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A girl who rose from the ashes...and now is trying to make sense of this complicated world through her writing.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top Ten of Jen - 2011 Style

Oh, 2011. It's been real. I have to say, you were a pretty normal year. In some regards, I have to say, ho hum. And yet...more and more experiences for which I will be forever grateful. Funny how that works. Lucky me! As is tradition (two solid years running now), in no particular order, here are the Top Ten events of 2011:

1) Started experiencing a new tradition with a friend that I love. (I love both the friend and the tradition.) My friend Alex is a very thoughtful friend. She has frequently reminded me what it really means to be a friend to someone. Alex has two little girls. Adorable little girls who are funny and sassy and sensitive and smart as whips. So Alex decided since she can't go out like she used to, she will do what it takes to maintain her friendships. Almost every single Wednesday night, Alex makes an amazing, delicious, meticulously planned dinner for me and another friend. Wednesday was never my favorite day of the week. Who likes "Hump Day" after all? Well, I do now. Wednesday night dinner has become a highlight of my week, and the cornerstone of a remarkable friendship.

2) Went to sunny San Diego. People make fun of me and my many travels for my job. I can't help it! If being a good steward of the taxpayers means I have to go to San Diego in January, I will do it. I am that committed to the good people of this fine county. But I will say this: opportunities like that generally result in me mixing business with pleasure. So I extended this trip by a few days and had my sister Jess and our friend Matt join me. Enter hilarity, stage left. From the moment our plane landed, everything was funny. Jess kept stopping the car too far in the intersection and had to back up four times in the first 30 minutes on the road. We took tourism advice from a 3rd shift convenience store worker who was missing teeth and I'm pretty sure was a meth abuser and/or hardened criminal. We checked into a hotel where the price was right but the cleanliness was not. We ate at amazing places and spent all kinds of time on the ocean and even saw a whale or two. We cheered the Packers onto the Superbowl in a local Packers bar with waves crashing off in the distance. All told, that portion of my trip cost me something like $130 thanks to Priceline and splitting the bill three ways. Yipee! I love my life. Er, I mean, I love serving the good taxpayers of this county.

3) Reconnected with another Matt. I have some long lost cousins. And this really bums me out, because they are the cousins I grew up with in Iowa. We literally spent every holiday together, and for many years we were together most weekends, too. My dad and their dad were brothers and best friends. But after our parents passed away, our relationship did too. Nobody was mad or fighting, but one month turned into one year turned into fifteen years and wow. What happened? So a while ago, I found one of these said cousins, Matt, on Facebook. Matt was my bud growing up. We are one year apart in age. He is a funny, charismatic free spirit. And this year, as "the rest" of my family was preparing for our annual Cousins Weekend in Spooner, Wisconsin, I suggested to Matt that he should make the trek from Colorado to Wisconsin to surprise the rest of the family. It took some convincing on my part, but we made it a reality. Matt flew to Milwaukee, and then drove 6 hours with us to see the rest of our cousins and the only remaining living sibling of our two dads. When Matt stepped out of that car, our family about freaked. They too had not seen him in 15 years or so. Hugs were shared, tears flowed, and disbelief continued throughout the weekend. It was the best surprise ever. And the memories - oh, the memories. This event more than any other in 2011 truly made my heart happy.

4) Philadelphia, Part One. My BFF Mindy and I planned a trip as we tend to do every other summer. This time we invited her friend Meri along whom I had also gotten to know over the course of the last year. Oh, we did all the usual Philadelphia things. The stupid Liberty Bell. The snoresville Constitution Hall. Ran up the Rocky Steps at the art museum. We ate cheesesteaks and big pretzels and drank local beers to our heart's content. But mostly, we laughed. And laughed some more. And then a little more. One night I laughed so hard....well, I will spare you the rest of that story. During this trip, I did harvest a story about Betsy Ross that has become a "must tell" at any party, happy hour or social gathering that doesn't include any sticks in the mud. Oh, Betsy. If you only knew. Our last night there, I met a cute boy. Actually, he was a man. But sparks flew and numbers were exchanged...and you will just have to keep reading for the rest of the story.

5) Visited my mom and dad's best friends in Iowa. Jess and I took a road trip to Iowa mid-summer. My best friend was holding a wedding reception for her Christmas Eve wedding from the year prior and we were happy to go celebrate with her. While back on our old stomping grounds, however, we revisited some of our favorite places and things. College campuses, pork tenderloins, and a few friends along the way. On our way to the Quad Cities for one last visit, we made a detour and drove through the tiny little town we grew up in. We made an impulse stop at the home of our parents' best friends, Jim and Jan. We rang the doorbell. We held our breath. They answered the door and we jumped up and down and hugged and I even got a little verklempt. We only spent an hour with them, but it was an incredible hour. We all shared updates and brought everyone up to speed, and then they shared some hilarious stories about our parents that made me laugh and feel a little pang in my heart. That hour was so good. It was unexpected and spontaneous and full of love. I was reminded - don't hold back. Take a risk, get off the beaten path, and don't be afraid to step back in time if only for a minute. This was easily one of my favorite moments of the whole year.

6) Put my big girl pants on. My immediate supervisor at work left in August. As the deputy director, I had to step up in a big way and do all of the director duties. It was budget season, then contract time, and I had what felt like an insurmountable amount of work to do with no previous experience and no one to train me. Admittedly, I left in tears a couple of days. But I reached out to my resources, I approached things in my own way, and I got the job done. And I even feel like I got it done really well. While managing the whole department on my own, I have assembled a dream team and am in the process of helping to pick out my new boss. It is an entirely different department, in a matter of four months. It feels goooooood. And I am all in! My prediction: we are going to kick some serious ass in 2012. Watch out!

7) Philadelphia, Part Two. Remember that spark I mentioned from my last day in Philly? After seven weeks of texts, emails and phone calls, said spark came to Milwaukee for a four day weekend visit. We spent copious amounts of hours at the lakefront, went to an antique car show, visited Lambeau field, said a prayer together at Holy Hill, made an amazing dinner for my sister and brother in law, went to the movies, went to the farmer's market, ate custard, took a boat tour of downtown, drank Spotted Cows and had every bit of fun we could squeeze into four days. Sparks continued. Sadness ensued upon departure. And even though life has kind of gotten in the way of more permanent togetherness, I have no regrets. I have been happily reminded of exactly what I want out of a relationship. Best. Weekend. Ever.

8) Got a reminder that I am no spring chicken. This year my Cornell College class of '91 and I celebrated our 20 year reunion. Twenty years! Wherever has the time gone? A whole bunch of us descended back upon that little slice of New England on an Iowa hilltop. Cornell is a special place. My classmates are special people. And I must say, we have aged remarkably well. It was fun to regress for a couple of days and revisit my humble roots.

9) Took an adventure all by myself. More grueling work travels ensued later in the year - this time to San Francisco. I tried to find someone to tag along and couldn't find a taker. So, I decided, I am not missing this opportunity. I am going anyway. I booked a hotel and it was out in the sticks. The first day I panicked. I had no rental car and this was going to be a challenge. I had to put on my thinking cap and rise to the occasion. Even worse - I had to ask for help. I had to master the use of the subway and numerous forms of public transportation to find my way around a new city. By the third day, I could get anywhere in that town. While most of my time was alone, I did reconnect with two college friends I hadn't seen since 1991 and a former co-worker whom I adore and hadn't seen since the mid-90s. I spent time exploring and reflecting and falling in love with a new city. Traveling alone is not my first choice, but I won't ever shy away from it in the future. I left the bay area with a new confidence and sense of resolve.

10) Lost a friend, suddenly. One of my favorite co-workers passed away rather suddenly at the end of this year. He was a whopping 48 years old, and pancreatic cancer got the best of him. Oh my gosh, it was so sad. He was a great guy. Funny, charming, smart, driven, and really good looking to boot. He had a family he adored. He did work that mattered, a whole lot. And he left this world much too soon. The funeral was exhausting. At one point I stopped trying to dry my tears and just let them roll down my cheeks and drip right onto my sweater. As is always the case when at a funeral, I got an important reminder: Live, Jennifer. And trust me, that is just what I am gonna do. Bring it, 2012. I am ready for you!

Sunday, October 2, 2011


I met my first soulmate when I was four.
The preceding 18 months had taken a toll on my family. My dad had been diagnosed with kidney failure, and in a matter of days my mom had packed up our life and moved us to Iowa. It was a chaotic time, a time of uncertainty and fear and disbelief. It's hard to self-actualize and find your inner peace when everything that matters is at stake. Suffice it to say, we didn't.
And so, after Dad's health stabilized thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, my parents decided it was time our life got stabilized too. When we lived in New Mexico, my dad had two horses and this has evoked a passion in him he didn't previously know existed. With their dreams of more horses in tow, they searched for some land in the country and decided on a 20 acre lot just outside of Lowden, Iowa. (For those of you who don't know, Lowden is a thriving metropolis of about 700 people, with zero stoplights and a cop that is shared with the next town over. Kid you not.)
Shortly after we moved, my parents realized that young Jenny was going to need a playmate or she may well drive them nuts. I am told - and I can hardly believe this to be true - that I was quite a talker in my early days. My dad always told the story that one day, out of sheer exhaustion from the sound of my voice, he suggested I go outside and talk to the bush in the front yard. I did.
So one day, my mom woke me up and told me that this day was going to be a very special day. I couldn't imagine what was in store, but in no time we headed up the road a ways to the home of our neighbor Annabelle. Something was a little off about Annabelle. She was dirty and disheveled and had really bad teeth. Rumor had it when her son came to visit, he had to sleep in the bathtub. So I can assure you, this day that we went to visit Annabelle would be our first and last visit to her home.
Rumors aside, what happened that day at Annabelle's rickety old house changed my life. Annabelle was a talker (well, so I was I - but talking to a bush had more appeal than talking to Annabelle) and so it took seemingly forever to realize why we were there. We eventually went out back to the barn, and situated there was a momma dog and 6 furry little puppies - German Shepherd/Collie mixes. My mom told me I could pick which ever one I wanted. I looked at her in disblief, then surveyed the landscape. They were all cute in their own way, but there was one who was so fat and roly-poly she could hardly stand up. She was a fluffy fluffball of pure fluffy goodness. I picked her, or maybe she picked me, and in no time I had selected her name: Peanuts.
Peanuts was my first soulmate. On that farm, she was my best friend and my most reliable source of companionship and entertainment. She was an "outside" dog, because that's what people on farms have. So every morning in the summer, as soon as I would get up I would bound outside, screen door slamming behind me, to find my pal who was always patiently awaiting my arrival. We would roam the acreage and get into all kinds of mischief together. In the fall, when I had to return to school, Peanuts would come running to the end of the lane to greet me when she heard the school bus pull up to drop me off at the end of the day. In the winter, I hated her "outside" status and would go make beds of hay and blankets to keep her warm. And in the spring, the best season of all on that farm, Peanuts and I would make the rounds together to check on all the new baby animals that had arrived on the scene.
I say that Peanuts was my first soulmate because she was all the things you would want from one. She was loyal beyond belief and fiercely protective. (For some reasons she really hated one of our neighbors and would snarl and growl at him and only him. I still wonder what she saw in that man that I never did.) She loved me in a way that I had never been loved: unconditionally. Ever present, she was there when I needed her most, relishing the good times and comforting me during the bad. She was sweet and gentle and affectionate, but not overbearingly so. But most of all, she shared my joy. There was literally no one else on the face of the earth that she would rather see than me. You could see it in her innocent brown eyes, and her tail, and I swear to you she could smile. She was the best.
Here is what I know for sure: soulmates are far and few between, but they come in a lot of forms. You never know when one will just pop up in your life. And rest assured, you don't need to be on the lookout for a soulmate, you just need to be ready for them when they arrive.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Have Fun, Will Travel

When you lose a parent (or two) at an early age, it either teaches you to be bitter and resentful, or else it teaches you to savor every precious moment of life. Lucky for me, I chose the latter. It also made me want to experience everything I could, as quickly as I could, in case I end up having the same fate as dear old Mom and Pop. The resulting fire in my belly for the last few years has been to travel. Traveling has opened up my life and my world. Guess what!? There is more to this world than Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Who knew? Here are a few things my traveling adventures have taught me:

Every city has something to offer. I work in social services, for crying out loud, so I'm not afforded the vacation time nor the resources to hang out on a yacht in the French Riviera or jet set to the Galapagos Islands. And you know, it really doesn't matter. I have been to Europe a couple of times, and it was all well and good, but I have had just as much fun spending a three or four day weekend in cities that are hardly known for their tourism industry. Cities like St. Louis and Cedar Rapids. 'Tis true. Every city has something they are proud of that you should check out, at least one or two great restaurants, and people who are worth getting to know. Just get in your car and go.

Patience is a virtue. My mom used to say this to me all the time as a kid, and it aggravated me to no end every time she said it. Now that I have grown and matured (at least somewhat), I have to agree with her, but I would amend it. Patience is a virtue, especially when you are at the ticket counter. In travel and in life, things don't always go your way. You can choose to be upset, or you can choose to roll with it. Being upset won't make the fog go away and alleviate the 13 hour flight delay you experience in Juneau, Alaska. (Yes, that really happened to me.) But choosing to roll with it will mean that, while enduring said 13 hour flight delay, you will find the long-awaited perfect cup of clam chowder in the Juneau, Alasksa airport. Even when things are all f'd up, life can be good. Never lose sight of that.

In life and in travel, picking the right partner matters. A lot. I have had to get to know myself well enough to be able to pick the right partner(s) for travel. (I am still working on picking the right partner for life.) I have friends I adore who do not make good travel partners for me, for one reason or another. I need someone who will do some (but not all) of the planning, who will be spontaneous and inspire me to be so as well, and who will not complain if I want to take a short late afternoon nap before going out for the night. I know these things. I can't compromise these things if I want to have a great travel experience. And I will not settle for less.

Sometimes you just want to get your Pizza Hut on. So I totally believe in checking out the local cuisine, and in asking the locals where they like to go, and in living life as art by trying new things. I get it. That's the gold standard. But sometimes, travel can wear you down and you just want the familiar. I will never regret the meal I had at Pizza Hut in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was exactly what my bestie and I needed, exactly at that time. I was going to hurl if I saw another plate of Arroz con Pollo. I was tired. I was hungover. I had been behaving badly. And Pizza Hut purported to cure all that ailed me. You know what? It did. No regrets. I slept like a baby that night.

Don't waste your money on the hotel. Unless you are on your honeymoon, or you are independently wealthy, an upscale hotel is just not worth it. My sister has taught me the joys of Priceline. It's like buying the "mystery bag" gift--you never know what you are going to get. We have gotten fantastic hotels for $50 a night, and not-so-fantastic hotels for $50 a night. The point is, it doesn't matter. As long as it is clean, the bed doesn't hurt your back, and no one gets shot in the parking lot, it's all good. Traveling is about seeing. You have a beautiful, comfortable home to return to. So save your pennies for the whale watching tour or the amazing dinner or the carriage ride through Central Park that you might not have had if you had stayed at the Westin. Those are the memories that will last you a lifetime.

Sensible shoes are more important than looking good. I learned this painful lesson--and I do mean painful--in Washington, D.C. The first day there I had on a cute little dress and sandals. Sandals that ripped my feet to a bloody, disgusting, painful pulp. I spent a good portion of the rest of my vacation bandaging my feet, complaining about my feet, and wincing everytime I stepped on my feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid. D.C. is a walking town. My feet were so bad by the time the trip was done that my friend and I took a picture of them. Lesson learned. It is better to feel good than to look good. At least when you are traveling, that is. You can look good when you get home.

Sex in a foreign country doesn't count. Well that is what someone told me once, anyway. Enough said.

Don't kiss the Blarney Stone. Sometimes you want to see that thing that everybody else has seen. But other times, it's just not worth it. My trip to Ireland was one of the best trips of my life. I did a lot of things, but I did not kiss the Blarney Stone. And I don't care. I walked through a cemetery that had gravestones from 3 A.D. I had fish and chips at the quaintest little pub on the coast in Northern Ireland. I drank beers, a whole lot of 'em, with drunken Irish soccer players who were missing most of their teeth. I fed a flock of sheep some grass through the fence, and laughed so hard I almost wet my pants. So Blarney Stone be damned, I experienced Ireland the way I needed to experience it, and I loved every minute of it. Make your vacation uniquely yours.

Do visit Iowa's Largest Frying Pan. So in Brandon, Iowa there is what is allegedly Iowa's largest frying pan. I say allegedly, because how does this sort of thing really get authenticated? It is kind of dumb, and pointless, and really only a photo op and nothing more. But it is damned funny to see. Stopping for the silly is always worth it. And if you don't know where to find the silly, you can always visit http://www.roadsideamerica.com/.

Pretty much anything can be funny if you look at it through the right lens. If you are in the right mindset, that is. Regular Jen is a pretty fun gal, if I do say so myself. But Vacation Jen is extra fun. She delights in the little and the absurd. How else would I laugh hysterically at noting that our San Diego hotel elevator had a different font for each of the numbered buttons, at the fact that my friend Katie got stains all over her ass while sitting on the carpet of the divey bar we were at in Louisville, at my own monitoring of a ketchup bottle's fate in Memphis, or at the 3 a.m. fire alarm I endured with my friend Colleen in Sarasota? I know, you are reading this and thinking "that's not funny at all" but I assure you it was. So funny, that in each instance I laughed so hard I could not breathe or contain myself for long periods of time. Love, love, love, love, love that part of travel. Lose yourself in those moments. They are rare and awesome and what life is all about.

There's no place like home. People always talk about taking a vacation to relax. That's all well and good, but I find that a good vacation exhausts me. It exhilarates me too, but the hallmark of a great week of travel is that I am physically and mentally spent. Like when I came home from New Orleans and had not slept for the past 36 hours. That was good stuff. And while the trip home is never as much fun as the trip there, getting home is always a blessing in and of itself. Oh, the bliss of being back with my stuff, my cats, my bed, my shower. It is always good to leave, and it is always good to come back. Maybe that is why I love to travel so much...it gives me just the right amount of perspective that I need and helps me avoid taking for granted that amazing life I have right in front of me.

So all of that being said....get out the map, kids...I think it's time to plan our next adventure. Where shall we go? And more importantly, what shall we learn along the way?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Top Ten of Jen

The year's end is always filled with a host of Top Ten Lists. Top Ten Movies. Top Ten Vacations You Must Take Before You Die. Top Ten Bad Reality Shows You Really Need to Watch. Top Ten Celebrity Mugshots. So my Top Ten list is a day late...but it's still worthy of review.

The Year 2010 has been fun to reflect upon. That is not to say that the whole year was fun. It wasn't. Like any year, it had its ups and downs. But mostly ups, and in no particular order, here are the ten things I remember and cherish most about this past year:

1) Moved on. Almost two years ago now, I had a professional dream dashed. I had "grown up" at a non-profit agency that I treated like my baby. I loved that place. I nurtured it. I worked my ass off for it. I made it my own. I believed with all my heart that one day, and for many days to follow, I would lead that agency. But then something happened. Our Board of Directors made a decision to merge with another company. I went with it at first, but the fit just wasn't right. Without assigning blame, I will simply say that I lost my bearing. Not only did I leave in 2009, I left with a broken heart. And it took me a really long time to get over it, because things didn't work out as I had planned. But you know what? I did get over it. I have a totally kick ass job, that is the same in some ways but also really different, and I have learned a gazillion new things that I never would have learned at the old job. I am grateful. Finally.

2) Spent a day honoring Honest Abe. That's right--Abe Lincoln. My sister Jess is a huge fan. She dreams of stovepipe hats and log cabins. So this year, Jess and I took the day off on Abe's birthday and celebrated it right. We drove to the Land of Lincoln and engaged in some good old fashioned consumerism at Ikea. We carried around an Abe Lincoln figurine with us everywhere and laughed about it. We ate at Steak n' Shake--no relevance to Abe but we just like it. Then we went to the Admirals game, where we got Abe Lincoln bobbleheads and did fist bumps with someone dressed up as Abe Lincoln. It was a really fun day. It was ordinary stuff with a twist. And it is those ordinary days with a twist that are really what life is all about. I have the best sister in the world, and I want everyone to know it.

3) Got into teaching. So this actually started in late 2009, but I furthered my teaching gig in 2010. This just in--teaching is hard! It takes a lot of preparation and a whole lot of energy to pull it off well. But I absolutely love it. It has helped me fulfill a promise I made when I got my own graduate degree to help inspire more young people to see the joy and importance of working in the mental health field. I don't think I'll ever stop. That's how much I like it.

4) Went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. So I was there on business, but what good is a business trip without a little fun too? I wasn't prepared for how emotional the National Archives would make me. The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Emancipation Proclamation. All right there for us to see. All that history. All that love, and sacrifice, and hard work. I am so lucky to live in this country, flawed though it may be. I was reminded, and happily so.

5) Saw a friend fall from grace. My very long-time friend and mentor recruited me to come work for Milwaukee County in 2009. Then, during a highly political year, the winds changed suddenly and he made a difficult decision to step down from his job in August of this year. In short, it sucked. I mean like it really, really, really sucked. A lot. I stood by this friend and did my best to walk with him through the valley. I never stopped believing in him and I never will. And as a true homage to him and his brilliance, I picked up the pieces, waded through the rubble and regained my focus at work. His legacy will live on for a very long time, and I will make sure of it.

6) Saw another friend arrive where she belongs. Not everybody has a friendship that has endured their whole lifetime, but I do. OK, so I didn't meet Mindy until I was 5. But in all fairness, I don't remember a whole lot about my first five years. (Dropped a rock on my toe, had my bicycle stolen, got a puppy. Yep, that's about all I remember.) I met Mindy in kindergarten and we went to school together all the way up through college. We weren't best friends all those years, but we have been for many of them and the history speaks for itself. We have seen each other through a lot, and laughed at the absurdity of it all every step of the way. We have made a lot of bad decisions (bad decisions are my favorite!) and sometimes we made them together. On Christmas Eve, I got to see Mindy marry a fantastic guy who loves her and her boys in all the ways they deserve. It's awesome, and it warms the cockles of my heart. (Yes, I said cockles).

6) Fell for somebody. Though not widely publicized, I fell for somebody this year. It's not widely publicized, because the other half of the equation didn't exactly fall back. But you know what? No regrets. I put myself out there, I took a risk, I gained a friend and I learned a lot about myself. Mostly this: There is still love in this steely old heart of mine, and someday I will find it. And when I do, well, they may just be the luckiest person in the world. Here's to not looking, but finding it anyway.

7) Took a road trip to St. Louis. Admittedly, I slept a good portion of the way there. But my travel partner Steve packed us some fantastic snacks and let me pick the radio station part of the time. We connected with two of my college friends and went to see the Brewers (lose) at Busch Stadium. We laughed ourselves silly. We got in a stupid little spat. We ate too much. We slept too little. And we wouldn't change any of it. Road trips are the best.

8) Found some old friends. People can say what they want about Facebook, but I have had some amazingly positive experiences because of it. In May, I spent a night out with two very long-lost friends. One was from college and I had not seen him since 1988. The other I met right after college and I had not seen him since 1992. Both met me out for a night of cocktails and bad bar food in Minneapolis. It was quite a walk down memory lane, and I loved it. Thanks, Facebook! You're the best. Forget about all the haters.

9) Returned to the birthplace of Jen Wittwer. Little known fact: I was born in New Mexico. So when I had a chance to take a business trip to Albuquerque, I did not hesitate. New Mexico is amazing. I hadn't been back since I was 13. It really is the Land of Enchantment--they're not just making that up. At the end of my conference, my friend Colleen met up with me for a long weekend. We went swimming in the middle of a thunderstorm (Colleen's famous quote: "One more bolt of lightning, and then we'll head inside!"), taunted the unsuspecting doppelganger of my ex-husband, saw the mass ascension of hot air balloons, drove to Santa Fe in true Thelma and Louise style and met the most handsome, charismatic and perfect artist ever, and laughed until we could not breathe while singing to Andy Gibb and eating sopapillas. My cheeks hurt for days upon my return from all the laughter. This trip was credited with my funniest moment of 2010--no small feat.

10) Made a whole bunch of new friends. I have had years that were devoid of meeting anyone new or really all that interesting, but 2010 was not one of those years. I have made some amazing new friends. People who are interesting, thoughtful, bright, clever, energetic and full of chutzpah. People who are willing to challenge me and inspire me to be better. People who are just downright funny. My life is richer on the other side of 2010, and that's just cool.

So thanks, 2010....it's been real. And here's to hoping that my list in 2011 will be equally grand. I can't wait to see what you have in store.