Several years ago, my husband and I had some friends who were members of one of the Yacht Clubs in San Francisco. We would occasionally join the couple for dinner after a day of sailing.
The views were fantastic, the bartenders gave a deep pour, and the food was good (but not great).
San Francisco is well known for its more liberal political leanings, but the yacht clubs are where the more conservative (i.e. wealthy) can be found in the notorious hippie city. The rules of the yacht club dictated that we had to mind our p’s and q’s while there.
On one memorable night after a hearty dinner, the four of us retired to the bar with drinks in hand and began a rousing and competitive game of liar’s dice.
Just as things really got rolling, as it were, an Admiral of the club who was a huffing old man with a bulbous nose blooming with red capillaries, bustled over to us. He leaned over the bar and blurted, “Ladies do NOT throw dice in bars!”
Remember when you were a kid riding in the front seat of the car? And that moment when your mom would hit the brakes and throw out that strong mom arm to protectively keep you from flying through the windshield?
That is roughly the approach my husband took to keep me from getting very unladylike in a real hurry.
After the adrenaline dissipated and another drink was poured, I remember thinking how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.
The George Moro Dancers at El Rancho Vegas, 1949 — Photo by Don English, photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau
These days I’m a lot older and a lot less inclined to take any guff off of anyone, particularly a stuffy old rich man. But this concept of “being a lady” and acting ladylike is still something I think about. In fact, as I age, it’s on my mind more than ever.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression and had me late in life so I ended up with a more old fashioned set of values than many of my peers in school. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, women weren’t having kids into their late thirties, so my parents were a generation older than my friend’s parents.
Where they had cool bell bottom pant wearing moms and sideburn wearing dads who were easy, open, and permissive, my folks were stodgy and carried a depression-era sensibility about almost everything, including but not limited to: money, discipline, and politics.
But to their credit, where many of my female friends grew up with their parents saying, “When you grow up and get married…” mine were saying, “When you grow up and graduate from college…”
Pretty forward thinking for my ultra conservative folks.
So I followed their advice, went to college, got a post graduate degree and these days I work in operations to support scientists, including both physicists and engineers. While the percentage of women in the various STEM fields is still small, it is certainly growing. I am lucky to work with a lot of strong women in non-traditionally female professions. This has me thinking more and more about what it means to be a lady.
If clothes make the man, does how a woman dresses define whether or not she is a lady? With each passing year, the dress code of employers becomes more casual. Both men and women can wear khakis and a button down, so maybe clothes are no longer a deciding factor.
Once the measure of being a lady was being demure, subservient, speaking in low and melodic tones. My mother’s 1950’s Better Homes and Gardens cookbook explains that my job as wife is to have the children clean and tidy for when my husband comes home. I should dress in a pleasing way and greet him at the door. That advice was prudent for the times, but is no longer the measure of what makes me, or anyone, a lady.
I’ve been noodling over writing this piece for a little over a month. I had started getting down the words when the Be a Lady They Said video went viral. I saw it posted on all of the social platforms. I didn’t want to seem like riding the coattails of that sentiment so I set this story aside. Perhaps I’m not the only one thinking on this topic.
This question of what it means to be a lady continues to rattle around in my brain so I dusted this story off and starting thinking about it again. As I enter the time of my life where I will no longer have the ability to bear children, an aspect some say defines the very nature of womanliness, I wonder who and what I am now that I am no longer young, with the power and energy that youth brings.
My face in the mirror is changing, my hair is rapidly turning gray, and what it means to be a lady, for myself anyway, is also changing.
So I haven’t yet answered the question of what it means to be a lady, and maybe I never will. Or maybe the answer is being a lady means whatever I want it to mean.
And for the record, ladies most certainly do throw dice in bars.
One of the benefits of my job is that I work from home one day a week, and have been doing so for just over seven years. It’s a wonderful perk. If I ever chose to move to a different job, I’d want to be sure I retained this same benefit as it goes a long way toward my mental health.
As a confirmed introvert, working from home on Friday allows me to get my job done while having a little break from my very extroverted team of peers (all of whom I adore, in measured doses).
So when word came down from my leadership that we are to work from home for the foreseeable future, I though “pfft, no problem, I’m already a pro at this.”
On Day One, I approached my now shelter-in-place working from home days exactly as I approached every work from home Friday, and that was my first mistake.
Since I believe in growing from my mistakes, here are five things I have learned and want to share from the first week of working from home every day:
#1 You must have boundaries
When working from home just one day a week, the boundaries between work life and home life were never an issue. I’d get up a little later than usual, make the short commute down the hall, and do my job. Since the end of Friday is also the end of the work week, at 5:00pm I’d log off and enjoy my weekend time.
Now that work from home is every day, it’s too easy at 9:45pm to think “oh, you know, I could just dash off that email to my boss that I forgot to do earlier” or when I’m obsessing over the current news at 3:30 in the morning, “I could take one more look at that PowerPoint draft.”
To be honest, it’s very likely that I have used “putting in extra work” as a way to deal with my anxiety over the current events. It feels like I am doing something about it, but I’m not. It’s an avoidance and over time will wear me out when right now I need to find ways to stay strong.
In short: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
#2 You must have boundaries
Since my husband is now my coworker five days a week, and since my husband is my absolute favorite person in the world, I find myself wanting to spend time with him as we usually do after work or on the weekends.
This means sitting together, drinking coffee, talking over all the things on our minds, including but not limited to: how cute our cat is, our thoughts on movie, television, or literary characters, what to have for dinner, and most importantly whether or not feeding peanuts to the crows and bluejays in the backyard will cause them to protect us, as a fierce corvid army, when the zombies rise…you know, normal couple stuff.
But if we spend too much time in our usual weekend pattern, then I am not getting work done. Then again, if I spend too much time doing work (see #1 above) then I’m not spending needed time with my husband.
Once again: Boundaries must exist between work life and home life.
As part of my job I support a team of technical people who are dispersed across the country, so I am very used to using video conferencing daily, whether at home or not. When this new stay at home edict came down, I was already set up on the app, had a good camera to use, and a speaker for sound.
Not so for my peers. For the most part using videoconferencing is new for them, and I find myself giving mini tutorials on every meeting we have.
Our IT department is now conducting four one-hour long trainings a day on how to use the videoconferencing service, but my peers seem loathe to take a course. “Too busy,” they say. So instead they are relying on me to help them. In every meeting.
This is not sustainable. I love to help people but I can’t get sucked into this vortex. Instead of jumping in there when they have troubles, am now sitting on my hands when someone says, “I can’t figure out how to share this document” or “Why can’t I see everyone?”
If they ask me directly, I will help, but if they are just muttering and fumbling I stay quiet because the best way to learn is to do it for yourself. The user interface isn’t really that hard, it just takes a little time to get comfortable with it.
The one exception: The times when a participant has both their phone and laptop dialed in which produces that horrible ping back and forth that escalates into a high teeth grinding sound. The audio equivalent of standing between two mirrors. I cannot restrain myself from jumping in to sternly say “Phone or Laptop, not both, mute one!”
At any break at work, I find myself looking at the latest headlines. On every call my peers want to talk about the headlines. In the kitchen while making lunch my husband and I talk about the latest headlines, “So, did you hear that…”
All of this fuels my anxiety and managing this is a big factor in my ability to stay safe and sane, and to be an active, productive employee.
Many years ago I took a meditation class and the instructor told us: “You don’t have to watch, read, or seek out the current headline news. If there is something you need to know, it will find you.”
It has been almost 20 years since I first heard this gentle guidance and it is more true today than it ever has been.
#5 You must have boundaries
On Friday work from home days, I tend to dress pretty comfortably. Yoga pants with a not terrible shirt. Fluffy socks and slippers. Loose but comfy (okay, ratty) sweater.
This is fine once a week, as Friday is the most causal day at work by far, but this is not sustainable for me five days a week. It is really true that clothes impact how you speak, how you hold yourself, how you feel. Clothes matter.
Now, I’m not saying put on a three piece suit and hard shoes every day, but at least wear the kind of “business casual” clothes you might wear to the office. Get up, take a shower, comb your hair, put on some work clothes, maybe light makeup if that’s your thing, and present yourself well. You’ll get your mind right to sit down and do some work.
Then when the work day is done, by all means, jettison yourself right back into those comfy home clothes. You’ve earned it.
We have no idea how long this current stay at home edict is going to last. so it is important to build good boundaries now to help stay sane over time.
And just because you work from home, don’t neglect washing your hands!
I was born with a troubling affliction. It’s been difficult to manage my whole life, and is embarrassing to discuss. Today I feel is the time to go public with my ailment.
I am affected by a disorder known colloquially as walnut bladder. Yes, it’s true. I so much as look at a glass of water and I have to pee.
In such times that my walnut bladder-itis impacts the life of my husband, he refers to me as a frog. “You know, you pick up a frog and it piddles in your hand?”
As a child I presented quite a challenge to my folks who liked to take road trips. You see, I had the kind of dad who refused to stop once we were on the road. “Gotta make good time,” he’d say.
The average child has to pee frequently but I was even more prone than normal. It was a problem.
We used to spend summers in a small town in Eastern New Mexico. The drive from our home in Albuquerque took about three hours, plus or minus. Even as an adult, three hours is just too long for me without a pit stop.
This vexed my mother terribly as she had to manage both my bladder and my straight-through-without-stopping father. Once she threatened to use a clothespin to clamp off my leaky plumbing.
Well that got my attention.
From that day forward I planned well ahead for any family road trip. My plan was to cease intake of liquids at least a day in advance of the trip and steadfastly refuse to drink any liquid until we arrived and a toilet was in sight.
In hindsight, not having much liquid while living in the high desert probably wasn’t the best idea, but it worked, thus avoiding any clothespin type of situations.
In my adult life I manage my ailment by working a path between my desk at work and the restroom. At home I get up a minimum of once a night to pee.
There was a recent situation where I again recognized the utter torture of a completely full bladder and no good plan to empty it out.
It was a typical afternoon at work and I was, as usual, drinking lots of good fresh water. Stay hydrated, right? That means ol’ Walnutta has to be actively managed.
Before a work meeting I will use the restroom right before heading into the conference room to help ensure I can get through the hour stretch.
On this day, I was so busy with work and in other meetings that I bumped right up to the top of the hour when my next meeting was due to start. I did an internal gut check and then a clock check and thought, “Yeah, I’m ok.”
Silly, silly me.
At about twenty minutes into the hour and a half long meeting, a job interview with a prospective candidate no less, I had that first twinge of “oh…hmm, I’m going to need to pee here pretty soon.”
As the seconds on the clock ticked by with molasses speed, and the candidate droned on and on and on, things started to get bad.
I began to go through the stages of grief:
First, denial: “Pfft! I’m fine. No big deal. I can make it.”
Then bargaining: “Ok, well, if I can make it just ten more minutes, maybe I can excuse myself and take care of this. Please please bladder don’t let me pee my pants.”
Anger: “Dangblamit why did I drink so much water today! And why is my bladder so tiny? And why can’t I just distract myself and make this feeling go away!?!”
Depression: “Dude, you are such a loser. Look at everyone else at the table, they can hold their liquids. What is wrong with you?”
Acceptance: “It’s going to be ok. I’m going to make it. I’m not going to pee my pants. And if I do, it will be fine, right?”
Over the course of an hour and a half I moved up and down and back and forth through all of those stages while squirming mightily in my chair.
Look, my attention span isn’t that long to begin with, add in a full to bursting bladder and I don’t hear what anybody has to say on any topic.
It was horrible. At one point I thought I might even cry, I had to pee so badly.
And finally! Finally at the hour and forty five minute mark that damn candidate stopped talking and I was free to go use the restroom all the way over on the other side of the building.
Then it becomes that age old question of walking or running in the rain.
Do I walk to the bathroom thus taking longer and upping my odds for peeing my pants?
Or do I run thus jangling my bladder and making it more likely I’ll pee my pants?
I chose the middle road: a sort of tight-legged shuffle which worked and I made it safely to the bathroom stall.
Once in the safe zone my whole world looked a little brighter. A little happier. A little more at peace.
I know everyone has gone through the ballad of the full bladder at one point or another. When you have a walnut bladder it happens a little more often than I’d like.
For any reader who might have questions about my affliction: it’s been this way since I was a kid, I have discussed it with more than one doctor, and it just happens to be a feature (not a bug) of the big Karen machine.
“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country
Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.
Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.
I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.
My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.
Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:
I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.
That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.
I really do get it.
But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.
For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.
There’s the unscoldable rascal!
Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.
This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.
See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.
Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.
Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.
Maybe I need to fart around a little more.
Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.
It is a full moon Spring night and I am on the back patio of a home I know so well. Not my home, but the home where I live sometimes in my dreams. A storehouse for that part of me that exists back in my homestate while I live a bit farther out West.
The decision to leave New Mexico was made a long time ago, and with time I can see many of the reasons were wrong and many were also quite right. That audit can only occur looking backwards.
Tonight, time pauses because I am back home. I am where I belong with people who care about me. I am in a place so familiar I don’t even have to think hard about it, I just need to be.
It’s not always so easy just being me. It has been a bit of struggle lately. A tug of war inside my mind, but tonight is a welcome cease fire. I get to let my guard down a little, a lot, quite a bit.
“I was drunk…the day my mom…got out of prison,” we sing in full, robust, well-fed, and drunk voices. “And I went..to pick her up…in the rain.” We’re all in time but off key, which makes the sound that much more perfect. Our voices blending into a harmonic patchwork quilt.
This is a celebration of birthdays for four people. One of the four is me, and the other three are people who matter a whole lot to me. We eat, tell stories, drink a little more and remember the past. The past and the present merge until it is just us and now and then. Tomorrow is something to think about later. It will come back, but we don’t think about that now. The Wayback Machine is running at full capacity.
More dried bark and wood chips go into the firepit, making flames leap up. We keep the unseasonably cold desert wind at bay with flame and firewater.
An iPhone, an Apple music account, and a Bluetooth speaker keep the old songs rolling. Current technology pushes the old, old songs back to our ears. Patsy Cline, Jim Horton, George Strait, Foster and Lloyd, the Mavericks, Johnny Rodriguez. That’s only an appetizer plate of the ten course musical meal we serve. The music is like seeing old friends, and we sing. And we drink. And we dance.
I’m dancing around the brickwork patio with my best friend’s husband and I find myself looking down. I’ve known him for thirty years, so there are few secrets left between us. I say “It’s been so long since I danced, I have to look at my feet to make sure I still remember how.”
“Karen, you don’t have to look at your feet, it’s like riding a bike.”
I raise my head and look him in the eye. He’s right, of course.
“Besides you always were light on your feet.” I smile. It’s an awful nice compliment.
As the final notes of “Heard it in a Love Song” wrap up, he spins me around. In the centrifugal force I feel just like I did back when we danced to the same songs at Corbett Center or at Cowboys bar. We laugh a little, and then we hug. It’s good and right and fun. We’re both a little older, but it feels just like the good old days, dancing together and singing along with the music while we do.
I find my seat, my drink, the next song on the playlist. We all go “yeah! This one!” or “Haven’t heard this song in so long!” or “What else do you have on the playlist?”
It’s easy. The simpatico of friends who are family. We have a new friend in our midst, and she sings the songs as loud as any of us. She’s instantly our family, folded in like she was always here.
“We have to howl at the moon,” she says and we all howl like a mangy half-drunk (full drunk?) wolfpack. She makes each of us howl in turn, giving constructive critique, the director of our backyard opera. When we all meet her exacting criteria, we’re asked to howl together once more, and we do. And it feels good.
The songs keep rolling and the stories told a thousand times before seem fresh again. We laugh and laugh. Everything is funny. No mean words or contentious topics are exchanged. No need for that. We are in our groove, where we know who we are and what we are and we have nowhere to be other than right here with each other. We’ve laid our burdens down by the fire. They will be there for us in the morning.
I look up at the full moon between the branches of a mulberry tree. I look over at my best friend and her husband dancing together, looking like they did so long ago. Back when they first met and love was new and we knew then like we know now that they were simply meant to be.
It’s good. It’s right. It’s a balm on my wounds, mostly self-inflicted, invisible but quite real.
A moment where time has stopped. We’re together. We’re happy. And we dance.