Friday, August 31, 2007

Why I decided to quit my job to travel and write and be fun. Part Two.

Adam and Hila: The people who changed everything.

Back in January, I was at a party, hanging out in the kitchen and talking to Hila and Adam. In the midst of our discussions about traveling to New Zealand (a very cool place to go) and the way skydiving feels (apparently, quite nice), Hila mentioned that she had decided to quit business school to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker. Her decision was made, she told me, after she took a life-changing test.

A test did all that? Really?

Then Adam piped in, saying that the test was life-changing for him as well. It
was something he often turned to when he felt stuck in life or was searching for inspiration.

I needed to take this test.

Things at work were going well for me. My hard work from the busy fall season was rewarded. Clients were happy, and I helped win important business for the magazine. I was praised in staff meetings and recently promoted. Best of all, my workload had returned to the pace of a normal person. While I was grateful for the extra money and recognition, I couldn’t help notice an emptiness inside of me. I felt no excitement in sharing my good news. When anyone would congratulate me, I would simply shrug my shoulders and pretend to be happy. It didn’t feel right.

A few months later the party, I got my hands on the test. I was hoping that just reading the questions would instantly reveal to me the direction I should take my life. It didn’t. And it wasn’t really a test. It actually resembled an exercise I did when I was a high school sophomore in my Honors Language Arts class. Mrs. Guzo, my teacher, was a touchy-feely, new-age type who encouraged us to read literature, meditate in class and write lists about our life goals. Still, I was desperate for an answer, so I decided to take the exercises seriously and give it a shot.

1. Write down subjects, people, and ideas that “turn you on.” List areas of interest old and new.
I jotted down nearly sixty items with ease—writing, running, cupcakes, cooking, movies, books, Gene Kelly…I have always had a lot of interests. I rushed to the next question.

2. Make a list as long as you can full of stuff you want to accomplish before you die. Don't shy away from things that feel unrealistic. Just let your imagination run wild.
I love setting goals for myself, so I thought this would be easy, too. But after writing down about 10 items, I couldn’t think of anymore. When doing the same exercise as a sophomore, I had filled up a page with answers. I had nothing here. My lack of ambition saddened me. I shut down the computer.
A few days later, I was back, struggling to add more things to the list. I was hoping that I would write down something that would surprise me, something that would leap off the page and say “This is it! This is what you want to do with your life!” Instead, the items on the list were the things that have always been on my list: “Go to Poland and learn the language.” “Travel a lot.” “Write a book.” I was so bored with these answers. I knew them already. I had heard them a hundred times before. Where was my epiphany? Disappointed, I shut down the computer again. I never made it to the last question.

But then something weird started to happen. I couldn’t stop thinking about my answers. I would walk to work, and I would think about traveling to Poland. I would sit at my computer and daydream that I was sitting in a foreign cafĂ©, writing my book. I would find myself browsing the travel section in Barnes & Noble and reading travel web sites online.

Thinking about going on a trip for an extended period of time, filling my days with the things I actually wanted to do—not the things I thought I was supposed to be doing—made me feel in a way I haven’t felt in a long time: excited, passionate, happy.

After a few weeks of feeling this buzz, it became clear: I wanted to travel and write. It had nothing to do with furthering my career or making myself more marketable. It had nothing to do with climbing the corporate ladder. It would not get me closer to the corner office. It was something I dreamed about for years but never took seriously. And it scared the crap out of me.

I knew that I had to do it.

P.S. For those of you who are wondering (and perhaps wanting to take the life-changing test yourself), the last question asks you to list your favorite goals—the ones that truly excite you—and then write down “first steps” a person would take in accomplishing those goals. This becomes your to-do list to start making your dreams come true.

Much thanks to Hila and Adam.

Hi, Ho.

Working girl.

Flash back one year ago, you would probably find me sitting in my cubicle at work, typing furiously, brow in permanent furrow. Fall is typically the busy season for the magazine advertising business, and last year, Fall started in July for me. For four straight months, I worked like a madman, logging 10 to 12 hours most days of the week. My to-do list was three pages long—typed. I could barely keep up with the projects, the clients, the deadlines, let alone the constant stream of emails bombarding my in-box. I was often the last one to leave the office. The lights would flicker off while I sat at my computer, a reminder that it was time to go home. The weekends offered no reprieve. I traveled across the country, working advertiser events in dreary suburban malls and staying in hotels overlooking concrete parking lots.

At the end of the night, when I looked in the mirror, I barely recognized my reflection. My skin looked pale. My eyes dull and void. Myself, a stranger.

That September, on one of the only weekends I wasn’t working, I traveled to Lake Tahoe for the wedding of my friends Lindsey and Clay. It was a small wedding. Most of the wedding party and guests stayed together in the same cabin. As usual, I had trouble relaxing. While everyone seemed content sitting around in the living room and talking, I felt the need to be doing something.

One night, I ran outside the cabin to get a bag out of my rental car when I looked up and noticed the sky.
It was magnificent.

It was one of those skies you see only in the movies or in a planetarium—so pretty, it looked nearly fake—a navy blue blanket streaked with clusters of flickering, glittering stars. In many spots, there were so many stars you couldn’t pick them out individually. Some shone so brightly and twinkled in a way that they appeared to be moving.

For the first time in a long time, I stopped. I watched. Standing alone on the driveway, shivering in the cold, the sky seemed so big and vast, and I so small. I marveled the simplicity of its beauty, the quiet of the night. Humbled, I realized how long it had been since I noticed the sky.

I started to cry. I wasn’t exactly sure the reason. There seemed to be many.

A few minutes later, Lindsey came outside to look for me. I wiped my tears so she wouldn’t see, commented on the beautiful night and followed her back into the cabin.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Why I decided to quit my job to travel and write and be fun. Part One.

I have a writer friend named Richard who would call me at the office every once in a while. I met Richard at an event I worked when I first started at the magazine, and we clicked instantly over our mutual admiration of the written word, red wine and witty banter. At our first meeting, I told Richard I also wanted to be a writer.

Since we spoke so infrequently, our conversations would generally follow the same course: He would ask me how I was doing (busy and stressed) and how my job was treating me (it’s killing me) and if I had been writing lately (no, too busy and stressed and my job is killing me). And then he would ask me, “Well then, when are you quitting your job and getting the hell out of there so you can write?”

“Soon,” I’d tell him, “Very soon.”

“No one ever goes to the grave wishing he worked more,” he’d say.

“I know, I know.”

By the end of the conversation, I would reassure him: I was on my way out. I was going to leave my job. I was going to start pursuing my passion and begin writing. Don’t worry about me. I've got it all figured out.

Years would pass. We would have that conversation many, many times.

Sometimes, Richard’s number would come up on my caller id, and I wouldn’t pick up because I didn’t want to tell him that I was still doing the same old thing and not writing like I told him I would. I am sure that he just wanted to say hello and didn’t care all that much how I was spending my time. But his calls were a reminder that I cared—a lot.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Allow myself to introduce myself.

I am assuming that if you are reading this it is because you know me or you have stumbled across my blog because you are a ham enthusiast. Either way, excellent! And welcome to my little world of pork.

So I must begin this blog by noting the fact that traveling to Eastern Europe for three and a half months sounds like something a fun person would do. Which may be why this trip is such a feat for me.

I have friend named Brett who calls himself a fun-pig. A fun-pig is someone who cannot resist fun. This is the type of person who has trouble saying no to a night out, who is willing to do anything on a moment’s notice, who feels most comfortable in the company of friends. Brett is fun-pig. My boyfriend, Dan, is a fun-pig. Megan, my friend at work who's known around the office as “Megaphone” for her loud and boisterous voice: fun-pig central. I would even venture to say that Lindsay Lohan is a fun-pig of the extreme variety (though she is nothing to aspire to).

I am not fun. And this blog may be called Polish Ham, but I am no pig. At age 28, I have the life that I always imagined myself. I live in New York City. I work at a woman’s magazine. I share an apartment with my boyfriend of four years. I am close to my family and enjoy my friendships. On paper, it looks like the perfect life. This life may even give off the appearance of fun, but that is just pretense.

For the last ten years, I have devoted much of my time, my thoughts and my energies to my work—which for the most part, is not a fun thing to devote your time, thoughts and energies. My college memories are not of the friends I made or the good times I had, but of the papers I wrote and the books that I read. After graduation, I toiled at three odd jobs at the same time, working seven days a week, until I finally got my first “real job” working as a sales assistant. After moving around and back again, I became a promotion manager at a woman’s magazine that gave me the opportunity to work with smart people, write a lot and be creative—which I loved—but also involved tremendous acts of multi-tasking and tossing-and-turning-at-night anxiety.

I have always thought that work would be the place where I would find the ultimate fulfillment and happiness, and all I wanted was to be good at what I do—with the intention of making it to the corner office one day. And because of my dedication to working hard and being the best I can be, I am good at what I do. But putting 100% of myself to my work left me with little time or energy or desire to participate in the other aspects of my life—most notably the fun aspects.

Though I have gotten better at it, it is hard for me to relax at a party, grab a drink with a friend at a moment’s notice, talk on the phone about nothing for long periods of time, try something different for the change. I am exceptionally good at work; I am terrible at fun. This trip is about my quest to become a fun-pig. I’ll never be like Brett or Dan or Megan nor do I aspire to be the life of the party. But what fun-pigs share—and what I admire and crave—is a zest for living, an appreciation of the small things, a gratitude for what life has to offer.

Brett (in yellow): The original fun-pig

Megan (in brown): the life of the party.

Dan: Always ready for a good time.

Me: No fun at all.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

It All Starts Here.

Plate o' ham at Easter brunch.

Polish people eat a lot of ham.

I know this because my family is Polish and whenever it is a holiday or we have people coming to visit (in particular, Polish people), my stepfather heads to the Polish deli in Garfield, NJ, and he purchases mass quantities of Polish ham, which our family and guests will eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner—even for a snack.

In comparison, Americans have few options when it comes to ham. When visiting an American deli counter, one would normally ask for a half-pound of just plain old ham, or if they are feeling adventurous, perhaps some of the honey-glazed or maple variety. At a Polish deli, however, you will encounter shelf after shelf of pork products—smoked, baked and flavored in a multitude of ways. One would order a variety of hams so they can be enjoyed together. At Easter brunch at my family’s house this year, I estimate we had a selection of about 10 different kinds of ham.

I speak of ham, not because I am a great lover of Polish pork products (while enjoyable, I’d prefer a turkey sandwich any day), but because I am excited to announce that in the next few months, Polish ham will become a regular staple in my diet.

After much dreaming, soul-searching, researching, whining, crying and scheming—I have decided to quit my day job working at one of the most successful woman’s magazines and leave my New York City apartment, my devoted boyfriend/roommate, Dan, all my friends and family and the life I know to travel to Eastern Europe solo for three and a half months.

My trip will start and end in Poland, the country where my family comes from and the place where pierogi, vodka and of course, Polish ham, are abundant. I also plan to travel to Poland’s neighboring countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, to experience the charms each of these places has to offer.

My goals are simple: See a lot of things, meet many people, learn about my family and heritage, experiment with local cuisine, experience life outside a cubicle, and write all about it. Hopefully, I will discover something about the world and at the same time, something about myself.

This is my blog which will chronicle my journey. This is entry one.