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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It’s in the cards

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My sister has moved 22 times as an adult. And no, she’s not in the armed services, the French Foreign Legion or the witness protection program.

I guess you could say that she’s a rolling stone.

She’s lived in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia (twice), California, Maryland (twice),  Ohio (twice) and is now back in California.

And she’s been through many acquisitions and purges in her 35 years of moving  but there has been one item that has always made the cut – a box filled with every note, letter and card I’ve ever sent her starting when she went to camp when she was 12.

The box is not organized in any way, shape or form and if you knew my sister at all, you would laugh at the very idea of her organizing such a thing.

I pulled out the box while I was visiting her this week and it was a little like that weeper movie, Somewhere in Time, where Christopher Reeve is swept back in time by looking at an old painting. Years and years documented by Hallmark.

My sister is seven years younger than me and she was only 38 when we lost both of our parents. That’s terribly young to lose your rudders and the loss has certainly informed much of her life since then.

As the older sister I was always somewhat of an authority figure (okay, you can say bossy), even if she rarely took my advice.  When our parents died in 2002, I became sister and mother, a dual role I desperately want to get right.

sissy - cappucino

This is the essence of my sister.

Rummaging through the box, I have made several observations:

  1. My handwriting over the years has declined from marginally legible to Straight Outta Serial Killer. I wonder if it’s too late for med school.
  2. I pick out the best cards. I knew which ones were from me before even opening them. And many of them made me smile – again.
  3. Almost every note to my sister is a form of a pep talk – only the subject matter is different depending on the decade – boyfriends, jobs and diets, always diets.
  4. Postage has really gone up a lot in 40 years.

    stamps

    Those “Forever” stamps are looking like a good investment.

I pulled out a letter from 1981 that I had written my sister – on yellow legal pad paper, my stationary of choice for many years. She was living in Lynchburg, VA with my aunt and uncle and taking general studies courses at the local community college. Her grades in high school were not stellar and she was feeling like a loser while many of her friends were enrolled at various colleges and universities.

I was trying to make her feel good about herself and her future and my letter made me laugh out loud when I got to this part: Don’t look back – the past is nothing but a bunch of Kodak snapshots dumped in a box in the closet.

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Sisters, circa 1974.

How prophetic I was!

I don’t know if my letter helped her but it all worked out well as she went on to study at The University of Virginia and is now managing several breast cancer centers in Southern California.

But it’s the cards that really get to me. Almost all of them have a picture of two young girls on the front and that is the image that has sustained me over the years – the two of us, together – usually laughing and usually up to some shenanigans.

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The inscription on this cards says, “I’m so glad I always have you to lean on.”

It is a rare and precious thing to be deeply known by another human being – especially one that you are related to and my sister knows me in all manner of ways. That’s why she had a case of seltzer water (orange) chilling for me upon my arrival and vases of fresh-cut hydrangeas (my fave) throughout the condo.

And she knows my heart and my pain and she has suffered greatly these past few months since I lost my job – a job that was more like a calling to me. She was 3,000 miles and three time zones away as we weathered this great storm together. And yet, she walked every step of this ordeal with me.

sissy lots of stuff

Some of it was good. Some of it wasn’t. But through thick and thin, they stayed close, and they were sure they always would. And this made the world good again.

That’s why I was so grateful to have the opportunity to share a special dinner with her on my first night here. I sat across from her at the table and looked into her sweet face and told her that in my entire life, I’ve never felt another person be so present to my pain.

She cried. I cried. I think the waiter might have even cried.

We’ve had so much fun together this week and “no fights” as she remarked the other night, which initiated a hilarious “greatest hits” recap of some of our most famous disagreements.

My favorite story is from years ago. I was living in Greensboro at the time and she was in Kensington, MD. We got into a heated argument about, well, who knows, and I got so mad that I threw the phone, the portable phone mind you, against the wall and it shattered into pieces. She called back a minute or two later and my partner answered the phone. My sister said very earnestly, “I think Addison and I got disconnected.”

I’m giggling now thinking about how clueless she was to my rage.

Fortunately, most of our disconnections have been few and far between over the years. Nothing a call or, yes, a card couldn’t repair, but I’ll tell you one thing, we’re going to need a bigger box.

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My sister, my lifeline.