Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Fifty is the New F Word

I thought I should probably write a post about turning 50 before I actually show up (uninvited) for a red-carpet event outfitted in black netting and a thong.  I'm not Jennifer Lopez turning 40, so that would probably be an incredibly desperate and depraved act on my part--not to mention, so pitiful and sad.

So, I won't do that, at least not until I hit menopause and lose my mind.  I'll write this post instead. Because, you see, if I haven't mentioned it already, I'm staring down the proverbial barrel of a 45, which happens, in this case, to be 50.  October 15.  Not yet.  Not yet....

Oh, and I know the Baby-Boomers are all like, Fifty!  Fifty is nothing!  Fifty is so young!

Baby Boomers, that gigantic, navel-gazing bulge of a generation, have had that birthday already, and generated hundreds of best-sellers, movies, and cowboy songs all reflecting on the enormity of that particular personal journey.  They've processed it to death, and now they're looking at 70 and thinking, Gee, fifty was so young...!

But I haven't turned 50 yet.  And just because my cohort, though small, has exhausted everyone's sense of irony, that doesn't mean that our experience of turning 50 is of no interest to anyone.  Obviously, it's of interest to us.

When you think about it, there have only been a few generations to have survived to 50 in sufficient numbers to warrant mass reflection. The business of getting old can't be getting old yet--it's still rather young, historically speaking.

But let's be honest.  Let's  take a candid look at ourselves.  You know what we're doing, cohorts of mine.  We who are turning 50--or have just turned 50--are becoming genuflectingly retrospective. We dig up old pictures of ourselves and of our parents, and of our parents' parents--photos of every one we ever knew (especially, if they got old and died), in the glorious bloom of youth.

Why are we suddenly interested in the bygone youth of our parents and grandparents?   Because we ourselves are becoming them.  All of a sudden, we realize, like, five minutes ago, that they were young once, too.  Nooo!  Yess!!!

Go!  Find those pictures.  They're somewhere in the closet or the basement, or under a bed in a big tupperware box.  Look at those people!  They were gorgeous!  Youth itself is gorgeous.  Even the truly sub-par youth had a vibrant glow about him/her that we can only now achieve at great expense: Tough Mudder, Iron Man, surgery, cosmetology... And even so, we're never going to be as bright and shiny as we once were....

I'll confess to an act of desperation.  I took a picture of my arm--yes, my arm!  I posted it on Facebook.  You may have seen it there and pitied me.  The  caption only made it worse: This is not your granny's arm!  HA HA HA

So sad.

But dammit, my arms have never looked better in my life! And I look at my arms, and I think, FIFTY!  FIFTY?  FIFTY!!!!!!

Fifty is the new F-word.

It doesn't sink in, no matter how many times I say it.  Am I deluded?  Look at the arm! Not photo-shopped!  It's a damn fine arm.  Not the same color it used to be.  Kinda splotchy with sunspots and yes, the hands.   The hands are the circles in the trunk of the tree that let you know EXACTLY how old the tree is.  (Some older hands are the soul of discretion, but not mine.)

In the last few years, I have gotten stronger and healthier; however, at the same time, I have lost three teeth.  And I hardly had any cavities!  I have broken two fingers on two occasions since 2011--prior to which I had never broken a bone.   I have kept my weight down, but I've been diagnosed with the same auto-immune connective-tissue disorder as Venus Williams.  (It has not improved my tennis.)  I've got a little mitral valve thing going on.  It's leaky.  I have a little heartbreak.  But of course I would!, having lived this long.

They say about women that if we survive our fifties, we're likely to live to a ripe old age.  The fifties, in other words, are the gauntlet years.  It makes me a little nervous that all these pesky medical conditions that no one's too terribly concerned about are cropping up just now, at the end of my forties, as I'm getting prepared to run that freakin' gauntlet.

My great-aunt used to say that when she got together with her friends they would have an organ recital.  How's your heart?  How's that kidney infection?  Are you still on the list for a new liver?  

I'm having those conversations now.  We're having those conversations.  It has started.

Ooh!, and as soon as I turn 50, I get to schedule a colonoscopy!  YAAAY!  That sounds even better than having my breasts crushed between cold glass plates.

I'm  seriously not sure I'm willing to go through with the colonoscopy.  I got deep psychological reservations.  And anyway, in ten years, it'll be margarine. They'll say that colonoscopies stimulate polyp growth.

Just go about your life and try not to think about your ass too much.  Eat the fake calamari.  That's the best thing you can do for your colon.  

But that's the least of my worries.  Menopause lurks like the Milwaukee lion (there's currently a lion lurking in Milwaukee, in case you haven't heard).  I know I announced on FB that it already happened, but I was wrong--I just forgot to write down a date.  It happens.  Not the part about announcing menopause on Facebook, but the part about forgetting to write down a date.  That happens.

We know it's going to make me nuts.  It may be happening already.  I may be nuts,  That's how it works, right?  You keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.  Wait, that's not it.  You insist you're sane when clearly you are not. Bingo!

Are you sane?

There is a bright side to this whole living forever thing and not being young anymore.

First of all, I am still pretty healthy and strong, so I have some of the benefits of youth while enjoying the breadth and scope of perspective that comes with the passage of time OR genius.

If you're Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Mozart, Joan of Arc, or Virginia Wolf, you can get a lot done in a short life.

But I, personally, could not have seen the arc of history bending in one direction or another without having lived this long.

That's why novelists are generally older.  Time does tell a story.  We may not like the story, but it unfolds nonetheless.  In the fullness of time, we begin to see our own story with clarity.  We sense the shape and weight of it, and maybe even glimpse its probable end.

I like my story okay, so far.  It's still a work in progress.  I expect there will be more surprises and high points yet to come.

I have one or two things to do before I rest.

But so far, when I look back I am grateful for every chapter, and all of the attendant characters. Some of them were hugely influential, and some probably gave me this leaky heart.  It was frequently very interesting, and I don't feel unduly burdened by any of it.  If it was humiliating then, it's funny now.

Everything that happens to a writer enriches the work somehow, no matter how painful or miserable it may have been.

Now that I'm old, I have seen history repeat itself.  I have seen hard-won lessons lost from one generation to the next.  Even in my own life, I have forgotten the lessons of my mistakes and made the same mistakes all over again.

It's the patterns of history that reveal the person, the story...the country...the human condition...the fate of all humanity...You see it in the patterns, over time, if you're paying attention.

So, for all my apprehension about turning 50, this is truly the most interesting time of my life so far, and the best time, I think, for a writer to bloom.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Crap Jobs, Getting Fired, and One Very Evil Corporation

A young person I know started his first job this week working at a factory making French passports.  I asked him to make me one.  He said it wasn't that kind of factory.   

Do you remember your first job?  

I was 15 when my dad said I would not be returning to Camp Lord of the Flies for my annual  sequestration.  It was actually a reputable summer camp, (though I'm pretty sure the director was a pedophile).  But as a plump, bespectacled, only-child, I was the obvious candidate for ridicule and torment.  

It was 1980.  Sports bras had not yet been invented.  Men had yet to realize that women didn't like being whistled and leered at, or having their bodies loudly pronounced or pounced upon in public. No one even associated Catholic priests with... Well, let's not get dark.  

It was a time of innocence, if that's the correct word, and I'm pretty sure it is not.  Looking back, we were all pretty much idiots

By the time I was 15, I had no longer been William Goldberg's Piggy for what seemed like, oh, half an hour.  

Now, I had a figure that stuck out in all directions, and my long red hair was a beacon.  There was no camouflage for me.  

I'm not saying I was popular, or that I looked the way I was supposed to in that day.  (That said, Molly Ringwald had nothing on me, except she was thin and easier to dress.)   

I thought my face was too oily, my hair was too frizzy, and OF COURSE, I was definitely too fat.

I couldn't fit my chest into prom gowns.   Cars passing almost always honked and occasionally veered dangerously off course through a curve.  

I couldn't walk or ride a bike without grown-up men whistling and screaming at me.  

First job: Dunkin' Donuts.  Picture a pink dress with a white apron tied in the back.  It should have been an easy job, serving donuts and coffee to strange men.  

All I remember is, I was so nervous I couldn't count change at all.  I was fired at the end of two weeks.  Oh, joyous relief!

A friend hooked me up with a job as a cashier at a CVS drug store.  I could wear a regular shirt and pants, but I was still too nervous to deal with the general public and operate a cash register. I was constantly calling the manager to void my transactions. I wasn't supposed to use the word screwed, as in, I screwed up again.   Instead, I was supposed to say I've made a mistake.  But I couldn't even remember that.  I was fired at the end of two weeks.   That one didn't feel so good. 

I worked at Eaton's the Druggist, object of the famous prank call:

Hello?  Are you Eaton's the Druggist?

Everyone I knew growing up in my town has made that call.  You know who you are.

At Eatons, all I had to do was face the aisles.   That means, make sure the product is facing the customer, all lined up nice and tidy.  I could do this.  No amount of anxiety could prevent me from carrying out this task.  

Except the one time, when I had stayed up all night and taken some sort of over-the-counter stimulant to stay alert at the store.  

I was given a sheet of neon-orange stickers, and I was told to doing something with them. But what?  I couldn't remember.  And the neon orange was so damn orange.  Just as I was realizing, all was not right with my head, my English teacher, Mrs. Weiner, walked through the door.  She had super-short platinum-blonde hair.   She was at least as orange as John Boehner.  About fifty years old.  (Really? OMG.)  I was full-on hallucinating from the pills I had taken.  They were non-prescription, over-the-counter--bear that in mind.  Don't judge me, I just wanted to be bright on the job.   

Yeah, I was fired.

I had a summer job on the eighth hole of an 18-hole golf course in Beverly, Mass.  My mother landed it for me through a friend.  You hate to put a friend in that position, though.  No one wants to fire a friend's kid.  I read Call It Sleep and ate tuna fish sandwiches.  The cook mashed up the tuna with her bare hands.  I also ate Reeses peanut-butter cups and chocolate bars.  No one seemed to mind.

The lady golfers stopped at the eighth hole for ice water, with a twist.  They always wanted a twist.  A twist of lemon or a twist of lime.  One would ask for a twist, and the others all followed suit.  Just to be obnoxious, I stocked the fridge with ice water that already had twists of lemon or lime--I even had a few with lemon and lime and no ice, because there were those kinds of ladies, too.  

It gave me a perverse pleasure to greet their originality with Henry Ford efficiency.  I'd have rolled that ice water out on a conveyor belt if I'd had a conveyor belt on the Eighth Hole.  That was the summer of my contempt for the rich.  

I was also very disappointed in Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA.   

When I wasn't at the Eighth Hole, I worked poolside at the grill and snack bar.  My customers were nearly naked, I couldn't be nervous.  I did a good job.  I also drank a lot of milk shakes, but I had to ride my bike seven miles each way the country club, rain or shine.  

I was not fired!

In college...
I washed dishes in one of the residential dining commons.  Not fired. 
I flipped burgers and collected trays at the student union.  Not fired.

I cold-called alumnae of  U. Mass. to ask them to donate money to the alma mater.  They had a "very persuasive script"... I could hear an audible click when my boss got on the line to listen and evaluate and find me lacking...   I lasted two weeks.  So fired.

After I moved off campus, I worked part-time at a Cumberland Farms convenience store (think KwikTrip), where I successfully operated a cash register for the first time.  

However, four or five weeks into it, a man in a dark suit came into the store.   I'd never seen him before.  He worked for Cumberland Farms, showed me his card, and directed me to follow him to the back of the store, where we sat on crates while he explained that there was a video surveillance camera in the back of the store.  It had been recording my every move since I started working there.  

Have you ever taken money from the cash register?
Have you ever failed to put a customer's money into the cash register?
Have you ever permitted anyone--a friend or a family member, for example--to come into the store and take anything without paying?
Ms. Barmack, I remind you that we have had a surveillance camera trained on you this entire time.  
Yes, you mentioned that. 
I'll ask you again.  Have you ever taken anything from the store without paying for it?
Have you ever consumed anything--a can of Coke, or a candy bar--without paying for it?  
Well?  Have you?

That's when I burst into tears and confessed, I had been eating the occasional FROZFRUIT bar in the store on my shift.  (They were nutritious and refreshing, particularly the strawberry.  The mango was also very tasty.)

How many FROZFRUIT bars do you think you consumed?
I don't know.  A few, I guess.  
A few per day or a few per week?
Per day, I'd say maybe two.
Would you say, four?  Do you think you might have consumed four FROZBARS in a single day?

He pulled out a large calculator and worked up the sum.  When he finished, he explained, I had eaten at least two hundred dollars worth of FROZFRUIT bars in just a few weeks.  

I thought that seemed excessive, but who was I to argue with the unequivocal evidence of a video surveillance camera?

Fortunately, I had lawyers in the family and my case was quickly settled out of court.  I paid Cumberland Farms $42 for the fraudulently consumed quiescently frozen confection.

I was 19 at the time.  Flash forward four years.  I am 23.  I am lolling sleepless in a bed in a military hotel in Tokyo, watching 60 Minutes report on a Cumberland Farms scam.  

Cumberland Farms had been offsetting the cost of all of their shop-lifting losses by scamming their own employees.  

Here's how it worked.  After a few weeks of employment, an intimidating off-site manager would take the hapless employee to the back of the store,  make them sit down on a crate, and explain about the surveillance camera....  


Not all of the scammed Cumberland Farms employees were college kids with access to free legal representation. 

They used the same line of questioning every time.  Virtually every employee admitted to taking something--a pack of matches, a Diet Coke...It all added up to some fantastic sum, whatever they thought they could reasonably extort.

They made so much money from this scam, it exceeded their wildest expectations.  It was more than than the total annual cost of all Cumberland Farms shoplifting losses combined.  They were profiting from it. 

Sadly, the lawyer who represented the victims in the class action suit against Cumberland Farms refused to settle out of court.  He wanted his day in court.  He wanted to bring down the man.  Like the real-life lawyer in A Civil Action, it undermined his clients' interests and ruined his life.  

Clearly, he had not experienced being fired often enough.  If he had, he certainly would have been better able to brush off the sting and dust of disappointment, and get on with the business of life.