Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foreclosure Boom *Reflection*


I would have to say that I benefited from the foreclosure job, even though I didn't get paid. It might sound naive but life is all about experience and perspective.



Money's good too. But despite not having much of a paycheck at this time, things keep working out financially. Our home is not in danger. My kids have all of their needs met in a material sense. They're actually kind of spoiled. Not to say there aren't sacrifices but it's all manageable so far.



The main perspective that I gained from the foreclosure inspection job was a sense of how widespread the current economic crisis is. I have never really had a problem getting A JOB. But now, landing one is more like winning a prize. You can enhance your chances with connections and the right searchable resume words but don't hold your breath.



Foreclosure can happen to anybody. And think for a moment how that feels if you're lucky enough to not be in that situation: the intense failure, haunting anxiety, resentment of your neighbors who so smugly pay their bills. This perspective emanates from homes of all shapes and sizes.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4052874486/

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Foreclosure Boom


Last October, I had been unemployed for a year. I was tutoring a little as a result of my only interview of the entire year. I was starting to wonder if I would ever hear from anyone else. I became paranoid. Was it my unusual name, my address, my age, my font? HELLO! IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE? (Read this sort of like a valley girl - not the Pink Floyd lyric.)



So when I did finally hear back from the "Make Money Taking Pictures" ad, I wasn't going to be very picky. This was a strange interview, however, as it was a list of questions to answer by email. After that, I was invited to a conference call at a certain date and time. The email was vague, poorly written, and exhibited a little attitude:
Thank you for responding to our ad for daytime photographers. We are getting a lot of responses. It is too time consuming to speak to each person individually at this stage.

You only need to attend 1 call. All the details will be explained. This call will be approximately 20 minutes long so you need to be on time. The system beeps every time someone comes into the call, interrupting the call for everyone. SO BE ON TIME! or don?t bother come at all.


I still had no idea what the job was, but I went ahead and followed the directions. The teleconference was a cattle call. There sounded to be at least 50 people dialing in, and of course, a ton of people were not on time. There was this deafening beep that kept spontaneously interrupting the call. This only served to make the company owner more and more hostile. By the end of the call, she was chewing out pretty much anyone who was dumb enough to ask a question and then would end each tirade with, "Any more questions?" One sucker after another took the bait.



The job consisted of inspecting houses in foreclosure. The owner, who lived in San Diego, received thousands of work orders each month from banks and mortgage companies. Each work order represented a mortgage that wasn't being paid. She needed us to visit the actual houses and document something, depending on how far the situation had developed. Most of the time, it was a matter of the mortgage company or bank wanting to know if the tenants were still there. Abandoned houses had become a big problem as they could quickly suffer damage, causing a decline in value.



When I first heard about the job, I thought: this is going to be easy. All I had to do was download and organize a list of work orders in the morning, map out my route using a website, then drive to house after house, taking pictures and filling out forms. At the end of the day, I was to download the pics and reports. I imagined blasting music with a cooler full of healthy snacks and cold drinks while I leisurely drove from house to house, sometimes talking on the phone.



My initial experience wasn't very smooth. Each step was more complicated than I expected. Learning how to use the routing website wasn't intuitive and cost money. The man managing the website actually called me on the cell I provided while registering. . . "Are you OK? What are you doing?" Wow, if it's that obvious that I don't know what I'm doing then good luck to me.



Following my written directions from house to house turned out to be incredibly dangerous. I had a few really close calls. There were so many technical difficulties that I never really had time to prepare my cooler. I either didn't eat all day or jammed through the nearest drive thru. Either way, I felt spent and unhealthy by the end of the day.



None of my friends or family really liked the idea of this job. They imagined someone going postal when they saw me walk up the driveway. I was often expected to peer through windows or fenced backyards, always taking a series of pictures.



I have to admit this job appealed to my nosy - I'd prefer to say curious - nature. I'm not above looking into people's lighted windows on evening walks. I find homes to be interesting in general. This work made me feel like a detective at times, such as when I struck up a casual conversation with the neighbor to determine "they left a couple weeks ago." I used to love Magnum P.I. as a kid and I couldn't really get that image out of my mind. One day, I had to bring my two-year-old with me. I told her I was Magnum and she was my sidekick, TC. She was a burly guy with a baby face and she flew helicopters. She screamed in protest.



I promised my loved ones that I would quit if safety was an issue, and although I initially scoffed at them, it quickly became apparent that it was. My mom gave me pepper spray. My father-in-law offered to loan me his GPS.



Most of the houses I visited were in wealthy neighborhoods, and I didn't see a single person. I was surprised that some of the houses where bills weren't being paid still sported extravagant Halloween decorations with the $100 pumpkins. Were there secrets? Denial? Just trying to keep up appearances? Maybe they owned a pumpkin farm?



It became apparent that there were a lot of people who could not pay their bills because they were old or sick or both. Too sick to come to the door . . . literally dying in bed and the mortgage companies were moving towards repossessing the home. There must be a humane solution.



One tenant I found myself worrying about later did not come to the door when I rang the doorbell. As I was leaving I realized I could clearly see him sitting in what looked to be his office, staring into space. He must have been able to see me looking at him but he didn't bother to move or hide or acknowledge my presence. He looked dejected. (I know, buddy, I'm on Craigslist everyday too.)



I realized that the job was too risky for me after one day in which I coincidentally ended up in two really sketchy situations. The first was at a rundown Victorian that had been divided into individual rooms, which were being rented out. I walked to the porch and attempted to hand the notice I was to deliver to the old man poring over a stack of bills. He told me that the person I was looking for was in a specific room in the house and told me to go inside and up the stairs, down the hallway to the left. I hesitated then walked inside. It was very dim and smelled moldy. There was a group of men sitting in a common room passing around a pipe. It didn't smell like pot. A few of them turned and stared.



I went upstairs and found the right door but decided against knocking. I threw the envelope on the carpet in front of the door then JETTED out of there. It was a hopeless place and probably everyone was too loaded to do any harm to anyone but still, my protective instinct was sending off massive alarm bells.



Later that same day, I took turn after turn after turn to end up in one of the roughest neighborhoods I have ever been in and I've been in some rough ones. The signs of poverty were deafening. But poverty isn't what scared me . . . it was the angry group of young people standing in front of one of the houses that I was supposed to be visiting. They looked to be about college-age but maybe they didn't have that option. Their anger was palpable. Their stares never left me as I approached the house, took a couple of quick - and what I later found to be worthless - pics, then walked back to my car, trying to appear nonchalant and NOT in a rush.



So, I quit. Then, THE FINAL INSULT. I was an independent contractor, not an actual employee. There were ridiculously complicated instructions on how to bill the owner for my work time, and I could never completely figure it out, and she had us sign something that said we only had a limited amount of time to bill her . . . I never got paid for my time. My husband pointed out that this was part of her business model . . . she was benefiting from people like me who worked for only a short time but couldn't manage to get paid. At first I argued but I know he's right.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alan-light/4508361891/

Friday, March 27, 2009

Detachment


A friend sends me an email the other day . . . "Where have you been? I called you three times!" She reminds me that sometimes it's actually good to hear each other's voices. I am known to be the absolute worst at returning phone calls, but I usually return this friend's calls.



Despite not having talked, she tells me that she thinks I might be depressed. She wants me to go get something called Sam-e at Costco. It's an herbal supplement for depression. I'm surprised that someone who lives hundreds of miles away can tell that something is wrong but that's a good friend for you.



Yesterday, my mom calls from work . . . she's in-between patients so she gives me quick instructions. She thinks I might be depressed and wants me to take Saint John's Wort. She says I'm not acting like myself and, "Your father noticed too!" If my dad noticed, then I realize it must be pretty obvious. She tells me lots of people are depressed right now due to the economy.



I decide to talk to my husband about it. More than anything, I'm curious about what his reaction will be. As we're watching the kids play, I turn to him and say that I think I might be depressed. "Don't say that. That's depressing." Well, I thought you might want to know. Do you think I've been acting strange? Like, maybe a little withdrawn? "Hmm? I don't know. Be happy that you're human and not a slug." What? "Humans are doing really well on the planet. Go humans!" Are you quoting an oatmeal commercial? That is the strangest pep talk I've ever heard. "What?" Nevermind.


I have to go to the pharmacy and what should have taken 10 minutes, takes an hour. As I'm waiting in line -trying not to stress out - I hear one of the pharmacists consult with the lady in front of me. They discuss a stack of new prescriptions . . . sleeping pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications. I'm struck by the way the lady sounds when she talks. She sounds SOOOO depressed. Please get her the meds immediately. When she turns around, I look into the face of a very depressed person. I realize I'm not really depressed.



I am detached. February was one of the worst months in recent memory after months of tension. It took all of my concentration and discipline to deal with what was happening. I was running on adrenaline and determination to protect the home environment for my children. Now that things have mellowed on that front, I've detached. I feel like a part of me is floating above my life and evaluating what's left.



What made me feel better . . . coming home from the pharmacy to see my daughter playing outside. She had used orange chalk to draw her "fire" on the cement and tied a My Little Pony to the edge of the hot tub so that it dangled over the fire. I asked her what she was doing . . . "I'm roasting a pony" then "Mom, it's just pretend, OK? It's just pretend."


Monday, March 23, 2009

Panic


I really don't like writing about this because it's a personal demon. But it has affected me throughout my life and has always been something I've had to work around.



I have some kind of anxiety issue that manifests itself as panic attacks in certain situations such as public speaking events or interviews. It comes and goes. For years, I could speak publicly and be only mildly nervous. But in certain situations, I might go into full-scale panic attacks when I could barely communicate or even breathe.



The last time it happened was during an interview. Strangely, I got the job. I was sure I had blown it. I was so freaking nervous for something that I was overqualified for, but I hadn't interviewed in years and I wanted the job. After the interview, I climbed into the car and collapsed against the seat, completely defeated. Why was this still happening?



After years of thinking about this, I do understand. It took a long time to figure out a pretty basic concept but it's hard to see yourself as clearly as you see others. My panic attacks are usually triggered by new situations where the people are unknown, there is some risk of public embarrassment and I really care about doing well.



The first time it happened, I was in third grade and had just started a new school. I was sitting in a circle with other children in music class. We were excited that it was the first time we would be using our recorders (you know, those plastic pipe things that sound like dying animals). The teacher went around the circle, having us each play a few notes. When it was my turn, I suddenly could not make a sound through the instrument. I had no breath. The teacher's voice became sickeningly sweet and soft,"Everybody, close your eyes. Relax. Now, go ahead." Her response freaked me out even more. I could not do it. I shamefully carried around that experience as a kid. I thought it was a major personal defect.



I've had friends tell me . . . everyone gets nervous about public speaking . . . that's normal. I usually avoid getting into it because I hate talking about it, but no, I really have an abnormally intense reaction. About a year before I switched from retail to teaching, I had the opportunity to interview for a teaching job that I was dying to get. I fell apart in the interview; I could barely talk or breath. I was totally qualified but I gave the interviewer the impression that I would never make it in education. I knew he was wrong but I didn't bother to explain it.



In the teaching credential program, my panic attacks came back after being absent for years. It was really strange because I was a retail manager during the day. I would run meetings, conduct interviews and do terminations. I did it all smoothly. However, in my evening credential program, I could sometimes barely get through a presentation to the other teachers in training. There's really nothing worse than a presentation gone wrong in front of an audience of teachers. Everyone looks annoyed, impatient, confident . . . like they might get up to take over your presentation at any moment. During a particularly big crash and burn, I walked by a teacher who scowled at me, "Don't get so nervous!" Oh jeez, thanks. Why didn't I think of that?



I felt a personal mission to work with low performing students because I could really see how many of them were using things to mask anxiety, whether it be anger, drugs, avoidance, overconfidence, cutting, or destructive sexual behavior. Sometimes students were anxious because of an external factor and sometimes it was internal.



I unofficially specialized in students who were catastrophically anxious, even more so than the norm in my student demographic. These were students who usually could not get through the application interview. I once sat in a family's car next to a prospective student for an hour, not making eye contact, to convince him to come inside for an interview. Once they were in the school, these students would always be in my advisory group. I would never baby them, never use that overly sweet "I feel so sorry for you" tone of voice. I would tease them like everyone else and expect that they would be able to participate like everyone else. When they failed, I didn't push but tried again the next day. Over time, this worked.



There was one student who I privately referred to as THE MOST NERVOUS PERSON IN THE WORLD. He had bleeding scabs all over his body and would visibly shake when you walked toward him, sweat pouring off his forehead. I discovered that he had this dark and quirky artwork that he did at home. I posted it in my classroom and the other students were blown away. You could see him gradually relax with the positive attention. Eventually, he became just like a typical high school student. I was thrilled when one day, he actually gave me attitude in front of an entire room of students. . . Did you just tell me that my class sucks? You go, Seth, you go! Do you have anything else you want to say before we get back to this sucky work? Just let me know.



So, I guess at this point, I see my defect as kind of a gift. It's given me insight into behavior that I've used to do work that matters to me. It's also been a litmus test for new people in my life. If they respond negatively to my anxiety, then I know to proceed with caution. If they, however, respond kindly and respectfully, then I know I've met someone I can trust. Just like the woman who gave me the job despite me blowing the interview. She gave me a chance and I have returned the favor by always coming through when she needs something. In the end, good relationships trump perfection.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zooboing/4099288031/

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Sleep


I love sleep so much. I slept for more than 10 hours last night. At one point early this morning, I was awake but forced myself to stay still and go back to dreaming. I dreamt about someone I've been angry with and in my dream, I kept trying to write him an email telling him off but I couldn't figure out what to say.



I think that dreaming is really important to mental health. Before I had kids, I would sleep until noon on the weekends. Friends and family used to tease me but I didn't care. I had no use for the morning.



When I used to get a lot of sleep, I was very sure of how things should be. I would think . . . when I'm a mom, I'm never going to say all the things that moms say over and over until they have no meaning . . . BE NICE TO YOUR SISTER! USE YOUR INDOOR VOICE! WHAT'S THE MAGIC WORD? I was never going to have a dirty stroller or a messy car. The other day I found a swamp of wet, multi-colored cheerios that had stained the backseat of my car pink and green. There was also a piece of sushi roll that wasn't fresh. One of my daughters had wetted down some unidentified material and made glue, which she then thoroughly smeared across the center console so that it was collecting miscellaneous objects . . . little pieces of napkin, cheerios and receipts. I admired her creativity and follow through. I bet she used the sushi rice. Good choice.



I discovered that strange parent behavior can largely be traced to a lack of sleep. For the first four years of being a parent, I never ONCE slept through the night. It doesn't matter how messy your car is or if repeating the same thing over and over again is ineffective. It's just about getting through the day. You could say no more food in the car, but then you would be condemning yourself to a series of arguments. Plus, eating children don't whine, scream and talk nonstop for 10 minutes.



Now I see whatever's messy in my life as a sign of balance. The time I haven't spent cleaning is time I've used for a better purpose. It might be writing, talking to a friend, getting a pedicure or sleeping, but anything is better than housework. How many people on their deathbed regret that they didn't spend more time cleaning? This is actually a major step for me because I'm usually someone who can't sit until everything is cleaned and returned to its proper place. Now, I much prefer sleeping to waking up to empty, gleaming kitchen counters.



In between breastfeeding obligations, my mom introduced me to low-carb Monster to get through my work day. Every time I saw my mom, she had at least one can for me and I see her quite a bit. We both developed quite the habit. We took the kids on a road trip to see my brother in LA, and when he opened the car door, empty cans of the energy drink rolled out and bounced down the sidewalk. He looked shocked,"What the hell?" then gave us each a lecture on the dangers of energy drinks. He was without kids so he wouldn't know that sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do, though eventually, I had to stop drinking that stuff.



But I'm telling you, don't judge until you've been there.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/12154648@N06/2601628095/

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Vince


Yesterday I saw someone from the design store days. His name is Vince. He doesn't recognize me anymore but he looks very well. Vince has been a fixture of downtown for the last 20 years or so. He's got very tan, lined skin and gold hair that he trims in a straight line just past his ears. He wears expensive jeans and looks relatively clean for being homeless.



When I first moved here, he was always dancing - wearing spandex - to a silent boombox in some corner of downtown. He seemed to put his whole heart and concentration into dancing. I probably made fun of him at first.



The owner's son from the design store had great compassion for Vince. He offered to pay him to do odd jobs for us like breaking down boxes and sweeping. Vince would suddenly appear in the office, standing silently. He would think for awhile about what he wanted to say. He started telling us about his life.



Vince decided to live the "gypsy lifestyle" after suffering from mental illness. He had a gypsy mentor in Southern California. He left his wife and young daughter . . . or maybe he was asked to leave. One of my co-workers would make phone calls for him as he was trying to locate his daughter. She would have been a teenager by that time.



Vince lived partially by foraging through the trash yet he was very selective about what he took. He often offered us pastries that had been thrown out from the next-door bakery in sealed bags. He was very generous. One day he brought me sueded leather fringe boots and told me "these will fit you fine." They did . . . . I only tried them once. I still have them as a keepsake.



Once a year, Vince hitchhiked down south to visit his mentor. He would spend a couple weeks in Long Beach on and around 2nd Street then return. The whole trip took about a month. The first time he told us he was going, we privately joked that it was an imaginary trip. Then we received a series of postcards with the appropriate postmarks.



My favorite thing about Vince was his love of color. He was fascinated by color and obsessed with naming the correct shade. I relished talking color with him. Was it celadon . . . lime . . . sage . . . chartreuse . . . moss . . . mint? There is something so meditative about considering color.



Vince's life probably isn't very easy or restful or comfortable. But he has such a peaceful look on his face. It amazes me that someone so gentle could survive the harsh elements.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stellastella/4153927163/

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Design


When I was 23, I upgraded to a new job for the third time in a year and took a slight detour on the way to teaching. This job turned out to be unexpectedly enriching, although I complained about it a lot at the time.



I upgraded my retail job from the casual kitchen and home store to a more upscale design store. It was in an old bank building with ornate embellishments on the ceiling and large windows. The store was beautiful and expensive. It was a place to see and be seen.



I worked with a group of women who were all hired because they projected the right image. There was exploitation all around. The salesgirls were treated like ice cream flavors of the month by customers. "Have you seen the new brunette? What about the tall blonde?" Men came in to shop and flirt, sometimes asking someone out (I told my guy friends . . . NEVER, NEVER ask a salesgirl out. She is being paid to be nice so you'll spend money and she is a captive audience. She can't leave the store to escape you.) There was always someone being stalked. It was an effective business model but it was missing one element that the owner's son eventually remedied.



It was hard work . . . unpacking truckloads of merchandise; long days on our feet; cleaning and dusting the expansive shelves of Iitala glassware, Blenko vases and Sasaki dishware. We built furniture, hauled heavy boxes up and down the stairs, and constantly rearranged displays. But it was also fun: gossiping, dancing, singing -sometimes running and sliding across the wood floor - as we worked. My co-workers became my good friends over the next several years.



Within a year of working there, I was promoted to store manager. I learned how to be the bookkeeper, assistant buyer, HR department and overall invisible right hand of the owner and her son. The owner was in her 70s and her son was in his 30s.



The owner had grown up in a super wealthy family on the East Coast. She fell in love with a man her family thought was beneath her, so they tried to bribe her to leave him. Instead, the young couple eloped and moved to California. Her husband had been an avid smoker, and smoked in the design store office for years in her presence. The office was the original bank vault with no windows or air circulation. After years of secondhand smoke, doctors had given her a permanent tracheotomy . . . she had a hole in her throat that she breathed and coughed through. She could only speak in a whisper and few people understood her. Her husband had long ago died of lung cancer when I worked for her.



The son was a little on the awkward side. The person I can most compare him to is Michael, the boss from The Office. He was always making outrageous statements and creating spur-of-the-moment rules for employees. But he would also lose his temper, usually when I wasn't there and the store was busy. I often had to do damage control after my weekends, soothing crying employees or screaming customers on the phone.



The son had gotten into some trouble at a young age and moved in with his mom to get his life back together. The owner decided to set him up to be in charge of the store. This is where I came in. I basically did all the work of running the place behind the scenes while the son took credit, posing on the sales floor with the pretty girls and high-end merchandise. I do have to give him credit for being the one who stood up to his mother and insisted that we hire attractive men for the sales floor. And that he did. I have no idea where he found them but suddenly we had a number of male model types standing by the register. They never worked as hard as the women but now we had something for everyone.



I learned something of value from the owner, not really business and management skills because she had me figure that out on my own. I did her husband's work and she wanted nothing to do with it. It was her unbelievable design sense. She could look at a catalog of whatever it was - frames, table linens, vases - and be able to select a magic combination of colors and styles that embodied more style as a whole than they could individually. I learned a lot from her about color and architectural lines. At the time, I was completely over everything being about image, but now I appreciate having more of a discerning eye because of it.



The owner was actually very mean to most of the employees but almost none of them knew it. I would be sitting next to her in the office . . . an employee would walk in and the owner would say in her whispery voice something like "I've never seen such a complete idiot. Was she whoring around on the way to work?" smiling all the way. The employee would smile sweetly in response and I would translate something like "Your outfit is so nice but do you have a sweater? Your top is A LITTLE see-through for the sales floor."



The owner and her son were very good to me . . . I received regular raises, bonuses and merchandise. I still have the dishware and flatware to show for it. I kept this job for four years while I gradually took classes at night for my teaching credential. At the time, I couldn't wait to finally do something of more substance but I have to admit that I've missed it occasionally. The store has since gone out of business. The owner passed away several years ago. The last I heard, the son was working in construction.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mountainmade/4506366402/

Monday, March 16, 2009

Turkey


I wanted to stay in my college town after graduation. I was living in an apartment a block away from the beach with my girlfriends, who were still in college, and my little room was $130 a month. Completely unheard of now.


I applied to every job I could find. I wanted to get settled so I could pay my way through a teaching credential program. I finally got a job a few towns over at a sandwich shop. I felt like the poster child for why a liberal arts education doesn't get you anywhere. The manager advertised the job at $7 an hour then tried to knock it down to $6.50 in the interview.



I did learn a few things about cooking. It was a deli that only served turkey sandwiches. There were about 15 sandwich options but all turkey. I spent a good part of the day cooking turkey and making gravy. This was a big deal because I had always refused to learn how to cook. I learned what a dutch oven was . . . oh, and this is a SPA-TU-LA. I made gravy (that was very exciting: I MADE GRAVY!) Anyway, it was OK while it lasted. There were always leftovers to take home to the housemates.



The turkey deli job led me to a slightly better job at a retail store called Farmers Exchange. It doesn't exist anymore as it was. It was a huge store with a kitchen section, furniture department, coffee bar, etc. They only hired people who cooked and my deli job provided that needed experience. I spent a lot of time talking to people about kitchen gadgets and cookware.



I met a really nice lady named Geri while I was working at Farmers. She was 60 and I was about 22. We were the oldest and youngest employees at the time and were consequently left out of the 30-something clique, which included most of the other employees. We bonded one day while standing in front of the register. A man who looked to be about my age walked up and told us he needed to return something . . . that it wasn't our usual quality. He pulled out a HUGE bag of weed and held it up to us. Geri and I froze then looked at each other . . . WHAT??? Suddenly, the guy realized he had pulled the wrong thing out of his backpack, and his eyes widened with fear. He started to back out of the store, still holding the bag up then finally snapped out of it, turned around and ran.



Geri and I laughed for days after that. We constantly told each other, "Excuse me . . . this isn't your usual quality." No one else really got how funny it was. We became friends and started hanging out after work. I lost track of Geri when I left Farmers. She's one of those people I always look for around town. She'd really be getting up there by now, but I'm still hopeful.



http://www.flickr.com/photos/a_mason/7251819/

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Missed Opportunity


I participated in a usability study at eBay yesterday. The study involved discussing software applications for a couple hours and paid $150. They had a group of us who had responded first to the mass email and it was one of those public experiences . . . you know, where you get a random cross-section of people.



I don't have a very linear, logical mind and I was having trouble focusing on the topic at hand during the discussion, so I reverted to my old habit of observing people. While I was doing this, I realized that there were cameras trained on us from just about every angle of the room as well as voice recorders on the table. There was a large mirror on one side of the room and I could vaguely make out the shape of people observing us from the other side of the mirror. We were true lab specimens.



There were two people who had big personalities . . . they injected a great deal of their personal life into a short period of time. The man sold hi tech and was moving to Santa Cruz. He was balding with long hair and you got the impression that he hadn't purchased a new item of clothing in 20 years. When he introduced himself, he went on and on about his past work accomplishments.



The woman told us about her divorce and that she supported her two grandchildren as well as her 20-year-old daughter. Her eyes looked sad and although her hair and make-up were done carefully, her clothes were wrinkled and faded. I felt sorry for her until she said that after her husband left, she started selling whatever was in their garage and made $7000 in three weeks. (What the hell was she selling?) Then she had to stop selling for awhile when she declared bankruptcy and her assets were frozen.



These two people were obviously strangers to each other but they seemed to have a lot in common. They both had the look of people who had suffered great disappointments. They talked loudly to each other from the moment they met to the end of the session. I ended up walking next to them in the parking lot. As we neared our cars, the woman seemed to be trying to get the man to laugh but he didn't respond to her cues. I tried to get away from them because I suddenly hoped that one of them would get the nerve to ask the other out. As I got to my car, I glanced back and saw the woman looking wistfully at the man as he walked away.



I know I'm a weirdo . . . I really know nothing about these people but that stuff just kills me. I wonder if the man missed her cues or if he really wasn't interested. Maybe he went home and sat on his recliner and wondered what TV dinner he would be heating up in the microwave that night. Maybe he was lonely and oblivious to his missed opportunity. Or maybe he went home to the hot, young girlfriend he met at the last hi tech convention. You just really never know about people.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fallwithme/4514367690/

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

University


As a junior in college, I transferred to a university in Norcal that was Hippy Disneyland. The campus was beautiful with its trees and hiking trails; you could see the ocean from its position up on the hill. I had never lived in such natural beauty.



I loved my literature classes . . . the professors were soundly anti-establishment. They challenged everything except their privileged vantage point from the ivory tower. My homework was mainly reading lots and lots of books and then a couple times per term, writing lots and lots of papers. I always kept up with the reading but somehow couldn't motivate to write unless under the tightest of deadlines. I usually did fine but without letter grades, it's hard to say for sure.



Living in the small college town was an adjustment for me. Cars stopped for pedestrians here. Strangers looked each other in the eye and smiled. People looked and talked differently than in Socal. It was always "hella," "harsh my mellow," and are you going to "come with?" (come with what?). This was the height of the grunge era. Ripped jeans and flannels were the norm. It was unacceptable to be flashy in any way . . . there were no fancy cars or designer clothes. I had heard that, on average, the parents of students at my university were the wealthiest of all the UC's. You would never know it. Status symbols included good camping gear, Grateful Dead tapes, and dread locks.



I lived in the dorms my junior year, coincidentally in the building next to where one of my high school sorority sisters lived. I met a group of friends through her . . . a handful of the girls have since become like real sisters. We claimed a bench in the quad and spent hours playing cards. Our diet consisted mainly of coffee, cigarettes and bagels.



We spent a lot of time laughing. There were so many things that were funny. The time I tried to show my friend how to get the little "pills" off her sweater with a lighter and accidentally lit her on fire. The pure look of fear on her face when I tried to knock her to the ground so she could roll the fire out made us laugh so hard that we cried. The time my friend got drunk because she was nervous about being in a campus fashion show. We later heard through the grapevine that she had cornered a girl in the bathroom that our group of friends had been mean to (a little of the sorority mentality lingered) and told her she was beautiful and she loved her. Whenever the girl walked by after that, we couldn't help but dissolve into uncontrollable laughter.



My own dormmate was unexpected, to say the least. She was a little older, maybe in her mid 20s, and SHE WANTED TO BE A NUN. I have no idea how she ended up at this university. She kept holy water by her bed in a carved wall plaque. There were bibles and religious sayings all over our room. She even tacked pro-life posters to the outside of our door. There were benefits to the arrangement. No one liked to hang out in my room . . . the religious paraphernalia harshed their mellow. My room was always clean and a good place to study. Occasionally, friends used my room as a hideout . . . no one ever came looking for them there. Rules were rarely broken in my dorm room and the couple times when they were, I had to face hours of my roommate crying. I felt like my parents were somehow behind the whole arrangement.


I guess you could say that there was very little about my university experience that prepared me for the real world. It was a time-out. I didn't work except when I returned home on school breaks. Maybe because I had so much time on my hands, I remember feeling down more often than I should. Or maybe it was just the crummy diet.



I have a vivid memory of sitting on the beach with my girlfriends, shortly before college was over. We watched the sunset and passed around a couple beers, leaning on each other. It was the pinnacle of relaxation. None of us had jobs and we were about to return to our apartment to get ready to go out for the evening. I remember thinking . . . it will never be this way again and I started to miss it before it was over.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/3076964858/

Monday, March 9, 2009

Falling for Teaching


My path to teaching is reminiscent of that John Lennon quote . . . life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. I had always known what I wanted to do with my life. When I was very young, I wanted to be an artist like my father, then an interior designer and finally a businessperson, possibly in hotel management, so I could live overseas and go for the big money. I was completely opposed to becoming a teacher.



They certainly didn't get paid enough. To my superficial eyes, all teachers seemed to be one of the following: peculiar, burned out, or way too self-sacrificing. I didn't like the way teachers dressed or the corny jokes they told in class. I couldn't stand the idea of sentencing myself to a lifetime of going to high school or even - god forbid - junior high. It wasn't that I didn't look up to my teachers. I liked some of them immensely and usually found something about each of them that I admired. Teaching just wasn't for me.



But I had been a teacher in training for years . . . through babysitting, being the oldest sibling, and helping my friends with their schoolwork. In school, I was one of those students used for crowd control. I could usually expect to be assigned seats next to the boys who struggled with their assignments and spazzed out in class. They would naturally ask me for help with their work. (As we got older, these were also the boys I dated, creating a lifelong habit of being drawn to the bad boys. As a teacher, I vowed never to do this to the well-behaved girls. Let them sit next to the boys who did their homework and stayed out of trouble.)



But then I suffered a big disappointment in my senior year of high school. My parents wanted me to go to the local community college for a couple years before transferring to a four-year. They had three kids to think about and couldn't afford it any other way. I couldn't believe it - I felt so cheated. I was graduating as one of the top students of my program, had a collection of academic awards, made sure to have a list of extracurricular activities to include on the college apps, earned a 5 on my English AP exam . . . and I was going to COMMUNITY COLLEGE, otherwise known as 13th grade?



In the long run, staying home for a couple years after high school turned out to be the best thing for me. It gave me the opportunity to heal family relationships that were hurt by my teenaged frame of mind - with all its self-involvement, arrogance and criticism. The director of my business program offered me a part-time job as her assistant. So, I began my freshman year with two jobs, in retail and education, and proceeded to take a full load of courses that I would need to transfer as a business major to a 4-year.



As the year progressed, I discovered a couple things. For one, I really hated business classes. My economics class was so boring that it was like staring at pavement for two hours at a time. I earned my first D, sentencing myself to having to take the course again. (The second time was even more painful . . . this time, it was taught by a family friend who was a very nice man who happened to be an evangelical Christian. He used the econ class as a vehicle to express his Christian beliefs . . . on everything from going to church to abortion. I got an A but I practically had to staple my mouth shut to get through it.)



The second thing I discovered was an inner calling to teach the seemingly unreachable students. The director of my high school business program had just started a second program designed for students targeted to drop out of school by junior high. She hired experienced teachers for the new program and all of them quit after the first year.



There were several incidents involving the "at-risk" 9th graders that first year. In one class, students passed around gum and at the agreed upon signal, threw the gum at the teacher's hair. Apparently, it was so bad that she had to cut her hair. I was asked to sit in classes next to the students who acted out the most so I got an interesting view of the dynamic between the teachers and students. I could see that there was a lot of tension and disrespect on both sides.



The director asked another program assistant and myself to hold a daily after-school study hall for the at-risk 9th graders. She didn't want either of us to be alone. The other program assistant came to one meeting and vowed never to return. I didn't tell the director I was alone because I was intrigued with the idea of creating a positive working relationship with the kids. For the first few weeks, I was back to being called white bitch on a daily basis. The kids pulled several pranks, the most memorable being that they stacked all the desks in the large supply closet before I got to the classroom. When I walked in, they yelled at me for not having desks. I didn't react other than to locate the desks, put them back in rows and ask students to get to work.



Eventually, we broke through the hostility. This was my first experience of gaining the trust of students with trust issues. When kids have been repeatedly let down by the adults in their lives and/or their environments have been chaotic, then often the only way they know to protect themselves is to drive you away before you leave them. Once they show you their worst behavior, and you still come back to work every day without grudges for what they did yesterday, they will eventually change their behavior at school.



My director discovered that I had been working on my own in the study hall and that things were actually going well. From then on, we became partners in doing whatever we could to get the kids an education. We got to know more about their personal lives and why they didn't come to school. We bought clothes and did laundry for the kid who lived with two alcoholic adults and rarely got to the laundromat. My boyfriend at the time was a sponsored skateboarder, and he donated skateboards to the boys who stayed at home to avoid the gang bangers on the way to school. (I say boys because the girls didn't seem to face the same obstacle in getting themselves to school, nor did they express any interest in skateboarding.) The boys could now skate quickly by the people who intimidated them and their attendance improved. We saw real academic progress and it felt like such an amazing accomplishment.



I was completely hooked. As soon as I realized I wanted to be an English teacher, everything fell into place. I would be a lit major and go to a university that was famous for being noncompetitive. There were no letter grades, only narrative evaluations, and the campus was beautiful. It would be so relaxing to read novels and write papers in the redwoods. It felt like a reward for all the hard work of getting A's and earning paychecks. And finally, my hopes for the future came true.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/denisecarbonell/2099081714/

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Sorority


My social life changed considerably in my sophomore year of high school . . . I liked the people in my business program and started to make friends outside the program as well and then something major happened. At least it was major from my perspective at the time. Now it makes me cringe.



I was invited to attend a series of events for a sorority. It was totally unexpected. The girls were impressive . . . they were pretty and accomplished. They had the upper hand . . . just because we were invited to the luncheons didn't mean we would be invited to join the sorority.



Once they decided who they wanted for the next pledge class, they came to our houses and kidnapped us out of bed when it was still dark and took us out to breakfast. You knew someone had been kidnapped because they showed up to school in their pajamas with a basket of presents and balloons. The girls who weren't selected looked on jealously (this is where I start to cringe).



What we had to do was really dumb. . . it was the blind leading the blind. However, I think that teenagers need some space to be in charge and make these kinds of mistakes. It wasn't all bad - there were real life skills that were cultivated. I learned enough about group think that I made a point of going to a college where Greek organizations were not prominent.



I can't remember the exact order of events but before six weeks of pledging began, there were two dreaded hurdles: Serious Questions and Silly Questions. Serious Questions wasn't so bad. They had all of the potential pledges wait in a room then took us out one at a time into another dark room, holding flashlights at our faces and interrogating us. They tried to ask us difficult questions but I found it fairly easy to come up with answers that everyone liked. However, Silly Questions was hell on earth. Again, they had us all wait in a room and took us out one at a time but this time they led us into a full blown keg party. We wanted to die, literally, because we were the entertainment for the party. They had us act stuff out, dance, etc. Nothing seedy but completely humiliating. The only positive aspect of the situation was that a sisterhood quickly developed among the prospective pledges.



Then came pledging . . . it was an excruciatingly long and involved process. There were a ton of rules we had to memorize. We couldn't turn our back on a sorority member, couldn't even sit down in class unless invited to do so. I remember standing and standing in science class . . . the teacher liked me so he let it go but he knew what was happening.



On Thursdays, they brought us special outfits that were the worst humiliation for a teenager. We could wear no make up and had to slick our hair back. We carried around little books where members could write down tasks for us. We made lunches to order, sewed pillows, created signs. We always had to have a bag of candy ready to offer to members. We ran and rehearsed a special greeting whenever we spotted a member at school - offering them candy and "our services." We even had to answer the phone with a special greeting at home. So dumb.



They took us out one night a week and provided us with public humiliation. I can't even remember what we did. I really stopped caring. It was all the same. It helped me lose whatever shyness that had held me back before. I became really close to all the girls who were going through it with me. We had private jokes that no one else understood . . . we helped each other a lot. We developed a true bond.



The last night of pledging was a special brand of punishment. There was a party involving mostly that year's seniors on the beach in winter. We had to wear bikinis with fish tied around our necks . . . there was a list of things we had to do to prepare. Mostly stuff we were wearing. They threw stuff on us and basically had us mud wrestle. Some of the members brought special concoctions that they had been fermenting in their garages. It was a smell I will never forget. My most vivid memory was getting home - my family was thankfully out of town that weekend - and huddling by the heater, totally relieved and trying to figure out what exactly that smell was.



After becoming full-fledged sorority members, we really had fun. We sponsored social events - formals, broom ball (played on an ice rink like hockey but with brooms), ice blocking (riding blocks of ice down a hill), etc. We learned how to run the weekly meetings, host the luncheons and make the presentations to the new girls. I gained confidence . . . maybe too much. A good friend of mine - a guy - would say in this really sarcastic tone "really, you're so BIG TIME?" I was president of the sorority in my senior year and despite a couple significant lapses, avoided most of the mean girl behavior.



The only two people I've maintained friendships with since high school were my sorority sisters but we don't really talk about that.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/absolutely_loverly/3768296732/

Friday, March 6, 2009

Selling Out


At the center of the high school international business program was the founder and director. She was a visionary in education as well as a true 80s business person. She was polished with her expensive power suits, classic pumps and bright coral lipstick. Her platinum blond hair was always neat and her nails were flawlessly painted. Although she was middle-aged and always inundated with tasks, she never looked fatigued. She wasn't a head turner but she had an inner confidence and vitality that made her noticed.



There were about 400 students in her program, effectively creating a small school experience within the larger high school. She recruited students to her program by visiting junior highs and going through student files. This sort of access was gained through her tenacious people skills. She would then interview prospective candidates, somehow selling the program and convincing students to sell themselves at the same time.



She related to her students in a collegial manner. She observed us carefully and gave us tasks that would benefit the program. She wasn't one to follow the rules blindly . . . she took risks to get the job done. When her office was backed up with work, she offered me an office aide "class" for one period and immediately switched my schedule around so I could help her. There was at least one teacher who fought against the idea but the director got her way and within a few days I was acting as a temporary school registrar, checking student's transcripts and scheduling them for the next semester. I was told to walk away from the computer if anyone from main administration came into the office.



I got to see firsthand what it took to run the program and I was impressed with her drive. She was the type of person who could comfortably sell something before it really existed. I admire people like that but am much different. I have to get my hands dirty first - build the foundation brick by brick before I can turn around and sell it. People like her make progress happen. People like me make it last.



I am grateful for the opportunities the director provided me with . . . I spent a summer in Japan, shadowed international business people, learned about hotel management and developed job skills before I graduated. OK, maybe Pascal isn't very useful any more but I was primed to start a career before I even stepped foot into college. I was completely sold on the corporate model and I couldn't wait to go after big money. Selling out was the goal.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/christopherdombres/4462311122/

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Escape from Junior High and Race Relations Camp


My torturous junior high experience inspired me to apply to an international business magnate program offered at a high school across town that began in ninth grade (high school typically began sophomore year in my district at the time). Things did get better for me after seventh grade but it never fully felt like my school. I realize that if I had never left The States - if I would have continued on at my original elementary school - that I probably would have found a more comfortable niche in junior high. I would have likely been a PACE kid or even a soci. (Probably not a hession - it wasn't my aesthetic.) I might have never understood how it feels to be marginalized. I doubt I would have ever tried a new program.



Going to the magnate program meant that I had to wake up much earlier to take a bus across town. My school day was longer and I didn't necessarily feel more comfortable at the new school, but it was a fresh start. I no longer had to wear my back brace to school. I could start over with new people.



The international business program still exists. This is how it is described on one website: This program brings in gifted students from throughout [the school district] for college-preparatory classes with an emphasis on international studies and commerce. During the time of my involvement, the program focused on the Pacific Rim. We all planned to become wealthy by doing business in the region. It apparently was the wave of the future. We studied one of three languages: Chinese, Japanese or Russian, and the curriculum included classes such as International Marketing and Maritime Law.



Both PACE and the business program were located at the same high school. Someone once explained to me that these programs were placed there for integration purposes, which made the the school eligible for funding. At that time, the students in these programs were predominantly white although this was shifting by the time I graduated. The concept of race became one of the themes of my high school experience.



The beauty of the racial breakdown at the school was that no one group had a clear majority. The current breakdown is roughly what it was when I attended in the late 80s: 35% Asian, 24% Latino, 29% Black and 12% White. In addition to race, there were students from all economic spheres.



But there were racial tensions. I was called white bitch too many times to care by strangers. On a couple occasions wb was followed by a minor incident of violence. Someone who I never even saw  in a school hallway threw a battery so hard at my chest that the bruise took weeks to heal. Once in the library, another anonymous person hurled a very sharp pencil at my legs, which pierced the skin.



Every sophomore had to go to Race Relations Camp. It was a weekend away in the mountains. We played games, went on hikes, etc. I believe the idea was to take kids out of their usual environments and social circles and try to get them to see past race, finding similarities where none were perceived before. Despite better intentions, I felt the camp made us more self-conscious about race, not less. I already had friends of different races, and so did most people I knew. Why force it? During one of the exercises, I was led to a remote tree where two chairs were placed. The teacher sat me across from a kid who was black. The teacher told us to relate to each other then walked away. Total silence. We stared at each other. I made a couple lame attempts at conversation. He was polite. It felt really awkward.



Coincidentally, I did make a new black friend on the way back from Race Relations Camp (I feel the need to clarify that this very same person would correct me if I described her as African-American.) There was a girl sitting behind me on the bus who stared morosely into space as a boy, also black, taunted her incessantly. No one said anything and I couldn't take it any more. I turned around and told him to shut up. He told me to stay out of it. I told him to stop picking on her. I didn't want to hear it any more. He eventually gave up. It was a random incident that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. There were a few of those back then.


picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theogeo/3384501206/

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Worst Year Ever


Seventh grade was the worst year of my life. Looking back, I was probably clinically depressed. There were plenty of things that went wrong, but I also looked at the world through a dismal lens. What I didn't realize was that forces were at work that would determine my eventual career path.



My family had to leave Saudi Arabia shortly before I started seventh grade. The longstanding king had died and his successor wanted to eliminate what he saw as a strong Western influence, so Americans were leaving in droves. My dad stayed behind for six months after my mom brought us three kids back to Southern California.



Although life in Jeddah was boring at times for the adults, life for the kids was ideal. We enjoyed the swimming pools, tennis courts, and fully stocked rec room at the compound, where we roamed freely day and night. Everyone - kids and adults - enjoyed the weekends at the Red Sea: snorkeling and scuba diving, lounging in the sun and ordering food from the cooks. We attended an international school. Teachers were paid extremely well and had what seemed like unlimited budgets. We took French and Arabic. Everyone I knew traveled extensively. I planned to go to a boarding school in France after 8th grade as there was no high school for Americans. My friends were from all over the world.



Then life as I knew it fell apart. We had to move back home. My mom enrolled in school as soon as we returned to The States. She would not be confined to the home any longer. As an almost 13 year old, I was repelled by her yet needed her desperately to deal with all the sudden changes. She was less available.



That summer before 7th grade, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. I had to start wearing a plastic back brace that was a solid wall of plastic surrounding my entire torso. I could disguise it with baggy clothing but I always looked a little unnatural and it was really uncomfortable, even painful.



I hated everything about my new school. The school counselors did not know how to read my transcripts from overseas so they placed me in remedial classes. I found myself in the most ridiculous classes where crowd control seemed to be the main focus. The only thing worse than my academic classes was P.E. I had to undress in the locker room. Girls stared at my brace and asked if my disease was catching.



I was quiet, which made it hard to make new friends. One day, a contingency of the popular kids marched up to me at lunch . . . I had attended early elementary school with them and they wanted to know if it was really me. I said it was. They told me they had heard that I had died in a pool after getting my toe stuck in the drain. I told them that didn't happen. I just moved away. I felt like such a freak.



I found friends in the fringes of the social circles. We made fun of the socis (pronounced "soshis" as in social). Socis were preppy - pink oxford shirts, cashmere sweaters, top siders, argoyle socks, etc. There were also the hessions. They were the heavy metal kids. They had long hair and ditched school to smoke cigarettes. The girls had bad reputations. Then there were the PACE kids - the smart kids tracked into accelerated classes. The PACE kids were bussed to another junior high in the morning where they could be with their brainiac cohorts. They joined the rest of the masses for lunch and afternoon electives. The kids in all of these groups shared an air of confidence that I lacked.



One of the other things I hated about my junior high was the rampant racism. There were kids who had recently immigrated from Cambodia. These kids dressed differently, didn't speak English very well, and many had been through horrific experiences before coming to this country. They seemed shell-shocked. The white kids called them names and some of the teachers smiled. Life was hopeless.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/98778636@N00/341948449/

Monday, March 2, 2009

Lingerie


When I was 16, I landed a job in the lingerie department of a regional chain. This particular chain went bankrupt years ago. It was like a Macy's but the salespeople were expected to befriend customers trying to pass anonymously through the store.



Some of the employee rules now seem to be more reminiscent of the 30s than the late 80s and early 90s. Women could not wear pants. We had to wear skirts or dresses with hosiery. All employees had to use one particular door to enter and exit the building. We had to carry clear purses (what could a 16-year-old girl have to hide?). We were expected to wear make-up and buy clothes at the store. I loved every minute of it.



We were paid by commission on top of minimum wage. We befriended customers and got their phone numbers. We called them to announce the arrival of their favorite styles or brands. In the lingerie department, we also measured busts and delivered a range of bras, underwear, and lingerie to the dressing rooms with lots of encouraging feedback.



I kept my mouth shut as much as possible so most people didn't guess my age. I heard unnecessary details about the intimate lives of customers and co-workers. My manager told me she surprised her husband with the latest style of crotchless underwear. Believe me, if you knew my manager, you wouldn't be enthralled with that information.



There were some moments that are hard to forget. The time I walked into the dressing room to check on a customer to find her bent over, checking herself out in the mirror. (Maybe you need a little more time. I'll check back in a few minutes.) The time I sold close to $1000 of lingerie to a woman acting erratically with a constant nose drip. She had bras and lingerie on hangers hooked to her purse, her waist, her arms . . . she came back a few days later with dark sunglasses - very subdued - and returned almost everything. The time I fitted a crossdresser for a bra. I tried to play it cool but my hands shook a little when I measured him.



The only time I really hated working there was around Valentine's Day. Guys swarmed the gaudy lingerie section and when I offered assistance, they rarely knew the size they needed. Many of them said they were about my size. One guy actually cupped his hands to model his girlfriend's breasts in hopes that I could estimate her bra size. The men were noticeably uncomfortable; some acted like they were at a pick-up joint (nice touch when shopping for a significant other). The day after Valentine's, women lined up at the counter and returned most of the red lace and satin, garter belts and bustiers. Funny that almost none of them were about my size. Goodbye commission.



I kept this job for four years until I transferred to a college in a different part of California. Even then, I returned during the holidays to work. I gained a significant amount of financial independence by my junior year of high school, paid for two years of community college and accumulated spending money for when I transferred to a four-year.



In this job, I learned how to talk to the public, handle sensitive matters discreetly and be calm in the face of agitation . . . all good preparation for my eventual career in education. You wouldn't believe how many people get stressed out about underwear. I also developed the useless talent of being able to take a pile of bras from the dressing rooms and hang them in orderly rows on those little plastic hangers in minutes. If you think that's easy, I recommend you try it. Go to a lingerie store and take a bra off the hanger. See what happens when you try to get it back on neatly. There's a good chance you'll end up laying it across the display rack when no one's looking and backing out of the store nonchalantly.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/exfordy/403924453/

Drug Bust


I missed having my own money and babysitting back in The States didn't add up to much. I noticed a pizza chain was coming to my neighborhood strip mall. I don't remember the interview but I do remember the manager. She was so condescending. She was one of those people who don't know how to talk to younger people. I was about 15 and she talked to me like I was five - very loudly and clearly - with this tone that made it clear that she was doing me, some stupid 15 year old, a VERY BIG FAVOR. Whatever.



I wasn't that stoked on my job. I had to wear a uniform, pull my hair back in a pony tail, touch and smell really gross pizza, and learn how to use the register while the manager stared at me like I was going to steal money.



There was a lot going on at this fine establishment. I had never heard the word bong before but I did see one in the back room. Also beer. In fact, everyone was really busy in the back room on a regular basis, including the manager. I was often the dummy standing in the front by myself, waiting for customers and feeling self-conscious. But I didn't really get what was going on back there.



One night, I was standing by myself behind the front counter when out of the corner of my eye, I could see what looked like a gun appear in the window. At first, it was just a gun with no person attached to it. Then, all of a sudden there were several men in dark clothing holding rifles and peering into the store. I froze. I had no idea what was happening.



The manager came running from the back, grinning wildly and apologizing profusely in a fake voice to the men through the open door. It turns out they were police. Apparently, by leaning against the counter, I had tripped the panic button located below the counter. This button triggered an emergency sniper response. I was totally mortified. I don't think I was even able to get any words out in the presence of the police. I just stared at them. Looking back, I wonder why no one told me about the panic button.



A week later, the owner came in. I was in the front by myself (surprise). He asked me where everyone was and I said I didn't know. He went to the back, opened a door and pungent smoke came billowing out. The owner came back with a bottle of hard alcohol in his hand. OOOHHH, that's what they were doing? Everyone was fired, including the manager. The owner referred to me as her to the manager and didn't say much to me directly. I quit immediately. I was angry about the whole experience.



In my teenaged mind, I decided to exact revenge. Of course, the people I didn't like were all fired but that didn't stop me. What I did was order 10 pizzas with lots of toppings. For this particular chain, that meant I actually ordered 20 pizzas as they have this weird buy-one, get-another-one-even-if-you-don't-want-it promotion. I was very pleased with myself because I NEVER PICKED UP MY ORDER (Take that, pizza chain).



Now, more than 20 years later, I still can't eat that pizza.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mukluk/459475743/

My First Job


I first earned money when I was nine years old. At the time, I lived in a compound with my family in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. My dad worked for an oil company and had applied to be transferred there. There was plenty of financial reward for doing so. We lived with mostly Americans who were mostly from Texas. There were always jokes about California, where my family was from. Something about fruits and nuts that I never really understood.



Almost exclusively, the men worked and the women stayed home with the children, if there were children. It was illegal for women to work there unless they were nurses or teachers, and few were. Women also weren't allowed to drive, so we had drivers to take us to places such as the suk, but there weren't a ton of places to go. All of us foreign females had to wear long dresses that covered our arms and legs in public.



Alcohol was another thing that was forbidden. The adults in our compound were obviously bored with their lack of entertainment options in a rather oppressive society. They partied behind the compound walls. There was a black market for alcohol but mostly they made wine. They took turns hosting drunken gatherings. I was relatively tall for my age, so I became the in-house babysitter. Literally, that was my initial babysitting credential as explained by one of the desperate moms. I took care of children of all ages - babies, toddlers, and children not much younger than me. I charged three riyals per hour per kid - the equivalent of one dollar per hour at the time.



I made hundreds of dollars. I remember buying my mom a polaroid camera and my dad a designer flask for their birthdays one year. I might have been 10 years old. I spoiled my baby brother with gifts. I shopped at the boutique in our compound (I wish I still had that sling purse made of hot pink umbrella material) and ate at the cafe with my friends. I bought gold jewelry at the suk. What's not to like about having money?



I did the babysitting thing until the end of sixth grade, when we suddenly had to leave Saudi Arabia. I continued on back home in The States, but only very occasionally, and the tips weren't as good. Snacks were better.



picture: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alan-light/394300647/