Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Where the stress is

I'm awake this time because I have a sore throat - the all-too-common ailment that afflicts me when I'm stressed. Tomorrow I am (partially) moving into my new apartment on the glorious upper westside of Manhattan, my favorite neighborhood in the city. Paying too much rent for a too small space but that's life in the best parts of the Big Apple.

Since I'm up, I thought I'd do some investigating into the nature of stress, or at the very least some thinking on the subject. My very unscientific theory is that our bodies unconsciously choose where to carry the stress by hitting us where it hurts so we pay attention. For example, I love talking to people, being engaged in conversation, learning about people's interests and experiences. Having a sore throat completely hinders this process. My mind knows that so my body says, "Hey, pay attention, lady. You are stressing yourself out and you need to SLOW down." So my throat gets a little dry, then a little scratchy, and then engulfed in flames. Aren't bodies amazing?

Even just writing about this stress helps to calm me down, helps to alleviate some of the soreness in my throat. I'm off to do some yoga, to meditate on how smoothly my partial move will go tomorrow, how marvelous my parents are to help me do my full move on Saturday despite the fact that they have moved me more times than I can count on my two hands. I may be out of commission for the remainder of the week if I can't find someone's internet connection to tap in my new 'hood. Never fear, though, I'll be posting more often than ever once I am set up with internet in my new digs next week!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Hard-wired for Worry

I kept myself awake for half the night last night, worrying. Worrying about things that I have absolutely no justification to worry about. Old issues that I (thought I had) settled long ago. I meditate. I do yoga - I teach yoga! For a long time, I have wanted to be the personification of serenity, of peace, of calm. And in an emergency situation, I am. Somehow when the world around me is spinning out of control, I can find the eye of the storm and ride it out. When all is quiet on the western front, my worry genes kick in. And this leaves me wondering if it's possible that some of us are programmed for worry the same way we get much of our personality from our DNA. Am I destined to a life of constant concern?

This would not surprise me. My grandmother was the kindest, most loving, compassionate person I have ever known. And she worried more than anyone else on thye planet, about everyone, all the time. She took worrying to an art form. She made it a sport. My mom on the other hand, never worriesAbout anything. Ever. This astonishes me. Situations that send me right over the edge my mother barely notices.

In my constant quest to be a person of profound contradictions, I am an optimistic worrier. There must be an upside to this constant concern, right? I always have a plan B, and in the event that plan B doesn't work, I have C and D tucked away as well. Contingencies for my contingencies. And I am meticulous about details as well as having a flair for the elaborate. It takes a great deal of time to create 4 separate, complete plans for every scenario of my life and that's okay. With my frequent insomnia, I have plenty of time to hatch them.

The other upside to being a constant worrier is that I can actually be comfortable with being worried. Most people panic; I just get out my pen and paper and start drawing decision trees. If I happen to be near a computer, I crack open an excel file and begin to furiously input numbers and formulas - very handy since 90% of the time I am considering and re-considering some aspect of my finances.

I have made my peace with being a worrier (which is not the same thing as ending my worry) because I have accepted that even if I solve my current concern, another one is just over the horizon. Because I am always capable of finding something to worry about, I tend to take my time in considering my options for my current worry. Why rush through the stress when you can savor it?

I have become remarkably good at research. So as I was awake last night, I researched worrying. And for my fellow worriers out there, I have collected a few resources to help you get comfortable with worry, too.

http://www.webmd.com/ - sure to have every possible diagnosis for every arcane symptom you may have
http://www.yogajournal.com/ - the pose finder on the left side of the main page allows you to put in the problem that's ailing you so you can find poses to alleviate it
http://www.suzeorman.com/ - she has all the answers - love life, financial life. She a straight-shooter and she's entertaining.

And my favorite...
http://www.reallyworried.com/ - this website allows you type in what you're really worried about - ANYTHING - and you'll get real advice from real people. When I have some time, I am going to go through it and see if I can answer anyone else's worries. In Buddhism, there is a tenant that says, "provide for another what it is you seek for yourself". So if I want to worry less, maybe what I really need to do is help someone else worry less.

You may also enjoy this one: http://www.letitout.com/. This is the guerilla advertising campaign my Kleenex that encourages people to let their emotions show. I've fallen so much in love with these commercials and the sentiment behind them that I almost purchased a blue couch of my very for my new apartment.

When all else fails, I look at a quote by Mark Twain that I keep taped up next to my desk. "The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter." If I can't make the worry go away, then the least I can do is have a good time with it. I'll never be the personification of serenity, though I can at least have moments of it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Just Another Trip to the Public Restroom....

I should have known that this was the right business for me long ago. I could be wearing a paper bag during an afternoon of shopping and invariably, a guest will assume that I work in the store and begin a rapid-fire line of questioning. I was recently buying a couch at Jennifer Convertibles, minding my own business, examining the cushions of a floor model. A woman comes out of the restroom (apparently marked "employees only") and begins to explain that she was given permission to use it so I have no right to yell at her. I said, "Why would I care whose bathroom you use?" "Oh, I thought you worked here." Literally, I was wearing cut off gym shorts, a yoga top and flip-flops. Not what I would call work attire. I guess I have a natural air of knowledge.

Last week, I spent a day working in one of the stores that my company operates, learning the rope on merchandise offered, stocking shelves, talking to customers. This is the part of retail I love because it is an up-close and personal study of human psychology. Every person who walks is another living, breathing specimen of the human condition. And once you put on anything resembling a uniform, every customer assumes you know the answer to any possible question they may have.

After my lunch break, I headed back to the store and into the restroom when I hear someone calling me from behind. "Excuse me. EXCUSE me." Gosh, I can't even use the bathroom without someone flagging me down?

"What's your name?"


"Hi. I'm Kennedy."

"Hi, Kennedy. How can I help you (despite the fact that we're both about 6 inches from a bathroom stall)?"

"Are you a manager at Domino's pizza?" (huh?)

"No. I work here (which is not Domino's – not even close)."

"Well you tell Chen that I've got his number." (huh?)

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I don't know anyone named Chen."

"Oh sure you don't. I know what you're all about. These Italians are ruining this country. And you know what else? The Catholics Church is shit, too."

How did she know I was Italian? How did she know I was raised Catholic? And incidentally, I love pizza despite the fact that I don't work at Domino's. Is this woman psycho or psychic? I decide on the former since I don't know anyone named Chen and she didn't know my name. Though, I guess even psychics make a few mistakes now and then.

Now Kennedy is pissed. In my face, spitting. This isn't the first time I've dealt with people like Kennedy. It helps that my father was a psychoanalyst and often invited his patients to stay for supper when I was a child. People a little left of center always seemed perfectly normal to me. I thought everyone had schizophrenics, people with multiple-personality disorder, and manic depressives as dinner guests. Some college students spend their work-study hours working in the library. Not me - I spent my freshman year of college working in the psychiatric in-patient unit at my university's hospital. Some people would ask me how on Earth I could handle it – to me it was just another evening at the Avampato family dinner table.

I slowly backed away from Kennedy and headed for the door without using the bathroom. (If you ever find yourself in close quarters with someone missing all of his or her mental faculties, do not put yourself in the position of being in a bathroom stall with your pants down. Too vulnerable, rendering you incapable of making a run for it.) I went out to find one of the store managers. This could be disastrous if a guest was in the same position I had just been in. We needed to get this woman out of the store, quickly.

The store manager laughed when I told him about the event. I was completely confused. "Oh, you just met one of the crazies." First off, I was worried that there sounded like there was more than one of them floating around. Next, I was worried that they seemed to make a habit out of frequenting this rest room. We camped out by the restrooms, waiting for Kennedy to emerge. After about 15 minutes later, she did. (I still wonder what took her so long. Maybe an argument with the soap dispenser?)
Kennedy sauntered out the front door, taking her sweet time, shouting a few obscenities here and there. No one, not even the guests, seemed to mind. All this time I thought my upbringing was unique, only to find that I guess more people are having dinner with “the crazies” nowadays. My father always used to say that he was a thinker ahead of his time…

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Anyone up for some hash?

I had a black and white television during my formative years. We were not a technological family so as a result I never developed the critical skills of hand-eye coordination necessary to play video games. Little did I know that this skill translates to nearly every team sport imaginable. I played soccer for a year and basketball for a year (until I realized just how vertically challenged I was), and then took up cross-country. I have run a marathon, just learned to swim, and teach yoga. All solitary sports, until now.

I always felt kind of bad about never playing a group sport. I wanted to belong to a team that accomplished something together, or lived through a loss together. I wanted that camaraderie. I just didn't have the skills to make it happen. Plus I have an innate fear of harming someone else with my clumsiness. Then my friend Jeff told me about hash, a sport for drinkers with a running problem. This, I could get into....the only requirements: be able to run and enjoy beer and pizza. Done.

Tonight I went to my first hash. On the surface, it's a simple sport. Someone designated as a hare marks out a course with chalk signs on city pavement. Courses can also include subway stations, departments stores, dirt trails. At one point we were scrambling up some rocks in Morningside Park. There are some false signs that may lead you on a wild goose chase for a bit. That's all part of the fun. For a more in-depth look at the sport, check out this link: http://web.hashnyc.com/index.php?option=com_receding7&Itemid=34. The group ends at a bar for some rousing, beer, pizza, and community.

I am built for LSD: long, slow distance, and yet I always have a desire to keep up with the pack. So I went out too fast tonight and got pretty slow by the end. All of the hashers were terrific - funny, friendly, welcoming. Some were first-timers, "virgins", like me. And some have been hashing for a decade, all over the world. They were all supportive, all wanting others to enjoy the event.

I ran the Chicago marathon a month after September 11th, and it was a very life-affirming event. I still have an intense love for Chicago and its people because of it. They came out in droves to support the marathon runners, many offering signs, whistles, and shouts of encouragement, along with orange slices, popcorn, and water. You could feel the love going along that course, at a time in our nation's history when we desperately needed to support one another.

Though on a smaller scale, my hashing experience was similar. Our course tonight took us from 125th and Lexington, into the Bronx, and back down the westside, ending at 106th and Columbus, soon to be my new neighborhood. Everyone we passed cheered us on, kids ran with us for a block or two, high-fived us as we passed them huffing and puffing. It's amazing how much that little encouragement can help to lift you up and over a slump. It's incredible how the support of another person we don't even know and will probably never see again can make all the difference, even when we feel we are tired and worn out.

We don't do this enough. Some times I think I get so wrapped up in what I'm doing that I forget that being a cheerleader for anyone trying to accomplish anything is just as important as doing something myself. Yes, we need to get in the game, and we also need to stand on the sidelines and lend support to those on the field.

As I was running, I found myself thinking about the Nash equilibrium, the theorem that would later constitute the basis of game theory. (I have warned you of my nerdiness in previous posts.) The theory was the main subject of the movie "A Beautiful Mind." Stated very simply, the Nash equilibrium is a point at which two people make the best choices for themselves, taking into account the decisions of the others. The Pollyanna side of my brain likes to state this as "we accomplish better outcomes for all not by thinking just about ourselves, but thinking about everyone impacted by our choices." We get to a better place when we take others with us. And that's hashing. Now that's team spirit - let's go have a beer and celebrate.

**Incidentally, if anyone is interested in joining me for a hash, just give me a shout!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Imagined Endings

I treat every evening like it's New Year's Eve, or my birthday. I spend a lot of time reflecting on where I was a year ago from today. What was I doing? Where was I working (or hoping to work)? Who was I with? And what's changed? My friend Katie recently told me about a book called The Secret. I have been under a rock the past few years, also known as a rigorous MBA program, and I missed it despite the fact that it was on Oprah.

The Secret could be classified as a New Age-y self-help book, not that I've ever read one of course. It bears a lot of similarities to yogic principles - we live the life we imagine. While in general I am a "grab life by the balls" kind of person, I also think there is value in practicing patience over impulse from time to time and this becomes easier as I get older. There is a sweet spot to be found when we can create a balance between being proactive and accepting that certain events, be they incredible or tragic, are necessary to keep us moving forward. Each moment contains the exact teaching that we need at that time.

There is also a fair amount of research to show that between the ages of 26 and 32, women go through a fantastic amount of change, some of it so difficult that we wouldn't wish it on our worst enemies. The person we are at the start of that period and the person we become have a radically different perspective on the world. As someone approaching the end of this period, I can vouch for its validity. And thanks goodness that this is the case. Life really is better once the dust from those 6 years settles.

A year ago I had no way of knowing that the life I have now is the life I could really have. I didn't know how much I could love a job. I didn't know how much I could love and appreciate my family and friends and their support. I didn't know that a city could be a living, breathing entity of its own. A year ago, I thought I had veered so far off the track that I'd never be able to find my way to happiness again. It turns out that I needed a detour not only to find happiness, but to keep it and help it grow to something beyond what my imagination could envision. The turmoil made me appreciate happiness. I wasn't asking too much from life. Just the opposite. I wasn't asking for enough. I wasn't asking for anything. And that's exactly what I ended up with.

A year ago, the most I could do was to ask for a little more light in my life, a little more happiness. And while I was content to let life carry me for a little while, I was also willing to get out there, roll up my sleeves, and get to work building happiness. And I got more in return than I bargained for. Here's to hoping that good karma leads to more of the same.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Respect for Band-Aids

In the past few weeks, I have had multiple people, strangers, friends, family members, ask me what I'm reading. I spend a good deal of time with books, magazines, and newspapers that cover a wide-variety of topics and genres so when I find a particularly good one, you have my word that I will pass along the tip on this blog.

At 1:00am, I was coming home on the subway from a night out and I was reading my book so intently that a complete stranger walked up to me to ask me what I was reading that could possibly be so interesting. In the end, I think he was just looking for a way to hit on me in his drunken stupor, though it did make me a little more conscious about my outward behavior! I was reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

There is a particularly poignant passage in the last chapter that struck me and it bears repeating. "A critic looks at tightly focused, targeted interventions and dismisses them as Band-Aids....Band-Aids have probably allowed millions to keep working, playing, and walking when they otherwise would have had to stop....there is something in all of us that makes us feel that true answers must be comprehensive...that slow and steady should win the race....there are times when we need a convenient shortcut, a way to make a lot out of a little." I have to admit that I am one of those critics who dismissed Band-Aids as half-assed efforts, solutions from people who didn't want to take the time to find a REAL answer. I have shunned Band-Aids for a good deal of my life, in almost every area of my life. Until now.

I had lunch with a dear friend today and we began talking about romantic relationships. (One of my favorite Carrie Bradshaw lines is, "every woman in New York is always in search of at least one of three things: a job, an apartment, or a boyfriend. Given that I have the first two, it's only logical that I'd begin working on #3.) They can and often are all consuming. We spend less time with friends, family, and work when we start a new relationship. It sparks a certain sentiment that allows us to justify putting other areas of our life on hold. And we're looking for the "perfect" one. The person who can be everything to us: our best friend, our lover, our support, our ally, our mirror. That's an awfully hefty job description. In a time when we are feeling ourselves pulled in so many different directions, is it possible that we are placing too much responsibility on one person's shoulders? On our own shoulders to be that for someone else? Can we take a Band-Aid approach to love? I'm going with a definite maybe.

Don't misunderstand me - I am not in the "Down with Love" camp. I love love and the comfort and happiness it provides to people. For those of you who found all of the roles listed above in one person, I am truly thrilled for you. We should all be so lucky. Some of us aren't, and I'm starting to get comfortable with the idea that that's completely okay. For me, who has a tendency to get completely wrapped up with the man I'm dating, having different people in my life fill different roles is potentially a much healthier arrangement. As I consider possibilities for dating, I am trying to decide which traits are MOST important. What are the non-negotiables? Good sense of humor, positive attitude, independent, social, adventurous, physical attraction (which does not mean Time Magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year or bust).

While I would never look at any man I'm dating as a Band-Aid, there is room to consider that a very happy relationship can be formed between two people who provide a lot for one another if they have a few key traits that the other is seeking in a partner. In a world so focused on perfection, this is a tough pill to swallow. For the sake of happiness, and maybe even for sanity, in this seemingly complicated quest for the third piece, I'm going to give it a shot.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

(Un)lucky #7

The circus train, the tracks to nowhere (meaning Main Street, Flushing), New York City's answer to the dark underbelly of the Las Vegas strip. All of these are metaphors for every New Yorker's favorite subway line - the #7 train. I traveled it today for the last time. I don't care if I have to take a bus, a cab, or walk skecthy, industrious Queens Boulevard. I'm not getting back on that route, ever.

Across from me was a man with gigantic headphones, chewing loudly with his mouth open, crunching on an entire bag of Munchos (of which he dumped every last crumb into his mouth) followed by the largest candy bar ever made, all washed down with a 2-liter coke. I thought I was going to be on Candid Camera any moment. This couldn't be real.

To my left there was a woman so obsessed that she'd miss her stop that she constantly had her body half turned toward the window behind us. (Apparently the window directly across from us was too inconvenient.) This caused her to practically sit in my lap the whole ride. I would have moved except the entire train was packed, no sitting or standing room.

To the right of me a woman was cursing at her boyfriend on the phone, ripping him apart limb from limb because he had had a long day at work, was going to fly to his parents' for vacation tomorrow, and thus didn't want to come all the way out to Flushing to meet her for dinner. "You haven't seen me for three days!" she screamed. GASP!! THREE DAYS??? How ever was she going to make it through??? Then she proceeded to tell him that he was copping an attitude and had better just calm down. She continually would hang up on him, bitch for a second or two to her clueless, stunned friend ("I mean am I WRONG here?"), then immediately call him back to yell at him some more. I wanted to grab the phone out of her hand and explain to this poor guy that there are 3.5 billion women in the world, about 4 million in NYC alone, and he should just get out now. Cut your losses, man.

The woman on my left finally got off the train and was replaced by another woman, this one chomping (again mouth open) on some noxious-smelling bag of fried somethings. Then the train lets us off at 111th Street, despite the fact that I need to go to Main Street and the train says "Manhattan to Main Street." Did I also mention that I was on what was supposed to be an express, and then midstream changed to a local? Two other #7s passed us by on the platform - "out of service for technical difficulties." Really? Going one hundred miles per hour in the very direction I need to go in doesn't look to me like a technical difficulty. Call me crazy...or just another member of the crowd on the 7.
(The picture above is from the following website: http://en.epochtimes.com/news_images/2007-1-7-subway.jpg).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Minding the Garden

My mom sent me an email with a photograph that I love so much I framed. It's of two deer in the midst of a wildfire, peacefully looking up at the camera as if nothing is wrong. It's beautiful, and haunting. Until today, I could never understand why they were so calm, continuing to eat their grass, virtually unaware, or ambivalent, to the disaster happening around them.

It's fascinating to come back to a city that I left behind so long ago. I left in 2001 when I was 25. In the past few weeks, I have bumped into people I haven't seen in nearly ten years. I have visited with friends I haven't seen in 4 or 5 years. I have stopped by several of my old watering holes and favorite places. I am a different person now. How could I not be? I've seen so many other things, met so many interesting people since 2001. If I weren't any different, the journey would have been for naught.

I looked into some research on wildfires. The wake of burned flora they leave behind is devastating, and the news isn't all bad. After a number of years, a forest gets cluttered, just like any other place that isn't tended. It gets overgrown to the point that the light can't get through to germinate new life below ground. Wildfires (not to be confused with forest fires, which are unnecessary and are true tragedies) help to clear that way; in a sense they make room for new life when the old life has lived beyond its usefulness. Even though the process is painful and long, regrowth happens, and what sprouts is often better than the life that was there before. I think my life, all of our lives, may be that way too.

Certain relationships, friendships, past times, places of interest were worthwhile when I was 25, though aren't holding up at age 31. To be sure, this is a very small minority. I am blessed with a number of wonderful people in my life, a great deal of interests and hobbies, and I adore my city. There a few however that need to be rooted out, or at the very least trimmed back substantially in order to make room for the light and the space that is necessary to allow for newness and reinvention. It is a painful process to peel away what's or who's not working in my life anymore. It is the most difficult thing I can ever do. I actually hate the process and the hurt and pain that it causes, even if it is just one or two instances. The worst part is that I cannot just slip away - my actions are intentional and noticeable.

"A star has to burn itself up just to make itself alive." I think these past few years have been about ripping up the model, cleaning house, tossing out what's broken, tired, and can't be repaired, shining up what needs some polish, and enthroning the many pieces that make me a better person. Clearing away the brush is necessary despite the fact that it is a struggle of the heart and mind to do so.

Wildfires can be contained, though there is no way to fully prevent them. And they shouldn't be prevented. Just wade in the water until the flames on the banks die down. "This too shall pass," as my mother says, and we will all be better for it. They are a necessary evil, and we must go on, through them. The deer in my photograph have understood this for quite some time. I am only now just coming to terms with it.
(The picture above is of deer seeking safety from a forest fire. Taken in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana on August 6, 2000 by John McColgan a fire behavior analyst from Fairbanks, Alaska with a Digital cameraDeer seeking safety from a forest fire. Taken in the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana on August 6, 2000 by John McColgan a fire behavior analyst from Fairbanks, Alaska with a Digital camera.)

Saturday, July 14, 2007


My friend, Ron, meets me at the ferry every morning and every evening. He's the man who takes my ticket and sees to it that I aget across the Hudson safely. Ron is from Newark and worked in hospitals for 17 years, most recently in Springfield, Mass (a place he describes as "too slow"). He considered getting trained as an EMT, but his split shifts running the ferry makes that impossible at the moment.

My commute is a little ardusous now, subway to bus to ferry to car. All in all about 2 hours. though seeing Ron makes it easier - he's my halfway mark. We usually chat during the ten minute trip, he wishes me a good day, I do the same, and off I go. It also helps that I love my job - it's worth the commute. Once I move to my new digs in August, I'll drive door to door in roughly half the time. I know in a previous post I said there was no way I'd drive across that GW bridge to commute. It turns out the ferry to my car isn't any less time, and actually uses even more gas (and create even more pollution) thanks to NJ traffic around the ferry terminal. The environmentalist in me can't even make a case for the ferry. I'll miss Ron.

In this week of commuting, I've noticed some curious patterns. NJ drivers, without question, are the most aggressive, road-raged people I've ever seen. I've been pushed out of my lane, flipped off, and crused at more this week than I have been in all the others years of my life combined. So as I've been sitting in traffic, I was considering why this might be.

There's some mentality about being in a car on your own that makes you think it's you against the world, or at least you against all the other @!#$%&*s on the highway in front of you. On public transportation - subway, bus, or ferry - you're all in this together. One great moving mass trying to get from point A to point B. On the NJ highways, it's anarchy and the one with the loudest horn, most aggressive style, or biggest middle finger, wins.

During my commute, I've also been thinking a lot about endings - arriving at my destination, the end of my sublet in Queens, the last Harry Potter book. Though I am looking forward to a shorter commute, I'll miss being in the mix of public transportation, everyone trolling along together. Endings are always nostalgic for me - whether the ending is a welcomed thing or not. I'm a Pisces, the last sign of the zodiac, so this feeling is only natural for me. Endings are just so, final. Times change after them and no matter what there's no going back exactly the way it is right now. We can't get this very moment back, ever. In an instant, everything, EVERYthing can, and eventually will be, gone. And that helps settle my anger when someone cuts me off on Route 4 or pushes me out of my lane on Route 208. "This too shall pass....and I might miss it in some strange way."

It's amazing what we will do to make up for lost time. One reason I came back to NYC was to be near my mom after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. My boss came back East to be near his family, particularly his kids who had moved here. We want to recapture time we've lost with people we love, or at the very least make a change going forward so we don't lose any more time. I feel that way about New York, too.

I rode on the top deck of the ferry yesterday - a beautiful view of the NY skyline as the sun was coming up. Give it a shot some time -- it reminded me just how beautiful our city is. I have been away for too long, and I'm glad to be making up for that lost time by being here now. If you hurry, you may even get to meet my friend, Ron. Just look for the guy with a big smile and an easy-going attitude who's grateful for his job, despite his commute (longer than mine) and the split shifts. Please give him my regards, and thanks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Customer Satisfaction

I was upset today for about ten minutes. Because I graduated from school in May and just started my job this week, there has been a bit of an income gap in my life as of late. Luckily, I come from a creative industry so I can apply that creativity to my finances. When I first got out of undergrad, I began squirreling away money in a Roth IRA knowing that I could withdraw my deposits (not the interest earned) at any point without penalty if an emergency arose. This current gap in my income - just the emergency I've been saving for!

So I took a trip over to the bank that has held my IRA since 1999. Granted, the funds I am invested in have not performed that well. My financial advisor has been all but non-existent. And, foolishly, I just assumed that the funds would make a come back by the time I turned 59.5 and would begin making withdrawals. My investment used to be accessible on line until it was recently sold to a clearing house by my bank. I decided I needed to become a more active investor and wanted to put all of my money with one financial institution. More importantly, I needed some money to fill in this income gap I'm in. I went into the branch that holds my IRA and explained that I was disappointed with the funds I was in, the lack of service, and I wanted to liquidate the fund.

There was a financial advisor there who talked me out of this saying that she could get me into some better funds and would "personally handle my liquidation to make sure it got rushed through." She said she completely understood my current state of finances and would gladly help me. I thought, "Wow, now this is service. Maybe I'll move all my money over here."

Well, that was over two weeks ago. She didn't handle anything personally or professionally. I never got the money transfer into my checking account because this financial advisor who was going to "personally take care of me" did anything but. She filled out the paperwork incorrectly, sent it late, and used a fax machine that delivered faxes so dark that the bank's investment arm was unable to read them. I have called her three times in as many days, and she has never returned any of my phone calls.

I was upset because I realized for the first time in my life I would have to carry a balance (albeit a small one) on my credit card until my first paycheck comes in. Not the worst situation to have. I wouldn't have the money in time to pay the bill and at this rate I'll have my first paycheck before I see any money from my IRA. That lasted five minutes.

The first five minutes of my unhappiness came this afternoon when a woman from the investment arm called me at my desk at work to break this news to me. Thankfully I am in a work environment that is so focused on learning that I am now constantly using every single experience as an opportunity to discover a new insight.

This bank incident aside from being annoying, taught me about the multiplicative power of good (or poor as the case may be) customer service. Intellectually, I have understood this though after this event it is much more real to me. I am writing about this event on my blog. I will tell this story to anyone who will listen to me. I will encourage my family and friends that bank with this institution to switch their accounts to another bank. I will roll over my IRA to another bank, as I originally planned. They didn't just lose my current business, they lost my future business, my family's business, and my friends' business. All because one employee said they'd take care of me and didn't, and then hasn't even taken responsibility for dropping the ball. It turns out that when you take care of one customer, you actually take care of a whole circle of people. And conversely, once you lose one, all of the other dominoes begin to fall too. There is no such thing as a small account or an unimportant transaction or interaction. They're all much bigger than we will ever know. Lesson noted.

Lessons from Nerd-dom

I was one of those nerdy kids whose favorite pastime was going to school. I liked to sit in the front of the class, raised my hand often, and asked so many questions that even my own mother grew sick of me. I went to a public school that didn’t particularly support the love of learning, though I was careful to choose an undergraduate school that did (relatively) and a graduate school that not only encouraged active participation, but required it!

After two years of graduate school that forced us to question numbers, regard “facts” with skepticism, and break rules, I have found that I am almost unable to hear statistics of any kind without jumping into analytics mode. This happened recently when a good friend of mine started a exasperated conversation with me after she read an article in Time Out New York that lead with “In February, National Geographic published a fairly stunning statistic: There are 185,000 more single women than single men in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut urban areas combined.” GASP!!! No!! How could this be??? No wonder I’m single.

I did some digging on line to find out the numbers behind the numbers. I couldn’t find comprehensive numbers of single men and women in the tri-state urban areas so let’s assume, absolute worst case, that the entire 185,000 singles gap between the genders live in New York City. Here’s how it breaks down:

2.9 million single men live in New York City. 1.75 million of which are “unattached”, meaning they are not in a serious dating relationship.

Since the population is fairly evenly split, let’s assume that there are also 2.9 million (plus the additional 185,000) single women in New York City. That’s roughly a total of 3.1 million single women.

Also, given that our population is evenly split, let’s assume that there are an equal number of men and women in New York City. The total population of NYC is just over 8 million. 4 million male, 4 million female.

Basically, we are getting ourselves all wound up because the 72.5% (2.9 million / 4.0 million) of males in New York are single and 77.5% (3.1 million / 4.0 million) of females are single. Are you kidding me? A worst-case 5% differential is a “stunning” statistic? On principle, I am boycotting Time Out New York until they get someone on their staff who can work a four function calculator and doesn’t abide by the principle of “let’s twist some numbers around to create sensationalism to sell more magazines!” Ridiculous.

Single ladies, get out there with your head held high and have some fun. Don’t get bogged down by people trying to tell you that you’ll be single forever if you stay in this city. Bologna. There are 1.75 million unattached men in New York for you to meet – you better get a move on! That’s an awful lot of dates.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Howling at the Moon

Some of you may know that I have had lifelong insomnia. I get it from my mother, who has also had lifelong insomnia. All these years, people have just assumed that I have a good work ethic when in actuality I can't sleep with any semblance of regularity. Since one of my pet peeves is idleness, I try to be productive at almost every minute. It all started when my mother began driving my father to the train station very, very early in the morning so he could go to work in New York City. This happened as far back as I can remember. I would hear them wake up - my father had this strange notion that once he was awake so was the whole world (or they ought to be) so he could make as much noise as he pleased. So, my mom and dad would head off to the train station, I would wake up, make myself some oatmeal, and when my mom came back we would watch I Love Lucy reruns. My insomnia was born.

As a teenager, it drove my crazy - literally. I thought not being able to sleep was just about the worst kind of hell a person could live through. And then an amazing thing happened - I made my peace with the condition, it subsided slightly (I can usually get, on average, about 5 hours of sleep now, though I wake up quite often during the night), and I learned how productive I could be since the lack of sleep did absolutely nothing to dampen my enthusiasm or need to be useful.

Now I have a new reason for my insomnia. My new job. Now, it's not what you're thinking. I have had some good jobs, great jobs, in the past. And I've had some really lousy ones; I'll take a moment here to apologize to those of you who had to receive my phone calls when I occasionally had to be talked down off the proverbial ledge because my work situation was so unpleasant. This new job and my situation there is a different case entirely.

I love this job. It's amazing - I get there, I have fun ALL DAY, and when I leave I can't wait to get back to work. There is always something new to learn, and there's no end of that in sight. I never knew I could love a job this much. I had no idea a job like this even existed, much less did I ever think I'd be able to call it my own. My lovely boss keeps apologizing that he's not spending enough time with me when in fact he's giving me more guidance, support, and encouragement than any of my other bosses ever dreamed of giving me! This is the longest commute to work I've ever had, and the only thing that upsets me about that is that it cuts into the time that I could be at work learning. Oh, and they're paying me. How did this happen? Where did this gift come from?

A number of years ago, I read a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves. In this book I first came across the phrase, "She who does not howl will never find her pack." I got my current job because I howled so loud that the whole world heard me - you may have heard me also and just mistaken me for a coyote of some sort. After months of job searching and not finding what I wanted, I went into my career counselor at Darden and described the exact job I wanted - "in retail, working on innovation as a project manager, in the New York metro area. New product, new services, new store design. Anything new that adds value, I wanted to be a part of it. I want it to be a fun product category that I can relate to. I'm interested in improving anything that touches the customer - which is just about everything. I'd like X number of dollars, I'd like to start in July or so, and I really need to have a boss who believes in me and values my experience."

My career counselor, bless her heart, said, "Christa, that sounds amazing. What a great position to have. I just don't know where you'd find it or how you'd get it." In a few weeks time this same person would provide me with the contact to get me this exact job - the job I have now. And then when I called that contact at my company, he asked me to pitch what I'd like to do and how my experience might relate to my career goals. I howled again, even louder than I did the first time. I was completely terrified, and I just couldn't help myself. Finally, finally, something inside me broke and I was no longer able to settle for just A job - I needed a place where I could make an impact, I needed to be in a place where all my skills and abilities would be completely maxed out. I needed to be in a place that needed me.

I wonder if in every life this happens - when some dream, some idea takes hold of you and you just can't help but live it. There is no plan B, there is no substitution. There is no room inside your heart for settling for whatever life offers you. You want what you want and there is no substitute. There must be a point when howling is just about the only thing you can do, and your pack comes running. My friend, Monica, told me a long time ago that time and time again in her life when she made a leap of faith, the world always seemed to stretch out its hand to grab hold of her and pull her up to safety. In my mind, I see the image of that outstretched hand coming from the moon, answering my call to help me live the life I imagine. If you haven't already, I hope you'll give it a shot. You may be surprised who hears you.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Girlfriend, let me tell you...

Say what they may about Suze Orman, she calls a spade a spade, even if everyone else around her wants to believe it's a diamond. Yes, she's loud, a tad obnoxious, and well, kind of a know-it-all when it comes to financial planning. She doesn't have the grace of of Jean Chatzky (who I also think is wonderful) and that's completely fine in my book. The fantastic thing about Suze is that she doesn't believe in putting off any problems today in the hopes they will either a) be dealt with later or b) magically disappear. "Girlfriend, " she always says on her TV show, "this is what we are going to do TODAY...."

Over the past few weeks, I've been reading two of her books: The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke and Women and Money. While I have an MBA from a top-notch school, I am not a CFA (certified financial advisor). Suze's books are easily understood, entertaining and informative, regardless of your educational background. Through her website, she lays out a personal plan for you to get your financial life back no matter what your age, income level, or financial past.

I hesitated to write this post promoting Suze's books. As a general rule, I dislike any writing that comes off as if the writer is standing up at a podium preaching his or her beliefs. I am making an exception here because I care about you and your future. Recently, I was talking about these books with a very friend of mine who is in a financial bind. The friend said he couldn't bear to read them because he was too scared to see how desperate his situation really was. And then I was scared for him. How could he ever get control of his life - be it his career, his personal life, his future - if he couldn't wrap his head around the steps he needed to take to get out of debt, improve his work situation (meaning his salary), and live the life he so earnestly imagines for himself?

I know debt is frightening. I know finance can be an intimidating subject, especially for those who have little or no training on the subject. I grew up in a very poor household, constantly worried for as long as I can remember that the lights wouldn't stay on, that we wouldn't have heat, that there wouldn't be enough food to it. And many times, those lights went out, we didn't have heat, and there wasn't any food. I get it. Honestly. We do not have the luxury to hide behind our fear of finance, our excuses of why we can't save any money. Time is ticking, and it's the most precious resource we have.

Just a few more thoughts before I step down from this soapbox I'm on. Getting our finances in order and establishing financial freedom may just be the greatest battle we ever undertake because we have to fight ourselves to get on, and stay on, the straight and narrow. There are retail temptations everywhere and it's okay to indulge them once in a while, so long as we are also working to provide for ourselves down the line through savings, investing, and paying down debt. If you are like my friend, and afraid to take a peek at your real financial picture, buy Suze's books and read them, even if you have to have a highball of scotch next to you to get through them. And call me, email me, regardless of the day or time. If you're in trouble and you need someone to help you through those first difficult realizations, I'm here, and I'll hold your hand every step of the way down your road to a brighter future.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


As a general rule I avoid politics. My first job out of undergrad was working as a Legislative Assistant for a Congressman in Wahsington D.C. My first day on the job, the Monica Lewinsky scndal broke and the issue I covered for the Congressman was "executive branch activities". A total nightmare.

Yesterday was the first time I registered with a political party (previously I was the registered as an ever-mysterious NE - non-enrolled.) However, given the importance of the upcoming presidential primaries, I felt I had to be a part of that. I finally had to stand for something in politics. I believe we are about to witness possibly the greatest turning point the executive branch of this nation has ever seen.

It is with this new found spirit of activism that I went to see the movie Sicko, Michael Moore's latest creation. I've never seen one of his films, largely because they are so political in nature. This one was not partisan - it was raising the alarm on what's happening in our nation's health care system. And it's frightening. It would be comical if it weren't so true and so sad. Moore made me laugh, and then he made me think. Why does nearly every other developed nation, and many not so developed, have better health care than we do? Why do prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, many of them known terrorists, have better health care than most working class people in this country? Cuba itself has a better system than we do? Given our abundant wealth, how is that possible?

I won't give away parts of the movie because I hope everyone who reads this blog will see the film. If you have even the slightest bit of interest in health or health care, please see the film. Because I just graduated from business school, I am obsessed with efficiency and incentive structures. We've got it all wrong here in the U.S. We reward insurance companies, hospital, and even doctors themselves to provide as little care as possible in order to take costs out of the system. For all the talk about a "paperless" office, there are more and more forms every day that we must fill out in order to receive even mediocre care.

Moore sounds the alarm with humor and solid research. And I hope it's an alarm that will be heard 'round the country by the people who can make a difference.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

My Year of Magical Thinking

I am reading The Tipping Point. I know that Malcolm Gladwell is now a revered man and that nearly everyone in America has read this book, as well as its sequel, Blink. I had never gotten around to it until now.

The Tipping Point sounds to me like a point of no return, the point at which you cannot dial back life's clock to five minutes ago. The inertia is too strong to be humanly stopped. Nature will take its course, with or without our consent. As one of my graduate school professors liked to say, "It's happening folks. It's happening."

The tipping point can be positive or negative. Hush Puppies are fashionable again. The crime rate sky rockets over night. Both have a tipping point.

I am also reading a book entitled Stumbling on Happiness. It's led me to consider whether or not there is a happiness tipping point that we stumble upon. A moment in which we find that our lives are overflowing with joy. In yogic terms, this would be the point when we are in sync with the energies of the universe. We feel as if everything we touch turns to gold. We are coookin' with gas. (I'm only on page 50 so Gladwell may address this later on in the book. If he does, please don't tell me. I like surprises.)

This morning I spent a few hours walking around what will soon be my new neighborhood. And I am deliriously happy with it. If two years ago someone had told me that I'd be living on the upper west side between Riverside and Central Parks and working for the most fun company in the world doing exactly the work I dreamed of doing, I'd have asked how much that life costs because I'd need to buy it. Lives like that don't just happen, right? Thankfully, I was wrong. They DO just happen. Somehow all the ducks got in a row, into one gorgeous, perfect line just when I needed them to.

In my state of happy delirium, I took myself downtown to the theatre district. I had a ticket to see Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking, a play based on a book with the same title by Joan Didion. I read the book in March of 2006 while on spring break, just as I turned 30.

And that was the beginning of what would be a very rough year for me. I would learn that some people whom I considered close friends were anything but. I thought the man I was dating was the love of my life and instead he broke my heart in a million pieces. Later, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and my sister with cervical pre-cancer. And I would interview for what I thought was my dream and learn through the interview process that it is the last place I'd ever want to be employed. All of this could generate a good deal of self-pity, something I refuse to have regardless of circumstances. So I did the only thing I knew how to do - I kept going, and showing up, and smiling.

In her book, Ms. Didion considers how fleeting happiness can be. One minute we are overjoyed with life, and then the next minute, everything has fallen apart. We search for clues, for answers. How and why did this happen? How do I get back the life I had seconds before. She is talking about a tipping point of sorts, too.

I don't know if there are ever signs of drastic change that we can see coming in our own lives. It's possible we are too close to the situation to tell. It is possible that denial is too powerful to allow us to even entertain the thought of change when we are so happy with the way life is, in this moment. Maybe we can't control or contain happiness. Maybe it is bigger and stronger than us. It is possible that while it may be within our reach, it will never allow us to actually catch it and hold it. The most we can hope for is to be in its company for a little while.

There is one certain thing I have found about happiness - it always returns. Even if only for glimpses of time, with long gaps in between, for all of us, happiness will always find us so long as we stay open to it, as long as we actively seek it. And maybe that's the trick. Maybe what we need is to really want happiness to stick around, to want to make it part of our daily lives. Alternatively, maybe happiness is something we need to create and nurture, just like a job or a family or a friendship. It needs attention and care.

It is ironic that on this day when I was so happy to just be living my life that I would reminded by Ms. Redgrave about the fleeting nature of this emotion. In a sense her performance and Ms. Didion's writing served as bookends to my own year of magical thinking, when so many chips were down that I barley knew what to do except play the hand I had, hoping that the next deal would give me something a bit better. I do know that after this year I am more grateful for happiness than I ever have been before. And maybe that's what happiness requires - our gratitude. Just like a person, when happiness is appreciated, it's likely to stick around for a while.