Last week I did an ELI Talks on Air - a conversation with See3's Lisa Colton about my writing and connections to community - covering a flashback to my Jewish Week singles days, how I feel about clicking "publish," and what kinds of grief communities have been helpful to me (shoutouts to Modern Loss & The Dinner Party around 17 minutes in). Plus a preview of the content for my book-in-progress, "Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After." (And yes, I cry a little. But that's ok. Because I also invented a new Google Glass style product.)
Other highlights from the conversation (full video embedded below):
Thanks to ELI Talks for hosting me - tune into elitalks.org weekly for live conversations with interesting people, and check out their produced TED-style talks at elitalks.org or on their YouTube channel.
Three years after losing my mother, I'm beginning to gain some perspective.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still devastated at my mother's absence and irritated by the onslaught of media messaging. And while I appreciate the sentiment, Skype telling me to call my mom on Mother's Day is a bit much - unless they actually can connect us, in which case, a resounding "yes" and "my bad for calling you out."
But halfway through Mother's Day here on the West Coast, I'm encouraged by the variety of posts I'm seeing - primarily on Facebook, but in other media outlets as well (see some interesting links below) - that indicate love for mothers past and present, hopes for future maternal roles, and the acknowledgement that although this holiday is an invented Hallmark one, its presence can be one that inspires some and hurts others.
Especially that last circumstance is something I'm seeing explored more and more, and although I don't envy the hurt that provoked the shift (because I do have my own), the fact that more of us are speaking out about this day as complicated (for some, suddenly so) is a good thing. It creates empathy among us all, increases appreciation and encourages us to reach out to those who make an impact regardless of whether they're biologically mothers or not.
As some of you may know, I have published two Mother's Day pieces - "Dealing with the Mother's Day Motherlode Now That Our Mothers Are Gone" last year, focusing on the media onslaught, and this year's "Marking Mother's Day When Mother is Gone" in the NY Jewish Week, which (if the Facebook Like counter is a reliable measure) has been read hundreds of times since it appeared on Wednesday. I've been blessed with really great feedback on these pieces, and have been very gratified to see this subject covered so well by other people who are putting their lives back together again after loss, and putting words to the process to share publicly. I wanted to use this space to share four pieces - not written by me - that I found moving, helpful and resonant over the last few days.
Welcome to My Urban Kvetch, a place for me to vent about the issues that clutter my brain as I live my so-called-freelance life in the Big City. I'm all about looking at my experience through the lens of humor, whenever it's possible. […]And though I've resisted long enough, I'm joining the blog generation. My hopes? That this space will provide me with a forum for fleshing out ideas, kicking around premises and developing essays that will ultimately yield publishable fruit. And making it public? Hoping to be discovered, of course...by a fan base or by editors who will make my dreams of a positive checkbook balance a reality.
-First blog post at MyUrbanKvetch.blogspot.com, February 2, 2004
As of today, I’ve been blogging for 10 years. In those early years, I didn’t really expect to have an audience, so I named the blog after a popular NYC home delivery service, and just wrote until the piece felt finished, never mind the length or the sharpness of my arguments. Some posts were shorter bursts of commentary, and others more introspective. But as I became aware that other people were reading, I started to edit more carefully – less of a brain download and more of a curated analysis. To go a little meta, this is a curated analysis of some of those already curated posts; a retrospective of sorts – not 100% chronological, but representative of journeys in styles, words and ideas over a decade.
At first, since I was a freelancer who was living on a budget in one of the most expensive cities in the world, a lot of posts focused on my apartment and my Upper West Side life. "Today I am a Toilet" (February 2004) recounted a rite of passage in the life of every nice single Jewish girl: that time when you have to lift a commode. (Come on, you know we’ve all been there…) August 2006's "Match Point" told another relatable tale, as our heroine, in search of chocolate, swallows something else entirely. (The original title of that post was “Dare to Be Stupid.”) In July 2007, her bathroom was the site of another unusual scene, transforming into "Upper West Side Rainforest."
As I began to travel more, I began to realize that I really didn't like flying. Superstition emerged, and I committed to saying "The Traveler's Prayer" (April 2005) whenever I traveled - however, I seemed unable to memorize it and always seemed to forget to bring it with me. So I came up with an interim solution, to which I return every time I forget to bring my handy "Tefilat Haderech card" with me. Among my more memorable travel adventures was the time that the Snowpocalypse stranded me at JFK overnight awaiting a flight to London for Limmud. , but people also remember fondly my fight with Delta, or most recently and as-yet unblogged, my losing my passport at Heathrow and somehow managing to travel back to LA without it.
If you work in or adjacent to the Jewish nonprofit world, you know that the release of a study on Jewish identity can launch a thousand op-ed pieces, even if the findings themselves are not entirely surprising. The arrival of such a study can elicit excitement or flat-out panic, and reactions swirl together violently into an intellectual and emotional froth. As passionate consumers - educators, academics, rabbis, Jewish communal workers, pundits and theorists - assess this information, each draws out the information that serves - or threatens - them most, taking to their computers to provide analysis about how the findings indicate Jews must alter our priorities in order to thrive, or - more frequently - to merely survive.Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study about Jewish identity. (Not only is this study not on their homepage, a search for "Jewish identity" brought up "Faith Online," and for "Jewish" yielded "Wired Churches, Wired Temples.") According to a summary on eJewishPhilanthropy, "The survey suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion. This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public, whose share of religious 'nones' is similar (20%)." It also included the statistic that 34 percent of those surveyed said you could still be Jewish if you believe that Jesus was the Messiah. (That was a surprising one, actually.)
If statistics like these fill your brain with a froth of new ideas about how this survey is good or bad for the Jews, here are some guidelines designed to help you in writing your response, whether it's an academic article, a sermon or a Facebook post. These are tried and true methods that will enable your treatise to resonate - but don't use them all in one place. Pick and choose wisely, for greatest impact.
This is a continuation of last Sunday’s post, “(What's Not) Working at a Nonprofit: Tumbling Ideas for Nonprofit Improvement.”
The nonprofit worker's life is full of frustration - while many of us suspected this was the case in our particular nonprofit professional experiences, at the end of July, we learned it wasn't just us. The Working in a Nonprofit Tumblr made it clear - these things are far more wide-reaching than our individual work lives, and weren't localized to Jewish nonprofit, either. Higher-ups taking three weeks to return an email....being expected to take a paycut because it’s a cause you believe in.... the frustration of having to get approval on literally every event detail...someone saying, “we should start a committee for this”...when someone responds to your email with questions that were clearly answered in your first email, etc. These situations resonated with people, and the site was shared widely.
"It’s clear that the current system is broken," co-founder Leanne Pittsford said in her blog post titled "Why We Created the 'When You Work at a Nonprofit' Tumblr Blog." She and her partner Leah Neaderthal (who also co-founded the Tumblr) run Start Somewhere, which helps nonprofits with design, database and programming support, so they've been on the observing and improving end for a number of nonprofit programs and startup organizations, including Equality CA and TechSoup Global. "We’re talking about how we can take the energy around the blog and turn it into something that leads to action to improve working conditions for every nonprofit employee."
Some of these challenges may be deeply-rooted into the infrastructure of most nonprofits, and embedded in the organizational culture in a way that may be unchangeable. But I agree with the blog's cofounders in seeing the success of this Tumblr not just as a funny-because-it’s-true-but-also-sad-because-it’s-true pop culture moment, but as an opportunity for nonprofits everywhere. These challenges present a blueprint for change.
Challenge #1: Bureaucracy and Process Problems
A number of the above examples – and a recurring theme in the Tumblr’s posts – is the unfortunate and widespread fact that nonprofit process and bureaucracy frequently impede progress. In one example, higher-ups take three weeks to return an email. Understandably, sometimes responses take time - CEOs are busy people, and even non-CEOs suffer from a deluge of email – but part of the challenge here is that the message goes into a void. Did it arrive, the sender wonders? Was it seen? Do people know that it's important? Will anyone respond? And if so, when? No one knows, and the sender certainly doesn’t want to be a noodge. So everyone waits, and the process is delayed, and progress can’t be made. Or the sender does prod the recipient for a response, which makes the recipient annoyed and less likely to send an appropriate and helpful response, not just to that particular email but in the future. It's a vicious cycle. (Much like impassive kittens playing ping-pong.)
Suggested Solution: Establish Response Expectations
To respect the heavy responsibilities of all nonprofit workers, perhaps what's needed is some kind of acknowledgement that the request has been received and is being processed, for instance, instituting a timeline for responses from upper management. Having a timeframe for an expected response allows others to continue in their work, knowing and trusting that there's a process for managing requests as well as for followup. Perhaps leadership could acknowledge the high volume of requests with an autoresponse that clearly identifies a timeframe or a chain of command - “if you don’t hear from us by next Wednesday, feel free to email a reminder” or “we will get to your question soon, but if your request is time-sensitive, please reach out to [designated employee] for assistance.”
Challenge #2: Having to Get Approvals on Every Event Detail
When it comes to events, obviously there’s little to be done about the need for detailed contracts that fill nonprofit workers’ lives with the misery that is the approvals process. But the question of when “attention to detail” and “legally necessary” becomes “too many cooks, too many approvals, and way too much micromanaging,” it's time to reassess the process.
Suggested Solution: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Yes, it’s a cliché. But just as in personal budgeting, there’s always something small you can live without, perhaps it’s time to relinquish control over having every detail in your personal spreadsheet. If you’re a boss who believes he or she has hired good people, step back and let people do their jobs. Absolutely have a process for events. Give constructive feedback, and clearly communicate expectations for future events. But know when to intervene and when to let go. If you feel strongly about approving the venue, types and quantity of rented tables, color of tablecloths, etc, that's fine - but leave the schedule, the food, the naming of event-themed cocktails, etc to the capable employees you work with. All of the event details must be handled, but do they have to be handled 100 percent your way? Sometimes imposing your structure of supervision on a process that’s already working can serve as an impediment to progress. Trust the people you hired - you won't have to oversee everything and they will be able to implement their own process that will arrive at an equivalent destination, even if they get there by taking a different road.
Challenge # 3: Someone’s About to Form Another Committee, Board, Working Group or Task Force
Committees can also serve as an important engagement tool, but if there’s no clear reason for convening and no respect for the time and talent around the table, it can serve the opposite purpose, alienating your stakeholders.
Suggested Solution: Be Clear About Your Content/Convene the Right People
If there’s something specific you’d like to achieve, if you have a clear goal, timeline and strategy plan, if you have the right people around the table, if you’re being respectful of people’s time and talents – go right ahead and form that body to consider actions or create vision. But bear in mind that the only thing more frustrating than sitting in one meeting where the purpose of the convening is unclear is sitting in a series of meetings where the purpose of the convening is unclear. This is not to say that there’s no role for open space and community brainstorming to identify directions for an assembled body; but even such freer-form techniques should help clarify the issue being addressed or the methods that you will use to address that challenge. So clearly communicate the purpose behind the convening. Have an agenda, establish a series of next steps, and make sure that everyone feels invested in and responsible for the success of the clearly articulated mandate – if any of these links is weak, it decreases the likelihood that anything substantial will be accomplished.
Challenge #4: Lower Status, Lower Salaries, Higher Callings and Higher Expectations
It’s true that nonprofit professionals are expected to do their jobs for less money than their peers in the for-profit sector. There is also, unfortunately, a lower social prestige involved in this field – the typical response to saying you’re in nonprofit is often a head tilt, and a “good for you,” accompanied by an automatic dip in that person’s perception of your professionalism. And this lowering of public perception, combined with the low pay and slow and frustrating process of progress, diminishes professional drive and expectations, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy: by being seen as less professional many of them become less professional. I have seen many promising Jewish nonprofit professionals who entered the field with idealism and boundless energy - now, they are working their designated hours, meeting their job requirements, but do so with dwindling energy and waning enthusiasm as they realize that in many respects they’re fighting a losing battle. Most discouragingly, in many cases the losing battle isn't the cause itself, but the obstinacy of the organization that is supposed to be tackling that cause.
Suggested Solution: Support and Appreciate Employees
Nonprofit professionals are idealists, but they also understand how it is on the ground. They know that lawyers, doctors, internet impresarios and hedge fund managers make more than they do, so we all know that there’s only so much to be done on the salary front. But appreciation? Validation? Incentives? Schedule flexiblity? This is the area where effort and care can have a real impact on quality of life for nonprofit employees. A new coffee machine or an employee appreciation day or even a crafted gathering for employees to try to troubleshoot challenges together indicate that employees are valued and that their opinions matter. Not every organization can afford a fancy espresso machine or a day at Disneyland to build morale and renew enthusiasm, but using an honest and sincere approach to making employees feel like their opinions and creativity are valued and important doesn’t have to be an expensive investment. Ask your employees what would help them, listen to their responses, and implement as many suggestions as you can; be as transparent as you can be about why you're implementing certain suggestions and not others, so people know their ideas have been considered and are seen as valuable, even if not every idea can be birthed into workplace reality.
A new approach toward effective communication, supervisor trust and support, and employee validation and appreciation could provide the necessary uptick in motivation and productivity and emotional reconnection to the work that drew us all here in the first place. If we’re lucky, the outcomes of our nonprofit work make us feel good. But wouldn’t it also be something special if working at a nonprofit actually felt good while we were doing it?
For more about the When You Work at a Nonprofit Tumblr, visit the Start Somewhere blog.
If you’re working for a Jewish nonprofit, it’s entirely probable that you’ve seen the “Working at a Nonprofit” site, featuring images from TV and film – which themselves don’t really have anything to do with actually working at a nonprofit –juxtaposed with text headings to illustrate the challenges and frustrations of nonprofit professional life.
For instance, “When you are in a meeting, scheduling a meeting, about the next meeting,” features a clip of Mad Men’s Peggy Oleson slamming her head into a desk. (We’ve all been there.)
This piece of social commentary appears courtesy of a blogging platform called Tumblr, which you should probably know about. (If you’re already fluent in Tumblr, feel free to continue at the start of the next paragraph, or continue to see how I manage to explain something that’s so clearly lacking an “e.”) For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Tumblr is a site designed as a simple style of blog; while it can focus on text as content (like the recent, brilliant and self-explanatory “Life of a Stranger Who Stole My Phone”), most “Tumblrs” focus on images, video or a series of gifs, moving image combos that recall the flip book or early film technology (named - like a .doc - after the file’s extension, .gif). If you have Photoshop, you can strip video down to a few frames and make a gif.
While some people create .gifs just because they can, others are turning them into an art form, entertainment or political commentary like the “Binders Full of Women” meme that popped up during the Presidential Debates, or social commentary like the above Nonprofit Tumblr. And while it’s all in good fun and often displays an immediate brilliance, seizing some phrase or pop culture figure particularly ripe for humor or spoofery, the “Working in a Nonprofit” one struck me deeply.
I'm not generally the person who makes a federal case out of delayed flights and travel troubles - this is the cost for modern airline travel. But last weekend, I flew back from New York on a flight that was severely delayed. And the fun didn't end there. This is the letter I wrote to the airline, submitted via their customer service form for Comments or Complaints - name of airline redacted for now - with a few literary flourishes added for my discerning blog readers. - EK
Dear Major Airline,
Look, I get it. I understand that flights get delayed, that equipment malfunctions and needs to be fixed. And just to be clear, I want you to fix the equipment malfunctions, and if it even remotely looks like it can’t be fixed, I also definitely want you to switch to an airplane that actually works. I’m even willing to wait until there’s a plane that flies properly.
So when I write to you about Flight # R5-D4*, which had been scheduled to depart at 9pm on Sunday July 28, I’m not writing about the delay of 45 minutes, which turned into 2 hours, which turned into 3 before any of us stopped counting. I’m not writing about waiting in the airport, or the crew’s behavior up to that point – staff members were apologetic and responsive, giving us $25 vouchers for shopping to ease the discomfort of delay, and some people received meal vouchers too (I had already eaten on my own dime, so I didn’t track down those meal vouchers). The trouble started once we were loaded onto the smaller plane.
After we boarded, someone realized there wouldn’t be enough seats on a smaller plane -why this only happened after our full flight from the bigger plane boarded the smaller plane, I just don't know - and the flight crew asked for volunteers to deplane. I really, really wanted to get home as soon as possible, and wasn’t inclined to volunteer for deplaning, until they announced the benefits package: a first-class seat on the first flight out in the morning at 7am, an overnight hotel stay with transfers to and from the airport, as well as 600 airline credit dollars, good on flights anywhere with the airline. If I took the 7am, I could fly in first class, a kind of comfort only dreamed of, be at work at 11, and have “earned” some money toward a vacation or family reunion at a future date.
I rang for a flight attendant: “Do you guys still need volunteers?”
“I think so,” she said, “go to the front to ask them directly before you get your bags.”
Following instructions, I walked to the front of the plane, asked them, they said, “Yes, we need you, go get your bags and come back.” So I did, walking back to the back of the plane quickly, grabbing my stuff as the flight attendants had instructed me, and exiting the plane at the front.
At the airplane door, I reported to claim the first-class seat I’d been offered, only to be told by the agent that there were no first-class or business seats on the 7am flight, only coach. (The reason I stepped off the plane, if you recall, was the promise of flying back to LA in first class.) “What about the 9am?” I asked. Only coach, he responded. Fine, I agreed. I’d take an aisle seat in coach on the 7am. No aisle seats were available, only middles, he told me. A nervous flier to begin with, I couldn’t face flying in the cramped middle seat. I sighed. So much for getting to work at a reasonable delay. “What about the noon flight?” The noon had first class seats available, so I was booked onto that. Seat 2D. It wasn’t what I’d been promised, but it would do. I'd be able to get some sleep tonight, and relax and work on the plane in the morning.
I walked the long gangway back up to the terminal gate, and when I arrived, a gate agent glared at me and sneered, “What are you doing here?”
“I gave up my seat and was booked onto another flight tomorrow,” I said.
“Why are they still sending people up here?” she barked. I understood that it was a frustrating situation, and that it was around midnight at this point, but her frustration was now squarely centered on me.
“I have no idea, but I was told that you needed volunteers, so I volunteered, and was rebooked onto a noon tomorrow,” I said.
Then she took my ticket, and threw it away. “You’re going back onto that plane,” she said. “They shouldn’t have kept on sending people up here.”
“Well, they did,” I said. “I gave up my seat a while ago, and was booked onto a flight tomorrow. I’m not going back on the plane. I’m tired and I’m going to the hotel to go to sleep.”
“You’re going back on the plane.”
“This is not acceptable,” I said.
“Fine. Take this drink ticket.” Into my hand she had thrust a card the size of a business card entitling me to a free drink.
“I don’t want a drink ticket.”
“Fine. Take two.” She shoved a second card at me.
“I don’t drink on airplanes. It makes me sick.” (If you've flown with me, you know this is true.)
“Just use it for snacks, then. You have to go back on the plane. We can’t fly with that seat empty.” (Because as we all know, a plane NEVER flies with 32E empty. </sarcasmfont>)
A guy at the counter pipes up, “I’ll take the seat! I need to get out of here tonight.”
“You don’t have a ticket, you’re not going on the plane,” the gate agent said to him.
“Look, what I don’t understand is that you needed me as a volunteer five minutes ago and now you don’t. What changed?”
“There was a couple that was traveling together, so we gave them priority. You’re single, and because you’re alone, you need to get back on the plane.” (She might have said, “because you’re traveling alone,” but it was late, and – as a former singles columnist – this is the language I remember.)
After nearly three hours of delay, I didn’t want to be the person who held up the plane, so I picked up my stuff, and with one last line from me about the treatment being unacceptable, I returned to the plane, promising that they’d be getting a letter from me. The gate agent who had booked me followed me out, and gave me a consolation prize - a $100 voucher for credit toward a future flight, which forces me to spend more money on this airline before I can claim it, something I am not inclined to do based on this experience.
When I relayed this story to others, they asked me if I had taken the names of the people who had told me to step off the plane, or the person who had verbally abused me at the gate. I hadn’t: I was extremely tired, and it didn’t occur to me that a company like this one would dangle one offer and substitute another, or that a gate agent would take her frustration out on me. I fly often between New York and L.A., and as airlines usually note, we all have a choice in air travel. Based on this experience, the airline has proven itself untrustworthy and I am extremely unlikely to choose this airline in the future.
It would help as a gesture of goodwill if you would follow through on the original promise - a first-class, transcontinental ticket on a future flight and 600 airline credit dollars – or at least credit me for the cost of the flight that the airline botched so badly. It has been suggested to me that I send this letter to the head of customer service and the president of the company, but I thought I'd try this channel first.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
*In the original post, I referred to this flight as TK-421, which was an inside joke for Star Wars fans, but which apparently led some readers to believe the errant airline was Turkish Airlines, which - of course - on a domestic flight JFK-LAX, it was not. You'll see if you follow the above link, that TK-421 famously left his post to check on some equipment on the Millennium Falcon, at which point he and his co-guard (TK-422, if I'm not mistaken) were attacked by Luke and Han who donned their uniforms to save Princess Leia. I have now changed this fake flight designation to R5-D4, a malfunctioning little red droid with a bad motivator, which is not entirely inappropriate, given my experience. Are we okay now, internet people?
Mother’s Day is here again, which is great for most people whose mothers are still alive. But for those of us who have lost our mothers, this holiday presents an onslaught of media messages urging us to reach out to someone who we can no longer touch.
“I was overwhelmed by the onslaught of Mother's Day displays in stores, radio commercials and especially those pull-at-the-heart strings attempts to convince people to buy flowers, cell phones, and clap-on lighting devices,” said Rebecca Soffer, an independent producer and writer in New York whose mother died in a car accident in 2006.
Bex Schwartz, a New York-based creative director who lost her mother "relatively suddenly" in April 2010, spends the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day in what she describes as “a state of fury. That first year, all the omnipresent Mother's Day shit made me sad. But now every time I see an ad or get an email telling me to shower my mother with love (and gifts) I just get angry.”
"When you don't have a mother, suddenly it seems like the entire world does." remembers Soffer. That first year, she joined a friend's family for brunch, but "as lovely as they all were, all I could think of was how uncomfortable, and even angry, I felt among them."
Time makes the pain different in its depth or sharpness, but doesn’t erase it. “I am tired of people telling me that, now that I have a daughter, Mother's Day will no longer be sad for me,” said Shannon Sarna Goldberg, NYC-based food-writer and blogger who gave birth to her daughter Ella last year. “True, this is the first Mother's Day in 15 years where I feel like I have something to do other than be annoyed and sad and generally brooding. But to say that the presence of a child (or any additional relationship) will negate the loss of one's mother shows a lack of understanding of what it means to be motherless, and a lack of recognition of the sanctity about what our moms mean to each us.”
The first few years are predictably rocky, as the shift happens from omnipresent-but-innocuous Hallmark holiday and excuse for family gatherings to a wrenching reminder of what has been lost. “I was in too much pain; it was easier to try to shut down the meaning of Mother's Day because I was an only child and my father was in too much pain to ask me to remember her with him,” Soffer remembers. “I ended up talking a long walk along the Hudson at the end of the day, far away from restaurants, Duane Reade card displays, and, most importantly, families.” But after a few years, she missed acknowledging a day with so many memories attached. “I decided to try out ways to feel connected with my mother instead of expending so much energy ignoring her.”
In trying to cope with Mother's Day, the challenge is to synthesize our losses within the construct of larger society, while this day-with-capital-D goes on around us, punctuating our landscape with signs of celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. So we search out ways to remember.
When I first found it, it was like a breeze of fresh air: the merest whisper of hipster energy, a wooden interior that evoked Brooklyn and San Francisco and Tel Aviv and all the coffeeshops I'd loved before, as venues for procuring caffeine as well as for the bustling creativity that seemed to live there. This was a place that made me want to dissolve the ties I had to brand franchises whose emblems of tea leaves and mermaids promised an exotic beverage experience, but delivered a product that was ultimately manufactured to be reliable and predictable.
But that was not the case here. Not at a place with cushions on benches, with four levels of seating - couch, table, bar and above - or where teas were served in pots and lattes took up every inch of glorious space in their wide-mouthed mugs. This place had free wifi, was a great place for meetings, and was a safe space for laptop nation. It even made me want to forgive the intentionally misspelled word in their name.
I spent Sundays there, writing; aside from the occasional rabbinical student (not surprising, given the neighborhood), I was surrounded by people very different than those I worked with in the Jewish communal world. Guys in their 50s with longish hair and goatees, gesturing and posturing as they name drop minor celebrities; a series of women with increasingly larger and darker frames on their glasses; scarves, skinny jeans and flip-flops on men, women and children of all ages; the actor who plays Haley's boyfriend on "Modern Family"; women in leotards and men in cutoff sweatpants straight from the dance studio in the back, ordering tea as the sweat shows through their spandex; and the writers, like me who sat there, tapping away at keyboards, perhaps creatively inspired by those conversations and perhaps straight-up transcribing them.
These conversations were about nothing and everything, mostly things I don't get to talk about at work, things like "spec scripts," "web series," "new music dropping" and "independent film treatments." I could tune into these conversations, like the real-life radio station Pandora and Spotify never dreamed of, or I could pop in my earbuds and focus on my own words that seemed to flow so much easier in this environment than in any other one I'd found so far in Los Angeles.
I didn't remember signing up for their email newsletter, but why wouldn't I want to know what was going on at my favorite neighborhood haunt? Throughout, I bought coffee and tea, renting my space among the others of my tribe. It was wonderful.
Then, I left. For three weeks. Not as any political statement (#freelaptopnation! #occupyhipstercoffeeshops!) but because it was Passover. I try not to blame myself; due to dietary restrictions, I wouldn't have been there anyway. But absence didn't serve this particular relationship well. While I was away, my beloved had a change of heart.
It was 9 am on a Sunday and I was an hour early for my meeting - I had hoped to caffeinate and create until my date arrived. But I came back to a sign: "Welcome to Laptop-Free Weekends." A rejection of me, my lifestyle and livelihood, masquerading as a welcome mat for everyone else. I turned on my heel and left, rescheduling my appointment with Microsoft Word as well as with my date. I couldn't believe it. Betrayed.
Soon after, the newsletters started coming more frequently, sharing news of expansion - the cafe was changing into a full-on restaurant, and - although the email didn't state it directly, I knew that part of that was the crackdown on those of us who were perceived as squatting freeloaders. I had never felt more like a character from "Rent." (Which is only appropriate, because so many cafe patrons look like they were understudying roles from "Rent," and we could all learn the Mimi "Take Me Ouoooot Tonight" choreography in the dance studio in the back.)
The newsletters kept coming, in greater frequency: it felt like they were laughing at me. Finally, I unsubscribed, and the unsubscribe page had allotted space for customers to explain their departure from this news cycle. So I told them why. Because the cafe had been a home for me, helping me to tap into my creativity, and now it was closed to me. Because I felt marginalized. Because it seemed to indicate an assumption about me and the rest of laptop nation, that we don't feel obligated to pay for the space we take up in their establishment. Because it felt like they were maligning us as a population that doesn't contribute to their reputation or income, despite the fact that we have meetings there, lunches there, buy cups of coffee to fuel our creative spirits and provide little breaks from staring at the screen. As if we hadn't aided them in their success at all. If not for laptop nation, would they have any Yelp rating at all?
The frequency of the missives, shouting about how well they were doing - adding a dinner menu, a comedy night, a concert - all at the expense of having kicked laptop nation to the curb, getting that in my inbox on the regular was like constantly answering the phone when an ex calls to crow about how much fun he's having without you.
And so I left. I can't say for certain that I'll never take a coffee meeting there again, but I am on the lookout, for something that provides me with what this other place took away. Because sometimes, a lady and her laptop just need a latte. And as for my ex-cafe? I have no acts of revenge planned. I even left their name out of this post. But I can't speak for the rest of laptop nation. They might not be so forgiving. I guess time, Yelp, and the rest of the social web will be the judge of that.