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!