Monday, July 21, 2014

OUTING ASSHATS

I just finished reading The No Asshole Rule , Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Stanford business professor Robert Sutton, PhD.  You’re probably shocked by the title. And you probably know EXACTLY what he’s talking about.  Out of all the points and principles in the book, here’s the two that knock my socks off:
1.  Negative energy far exceeds the power of positive energy.  So if a negative person is in the room, on the bus, at your dining room table – his or her power will swamp the positive energy of ten happy folks;
          2.  We put up with assholes.  All the time.  On the bus, at work, at our dining room table.  We let them get away with uncivilized, mean-spirited, obnoxious bully behavior.
For the sake of the timid let’s use a variation of the internet word for asshole which is asshat.  I kind of like that even better.  And we’ll refine it further to just hat as in “Geez,, my boss is a certified hat.”
We’ve all had hats for supervisors.  As a waitress, a secretary, a lawyer (wow, what a surprise!), a cowgirl, and an EMT I’ve been barked at, bullied, treated with contempt, told to “do your fucking job,” screamed at in front of other senior partners, treated like an idiot, a dolt, a “stupid woman,” and admonished to just “go home and make babies.”  Welcome to the American workplace.  In fact, as a lawyer I often worked in employment discrimination cases.  Harried people would call me up, frantic about their jobs.  They’d say:
“I work in a hostile work environment!” – this being the newest tort of the decade.
“So do I,” I’d respond. “If your boss treats everyone like yesterday’s cowshit, it’s not a hostile work environment.  It’s just another day at the office.”
Of course most of the hats I worked with were lawyers but I have to say that in my short time in the teaching profession I never encountered a certified hat.  Never had a supervisor treat me badly.  But in every other workplace from the courtroom to the hospital to the restaurants or the corral – big fat hats everywhere.
Sutton advises people to just get the hell out of hat environments and I agree.  I’ve quit jobs because of the nastiness of people around me.  But what about life in general, those hats we encounter all the time in daily life outside the workplace?  Aside from family – and hey, it’s family – why do we put up with hat behavior?
  I once worked on a political campaign.  Here’s what politics comes down to:  the other guy is a flaming hat but you’re not allowed to talk about it.  It always comes down to which hat gets the most votes.  Always. Let's not follow these "leaders" okay?
You’ve seen hat behavior in the grocery store line, at the post office, at the traffic light.  We’re afraid to call people on their nastiness because we could get whacked but you don’t need to be aggressive about outing an asshat.  My son Billy lives in Seattle, a notoriously civilized city.  He taught me to reframe “the finger” we had so refined in Jersey.  When a driver in Seattle pulls a stupid move – and it’s not often, because they are generally aware and laid back – you don’t flip him off.  Instead, you just give him a thumbs down.
I love that.  Thumbs down.  Bad move.  As a human being, you are failing.
We ought to make it our business, of course, to be kind.  We should consciously perform acts of charity.  We should act and speak civilly, and encourage laughter and love.  And we should out assholes, every chance we get.  Nicely, of course, but clearly and directly.  “Don’t scream at your kid like that.  Ever.”  Or when some hat is giving a teenage clerk a hard time, we look at her nametag and say “Norma, you’re doing just fine, honey.  Ignore this guy.”  Things like that.
Outing assholes is just as important as being kind.  I read that the Dalai Lama does not suffer fools; and remember the money changers in the Temple?  Jesus let them have it.  Snakes, vipers, devil’s food.  You go, Jesus.
Next time you see bad behavior, and that may be about ten minutes from now, think about standing up to the bully – safely, calmly, and from a place of unshakeable fearlessness.  You’ll give other people courage and you’ll feel better too.  We can’t let the asshats get us down.  And two thumbs up to you, friend.

Friday, July 18, 2014

BABY BOOMERS ARE LAME

I’m feeling a tad aggressive today and my angels are screaming (see what I mean?) “Don’t blog! Don’t blog!” but I’m a Jersey girl and my angels can go jump in a lake.  I’m blogging, okay? Going to try not to use the F word but I’m not making any promises.

What is all this Baby Boomer Life After 50 bullshit anyway?  If I see one more website with smiling wrinkly women with the wind in their hair talking about “second acts” and “reinvention” I swear to God I’m going take my own heart out with a spoon.  Mother of God, life is just life, alright? It goes on.  We’re young, then we’re old. Why do we slice and dice it like some stupid infomercial? Then we rename it and try to change it, make it better like Fifty is the new Thirty. No, it’s not.  50 is 50. It hurts, things sag, that’s life. Fifty is not thirty unless you’re on a lot of meds.

OK, I have engaged in the life retrospective thing where I “see” my progression by decades:
  • The Twenties:  all about nabbing a husband and having babies.  Sorry.  Wish I coulda been cooler and all feminist-hip but I wasn’t;
  • The Thirties:  Oops.  I spent my twenties getting married and having babies.  Shit. Gotta “achieve” now. Career, career, being a lawyer, wearing really uncomfortable clothes and making carpooling arrangements in court;
  • The Forties:  Sex. Making-up-for-Catholic-girl-lost-time sex.  A pretty good decade;
  • The Fifties: Wilderness, Spirituality, Inner Exploration etc.  Still in it but I got a plan for the Sixties:
  • The Sixties:  Money. Big money for big legacies. College funds. A foundation for girls. Setting the world on fire.
So I understand the tendency to try to order this chaos we call aging but there’s a placid haze that is apparently supposed to settle over us, a sighing passivity for the “Boomers” who - from what I see - have as much “boom” as an old man fart.  Where is the movement, the action, the change we all sought and demanded all of our self-centered boomer lives?  We grow old, we get soft, we give up. 

I’m freelance writing now and one of my client-editors is in her twenties, of course.  She referred to a phrase I used as “super juvenile” as if using the modifier “super” was not juvenile. Her critique of a paragraph I wrote about doing work you loved was - and I’m quoting here - “weird.”  Thanks hon.  Your smart-assy youthful thing is going to get you about as far as some hip bar after work where all you trendy kids hang out in your self-congratulatory smugness, texting your faux “friends” and dreaming up new apps as if you know….anything.

You don’t know a fucking thing.  There, I did it.  Nada.  Nothing. You know nothing. So it’s incumbent upon the crones, the hags, the old gals to get up on it. When was the last time you told some arrogant young snipe that her dress was so short you could actually see her thang? Or some guy who’s got his face in a phone when you’re talking to him - how bout you put that effing thing down, son, and get a clue about how to act in the world.

Do I sound like a crazy old person on a rant? Well, I am.

Listen, I love plenty of young people with all my heart.  I have three amazing sons with families - hard working good citizens all - and my family’s next generation is churning out good kids all over the place:  two clinical psychologists, a law enforcement guy, a nonprofit director, restaurant manager, two teachers, a nurse, engineer, med student, lawyer, and even a philosopher.  But there’s a lot of lousy behavior and useless communication out there, girls. And it’s our job to step up our game.

What is a problem in your community? Your local government? Your school?  Own it, honey.  Put down the MORE Magazine and own the fucking problem today. Stop worrying about why you don’t want to have sex anymore.  You don’t want to have sex because nature made it that way. It’s no big deal.  It’s just stupid wasted energy and your hormones won’t support it because the Universe wants you spending your time setting the world on fire, not laying flat on your back so some old guy can try to feel like he’s still got it. 

Pick a problem and own it. Don’t sit in a circle passing around a “talking stick” blabbing about your feelings.  In the sixties and seventies our gangs set things on fire in a good way. My sister protested in the streets, people burned bras and got arrested and stood and stood and stood for things. Doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen with the current generation. They’re very busy doing super important things like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever the social-media-du-jour entails.  Super important.

Suzuki Roshi said something simple and world-shattering:  Shine one corner. That’s all. Pick one.  Doesn’t have to be fancy or worldwide. Maybe it’s that corner of your house where a sullen teenager keeps a door locked. Find a way to open it, and her. Maybe it’s a corner at work where you know the housekeeping staff are being mistreated. What happened to your vocal chords? Did they get twittered? 

Here’s a corner: that dickhead local councilman is running for the tenth time, again on a smarmy platform of Absolutely Nothing.  How bout you step up, sisterhood?  If I was President of the United States my Cabinet would consist solely of menopausal women. Geezus, we’re cranky and we take no prisoners and when set to a task we will kill it and, if need be, anyone in our path. OK, I’d have a token guy on the cabinet but he’d be assigned to something irrelevant and would end up resigning anyway. Menopausal women rock.

Lift your voice, not your boobs. Stop complaining and start bitching. Why shop when you can kick ass? Be as relentless as you know you can be and were before “Boomer” websites and AARP insisted that you go to the back of the room. Wake one young person up to reality, toss the IPhone into the bushes, pick one fucking corner and make it shine. Or set it on fire, today. Now.

I told you I was feeling ornery.  Shoulda listened to my angels, eh?

Monday, July 14, 2014

ESTIMATE THIS

No offense, but every “customer service representative” – male or female – should be named Ben Dover because this is what you’ll have to do when you call Verizon, Comcast, or any utility company.  These poor kids give you a fake name anyway so it might as well reflect what they’re about to do to the next hapless consumer.  Bend over, honey, Comcast is coming.

My cable went out for some reason so I called Ben Dover from Comcast this morning and he miraculously made it work by doing cable voodoo in Kansas.  When I asked to be transferred to Billing, “Carl” said, “Oh that’s me too.”  How convenient.  

“Hey Carl,” I asked politely.  I always feel kinda sorry for these people, “So in 2009 my monthly cable bill was $73.24 and now for some reason it’s $156.32.  Nothing has changed but I’m paying a lot more.  Can you help?”

I’ll paraphrase, but basically here’s what “Carl” said:

“Well, we just continue to f--- you over until you call to complain.”

Honest.  That’s what happens.  Oh, “Carl” put it nicely, something to do with “yearly promotions” and “non-contractual benefits” but basically he said that they just keep freaking piling on the charges until you cry “Uncle.”

Bank managers (Mr. or Mrs. Ben Dover) at Wells Fargo have taken exotic vacations courtesy of my son, Joe, and the roughly $17 million in bank fees he’s had to pay, poor kid, every time his $25 balance dipped into the negative digits for that fleeting moment (you know how the kids do it:  they stand at the ATM, praying to the Balance Gods that they can have that last $20 without paying another $50).  Comcast, Verizon, the electric company, the banks, “waste management” – you name it, we’re getting screwed left and right.

When I call Ben Dover at Verizon to discuss my mutant bill (uncontrolled growth) he gives me a migraine talking about “waivers, taxes, and local fees” and how I am “contractually bound” for another 16 months to my damn phone.  Jesus, it’s like being in cell phone prison.  In fact, I may chuck Verizon one of these days and start getting those throw away Wal-Mart phones like the criminals use. Maybe I’ll go on the lam while I’m at it.

There’s really not much you can do to keep up with the rising tide of insane prices on everything. In Jersey when the electric company doesn’t want to read your meter because there was – God forbid – a little snow on the ground, they’ll send you an “estimated bill.”  I had a friend who would pick one of those absurd numbers out of the air, say $67.43, and write a check, noting in the memo that it was his “estimated payment.”  Estimate this, Mr. Utility Company.

I just got back from City Market where I roamed the aisles like a bag lady with Tourrette’s, barking and cursing about food prices.  You cannot buy ANYTHING in the grocery store for under that arbitrary $3.99.  A can of beans, a roll of toilet paper – whatever it is whether you use it for fiber or to wipe your ass, it’s gonna cost you $4.00.  A pound of coffee is $10.37 for the love of God!  I heard a rumor that there were these insidious bugs in Hawaii eating the beans but you know what the freaking truth is?  Juan Valdez decided he wanted to milk us coffee addicts for all we’re worth, that’s all.  No bugs.  Just Ben Dover.

And it’s not just retail crap and modified hormone-fed food that’s out of control. Did you know tuition at Cornell is like $70,000???  WTF?  What are they doing to these kids, gilding them in gold?  No, it’s the same thing as when I went to college for $3000 a year:  drink, make fart noises, and try to get laid.  Geezus.  And parents will be working at Blockbuster when they’re freaking 87 years old so little Susie can go to an Ivy League college and never call.

We rant.  We pay.  Thank you sir, can I have another?  NO, I WILL NOT PAY $6.00 FOR A PLASTIC BEAR JAR OF HONEY.  NO NO NO.  And from the “insult to injury” category, after I spend $135 to feed two people for a week the nice lady at the supermarket checkout says: “Because of your super customer card you saved $38.00!”  Even she knows that’s bullshit.  The store manager – Ben Dover – just jacks up the price of everything and then puts a $4.33 box of rice “on sale” for $3.33.  What a bargain.  Thank you sir, can I have another?


Some days I feel like Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 4.  If you’ve never seen him and Chris Rock do this routine, please, for your own mental health, take a minute and watch:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsAVIpTwAP4 .   Ah, so. We rant. We pay. We live to rant another day.  As my Grandopop Coletta used to say, “whadda yu gunna do?”  Eat, drink, be merry, and bend over. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

A GOOD LAUGH AT SOME BAD PARENTING

I raised three boys and never laid a hand on one of them, not because I’m a saint. Pretty much the opposite. I didn’t want to land on the cover of PEOPLE magazine, in an orange jumpsuit, big bags under my eyes with the headline: Once She Started Beating Them…She Couldn’t STOP! Though I agree deeply with the principle that you shouldn’t hit kids, my restraint came only from the fear of being fodder to a large inmate in the Federal Prison for Violent Women with Bad Lawyers.

When my middle son Johnny, age 4, flooded the family room by dragging the garden hose through the door “to see if the rug would grow” I knew I had two choices: just scream and beat them for two decades until I succumbed to booze and Valium, or laugh my head off. Thank you Jesus, I opted for the latter. I screamed plenty, though, of course, because ITALIANS DO EVERY THING IN CAPS and my boys claim they were simply afraid of the volume, losing brain function from the sheer noise of it all but this is how I was raised. When I was six years old I accidentally broke my mother’s bottle of Jean Nate, and when I fessed up she screamed “I’m gonna break your HEAD!” which she never did but I was real careful around her toiletries after that.

I decided early on to lower my standards, get them immunized and then just let them crawl around wherever they wanted to go. I fed them whatever shut them up for the most part. As little ones, this meant a lot of Velveeta which is really more construction material than food but it worked, especially when it lodged in the windpipe if they decided to cry and eat at the same time. Lesson learned, right? And I figured if I tucked all three into bed alive at night, I was freaking Parent of the Year. These parents who worried about nutrition, clean clothes and – God help me – Baby Mozart or whatever  those educational things are – these parents are never going to have any fun.

Times sure have changed and now apparently everyone’s worried about their kids succeeding in school etc. Shoot, I was happy when no one was on parole. I was in DC recently and witnessed one of these ridiculous over-educated couples that waited too long to have kids and now they’re scared to death of their three-year old. One was jumping on and off a bench in a restaurant, and screaming like an ape – having a ball torturing his parents who were both probably stuffy-ass lawyers – and the mother was like “Um, okay, Branson, you can either stop that right now or not have dessert” and the kid just laughed and spun his head around like The Exorcist. He got dessert of course.

We all screw our kids up. This is a given. The only questions are: will I screw them up as much as my parents did me, and how badly will they be screwed up? The headline of my local Sunday paper today says Mom Sees Positive Results From Giving Autistic Son Medical Marijuana. Is that bad parenting, or just plain smart? If you haven’t yet read the hilarious bestselling Sh**t My Dad Says PLEASE stop everything you’re doing and go to the website http://www.shitmydadsays.com/. This is a guy who says things to his son like, “Put the rake down. I don't wanna sit around watching you 'give it your best.' Either stop sucking or get the fuck out of the way."

There’s a book called Nurture Shock that offers a startling premise: when kids are praised constantly, they grow up to be liars. This is a troubling phenomenon with a generation of parents that worries constantly about “self-esteem” and over inflate a kid’s sense of self by never calling them to task on anything. These are the bratty, self-centered, twittering, face-booking asshole fools who think it’s okay to secretly film a roommate having gay sex and then post it on the Internet. Their perfection and egoism are boundless because their “loving” parents never told them to sit down and shut up.

So my boys didn’t aspire to Harvard and we don’t spend a lot of time talking about achievements and portfolios but dang they are among the funniest, most decent big-hearted people I know. Not one of them was ever subjected to a Baby Mozart video and though I didn’t hit them I was known to throw objects in the vicinity of their persons from time to time during teenage turmoil (I’ve throw a bike into a garage wall, a water bottle through a window, a shoe across the living room, and a very expensive bong into the street). They sure knew they weren’t perfect, and they sure knew I wasn’t either.

I never read Dr. Spock. Rather, I fashioned my parenting methods via George Carlin (http://harmful.cat-v.org/society/children/fuck_the_children) who gave me perhaps the best parenting advice I have ever heard: 

“Turn off the internet, the CD-ROMS, and the computer games and let them stare at a tree for a couple of hours. Every now and then they actually comeup with one of their own ideas. You want to know how to help your kids?Leave them the f*** alone.”

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

EMERGENCY ROOM ZEN

Working in a hospital emergency room I have plenty of opportunities to show compassion. In fact, I consider the ER to be the lazy man's way to practice: everyone who comes through the doors is scared or hurt so any simple act of kindness can make a profound difference. I'm kind of a slothful Zen practitioner and as I see it, this work is some easy good karma-making. Frankly I'm also an adrenaline junkie so being front and center in an emergency (read: a situation where no one knows what the hell is going on) just feeds that mojo. A lethargic Zen practitioner adrenaline junkie. Go figure.

Some days the ER is like Dante's Inferno where there's wailing and pain everywhere. Other shifts can be like watching television: insipidly boring. There's a red light that goes on by my desk when a new patient enters triage. It's cool, because you never really know what's out there. Great mindfulness practice, just being, being ready, and waiting. And again, I can easily end up smelling like a saint just by clocking in. Lazy Zen.

There was the 21 year old kid who knew he was running out of insulin but thought he could hang on for a few days until his new insurance kicked in. He had no money to buy his resupply. This didn't work out so well, as any insulin-dependent diabetic will tell you and lo and behold the poor guy spent the night in upheavals and spasms of mighty vomiting. By the time he found his way to us he was exhausted, dehydrated. He was still puking like it was his job and his stomach would cramp so deeply that his pants would fall down. He stunk, as you might imagine.

We got him onto a bed and I helped get his clothes off. I'm just an EMT, not a nurse, and much of my work has to do with stocking supplies, communicating with other departments and docs, and answering the phone. When I do get on the floor to help I do the scut work the nurses don't want to do or don't have time for: undressing the patient, taking vitals, getting urine samples, putting in IVs, cleaning wounds, applying splints. Except for the IV part (I sure don't like it when I miss, and you don't either) I love every single part of patient care.

After I disrobed this young man who probably would have been embarrassed if he wasn't so sick, I saw how he was shaking with cold. This is such an uncomfortable feeling, uncontrollable freezing. Our hospital is in a ski resort so we have an unlimited supply of toasty blankets. I put two on his shivering form, curled up in the fetal position and I thought he would cry with gratitude. The nurse gave him the meds that made the puking stop, and then I cleaned up his crusted mouth and washed off the vomit he had managed to get on his legs. Simple, easy acts of kindness that made a very sick kid feel better and grateful. This is why I say the ER is the Lazy Man's Practice.

I don't mind taking off a person's dirty shoes, washing their feet and putting on those goofy hospital-tread slippers. Sometimes older folks are shy because they think the smell (and they do; we all do) but I'm cheerful about it because what the heck. I'd much rather practice "easy' compassion in the ER than deal with my husband's cranky moods or listen to an irate friend go on about some perceived injustice. The regular life stuff is much harder than washing feet in the ER, believe me.

Now, not everyone is grateful for help or comfort and this is part of the gig as well. I'm not looking for thanks or kudos though that's nice and gives me an ego-zing but mostly I'm just doing my tech job, going about my business with a cheerful mind which is a little incongruous in the situation. I don't cry or get angry often or go to any extreme emotion, thanks to some solid years of sitting. If the ER pushed buttons like that I'd be exhausted and depleted. As it is, I'm mostly curious.

Sometimes the drug seekers can be a real pain in the neck. They curse a lot and are always jonesing for something strong and like most addicts - like all of us - they can be so mean and irritable while awaiting their fix. Every time I pass the bed of a druggie or "crazy person" as we in the field say I try to sneak by so they won't start yelling at me about how much it hurts. I'm not so much with the compassion for the addicts and the psychos. They're like our very worst selves, manifested right there in Bed 3. Who wants to look at that? Nah, I'd rather soothe myself with the whole Mother Teresa routine and go help the scared 12 year old with a displaced fracture.

We always ask patients if they've taken any drugs, medications, or alcohol and surprisingly they often tell the truth because they're pretty scared.

"The truth is just easier," one exhausted drug seeker told me, "I'm just too tired to lie."

Generally, I don't much like the cranky unhappy sick and traumatized folks, just like I don't like the cranky unhappy healthy ones. The ER is a microcosm of the outside world, and people have various methods of dealing with pain and fear. I like compliant and grateful, not obstreperous and miserable. Just like the world outside those doors, frankly I'd rather not do the hard work. So cleaning up a dirty alcoholic or helping an old man pee in a cup - easy Zen.

Here's the thing, though. There is hard science to prove that the presence of calm can have physiological benefits, just as the opposite is true: stress can create the perfect storm for disease. A calm presence can lower blood pressure, regulate breathing, and release healing hormones. So a Buddhist in the ER seems to be a good idea. And for the Buddhist, it's an amazing place to practice.

When someone dies on my shift it's often related to trauma; if it's medical we try to get them out of the ER - on a flight or to the ICU - ASAP so they don't expire on our watch but when a person gets hit by a truck or a skier meets a tree head on, they can die right there in front of me. As an EMT I've seen a lot of the mortal wounds the flesh is heir to but death still catches me short. It is phenomenal, truthfully, to watch the breath leave the body. As practitioners we are all about the breath, right? Who are we then, when it stops?

I sometimes have the work of cleaning up a dead body before the family or coroner comes and we all attend this task with quietude and respect. I pick up an arm to move some tubing and it's a lifeless appendage. The dying person is strewn across the gurney, often naked and bloody, all that is left. And nothing is really there; just an earthsuit, a bag of bones.

Aside from the scared, sick, dead, and dying I have all sorts of co-workers. The night doc has a great sense of humor but a precision-sharp attention at the bedside. Nurses come and go, some attentive and compassionate, a few just lazy and biding time. As the unit secretary I know a lot of the folks in other departments - respiratory therapists and X-ray technicians, administrators and housekeepers. I love the housekeeping staff because when the shit hits the fan - often quite literally in the ER - they show up, uncomplaining, with their swifters and buckets and they just clean up the mess. Laundry folks are the same way. We amass a crazy amount of bloody sheets and used blankets. How could we function if those big yellow bags of dirty laundry never got emptied? When I thanked a laundry tech for her help one day she looked surprised and then said simply,

"Well this is just another way of taking care of people."

See why I like the ER? It's people at their worst, and at their best, spewing fear and courage in equal doses. We're sick, we're healthy; we're in pain, we feel better. It's the whole catastrophe as Jon Kabat-Zinn would say. It's the two year old boy getting stitches removed who screams in my ear like a rock star while I hold his arching body still. I love the fight in kids because I can also be such a two-year-old: I want it MY way! And it's hilarious to be reminded of that. Most parents are paralyzed with fear when their kids are in an ER so often I pay more attention to the suffering mom than the squirming curious patient. A doctor or nurse doesn't have the time or inclination to do what I do or see what I see and that's fine. Not to sound all holy but I am happy to do the menial stuff unnoticed. It's actually fun.

Spending a ten hour shift in a place of emergencies I'm fortunate to see fear up close all the time. It's like watching a very scary movie - it ain't happening to me but at least I get to practice the terror. I am constantly reminded, too, of the transitory nature of this silly bag of bones. Lord, I do see the stinky side and when older folks come in I notice how transparent our very skin gets as we age, like we're getting ready to shed like a snake.


Dainin Katagiri, a profound and amazing Zen master, writes that every moment of our life - every moment - should be treated as an emergency. And by that he does not mean we should be lost in constant anxiety. Rather, every moment we should see as fresh, new, expectant, and requiring of us complete attention. When the ambulance tones go off in the ER the staff alerts like deer to an oncoming car. And this is a cool way to live, one brilliant emergent moment at a time; not knowing what might hit or when, but always being ready, alert, being there with eyes open.

Monday, July 7, 2014

FROM LAWYER TO COWGIRL: A SOCCER MOM GONE WILD

When I was a litigation attorney and the mother of three young boys, I'd often go to sleep with a vague sense of anxiety and wake with a knot in my stomach. Like so many professional women, my days consisted of running around in uncomfortable clothes screaming at other drivers while making carpooling arrangements for a soccer game on my cell phone. Just so you get the full picture, I lived in New Jersey.
Alas, in my profession there was also a lot of yelling - I was routinely subjected to tirades from clients who wanted "justice," senior partners who wanted more money, and frustrated judges. Then I'd go home to an unhappy husband and three hungry kids.
By the age of 40, I couldn't believe how my life had turned out.
Something had gotten away from me. In high school and college I was a free-spirited athlete, strong and funny, a minimalist woman who could live out of a backpack. Ten years later I was mortgaged, obligated, and stuck. But don't cry for me, dear reader, because alleluia, I got unstuck. I did it. I chucked the law and became a cowgirl.
The journey from attorney and soccer mom to horse wrangler was a wild one but my story's ending at a ranch in Colorado had been written by forces much bigger than this little Italian girl from Philly. It was inevitable that I'd end up in blue jeans, knee-high in horse poop, going for days without a shower when I lived outdoors. I had never even been to the Rocky Mountains but they sure visited me on a regular basis. Due to marriage and other compromising life circumstances, I was about as far from the minimalist mountain life as I could imagine. Living in New Jersey, working as a lawyer, always a little lost, and unhappy.
After sixteen years of litigation I had nothing left. Suffering classic symptoms of burn out - insomnia, depression, distracted thinking - it became more difficult for me to plug on. I was a good lawyer; my clients loved me and that was mutual, but the system is a huge, bureaucratic, and hopeless morass mainly bent on enriching attorneys. I found myself feeding people into a machine over which I had no control, and one which would ultimately deplete them. So onerous was the litigation process and so unpredictable that I initiated each client meeting with a "Get Some Religion" lecture:
"Forget 'justice' or revenge," I'd say, "You're not going to feel better when this is over. You won't be vindicated, just exhausted. But there's a chance I can get you some money."
When I was defending someone who had been sued the lecture was even bleaker:
"You probably haven't done anything wrong. That doesn't really matter," my client's face would be grim. "We can try and settle quickly but you might want to take wads of cash and throw them out the window because it's the same result. This process is really costly."
That was it, that was all I had to give and it was a gruesomely realistic picture.
The last law firm I worked for started to go under financially and each day there was the sort of panic in the air you sense with any sinking ship. Employees spent most of their time looking for other jobs, and pilfering supplies while partners screamed at secretaries to recycle envelopes.
I did a little divorce work, which was excruciating but having been down that road myself I knew what to say when my clients asked “When is it time to get divorced?”
“If you’re asking the question,” I’d say, “It’s not time. Go get some counseling. You’ll know when it’s time. For me, the moment came when I finally realized that I’d rather live in the Honda than one more day in the marriage.”
And so it was with the practice of law. One day I was just d-o-n-e. Ready to live in my Honda. I quit and in August of 2004 I decided to take a horse pack trip into the Rocky Mountains. Finally, I was going to get close to the beauty that had been in my dreams for years. Jumping on the internet, I found a trip called The Ultimate - five days into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a couple of cowboys and a bunch of folks I didn't know.
The pack trip was indeed a dream come true. Leaving out of  the beautiful  Wet Mountain Valley in southern Colorado, we rode for hours each day, deeper into the Sangre de Christo mountains, setting camp at night and laughing around the fire. As far from "civilization" as I could imagine, I knew I was exactly where I wanted to be. Besides, I met a cowboy and after years of discouraging relationships I was back in the saddle so to speak.
On the last day of the trip, dirty and weary from five days in the mountains, the clients sat together waiting for a van ride back to the airport.
"Well," one of the guys said, "It's back to the real world."
"No," I replied without hesitation, "This is the real world."
And that, as they say, was that. I returned to New Jersey and put my house on the market. Although I had opened a solo law practice I put away any ideas of venturing back into that arena. I sold everything I owned, down-sized my life completely and started looking for jobs in the outdoor adventure industry in Colorado. My friends thought I was crazy.
"Where will you live? What will you do? What about money? What about the kids?" And on.
My two older sons had left the nest, off to college and work and life. My youngest was in his senior year of high school. He and I lived a peaceful existence but once he was gone, why would I be in New Jersey? Why would I not live the life I had seen in my head for 25 years? There was no reason to stay.
I had a "Pillage My House Party" where I invited my friends and neighbors to bring food and beer and take anything they wanted. They did an admirable job of emptying my house. Real estate at the Jersey shore had gone through the roof and in February I sold my house for multiples of what I'd paid. Stashed most of it away for retirement and bought a tiny condo in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, cash. The Cowgirl Gods were smiling on me.
On June 19, 2005 - four days after my Joey graduated high school - I packed up my little Honda CRV with my remaining stuff. My best girlfriend Carol had offered to accompany me cross country. We would be Thelma and Louise, it seems, without the sex and violence. Carol is the girl I never was: she can sew curtains and can stuff. She brought to this venture the steadfast loyalty of the Iowa farm girl she is: all heart, endless work, no complaining. Within three days we had landed in Steamboat Springs, furnished a tiny condo, and she headed home.
I wandered and ambled about Colorado all summer, loving the Rockies and sleeping outside under a blanket of stars. At 49, I had found my bliss. Between Outward Bound and Sierra Club trips I worked on a ranch, taking people horseback riding and rock climbing, cooking dinner on a campfire in the mountains. It was a dream come true. By late August, the cowboy found me irresistible and we decided to make a go of it. Divested of nearly all those unnecessary earthly possessions, I lived in a 300 square foot cabin "off the grid." No running water (unless we run and get it), solar electric, no bathroom. Very cool, very basic and a dream come true.
For me, the journey from soccer mom to cowgirl was truly the path of least resistance. People ask me how I could "give up everything" to live such a simple life and I tell them that this is the easy part. Living my "other life" was much more difficult, getting up each day to go to a job that made my heart clench, fighting adversaries and my own endless restlessness. Surely that life was much more difficult than waking up to the sound of 60 horses pounding through the meadow on round up while watching the Sangres turn pink in the morning sun. We didn't have a TV, running water, or indoor plumbing. It's amazing how little you really need to be totally content. The cabin was warm and full of love. People walked in and felt at home. We would ride horses, or go mountain biking, or hike into the Sangres to find hot springs or a lake.
My kids love to tell people that their mom became a cowgirl but she used to be a lawyer and my friends envied the simplicity and freedom I gained in "losing" everything. As a writer, I feel compelled to share my story and great fortune with others because I believe we all yearn for a deep dream inside us to come true. Who doesn't have the occasional thought of shrugging off the weight of all our "stuff" - things we buy, obligations we acquire - just to wander around like a dog? You know how dogs just sit in the car, staring out the window, breathing in the great smells? This became my life, the life of a happy pup, wandering around enjoying the beauty of this earth.
You might want to take a page from my book and start investing in your self, that Inner Cowgirl who's stuck in pantyhose or traffic. Dream big, friends, have faith and watch it unfold. Happy trails.




Tuesday, July 1, 2014

DOWN THE SHORE

So I’m sitting on the boardwalk the other day with an old friend, a Soccer Dad who had a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It’s 11 a.m., and we’re talking about the impossibility of raising kids. We have three kids a piece, all of whom made it to adulthood. 

“I’da shot Mikey,” he says casually, “But they have forensics now.  I’ve seen it on TV.”

He takes a long suck on his cigarette. God, I’m so happy to be back in Jersey.

Can’t say why, really.  It’s not easily definable. Down the shore there’s something fabulously real about folks. It’s probably that deep sense that we’re all gonna die pretty damn quick, so what are you worried about?  “Burning daylight” is what they call it out West when the herd is still all over the place and there’s work to be done.  But in Jersey no one’s gathering animals. We sit around, a lot, and just yap like a big fat Seinfeld episode.  I hear sitting is the new smoking.  In Dave’s case, he likes to sit , drink, AND smoke, quadrupling his chances of Death by several different diseases. 

But we’re just hanging in the sun, philosophizing about nothing. Well, about raising kids, which most days, is like being water-boarded.

"Having children,” Dave says while taking a deep drag and a sip, “Is like being pecked to death by chickens.”

“True that,” I said, “It’s kinda like standing in a pool of your own blood.”

“Got that right,” Dave stares into the distance.

Just moved back to Jersey after a decade in Colorado where I never once - not once - saw anyone smoke a cigarette and drink at the same time, let alone at 11 a.m. Why does it make me feel so good to see this guy doing like three bad things at once? I loved the phenomenal beauty of Colorado, the Olympic athletes who worked out next to me in the Steamboat fitness center, the Sunday morning triathlons, the health food stores on every corner. A robust and healthy lifestyle, and good friends who were always planning their next backpacking adventure.  Yet here I am, with Soccer Dave, nodding in agreement about not killing your kid for fear of being caught.

“So you screwed up another marriage,” Dave says. 

Not so much a question as a fact. In-your-face-honesty is a way of life here.

“Yeah,” I almost want a drag of his cigarette, “I rode a cowboy, but he bucked me off.”

Dave complains constantly about not having enough money but deep down he doesn’t really give a rat’s ass.  He lives at the beach and sells junk jewelry for a living. His shack of a store was flooded after Sandy and I asked him why he just kept going with it.  We love these pointless conversations. Dave took another big inhale and shook his head, blowing smoke to the heavens.

“I’m too stupid to stop and too lazy to move,” he said simply.

I guess I like the laziness here. It’s something I need to relearn, an acquired skill I left behind when I boldly moved out West to be a cowgirl.  And as much as I love the people and the beauty of Steamboat, Jesus with the exercising already! For the love of God those folks simply cannot stop seeking, seeking, seeking the next great trail, ski run, wilderness experience or mountain climb.  Have a beer, dude. Turn on the TV, put your feet up. Get to know each other a little bit.

It’s almost too much of knowing everyone here. The most densely packed state in the nation, it’s sort of hard not to be all up in everyone’s bidness. Everyone is, of course, a lot older than when I left but It’s like I have not missed a beat, coming home after ten years in the Wild West. I crossed the bridge into Ocean City and the toll taker looked at me.

“Where you been?” he demanded, like I’d gone to WaWa for milk instead of Colorado for adventure. For a decade.

Too stupid to stop, too lazy to move. I can again get used to walking barefoot down the street, riding my clunky old bike (no gears, no tricks - what an embarrassment I’d be back in the ‘Boat!), going nowhere and not even fast. I walk around Ocean City for hours, breathing in the damp sand smell and watching people. It’s a place of old family traditions, where generation after generation shows up in the summer for the same old rituals.  Pizza at Mack and Manko’s and then Khor Brothers Ice Cream. Watch the seagulls try and steal your fries, play cheesy mini-golf and take the kids to Wonderland for little rides. The other day, ambling down the street I passed a front porch filled with family (front porches are big here. There’s a lotta sitting on front porches).

“Hey Grandpa!” this freckly little boy said as the screen door slammed behind him, “I got my lucky fishing shoes on!”

An old lady stops me on the boardwalk and asks me to take a picture of her and her four grandsons. I do, and choke back the tears as I hand her the camera.  Thank you God, Buddha, Spirit, Universe for bringing me back to the shore. Okay, it took a divorce and breast cancer to get me here, but whatever.  I’m in the place I left a decade ago, back then climbing out of my skin with a need for adventure and a restlessness so deep it was like my soul was on fire. I did absolutely every little and big thing I had ever dreamed of: galloped on horses through the mountains, worked on a ranch, rafted the whitewater, lived in the wilderness for weeks; I hiked, biked, climbed, explored, ran, rowed, crowed, cried and about died with the beauty of it all. And now, fully blessed, I’m back down the shore.

All my life a wanderer. Turned 58 yesterday, and I’m thrilled to have the sand in my shoes again. I only remember a few things from college. Most of it was lost in a beer haze, but like plenty of things we learn or hear while young, stuff doesn’t always resonate until we’re old. And so, 38 years later, something finally makes sense:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And at the end of all our exploration, we will arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Elliott

Amen. True that. Put your feet up.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

OF BACK FAT AND BABY SHOWERS

It had been gray and rainy for about 73 straight days last spring and everyone was little cranky.  It’s like living inside Tupperware.  I was fixing to turn 55 in a month and AARP was hunting me down like a wounded deer. I’m pretty sure it was actually AARP that found Osama Bin Laden.  But I didn't give a rat's ass about terrorism at the moment because I have a First World problem:  the enlarged middle of a matron along with chicken skin and back fat.  Walking the dog, I think people in the park take pity on me when they smile, like “Oh geez, her life’s going down the toilet.”

So I foolishly decided to try to talk to my then husband about this existential anxiety which is the kind of stupid decision a gal makes after 73 days of rain.  The car is always a good place to talk men because it’s like we have them hostage.  I did that with my boys, teaching them to drive. “You need a licensed driver, son. Your butt is mine.”  As they white-knuckled their way through stop signs, I’d be having the “sex talk” exhorting them to “Always put a helmet on that soldier!” and such.  They were a hostile but captive audience, like any guy in a car, so I decided to broach my crankiness with a grown up male when we were pulling out of a parking lot in town.

“I’m really feeling kinda blue,” I said softly, “You know, not really like myself.”

“They shouldn’t allow left turns out of this parking lot,” he responded.

Mother of God, what was I thinking?

I recounted the story later that day at a baby shower, sitting on a couch eating avocado chocolate mousse with my girlfriend homies from the work.

“Phyllis you dumb ass,” Martha said, “You should have used the phrase ‘blow job’ in that sentence.  As in ‘I’m depressed, want a blow job?’ He’d a heard you, trust me.”

“Damn right,” Betsy chirped in, “He’d be like ‘Oh yeah, depressed huh? This’ll make you feel better.”

Dang, it’s like men go to Knucklehead School at night and all learn the same stuff.  When I was walking through the villages of Nepal the men would be outside their huts, laughing and smoking while the women slaved in the fields and carried huge loads of stuff around. The male gorilla in the zoo hangs in the hammock, scratching his gorilla balls while the female pulls insects out of the kids' hair. I'm no scientist, but my informal anthropological research shows that male blindness is a cross-cultural phenomenon.

What to do about the blue, about back fat, the AARP-inator, the male brain, my endlessly churning hormones?  I don’t drink much, but I probably should drink more.  I pretty much stopped in my 20s because I’m a happy stupid dancing drunk – cheap to boot – and will gladly jump up on a table to shake my money maker at a moment’s notice.  Some inhibitions are good, like keeping your shirt on in public, but there are days I miss how much fun it could be to just be an idiot.  

On the way home from the baby shower I decided to drown my sorrows in a book store.  A little blue book grabbed me, titled 'F IN EXAMS: The Very Best Totally Wrong Answers.  I opened it, and soon was snorting in the aisle.  Here's an example of the biology questions and real answers from high school kids:

"What is a fibula?"   A little lie.

"What is the highest frequency noise that a human voice can register?" Mariah Carey.

You get the idea.  And I laughed until I hurt and people were looking at me probably with pity again; I'm sure my back fat was jiggling but it was better than any beer or bong I would have picked up in my 20s.  I bought the book, went home, and the sun popped out.  Me and Chopper went to the park, and all the neighborhood kids came teeming out onto the streets riding bikes and skateboards, kicking soccer balls. My neighbor, holding her one year old, waved the baby’s hand at me.

"Hey, you're starting the garden!" I said.

"Yep," she replied, "The lettuce is yours for the picking."

And that's the way it goes, folks.  The agony and the ecstasy of being a human bean.  As Roseanne Roseannadana used to say: "If it's not one thing, it's another."  Tupperware, left turns, girlfriends and chocolate mousse; chicken skin and kids on bikes.  My neighbor offers me lettuce not yet even grown and I get to start all over again.



Sunday, May 4, 2014

HAIR OF THE DOG

There’s a hormone thing going on for me right now and I am as irritable as a baby with a sandy diaper. You know how babies scrunch their little fat faces up when they’re pissed and they just belt it out! Man, I wish as a grownup I could do that – how cool would that be? - but instead I just chafe internally when I walk, especially past the mirror where I see my mother looking rather like a homeless man. My hair needs to be cut.  After three pregnancies I’ve not only lost my wallet and my entire waist, but the ability to grow hair anywhere but on my face. I’m feeling old and hairy in the wrong spots and I can’t just wail like a fat baby so I made an appointment with a new hair stylist who – my hand to God – has the exact same name as a dog that once bit me.  You think this is a bad sign? 

Here’s something you shouldn’t do when you feel cranky:  go out to dinner, as if eating in a different environment will somehow ease the general pissed-offendness in your belly, residing there like bad gas. Married couples don’t have a lot to talk about in a restaurant and so, oddly, they often gush over the waiter.

“Brandon! Wow! What a great name! Are you in college!”

And so forth.  We try to engage this hapless underpaid overworked twenty year old in some lame ass conversation because it’s just so nice to talk to SOMEONE ELSE for a change.  The wait staff is patient in most cases, treating old married folks like we’re in need of extra patience, and then they go back in the kitchen and likely – hopefully – laugh their assess off at us.

There’s been a minor uproar in the news lately – a flash in the pan that happens every eight years or so – about Jesus being married.  Some piece of old parchment that I could have put together in fourth grade (you just burn the edges of the paper for God’s sake) allegedly said “Jesus’ wife.”  Dude, there is no way Jesus could have been married.  It would have ruined his street cred.  He would have given up on saving the world and just tried to save Himself. They’d be looking for the guy who performs miracles and he’d be at the bar with the Pharisees complaining about how Mrs. Jesus doesn’t understand Him.

After dinner I’m driving home and every four-way stop intersection in Steamboat ticks me off because everyone’s like “You go!,” “No, please, YOU go!” Oh for the love of God! I shriek. Four way stops back East are blood sport.  It’s the freaking Coliseum, it’s the Lions and the Christians, it’s kill or be killed.  So all these pleasant people almost get in accidents because they’re all making eye contact and smiling.  Geezus, I need a haircut.

The next day I go for a hike with Chopper, beautiful aspen everywhere, and life is good for a few minutes until my beloved black lab – almost unbearably loving and stupid – emerges from the bushes with porcupine quills all over his face, looking at me like “What? What’s up?”  This is the FOURTH time Chopper has thought that maybe, just maybe these porcupines are friendly creatures.  I want to take a picture and put him on www.dogshaming.com but I realize nothing can really shame Chopper.  He’s pretty chill with his dog self, quills and all.

The dog who bit me was named Dominga, like my hair stylist, and she didn’t like being in a dog’s skin, not at all.  Her whole dog life, apparently, she was looking over her little shoulder to see who might be out to get her and she would bite them first.  That’s the way it rolled for little Dominga.  Hope my hairdresser has better self esteem. There’s nothing worse than an animal that doesn’t like his chosen incarnation; I knew a horse who just hated everything about being a 1200 pound animal with a prey’s outlook on life.  Poor Spike jumped at everything, and then just shook his big horsey head like “Oh, shit, I hate this horse gig.”


I'm stuck in my earthsuit, a hunka hunka burning spirit inside these aching bones and baby pouch. Stuck in an earthsuit with roiling hormones and bad hair - but unlike poor Spike or Dominga- at least I have the cognition to know that this will pass – the haircut, the irritability, and even the irascible dog with quills in his nose. That's what separates us from the rest of the animals (aside from opposable thumbs): no matter how bad it gets, like bad gas, at least we know that this too shall pass.