Sunday, October 28, 2018

What a New Job Has Taught Me About Myself

Mara here. 

I recently started a new job. It’s a part-time job with flexible hours, which means I work with a lot of younger people—many of them students.

It’s been interesting to suddenly be around people in their twenties, who are at the beginning of their adult journey. I’ve been around lots of younger people in recent years. The dance industry is filled with people in their teens and twenties. But they’re a different kind of young adult.

Dancers have usually moved to Los Angeles on their own, ready to struggle in order to live out their dreams. They juggle jobs and are ready to face the unknown. Artists who leave their homes behind to come to L.A. to pursue their passions grow up quickly.

The kids I’m working with now are here because they grew up here or because they’ve come to the L.A. area to attend college. Their lives are still structured with class schedules and homework. They still have “next steps” to look forward to. They see where they’re at now as a starting point. They’re on the cusp of facing their “real” lives.

And it has made me realize how much I've changed in the last couple of decades. Because, unlike is the case with many of the young people in the entertainment industry, I can see my younger self in these kids. I can see the ambition that feels as if you want to be recognized and promoted. I can see them calculating how their current job is a stepping stone to bigger and grander things.

They’re young. They are all focused on growing up.

And then there’s me. 

I’m a bit of an enigma at the office. 

In fact, when I was interviewed for the job, they asked me why I wanted the job. I am overqualified. 

The simple answer is that I wanted a job that wasn’t going to be too stressful and had flexible hours.

The more complicated answer is that I no longer have the drive to prove myself in the world. And I am not looking to add more responsibility and stress to my life. I don’t want a high profile job where, although I'd make more money, the job would come with a lot of expectations and responsibilities that I wouldn’t be able to leave at the office at the end of the day.

I guess the answer to why I wanted the job (an answer that would be impossible for the two young women who were interviewing me to understand), is that I am grown up. I feel secure in the things I’ve accomplished. I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve had the status and recognition that comes with success. I don’t need to spend more time trying to convince people of my value.

So, I go to work. I sit at a computer and listen to music while I do my job. And I have a woman who is twenty years my junior sign my timesheet at the end of the day. And twice a month a meager amount of money gets deposited into my bank account. And when I walk out of the door of my office, I don’t think about work again until I arrive the next day. 

I’m perfectly content.

Yes, I have the luxury of not having to worry about trying to survive on my small salary. For our family, my working is a bonus although, next year, when Malia goes to college, the added income will be extremely helpful. And certainly, if I needed to earn more money to support our family, I would absolutely do it.

But I would do it because I needed to do it financially. It wouldn’t be because I wanted to be higher up on the corporate food chain. It wouldn’t be because of ambition. It wouldn’t be because of a need for more prestige. 

There’s something so nice about the fact I have been able to let that go. 

Seeing my young co-workers fueled by that youthful constant worry of wondering what comes next has made me realize that I am no longer driven by that. I am able to do things without wondering if it’s building towards something better. I can do things without worrying if it’s going to get me the next step.

And I’m so grateful to feel fulfilled with the life I have already had. 

It’s not that there aren’t things I still want to do and accomplish. And I always strive to do things well and have people think the work I do is good.

But I no longer define my value by it. I no longer need validation of my place in the world based on how other people think of me or what job title I hold.

People often comment about wishing they were young again. But I am happy to be older. I am happy to know that my life story is where it is. And everything else that happens in my life is a bonus. 

Here's what I asked my mom about this:

Did your relationship to work change as you got older?

First I want to say that I loved your piece. You have this special ability to gain insight into yourself by reflecting on each new life experience. You've always been wise in that way, Mara.

My work history was kind of wacky because I didn't go to law school until I was in my 30s. Before that, I worked as a clerk/cashier at various places, from gift shops to health food stores. Then suddenly, I found myself on the faculty of a terrific law school. I was so uncomfortable. I thought all of my new colleagues were brilliant and I was just passing for smart. It took me years to relax into teaching.

When I did, I accepted that it was enough for me to do my best as opposed to being the best. And that's how my relationship to work changed.

(If readers are interested, I wrote about this experience in my book How to Wake Up and also covered it in a recent piece for Psychology Today titled "How to Overcome Your Perfectionist Tendencies.")

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Sometimes the Obvious Answer is the Wrong Answer

Mara here:

First of all: an update from last week's blog—our WiFi is fixed and our cat's paw has healed. Hallelujah!! Small miracles.

What I didn't even bother to mention, which was happening simultaneously with all the other things last week, was that my daughter's tire pressure light came on. This is the second time this has happened in the last month.

My tire pressure light has also been regularly coming on. My daughter's car is new, so when her car's tires get low, it tells you exactly which tire and what the pressure level is. My car is not new, so all that happens is a red exclamation point lights up on the dashboard.

The first time it happened it scared me because being an older type person, the obvious reason that a red light comes on in the car is that something very bad is happening. And surely an exclamation point is important, right?


After a quick Google search, I learned that the light in my make of car can indicate a number of things, but it said that the most common is low tire pressure. Okay, I can handle that.

Kind of.

Putting air in car tires is one of the mundane things that is in theory easy to do, but is not as simple as it seems. It means wrangling an industrial air pressure hose from a self-retracting reel. And then you pay $1.50 in quarters for a short amount of time in which you are supposed to be able to squirt air into all the tires.

So, if you're not experienced at doing this, you don't realize that you need to unscrew all the caps off the tires and measure the tire pressure BEFORE you put the quarters in because otherwise you waste all the valuable time you could be using to put air into the tires and then your time is up and you have to scour your car for another six quarters.

You also have to be able to accurately measure the tire pressure. I'm sure for some people this isn't hard, but I generally get a different reading every time I do it. So it's not an exact science.

But it's fine. I figure putting some air into the tires is better than nothing. Again, it's the obvious thing to do. Right?

But when it happened twice in a month, I realized that both times the tire pressure light came on was when I drove to the airport. And not just any airport—only LAX (Los Angeles' major airport).


Surely my car doesn't know it's at LAX, right? Maybe it's that LAX is further from where I go on my normal driving routines? Or maybe it's because the weight of luggage and passengers suddenly departing from the car causes the air pressure trigger to go off?

I decided to see if the light would come on when we recently made a trip to San Diego. That's a long drive. We would have extra passengers and luggage in the car. I felt pretty sure I had solved the mystery.


The whole trip I waited for the tire pressure light to go on—but it never did.


Okay, maybe it was just a coincidence. This year, my daughter has been doing a lot of travelling. I went years without going to LAX, but this year I've had to go multiple times. So about a couple of weeks after the San Diego trip, I once again had to drop my daughter off at the airport.

Sure enough, as I was leaving the airport, the tire pressure light came on. Whaaaaaat?

I drove home, and the next time I got in my car the light had gone off.

When it came time to go and pick her up from the airport again, I put air in my tires before I went, thinking I would head off the problem ahead of time.

I pulled into LAX and the light popped on.

What is going on? I drive all over the city every week. How is it possible my car knows it's going to LAX. That can't be right, right?

This happens another three times.

Last weekend my husband and my daughter were both out of town, so I had extra cars available to drive. I took the opportunity to take my daughter's car into the repair shop to have her tires checked. They were fine. As I picked up her car, I thought, should I ask about my car? How do I explain that the problem is my car doesn't like LAX?

I decided I didn't care if I sounded crazy. I told the man who was printing out the paperwork to release my daughter's car that I wanted to have my tires checked as well. And I sheepishly said, "So, my tire pressure light comes on, but only when I go to LAX." Then I waited.

"Just the airport?" the repair man asked.

"Yes," I answer, waiting for him to start laughing.

"Do you have a Nissan?" he asked.

"Yes," I reply.

"Well, Nissans are known to have sensitive radio transmission sensors. When you get around a lot of other cars, it will pick up their signals and cause your sensors to go off."

Ohhhhhhhhhh. Relief.

Okay, so I wasn't totally crazy. It was related to going to the airport. It was not my car having an emotional reaction to the airport, which, of course, as a human with no mechanical knowledge is the only thing I could conceive of.

Problem solved.

And while having a car with an aversion to going to LAX would have been a fun anecdote to talk about at parties, it was a relief to know that my car wasn't having mechanical problems. And it was a good reminder that there are often logical explanations for things—even when we can't understand them.

Here's what I asked my mom about this:

Have you ever struggled to solve a problem because you couldn't get past the seemingly obvious answer?

So many times! Here's the latest one I can remember. A few years ago, your Dad came home and told me that seven (yes, seven) warning lights had lit up on the dashboard of our Honda van. I couldn't believe that he'd continued to drive the car. I would have pulled over immediately, afraid the thing would explode if I didn't turn the engine off immediately!

He did take it to our Honda mechanic. As he drove off, I thought, "This is going to be thousands of dollars worth of work." But when he came home, he said the guy told him that it was just a glitch on the computer board. They could fix it for a few thousand dollars, but he said there was no reason to spend the money. We could just live with the irritation.

So my obvious answer to what to do when all those lights came on ("Stop the car and exit it immediately!") was the wrong one. We don't have that car anymore but I always wondered whenever I drove it, "What if one of the things that the glowing warning light refers to is actually malfunctioning? How would I know?" The answer was (I guess) that I wouldn't know, but nobody—neither your Dad nor the mechanic—were concerned about it. We both drove that car for years with the dashboard lights "screaming" at us that everything appeared to be wrong with the car! 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Having to Bandage a Cat's Leg and Other Life Catastrophies

Mara here:

Life has been...well, life.

You don't realize how smoothly everything is going along until things stop going smoothly.

I should start by saying that nothing catastrophic has happened. I'm being melodramatic because that's how I am.

But in life's predictably unpredictable way, things got wonky last week.

On the same day, we noticed that our cat was limping and that our wi-fi had stopped working.

We inspected our cat's paw and saw it was scratched. But it didn't look that bad. And our cats often heal up if we just leave them alone. So we agreed to keep the cat inside and check back with him later.

The wi-fi needed immediate attention. If your house is anything like our house, everything is done online. All of my daughter's schoolwork, college applications, and entertainment rely on having internet access. Brad and I also use it for work and for streaming television.

So not having it makes everything come to a screeching halt.

The thing is, we live in an area with relatively unreliable internet wiring. For years we struggled with AT&T, so a few years ago, we moved to a third party because our internet access had become so unreliable. The new service, Sonic, has worked pretty well. However, they rent the "phone lines" from AT&T, so ultimately AT&T is still responsible for us having access to the internet.

So when the internet went down, we called AT&T. They came out and said it's not the external lines, it's Sonic's internal wiring. So a day and half later Sonic showed up and said, no everything we are responsible for is working; it's AT&T's fault.


Meanwhile our cat's paw had become swollen like a mitt; it clearly was not going to heal on its own. So I took him to the vet. The vet gave him a shot of antibiotics and sent me home with oral antibiotics and a topical cream to apply to the wound, along with instructions for "wrapping up his paw."

I thought, "Okay. I can do that."

An hour later, the cat had scratched the crap out of me, and he wiggled loose from all three of my wrapping attempts.

I finally managed to secure a pad over the paw by mummifying him in a towel while I wrapped up his whole arm with athletic tape.

Fast forward 12 hour laters. I couldn't get the tape off. I had used the small roll the vet had given me in the first failed attempts at a wrapping, so I ended up needing to use an old roll of tape that had clearly aged by becoming ultra sticky.

I had to cut away the tape. If you've ever tried to cut a baby's fingernails, it's similar to the experience of trying to cut a massive amount of tape off of a short-haired cat's leg without stabbing him or myself. 

The icing on the cake was squirting the syringe of liquid antibiotics into his mouth, only to have him turn his head and end up with half the dose on his ear.

All this was happening and we still didn't have internet service.

Three days later, AT&T came out—again—and said, "The lines are working; it's Sonic's fault."

And I took the cat back to the vet who told me I have to continue to give the cat the oral antibiotic, ointment, and wrapping treatment for another whole week.


So, here we are. We don't have Wi-Fi and the cat is limping pathetically on a mostly-healed paw, yowling at the door to be let out, and looking at me with extreme displeasure.

Did I mention that I just started a new job and we are trying to sell our house?

When it rains, it pours.

So, tomorrow, a full week after the Wi-Fi first broke, Sonic and AT&T are both coming out to the house for a "Vendor Meet" to duke it out over who's the faulty party.

In six days, I take the cat back to the vet for a hopefully clean bill of health.

Finger's crossed that next week, life will have settled back into its regular craziness!

I asked my mom a couple of questions about "life's catastrophes."

I remember when your dog, Scout, broke her front leg in two places and you had to deal with her injury for months. Is there a Buddhist mantra to help remind you that the things that feel overwhelming in the moment will pass?

There are lots of "mantras," Buddhist and otherwise for this, several of which I've made up for myself over the years (and then wrote about online and in my books)! 

Of course, there's the well-known "This too shall pass." I thought it was from the Bible, but I just googled it and it appears to come from an unknown medieval Persian Sufi poet. 

Then, here's a phrase I use that I wrote about in a piece for Psychology Today where I described a rough day I was having. Here is it: "The Secret for Surviving a Rough Day" Among my suggestions (with credit to a Beatles song) was this as a mantra to gently repeat to yourself: "It's just a day in the life. You'll make it."

And, in the new edition of my book, How to Be Sick, I added a section about one of my new sayings: "It's okay if..." [fill in the blank]. I find this incredibly useful. "It's okay if Scout's leg is broken [or your cat's paw is injured]. Animals get injured. I'll just take the best care of her that I can." I hesitate to suggest you try it on the internet, as in "It's okay if the internet isn't working..." because, in today's world, it is a challenge to make that okay!

From a Buddhist perspective, I always think of what I call in the new edition of How to Be Sick, "The Buddha's List." It's found in what's known as the first noble truth. He lists the unpleasant experiences that are an inescapable part of the human condition. I won't list all of them, but here's the one I encounter almost every day (if not every day): "Getting what you don't want." That's what happened to me when Scout broke her leg, and that's what's happened to you with your cat and with the internet.

I've learned that getting upset when I "get what I don't want" only makes life harder. Being able to say to myself "Yup, this is one of those unpleasant experiences that's on the Buddha's list," followed by something like "This too shall pass" or "It's just a day in the life" or "It's okay if..." helps me ride those bumps in the road with calmness and equanimity. It's a lifetime of work...but it's my path and I'm committed to it.

I know you and many other people who can't leave their homes much depend on internet service to maintain contact with the world. Have you ever had the Wi-Fi go out and how did you handle being cut off from the computer?

Now you've touched on one of those major "getting what I don't want" items! This is a challenge. The first time it happened after I'd become chronically ill, I made your Dad drag me to Starbucks so I could access the internet. Now when it happens, I invoke one of the "mantras" like I wrote about above, put my computer down, and do something else until the service comes back. That said, I've never had it go out for more than a day, so I'm not sure I'd be so "equanimous" if that happened!

Mara's cat, leg bandaged at last!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Home is Where the the Heart Is...

Mara here:

As readers of the blog know, I'm not a person who enjoys change very much.

It's not that I don't want things to change—I do. But it's hard for me. It causes me a lot of stress and anxiety and sometimes it's so overwhelming that it's difficult for me to really process. When confronted by radical change I tend to go into "survival mode" and I get through it on adrenaline and by doing things without thinking about them.

It's not a particularly nice way to get through things.

Which is why change for me tends to come in spurts. There will be lots of change and then several years where I am completely resistant to even being open to change.

I've been very resistant to change for the past three years.

Things were so crazy for us when Malia was acting. We were constantly traveling. When we finally were home after her television show and DVD series wrapped, I was numb. I tucked myself into my house and ducked my head.

For years my husband and daughter have wanted to move. But I have never been open to the idea. It seemed too stressful. The process of Brad and I buying our house, our first house, in 2003, was so overwhelming that I told myself I was never moving again. Years passed—always feeling as if there wasn't enough time and wasn't enough money to dive into doing anything more to the house than what was mandatory. The result was we bought a fixer upper that never got fixed up.

Fifteen years later, our little house is in need of major renovations.

And change is coming whether I want it to or not.

Malia is going to go off to college next year. Our whole world is changing. Where there were, what I like to call us, Three Tylers. There will only be two. And the house that was so great for Malia as a kid is quickly becoming a looming financial burden.

We have almost 7000 square feet of yard that we have never properly managed. Some of our plumbing is from the original house (built in the 1940's). And the electrical wiring will all need to get redone before any major improvements can be made.

In other words, our house will require hundreds of thousands of dollars of renovations in the not too distant future.

So we're thinking about moving.

Just the thought of moving causes my heart to race because this little house, that's worn down, has been my little piece of heaven for the last 15 years. And thinking about people coming in and looking at our house with a critical eye makes my heart hurt. My identity as an adult is so closely wrapped up in the idea of "my house" and "my address."

But just like having Malia move away and go off to college won't actually make our family a different family; moving doesn't mean I won't have a home.

This past weekend, Brad and I went and looked at some condos that are on the market. The first couple of them didn't feel right. I was worried that maybe I would never find anything that felt right. I kept thinking back to our house.

But then at the final stop that our realtor had planned, we toured a place that we loved. I could see myself living in it. Brad and I both felt the same way about it.

And a feeling of relief washed over me. It made me realize that I can live somewhere else and have it feel like home. As we looked over the different rooms, we talked about where we would move stuff and how we would fit our cars into the garages. We talked about old furniture we would get rid of and new furniture we would buy.

And for the first time in almost 15 years, I actually believed that the feeling of "home" wasn't directly tied to our house. Having my husband, my daughter (when she's visiting), and Pidu our dog, and our two crazy cats in a place we are comfortable in is what makes a house a home.

We might not be able to move to the place we saw, but at least we know now that there are other places besides our house that we could see ourselves living in. 

And even though it's still sad for me to think of someone coming into our house and painting over Malia's growth marks that we loving wrote on the doorjam of the hall, it doesn't change the fact that she grew up. And leaving behind the white tile floors in our entryway that I love seeing in the mornings doesn't mean that there won't be new things I'll look forward to seeing when I wake up.

And the memories won't get left behind.

I will always love our little house. I will always remember it because it was exactly what we needed when we were here. But changes come and it's time to be open to discovering a new home for our family. And our new home will not have less heart.

My mom and dad are also going to move out of their house in the not-to-distant future—a house they've been living in for over 35 years. So I asked my mom about her experience:

When you first thought about moving out of the house, what was your initial reaction to the idea?

My initial reaction, I must admit, was fear that I won't be able to pull off the move because of my limited energy due to the chronic illness I've been struggling with for over 17 years.

I was surprised that I didn't feel sad about moving out of the house where you and your brother were mostly raised. I thought about why this might be and I think it goes back to that chronic illness. I've spent 17 years adjusting to a vastly different life than I ever thought I'd be leading. I thought I'd still be working full-time. I thought I'd be out and about with your Dad. I thought I'd still be traveling to visit you (readers may not realize that I've never even seen your house even though we're only about six hours' drive away from each other).

I think being chronically ill has made me less attached to things in general because I've had to un-attach from most of my expectations about how my life would unfold. And so, for the most part, I don't mind moving from this house even though I love it and have so many wonderful memories of it. I was surprised to find that I'm not particularly sad about it.

You have already done a lot of packing and decluttering. What has it been like to go through over three decades of memories?

It's been a mixed experience. I loved filling the garbage can with things I no longer use. I loved filling boxes with things I no longer use but that someone else might want. It made me feel lighter than air. (Unfortunately, some of that clutter is already sneaking back, so we'll have to do another round soon.)

I loved the process but every once in a while, I'd come across a memory (such as a photo or something you or your brother made) that stopped me in my tracks, sometimes bringing tears to my eyes. I have a special box for those things and they'll be going with me.

Is it hard to imagine yourself having a different address?

Yes, that is definitely hard to imagine! In fact, it feels unreal to me to not have this be our address. After all, it's been our address since 1983!