School of Fish out of Water

ImageI have never been ‘unemployed’ in my adult life, until now.  It’s been a couple months, submitting application after application, waiting for a phone call and living with the frustration of wondering when someone will see me as ‘value added’.

It’s true, I haven’t come up with the latest IPod widget.  I haven’t created some hip, new Web App.  I’m not nineteen years old, fresh out of college, or the next up-and-coming Steve Jobs.  I can’t sell myself as any of those things.  So how can I convince a prospective employer that I am worth something to them when I don’t have those credentials.

The truth is, I was there from the beginning, when the web was new.  I built my first site before you could take a community college course in HTML.  How did I do it?  I looked at the source code of someone else’s site and figured it out.  I downloaded a demo copy of PhotoShop and taught myself how to make an animated gif long before the advent of Tumblr.  Now it seems they are all the rage!  They are NEW!  They are AWESOME!  For me, well they are old news I read long ago.

I don’t have certifications that prove that I know what I know.  Why?  Because I taught it all to myself.  When lightning struck the phone system at the university where I worked in the computer center, it was my job to re-enter all the data into the new system.  That wasn’t good enough for me though.  I looked at the data and saw a the perfect opportunity to create a people directory.  I wondered how I could get it to talk to our website.  Wouldn’t it be nice for people to be able to get on our site and be able to find phone and office locations from anywhere?  Why yes, it would!  So….without anyone asking, without anyone even thinking of it first, I went out and taught myself MySQL and PHP so I could hook up that database to the site.  I made the first working online personnel directory the university ever had and it is still in use today.  In fact, according to Google analytics, it is the most visited page on the site.

I didn’t stop there.  I continued to teach myself more and more, to make the site bigger, better, stronger.  I taught myself how to edit audio so that when the marketing manager decided to post the president’s speeches, I could edit out all the “um’s” and “uh’s”.  I taught myself Sony Vegas to create videos for a great admissions department landing page at no cost to the university.  I used what I had taught myself about PhotoShop to make an interactive Flash campus map and saved them even more.

But…in today’s glutted applicant pool, I am treading water at best because I didn’t learn these things from some third party who could give me a diploma for it.  What’s worse?  I did what my mother and father taught me was right and actually had the audacity to stay at that job for ten years!  How horrible!  Everything I am reading now tells me that when companies see you in a job for more than four years they assume you have no ambition or are ‘dug in’.

It seems now that I am dug in.  I have dug myself into a hole built by caring.  I stayed at the university working as hard as I knew how to make things better there.  But every job I look at now wants me to have specific experience–retail experience, sales experience, medical experience or some amorphous characteristic that keeps me swimming in the shallow end.  There is a disconnect I haven’t figured out how to work around yet.

I guess I could tell them I have sales experience from the time I worked as a property manager, talking potential renters into choosing our apartments over the competitors, but that doesn’t seem very sexy when I did it almost twenty years ago.  I could tell them I have medical experience if they want to count that I used to read my mother’s nursing textbooks for fun back when she was getting her degree.  Retail?  Well I worked at a tire store for six years back when I graduated high school.  Somehow, in the face of ‘what have you done for me lately’ those things just don’t seem very relevant.

So…what do I do now?  Web designers are a dime-a-dozen these days.  Sure I know how to use WordPress and Joomla.  So does that nineteen year old who doesn’t mind working eighteen hour days in a cubicle for pizza and mello yello.  Why doesn’t real experience count against someone’s paid-for piece of paper?

Maybe I’m just too old.  I came from the land of ‘work hard’, ‘do your own dirty work’, ‘solve problems’, ‘be loyal’, and ‘good work is it’s own reward’.  Somewhere during that time things changed to ‘slow down, you’re making the rest of look bad’, ‘delegate’, ‘outsource’, ‘job-fishing’, and ‘follow the money’.

I’m a fish out of water.  Maybe I’ll go back to school.  Seems I need a diploma in been there, done that.

A good dog

gooddogA few weeks ago, my daughter and I embarked on a new venture as licensed pet sitters.  To market our new business, we marched door to door in the early summer heat in a few of the nicer neighborhoods in town, passing out fliers and introducing ourselves, hoping to drum up a new customer or two.  Surprisingly, we found that a good percentage of the people we visited didn’t have any pet at all!  As people who have had dozens over the years, this was a shocking revelation.  I’m not sure how someone can live without the company of non-human creatures, especially since, at least to me, they are the only source of uncompromising, unconditional love.

All my life I have had pets, pets of all kinds: turtles and frogs liberated from piney forest streams, crabs harvested from marshy banks carried home in dixie cups full of sand and salt water, goldfish won playing ring toss games at school fun fairs, kittens rescued from dirty ditches and dogs brought home in the backseats of cars.  Each and every one was lavished with love, toys and leftover bologna, given names and all my good intentions.  Some stayed only a little while, some stayed a lifetime, all were gifts from heaven for me to practice my stewardship of God’s love.

According to my mother, my first word uttered during my diaper years was not mama or dada, but Bo.  Bo was the name of the Cocker Spaniel puppy my family owned from shortly before my birth until years later when he died of old age, still carrying his favorite squeaky rubber duck around like a captured flag.  He was the first animal I knew and I was immediately certain where my heart belonged.  He was the first of many dogs in my life, but there have been two that I truly called my own good dogs.

The first was Laddie.  Laddie was a registered full-sized standard Collie, complete with a lion’s mane of white and a tail that swept coffee tables clean.  He wasn’t mine at the start, but as my siblings grew up and moved away, he became mine by default and was my best company during those tough middle school years. He had a needle-nose capped with short spiky whiskers that he would push into my face for hugs after long days at school.  He was my constant company during the Florida summers under the scuppernong vines in our backyard, sharing the warm sweet fruit with me endlessly.  I would squeeze the sweet bulbs of those grapes between the tiny teeth in the front of his snout, one for you, one for me.  I’m surprised I didn’t make him sick.  More importantly, he was my therapist.  Every time I had an adolescent cry, Laddie was there, leaning into my side and crying along with me.  He had an empathy that went beyond words, one that still makes me wonder if God’s angels don’t have wings at all, but rather have fur coats and fleas.

For my children, Sheila was that good dog.  My ex-husband brought her home one day in the car, trembling and tucked under the driver’s seat so tight I had to drag her out.  It took weeks for her to decide that we were trustworthy, but when she did, she proved herself to be the best friend a house full of girls could ever have.  With few exceptions, Sheila hated men, and after I separated from my husband, she made it her business to be our house protector.  No man could come in our house without her say so, and even then they were suspect.  We didn’t have to fear any intruders, Sheila was on the job.  We knew she would have laid her life down for us.  My daughter had her for a friend and circus performer, teaching her tricks and advanced rope jumping in the front yard.  She mothered countless kittens and reared a stray puppy or two.  None were her own, but she didn’t care much about origin, only that her charges were well behaved and lived up to her standards.  She had no bad habits, made the perfect toe-warmer, and had the tolerance of Job.  Again, God’s angels don’t have wings.

So now, even as we are trying to find housing in another city, we are doing so with certain standards.  If they won’t accept our pets, then we won’t accept the place.  There is no place for us that won’t allow us our angels.  They are our hearts on four legs, fuzzy, drippy hearts that we can’t have broken for very long.  Our dog Linus is waiting for us now while we live temporarily in a small apartment looking for a house to rent with a yard and a pet-friendly policy.  Someday soon, we hope to bring him home, another good dog with a furry-faced grin to grace us after these long, hard times.  I can’t wait for that day, when our dog days are over and our days include a good dog again.  Everyone should have at least one.

Sugar Sack

The sun came out today and the sky is that perfect blinding blue, the one that everyone wants to be the backdrop to their photos and memories.  As I was driving, listening to the radio and woolgathering, my mind went back to a long past yesterday where I was little and guarded, and sick on Halloween with the chicken pox.

I remember my mother, harried with four youngsters, three on the cusp of teendom, looking at me with squinted eyes. She spied some suspicious dots of red on my face and quickly had me shedding my skivvies to make a diagnosis.   Chicken pox, oh joy.

I was five years old and looking forward with enthusiasm to the next night, roaming the dark with my brother and sisters, a ghoul with the gift of gab.  “Trick or Treat!”  I had practiced night and day, even in my sleep, and was so ready for that free candy.  Now, dreams dashed, I was sent to bed without the prize. Little did I know what was in store.

I watched with disappointment as my siblings left.  They laughed at each others costumes, rushing out the front door in anticipation of the night’s haul. I cried because I couldn’t join them.  I drifted through the door of my room like a ghost, haunted by dreams of lollipops and gumdrops and the anguish of a sugar rush denied. A few hours later, I heard the front door open, but I didn’t stir.  Fresh water rose up under my eyes, a flood of ennui running a gusher. I heard the merry voices of the returning journeymen, fresh from their candy haul, and then my mother called to me.

Slowly I rolled off the blanket, left the damp divot in my pillow and headed toward the living room where I was certain to view the others rolling in candied contentment, counting tootsie rolls and comparing chocolates.  Reluctant but resigned, I walked in.

ImageThere before me stood my sisters and my brother, beaming with pride.  They held out a sack, a pillow case, full to the brim and spilling over with every sort of confection, but most of all affection, for their sick little sister.  They scoured the neighborhood, telling a tale between “Tricks” and “Treats” of their sister, unable to come our because of the pox, andthe neighbors had been generous.  Eagerly, they presented their booty to me, all for me, their love evident in each and every unwrapped goody.

This was love.  This was family.  This was every good memory I will ever have.  Three teenagers who gave up their night and their avarice for sweets for the sister who couldn’t go with them on the best night of a child’s year.  They gave it all to me, every ounce- pounds probably- of candy and chocolate and goodness.  In a few days, I was sated and sharing it all.  The day as bright as this one, the Puerto Rican sky as blue as the sea and my love for them as just as wide. I will never forget it.

You know, Halloween has always been my favorite holiday.  Is there any wonder why?

Loose Ends

Once upon a time I was a woman with direction and confidence, one who knew the right thing to do at the right time.  I made changes with the feeling that they were correct.  Now, not so much.

This has been one of the worst years of my life.  It started with changing jobs.  I left the university I had worked at for ten years to go to a start-up that promised me plenty of money…money I felt was needed to make life better for me and my children.  I had a good job at the university, one where I felt valued and could exercise my creativity, but after years of trying to climb the ladder to where I could afford to pay the rent, they kept telling me they couldn’t give me what I knew I deserved.  In a small town where connections mean more than capability, I had reached the ceiling.  So when a new company came to town with the promise of changing our lives, of making it possible for me to give my children what I worked over twenty years to give them, I took it.

It turned out to be a living nightmare, each dream crushed by a dark and dangerous confusion of conflicting images, ones that made me cry every night and sleep all day.  I was working for someone who had no idea what it meant to be good to people or to communicate.  He would give directions and if you followed them he would blame you for doing so.  There was no right, only wrong, and in the midst of this fog, my brother died.

Now, most of my life I listened to other people tell me how they fought with their families and I didn’t understand how that could be.  My family was close.  They played together.  We had sword fights in the front yard with homemade weapons carved from trees that grew around my mom and dad’s cabin.  We sang and danced the time warp, drunkenly holding each other up on pedestals of loving perfection as we laughed and cried together through life’s trials.  But with my brother’s death came a turmoil that defied every notion of familial love I ever held.  Suddenly, we were at each other’s throats, using old underwear as bargaining chips in the battle of who loved him more.  Sisters who had once clung to one another, who had celebrated each other, now referred to the others as monsters without souls, and in the end we still don’t see eye to eye.

My mother and father are collateral damage.  They sit in dazed wonder at the ashes of their close-knit kids, wondering when we will come together again around the thanksgiving table saying our traditional prayers again with conviction.  The love, well, it’s still there, and we have managed to find our way to reach out and forgive, but I don’t know if it will ever be same.  How could it be?  Our brother was the glue that bound us, he was our stronghold of faith and our go-to guy.  His absence is still keenly felt even as we gather with surface smiles.  I miss what once was and so do they.

I weathered my grief while at that nightmare job, trying to navigate the stormy waters of chaos and an abusive superior, trying to find a way to make him happy while I sank in my sea of tears.  In the end I failed.  I didn’t fail to try, I simply failed to find the place in his battlefield.  I was a captain without a fleet and I didn’t fit in.  As he threatened my life and livelihood, the one I had worked so hard to establish, my blood pressure soared.  I become convinced the only reason –the only reason –God had me there was to keep the other poor souls in his employ from the welfare office.  Each day I went into the fray with new resolve to make it through another eight hours, to keep my spirit intact, to find a way to make myself valuable to someone who saw me as valueless.  But there was no satisfying this sadistic soul, so I quit.

Now…almost a year later, I have no brother and I have no job.  I still have a family though.  My children are keeping me from drowning in my depression even though every day I feel I am failing them.  As I search for the job that doesn’t exist, they encourage me to keep singing, to keep dancing, to keep creating.  They help me find some hope when it seems not to live inside me.  Each day when I wake up from the sleep that cocoons me in the only peace my brain will afford, they tell me of their first Etsy sale, or the next book that they are writing (they really have the bug!) and in those moments I have just a little hope that I have done something right.  It keeps me trying.  We are looking for jobs together, looking for a new adventure, taking toddling steps toward a future that looks only bleak to me, but still looks bright to them. So, it looks to me like I have to find a new definition of family, my Ohana on earth.  It’s little and it’s broken, but it’s still good.  And while I am still at loose ends, I am yet waiting for that happy ending where I can take care of them in good faith and do right by them.

I don’t have to be happy, I don’t have to be right, I just have to be their mom and they love me.  So, maybe I am at loose ends.  So what?  Loose ends can be tied up in a bow.  I hope someday I can make it a pretty one.  I’m still praying the same family prayer, each and every day…”Father we thank thee for the night, and for the pleasant morning light.  For rest, and food, and loving care, and all that makes the day so fair.  Help us to do the things we should, to be to others kind and good…in all we do, and all we say, to grow more loving every day”.  The rest…well the rest is up to fate and to our good intentions and efforts.

I used to tell someone I cared for very much that God had one lesson he wanted me to learn in this life.  Persistence.  Don’t give up, keep trying.  Okay.  I’m trying, still, every day, trying, trying. trying.  Please God, help me make that bow?

Running Bear

runningbearI didn’t think mom and dad were fair! They had taken me to the theater plenty of times before and I had no concept of ratings, so all I could think of was their meanness. I loved the movie theater, the movies and all that came with them, even though by today’s standards the Naval Base Movie House would have rated $1 Theater at best. It was damp, had sticky floors and a tinny sound system, and bats – live bats – at the ceiling that would sweep down after mosquitoes in the butter flavored air. But ratings didn’t matter to me and now I was mad and wanted to get even, so I called my friend Tina a few doors down.

Before I dialed, I ran into the room I shared with my big brother and threw some things in a battered blue overnight case, a cast off from my sisters. I threw in some underwear and socks, a few t-shirts, and jeans. I was already wearing my favorite red boots and I could carry the bear. I gingerly carried the case with me down the hall, treading lightly on the linoleum lest my siblings overhear, and set it with care next to the telephone table that I always felt too much like a school desk for my comfort.

I sat down gently and dialed the phone.

One ring.
I craned to see who was around.

Two rings.
I could feel a hot redness creeping up my neck.

Three rings.
I wasn’t sure that I could do this.

Four…
I clutched the bear.

Thank God Tina answered.

I cupped my hand around the receiver and whispered my plan into the phone. I was going to live at her house. I was running away.

I told her it was Okay because my parents were only a few doors down and I could go to school with her. Nobody would miss me, I could help cook or clean to earn my keep, and I would even share the bear. Surely this sacrifice would seal the deal. My plea was well thought out and earnest.

Tina, who normally jumped at the chance for a sleepover, suddenly sounded hesitant. She needed to ask her parents. She let go of the phone.

The few moments of confidence I felt as I wooed my “would be” roommate dissipated as quickly as steam. I knew Tina’s father. I was a little afraid of Tina’s father. He had a bald head, a mustache and was, to me at least, a tall and imposing figure. I could hear him talking faintly through the phone line and it didn’t sound friendly. I held the bear a little tighter as I scanned the parts of the house I could see to make sure that I was still clandestine. By the time Tina came back on the line, I had become aware of my breathing, amplified by the mouthpiece and damp around my nose. The hair on my neck where my braids met was becoming ringlets as my nerves outran the air conditioner. She took so long! Then she broke the news.

Apologetically she explained that I couldn’t come over. Her parents would tell and she would get in trouble. She was really sorry, but I had to stay home. I felt the last of my foolish hot air expire like last week’s helium. Her father said no and I deflated. I hadn’t even had a chance. I told Tina goodbye and hung up, dejected and defeated, awash in humiliation and shame.

What was I to do? I was beaten. The power I once had to get what I wanted had disappeared with my diapers, even though the desire for it had not, and six-year-old tantrums aren’t tolerated. I was the overthrown despot, done in by age. I realized that being six years old wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and I was going to miss a lot of movies. No longer concerned with staying undercover, I tucked the bear under one arm, dragged the case back to the bedroom and shut the door. One by one I put the clothes back in my dresser and then put the case in the closet on top of the toy box. The bear, he stayed with me. He stayed with me as I cried and dried my childish tears.

Sometimes it takes a revelation, no, a revolution, to learn who we are. I never, ever tried to run away again. The next week, my mom and dad took me to the movies.

runningbearutImage info

Manipulated with Photoshop.  Distributed under license here

Island Girl

islandbearThe first real memory I can recall was of walking into our house on the navy base in Puerto Rico. I was four years old. It was as if there was nothing before and my life began in that instant, the instant that I walked through the door into the living room and saw the white walls bathed in striped sunlight and the exotic, temporary wicker furniture that filled it. You would think that I would remember the plane ride to the island, but I don’t. However, I certainly was awestruck by that house. It was like a sort of dream or fairy tale, real but unreal. I remember it seemed strange, exotic and oh, so exciting! For a first memory that’s not too bad, but a door opened in my mind as well as that house that day. I lived there for about four years. For a little girl, there couldn’t have been a more magical place to be.

From front to back, our yard was a jungle and a playground. On the concrete half wall that separated the porch from the yard, it was common to see iguanas sunning themselves among the rhododendron. You might have also seen me, a little girl with cats eye glasses and dark pigtails, a striped t-shirt and red cowboy boots jumping off the wall, pretending to be a superhero, gifted with the capability of flight. Or maybe I was learning to skate on Christmas day holding onto that wall, my security blanket against skinned knees, stoically scuffling under the winter sun.

In the backyard was an almond tree with the unfortunate addition of a swing hanging from it. Nobody thought to warn me that lawn mowers can pick up and throw almonds. They can throw them very, very hard. I’m sure I blamed my brother at the time, but I hope he realizes that is a grudge I’ve outgrown. It was also the backyard where I left my favorite bear, BooBoo, out in the rain and jumped the reedy ditch at the border. Just beyond the yard was the base’s Family Pool where I learned to swim. Doing torpedoes underwater was my favorite and I was proud of my ability to open my eyes underwater. I still kind of am.

Under the carport, where more rhododendrons closed in like a fragrant fortress, my daddy stored the rocking horse I rode for hours on end, and when it rained, the gap between the gutter and the roof would create a horizontal curtain of water like a waterfall. In the little river that gathered and ran under the curtain I played with my little animals until my knobby knees were stiff and my hands, raisins. That tiny stream was an ocean of ideas to fill my animals’ imaginary lives, but my mother saw it as a possible source of Schistosomiasis. I still see it as a rain forest oasis filled with mist, rain and the sweetness of honeysuckle.

To venture out of the carport and onto the grass was to risk sands spurs and ant bites, but the reward could be a coconut to take inside. I knew very well the taste of fresh milk and the sweetness of fresh coconut on one of my mother’s cakes. There were coconut palms everywhere on Cowpens Drive.

Our house was at the bottom of a hill that rose steeply enough to cause inexperienced bike riders to end up with serious road rash at the end, and at the top w as the way to “The Rocks”, an area of cliffs and rocky coast on which my friends and I would risk our necks regularly. If you turned right from the driveway instead of left, it wasn’t a long walk to a white sand beach complete with shelters, grills and playground equipment, the perfect place to make frog houses and catch hermit crabs. It was also where, when drifting lazily in shallow water on a driftwood log, thinking of lunch, that I saw a barracuda swim by my leg. I got out of that water so fast I must’ve looked like I have suddenly been gifted with the ability to walk on water. It occurred to me, I guess, that the barracuda might have also been thinking about lunch.

But the real story of my childhood is inside the house, where I sprawled on the living room floor watching Bugs Bunny in Spanish and developed my first crush on Captain Kirk. In that house a little girl shared a room with big brother, had a dog named Bo, and celebrated the day she was able to reach the Popsicles in the freezer. This same little girl galloped on all fours around the dining room table until mom got a migraine. She sat sullenly in the hall to protest unwanted bed times. She tried to hatch lizard eggs in dresser drawers and listened to Lambchop on her sisters’ record player, refused to wear dresses, and tortured naked Barbie dolls with homemade haircuts.

We moved away when I was 9, when my father retired from the Navy. That plane ride I do remember. It took me from something that can never be replaced. Everything has changed, years have passed and even if I decided to visit, the house is no longer there. But something tells me, after a few more years have gone by and the grass has grown over and the buildings crumbled and the land is taken over once again by palms and sand spurs, you will be to glimpse the ghost of a little girl in red boots and braids galloping among the iguanas.

 

 

blindsImage Info

Manipulated in Photoshop.  Distributed under license here.