Monday, December 31, 2007

Educating Ellen

(Based on the old folk-tale, "Clever Elsie")

Ellen’s mother and father taught her how to be a very clever woman and educated her for a lifetime of success in business. She dressed perfectly and learned her lessons well. Then, after college graduation she went to interview at VIC—a very important company. During the interview the Boss, who wanted the cleverest secretary he could find, sent Ellen downstairs for coffee.

Ellen was a hard worker and happy to comply. She took the stairs because the elevator was too slow and then she got into a very long line at Starbucks. She waited and waited and began to daydream. If she got this job she could earn 60K in the first year (on the low end, she had researched the salaries)—certainly enough money to buy a condo within 2 years. Then, at the current rate of appreciation in her favorite suburb, she should be able to sell it at a handsome profit and buy a house. Ellen smiled. She’d get a huge yard and adopt a Golden Retriever from the local humane society. She’d name it Bubkus—and Ellen would hire a dog sitter to walk him during her long work day. Ellen would make sure that the dog sitter had all the contact info so that if anything ever happened to her while she was at work, if she had an accident, or (God forbid) got hit by a train or something, the sitter could take Bubkas to her sister Dana’s, where he’d be well cared for and could play with the little ones. If the sitter didn’t have that contact info, she wouldn’t know what to do and would just take Bubkus to the shelter and he’d be stuck in a cage all over again. Which would be horrible! Yes, a dog sitter is a must and contact info in place.

How long the line was! What if her potential new Boss blames her for this lost time? Then she won’t get the house and perhaps he’d tell all of the other CEOs of the important companies, and then she’d never get a good job and she’d have to live with her parents for the rest of her life. No guy would want to be with a woman who couldn’t find a job and lived with her parents so she’d be an old maid too. And her family wouldn’t allow her to adopt Bubkus so he’d still be in the cage at the shelter! How horrible.

Finally, she placed her coffee orders and hurried to the elevator. It was full and she had many floors to visit before getting to her Boss at the penthouse. She tried to focus back on the interview and thought about good questions and answers. Then, she had a clever idea.

Upon arriving at his office, the Boss did seem annoyed.

“You’re back.”

“Sorry. There was a very long line at the Starbucks.”

“Yes, that’s why I sent you. I hate that line.”

“You don’t want to make coffee here in the office?”

“Certainly not. Why should I if there’s a Starbucks downstairs!”

“I was thinking….”

“Yes, well, let’s finish this interview, I’m running late now and—“

Ellen took a deep breath. “I was thinking that if you sent your secretary (me) everyday to Starbucks, depending on the length of the line and when you’d send me, that could take, according to my calculations, anywhere from 5.8 minutes if there is no line to 14.7 minutes for a long line. If you average these times out to be 10.25 minutes a day that would make—if taking a week off (roughly) for holidays and a week off for vacation, then, counting 50 working weeks you would have lost 2,562 minutes in a year. Since I plan on staying at this firm for a long time you could extrapolate that to 12,812 minutes in 5 years and 25,620 minutes in 10 years and 51,240 minutes lost after 20 years. Since there are 420 minutes in a 7 hour day then in 20 years I would have wasted 122 full days of work!”

The Boss was smiling even though his eyes were glazing over. Ellen continued. “Now you want coffee and someone needs to get it. What I could do is bring work with me. I am able to read in the elevator, I could go through company emails on the ipod while I wait in line or read over your notes for the week.”

Of course, after this, the Boss hired Ellen on the spot. They worked well together for a long time. Then one day the Boss said to Ellen, “I need to go to a meeting, can you write me up an introduction and some anecdotes for the conference next week?”

“Of course.”

Ellen loved this kind of creative work but she wasn’t feeling very well. She had a headache. Maybe I should eat? Yes, food might help. She ordered some takeout and had it delivered while she brainstormed some ideas for her Boss. She ate the food but was still feeling sick. What do I need? Some vitamins? She had some in her purse and took them and continued with her notes but she still felt ill What should I do? Maybe a little nap would help me? She thought about it and it seemed like a good idea.
She grabbed a cushion from the lobby, laid it on the desk and put her head down. Soon she was in a deep sleep.

The Boss was anxious to see what Ellen had come up with so after his long meeting he rushed to his mailbox but nothing was there. He looked for Ellen in the copy room but she wasn’t there. Finally, he walked down to her office and found her asleep, snoring, and even drooling on her desk.

“I see,” said the Boss. He went to is office and came back with a video camera. He turned it on Ellen, plugged it into the corporate-wide video system and left.

As the next workday started, Ellen awoke to the sound of loud snoring. She was stiff and disheveled and it took her a long moment to realize where she was, or even who she was. Gradually her vision cleared and on the tv monitor above her desk she saw the image of a woman sleeping, snoring, and drooling. It appeared to be a tape on a loop that repeated itself every 15 minutes. Who was that? Who? What? Is that me? Ellen saw the video camera, now stopped, sitting in front of her desk. The sound of snoring was horrible. Ellen tried to turn off the monitor but the tv was too high and only her Boss had access to the controls.

Ellen awkwardly got up and tried to straighten up. She moved slowly down the hall and saw that all the monitors above all the desks in all the offices were showing the same horrible tape. Sounds of snoring filled the hallways. Ellen ran to her Boss’ office. What are you doing?

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

“But you--?”

“I don’t know what you’re babbling about and I’m busy. Get out.”

Ellen ran from the office and was never seen again.

At least, that is the original version of the story. The other secretaries at work heard that poor Ellen had gone crazy and was institutionalized. But perhaps that’s just the story the Boss wanted them to hear.

I heard a different ending from Ellen when I met her and her lawyer in the Bahamas.

--Laura Lewis-Barr is a writer, speaker, and trainer. She has taught and consulted at colleges in California and Illinois since 1991. Need a presentation, day of storytelling, or communications training? Contact info for Laura can be found at or using lauralewisbarr at Yahoo address. Read more!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Storm

A tornado roared near our town three days ago. We escaped the worst. We’ve been without power for over 72 hours but our home, garage, and cars are intact. Our neighbors: not so lucky. Many of their towering old trees broke in half or cracked along enormous limbs. These crashed down on power lines, minivans, and busy intersections.

I’ve heard it was a “microburst.” The skies were clear and then, wham, I saw my three-story-tall Black Walnut trees bending ferociously. The 80mph winds assaulted my lovely, old giants—but they didn’t break.

How did they bend in that murderous wind? I’m not a tree expert; maybe Black Walnuts are a heartier species? They must have been internally healthy.

The storm battered our psyches too.

My husband, Rick, hates fixing our home. But since he’s “the man of the house,” and knows more than I, the burden falls to him. Still, when something breaks, he often panics.

When we lost electricity in the storm, we thought, “no problem, minor glitch, it’ll be up soon, as usual.” But the hours passed and the sump pump basin filled.

Rick was in a downpour of panic now. He began to feverishly bail water from the reservoir. We didn’t have a backup generator. Without electricity our pump wouldn’t work.

I pitched in bailing as Rick carried buckets away. But the storm raged and after several hours we were only keeping pace with the incoming water. We couldn’t bail all night. Now it was late, stores were closing and we had few options.

Heart sinking despair.

But then, light pierces the clouds. Our angelic neighbor offers an outlet on his generator.

The next morning, we view the devastation. The wind had only raged for 10 minutes but the cleanup would take weeks. And the emotional storm? Rick and I pick through the rubble of feelings, trying to understand what happened. We’re learning: when we’re stuck in what we detest, emotions surge. Then we’re swept away by our alter-egos—those hidden parts of ourselves who can devastate plans. Or best intentions.

Why did some trees break? Were they brittle inside? Or diseased? They appeared healthy (at least to me).

The storms come, both inside and outside ourselves. Either way, we clean up the damage. Today we move tree limbs and clean warm refrigerators, hoping the electricity comes soon. Meanwhile, Rick and I try to learn from our emotions. We talk to keep ourselves from getting brittle. So that when the storms come, we can bend.

Laura Lewis-Barr is a writer, speaker, and trainer. She has taught and consulted at colleges in California and Illinois since 1991. For information on training or having Laura speak at your event, contact Laura at lauralewisbarr at Yahoo address.©Lewis-Barr 2007. Please include entire contact information if reprinting this article. Read more!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Friendship Hunger

In grammar school, I had the standard number of friends. In high school, my goal was to have as many friends as possible. The proof that I achieved my aim came the day I was elected “Pep Club President.” This was strictly a popularity contest and I had won it!

Soon enough I discovered that having a large cadre of friends meant that I wasn’t really close to any one of them. I didn’t even really like some of them. Still, I was proud of the large numbers and did my best to circulate my attention to keep each alliance satisfied.

College is where I found my “true” friends. These were kindred spirits—we were dedicated to God and to each other. Now, in retrospect, I know that my interactions weren’t the healthiest for me. I was prone to ignore my own basic needs and repress what I was actually feeling. Nevertheless, I remember these days with fondness. There was probably little real intimacy but I felt very close and secure. My fiancé and I were in a heartfelt community.

After my divorce, this “community” evaporated around me. In the confusion of my youth, I hadn’t shared my struggles with most of my friends and they didn’t understand my actions. After the divorce, I struggled alone, surrounded by shards of psychological debris. I moved to California on a quest for a new self. I also spent the next ten years making and losing friendships.

It was easy to make friends on the West Coast—many of the ex-hippies I met were quite comfortable with emotional intimacy and I was thrilled by the spontaneous sharing of strangers. Unfortunately I discovered that, in this land of expatriates and vagabonds, familiarity was easy but perseverance was less common. My new friends didn’t have the same expectations. In their transient world, what was most important was to “love the one you’re with.”

After ten years, I moved back to the Midwest. I was astounded to discover that some of my old friends were still devoted to our bond. But each of us had changed greatly. What followed were our awkward attempts to bridge the gaps between us. We had to rediscover who each of us had become and negotiate our differences.

I find friendships to be a vexing problem. My hopes always run high and then I am either scared or disappointed (or both) by what I find. Granted, my standards are also quite high. To paraphrase Kahil Gibran, I don’t seek friends with “time to kill” but with “time to live,” that is, if I can’t go to a deeply intimate (and safe) emotional place with a girlfriend, I’m not that interested.

There are so many hurdles to friendships today. When we get perturbed, it is too easy to retreat to our comfy homes, tvs, and computers. It also seems to me that after a certain age adults become more prickly and more prone to wonder deep inside: “what’s in this for me?” We are much more armored and able to protect ourselves from truly revealing the child beneath our façade. And, of course, we are all so “busy.” Given these obstacles, can adults ever hope to find new friendships that rival the life-giving bonds of our youth?

Laura Lewis-Barr is a writer, speaker, and trainer. She has taught and consulted at colleges in California and Illinois since 1991. For information on training or having Laura speak at your event, contact Laura at lauralewisbarr at Yahoo address.
©Lewis-Barr 2007. Please include entire contact information if reprinting this article. Read more!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Griffith Park

Helen ignored her textbook as she sat transfixed on the log bench. Shades of green on green. A profusion of hues cascading down from the lanky redwoods to the forest floor. Pine green, emerald green, week-old-broccoli-green-with- yellow, avocado-moss green, turtle-astroturf green, ivy-lime-green..... Sunshine, shade, leaves, and needles jockeyed for position, topping each other in fresh examples of green-ness. She opened her eyes wider, absorbing the richness of textures and singular colors. She felt dizzy, but alert.

Sound also bombarded. The nearby stream plopped, pinged, and jangled relentlessly, like a Balinese gamelan orchestra. The never-ending, tinkling percussion soothed but then grew irritating. Soon the entire forest seemed to vibrate as the gurgling intensified. She took a deep breath and tried to surrender to the mystical roar.

Helen had developed a ritual. On days off she grabbed her psychology text and headed for one of the log benches near the perpetually chanting stream. Sometimes she enjoyed a chapter discussing Freud or Jung, but intellectual pleasures could not always compete with the woods. She contemplated ancient redwoods, squirrels popping from beneath brittle leaves, and the moist, cool, air itself, which seemed to harbor a kind of potent consciousness. She took a deep breath. She wanted to hold the fertile air inside her. She wanted to capture the spirits here and hold them.

It was always twilight beneath the towering branches. The thick grove of redwoods provided a climate 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding neighborhood, yet Griffin Park was practically empty. She marveled at the irony: during a scorching August she had this paradise to herself, while most Los Angeles residents were at the shopping malls. As they stalled in traffic, she reveled in forest butterflies and the transformations of her own life.

She was 23 when her marriage ended and she moved to L.A.. She found a job waitressing at a natural foods restaurant and spent her free time loitering in metaphysical bookstores frequented by movie stars. She braved the vast freeway system, worked with a theatre troupe and tried primal therapy. There were impromptu nudist gatherings in bubbling hot-tubs, and meetings with astrologers. She explored the quaint canyons and seashore.

Las Vegas heat and Midwestern humidity joined forces during her first L.A. summer. She wandered her tiny apartment, swabbing her head with icecubes. At night, unable to sleep, she saw images from the last days of her marriage.

He was lying on the couch; she knelt beside him, her face drawn close to his. She was talking and gently touching his shoulder, trying to somehow bridge the gap between them but he simply stared at the ceiling. And then remarkably, after 5 years of struggle and 3 years of therapy, she understood. She stood, walked away, and went to bed.

She listened from the master bedroom upstairs. It was a relief that he hadn’t come to their bed. He was punching the pillow on the couch downstairs. Then she heard him approaching. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. She sensed him in the doorway, looking at her. Then he grabbed another pillow and went downstairs again.

She felt sorry for him. He wanted her attention but she would not, could not, give it. His rage frightened her but his tantrums had to be withstood. She had prayed for a transformation in their marriage. Despite her fears, she knew this trouble was her answer. She would remain strong and hope he might discover his own strength.

She listened again. Their beautiful house was silent. He was going to sleep on the couch. What had precipitated this latest skirmish? She tried to piece together the words and silences that had passed between them. He had gotten angry and withdrawn, as usual. But this time she would not appease him, soothe him with kisses even as he rejected her. This time she had had enough. She would take a revolutionary new step--she would risk their separateness. She would not fabricate an emotional intimacy. She would see, once and for all, if he were capable of affection himself. His violent reaction proved to her that she was on the right path. Change would only come if they could withstand this crucible of pain and fear.

She woke up. He was dressing, rather noisily but said nothing. Helen withstood the silence. She moved to the bathroom, then to dress. The timing of this eruption was probably terrifying to Joe, but an answer to her prayers. He was going away for a week. She had to drive him to the airport and then she would be free. She prayed that their distance and his pain would finally jar him, pry him, open.

They needed to leave in 15 minutes but Joe began to scream insults and obscenities. Helen responded quietly. She would not become the opponent, or the pacifier. As he grabbed her and threw her on the bed, she felt calm and peaceful. This too was an answer to her prayers. He began to shake the bed, continuing to curse. She went limp and he stopped. He said he was sorry. Helen said nothing. They drove to the airport.

In the car they chatted about household matters but a new miracle was materializing inside her. He said goodbye, they hugged. Did they kiss? She could not remember. She drove home in a daze, planning.

When they were dating, Helen would reassure Joe of her devotion, asserting that she did not approve of divorce, except in cases of physical abuse. It was an odd declaration of love. More of a warning to him. Her Catholic upbringing compelled her to stay with him. To accept his shortcomings. But there were limits. He had thrown her on the bed. Weeks later he would deny the violence of the act. He was “merely playing.” But she had her escape clause now. He had thrown her on the bed.

When she got home she packed a few bags, took some money, and flew away.

Nightfall was approaching; she should prepare to leave. Still, Helen shifted the closed textbook on her lap and took another deep breath. She would sit for an hour longer, studying cocoons on redwood bark or the intricate mandalas on sunset-speckled water. While the rest of Los Angeles hustled, she would sit motionless, surrendering to the sounds, devouring the breeze. Read more!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Embracing (my inner) George Clooney

Last night I had another dream with George Clooney. I’m sure I’m not the only one to think lustful thoughts of him, in day or night dreams. But for me, these early morning trysts are less about the charismatic actor and more about my own evolving psyche.

I’ve always had a crush on Clooney but only recently unraveled its possible meaning. Of course he’s handsome and charming, but so are most other movie stars. Then why Clooney? When I think about his public persona--what I perceive from his interviews and movies--I see a conman, thief, scoundrel, and rake. But in G.C. these aren’t negative qualities, but part of his appeal. Maybe this is because he doesn’t deny his “dark” side but celebrates and uses it with confidence. Confidence. That’s why I dream of him.

As I get older (and wiser?) I’m beginning to recognize my own swaggering, arrogant, con-woman inside. I’ve denied her existence for years, but she’s been there, scheming and intervening in my artistic pursuits and career ambitions. The trouble is, when I try to bury this Conniver under my cultivated “good girl” image--I also bury my courage and audacity, traits I desperately need as an artist. When I embrace George Clooney in my dreams, I embrace all of these repressed parts of myself. That’s why it feels so right. That’s why I feel so whole.

Is it my Catholic-Jewish heritage that makes me so prone to fear and shame? George Clooney teaches me to relax when my husband and I are discovered in an intimate moment--exposed in a supposedly isolated wilderness. He teaches me to chill when I practice my worry habit. Why should I worry about an IRS audit, or losing my job, or any other catastrophe outside of my control? Clooney had it much worse in “Ocean’s Eleven,” and he survived.

Why am I so horrified by a devious side of myself when G.C lives it out so freely? If I could solve this mystery, I could solve my own internal split. Would I then start robbing casinos? No. But I would live more freely, following my own internal logical and impulses, even if that meant to make unconventional or morally ambiguous choices. In other words, I would risk being judged by others. I would risk their disapproval.

George Clooney (at least in my imagination) doesn’t care about disapproval. This is his ultimate allure and the reason millions of women AND men are enamored with him. We’re all trying to get a piece of this “cool,” this self-assurance. My goal these days is to cherish my inner Clooney: to love and nurture my flamboyant, risk-taking, adventurer-self; the one who sometimes fails, sometimes endures rejection, but always embraces life fully. Read more!