Working hard for the money

A couple of hours ago, I walked home from my cashier job. I stand in a kiosk, a little booth in an extremely busy gas station, taking money for gas and cigarettes. (We have the lowest prices around for both of these.) I realized on my way home that I had not sat down once in the previous 8 hours.

Technically, my job does not offer any breaks in eight hours. But, on one of my first full shifts after my training, I had a little fit with my boss Mark about this. He had just gotten all snarky with me because I had hit the “Credit” button for a transaction that actually involved a check. He said, “You just can’t be doing this.” I kind of lost it. “Mark, I have been standing here for six hours, handling transaction after transaction after transaction with barely a chance to breathe. I have had no breaks – no lunch break, nothing. I don’t even think that’s legal. I can’t see straight any more. So before you give me a hard time because I hit a wrong damn key, you had better factor all that in.”

I came to realize shortly after starting this job, a few weeks ago, that I can get away with letting Mark have it when I need to. They have had a terribly hard time keeping people in this job, and Mark is down to me as the cashier. When he doesn’t have a cashier, he has to do that work and falls way behind on his manager tasks.

Even in job-challenged Asheville – which has lost many of its factory jobs, where so many people have moved without jobs for the lifestyle, and where its primary tourist business goes dead in the winter – not many people are willing to do this job. The pay ($6.50 an hour) sucks, even by Asheville standards. The hours are lousy – you either open at 7 a.m. or close at 11 p.m. You work way too hard for this kind of money: there is almost always at least one person at the window, frequently a little line – and they all want to get their change already, get back in their warm cars and go to work or wherever they are going. About the best you can do is to not piss them off, and frequently even this is impossible.

So Mark really needs me more than I need him. I could pretty easily find another retail job paying $6.50 or more, even in the winter. I’m not really sure why I have stayed these several weeks. I tell myself that it’s spiritual discipline, managing the details of the cash register (which genuinely are fairly challenging for this non-detail person) and finding some way to have genuine human interactions with the people in front of me, even if they are there for well less than a minute.

And I’m waiting to be called back on another, much better cashier job.

Mark has now gotten used to the idea that I insist on having at least one break during my 8-hour shift. I’ll say, “Mark, I’ve been standing here for four hours now – I need to get out of this booth. I’m going to do it sometime in the next half hour. I’ll hang up the ‘Bathroom break’ sign if I need to. If you want to take over the register while I’m gone, you need to let me know what time is best for you.”

Mark begrudges all this. His understanding of the job is that you don’t get a break during your shift. You nibble as you need to during your shift and smoke when you get off. But he lives with it because he has no choice, because he doesn’t want me to quit. So I get out of the booth for ten minutes and hang out in the parking lot next door, smoking a cigarette.

The other reason that so many people have quit this job after a day or so is that Mark is a lousy manager. He is in some ways a pretty nice guy, but he has two big failings as a manager:

  1. He has really no systems in place for this job and doesn’t know how to teach.

    Very little is written down and most of your training comes from you asking Mark how to do something. He explains it once and thinks that you should then know it. He doesn’t quite get it that something he has explained to you once, with several impatient people in front of you, on a day when you have had to ask dozens of similar questions, is probably not going to stick. But he gets very impatient when you ask the same question a second time.

    My manager at my other part-time cashier job is an ex-college teacher. Even though he has very little turnover in this relatively cushy job in a hotel gift shop, and though you do dramatically less volume than at my gas station job and the cash-out process is much simpler, he has written a “Procedure Manual” for new employees, in which he outlines the steps for cashing out in a very clear way.

    At my gas station job, I handle about ten times as much money in a shift, can have upwards of 350 face-to-face transactions in 8 hours, and the cash-out process is fairly complicated. About my third day of attempting this, Mark said, “I’m going to leave you on your own to do that today – you should know it by now.” Well, I didn’t. I still had to ask him lots of questions and he was clearly irritated by each of them. He finally said, “The company is only supposed to pay you for 15 minutes to do your cash-out. It’s been taking you 30-40 minutes – you just can’t keep doing that.”

    Again, I allowed myself to lose it. “Mark, all of this should be written down. Because it’s not, I have to keep asking you questions – that takes a long time.” Mark was unapologetic. “I’ve got no time to be writing some manual, you’ve just got to pick it up.”

    The next day when it was time to cash out, I was ready. I said, “Mark, you seem to think there is no need to have this stuff written down. Apparently you are willing to watch each new person struggle with this process, asking you questions that just piss you off. Well, I don’t think I’m any stupider than the next person who will take this job, and this just isn’t working for me. So today I’m going to write the procedure manual that you aren’t willing to write. That means that I’m going to ask you questions about everything I don’t understand, write it all down and, obviously, argue with you. So this is going to take kind of a long time.” And that’s exactly what I did.

    (Clearly, one really good aspect of this job is that I can get away with blowing off steam like this, without being fired. Very few people in jobs like this actually have that luxury.)

  1. Mark has no idea how to give a compliment for a job well done.

He’s all over any “coaching opportunities”. These range from a genuinely helpful “Let me show you an easier way to do that” to a whole variety of challenges and criticisms:

    1. “What’s that doing there?”

    2. “Haven’t you started to do that yet?”

    3. “When you hit that wrong button, it causes all kinds of problems.”

    4. Etc., etc., etc.

I do and have done lots of things right. I actually have mastered most of the details of the job pretty quickly, I’m totally reliable and I have a pretty strong work ethic. I can’t remember even one time in five weeks that Mark has given me a genuine compliment.

Thinking about these two glaring weaknesses in Mark’s managing style, I sometimes think, “No wonder they can’t keep people longer than a day.” But then I think, there are an awful lot of other managers out there who are this bad or worse. Mark is at least basically a nice guy – I know how many managers out there are genuine assholes.

My two current cashier jobs are jobs nine and ten for me in 15 months in Asheville. Some of these jobs I have liked. A couple I liked a whole lot.

My second Asheville job was as a restaurant server. This restaurant is part of a little Southeast chain that describe themselves as “the top end of casual dining”. It’s a genuinely pretty, bright environment with very good food. The managers do a relatively good job of training people and then mostly turn you loose to find your own style and hopefully have fun. And most of the servers do have fun – they work very much as a team and stay in the job, even though the restaurant is often slow and the tips not very good, because they are having a good time.

I had for years wanted to try restaurant serving and was excited about this opportunity. In this job, I was mostly able to genuinely charm my customers, had a lot of fun with my co-workers, and loved the challenge of learning to master the details of serving. But I never got very good at them. Never have I so clearly seen the difficulty of “multi-tasking” or realized how genuinely bad I am at it. I would do a tremendous job with one table and completely forget the other – or not even notice that another party had been seated. When I forgot to bring people their salads or bungled the details of their order, the whole charm thing would wear off in a hurry.

New servers are given just two tables to work with until they get the swing of things. You have to work with more tables than that to make any real tip money (added on to your whopping $2.13 hourly rate). But I never much got the swing of things. It was obvious to everybody that I was just barely holding it together with two tables and that, when I was given a third, I just began to unravel. Management let me stay on – the infamous “Mr. Two Tables” – because I did mostly learn how to take care of those two tables, because I was positive and cheerful and most everyone liked me and could see how hard I was trying, and because the company could afford to pay me the $2.13 an hour.

But finally I started to really wear out from the difficulty of the work, an old shoulder injury got inflamed from the physical challenges, and I just couldn’t afford to work for the $6 an hour or so that I was bringing in. So I quit.

My next favorite job, which I started part-time at the same time as my part-time restaurant job, was as a temporary holiday cashier at a really very neat “General Store”. It was one of several of these stores spread through the Carolinas, with great history, historic department store buildings and cool stock. Their distinguishing market niche involves very personal customer service and “an alternative to standard retail chains”.

This was in some ways a perfect job for me. I loved interacting with the customers, really helped them have a good time shopping – and this often led to them buying more. And there were, overall, lots fewer details to manage than at the restaurant. You did have to try to manage the “dance floor” – to simultaneously stay in touch with various shoppers – but you at least didn’t have to keep track of how they wanted their meat cooked.

I was great at this work. Though this company really does not expect its retail associates to follow a script, Ellen, the general manager of this store, is a fairly cautious, over-controlling person and her staff have tended to also adopt a fairly low-key, cautious approach to customer service. I did not. I had a ball with my customers and they with me. When I had a customer who just did not get my sense of humor and seemed taken aback by it all, I would just flash them a big shit-eating grin and they would decide that I was OK, not a problem, maybe just a little goofy.

My colleagues started to tell me that I was an inspiration to them, that I was showing them that they could be more real and have more fun in this work. One woman said, “I told my husband last night that you are teaching us to give better customer service.” She actually told me that a few minutes after I had been fired.

Ellen had grown progressively more nervous about my “spontaneous” style, about the risky humor I used with customers (and got away with – there was never a complaint from my customers). One day she told me, “Today I want you to only work the cash register – don’t talk with people.” “Don’t talk at all?” “No.” “Not even while we are waiting for their credit card to run?” “No.” I followed her instructions that day, when she was around.

The day before Ellen fired me, I had, in fact, taken a real risk in the way I sassed one of my customers. I would not have recommended this kind of interaction to another colleague with, honestly, less charm than I. But I knew that this customer liked me and would totally get the humor – which he did. But Ellen did not.

I was a temporary holiday associate and was only scheduled to work until right after New Year’s. But the next day, Christmas Eve morning, Ellen met me at the door at 9 a.m. and told me I was fired. Although some part of me was not surprised, other parts of me were shocked, especially by the timing and the abruptness. I chose to avoid any conflict there, on Christmas eve, and stumbled back out into the street a couple of minutes later.

(I did, a week later, ask Ellen for an “exit interview”, at which I gave her feedback about the dynamics I have described above. I felt a responsibility to at least try to help pry her loose from her need to over-control – and to kind of suffocate her workers. I don’t know that she was really able to hear any of this, but it felt good to at least try.)

A couple of my ten jobs I quit in just a couple of days, because I got a “better” job or because they were somehow intolerable. My very first job in Asheville was as a restaurant server at a Cracker Barrel store. The really very nice training manager told me that this chain honestly does have what he called a “Nazi style” of restaurant management. All of your interactions with customers are very tightly scripted and there is definitely the “Cracker Barrel way” to do everything. There is such a problem of staff shoplifting from the retail store that no staff member is allowed to bring in a backpack or even a purse – you are issued a transparent little plastic bag for carrying in any items that you want to put in your locker. I never went back after my first day of training.

One of the seven temporary agencies with which I have registered placed me in a “permanent part-time” job “helping out in the golf pro shop” at a big local resort. “Part-time” meant 7-10 a.m. Monday through Friday and “helping out” turned out to mean janitor work – sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing and mopping in the men’s and women’s locker rooms. My boss (the golf pro) was pretty nice, but my shoulder injury acted up again – and I basically couldn’t handle the humiliation of it all. I quit after three days and I had the impression that neither my boss nor the temp. agency were surprised.

At the same time as this job, I walked into a local Sears store and immediately got hired as a sales associate in the electronics department. I mostly like all these kinds of gadgets and thought I would have fun learning about them and helping people find what is right for them. It took me about three days to learn that there is really no way to stay current with all the new items coming out on your shelves, that you need to bluff like you know a whole lot more than you do, and that the bottom line – duh! – is to sell. Not “serve customers”, but “sell”. And the experienced salespeople, my mentors, mostly started feeling a little slimy to me. Oh, and yeah, I hate shopping malls.

One thing these jobs all had in common was that they paid very little – none more than $8 an hour. Barely enough to make living expenses, even living as simply as I currently am. Definitely no money for discretionary purposes.

I haven’t always done this kind of work. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from a wonderful university. After about twenty years of work as a psychologist, I shifted into organizational development consulting with large companies and government agencies. I never acknowledged being “burned out” by my work as a psychologist – and I still don’t really know if I was or not. My story was that I wanted to try to help systems and organizations change, not just individuals. And I got pretty good at this consulting work, also – in some ways I had a fairly illustrious fifteen-year career, before the combination of the Enron scandal and a national economic downturn made it very difficult to get consulting work. And this time there was no question that I was also burned out.

When I moved to Asheville 15 months ago, I was kind of desperately in need of a fresh start – I wanted to “re-invent myself”. I grew up working class. I decided to take my finely honed customer service skills into “front-line customer service jobs” – to “become the working-class hero I was always meant to be”.

I have received so many blessings from doing this work, even though my other jobs here have included:

  • Working in a telephone call center – sitting in a cubicle all day, taking one call after another (the target is to complete them in three minutes or less) from angry customers calling to cancel their service. Very grim and stressful.

  • Driving shuttle vans for the county “Mobility” service – taking handicapped, elderly and poor people to doctor appointments, etc. I loved serving our clients, but the pace was, again, tremendously pressured – often the computer spit out a schedule that required you to get to the other side of town in about two minutes. I was constantly negotiating with the dispatcher about who else could cover a pick-up that I was not going to make on time.

  • Temping as a receptionist in a little accounting office. The work here was easy – they weren’t going to train a temp on how to use their company systems – but the commute was hellacious. It took about 90 minutes each way and you were always at risk of missing your connecting bus.

  • My hotel gift shop job. The best thing about this job has been getting to know the behind-the-scenes life of working in a hotel. There is a genuine camaraderie among all the employees, in all the different departments – front desk, back office, bellhops, restaurant and room service, housekeeping, maintenance, etc. And I love kibitzing with my customers.

The primary blessing from all this work has been the opportunity to really identify with my working-class brothers and sisters. I will never look at any of these kinds of jobs – restaurant sever, retail, cashier, gas station, hotel, admin/receptionist, janitor, driver, call center – in the ways I did before.

I have for my whole life carried a deep identification with my blue-collar roots. I was in the first generation of my family to go to college. When I got my Ph.D., being called “Doctor” always felt weird. When a friend brought me to his upscale health club, I felt that, walking through the men’s locker room with only a towel, I had the words “blue-collar – doesn’t belong here” tattooed on my forehead.

When I got my first corporate job, I realized that one reason I was compelled to try this work was that I had been conditioned in my family to believe that the business world was someplace we didn’t belong. I expected people in this company to be on to me immediately and to somehow force me back out. It took me a while to get it that these were mostly just people like me. (And, fortunately for me, that first company was AT&T, which at least then had lots of managers who had started out very working class and had risen through the ranks.)

But my experiences of the last year and a half have really nailed down for me again my identity as a working-class guy. I feel so much kinship with all the other people around me doing blue-collar and/or subsistence wage work. Not that I ever much did this before, but I will never again hassle a cashier, a call center CSR (customer service rep.), a restaurant server, etc. My work in the gas station kiosk feels just one step up from taking tolls in one of those little booths on the toll road – I now feel identified with those folks, too.

Another key similarity in all of these jobs, besides the amazingly low wages, is that you work way too hard for the pitiful pay. In the back of my head, I frequently hear the Donna Summer disco song “She Works Hard for the Money”. When I sit on the bus on the way to work, most of my fellow riders are going to minimum wage (or slightly above), dead-end jobs like the one I am going to.

(In Chicago, people from all economic strata ride busses and el’s. Not here in Asheville – if you have any kind of money, you drive your car to work. The busses have limited routes, mostly run only every hour and not after 6:30 p.m. And, if you have any money, you just don’t take busses. Busses are for poor people.)

Even my hotel gift shop job, which truly is mostly pleasant and not very hard, is ripping you off by paying $6.50 an hour. My boss there, again mostly a nice guy, likes to say, “This job is very easy – it’s a $6.50 an hour job.” Well, maybe for a high school student – maybe. But he doesn’t want a high school student in this job – he wants an adult, and one who is comfortable conversing, sometimes at length, with all the varied guests who stay in the hotel. I often think, “If you need an adult in this job, pay a rate that is not so disrespectful to an adult.”

One evening, my friend Bob reached me at my gas station job. It was after nine p.m. and – having started at three p.m. – the steady stream of people at my kiosk window, paying for their gas and cigarettes, was finally starting to slow down. Not dead, by any means, but slower – I finally got some chances to breathe. I attached my earbud headset to my cell phone and Bob and I had a great, long conversation. Bob did not mind all the little brief interruptions to our call as I dealt with customers. He had grown up in a professional family and had never done anything but professional work – accounting and then management consulting. This was a window unlike he had ever had into the work of a cashier. He said it was “like a documentary”.

For many of my friends, staying in touch with me over the last many months has similarly been the closest they have come to real blue-collar work. My psychologist friend MaryEllen told me recently that talking to me has completely changed her perception of gas station cashiers. Even if, in Chicago, most of them speak limited English, she has an entirely new understanding of and compassion for what their days are like.

I think, sometimes, that if more of the decision makers in our society and government had spent a year like my last one, many of the conversations about various issues in our society might have a different tone – at least about things like the minimum wage and all the “illegal” immigrants working in our restaurants, factories, etc.

But so many of us do not have this perspective. Even growing up blue-collar and carrying a strong identity with this class, my working life has, until recently, been sheltered from any direct experience with this kind of “menial” work.

So what insights have I gleaned from all this recent work experience? Most clearly, just what I have named above: the pay sucks (it typically is not really enough to scrape out any kind of a life), the work is often very hard, if not humiliating – and most of the customers you deal with just don’t understand. I am continually amazed at how many people, apparently irritated and frustrated from the stresses of their day, seem to feel that the gas station attendant is expendable. They can vent their frustration at new policies like paying in advance for your gas, as if this person in front of you truly were a robot, not needing or deserving of any human respect.

If I ever did have any shred of this kind of attitude, I sure don’t now. But what can I do with these new insights, aside from treating my fellow humans who do this work with respect and even a little kindness? I’m not sure. I guess I can tell these new realizations to anyone who is open to hear. And write these words – maybe they will make some kind of difference.

“God is a ‘he’?!”

This encounter was only a little bit playful: I gave this woman some serious, only slightly playful shit for maintaining that God is a “he”.

It started innocent enough – genuinely playful, only slightly disrespectful.  It was early on a Saturday and I asked this 40ish woman my stock question: “What are you looking forward to this weekend?”

“I’m looking forward to praising God!”

Now I was not yet trying to make fun of her – I was totally tongue-in-cheek, but I was really just getting with the excitement and exuberance of her energy: “Wow, that’s great!  Do you think you could stick around here this afternoon and we could do some of that here?  That sounds like fun!”

I think she knew better than to join in with that bullshit, and I don’t remember the next thing or two she said.  The next thing that came into focus for me was that she called God a “he”.  A little later, I said to my friend Jeffrey, when he asked me why I felt a need to get into all this with her, that I was just manic and it was just too juicy – I couldn’t resist a good tongue-in-cheek faux fight.  I was channeling my dear departed mother.

God as an old man

“So God is ‘he’ for you.”

“Yes, of course.”

“You sound pretty sure of that.”

“Totally sure.”


“I just am.”

“Who told you that?”

“It’s in the Book.”

“What book?”

“The Book – the Bible.”

(Probably my most provocative, most blasphemous statement…) “Oh, that book is so old!!”

Them is definitely fighting words, but I think she maybe just couldn’t believe what she had just heard – was kind of in shock – because there was a long pause.  In that pause, I had a chance to organize what I believe.  “No!  No he, no she, nothing like that.  God is something altogether different.”

Up until now, this woman had mostly acted off-balance, confused by me.  This was the first time she got really angry.  She leaned in close to me and with a lot of intensity said “God is everything!”

I think this maybe had an opposite reaction on me than she expected.  I leaned back, got thoughtful, and kind of gently said, “Wow, that’s cool – I like that.  I can genuinely get behind that”.

With that, she seemed to feel satisfied – it kind of made her whole, after feeling so misunderstood.  I also felt satisfied – after all this conflict, it was really kind of a relief to reach a point where we could genuinely be in synch with each other.

Also at this point, her large order of groceries – which had made it possible for us to have this extended interaction – were all bagged up.  I think we both knew better than to say one more word, that might open this can of worms back up.  She paid me her money and – as far as I could tell, contented – went on her way.

I can think of no other reason than this good ending why she didn’t go to a manager and complain about me – certainly women (usually middle-aged or older women) have done so for much less – except my one second hypothesis, which my friend Jeffrey thought was the real reason: she was just way too confused by the whole encounter to know what she wanted to say.

Anyway, I just at that point – almost as soon as she left – decided “If I’m not getting written up for this, I’m not getting written up for anything today.  I’m having a charmed day and I can do or say anything I want.”  And I pretty much did – and I didn’t.


Majo tweets!

I am using Twitter to announce my Earth Fare schedule on a daily basis – and last week I twice did add a shift with just one day notice.  ( I also do announce my schedule weekly on Facebook, some time on Sunday – when I remember to do so.)

So if you want:

  1.  your Majo hug, even if it pisses off the people waiting in line.  I love to reassure the young woman waiting in line for her groceries turn next, “You don’t have to do this.”
  2. a new validation, which it is my mission to deliver each time someone comes through my line. (I don’t literally manage this every time, but it is my goal.) Today a young woman at Jason’s Deli said, ” I remember you – you’re the Earth Fare cashier who told me ‘You have a perfect nose’.  You don’t forget something like that.”  I neglected to ask her if her life has been in some way better for that.
  3. some little word of wisdom, like “the more foolish you can be every day, the better.”  I sense there are some coming that are even deeper than that :).

Come to my twitter feed: @johnmajo

If you do not yet have Twitter, getting it may open up whole new worlds for you.  Wouldn’t it be great (for some of you :)) to know, day to day, what Elizabeth Warren is saying – or Kamala Harris or Corey Booker? Even more fun than some other politicians who are even more closely identified with their Twitter feeds.  Marianne Williamson or #45?  Majo John Madden or I don’t know – Soupy Sales.

Soul friends

Last year I lived in seven houses in ten months.  Some of them were roommate squabbles – I hated them or they hated me.  One was a landlord issue: he hated us and we hated him. One of them hated my little five pound yorkipoo dog – the completely adorable Toni, who was clearly a menace.  This whole saga was as harrowing to my friends following my adventures as it was for me. They were afraid to read their Facebook for fear of what I might have posted now.

So when  my friends heard on Facebook that I was moving into the famous Battery Park Apartments, they did victory dances all over Asheville. Famous for the location – right downtown, directly across from the Grove Arcade. Famous for the amazing history of the old hotel.  Famous for the year to three years it took people to get in. (I was lucky and waited only a year.) Famous for nice large remodeled 1 bedroom apartments right down town rent controlled need-based senior living charging rents that all over town would get you a studio with free cockroaches.  Famous for the reputation that you could live there three months and not see anybody under sixty. Famous for the word that nobody ever moved out except on a gurney.building front

My friends were so relieved that I had landed there that a month later when in one of my bad moods I told one of them that I needed to move out, he said, “No you don’t.. No you fucking don’t.  If you so much as attempt to move one stick of furniture out of that fucking apartment I will come down there myself and rip that chair out of your feeble old hands and sit on your fucking chest until you get your head out of your fucking ass and agree to stay put.”  And then he told me what he really felt.

I have bipolar disorder that in 20 years my meds have never gotten under control.  I have no middle ground – I’m up or I’m down. In the interest of fairness, my raging biochemistry tends to give me roughly the same amount of time up as down.  In the really bad old days after I was first diagnosed, I once went six months up and six months down. I don’t know which mood was worse: flat on the floor or through the roof.  A few years ago I was for year consistently 2-3 days up and then 2-3 days down. When I was down, I knew that in just a couple of days I would be up again – so I knew I could ride it out.  But my life was total chaos. Lately I’ve been 2-3 weeks up and then 2-3 weeks down.

Some parts of my moods are relatively predictable.  When I’m moving – which has been every other week lately – I gear up for the move.  At four a.m. I’m throwing shit in boxes. After a move, within a week I am crashed flat on the floor.  As I was moving into the Battery Park Apartments and for the next week, I loved everything. I loved the layout of my apartment, I loved the views out my fifth floor windows. living room

So for a week I liked most everything.  OK, except my neighbors. What am I doing living with all these old people?  Yeah, at 72 I cleared the bar for living there ten years ago, but I’m not like really old.  I’m a young person walking around disguised in an old suit. So I kinda, in that first week, stayed clear of my neighbors.

Then, after a week of being up and mostly liking everything, I crashed and hated everything – especially my neighbors.  Old – I’m not old. Or disabled, mostly crazy – I just have a little bipolar disorder. But the symbol of what I wanted to avoid in my neighbors – the woman I most wanted to avoid (she helped me to write this part – and insisted I use her real name) was the woman out in front of the building – all day every day, in overalls every day.  Chain smoking all day every day. Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the building. Like light the next cigarette off the last cigarette just before it burns your fingers – all day every day. After long hard struggles over a couple of years to get off of cigarettes, I had eight years ago gotten free. Her especially I wanted to stay clear of.

So I went three weeks down.  Then I had a stroke. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t leave me paralyzed – or with any long term symptoms except some balance issues, and the risk of having another.

Three days later, I checked out of the hospital a new man. I had had my brush with death and had come back from the brink.  I was more than happy to be alive. My depression had passed and I was again wonderfully up. I wanted life – all of it. I wanted to embrace my new apartment – including my neighbors.  So when the friend who had been caring for Toni picked me up at the hospital and dropped us off in front of Battery Park apartments with my little overnight bag there were no parking spots. “No I’ll be fine getting myself in, really”.  

In front of the building, the icon of Battery Park Apartments – the woman with the overalls and the cigarettes.  She looked too young to live there – and it turned out she was. She had gotten in for a disability ten years before.

“Ok, I’m gonna make friends with her first.”  “Hey, how ya doin?… Nice day, huh?… Can I bum a smoke?”

From there began one of the most amazing friendships of my life.  I discovered that – although her schooling, back in Mexico and here in Chicago was sparse and lousy – Diana was extremely smart – brilliant in some areas, interesting, a great communicator… able and willing to share deeply about herself as well as being a world-class listener.  Extraordinarily generous.

And adored my Toni.  Most everybody actually did – but Diana more than anybody.  And Toni, who mostly loved everybody, especially loved Diana.with diana

And we smoked together.  What started as sharing a smoke, then a couple, became a full-fledged habit.  Two days after having that first cigarette, I went to the smoke shop to buy one pack so I wouldn’t be mooching off of Diana, who clearly was of modest means. (I had no idea.)  When it was my turn at the counter, I totally shocked myself by ordering three packs. “Who is that voice?” When I got outside, I talked to that voice.  “What are you doing? I just want a few cigarettes.” The voice said back, “Who are you trying to kid? You’re in it now.”

Soon Diana became Aunt Diana for Toni.  Diana sat for her when I went out. Toni, who for some reason had stopped sleeping in my bed, napped with Diana.  Toni, who never really cuddled with me, with Diana would sleep here – up against the side of her head.

Diana then went from Aunt Diana to christening herself “Mama”. It accurately reflected her relationship with Toni.  We became co-parents. Never a hint of romance on either side: We have checked in with each other a couple of times. We are blessedly clear of that. But we had become an ersatz family.  When I announced to our smoking posse – all spokes in the wheel to Diana’s hub, people love to be with her – in front of the building that I had to leave to take Toni to the vet, to find out why she was walking even less than usual, Diana asked “Can I go?”  She dropped everything and didn’t smoke until we got out of the vet’s office. After running a lot of expensive tests, the vet said, “She has congestive heart failure. Like people with heart disease, she could have a relatively long life or she could die of a heart attack tomorrow.’

Diana and I digested the news together, we grieved together.  Our baby might not make it. Our little angelic being – who had always seemed to inhabit a rarified atmosphere, above this earthly plane – now seemed more precious than ever.  

Then came the liver disease.

Diana: “I still have a good feeling.  I think she will live a long life.” Me: “Her liver is shot, Diana – she’s not going to be here much longer.”

I still thought we might have her a few weeks longer.  When two days later my friends Karen and Lisa convinced me that she was looking terrible, that it was time to let her go, i realized how much denial I also was living in.  As I grieved, I feared what this conversation with Diana would be like. Perhaps, finally, this would be our first big fight. When I told Diana it was time to let Toni go, she was amazing, astonishing.  “Hey, you’re the real parent. You know her better than I. You hear her labored breathing all night long. You’ve got to make the call.” And she really, truly, totally fell in behind the plan.

I arranged for the Four Paws mobile euthanasia group to come to my apartment the next morning, Monday morning at ten a.m. I called a few of Toni’s favorite people to come be with us.  Amazingly, four of five were free – and each loved Toni so much that there was no question of them coming.

At the releasing ceremony, Diana was as strong as I thought she would be.  She held her baby tenderly. At one point, one of my friends gently said to her, “Maybe you could let Majo hold her now.” I had not even noticed that she might be taking too long a turn. The next day, we wheeled Toni in the stroller she loved three blocks over to Montford, to bury her in Amanda’s back yard, which she also loved.  I dug the grave, we together laid Toni in it. We cried.

A week later, i shocked everyone by saying that – still clearly grieving over Toni – I was going to quit smoking.  I had tried several times lately and failed bitterly. “I’m going to do it the right way this time – get lots of support from the state ‘Quit Line’ help resources.”  Toni’s death made me want life more than ever. “These things are killing me. I can’t breathe right any more.”

Diana and I had the conversation.  We no longer had our baby to pull us together. Toni died on October 1. If i stop smoking on my quit date of October 29, what about us?  I was very clear that there would be no more children to pull us together. “I won’t be ready to let another dog into my life and my heart for a minimum of one to two years.” Diana said, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.”  And in some ways she has. We no longer start our days with that first smoke of the day at 7 a.m. I no longer make several trips a day out to the front stoop. If there are more than two smokers out there at a time, my sobriety feels threatened and I stay away.  I hate the cold, while – even with her Mexican blood – Diana endures it out there most of the day.

But we both crave and continue this friendship.  I will leave the building by the front door even when my car is in the parking lot out back.  I will endure the cold for a while to talk with her. Her smoking for some reason never threatens my sobriety.  We go down to World Coffee on a warm sunny day and sit outside and she has six cigarettes. We wrote this story together.  

We are soul friends and we know it.  We will never let each other go – until one of us goes out on a gurney.

I have been totally clean of cigarettes since October 26 and have not had a craving. The Quit Line counselor the other day asked me the two questions: “How much do you want to stay off of cigarettes – 1 to 10?”  “Ten, no question.” “How sure are you that you will stay off them?” “Eight.” I could weep.

Hey, if you have any time after the show, you could walk with me the three blocks back to Battery Park to meet Diana.  Diana hates crowds and knew this was not for her. She was my first audience for the finished story the other night and gave the whole thing her blessing.  She’s sitting for Panchita aka Pancho – a five year old adorable female chihuahua, my totally loyal Mexican sidekick that I adopted two months ago.

Better now

Two nights ago, Tuesday night, I had two 30 minute naps – each punctuated by a bizarre, disturbing dream that woke me up.  Then, around 1 in the morning, I got up and just stayed up.

I was coming off four weeks of being depressed – more grimly so each week.  I knew that, according to my personal statistics, I was due to shift up any time – but there was hanging out there the specter of the winter, when I was depressed for four months, progressively retreated to my bed and was finally hospitalized when it seemed I was on the razor’s edge of taking my life.

In the last few months, a new personal pattern for me is that the night before my energy is about to shift up again, I am unable to sleep all night.  So Wednesday morning I carried hope that my cruel biochemistry was about to lift me out of the depths of depressive pain.  But the other, even more telltale sign of finally coming up for air, is that the contracted pain throughout my whole body that is the most central symptom of my depression, goes away – totally.  Poof, I suddenly don’t hurt.  But Wednesday morning I still had the pain, so I didn’t know what was going on – what I could hope for.  But the pain did finally let up and go completely away Wednesday afternoon and I have clearly moved into a manic episode.with Jenn G 2-12-17

Mania has, for me over the last few years, become a very positive state.  walk3It doesn’t cycle way up high – doesn’t go out of control.  I don’t spend a lot of money (mostly never did – once bought nine pairs of nice socks on sale, but that was the most extravagant I ever got).  I no longer start big, ambitious, unrealistic projects that there is no hope of me ever bringing to fruition – especially when totally non-functional depression inevitably follows the mania.  I sometimes surprise almost everybody’s expectations of this too-nice guy by telling off or cussing out some jerk who is totally begging for it.  I don’t suffer fools gladly.  I really like this part of it.  Mardi Gras

Today, the day after coming up to breathe, my dear friend Amanda Graves was asking me about the previous weekend – which had been totally lost to bed, despair and isolation, easily the worst two days of the whole four weeks.

“So you had no work, nothing to keep you up.  You were totally incapable of reaching out to your friends.  Would it have helped if we had reached out to you?”  (I had made a lunch date with her and then cancelled it.)

“Absolutely – even if I might have resisted that reaching out.  Remember the previous Sunday, when – even though we had definite plans to go to the Tall Tales Isis concert with my friends Joan D’Entremont, Al Schlimm and Chris Rosser Sunday night – I told you in no uncertain terms that I had avoided Jubilee that morning and would be going back to bed by 7 and skipping the concert that night.  Because you were right there in front of me, you were able to beat me around the head and shoulders and get me to go – and I ended up having a real nice time.  When I was bopping all around the table in perfect time with the very upbeat music, you said ‘You don’t look very depressed now.'”

Now that I’m up and again wonderfully extroverted, I will naturally find great ways to connect with people.  Two days ago I told Lauren Fortuna that I could not provide a poetry “gift” at a Jubilee Sunday service because I had no inspiration and that – even after 15 years of a lot of commitment to Jubilee – I was liable to not get it together to go to Howard’s roast on Saturday night or final service on Sunday morning.  Now I know that I will go to both of those very festive, life-affirming events and will get back to Lauren about the poetry gift – which poem has not appeared yet, but I now trust will manifest itself.

How long will I continue to feel good?  A couple of months ago, after about two months down, I had an up cycle that lasted five days.  That seemed cruelly unfair.  But I have some reason to hope that I will be on the right side of the dirt for 2-3 weeks.

I hope to spend some wonderful time with many of you in these weeks – and maybe make some plans for how we can stay connected when I again lose the capacity to reach out to you.


I’m suffering. The core symptom of depression for me is physical contraction, painful tightness throughout my whole body as if every cell is in a vice.  Mood change sometimes follows this lead symptom – maybe 2-4 days later, sometimes not at all.  But is the discouragement a side-effect of experiencing so much pain?

This is my third week of depression/contraction, with the pain building steadily each day.  Not as much pain as some people experience – and with many of them (I think of a friend my age at church who has very painful back problems) it is genuinely chronic, there is no respite – whereas I know that inevitably (hopefully soon) I will get a few days or a couple of weeks respite.  The surest sign that my energy has turned up (“manic”) is that the contracted pain is reliably, totally, instantly gone – poof!  Sometimes long before I get speedy – if I do at all.

Psychiatrists and psychotherapists typically don’t know what I’m talking about when I relate this – they have never heard of it or read about it in their journals.  I went through a long period where I no longer talked about it because I had grown discouraged about mental health professionals understanding me.  I have encountered some other folks with bipolar disorder who recognized this phenomenon and said that they too experienced it – but maybe never before put it in words because they never heard anyone else put it into words.

Today, as I walked the Mountain-to-Sea Trail behind Monika’s house with little Pancho, my body was so tight that I had trouble walking.

But I’m not sad or discouraged.  I am as happy and encouraged about the direction of my life as I have been for the last several weeks:

  • I am really happy to have my job back at Earth Fare.  I don’t enjoy every minute – or even necessarily most of the minutes.  But I enjoy a lot of them – and that’s enough.  In some of those minutes I feel like I am living out my mission to make grocery shopping creative and fun, to validate the customers who come through my line, and to influence the younger cashiers in these directions.
  • I am thrilled to be liberating myself from Battery Park Apartments.  A very bright and resourceful friend told me the other day that, after a year there, it really is working for her – and for some people it really does.  But it was not working for me.  I had to move through some powerful inner resistance to get clear on just how bad it was for me – largely by being high-rise apartments and downtown – but I did finally get clear and within three weeks of that final clarity, by virtue of Monika’s generous offer for house-sitting, have extricated myself from it.  I’m on the ground, one doorway away from the outdoors, surrounded by trees. With a little luck, I will move into my long-term digs straight from here and never again sleep on the fifth floor – so far removed from the ground (which for this airy, ungrounded guy is a big deal).
  • I am very excited to be moving in with Tom Kilby, my all-time favorite roommate, and his wonderful son Ian.  Tom KAfter negotiating some details over a number of days, we just finally got to a solid “yes” yesterday, and today the three of us gathered at the house in Candler to continue our dialogue about what it means to live together.  So much open conversation right up front bodes well.
  • Robert had told me he didn’t know if his Wi-Fi would reach the patio out back, but just a couple hours ago – having purchased a l-o-n-g extension cord – I discovered that it does!  This means that – after a year of being imprisoned in an apartment with windows that open 3 inches – for the next two months I can spend most of my laptop time outside.

So I’m in a lot of physical pain that makes it hard to get up in the morning and hard to resist the call of the bed (let me get unconscious/escape the pain!) early in the evening (like now, 6:08 – thinking I may go to bed when I finish this, or maybe now, without finishing it).

And happy!

Why I’m getting off of meds

Today I will be asking my psychiatrist for her support and guidance as I gradually wean myself off of psych meds.  This process will probably take several months.  Here are some of the words I hope to remember to say to her today. Maybe I will just start the session by reading this. It takes 3 minutes – my insurance is paying for the 30 minutes. It’s my life at stake.

My dear friend Amanda – deeply grounded social worker and psychotherapist of many years – likes to say to me, “You have taken these meds for 30 years. You feel totally sure that, aside from 6 months on your first med ever, Zoloft, none of them has ever helped you. But you keep taking them – why? You know there are risks from taking such powerful medications for so long. Why don’t you just get off them all and find out who you really are?”headache-pain-pills-medication-159211

That last sentence came not from Amanda, but from me. Why do I continue to take these meds that I feel sure are not helping me? Guilt and shame. I feel that anybody who experiences such powerful and painful ups and downs “should” take meds – it’s just assumed in this technological society, right? And, when people – hearing for the first time that I have bipolar disorder – ask me, so often almost the first words out of their mouths, if I take meds, I want to be able to say, “Yes.” To say “No” would risk their disapproval, their judgment that I am irresponsible. Most of them assume innocently that meds make these things better – not realizing that for a lot of us, not just me, they really don’t.

I have recently taken some very big steps towards my own integrity. Since I returned to the job I loved, but gave up in order to keep my current subsidized apartment – a move that so many of my loving friends strongly pushed a year ago – and am making plans to leave this apartment, which i have never liked, the life force is flowing back into me. That life, which had drip-drip-dripped out of me for the last year, leaving me finally so depleted that twice in three months I drifted precariously close to ending my own life.

Now that I am reclaiming my integrity my listening to my own inner guidance, my inner landscape is no longer one of darkness. Even during the difficult biochemical turndown that hit me in the last week, I am stronger and more optimistic than I have been in years. The choices I have recently made towards my integrity have released a new level of confidence, integrity and assertiveness that have me handling all manner of little decisions and interactions in ways that support my aliveness.

The next step towards my aliveness, my integrity – quite obvious to me – is to stop taking the pills that I resent, that I have never trusted, that I think do me no good, and that have so many subtle and obvious side-effects. I want to get off them and see who I really am. Any risks in doing so are, to me right now, totally acceptable.