Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dying to Work

For years, my aunt Mary Lou would throw up every day before she got into the shower to get ready for work. It wasn't an illness or dietary intolerance or an eating disorder. 

It was much, much simpler: she hated her job.

But day after day, year after year, she got out of bed, threw up, put on a skirt suit with shoulder pads and went in anyway. She had to. There were people depending on her.

Mary Lou was the second of six girls. The oldest was a wild child and the next youngest, my mother, was a drifting dreamer. Mary Lou was the responsible one. When something needed doing, she was the one who did it.

Through a bad marriage, a divorce and multiple depressions, Mary Lou held it together. Sometimes just barely, sometimes by the barest tips of her fingernails. Her house might be filling with unwashed dishes and a dry, dead Christmas tree in July, but her mortgage was paid on time and her son was clean, fed and in Catholic school, all because she kept getting up and going in to a job she despised so much it made her physically ill.

Work is how we show love in my family. My grandfather held three jobs when his girls were little. My mother used to ride with him sometimes when he drove the milk truck (Job #2) and those are some of the happiest memories of her childhood.

Work equals love. I internalized this from a young age. No lie - I used to resent my parents for not having a family business I could work in as a kid. I couldn't wait to get my first job in a used bookstore when I was 14.

And I worked steadily, non-stop, often at multiple jobs from then until the economy tanked. I knew going into unemployment that it would be hard for me in ways that had nothing to do with money. How would I show the Songwriter how much I loved and cared for him if I wasn't bringing home a paycheck? 

Back to Mary Lou. With apologies to Mom's younger sisters Shelly and Loretta, Mary Lou was my favorite aunt. She was solid and funny and smart and kind. She had dark hair, like me, and let me borrow her books, even the ones I wasn't supposed to be old enough to read. I wanted to be just like he when I grew up.

After years of unhappiness, something wonderful happened. Mary Lou met a younger man, a friend of her sister's, and they fell in love. And got married. And were generally awesome together. She still had the job she hated, but her confidence was growing, and she was starting to think that maybe she could have more, do more with her life.

Then she got cancer for the first time.

It was a tumor on the lymph node in her neck. Chemo and radiation and heartbreak ensued. But she beat it. The bottom half of her hair grew back, she and my uncle redecorated the house, and they picked right back up with enjoying each other and planning their future.

It took another few years, but Mary Lou finally decided to start her own company, along with a couple of friends from the job she hated. They would do the work they enjoyed, but out from under the oppressive place and people that had made them so miserable. Letterhead was designed. Paperwork was filed. Offices were rented.

And then she got up in the middle of the night to get some water, and her leg broke.

A lump in her breast, which she'd been too frightened to get checked, had spread to her bones. From there it was a long, bittersweet road. Mary Lou died in December of 1999, leaving behind her only son, her adoring husband who had cared for her for so long, and the rest of us who loved her.

She once talked to me about unhappiness. About how the anger and the misery turned inward never leads to anything good. She didn't tell me outright that she believed it caused her cancer, but that was what I took from our talk.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I find myself coming home from work every day now with my guts in a free falling knot. When I woke up on Thursday and my first thought was "Please don't make me go back there today." I woke up on Friday and rushed to the bathroom, sure I was going to be sick.

And I thought of Mary Lou. 

I'm lucky. I have options. We have no children, we have no debt. My parents are still healthy and don't rely on me for care or support. But exercising those options is a choice.

There are so many things I have on my big, life-sized to-do list. And if I let this job get to me, let it grind me down because I think I have to, then I am admitting that I am willing to abandon the people I love in the name of some short-term monetary compensation, or worse, in the name of ego as my family's breadwinner.

This is deeply scary stuff to think about. So scary in fact that it's taken me months to be able to look it in the eye and name it for what it is. So scary that I have set this post to go live at a time when I will be at a Ramones tribute show, and won't be able to change my mind at the last minute.

So I find myself at a crossroads. Am I going to suck it up and take it, because that's what we're "supposed" to do and the alternatives are uncertain? Or am I going to choose happiness and love and saying yes to life and not living scared?

I hope Mary Lou would be proud of me.

Shameless Spousal Promotion

Exciting news! Rock n' roll songwriter Steven Gullett, friend of the blog and my husband of a serious-long-ass-time, has a new EP coming out today!

Since we've moved to California, he's focused less on performing and more on writing and recording. I'm particularly proud of him for this record, since it was created entirely in our dining room and he plays every last instrument on the damn thing.

Also: the songs are pretty great ("My History" is a personal favorite; Track 1 is, as you might imagine, NSFW).

1. Fuck Your Revolution
2. Falling Down is Easy
3. My History
4. My Monkey
5. Some Kind of Ghost
6. Hanging By a Thread
This is a digital-only release, available wherever you prefer your digital music served. You can also stream it or pay-what-you-want for a limited time by downloading it from Bandcamp.

Please give it a listen!

Saturday, May 18, 2013

I've Already Won the Lottery

As you may have heard if you've bought a cup of gas station coffee or worked in an office with other people in the last week, Powerball, the massive multi-state lottery, is sporting a jackpot somewhere north of $600 million.

I buy lottery tickets not-infrequently, and usually under one of two conditions. Either I'm feeling pretty great about my life ("My luck is relentlessly awesome lately -- I should play the lottery!") or I'm incredibly depressed ("Everything is shit, and I need this cheap fantasy, even though there's not a chance in hell I'll win!").

I don't want to be the girl who has to come into the office on Monday
after everyone else has quit and bought a yacht.

It's a common fantasy. Life will hand you not just a giant do-over, but insane riches and everything will be different. Everything will be better.

But here's the thing: what would it actually change? 

I mean in real, concrete day-to-day ways?

Sure, you'll pay off your debt, you'll buy a house, maybe buy your kids or your mom a house too. You'll get a new car. Or you'll get an old car and finally have the time and the money to restore it. You'll tell your boss to go to hell, or maybe you won't but you'll go in to work significantly smugger every day, because you won't need this job and can walk at any time.

Let's grant all of that. But I'm talking about now, this moment. How would it be different if you won the lottery?

We experience life as moments, not grand movements. So in this moment, I'm sitting in my living room in my pajamas, writing this blog. The Songwriter is asleep and the cats are being lazy. I'm drinking coffee and wondering what I'll have for lunch.

If I had $6 million or $600 million dollars, would this moment be any different?

  • I'd still get up early-ish on Saturdays because I like the morning sun and stillness.
  • I'd still be in my living room, because I love where I live. Ditto my pajamas.
  • I'd still write, because, duh, that's what I want to do with my life. 
  • I'd still enjoy the quiet contentment of my husband and cats sleeping.
  • I'd still make coffee, because having good fresh coffee without having to put on a bra and shoes is frankly the definition of luxury.
  • And given what a pain it is to get to Beverly Hills or Malibu or Paris, my lunch options wouldn't change if I had all the money in the world.

Okay, so maybe this would be my post-lottery living room.
But everything else, totally the same.

All this adds up to the understanding that I am as happy and content in this moment as it is possible to be. If a lottery windfall afforded me limitless choices, this is what I would choose.

And when I think abut it, most of my life is like that. I would still get my hair done at Stag. I would still drink in the upstairs bar at The Satellite. I would still go see Prima Donna play The Redwood. I would still walk to Aroma and get coffee and sit on their patio and write.

Sure, I would quit my day job. But I'd still be a working writer, and money wouldn't buy me success. And I would travel more, though missing my kitties and my general home-body-ness would naturally limit that.

But the vast majority of the moments that make up my life are already what I want them to be. And recognizing and remembering that fact doubles and deepens my happiness.

From that perspective, I'm pretty sure I've already won.