Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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When I dropped out of college at the end of my first year, my dad told me I’d better go to secretarial school, learn some “skills,” and get a job. I did as he said, even though I didn’t want to be a secretary. This is how it is with us underachievers. We want so much and end up doing so little.
One day, my dad handed me a want ad for a secretarial job at an oil company. Who ever dreamed of working for an oil company? “The starting pay looks pretty low,” I said. Dad gave me a look that said, It’s more than you’re making now.
I went for an interview and passed the hallowed skills test. “The starting pay looks pretty low,” I said, thinking they would tell me to take a hike. Instead, they gave me an extra ten dollars a week to start. I went home crying.
Within six months, I had asked for two more raises, each time hoping my demands would get me fired. But each time they gave me the raise. I was even in the running to become secretary to the president. The entire office was following the drama of which secretary would get the coveted position. For about a week, I really cared. Then one night, while the competition at work was heating up, I got a tattoo on my ankle, where everyone could see it. I felt free.
I lost the secretary battle. A manager told me it was because of the tattoo. He acted as if I had purposely sabotaged my chances, which of course I had. I waited another two months before asking for a third raise. I got it. If this kept up, I would have to stay in this lifeless job forever.
The oil company was next door to the town dump. Leaving work a little late one day, I saw a couple of stray dogs scouring the trash at the dump. This wouldn’t have been unusual, except one of the dogs had two heads. I stopped the car and looked again. The dog was just standing by the side of the road, one head alive and the other dead. Knowing no one would believe me, I raced home to get my mother and sister as witnesses. When we got back, the dog was still there. The three of us sat and stared at that two-headed dog, part living and part dead.
Taking the dog as a sign, I quit my job the next day.
Cedarhurst, New York
My father has never been a quitter. He was raised in a rural but educated family and went to a prestigious private school in Connecticut. After college, he bought a business and expanded it abroad, traveling extensively and bringing me back handmade dolls from Russia and real maple-sugar candy.
When my grades faltered in high school, my parents decided to send me to the same private school where my father had excelled. I was accepted conditionally and had to repeat my freshman year. I seemed to be the only one in my rowdy new group of friends who couldn’t keep up her grade-point average. Trips home for the holidays usually resulted in arguments, punishment, tears, and, finally, a firm resolve to change my ways and make my parents proud. But back at school, I quickly returned to my cycle of sin and guilt.
My father was away on a business trip the day I called my mother and asked her to come and get me. I feared how he’d react. When he got home, he listened patiently as I cried my way through the story of why I’d quit. When there was nothing left for me to say, my father told me a story of his own.
His “business trip” had actually been a search for his old private-school roommate, Peter, a brilliant surgeon and the last surviving member of his trio of best buddies from school. One had been murdered at Harvard, and another had died in a suspicious fire. The search for Peter was the most emotional story Dad had ever shared with me. Sadly, in the end, my father had been one of the last people to talk to Peter before he took his own life. Apparently, genius and hope don’t always come in the same package.
I was so overwhelmed by my own shame that I missed the point of the story: it was Dad’s way of saying he was glad I knew my own limits. But I didn’t miss that, for the first time ever, he told me he respected my decision. Suddenly, quitting seemed slightly less shameful, perhaps even somewhat healthy.
Wendy P. S. Lynch
Fort Rock, Oregon
“Don’t quit,” my father advised me as I agonized over whether to drop a college class.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because once you find out how easy it is, you’ll keep on doing it.”
He was right.
I’ve quit many things in life: picking my nose, going shirtless in public, smoking pot, hanging out in bars, biting my nails. I quit eating meat, and twelve years later I quit being a vegetarian. I’ve quit praying to God and believing in Jesus as the way to salvation. I’ve quit believing that nobody would intentionally try to screw me; that professionals know what they’re doing; that love is enough.
There are many things I haven’t quit, too. I haven’t quit hoping my family will accept and respect me. I haven’t quit believing that we are all born good and retain some goodness, despite everything. I haven’t quit loving the fog, the moon in all its phases, thunderstorms, big trees, little bugs, and children, especially my own. I haven’t quit riding my bicycle in the rain. I haven’t quit buying my clothes in thrift stores. I haven’t quit believing in the sanctity of marriage, nor that my wife, who moved out two weeks ago, is still the right woman for me.
On a dare, my best pal and I applied for jobs as Bunnies at the Playboy Club that was opening in town. The tryout consisted of modeling a black one-piece swimsuit and being interviewed by a female representative. I was shocked to be called back for a second interview. When I told the Bunny Mother, a cheerful wisp of a woman, that I thought the job might be a lark, she promptly informed me that it could also be “a wonderful career.”
A week later, I stood alongside my seventy-four Bunny Sisters in front of the local TV-news cameras. They announced our hiring as though it were some prestigious award.
Reality set in the first night of work when I put on my outfit: three-inch stiletto pumps dyed to match my yellow French-cut suit (I must have resembled an exploding banana), complete with wasp-waist corset, fluffy white pompom tail, and long black ears. Full foundation makeup, polished nails, and two pairs of support hose were mandatory. All the suits had D-cup brassieres, which we were instructed to stuff with used nylons, if necessary. (Three out of four of us did.) Because we’d spill out of our low-cut tops if we leaned forward, we were taught the “Bunny dip” — a humbling contortion that resembled a backbend on stilts while balancing a full cocktail tray. We also learned the “Bunny perch” and how to “decorate the room.”
The tenacity of my star-struck co-workers amazed me. We worked eight-hour shifts, often without breaks, for minimum wage and uncommonly lousy tips, and were charged for our meals. We faced the possibility of periodic layoffs due to monthly bloating and blemishes and were routinely heckled and degraded by the male club managers. And still my resilient Bunny Sisters smiled glamorously, dipping and perching and dreaming of movie contracts.
One crammed-beyond-capacity night, I was retrieving my tail from a pair of drunk sailors for the third time when a tipsy couple I’d been serving left without paying. We were docked for unpaid bills, so I took off after them. As I neared the exit, a floor manager asked me what I thought I was doing. I explained the situation, and he ordered me back to my station. I told him to go fuck himself. “You’re fired!” he hissed.
Already heading for the locker room, I turned to him and said, “Didn’t you hear me? I just quit!”
I was proud to be the first to go. As the assistant Bunny Mother relieved me of my uniform, some of my sisters shed a few tears and told me I was passing up “the chance of a lifetime.” I stole back my ears, went home, and smoked a celebratory joint. I’d lasted a whole month. The club lasted another two.
Santa Ysabel, California
As far back as I can remember, my parents boasted proudly of my exceptionally high IQ. As an enthusiastic young teacher, my father had administered an IQ test to me in preschool, and I’d scored very well. Always aware that this made me special, I got good grades in school and was put in accelerated classes.
Then one day, I was serving as high-school office monitor, and, out of curiosity, I reviewed my personal file in the counselor’s office. To my amazement, I discovered that my IQ wasn’t particularly high; in fact, it was pretty close to average. I went back to check that score several times, but it never changed.
After that, I felt I had been living a lie. I could no longer perform at the level that was expected of me, but could hope for only average achievements. My grades fell, and my plans for the future evaporated as my parents struggled to understand what had caused such a radical change in their previously brilliant daughter’s behavior. In college, I got pregnant and dropped out after one year. Because of some numbers in a file, I quit trying, and it changed my life forever.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t quit. I could shut down, go under, close my doors, blow the place up. But I couldn’t quit. I was the boss.
I could only imagine how it felt to be Marlon, the temperamental pizza chef who tore up his timecard during the lunch rush. Or Scott, the waiter who walked out when I yelled at him for standing around. Or Mike, who tore off his apron in disgust and went back to hitchhiking. They could all leave at will, but not me. My signature was on the papers: the lease, the loan application, the contracts — including one in which I hired myself to be my general manager. (It was officially signed by me and me.) Even if I quit my job as manager, I was still 100 percent of the board of directors.
Sometimes, though, perhaps after placating one too many vegetarians enraged by unordered pepperoni on their pizza, I would hang up the phone and announce to my crew: “That’s it. I quit. I don’t want to work here anymore.” They would watch in bewildered silence as I strode toward the door, looking serious and harboring the same “I’ll show them” attitude as a sulky teen. If I couldn’t quit, at least I could pretend.
There was a time in my midtwenties when I desperately wanted to quit life. My successful career was giving me no satisfaction, and I felt no love for my beautiful three-year-old daughter. I had become someone I never wanted to be: my father. I decided to remove myself from my child’s life before I passed on to her the indifference and coldness I had known growing up.
I didn’t want to leave my daughter unsupported, though, so my fatal “accident” would have to survive scrutiny by the toughest insurance investigator. I bought a new GTO and drove it 135 miles per hour down a winding country road, but my reflexes were too good. So I sped down a busy four-lane in town, running every light, no longer caring if I took someone else with me. When that didn’t work, I got drunk and rode my motorcycle on the highway through the swamp, deliberately going to sleep at sixty-five miles per hour — only to wake up and pull the bike back onto the pavement by reflex when I saw the abutment rushing toward me.
Finally, I sat on the edge of my bed with cocked gun in mouth. My wife said the only thing that could have stopped me: “If this is saving her from a miserable life, what do you think is going to happen when she runs in here and sees Daddy’s brains all over the wall?”
I surrendered, talked to a doctor, went to group therapy, sold the motorcycle, tossed out the gun, traded the GTO for a VW Beetle. And I decided to live with what I was: a poor husband, a terrible father, a good sailor, an excellent drinker, a dead-inside human being. I had seven more years of hell before the awakening.
I smoked half a pack a day for seventeen years and always enjoyed it. Then early one morning, as I was sitting on the toilet trying to keep my eyes open, I heard a voice. It said, “Quit smoking.” Just like that: “Quit smoking.” It wasn’t that voice inside your head either, the one that says you’ve got a million things to do today and the neighbors are talking about you and there’s nothing to pack in the kids’ lunches and so on. It came from outside me and was very clear.
By now I was wide awake. I thought, Well, this voice isn’t asking me to kill anybody or anything, so maybe I should just go along with it. I looked around me, hesitated a bit, then said out loud, “OK.”
I never smoked again.
I worked in an old warehouse as a “bin-picker,” wheeling a large wooden cart through dreary aisles of numbered bins filled with plastic-wrapped clothing and picking out all of the items on a catalog customer’s order form. The only goals a bin-picker could aspire to were being fast and being able to stand the job for years. If you were fast, you gained the respect of the supervisor; if you stayed a long time, you got a little rhinestone pin. There were two exceptional bin-pickers, both middle-aged and maternal, one of whom wore her pin every day.
The rest of us were rather uninspired and slow. One of my co-workers showed up late every morning, if at all. She told me she didn’t own an alarm clock. Amazingly, she was never fired. (I, on the other hand, set my alarm and got there on time every day.) The only thing I liked about the job was that it gave me quiet time in which to think — which is probably why I was slow: I daydreamed my way past my bins and had to backtrack.
One morning, I woke up knowing I could bin-pick no more. I couldn’t even face calling in to tell them I’d quit. An hour after I was due at work, I got a call from an angry supervisor. “This is our busy time!” she shouted. Sorry, I told her, but I couldn’t give them two weeks more. When I hung up the phone, I felt a rush of freedom and power. So this was how it felt to live without an alarm clock.
About twelve years ago, my boyfriend (who is now my husband) made an offhand comment about my not being the “mom type.” Because I wanted to be a mother someday, I began to work toward changing that impression. The first step was to quit cursing.
My own mother didn’t curse, but said things like “Gracious sakes!” and “Doggone it!” Despite her example, I began cursing at an early age, and my later years of living in Hollywood to pursue an acting career made my vocabulary even more colorful. When I embarked on my campaign to quit cursing, I stammered through sentences, attempting to find clean alternatives. I slowly gained ground, but I knew I hadn’t made a real change, because the bad word would always come to mind first.
I am now the mother of a wonderful baby daughter. Last week, I put Hannah down for a nap in our bed with pillows piled up around her. When I went in to check on her, she was teetering on the edge of the mattress, leaning out to touch the attractive red numbers of the digital clock on the night stand: a hazardous situation, and the first words that came to my lips were “Oh, my goodness!”
After high school, I held a series of deadly boring low-level office jobs in Los Angeles. I didn’t stay at any of them for long; I would either quit or get fired. Growing tired of this, I concocted a plan to make a new life for myself in San Francisco. The following day, I put all of my belongings in the car and started up the coast. I didn’t give notice at work, or at my apartment. I didn’t even cancel the utilities. I just left.
I planned to earn money by working along the way, believing that jobs acquired in the course of an adventure would themselves be adventurous. My first stopover was in Watsonville, where I found work in a frozen-Brussels-sprout plant. I stood all day in front of a conveyor belt, trimming the ends off sprouts by inserting their stems into a hole containing a whirling blade. At night, I slept in my car. Not surprisingly, I got fired after ten days because I didn’t work quickly or accurately enough. The supervisor who fired me looked at me with contempt.
With what little money I’d earned in my pocket, I arrived in San Francisco. Instead of looking for a place to live, I immediately made my way to the shopping district around Union Square. I bought an expensive fall — a long tail of synthetic hair dyed to match my own — and a pair of false eyelashes made (in those days) of mink hairs fastened to a tiny strip of leather. I wanted to look glamorous, and with the hair falling about my shoulders and the heavy lashes giving me a sultry, drowsy look, I thought I did.
Within a day or two, I’d run out of money and was headed back to LA, my hopes for a new life now residing in my fake hair and phony eyelashes.
It’s a chilly fall day in southern Wisconsin, and my Girl Scout meeting has just ended. We all put on coats, hats, and mittens that still smell of mothballs and go outside to stand by a huge evergreen and talk while we wait for our rides. One by one, parents arrive and the group dwindles until there’s just me. It’s dusk and getting colder. The troop leader comes outside, and the door slams behind her. My throat tightens when I hear it lock. She’s concerned to see me still standing there. With a forced smile, I assure her that my ride will be there any minute.
Finally, my mother’s headlights flash across the pavement. I jump into her car, furious. Her eyes are red, her lips are pursed as if she’s annoyed, and I think I smell something on her breath. When I start to yell, she promptly tells me not to raise my voice at her. Suddenly, it seems as if I have done something wrong. Doesn’t she care that she has left me standing on a cold, dark street corner alone?
I never went back to Girl Scouts.
Post Falls, Idaho
When my husband told me he was thinking of retiring early, I was glad for him but sure I would keep my own job. I worked for a computer company and thrived on the daily opportunities to prove myself. There were problems to solve, schedules to negotiate, meetings to attend. Striking items off my to-do list gave me great satisfaction, though the list grew longer every day.
I worried sometimes that my attention span was shrinking to fit the fast pace at work. In a recurring dream, I saw a huge whale drifting peacefully through fathomless blue water. I wondered if my psyche was sending me a message, telling me to slow down, to make time for unhurried thoughts. But when I walked into my cubicle every morning, a dozen new phone and e-mail messages told me I was a busy and important woman.
Then a good friend my age died of breast cancer. She was a poet, a passionate connoisseur of music, and a dancer, but had spent the last year of her life working sixty hours a week for a public-relations firm. At her funeral, she was eulogized only for her job skills, work ethic, and devotion to the company.
The company I worked for gave its employees a six-week sabbatical after five years of service. I had never taken so much time off from work and didn’t want to squander the opportunity on a lot of small trips. I decided to spend my six weeks all in one place — Italy — and to live as if I might stay there forever.
My husband and I rented a restored farmhouse in Tuscany. Though we took day trips to Florence and to hill towns nearby, we more often sat looking out over thousand-year-old vineyards and olive groves. Once, we watched a thunderstorm move across the valley and dissolve into the sunset. I floated through unhurried days like the whale of my dream, feeling the rhythm of my thoughts slowing, shifting.
A few days after I returned to work, I quit.
Mountain View, California
When I started my new job at a large corporation, my supervisor enthusiastically explained that the company’s expected growth due to industry deregulation would mean more work for us. She had worked for the company since high school. Over eight years of dedicated service, she’d gone from an entry-level position up to middle management and had married and divorced another manager along the way. The corporation was her life.
There were just the two of us in our department, which developed, published, and distributed training materials to all new and existing employees. With each new corporate acquisition, our workload increased dramatically, yet the company refused to hire more help for us. My boss grew weary of my requests for additional employees. “You need to be more flexible,” she scolded. I, in turn, grew resentful of her positive attitude.
During my last year with the corporation, there were seven new acquisitions and thirteen computer conversions. I simply couldn’t keep up. I quit.
Within six months, I found out that my boss had been forced to leave the only employer she had ever known, due to a nervous breakdown.
Some people quit alcohol. I’ve quit alcoholics. My father was my first. I wanted desperately to please him, but nothing satisfied him except drinking. So I chose boyfriends who were just as dependent on alcohol as he was, thinking that what I couldn’t get right with my father, I would fix in them. I stayed married to one of them for thirteen years.
Now I’ve quit playing the games alcoholics play. “You’re on your own,” I tell them. This is tough for the alcoholics who know me to believe; I’ve been such a good sport for so long. They think I’m bitter or just going through a phase.
But I will never again watch one of them create a crisis out of nothing so he’ll have an excuse to go and drink, leaving me to wonder what it is I’ve done wrong. I won’t listen to him tell me I’m a bitch as he stumbles out the door, nor will I stand perched and ready to welcome him back when he returns, sometimes falling to his knees. I won’t take part in any war of words, though he may raise his puny voice to the heavens about imagined slights, about how the entire world is out to get him, about how he has been wronged by so many. And I will not live my life walking on eggshells for fear of upsetting him.
When I quit, I climbed a mountain behind the house where I used to live with an alcoholic. Then I faced the house and shouted, “No more!” My words echoed back to me, and I shouted them again and again. I like to imagine them still bouncing around those mountains, spreading the news.
At a small computer magazine where I once worked — back in the days when PCs were called “microcomputers” — the frequent turnover of executive secretaries was a source of entertainment. The publisher and owner, Jacob, was a small, fussy man whose habit it was to find, or invent, faults in every piece of work. (I soon learned to insert an obvious and easily correctable error in everything I did, to avoid re-doing perfectly good work.)
The secretaries Jacob hired rarely lasted longer than a month. Some made dramatic public gestures upon quitting. My favorite screamed invectives and actually turned her desk on its side before storming out. Her tenure was three days. Other secretaries simply stopped coming, providing no notice that they had quit. In these cases, Jacob would storm about, denouncing the deplorable state of the labor pool. Eventually, he resorted to a temp service.
Unlike those secretaries, I am not good at quitting. I made about ten attempts to leave that job before I was successful. Every time, Jacob would raise my salary, causing me to redo my calculations about whether the job was worth it. Finally, I left the country.
I don’t quite know why I find it so difficult to quit. Perhaps I believe myself to be so important that I imagine people will be crushed by my departure — the way, as a child, I used to imagine my parents would be devastated to discover I’d run away from home. I never found out if their reaction matched my fantasy, though, because I always ran away so early in the morning that I got hungry and returned before they discovered I was missing.
“Finish what you start,” my mother always said, and I took her advice to heart. I was unable to leave a book unfinished, for example, even if it was painfully boring.
My mother’s been dead for two years, and last week, I was at my father’s house going through her belongings. She was a needleworker and quilter, and had converted my sister’s room into her workshop. Quilting frames and embroidery hoops hung from hooks on the wall, and I counted at least five boxes of straight pins.
In one drawer, under layers of pincushions and beaded pictures, I found dozens of unfinished projects, each one abandoned in midstitch. As I prepared to throw them away, I hesitated, feeling a familiar compulsion: I should finish these.
It was only fitting that my supervisor at the book depository looked like Lee Harvey Oswald: same pursed lips and sour look of contempt for humanity. His title — lead packer — put him a half step above us entry-level employees, and he wielded his authority with all the petty viciousness of a true fascist. He vented his rage only at people in no position to quit or stand up to him: illegal immigrants, single moms who were a paycheck away from eviction, and me.
I was having my nervous breakdown at work rather than at home because my tasks — mainly filling box after box with the works of Danielle Steel and Robert James Waller — were so repetitive and menial that I could cry and talk to myself and still get the job done. Lee Leadpacker loved to sneak up behind me, jab me on the back, and watch me scream. He knew he could harass me all he wanted. Who else was going to hire a thirty-five-year-old nut who’d been diagnosed with everything from compulsive hair-pulling to depression to post-traumatic stress disorder?
One morning, only an hour into my shift, I had to ask Lee Leadpacker an innocuous work-related question, like “Did you want me to do A or B first?” I approached him almost cringing in terror, and when I was done speaking he administered the worst verbal lashing yet.
Suddenly, my coat was on my arm, my timecard was being punched, and I was out in the cold, bright air, wondering what had happened. I felt light and frail and empty, but in a good way, like after a fever or a fast. The feeling remained with me all day, and for the longest time thereafter.
For my fortieth birthday, my friend Sally gives me rollerblades, and we go skating down the farm road. Though eight years older, she quickly leaves me in her dust, shouting back over her shoulder, “I’m aiming for fifty!”
By then, she’ll have one son in college, one in high school, and one just out of diapers. Her home will be paid off, her husband’s investments will have matured, and, if her breast cancer hasn’t resurfaced, her chances of surviving another five years will increase threefold.
Sally’s medication gives her hot flashes, so she wears a sleeveless top and shorts on this gray, forty-degree morning. She looks like a girl, her hips swinging from side to side as she skates. When I’ve caught up, she tells me her incision just won’t close, so she layers it with gauze to absorb the fluids. She reaches her arms high overhead to show me how well her physical therapy has been going: only one delicate cord in her armpit that won’t flatten. Through the arm and neck holes of her shirt, I see her radiation tattoo licking across her chest like flames. It’s a struggle not to look away.
Pushing up an incline, Sally moves farther and farther ahead of me again. I just can’t keep up. Finally, I stop.
“I quit!” I shout as she crests the hill, her pale form glowing against the cloudy sky.
Over her shoulder, Sally shouts back, “Not me! Never!”
With Arta gone, it had been a peaceful week, and none of us, her five apprentices, were looking forward to her return. Arta claimed to be an all-powerful goddess/priestess who could commune with fairies and see into the future and the past. She was also a tyrant who would scream at us whenever we did anything wrong — from picking too much of a certain herb to taking up more than one line in a notebook when writing down a phone message.
By the time we spotted the note her “consort,” Nick, had left saying he couldn’t pick her up at the airport, it was too late to get her ourselves. All we could do was wait.
We had a quiet evening, savoring the last of our freedom, and retreated to our rooms early. I was in the bathroom when Arta slammed the front door. There was a pause as she read Nick’s note, then a huge crash as her dinner plate flew across the room. “Where is everybody?” she screamed at the top of her lungs. I tried to slip unnoticed back to my room, but she saw me. Picking up one of Nick’s socks from the floor, she thrust it in my face and demanded, “What is this?”
“A sock,” I replied.
“Why is it on the floor?”
Nick arrived home just in time to save me from Arta’s rage. (He practically lived there, even though she advertised her farm as a women-only space.) Through the thin door to my room, I heard him innocently ask her, “Didn’t you get my note?” Then she laid into him.
Later, when I was almost asleep, I heard Arta shouting once more.
“Fuck you!” she screamed.
“That’s good, let it out,” Nick said.
“Fuck you!” she screamed again, most definitely not at Nick. I began to pack my bags.
In the morning, all the apprentices met in the tepee behind the house, and I announced that I was leaving. One other woman had decided to leave, too; the rest weren’t sure.
At ten, everyone gathered in the talking-stick circle, where we took turns saying what was on our minds. Her anger gone, Arta told us with tears in her eyes how awful it had been to come home to a seemingly empty house, how alone and betrayed she’d felt. Nick sat next to her, holding her hand.
Then Arta passed the stick to an apprentice, who said she was leaving. Taking the stick back, Arta told her she couldn’t leave now. “I have taken you apart,” Arta said, “and am weaving you back together, like a basket. If you leave now, you will be full of holes.”
To my surprise, the apprentice held out. Then she passed the stick to me, and I declared that I, too, was leaving.
Arta grabbed the stick from me. “So, you can’t think for yourself?” she said. “You’re just going to follow her out?”
“I decided last night, before I talked to anyone. I’m all packed.”
“If you quit now,” Arta warned, “you’ll never realize the power that comes from completing things. You are too afraid to take that power for yourself.”
But I knew I should have left three months earlier, when Arta yelled at me for taking a walk too early on the first beautiful spring morning, with the snow still on the ground.