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

Saturday, January 10, 2015


A group of us - cousins, second cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles - were assembled in my sister's basement for the Milwaukee version of Cousins Weekend.  Somewhere in the course of normal conversation, my cousin's wife Brenda revealed the impossible:  She was (accidentally, so she claims) growing dozens and dozens of mushrooms in her yard and garden that looked just like a penis. Waves of uncontrollable laughter ensued.  Joke after joke was made about Brenda spending a little too much time out in the yard and asking why she was seen applying lipstick before tending to her flower beds. Each new person entering the basement meant that the the telling of a new and more embellished version of the story was required. It was, as they say, the gift that kept on giving.

I took a break from the nonsense to head upstairs where things were a little less raucous.  There sat my Aunt Lois, quietly visiting with a couple of other family members and looking perfectly content.  I asked how she was doing, and she said that hearing her family's laughter wafting up the stairs was all she ever hoped for.  And you know what?  It was.  (Never mind that she would have been appalled at how un-ladylike our conversation was.  That is beside the point.)

The kind of togetherness our family has doesn't just happen by accident. It is nurtured, cultivated, and harvested by skillful hearts - hearts like that of Aunt Lois.  Hearts that love their family so much they remove all the seeds from the cubed watermelon in the fruit salad they have lovingly prepared for that day's feast. Who does that, you ask?  Aunt Lois - that's who.  It is a love so precious and so rare that it is truly like no other.

Tonight the news of Aunt Lois's serious health challenges have the whole family scared to bits, because she is the pillar we all gather around.  My cousin and I keep checking in and riding waves of tears and laughter together.  We are all thinking that we don't even have to stop and ask ourselves, "What Would Lois Do?"  We already know - she would kneel down and faithfully pray.  And so is just what we are doing.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The O.G. of the O.G.

My friend Matt and I seriously love us some Olive Garden, and our friends like to poke and jab us about it.  You know what, though?  We don't care.  We scoff at their ribbing and give each other a knowing shrug as if to say, "Haters love to hate."  We are comfortable with basking in mediocrity.

So tonight was one of those famed O.G. nights, and there was a lot to catch up on.  We had a new waitress and we had to bring her up to speed:  1)  We need lots of extra vegetables in our salad; 2)  It's funnier if you pretend to be our tour guide on the Tour of Italy; 3) We will ask you if you have ever known anyone to get married in an Olive Garden (because apparently this happens, who knew?) and 4) We also need lots of extra chocolate mints at the end of our meal.  We are a demanding duo, but we do it with a smile so that makes it okay.

This particular evening we were chatting with our newbie waitress, and we mentioned that she had a lot to live up to if she was going to be counted among the likes of our favorite waiter, Maurice.  Her eyes lit up and she said she knew Maurice, that he was in the restaurant tonight and that everyone was sad because he was moving to Florida.  Given this utterly devastating news, we had her send Maurice over to the table right away.  This was some serious business.

Just so everyone understands, Maurice is the kind of waiter you can banter with, and that is my favorite kind of wait staff of all.  He is not stuffy or stodgy, and he goes above and beyond to make his customers happy.  He is also, as the kids would say, "totes adorbs."  He is probably twenty years too young for me, but even that hasn't put him outside the realm of possibility in my mind as a future love interest - he just that cool. Or I'm just that cougarish.  Or whatever.  I digress.  My point is, Maurice is the man. We love him.

Tonight, Maurice made my night, my week, maybe even my month or year.  Upon greeting us, he gave us big, genuine hugs and proceeded to tell us about this news that he is moving to Florida.  He had been approached to go to the Orlando corporate flagship Olive Garden to be on a fast track for management. This was no surprise to me, because after all, the kid's got it.  But then he said the most astounding thing.  He said that a couple of months ago, there was a staff meeting of all the Olive Garden staff, and the managers read aloud a Yelp review that I (yes, me!) had written.  The review was a mediocre review of Olive Garden (I mean really, it is Olive Garden) but a glowing review of Maurice.  He said, "I'm a pretty tough guy, but when they read that to me and all the staff I thought I was going to cry." He said that restaurant reviews and comments come in on the corporate website all the time, but this was one of the first glowing reviews a staff person had received on Yelp, making it all the more noteworthy.

Maurice left our table and Matt and I looked at each other simply stunned.  Matt remarked that my Yelp review - a review I wrote in jest as a dare from another friend - might have changed this guy's life. Now I can't say that for sure, because Maurice is pretty amazing in his own right and was going places on his own without any help from me.  But someone else taking the time to notice his greatness and point it out? That probably didn't hurt.

And so, on the heels of yesterday's observations in Every Little Thing, I must say this:  Not only does every little thing we say matter, we must always remember that every little thing we say can be incredibly powerful, too.  Maurice - our Original Gangster of the Olive Garden - just told me so.

For the slightly more curious, feel free to read my Yelp review.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Every Little Thing

I was talking to a fellow colleague recently, and he told a story about how he landed a job for which he didn't even yet meet the qualifications.  He applied on a whim out of sheer desperation, as he was jobless and had a growing family to support.  Much to his surprise, he got an interview and an almost immediate offer thereafter.  He didn't fully understand what had happened until several months down the road.  He learned well after the fact that someone at his new place of employment had remembered him from a connection years prior.  He had been working as a Teaching Assistant at a local university, and she had called to express frustrations about the instructor for whom he was working.  They had a ten minute phone conversation that he could barely remember years later.  But apparently that ten minute conversation had been so comforting to the woman he now worked with, she had convinced the leader of her team he was a worthy hire - even without the proper credentials in place yet.


What happened thereafter is that this individual was hired, he quickly proved himself to his peers, and he was on the track for promotions and many other professional accolades.  Not only that, he confessed that he may have in fact landed himself in the most perfect place to match his professional skills and interests.  When he was in the midst of his job search, he had applied for other jobs that were a better match, at least on paper, and had been outright rejected without so much as an interview. He was grateful in retrospect for those rejections, because he could not imagine being any more passionate or fulfilled than he was at his current job.

Double wow.

There were many things that struck me about his story.  Certainly, there are lessons in karma and even the law of attraction in there, if you are into those sorts of things.  But on a more practical level, this occurred to me:  Every little thing we do matters.  I would say this is true personally and professionally, and this man's story is a prime example.  An interaction he had years prior - an interaction where he had nothing to gain and nothing to prove - would catapult him into a perfect opportunity years later.  What if he had been hurried, dismissive, impatient or even distracted during that ten minute phone call?  The trajectory of his life could have changed.

It's a lot of pressure to assume that every little thing matters, and yet it is not.  As my very wise friend recently pointed out, it is the difference between resolution and habit.  Good professionalism is a habit. My advice to you is this:   Be kind.  Be patient.  Be flexible.  Be helpful.  Be courteous.  And if you can't do all that, take pause until you can.  You just never know how your choices will come back to you. Your consistently pleasant disposition may be the best insurance policy of all for your future.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Ten of Jen - 2014

Life.  I spend a lot of time thinking about it.  Don't we all?  I think that life is grand and complex, and I also think that it is comprised of thousands of tiny remarkable moments.  This past year had a whole host of rich, invigorating, heart-warming moments.  In no particular order, here are my ten favorite moments of 2014.

1)  Patio Perfection.  I declared 2014 to be "The Year of the Patio."  This sounds a little more exciting than perhaps it actually was, but it included new furniture, new throw pillows, new planters and some professional landscaping.  That was all well and good, but The Year of the Patio also served as host to a moment I loved.  After a delicious dinner one night with five of my favorite people, we all sat together in quiet solitude and strung together the custom up-cycled strings of lights my brother-in-law David made to complete my vision of patio perfection.  The assembly line quickly became a well-oiled machine and the lights were put together in very little time.  Moments later, David and my friend Fern hung the lights on my house as I stood back to take it all in.  I saw whimsy, bright colors and a patio that suited my taste. What I saw more than that, however, was a group of people I love deeply and who love me back, all working together to bring that moment's vision of happiness to life. I tell you, there is no better feeling one can have.

2)  A Ban Lifted.  In June something happened in Wisconsin that was long overdue and a wonderful development:  the state's ban on gay marriage was lifted.  The timing was impeccable because it occurred the day that Pride Fest was commencing.  I was on the other side of the state when news came through that this had occurred, and I was instantly beside myself with joy.  So many friends and people I hold dear would now have equal opportunity to marry - it was truly a beautiful thing.  Later that same day, I learned that my friends Matt and Fernando had rushed to the courthouse and gotten married, much like many other couples in Wisconsin.  Because I wasn't home at the time, I could not be there with them.  So what I did instead was get on the road early that Sunday morning so I could make it back in time for the Pride parade.  I knew Matt and Fern were walking in the parade and so I quietly waited for them, then ran out in the street to hug them when they made their way toward me. Surprising them to share in their joy and standing in the streets of Milwaukee hugging and crying was a most incredible feeling.  It was as if the vibrational energy of our whole community had elevated as justice was served.  Even though on so many fronts we still have far to go, I am so happy that I got to see this happen in my lifetime.

3)  BFF Time.  I spend time with my life-long best friend Mindy every year, usually more than once. This year was no different.  We met up in the summer for a weekend of shenanigans, and I went to see her again in the fall when she needed me and I needed to be there for her in that moment.  We spent a day dilly-dallying all over eastern Iowa and ultimately landed in our college town bar on the Saturday afternoon of what happened to be Homecoming weekend.  We sat in a booth and drank cheap, crappy drinks. We shared our tales of woe and our vision for a happy life and everything in between.  And at least four times during that hour long conversation, I laughed so hard I had to put my head down on the formica table and wipe away tears of laughter.  It's just so amazing to have someone in your life who you can say anything to.  Anything.  At all.  Does not matter how sassy or crass it is. I don't know what I've done to deserve this friendship or the freedom that comes with it, but it is one of my life's greatest blessings.

4)  Kissin' Cousins.  OK, we don't have kissing cousins in our family - at least not that I know of. But we do have an awesome group of family members who like to be together and we make a point to do it with some frequency.  This year we resumed our annual Cousins Weekend in Spooner, Wisconsin.  It is a tradition that we all love, and it incorporates a lot of hanging out, pontooning, getting sun-soaked, eating, laughing and storytelling.  There was a precise moment of hilarity during this year's Cousins Weekend that is etched in my memory.  My cousin Joel, my brother-in-law David and I were playing a rousing game of Qwirkle, which is a strategy game that involves matching shapes and colors.  Joel and I were ramping up the smack-talking with one another and relishing each and every "Qwirkle-tunity." We were laughing so much that everyone in the vicinity joined in on the laughter and fun.  It was wholesome and pure and everything I love about my family.  More, please.  I need more of that.

5)  Nashville Cats.  In July my sister, brother-in-law and I took a trip to Nashville to see our friends Kate and Eric.  We have been to visit them several times, and each visit brings new adventure. This trip was no exception.  We saw a bluegrass show at the Ryman Auditorium, went to the Johnny Cash Museum, went to Jack White's incredible record store, did some shopping, ate great meals and maybe one night drank (way) too much.  The entire weekend, there were repeated reminders of my dad, who would have surely loved everything about Nashville. It was notable because the specific weekend we were there was the anniversary of his passing so many years ago.  This all culminated for me when I stopped at a grocery store with Kate and Eric, and upon entering the store my dad's favorite song "Aimee" was playing on the radio.  I had just experienced sign after sign after sign that Dad was with us and this one blew me away.  I strolled through the store looking for ingredients for our dinner and periodically wiped away my tears.  I miss that man every day, but he is always by my side.  I was grateful for this reminder.

6)  A Challenge Met.  In January I decided I was going to set a new crazy challenge for myself: Write 52 blogs in 52 weeks.  I was inspired by my friend Jan who has more than once now written 100 blogs in 100 days.  I pretty much stayed on course with one blog per week, and found this relatively challenging, enlightening and very, very fun.  The weeks I traveled or felt I had nothing to say got me a little behind, and then in November Jan came at me with yet another challenge:  30 blogs in 30 days. I was hesitant, but honestly I needed to make up some ground anyway.  So I dug in, and met that challenge, too.  It was haaaaaaaaaard.  Not every day, but many days, and I think that pushing through that was in fact the beauty of it.  I realized at the end of this exercise that I have more to say than perhaps I originally thought and that by writing with greater frequency, my storytelling and my writing skills improve significantly, as does my thoughtful observation of the world.  The precise moment of meeting a big challenge - when I hit 52 in even less than 52 weeks - was a great feeling. Onto the next writing challenge...whatever shall it be?  Stay tuned.

7)  A New-Old Friend.  In addition to the wonderful Mindy, I have another friend who has known me almost my whole life and is still part of my life to this day.  Her name is Ellen, and she is beautiful, sassy, smart and funny.  Even though we grew up in Iowa, Ellen and I both ended up living near Milwaukee.  Even so, our lives were so full and so different, we typically only saw each other once or twice a year.  All that changed this year, when Ellen went through a personally challenging time and we reconnected in an incredible way.  There were dinners and overnights and parties that were all very fun.  But my favorite moment with Ellen was one night when we were instant messaging one another. The conversation turned sassy (hard to believe, I know) and we were laughing so hard at each of our computers that Ellen claims she actually frightened her cat.  As I pointed out to her some months later - sometimes when something bad happens, something wonderful happens at the exact same time.  A renewed friendship with someone who knows your past is a glorious thing.  Thanks, universe.  (And Ellen.)

8)  One Happy Memory.  My sister and I made a commitment this year to take a trip using some money we had inherited from our step-mother earlier in the year.  It was an unexpected windfall, and we were determined to create a happy memory with it.  After months of planning, we set out for a ten day tour of the Pacific Northwest and our first stop was Vancouver, British Columbia.  Vancouver is a stunning, cosmopolitan city and we loved everything about it.  Our second night there, we set out to find some sushi which wasn't hard to do.  After considerable research, we landed on a little hole in the wall restaurant called "Sushi Mart" with long, plain tables, fluorescent lights, counter service and zero ambiance.  That being said, we had the opportunity to gorge ourselves on and incredible platter of sushi for less than $20.  Even better, Jess and I had an incredible conversation about life, love and the pursuit of happiness.  That's what this trip was all about, right there.  Love, love, love.

9)  Two Happy Memories.  After Vancouver, Jess and I hopped on the train and made our way to Seattle, Washington.  Quite unexpectedly, I loved this city.  I mean I loved, loved, loved it.  We met up with friends who were local to the area and our travel partner for the next leg of the trip, my friend Vance.  One afternoon, we hit up the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum.  Glass is my favorite artistic medium, and Chihuly is the master to end all masters of it.  There was a moment in the museum where we turned a corner to enter a new exhibit, and it was so stunning that I think it took my breath away. There was another moment at the same museum when Vance I returned at nightfall to see the outdoor garden exhibit in all its colorful lit-up glory and I'm pretty sure I was breathless again.  I could spend days in this magical place.

10)  Three Happy Memories.  We left Seattle and made our way toward Portland, Oregon where plenty more fun with friends and family awaited us.  But before we got to Portland, we spent a night on the Oregon coast in a sleepy little resort town named Manzanita.  We went to the local grocery store and purchased bread, cheese, a couple bottles of pretty low-brow wine and some cheap plastic glasses to drink from.  Jess ducked out early, but Vance and I sat at the beach for hours drinking, talking and mostly quietly taking in the powerful beauty of a rugged coastline and crashing waves.  It was the kind of moment that has a way of making your life feel big and small at the same time.  It was humbling and awe-inspiring, and precisely what my soul needed at that moment in time.

So for each precious moment I experienced in 2014 - some described in this blog and so many more that were not - my heart remains full and my life better than ever.  If happiness is the goal - and I believe that it is the only one that really matters - I am almost always there.  To which I simply say to the universe, my creators and all the people who contribute to it - thank you.  Each passing day and year leaves me more and more humbled.