, I couldn’t discount how my dad had encouraged me to find a profession I loved with interesting colleagues and tasks. After all, I’d be spending one-third of my waking hours there. I’d be miserable if I didn’t like the work.
“Thanks Bill for your suggestions,” I said, getting up from the chair. “I should get back to work.”
“I’m glad you stopped by. By the way, I think you’d be a great teacher.”
“You’re personable—and fun—when you’re not stressed out,” he said.
Did I detect a hint of flirtation in his voice? He was single. Once I got a divorce, would he make his moves on me? He was Catholic—they never messed around with married women—and he was old fashioned enough to never consider dating a divorcee. Besides, maybe he was a closeted gay—at least, that’s what rumors had circulated around the office. No matter—he had proposed a solution to my professional dilemma, and for that I was grateful.
About the Author:
Jennifer Nelson is an author and French teacher who holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MA in Journalism from Columbia University. She’s a features writer for The Woven Tale Press, and her work has also appeared in brevity.com and writingthrudivorce.com, as well as other publications.