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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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Dirty Thirty

On November 1st, my friend and blogging mentor Jan sent out a blogging throwdown challenge to another friend and me:  30 blogs in 30 days. Unbeknownst to me, November is a big month for writers.  Blogging website BlogHer was hosting their "NaBloPoMo" (National Blog Posting Month) challenge, and apparently a whole lot of writers take the month of November to write a 50,000 word novel.  Who knew?  Now mind you, Jan has already done the decathalon of blogging twice by completing 100 bogs in 100 days.  Thirty in thirty days was chump change to her. To me, however 30 in 30 days was a big deal.  But, my pride was at stake and I had some catching up to do if I was going to meet my previous self-imposed challenge of 52 blogs during the course of 2014.  Challenge accepted.

I started the challenge a day late because her challenge was presented to me late in the day and I had company in from out of town.  So On November 2nd, I wrote two blogs and from that day forward, I wrote a blog a day every day thereafter.  Let me tell you, it was haaaaaaaaaaard. There was more than one day that I whined about it to my fellow throwdown companion.  There was more than one night that I sat with my laptop perched upon my lap, cats softly purring at my side, staring at the blinking cursor on my screen for what felt like hours on end.  And twice, I feel that I "cheated" by writing a 33-word challenge - I simply didn't have the time or the energy to write anything grander than that on those days.

But....but.  I did it, with this entry I have written 30 blogs in 30 days, and I am very excited to have met this challenge!  Not only that, but I actually wrote several pieces that I love.  If I had written at my usual pace of one per week, I would have written four blogs at most - and it is doubtful I would love all four.  But now, I wrote 30, and I think at least five are keepers.  Thus proving the point: the more you write, the better you write. Lesson learned.

As for the clunkers I churned out, I simply offer a sincere apology to my faithful readers.  I know that I clogged up my Facebook feed with daily blog posts and nothing more...who has time to write clever status updates when you have blogging assignments to complete?  I promise I will get back to my old, sassy self starting tomorrow.  In fact, I will start thinking of something hilarious to post right away.

But in case you missed them, or you are wondering what my favorites are from the last month, here they are in no particular order:
1. A Single Girl's Guide to Not Finding Love
2. Fiddlesticks
3. A Healing Hug
4. Rocking Chairs and Gold
5. I Am Running for Mayor

Thanks for hanging in there with me for the last month, everyone...and happiest of holidays to you!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Oh Tannembaum

I love seeing the inside of homes, especially once I get to know a person. I think a home is reflective of who the person is.  Are they messy?  Neat? Layered?  Readers? Entertainers?  There is so much you can tell in just a quick walk-through....I guess it really appeals to the nosy side of me.  I love my little home, and per my own assessment, I would have to think it says this about me:  Colorful! Whimsical! Bright! Modest! and Hyper-organized!

As I was trimming the tree today (as in decorating it, not anything involving a power saw), it occurred to me that one's Christmas tree may also reflect the individual to whom it belongs.  There are people who go all out, year after year - new decorations, new theme, new levels of extravagance. There are people who have more than one tree - a tree for every room, even!  And then there are people like me, who delight in having the same old tree, year after year.  I like tradition to include a little of the expected and the ordinary.

So as I reflected on this today, I realized that this is what my Christmas tree says about me:

I like convenience.  My friends and family tease me because I love all things convenient.  And really, if you have the option, why would you not?  I pay someone to mow my lawn - a life-changing decision I made three years ago.  I have my Chinese food delivered to me rather than going out in the elements to get it myself.  So a few years ago, in line with my adoration of convenience, I decided enough with this "real tree" nonsense.  It doesn't suit me.  It's hard to find a good tree, and even a "good tree" can be a "bad tree" once you get it home.  It's too tempting for the cats to use as a scratching post and knock it over (which of course has really happened).  Real trees drop needles everywhere that are still sticking around by the 4th of July.  I broke down after a few years of resistance and got an artificial tree. Three easy clicks and a flip of the switch and voila!  Convenient holiday cheer.  I love it! There is no turning back.

I am a sentimental fool.  Putting up the tree is a walk down memory lane.  I have ornaments from my childhood.  I have ornaments that friends gave me.  But some of my favorite ornaments of all are the ones my mother and grandmother made for me.  I have a set of ceramic holiday mice that are in all kinds of silly holiday situations interspersed throughout my tree.  They warm my heart and remind me of my humble roots.  This one sleeping in the matchbox is my all-time favorite.

I love to travel.  There are a whole bunch of things I like to do in this beautiful life of mine, but traveling is near the top of the list.  I love to travel to a new city and spend four days tearing it apart, finding every tiny little thing that city has to celebrate.  In the past, I used to buy all kinds of things when I would travel.  Over the years, however, I've simplified.  I now typically buy myself just one thing when I travel:  a new Christmas ornament depicting that place.  So now, years later, my tree is filled with all kinds of happy memories.  Each year, it is a delight to remember trips from the past and unwrap the new ornaments I've acquired for the year.  The new ornaments always go front and center on the tree. This year I added Seattle and Multnomah Falls, which is just outside of Portland, Oregon.  Such happy memories!

I am loyal.  I hope this is something the people closest to me know and understand...deeply.  I think loyalty is very important in this complicated world.  In any relationship - family, friends, colleagues - there will be times when the relationship may be tested. Times that are hard or unpleasant where you have to stand by one another.  I am that friend.  I will come see you at the hospital.  I will bring a platter of Jimmy Johns sandwiches when you move.  I will listen to you tell your tales of woe over and over.  And, it turns out, I will still hang you on my tree year after year, even when one of your legs fell off.  (Sorry, Northshore of Lake Superior Santa - you may be an amputee but I still love you.)

I have a sense of humor.  Maybe I don't take life seriously enough, but really - if you are not laughing, what is the point?  I don't get being anything other than happy, if I can help it.  And so, I try to add a little whimsy to everything I do.  I like to be a little weird.  I like to crack jokes at inappropriate times.  I like to work the room.  It's just who I am.  When it comes to my Christmas tree, I like to think that the Elvis ornament I got in Memphis (one of the most fun trips I ever took with my best friend) really sets the tone.  Love you. Elvis.  And for the record, I could not agree more - we could use a little less conversation and a lot more action.

So all of that being said, Christmas is a time to reflect on all that matters. The life I've built for myself is full.  It has love and laughter and meaning. It's funny how something as simple as an ordinary tree can depict all that, and yet somehow it does.  So from my house to yours...enjoy this wonderful holiday season.  Here is my tree in all its glory:

Friday, November 28, 2014

33 Words of Wonder

He comes to me in my dream, the only place he is allowed to visit.  He saunters in and out as he pleases, and gives me a whisper that leads to a wonder.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks

When people are in a situation where they are asked to list their gratitudes in front of others, the natural tendency is to focus on the big things:  their health, their job, their family, their friends.  And while that is all well and good, I believe it is also important to focus on the tiniest things in life that bring us joy. Joy brings more joy, which in turn brings more joy.  It's how we create our contentment, our peace.

So today I am grateful for things like a funny joke made by an amazingly resilient friend.  ("I lost a husband this year and got a dog.  I traded up.") For things like looking through the Black Friday ads and feeling confident there is not a single sale item that I will ever be compelled to go stand in line for at a Black Friday sale.  (I have abundance. I don't need more abundance from Wal-Mart.)  For things like sprawling out on the couch with my family and watching a touching documentary.  (Racing Dreams - you should see it, too.) For things like the first and last bite of my sister's coconut custard pie.  (It's seriously amazing.  Every. Single. Time.)

I love this life of mine.  I really do. Today I am reminded why.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

33 Words of Wisdom

Rain pelting against the glass. Leaves stuck to the pavement.  Melancholy feelings would be effortless to arouse.  Yet, there is a warmth in my heart that supercedes circumstances.  Hello, gratitude, my old friend.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Searching for My Inner Kenny Rogers

I've been told - quite a few times in my life, mind you - that I don't have a poker face.  Truthfully, if someone is annoying me, everyone in the general vicinity will probably know it.  This does not fare well with my position of great responsibility.  It would be best if I could always be the consummate diplomat. It would be ideal if no one ever suspected my feelings of wanting to put hot pennies in my eyes because I am so blasted bothered.  It would be wonderful if I could always be perfectly wonderful. But....I can't.

So I am working hard to dig deep.  I need to work on this, and today I just pointed out to someone else who I love and respect very much that they could stand to work on their poker face, too.  I'm thinking that maybe we could work on it together.  We could hold up pictures of people, places and things that send us reeling and practice not having a reaction.  ("Look - it's a picture of someone eating baby carrots in a meeting - go!")  We could grade one another on our poker face performances and give honest, unrelenting feedback. We could keep working at it until we get it right.

Because right now, truth be told, I feel like my inner Kenny Rogers is buried deep.  I know he's in there, I just have to find him and nurture him and get him to the surface where he can see the light of day. Because Kenny?  Kenny knew what was up for real.

He knew when to hold 'em.

He knew when to fold 'em.

He knew when to walk away.

He knew when to run.

Word on the street is he also didn't count his money when he was sittin' at the table.

So you see, Kenny was one cool cat.  Kenny had it all figure out.  I could stand to be a lot more like him.  I'm going to keep searching for my inner Kenny Rogers until I find him.  I'll let you know when that happens.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Transitions: A New Business Model

Working as a leader in a public sector system - a system that is highly scrutinized, no less - has had its benefits.  One of those benefits is fine tuning some skills that can only come from opportunities made of sweating brows, churned stomachs, wringing hands.  Maintaining good ego strength on days where there is no love to be found?  I've got that covered.  Entering a room filled with an angry mob and turning the energy around?  No problem.  Solving two, three, even four problems with one solution? I'm a master at it.  Smiling on the outside when I feel murderous rage on the inside?  Believe it or not, most days I've got that one tucked away somewhere, too.

The one skill I may have fine tuned the most, however, is that of delivering bad news.  I've thought about this skill quite a lot in the last few days because it's everyone least favorite time of year - contract time. That's right, it's the time of year when agencies in our system learn their fate.  Will their business thrive or die?  Is it their time to shine, or is their day in the sun drawing to a close?  As a department, we have to deliver news to eager executives, and some of it is just no fun to deliver.  But that's business, and if we are making and executing hard decisions, it also means we are being good stewards of the tax payers.  It truly is all in a day's work.

So when you've built a career on the sad misfortune of expressing bad news, it would make sense to build further upon that skill.  Right?  So I present to you, the new business I am developing.  Please know, I invite your feedback for its worthiness and its possible applications.  It is my proud honor to share with you:  Transitions.

Welcome to Transitions.  Transitions is a business model built on doing your dirty work.  No, we aren't a maid service.  We don't come with Haz-Mat suits and we don't do biohazard clean-ups.  Rather, we do your dirty work...of delivering bad news.

Have an under-performing employee who is sadly pathetic but needs to go?  Afraid to fire them because you know they have a slew of hungry children at home?  No problem.  Transitions will compassionately but decisively let them know they need to pack up their desk and move around.  We will stay on-site until they've assuredly left the building.

Need to back out of business with your partner who was also the best man in your first wedding? We've got it covered.  Your professional Transitions Team will pull the sad sack aside and let him know what's what - and we'll even deliver the papers your lawyer drew up for him, too.

Is it time to end that relationship that is literally on its last leg?  With just a quick phone call from you, you can arrange to have the Transitions van pull up to the house, ring the door bell, and let your future ex-girlfriend know "it's not you, it's me (which, in fact, is really you)."  For a small up-charge, we will even stick around to gather up your favorite hoodie, your Fleetwood Mac album, and your iPhone charger.

So there you have it:  Transitions.  "Let somebody else do the talking, while you do the walking."

I think I could really be onto something here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rocking Chairs and Gold

When my sister was five years old, she used to sit at the old upright piano in our formal living room and belt out made-up songs for hours on end. The fact that she was not able to read a note of music or carry a tune did not dissuade her in the least.  The songs ranged from the pragmatic "School Bus" (lyrics:  "School bus, school bus, here comes the school bus!") to the soulful "Rocking Chairs and Gold" (lyrics:  "Rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold, rocking chairs and gold").  Her songs would reverberate throughout the whole house, and even though they barely made any sense, we all knew one thing:  they came straight from her heart.  Since the songs didn't really make sense, we could assign our own meaning to them.  I believe that the classic "Rocking Chairs and Gold" was about holding close to you the things you love the most.

I must say, that's what I love about my sister: she does everything with heart.  Not one to mislead you in any way, Jess calls it like she sees it.  She gets away with it, because she does so with love. But one thing is certain, you can always count on her to be honest. She'll tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth, if those pants do in fact make your butt look bigger, if you are being an unreasonable diva or if that man is all wrong for you (all things she has probably told me at one time or another in the 35 years she's been part of my life).  I find great comfort in being surrounded by such plain truth.

I find great comfort in it, because if I know one thing for sure it is this:  I don't know it all.  Nope, that's right - you heard it here first.  I don't have all the answers.  And so, knowing that, I find it rather important to surround myself with people who will put me in check.  Now I've worked with leaders - plenty of them, in fact - who really dig being surrounded by a chorus of "yes men."  They dig it so much that they seem to insist on it.  I guess it somehow strokes their ego to have everyone one around them telling them how brilliant they are.  But here's my take on it:  If you are agreeing with me all of the time, then you must be lying at least 50% of the time.  And the problem with that is - I don't know which 50% of the time you are lying.  So then I don't know what's real and what's not, and everything has very quickly become a jumbled up mess.  Who needs it?

So I say, save it for someone else.  You want to give me a compliment? OK, but please make sure it's sincere. But in the next beat, don't be afraid to tell me like it really is.  It might hurt my feelings (I am a sensitive soul, don't you know) but I promise you I'll get over it.  And right after I get over it, I'll be grateful you had my back.  Anybody can blow smoke up a skirt, but it takes real fortitude and character to dish out some tactful truth. But that, my friends, is what you do when you really care about somebody.

And to that, I say:  Rocking chairs and gold, baby.  Rocking chairs and gold.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ordinary Days

Sometimes a memorable night is followed by an ordinary day.  I find that most often when this happens, it is precisely what I need.  A little extra sleep, a few odd chores, lunch with my family and a day of shopping together.  Shopping that includes $563 worth of savings at Kohl's on behalf of my sister - talk about expecting great things!  And while there was nothing particularly remarkable about this day (aside from my sister's Kohl's associate stacked up savings), it was perfectly lovely.  In fact, I wouldn't have had it any other way.  Ever have that happen - a day where you revel in the very ordinary? Ordinary is a beautiful thing.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Memorable Nights

I love hanging out with my peeps.  It grounds me, it makes me laugh, it melts the stress away.  I think a conservative estimate for my adult life is right around 1,950 nights out on the town of eating, drinking and being extraordinarily merry.  I've spent time in five star restaurants all the way down to the skankiest of dive bars (my personal favorite).  It's all the same to me, for I can have fun just about anywhere.  (I mean really, my sister and I once proclaimed that we could put the "fun" in funeral.)  Out of those 1,950 or so nights out on the town, only a few have been real clunkers.  The rest?  I love them.  But even so, there aren't so many that stand out in my mind.  They are fun, they are in the moment, and then they are gone.

But then one night you go out with your two best ride or die work friends, and an 80 year old lady who is missing many of her teeth and perhaps all of her faculties sets down a partially thawed turkey on the bar, dripping turkey juice all over the place and generally confusing (and disgusting) everyone.  And as the night wears on, the tale gets taller and by the end of the night the recollection is that there was a puddle of turkey guts on the bar.  Five days from now or a year from now I won't remember a single thing that happened on this night, but I will remember that damn turkey on the bar.

Some nights are more memorable than others.  Tonight was one of those nights.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

You're Not the Boss of Me

I had to get a flu shot today, because my employer has made it mandatory.  Had to.  I hate doing pretty much anything that is preceded by the words "have to."  It evokes a response in me, an immediate "you're not the boss of me" mentality.  I hate being told what to do, even if it is in my own best interest.  Even if thousands of well-educated others are doing it.  Even if...anything, really.

And why is this?  I think it's fairly normal.  No one likes to be told what to do.  As adults, we like to think for ourselves.  We like to think that we have free will and that no one is in charge of us but us. But the truth is, we all have to answer to someone.  In fact, most of us have to answer to a whole lot of someones.  There is no life that I know of without fences or boundaries or rules.  The idea of only answering to oneself is a fantasy, or maybe even a delusion.

I do my best to keep my oppositional defiant tendencies in check. I try to only exercise them when there are no real consequences.  I am deferential to my boss, I don't get mouthy with cops (anymore), and I follow the bulk of the societal rules.  It's boring, but it's also survival.

To not be a rule follower is honestly more trouble than it is worth most of the time.  I'm not suggesting I won't pick my battles - trust me, I do.  But I learned a nugget of wisdom from someone once:  "You have to live another day to continue the good fight."  So with that in mind, I assess carefully before I drawn my lines in the sand.  And if need be, I don't just eat a slice of humble pie...I bake the dang pie myself and keep eating it until the temptation to let my ego rule passes.  Is humble pie tasty? Not particularly.  Does it contain what I need?  Most of the time, yes.

All of that being said, you're still not the boss of me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Old Man Winter

This unseasonably early, ridiculously much-too-severe-too-soon polar vortex nonsense has me thinking.  What I am trying to decide - and feel free to weigh in - is this:  Is Old Man Winter (OMW henceforth) an a-hole, or is he more of a d-bag?

I am not ready for OMW to show his sorry face around these parts.  But the evidence that he's here and here to stay for a good spell is all there. Frost on my windows in the morning, parts of my body I forgot existed resurfacing to my awareness because they perpetually itch, energy bills that cause chest pains and frequent, loud, involuntary exclamations such as "Holy Balls it's cold out here!"  Not to mention, a significant portion of the time my lips hurt real bad.  There is nothing to like about OMW, I tell you.  Nothing!

So on the one hand, OMW is a d-bag.  He's never actually invited to the party, but he shows up anyway. And as much as we'd like to ask him to leave, no one ever does.  He just hangs around until we are sick to death of him, and then one day, months after he's overstayed his welcome, he just vanishes.  But in the mean time, OMW's douchebaggery will entail him touting to the world how cool he is, even though we all know better and secretly resent him.  Ice skating only seems magical until you actually try it and break your tailbone.  A big snow storm sounds romantic and cozy until you have to spend six hours shoveling out your driveway.  And that pot of chili?  It's delicious, but the consequences are often severe. You're not so great, OMW.  P.S. We all hate you.

To play devil's advocate, though, OMW might be a straight up a-hole. He's kind of like that uncle that shows up to Thanksgiving drunk, insults a bunch of people as soon as he walks in the door, tracks mud all over the carpet, tells a couple dirty jokes, leaves a pile of dirty dishes, starts an argument with his brother and then leaves like he's the one who should be mad.  At the end of it all, everyone's upset, no one really knows why, and nobody had any fun.  But the truth is, while we are all busy being mad at each other we should really be mad at him.  Screw you, OMW.  We still hate you. For real.

So all of that being said, as I dream of bathing in a vat of Curel (life-changing lotion - I really recommend you get some) and obsessively applying petroleum jelly to my lips (Chapstick is for sissies), I am reminded that things could be worse.  I could live in Buffalo.

120 days, 21 hours and 50 minutes to spring.  But who's counting?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I Did It!

Well, folks...I did it.  I set a goal, I worked hard, and I made it.  As of today, with this very blog post, I have achieved a goal I set for the year:  52 blogs in 52 weeks.  Except, thanks to the "30 in 30 days during November" throwdown my friend Jan gave me, I finished 6 weeks early.  It might seem small or trite to you, but trust me...it is not easy to find something meaningful and/or entertaining to say 52 times in a year.  Trust me.

This exercise has been good, though.  I've enjoyed it a great deal.  I hope that my seven faithful readers have enjoyed it, too.  At the the start of this exercise, I vowed to do two things:  1)  Write a piece of fiction, and 2) Reveal some of my secrets.  I've done both, and for the record...fiction was harder.

What I've learned is that when you tell your story, you own it.  No one can hold it against you, and most importantly, you can't hold it against yourself.  I've had people tell me that I'm brave for some of my writing, and I appreciate that sentiment.  There were posts that were very hard to publish, and yet, I know I am better for it.  The blog has been part therapy and part entertainment for me.  I have no doubt that I'll keep going.

So while this year was focused on just writing -making myself, week after week, write and write and write some more, next year needs to bring a new set of challenges.  I feel better about my writing than ever before, but it's time to put myself out there more, market, and develop a broader base of readers.  It's time to take it to the next level.

As I reflect back on the last year, I have a few posts that are particularly memorable for me.  In case you missed them, here are some of my favorites (in no particular order and hyperlinked for your convenience - yet another skill I learned this year):

1.  Veronica
2.  Bless His Heart
3.  Baby Carrots and Nail Clippers
4.  It's Never Too Late
5.  Right on Time
6.  A Single Girls Guide to Not Finding Love
7.  One Happy Memory
8.  Jimmy Crack Corn
9.  The Story I Never Told
10. Bananas Are All The Rage

To those of you who have read my posts...and to those who have furthermore encouraged me...thank you so much.  It's my honor that you actually care what I might have to say.  I look forward to finding more stories to share.  And if you don't wish to be featured in my blog, just make sure you never do or say anything interesting or embarrassing in my presence.  I'm getting desperate for material.

Monday, November 17, 2014

National Unfriend Day

It's funny, a few years ago there was no such term as "unfriend."  There was "parting of ways" or "severing ties" or even "breaking up." Unfriending, though?  It was unheard of.  Fast forward a few years, and unfriending has become the ultimate insult.  For most of us, it takes a lot to call it quits with someone on Facebook. It is the last dangling thread of even the most troubled friendships.

I recently learned, quite accidentally, that someone had unfriended me on Facebook.  The accidental discovery occurred when she sent me a friend request, then quickly retracted it, and so after a couple minutes of confusion I figured out she had given me the boot.  The funny thing is, I probably would have never noticed on my own accord because this person's provocative political ways had become annoying to me and I had hidden her a long time ago.  I've hidden a lot of people, and honestly it doesn't take much for me to do so.  Too much whining or selling stuff or begging for other stuff or vaguebooking or hokey memes or whatever, really.  If I don't feel you are adding to my happiness, I will hide you.  Unfriending is a very different threshold, however. Unfriending is saved only for the worst of the worst.  Honestly, the handful people I've actually unfriended have been seriously intolerable to me - racist, classist or straight up scary. Everybody else can stay so long as I can keep them hidden and check in only when I feel like it.

So what did I do to deserve this recent random unfriending?  I have a guess or two.  It wasn't anything heinous - at least in my humble opinion. But it did involve me sharing an opinion with a common friend that probably didn't sit well with my fellow unfriender.  So rather than asking to address it up front, she decided she'd show me.  That's how the world works these days.  We have a ready option to communicate what we are really thinking without saying anything at all.

To which I say lovingly, respectfully:  goodbye, my (former?) friend.  Au revoir. Adios. And best of luck to you. The irony is that I was already busy not missing you long before you made your bold, forever move.

Happy National Unfriend Day, y'all.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Surprise

My very good friend invited me to go to church with her today, and as we stepped inside a couple of things struck me.  Much to my surprise, lightning wasn't one of them.  (Let me just say, it's been awhile.)

What occurred to me, though, is that I frequently long for some spiritual care but I have not been willing to seek it out on my own.  The predominant reason for this - are you ready for it? - is my shyness.

There, I said it.  I am shy.  People who know me well will read this and think there is no way that is possibly true.  For when you see me in my own terrain, I am animated, articulate, and gregarious.  But put me in a situation where I know almost no one, a situation that is wholly unfamiliar to me, and I might as well be nine years old clinging to the back of my mom's pant legs.  My heart races, I feel awkward, I pretty much hate it every step of the way.

As I read over the church bulletin, I noticed a section of the morning's events that included welcoming newcomers.  I leaned over to my friend and told her she did not need to feel compelled to stand up and welcome me.  She assured me it was nothing like that - but the mere thought of the possibility had me a little panicked.  How is it possible that at 45 years old I still get so socially awkward?  Does everyone go through this, I wonder?

It also occurred to me is how important it is to be inclusive.  Here I am, wanting for something but unable or unwilling to seek it out on my own, held back by my own social inadequacies.  It took an invitation from someone I trust to follow through.  How much better would the world be if we all just asked others to join us for one thing or another? We are surrounded by people, and yet we are a lonely planet.  Maybe the rest of the world is a lot like me...patiently waiting for the slightest encouragement.  Maybe some people are not lucky enough to get it.

So I ask you, who can you ask to tag along with you?  I'm going to try to do a better job of bringing people along with me to the events that bring me meaningful joy.  You never know, we just might make their day.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Nap Theory of Relativity

This weekend is dedicated to sleep.  Thirteen hours of sleep last night, and as if that weren't enough I took a two hour nap this afternoon.

I've long had a special place in my heart for napping and most weekends I squeeze in at least one.  I love naps so much, that I've developed a scientifically proven theory about them. The Nap Theory of Relativity is as follows:

Whatever mood you are in, if you take a nap you will wake up in the opposite mood. 

Therefore, it stands to reason:

If you are not tired, but find yourself in a foul mood - take a nap!  Problem solved!

Conversely, if you are tired, but in a good mood you have two options. Stay awake at all costs, or (my preferred solution) take two naps! Problem solved again!

You are welcome.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Smarty Pants

Michael Dell, entrepreneur and founder of Dell, once made the astute point, "Try never to be the smartest person in the room.  And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people...or find a different room."

I sat in our conference room at work today and watched this incredible team I am part of dissect what it is we do and more importantly, where it is we are going.  Strategic planning and visioning for the future can be boring, and yet - not so much with these people.  Most days I am lucky if I can just keep up.  I surveyed the crowd and realized - then said aloud - that this team and its level of talent amazes me so much that I fear I might be bringing the average IQ down.  I did not mean that as an insult to myself - I have plenty of confidence about my own intellect - but I am telling you, these people are good.

The Behavioral Health Division is so frequently misunderstood it baffles me.  It is one of those things about working there that I've never gotten accustomed to.  There has been plenty of bad press over the years, some of it deserved and most of it not.  But if I could tell people one thing from an inside view that I am certain those on the outside don't fully understand, it is how smart the people who work there are.  They read, they research, they do literature reviews, the analyze data, they study/understand/employ evidence-based practices, they make decisions based on a delicate balance of science and compassion, and - to give a nod to yesterday's blog - they can solve a problem (or a thousand) like a motherfucker.

I left work today depleted, exhausted beyond belief and recognizing that is my absolute privilege to work on this most remarkable team.  Working there has with absolute certainty made me smarter, stronger, better.

I love not being the smartest person in the room.  I hope it is always that way.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


A document was shared with me today that warmed my heart and then promptly shredded it into a thousand little pieces.  It was a high school term paper written more than 40 years ago by a man with a severe mental illness.  He had written it as an assignment for a high school class - long before his mental illness crept into and took up permanent residence in the dark recesses of his mind.  In it he talked about many aspects of his life - his family, his dating life, his athletic prowess, his shortcomings, his hope for the future.  This paper was so poignant and insightful, so funny and and honest - all I can say is that I loved it.  We would have all been lucky to be so wise at the age of 17.

There were so many things to love about this paper, but in the midst of the paper, there was a line that really caught my attention.  It read:

"I cannot satisfy my frustration with a term such as "Oh fiddlesticks."

I read this and I literally laughed out loud.  I was in a roomful of co-workers, and I read it aloud to them - a couple of times.  And then I exclaimed, "Yes, yes....a thousand times, yes!"  Truer words have never been spoken, my friends.  Fiddlesticks is some serious bullshit.

There are a handful of words in the English language that I cannot tolerate.  I am not a big fan of the C-word and the N-word is so offensive to me I would never use it nor would I allow anyone in my presence to use it. But the F-word?  Please.  The F-word (and just to be clear, I don't mean "fiddlesticks") is sometimes the only word that fits.  There is something so lovely, so cathartic, so right about this word that there are moments it is actually not just preferred - it is downright necessary.  In moments of rage, frustration, disbelief or outright despair, a properly placed F-word has the capacity to relieve the pressure valve.  Really, I am telling you - it is more healing than a hug from Grandma. (No offense, Grandma.)

It's been a long time since anyone has accused me of being a lady, and I doubt anyone is going to start soon. Lest there be any doubt, this girl is smart, capable and dignified.  But in the right set of circumstances I can have a mouth like a sailor.  Am I proud of that?  Not really.  Do I feel bad about it?  Fuck no.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gratitude, from A to Z

I love sleep, but there are times it eludes me.  It goes in spurts, these bouts of insomnia that are so maddening they feel like they might never end.  I toss and I turn, I kick the cats out of the bed (who ignore my not-so-subtle pleas and jump right back up), I ruminate, I watch TV, I do all the wrong things.  But when I can center myself and tackle it in just the right way, I use the opportunity to list my gratitudes.  I started doing an exercise years ago where I would list a gratitude for every letter in the alphabet, and I still do it to this day.  This does mean I have repeatedly thanked the universe for "xylophones" and "zippers that stay up" but it is a worthy exercise nonetheless.

Too spent from last night's insomnia to write a real blog, here is today's list of A to Z gratitudes:

A- Abundance. of which I have much
B- Ben, who still believes in me after all these years
C- Curel, the life-changing lotion
D- David, who takes exceptionally good care of my sister
E- Emma Barth, the first person to love me unconditionally
F- Failures that I have learned from
G- Graduate degree, which has given me amazing opportunities
H- House, which is beautifully reflective of me
I- Inspiration, which I get daily one way or another
J- Jess, who gives me the strongest sense of family
K- Kindness, something we all need more of
L- Laughter, which is surprisingly abundant in my life
M- Margaritas, just because
N- Now, the only time that matters
O- Overwhelming drive
P- Peanuts, the first pet I ever loved
Q- Quick wit, which has saved me over and over again
R- Resolution to the problems that perplex me
S- Sleep, which I long for and shall return
T- Throwdowns that make me blog daily
U- Underachievers, as they only improve my image
V- Vacation, and that reminds me I need to plan my next one
W- Writing, my true passion
X- Xerox copiers that don't streak or jam (I hear they exist)
Y- Yellow, as in my lucky yellow sweater
Z- Zippers that stay up  (Sorry, I could not resist.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


One of the all-time great moments in movie history was in the classic mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap." Character Nigel Tufnel is showing off his amplifier, and is proud to showcase that one of the knobs has a highest setting of eleven, thus surpassing traditional knobs that only go from 0 to 10.  He proudly states, "It's one louder."  It cracks me up every time I think about it.

The great irony of this is that today, November 11th - otherwise known as 11/11 - was actually an eleven for me.

My usual twenty minute ride to work was met with one barrier after another and took me forty painstaking, god awful minutes. One freeway was closed off for an accident and every turn I made thereafter was down a street that was blocked off for road construction.  How can every road be closed for construction?  Worse yet, every driver was driving slowly and/or driving stupidly and/or busy talking on the phone WHEN THEY SHOULD BE CONCENTRATING ON THEIR DRIVING. (Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest.  Seriously, people.)

I got to the office thirteen minutes late for my meeting and spent the rest of the day feeling like I was woefully behind. The people in the meetings - those people! - were talking too slow and too much and about things that (I say this with love) could have waited.

The lunch I forgot at home was no good and the one I had to go out to get instead with twenty minutes to spare was not so great either.

For the afternoon round of meetings, I had to forgo the thirty seconds of prep time I had planned on and I moved meeting to meeting, minute by minute, wondering if anyone was onto me.  I'm guessing they probably were.  They are probably talking right now about what a fraud I am.

On the way to dinner, these three things happened in rapid succession:  the "service" light came on in my car reminding me to get an oil change (who cares), the "tire" light came on indicating I have low tire pressure (I'll take my chances), and the "fuel" light came on indicating I could run out of gas at any moment (but why bother stopping now, we're going for broke).  The promise I made to my friend to meet twenty minutes early for dinner turned into an apology for being ten minutes late and a proclaiming of my official status:  "I am a hot mess."

I got home minutes ago, and I still feel as if I should consider breathing in a brown paper bag for the rest of the night.  Am I moving too fast, or is the world moving too slow?  Today I really can't tell.  Either way, today was definitely an eleven, any way you look at it.  The whole day was one louder.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Real Turkey

About two weeks before Thanksgiving, Mom started concocting a plan. She had that twinkle in her eye - the one that heeded warning:  "Watch out, everybody."  She and Dad put their heads together and with each exchanged idea, the laughter became more uproarious.  They were working up quite a scheme, those two.

I heard more laughs and hushed talk of logistics in the days leading up to the big holiday.  I didn't pay much attention to any of it - I was only 11, after all.  Those two were always up to something, and I needn't bother with it.  Besides, I had matters of my own to attend to.  You know, cutting Barbie's hair, playing games of Sorry with my imaginary friend, setting up a barbershop for the cats in the hay loft.  Important stuff.

The night before Thanksgiving, Mom sat me down and carefully reviewed the next day's plans.  We'd be spending the holiday with Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat - this much I already knew.  That was standard fare.
This time, cautioned Mom, we'd be spending the night.  I was down with that - more time to play with my cousins.  But there was one more thing Mom wanted me to know, and I had to promise to keep a secret. My interest piqued, and my eyes grew wide.  Mom paused, looked me in the eye, and told me all the details behind her cockamamie scheme.

Thanksgiving Day arrived and we didn't miss a beat.  We packed up the van and headed to the "big city" - bearing in mind that any city seems big when you live on a farm outside a town of 700 people.  An hour later, we were at the door of Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat's house - their big, gargantuan, larger-than-life house complete with seven bathrooms.  We cousins promptly made our way to the basement where the rec room awaited us.  The grown-ups did their grown up things, whatever those were.

And then the moment came.  The moment I had been warned about, and the moment that would be locked deep in family history forever more. Early in the afternoon, the mansion's doorbell rang, and Uncle Alan went to see who might be there.  There before him in the circle drive was a yellow taxi cab idling, its driver standing at the door to explain he had a most unusual delivery for the family.  Uncle Alan arched an eyebrow, and more of us gathered in the foyer to see what was going on.  The cab driver returned to his car, pulled out a crate and headed straight to the door.  The Dr. Alan Swearingen family had just become the unexpected recipient of a live turkey.

The crate with the turkey bore no message and the cab driver was unable to offer any explanation about its sender.  Not knowing what else to do, Uncle Alan accepted the crate and the turkey was placed in the garage. Hours of debate followed about who would do such a thing.  Why on earth would anyone think they wanted a live turkey?  And whatever would they do with it?  Mom, Dad and I kept a poker face.  It was the first time in my life I had been given permission to tell a lie.  My cousins tried to divide and conquer, cornering me to ask if my family - known country bumpkins - had arranged for this strange turkey delivery.  I assured them with a very straight face that we had not.

And so, with no other choice before us, we sat down to enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner and partake in our usual traditions.  It wasn't until the next morning - long after the colossal feast and even after every last piece of crystal had been carefully placed back in the china cabinet - that my parents 'fessed up.  Yes, indeed, the whole turkey hoax was us.  And aren't we funny?  I must admit, I think Uncle Alan and Aunt Pat thought a little bit yes, and a little bit no.  But you had to appreciate Mom and Dad's chutzpah, there was no disputing that.

The hour ride home seemed long because - let's be honest - this time we had a live turkey in a crate in the back of the van.  We played the events over and over again among each other, laughing harder each time. It was officially the first time I had been let in on the joke.  I was grateful to be right there with them, too.  I truly was.

So all of that is to say...Happy Birthday, Mom.  You left us way too soon. But know this - I carry you in my heart every day.  And that twinkle in your eye?  It found its way to me.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

I Am Running for Mayor

I've had it, people.  I can't take it another day.  But I've decided that rather than complain, it's time for me to get off of my tush and do something about it.  I am running for mayor.

I've threatened to do this for years, but recent events have pushed me over the edge.  Disheartening as it is to point it out, things just keep getting worse and worse with each passing year.  I say, enough with the bipartisanship - it is time for us to come together.  There are topics that can join us together, and I believe I have one that is important enough to build my mayoral platform upon.

My fellow citizens, it is time we have an honest conversation about Christmas lights.  As I drove home from a lovely evening at my friend's house late last night, I was troubled to see that Christmas lights were aglow everywhere.  On November 8th - a full 47 days before Christmas. There are radio stations already playing Christmas music, stores showing Christmas ads on TV. Things have spiraled out of control, and it's time we did something to rein it in.  We are a sick society, and, as the future mayor of Brown Deer, I'd like to help us find a better way.

If we can't get this Christmas situation righted, our future generations are screwed.  And as I write that, it occurs to me - I think that would make a nice little yard sign.  "If you don't vote for me, your children are screwed." I like it.  Anyone interested in being my campaign manager?

But seriously, let's do it for the kids.  If we don't, they'll never get it right. They'll be eating turkey for Halloween, setting off fireworks on Easter and eating jellybeans on Veterans Day.  We've blurred the lines for them with all of this "two months of Christmas" nonsense.  Let's do the right thing, before the world implodes.

If we can get this Christmas situation resolved in Brown Deer, I vow to only do one more thing as mayor: officially change our village name to The Brown Diggity.  Thereafter, I will sell my house, move to Milwaukee, and start working on this passionate campaign there.

Barack Obama said it best:  "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for.  We are the change that we seek."

Let me know if you are willing to make some phone calls or stuff some envelopes.  I can't do this alone.

Friday, November 7, 2014

I Love You Still

People seem to act surprised when someone they love hurts them.  "But I thought they loved me. How could they do this?"  To which I say, "Duh." Really, it's no surprise at all, nor should it ever be.  It's no surprise, because the only people who can hurt you are the ones you truly love. Who else did you rip open a piece of your heart for to allow in for permanent, painful residency?  Who else did you give a front row seat to your most sacred vulnerabilities?  Who else did you show over and over again, even to your own detriment, how much they mattered to you? Then who else, I ask, has the capacity to bludgeon your heart for a moment or two?

No one, I tell you.  No one.

But that is not what really matters.  It doesn't matter, because every human will eventually fall short of their own standard to never hurt the ones they love.  So putting it aside that it happens - because it will - the only thing that truly matters is what happens immediately after.  If after the knock-down, drag-out conversation of "I-can't-believe-you-thought/said/did-that-thing-to-me-I-hate" you can look at the other person and think, "I love you still," things are probably about as right as they can possibly be.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

You Can't Un-ring a Bell

Working in the position that I do, I've had to learn a thing or two to survive.  My job has such high visibility and high stakes, there is little room for error.  People's lives....their very fragile, complicated, unbelievable-at-times lives, mind you...depend on me to do the right thing in the right way at the right time, all the time. Because of this, I have to keep relationships vibrant and healthy, I have to walk fine lines, I have to find a way to like people even when I don't at the moment.  It's not always so easy.

Being a public sector employee is an interesting experience.  Don't get me wrong - I love what I do.  I have an opportunity that few have ever had.  I get to help steer the course for an entire system that I am incredibly passionate about.  The most basic things I hold to be true - that we must be good to one another so that we can be good to our patients, that everyone deserves help, that much of the world is deeply hurting and we can change that with our compassion - get to be addressed in part through my actions and my vision.  It is a tremendous privilege.

And yet, and yet.  Being a public sector employee also means every day I have the potential to face very open criticism that comes through in some very vitriolic and irrational ways. I have spent more days feeling misunderstood, defensive, or downright disappointed in the last five years than I had cumulatively in the forty years prior. Strangely, I've become mostly immune to it.  I think it's part of the deal, when you are paid for by taxpayers. Transparency is expected and rightly so. Diplomacy is the high road and the only acceptable path.  It's actually kind of amazing that it only occasionally gets to me.

Given all of this, I've had to fine tune some very specific skills.  Patience. Understanding. Listening. Reading between lines. Stepping in.  Walking away. Giving in. Holding ground. And last, but certainly not least, waiting 24 hours to click "send" to ensure I don't say anything I will later regret. Because as the blog title says, you can't un-ring that bell.  The job has enough problems on its own; heaven knows I don't need to create more for myself.

Every skill I've learned, every opportunity I've had, every mistake I've made and every sucker punch I've taken...I promise you this:  I wouldn't trade it for the world.  What I believe for sure is that I am making my corner of the world a better place.  Knowing that is what keeps my world right, even on days that feel all wrong.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Picking the Right Dance Partner

In seventh grade, I was subjected to a "Map & Globe Skills" curriculum in Mr. Thomason's science class. We were required to pair off, and of course I picked my number one road dog, Mindy.  Now, anybody who knows anything about me knows I love me some Mindy for real.  Mindy is my girl, and she will be my girl until I take my last breath.  But picking Mindy as my Map & Globe Skills partner was a mistake with terrible, ever-lasting consequences.  You see, Mindy was more interested in the Sharpie marker that came with the map and globe than she was in the learning of said Map & Globe Skills.  So instead of learning basic skills like how to read a map or find a country on a globe, I spent my time during the Map & Globe Skills session watching Mindy draw a handlebar mustache on her face.  Did I get a good laugh out of it?  You bet. Did Mindy end up with a handsome mustache that lasted for a few days?  She sure did.  But to this day, I can't read a map to save my life.  And I think we know who is to blame for that.

I heard a story today of a potential business pairing that made me want to cringe.  Actually, I didn't want to cringe.  I wanted to cry or throw up a little or run after the one half of the pairing I respect and scream, "NOOOOOOOOO!" at the top of my lungs.  I quickly realized that last scenario involved running, so I opted out.  But I thought about it, and that counts for something. Right?

If our level of happiness is directly linked to the five people we spend the most time in life as research indicates, it occurs to me that we must always choose well.  Flaky friends?  No time for it.  Boss who doesn't respect you? Moving on.  Problematic employees?  Help them find the way...out the door.  You see, life is too short for the riff-raff.   They will only distract you from what you need to do, stop you from being the best you.  So I say, take your time, assess the situation, and pick the right dance partner - for every dance - right from the start.  If you find yourself with a dancer who has two proverbial left feet, get yourself a new partner right quick.  It really is that simple.

Because let's be honest, if you don't pick the right dance partner you might end up like me:  unable to read a map.  And that is no way to live.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Gentle Toast

A Facebook message came in a few weeks back, and the outset I was confused.  Someone I had never heard of named Angela was messaging me.  A couple sentences into the message, however, and I felt my heart skip a beat. My old (as in long time, not old old) friend Jane from a past life was reaching out to me. She had assumed a pseudoname on Facebook because she is a teacher or in the witness protection program or something along those lines.  She had stumbled upon my blog and then found me on Facebook and decided to reach out.  I was instantly glad she had.

Tonight the lovely Ms. Jane and I got together for the first time in I believe ten years or more - she had been one of the unexplained casualties of my divorce.  Jane is about as sweet and cute as someone can be without being obnoxious about it.  I had thought of her often over the years and missed the friendship.  So as I left work to meet her for dinner, I felt a few butterflies in my stomach.  I remembered a bunch of details, and a bunch more I did not.  As I arrived to the restaurant, I could not remember...is Jane an early or a late arriver? Does she like mushrooms or hate them? (Let's be honest, no one falls in the middle on that one.) The little details escaped me.  I hoped this evening would not be awkward or hard. Mostly, I hoped we still had a thing or two to talk about.

When we sat down at the table, we promptly fulfilled our civic duty by ordering cocktails, and when they arrived we did a toast. "Here's to reuniting, but make it a gentle toast," said Jane.  Gentle, because her froofy girly pink Cosmo drink was filled to the brim, and we mustn't spill. But gentle, too, because we had some catching up to do and some history to retrace.

If our gingerly ways lasted more than a moment, I surely did not notice. Turns out, ten years is a long time and also the blink of an eye.  A lot had happened in that decade- family additions and family losses, career changes, and a whole lot of growing up.  But one thing hadn't changed:  I think we still adore each other.

At the end of the day, I can say this:  my heart is grateful that Jane found me and more so that she made the move to reach out to me.  It's hard to do that, hard to retrace the past and find a new way. I don't know why we haven't been friends for the last ten years, but really, who cares?  At this point, it's kind of irrelevant. And even though Jane ordered two drinks and I only ordered one, but then we split the bill evenly and I paid more than my share and now Jane totally owes me a drink (the hilarious content of her voicemail message to me two minutes after parting ways) I'd like to keep this friendship alive forevermore.  No more ten year breaks.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hotter than Hot

You know what's hotter than hot?  It's not abs.  Not eyes.  Not arms or thighs or even a well-shaped butt that is high and tight.  (OK, I lied.  That last one is kind of hot.)  I'll tell you hat's hotter than hot.  It's banter.

I love banter.  Banter, when done masterfully, is as good as it gets.  I consider myself the Queen of Banter, don't you know?  So when someone can step up, accept a challenge to go toe to toe with me, ignite the twinkle in their eye, cock their head, and give me a run for my money, I am all in.  All in, I tell you!  Bring it.

If you can forsake all others for a moment in time, and point by point match me on wide-ranging topics such as micro-brewed beer, marriage equality, art, Milwaukee's restaurant scene, the glaring truth that no one cares about the Bucks, the glaring truth that it is not possible to care too much about the Brewers, the Pope, and then end it all with a Shakespeare quote, I'm pretty much all yours.  Do it all with a layer of sass and sarcasm?  I mean really, just take me now.  I'm a puddle.

And sometimes when this happens, your friends whisk you away from a perfectly beautiful match of banter to go eat a mediocre (at best) meal at a restaurant you hate.  While disappointing at the outset, that's okay too. Because the second best thing to it actually happening is having an encounter that reminds you it will happen again.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Healing Hug

It was a hug I had been thinking about for some time, a hug I really wanted to give.  Yesterday, that hug happened.  It felt extraordinarily sad and cathartic and necessary.  I loved that hug and I've been thinking about it ever since.

The hug I gave was to Dontre Hamilton's mom.  Dontre is the young man who was shot to death by a cop in Red Arrow Park a little over six months ago.  There are many varying accounts of what happened that day, and I suppose we've all surmised our own truth by now.  My version of the truth is that Dontre was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the audacity to have wrong skin color.  He was sleeping in park located in a segregated city and apparently that's just not allowed.  My version of the truth makes my stomach turn.

It has also been widely reported that Dontre had a mental illness.  In my mind, there was no need to widely report this, though.  Whether or not Dontre had a mental illness was relevant to his life, but not to his death. I've spent many hours thinking about Dontre and his family, my heart hurting so much at times I thought it might burst into a thousand pieces. It is a situation that has been an injustice to end all injustices. It is a situation that has made me weep.

Dontre's family, in my humble estimation, has been nothing short of inspirational.  They came to the National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser walk in May not even one month after Dontre's death, banded together by their matching T-shirts and their compassion for the people who help those living with mental illness.  They have organized rally after rally to get the attention of the city's policymakers and to promote peace and resolution. They have respectfully but firmly asked for answers of our District Attorney and the Milwaukee Police Department.  But all the while, they have attended event after event and peacefully participated.  I'm not sure I could do what they do.

So when Dontre's family showed up to yesterday's Dia de los Muertos event - an event that had a special focus on those who had lost their lives to violence - it was no surprise to me.  I watched them as they stopped to take in the ofrenda that had been made to honor Dontre, hugged one another and wiped away some tears.  As I was making my way to leave the event, I felt compelled to talk to the family and say what had been on my heart and my mind for months now.

I told them how deeply sorry I was for their loss, and that their pain had been carried every day in my heart since that terrible day in April.  I told them that I had massive respect for their family, for the way they have carried themselves with dignity and grace in the wake of tragedy.  The family members I was speaking to thanked me for my words - words I'm sure they've heard from countless others - and pointed me to Dontre's mother who was a few feet away.  I approached her and said many of the same things, this time adding that I work in the mental health field.  I told her that there are hundreds of people like me in Milwaukee who are working tirelessly every day to make things better for families like hers, and that no matter how big the barriers or how high the stakes, we won't stop.  What I know, that I hope I conveyed to her, is that we won't stop because of the Dontres and the moms of Dontres and all the other people whose lives are affected by the stigma of mental illness and its ruthless path. I know that we won't stop, simply because we can't.

With that, I got a grateful, tearful hug that felt like the best hug I've had in some years, maybe ever.  My passion doesn't rest very often, but now I'm not sure it ever will.  It got fueled with the best inspiration I've had in a very long time.

Dia de los Muertos

I love death.

I know, I know.  It is one of ninety-nine (or more) things that makes me strange - or as I prefer to say, "quirky."  I don't mean that I like death in such a way that I am looking forward to my own, or I enjoy the death of others.  To say that I love death is more to say I am fascinated with it, that I am more or less comfortable with it, that I think it should be as much a cause for celebration as it is for sorrowful mourning.

I had friends in town for the weekend and we were looking to fill our 48 hours together with the most unique brands of fun we could find.  In light of that, the annual Milwaukee Dia de los Muertos celebration at Walker Square Park seemed like a good choice.  A group of six of us assembled at the park and took it all in.  The smells of burning wood and incense filled the air.  Many people, young and old alike, were dressed in fancy garb and had their faces painted.  A circle of drummers kept the beat going. Sugar skulls and ofrendas provided colorful, heartfelt and at times somber visual reminders of what the day was about.  It all culminated in a tantalizing sensory overload.

This small, grass roots event was started four years ago by a group of people who just decided it needed to be done.  They believed, and rightly so, that it was a way to bring people into a community that is misunderstood and to unite the city's citizens with a common thread. After all, what thread is more common to all of us than death?  Many of us, myself included, have already suffered a great many losses and had to find our way through the grief - a grief we may very well carry with us to this day.  All of us, myself included, will have to face our own departure one day.  Death, it seems, is the great equalizer.

As the parade was about to start, a few people shared words of wisdom. One of them, a quiet, soulful man, stood at the front of the crowd and gently told his story of his people who had passed.  In his story, he referenced the feeling he carries with him that his grandparents are always with him.  As he said this, he motioned his hand toward the sky, and at that precise moment two hawks flew in and landed on the tree above his head.   A gasp was let out by the crowd in unison, and tears filled many of our eyes.  It's a moment that doesn't even translate well in writing; it was a true "you-had-to-be-there moment."

We then all walked in the parade together, something that hadn't necessarily been planned but was the right thing to do.  It occurred to me as we walked that we are all in this together, this thing called life.  And while death is just one part of that, it is the part that reminds us of how important it is to live.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Two Ships

I looked at him and realized twenty-some odd years had passed.  I can't say with any degree of honesty that I had ever loved him, but then again the timing had never been right for me to have the proper chance to love him.  Maybe in the right set of circumstances I could have, but to think so is nothing more than sheer speculation.  I certainly had spent a good couple of years hard crushing on him.  And then when he was out of my sight, I pretty much forgot about him.

But then one night, all those years ago, we ended up in the same place (a divey, dirty small town bar) at the same time (a hot summer night) by pure happenstance.  There were a lot of contributing factors - cheap beer and a lot of it, raucous laughs and his bruised heart - that resulted in us staying up until the sun peeked through the windows.  Kissing even though we knew we shouldn't, laughing, talking, examining figurative wounds and then laughing and kissing some more. And that was it, really. It was lovely and fleeting.  He was gone once again, headed his own way and I headed mine.

So to see him again all these years later, hair graying at the temples and laugh lines around his eyes, was really something.  But I looked at him, and then I looked at his ordinary wife (who is no doubt perfectly lovely and wonderful but ordinary nonetheless), and I thought,  "I bet she makes him Swiss steak for dinner. And I bet after dinner they watch Dancing With the Stars."  If that sounds judgy, I promise you it's not. Eating Swiss steak and watching reality TV is a perfectly acceptable way to live if that's what makes you happy.

But it occurred to me, right then and there, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that I am no ordinary woman.  Even if I tried with all my might, I could not be that ordinary woman. No, I am complicated and layered, difficult even.  And sometimes twenty-some odd years of time passing gives you perspective that everything is exactly as it should be, ordinary or not.  It's a good perspective to have.

Sunday, October 12, 2014


A hug from a friend whose life just changed for the better.  A beautiful new baby in your arms.  A wedding ceremony of someone you adore who spent 25 years finding her way back to the man she would rightly marry.  A gorgeous starry night outside a Frank Lloyd Wright house.  An open bar.  A dress that feels flattering.  An accompanying sweater that feels warm.  The smell of burning wood.  Eight hours of uninterrupted rest.  Waking up to the sound of the Lake Michigan waves crashing up against the rocks on the shoreline.  Free breakfast.  A slow, meandering drive along the lakefront.  Fall colors that take your breath away. An apple orchard.  A silly picture that makes you belly laugh.  A clean house, fresh sheets and a stocked fridge.  Two cats peacefully napping at your side. A delicious dinner prepped for a sister you never get tired of. A week ahead you are actually looking forward to.

Some weekends you just really get it right.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fist Bumps for Everyone

I endure the same slow, mundane drive to work every day.  I see the same landmarks, the same buildings, sometimes even the same people in the same cars.  I drive the same 26 minutes, five days a week, and even with a myriad of options, I almost always take the same route.  As I turn off of Wisconsin Avenue onto 92nd Street - the home stretch before I arrive at my second home - I see her in all her glory:  Fist Bump Lady.

Fist Bump Lady, who shall be known as FBL henceforth, is the crossing guard at a crosswalk that leads directly to the Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital.  Short, pleasingly plump, and with an ever-ready smile on her face, FBL never fails to deliver.  Sunny days are met with an extra spring in her step.  Rainy days are no bother, and why would they be when you've got a bright yellow slicker and sturdy galoshes?  Sleet and snow?  No problem, for FBL is ready for that, too.  I can't say for sure that she has one of those stocking caps that looks like a panda bear, but she seems like the kind of person who would.  She is ready for any of the Wisconsin elements, and cheerfully so.

Person after person, professional after professional, doctor after doctor - all are greeted with the same degree of enthusiasm, and all are offered a fist bump to start their day off right.  A few outliers avert their eyes and rush past FBL.  Most accept the offer, and give FBL a smile and a hearty fist bump back.  A few other outliers have taken FBL under their wing, and bring her coffee or other treats (after a compulsory fist bump, of course.)  It seems that in the land of all things Froedtert, FBL has become the mascot for healing what hurts us.

I admire this woman, FBL, because of her consistency and her zest for life. I don't know a single thing about her, other than what I have witnessed as I wait at the crosswalk day after day, eager to move ahead 2 more blocks and make the turn into my home-away-from-home parking lot.  But I do know this:  she has made happiness her priority and nothing is going to get in the way of that.  Not working a job most of us would not care to do. Not crappy Wisconsin weather, which is crappy too much of the time.  Not even the occasional hater.  No, no, no.  FBL has made a choice to be happy no matter what, and through her deeds shows us it is a choice we could all make.  Thanks for reminding us how to be in this world, FBL:  That whoever we are and whatever we do, we can always be of good cheer.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Right on Time

I've been known to describe myself as "neurotically punctual."  My need to be on time does not come from a place of moral superiority, nor does it come from deep consideration for others, really.  If I sit back and analyze why it is so important to me to be on time, I'd have to say that good old fashioned anxiety is at the base of it all. Nothing more, nothing less.

I don't know where this came from or why it came about.  I was recently talking to an evaluator of a grant I manage who is exponentially more neurotically punctual than me.  So much so, it has actually annoyed me at times.  (Bearing in mind, of course, that usually the things that annoy us most about others are the reflections of ourselves.)  She told me that as a child, she was grounded one full day for every minute she was late when her parents set a curfew.  At least she has a reasonable explanation for why she turned out the way she did. I, on the other hand, cannot explain why I am such a freak.

Last fall I got to see my time-related anxiety come to full fruition.  My friend Vance and I decided to get tickets to go see Book of Mormon in Chicago.  We were all haughty about it, too.  Like we are so cultured and cool and then we were all "we should do this more often because we are so evolved and shit."  So we bought our tickets and then somewhere along the way my sister and brother-in-law decided to go too. They got tickets and we made plans to all ride together and have a day of merriment.

The big day arrived and I could not have been more excited.  As a means of maintaining control of the situation and, let's be honest, the timeliness, I offered to drive.  Jess and I agreed upon a time of departure and we were all set.  But as I was filling the car with gas at a gas station near Jess's house, I got a text from Jess:  "Where are you?"  It didn't take long to figure out after another text exchange that Jess was at my house, and I was a couple minutes away from being at hers.  Aaaargh!  So after a quick consultation it was decided they would come back to their house and we would take off from there.  No biggie, I smugly thought.  I had built in plenty of cushion for us.

We got on the freeway and started to make our way to pick up Vance on the fashionable east side.  We exited North Avenue, and hit wall-to-wall traffic.  I mean, it was a parking lot.  At 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. It was hard to figure out what was going on, but it turned out to be the day of Al's Run and thousands of people were trying to get to the same place at once.  The same place we needed to get to.  Damn.  My heart started to palpitate a little.  I stayed steady, though. This is not a problem, I told myself.  We've got this.  

We picked up Vance who had  been instructed to wait on the corner ("Tuck and roll in, baby!" we screeched as we pulled up to him) and when he got in the car Jess and David shared they needed something to eat. We made a quick detour to Koppa's so they could get a sandwich.  I will be the first to admit that this is where things started to turn ugly for me. I waited in the car while the three of them went inside, because I was in an illegal parking spot and I was not in need of a sandwich.  I plugged in my GPS and programmed in our theater parking garage address.  I could see by the estimated time of arrival that I had 18 extra minutes to spare - and we hadn't even gotten out of town yet.  I looked in the windows of Koppa's and I saw nothing.  Back to the GPS - 17 minutes.  Back to the store windows - I see David, Jess and Vance pointing at something in the store and laughing.  (My inner dialogue was something like this:  Jesus, people! Get your freaking sandwiches and get back in this car!)  Back to the GPS - 16 minutes.  This business continued until they got back to the car and we were down to 14 minutes to spare.  Fourteen minutes of cushion between us and very expensive theater seats in Chicago.  Here we go, kids - strap yourselves in!

It was another whole ordeal to make our way to the freeway (because of all these damn runners, seriously people!) but we finally did.  I put the pedal to the metal and set the cruise control.  Everyone else was happily eating their sandwiches (which I recall had lots and lots of onions on them, as well as some mayo dripping down the side of their hands - but that is neither here nor there.)  I was doing my best to not look at the (dwindling) cushion of time on the GPS.  We had two hours of traffic to endure, and a lot could happen between now and then.

As luck would have it, we encountered very little road construction and only one or two significant areas of having to slow down on the way to Chicago.  The GPS stayed steady with a good thirteen minutes of cushion. Until we got to about a mile from the theater, that is, and then we hit a wall of gridlock traffic.  Inch by inch we moved forward, and I felt like my heart was going to pound out of my chest.  Driving in downtown Chicago under any circumstances is daunting; doing so when you have a strict deadline to meet is downright maddening.  We eventually made our way to the front of the theater, which felt like pure hell because the parking garage was still two and half long, slow, painstaking blocks away.  Jess and David were excused from the car so at least half of us could be on time.

Left only to our own devices, Vance and I endured.  We now had seven minutes to spare.  We finally made our way to the parking garage.  At last! We've done it!  Level one:  full, and seven minutes to spare.  Level two: full.  Level three:  full and I feel like swearing up a blue streak.  Level four: full, and six minutes to spare. Level five:  full!  Level six:  full, with five minutes to spare and NOW I HAVE TO STOP BECAUSE THERE IS AN OLD LADY WITH A WALKER.  Vance and I were now screaming at each other. "Jesus! A lady with a walker!  Are you fucking kidding me?  A walker?!  We do not need this right now!" We were laughing at our pure horribleness and almost crying and completely freaking out.  Level seven:  Parked! Four minutes to spare!

We ran to the elevator, got to the street, and ran as fast as our little legs would take us.  We got to the theater, and Vance asked where the restrooms were.  The theater employee exclaimed, "There's no time! You need to get in the theater or they will make you wait until after the first act to go in!"  So we put our bladders on hold and made our way to our seats.  Turns out, we had what were perhaps some of the best seats in the house.  We turned to each other - hands shaking, sweat on our brow - gave each other a big hug and commented that we felt like we just won the Amazing Race.  We sat down, and with one minute to spare, waited for our chance to watch a beautiful, ridiculously funny and blasphemous show.

And the moral of the story is, if it hadn't been for that old lady with a walker, we'd have had two minutes to spare.  I'm just sayin'.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


I once had a friend, now an ex-friend I suppose, who was trying to explain to me why she no longer saw it fit to be my friend.  It was the first time I had ever had a friend break up with me, and my heart actually felt like it was breaking.  Her reasons didn't make any sense to me; she had recently found God and felt that our values weren't aligned.  (The whole thing struck me as a very un-Christian-like scenario, but apparently the irony was lost on her.)  Anyway, in the course of conversation (I am telling you, it really was like a break-up), she said that her whole life she had never been able to maintain a friendship outside of her family and her husband.  Hearing that helped me understand the circumstances a little better, since apparently she was doing to me what she had done to every friend previous to me - no matter how loyal, how charming, how wonderful they were.  (Because dammit, I am loyal, charming and wonderful.)  It also made me sad for her. Really, really sad.

I would never denounce the importance of family - I adore my family. Family grounds you and is the foundation upon which everything else in your life is built, when done right.  But friends, I believe, are equally important. Family, generally speaking, is required to include you and to love you, warts and all.  Friends do not have the same set of obligations.  Friends can come and go as they please - and they often do - and therefore you must be lovingly attentive to them.  You must make yourself a little bit vulnerable, a lot available, and put in some hard work and sacrifices if you want to keep them around.

I've often said that it is difficult to make good friends - I mean really, really good friends - as an adult.  In our younger, formative years it is easy.  We have school and sports and activities of all kinds where we can meet people. We also have less definition of our inner selves, and quite honestly probably aren't as picky.  But as we get older, we have fewer venues to meet people naturally and more stringent views of the world and how we fit into it. So to have friends, be it a solid few or varied many, is a precious and beautiful thing.  My friends are one of the many ways I know my life is truly blessed.

I have friends - two of them, actually - who have known me since I was five, went to school with me from elementary school all the way up through college, have been my friends in every major era of my life, and are still my very dear friends today.

I have friends who I am only recently getting to know, and I can't wait to know them more fully.

I have friends who have been at my side on both my darkest and happiest days.

I have friends who do the same work as me and understand how important and difficult my life's work is.

I have friends who started as mentors, and are still mentors but are also friends today.

I have friends with whom I have gone through difficult friendship moments, but we worked through it and still love each other fiercely today.

I have friends who are also family, and even if we weren't related I would still choose them as friends. (Hello, favorite sister and brother-in-law!  Hello, frousins!)

I have friends who are not technically family, but really are my family in every sense of the word.  (Hello, logical family!)

I have friends who make me laugh about the silliest, most mundane things, such as the merits of the Oxford comma and whether jello is a salad or a dessert.  (Same friends, two equally passionate debates.)

I have friends who know my darker side and love me even so.

I have airport friends.

I have friends who share my passions and my annoyances.

I have friends I can sit with in quiet solitude.

I have friends I can spend hours with discussing every possible thing under the sun.

I have friends who would not judge me if I stoop (lower my moral standards) on a stoop (a small raised platform).  Not only would they not judge, they would think it made for a good story.

The bottom line is this:  I have friends.  Lots and lots friends, fulfilling lots and lots of needs.  And to this, I say - bless you, my beautiful friends.  You are my life's greatest treasure.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bless His Heart

At the age of 60, Harold still had enough physical stamina to be of good use on his youngest son's hobby farm.  He and his wife would pile in the Buick and make the three hour trek for long weekends of painting, building fences and planting gardens.  The days, though hot and long, gave Harold a sense of accomplishment.   What his son lacked in physical capabilities because of his chronic medical condition, he made up for with vision and passion.  It was an honor for Harold and his wife to support their son's dreams and help bring that vision to life.

The summer days on this small Iowa farm had air that was so thick you could practically chew it.  The morning grass had drops of dew big enough that they could visibly be seen - from a distance, no less. Undaunted, Harold put on his coveralls early in the day and headed down the steep hill to the barnyard, where he and his family would spend the day building a new corral for the horses.  A lunch of ham sandwiches and lemonade would be delivered by Harold's granddaughter at high noon, with additional deliveries of ice cold water in the Coleman water jug being made on the hour. This heat was nothing to mess with, and everybody knew it.

At the end of the day, Harold and his son admired their accomplishments and made a list of tasks to be done the next day.  Soon after, Harold made his way back up the steep hill toward the house - this uphill trek being perhaps the most challenging part of any day spent working in the barnyard.  One foot in front of the other, he told himself, but each step proved more challenging than the one before it.  Struggling and straining, Harold stopped at the midway point and rested against a fence post to catch his breath.  His thoughts began to race, and worry set in that something was terribly wrong.  He didn't call for help, though the thought did occur to him.  He worried that his 60 year-old body may be giving out on him.

Harold slowly and painfully made the rest of the long haul up that hill and arrived at the back porch of the farmhouse, breathless, red-faced and spent.  His daughter-in-law greeted him with a look of concern. "Something's wrong," Harold said.  "I don't know what it is.  I think I might be having a heart attack."  Ever the caretaker that she was, his daughter-in-law helped him into the house and plunked him down a rickety old kitchen chair. She gave him a big glass of ice water and a cool washrag for his forehead, keeping a watchful eye on him as sweat ran down his face.

Harold's daughter-in-law insisted that the first order of business was for him to get out of those hot, sweaty coveralls.  The two of them decided that a long, cool shower would do Harold some good.   His daughter-in-law, also overheated after having spent the day in the kitchen canning pickles and beans, agreed to get the window unit air conditioner running in the den so Harold could relax in the recliner after his shower and continue to cool down.

After his shower, Harold came out of the bathroom in his shorts and undershirt.  As was usually the case, he was whistling a tune and laughing to himself.  "You sure seem to be doing better," said his daughter-in-law, now feeling at ease that the threat of a medical crisis had passed.  Harold sheepishly confessed that he was sure he was not having a heart attack. It turned out, Harold had spent the afternoon barely able to move his legs because the elastic in his underwear had broken, and his underwear had fallen to his knees underneath his coveralls. The mystery was solved, and a new story was added the family archives.  It would be delightfully shared at family gatherings for decades to follow.

Harold was my Grandpa "Fox" and my family has a million more stories like these.  He was goofy, silly, full of laughter and the kind of guy who admitted that were it not for bad luck, he might not have had any luck at all.  He spent a lifetime modeling the art of self-deprecation.  He also taught all of us the subtle distinction between being the butt of a joke and being its punchline.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Answer is Yes

My good friend Alex and her sweet little family picked up and moved to Minnesota this past year.  I knew I was going to miss her - and I do - for a whole lot of reasons.  Of course she had saved me over and over again at work - I could never forget that.  She also fed me dinner almost every single Wednesday night (and fed me well, I might add) for the entire course of our friendship.  But I think one of the most wonderful things her friendship had to offer was the opportunity to develop a relationship with her two little girls.  It gave me a chance to have children in my life, and that was just pretty cool.  I quickly became known as "Jen Wittwer" to distinguish me from another Jen who lived in their neighborhood, but it all ran together like it was one word: "Jenwittwer."  Or, if you are the youngest of the two, "Jenwickwert."  It stuck.  I like it.

Alex's oldest, Kaya, is an independent little seven year-old who has a whole lot of things in life figured out for her tender age.  Her move to Minnesota has been met with mixed emotions, and I think already last winter Kaya started mapping out the ten days she wanted to spend in Milwaukee during the summer months.  Alex took down her requests and began to formulate a plan - a plan that was no doubt partially made by Kaya as a way to escape from the company of her adoring little sister. I was first surprised, and then honored, when I made Kaya's list of people she wanted to see while here.  When a seven year-old asks to spend time with you, the only answer is yes.

With a freedom before her that only a seven year-old can appreciate, Kaya's Milwaukee adventure began last weekend.  Day after day was lined up with play dates and visits to her former schoolmates, neighbors and babysitters.  When my day finally arrived, I took a half day off of work and went to pick Kaya up in her old neighborhood.  Her mom had speculated she might be tired by the time she got to me, but to me it seemed she was energized.  Seven year-old Jen would have probably been whiny and home sick by Day 6 of the trip; conversely, seven year-old Kaya had accumulated a pocket full of stories and was ready to make some more.  As we were mapping out our time together, I asked Kaya what time she wanted to go to her friend's house the following day, adding that I wanted her to have enough time with her friends.  "But you are my friend, Jenwittwer, just an older friend."  Point taken, my dear. Point taken.

True to tradition, Kaya and I first set out to find her first day of school outfit, for the fourth consecutive year. This is a girl who has already decided that when she grows up, she is moving to Paris to be a fashion designer.  ("It is The City of Love," she explained.)  When asked if she wouldn't miss her family if she moved so far away, she assured me she definitely would not miss her sister (though later confessed she invited sweet Indra to join her in Paris) and besides, "I can always Skype."  So given all of this, all I really needed to do was stand back and have my credit card ready for the transaction.  Without any intervention from me whatsoever, she made a great choice for the first day of school outfit.

Later in the day, we made our way out for dinner and I treated Kaya to her first hibachi grill experience.  Her eyes lit up with wonder and joy as the hibachi chef put on a good show for her.  She later reconciled that the chefs in those restaurants are probably trained to be all crazy like that, and I told her I thought she was probably right. After dinner, we went on a quest to find some shoes to match her new outfit.  It quickly became apparent that this girl is in fact her mother's daughter.  She loves her some shoes, and must have tried on 20 different pair.  After awhile of himming and hawing, I could see the wheels of negotiation turn in Ms. Fashion's head.  "Jenwittwer," she said, "I do have a nice pair of flip flops that are a little fancy that would match my new school outfit.  Maybe I should get these boots instead to wear with my jeans.  I would get a lot of use out of them."  Her argument was so carefully crafted, I was left defenseless.  Needless to say, she went home with a pair of boots.

At home, we spent lots of time snuggling with/playing with/mildly tormenting the cats and watched a movie. We had a little bowl of ice cream.  Kaya finished hers quickly and then asked, "Jenwittwer, can I have another scoop of ice cream?"  That was a no-brainer - it was an absolute yes.  By 9:00, my girl was all worn out so I tucked her into bed.  The next morning at 5:30, I heard her get up and she made her way to my bedroom door.  "Jenwittwer, can I come snuggle with you and the cats?" Again, there is only one answer to this question, and the answer is yes. After a good spell of interaction with my amazingly tolerant cats, she drifted back to sleep.  Sweet girl.

Later that morning as we were packing up her belongings, I asked Kaya what her favorite thing was of her time with me.  Was it getting your new boots, I asked?  "Yes, Jenwittwer, well that, and spending time with you." My heart melted, right there.  Anything that girl wants from me, I'm pretty sure there is only one possible answer.  The answer will always be yes.