Monthly Archives: October 2014

Bossin’ Me Around


Last week sometime was National Boss’s Day, which set me to thinking about some of the people for whom I’ve worked in the past. Most were actually quite wonderful people; a couple of them were pricks, but most, whether good or bad, are memorable. When I was quite young, I worked for an import/export firm, quietly tapping away on a 10-key adding machine back in my own little office, pretty sure the guy who owned the place didn’t even know my name (he didn’t – or, if he did, he could never remember it.) Besides, his secretary’s name was also Jody, so, whenever he blasted into the showroom yelling, “GODDAMN IT, JODY!!!” I would instantly jump up, bashing my legs against my desk and, thus, kept a permanent bruise across my fat little thighs right above my knees. He was never yelling at me, but you wouldn’t have known it by watching me react.

When I worked for a Johnson & Johnson company in the early 1970’s, my boss was a great guy with terrific dimples and his name was Max Odom. He was kind and thoughtful, slow to anger and easy to make laugh, a gentleman and a gentle man, and that made going to work each day a delightful thing.

After that, rock ‘n roll radio got into my blood and I worked for 5 years at KZEW-FM in Dallas, I had a number of great bosses there. John Dew was the Station Manager when I arrived, a good guy with the know-how to get things done, those “things” being the brain-child of The Zoo’s own creative genius, Ira “Eye” Lipson. If Eye was the driver of the Merry Prankster’s Bus, John figured out how to get the bus financed. I loved working at that station where creative juices got to flow down the hallways, where nothing really seemed too insane to try, where I could cha-cha around the studio when Jon Dillon played Carly Simon’s YOU BELONG TO ME, or Mark Christopher and I could lock ourselves in the production room and create promos or crazy commercials that made all of Dallas and Ft. Worth sit up and take notice.

After John Dew left, Ivan Braiker came on board as the new Station Manager. Ivan loved us and we loved him. He understood business, but he also understood creativity and never made us sacrifice one for the sake of the other. We played killer music all day long but, more than that, we were all bonded by a singular notion, which was to do some good in the world and cleverly disguise it as work. That’s what we did at The Zoo. What a time. For those of us who worked there during that era, the 1970’s, it was our Camelot. And, for that, I give thanks to Ira Lipson, Ivan Braiker, John Dew, Kenny Rundel, Mark Christopher, Mark Addy, Gary Shaw, Jon Dillon, Mike Taylor, John Baker, Michael Brown, John LaBella, Diana Marquis, Syd Meredith, Charley Jones, Sally Francis, Sharla Taylor, Beetle, Rick Ferguson, John Rody, Wally Campbell, Jim Stansell, Chuck Moshontz, Dave Lee Austin, Bill Harrison, Mike Ceferatti, The Amazing Beesley Sisters, and anyone I’ve left out. All of you were my bosses – and my teachers – in one way or another, and I thank you for that.

I hold that time and place so dear, and I suppose there are not many jobs I could have had in my life where I could have gotten to listen to great music all day, write and produce as much crazy stuff as I wanted to – actually get a paycheck for it – and, still, at the end of each day feel like I’d done some good in the world. I am lucky. And, I have some wonderful bosses to thank for that.

I worked at SEARS when I was in college, back shortly after the earth cooled, and I had a terrific boss named Jeanne Barnes. I’ll tell you why. I worked in Ladies Ready to Wear but, on this one day, Mrs. Barnes had asked me to fill in at the Children’s Clothing Dept., which was right next to ours. There was a sale going on and, without realizing what I’d done (because I was too busy talking) I over-charged a woman for some little kid’s underpants she’d bought for her daughter. I failed to ring up the ON SALE price and had charged her the regular price and didn’t see what I’d done until after the woman had already left the department. Well. The rule was: IF YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE IN THE DEPARTMENT, DO NOT LEAVE THE DEPARTMENT UNTIL YOU HAVE SOMEONE THERE TO COVER FOR YOU. But, what could I do?? I didn’t want that lady to think I was a crook – or – that SEARS was a crooked store. I grabbed five bucks out of my wallet, stashed my purse, locked the register, and took off running. I ran across the store, vaulted down the escalator, screeched through the rest of the store and out the front door where I just happened to catch that lady in her car before she turned onto Jefferson Blvd. “I charged you too much,” I gasped, “I’m really sorry. I think this will cover it.” And I tossed my five dollar bill into her car. Then I chugged back up to the Children’s Clothing Dept., found my boss, and, between wheezing gasps for air, explained to her what had happened. Mrs. Barnes pulled out her wallet and handed me a five dollar bill. “Walk with me,” she said, draping her arm over my shoulder. We walked to the escalator, over which was an enormous sign that read: THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT. It was our motto back then; I hope it still is. “See that sign?” she asked. I nodded, because, at that point, I still could not speak without sounding like a bagpipe. “That woman will never forget what you did,” Mrs. Barnes said, and she looked me right in the eye, touching my heart with her hand, “And, neither will you.” She was right. I don’t know about that customer but, as for me, clearly, I have never forgotten it.

I am a good worker, conscientious and thorough. But, I am a terrible boss, and I should know, because I’ve been my own boss for the past 35 years. I have difficulty delegating, compounded by the fact that, since I am in business by myself, for myself, there is actually nobody else to delegate TO. Oh well. The good part is that I don’t have to answer to anyone or explain just what I was doing in that part of town when the muffler fell off. The bad part is that it makes the Christmas parties almost achingly dull. And, giving myself a raise? That’s the hardest thing of all – like doing Gestalt Therapy.

I am easy to work for, I gotta say that, though, because nobody understands as well as my boss how it feels when there’s a story cranking in my head that needs to be told. She understands that sometimes the best thing to do is just sit down and write the thing. I’ll whimper and look pitiful like an old dog. She’ll roll her eyes, let out an almost-disgusted sigh and say, “Okay, okay, just take the day off.” And, so, I do. I love my boss.





Death has been a big part of my life, beginning with my own mother’s death in 1986, which was the first time I’d ever been with anyone at the moment of transition from this life to the next.  After that came my friend Lou who died in 1998, then my friend Shirley in 1999, and my friend CarolAnn whose very last heartbeat I felt against my palm in 2006.  Of course, there have been several other deaths – relatives and friends I’ve lost in the past few years – but these four are the ones where I got to be present and to help with their crossing in that holy moment when the door to the next life swings open and their soul departs for brighter days, shedding the shell we call our body and moving on to matters of Light.

Shirley Hudgens was like the big sister I never wanted, always bossing me around, telling me what to do, but her heart was huge and kind, which is probably why I never punched her in the nose.  She was from San Angelo, Texas, a self-made woman in the world of information technology, having begun so when computers were as big as Studebakers and you had to kick start ’em.  She made her way up in the hierarchy at Dallas Federal Savings and Loan, then started her own company handling on-line data processing services for smaller savings and loan organizations. She was successful, proud of all she had accomplished, and rightfully so, with only a high school diploma and strong intellect which took her far in her life.

Shirley drove a big, floaty Lincoln Town Car, wore custom-made Leddy Bros. cowboy boots, a full-length mink coat in the winter and a gold nugget Rolex watch as heavy as a box of rocks.  She was everything we think of when we picture successful Texas women – larger than life, almost obnoxiously proud of her Texas heritage, too flashy to be tasteful. Or ignored. I always expected to see a set of longhorns strapped to the hood of her Lincoln and hear the car horn blasting out THE EYES OF TEXAS when she came driving up.

In the 15 years since Shirley’s death, I have never written about it, how profound it was. It is finally time to do that now. I had finished a rolfing trip to Dallas and Tulsa, then spent  several days with Shirley at her place out at the lake, east of Dallas.  I was finishing up the editing of my first book, so we quickly fell into a routine.  We would drink coffee in the morning, then Shirley would work on her computer stuff while I slogged through yet another rewrite of my manuscript. At noon, we’d get in the car and go up to the Chinese buffet joint for lunch, come back and watch GOLDEN GIRL reruns for a couple of hours so we could laugh and laugh before Shirley fell asleep in her recliner.  She was quite ill at that point and on lots of pain meds, but still functional.  Besides, whenever her doctor said, “Shirley, I’m sorry, but you’ve only got 3 months,” Shirley would say, “Okay, I’ve got 9 months.”  And, usually, she was right, as she kept tacking on an extra 6 months to whatever amount of time her doctor had given her. Shirley always thought she could figure out a way to last longer and live better than everybody else because she always did. We called it TAKING THE LIBRARY BOOK BACK AND CHECKING IT OUT AGAIN.

It was hard to leave Shirley that last time; I wasn’t sure I’d see her alive again. Even as she drove me all the way to DFW Airport, I kept glancing over at her, wondering how much longer she’d be able to stretch out this diminishing life of hers. She looked frail and drawn, a little jaundiced, but I thought that might have been the overdose of Chinese food.  Still, she seemed okay.  Two days after I arrived back in Portland, Randy Toups, a Dallas friend and hospice nurse, called and said, “You need to get back down here.  Shirley’s starting to crash.”  I said, “That can’t be.  I just talked to her yesterday and she was fine.”  Randy replied, “Well, she’s not fine today.  Get on a plane.”  So, I flew back to Dallas, borrowed a car and drove back out to the lake. Randy was right; Death was close, peeking at us through the blinds, waiting, just waiting, for us to turn our backs. Randy had gotten a hospital bed delivered and I called our friends Judith and Tina who arrived within an hour.

Departing the body is not an easy thing, like being born is not an easy thing, and that’s how I’ve come to view Death, as a birth into the next life. It’s often a painful and smelly and scary process, but the four of us were all determined not to run from it and to stay with it right up until the last horse bucked.  Due to the pain meds she was on, Shirley’s bowel had become impacted and it was quite uncomfortable for her so Randy, ever the hospice nurse, gloved up to remedy the situation.  It was late at night. We were all in our pajamas, standing around Shirley’s hospital bed in the middle of her living room. We gloved up, too, however, like comrades-in-arms, like we were all just gonna get right in there at the same time and get the job done.  We had all pulled our pajama tops up over our noses and I remember I was crying, just thinking about how humiliating this must be for the woman who ran her own company she had created from nothing more than an idea, her own steely determination, and some wickedly superior computer skills. When we got Shirley all cleaned up, she began acting agitated and I was certain she was going to die right then.  “Oh, Shirley, oh, Shirley,” I said, “Can you see the Light?  Can you see the Light?” Shirley opened her eyes and looked right up at the ceiling. “Uh-huh,” she said.  Well.  We exploded into laughter.  Tina said, “Maybe you should ask her if she can see the ceiling fan so we’ll know which light she’s talking about.”

The next day, Shirley slipped even further away, becoming non-verbal and mostly sleeping.  I had a ring I used to wear, a Hopi design, which represented the kiva, a place of prayer and meditation.  For some reason, I took it off and placed it on Shirley’s heart.  All day, friends arrived from all over Texas to say good-bye to her.  They would sit beside her bed, hold her hand, and tell her what a good friend she had been to them.  I watched in awe as each of these visitors would take off a ring and place it on Shirley’s heart, too. Nobody – NOT ONE PERSON – looked at that pile of jewelry resting on Shirley’s sternum and said, “What the hell??”  Nobody questioned it at all; they just chose to participate in whatever wonderful thing was happening. There were 8 rings at one point, all just sitting there, a sign of something magical and true. When the people left, they would each walk over, pick up their ring and put it back on, kiss Shirley’s forehead and then leave. I won’t ever forget how moved I was by that. Deep in my own chest, I felt my heart crack open and gratitude for the life my friend had lived spilled out, running like honey down a tree trunk, golden and pure.  Oh. It was so, so grand.

Late that night, everyone was exhausted.  Randy was in the front bedroom, snoring; Tina was on the couch, snoring; Judith was in the recliner, snoring. And, Shirley’s breathing had sliced into that death rattle phase, so, the sound was like 6 percolators going all at once.  I was sitting at Shirley’s desk with her cat in my lap, writing letters to my cousins who had just lost their mother when I got this feeling that something big was about to happen, like the feeling you get just before a big storm blows in. The air changed in the room and I felt my heart shake off the exhaustion and stand up straight, ready to look Death in the eyeballs.  I took Shirley’s cat over to her hospital bed and placed him beside her, then I held up her hand so he could rub his head against it one last time. I went around and woke everyone up.  “I think this is it,” was all I said.

Still sleepy, but determined, we gathered around Shirley’s bed and thanked her for being our friend, for intertwining her life with ours.  We lit white candles; we said prayers.  We paved the path as carefully and with as much love as we could, laying warm stones for our friend to follow. I felt like we should be singing a hymn, but I couldn’t think of a hymn all four of us knew the words to all at once, so, slowly – very slowly, I began singing THE EYES OF TEXAS and the others joined in.  We turned it into a hymn, as sweet and as solemn as we could.  Then Shirley lifted her upper body off the bed, arching her back, and took 3 short gasps of breath before falling back, totally depleted. She was gone. Her soul had found its boots and she was moving on.  And I remember thinking, “That’s not a bad way for a Texas girl to make her exit.”

In the 15 years since her death, I have told this story many times, but have never written it, which seems to be something I do to let go. Finally. Let. Go. This is the hardest thing of all, finally letting go, especially since I’ve been dragging her around with me for so long, and my tears, which flow so easily, don’t disappoint me as I write this, streaming down my cheeks in great rivers, dripping off my jaw and gathering in puddles above my collar bones. It is sad. But, it is cleansing, and I am grateful for the tears I still shed for Shirley. They are my touchstone, the mark of a true friendship.

I miss my friend Shirley, the big sister I never wanted. I’ve no doubt she’s bossing the others around wherever she is now, keeping them in line, showing them the ropes, being a good friend.  That’s who she was in this life and I can’t imagine she’d be any different in the next one. She taught me how to tell, at the end of your life, if a good friend is what you’ve been to others. It’s easier than you might think, rather like guessing the age of a tree. I learned this about Shirley’s life by witnessing her death: Just have somebody count the rings around your heart.