Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lotteries, Luck, and the Women Who Came Before Me

Last week the Powerball soared to nearly $600 million.  As is often the case when it gets to that point, I bought a ticket.  I didn't win.  Well, I didn't win the jackpot . . . but I did win $4.  I doubled my money.  And that's not nothing.  That got me thinking about luck and winning and how often we end up ahead, and don't really notice it because we're too busy worrying about what we didn't win.

Take for instance the line of women from whom I come. My mother's mother grew up in a working-class Italian family in the '30s and '40s in D.C.  When she was in high school, there were sororities that all the girls joined.  Unless you were Italian -- you weren't allowed to join, because of who you were.  A lesser woman might've admitted defeat and sat at home feeling sorry for herself.  Not my grandmother.  She and her friends started their own sorority. They continued to meet regularly for more than 60 years -- in fact, until she died, she continued her friendship with her high school sorority sisters.

In the 1980s, the "club girls" all bought vacation houses in the same neighborhood in Rehoboth.  As a kid, I can remember riding my bike all over the neighborhood to see my "aunts" every summer.  When my grandfather died, one of the strongest memories I have is all the club girls walking down the street to my grandparents' house to console my grandmother -- this group of little old ladies, united in solidarity for one of their sisters.  It was heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time.  The remaining women -- there aren't many left anymore -- still meet.  What a way to stick it to the bigots who wouldn't let them into their clique.  I can't think of anything more valuable than the longevity of their friendship.  This is a lesson I learned from my grandmother -- a lesson that I took deeply to heart.

And what about my mother, the daughter of my determined Italian grandmother.  She decided to run for office when I was in high school.  She became a school board member -- a brilliant leader committed to making our schools better.  And then there was that one time she strong-armed the President (of the United States).  Yes, you read that right.  There was a conference in town where a collection of school board members from various places around the country were convening in her district to visit schools. As the president of the school board, she had extended an invitation to the President to meet the leaders at one of the schools, but he declined in favor of another event, so she made other plans for the visitors.

The morning of their visit, she received a phone call from the administrator for her school board saying that the President had changed his mind and would in fact like to attend the school visit.  "Too bad," she told the administrator, "we have other plans." The adminstrator was confused.  "You mean, you want me to tell the President 'no'?"  That's precisely what she meant, unless, she told him, she and her guests could have a private audience with the President.  "You want me to demand an audience with the President?"  She did.  So the administrator delivered the message that, unfortnately, the visitors were busy and were unable to meet him, unless of course he could make time for a private audience with them.  I'm still not exactly sure how that conversation transpired, but it ended with the most powerful man in the world agreeing to my mother's demands. Don't take no for an answer, even from the President . . . another valuable lesson learned from the toughest woman I know.

When I think about my recent $4 windfall, I realize that it's probably the best I'll ever do in the Powerball.  You see, my luck fell somewhere else. I won the legacy of hard-assed determination from two brass-balled ladies who refused to be put into a box, who refused to take no for an answer, who knew the value of standing their ground, and the strength of female friendship.  I don't know, I guess that person who won the lottery thinks she won something pretty special, but I'd rather have my prize -- it's priceless, after all. And it's a legacy I hope I can live up to.

My great grandmother, gandmother, mother, and me, 1975.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

. . . and the Net Will Appear

I'm not a risk taker. I follow rules, take the road most taken, and generally do what is expected of me.  And lately all of that rule following has made me pretty . . . uncomfortable.  I'm mid-career, mid-stride, nearly mid-life.  And frankly, I'm quite tired of being mid-anything.  I'm ready to shake things up, make a change, move on to whatever's next.

Trouble is, I have no idea what's next.  You're probably thinking, "Duh, WashingTina, nobody knows what's next. That's the whole point, isn't it?"  I don't do so well with not knowing what's next.  I'm a planner.  I like to know what's for dinner by breakfast.  I like to know what I'm doing on Saturday by Monday afternoon.  I like to know where my next paycheck is coming from, how many vacation days I've earned, and the exact number of pennies in my bank account.  Not very exciting.

I was at an event recently focused around creativity.  Despite my straight and narrow path, I do consider myself creative.  And what I learned at this event was that creative types take risks.  They fail. They dust themselves off, try again, and fail again.  Sometimes they fail thousands of times before they succeed.  Over and over again, the speakers at this event (Oscar winners, journalists, heads of Fortune 500 companies, and the owner of several major sports teams -- the most successful people around) talked of risk.  And failure.  And eventual success.  It was profound and it was inspiring.

Sitting in the event next to me was a dear friend, a friend who is a lot like me in many ways.  A friend who is toying with starting a business of her own.  During one point in yet another talk about risk and failure, I elbowed her and whispered, "See! It's not too late!"  And as dear friends are supposed to do, she elbowed me back and said, "Same goes for you, my friend."  She's right. And I got uncomfortable again.  

I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing lately, a gift from that same dear friend, a friend who believes in me and thinks that I should be writing (and I suppose I should).  King discusses his first attempts at getting published, when he was just a high school kid, nailing the rejection slips from failed tries to his wall.  He writes:
By the time I was fourteen . . . the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing. 
And he didn't stop. He kept on writing.  And writing, and writing.  He's one of the most prolific writers of our time (and a damn fine one, at that).  He learned how to risk when he was just a kid . . . something I didn't do, for fear of getting grounded, or disappointing someone, or hearing my name pronounced with a hard "T" on Tina, the way they do when I'm in trouble.  The note I wrote to myself in the margin by that passage in his book, "Even Stephen King failed!!"  A gentle reminder.

And so I must learn to risk.  Without too much analysis, without too much fear, with the permission to fail.  A pretty tall order when you've done exactly the opposite on all accounts your entire life.  I don't yet know what it's going to be, but I know that I'm getting closer to the leap . . . and I know, as the old adage says, that the net will appear.

Leap and the Net Will Appear
Image by chicksprint via Flickr