Monday, November 7, 2011

Karen Krebsbach

Lately, I've been thinking about the people who influence our lives. The big ones, we can usually tick off. Mom and/or dad is on most lists. A teacher who got through to us in some fundamental way. A mentor who questioned something we took on faith, and made us rethink our view of the world. But lately, the people who have been in my mind are the people whose contributions were small, but had large ripples; people whose names I might not remember, who are just in my head as a snapshot or a voice.

There's the disheveled editor who seemed to be overwhelmingly disorganized, snapping my head back one day by refusing to file my story until I had added up and analyzed the numbers. He was right – looking at the numbers led me to realize there was something amiss, and I called back and asked more questions. In the theatre industry in Chicago – which I covered for 20 years – I am known for checking and rechecking the numbers, and often finding mistakes.

There are the two women who took me under their wing when I was working tech for a big show once. I started out working in lighting, and the board operator (who was in charge of the crew) tried to kiss me, then was verbally abusive for a sadly memorable week after I rebuffed him. These women, whom I can most accurately and lovingly describe as “broads” (of the kind that you have to have lived in Las Vegas to really know), got me transferred out of the light crew and onto the stage crew and then literally acted as a barrier to the asshole when he put up a fuss. I don't know their names. I was 20. They were in their 40s or 50s. If they are still alive, I'm sure they don't remember me. But the example they showed me of how strong women take care of each other has stayed with me. I would totally act as a barrier in a similar situation.

Then there's Karen Krebsbach. I remember her name partly because I thought it was cool, and partly because there's a Krebsbach family in Garrison Keillor's “Lake Wobegon.” And she was from the midwest; Wisconsin or Minnesota, I can't remember.

Karen was an editor at the first daily I worked at. I did obits, and tried to break into writing longer features. I tackled education funding in Massachusetts. I wrote about eminent domain, and how some homeowners were being screwed by the government in the service of a national park. Other editors there thought I was wasting my time. One even took a quote from a state senator out of one of my pieces on education funding. The senator posited, in a face to face interview, that the model should be changed from property taxes to sales taxes – a radical idea in the '80s, but an intuitive one in an area just west of Boston where property tax growth was fixed, but the high tech industry was just taking hold.

The editor told me the senator hadn't actually introduced legislation, so the quote shouldn't be in the piece.

But Karen... stayed with me. She was nice. She was smart. She hung around after hours to go over my longer pieces and help me shape them. Writing about larger issues is a bit like sculpting. Karen was a great sculptor, and she helped me see how to craft and sculpt, too.

After I left that job and got an internship at the Boston Globe sports department, I found to my surprise and delight that Karen was working in the Globe's business section. We didn't have coffee or anything. But we were happy to see each other, talked about what we were working on. She wasn't that much older than me, but she encouraged me to dream – to go after what I wanted. She was the first person who actively told me that I was a good writer. For her, it seemed a given. I didn't let on how much I appreciated the assumptiveness of her opinion. I didn't let on a lot in those days.

But in the years since, whether I realized it or not, I would hear Karen's voice as I was writing. It could have been something as simple as “be consistent with your references” or as complicated as “Who's voice are you telling this with?” Words and phrases and ideas would come through my head as if they were mine – which, of course, they were – and I'd always have this vague pull to the original discussion where I learned them.

We didn't spend much time together at all. But I remember Karen Krebsbach. And I appreciate the influence she had on my life.

So I thought I'd get in touch with her. Hell, you can find anybody these days, especially someone who works in a public medium like journalism. I wanted to thank her. I wanted her to know that she had left a mark in someone she only knew fleetingly.

So I Googled her. And this is what I found:

“Karen Krebsbach, Former Executive Editor at U.S. Banker, Dies at 52”

The headline is from American Banker, published on July 19, 2010. It was not the first source I saw, but it was the most comprehensive. She had moved on from when I knew her to live in New York and cover investment and international business. She managed a number of publications that won awards. She was widely recognized for an insightful column called “Inside Track.” She was successful.

That didn't surprise me.

She had breast cancer. For some reason, that floored me. She died way too young. She died before it even occurred to me to thank her. I sat at my computer and cried.

I wish I could end with some big admonishment about taking stock of the people in your life before it's too late. But we know that already, and we largely do – for the people who are actually IN our lives. But the people who influence us on the margins, who help shape us in very small but sometimes deeply profound ways – we don't really even know who they are. We just don't. I remember because I'm a writer. I'm a storyteller. Those kinds of memories and stories come more easily – anything could be fodder.

I'm glad I knew Karen Krebsbach. I'm glad she had an influence on my work. I'm sorry that it never occurred to me to thank her sooner. But, when I think about it, I realize I have been thanking her for 20+ years. I've been passing her advice along, and adding my own to it, helping people shape their own work. That's how we make the world a better place. She knew that. And she did.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Day Part 2 - Success

Yesterday I wrote about my pretty shitty day , and I’ve gotten a fair number of responses – which is kinda cool. This has been my answer: wait for part 2. Because while part 1 is about how overwhelming life can be raising kids alone on few resources, part 2 is the very secure knowledge that I can. That is to say, I am able to.

This is what I did after I wrote my piece yesterday: I helped my kids study for their spelling bee.

This may seem like a small thing, but it is an incredibly important building block. One of my daughters (yeah, the one who got her baby tooth capped yesterday) is – despite the fact that she’s very smart and very capable – very afraid of failure. She’s never failed. Therefore, she’s never really succeeded. She avoids competition, because she might lose. The spelling bee is a competition she is more likely to win, or at least do well in. It took me five days and a potentially expensive bribe to get her to agree.

But it’s worth it. Because the prize at the end of this is not winning a trophy or getting some refurbished electronic toy. The prize at the end of this is knowing that she can reach beyond her limits, and in doing so perhaps begin to discover something about herself she didn’t already know.

We talked a lot about that idea this past summer, as we watched “So You Think You Can Dance.” Yes, the dancers are marvelous. Yes, the choreography is (mostly) beautiful and intriguing. Yes, my daughters love dance. But what I kept pointing out was how much the dancers were changing as the competition wore on – how much they’d grown both as artists and as people. Each one of those dancers was continually asked to do something he or she didn’t think they could do. And then they did it anyway. And they did it well. You could see the confidence growing as if it were a material thing.

I’ve experienced that kind of growth. Yes, I, like my daughter, have passed things up because I didn’t think I was good enough or I didn’t want to fail – only to curse myself later. But I’ve also waded in – gotten up on that stage, sent in that story, came out, fell in love, had my heart torn apart. I started a business because I had to. I wrestled with the challenges as they came up. And I have succeeded way beyond what I had dreamed – even though I’m not rich by society’s definition.

I have learned tremendously through my failures and challenges. I am incredibly capable. I have that confidence. I want my daughters to have that confidence, too.

Now, being me, I can’t simply stop at my daughters. Every day, as I have to juggle more and more balls simply because of my marital and economic circumstances, I think of the people in the same sorts of situations who grew up without ever learning the exhilaration of succeeding beyond their dreams, who have never gained that confidence. I think of people who really have no dreams.

This is what kills me when I hear people saying that the poor are poor because they choose to be. That statement lacks realization that being poor means you have many more hoops to jump through – to arrange child care for your first AND second jobs; to get to the grocery store in between and schedule (if not cook) meals; to help your kids with life and homework; to keep the gas or electricity on. And to deal with the ever-present mortification, that whisper of “you’re worthless, you’re worthless,” every time you have to ask for help, or every time your lights get turned off because the electricity money went to repair your car so you could get to work - or every time you see your children give up. Being poor and single with kids is a constant challenge.

What happens to the people who never learned as kids or young adults to overcome challenges? What happens to the people who never gained that confidence? What do we do with a whole swath of the population that simply doesn’t know HOW to succeed, and who don’t have a hope of having a hope?

That’s a lot of what it means to be poor in this country. It’s not that people don’t choose to start a business, or get their PhD. It’s that those things are not even on their radar screens. Or if they are, the rest of their life is so overwhelming they simply can’t reach it.

Yes, we hear success stories – of some kid who grew up poor and ended up becoming a Supreme Court justice or an astronaut. But there’s an element in those stories that is always the same. There's always someone in the story who demanded more than societal expectations. There’s always somebody who taught them how to dream.

Despite those stories, there are people in this country who are so overwhelmed by what it takes just to get through one day that they have no hope of ever conquering it. They have no hope of making it better. They don’t know that they can.

So, every day I deal with those balls. And I look my daughters in the eye and I tell them they’re gonna enter the fuckin’ spelling bee whether they want to or not. And I go to work and I focus on making something wonderful. I focus on the future.

Because I can.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My Day - 11-01-11

I am a single mother with a full-time, oddly demanding job.
My job only pays me $30,000 per year.
It is a 1-hour commute each way.

In 1990 I started a newspaper for the theatre industry.
— It was very successful.
— It ran for 20 years, though the last 10 have been hard and it has now all but closed.
— I am writing this on the internet.
— The last two sentences are related.

Today, I faced:

Getting my kids out the door for school.

Working from home in the morning because I had to...

Pick up one of my daughters and take her to the dentist because she had a cavity.

Watching as the dentist manhandled her, then charge me $520.
— Knowing that I couldn’t really get a better dentist because I don’t have dental insurance and only make $30,000 a year.
— Feeling ashamed.

While at the dentist holding my daughter down, missing a call from someone who wants to talk to me about taking over the business that is now all but closed.

Watching my daughter scream and cry from the pain and fear, because nobody explained to her what was going to happen, and they apparently didn’t numb her enough.

Feeling completely inadequate as a parent.

Knowing that “inadequate” is an inadequate word.

Coming home and being reminded that I have to take a university online ethics seminar, by tomorrow, for a part-time job that I have had since May, but have never actually worked.
— You work when they call you in.
— I’ve never been called in.
— But I have spent a fair amount of time doing administrative stuff for the university’s system.

Trying to sign up for the online ethics seminar, only to find that my ID and password don’t work.

Calling the university, getting the password and ID reset after a half an hour on the phone, then trying to log on again and finding it still didn’t work.

Getting an e-mail from the web developer for the business that is all but gone saying that he’s now able to do what he was supposed to do a year and a half ago, and knowing that the piece that’s hanging on will simply stop if I don’t do it.
— It will take an enormous amount of time and energy to get this done – by next week.
— If I don't get it done, my chances of passing the business on become almost nil.

Sitting with my daughter on the couch, making her soup and yogurt and applesauce and eating the same thing, even though I was starving, because I didn’t want to make her feel bad.

Working while sitting next to her and watching bad TV before going to pick up her sister from school.

Calling the state of Illinois’ Vital Check system to get copies of birth certificates for my daughters.
— I need the birth certificates because I need to sign them up for All Kids state insurance.
— This makes me feel more ashamed.

Being told by the Vital Check person that I needed to have the father’s name, and, after explaining to her that there was no father, but that there is another mother’s name on the birth certificate, having her ask me if I adopted my children and then having her tell me that the other mother has to ask for the birth certificates because “there can only be one mother.”

Holding my temper and just getting it done, while my daughter was pointing at the phone and making “cuckoo” signs.

Being asked by my daughter if she can use my computer.
— My computer was purchased in 2008 and is therefore old in computer years.
— My even older computer that the girls have can’t support the newer online game sites.
— I can’t afford a new computer.

Suddenly losing it, standing at the refrigerator, as my daughter looked on after she asked if she could use the computer.

Getting comforted by my 9-year-old. My 9-year-old whose mouth hurts.

Feeling completely inadequate as a parent.

Knowing again that “inadequate” is a horribly inadequate word.

Wanting nothing more than to just sit down in the middle of my incredibly messy house and not move anymore.

Writing this instead.