“Can Be Lazy at Times”

When I told Harry that I had taken a few days off from work in anticipation of the holidays, he was surprised.  We host both Thanksgiving and Christmas and I do almost all of the cooking and we have overnight guests.  He was puzzled that I would use my time in this way, but I thought it was a great opportunity to enjoy the holiday season.  During my seventeen years in law practice, the day before Thanksgiving was consistently one of the very worst each year.  There have been manufactured emergencies, false deadlines, unnecessarily acrimonious contract negotiations, and stupid drafts exchanged every year.  Since I never worked at a company with a November 30 end of fiscal year and that time of fall is too late for anything to impact the holiday shopping season, I can tell you that all of it was nonsense.  But I did what I had to do.  Conference calls, meetings, last minute shopping at 24-hour markets late in the evening.  I have baked my semi-famous Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake at 3AM on more than a few occasions.  So now, in exile from my profession, and with vacation days a substitute for cash, I took my days with an eye toward making the very best of it. Life is happening now.

My elementary school years were a time of great turmoil for my family.  My parents divorced, both remarried and my mom was very sadly on her way to a second divorce.  We moved twice.  I skipped the third grade and had to make new friends, only to have the school district re-zoned and move to another school.  This brings me to Mr. Kalinowski.  He was my fifth grade reading teacher.  He was loud and rigid and scary.  I have no memory of him smiling.  I sat in the front row in a one-period-a-day anxiety attack for ten months.  This man knew nothing about me or my home life and made no effort to change that.  I think I’ve written before about how teachers used to get help from kids in the class with filing, etc. back in the day.  I was always asked to provide clerical and other support.  Weird, but true.  One day in the sixth grade, when I was doing some filing, I stumbled on what can only be called my “permanent file.”  Years of evaluations, notes, etc.  On a full-page form filled with many sample descriptors, etc., Mr. K. chose to write one phrase about me:  “Can Be Lazy at Times.”  What does that mean?  Are there people who CAN’T be lazy at times?  I find this fascinating because practically anyone who has ever met me would know immediately that “lazy” is pretty much the last word you can use to describe me.  I also think it’s interesting that he always gave me an “A.” “Unambitious” is another word my old boss used, also while giving me stellar reviews.  I have never had any material criticism from a supervisor, except for this one point, which seems to really irritate some people.  I want to like my job, do a good job, and have a life.  In exchange for that, I did not seek ever more responsibility, ever more money.  I studied my area and became expert (I think they say 10,000 hours makes an expert.)  I was so happy to be where I was.  And even now, while I still try to move things forward, I don’t see how being miserable will help.  I will use my vacation benefits, my sick days, my personal time. I will look forward and do my best to improve my situation, but while my life is happening, I will also try to be satisfied.

There is a post-script to this: I waited until way after the holidays to post this to see how my plan turned out. I can tell you it was perfect. We entertained, we visited, I sent handwritten notes to close friends. We saw movies, we talked, we read. On Christmas Eve, we spent much of the day cooking and drinking wine with my brother. We actually got to sit and visit with our family – to hear what they had to say – to relax. To enjoy our meal together. I sat quietly with my niece after opening the gifts to consider how she felt about each. Harry dressed as “Uncle Harry as Santa” because Michael and Nicole are too big now for Santa, but not quite sure they wanted to give it up entirely. We had breakfast together and I could hear about Mark’s job and Irene’s PTA work. We visited with my friend Charity – she usually passes through NYC one day during the Christmas season and I am so sad to think how many times I missed her because I had to work. This time, we sat together in a lovely restaurant with Harry, Charity’s sister, Faith, and my brother, Robert before we went on to dinner with other friends. I had drinks and dinner with my work colleague, Fran, one night and we had an opportunity to talk about things we never would in the office – this is how you start a friendship. In early December, we had dinner with our friends Kerry and Andy, who stayed the night. We sat in the living room in our pajamas like college students and had the chance to connect in a way we have not in years. When I got sick before New Year’s, I did not panic about work. Our friends Cynthia and Kristy visited us with their son, Jackson, and we went to the train show at the Botanical Garden. Harry and I have wanted to do that for ten years. I know that this can’t last, but remembering that last year I was unemployed, and before that every holiday season since age 17 has been a blur of work, finals, or both, I completely enjoyed it. I thank the people who made the time to get together (and I really thank our friends Joe and Cie who understood my New Year’s Eve sinus infection…). It was everything the season should be. I think next year will be different, but I will have this time for comparison and maybe I will strike a good balance. “Unambitious?” “Can Be Lazy at Times?” Perhaps in the view of a few cranky strivers, but from my end, thank God.

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“I Will Never Be in That Situation”

“Ask your father.”

My parents were divorced before conventional wisdom was to not put your kids in the middle of it. At age ten, I had read their divorce decree and knew the terms, specifically what my dad paid each week and what he got in exchange for it. These were the days before statutory income/payment ratios, and for a time, he paid $30 a week and covered my younger brother and me on his health insurance. For this, he received “visitation” every Saturday and every other weekend, two weeks in the summer, and the right to claim us as tax deductions. A few years later, the amount went up to $66 a week, then in 1980, to $75, which he paid until we were eighteen.

“Ask your father…” was what my mother said before every visit or phone call. It could precede “…for the late child support.” It could precede anything from “…that new protractor…” to “braces” to a “prom dress.” “Ask your father.” My mother generally provided whatever it was that we needed enough to request, but it was a painful process at the start. It felt like the money was always late and I was always having to ask – it may not be exactly true, but I remember it that way. I do know that it happened often enough and (also according to memory that) when he did hand me the check(s), it was an ordeal involving scribbled papers, torn with impatience. For the other items, he never, ever, not once, said “yes.” He did say that is “why I pay your mother child support.” From this experience, I took away that children were expensive and inconvenient, and that money was almost always the first consideration in any situation. I took away that any request for something for me would likely be rejected and unfulfilled. I took away the resolve that I would never have to ask anyone for anything again. I would never be in “that situation.” And I rarely was.

I was incredibly moved by the attached interview with Cindy Crawford. I did not know much about her personal life before I watched it, except for that she has set a great professional example, has not been involved in any public drama of her own doing of which I am aware, and that her divorce to an equally famous person seemed to be handled with uncommon grace on both their parts. I did not know that her parents were divorced and that child support had been the same sort of issue for her that it was for me. In the clip, Ms. Crawford talks about many of her professional and personal decisions being driven by a passion to never be in a situation where she would be forced to rely on anyone for financial support. This has been my obsession since a young age.

I remember once when I was working at a law firm telling my friend Tracy that I’d rather share with people what I earn than what I weigh. She laughed and said, of course, so would she, because after all, she was proud of what she earned.

After nearly two years of earning far less than what it takes to meet my obligations, I am still in shock and very sad that despite my hard work, commitment, sacrifice, and determination, I find myself in “that situation.” I was proud of myself before. When anything else was wrong, I would feel like I had accomplished something great in that I was entirely self-sufficient. Now, I have to manage competing emotions of finding the motivation to solve the problem and having to accept it on some level so that I am not miserable every day. How do you look for a new job without seeming ungrateful for the one you have? How do you not sound bitter when you are maybe lucky to have any job at all? How do I not sound unappreciative of the ways in which my husband has supported me?

In the video, Ms. Crawford describes her now-happy marriage and the process of learning to let others do for you. I was a little startled because the door opening anecdote is actually a real issue that I had with my husband, Harry – after about a month of dating, he asked me if he should stop even trying to open the door for me – I told him that I would prefer he give me the chance to get used to it. He still opens my door ten years later. I always appreciate it, but it is rare that I don’t think of that conversation when he does.


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“Depending on the Kindness of Strangers, Part 3: Healthcare”

I began this post several times, editing it most recently in August. I wasn’t sure I could add anything to the mix that had not been said before, so I never put it up on the blog. Now, though, I am starting to wonder – what’s happening with the AHCA is not new. Each time in our country’s history, when there was something truly bad happening, corporations fought it. Greedy and selfish people formed an opposition. This is exactly the same.

Everyone needs health care. Putting aside that I do not believe healthcare is a commodity that should be traded for profit, market forces have not made this business efficient or lowered costs. Many people have died and/or gone bankrupt. Each year policies have been revised and costs increased at the whim of the insurers. This bullshit feigned surprise over cancellations is disingenuous at best. The kind of people complaining are the ones who have generally had insurance so they know about “annual enrollment.” Why was there ever such a process if you got to “keep your policy”? Everyone with insurance knows that there has been an annual scramble to “keep your doctors” for years. It has been this way nearly my whole adult life.

I never really worried about medical expenses. True, I did learn my first tough lessen at twenty, when my doctor recommended an outpatient procedure. I called the insurance company and asked if I was “covered.” I was so inexperienced, I did not realize that “covered” means lots of things to different people. I spent the next two years paying a portion of my wages for the 20% that was not “covered.”

Now, I am 46 and I have a couple of minor health issues. I take some medication. On my present salary, I think about copayments and tests. If you hear the insurance lobby talk, they will say this is a good thing. I am a “consumer making wiser choices about my healthcare.” Again, I call bullshit. I am a “consumer” who is moved to rationalize that a few different health concerns are “probably nothing,” so I am not going to the doctor. Most people I have ever talked to about it are afraid of doctors and go as infrequently as possible. Who are these pap smear and colonoscopy groupies to whom the lobby refers?

I recently went for two annual preventive care exams. First, I went to the gynecologist. I have a fibroid tumor so she makes me get this ultrasound now every year. This is part of my annual visit – I dread this examination – if you think the pap smear is bad, try a trans-vaginal ultrasound (you know – the Virginia law thing…) Because it’s not a standard test (just standard for someone with a fibroid tumor), it’s not covered. Not getting the ultrasound is against medical advice. That piece cost about $500. The birth control she recommends for me is not covered. Even in the age of Obamacare, some types of estrogen are not. I asked my doctor if she could recommend a cheaper type and she said she would prefer not to. She would give me samples, just like my doctor used to give me when I was young and poor. She was nice, but it was humiliating.

Then I went for a mammogram. The technician I have seen for years was no longer there and I had someone inexperienced conduct the exam. She needed to take multiple pictures and I knew they were all going to suck just by the look on her face. Instead of admitting she did not know what she was doing, she let the doctor think they were accurate and so I was referred for a sonogram. Laying on the table getting the ultrasound was brutal and many of my thoughts were preoccupied with what it cost. The uncovered portion of this visit was $700.

People complaining about having to upgrade their crappy insurance are absurd and they should be called on it. We are a society – the “common good” was a basis of our founding. We should all pay for maternity care. We should all pitch in for each other’s well being and good health. Each person making their own deal is grotesque in a Hunger Games type way. That is what the AHCA is trying to correct – everyone complaining should be forced to say what they really think, which is that they “got theirs” and screw everyone who didn’t.

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“Must Have Entrepreneurial Spirit”

In my opinion (and based on experience), “entrepreneurial spirit” is code for:  “We are understaffed and underfinanced.  You should expect to have to ‘sell’ even if that is not your real job, and you can be laid off at any time.”  Advice columns and unemployment “experts” (who generally seem to have jobs) are always suggesting how people my age should open businesses, follow their “bliss,” “reinvent ourselves.”  I appreciate that the greed of the highest levels of corporate America has made this my new reality and that I have no choice but to go along.  I work at a job out of my field at a fraction of what I hoped I’d be earning at this age.  So I have started over and am probably quite lucky to be making as much as I am given my lack of experience.  I find this enormously frustrating, though, because the message really is that middle-aged professionals who spent years educating themselves and becoming expert in their fields, after generally spending more than a hundred thousand dollars and sacrificing wages during that period of education, should just get over it and move on.  It’s as if none of that ever happened.  It’s as is I have not already opened my own business – but I did – that was ME.  I invested, I learned, I paid dues.  Now I am just supposed to start over, but I don’t really want to.  I liked what I did.  I liked my profession.  And of course there is the small matter of the $65,000 I still owe.  Since working in my new job, I have reduced payments to $436 a month, which means that in the ten months I have been here, I have paid $4,360 to Sallie Mae, of which $520 went to principal.  I am worried, but I am really mad, too. 

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“Don’t Be a D*ck”

Harry and I saw this slogan, such as it is, on a bumper sticker earlier this year.  His first impression was that it was negative.  I, on the other hand, loved it.  This could be my mantra – I had not necessarily formulated it this way, but it is really the standard by which I judge myself and others.  I could say, “be kind.”  I could say, “love thy neighbor…”  or “do unto others…,”  but this is really the same thing in my view. I find it very funny, and the vulgarity is an homage of sorts to my grandmother, Joan, who truth be told, was kind of a d*ck  herself. 

I have spent a lot of time with d*cks (no, seriously…), particularly in the professional arena, so imagine my surprise last week when I attended a required compliance workshop at my job entitled “Fostering Healthy Relationships in the Workplace.” 

As many of you know, I work at an agency that provides services and programs for people with developmental disabilities and autism.  Some of our folks attend classes or daytime recreation programs onsite, some work alongside us like my new friend Kenneth who takes my trash and recycling, and Brian, who is my department’s administrative assistant.  Richard, who is almost completely non-verbal, can read and is able to deliver our mail and my newspaper.  As capable as our people are, however, they often need a little extra sensitivity.  This has the benefit to those of us without disability of slowing our pace sometimes, so perhaps we are not rushing someone without refined motor skills who is preparing a cup of coffee.  Or we think before we speak because maybe that joke we thought would be hilarious could instead hurt someone’s feelings, or perhaps worse, confuse them.  Sometimes a person’s disability is not obvious; I have gotten pretty far along in conversation before I’ve realized that the person I’m talking with is a client and not a colleague.

So back to the workshop.  We were reminded of these concepts and much more.  The group leader spoke about safety and the need to keep our eyes open because we are the custodians of our people.  In a small way, all of us are caregivers.  She said some things that I thought should have been obvious, so I asked her about that later – for example, suggesting we say “good morning” and use people’s names whenever possible.  She said that she thought it was worth reminding us, so I believed her. 

Near the end of the session, she laughed while clearly stating that these rules apply to all of us, not just our clients, so we should extend these courtesies to everyone in the building.  Then, this lovely, sensitive, and competent woman said in an almost stern voice that we should all realize that we were always being watched and that there would be a price to pay if we did not comply.  In other words, I work somewhere where “don’t be a d*ck” is company policy and they mean it.  That’s really nice.



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How’d That Interview Go?

For nearly the entire first thirty years of my working life, job applications were special.  The process was precise – something looked and felt “right.”  Either a recruiter called or I saw an ad and submitted a cover letter and resume explaining my credentials and interest.  Generally, some appropriate exchange ensued.  Even on-site job fairs during law school were semi-personal in that you indicated an interest in certain firms and the law school pretty much ensured that you met with a few people.  In other words, each application was truly kind of an event.  Accordingly, if you did not get the job, there was disappointment.  Self-reflective types like me thought about what we might do differently or better, but there was generally a recovery period to mitigate any psychic damage.

Now, candidates apply online.  We are not fully confident any human is on the other side of the “apply” button, but some question is created when we have the “pleasure” of seeing a refreshed version of a job posting for which we are perfectly qualified yet were either ignored or rejected.  We are forced to wonder what it was about us that made an employer still looking for a candidate decide that we were not even worth the time for a telephone meeting.  I still hear that little voice from the Unemployment Office director telling my group of fifty or so to consider what is unlikeable (really, her word) about ourselves when we don’t get a call-back.

When a company does have the civility to implement a response program, those responses are generally swift.  The text may read “after careful consideration…yada, yada, yada…” but if it arrives in less than two hours, either I really suck much worse than I thought or the resume and cover letter are scanned for buzz words and if they don’t match, you get rejected.  How this translates to real life is that what used to be special and controlled is now routine and broad. 

Every day I apply for jobs and almost every day – really, almost every day – I am rejected by someone, whether overtly or by omission.  I am the whack-a-mole.   I am also a chronic pleaser, almost pathologically approval-seeking, and not well-suited to unyielding rejection.  I thought I made a reasonably safe choice.  Of course, I could stop looking for legal work – I have been at this fundraising thing for nearly a year now – but I miss it, and of course, there is the issue of the loans.  So I persevere; some days, it’s not so bad.  Other days, I feel like a little piece of my soul got chipped away.  This past Friday afternoon, before a holiday weekend, a woman who had been in contact with me since June, thought that would be the best time to send me a “ding” email.  I have been in-house counsel, too.  I know those Friday afternoons before holidays are such a great time to do all those things you haven’t done – but honestly, did she think at all about what it was she was actually doing?  It really could have waited until Monday.  Whack.


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“Housing Market Improves…in Some Zip Codes…”

I have tried to refinance our house seven times.  I have been openly chided by several loan officers for buying in 2005 as if I knew of their plans to make loans to likely defaulters and then actually bet on it. 

We had our home appraised by our prospective lender before we bought it; we offered slightly below the appraisal so that we paid $485,000 on a townhome for which the asking price was $525,000.  We made a down payment of more than 20% – approximately $100,000.  The interest rate for our $385,000 loan remains at 6%.

In the five years since the market crashed, I lost my job and undercapitalized banks that took unprecedented risks were “bailed out” at taxpayer expense.  We, on the other hand, have never been late on a payment in nine years.

The Federal Reserve “lowered” interest rates for the banks to 0%, the implication being that this would loosen lending a bit.  The banks paid zero – they could pass some of this along to consumers.  The same bank that valued my house at $505,000 in 2005 now says it’s worth $360,000 at the very best.  Putting aside all of the improvements – new roof, three renovated bathrooms, all new appliances, 2 new HVACS, that valuation completely wipes out our down payment and any equity.  Even if I accept that, all I want is a little bit of what the banks got.  I want a lower interest rate for which I was willing to pay reasonable closing costs.  Though we are a good risk with a solid payment history, we cannot get approved for refinancing without paying private mortgage insurance of about $200 a month.  The banks’ logic here is that we do not have 20% equity, so are a risk and they can’t lend to us without the security of that $200.  All of this while they fight any regulations regarding their own reserves and capitalization.

Harry and I have declined these “opportunities” on principle.  We have already paid 20% and then some.  We simply want a lower interest rate for the remainder of the loan, much the way the government realized the banks needed some relief and the Fed lowered their rate.  Once again, I assert that all of this really is this simple.  Heads the banks win, tails I lose.  My house is only worth $360,000 because their appraiser said so.  In certain zip codes, appraisals have materially improved.  Why does this matter? Because, for me, the mortgage amount is kept down and the bank holds onto more “free money” from the government that they can pay their shareholders.  This while they can also make money on me from the PMI (instead of on a higher loan) all the while trying to convince me it’s for my own good in the long run.  In rich zip codes, refinancing is being made easier, so people can pull out fake equity a-gain, at low rates.

Thanks anyway.

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