Those of you who read this blog know that from time-to-time I write posts about Toby Salk and her Mah Jongg tournaments. I have never met Toby in person but, through our mutual love of Mah Jongg, we have become virtual friends. Recently a very inspirational article was written about Toby that told so much about her personality and spirit and I thought I would share it with you today. Enjoy!
I met my good friend, Toby, in 1975 at a ceramic studio in San Francisco. We were both 23 at the time. Our lives were ahead and we were full of creative aspirations. She was a potter and calligrapher fresh out of Queens College, a recent arrival to the West coast from New York.
She directed her artistic inclinations toward developing graphic design skills and began finding jobs in catalog production. On and off for many years, she worked for The Sharper Image, trendsetters at a time before internet shopping took over. She traveled to photo shoots and printers to oversee catalog projects. She left her rent-controlled apartment in the Mission district and bought a home in Berkeley where she enjoyed the benefits of well-paid work. The corporate world was mercurial, though. She faced layoffs and new jobs, but managed well up to a point. By the time she was fifty, a huge lack of stability entered her field of work. It became harder to get hired. Layoffs and short-term jobs became the norm. Grueling commutes added hours of driving to her days. Ageism was creeping into the mix. I recall one time when she overheard two young co-workers refer to her as “that old lady.”
She managed her growing depression by training for a marathon and raised $3000 for AIDS research, a cause close to her heart after losing several close friends to the disease. Toby was hooked on the high she felt from the physical activity and ability to raise money for a good cause. Since that first event, she has devoted herself to Team in Training. She will participate in her 6th event this Fall to raise funds for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and will soon surpass $12,000 in total funds raised to date (??) Again, a couple close friends have struggled with various blood cancers so the cause is meaningful to her.
Fundraising is just one piece of Toby’s reinvention, though. Career-wise, the years after fifty were a patchwork of short-term work, unemployment, and a string of job interviews that lead nowhere. She tried selling vintage collectibles. She did office cleaning and odd jobs, including a stint at a pop-up designer clothing store earning minimum wage.
Sometimes, the most obvious new directions are right in front of us. Sice the early 1990s, Toby has met monthly with a group of friends to play Mah Jongg. She grew up watching her mother and aunts click the mysterious tiles during regular evening gatherings. The game is in her blood. She even collected vintage game sets. One evening at dinner with friends, someone seized upon the obvious and told her to start teaching the game as a business. Forget about finding a job—make one instead. It was a light bulb moment that made perfect sense–she already held an appreciation for the cultural history and aesthetic beauty of the tiles and a great deal of expertise playing the game. Toby began the next day.
There has been a large learning curve in finding the best way to offer her service involving a lot of trial and error. Today, Toby offers classes, monthly brunches, and special events (www.mahjonggforeveryone.com). She has been written up in local Bay Area media and has become instrumental in the revival of the ancient game that she views as a means of relationship and friendship in a world that is increasingly impersonal. Younger women may have heard about Mah Jongg from their grandmothers–now they have become curious about connecting with their heritage. ellWomen over fifty or sixty may find they have more time to pursue leisure activities and make new friends. This game is an ideal new hobby and it is not just for women–a few men join in too. Toby has found a new world of joy in self-employment beyond the corporate jobs that once demanded so much from her. Her old friend, Mah Jongg, held the key to this. Perhaps Joseph Campbell was right all along when he urged those seeking answers to “Follow your bliss.”