89. Song No. 1,053: “Bittersweet,” Kristin Hoffmann
This song about choosing a life of comfort over the pursuit of a passion spoke to me as a college student eager to embrace the authenticity of being broke but chasing your dream, and it hits just as hard as a 30something whose world is a lot less black-and-white than it was very nearly half a lifetime ago.
I met Kristin Hoffmann in the ladies room at Bowery Ballroom because my best friend complimented her earrings. We all chatted amiably for a bit and then she had to go, like, get ready to be the opening act for the Ben Lee show we were there to see. And she was just as delightful on stage as she was in a Lower East Side bathroom.
Admittedly, my taste in music has always skewed toward male-fronted musical outfits, so being blown away by a female musician just didn’t happen all that often. Call it the way my taste goes, or some internalized bitterness over forever wishing I could sing but very much not being able to, like, at all, or the general under-representation of women in music.
So, charmed as we were with both Kristin Hoffmann and her songs, we bought her CDs between sets and fed them to our respective computers when we got back to our dorm at some irresponsible-for-a-school-night hour. And it was love almost immediately. (And not just because she later mentioned us on her MySpace page, a discovery that made us positively giddy in a way that now obviously foretold both of us being gleefully bi.)
But nothing crystalized my very real fears of life after college like “Bittersweet” just going for the jugular did. I was a senior in college and had only really started to realize what “being a writer” meant with any kind of real-world context. I had long given up on screenwriting; at the end of junior year, faced with the offer of either photo or opinion editor for the college paper, I had chosen the opinion section — but not without an incredible amount of anguish over feeling like I was essentially facing the fork in the road where I had to pick either words or images as my career now. Which was a heady, daunting decision for someone who had just discovered functioning alcoholism and was now allowed to just go blindly flailing toward a path where many celebrated drunks had stumbled along before. Because I clearly needed more reasons to start savaging my liver early.
“Bittersweet” features the narrator and Sally, two equal forces on divergent journeys. The latter has traded in the life of a struggling musician for domestic security while the former struggles to pay the rent but is living her truest life as a vessel for her art: The narrator — presumably Kristin herself — wonders about their respective happinesses. And even to my dense college self, it really sunk in for the first time ever that, while I had selected the only career path I could see myself not hating if I had to do it for the next 60some years (barring the apocalypse, of course, because how soon we forgot how close to the tipping point the Bush II presidency felt), the only security it offered me was the inner assurance that at least I’m doing the thing I’m best at and most at peace with. I knew that “starving artist” wasn’t nearly as romantically single-minded as I made it out to be in my fanciful imagination and that the average newspaper journalist’s yearly salary was. And I damn well knew I wasn’t the marrying-for-money type, so there went that option. So trusting my heart to call all of the shots that mattered meant my future was looking pretty penniless, and I couldn’t really see the problem with that plan. Anything else was selling out.
Fifteen years, a recession, some therapy, some humility, voluntarily doubling back on my career while I figure out where I’m going next, a pandemic, and all the moments comprising and leading to each of those epochs and more have very gratefully added some nuance to my perspective. After all, you should be some kind of embarrassed by how you used to be, because that’s irrefutable evidence of character growth.
But there are some constants that grow with you, like the tenets of your personality. I spent about 10 years fueled by the frustration and hilarious destitution of a two-journalist household’s salary trying to make myself fit into jobs never meant for me for the sake of a paycheck. It sucked righteously and I was miserable more often than not. The money didn’t even matter, since it all basically went back into whatever coping mechanisms I’d clung to as outlets to escape how much I hated these jobs that at least still kept me employed in my field of choice.
I finally had enough a little more than a year ago after an especially draining work event where everything I hated about where I’d wound up came to a thundering crescendo signaling the end of this failed experiment of the upward climb everyone told me I was supposed to want. I stormed back to my hotel room with the rage of smiling through five years of accumulated bullshit, cried in a flesh-scalding shower until I finally felt my hands again, popped a Xanax and started applying for jobs until 2 a.m.
For weeks after, I applied to, like, medical magazines that paid shit and marketing positions that sounded like my dreams’ death knell and, like, fucking corporate communications jobs that I would have sneered at even two months earlier. I got pretty far in one of those interview processes, put all my eggs in the same basket because two good interviews obviously matter more than actual medical-writing experience, and wound up hysterically crying on my kitchen floor when I got the thanks-but-no-thanks email the Monday before Thanksgiving.
Thing was, my job was three months out from its first show in Las Vegas, and Vegas is my fun town. And HELL NO was I going to work 16-thankless-hour days while everyone else around me was getting cozy with a city I love as improbably and irresponsibly as I love the bourgie-ass, gaudy spectacle that makes Vegas so disarmingly enchanting. And I fucking haaaate working trade shows. I told myself I would not be there for that show no matter what it took, and having this job I thought I landed ripped away so close to the point of no return made me feel like some kind of inescapable prison sentence was heading directly at me.
Then a newspaper job popped up in my Indeed recommendations one day. And I said fuck it, submitted my resume (sans cover letter, for maximum swagger), and told my husband we’d figure it out if I got offered the job and its incredible pay cut.
On New Year’s Eve, I got the call to schedule an interview. One week later, hours before my husband’s grandfather died, I cried my eyes out in the HR woman’s office because I was overwhelmed with how badly I had missed local journalism. Sure, I ran screaming from another newspaper office literally right down the road almost a decade prior, but I never hated newspapers (just the do-more-with-less mentality that’s devastated them since before the recession) like I did the jobs that kept me from print journalism. This was not just an escape pod: This was coming home, and not a second too soon. And I wanted my homecoming after a veritable odyssey through some hostile-ass terrain where I did not belong.
Six weeks after my first day back as a newspaper editor, the pandemic turned everything upside down. And, yeah, that first deadline day from home was one brutal slog. But nothing worth doing ever comes easy, and there is nowhere else I’d rather be, especially during historic times, than a hyper-local newspaper. The pay might suck but ignoring your heart for a decade sucks way harder. And so does selling out.