Goodbye for now
So as not to bury the lede, let me begin with the big news: I’m taking a year off.
As of Labor Day weekend, I am going underground. I won’t be writing for Grist (or anyone else); I won’t be reading or responding to email; I won’t be on Twitter; I won’t be following the news cycle or reading PDFs; I won’t be spending all day every day attached to a computer. I won’t be answering the phone, either, but then I never answered the phone anyway.
Then, on Labor Day of 2014, I’ll be back! With any luck I will be rested, renewed, and ready to return to blogging duty.
That’s the take-home information. If you’re interested in the blathery personal backstory, keep reading.
Why are you taking a year off?
To begin with, I’m coming up on my 10th year at Grist. Ten!
This job changed my life, more than anything other than my family ever has. Ten years ago, I was utterly adrift, with half a PhD and a slim résumé that included scattered, shallow experience, and that only in fields I wanted no part of (writing marketing copy for Microsoft comes to mind). I was competing against people five years younger for jobs I didn’t want. I had no plan and no clue, I was drawing unemployment checks, and oh, my first son had just been born. Like I said: adrift.
Around that time, a friend who knew I was job hunting told me to check out this cool new site, Craigslist. The very first time I ever visited Craigslist (really), I noticed, in the help wanted ads, in the midst of the usual office-drone fare, a little ad for an assistant editor at a small environmental news site called Grist.
Well, I had no experience in media. I’d never edited anything or written anything for publication (outside of philosophy journals). I wasn’t outdoorsy, didn’t “love nature,” and had no experience or particular interest in environmentalism.
But I really didn’t want to be an office drone.
So I sent in my pathetic, padded résumé, attached to a cover letter as overwrought as it was overlong. It found its way to Lisa Hymas, my editor and dear friend to this day, who managed to look past the melodrama to notice that there were no grammatical mistakes (surprisingly rare even in journalism applications) and perhaps a glimmer of writerly potential. I came in for an interview during the notorious grapefruit fundraiser, bearing a grapefruiter, and persuaded Chip and Lisa to take a chance on me. I was the fifth full-time employee at Grist. (I think we’re somewhere around 25 employees now.)
The rest, as they say, is history. I began by writing daily news summaries and crafting funny headlines. Then, in late 2004, I started our blog, Gristmill. (Here’s my first post. I was complaining about presidential candidates ignoring climate change. Good thing I never had to write that one again!) Over time I transitioned into 100 percent writing, where I’ve been since.
As long as I’ve been here, Grist has extended me an extraordinary amount of trust and freedom. I have been able to wander from thing to thing, exploring interests in religious environmentalism, great places, social psychology, electric utilities, chilling out, and even the filibuster. I’ve never been told not to write about something, or that any subject is too complicated or wonky, or that I needed to get more clicks.
It has been a dream job. I’ve loved it. I still love it.
But I am burnt the fuck out.
I spend each day responding to an incoming torrent of tweets and emails. I file, I bookmark, I link, I forward, I snark and snark and snark. All day long. Then, at night, after my family’s gone to bed and the torrent has finally slowed to a trickle and I can think for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, I try to write longer, more considered pieces.
I enjoy every part of this: I enjoy sharing zingers with Twitter all day; I enjoy writing long, wonky posts at night. But the lifestyle has its drawbacks. I don’t get enough sleep, ever. I don’t have any hobbies. I’m always at work. Other than hanging out with my family, it’s pretty much all I do — stand at a computer, immersing myself in the news cycle, taking the occasional hour out to read long PDFs. I’m never disconnected.
It’s doing things to my brain.
I think in tweets now. My hands start twitching if I’m away from my phone for more than 30 seconds. I can’t even take a pee now without getting “bored.” I know I’m not the only one tweeting in the bathroom. I’m online so much that I’ve started caring about “memes.” I feel the need to comment on everything, to have a “take,” preferably a “smart take.” The online world, which I struggle to remember represents only a tiny, unrepresentative slice of the American public, has become my world. I spend more time there than in the real world, have more friends there than in meatspace.
And then there’s the grind, the pressure to interpret each day’s development through the lens of which team it will benefit. I spend a lot of my time being angry: angry at Republicans for being crazy assholes, angry at enviros for being so hapless, angry at the media, angry at random people on Twitter. It’s not just that U.S. politics involves daily offenses against decency and good sense, it’s that it just keeps offering the same offenses, over and over — same gridlock, same cranks and ideologues, same arguments, same grind.
I feel like I’ve had every discussion related to climate change or energy at least a million times. The “how to talk about it” discussion, the “is Obama a climate hero or the worst thing since Hitler” discussion, the “should climate scientists be advocates” discussion, the “carbon tax vs. cap-and-whatever vs. innovation” discussion, the “clean energy is intermittent” discussion, on and on and on. I’ve had them all so many times I’ve gotten to the point where I’m irritated and impatient with pretty much everything everybody says about anything.
And I feel bad about that. There are waves of new people coming into the climate and clean energy world, full of verve and ideas. They are going through the same process of discovery I went through. I have tried to provide them with perspective and context, insofar as I’m able, but lately I just feel like yelling at them to get off my lawn. That is unfair to them and unflattering to me. I don’t want to become a bitter person.
I need some time away from all of it: from climate change, the media, blogs, commenters, Twitter, the news cycle, the endless battle for a livable future. I need to clear my head.
So I’m going to. As of Labor Day, I’m uninstalling Twitter and shutting off my email account. No more news or climate doom or memes for me for a while.
Also, just as a bonus motivation, I turned 40 this year. I’m ready for my mid-life crisis, but I don’t want to have an affair or buy a sports car. So why not this?
What are you going to do all year?
Two things, mainly.
First, I’m going to get in shape. For 10 years I’ve been desk-bound, almost completely sedentary, getting more and more creaky, inflexible, and round in the middle. Other people have found ways to integrate exercise and good dietary habits into their working life; I am not one of them.
Since I have a good 30 or 40 years left, I’m not quite ready to give in to inexorable physical decline. I want to be healthy when my kids grow up. So I’m going to quit smoking and drinking various things, try to eat better, do a lot more walking, return to hot yoga (after 10 years away), and maybe even look into that crossfit stuff.
Second, I’m going to try to write a novel. I’ve had an idea itching at me for a while, at least the outline of a plot, and I want to see if I can make something of it. I’ve never written any fiction before, but it’ll be fun to stretch my brain a little and give it a try. I’m under no illusions: the chances of me finishing a novel on my first try, much less finishing a good one, much less finishing a good one and getting it published, are vanishingly small. That’s fine. It’s mostly for kicks.
Beyond those two things, I want to take what I said about the medium chill seriously. I want to think about things other than politics, the grinding, Manichean clash that never seems to go anywhere. I want to quit viewing the vast expanse of human motivation and experience through the narrow lens of partisan advantage. I want to hang out with flesh-and-blood people and do things out in nature and get reacquainted with physicality and beauty. I want to spend more time with my kids and take over more of the household duties and make my wife’s life easier.
So that’s what I’ll be up to.
What about Grist? What about your career? What about the climate? Think of the children.
Grist will be fine. It is financially stable (as NGOs go), with tons of great writers, plans to hire more, and big moves on the way.
My career will be fine. Climate change isn’t going away and there remains, in the media world, a dearth of people focusing on it. Sadly, I expect that dearth will remain just as dearthy a year from now, when I come back.
And speaking of the climate, it is screwed, but it won’t be any more or less screwed in a year.
I’ve got two more weeks until I vanish. During that time, I plan to write a few posts about what I’ve learned over the last 10 years. (Hopefully it’s not nothing.)
After that, I’m out. I’ll let you know in a year how it went.