Winter Blues

The early burst of energy is gone. I did everything that had to be done, all the tasks that had external triggers. Cleaning everything out of your house in time for the closing was completed. Working with the attorney to get all the legal matters associated with your estate straightened out; done. That mostly empty storage locker we’d had for several years was briefly filled and then emptied; it’s no longer one of the monthly bills. A lot of work took place in our house. I’ve been able to isolate most of the stuff that still needs sorting to the back room. I got a good start on going through things and separating into categories; your family, things I want to keep, historical items. Then I just stopped.

On MLK day I started the process to order the headstone. I went to the company and talked with someone there about what I wanted and looked at a large notebook full of pictures of headstones they had done over the years. A second notebook had drawings, carefully broken out into categories, of what could be carved into the stone. A few days later, I got a thick envelope with three proposals for what your headstone could look like. I’ve been carrying this with me for a week now. I’m terrified of sending in a decision; it seems so final.

I feel stuck, weighted down, unable to move. This is my worst time of year. Your low was December, the classic holiday blues. Mine came later, January and February, the cold and dark months when the sun is so rarely seen. I’d come home from work, sun already setting, and you’d greet me with a hug and a cup of coffee. Now it’s lonely and dark on my walk home, lonely and dark at home, lonely and dark in my life. I feel slow, heavy, lumbering through this long cold winter trying just to make it until spring, then wondering what difference a few turns of the calendar will make.

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Will I miss you less in April than in January? Will the anniversary of your birth (no longer your birthday) be as painful as my birthday was? At what point will I start feeling that there is a future for me? I hardly recognize myself in the mirror; I look so much older than I did before all this happened, deep lines etched in my face that weren’t there 6 months ago.

At what point does life come back, does any sense of normalcy return? I am tired of feeling so bad all the time. I’m walking through a thick, viscous fog that obscures everything bright and good.

The weather just makes it worse; first bitter cold, than warm but torrential rain, then snow and back to bitter cold. I had the flu, then a bad cough that hasn’t gone away, and this week I had “flu.2” some stomach virus going around. I have to drag myself to work every morning, and I worry that they’ll realize how very little actual work I’m getting done. It’s so hard to care, to focus.

I need time. Time to think, to figure out what the hell happened, to understand that you’re gone. I want a month or two off. I want to go to a small, quiet resort in the tropics. I’d wake up and put on a cool, flowing linen dress and sandals. I’d sip my morning coffee sitting on a patio looking out on the ocean. The waiters would know me and nod hello. I’d read a book over breakfast, then take a walk along the beach. That’s what I want to be doing. Instead I’m waking up late every morning, rushing to work in the dead of winter, trying to fake it at work because I’m too young to retire and too old to be hired anywhere else.

I’m so very, very angry at everything that has happened. Some nights I go up to bed at 8pm; other nights I sit up until 2am. Some nights I cry thinking about how much I miss you, and other nights I’m angry at you. I feel deserted by you, by friends, by family. I hope this is the lowest I get.

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First world problems: Do you love your job?

The consultant walks confidently out on stage, big smile on his/her face. “I LOVE my job! Do you love your job? If you don’t, why are you still there? You need to figure out what you love and start doing it!”

Umm… yeah. I’ve been lectured, hectored, and schooled by the best on that topic. I still don’t buy it. Look, don’t get me wrong. I know there are people who truly love what they do. Being able to have a rewarding career in a field that you love, while still being able to support yourself and your family is a noble and wonderful goal, and I salute every woman and man who has been able to achieve it.

I also believe that this goal is not one that everyone can meet; or even needs to try and meet. Further, I think the adoption of this as a corporate dogma is just another cynical attempt to make people feel that any problems with their jobs are their fault, rather than looking to the company as the cause.

At the heart of this screed are a few assumptions. Let’s examine them.

First is the view that your job should be a central (if THE central) focus of your life. You should be living to work, not working to live. This is the view that of course everyone should just love spending time at work, and if you don’t it speaks to a character flaw. A great example of this mentality is Fish http://www.charthouse.com/productdetail.aspx?nodeid=11010 . The great thing about this (if you’re the employer) is that all responsibility for providing a rewarding and decent workplace is now up to your employees. I mean, those guys tossing fish back and forth don’t work in the greatest environment, and look how much fun they’re having! If you aren’t happy about your job, it’s not because you’re doing the work of two people and earning less money than you did 5 years ago; no, it’s your fault.

Articles focusing on the best companies to work always list the great perks these places have. Mostly these seem to be things the rest of us look for in our own personal lives. Instead of spending time with friends hanging out, play Ping-Pong and video games at work. Need to pick up groceries to cook dinner? Don’t bother! You can stay late and have dinner at work. Reading between the lines, some of these great benefits make it easier and more comfortable for employees to spend 50, 60 and more hours per week at work. Personally, I’ll trade a more glamorous work place for an 8-hour day.

Second is the idea that your job should be a natural extension of what most interests you. It’s kind of an anti-hobby mentality; instead of pursuing interests on your own, you make those interests your life’s work; the “do what you love” idea, with the assumption that once you’ve honed in on what you love, you will be able to turn that into a viable source of income. This doesn’t always work. For every success story of a person who managed to create a thriving business based on their passion, more people tried and failed. If the thing that you truly love is corporate law or Wall Street investing, you have a much better chance of making a good living doing what you love than the person whose passion is music or art. Inherent in this assumption is that it is always possible to make a decent living. Keep in mind that the consultants lecturing on this are not making the 10 bucks an hour that day care workers make.

Finally, there’s the belief that your job should be the most rewarding aspect of your life. Fact is, there are a whole lot of jobs that may not be all that rewarding to the people who work them, but are still needed. Do you really think that everyone working as a hotel maid is doing so because of all the possible jobs in the world, cleaning bathrooms is the one they wanted more than anything else? I doubt it. I bet that most people doing that job are doing so because it’s all they could get. That doesn’t mean they can’t feel pride in doing the job well, or enjoy the people they work with, but to assume that everyone is going to be able to cherry pick only what they truly love is unrealistic.

Here’s what I think. All of us want to feel meaning and joy in our lives. The ideal is that you derive part of that satisfaction from your job, if for no other reason than most of us spend so many of our waking hours at work. If you are lucky, you get to work a job that matches your interests and skills, provides a supportive environment with enjoyable people, and pays a salary that allows you to live decently and to have a private life that is equally as fulfilling.

However, to imply that it is always possible to both find the exact perfect job that is the fulfillment of all your dreams and will allow you live a fiscally viable life, is ridiculous. Sometimes the best choice is a job that allows you to live a good and decent life but doesn’t match your dreams. That is not a bad thing. Providing a decent standard of living is worth a lot, and the only people who think money doesn’t matter are those who have never had a lack of it. If you end up in a job that doesn’t provide you with soul-full satisfaction, you can still find ways to make it through; focus on the parts you do like, but mostly focus on having a good life outside of work.

Because, in the end, it’s a lot better to have a life you love and a job you tolerate than the other way around.

Daily Prompt: When you were 16, what did you think your life would look like? Does it look like that? Is that a good thing?

At 16 the world is filled with possibilities. Every choice made closes some doors as it opens others. At 16, most doors are still there, waiting. At 16 my bedroom was filled with mailings from colleges; as a high school junior I had just taken exams and was starting to decide what I wanted to do.

Each brochure was a window into a possible future. I studied each one, wondering, what if; what if I went to this small college in a far away state; what if I decided to go to school in a large city. My potential choices were in the best of all realms, that of pure fantasy. I didn’t need to worry, yet, about things like how much the college would cost or whether I’d be accepted; it was just my personal fantasies of the amazingly adult, interesting person I’d be.

I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with my life or what I’d be in five years, let alone the 40 plus years that have happened since I was 16. I knew, with absolute certainty, that I hated the Chicago suburbs where I lived and that I didn’t want to stay there a minute more than was necessary. I had somehow stumbled onto Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities and was enthralled with her vision of a community instead of a subdivision.

It was clear to me that my life would be exciting, dramatic, meaningful. Just exactly how that would happen, I didn’t have a clue.

Fast forward to now. More than 40 years later. I did escape the suburbs, and I still remain grateful for that. I stumbled onto what turned out to be a career. I’ve been able to support myself. I’ve been married twice; one ended in divorce, one in death. I’ve spend most of my adult life single, which was not what I expected, but I’ve done so successfully.

As I approach the end of my 50s I realize that I have as little insight into what my future will be as that 16 year old. What I do know more about, however, is who I am. Just like that girl, I still believe that most people are good, and that change is always possible. I’m much better at detecting whom to trust and when a situation is one I should back slowly away from.

My life is not much like what I thought it would be at, and that’s good. I can’t think of any curse worse than having your life be what you thought it would be at 16.

That young girl knew so little about people. She didn’t realize how important friends would be, mainly because at 16 it was so easy to find new friends. She had no idea that true friends, the ones you keep for a lifetime, the ones that celebrate the good and support you during the bad, are rare and precious. She was clueless about careers and work. So many new jobs have come about since then, and she’s spent most of her life working in fields that didn’t even exist then.

Most important, that 16 year old lacked confidence in her ability to create a good and meaningful life. She looked to other people to do that for her. She worried a lot about what other people thought about how she was dressed, what she was saying, what she was doing, even how she looked dancing. I’m past that now. I’ve grown up. My life hasn’t been as exciting and dramatic as I wanted at 16, but one big life lesson learned is that excitement and drama are a lot more enjoyable from the outside than when it is your life experience. I’ve learned that I can do a damn fine job taking care of things. I’ve figured out who I am, and I mostly like it, and if other people don’t that’s their problem, not mine. I am so much more of a person than I was at 16, and so much more than I ever could have managed becoming.

Triumphing over awfulness; my week from hell

I hit another “first” this week; my first time being sick since Rick died. It wasn’t something I had thought about; I don’t get sick very much. In the 8 years we were together, apart from a yearly migraine I think I was sick twice.

On Sunday I noticed a tickle in the back of my throat. Monday brought a sore throat and cough. Tuesday I felt awful and ended up leaving work in the morning. I had all the signs of flu; fever, chills, body aches. From Tuesday through Thursday afternoon I slept so much the cat was impressed. All I did was shuffle from bed, to couch, to bed.

The doctor’s office was more than willing to diagnose flu over the phone, and asked me to please not come in. When I stated (“whined” was probably a more accurate description) that I had received the flu vaccine, I was told that it could be a different variety of flu and, if not, the vaccine would lesson the impact.

This continued on until Thursday, when at least I could sit up and eat something. Attempting to make a small pot of coffee, I forgot the pot; when I woke up from yet another nap, I found the kitchen counter swimming in 4 cups of cold coffee. I did my best to mop up the mess, but with a fever still burning and feeling slightly dizzy I just grabbed the nearest dish towel to use as a sponge and dumped it in the sink. There wasn’t coffee sliding off the counter anymore, but it was far from spit-polish clean.

Finally, on Friday morning I woke up feeling human. I took a bath, washed my hair, and changed the sheets. Went downstairs and cleaned the kitchen, made some coffee (this time with the pot) and checked email. I was back among the living. I’d made it. Things were looking up – I thought.

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Early afternoon, as I was standing in the kitchen finishing the last of the coffee, the cat suddenly twitched and twisted. As I looked on in horror, I realized she was having a seizure. It was terrifying to watch. When she finally stopped, she was unable to stand up; her hindquarters weren’t moving, the legs just lying there.

I called the vet with shaking hands and explained what had happened, and that I was bringing her in. The poor cat was completely puffed up and unable to move. I pulled out the cat carrier, and the site of that hated conveyance was enough to get her standing up. She made the one-mile car trip in total silence, none of the usual yowls; she was that freaked out. Turned out everything was fine; no problems found, no obvious reason for the seizure. The vet thinks she may have gotten into something or it may be a sign of age, but said to keep track of this in case it happens again.

This has been a really hard week; facing two things, alone, that I would much rather have had help with; facing the fact that the cat is old and sick and probably won’t last the year, meaning one more tie with Rick’s and my life, and one more creature I love, will soon be gone. That’s the bad part. The good part is; well; I made it. I’m feeling Okay, and I’m looking forward to watching the Packers play tonight. Life does go on, and I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. Oh, and the cat’s fine.

Mid-winter Movie Reviews

The Hobbit
To be fair, I have to state that I’m a complete LOTR (Lord of the Rings) geek. I’ve read these books (including The Hobbit) almost yearly from the late 60s on. Really, there’s not much Peter Jackson could do that wouldn’t have me giddy with enjoyment. He’s no Ralph Bakshi, thank goodness.

So, yeah, I liked this movie. For my taste the movie was better in the lower speed 2d version. This could be due to my inability to watch anything in 3d longer than a few minutes without getting a slight feeling of carsickness. The movie does lose something when you spend half the watching time with your eyes closed, waiting for the nausea to stop. I saw it in 3d with my daughter, who was able to keep the glasses on for the full movie. She liked the 3d but felt the movie looked too glossy, with the characters not seeming quite real. I’d like to give my opinion, but as I mentioned I wasn’t able to watch enough of it with the greater speed to have an opinion.

I was able to watch the entire 2d version. There wasn’t a single moment where I thought, “wow – if only this were in 3d”. It was great to see the same characters, and kudos to the makeup artists for subtle details that made the almost-immortals of elves and wizards look slightly younger to show the 60-year difference between The Hobbit & LOTR.

Tolkien wrote The Hobbit a decade before LOTR. He spent a lot of time on Lord of the Rings; his goal was to create a British mythology. One of the interesting things he did was to create a lot of extra material added as appendices to the final printed edition. The appendices contain additional information not included in the main books. Some of these dealt with the dwarves, providing greater information on their history and culture. Jackson mined these for additional materials, and that is where the extra story lines come in.

That’s an expansion I don’t mind. The expansion of battle scenes is one I do. Tolkien was not attempting to write sword and scorcery novels and he never wanted the action to be focused on fighting. He was interested in the different peoples of Middle Earth, and their interactions. Battles were a part of that, but his prose spends little time on them. I realize that battle scenes make great cinema, but there’s a similarity from fight to fight that, for me, gets boring. I could have done with about 30 minutes less fighting.

Still, I liked the movie and will be there in line next December, money in hand, for part 2.

Silver Linings Playbook
I saw this movie before the Oscar buzz happened. The story line – two people who’ve each faced loss in their life – resonated with me, and the trailers looked amusing.

What a great surprise. The movie is a deft interweaving of a serious story told in a comic way. The main character is Pat Solitano, a Philly born and bred 30ish guy who’s spent the previous 8 months in a psychiatric lockup facility after severely beating the man he found showering with his wife. During his incarceration he’s been diagnosed as bipolar and been given a boat load of medications to deal with that. He’s also been through a lot of therapy and decided that he can recreate his life to be better. Better, in his case, means getting back together with his wife, who in the meantime has filed for divorce and taken out a restraining order on him.

A married friend invites him to dinner, where he meets the friend’s sister-in-law; an attractive young widow, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who dealt with the loss of her husband by sleeping with everyone. The two initially bond over a pretty hilarious discussion on the merits of different psychotropic medications. They bond more seriously over a plan; she needs him as a partner in a dance contest, and he needs her to smuggle letters to his soon-to-be-ex-wife. While they don’t realize it, they also bond as two souls who’ve both been hurt, badly, and can help heal each other.

There are lots of delightful little quirks to this movie. Robert De Niro plays the father of main character Bradley Cooper, and actually seems to act instead of falling back on his now-standard routine of quirky tics. His character has been banned from the Eagles stadium due to excessive fighting, and is trying to raise money for a restaurant by bookmaking. His anger management issues and clearly OCD behavior, none of which has seemed to cause him much grief in life, beggar the question of who is sane and who isn’t. He ends up making a huge bet on both the Philadelphia Eagles and the dance contest that becomes the climax of the movie. Chris Tucker shines in a small role as a friend of Pat’s from the psychiatric facility.

It’s not hard to realize that this is a classic rom-com and that, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence will end up falling in love and realizing it only at the last possible moment. There’s nothing new about that. But the movie is well written, well acted, and genuine. The people in it may do things that are funny, but they are never caricatures. The acting is sensational, and even the small parts seem real and honest.

Downton Abbey & Manor House
I know, not a movie; but I hadn’t seen this during its first 2 years here in the US. While on vacation I watched a few episodes a day on my tablet and got hooked. The acting is superb, the costumes are gorgeous, and mostly it’s just a great relief to watch these people and realize that the days of the aristocracy are (mostly) behind us.

While watching Downton Abbey I’ve been thinking a lot about another BBC show that came over here about 10 years ago. Called Manor House, http://www.pbs.org/manorhouse/theproject/making.html this show took modern Brits and put them into an Edwardian manor house for 3 months. Most participants were cast as servants; one lucky family played the aristocrats. The show wasn’t great; it was done early on in the reality TV world, and at times it seemed to repeat itself, but it was fascinating to see how quickly the “lord’s” family started thinking of themselves as being entitled to the level of care and servitude being given by an ever more unhappy group of servants.

I enjoyed this when it was first run on PBS, and think it would be a great follower for Downton Abbey.

Mid-winter vignettes

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1. Christmas
I spent a week in NYC visiting my adult daughter. The best part of the trip was being ghost-free. When I opened my eyes in the morning I didn’t see Rick’s side of the bed, empty. There weren’t constant reminders of our life together everywhere I looked. I was sleeping in a different bed, opening another refrigerator, doing different things.

Taking a vacation from my life was healing. When I came back home, I cleaned like I haven’t done since Rick got sick. I washed floors and reorganized items and vacuumed. I still haven’t touched any of Rick’s stuff, and there are still those piles of papers and documents from his illness and death, but they are neatly arranged now and pushed back into a corner.

The frightening part was realizing that, yes, I will move on with my life. That’s good. That’s the goal. But I need to figure out how to do so in a way that is respectful of what we had. I felt so terribly lonely when I came home and walked in to an empty house. I don’t want that in my life; but I also don’t want to rush forward so quickly that I lose what we had.

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2. New Year’s Eve
We were together every New Year’s Eve from 2004 to 2011: eight years. We always had a fancy meal at home; I like to cook and it was more pleasant than battling crowds at restaurants. Some years we went out after dinner, others we stayed home, but it was always a nice evening. Most of the time we were home by midnight or shortly after.

This year I went to a friend’s house for a very casual, pleasant gathering. I left at 11; I just couldn’t take being out at midnight. I was alone. It really hit me. There were so many years before I met Rick where New Year’s Eve was sad and lonely, a time of reflecting on my life and hoping it would be better in the next year. I’m back to that, again. It feels like a failure; not due to my actions, but a failure that fate has provided me.

I don’t have any eloquent way to put this, and there aren’t any meaningful insights that I can come up with. I just feel cheated. When Rick & I first met and were dating I felt like I’d won the lottery. He was funny, sweet, nice, handsome, and treated me well. I expected the winnings to last longer.
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3. Why can’t I get off the couch?
It’s a gorgeous day; bright blue sky, sun is shining; the snow is even melting a little. I should go for a walk but I can’t seem to make myself move. I know I’ll regret it tomorrow when I’m stuck at work, but it seems I’ve been glued down. I finally made myself get up and walk, but only for a few minutes.

Lately it’s been really hard to make myself do anything. I’ve stopped calling friends to go out, and I’ve stopped exercising, and I’ve stopped doing anything social other than looking at Facebook. I want to be a hermit. I don’t want to face anyone. I just want to go hide.
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4. I’ve never been good at “living in the moment”. I recall having anxiety attacks in my early twenties over what I’d be doing when I was 40. I’ve always been worried about what the future will bring, and sad over what I view as missed opportunities in the past. Lately, though, I’ve been better about that. Maybe it’s grief, perhaps this is the one plus in all the rotten shit; but I’m able to focus on the “now” in a way I never could before (of course, it just figures I’m able to do so only when my “now” is so dreadful).

I’m convinced I’ll be okay at some point, not now, certainly, but at some time. I will recover and find life engaging, joyful, worth participating in – just not now. When that particular point will be doesn’t really bother me much; I just know it will happen, later.