Forever Home – Far Away From Home

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Knowing retirement was coming up and fearing I wouldn’t be able to live on Social Security in the U.S., I started several years early and visited both Panama and Costa Rica as possible long-term locations. Even though I was looking at locations with mountains (since my dream included a babbling brook or quiet creek nearby), and a garden so I could fill my days with beautiful, aromatic flowers and herbs right at my fingertips – greenery that wasn’t readily available in Las Vegas, I had a friend in Florida who kept nudging me to come check out the state. He was not put off by my constant gripes that Florida had no mountains, I wasn’t really interested in sand in my shoes on a daily basis and they had hurricanes – not on my to-do list. Nevertheless, he persisted and so I visited a couple of times, with house-hunting at the top of the list. And what do you know? I liked the craftsman homes in the area, the greenery and the old-fashioned neighborhood feel.

I had it stuck in my mind that the thing to do was to cash out my 401K, use it to buy something outright so I’d have no rent or mortgage and then I could afford to live off my Social Security. And so I spent countless hours scouring Zillow and Realtor.com and a couple of others for something that I liked that I could afford. Not an easy task. I discovered that my meager 401K wasn’t going to get me much. I had found lots of places I could afford in Costa Rica but I had no way to check out the areas they were in or even see if the photos matched the reality. That scared me into going back again and again to look at properties in Florida.

I was constantly disappointed at my lack of affordability. The houses I could afford didn’t remotely match my dream and the amount of repairs that would be needed would require even more. I finally decided to stop attempting to make things happen and turn my attention elsewhere. I was sure that if it was meant to happen, it would.

And then one day, I got an email from my friend in Florida that one of his friends had come across a cute little place in her own search and had told him she was not going to buy it but that I should have a look at it online because it had the garden I said I wanted and it wasn’t terribly expensive. spring time gardens

I gasped when I saw the photos. There was a lovely garden and deck in the back and French doors leading from the master bedroom to a screened-in porch. Are you kidding? I wanted that house from the moment I saw the photos. My friend convinced me to fill out the online Quicken Loan information to see how much I could qualify for.

I’m not really sure what happened from there. One minute I was dreaming of a house with a garden and the next minute I had qualified for one, the lender had contacted me for more information and I was suddenly buying a house and would close on it in 6 weeks. Panic set in.

My goal of a stress-free, relaxed retirement turned into anxiety and sleepless nights as I downloaded document after document and started paying for all kinds of not-disclosed-up-front and unexpected expenses like an HOA application fee, an inspection fee, a property surveyPaperwork vortex fee, a title insurance fee, etc. I was running out of money and I’d been instructed not to borrow from the 401K until it was time for the down payment. I was drowning in paperwork (most of which reads like a foreign language and is exhausting to plow through) and my emotions vacillated all over the map – exhilaration, anxiety, despair, fright and excitement.

In the end, I drove across the United States to Florida and although I’m still adjusting to all the changes from my 42 years in Las Vegas, I think I’m going to be happy here. I love the back garden and have plans to transform it into a peaceful haven full of beautiful flowers. I already have the butterflies, birds and squirrels and I love them. But guess what? Gardening is expensive – just one more thing I didn’t anticipate.

Transformation – Conservative to Liberal

63f44bf5df433d698abb349de3018b08I can only speak to my own transformation but I think it was my three years of traveling overseas that turned me from a semi-conservative to a liberal. Prior to travel, I had no reason to pay any attention at all to anyone else’s customs, hopes and difficulties. My thinking changed by interacting with various cultures and realizing the things we had in common. The little things might differ – what we wore, our food preferences, where we worshipped – but the big things were the same. We all want happiness and a measure of success. If you look at the billions of people on the earth, I’d wager that most of them are working to survive, not working at something they love. What, then, determines what makes their lives good ones?

My thinking had progressed a little bit when I moved from small town Texas to big city Washington, D.C. and then to international Las Vegas. It was not a big city when I first got here but it had an international base in the casinos and I worked with many of them in the show I danced in for my first four years here – French, Canadian, Czech, Italian. I watched their approaches to American norms and heard stories of what it took to adapt to our ways. Although I didn’t have to accept the differences, I found myself thinking about them. What did it take to leave everything behind to come here? I wasn’t sure I would’ve had the courage to do that. And the little differences became apparent as well. Who thought fast food was awful? More important, who survived on fruits and vegetables … and preferred them? Really?

And then I got the chance to travel to South Africa for a show that was beginning rehearsals in Bophuthatswana. I had found the stories of travels from the military people I had met in Washington interesting and they had opened my mind to even more options once I drove across country to Las Vegas on my own and found that I was perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I guess that was the beginning, because I would not have imagined such a thing in high school. In fact, I remember that my mother had once told me that although not a rich family, if I wanted to do something like go to school in Switzerland, they would find a way to get me there. I was horrified at the thought of being that far away. I couldn’t really tell you why. Perhaps it was that I was young and had always had relatives close by that I could depend on to take care of me and although I longed for the independence that all teenagers do, I didn’t want to push it too far.

So I arrived in South Africa, where I spent ten and a half months, and loved the adventure. To this day, I have great stories to tell. But more important, I saw firsthand what apartheid was like and wondered how people could treat each other that way. I saw people who had to be taught what a knife and fork were before they could work as waiters in the resort’s restaurants. That people could be so different was eye-opening and it made me take stock of the sheltered little world I’d left. It also made me put things in a bigger perspective.

I worked in Cairo where women who wore pants of any type (that includes jeans) were suspect as being loose and ran the risk of being followed, and maybe worse, if they dared to walk alone. I had a boyfriend there and learned that, by law, women were second-class citizens. It was not appropriate for me to hug him in public. Unimaginable.

When one of the shows I worked in overseas took me to Ito, Japan, I was particularly fascinated by the plethora of “rules” the Japanese lived by. When I questioned some of them, the answers almost always came back to “tradition.” I realized that in many of the countries I visited, the people I met had no reason to question. They had grown up in one place and much like me before I left Texas, knew nothing else. To them, it was entirely normal and my views were seen as radical. I got a taste of what it’s like to be the outsider with different ways that are frowned upon.

So I came back to the States having loved my travels but sporting a liberalism about what other people could and should be allowed when they come to my country that appalled my conservative mother. Too late. I’ve discovered that once you start thinking a bit more liberally, it’s impossible to back up. And I wouldn’t want to because the most important lesson for me was that if you look at the big picture, everyone simply wants to be valued, loved and to live life to his or her fullest.

Looking Back at the Forks in the Road

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From time to time I see comments from people who say they don’t regret anything they’ve done in their lives. I often want to say, “Really? Just wait.” How can you not look back at some of the forks in the road and try to imagine how different (always assuming better, of course) your life might be.

One of those forks in the road for me began the day I decided to continue a relationship with a man that I’d begun dating before I moved to Las Vegas and before he decided to marry someone else while I was working overseas. His job required a lot of travel – Secret Service – and so I saw the separations as a normal part of our relationship. In my mind, he only married her because, as he’d told me, the agency encouraged its agents to marry. Surely he settled for second best under pressure but just couldn’t tear himself away from me. (Yeah, I know. Don’t laugh). It took me a long time to understand that love is not necessarily reciprocated. That’s a hard lesson because we like to think if we’ve vetted the other person and found them worthy of our love, they must love us, too. How could our love be so misplaced?

In this particular case, our meetings lasted on and off for almost 20 years. Stupid, you say? Why yes. I remain mystified that I could’ve thought someone who only saw me once every year or couple of years would actually be in love with me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I convinced myself that he didn’t really love the person he married or he wouldn’t still be coming to see me. I told myself that he was just too chicken to face her.

Here was the defining moment that made me look at our relationship realistically: Over the years, he drank more and more and I had eventually told him I thought he was an alcoholic and I didn’t want him calling me again as long as he was still drinking. Two years later, he was in town, called, said he’d made some changes in his life and could we have dinner. Well, of course I relented because it sometimes takes a whole lot of water to extinguish the fire and clearly I’d only tossed a sprinkle or two when I’d needed a fire hose. I noticed that although he didn’t drink as much at dinner, he still drank. Hmmm. Then when he told me he loved me, I didn’t want to rock the boat by bringing up the booze issue.

So the next time he came to town, I decided to broach the subject of our long-term relationship and where, if anywhere, it was going (and yes, he drank at dinner). I don’t remember much of the conversation. The only thing I remember clearly is that when I told him he’d said he loved me the last time he’d been here, his eyebrows shot up and he laughingly said, “Jesus, was I drunk?”

Cue anvil between the eyes. Boy, that was a show stopper, I’ll tell ya’! It was also the end of the relationship. My regret is my stupidity. On the other hand, I’ve always believed we learn something from the bad as well as the good so I’ve long since put it in perspective. Even so, I sometimes look back and wonder what the hell I was thinking.

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

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.

 

Who’ll Take Care of Me?

Nurse holding hand of senior woman in pension home

I often hear people ask those of us who aren’t married and have no children, “Who’ll take care of you when you get older?” Interesting question. Yes, it has crossed my mind many times and I used to believe that my brother and/or my friends would take care of me. I ‘ve never been uncomfortable on my own and living by myself is something I treasure. I never have to argue over what television show to watch, clean up after someone else or let him know what time I’ll be home. If I want to waltz around the house naked, there’s no one to point out my flabby parts or use that as the right time to suggest a healthier diet. So it’s not loneliness that concerns me – well not now anyway. I might one day eat those words but right now, I don’t see that as the issue.

But what if I live to a ripe old age, and most of my friends and my brother are gone? I must admit, it is a concern. On the other hand, working in hospice, I see how abysmally family members can treat each other and fight over money and possessions. The patient is more often than not the one who bears the brunt of the disrespect and, sometimes, outright neglect. So, if I were married and had a bunch of children, could I necessarily count on any of them to do the right thing by me? I think not. Many times the children dislike each other and fight over who’s right concerning the patient’s care. The thing is – it’s usually the patient who suffers because the kids aren’t making a decision on what’s best for the patient; they’re deciding based on their own comfort levels. I guess I’m glad I won’t have a child who’s so determined to keep me here that he/she makes hospice staff withhold medications that would make me comfortable so I can be what they would call “alert” even though I’m thrashing around in the bed.

My biggest concern is the in-between stage – the stage where I’m no longer able to live on my own, require constant care but am not hospice appropriate. I hear horrible stories about the care the elderly get in many of the nursing homes. And I can see it clearly. Nursing homes, like most other businesses, have a plethora of employees who are primarily interested in the paycheck and not the job. Many of them have little or no empathy for the elderly people and how could they? They have zero understanding of living with legs that no longer hold them up, or having to take a ton of medications that take care of one thing but bring all kinds of side effects that may make the elderly person seem “slow, ” when, in fact, the brain works just fine. Those are the circumstances that concern me. I’m not sure the outcome of being in that environment has anything to do with whether or not I have children – and children who truly care about my best interests to boot.

So the fact that I don’t have a husband or children doesn’t bother me about growing older and ending up in a nursing home. What concerns me is ending up in a home where the culture is one of “just wheel them into a corner and let them sit all day.” And I’ve seen it. We had a case of a patient who was brought into the hospice to find placement in a different home because the one where he had been living had wheeled him outside ostensibly to “get some sun and fresh air” and left him in the Las Vegas summer sun for the better part of a couple of hours. I worry that I’ll need to go to the bathroom and someone will be irritated that I ring for help too often. I worry that I’ll reach a point where I have to defecate in a diaper and no one will come to change me for hours and hours. I worry that I’ll end up with Stage IV decubitus ulcers because it’s too much trouble to constantly turn me. I worry that I’ll be hungry but someone forgot to take me down to the lunch room to eat. I worry that I’ll be physically broken but mentally alert and people will come in and talk to me like I’m a two-year-old.

Bottom line: it’s the people in the facilities who will be tasked with my day-to-day comfort that worry me.