The myth of the ruby slippers

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors and a certified treasure to humanity, has some simple and direct advice when it comes to writing. It goes like this: “Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.”

I’ve been writing – or pretending to write – this blog post for months and it’s high time I got my butt back in the chair, although it’s not always a bad thing to let a piece of writing sit for a bit. I’ve found it often marinates into something richer than it might have been. I guess it could also grow mold, but I’m hoping that’s not the case with this post.

My original piece was going to be a reflection on my summer sabbatical in California and the importance of place in my life. For some reason I stopped working on it in early November and well, somehow the daffodils are now in bloom. To be honest, I know the some reason was that the holiday season is a roller coaster of emotions for me (and a bazillion other people).

Me as soon as I see the first Lexus Christmas commercial.

A typical day for me during that time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is not unlike a NC weather forecast – sunny skies early, thunderstorms in the afternoon, some containing hail and heavy winds, followed by partial clearing. In short, I’m all over the place – which is where this post originated – place.

When I returned from my summer (a civilized no humidity summer) in California, I began thinking a lot about Dorothy – yeah, that young girl from Kansas. Or was it Missouri? How was she so very certain that there’s no place like home? Maybe it was those ruby slippers that fortified her resolve. Me? I’m more of an Allbirds kind of girl and when I bump my rubber heels together, well, there’s no magic.

Don’t get me wrong – I was delighted to be back with my dear wife, but it hit me when my return flight approached PTI that my connection to North Carolina becomes more tenuous each time I leave this state. It was dark as we made our descent and I could see the lights of familiar places, but I didn’t feel much different than when I landed in Atlanta on my layover. I realized that Winston Salem is a destination for me, but it doesn’t feel like home. It never has.

Home is not always in plane view.

I envied those passengers I heard talking about how good it was to be home and I tried to remember when I last had that feeling. It made me sad that I really had to think about it. I suppose I would have to go back several years ago to when my parents were still alive.

The truth is that I’ve always felt like an accidental tourist in North Carolina. I moved here in 1995 when my partner at the time was recruited for a good job opportunity. I was a Virginian for the first 39 years of my life, and I had always thought of myself as a southerner – until I arrived in the Old North State. I’ll never forget my first trip to the post office and after a brief conversation with the clerk behind the counter, he looked at me a bit suspiciously and said, “You’re not from around here.” Not a question. I felt like I was in one of those old Westerns and waited for him to say, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.” He wasn’t unfriendly, but his statement surprised me and before I could respond, he asked if was from up north. I said, “Yes. Northern Virginia.” He nodded slowly and told me he thought I was from New York City. That’s exactly how he said – true story.

My first trip to a NC post office. He didn’t make my day.

That memory is harmlessly amusing and oddly affirming to me today as I ponder the nuances of home. NC is never going to be home to me no matter how long I live here. And that’s okay, because I figured out this summer that for some of us, home is more abstract than an address. Most often for me, it’s a state of mind – and heart.

I talked to Kelly, my hairdresser/therapist/dear friend about this recently. She’s married and has two young children and moved to this area in her late teens. I asked her what popped into her head when she thinks of the word home. She took her time answering and said, “Home is the place I feel most filled.” I think I startled her when I responded, quite enthusiastically, “Yes, yes, that’s it.” I’m so lucky that my hair stylist completes me.

For some of us, home is not an address or a house. It’s a space where we feel in harmony with the world. Maybe it’s not even a space – it can be a sound or a smell. The Episcopal church I grew up in had a musty woody smell when you entered the front door. I left the church for several decades as an adult and when I made my way back to a small church in Greensboro on Easter Sunday in 2007, that same smell engulfed me like a hug. I was home.

The red door of just about any Episcopal church feels like home to me. This one is All Saint’s in Greensboro, NC. Watercolor by Mike Tiddy.

And I suppose that my church here in Winston Salem is one of the physical spaces that feels most like home to me these days. And that was certainly the case this holiday season. Church was a sanctuary for me in all manner of ways.

My mother died almost twenty years ago, but I’m still stopped in my tracks when I smell Chanel No. 5. That was her perfume. The morning after she died, I walked into her closet just to breathe in that scent still lingering on some of her clothing. I felt comforted. I was home.

Tastes can feel like home, too. My father always made oyster stew for breakfast on Christmas morning. Hey, don’t judge, I’m from Virginia and we didn’t have Moravian sugar cake. The first Christmas without him, I steeled myself over the stove to try and replicate his no-recipe recipe. It must have been divine intervention, because I came pretty darn close. I remember taking a deep breath before that first taste and there it was – that familiar briny tang.

I spent some time in Charlottesville over New Year’s – a place I lived for over a decade. Several times during my stay, my heart felt full – most especially when I shared time with my friend of over three decades, Chris. She and her husband Ed live on a farm in Crozet, just outside of Charlottesville. The farm has long been the backdrop for all sorts of celebrations – including a memorable 4th of July when we almost burned the front yard down. Our bad – Ed did warn us that the grass was too dry for sparklers.

Friends since the first Reagan administration. Hoping to live long enough to see a Democrat in the White House again.

Chris and Ed were both so dear to my parents – in life and death – and it is an abiding comfort to me to have such a rich history with them. Their house feels like home. And hugging Ed reminds me of being in my father’s arms – he’s a strong but kind man like my dad and he’s okay with me crying into his warm flannel shirt. And just like my dad, he is always so happy to see me. He greeted me this time with perhaps the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. “Addy, you know we just sort of set our watches until the next time we see you.” I mean, who says that? Ed does. And then I cry.

Me after hugging Ed.

I often feel at home in nature and what a glorious gift that is. I’ve always enjoyed walking, but after the apocalypse of November 8, 2016, walking became a spiritual practice for me. Yes, it’s good exercise, but it also gets me away from the turmoil of our BREAKING NEWS world. There are just so many screaming words flying back and forth, and I for one would much rather hear the tweet of a bird over one from a president.

Budding blooms > Breaking news.

It’s taken me a long time to accept that for me, home will probably always be a moving target, a fleeting yet often visceral moment. On my best days, there are several moments when I feel at home and as Kelly said, I am filled in glorious ways.

Mary Oliver, the beloved goddess of poetry who passed away last year, exquisitely captures the feeling of home in the poem below. I read it at my best friend’s wedding several years ago outside on a warm day in May while her dog barked. It was perfect.

Coming Home

by Mary Oliver

When we are driving in the dark,
on the long road to Provincetown,
when we are weary,
when the buildings and the scrub pines lose their familiar look,
I imagine us rising from the speeding car.
I imagine us seeing everything from another place–
the top of one of the pale dunes, or the deep and nameless
fields of the sea.
And what we see is a world that cannot cherish us,
but which we cherish.
And what we see is our life moving like that
along the dark edges of everything,
headlights sweeping the blackness,
believing in a thousand fragile and unprovable things.
Looking out for sorrow,
slowing down for happiness,
making all the right turns
right down to the thumping barriers to the sea,
the swirling waves,
the narrow streets, the houses,
the past, the future,
the doorway that belongs
to you and me.

I’m glad Dorothy made it back to Kansas, but I’m going to just keep trying to enjoy the ride home wherever it takes me. You see, for some of us, there’s no home like place.

Chris and Ed make my heart feel home.
When a familiar view feels like home. Holidays up on the farm.

The weight of it all

Lizzo. Yaas, Queen.

Slow songs, they for skinny hoes

Can’t move all of this here to one of those

I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo

Fuck it up to the tempo

Lyrics from “Tempo” by Lizzo

My musical tastes are the fashion equivalent of Mom jeans. In other words, decidedly unhip. My Sirius XM radio is preset to stations like Coffee House, On Broadway and Siriusly Sinatra. I never listen to popular radio.

It’s a bit of a disconnect, because I’m fairly obsessed with popular culture. I mean, I can tell you who Chris Martin is dating – Dakota Johnson – the breakup was just a rumor. But current music – I’m clueless. Thankfully, my bestie Carla is 20-something years younger than me and keeps me from being that old person. She introduced me to the singer Lizzo a few weeks ago and her music is everything I never knew I needed. For reals.

I don’t even know how to describe Lizzo’s music – you just must listen to it. She’s a classically trained flautist turned alternative hip-hop rapper and singer who’s single “Truth Hurts”is currently No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

I’m certain I look a bit like John Travolta in the opening credits of Saturday Night Fever when I’m listening to Lizzo on my morning walks. I strut. Well, as much as I’m capable of strutting. Her themes of body-positivity and self-love are empowering, thrilling and thoroughly badass.

And Lizzo’s lyrics have given me the guts to finally – FINALLY – write about something that has been heavy on my mind for years – weight. My weight. Your weight. Anyone’s weight who has been made to feel less than because you’re considered too much by THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD. I’m downsizing – see what I did there? I’m Marie Kondoing this bulky burden and celebrating the fierce and beautiful women like Lizzo who have dragged me to today – author Roxane Gay, actress and writer Aidy Bryant, and my sister to name a few.

I’ll start with some facts. I come from a family of large women – particularly on my father’s side. The Ore women are built Ford tough – it’s in our DNA. There are no petite women in our family. We also have freakishly large heads. True story. Years ago, my sister had a straw hat made for me by Oprah’s hatmaker – who informed her that the circumference of my head is larger than Oprah’s. You get a hat!

Dear wife eclipsed by Big Head.

The first memory I have of my mother complaining about her weight was probably around the time I was in the 4th grade. My younger sister, my mother’s fourth child, was two, and mom had that baby weight gain that never quite went away. That would have also been the time I was introduced to Tab – one of the first diet soft drinks and quite possibly the vilest tasting beverage ever created. How do I describe it? If aluminum foil was a soft drink, it would be Tab.

Where taste goes to die.

My mother and her friends drank it all the time and I grew up thinking it was a mom thing that I would one day have to emulate. Well, I never had kids and I never drank Tab – but I crushed some Fresca and Diet Dr. Pepper back in the day. Disclaimer: Now that I know that diet sodas can cause strokes in lab rats and other fun stuff, I only have an occasional Diet Coke when I have a headache.

Mom and her coffee klatch all had multiple kids, all lamented their round stomachs, and all invested a lot of time in trying the latest fad diets – the Grapefruit Diet, the Pineapple Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet were just a few of them. The diets all had two things in common – they were horrible, and they made my mother and her friends very grouchy.

So, I grew up thinking dieting was normal – well, at least for girls. I don’t remember the first diet I did but I guess I must have been in junior high. Funny, when I look back on pictures from that time, I look like most of the other girls in the photos – long hair parted down the middle and the awkwardly glum expression of a teenager, but I always felt bigger. Maybe it was because I never had a flat stomach – ever. The concept is still as foreign to me as cold fusion.

Baby, I was born this way. Me, shortly before starting my first diet, circa 1958.

I never wore a two-piece swimsuit, much less a bikini. Just the thought of it would have made me spontaneously combust into flames. A sensible one piece has been the story of my life and shopping with my mother as a teenager are some of the worst memories of my childhood. There were almost always tears – mine and hers. I’m sure I blamed her for my inability to fit into what my girlfriends were wearing. Through the wisdom of years, I now understand that I probably didn’t really want to be wearing most of those things anyway. I was different than my friends and not having a flat stomach was just a part of it. I was gay, but back then I didn’t have the language for it – it was just another thing that made me not the same, but it was a thing I could more easily hide than a belly.

I loved sports and played on the girls’ basketball team. I was a pretty decent athlete, but I was not fast. And that was never more apparent than every fall when each student was required to participate in the sadistic Presidential Fitness Test. This was an archaic six event torture test instituted by President Eisenhower in the 1950’s because US kids weren’t measuring up to European kids in physical fitness tests.

I hope karma caught up with those PE teachers. And I hope it was faster than me.

The sinister P.E. teacher would stand with a clipboard and a stopwatch and time you doing things like the 600-yard walk/run (I mostly walked) and the ludicrous flexed arm hang that only the super skinny girls could do for more than a millisecond. I only remember these two specific events because they were the most humiliating. The good news is that the test was discontinued in 2013 and military training exercises apparently are no longer required for a high school diploma, but the psychological damage remains for some of us.

I gained weight after college and followed in my mother’s diet footsteps trying almost every weight loss program du jour – including Atkins – which when properly followed gives you the breath of a black bear – and the Scarsdale diet, created by cardiologist Herman Tarnower in the late 70’s. This plan was the precursor to all the high protein/low carb diets of today. Dr. Tarnower was famously shot to death in 1980 by his lover Jean Harris, the headmistress of the prestigious Madeira School. After two weeks on the Scarsdale diet, I had a better understanding of her motives.

PTSD: Post Traumatic Scarsdale Diet

Over the years, as I struggled on and off (literally) with my weight, I realized two maddening truths about our culture – thinness is regarded as a virtue and fat shaming is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.

Just the word thin makes me uncomfortable – unless it is relating to mint cookies. My beloved Aunt Phyllis used the word as the ultimate compliment to someone. Not pretty, or cute or nice – but thin. And she would say it so it sounded like the “n” was another syllable – dragging it out so it would hang in the air. She was naturally thin most of her life (she was my aunt on my mother’s side!) and probably had no idea how her glorification of thin made me feel so inadequate.

Don’t even.

However, I have known thin people – friends even – who consider themselves superior beings because of their thinness. This is not an appealing trait. Being blessed with the metabolism of a hummingbird is usually the stroke of luck of genetics – not character. And a lot of thin people love to give the unthin unsolicited advice about healthy eating. Here’s a little pro tip: Bag it, we’ve heard it. Ad nauseam.

And for the record, I’m a pescatarian – I haven’t eaten meat in decades – and I walk on average about 25 miles a week. I know about healthy eating and exercising, thank you very much. But hey, some of my best friends are thin and I love them just the way they are. Okay, maybe not when they’re eating that ginormous cupcake with sprinkles.

Chew on this.

Fat shaming is way worse than thin flaunting and I’m over it. Two years ago, I read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay – a raw and searingly honest account of rape, overeating, desire and denial that completely wrecked me. Often when I read a book (old-school, no Kindle), I underline the parts that speak to me. When I looked back at my copy of Hunger the other day, almost every page has an underlined passage. Like this one:

Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes. You may become very adept at playing the role of the wallflower. You may learn how to be the life of the party so that people are too busy laughing at or with you to focus on the elephant in the room. You may do whatever you have to do to survive in a world that has little patience or compassion for a body like yours.

And this one:

In yet another commercial, Oprah somberly says, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.” This is a popular notion, the idea that the fat among us are carrying a thin woman inside. Each time I see this particular commercial, I think, I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying. And then I think about how fucked up it is to promote this idea that our truest selves are thin women hiding in our fat bodies like imposters, usurpers, illegitimates.

Gay says some of the things I’ve only thought in my head – or perhaps, on occasion, discussed with my sister. She writes a lot about feeling comfortable in your own body and what a luxury that must be – about untangling the social messages that equate your worth with the size of your body. I’m a lot older than her – she’s 44 – and I am not black, a victim of rape, or morbidly obese, so I don’t begin to pretend that our journeys have been the same. I just know that her writing made me feel heard.

And her writing made me question why I had never written about the weight of weight. Over the years, I’ve written about death, divorce and job loss – all heavy topics – but never weight. I finally realized that I was ashamed to write about it and that made me feel even more ashamed.

Truth.

About a decade ago, I went through a tumultuous breakup with a partner. It was mean and public and played out on social media. At one point, one of her besties, a man, tried to tag a photo of me on Facebook with the caption LOSER FAT CUNT (yes, all caps). I had just gotten home from work when I saw it. My face was on fire as hot tears spilled onto my chest and I can remember feeling like a SWAT team had just broken down my front door. I felt so exposed – like a kid on the playground being called names in front of the other kids and I could hear the awful din of the collective laughing of the masses.

Spoiler Alert: “Sticks and Stones” is a ruse.

I thought about that Facebook post when I read Roxane Gay’s book and I felt embarrassed that the word that hurt me the most that awful night was fat. Shame on me. I let someone have power over me by feeling bad about myself. That was fucked up and Gay’s book helped me explore my power in a way I never had before.

Since then, I’ve tried my best to not be a party to other people making big people feel small. A few months after I read Hunger, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the huuuge mistake of closing a public beach during a weekend-long shutdown of nonessential services. Hours later, he was photographed sitting in a beach chair with his family on the beach he had just closed. The rest is meme history and the none too flattering photo went viral over social media for weeks. I’ve never liked Christie, and I was itching to get in on the fun until I remembered that just because you don’t like someone doesn’t mean it’s okay to make fun of their body in a beach chair. Maybe that sounds a bit Mr. Rogersish, but that’s when the tide turned for me. I’m not the FB police, but if you’re “friends” with me and you post a fat shaming meme or video – you know the ones – a fat woman at Walmart – always Walmart – wearing a tube top doing something tacky – I will call you out. And by the way, no one EVER posts a picture of a thin woman in a tube top doing something tacky at Walmart.

I’m over it. It’s just not cool or funny to fat shame.

But I’ll tell you what is cool and funny – Shrill, the Aidy Bryant Hulu series based on author Lindy West’s bestselling 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. Bryant plays Annie, a journalist living in Portland, OR who wants to change her life – not her body. Annie is smart and funny and sexy, and makes bad choices just like smaller women.

At the end of a really bad day, Annie reaches critical mass with the messaging that her body is what needs to be fixed and says, “It’s a fucking mind prison, you know, that every fucking woman everywhere has been programmed to believe. And I’ve wasted so much time and money and energy, for what? I’m fat. I’m fucking fat. Hello, I’m fat.”

The six-episode series made me laugh and cry – sometimes at the same time. Being seen will do that to you. And here’s something else – Bryant is the star of the show and she gets to wear the cool clothes and the cute shoes and have sex and all the other things the big girl isn’t usually allowed to do on TV.

Aidy Bryant, living her best life. Cute shoes!

Annie is most of the women I’ve ever known – big and small – she’s just trying to live her best life and I want to be her best friend. I think I really want to be Aidy Bryant’s best friend. I follow her on Instagram, and she radiates joy. I love her and her message of body positivity and I’m thrilled that the show has been renewed for a second season.

I watched the series again a few weeks ago when I was with my sister in California. My sister is seven years younger than me, but she’s way wiser and braver than I’ll ever dream of being. She has battled – and that’s the right word – severe depression beginning around age nine. In the 70’s, not too many parents or teachers knew what to do with a depressed child – which is not to say they didn’t try, they were just woefully unequipped with the skills they needed to help her. She found comfort in food, her “best friend” as she called it. Food never let her down and it always made her feel better for a while. It also made her one of the most wretched creatures on earth – an overweight teenage girl. For her, that meant no dances, no cheerleading, no drill team – but lots of teasing. It is agonizing for me to hear her memories of being made fun of – even after these many years.

And yet, she was voted Funniest, Best Personality and Most Spirited for senior superlatives. She became that life of the party that Roxane Gay describes.

My sister’s watershed moment of living as a big woman in a small world happened in 1998 near the steps of the U.S. Capitol at a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard, the gay student who was beaten and left to die near Laramie, WY. She was living in a MD suburb and was deeply moved by Shepherd’s death. She only recently told me that it was the first time that she had feared for my safety as a gay person. It felt important for her to be there that night to support me.

At one point during the program, she was standing behind two gay men and overheard them making fun of a very large woman in front of them. My sister was mortified and fully realized then the pecking order of discrimination – even the gays make fun of fat people.

My sister lives a full life these days and she would still probably win Most Spirited if her colleagues and friends had a vote. She lives her life out loud – especially when it comes to accessories. She doesn’t make herself smaller to fit anyone else’s expectations. And I wish I had half her chutzpah.

Nobody puts Sissy in the corner. For starters, her hat wouldn’t fit.

For a good chunk of my life, I’ve been told that I’m too much – too big, too loud, too emotional, too intimidating, too sentimental, too nice, too passionate, too sarcastic, too silly, too political, too out, too everything. Lately, I’ve been examining the connection between the messenger and the message and it seems like whenever I adjust my settings to suit them, it never works out well for me. It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ve finally figured out that my job is not to make the messengers happy.

Whatever Lizzo song I’m listening to is usually my favorite, but if I had to pick one it would be “Soulmate” – her brilliant ode to self-acceptance and self-love.

‘Cause I’m my own soulmate

I know how to love me

I know that I’m always going to hold me down

(Look up in the mirror like damn she the one)

Yeah, I’m my own soulmate

I know I’m lucky. My dear wife loves me and tells me I’m beautiful almost every day – sometimes twice on Sundays. I know she means it and when she says it, I believe her, but these days I’m also listening more and more to my own voice – and it’s telling me that too much is just right.

Hello, it’s me.
Traveling light these days. #nofilter

America is a gun

On my walk this morning, I approached a tidy bungalow and heard a baby crying from the front porch. Even though I couldn’t see the child, I knew it was quite young. I’ve never been a mother, but even I know that the cry of a newborn is different – like the mewing of a kitten – fragile and needy.

Front porch lullaby.

I slowed down my pace for a bit and over the cries, heard the soft sound of a woman speaking Spanish to the baby. I don’t know Spanish (major regret that I took French instead) but I didn’t need to be fluent to translate that the words she was saying were gentle and comforting – almost like a spoken lullaby. The woman’s voice over the baby’s tiny cries produced a sweet harmony and I realized that my feet were no longer moving. And just like that, I was crying.

I thought about Jordan Anchondo – the 25-year-old mother of three who was shot and killed while shielding her two-month-old son from the gunfire at a Walmart in El Paso on Saturday. Her baby was treated for broken bones – likely caused by her falling to the floor while clutching him to her chest. She had gone shopping that morning for school supplies and party decorations for her six-year-old daughter’s upcoming birthday.

Her husband Andre, 23, was also killed in the massacre.

I stood there on a sidewalk in Pleasanton, CA, far away from my own home, crying for the harmonies that would never be heard.

America is a gun.

Those aren’t my words, but I wish they were. It’s the title of a poem I first ran across in 2016, after the deaths of 49 people in the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. You remember that shooting? It was the largest mass shooting in US history – until the very next year when 58 people were killed in Las Vegas at an outdoor musical festival.

Brian Bilston, the author of the poem, said the idea for it was generated by this tweet from Jeb Bush:

Bushwhacked.

Bush was a presidential candidate at the time and was apparently trying to bolster his weak standing in the polls by pandering to pro-gun voters. He was immediately eviscerated on social media and his tweet became an epic meme. Oh, and four days later he would drop out of the presidential race. Self-inflicted wounds suck.

Here’s the poem:

“America is a Gun”

England is a cup of tea.

France, a wheel of ripened brie.

Greece, a short, squat olive tree.

America is a gun.

Brazil is a football on the sand.

Argentina, Maradona’s hand.

Germany, an oompah band.

America is a gun.

Holland is a wooden shoe.

Hungary, a goulash stew.

Australia, a kangaroo.

America is a gun.

Japan is a thermal spring.

Scotland is a highland fling.

Oh, better to be anything

than America as a gun.

As I gathered myself on the sidewalk and made my feet start moving again, the sweet duet of that young woman and the baby was drowned out by a Rufus Wainwright song in my head –” Going to a Town”.

I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down

I’m going to a place that has already been disgraced

I’m gonna see some folks who have already been let down

I’m so tired of America

When did America become a gun?

America used to be a front porch.

Jordan Anchondo and her son.

Nice work if you can get it

I’m in California for the summer trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. It’s my grown-up version of summer camp only instead of swimming, lanyard making and s’mores, there’s a lot of existential angst and self-doubt with the occasional avocado toast. Damn, I wish I had appreciated Camp Massanetta more at the time. I guess youth – and summer camp – are wasted on the young.

Camp Cali.

Why California? Well, if you’re asking, you’ve never been here. If my spirit animal were a state, it would be California. Oh, and back in NC where I live my regular life, the temperatures last weekend were in the upper 90’s with heat indexes well over 100. This morning, when I took my walk, it was 56 degrees here in Pleasanton, with humidity of 28%. I feel like I got a Get out of Hell Free card for the summer. And we just won’t talk about that minor earthquake the other day.

But there’s no humidity!

The other bonus about being in California is that my baby sister lives here. We’ve spent most of our adult lives living a time zone or two away from each other – not on purpose mind you. She’s my best friend and having this much time with her really is like Christmas in July.

The west coast is the best coast when I’m with my sister.

She works in healthcare management and has a super big job at Stanford. She also works on average about 60 hours a week and is never really off. I would hate her job, but then again, so does she. Who wouldn’t? She’s devoted her professional life to providing optimal care for people living with cancer, but every day, literally, hour by hour, our healthcare system gets further away from patient care and ever closer to reducing treatment plans to spreadsheets.

I worry about her – she’s got a lot of years left to work – too many years to hate what she’s doing. The truth is a bunch of folks are in that situation and that just sucks, because I think there was a time when a lot of people liked their jobs.

Maybe I watched too much TV growing up and it warped my idea of work. Back then, people, albeit mostly men, loved their jobs, but were we ever sure what they did for a living? Like what did Ward Cleaver, Beaver’s dad, do except come home to a perfectly coiffed June every evening with his briefcase in his hand? Not a bad gig, but still a bit sketchy.

Living the dream, but where was Ward during the day?

For a lot of us, Mary Tyler Moore was the first role model for a single working woman. Mary Richards was an associate producer for a news station in Minneapolis and she seemed to really love her job – except for the part about not being paid as much as her male colleagues and having to be careful not to intimidate them. Gosh, how times have changed. Said no one ever.

 My girlfriends and I loved Mary and her cute clothes and groovy little apartment, and we always knew where we would be on Saturday nights. And if we were babysitting, you can bet those brats would be tucked in before that iconic MTM theme song started. Truth be told, I think I probably majored in Communication Arts because of Mary Richards.

Honestly, I blame my dad for giving me an idealized vision of job satisfaction. He was a sales manager for several companies throughout his career and he loved his job. I never once heard him complain about work. Not once. Sure, he might not have liked a boss or some stupid decision someone up the chain made, but he loved being on the road – a lot – and calling on his customers. He never had an office – except for the dingy basement one at home – but he worked in almost complete autonomy – and therein probably lies the secret to his job happiness. I think most folks would enjoy the work they do more if they didn’t have to do it with some of the assholes they work with. And damn if it’s not true about bad apples. I worked with a couple of rotten ones at my last job, but more on that later.

I’m at an age where several of my friends are retiring. Boy, that’s a word that has a whole new meaning to me now. Remember when you were young, and you heard about someone retiring – they had to be old and white haired and ready to sit in a recliner for the rest of their days. Thank God retirement isn’t wasted on the young. My retired friends are so busy they don’t know how they ever had time to work.

Well, I don’t have a recliner (I have a strong aversion to motion furniture) and I’m not retired. No, I was retired. Big difference. It’s a long story that has played out a bazillion times before me. Surely, you’ve heard it – a couple of weak men felt intimated by a strong woman who was their boss and decided to complain to an equally weak man who had a wee bit of power and, well, that never ends well for the strong woman. Or maybe it does.

Big difference.

A forced retirement gives one a lot of time for reflection, especially after the scars of betrayal have faded. Sometimes a sharp sting of disappointment will still surprise me – like a tooth that’s sensitive to ice cream, but time and validation have helped a lot. I’m profoundly grateful for all those folks who confirmed I got a raw deal, even a few – granted, a dishearteningly few – of the sheep who helped kick me to the curb. Validation doesn’t pay for health insurance, but it does improve your posture.

I’ve also had the gift of insight from unlikely sources, and not necessarily the people closest to me. We’re so reluctant to talk about hard things in our society – even with people we really care about. It’s just easier to assume that someone is doing okay after something bad happens. That’s a real shame because that’s when we really need to talk someone.

My friend Beyoncé, (not her real name), has been one of the wisest voices I’ve heard during my sabbatical from the work world. She is an incredibly private person and would be absolutely mortified if I used her real name. Funny – we weren’t really friends until I lost my job. She was a donor where I used to work and while we were certainly friendly, it was a professional relationship.

Coffee with Queen Bey has been a balm for me.

We have coffee every other month and we exchange emails fairly often. I love hearing from her – she’s a clever writer which I always appreciate, and she’s not afraid to talk about hard things. Sometimes I think she knows me – like really where I am these days – better than some of my dearest friends. She’s a bit of a Yoda figure in my life and I am thankful for her presence.

She sent me an email a few months ago that I still can’t get out of my head. She talked about the concept of losing face as it is understood in Chinese culture. It’s much more than being embarrassed. In Eastern society, you spend your life trying to build up your own relationships and reputation, while also trying to avoid causing anyone else to lose these things. You gain face more by being perceived as helpful and promoting others rather than individual achievement. To lose face means that your ability to function as a member of the social order has been diminished.

Beyoncé suggested to me that my struggles after losing a job that I dearly loved were more about losing my place in the world than my position. I had been a very public figure representing an important agency with people often seeking my counsel and opinion on things. Now, that was gone, and I felt invisible at times. She said I needed to find my face again. And she was right. I had attached too much of my identity to a job and when that was snatched away from me, I didn’t know who I was in the world.

“The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race and turn into eternal merit what weaker minds would call disgrace.” Piet Hein

Think about it. What’s the first question you usually ask someone when you meet them. What makes your heart sing? Probably not, unless you’re Oprah. Nope. What do you do? That’s the question and if you’re lucky, what you do does say a lot about you, but certainly not everything and perhaps not the most important things.

Ram Dass, the American spiritual leader and author, is the subject of a new documentary, Becoming Nobody, which explores the concept of identity. He says that we all want to be a somebody in order to keep our roles and identities safe and tidy. He explains that “we have so many protective shells, so many defensive patterns that only when we drop all of that can we begin to move from ego to soul – and then eventually all of our motives begin to come from a place of compassion.” Whoa, hold on, there! Ram Dass says that the questions we should be asking are, “What can I do for others?” and not “What do I need?”

Ram Dass is purported to be in failing health and that makes me very sad. His wisdom feels like a life raft in this Perfect Shit Storm we’ve been living in the past three years.

I’ve even turned to a few well-known self-help gurus in my search for what’s next for me. I usually avoid those types like Costco samples during flu season, but this life can humble you. I stumbled across a blog by author Mark Manson. He’s well known for his bestseller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. Catchy title, right? Anyway, the blog I read was “7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose” and the question that really got my attention was number three: What makes you forget to eat and poop? Manson isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions. (Where is my eye roll emoji when I need it?)

#goals Photo: TIME

I answered quickly and clearly – watching the US Women’s National Team play soccer. My answer was truthful, but completely unsustainable as a life purpose since the World Cup only rolls around every four years. My other answer, like Manson’s, was writing. I love words and I love storytelling – not in a “it was a dark and stormy night” sort of way, but more as a communal experience. Writing has long been how I process the world – the good, the bad and the in-between. I love converting my thoughts to words and putting them in some form in hopes of connecting with someone else. That’s what this blog has been about, and it has provided some lovely perks along those lines, but again, no 401K.

I answered 100 questions in an online strengths quiz. Survey says…

I know I’ll figure it all out eventually and storytelling in some fashion will have to be a part of it. Meanwhile, I take comfort in the infamous words of Lloyd Dobler, the underachieving yet endearing kick-boxer in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 classic movie Say Anything. Lloyd pursues the class valedictorian, the beautiful Diane Court, and during a tense dinner scene, is grilled by Diane’s father about his plans for the future. Lloyd knows exactly what he doesn’t want to do which he earnestly articulates in the often recited monologue below:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career. I don’t want to do that.

Like Lloyd Dobler, I’m looking for a dare to be great situation.

I believe in Lloyd Dobler and the value of knowing what you don’t want to do. After all, in the end, he got the pretty girl and a hopeful future. As for me, I guess I’ll have to write the rest of my story.

I might just make it after all.

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Let’s do lunch

I took myself out to lunch today. Okay, this doesn’t constitute BREAKING NEWS, but it is something I don’t do all that often. I never have. You see, in the lunch line of life, I’ve long been a packer.

brown bags
Lunch. It’s in the bag.

Brown bagging became my lunch of choice early on, no doubt influenced by a traumatic experience in the 4th grade. It was a warm afternoon and Sharon Shifflett, the girl who sat next to me in Social Studies, threw up on her desk. The cafeteria had served beef stew for lunch that day. Need I say more?

hairnet
School daze.

The smell of a cafeteria can still make me queasy. Steamy air, fluorescent lights that buzz, hair nets. Cue my nausea. There’s just nothing appealing about them. Now I do want to say that all those cafeteria ladies growing up seemed super nice, I just couldn’t take what they were dishing out. And so, I packed.

Early on, my mom packed my lunch. She was a wonderful cook, but I can’t say that skill carried over into my school lunches. They were basic, but she did always cut my sandwiches on the diagonal – a classy touch that made me feel a little superior to the other kids with the regular sandwiches – even though I was eating the same overly processed meats that they were.

sandwich photo
This is how you do it.

I’m a vegetarian now, but I still always cut my sammies on the diagonal. Thanks, Mom.

When I graduated from college and started working, I usually packed my lunch for one simple reason – it was cheap. I lived in the DC area and going out to lunch was just not in my vocabulary or budget. Occasionally, when I was feeling reckless, I would treat myself to a bagel sandwich at the mall near my office. Oh, and there were always the occasional girls’ lunch out for someone’s birthday or something. You know the one – where everyone gets separate checks and tries to figure out how to split the cheese sticks that were shared. Good times.

After a couple of years in the big city, I moved to Charlottesville, VA and worked as a department store buyer for several years. Retail schedules make for weird meals and never enough time to go out anywhere, except, of course, the mall. I ate a lot of Sbarro’s pizza during the 80’s – and I’m not going to lie – I liked it.

sbarro
Mall meals.

When I changed careers and became a development officer for a national veteran’s organization, I traveled a lot and had to take donors out to lunch. A lot of my donors were older, widowed women living in Florida. I always let them choose where to go and I know for a fact that Red Lobster is the preferred lunch spot for women over 70 living in the Sunshine State. Those cheese biscuits are really good, I’ll grant you that, but after a week out on the road, this seafood lover would be getting crabby.

cheese biscuit
The catch of the day: Cheddar Bay Biscuits.

I ran a local non-profit in my last job and most days I ate lunch at my desk. It’s not a good idea – especially for your keyboard. And invariably someone would walk into my office and say, “Oh, are you eating lunch?” What was your first clue? The fork in my mouth?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the midday meal, and I think travel has helped me broaden my lunch menu. Maybe everything seems more interesting in Europe, but some of my most memorable lunches have been in foreign lands. The Europeans think nothing of a two- or three-hour lunch, with wine, of course. Day drinking definitely upgrades a lunch.

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Lunch loves. Seville, Spain.

My dear wife and I recently returned from a trip to Spain and Portugal where we had several extended rosé filled lunches. Dining al fresco in the middle of the day and never looking at your watch is its own form of intoxication.

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