Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New Phases

When I was eleven years old, I began my first job.

Yes, I said eleven; that wasn't a typo. Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, as in modern day China, kids actually had jobs and salaries. Lots of children went into sales, putting together lemonade stands or community newspapers, mowing neighbor's lawns or babysitting their children. A few, like me, went into retail.

Back then, people lived dangerously. They drank out of plastic cups that contained BPA and might have been washed with a garden hose. Beverages weren't made in commercial kitchens that were overseen by OSHA. That entrepreneurial lemonade was made in homes where there was possibly be a dog or even two, and a cat who was allowed on the counter, by kids who wiped their noses with their hands before opening the package of kool-aid and who then stirred it with a spoon so short they had to put their grimy hands in the drink. The water to make this .25 cent lemonade came out of the tap, shockingly unfiltered.

Mothers routinely left their infant children in the hands of the pre-teen next door, and they didn't require a teaching credential or day-care permit or anything. This was long before cell phones, so the moms would post the restaurant they were going to on the fridge door, leave potato chips for their employees to eat, and hope for the best. They got the best too, because the girls babysitting knew their own moms would beat them silly if they accidentially killed the neighbor's kid. You knew if your charge died on your watch that your parents weren't spending money on a high-priced lawyer - you were going down. You might even have to apologize, unheard of today. Babysitters were paid the princely sum of .50 an hour, which definitely is not a living wage, until you realize you could buy a candy bar and a coke with that amount and sometimes you worked four hours and got a dime tip. That could keep you in candy and soda all week, which is pretty much all any kid really needs to live.

Nowadays, of course, pre-teen children have not finished breastfeeding themselves and therefore can't leave their own mothers long enough to babysit somebody else's children. They are so busy being driven from sporting event to ballet class that they don't have time to go work for a living.

Babysitting was my side job. It was barely work, since once you got the brats kids to bed (which a good babysitter did by tossing candy in their room and blocking the door) you could watch all the TV you wanted. Johnny Carson in black and white, baby!

Fun as that was, my real job was working in a dry cleaning store. Every Saturday, my dad would take me to the store, drop me off, and leave me alone for the day. There, I would handle customers, check clothes in and out, run that cool clothes conveyer belt with a foot pedal, try to explain what "martinizing" meant, and put large, dangerous pins in drapes. I even put the stuff I found in pockets into a little bag to turn in to the owner. I have no idea what people thought when they came into the store and saw a skinny, knock-kneed, bespectacled, frizzy-haired eleven year old who barely looked nine waiting on them, but to their credit, nobody ever called the Better Business Bureau. Child labor wasn't that unusual back then; it's not like today when you have to write a contract promising to buy your kid a new car to get them to throw away the soda cans in their room.

Wait, I don't mean throw away, I mean recycle.

I loved that dry cleaning job. I used to take my lunch minute and go next door to the liquor store, and buy a coke and some sunflower seeds and then come back to the cleaners and sit in the back at a rugged wooden table filled with spools of thread and boxes of safety pins. I'd read a book and spit out shells, only getting up when the bell on the door rang, alerting me to a new customer. There were times when I violently hated that bell. Rhett Butler would be about to kiss Scarlett in the most romantic scene possible and I was completely swept away in the saga, and then "ding ding ding." I'd have to leave Tara to pin tags on dirty clothes, write up a receipt and tell the customer it would be ready on Tuesday. But, I did get up every time that bell rang, and greeted the customer with a smile on my face, even if I didn't mean it.

Even today, the smell of "perc" (perchloroethylene, dry-cleaning chemicals) takes me instantly back to the carefree hard labor days of my youth. Being the toxic chemical that it is - now banned in the State of California - it may also have ended up taking me to a lot of doctor appointments.

I made $3.00 every Saturday for six hours work. I was rich.

I don't need to tell you that I learned how to have a work ethic at that job. I wanted to watch cartoons on Saturday like everybody else, but making money and getting out of the house was more fun. Admittedly, since I love to read, I hated that little bell that announced the door had open and a customer needed me which required me to put my book down and go help them, but I did it anyway. I was terrible at math and am today, but I learned to count change (this was the days before cash registers did it for you) and occasionally the till would balance, I wouldn't get screamed at, and I knew I'd done a good job. I learned to make up fantastic stories on the fly, about Martinizing being a special method of cleaning clothes that leaves them cleaner and fresher than any other dry cleaning method, and why "One Hour" was not possible despite what the sign said. Making up answers quickly has been invaluable in every job I've ever had, and it all started with the phrase "One Hour Martinizing".

But that job was only one day a week, so when I was 16, I got an after-school job at a place called Woolco. It was pretty much the same as Walmart only everything there was made in Taiwan instead of China, and, you know, there was no "people of walmart" clientele back then. (Nobody had even invented the store scooter yet). I worked in various departments, and one Christmas I got the plushest job in the store. I got to man a little booth and make personalized Christmas stockings for people who had spent a certain amount of money. I would take Elmer's White Glue, write the name of the child on the white fuzzy part of a stocking, and then sprinkle the glue with the glitter color of their choice (red, green, or multicolored) and let it dry. If you could see my handwriting now you would not believe anybody would let me do that job, but I swear it is true.

Maybe somewhere, in some attic, one of my stockings is packed away carefully, the glitter all fallen off and the red felt filled with moth holes, but my childish handwriting faintly visible.

I'm 54 now, and in the intervening years I've had many jobs. I've done everything from Bartender, to Cruise Ship Sales Girl, to Keno Runner, to Network Manager at the DAs office, to Principal's Secretary in a High School, which is my current job. And, it has been my favorite job, even though I am not the boss like I have been in the past. I like it because it's perfect for my ADD self. There is something new every single day, a lot of variety, interesting people to talk to, lots of stories you have to make up quickly, and teachers and school personnel are pretty nice people.

I have stayed home with my children when they were young, and that is a busy job too; I don't care what Hilary Rosen says. It counts as hard work, and important work. But, when the kids went back to school, I have always returned to the workforce. I like to work; I like to feel like a contributing member of society. I have noticed over the years that on days when I don't go to work, I tend to lose all track of time and suddenly, my husband will walk in the door and I'm still in my pajamas with my teeth unbrushed. And, that was when I was healthy. Work keeps me sane, it keeps my ADD under control by giving me structure, and it gives me purpose.

When I was home recovering from c-diff, struggling to even stand, I looked ahead to the days when I would be back at work. There were times I felt that I would never be able to get well enough to go back, but I was wrong. Since February, I have been working.

But, only half days.

I have been trying to get back into the groove of a full time job again, but I have sadly come to the difficult conclusion that it is not possible. I don't have the strength or energy to be anywhere at 7:00 a.m., and it's looking like that might be a permanent condition. I struggle to get up by 9:00 and it takes an hour before the pain meds kick in and I have a hot, soaking bath and I can begin to function. I have about 4 or 5 good hours in me, and then I start to get tired and less effective.

My boss, my district, my substitute, all of them have been wonderful in giving me time to get healthy again, to try to come back. They have done more than I could have ever asked. I can't say enough good things about the way everybody has handled my illness and the way I have been treated - with kindness and consideration.

But, despite my best efforts, despite hearing that bell in my head that says "get up now, somebody is waiting" I am physically not able to do it.

I have faced the reality of my disease but it is much harder to face the reality of my decline.

So, I have given notice. I will work out the school year and work as long as they want me during the transition to a new secretary, but I sometime in the month of June, I will - forever - join the ranks of the unemployed.

Then I begin my new life - staying at home and trying to make meaning within these walls. I am going to be as productive as I can be but with my personality, that is going to take some doing. Without definite tasks that need to be done and some accountability, I usually find myself doing nothing.

Maybe I should look for one of those bells to put on my door.



  1. Ann, this is a huge transition. I too was a working child -- I babysat and worked in my step-Dad's vet clinic, doing everything from greeting clients, to poop scooping to watching surgeries. It was a blast. The world becomes so small when we are ill. Having seen friends and loved ones face this decline, they seem to do best reinventing themselves for their newly limited circumstances. Can't do a desk job? Keep blogging, maybe crafting or whatever you would enjoy. One friend who was a writer wrote a series of notes to each of his kids and to his wife... To be opened when you lose a baseball game... To be opened when you get married... All the moments he feared he would miss but wanted to weigh in on. I trust in your creativity and spirit. You will find your thing to keep you busy and connected as you are able, and you will teach us and make us smile and cry.

  2. I retired in 2007 with stage 4. I really struggle like you do at being accountable. Last year, during one of my good phases I got to go back and work at a k-12 school for a semester. I loved it!! There is never a dull moment! But, last summer the good times were over again. I am feeling better now. At least I think I do, until I get results of new tests. I have had more chemo since then and three surgeries. It is odd when you are down you wish you could do certain things around the house. Then when you feel better,you do not want to do anything because it seems meaningless. So, what I'm saying is I know where you are. But, I am going to take one day at a time and push myself to stay busy!

  3. Ann, I'm truly sorry about your having to quit your job. Particularly one you love so much. I'm just about your age, and started babysitting, selling (awful) potholders door-to-door and delivering papers at the very same age.

    I was looking for a blog with "Pink" in the title when I stumbled across your blog for the first time last weekend. I read it from beginning to end in the next couple of days. It struck a real chord in me. I haven't had breast cancer, but just lost my mom this past year--not from the breast cancer she had, but from the brain surgery she had to remove a metastasized tumor. As much as I wish she were still here, I'm glad she didn't have to go through all the hell you've gone through since your diagnosis. (My mom was a 'glass half empty' kind of woman, and didn't always deal well with health issues.) Her breast cancer was caught very early, so she was able to have a lumpectomy and radiation. Unfortunately, two years later, we were told it had spread to her lungs and then her brain. I don't know why, but your blog was cathartic for me, even though I haven't had the experiences myself.

    So, please, don't ever feel you aren't productive or useful, even if you have had to quit your job. You do an invaluable service, giving a voice to many women who've been through the experience, and helping those who haven't understand the feelings and experiences of those who have. Thank you!

  4. Ann, maybe you could write that book you have in you?

  5. Ann I know you wanted to avoid sorry.

    One thought...if you decided to write for a living, find a cafe and a laptop, and get out of the house if you feel up to it.

    I suspect some great works may lie ahead.

  6. Oh Ann,
    We are women of the same era. I remember babysitting for .50 an hour too and thinking I was really making some money. My first 'real' job was as a waitress at a truck stop - lots of stories in there! I'm so sorry you have to quit a job you love. That stinks. It's so unfair. Focus on taking care of yourself, writing and what ever else you enjoy. You have lots to say and are teaching so many. Your physical world might be getting smaller, but look how your online presence is growing! You already are contributing and "making meaning" every single day. Never forget that. Hugs to you.

  7. Me too. Hard not to work after a long lifetime of working. Cancer seems my full time job right now, hours of my precious life dribbled away waiting and waiting.and waiting for our name to be called. Remember we women have reinvented ourselves manyy times in our lives and can and will do it again when the time comes.

  8. I de-tassled corn in the summers - mmm, think of all those lovely pesticides.... Now, I'm a musician & fitness trainer (specializing in other cancer survivors). My schedule has always been erratic, and sometimes it's quite hard to stay focused & productive. I've found giving myself deadlines or a set schedule can help. (at noon I will practice, at 2 I'll do the dishes.) Sometimes going somewhere can help, too. If you're trying to write or read, schedule a time to go to the library to work. I have found that somehow going somewhere to do something makes it feel more official. Just a couple ideas, hope they might help. Sorry that you're needing to figure this out, transitions are always so hard.

  9. Please be aware that you are helping so many of us with your writing. I will pray that your new life finds you content.

  10. You have helped me also. I'm just another person struggling with cancer thats all but you have helped ME!

  11. I am really glad to know that somehow, my words are helping people. It touches me more than you can know! I don't know HOW I am helping folks, but am glad I am. :)

  12. One door closes, another one opens. I know you will miss your job but maybe you can do something else? From home, when you feel like it, and make money, feel like you are contributing (which is a big part even if you aren't getting rich).

    At some point during chemo a friend of mine told me in no uncertain terms that I needed a hobby. This year I will really (even though I have said this for a couple so far) I will really sell it on Etsy so I can justify knitting and crocheting more. If you had asked me what I thought of knitting and crocheting five years ago - I would have said 'no way, no how, I was awful when I learned when I was ten in 4-H'. Now I have giant bags of knit and crocheted scarves - and still have not figured out how to make anything else.

    But something will come to you. Big hugs.

  13. I know that sense of purpose that comes with steady employment. I truly believe that working through my illness kept me for losing it. I mention this to say that I get it, and recognize the many layers to this loss.

    I hope you continue to write, both for yourself and those of us in the interwebs. As other posters have suggested, maybe it's time for that book? I'd pre-order!! ;)

  14. Ann, you help me by making me laugh! Your writing style and humor slay me every time. I am cackling over here! You are such a wonderful writer. You really have a gift. You have a unique ability to share the best and worst that happens to you with such honesty with humor — it's inspiring. Don't. Stop.

  15. Ann, keep writing. I have a friend who just resigned her job because of leukemia. She's hoping she has time to keep up with hobbies and those aspects of her life that is meaningful to her.

    Definitely keep writing; I agree with Renn.

  16. What a beautiful story about your early jobs. I was also a babysitter, door to door candy salesman, and anything I could come up with to make a few dimes to go to the candy store.

    I am so sorry to hear that you had to give notice at your job. I agree with everyone, keep writing, you are very talented and wicked funny. :)

  17. I have been doing the stage 4 breast cancer dance for 4 1/2 years. You have a great gift with words, don't stop writing. I make myself get out of bed every morning and quickly make the bed. There will come a day where that simply is not possible, till then I will take Winston Churchill's words to heart, "When going thru hell, keep going."

  18. Have you looked into disability, either through the school or the state? Just a thought. Wishing you the best and a long career of writing!

  19. In addition to writing your book, your blog, and turning this blog into a monologue for a Fringe Festival playlet, consider doing some commercial writing online. Elance and Textbroker are legitimate sites that actually pay you and have the advantage of deadlines and accountability. The topics may not shake the earth, and the money is not as good as it should be especially at the beginning, but it is serious work and how much you chose to do is up to you. Perfect for a 4-5 hours of energy a day person who also needs and wants a schedule!

  20. All good ideas. I will definitely check into disability. And, my current job has a terminal illness benefit I will receive. Money should not be a problem for me - just productive things to do.

  21. Hi Ann As usual I love reading your commentary. You really do have a gift. Your entries are sooo
    entertaining and heartfelt. I also gave up working about 9 months ago. I am a medical secretary in an extremely busy office. I still fill in when they need someone for sick days and holidays. In the last few weeks it has been crazy and I have filled in quite a bit. Pretty exhausting. Since I have stopped working I now volunteer in the chemo unit at one of our large hospitals once a week. My breast surgeon also said she feels I would be a great person to volunteer at our breast centre. I might think of that. Other than volunteer stuff I think I might just try some new hobbies, perhaps dance, tennis etc. Who knows but I feel I might as well try new stuff and see where I land. Ann you will get that strength back and when you do keep on doing what you want to do and I agree with the ladies here you are an amazing writer! Keep it up we love it xo

  22. I'm so sorry you have to say goodbye to your job; you have blogged often about your love for the work you do and I know this is a hard decision for you to have to make. But I agree with others who have suggested there might be a book in you, and I hope you will go that route, because your writing really is incredible. Until the end of the post when you confessed its purpose, I was dying over here laughing at your crisply drawn images and snarky humor. You are pee-your-pants funny when you want to be, beautiful and sentimental and sad when you need to be, and I definitely cherish reading your posts.

  23. Blog! You write with such honesty, such poignancy, that people everywhere are impacted by your words. I don't mean to trivialize your situation--I have been a stay-at-home mom for 15 years and NEVER want a career. So, I truly don't understand the desire to work out of the home. All I can say is that I love your writing, I love your words, I love your perspective. Please, please just find time to write in your "spare" time!! Many thanks, Heather


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