Then … and Now

Back in my dancing days, I had several opportunities to meet some pretty big stars. I was exhilarated, thrilled that a small-town Texas girl could be in a position to meet famous people and, of course, I wanted a photo with every one of them to commemorate the moment. I’m glad I did because looking at me now, you’d never suspect that show business side of me and it makes for wonderful conversation.

One of my photos, taken backstage at “Casino de Paris” in Las Vegas, is probably my favorite. It was during the show that we all noticed Cary Grant sitting in the King’s Row booth center stage. I was told he held stock in the hotel and was a friend of our comedian and frequently showed up but it was the first time I’d seen him in the audience.

After the show, word spread fast that he was backstage and in our comedian’s dressing room. Everyone dawdled, wasting time that would normally see us racing to the coffee shop for a bite to eat. Someone even called the camera girl to come backstage so those who were lucky enough to be there when he came out could perhaps persuade him to take a photo or two. Finally, I was dared (and of course took it) to knock on the dressing room door and ask if a few of us could get a picture. He couldn’t have been kinder. When he came out, cast members lined up for a photo and he stood there and humored each and every one of us.

Cary Grant

Think the story stops there? Of course not. A little over a dozen years later, I had retired from dancing and was working in a law firm. I wanted to put at least one something in the office that would remind me of the career I’d had for 13 years that had provided me with tons of great memories and dozens of great stories. I chose to frame my photo with Cary Grant and put it on the bookshelf across from my desk.

How ironic that when I put something up to make me think I wasn’t the has-been I sometimes felt like, a younger co-worker walked in one day, examined the photo carefully, then turned to me and said, “Very nice. Is that your boyfriend?” Incredulous, I said, “Cary Grant?” She shook her head with incomprehension and asked me if he was famous. I mentioned several movies – North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Charade, Houseboat, Father Goose – and to my utter amazement, she didn’t know any of them.

Nothing like a younger generation to put things in perspective, is it?

Vegas – the Early Years

In 1977, a year after graduating from college with a BFA in Drama/Dance, I headed for Vegas. I had spent that first post-school year living with relatives in Burke, Virginia and teaching various and sundry dance classes all over Virginia and Washington, D.C. – and I had hated it. So I drove across country by myself, settled in to a one-room apartment near The Strip and quickly secured a cocktail waitress position by the pool at the Circus-Circus Hotel. I also scoured the local paper for audition notices. It took me three months to land my first show in Las Vegas and little did I know that I started with the best – “Casino de Paris” at the Dunes Hotel. It remains the best show I ever did.

In the course of the show, we had a large lion that sashayed onstage for a brief appearance and then spent the remainder of the show lazily napping in a giant cage backstage. Between shows, his handlers would take him out for a walk in the back hallways. Most of us thought of Caesar as a sweet, harmless feline.

And that leads me the photo that I sent to my mother. New to the show, new to Las Vegas, new to the glitz and glamor, I was entranced with being a part of a lavish Vegas production where we had gorgeous costumes, fantastic choreography by Ron Lewis and exotic animals within reach. Like many others, I asked if I could get a picture with him. His handler, Ferco, assured me that he was approachable and when I kneeled down behind him (well out of his reach), he encouraged me to get up close and personal. So I did.

Lisa, Caesar and Ferco

I then sent the developed photo to my mother (well actually to everyone I knew who might be impressed) and waited for her response.  None came. I finally asked her if she’d received the photo. Her response was something like, “Yes and that’s so cute. Of course, I’d be concerned if I thought he was real.” It was great fun telling her he was, in fact, real and listening to the gasp.

I pooh-poohed her concern about being that close to a “wild animal” and assured her that “everyone did it.” Some of that bravado disappeared the night one of our male backstage dressers – I’ll call him Jim – came in the back door slightly inebriated (as I was told) and, like many of us, stopped to reach in the cage and greet Caesar. Most of us would ruffle his fur or pat him on the head but Jim apparently chose to scratch him on the nose. Caesar very calmly bit off the end of his finger. Gives a whole different feel to the photo, doesn’t it?

And I can’t say that any of us ever reached in the cage again or posed for up close and personal photos.

Lisa and Caesar

Life Well Lived

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I find there’s a micro and a macro way of looking at my time on this earth and it’s only when I get wrapped up in the micro that I miss that macro “big picture,” where I fit in, and what it all ultimately means. Oddly, I find that my age has influenced that as well. When I was younger, it was much harder to pull myself back from the micro life of endlessly chasing ways to make more money, more money, more money…

I have never had a lot of money but it’s only recently that I’ve slowed down enough to reevaluate my life, take a look at where I’ve been and what mattered then, and where I am now and what matters now. I wish I’d been able to do this sooner because the balance has shifted. Maybe I needed the youthful experiences and the passing of time to see the patterns. The pattern was that I would spend 80% of my time trying to come up with ways to make more money and about 20% of my time enjoying what I had and the outer things that touched my soul in ways tangible things did not. Somewhere along the line, I realized I had it backwards.

It doesn’t hurt that I work with hospice patients who teach me every day that having enough money for “things” isn’t (or shouldn’t) be the goal. I believe the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you?” It’s a very simple, overused saying with mammoth meaning. Sort of like living a more authentic life and noticing the little things around you that actually have meaning. In the end, we’ll all be reduced to the images and memories that reside in the mind and the Louis Vuitton bag or the botoxed lips or the million dollar house won’t have an ounce of meaning. The things I hear hospice patients request are family members, friends, sunshine, fresh air, open blinds so they can see the sun rise, etc.

We do a disservice to our time on this planet when we try to separate ourselves from our own organic nature – when we think we’re above the plants and animals around us and that we operate on a different level because we possess bigger brains. I’m not so sure we’ve used them wisely, are you? The organic world has much to teach us when we stop and connect. But it definitely requires us to stop. And then connect.

Here’s a good, recent example of what I’m trying to say. How many times have you heard, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” when referring to the recent mass shooting? Several? Dozens? How many of those people would you guess took the time to connect with the feeling of what really happened and what really matters in those final moments? You have to put yourself in someone else’s place, mentally and emotionally, and feel what it must be like to have a teenage child die for no damn reason at all. You must be able to feel the anguish in your heart, not from a once-removed superficial place of observing strangers living lifestyles different from yours (which makes it easy to put a little distance between their reality and your own), but from the gut-wrenching depths of your heart as it would feel if it were your child or your spouse. Only then does “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” resonate with the survivors. Oh, they appreciate your words, I’m sure. But I’m also sure they’re aware that they’re words and that if you were in a position to do something about it, you would if you really felt the horror. You wouldn’t allow it to keep happening.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that if you don’t feel the life around you, you miss the life around you.

I know a woman who prided herself on how much money she had and the “things” she bought to decorate her home. Although she would verbally say things like, “I’m not rich” and “Money isn’t everything,” her actions spoke louder than words about how she believed her money gave her clout and bought her attention (I purposely didn’t use the word “love” because it certainly didn’t buy her that commodity). Now, she sits in a nursing home, entertains few visitors and laments over and over, “I used to be somebody.” Doesn’t imply a life well lived, does it?

My life well lived will be the one where I’m more able to fully connect on all levels – mental, emotional and spiritual – with the life around me. I have macro moments that stand out for me: sitting alone on my hotel balcony overlooking a Costa Rican rain forest, watching and listening as it rained, taking in the breathtaking beauty of this quiet communion; telling an unresponsive elderly woman I’d be back to sit with her so she wouldn’t die alone and when I got there, she took her last breath and died; laughing until my sides hurt at the antics of two cats playing with a new toy.

These are things that matter: I’ve felt deep emotions; I’ve loved; I’ve appreciated my place as a sentient “being” in the bigger scheme of things.

 

The Right Age to Die

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I figure this is probably me one day, fighting off death. I hope I have the energy for that.

So here’s the deal: I work in hospice. I’m not sure if those of us who spend years working with the dying just get used to death and think everyone else must feel the same way or if we jump to conclusions that are perhaps inaccurate.

One is when I hear a doctor talk about how he would counsel an elderly patient that his symptoms were not going to improve, he had no quality of life left and he’d had a nice, long life so perhaps it was time to take a stronger medication that would take care of his pain but would also make him groggy. He could then just die peacefully rather than stay wide awake and painful. I understand that from a medical point of view but I also think there’s a lot more going on with an individual than the physical. Being old and uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean he’s ready to die. There’s also the emotional and the spiritual to work into that equation and I often think they carry more weight than the physical concerns.

We spend our entire lives encouraging people to never give up; to fight, fight, fight; to believe in miracles; to try something new if the first thing doesn’t work; etc. At what point should that elderly person toss out everything he’s spent his life doing and quit? Why is it unreasonable to assume that someone might want to live a little longer, even if it’s a few days?

And then there’s the family. I’ve also heard things like, “She’s 90 years old. It’s time to let her go.” I can only assume these comments are a result of working with so many frail and suffering people for years and years. I understand that the goal is to make sure the patient is not in pain but what if that person prefers pain to death? And I don’t think family members pay any attention to the person’s age as an indicator of it being time to let them go. Loss is loss, regardless of the age, and it’s hard to let go. I’m pretty sure no one thinks, “Oh right. Ninety-one. Time to go Grandma!” Given a choice, I’ll bet they’d opt for 92 or, better yet, 110 if they could.

Or maybe the issue is me and no one else finds those comments bothersome at all. I haven’t arrived at a point where I think I’ll be okay when my time comes and so I can’t fathom being told it’s time to stop trying to live. I have tons of things I still want to see and do and hear and feel and I can’t imagine not being me any more, not having a consciousness. I realize that if I go to sleep and never wake up, I’ll never know the difference but making a conscious decision to do that is scary. What if I’ve given up and maybe I could’ve had one more conversation with my brother or laughed with a friend or spent a little more time coming to terms with the fact that the gig is up?

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that when you have a terminal disease, you’re going to die and maybe sooner than you’d like. I just don’t understand thinking the family or even the patient should be okay with that simply because it’s logical. The heart’s not always logical.

 

Indecipherable Tax Time

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Just so we’re clear up front, this is pretty much exactly what I see when I pull up tax forms. Now maybe it’s because I’m a senior; maybe it’s because I have an outside fledgling business and can’t get by with a simple EZ form; maybe it’s because I’m not a math genius and hate it to boot; maybe it’s all of those. Whatever the reason, I go into “dread” mode along about January 1st every year and am followed around all day, every day by a gigantic black cloud until I get the damn things filed.

It doesn’t matter how simple the program tells me it’s going to be or that I’ll be done in a split second, I’m still sitting there hours later trying to figure out either what’s it’s asking me to input or (having actually made it through the “rough draft) I find myself wrestling with whatever “simple” corrections it says I need to complete before I can file.

And then, of course, regardless of whether it’s perfect or less than perfect, I spend the next year wondering if someone is going to compare this year’s taxes with last year’s taxes, come to the conclusion that I’m doing my best to be able to retire on my refund (uh, good luck with that!) and either throw me in jail or charge me more than I would’ve gotten in the first place to make up for my filing transgressions. The biggest worry? What if I have to sit down with an IRS agent and go through the rationale of how I arrived at the total I put in blank number X, or why I decided something was a depreciation claim, or could I prove what I had for dinner at a restaurant I claimed as an expense that would justify the cost; etc. etc. etc.

Isolated wooden chair in a dark scary prison with an interrogation spotlight

My little outside business was audited by the state last year and that was exactly the scenario I faced. The man tried very hard to be patient but the problem is that they speak an entirely different language than I do and some of their questions sound like someone talking to me from under water. I sit there, desperately trying to get my mind to put the words into a recognizable sentence but somehow all I hear is, “Sklkjae ha; eiyr -98nodh?” Uh … yes?

So every year, I do my best to get through an online filing in less than three hours and without a headache at the end. Nevertheless, I find myself starting to “slur” through the pages, getting less and less focused on what the hell they’re asking and making my best guess as to what that might be. That’s probably the part that worries me the most. Maybe when that agent shows up at my door asking questions when I’m relatively fresh and haven’t been staring at indecipherable forms for several hours, some of the stuff I input will look stupid to me and I, like he, will wonder what I was thinking. Do they get that? Do they realize that if things weren’t so obtuse, I might get the right answers the first time around? Or do they assume I’m trying to get by with something?

I’m sure everything seems logical and straightforward to them. To me, it looks something like this: Please tell us about your office expenses. If you input less than $200 on line B, you’ll need to fill our Form 20-A and then return to Form 62-B before you can proceed. If, however, your total is more than $250, you will be excluded from filling out Form C and will need to list each item separately on Page 47. How many times do you reckon I’d have to read that before any of it was coherent?

Since that sort of gobbledy-gook normally happens within the first 5 minutes, by the time I’ve gone through 20 or 30 screens — well, you can see why I’m exhausted after 3 hours and why I dread tax season every year.

Hello Spilotro?

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If you’ve seen the movie Casino, you have an idea of the mob influence in Las Vegas in the 70s and 80s. A major player at the time was Tony Spilotro and whether you’d ever met him or seen him in person, you knew his name … and you knew the rumors: Tony Spilotro was a mob enforcer and someone you didn’t want to cross. It didn’t matter that my crowd was a bunch of showgirls and dancers on the Strip. We didn’t want to cross him either, even if that meant catching his attention and having to decline a dinner invitation or say no to a request to have drinks with one of his friends. No one wanted to be anywhere near his circle – not even on the fringe. There were too many stories about girls who, flattered, accepted an invitation for a drink or a dinner date with a mobster or mobster associate and then found herself in an unwanted relationship that she couldn’t see her way out of later. No one knew what would happen if you turned down the invitation in the first place, but who wanted to be the first to find out? (That leads to a totally different influence at the time – Lefty Rosenthal – but that’s another story).

If you read up on his history, Tony Spilotro was brought to Las Vegas to help the syndicate embezzle profits from the casinos but that wasn’t enough for Tony. He formed his own illicit group – the Hole in the Wall Gang – and his team of burglars would break into hotel rooms, wealthy homes and high-end stores to steal merchandise. Spilotro was a ruthless, violent man who gained notoriety for an infamous interrogation where he put his victim’s head in a vice grip and tightened it until the man’s eye popped out. So, really, would you want to be in a position to have to say no to this man for any reason at all?

So there we were on a nice summer evening after having finished two shows of Casino de Paris at The Dunes Hotel, two dancers who’d decided to head over to the latest hotspot – Paul Anka’s club Jubilation.

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The moment we walked in the door, my friend was stopped by a man I didn’t know who invited us to join him and a group of his friends at a table near the back. We walked up to a long L-shaped set-up with somewhere close to 20 people sitting the length of the table and a couple of people at the head of the L shape. The revelers made room for us and asked what we’d like to eat. We knew the kitchen was closed at this late hour but somehow the table was full of food with even more being served. Odd. Someone must have clout.

I turned to my friend and said, “Who are all these people?” She replied that she didn’t know and leaned across to ask her male friend who everyone was and why we were able to order dinner. He responded that he didn’t know everyone because it was a mixture of dancers from various shows but, pointing to the head of the table, said, “And that’s Tony Spilotro.” Bloody hell! I don’t remember staying long and although it may have been rude, I figured there were so many people in the party that one defector wouldn’t be noticed so I didn’t stop by the head of the table to thank him for his hospitality.

Within the next few years, Tony Spilotro was lured back to Chicago for a meeting and he and his brother were brutally beaten and killed and then buried in a cornfield in Indiana.

It’s funny how it takes a little distance to look back at snapshots in your life and realize how extraordinary they were. At the time, nothing seemed particularly unusual about ending up at a table in Paul Anka’s nightclub in Las Vegas with a notorious mobster but it makes for a great story now, especially considering his demise.

 

Crooked Career Path

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Approaching retirement, I look back at my career path and see a meandering, crooked line and I wonder about it sometimes. How many of those changes were my fault? How many were great opportunities? I’ve spent decades feeling guilty about some of the exits I had, wishing I’d been a bit more circumspect on the job. Then again, I recently put my career path within the parameters of an interesting study I read that described the expectations of the different generations and how their career paths were impacted by the common beliefs of the group they grew up in – Traditionalists (1900-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and Millennials (1977-1994).

I’m a Baby Boomer. Here’s how the study says I differ from my parent’s generation. Where they were influenced by parents who survived the Great Depression, who taught them to adhere to the rules and conform, and that you must respect authority and trust the government, I was influenced by the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution and the hippie movement and was taught that things were better for me than for them and that I could chase that great American dream and have anything I wanted. My “spend now, worry later” generation most definitely affected my money management lack of skills for decades and has resulted in not enough money saved up to be truly comfortable in my retirement. I didn’t actually start paying serious attention to budgeting and saving until I hit my 50s.

My parent’s values, which they valiantly tried to instill in me, included talks about being thankful for a job and taking whatever money I was offered and being grateful for it. That stuck with me and made it very difficult to discuss raises, and then when I didn’t get the raise I thought I deserved, it left me unhappy but unwilling to speak up.

Additionally, I saw that although my parent’s generation traditionally got a job and stayed in it until retirement, my generation saw employees getting fired from jobs they’d had for decades in favor of a younger group – and that was frightening. It meant that my generation (well okay, I won’t generalize) – it meant that I put in longer hours to show my dedication and was afraid of taking too much time off in case someone looked around one day and said, “Where the hell’s Lisa? She sure takes a lot of time off. If she doesn’t want to be here, then maybe we should get rid of her.” It’s a terrible thing to worry about your job every day.

Now some of that is my fault. I’m a bit of a nonconformist and have been known to stand up for my rights in rather juvenile ways. Take, for instance, the college summer job I got  working the switchboard at a local department store. The fashion at the time was to wear tops that were cut in at the shoulders all the way to the collar and since those were the burn-your-bra days, no one wore a bra with those tops. I didn’t think it really mattered because the switchboard crew were tucked away in a corner of the building and didn’t interact much with other employees. Nevertheless, a zealous manager called me aside one day to tell me it was improper to come to work without a bra and that one would be required in the future. So what did I do? I showed up the next day with a bra under a similarly sculptured top. I presented quite a look  with the bra straps on clear display on my bare shoulders. My rationale was that I was just following directions but could I have chosen a different top? Of course!

I also look back at my career moves and see that the different mindsets of the generations also played into my comfort level, influencing my anarchism. At first, the differences stemmed from the fact that a free-thinking Baby Boomer was working for a Traditionalist who valued conformity and respect for authority (whether or not that authority figure deserved any respect for the way he/she treated the employees). And then as I got older, I worked for Generation Xers, the ones who tried to balance work and outside life, who looked at work as “just a job” and were viewed by me as slackers. If I could stay late to finish a project, so could they, right?

I’m not really sure if a “big picture” view of the effects of generational changes at work would’ve altered my approach, but it might’ve. If nothing else, it might’ve helped me to see that the workplace was in a state of flux, moving from lifelong careers (which my parents preached was the ultimate goal) to a constantly moving target of fitting in and finding satisfaction and discovering that getting a job no longer meant keeping a job. Although I learned lessons along the way and ended up in a career better suited for me than many of the ones I left or lost, I nevertheless felt guilty about not having the ability to stick with one career until retirement.

Truth be known, my problems really began when I retired as a dancer, because show business has a completely different mindset. Individuality is embraced – indeed, expected. I’ve said many times that once I hit the “real world,” I felt like I put on a mask every day to go to work. That never changed. And because of that show business background where individuality was prized, I had to work hard to be a “team player.” Why? Because I don’t really want to be a team player; I want to stand out as having something unique to offer.

One last thing: I could probably go on for pages about the generational differences and how they subtly affect our exchanges, but I’m told blog posts should be relatively short because no one likes to read any more! Pity. I feel like I’ve short-changed the subject but I’m still trying to be a good team player.