Q&A With Penelope. About work. Or something approximating that.

On a good day I would tell you that I have my own startup and a successful blog and I work from home. On a bad day I would tell you that I homeschool and every minute I’m not refereeing brotherly fights, I am cleaning up from one meal or cooking the next.

On a bad day you’d ask me when I work and I’d snap back at you, because on bad days I’m snappy, and I’d say that I work in between everything else.

I usually don’t do written interviews, but this time it was for the Wisconsin Humanities Council, and I don’t want people where I live to hate me, so I did the written interview for their Humanities Booyah blog. Here’s my interview:

Describe your first job and what you remember most about it.
I served ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Peanut butter and chocolate is too hard to scoop because the peanut butter gets too hard. Daiquiri Ice doesn’t freeze and customers complain that it’s melty. Mint chip has too many chunks and malts take too long to make. I quit, but right before I quit I gave away free cones for a whole shift. It made the customers so happy. I realized then that I wanted to do work that made people happy.

Tell us about a moment that influenced your work history.
I was unemployed and I didn’t have rent money. I had been telling myself if I ever ran out of money it would be okay because I could be a nude model. So finally the time came and I knocked on the photographers door, and he answers and right away he said, “Nah. You’re too uptight.” I don’t know how he knew it, but he was right. And then I started really thinking about how to make money reliably.

What do you do on a regular day?
Scream at my kids that I need alone time. Then not get any. Then scream at my husband that I never get alone time. Or I take anxiety medicine. I’m just going to say that I would not need to have anxiety medicine if I had total control of my day and no need to earn money or be a good mother. So I guess the truth is that on a regular day I am realizing that I am not cut out for adult life.

What does the future of your work look like?
No kids. Lots of time to read. And I write during breakfast every day instead of making it.

When you think about making a living and making a life, what comes to mind?
Suicide. It’s fascinating to me that people don’t kill themselves more often. Adult life is very difficult. It’s amazing how strong we are to keep getting up every day and doing it. I have this anthology of suicide notes. Really. It’s called …Or Not to Be, by Mark Etkind. I read them and I can’t believe how incredibly sad they are. Because I read the notes and I think, no way, their life was not that bad, it was just one bad moment. And people loved them. And they loved people. And that’s why they shouldn’t have killed themselves.

I think of all this. And then I think that my life is not actually about making a living and making a life. It’s just about loving people.

Okay. Should I delete that? I don’t know. I just checked the pasta and I have about five more minutes to write. So I’ll give you a more socially acceptable answer:

I am not sure what it means to make a living and make a life. Humans are programmed to want 20% more money than we have. Really. A ton of research says that no matter how much money we have we think if we had 20% more we’d be fine. Then we get that 20% and it starts again.

It makes sense to me. Think about it: if the person in the cave looked at their pile of berries and said, “Ok. That’s enough” then that cave person would have died. So we evolved from people who never thought they had enough berries.

So we are always fighting against the idea that we need to get more more more. Making a living will just have to be the same as our life.

Oh gosh. I just wrote another depressive answer. You could just put the suicide note book right here. It fits.

I guess I want to say that I don’t know how make a living and make a life separately. I don’t know what works. I know that my son’s cello lessons are really expensive and if he goes to music school he needs a $30,000 cello. That’s all I can think about tonight. That and the pasta and the book.

51 replies
  1. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I guess we make a life through our work. You were so right when you talked about how it’s preposterous to think of it in terms of separating work and life.

    I love this interview.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Some people make a life through their work, but how does that explain the fact that 70% of Americans are disengaged from their work?

      Too many people work for the wrong reward, money. Then they try to find happiness and fulfillment through their stuff. That never works.

      Making a life is about having an impact on the world. Changing one life that will change another. Moving us forward.

      The people who honestly say they make a life through their work have cracked this code, which is tricky.

      Great post!

  2. Lois
    Lois says:

    love you, Penelope. Thank you for being you. You know Oprah said recently, “I basically get paid for being myself.” I thought that was cool. You too! You make my day. Carry on.

  3. lynn
    lynn says:

    “…on a regular day I am realizing that I am not cut out for adult life.”

    OMG you are so hilarious. Maybe you don’t mean to be, like that bit about suicide, but it’s so true, it’s pretty ludicrous. I’ve wondered the same thing – why more people don’t commit suicide. Except that life is pretty delicious alongside the constant tragedy. I guess it’s just where you put your attention.

  4. Katt
    Katt says:

    Can I just say, I love you? Never met you, never will and, I just love you. You are incredible and my favorite writer on the web.

  5. Stephenie
    Stephenie says:

    Ah THANK YOU! The truth, at last. I have similiar experiences just maybe I try too hard to “fix” them.

  6. Amy Lazowski
    Amy Lazowski says:

    I’m just going to say that I would not need to have anxiety medicine if I had total control of my day and no need to earn money or be a good mother. — This made me laugh so hard. I am currently unemployed and would LOVE to stay that way, if I could afford it. I enjoy your work, but think maybe homeschooling is biting off to much – give yourself a break and let the kids go off to school maybe.

  7. layla
    layla says:

    i wonder every day if i’m cut out for adult life
    the overflowing baskets of clean laundry in my bedroom – that my husband trips over – are just a small portion of my long list of shortcomings.
    i loooove alone time
    i also love to spend money
    and you are so right – life is about loving people
    my husband says there are 2 things we must do: love God, love others. that is all.
    my brain is lost right now
    i keep hearing a comment a college student made to a large group of parents and prospective students – if you enroll in the film-making program, you won’t have a life – well yes, i’d say that could be true, except – you will have a life – a life of film and filmmakers, and whoever else you run into or over while you are filming -you just won’t have a life outside of film-making – that is the key – you must be willing ( i think) to make your dream your life, and not try to have two lives – maybe?

  8. JML
    JML says:

    I’m surprised that so many people thought the difficulty with adult life, suicide and anxiety medication points were funny. Not because I’m uptight, but because they’re true. And there is something really tragic in that. Like, why is adult life so hard to figure out? It’s so rare when people are actually willing to admit this. And when they do, I end up feeling a little less lonely. So it’s a little disheartening to me when it leads to belly laughs. Maybe it underscores the absurdity? This is not meant as a criticism on commenters. But maybe that’s why so few are willing to be so honest?

    • Anthea
      Anthea says:

      JML, I took the belly laughs as an indication that people were recognizing those comments for themselves, too.

      Sometimes, the choice of reaction to those painful truths is to either cry – or laugh. I’d rather laugh, feel the kinship, and keep moving on.

      And I totally don’t feel cut out for adult life…

  9. Steve Mielczarek
    Steve Mielczarek says:

    If you want to go someplace in life,
    you’ve got to have “the look.” Like,
    get it? That’s why I want to do hair.
    Good haircuts open doors. Hair can
    make you. Or, like, hair can break
    Oh Suzy, don’t I know it. You got to
    have good hair. The right bag, the
    right purse, the right clutch, you’ve
    got to have “the look.”
    Boys, Barbie; Let’s have drinks, I say
    Rusty Nails.
    [Chiclet exits stage left.]

    Don’t call me “Barbie.” I hate it when
    I get called “Barbie”, my sister Liz
    got me these “Barbie” birthday
    cake-ish nails for “Barbie’s” 55th
    birthday celebration. Like I’m going
    to wear them (BEAT) as if!
    Birthday cake-ish nails?
    Yea, birthday cake-ish naiks. You
    know, those already made up nails that
    you glue on. They were all pink and
    they had “Happy Birthday Barbie”
    printed on them with pretty black lettering.

  10. Anna
    Anna says:

    From one mom who survived (and her children survived her) to the moms still knee-deep: it gets easier, I swear. You get your time back, your life back, and your kids grow up to be good adults even if you had a few bad-mom days (and a bunch of mediocre ones).

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Describe your first job and what you remember most about it.
    I remember my first job as a busboy at a local upscale German restaurant. Set the table, serve the water, do refills including coffee and iced tea and such, help the waiters and waitresses bring out some dishes, and clear the table afterwards. Also go into walk in refrigerated area to get stuff like salad ingredients, etc. and grab some for myself on the fly.
    My ice cream parlor story is one as a customer during the summer while attending college. I ordered a regular cone from a friend of my brother. I talked to him while he was getting it for me. He gave it to me and I gave him a dollar bill. This was a long time ago. He gave me change of four quarters. I looked at it, looked at him smiling at me, and I smiled back. So even though I only see him occasionally (as he bought a house in the same neighborhood he grew up in), I am reminded of the free ice cream cone.

  12. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    See?! This is why I love reading your work. You totally nailed it, about the angst, anguish, and love. Good gracious, we can always find something to worry about. But if we remember to focus on love, it helps sometimes. (BTW, I’m a stay-at-home mom and I still want support staff.)

  13. Gwen
    Gwen says:

    Penelope….you are hilarious! I know when not to take you too serious….so when reading about suicide….I’m not “uptight”…
    Great post and I enjoy your writing….
    and your honesty…..

  14. Maria
    Maria says:

    LOL, some days I just want to give you a hug Penelope and tell you it’s all OK.

    Here’s a true story, I was sitting in my bra and underwear for a lack of air conditioning in my home in Florida one summer. I was on an expensive phone call (that month my bill was $800) with a Swiss banker trying to get THE real estate transaction of my career to close on time and that involved getting funds transferred for my client.

    Then my daughter who was 8 years old at the time barged into my bedroom with her friends holding a big frog or turtle. Don’t remember, but I was trying to carry on a conversation breathlessly while waving everybody out of my bedroom trying to hide behind the door where the cord would not reach and waving and breathing hard at and trying to remember I was speaking to a man in a bank in a suit across the ocean and if this deal didn’t close I was out of business.

    The screaming didn’t happen until after I hung up the phone.

    The deal closed. It took 6 months as there was renovations involved. I ended up making $3/hr when all was said and done.

    That was almost 20 years ago.

    Today I am in an armpit town in Canadian Siberia. I have been run out of another town because I didn’t fit in. I rv in the winter. I am an artist, writer, web designer and broke on public assistance while I wait to have surgery.

    There is no one to scream at.

    My child is grown.

    Shit still happens.

    There are good days, there are bad days, and telling the police a joke about another word for rural crime watch is called “clean up duty” because nobody ever gets caught is not well received.

    I’m the one who gets screamed now.

    Death is the one inevitable end. Why rush it?

    There is always Beliz, Austraila, or Costa Rica. I want to drink my margarita there one winter while laughing at the weatherman.

  15. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    Penelope, it sounds like you are trying to take on too much and having a lot of trouble. You recently posted about how it was important to give things up to reach a goal. Maybe you should try to simplify your life. It’s okay to put some of your goals on hold. I hope things go better for you.

  16. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    So far, I think the solution is convincing yourself that what you wouldn’t actually do (because we’re all lazy) if it didn’t give you money is something that you would as if money were no object. Certain jobs make the illusion more or less easy to pull off.

    Your son doesn’t necessarily need you to buy a $30,000 cello for him to get into music school. I could see $10,000 being worth it, as long as you really shop around and get 20 second opinions on each option. You can get a piece of shit for $30,000 if you don’t know what you are doing. Sorry. A hegemoniously beautiful hunk of shit for $30,000. Not to say that paying $100,000 isn’t worth it for that perfect sound, but after a certain threshold, it’s difficult to discern a master soloist playing on a $10,000 vs. a $30,000 instrument. Maybe certain $500,000 instruments.

  17. kats
    kats says:

    Penelope, Good for you! I think you are expressing the angst that goes along with working and being home, raising a family and cooking endless meals…. I find my “heaven” and “hell” to be the same things. At times cooking a meal feels very creative, and sometimes I feel angry, like: Do people REALLY need to eat again.

    What helps me, is talking to people and trying to stay in the moment and breathe where I am. Also, listing what I am grateful for, even when it is hard, helps me to see the “heaven” in an ordinary situation.

    I also agree, the love is important. I have done this exercise before, but once in a while I have imagined if I was on my death bed, and I looked back at my life, what are the moments that stand out. Those moments for me are always about love.

  18. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I’m totally cut out for adult life! it’s just everyone else that won’t get on my bandwagon and do things my way.

    No but seriously, I’ve been an adult since I was like 13 probably.

  19. Bookish Jen
    Bookish Jen says:

    I live in Wisconsin. What’s the name of the reporter? I have a few media connections. Maybe I know the person.

  20. Nate J.
    Nate J. says:

    Your discussion of suicide reminds me of Albert Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” which he opens with,

    “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

    I agree with your conclusions on love. Life is about loving people, starting with yourself.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I mull this over too often.

      Is it worth living?

      One of my friends had a miscarriage. She was so sad and so relieved and so confused about the whole thing. It is indeed a relief when your child has skipped all the awfulness. But it’s so sad when you never got to meet them.

      I have to discipline my mind to just not go there. I don’t know if there’s eternity after death. I don’t know what the point of all this is.

      But one thing I know for sure:

      Nothing makes me happy like being with my husband. Just the way he smells and the way everything seems to vibrate when he talks. The way he loves me is so strong that I get to see myself in a different light.

      And then holding my babies.

      Nothing like talking to my friend Jamaica. Nothing like hearing my friend Julianna call me “sweety” and I wonder how some people just walk around oozing love like it’s no big deal.

      If everything is for nothing at least I get to love these moments.

      And coffee. Getting up in the morning for that strong cup of coffee get me out of bed even when I feel like a zombie.

      My favorite line is from a commenter up above “death is inevitable, why rush it?”

      I speak as someone that has planned for suicide and was convinced I’d never climb out of depression. But then I finally did. And nothing seems to have any sense even when I am healthy. But all this nonsense is totally worth all these people I did nothing to deserve.

  21. jestjack
    jestjack says:

    What an interesting post….A Dear Friend of mine and I came to the conclusion when we hit “50”…that there are basically two kinds of folks in the world. Those that “work to live” and those that “live to work”. Neither is right or wrong. That’s just the way it is.
    As for suicide. Our family has been touched by this not once but twice recently. The first was a young 20-something gal who chose to end it with a gun and left her Mom to discover her “faceless body”. The second, a husband/Dad in his fifties also chose to end his life with a gun and his wife was left to discover his lifeless body and try to make sense of it all. I can only imagine the angst that drove these people to just “tap out”…
    But of course I’m confused…. as I accompany my 84 year old Dad every Monday to “chemo-therapy” as he struggles to hold back the “relentless tide” of cancer. He endures the treatment because as he says…”he’s got plenty of things he needs to do”. So he won’t be “going” quietly…without a fight…or by his own hand. Thanks for the post…..

  22. Rachel C.
    Rachel C. says:

    I’m curious to know how your neighbors take this interview. Even more curious to know how you think they will take it.

    I live in the Midwest too, and I don’t know lot of people that can handle this type of candidness of feeling. Most moms around me (Cincinnati) aren’t really honest enough with themselves to admit aloud they don’t have their shit together. Guess that’s why I don’t have any friends. They want to take craft projects, I want to bitch about how hard it is to be a grow up when I don’t feel like one.

  23. Allie Juliette Mousseau
    Allie Juliette Mousseau says:

    Fantastic post. They always are. Most especially what you wrote about loving people. When everything is crazy around me, that’s what I remember. And when decisions are too difficult to make — loving my family is the goal. How you put it was like poetry.

  24. Nita
    Nita says:

    Gosh, you seem to have it all together. Great post, working from home, on a farm and more. However, everything isn’t always rosey I guess. The truth is, happiness, contentness and all of the above is a matter of perspective. Talking yourself into the positives help to keep you there. Hopefully, you do find that time to read and relax ~ but something tells me that you aren’t wired to relax, that you will find something else to keep you on your toes.

  25. Funny about Money
    Funny about Money says:

    Ah, those First-World problems…tough to deal with!

    The work of raising those screaming kids is shamefully devalued in our culture, as shown by the fact that women who stay home and raise children — relieving our system of day care costs and, in the case of women who home-school, of the cost of educating kids, and we might add usually relieving the system of the costs of arresting, trying, and jailing kids gone wrong — are ineligible for Social Security, because their work is not regarded as having any monetary value. Even if you work a home-based business, its costs are usually carried on the books in such a way as to create tax relief for the working spouse’s income, so that when you hit 65 you’ll find much or all of the income you earned counts for nothing toward Social Security. Raising kids is work: hard, crazy-making, extremely valuable work.

    Joking about suicide isn’t funny. If the thought crosses your mind at all, you might want to consider ways to engineer some relief from the screaming and the distraction and the loneliness and the depression (all of which I remember well myself…). If you can’t get a break by rearranging some aspect of life and work, find a decent therapist.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I don’t believe Penelope is joking about suicide. I think she takes it very seriously and is attempting to highlight in this post the seriousness of the issue. She is very open about her life struggles and a very courageous writer. I say that from my perspective because I haven’t been able to write about my own very difficult ones. I think most everyone is able to share their life experiences to the degree that they believe they’re able to do. I have been reading her writing for a few years now. So I think a post such as this one is basically written and resonates most with her long-time readership. I do understand and can appreciate, though, that a new or relatively new reader of this blog could interpret this post to be one as joking about suicide. I just don’t believe it was written as such.

      • Tracy
        Tracy says:

        I agree Mark. It seems like a lifetime ago but I remember reading a post of PT’s that had that same viewpoint about suicide. At the time I was just amused, maybe even felt a bit sorry for her. Today I totally get the sentiment. I’m not sure if that is because I am a wife/mother/careerist trying to hold it together or just because I have been around long enough to know the world does not reward the right things.

        (Also PT, love the magical writing, esp the story about the first job)

  26. shannon
    shannon says:

    As an INTJ this really resonates with me – – “Scream at my kids that I need alone time. Then not get any. Then scream at my husband that I never get alone time. Or I take anxiety medicine. I’m just going to say that I would not need to have anxiety medicine if I had total control of my day and no need to earn money or be a good mother.”

    I am fixing this situation in my own life by 1) not having kids, 2) working for myself (finally took your advice that I don’t need to make lots of money), and 3) trying to come to terms with the fact that my husband makes enough money for both of us.

    I hate that I’m not earning big $$$ because I am highly competitive, but I am doing something satisfying so that makes it worthwhile. And maybe one day it will make enough to pay the bills…

  27. Claudine
    Claudine says:

    It IS very hard to be a grown up. I speak to stay at home moms and I am in awe of them…it amazes me how many people spend everyday completely working every moment to keep other little people alive…no pay, little support, and very little respect. Its a miracle really.

  28. Penelope Fan
    Penelope Fan says:

    I am curious if this story actually ran, or if this was too much truth for the reporter and the publication to handle and the story got dumped. This doesnt fit with Midwest “family is hunky dory, and we have everything handled here” social narrative. I have thoughts along these lines all the time (i wouldn’t need anxiety meds if I didn’t have children either, for example) … but the few times I have voiced ideas like this out loud have been met with ugly results. You have to keep your mouth shut when in public. This is the kind of truth that can only come out in print or stand up comic routine.

  29. through my autistic eyes
    through my autistic eyes says:

    I’d love to work from home. Every day would be a good day for me. I think it’s perfect for many aspies. Not having to socialize and be around people. I had switched jobs almost as fast as neurotypicals switch socks. Fast food, factory, cleaning an animal shelter, typing, survies over the phone.

    You scream at your kids that you want alone time, but when you’ll get it, you’ll miss them. Aspies need more alone time than neurotypicals, and that’s why marriages and raising kids is so difficult for us. I’ve given up on it altogether.

  30. Inside Job
    Inside Job says:

    Penelope, this is great:

    “I think of all this. And then I think that my life is not actually about making a living and making a life. It’s just about loving people.”

    A few days ago I meet a friend, who is a climber, a really really good one. he told me, that one of the reasons he is so strong, goes back to his childhood, and the fact, that he was independent from as early as he remembers

    It is interesting what you do, best wishes!

  31. holly
    holly says:

    What I so enjoy about you is your “realness.” You share your struggles with humor and wit, something I aspire to do. I’ve been a therapist for many years and my clients tell me they have appreciated my being real with them. Of course they were desperate, maybe they didn’t have a choice. Anyway, I now am beginning to write and will soon leave my practice in order to do more. I’m terrified but you inspire me. Thank you.

  32. Mayank
    Mayank says:

    Though I haven’t read many of your blogs (I have started now though), But I loved this one for sure. The “I had been telling myself if I ever ran out of money it would be okay because I could be a nude model” was like ROFL for me.
    Thank you

  33. Heather
    Heather says:

    Your blog (and its comments) always seem to be a magnet for the introverted. I love this – I feel normal here. :)

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