The home stretch

Compassion - Kornfield

I can’t say this about very many days, but I know exactly where I was at this time on this day 21 years ago. I know because it was the day my life started to unravel. Just a little thread that day; I didn’t realize that it wasn’t easily repaired and that ultimately everything would come apart. I would lose everything that mattered to me, including a business I put heart and soul into for 5 years. I would end up in bankruptcy court and the judgment would be harsh. It would take years to recover financially, mentally and emotionally.

But that was all still a long way off on this day in 1998. That day I was starting a new job waiting tables at the Country Club. I know it was this particular Saturday because the first day I worked was on the afternoon of the Kentucky Derby that year. I was working as a waitress, serving wealthy people who came to watch the Derby and drink mint julips in the lounge with their rich friends. I think of that afternoon every year on Derby day. I’ll never forget it, for lots of reasons.

First, never in my life had people been so rude to me. I had worked in restaurants on and off since 1976, but I had never waited table. I wasn’t very good at it, and the people I was waiting on were not very understanding. It was a LONG afternoon. It sucked, but I went back the next day, and the next night and on ¬†and on for a couple of months because I had to.

I had a business, and a client who didn’t pay on time and I was in financial turmoil. I had to do something to keep myself and the business afloat, so I took that second job at night and on weekends to bring in some cash. During the day I did client work as usual, and at 4 o’clock almost everyday I put on my uniform and sturdy shoes and went to work serving privileged and unpleasant people.

I hated every minute of that job. Every single second. The chef was a tyrant and the members were unkind and dismissive. I had one man tell me he thought I should go get a job at Burger King because that seemed to be more my pace. This after he had known me a half hour, and because I had made a mistake on his wife’s drink order. Please, just shoot me now. What would make you believe it would be okay for you to say something like that to a complete stranger? And what makes you think it’s so easy to work at Burger King, asshole? Money does strange things to people.

They were all like that. I would like to report that most people were kind, but that would not be true. With the exception of one couple who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and had obviously saved up for a special dinner out, every single person I waited on for the two months I was there was simply unkind and impatient at best and verbally abusive at worst. I’ve never been so happy to leave any job in my life, and I’ve had a lot of jobs.

I left after two months because I got a job at a different restaurant in town where I could make more money and where I knew a lot of the staff. It was better, and I stuck with it until Thanksgiving that year. The extra money helped and I thought I would be okay then, but the writing was on the wall and two years later I would have to admit it was there and that it was true. I closed the business and got a “real” job doing graphics work for Acme Health Services. I’m still there today, and it has been a good thing, though it has taken me a long time to see it that way.

It`s been a long road. It was hard and on any given day I would have said that I would never recover all that I lost that summer and after. But here I am, and I’m okay, and if I need money like that again I know exactly what I won’t be doing. I’m grateful for the experience though, for several reasons.

  1. It humbled me. I took the job cuz I thought it would be an quick way to make money. I never considered that I wouldn’t be good at it. As I said, I had worked in restaurants on and off for 25 years at that point, bussing tables, hostessing, and even as the bookkeeper one summer. I thought I knew everything there was to know about hectic dining rooms, eccentric staff and rude clientele. This experience opened my eyes about just how horrible human beings can be to another when they believe they are superior to someone else.
  2. It taught me that sometimes you just can’t have what you want, no matter how hard you try to get it. For a long time that made me REALLY bitter. I carried around a chip on my shoulder about that experience and the client who had done me wrong and caused me to have to go to those lengths to survive. It got too heavy, though, that chip, and I finally laid it down. I realized that it had been my naivete as much as his callousness that had gotten me in that situation. It was a valuable lesson in just how much control you have over other people (zero) and that good people don’t always do the right thing.
  3. Not having any money and the bankruptcy experience taught me so much about so many things.
    1. Failure doesn’t kill you, but if you let it, it will transform you.
    2. Poor people are not lazy or stupid. I didn’t believe this to begin with, but this experience deepened my compassion for people who are down on their luck.
    3. Not everyone is good at their job and even people who are supposed to be on your side will let you down. My attorney was late for my banktruptcy hearing, didn’t have everything with him that he was supposed to, and didn’t say a word on my behalf during the hearing. The judgment was harsh (it took 10 years for me to pay it off). After the hearing, the attorney said he hoped I had learned my lesson. I considered not paying his staggering bill, but finally decided that was not in my best interest. A year later he was dead of cancer. I had learned my lesson, but I wonder if he learned his before he died.
    4. Being forced to give up my business and take the job at Acme was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life. I didn’t see it that way for a long time, but looking back I see it very clearly now. I think I was on the right path in my business – it was the happiest and most fulfilled I’ve ever felt – but financially it wasn’t working and I wasn’t seeing that. I believe in karma, and looking back, I see that situation with my delinquent client through that lens and then it makes sense. I was getting deeper and deeper in debt (metaphors in our lives are very powerful, aren’t they? The universe is so eloquent) and I had to give up something that mattered very much to me to pay the karmic debt. The money took a lot longer, but I paid that debt, too, thanks to the stability of my job at Acme. The other things I’ve gained in the last 19 years, and the ways in which I’ve grown through my relationships there and the work we do, all tell me that I’m right where I should be, doing exactly what I should doing, even though some days it’s not what I want to be doing.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses (or mint julips), but the whole experience, beginning on that day so long ago, has been worth the pain and the struggle to survive. I wish I had been wiser and could have made those changes without the body-slam from the universe, but that’s not how it happened then, and I’m not sure it would happen any differently now, though I fancy myself as being a little wiser than that waitress in 1998.

Humans are a hard-headed, stiff-necked group, though, and I’m 100% human. I hope the next time I’m so clearly headed off-course, that the universe will steer me right once again, though a little more gently next time, please. It’s those hard come-arounds that give you whiplash and do damage to the ship. However it happens, though, I trust that there is more in store for this old girl.

I hope so. Cuz, man what a trip around the track it’s been so far!

Three little words

I’m clear about who I am, where I’ve been, where I’m going, and what I’m doing. What I realized this week, though, is that isn’t the whole story, especially at work. What matters in that arena is how others perceive me – correctly or incorrectly – and to a large degree, that isn’t up to me. I suppose that’s true in all areas of life, but to me it matters less in those other areas. I can do without friends; I can’t do without a job. Not now, anyway.

Acme Health Services hired a new Public Relations person, or in our industry-speak, a Public Information Officer, a couple of months ago. She’s really fabulous and enthusiastic and young. She’s brimming with great ideas and on fire with the desire to succeed in this job and spread the great news about AHS. I’m excited to work with her. She is not my boss, but I take direction from her regarding many of my job responsibilities, as I do the website and social media and all the promotional publications.

We went to a class together on Thursday to learn about using Instagram for business. I’ve wanted to add an Instagram account for a long time, but couldn’t really wrap my head around how our business would translate to that platform, but our new PIO has a great idea about how to go about it and she got admin staff approval and so we’re full speed ahead! The class was in a town nearby, and lunch was provided. I was looking forward to learning something new, and also the chance to get to know my new co-worker a little better outside the office.

So, the first thing I noticed when I got there was that I was by far the oldest person in the room – by at least 20 years. Whatever, right? Being older doesn’t make a difference in my mind, except I’m more experienced in business than any of these other people. A positive, as I see it. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, I’m thinking, cuz were all just trying to navigate this new way of marketing, so what does age or experience have to do with any of it? We’re all beginners.

And the fact that my new co-worker is at least 20 years younger than me? Why should that matter? We’re just people working for the same company, wanting to do the best job we can. We want the same thing, so we’ll work together! It’ll be great! I’m great! She’s great! We’re going to be GREAT!

Yeah, so I can be pretty naive.

First, before the class started and we’re eating our lunches, the two young women at my table, my co-worker and someone who had taken the third chair, knew each other, and are talking, talking, talking, about their kids and all the people they know in common and blah blah blah blah blah. I smile and eat my lunch, pretending that I’m listening and that I care and that it doesn’t bother me at all that they are completely ignoring me.

Then class started and it’s okay, though I actually knew most of the information the “social media expert” was giving us. Still nice to be out of the office for a while and to have lunch out, not something I get to do very often anymore. And then two things happened simultaneously:

  1. I felt sick. Really sick. Did I mention the name of the restaurant is the Cheese House? Cool! Did I mention I’m lactose-intolerant? Yeah, you can guess where this is going, right? It wasn’t pretty.
  2. When I excused myself, with a smile on my face, and absolutely no indication of why I had to leave, my co-worker looked at me in a way that let me see exactly how she sees me: old and irrelevant. See ya.

And so began one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in my life, and I had to get out of there FAST. Fortunately, the class had run over the scheduled time at this point, so other people were leaving, too, and I scurried out of the room and straight to the bathroom. I was in there for about 20 minutes, trying to get my breath and waiting for the dizziness to pass, and when it did finally, I slunk out of the restaurant and out to my car, which was not very far away, fortunately, and collapsed in the driver’s seat. I sat there for another 20 minutes or so, and when I felt like I could drive, I headed out toward my town. As I passed a hospital on the way, though, I started to feel dizzy again, so I pulled into the ER parking lot and contemplated going in.

Not my first panic attack though, fortunately, so I knew I probably wasn’t dying, and I sat in the car for another 10 minutes or so. Finally the pain in my chest, the tingling in my limbs, the sweating and the dizziness passed and I put the car in gear and headed back out again.

One of my favorite old songs came on the radio and I was singing along, trying to feel better, until all of a sudden I was overcome with memories of when that song was popular, when I was young, and pretty quickly I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t breathe and I had to pull over again, and wait until the worst of it passed. I started out again finally, cried all the way to my office parking lot, pulled myself together, walked in and continued my day.

Exhausted. Bone weary. But I was there. Damn it. Because that’s who I am. That’s age and experience. I’m committed and loyal and I see things through. I had work to do and even though I felt like crap, I went back and did what needed to be done.

As the afternoon went on, I kept thinking of all I wanted to say to that super fantastic clever and bright young woman:

I WAS YOU.

25 years ago, I was you. I was the super fantastic clever and bright young woman ready to set the world on fire and LIVE A FABULOUS LIFE! Despite years of depression, despite utter fall-on-my-face disasters in other areas of my life, I was always good at my work and for the 5 years I had my business, I was golden. I was smart and innovative and creative and soaked up information like a sponge and turned it into Wonderful! Brilliant! Amazing! projects for my clients. And when I came to Acme Health Services 20 years ago they were thrilled to have me, and I was amazing, and wonderful, and brilliant then, too, until…well, I don’t know.

When did I get old? When did I become irrelevant?

I didn’t imagine it. It was there. It was in her eyes and in the eyes of all the other 15 year-olds in the class. I said something I felt was relevant to what was being discussed, and they all turned around and looked at me like they were amazed I could speak, including the teeny-bopper conducting the class.

So, I’m comfortable in my skin, and I’m confident in my abilities and ready to go everyday. What worries me, is that it may not be enough. As someone pointed out to me the other day, I’m almost 60 (sounds so much older than 57, doesn’t it – gave me chills) and I guess there is probably a lot I don’t know about the generations behind me and how they think.

They’re running the show now, and that is as it should be, I guess, but they don’t appear to be interested AT ALL in what went on before they came along, or how much experience someone older has; in fact, I think most of them think there must be something wrong with someone who stayed in a job for 20 years. An eternity! My god, how could you stand it?

So there were other factors in the panic attack (one being the never-ending plumbing issue we’ve been dealing with at home that FINALLY was resolved yesterday after much stress and aggravation all week), and I’m going to address the 24/7 care-giving stress issue with my doctor in May. I’m thinking some good drugs, but I’m open to whatever she suggests. I’ve had my fill of ill-timed panic attacks and almost constant anxiety.

I have no idea what to do about work, though, and I’m really afraid at some point the bean counters are going to look at me and look at her and think, why do we need both of them? This is not the first time I’ve experienced the age handicap at work, and I know a lot of people have gone through the same thing. I get that my experience is not unique.

Somehow, I just never thought it would happen to me. Naive, I know. But that’s who I am – ever the optimist, ever the idealist, wanting always to believe the best about people and hoping that things will work out if I just work hard enough and try as hard as I can.

So, back to be here now, and one day at a time, and just doing the best I can. Whatever is going to happen will happen and I’ll deal with whatever it is.

Ultimately that’s all there is, isn’t it? Dealing with whatever is. Doing the best we can. Hoping for the best.

Life goes on.

 

Of snakes and worms and an ill wind

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I used to work with a woman whose favorite expression of stress and anger was, “I could bite the heads off snakes.”

Yep. That’s just how I feel. Bring it. Cuz I’M READY TO GO. This has been an off-the-charts CRAPPY week.

Work is hectic cuz everyone’s on Spring Break, and we are getting ready for a company-wide event of some consequence in a couple of weeks here at Acme Health Services. Those of us who DID NOT go on vacation to some warm sunny locale are stuck here doing extra work for those who did, and there’s a certain level of feeling and attitude in the building which has been rising all week, and is now at a rather uncomfortable pitch.

Good times.

Evenings are not much better cuz of having WAY too much to do and not enough time to do it, and I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope of improvement for the weekend in that regard, either. Trying to fit in ALL the needs – my mother, the cats, the incredibly-old-and-falling-down-around-us house, the daily/weekly chores, bills, etc. – and tacking on the end getting to the gym and trying to spend time with friends and have some semblance of a life that I might actually enjoy is just fecking impossible.

And sleep? Yeah…not so much.

It’s wearing on me. It’ll be seven years in November since I moved in with mom. Seven years. 12% of my life. It’s not that I regret the time I’ve spent as caregiver to her – I don’t. It’s the right thing to do, and I’ve learned a lot in that time. It’s been a good thing in many ways. This is what I signed up for. I didn’t read the fine print, though, about duration and wear and tear, and that’s where the trouble is.

What I’ve been wrestling with this week is all that this endeavor has cost me – what I’ve lost in those seven years, including my health to some degree – and wondering how much more I can take. I’m ready to move on, but I’m not finished here yet, and that’s disheartening. I alternate between feeling sorry for myself (unhelpful), and feeling like the lowest wretch on earth for essentially wanting my mother to die, which is the only way to gain my freedom and regain my life as I would like to live it for whatever time I have left on this planet (even more unhelpful).

Really good times.

Then there’s the advice from well-meaning folks, that doesn’t have anything to do with anything even remotely resembling the reality of my life. Trust me, the last thing I need to hear right now is “You’re doing it wrong.” That’s where the snakes come in, and I’m ready to just take a chunk right out of anybody who wants to get in my face right now, cuz I’m SICK TO DEATH of people thinking they know me or what’s going on in my life BETTER THAN I DO.

But then I have to step back and take a deep breath and think about all the people I’ve alienated over the years with unsolicited advice, and remember that these well-meaning co-workers and friends are trying to help, and that I left myself open to it by telling anyone anything about any of it in the first place.

Alex Dumas said: Sell your confidence at a high price, if at all; to be strong, keep your own counsel.

Smart guy, our Al. Too late for me and my big mouth, though, so I just smile and say “yes, for sure, oh really? okay” and then I go somewhere and eat worms. Now, if worms were good for high blood pressure, I’d be all set! Alas, not so, though, and neither is alcohol or ANY of the things I really like to eat and in the past soothed my ruffled feathers, so I’m left gnawing on carrot sticks feeling ornery and put out and just generally like I wish I had some snakes, cuz I would tear those babies RIGHT. UP.

Did I mention the weather and the wind and the lingering cold and general cloudiness and ickiness of early Spring in Michigan? No?

Well, such good times! And don’t even get me started about Mercury Retrograde…

So, anyhoo, that’s my week. How was yours?