Optimizing the workforce: Learning to delegate (and learning to be stubborn)

A confession: I hate housework.

I get no joy from making floors sparkle, or from a sock drawer that is arranged by color story, and don’t even get me started on the puzzling degree of laundry room porn that keeps popping up on my Pinterest  feed.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Somewhere, a world exists where people like doing laundry so much that they devote what used to be living space to it.

Seriously, if I had enough money to or square footage to devote a sunny room of my home to a glorious laundry facility, I’d just hire someone to do the damned laundry. I just need the clothes clean and folded–and put away–and for the house tidy enough that I don’t feel compelled to make excuses for a mess. But even that level of tidiness is a challenge for my family: None of us are particularly particular about making things just so. We’re kind of aiming for good enough.

When I was a kid, my mother managed to keep a house of similar size and population always looking tidy through a combination of extreme editing (she eschewed knick knacks, which she referred to as “dust collectors”), practical choices (dark carpets and surfaces that “hid the dirt”), and a solid housework schedule (she cleaned/dusted/put things away all day, every day). The rest of us had few to no responsibilities for household chores. I’m not kidding. The most I ever did was straighten my room once in a while, or start my laundry, which my mom would eventually put in the dryer and fold and often even put away. It was, looking back, a pretty sweet deal for us kids and my dad. But the point is that keeping that very tidy house very tidy was pretty much a full time job for her.

The thing is, I have another, almost full-time job, and my husband has an often more than full-time job. We split the work on most household tasks fairly evenly, but that’s not to say it’s really 50/50—more like 35/35, with about thirty percent just not getting done.

However, the changing demographics of our household have made available new labor resources. My little boy and girl are now a teen and a tween—virtual minions!—who could and should be picking up that last 30 percent.  Of course they should be. But why weren’t they?  Well, because I never made them. Never really taught them how to clean their room, or the bathroom, or anything. Frankly, I never really learned these things myself.  I would tell them to clean the bathroom, and let them procrastinate. I would pick up (or more likely, just ignore) the shoes, books, sweaters, and other random detritus they leave in their wake when they walk in the door and pack their schoolbags for them before they walk out it. It was just easier to do it myself (or ignore it all) than to argue with them, or even to just take the time to show them how to do it/do it with them.  That’s because I have very, very little patience. That lack of patience (and lack of interest) is probably why I never learned these skills and habits from my mother (I am still notorious for just dropping my crap on the table when I walk in the door myself). It also makes me a total pushover—the kids know that if they whine and procrastinate enough, I’ll cave and do it for them.

So, on the advice of my husband, I’m making it a goal to learn to delegate, and to learn to be stubborn.  This week, I just stopped picking up after them at all. If they leave their shoes, a dish, or anything in the living room, I call them from wherever they are and make them put it away, even though it would be way less work for me to just put the stupid dish in the dishwasher myself. It’s a chore, really, yelling down to the playroom for them to come upstairs and directing them on what to do. But it’s already paying some dividends: Himself is getting better about picking up after himself in general, and Herself has finally started clearing her own breakfast dishes without me asking her to do it. Don’t get too excited: The dining room is still of crap that doesn’t belong there (much of it mine). But, tiny victories, you know?



Rockaway Beach Reads: Jill Eisenstadt’s 1987 novel “From Rockaway”

A few months back, I stumbled upon a review of Justin Hocking’s The Great Floodgates of the Wonder World  in The New York Times Book Review. It’s a memoir by a Colorado skater and writer who moved to New York City and I guess wound up discovering himself by surfing in Rockaway. That, on the heels of Rockaway, Tara Ison’s 2013 novel about an artist who retreats to the peninsula in 2001 in search of inspiration for her work.**



It is striking that both of these writers cast Rockaway as a destination, a place where one chooses to go, indeed, chooses to be, to stay. For most of my life, this was a place you talked about escaping from, but never really did. Yet here it is, presented as an artist’s escape, a young hipster’s salvation. I suppose that shift is a microcosm of the changes that have affected all of New York City over the past few decades, but somehow, Rockaway’s geographic isolation seemed to both separate us from the lowest lows of the 1970s and 80s while at the same time magnifying them. I grew up watching all my friends’ famillies leave Rockaway to head toward greener pastures “out on the Island,” believing that a quiet suburban life would protect their children from the drugs and violence and blight that was creeping over Rockaway and the rest of the city at the time. I wonder how that worked out.

Anyway, all this literary chatter about escaping “to Rockaway” reminded me of what I suppose must be the definitive Rockaway novel: Jill Eisensadt’s 1987 From Rockaway


Jill Eisenstadt, From Rockaway. Knopf 1987

Eisenstadt was affiliated with what was at the time hyped as the “literary brat pack,” a group of young writers out of Bennington College in the late 1980s (more celebrated–and prolific–members of that posse include Donna Tartt, Tama Janowitz, and Brett Easton Ellis). The novel  got a fair bit of buzz when it was published, with mentions in The New York Times, Glamour, and elsewhere.  I had read it back when it came out, and while I was fuzzy on the details, I remember thinking it captured a lot of what I felt about this place at that time, perhaps mainly due to the fact that  I, like the book’s four protagonists, had just graduated from high school. I wasn’t social enough to know if the details were right, but I do remember really connecting to that  dead-end-on the-edge-of-the-big-city vibe:  yes, people want to escape this place, but as the old  timers say, once you’ve got that sand in your shoes, it’s very hard to do. I decided to revisit From Rockaway, and see how it well it holds up.

First, the back cover copy, from the publisher:

“In Jill Eisenstadt’s savvy, heartfelt novel we enter the world of working-class kids in Rockaway, New York, a beach community where beer cans and cigarette butts stud the sand instead of seashells. Peg, Alex, Chowderhead, and Timmy play, drink, and dream together. Their circle breaks apart when Alex gets a scholarship to a “rich kids’ school” in New England. Soon the rituals described in her anthropology text seem less bizarre than the games in the dorms around her. It is back in Rockaway, reunited with the old gang for the summer, that the explosive depth of feeling in kids with no options beyond the local deli and the lifeguard stands shows Alex what it means to face adulthood.”

One sign of changing times, I guess, is that my ten-year-old was deeply offended by the description of our beaches (“This book LIES!!!”). But I remember avoiding the filthy beaches when I was her age. I had to have a little heart-to-heart with her (“Sweetie, let me tell you about the 1980s….”).

I’m about midway through now, and the one thing that’s striking me about it is how much it feels like a period piece: the local and pop culture reference are so of that moment, of that time and place, that they almost feel like nostalgic renderings written by a sentimental author trying to hang on to memories from her youth. Little details (the slogan on a Clearasil container, references to the Slice of Life pizzeria, the rumors that Frank Sinatra had bought up all the empty lots in anticipation of legalized gambling) had me spinning back to 1986 like it was yesterday. Moreover, that feeling that you’d never get out of Rockaway (remember when we called it Rotaway?) is tangible. At one point, a character refers to a map of New York:

“Rockaway, just a tiny strip that hangs off Queens as if it isn’t sure whether it wants to break away and become an island of its own or hang on tighter, desperate not to be abandoned.”

Yup. That about sums it up.

It’s definitely a local story, and it’s a work of fiction: There’s truth in the spirit and in many of the details, but of course the author has exercised some artistic license as well.  I was tickled by some of the copyediting errors that made it through (you have to be from here to know that it’s “St. Francis on Beach 129th Street” and not “St. Francis on the Beach, 129th Street”).  I can’t speak to the lifeguard culture that Eisenstadt describes in the book, other than to venture a guess that the “Death Keg” party she describes might be a literary invention: To my recollection drownings while guards are actually on duty seem too rare to have developed a real ritual around them (and in any event, I just can’t imagine local Irish boys getting quite so theatrical).

Anyway, there’s much to be said about From Rockaway, and how it reflects a Rockaway that once was and and is no more, but at the same time reflects the Rockaway that will always be. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on it, both dyed-in-the-wool locals and new arrivals. It’s out of print, but I was able to score a used copy on Amazon for a couple of dollars (Note to Random House: Rockaway is having its moment. You might want to reprint).

 **I confess I haven’t read either of these novels yet. Too many books, too little time. If anyone has, I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Momentum Optimization Update: It’s easier when the sun is shining.

Yesterday was the first acceptable beach day of the year, and also the first beach day ever when I felt like my son was old enough to send him out on his own. So when I found him wandering toward the basement computer at 10:30 p.m., I just kicked him out of the house. He tried to roll off some lame excuses (Himself: There’s no one to hang out with. Me: They’re probably at the beach. Go see.”) I popped him a few bucks to have lunch at the concession and sent him on his way.

Long story short, he spent the day surfing and hanging with friends. After he got home and showered around 3pm, he hooked up with his cousins who were down for the day and spent the afternoon/evening playing board games and pool with them. He didn’t get home until almost eleven, and didn’t spend a moment of the day parked in front of a glowing screen.

I know quite well that, had he sat down in front of the computer, he’d have stayed there until one of his friends came and found him (he’s not the most pro-active when it comes to socializing. As in, not at all). But he is 14. I’m not making play dates for him any more, nor am I inviting every kid in the neighborhood to come hang at my house (where they invariably wind up…. on the computer) when the sun is shining.  No, he didn’t complete his list yesterday–but who cares? He was an object in motion all day, and that bodes well for the summer.

Addendum: We’ve had caveat in the “No Screens/Unlimited Screens” rule for a while:  I try to enforce “Screen-Free Sundays,” which means the kids are not allowed to use the computer at all on Sundays (as they have invariably put off doing any and all homework over the weekend). I admit that over this long cold winter, I did slide on it at times. But now that spring is finally showing up, however late, to the party, it’s in full force, and extended to apply not just to Sundays, but to all sunny days.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy (#1): It’s all just stuff, and we have too much of it.

Here in Rockaway Beach, NY, there are two sorts of people (well two sorts of homeowners, at least): Those who lost their homes on October 29, 2012, and those who just lost the basement. I am grateful to be in the latter camp. The Atlantic rolled up our street and quickly filled it up, meeting with Jamaica Bay at the end of the block. By the time we hit high tide, the water had crested the top step of my front stoop outside, and filled the basement to the ceiling; but just as tide clocks predicted, the water then leveled off and started to recede, having gone just two inches into the joists of our first floor. We lost our cars, all of our utilities, tools, appliances, and everything we had stored in the basement, but our main living space was dry. We know we were very lucky. Many of our friends, family, and neighbors were not. Some of them are still displaced. We just had a shit-ton of work to do.

Our basement had been semi-finished. I had my home office down there, and a multipurpose playroom/workout room/whatever room (aka The Room of Requirement),  plus a utility space with the washer/dryer, tools/workshop, and  storage of out-of-season clothes, holiday decorations, crap I meant to give away, and other things that just didn’t have anyplace else to go. I had been wise enough to move what I thought were the most important things in the basement up the night before: boxes of photographs, my computer and printer. There was still a ton of crap down there: all of our tools, lots of furniture (used and unused),  bins full of clothes and linens, plus toys, guitars, sports equipment, a huge TV and approximately eleventyzillion Legos. We figured we might take on some water, but with everything stored on the high tables and shelves we figured it would be ok.  Needless to say, it was not.

When we finally got the water pumped out (it took a few days, with a pair of wee sump pumps hooked up to the neighbor’s generator) we were faced with 750 square feet full of saturated things that used to seem important.

After the water was pumped out, 10/2014

Vintage furniture, waiting to be refinished. Work tables and bookcases. And Legos, Legos EVERYWHERE–including stuck to the ceiling.


Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Making matters worse, our oil burner had leaked, so all of it was infused not only with the lovely funk of sewage and seawater, but also a touch of petroleum. There was nothing to salvage. Everything must go.

It’s been 18 months now, and the process of mucking out/cleaning up/watching my neighborhood rebuild has been exhausting, but also enlightening. Having to throw away All The Things makes you think a little more carefully about which Things you actually want/need to replace. And after living for a few weeks without the essentials of life (heat, hot water, electricity, laundry, transportation, and let’s not forget Wifi), you start to wonder how much of this garbage you really needed to begin with. The tools were a huge loss, along with a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in terms of value until I had to replace it all. And yes, there were a some sentimental things that it just gutted me to lose. But what about the rest of this mess?

The kids were outgrowing those toys, anyway. Those books were probably never going to be re-read. Was I ever going to get around to refinishing that adorable little chifforobe? Was I suddenly going to start using all the craft supplies that had been sitting in boxes for years?

The point is, it was all just stuff. And it was clear that we had too much of it.

This the first in a series of posts wherein I shall mull over the lessons that Sandy taught me (in no particular order).  I don’t speak for everyone who went through it, obviously, and especially not for those who lost everything. But the process of clearing out a cluttered basement and prioritizing tasks and purchases and time and money as we clean up and rebuild has been valuable in many ways. Feel free to chime in in the comments with any lessons you learned.

Fun With Economics

The fun thing about my job is that, on a certain level, I get to be a college student forever. Not in the I-have-no-real-responsibilities-and-can-live-on-ramen-noodles-and-beer way, but in the I’m-always-learning-something-new way. The money books in higher ed are for the big survey courses: Intro Psych, Intro Sociology, Intro Human Communication… anything with a 101 after it. That’s where the developmental dollars go, so that’s where I go. So, for the past twenty-odd years, I’ve essentially been taking one introductory class after another. Sometimes I repeat courses. I am a perpetual freshman.

So right now, I’m working on an intro economics book. I’ve done some solid time on most of the other social sciences, but never felt confident to dip my toe into the “dismal science.” I’d avoided it in college, for fear of The Math, and as an adult I’ve regretted not having any knowledge of the discipline beyond what I leaned from reading Freakonomics. It’s a baptismal by fire, to be sure, but it’s a great gig with talented authors. And I get to learn the discipline while getting paid to do what I know how to do, so you know, win-win.

Today’s lesson: Opportunity Cost. That’s what economists call the costs associated with not doing something. So going to college, for example, has a cost–the price of tuition, the price of books, etc–that’s easy to tally. But there’s also the opportunity costs associated with going to college: you give up four years of gainful employment. Of course, not going to college has opportunity costs of its own, including a huge long-term return on the investment.

So, what does this mean for an hourly worker who sets her own hours and has to do a fair share of the household management? As a narrowback, I feel tremendous guilt when I hire someone to do something I could do myself. The thought giving someone else money to, say, paint the bedroom, makes me feel so lazy, inept, and indulgent, like some modern day, low-end Lady Mary who doesn’t know how to do anything by herself.

Because Downton Abbey images are in copyright, here is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu expressing her concerns. Image via Wikimedia Commons Text copyright Ann Kirby-Payne

Because Downton Abbey images are in copyright, here is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, poet and aristocrat and in  the public domain, expressing her concerns. 
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Text ©narrowbackslacker


When I told my mother I had hired a guy to mow the lawn, you’d have think I’d done something completely decadent and fiscally irresponsible, like leasing a luxury car or booking a vacation before the mortgage was paid. But per The Economics, it was a wise decision, because of the opportunity costs associated with not hiring The Guy. It would take me at least an hour to drag out a lawn mower, mow the lawn, then put the mower away, and then to sweep up all the clippings, dust, clippings, and annoying helicopters that drop off the swamp maple out back. Then I’d have to take a shower to wash off all that dust lest I risk an allergy attack that would take me out of commission for the rest of the day (at least). By outsourcing the job–which incidentally takes my man Oscar and his crew about 20 minutes per week–I’d saved roughly two hours of labor and transition time, which I could spend instead working at my hourly rate. Put simply, the cost of hiring Oscar winds up being less than the cost of not hiring Oscar. Economics wins!

What is a Narrowback Slacker?

Back in the 1990s, the term “slacker” was applied broadly to my generation, and frankly I’m comfortable with it. I am Gen X. I work for myself, at home, usually in jeans, and I set my own hours. I do not check emails at the dinner table.  I do not have sweeping aspirations for my children, beyond teaching them to make good decisions and to be good people. In general, I do not “Lean In.” But I am, at the most basic level, happy and content. Slacker? I’m fine with that.

Narrowback” is a term that refers to the first-generation American children of Irish immigrants. I’m one of them.  My father was a tough little Kerryman who came to New York in the 1950s in search of his American dream. My mother was the child of a Kerryman on one side, and the grandchild of a Kerryman (and a Kerrywoman) on the other. All these immigrants came to this country and worked their asses off, mostly in construction trades. And as a rule, their American children don’t have to work as hard. We go to college, standing on the broad shoulders of our parents and grandparents, and graduate into white collar jobs. We don’t build skyscrapers or dig tunnels. We have softs hands. We have narrow backs.

I like to remind myself, when I’m feeling overwhelmed with work or kids or All The Things, that I have a pretty cush little life. Thanks, Kerrymen.