A Toast: To Not Drinking My Way to Happiness

“I called to say I love you,” I told my father.

“Have you been drinking?” he asked.

“No.”

“Oh–you sound really happy.” I was, but his surprise at my happiness stopped me cold. Was it really that unusual that I sound happy?

Perhaps it was because calls to Dad always had a purpose, and–like him–I didn’t waste time on formalities like “How are you?” and “I love you.” “Goodbye” was even optional. Phoning my father was often for logistical reasons. “If I fly into Westchester at noon for Meg’s wedding, can you guys pick me up?” Or I called in search of someone else. “Where’s Mom? I called the house and her cell phone but she doesn’t answer.” Or I called for shock value. “So I walked into work after being away for a week, and they moved me into an office.”

“You’re own office?” he said incredulously. “They really like you over there.” He thinks this is a good thing.  I just think it will make it harder for me to resign.  Not that I’m going to resign anytime soon.  But it is inevitable. I haven’t held a full-time job longer than eighteen months.  By choice. And now that I think about it, I’ve only ever had four full-time jobs in the fourteen years since I graduated from college. You do the math.

Two of those jobs had definitive end dates: Americorps was a one-year program and my National Park Service job was just seasonal. The other two–like the one I have now–had no expiration. I still remember the utter fear I felt when I first made that realization as I sat in the cubicle in my first corporate job.

I’m going to pause here as some of you are thinking, “Whoa. Wait. Back up. Did you just say you took a full-time job?” Yes. Yes, I did. I’ll wait while those of you that know me pick yourselves up off the floor.

My explanation (or the story I tell myself) is this: It’s a means to an end. At first, the end was to save some money. Then I floated this idea of doing the Camino again next year sometime. Then I started thinking bigger and thought of buying an around-the-world plane ticket for my 40th birthday.

Then I reconsidered.  Because I really like Asheville. And I’m not sure I want to leave for eight months. I remember a few years ago telling my youngest sister she should join me in an around-the-world trip. “For how long? How much time would I need to take off?”

“Take-off? Oh, no. You’d need to quit your job.” The look on her face told me she would not be joining me.  Not for the whole trip, at least.

“Maybe one day you’ll be like other people, and just take your vacations a week at a time,” said my mother to me one day. “You know, instead of thinking you have to quit your job and do something big.” But we both know that’s not likely.

I’ve run some numbers. For those of you that don’t know, it’s cheaper to travel than it is to live in your home for a year. Part of that is because my trip is due to include visits to South America and Southeast Asia. Cost is also less for me because I don’t require that my place of rest be a hotel. Or even a room to myself. But those details can all be figured out later.

So yes, I have a full-time job. And as I search my mind to figure out why my father thought it was unusual that I sounded happy I thought it could be that he recalls how miserable I usually become when confined to the same space for forty hours of my week. My mother says I’m like a “caged animal” when I have a full time job: you look in the cage and think the animal has a pretty good life, but he’s pacing and really he’s thinking of how to get out. Then one day he snaps.  He attacks a visitor or just disappears.  I usually do the latter. In the form of a resignation.

But yes, I’m happy.  I can’t say I absolutely love my job and look forward to going to it every day.  But I love that it’s providing me what I need right now. It’s just another stepping stone. One day I’ll hop to another stone, or venture out into the water. But for now, today, in this moment, I am content.

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My Back Pocket

I have a piece of paper in my back pocket.  My figurative back pocket, that is.  In reality, the paper sits in a green file folder marked, “PT License.” The paper was issued by the state of New York.  License #020405.  I received it after successfully completing an accredited physical therapy curriculum and passing a board exam.

Lucky for me, a person only needs to pass the board exam once.  Then, should she decide to resign from her first physical therapy job less than three months after she started it, never to look back, she can pay a few hundred dollars every few years and keep that piece of paper – in her back pocket.  In case she ever needs it again.

Ten years after it was first issued, I used that license as it was intended.  I sought out a part-time physical therapy job and was amazed – and a bit shocked – at how easy it was to get a job in a profession I hadn’t practiced in ten years. Five months later I was accepted into a doctorate of Physical Therapy program.  In both cases, I convinced others of something I wasn’t sure was true: that I wanted to go back to physical therapy (or, in the case of the latter, that I wanted to teach future physical therapists).

In December of 2009, I resigned from my second physical therapy position.  I completed my first doctorate course successfully, but didn’t take another.

That same year, New York State implemented a continuing education policy for physical therapists. So when I renewed my license this past summer, they could have asked me to prove that I had completed that requirement.  They didn’t ask.  But I had.  Teaching Anatomy and Physiology to freshman nursing and physical therapy students meets the requirement, and I did that for three years.

~~~

“It was easy when I was in PT School,” I told my friend Saturday afternoon.  “I just put on my lab coat, put my stethoscope around my neck, and went as a PT.  Or a doctor.  Or whatever people thought I was.”

I was visiting my friend at work that afternoon and had two Halloween parties on my agenda for that evening.  I’ve always wanted to be a flapper for Halloween, but never think about it early enough to pull it off. And my default Halloween costume? The last time I’d worn that lab coat was in 2009, and I was pretty sure I donated it to Good Will since then.

“I’ve got a lab coat I don’t use,” said my friend.  Conveniently enough, she’s in the medical profession and I was visiting her at work.

“Perfect!” I was all set.

Back at home, I got ready for the party, came downstairs and declared to my housemate David that, for Halloween, I was going as one of my past lives. “Why is it you’re not a physical therapist?” he asked.  I sat down.  This could take a while. Mostly because I didn’t really know myself.

Leaving my first PT job had little do with actually practicing PT.  Lack of confidence played a role.  As did my desire to explore all the world had to offer.  Less than a week after leaving that first job, I found myself in the familiar gray and green uniform of the National Park Service.  Six months later, I was roaming the streets of Paris, Venice, and Rome.  And six months after that, I was living in Boston volunteering for a year with Americorps.  The list goes on and on.

I left that second PT job because I didn’t really want to work in a nursing home.  The only reason I chose to apply there was because the want ad said that I could call to inquire about the position. I wanted to be able to explain my absence from the profession before submitting a resume.

“But you have a license, right?” said the woman on the other end of the line.

“Yes.”

“Then it’s not a problem,” she said.

I thought it a fluke.  But as I look back, I’ve had numerous PT’s say they’d hire me in a second – most having no knowledge of my skills as a therapist.

Which reminds me of a corporate job I was once hired for. They didn’t care about your skills – or lack thereof.  Those are teachable, they explained. What isn’t teachable is a good personality. Which, apparently, I have.

So here I sit, contemplating it all again.  Third time’s a charm? Perhaps.  Weeks ago I printed out the forms I’d need to get a license in North Carolina.  They sit on a shelf in my closet. Maybe I’ll pull them out.  Maybe.

Letting go of the past

This wasn’t the first time I’d moved to a town where I knew next to no one.  There was a certain thrill of being in a brand new in a place.  The idea of starting over, of letting go of the past and moving full force into an unknown future.  I’m aware that not everyone feels this way.  Some people cling to their past as if to a life raft; if they just let go they’d find they won’t drown at all – the water’s shallow enough to stand up, and they can walk into their future unencumbered.

Anyway, that’s what I did.  My life as a physical therapist was getting pushed further into my past.  In July 2000, I moved to Boston to start my year of service as an Americorps VISTA with Massachusetts Campus Compact.

I was given a furnished four room apartment in one of the dorms on the campus where I would be based.  It wasn’t as lavish as it sounds: one of the rooms was a bathroom with no shower, another was a kitchen with no stove that you could walk the length of in two steps (or one really long step).  But I loved that little place.  I took showers in a community bathroom next door to my room – me and the other 20 or so girls who lived on my floor.  I brought two hot plates into the kitchen and, though highly illegal in a college dorm room, I cooked some spectacular meals with just two burners and no oven.

Perhaps it was this experience that really got me thinking about how little we really need to be happy.  I did miss baking brownies, but an oven wasn’t imperative for a happy life.  Yes, I would have loved not to have to wear flip-flops to take a shower, but I’d been on a two week sailing trip with no showers at all, so this wasn’t really that bad.  Here I was living in a place with everything I could want within walking distance, in an apartment I didn’t have to pay for, about to start a job I was sure I would love.  Do you really  need much more than that?

I Think I’ll Go to Boston…

It took a long time to learn, but what they say is true:  Mom is usually right.  This lesson is often earned only after going completely against her advice numerous times.  On rare occasions though, a child triumphs and gets to say, “Ha!  I was right!”  It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does it’s a memorable occasion.  My move to Boston was just that.

During my senior year in college, I bowed out of the senior formal in favor of a trip to Boston with two non-senior friends.  I was an RA at the time, and my traveling partners were my Resident Director and another RA in my building.  We drove out to the Irish Embassy Youth Hostel.  At the front desk, an adorable guy with a melt-your-heart Irish accent explained that parking in Boston was a nightmare and directed me to his grandmother’s neighborhood across the river where I could park my car free of charge.  To grandmother’s neighborhood we went, taking the T back to the hostel.  Tim was woken up each morning by his Irish roommates getting up at 5Am for their construction jobs.  Christina and I tried to fall asleep each night to the beat of the music from the bar below.  During the day, we followed the Freedom Trail and eventually dubbed our walk “The Church and Bookstore Tour of Boston” because – you guessed it – we stopped in every church and bookstore we saw.  Once inside, we went in three separate directions, never deciding on a time to meet back.  Instead, when enough time had passed we’d eventually find each other and move on.

I loved that Boston was such a walkable city.  Though we were doing a touristy activity (walking the Freedom Trail) I felt like it wasn’t just tourists that we were seeing.  It felt like the people that worked in this city actually lived in it too.  I had long ago decided I’d never live in a city because my only reference point was NYC, and that city was entirely too big and messy for my tastes.  But here was a city that you could walk in a day, with plenty of green space, and friendly people.  Hmm….

My next trip to Boston was when a friend invited me to join him for his company Christmas party – a very formal occasion in a ballroom in one of the big hotels downtown.  By day I took us a National Historic Site I wanted to see (that of Frederick Law Olmsted).  By night, we were schmoozing it up and swing dancing the night away, falling into bed in our hotel room overlooking the Charles River.

It was sometime after that trip that I started to think about moving to Boston (and no, it wasn’t because of aforementioned guy).  My mother predicted that there was no way I could afford to live in a city like Boston unless I took a job as a physical therapist.  “But I don’t want to be a physical therapist!” I protested.  “Well, you’ll need someway to earn money.  What are you going to do?”  I didn’t have an answer.

But at the same time I was thinking back to an idea I had in college – that of doing a year of volunteer work.  I wanted to go international, but found that most international programs required you to commit for two years.  Having spent the last 3.5 years in a major I didn’t like made me think that a two year commitment to anything was more than I could handle.

But now I thought perhaps I’d look at doing a year of service in the US. And so I started to center my search for a year-long volunteer stint on Boston.   I followed all sorts of links and one day ended up on the web site for Massachusetts Campus Compact.  I read the job description and loved everything about it.  I would be placed on a college campus and charged with coordinating community service projects involving students in the communities around their campuses.

The funny thing about this was that a few months before I was in a Barnes and Noble paging through one of those find-work-you-love books and came across an exercise that piqued my interest.  It asked you to write down what your ideal day would look like.  I took out the notebook I had with me (I was on a research mission, so had the necessary tools at hand) and wrote away.  From the moment I woke up until the moment I sat down to dinner, I had every detail.  What was I doing for work?  I was working on a college campus meeting with students who wanted to do volunteer work.  I was helping them find places to volunteer, holding meetings with them on upcoming group projects, planning Spring Break Service trips.  In short, the job I described was the exact one I found on the Massachusetts Campus Compact web site.

By the way, I have done this exercise a couple times since then and it works spectacularly well….

So I applied and was accepted into the program as an Americorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America).  Here’s the catch: they could place me on any one of thirty campuses in the state of Massachusetts, so I might not be in Boston but in a small town in the middle of nowhere.  I could request where I wanted to be, but they made no promises.  I requested Boston telling them my car was on the fritz and I’d prefer a placement where I didn’t need one.  I also asked that I be placed at a religiously affiliated school.  I graduated from a Jesuit institution and couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but knew I wanted to be on a campus with some sort of religious slant.

Turns out, they had a placement at a religiously-affiliated all women’s school in Boston.  It could have been a tricky place to put someone as my boss was to be the Director of Campus Ministry and we, as volunteers with a federally funded program, had limits on what we could do that was religiously affiliated.  But everyone’s prayers were answered.  I got to work on a campus in Boston and Sr. Pat got a VISTA who had a background in doing service work at religious institutions.

The best part?  Mom said there was no way I could afford to live in Boston unless I was a physical therapist.  But in July of 2000 I found myself living happily in Boston without a paying job. How did I afford to do that?  Well, I also happened to get placed on a campus that gave me an apartment and partial board.  No rent, no utilities, no phone bill, and barely any money needed for food.  I was given a stipend each month at the poverty level which was able to cover any other expenses I had.

Some might argue this was luck.  Some might say coincidence.  I say it was me figuring out what I wanted and asking for it.  Sometimes what you want is what you get.  Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but instead get what you didn’t know you needed.  But that’s another story.

Mom now tells this story to mothers who also have children with grand ideas and seemingly no idea how they’ll accomplish them.  She says that she learned never to tell me I couldn’t do something.  Now she simply asks all sorts of questions to make sure I’ve thought of every angle.  In fact, mom no longer really gives her opinion when I propose a new idea.  And she surely never tells me it can’t be done.  She asks questions, and then tells us that we’re adults now and can make our own decisions.  Sometimes I just want her to take the pressure off and say, “Here’s what you should do.”  But she’s smarter than that.  She knows how important it is for a child to make her own decisions and live with the consequences.  It’s much better than going through life blaming it all on someone else’s advice.