From Riches to Rags and Back

There is something we humans love about a good rags to riches story such as Annie. We equally love the often comical and sometimes a bit tragic riches to rags story. Consider the popularity of such an award-winning show as Schitt’s Creek. Or, another personal favorite for riches to rags stories is the 1980s movie Trading Places starring Dan Akroyd as a rather pompous, over-indulgent, spoiled, and entitled middle manager of the stock trades. I love both Eddie Murphy as Valentine and also can really appreciate the naivete and complete comic despairing bewilderment of Dan Akroyd’s character in his unceremonious fall from grace. As Schitt’s Creek and Trading Places evolve, we see the protagonists go from casual contempt for others perceived to be below their status to eventually embracing true and loyal friendships they make with kind souls along the way that help them out. These other characters such as Jamie Lee Curtis’ hooker with a heart or Stevie the owner of the run-down motel and Roland, the town mayor of Schitt’s Creek, we come to love them because they show true compassion perhaps mixed with a bit of humor at the stumblings and foils of the protagonists as they learn to perilously navigate life without the riches and shallow relationships they had so earlier enjoyed.

For the past 7 years, my life was a riches to rags story.

I grew up privileged. My father was the Vice President for the local university and respected all over the community. My siblings and I were educated in private school. My little brother grew up to be an Engineer at Tesla. My little sister became an Engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency. My other sisters each became a Pharmaceutical Doctor at KU Med and an Information Systems Manager for a legal law firm in Kansas City. We were all overachievers.

I became a Human Resource Director for a large manufacturing plant with 300 employees. I had a Master’s in HR and was working towards an MBA as well as HR licensure. In the HR field, Director is the top. You can’t get any higher than that. At 35 years old, I was a middle manager and one of only a few females that had risen that far. I was a career woman and I thought I was top of the top. I was in line to become the President of the local HR chapter and rubbed elbows with many HR professionals at big conferences in Kansas City, Tulsa, and Dallas. At the regional HR conference in Dallas, they even referred to me as a “rock star.” I feigned humility but inside I was proud. I had big plans for the future. I was gonna go far, kid.

Or so I thought…..

I got canned.

Not just canned but more like dumpster fire canned.

Fired. F-I-R-E-D.

Not just fired in a polite way but in a harsh and pack everything and leave immediately way.

It was embarrassing.

I had been a white collar office worker all my adult life. I never had a bad performance appraisal prior. I had never ever experienced getting laid off or fired…..ever until then. It was quite a shock to my overachiever system to say the least. To add fuel to the bonfire of my personal shame, it happened with dubious circumstances.

I was fired for performance. 4 months prior a female lower level worker came to me 4 times about a circumstance in the company that was controversial. I tried to push it under the rug as advised but in the end, I checked into what she was saying. That employee quit the company that very day. 4 months later, I was fired too. I’d like to say that decision I made was a bad move on my part but in hindsight now, I realize I did the right ethical thing at the moment despite the negative consequences. I don’t regret it…….now anyway. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regret it for years prior.

It stung….it felt like a public humiliation and injustice.

I can write this now looking back on it from a happier place and almost laugh at the comical despair of my unceremonious belly buster from the high dive of corporate business. In time, I learned some harsh lessons about who I could rely on. I applied in earnest for HR job after HR job, even begging some friends from the chapter I had been an officer to…….to no avail.

I think that was the hardest lesson to learn of all.

6 months I sat on unemployment for the first time in my adult life until I was thrown a horrendously bad temp job. Eventually, I ended up on the line.

What does it mean to be on the line?

I became a blue collar worker in the factory environment at starting pay of 9 bucks an hour. After all, I still had a large house mortgage and bills to pay and children to get through school. This job came to me through a friend of my sister. I still work there today. In September, I will celebrate 5 years of service.

It was not an easy transition. My hat goes off to blue collar workers. They have a much harder time than they get credit for. Over the years, I grew to respect them more and more. My hands became rough like the hands of a mechanic. My arms became tough from cuts from the glass I worked with. My biceps and triceps grew to double their previous size from hauling boxes of glass. I learned a craft, a valuable skill. I became for the first time in my adult life, a real essential part of the team and that is what I learned most of all from the blue collar workers….to work together as one team to get the job done whatever it takes and however hours we gotta work. I developed a real sense of pride in my work, my craftsmanship, my quality, my speed. I didn’t have to prove to anyone that my job was needed. The work was physically exhausting at times but very rewarding and I gained true friends.

It was not without it’s challenges at first. The line workers had heard about me before I arrived and were determined to not let me think I was better than them. I remember struggling with cutting glass the first day on the job and overhearing a worker who later became my friend, say with a cynical sneer, “Looks like boss hired a real genius with this one.” I went through a sorta school of hard knocks to earn my status there today. And it has become my favorite place of employment and I am deeply grateful for it today.

When you go from riches to rags, you learn who your friends are. Some of it will surprise you as it did me waiting on unemployment for old HR colleagues to throw me a lifeline.

One good friend was a woman named Sandra Main. She’s kinda the reason I got back into writing. Of course, I did it for practical reasons to pay bills and help my family stay afloat on a blue collar paycheck. But Sandra invited me to an entrepreneur meeting and she encouraged me to take up writing again to supplement my income.

As the years went by, due to the mercies of good bosses at the factory and a good supervisor, I stayed on through some seasonal layoffs. And as I continued to slog day in and day out through the carts of work with tenacity, I was rewarded with pay increases.

That fall from middle to bottom of the heap did not last too painfully long, thank goodness.

Today, I am glad to say I do quite well at the company. It is a good place to work.

I am grateful for the entire 7 year experience of riches to rags and back up again.

It taught me humility. It taught me reliance on faith. It taught me grit and determination. But more than that, it taught me about friendship with coworkers/family/good people in the community, marriage commitment through struggles, and I learned not to be such an overly arrogant, over-pompous, overindulgent, overconfident…..ass.

I really can’t describe it any other way.

I was a major donkey ass.

And yes, I’m smiling at that as I type cause it’s 100% true. I mean don’t get me wrong, I sure ain’t perfect but I’m way better than before. Geesh.

Learning to see other perspectives, I really got a good look at what I was before my fall from grace and honey, it was ridiculous (in a funny sort of way).

Just like Dan Akroyd in Trading Spaces or the Rose family in Schitt’s Creek, I think the whole experience was kinda a necessary lesson towards true authentication.

Looking back, I just laugh for the most part. Some days I do get a little down on this previously bad turn of fate but that feeling does not linger long. I’ve learned to forgive. I’ve learned to heal. I’ve stretched myself in ways I would have never ever done if the universe hadn’t held my feet to the fire.

Looking back, it was the best damn thing that could have ever happened to me.

Happy ending.

Coincidence

In his book, Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey talks about love. He compares it to archery. He says, “The arrow doesn’t seek the target. The target draws the arrow.” He was probably talking about romantic love.

Many of us spend much of our lives chasing romantic love like Wiley Coyote and the Roadrunner. It evades us when we force it. But if we go with the flow enjoying life and the present moment, if we stop to “smell the roses” so to speak….that love will come sit down right beside us and we don’t even have to try…much like the Roadrunner going “beep beep” to get Wiley’s attention.

Bottomline, as I get older I don’t chase love as much. For one, my knees are bad. Chasing is exhausting and makes you want to drop an anvil on someone’s head with frustration when you fail. For another reason, there’s no point in it. Policing a man or woman gets you nowhere. Love will come to us when love is ready.

Beep, beep….

But tonight, I talk of a different kind of love…the love from pets. There have been only a few times in my life that I have been drawn to something or someone like a strong magnet. One of those times is the day I first encountered my second dog.

When I saw him, I knew in my heart I wanted that dog. I didn’t go to Petsmart to get a dog. That was the last thing on my mind. I was there to get fish food. I had brought my son and one of his friend’s along to the downtown shopping district. We were just enjoying the day.

Do you believe in random occurrences or are our steps ordered in some way as if predestined? Why do I say such gibberish? I will tell you why in a moment.

This is my second dog. I took him home from the pet store that day as a spur of the moment decision. I said I’d take him the moment the volunteer said his name.

Slushy.

Such an odd name for a reddish brown border collie like this:

Slushy was his name.

Why would that name make me instantly buy him?

This picture right here:

A 1982 Slushy doll on sale.

In 1982, my grandma bought me an Avon toy called Slushy the dog. I carried Slushy everywhere. I slept beside Slushy. I ate beside Slushy. Slushy never left my side….for years. He was my favorite toy comparable to a favorite blanket. I loved Slushy with all my little girl heart.

Slushy.

How is it possible that years later I would encounter the real life look-alike to my favorite childhood toy friend? Coincidence? Random fate? Or something more…

Today, I type this by the fireplace as Slushy sits beside me napping. The fire is warm and toasty. He is resting. His eyes are closed but I know if I shift just a little, he will open them to peer at me curiously….my toy brought to life in later years, just when I would need him most. I would need his friendship once again.

I sleep beside Slushy curled up near me sometimes. I eat beside Slushy. Once again, we are inseparable. And we will probably be inseparable to the end of the road for one of us, whomever that might be.

7th Gate

They had come back early from camping at Lake Clinton but it was now dark outside.  It was late October and the autumn breeze was cool on her face as they drove the Jeep Wrangler down the highway.  She held her brown hair back as the curls whipped here and there wildly in the wind.  They were listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers.  The volume was turned up quite a bit so they failed to notice anything out of the ordinary when they stopped at the little town named Stull.  No one lived there anymore.  It was just old buildings, forgotten and faded with time. 

They had heard the rumors about this place but they didn’t care.  They were young.  Why should they care?  As they pulled into the little gravel parking lot behind the abandoned old grocery store, she looked hesitantly, however, around in the dark.  He turned down the music.  She looked off to the north past the road to the crest of the hill where the ruins of the old church sat solitary and still in the dim moonlight.  She looked again at the dark around them and she shivered a little. 

“We might want to hurry..” she said with a twinge of uncertainty.  With the music turned off, she listened for any small noises around the vehicle.  It was hard to see much past 30 or 40 feet to her right.  Everything was so dark over there, pitch black almost.  The beams of the headlights shone on the exterior back of the old store.  Once again, she looked at the church, the 7th gateway to hell……..that’s what the locals said it was.  It was a secret portal according to the rumors.  Supposedly, if you threw a bottle against the wall of the church, it would not break.  The devil’s portal….just an urban legend she thought to herself. 

He got out of the jeep and rummaged among their bags in the back looking for his cell phone. 

“I know I left it in here,” he said as he dug through a camo green backpack.  He found it and returned to the driver seat. 

“Maybe we should put the hard top up,” he said to her. 

She just shrugged, hugging herself a little.  “I’d rather not do it here.”  She smiled feebily.  “Perhaps down the road a bit.”

He smiled at her then and nodded towards the old church.  “Nervous?” he asked with a slight smile. 

She didn’t say anything.  Just shrugged. 

“Relax, there’s nothing to worry about.  It’s just a dumb story.  Nobody even goes up there anymore.  It is fenced off.” He grabbed her chin and tugged her head slightly to the left.  He grinned at her.  “Calm down.”

She smiled bigger this time and leaned in to kiss him.  She closed her eyes as she felt his warm lips on hers.  He cupped her face in his gentle hands.  She placed her hand on his waist and he pulled her in deeper.  They pulled away for just a moment, enough for her to lean her forehead against his and say softly, “I had fun last night.” 

He grinned.  “I did too.” 

They embraced again.  This time with more youthful urgency and passion.  Eventually, he pulled reluctantly away and grinned.   He licked his lip slightly and took her hand in his.  He said, “We need to get back.”

She just watched him in the darkness.  She loved him.  She knew it. 

He turned to start the ignition of the Jeep.  She looked forward to the hill once more.  She shuddered.  As the engine started up and her boyfriend shifted gears, she looked casually to the right.

That’s when she saw it…in the darkness beyond….maybe not twenty feet from the car.  There in the darkness she saw the slight red light.  It was very small.  Silently, it was there…suspended in air.  She blinked.  She looked closer.  It was still there.  She knew instantly what it was.  She watched it more intently.  She kept watching.  She was staring now without blinking and she felt a sudden fear.  And then… it moved.  The light moved with intention, as if making its presence known only to her.  It was just a slight movement but just enough to let her know, they were not alone.    

A cigarette.  It was the light from a cigarette.  Someone was watching, had been watching them silently in the dark distance as they kissed.  Someone was standing right there. 

Her eyes flickered swiftly to the church and then back to that same spot.  The cigarette light was now gone.  Her boyfriend pulled the jeep out of the gravel parking lot and back onto the main road.  She watched that spot, the spot where the cigarette light emanated briefly.  She watched for it as long as she could until Stull and its eerie presence faded into the dark distance behind them.    

You Have the Right to be Here

Perhaps I’ve told you this story before. I have told it so often. But, it does bear repeating I suppose….

There are certain moments in our lives that have a significant impact and will forever shape our destinies like perhaps the birth of your first child, the achievement of a college degree, or the attainment of an important goal. Some of these moments may even appear out of the blue on days which seem quite inconsequential to our existence. This is the story of one of those moments in my own life. It is a true story.

I am not a great writer. However, if I am able to effectively convey this positive message to you, the reader, then it will be worth all the effort.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. It occurred nearly 20 years ago when I was in my mid-20s. America was at war in the Middle East. I was a military spouse and my husband was deployed to Iraq. Also, through some great fortune or twist of fate, I had landed a Department of Defense Government Service Level 7 job south of Washington D.C. Although the title sounds quite auspicious, I assure you that I was merely a secretary. However, I worked for two important people.

They were military Colonels and engineers, highly intelligent and dedicated to their roles. My tasks were simple really. Once or twice a week, they would travel to the Pentagon to report their management of military building projects at bases all over the world. I would arrange their travel plans. Also, I was responsible for maintaining accurately their reports on these construction plans. One large and detailed report I worked on daily was called the War report.

One day, I royally screwed up the War report. We had a meeting and it was noted. I was publicly reprimanded. After all, I worked for the military. Admittedly, I fully deserved the reprimand considering the importance of the document. I endured the discipline in silence but my cheeks got real flush and later, I broke out in hives. It was the first and only time in my life that I broke out in hives.

The next couple of days, I worked diligently at my desk and tried not to mess up again. But, I was pretty quiet and feeling bad. On top of that, I was itchy and I was considering leaving the job.

The other Colonel called me in to his office politely. I rose from my desk and walked over there. He asked me to shut the door to his office and to “Please take a seat.” He remained seated at his desk and I sat down across from him and well,… kept my eyes down a bit.

He didn’t say anything at first. Perhaps he was looking for the right way to approach a conversation. I had assumed he wanted to talk about travel arrangements. He was leaving the very next day for D.C.

We didn’t share much in common, him and I, except our work perhaps. He was much older. He was male. I was female. He was African-American and I was Caucasian. The list of differences could probably go on and on.

Eventually, he motioned to the wall to his left and I looked over at the wall. On the wall were many military decorations that had been awarded to him through his 20+ years of service to the country. Some of them were quite large and prestigious looking. He waited for a moment, then he pointed to a small white piece of paper, handwritten, and framed under glass with just a plain small gold frame around it. It was placed at the center of the wall and seemed unimportant compared to the other items. In fact, I had sorta skipped over it as I had looked at the other awards.

He said, “That one is the most important.” He remained pointing at the little framed paper.

Then he motioned for me to go and look at the item. I got up from my chair and wandered over to the wall. It was a poem, a little poem copied down. The title read The Desiderata and it said it was written by some guy named Max Ehrmann, some guy I had never heard of.

He told me, “Read it.” That’s all he simply said. I stood there at that wall for a while and really read the poem, word for word. When, I finished the last portion of the poem where it read, you are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here.

Well, I felt better and as I finished up the final section, I admit I got a little teary-eyed.

I sat back down across from him. We both looked at each other. He was a man of few words and he only really spoke when he had something important to say.

He said, “Go back and just do the best you can. That’s all you can do.”

In hindsight, that was probably about one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me whether he realized his impact or not. He didn’t have to help me but he did in his own unique and wise way. Perhaps this small story seems unimportant to you but it would go on to influence my future.

This poem has a special place in my heart because of that moment. Years later, I would buy a copy of it and I gave it to my children. I read it to them. Years later, I would tell someone here or there about the story. Years later, whenever I was down and out…I would read this poem and feel comforted and hopeful. Whenever I felt unworthy or not valued by others, I would remember the line about the child of the universe.

You have a right to be here.

And years later, today, I write this story to you with the intention that it will inspire you as well. The last few words of the poem are “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” This is something as I grow older, that I firmly do believe in regarding attitude determining altitude.

I encourage you to take a moment and read The Desiderata. This world, despite all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, is still a beautiful place.