Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Decision with Precision

Do we stay or do we go?  Some people make decisions with precision, weigh the pros and cons, list them side-by-side and decide.  We are not one of those people.

One of the first indicators that a transcontinental move was a possibility was when they wanted me to come visit.  Not born and bred but pretty dyed in the wool Northern Californian, leaving one of Mother Earth's garden paradises is not something I had ever considered.  Wherever I have traveled, no matter how beautiful, I have always viewed the approach to San Francisco airport with such a sense of gratitude that this is where I live.  One trip home, coming over the polar route on a particularly clear day, I started excitedly calling out landmarks on our approach, "There's San Pablo Bay!" "There's Mt. Tamalpious!"  "There's the Golden Gate Bridge!" "There's the Sutro Tower!" There's the spouse slinking down in his seat like he doesn't know me. It is with genuine sense of great good fortune to fly into the vista of ocean, bay, hills, and landmarks, sometimes green, sometimes golden, and know it as home.

So, a visit to the Midwest.  For more than 30 years the spouse had lived in my backyard, near my family.  If this is what he wanted to consider, it was his turn to have input into where we lived. The absolute best I could do was to promise to go with an open mind.  Telling myself that people live all over the world, and live happily too, I braced myself to not be braced.  This is no easy thing to attempt.  One year, thinking I was missing out on good old Catholic guilt, I decided to give up something for Lent: being judgmental.  It was one of the hardest things I have ever done; I do not think I am a particularly judgmental person, but just try not judging the woman who cuts you off in traffic while talking on the cell phone and applying mascara, try not judging the person in front of you who decides he wants to pay in pennies then makes the cashier check that every coupon was applied and questions the price of half the items on the receipt. Some people cry out for judgement.  An open non-judgmental mind is hard to attain; the following year I did not even attempt it but gave up speeding instead.  Sadly, that was a failure too.

Before the visit, my mother added her two cents by saying, "You know it's flat and there's no ocean," which proved to be true.  What also proved to be true was that the people were so very nice.  There were a couple of homes we looked at that I could, if I really squinted, see us living in.  The bouquet of flowers and the gourmet gift basket that greeted us in our hotel room helped, but I think the sight that captured my maybe-people-can-live-happily-here imagination was seeing a number of elderly people attending a music concert.  I thought, they did not move away immediately as they retired but stayed in the community.  Having a great performing arts center helped too.

I did not reject the idea out of hand as a result of our visit, but we returned home with a job offer and absolutely no certainly as to a course of action.  We launched a cacophony of difficulties and barriers, both to staying and to leaving.  What about this, what about that? When you are worrying about the logistics of moving a cat, without having made the decision to make a move at all, there is far too much distracting noise to reach a decision.  To make matters worse, we were absolutely silent about this save my mother and daughter so could not even talk it over with others.  Perhaps that is for the best, unless they had recently moved a cat.

We went to visit my daughter, and upon leaving my husband asked my mother, "What do you think?"  She unselfishly gave him a hug and said, "I would miss you terribly, but change is good."  It was  permission to do this, should we decide. 

We spoke about it endlessly during the trip, but always with the distractions of how will we do this rather than shall we do this.  Every meal, every outing, with our daughter or on our own, this was the recurring topic of conversation.  Finally, I said "Enough!  Let's make a decision, and if we decide to do it, figure out how to do it. Let's stop figuring out how before we know if."

My daughter gave encouragement, my mother had given permission, and I gave an open mind.  On the last day we were given to accept or decline, we made our decision and emailed it from Berlin.

And now, we had to figure out how. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nothing Will Come of It

The spouse's work story is not my story to tell, but I do believe one of the final straws was when we had a telecommunication malfunction, unfortunately during a conference call.  Comcast was paid good money month after month to provide us with phone, internet, and cable television; the basic premise being that we pay our periodic bill and they provide us constant service.  Unfortunately, the Comcastic experience was that we paid regularly and they randomly provided service.  The cable TV service was pretty stable but the internet and associated phone were quite another thing.  One of the random failures was during a teleconference, and that apparently became an oft brought up subject henceforth, as if telecommunication malfunctions were a choice rather than an unexpected and unwanted occurrence.

It came to pass that there was an interesting job posting in a far-off location.  The spouse, unhappy in his present situation, mentioned it and said, "Should I apply?"  Picturing how many resumes cross a hiring manager's desk, and how unlikely it was that he would hear anything further, I said, "Sure."  I knew nothing would come of it. The application was due on a Friday and he submitted it on that final day.  Of course I assumed that was the last of it.  Monday morning he was called to schedule a phone interview.  Again, there had to be scads of people they were talking to and that would be the last of it.  The interview took place--Comcast providing telecommunication services without incident--and they then wanted him to come out for an in-person interview.  Sure, they were going to interview some number of people, and that would be the last of it.  When they wanted to fly me out for several days, I was beginning to think it might not be the last of it.

Where do we belong?  With our family, our friends, in our home, in our neighborhood, at our job of so many years.  That picture is so entrenched, can it be otherwise?

The very first time I held my baby in my arms I asked the question, "When do I stop worrying about her?"  Years later the answer arrived loud and clear.  Never.  Even when she grew up and moved away, I was in the same state and same time zone; a phone call away, a short flight or a long drive and I was there.  And I did board that plane a few times to report for Mom duty, sometimes just for a visit and sometimes for mother-dreading reasons, but it was a relatively easy and quick trip.  Being somewhat close at hand for my daughter anchored me to where I was, but my daughter had moved across a continent and an ocean.  My being in California no longer offered an advantage for proximity.

The worry I was not expecting was the worrying up.  It is so gradual so as not to be noticed, but one day my parents looked a little shorter than they once did, a little slower, a little more forgetful.  I discovered that a part of growing older is not just worrying about one's children but one's parents too.

I particularly worried about my mother living on her own after my father had passed away.  Although with reluctance she moved into a retirement community, her life changed dramatically.  Making plans with her became a challenge of trying to work around her calendar, not only did she become involved in activities but ran and won a place on the resident's board.  As active as she became, I was not ready for what happened next.  She had admirers and a very thoughtful gentleman won the day with flowers and sweet attention. In her new home she had an attentive and caring companion. 

As it became clear how happily my mother was settled, the same was happening in Germany.  The visa miraculously was granted and the plans to relocate to another country had become a reality.

Family anchored me, but at that moment the seas were calm and I was not immediately needed at the helm.  The possibility of changing everything occurred just when those who needed me the most did not need me to be in a certain place.  Simply because it was possible, we did not dismiss the idea of relocation immediately; that was not to be the last of it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Nest Empties but the Stuff Remains

When my father passed away, my mother vowed to stay in her home for as long as she had her old chocolate lab, Hershey, to care for.  My father had somehow had the notion years earlier that a rolly, polly puppy was the ideal birthday gift for my mother, the same mother who had raised five children and adopted every 4-pawed creature those five brought home.  I just might have been responsible for a few of them, in particular a little black puppy brought home in a shoebox from the local animal shelter. 

The lab-German shepherd mix grew to a massive and friendly specimen who followed children everywhere, popping tetherballs, footballs, foursquare balls and soccer balls to be paid for by my mother writing checks with an apologetic smile and another assurance that he would not get out of the yard again.  In the quiet of the night, he would escape to look for someone to play with and a 4:00 a.m. call to "come pick up your dog" was not unheard of.  My next door neighbor drove me to get my ears pierced and then to the shelter to pick out a little puppy, who happened to have really big paws and a mouth filled with little puppy teeth in search of something to chew.  I would never advise children to bring home a shelter puppy late on a Friday afternoon when the shelter does not reopen until Monday morning, all weekend long it was heard, "He is going back first thing Monday morning!"  Years later, especially after a 4:00 a.m. phone call or another ball popped in the schoolyard, we heard "He is going back first thing Monday morning!"  One by one we left the nest, but the dog remained until the last of us had grown and trod out to meet adulthood face-to-face.  My pierced ears went unmentioned.

It was unlikely, in light of the many years of child and beast care, that my mother would be in want of a little destructive puppy.  One year when he picked out sailing lessons for my mom because he had it it in mind that it would be a really great thing to get a boat, I warned him, "Dad, don't do it," but it was to no avail.  She accepted and attended her lessons with good grace, although I am sure she was not expecting to find that particular gift under the big floppy bow.  They did end up getting a series of boats, and had many happy years sailing, but at the time it seemed a horrible idea for a gift. 

For good or bad, he never did listen to me when it came to gift ideas.  When he presented the puppy, she accepted it with a tentative smile, eying his massive paws and little chew-happy puppy teeth.  It turned out to be one of the best gifts ever, introducing her to many friends at the local dog park, getting her out of the house every day for a morning walk when my father became ill, and was her closest friend when my father passed away.  Sadly, the day came when two of my brothers, my mother, and myself gathered around that loving trusting dog to stroke his grizzled muzzle one last time, to thank him for years of love and companionship to my mother, and whisper our good-byes  as the kindly veterinarian pressed a needle into Hershey's arm and gathered him up to carry him away.  For all the children, grandchildren, and 4-legged creatures she had cared for, in addition to my ailing father, she was at that moment truly left on her own.

Some months later, an apartment opened up at a retirement community.  Not just any apartment, but an end unit of the last building overlooking a forest preserve in the coastal range above Santa Cruz.  It was like being in a forest cabin, with bright sunlight and views of birds and forest creatures.  She was, needless to say, reluctant to leave her home no matter what the view.  There was a lifetime and household full of her treasures between her and apartment living.  Nevertheless, with the encouragement of her children, she signed the lease.

Treasures are stuff, but the perceptual shift from treasure to stuff is a very difficult one to make.  My daughter and I started by going through the house room-by-room with a pad of paper and cataloging everything.  As we did so, we formed three lists, things that my mother could not give up, things that she would like to keep, and things that she could give away.  We carried a pad of Post-It notes, and as my mother considered a family member or friend for whom an item had special meaning, we marked that item to be distributed to that individual.  Weeks of clearing ensued, many items being cleared off to charity or even to the trash heap, and yet my mother remained.  My daughter and I returned to help my mother take the step from old memory laden home to new and unknown home.  Many treasures remained, and between my daughter and myself we promised to take and to cherish these items.  Many of the items returned home to LA with my daughter, but others, such as a full set of crystal and a china  service for 12, were boxed and put in our attic on my daughter's behalf awaiting the day she could move from apartment to house.  Our item accumulation of more than 30 years of house-holding was likewise augmented with more items.

Some months later, unbeknownst to me, my daughter began formulating a plan to move to Germany with her partner of some years.  It was big move for him, London to Berlin, but a huge move for my daughter from Los Angeles to a European capital.  My daughter, at this stage in her life, had also accumulated some treasures of her own.

My daughter and I had remained in the same time zone, but a state's length apart for over ten years.  Since leaving for college, the closest she came to returning home was after graduating summa cum laude during a plummeting economy.  She announced that she would rather give up a kidney than work as a temp, to which I immediately responded, "How much is your kidney worth?"  But even my unsympathetic mothering was brought up short when she failed to get a dog walking job, it was given to a certified animal behaviorist.  There was nothing out there and things looked grim.  I swallowed hard and made the offer that so many parents make in a bad economy, but the offer to move home was received as an expression of failure as well as an expression of love.  Fortunately, something did turn up shortly after that and we did not have to test our ability to retain our loving mother-daughter relationship by cohabiting as mutual adults.  It did, however, lead to her accumulating and collecting, bit by bit, the treasures and items that make up a home.

The excitement of moving to a foreign land not only required the research needed to obtain visas and necessities for living abroad, it required stripping down to a few suitcases full of belongings.  Shipping is prohibitive and it is almost always less expensive to replace things in the new home rather than pack and ship internationally.  As did my mother, she thinned out, gave away, and sold many of her possessions.  A couple of carloads of boxes made their way to our home and into our attic. 

January of this year, my attic was filled with the treasures from two households in addition to mine. And yes, I have met and embraced eBay and have many a treasure of my own.  In January of this year, I put my daughter on a plane to Berlin, bringing three bulging suitcases to the airport and returning with one.  The cost of the additional bag was so much, we decided to just fly it over ourselves at a later date.  In our house the attic was brimming, the cabinets filled, the counter tops laden with goods, and a stuffed suitcase awaited transport; the treasures from two other households plus our own treasures and detritus.   Good thing we were settled into our life with nowhere to go and a cozy attic to hold it all.

The Funnies Are Not Always Funny

After each of us spending years with the same employer, the spouse and I had definitely settled down with the idea that not only we were "lifers" but that we had developed a certain amount of professional respect, at the very least deemed competent at what we do.  Insert an unpredictable manager and all that can change.  When thinking of an employment situation, it might be OK to scan the comics and picture yourself as a Doonesbury character--or even a Dagwood character--but not a Dilbert Character.  No one wants to envision one's work-life as being on the wrong side of a desk manned by a pointy-haired boss.

Early in my career I had a manager who I did not understand well, which means of course following what I thought were instructions was a toss of the dice.  In fact, as often as not I completely misunderstood the task at hand and the outcome failed to meet the vision. 

As time passed, I tried to listen carefully, repeat back what I thought I heard, and follow through to meet expectations.  I wish I could report that we worked through our communication issues with patience and guidance, but she made it abundantly clear that I was an incompetent baboon, with no disrespect intended towards baboons.  One image that remains is her publicly yelling at me while I kept repeating all that I could think to say in as soft a tone as I could muster, "It won't happen again."   Over and over I inserted those words, softly spoken, as the noisy upbraiding continued.  My cheeks burned at the sidelong glances of bystanders.  My most unforgettable professional moment, fortunately not the most defining.

Soon I did not trust my own instincts, I was paralyzed at each decision juncture.  I became that incompetent baboon.  Needless to say, each night I tossed and turned.  The morning alarm was a call to dread, the oatmeal caught in my throat as I prepared to leave for work.  It's just a job, but when the job is bad it is all consuming, bleeding out into the nights, weekends, and holidays, banging against personal relationships like a battering ram.  Eventually, and fortunately,  I was able to change who I reported to and I went from a total incompetent to a professional almost overnight.  Such is the power of communication.

Years later, seeing a situation starting to occur in the spouse's job brought back memories of those feelings.  One of course hopes to remedy the situation as quickly as possible, to open the communication and seek resolution of issues.  But like a thug in a dark alleyway, the other party is not always interested in negotiation.  Soon even the inner Pollyanna in me was silenced, my suggestions were pointless and I knew it.  Something had to change. 

Meanwhile in my position, a project of ten years was ending.  The economy has not been kind and no new projects were lining up to take its place.  My long time supervisor and mentor was taking another step up the ladder of success, and I was left behind to report to someone new.  Things were going to be different.

With all that, one would say the writing was on the wall, that the times they are a changin'.  Well even the obvious is not obvious to those who have been in the same position for so many years.  In fact, the only thing I noticed was an increase in pointy-haired boss jokes.  Otherwise, it was life as usual with a few spouse cheers from the sidelines to keep the chin up and carry on.  In January, the year lay before us with the comfortable known terrain the start of the year always brought, but this time with a slightly Dilbertian twist.

The funnies aren't always funny.

A Crack in the Wall

Lifestyle settles in to stay.  Stone by stone the definition of who you are and what you do stacks up and eventually becomes a solid wall of defining characteristics.  And so it was with me January of this year.  Where I lived, what I did, who I was, all neatly determined and known to all who know me.  Married for far more years than I was ever single, working for the same employer for nearly 30 years, living in the same home for 18 years and the same community for the entirety of my adult life; mother, sister, daughter, friend, coworker, sometime community volunteer, neighbor.  All was in place and known; the poster child for predictability.

Day follows day, get up, do the things that you do, see the people you see, end day, repeat.  It is not a depressing thing, or even a conscious thing, it just is.  After years of consistency, it had become easier to be comfortable in my own skin, to carry with me a certain amount of confidence and yes, competence.  But the only thing certain in life, beyond death and taxes, is change.  Perhaps dramatic change does not occur in a single lifetime--no major wars, economic depressions, or population clearing plague to disrupt the sands beneath the feet--but changes are a certainty, be they subtle or overwhelming.

And so it was, with more than a quarter century of having all those things that defined me in place, that I knew exactly who I was.  All the while little insidious changes were working, creating a little shift in the wall like a distant rattle.  The question was, do I hear the little earthquake and pick up the rattle and shake it, or turn away from the sound and continue on as if the wall stood in stoney silence.

Shake it up baby!