Reverse Engineering Your Life

They say that the top five stressors in life are:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce
  • Moving
  • Major illness or injury
  • Job loss

Thanks to this freakin’ pandemic, along with life in general, many of us are experiencing several of these stressors at once. It can be devastating. It’s a fragile time, and an all-time low. Under the circumstances, you can’t be blamed for feeling like a starfish that has been washed up onto dry land.

If the hits just keep on coming for you, it’s important for you to understand that you’re quite likely in a state of mourning. You are grieving the life you once had that has been ripped out of your hands. It’s perfectly natural to be upset, depressed, overwhelmed, angry, and afraid, by turns, or all at once.

Be gentle with yourself. Treat yourself as though you’ve just come out of major surgery. Give yourself time to heal and breathe. Let yourself feel all the different emotions. There’s no shame in that. It will take time to regain your bearings.

But once your feet are back up under you and you have a renewed sense of the compass points of your life, dare I say it? You have a unique opportunity. Yeah, I know. Hard to believe. But hear me out.

Your life has been stripped down in such a way that you are practically reborn, and yet you’re no baby. You are a capable, imaginative, creative creature who has just been stripped of its shell and perhaps everything that you’ve held dear up to this point. You are naked and vulnerable in the world, but you still have your brain and your character and your life experience. No one can take that away from you.

That vulnerable state also means you have more options than you ever have had in your life. And options equal opportunity! Even though you might be feeling like you’re at the bottom of a blast crater, you can now rebuild your life any way you want. You are at the foundation. You can build something amazing out of that crater. The land has already been cleared for you.

Believe me, I speak from experience. In 2014, I had hit rock bottom. Someone I loved more than life itself died quite unexpectedly. I also had just gotten my third college degree and was realizing that, like the other two, it was completely worthless in terms of starting me on a career path. I had a job that I knew would not be able to sustain me financially moving forward, and I had been kicked out of my apartment and had no idea where to go. The few days I experienced homelessness was enough to make me understand how I didn’t want my life to be. I had nothing left but the ringing in my ears after the explosion that was my life.

But that’s when I had an epiphany. (Don’t you just love a good epiphany?)

If ever I was to have the life I wanted, I needed to start now. Rather than scrambling through life, desperately clutching at whatever handholds came my way to get me out of this pit, I needed to reverse engineer everything, and I mean everything, about the way I chose to live.

I needed to think deeply about what it is that I truly wanted out of life, and then position myself to achieve those goals. I thought about where I wanted to live. (A liberal place, definitely not Florida). I thought about what I wanted to do. (Be in a stable, healthy relationship and build a solid home base from which to travel. I thought about what that would look like in detail.)

Your goals might be very different from mine, but one of my major realizations was that my job should not be my life. My job should be what allows me to live my life. I didn’t want a job that made me so miserable that that feeling bled into my off hours. If I was miserable, how would I be attractive to a healthy and positive life partner? I wanted a job that sustained me financially, but I also wanted one that I didn’t have to bring home with me. I wanted time to explore and have adventures and read books and focus on the people I love. I wanted time to write. I wanted to be able to turn off my phone whenever desired, without consequences.

I needed to do several things. First of all, I had to stop settling for the crap jobs that continued to put me in the waiting room of life. Waiting for change and not being the change was getting me nowhere.

I also needed to break free of toxic people. If I wanted to have a good life, I needed to be surrounded by good people, and those people would never present themselves if they had to swim through a sea of poisonous drama to get to me. I needed to put myself in places where I was most likely to meet the kind of good people I want in my life. That process was an emotional spring cleaning of sorts, and it wasn’t easy, but it was necessary.

But most of all, I had to take chances. I needed to have a clear vision of what I wanted, and I needed to say no to negative things and break old destructive habits, and say yes to opportunities. I needed to move. And now was my chance, because I basically had nothing and no one. While traveling through life without baggage can be scary, it can also be liberating.

If you’re at ground zero, down there amongst the smoke and rubble, there’s nowhere to go but up. This may seem counterintuitive, but I’m telling you to stay in that crater for a bit. Take some time to carefully plot out your course so that when you reach the rim of that crater, what you’re looking out at is exactly what you want to see.

I’m not saying that my path from 2014 was easy, but it was carefully plotted out. I now live in liberal Seattle, have a job I love that I don’t have to think about after the shift is over, I’m happily married, and life is good. For the first time in my life I feel as though I’m exactly where I need to be, and it took total effing devastation to get me there.

I never thought I’d say this, but three cheers for devastation, and a hearty thank you.

It can be done. Don’t just let life happen to you. Make it happen. There will be better days. But take some time to figure out what a better day would look like for you, and only then go there, step by step.

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I Am My Mother’s Mother

Recently, I watched an amazing movie, Life Itself. I highly recommend it. It’s a multi-generational tale, and it shows how the actions of one generation impacts the next and the next and the next. We all are intertwined, part of a legacy. We each carry with us the choices of our forefathers. Here’s a quote from one of the characters in the movie, Elena Dempsey-González:

I’m not sure whose story I have been telling. I’m not sure if it is mine, or if it’s some character’s I have yet to meet. I’m not sure of anything. All I know is that, at any moment, life will surprise me. It will bring me to my knees, and when it does, I will remind myself that I am my father. And I am my father’s father. I am my mother. And I am my mother’s mother. And while it may be easy to wallow in the tragedies that shape our lives, and while it’s natural to focus on those unspeakable moments that bring us to our knees, we must remind ourselves that if we get up, if we take the story a little bit farther… If we go far enough, there’s love.”

This got me thinking about my own family. I’ve written a lot in this blog about how, at age 49, I moved all the way across the continent to Seattle, a place where I had never been and knew no one, just to start over. People tell me that this was brave. I just thought I had nothing to lose, and it turned out that I had everything to gain. But I am not the first person in my family who has taken a leap like this. Far from it.

My mother, at age 48, moved us all from Connecticut to Florida. She, too, felt she had nothing to lose. I wish, for her sake, that that risk had worked out as well for her as mine did for me. I landed on my feet and then some. Her situation became much, much worse, in terms of finances and lifestyle and location. It’s really heartbreaking to think about. She deserved so much better.

Her mother, my grandmother, came through Ellis Island when she was 23. She learned English on the way over, using an English/Danish dictionary and the Saturday Evening Post. She had $10.00 in her pocket, and she was met in New York by a Danish minister. Her husband, my grandfather, worked his way over on a Danish ship.

My great grandmother and my great great grandmother on that side seem to have never left their home places, but my great great grandmother’s husband committed suicide, leaving her with seven children, and that must have been a challenge all its own.

My great great grandmother on my grandfather’s side was born in Sweden but moved to Denmark in her 20’s. That may not seem as extreme, but back then, I’m sure it was still a huge transition into the unknown. It would have been a language change. She went there looking for work. She most likely brought the BRCA1 genetic anomaly to our family as well, and many of us have been paying for that ever since. (Not all legacies are good ones.)

I don’t know as much about my Father’s side of the family, but I do know that his mother came to America from Ireland, young and single, and hoping to make a better life. She met my grandfather because she was a waitress in his restaurant. He liked to say that he only married her so he could stop paying her. In any case, he left her with 4 children to bring up on her own, which was far less than she deserved.

We each carry on a legacy. We each add to that legacy. I come from a long line of strong, risk-taking women. Sometimes those risks worked out, and sometimes they didn’t. But I’m grateful for all of them, because they led to me.

leap-of-faith-3238553_1280

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Let Us Fish Protests and Their Ilk

The other day, I saw a large procession of pleasure craft float beneath my drawbridge. I took this picture. From the radio chatter I was able to determine that this was a Let Us Fish protest.

IMG_20200426_123108

It seems that the State of Washington, as part of its Stay Home, Stay Healthy initiative, has put restrictions on recreational fishing. These protesters feel that they should have the right to fish. After all, how does it hurt anyone?

Well, as with all of those who are wanting to get back to normal too soon, you’re overlooking how your actions impact others, and I find that extremely selfish.

You will have to gas up your car and your vessel, which means you’re touching gas pumps. You’re probably stopping to get food and snacks along the way. You’re interacting with others at the docks. If you behave recklessly, you’re forcing the harbor patrol and/or the Coastguard to get involved, thus exposing themselves to you. If you get hurt in any way, you’re causing health care workers to interact with you. After all is said and done, you then bring those potential COVID-19 exposures home to loved ones, risking their exposure, and they in turn risk exposing anyone they interact with, many of whom aren’t throwing tantrums because they can’t go fishing.

It’s the same situation with people who are outraged they can’t go to the hairdresser or the tattoo parlor. Get over it. These things can wait. They are not worth anyone’s life.

In addition, by insisting that people go back to work, you’re overlooking some major points. When you get a governor to insist that restaurants reopen, as an example, those who still feel it’s not safe to reopen will not have a choice, because they’ll no longer be able to file for business interruption insurance. If restaurant workers don’t feel it’s safe but the state government does, then landlords will stop allowing people to defer rent and there will be no more subsidies, which means people who are fearing for their grandparents and/or have underlying health conditions will have to work whether they like it or not. If your employer is forced to reopen, but you’ve got increased risk of contracting COVID-19, you’ll either have to quit the job and not be eligible for unemployment insurance or you’ll get fired and those small businesses will be required to foot the bill for your unemployment, which puts a further strain on small business.

I’d have a lot more sympathy for these protests if they weren’t making them so inexplicably political. Many of those boats had signs that claimed that keeping them from fishing is the fault of our “communist” governor. They also had pro-Trump signs. So this was less of a complaint about wanting to fish than it was a rant against the fact that they don’t like decisions being made by a Democrat in their state capitol. Believe me, he’s not enjoying these restrictions either. But he’s trying to save lives.

Encouraging these people to participate in get back to work protests is not about helping the people. It’s about the one percent not wanting to foot the bill, pushing the financial burden further down the food chain, and trying to force you back to work even if it means more people will die.

Yes, I understand that people are hurting financially at this time. But I’d rather take a government subsidy which came from my taxes, or rely on public assistance, or go to food banks rather than put the elderly, the people with underlying health issues, or our frontline workers at further risk. COVID-19 doesn’t care who holds political power.

If the Greatest Generation had resisted food rationing the way we’re resisting doing our part, there’d probably be a swastika flying over the White House right now. We’ve become spoiled. We need to make sacrifices. I know it hurts. But we have to do the right thing, for everyone’s sake. Now is not the time to slack off. We’re all in this together.

_______________________________________________________

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Finding Your Unsafe Place

Everybody has a comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. Unless.

If you go through life without ever being challenged, you will never grow. If you don’t experience new things, you will never learn. If you don’t seize opportunities when they present themselves, you may never fully live.

Growing and learning and living can be quite terrifying. You might have to force yourself along that path. But I guarantee you that the very best times in your life will be those where you start off not feeling particularly safe. It’s important to find your unsafe place.

I’m not talking about wandering dangerous neighborhoods alone at night. I’m not urging you to enter a lion’s den wearing a T-bone steak necklace. Don’t go rob a bank.

But take leaps of faith. Take risks. Allow yourself to fail spectacularly. Experiment. Carpe that diem. Do something you never thought you would do.

Open yourself up to the possibility that your comfort zone can be expanded. Explore those unsafe places. Make them your own.

comfort-zone

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Just Me Trying to Get Published

I just sent an e-mail to the director of the University of Washington Press. I’m more nervous about it than I thought I would be, so I decided to blog about it, because all of you in Drawbridge Nation have always been a source of support and encouragement for me.

Whatever happens, I firmly believe that you can’t have great experiences without taking great risks. So wish me luck.

This is the body of the e-mail that I sent:

You don’t know me, but I’ve probably made you late to work on more than one occasion. I am a bridgetender for the City of Seattle. I operate the University Bridge on Roosevelt, but have operated 4 others in town as well. In fact, in my 17 ½ years as a bridgetender, I’ve worked on 9 different bridges in 3 different states, which is better statistics than any other bridge operator that I know of in this country. I’m rather proud of that, especially as a female in a male-dominated profession.

On my commute to work the other day, I was listening to NPR and I heard them do a book review of Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots. It occurred to me that there needs to be a book about drawbridges. People are fascinated by my job. I was even once asked for an autograph, to my shock and mortification.

After that book review, I rushed home to see who the publisher of the levee book was, and it turns out to be the University Press of Mississippi. Needless to say, my book probably wouldn’t be an ideal fit for them, but I think it would be for the University of Washington Press.

The good news is, the bulk of the material is already written. I’ve written a daily blog for more than 6 years. It’s called The View from a Drawbridge, which is “the random musings of a bridgetender with entirely too much time on her hands.” I have more than 600 followers and I average 105 views a day.

Is this blog all about drawbridges? No. It really is as random as I claim. However, there is a drawbridge subcategory in there, and if you look at that, you’ll see that I have more than enough fascinating bridge stories to fill a book.

In addition, I’ve already self-published one anthology from the blog. A Bridgetender’s View: Notes on Gratitude. It did not treat the subject of drawbridges, but it was number one on the Amazon best seller list for its subcategory for, oh, about three days.

One of my stories has also been featured in a StoryCorps anthology entitled Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, which caused me to be on NPR’s Morning Edition, and in O Magazine and Parade Magazine.

I realize that this is probably a rather unorthodox way to submit a book proposal, but I’ve lived a rather unorthodox life. I hope you’ll consider my idea. I certainly look forward to hearing from you.

Risk

More Telling Than a FICO Score

I’m about to become a landlord for the first time in my life. It’s a strange feeling. It took me 54 years to scrape and claw myself up into the middle class, and now here I am trying to judge the content of someone’s character based on their FICO score.

And I must say, it’s a very telling reference point. From it you can determine if one pays their debts, does not spend beyond their means, and basically if that person is a good financial risk. You can also get a sense of their level of discipline, their ability to hold a job, their integrity and responsibility. It’s not a perfect metric, to be sure. Life happens. But it’s better than flying blind.

Of course, we are using an application and doing a credit and background check as well. I’m trying really hard to look at this as a business, not as an emotional thing. As in, “I really like that couple. I want to help them.”

It’s really hard to pass judgment on someone you’ve just met. And it’s really important to me to do my best not to be biased. It’s not easy. But someone else gave me another measuring tool that is turning out to be even more telling than a FICO score.

When a couple is looking at your rental place, how are they talking to each other? Do they do so with respect? They don’t necessarily have to be affectionate. Some people are much more private than others. But are they being respectful to one another? Because if they can’t maintain that respect with the person that they supposedly love most in the world, then they’re not going to respect your house, and may not respect the need to pay the rent on time, either.

This makes perfect sense to me. And I think I’ll be using this yardstick in other walks of life as well. Because it’s true, when I see people who tease each other to an extreme, or are downright rude or cruel to one another, as a general rule, they’re not the type of people who I want to have in my life. How you treat your loved ones says a lot about who you are, deep down.

Respect. The ultimate FICO score.

Yardstick

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Where’s Your Sense of Adventure?

Someday soon, I’m going indoor skydiving! I’ve always wanted to do that. I was given a gift card to do so this year for my birthday. It’s going to be epic! (And it will no doubt spawn a blog post, so stay tuned!)

I’d also like to go ziplining. I’ve actually tried to do so a couple of times, but something always seems to get in the way. There’s a zipline in my future, though. I can feel it.

A friend of mine said, “I could never do that.”

My response was, “Oh, where’s your sense of adventure?”

And that, as per usual, got me thinking. Where is one’s sense of adventure? Where does it reside?

It certainly doesn’t live in your head, because it’s often your head that talks you out of doing things. “You fool! You’re going to get yourself killed!” “It’s too expensive.” “You’re too old.” “People will laugh at you.”

No. It’s definitely not in your head. Your brain can be your own worst enemy in these situations.

Could your sense of adventure reside in your heart? Well, the heart has a love/hate relationship with adventure. It starts to pound in anticipation of it. It certainly pounds during it. It nearly bursts with joy at having lived through it. How you interpret these reactions will greatly determine how much adventure you crave.

Did all that heart pounding and bursting feel exciting and wonderful? Then, yes, more please. Was it nauseating and terrifying? Then, never ever again. Ever. It all boils down to whether or not you are risk averse.

That’s what makes me believe that your sense of adventure resides in your very soul. Either you have it or you don’t. Either you’ll do these things or you won’t.

There’s no right answer. Only you can decide what’s right for you. But meanwhile, I’ll be over there, indoor skydiving. Woo hoo!

Indoor skydiving

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Cannonball!

If you’ve managed to go through life without having made a really big splash in a swimming pool, then I respectfully suggest that you haven’t lived. Sometimes you just have to go for it. Put yourself out there. Cowabunga!

Not that there’s anything wrong with being cautious. Stick your toe in. Test the waters. Make sure there are no sharks. I get that instinct, too. I just tend to be a cannonballer, myself. Even more so, the older I get. If I don’t jump right in, I just might chicken out.

I suggested to someone recently that he and I are at the opposite ends of the cannonball spectrum. He’s very much a toe-dipper. I didn’t intend that to be a criticism. His caution is probably why he’s more successful than I am. But apparently he took that on board and the next day, told me that he loved me for the first time. (I was over the moon!)

I guess there’s a time and a place for both philosophies. For example, even I wouldn’t jump into a pond if I wasn’t absolutely sure of its depth, or of what might be beneath the murky surface, aiming jaggedly at my highly perforable flesh. It really is important to use your head.

But without risk, there’s no reward, right? Leading a healthy life means finding that happy medium. So, yes, look before you leap, but leap!

cannon ball splash

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Working a Tropical Storm

We’ve had our fair share of natural disasters this year. But when you pair that with an increasing disregard for workers, you get a toxic combination. People are getting fired for having to mandatorily evacuate and therefore being unable to show up for work. People have been forced to work in extremely unsafe situations, leaving their families at times when they’re needed most. When human life stops being the most important factor, we have reached a new low.

What follows is a letter I was forced to write back in 2008, when I was a bridgetender in Jacksonville, Florida, and the Florida Department of Transportation put my life at risk. As per usual with them, I never got any response, and there seemed to be no consequences. I hope they are treating bridgetenders more fairly now, as these disasters increase in frequency. But I doubt it.

Dear Mr. XXXXXXXX:

Hurricane season is once again upon us. As a bridgetender who had to work at Ortega River Bridge in the early morning hours of Friday, August 22nd during the very worst of Tropical Storm Fay, I feel compelled to give you some insight as to what that was like.

I had to drive to work in 50 mph winds, detouring around downed trees and power lines, and then walked up the bridge to the tenderhouse, getting drenched in the process, and nearly being blown into the street on more than one occasion, only to find out that the coast guard had closed the bridge to boat traffic. I was informed that FDOT was aware of this, but since your wind meter did not match the speeds registered by the one in the tenderhouse, you decided we had to work.

Every weather channel said that the winds were going to be at least 50 mph. Clearly the Coast Guard believed this and took boater safety very seriously. Apparently, we were only there to monitor the radio, but the only transmissions I heard all night were the many Coast Guard announcements that informed boaters of the bridge closings, because no boater in his right mind was out in that weather. No cars were out either, except for the bridgetender who was compelled to relieve me at the end of the shift.

During the entire length of my shift, surrounded by electrical equipment, I was forced to mop water down the hatch and bail as it literally poured in the doors, windows, and through the air conditioner. At one point the heavy traffic cones and life ring blew into the street and I had to wrestle them indoors. Not only should the traffic gates be secured in such weather, but also the traffic cones, life rings and convex mirror should be stowed indoors to avoid becoming projectiles. Apparently that was left up to me during the height of the storm.

When my bladder could no longer hold out, I was forced to venture outdoors and across the street to the bathroom in a downpour, and once again I was nearly blown off my feet. Had I been hurt, no one would have known for hours. Not once did anyone call to check on me.

In the meantime, the power was continually going off and on, which caused the generator to kick in as I watched transformers exploding on the horizon. I found out the next day that water spouts were spinning up on the river. The wind shook the building and the waves crested over the fenders.

When it was time to go home, I once again had to walk down the bridge, and the wind was blowing so hard that the rain was physically painful. Once again I was drenched as no rain coat in the world can stand up to those conditions, and by the time I detoured around even more downed trees and power lines to get home, my lips were blue from the cold and I had to stave off hypothermia by taking an extended hot bath. Thank God my electricity was not out or I would probably have been hospitalized.

The worst part about the whole experience, sir, was that I spent the entire shift afraid, and my family was afraid for me. And the whole time I kept thinking, “I haven’t had a raise in 5 years, and I have $5,000 in medical debt because of substandard health insurance. Must I risk my life, too?”

I can’t speak for other bridgetenders. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to climb the ladder at the Main Street Bridge under these conditions. I’m sure my life would have been flashing before my eyes.

I hope you will take this letter into consideration when making decisions in future storms. I hope I never have to have another experience like that as long as I live.

                                      Sincerely…

Tropical Storm Fay
Tropical Storm Fay. Would you have expected your employees to work in this?

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An Evacuation Rant

As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is bearing down on Florida. After living there for 40 years, I still have a lot of friends in that state, so I’m very worried. The only good thing about hurricanes is that they generally give you a few days’ notice, so if you have to leave, in most cases you can.

But as per usual, I’m hearing a lot of stories about people who are ignoring evacuation orders and riding out the storm. This attitude never ceases to infuriate me. Do you think that by sticking around you can somehow protect your property from a wall of wind and water? Do you think that’s the top priority of the people who love you? Selfish. Selfish. Houses can be replaced. You can’t.

It’s one thing if you can’t physically or financially leave. Some people are trapped by circumstances, and I can think of nothing more terrifying. But what really enrages me are those people who voluntarily ride it out, and then have to be rescued in the aftermath. If your stupid ass is sitting on what’s left of your roof based on your poor choices, it takes time and money to row out to get you. Time that could be better spent elsewhere. Helicopters aren’t cheap, either, nor is medical care. That’s money that your now devastated city can ill afford. And you are putting your rescuers at risk as well.

Here’s something I’ve never understood. We, the taxpayers, are left holding the financial bag when these people need to be rescued and/or buried. Why aren’t they (or their estate) presented with a bill? If you’re under a mandatory evacuation order and you ignore it, that should be your burden to bear.

End of rant. Please stay safe, everybody.

matthew

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