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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Facing my fears

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

Photo by Carla Kucinski.

Public speaking terrifies me.

It frightens me more than heights or roller coasters or swimming in the ocean — all of which are real, deep fears for me.

I will never jump out of a plane or dangle from a bridge on a bungee chord, suspended above a rocky river. Nor will you ever see me riding Six Flags’ Goliath – I can’t even handle the ferris wheel. I am not adventurous in that way, and instead get my thrills from discovering simple things like a new cupcake shop.

I realize that the basis of my fear is a little thing called death. But there’s a deeper layer rooted in the fear of surrendering all self-control and putting my trust in whoever is at the switch. There’s a “letting go” that needs to happen, and I am not a “letting go” kind of gal.

With public speaking, you have to surrender yourself to the audience and hope that they will be engaged and kind and forgiving. It also requires being in the spotlight, something else I do not enjoy. I prefer to work behind-the-scenes.

My earliest memory of this fear was in preschool. A few times a year, our teachers would make us perform a bunch of songs for all the parents. When it was showtime, I was the kid in the back row rubbing my eyes, crying. There’s a photo of me holding hands with another little girl with a Kool-Aid stained mouth, trying to comfort me. Situations like that overwhelmed me even at such a young age. When there’s too much stimuli, I shut down or meltdown.

So then what would possess me to voluntarily get up on stage two weeks ago and tell a personal story, without notes, to a roomful of strangers? Fear. Or better yet, confronting my fear.

This is me with Jeff, the creator of The Monti, after I performed my story. Jeff is an incredible storytelling coach and helped me craft my story every step of the way. He also believed in me, which helped me believe in me, too.

This is me with Jeff, the creator of The Monti, after I performed my story. Jeff is an incredible storytelling coach and helped me craft my story every step of the way. He also believed in me, which helped me believe in me, too.

For a few months, Jeff Polish had been trying to get me to tell a story at The Monti, a storytelling event where people from the community tell a true 12-minute story based on a particular theme. Jeff is the creator, and an all-around good guy. He also looks a lot like Ray Romano. Jeff launched The Monti in Chapel Hill in 2008 to a sold-out crowd, and occasionally he would bring The Monti to Greensboro. That’s how I became a Monti junkie.

As a writer, I love a good story. But live storytelling, I discovered, offered a much deeper connection than words on a page. Every time I attended a Monti performance, my face would hurt from laughing and my eyes would burn from crying. Each story moved me in a different way.

The night I walked away from my first Monti I thought, “I want to do this.” Followed by my second thought: “But I’m terrified.” For years, I attended The Monti as a spectator, trying to envision myself telling a story and thinking that over time I would muster the courage to step onto the stage. But fear paralyzed me.

It took three invitations from Jeff before I finally said “yes.” The theme “Animal Instincts” spoke to me, but aside from that, I’m not sure why I finally agreed. In fact, it was almost like someone else had spoken “yes” for me. But once I committed, I knew there was no turning back. I was all in. And I was petrified.

Someone told me recently that sometimes life throws challenges at us, stretches us beyond our comfort levels, to prepare us for something greater. I did not realize until now that in the months leading up to my Monti debut, I was tested in ways that I had never been tested before — and it all revolved around public speaking.

Six months before The Monti, my aunt asked me to deliver the eulogy at my grandpa’s funeral. I cried so much throughout the funeral service that I worried I wouldn’t be able to pull myself together. My entire body trembled. But when I stepped up to the podium and looked out at the mournful faces gathered in the church, waiting to hear my words, the tears stopped, my voice was steady, and I just did it. How? I’m still not sure.

Two months later, a colleague asked me to present at a conference. I was afraid, but I said yes. Two months after that, I had to give a group presentation to the president of the college I work for — and all the directors. Afterwards, people told me I was a natural and to walk in my gift. Me? I kept glancing over my shoulder, thinking they were talking to someone else.

That's me debuting my story on The Monti stage. It's kind of surreal looking at these photos. I still can't believe I got up there.  Photo by McKenzie Floyd.

That’s me debuting my story on The Monti stage. It’s kind of surreal looking at these photos. I still can’t believe I got up there. Photo by McKenzie Floyd.

The day of my Monti performance I felt like I was going to throw up. It started at noon, and only got worse the closer it got to showtime. Jeff assured me this was normal. In fact, when I saw him that night, he actually seemed proud that I had reached this critical point in the Monti storytelling journey. This is what’s supposed to happen.

That night, I told a story, a love story about my first dog Yoshi — our beginning, our middle and our end. It was just me, and a mic and roomful of listeners. And it was the most vulnerable place I had ever stepped into. Willingly. But when I took the stage and I spoke my first line, all my fears evaporated. It was like someone flipped a switch inside of me, and it felt incredible.

When I returned to my seat, Addison leaned over and told me to look around, “Everyone is crying. Not a dry eye,” she said. I scanned the faces in the room, wet with tears. In that moment, I experienced the power of storytelling. That night my words connected with the people in that room and they felt something. And I felt something too, an overwhelming amount of gratitude. I was grateful for an audience who was kind, attentive and open; for friends who cheered me on that night and surrounded me with support and comfort and lifted me up; and for Jeff for seeing something in me that I didn’t until now.

Photo by McKenzie Floyd.

Photo by McKenzie Floyd.

Clutch

One of my favorite moments in any sport is when someone rises to the occasion when all eyes are upon them. In my lifetime, probably Mary Lou Retton nailing the vault with a 040630rettonperfect 10 to win the all-around gold medal at the 1984 Olympics was the moment.

Well, last night my best friend, Carla, stuck her landing with her storytelling performance at The Monti.

For the uninitiated, The Monti is a NC non-profit that showcases short, unscripted, nonfiction narratives onstage. You’re given a topic a few weeks in advance and you have 12 minutes to tell your story. The only rules are no notes and the story must be true.

The topic last night was Animal Instincts and Carla told a story about her beloved dog, Yoshi, who passed away three years ago next month.

Carla and Yoshi

Carla and Yoshi

You can listen to Carla’s story soon at The Monti so I don’t need to recap it here except to say that it’s a love story that made many a grown man in attendance cry. Me? I did the ugly cry.

I was so proud watching Carla do something she had talked about doing for a couple of years – something she was kind of afraid to do – and doing it with great aplomb. Now there’s a word that’s just not used enough so I’m here to say, I’m bringing aplomb back.

Carla's posse at The Monti - left to right - Tina, Lynn, Joy, Addy

Carla’s posse at The Monti – left to right – Tina, Lynn, Joy, Addy

I’m old enough to be Carla’s aunt. (Don’t make me say mother.) Sometimes I do worry about her in motherly ways but other times I’m more like the younger sister who wants to be like her when I grow up.

She’s beautiful and cool in ways that are so foreign to me. On her worst days, she still looks kind of glamorous to me. She’s that person who can tie a scarf around a tee shirt and look chic. If I did the same thing, I’d look like shit.

Carla tells her story.

Carla tells her story.

But what I love most about Carla is that she wears her heart on her tattooed sleeve and she always keeps that heart open to the world. Always – even when it has been shattered. In spite of our significant age difference, we’ve led very parallel lives – becoming close when we were both navigating painful losses and then sharing each other’s blinding happiness when we found our mates.

I tried to simultaneously watch her and the other people in the room as she told her story. I was nervous for her but there was no need to be.

Carla glows from the inside out. I’ve always known that but last night, an audience got to see it, too.

score 10

Aplomb!