August 24, 2012

rambling thoughts from my life on the road

A not-so-unusual view from my life on the road.
As fans of "The Hunger Games" book and movie franchise, my co-workers and I frequently carry on conversations about the series. During one such talk, a few of us became convinced our lives were like the Games.

Here's how it works: Our job is unique. We travel the country to interview sources, racking up thousands of miles a trip, hundreds of photos and dozens of stories. We travel light, often and alone.

Here's how we saw it after making the analogy: Each of us is offered up as tribute. We are sent far from our homes. We must fight to survive. Our outlook is not good. Part journalist, part public relations, our very job description is at battle with itself. It is a solitary fight. In our dramatic minds, it is a lot like the Hunger Games.

"I'm heading into the arena," one might say.

"Don't let the Games change you," another will respond.

"When it's over, I want to still be me."

The dramatic lines are said with humor, and it always earns a few laughs. It helps to keep it light, but often I think about the truth behind the jokes. It is not always funny.

For my first three years with the company, I traveled constantly. A year ago, I changed jobs in the office, which means I am basically off the road. With a heavy event schedule this summer, I offered to take a few trips to help out with the extra workload. Thanks to several recent days spent behind the wheel and nights in a hotel room, my mind keeps wandering back to the first year -- those first weeks and months -- when I lived half my life out of a suitcase.

Though many experiences made me the person I am now, this one particularly defined me. I realized I do not want to forget the good and the bad from that time. So please indulge me.

Me on my first trip in August/September 2008. Look at me
all fresh-faced and barely 22. Look at how greasy my hair was
and how many pimples on my face. (I've got that and my
weight under better control now.)
I started my job in contract corporate communications four years ago, fresh out of college. At the time, I figured it was a short-term gig until the economy improved and the journalism industry bounced back after hard times. I did not see it as abandoning journalism, but as something to do until I could return to newspapers or maybe venture officially into public relations.

I saw it as an adventure. Travel the country. Meet hard-working men and women in an industry I knew little about. Take photos. Write stories. Earn an income. Live life. When I graduated college, my No. 1 desire was "adventure in the great wide somewhere," courtesy of Beauty and the Beast's Belle. This was an opportunity.

A few weeks in, the bosses sent me to West Texas. I was excited. Though I never had any major wish to visit the oil fields or watch tumbleweed blow by, I saw it as an chance to see the country. As a writer, it appealed to me.

I cried every day. Though I consider myself an independent woman, flying 1,000 miles to drive 1,500 more was hard. Renting a car for the first time with a special waver (I was only 22) felt like signing my life away. Staying in a beat-up motel in the middle of desert was bleak. Having no Internet connection and poor cell reception left me isolated.

The people, who I imagined would welcome me warmly, were harder to talk to than I imagined. Oh, most of them were kind and helpful, but unfortunately, as is usually the case, the rude ones stuck out more at the end of the day.

The same day one group of guys gave me pecan pie and allowed me to operate a locomotive in the shop was the same day another group walked out of the room rather than talk to me. It gave me emotional whiplash. Was this how it always was?

Still new to the office, I did not have anyone I called for help or advice. Blame for this probably falls on me. I was shy around my co-workers, which kept me from building any close ties those first few months. And I was embarrassed by the idea of seeming weak and needing help.

When my GPS went out, I picked up a map and learned to follow railroad tracks to find my destination. I discovered parts of towns I never expected to see, and eventually I did find where I needed to go.

After that person loudly told everyone in the crew room not to talk to the "corporate snitch," I gave up, and went to the next location. In hindsight, I realize that was the best decision, but at the time I worried it might cost me my job.

Even as I felt myself get the hang of the job, I worried it was not enough. Not professionally or personally. When I stopped at a roadside attraction to see a crater, my enjoyment was short-lived when I realized I had no one to share it with. I could call my parents and describe it. Take photos and share them. Write about it here. But it was not the same as turning to the person next to you and sharing impressions as it happened.

I had never felt more alone. My minor successes seemed to evaporate.

After days and weeks and months and years, I learned to handle the solitude. I passed the time on the road with audio books, diverse playlists and lots of personal reflection. When a person was mean, I used it as motivation to work harder. I made friends at work who could commiserate. I built contacts and connections with my customers.

But I still cried almost every trip. Sometimes it was because the story on the news was sad. Other times it was frustration, or exhaustion.

Worst was when I cried, because I pitied myself. This was not the work I imagined when I went into journalism. This was not supposed to be my life. I knew I should feel fortunate to have a job, especially after the downturn in the economy became long-term. And I do, for the most part. I am grateful for all of these experiences. Even the bad.

On tough days, I learned to get through by saying it was another one for character development or experience. Sometimes I treat the days with sarcasm I did not have before. I try not to seem bitter, but sometimes I do. This is where the Hunger Games references come into play.

And now me on a trip four years later. At 26 I have a few
more wrinkles, but fewer pimples and better hair.
Oh, and I have more experience. Lots of experience.
(Cue: Peter, Paul and Mary singing, "A sadder girl,
but wiser now....")

While my life carries little comparison to the Hunger Games — I'll never have to worry about killing other people to stay alive, and I have never been starved a day in my life — I realize it is similar in one way. Like Katniss and Peeta, this is a life I can never forget and it has changed who I am. Some memories are good, like making quick visits to Niagara Falls or the Alamo. I like remembering those. Others are painful, and I would rather forget them. But I cannot forget, because they are part of me.

I have changed. I may not travel much any more, but I am a different person. In some ways I am better: I am stronger, more fearless and patient. In other, I am worse: I am more pessimistic and prone to pout. Change is inevitable.

I learned valuable lessons. Like, it is OK to ask for help. It is acceptable to cut your losses and move on when a situation seems dire. Be brave, even when you feel like a coward. It is important to have confidence and belief in yourself, because really, you cannot count on anyone else for that. If you are happy, laugh. If you are sad, cry.

Have faith in something, even if it is counting on a Diet Coke tasting the same in Schenectady, N.Y., as it does in Temple, Texas.

The most valuable lesson is this: Just because something is not what you signed up for, does not mean it lacks value. We writers are lucky. All of these experiences — the good and the bad — are more than life. They are inspiration.

For my part, I used the alone time on the road to craft stories to keep myself entertained. I used angry clients or rude interviewees as the basis for villains in my books. Every time I disagree with someone, I make notes of what I would like to say and figure out how I can work it into dialogue. I even used the experience of being alone and constantly fighting to please everyone in an industry you do not understand as the basis for my first novel.

And the good memories help, too. I have traveled to more than half the states in the U.S., and seeing the scenery and talking to the locals gives me extra flavor to add to my stories.

The thought I want to leave you with, after this this long, rambling post is that we writers should take advantage of all experiences  and consider it research. Or at least find some other way to exploit it for our craft.

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