2 Day 2 Polly
It's always a good day to quit
It’s me and Polly, you know what it is, let’s do this:
I’m a currently unsuccessful writer working as a “Genius” at a technology store that claims to have Geniuses (make of that what you will). I started working at this sorta-kinda monopoly when it was a cute monopoly-wannabe and the steady income has kept me afloat through bad creative career choices (“the theater”) and bad grad school decisions (“debt”) and now has become entirely necessary post-grad school (“health insurance,” see also: “debt”). I want to write about media and technology and escape this job, but I can’t write about anything that publicly comments on my employer— who now somehow also produces TV shows and a news service and probably three more things I have to subscribe to by the time I’m finished writing this. I can’t quit and afford to pay rent and my student loans, but I can’t stay and build the portfolio of work I’d need to get a quote-unquote real job writing about things I’m qualified to write about. Help?
Rusty: All the time I hear people whining “I can’t quit because I have to ‘buy food’ and ‘not die‘,” or whatever, and I know it’s hard but I want to get this idea in front of everyone in big letters right now:
You can always quit!
In fact if you’re thinking “I can’t quit” that’s basically proof that you must quit. If you don’t want to hear it from me, here’s Lindsay Crouse and Kirby Ferguson in the New York Times telling you the same thing. You could be working at the Fruit Store and do your eight hours and go home and have a fulfilling life with lots of hobbies, and enjoy your work and never think about it after 5pm. That’s great, but I don’t think that’s you, because that person is never thinking “I can’t quit.” That person is never thinking about work at all, outside of the mall. And Tim Apple is never going to Facetime you and be like “hey buddy, it’s Cupertino, we’re calling you up to the big leagues, we need someone to design the new Macbook Pro!” So however familiar it is, that makes this a dead-end job for you. You have a different dream. The good news is you know all this, so you’ve already done the much harder Step One in my patented two step plan for success:
Step One: Decide what you want to do. ✅
Step Two: Do it.
Step two is just logistics. Make a budget, figure out how much income you need to live, make a list of stories you want to pitch. Pitch them. I bet you can pitch some things that don’t infringe on Fruit Company secrets? You can certainly pitch while you’re looking for a different job, anyway. Look for a job that maybe pays less than you make now but demands less of you and doesn’t interfere with your real work. Every morning when you get out of bed think about how you’re one day closer to death and do the thing you know you want to do.
Polly: Lots of people have conflicts of interest and write things they’re unqualified to write. For example, I give advice for a living but I am also confused about many things and I’m a grandiose, self-interested pain in the ass in general. Instead of declaring myself useless or viewing my compulsion to inflict my opinions on the populace as a kind of untreated pathology, my choice is to see my limitations and continuing befuddlement as the secret sauce that makes my guidance more palatable. After all, who do we want guiding us through life, someone who is perfect and omniscient, like God? No. What we want is someone who knows how it feels to waver and fail and second-guess your decisions. (Just minutes ago, I texted my husband “I am going back to bed and staying there,” but then he reminded me that I had to go get our daughter from school. Yet another conflict of interest!)
If I can give advice and get paid for it, surely you can write about everything *but* your genius company full of geniuses while also taking detailed notes for a future novel about an evil genius who works at a company run by evil geniuses. When you think things like “This company owns my thoughts!” or “My title is genius so I should have all the answers!” or “I give advice therefore I must be a tranquil, all-seeing wise woman pacing on a Ted Talk stage with a mic attached to her face!” you’re essentially powering down your creative juices for the sake of some twisted high capitalist concept of ownership and labor and self-worth.
No one is a perfect employee or a perfect product. Even using the words “unsuccessful writer” to describe yourself rubs me the wrong way. Think different! If your corporate overlords can brazenly call you a genius (and brazenly ignore the existence of adverbs), I think you can borrow a little of their swagger and brazenly call yourself a writer, a real writer, without disclaimers of any kind.
Writers find ways to write about whatever they want. Your uneasy position as a representative of a tech giant with experience in theater, grad school, bad choices, and extra-large debts is the ideal lens through which to examine the warped machinations of media and technology. You start from where you are. You work with what you have. It’s what writers do. Now stop making excuses and get to work.
Rusty: You’re so much kinder than I am! You’re like “you should love yourself more” and I’m like “YOU’RE GONNA DIE, QUIT WHINING.” But I feel like we’re giving basically the same advice here.
Polly: I actually like your advice better. Quitting is one of my only superpowers, I am a huge quitter, and “you can always quit!" is evergreen. I need a t-shirt that says that. Rusty for the win.
Oh this is a competition, by the way.
Rusty: Everything is a competition, as long as I’m winning. (There’s another t-shirt).
I currently work remotely, freelance, and my current boss of around two months has management techniques that are not great for my overall human sanity. I've already decided to find new pastures, but do you have any suggestions for keeping my equilibrium for however long I remain? I'm told his approach is very common for the work culture of his country of origin so I don't think he's intentionally committing emotional terrorism, but frankly I'm wasting a lot of time sitting there feeling extremely sick and then worrying that I'm overreacting.
Love, Using A Burner to Protect the Identities of the Innocent
Rusty: Listen, Love Using a Burner, you’re already headed out the door so just… stop caring? This is a short answer but I think that’s it. One of the key skills to survive life is to be able to not care when the situation calls for it, so here’s a prime opportunity to practice that. Whatever he’s doing doesn’t matter to you. You’re leaving, you’re not stuck with him for much longer. Do as much work as you absolutely must, to a reasonable standard, and let the rest of it go. Instead of feeling bad, plan your next grocery shopping trip or think about Netflix. Literally anything else. You can’t control what he does, but you can control what you do.
Polly: Boy oh boy, do I get it. Feeling sick and worrying that I was overreacting was like a staple of my work life for a solid decade. But you sound pretty clear-eyed about the situation. You accept that there are cultural reasons for this guy’s faulty communication style. That said, I’m going to guess that there’s a layer of intensity to his behavior that you’re picking up on and it’s stressing you out. Are you overreacting? Well, probably, but from what I’m seeing among my friends and in the letters that arrive in my in box, it is just a fragile time to be alive. Literally everyone on the planet is overreacting to everything. It’s very, very hard not to sponge up ambient stress and panic at the moment, no matter what you’re doing.
Personally, I keep announcing “Okay I’m done worrying about this!” or “That’s it! I’m not thinking about the world today!” as if I can keep the whole world out of my brain, as if it’s perfectly normal to shut the door on an ongoing pandemic. I hate to surrender to gloom, but the truth is we still have last year’s trauma to process and this year’s uncertainty to face. And half the people you meet have been fired, divorced, lost a loved one, moved, rearranged their lives, struggled with sickness, or gone broke in the past year and a half. Have you talked to anyone whose life sounds roughly the same as it did in 2019?
Every time we say OKAY IT’S OVER it seems to start again. Sometimes I think we’d be better off back in the bunker mentality of 2020. I didn’t really expect to feel good. I was just surviving. I filled my life with distractions, developed hobbies that became obsessions, played board games with ferocious focus. It sounds dumb but maybe what you mostly need is to inject some passionate diversions into your picture: new music, new games, new foods, new ideas, new books. And when your boss appears in your mind, imagine that he lost his mother this year, and he hates his job, and his wife is leaving him. It’s not unlikely. No one has an excuse to be a dick, of course, but we all have to remember that things are bad out there. Every night, say a prayer of gratitude for whatever you have left.
Rusty: Lol I’m like: “just don’t care!” and Polly’s like: “not caring is impossible!” On average it looks like you’re screwed, Burner.
A week ago I took off a pair of earrings and instead of putting them in a jewelry box left them on a nightstand next to my bed. The next day the person who cleans our home came and in the course of doing her job, the earrings were knocked off the nightstand. I found one earring but the other remains elusive. I really love these earrings both because I think they are beautiful and because I inherited them from my grandmother who died a year ago this month. I love her very much and I miss her terribly.
I called the person who cleans our home and she offered to go through the vacuum bag (I paid her for her time), I've taken all the furniture out of the room but alas the missing earring remains, well, missing. I'm holding out hope that it will somehow turn up but that seems to be an increasingly unlikely possibility.
The question I have is how do I forgive myself for losing this earring? I feel so horrible that I had this lovely memento of my grandmother and through my own carelessness now I don't—it's somewhere but I don't know where and I may not ever again. My grandmother was a very kind woman and she definitely would not want me to be this upset about an earring but somehow knowing that makes me feel even worse.
It's Just Stuff
Polly: Even though the universe is not a living breathing being and therefore doesn’t do things like fuck with us just for fun or test us to see how we’ll react, the truth is it often feels that way. Why wouldn’t it? We’re human beings. We give cats and dogs and steam engines and cartoon poops funny voices and motives and secret emotional lives. Why not do the same for the universe? Why not make the universe perfect and all-knowing and also wrathful, just like God Herself?
So instead of treating the loss of one adored earring as a manifestation of your sloppy, careless ways, what if we saw it as a sneaky prank that the universe has played on you. The merciless universe wants to loosen your fixation on order and control, and in so doing, shake off the idea that when random bad stuff happens, it’s somehow your fault. That’s the kind of faulty belief our brains create when they’re not projecting fully-formed personalities onto canines and dumb boyfriends and cartoon hamburgers alike.
I want you to spend one more hour looking in that room: Under the rug. Inside the HVAC vent. Under your shoes in the closet. Set a timer and slow down and look, calmly and carefully. And when the timer is up, I want you to say to yourself I don’t need to know where the earring is anymore. Then hold the one remaining earring in your palm and love it like crazy. Maybe you can make a necklace out of it? Or maybe you’re just supposed to hold it in your hand for a minute every week or so, and think about your grandmother’s unique spirit, what she taught you, how she held herself, how she gave you her love. Sometimes people are a little careless with material things because they’re more concerned with matters of the heart. Is that you? Is that your grandmother? Maybe the wicked vengeful loving cartoon universe wants you to let go of old things and celebrate that instead.
Rusty: You signed this “It’s Just Stuff,” but it’s not just stuff, it’s the fear of death and the terrifying realization that every second that ticks by is one more second gone out of a bag you don’t know the size of, and nothing that you’ve truly lost is ever coming back, like your childhood, or that one perfect kiss (you know the one), or your grandmother. We put our feelings into objects when the feelings are too big for us to hold in our useless little hands, and then one day the object is gone and the feelings are all free again to flap around and peck at us like vengeful crows, and your brain says “it’s just stuff,” but your heart says “I’ve lost my grandmother again, except this time it was my fault, because I was lazy and didn’t care enough.”
I’m also someone who invests a lot of feelings in objects, and what I had to learn is that it’s not just stuff, it’s stuff and feelings, but the stuff and the feelings can be separated. I have some objects I’d be gutted to lose, and all things being equal I’m sure you would have rather not lost that earring. But you still have one, and you can still pick it up and remember your grandmother, and put your feelings about her back into it, and keep it somewhere safe. So you can’t wear the pair anymore, so what? The other one is somewhere. Maybe it will turn up, and maybe it won’t. Maybe it’s living a life of adventure now, adorning one ear of a pirate, and half of your love for your grandmother is off savoring the salt air and the freedom of the sea, while the other half is still right there if you ever want to just hold it and think about her.
Polly: Ugh, now I’m pissed at this pirate. Thieving bastard needs to turn that ship around and bring that earring back where it belongs!
My husband and I were on the fence about a third baby. Our two kids, who are 17 months apart, hit difficult toddler ages and we decided not to. He got a vasectomy. I got an IUD to be *extra sure* and then (lol why) had to have surgery to scrape it off my colon, my fourth uterus-related surgery in two years. Fast forward like a year. It’s a pandemic, we moved cross-country, I started grad school, both of our preschool-aged children have special needs, no one ever sleeps, the widening gyre, etc. Okay but here’s the thing: I want a third baby. (lol why)
Polly: God, I love these short questions. You get straight to the point and SO DO I! Fucking miraculous!
So here goes: This is hormonal. No one likes to hear that. But dude, welcome to ages 38-105! It’s all hormones from this point forward, a planet of hormones, hormone droughts, hormonal surges, bad skin, good hair, bad hair, good skin, horndogging madness that descends out of nowhere, then despair, then a blazing wave of terrible heat, then glee, then brain fog, then more horndogging. It never, ever ends.
It is a scientific fact that once you finally resolve not to have a third child, you will experience a sudden rush of NEEDING A THIRD. All you can imagine is delicious babies. A NEW ONE! Brand new! A new name! A big, loud, delicious distraction from the terror of being alive! Babies are perfect! Another scientific fact! Everyone needs more of them!
Having a third baby feels right because you’re an animal and animals truly hate a widening gyre. Animals love a soft and adorable solution to sinking despair. And animals – many of them, anyway -- love making new animals with big saucer eyes who gurgle and giggle and don’t use words yet.
I would never influence your actual decision because that’s a holy, private, pristine realm that I would never touch. I will only tell you that my personal surge of needing baby #3 passed after a few months, and a year later I was saying things like HOLY GOD CAN YOU BELIEVE I WANTED ANOTHER BABY? WE WOULD’VE BEEN COMPLETELY FUCKING MISERABLE!
One thing that helped was witnessing a friend with three kids suffering for the next decade after her third was born. Three is a lot of kids. It’s much more convenient to sit at a four-top at a restaurant. Cars do not become cramped with just two children. Sure, I always thought three kids looked like groovy chaos before, but as you age, your hormones stop tricking you into full-time gestating and they start to want you to do things like leave the house and flirt with strangers. And babies tend to squat on that game.
I’m not saying you need to roam and flirt. What I’m really saying is that it sometimes pays to disregard your hormones and listen to the brains in your head saying “lol why?” instead.
Rusty: Mother Hubbard, I can’t help but notice you didn’t actually ask a question here. I’m guessing it’s because all of the obvious ones have obvious answers. Should you try to have another baby? Probably not. You’d be trying to reverse a vasectomy and your uterus has been in and out of the shop, so who knows if that’s running. Seems like a tough road. Should you try to adopt? I don’t know! It’s probably an option, but I assume you know that, and you know that step one would be talking to your partner about it, and you’ve either done that already or decided not to. Steps two through n of that choice are nothing I can really help you with, and I assume you know that too. You gave us a lot of details that indicate you don’t think you’re in a great position to have another baby even if it would physically be easy.
By not asking a question you left me an open field, so I’m gonna say that your question is: “how do I want this, without having it.”
All of you who wrote in with questions cut me absolutely no slack for being a rank beginner at this, and I deeply respect you for it. No one was like “my roommate won’t stop snoring, how can I bring it up without being a jerk?” No, you’re hitting me with the deepest imaginable existential abyss here. What if fate and your own past choices conspire to put you in a situation where you have to just want something, maybe more than you’ve ever wanted anything, and also not have it?
At the end of “The Stranger,” Meursault thinks:
It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.
It’s ok to want things. If you can want a baby and have a baby, then by all means make that happen. But if you need to want a baby without having one, the universe is an infinite heatsink for human feelings. It’s ok to want something, and to gaze up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, and know that the universe doesn’t care. It won’t help you, but it won’t judge you either. Even though he’s about to be executed, Meursault starts this line with: “And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again.” Life starts all over again every moment. It’s ok to want things and not have them, in a moment you’ll be ready to start life all over again.
Polly: I think it’s clear someone wants my job, at any rate. Let’s trade newsletters, Rusty. You write Polly and I’ll heat up Bad Art Friend leftovers for a few weeks, then rename it TODAY IN BABS and write exclusively about Barbara Streisand.
Rusty: Damn, honestly the flames coming off “heat up Bad Art Friend leftovers” proves you are more than qualified. Murdered me in my own newsletter.
That’s it, Polly and the hungry ghost of Rusty are done, the thread is open for your takes. Just remember, this is a competition.
Full on cried reading the newsletter this morning, I love this advice column double act SO much and you both are SO good at it. Nothing of actual interest to add but just wanted to say thank you.
To the earring-loser, I just wanted to suggest my favorite Buddhist parable, “the glass is already broken” (just google that phrase). Essentially the idea is that the destiny of all material things is to be lost or broken. As you drink out of a glass, hold it up and appreciate that it exists in this moment, but also see it as it truly is: Already broken, as it will be, eventually. The earring was made to be lost, and now that loss has inevitably happened. But that doesn’t take away your memories of your grandmother, your experience of having the earrings, and your feelings about what they meant to you. On the practical side, maybe you can have the remaining earring set into a pendant or other jewelry?