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Marriage, Thirty Years In the Rear View

Blog weddingThe Eighties were the biggest decade of my life; I graduated from high school, went to college, voted in my first election, made my home in three different states, bought my first car, made some lifelong friends, met and married my husband. While I won’t regale you in this blog post regarding the minutia of high school, college and those early jobs, I will briefly set the stage at how I arrived at today, my (our) thirtieth wedding anniversary. If marriage is about any one specific thing, I would have to say it is about timing. Every little choice in life puts you in a certain location, with particular circumstances, which set events in motion. Upon reflection, life is comprised of each of those choices accumulated. Some choices you labor over, some you’re forced to accept as the choices of others, but most are casually made like choosing which gas station to stop at based on the direction you are driving.

In the spring of 1988, I was wrapping up a year of covering a sabbatical leave as a hall director at Winona State University and spent spring break in Mexico with two of my friends I’d met while being an RA at SCSU. One of them was residing in Northern Michigan, while the other was a nanny in California, we’d hatched the plan between Christmas and New Year’s while all home visiting family (and each other) in Minnesota.

While in Mexico, I quickly met a guy from Canada who I was instantly smitten with and the night before his scheduled departure (with his traveling companion) he took me to dinner. While dining he told me that he had spoken with his trip director regarding extending his stay and that if he could stay with my friends and I he’d book a flight out the day we were leaving. While his gesture was sweet, it was an illogical plan and though my friends were pretty flexible and accommodating, it felt like it would be a self-serving and perhaps regrettable choice to make this guy the male-equivalent of Yoko Ono breaking up our band. He flew out as scheduled and we went on to ruin the spring breaks of some poor college guys from Ohio State, a story for another day. We wrote each other for a few months and then moved on.

After arriving home, I busied myself with securing a new job for the following school year and planned to live with my folks for a month between jobs. I turned 25 that summer and during our spring break, my friends and I decided to meet for a week in California while the twins who my friend was a nanny for were with their father. One morning we stood in the kitchen in our pajamas and contemplated what we should have for breakfast. Beer was the unanimous choice and we sat in the sun on the deck and enjoyed a breakfast of liquid bread, it was several courses as I recall. We discussed many things that morning which slipped away into afternoon, among them the idea of falling in love. We developed a theory that “falling in love” was simply a metaphor for pairing yourself with a companion you could tolerate for an extended period of time. We talked about the men we knew that we’d be willing to share our lives with if we hit thirty and hadn’t met someone. We talked about guys who were good looking, men who were destined to be successful, the people we’d worked with that had the qualities we’d want in fathers for our future children. We were all 25, slightly intoxicated and thought we had life figured out. My own children are currently 24 and 26 and there I was nestled between their ages, having not yet met their father, not wearing sunscreen and totally unaware of what the coming months and years had in store. Little choices, that snowball into the big choices that ultimately become your life.

Upon returning from California, I moved to UW-Stout in Wisconsin to become a Hall Director. Three colleges, in three states, in three years. Though the calendar begins with January, I have often thought that years begin in September; school years start in September, I met my husband Jeff in September, I became a mother when my daughter Betsy was born in September. That September of 1988 my oldest brother was getting married. I had known the bride since shortly after their courtship began while I was still in college. Her parents would pick me up while passing through St. Cloud and I would watch her youngest brother play football at St. Johns where his father had played. Her parents were the first guests to arrive at my college graduation party. While I was excited to be a bridesmaid, I had the choice to make as to whether or not I bring a “plus one” to the event and ultimately decided not to. I arranged for a friend I had met in Winona to bring his classic limousine to the affair to drive the couple from the church to their reception. It was at the rehearsal the night before that I met the bride’s other brother in the back of St. Patrick’s Catholic church. In jeans and a tweed sport coat he was formal and somewhat subdued.

The plan for the evening of the wedding was that my best friend and another good friend would stay with me in the hotel and a friend of the bride who was attending alone (that I’d met at the bachelorette party) would be joining us. When my best friend arrived she told me that her new job had her scheduled for testing the following morning but she’d brought me a cooler of beer on ice for the room. The bride’s friend opted to share a room with a friend who had recently gone through a breakup. These are the choices in life made by others, that are seemingly minor at the time but are ultimately turning points in your life when you look back at them.

I caught the bouquet at the reception, invited different attendees to my room after the festivities ended and spent a fair amount of time on the dance floor. At some point in the evening the bride’s brother that I had met the previous evening stepped onto the dance floor and asked what my room number was, I told him and then said “nice hair” in reference to his meticulous flat top. Not amused he said “fuck you” and turned on his heel and departed.

While I have chronicled before how I ended up in my hotel room alone (with a cooler of icy cold beer) in cut off sweat pants and a Fort Worth Stockyards sweatshirt waiting for a pizza delivery, the more entertaining and totally inaccurate version is the one my husband’s uncles shared one snowy Christmas Eve when they were the only guests who could make the drive to our place. My kids sat on the basement steps and listened to the story, amused by our interruptions to detail the actual facts. Jeff (the bride’s brother) did show up at my hotel room and was with an intoxicated woman. It was his cousin who he had driven around and looked for a gas station with, her husband had taken a cab home and left her with a car with little gas and in no condition to drive. Since he’d driven with his parents and they were spending the night at the bride and groom’s home, he was basically stuck at the hotel with a drunk cousin. In the uncle’s version (which takes several hours to tell) I was having car problems and Jeff who was a mechanic rescued me by chivalrously making necessary car repairs and ending with “and not too much later, you came along.” with a nod to Betsy. In reality; my car was parked in front of my childhood home, Jeff worked at an auto parts store and Betsy was born on the four year anniversary of the day we met.

While his cousin “slept it off” we stayed up most of the night discussing religion and politics. He came to visit me at Stout the next weekend, I went to Mankato where he lived the one following. He met me in St. Cloud for Homecoming (the year of the riots), he had Army Reserves the weekend I took my new RA staff on retreat at the family cabin. The last weekend of October he met me in Winona and the first weekend in November, on my father’s final birthday we drove together to the cabin where he asked my Dad for my hand. We had met on September 22nd of 1988, had our wedding planned by November 5th and thirty years ago today, in weather much like yesterday we got married at Fort Snelling Memorial chapel and had our reception at the Embassy Suites in Bloomington, a few miles from the home we moved to in 2001.

From the start there were naysayers, one of our favorites being “they don’t even know each other’s middle names” (we did, which oddly held no real relevance other than we eventually used mine as our daughter’s first name). We found ourselves amused by the wedding gift that included paper napkins, a nod to the anticipated temporary status of our union. We were young, impulsive and in love. Nobody (but me) was likely more surprised than my two friends who mused just weeks earlier that falling in love was a concept developed to advance movie plots and sell greeting cards. They, along with my best friend from childhood and the groom’s sister would be my bridesmaids.

A marriage of thirty years could fill many blog posts and certainly I have shared topics from our shared life here before and will again. Like all marriages we have faced challenges, our first year tested us with the death of my father, Jeff not being able to secure work while we lived in Menomonie Wisconsin, my mother living with us temporarily and Jeff and I deciding to return to Minnesota. We’ve celebrated monumental birthdays, raised two kids we’re proud of, worked and been out of work.

We came into our marriage with friendships that have endured and continued to make friendships along the way. Last night after making preparations for our Easter Brunch I crawled into bed to watch the finale of Family or Fiance. It’s a show hosted by fellow Southwest High School graduate Tracy McMillan who provides guidance to engaged couples by having them spend three days in a lavish house with family members and friends who have concerns about the engaged couple. The objective is to earn the blessing  of their families or come to the realization that perhaps the void is too great and part. Tracy is a talented author, television writer and is billed as a “relationship expert”. A relationship expert with three ex-husbands and her own TV show and I’m currently un(der)employed grading poorly written ninth grade English tests from Tennessee. While I don’t think I am any sort of expert on marriage, I do think I have gleaned some shareable wisdom from the past three decades.

First, I will acknowledge that marriage isn’t a perfect state for everyone to live in. My four bridesmaids have had seven husband’s between them. While it’s nice to have someone to go through life with, going through it with the wrong person would be emotionally taxing at best. I laugh at the “wisdom” that might have been imparted to Jeff and I if we had gathered for a three-day intensive with those opposed to our marriage thirty years ago. In his anniversary card I gave the insight that marriage works best when you are matched with someone who is as stubborn as you are. While stubbornness may not seem like the most romantic trait, it is the bulldozer that gets you through the rude comments of others, the shared obstacles and even the miscommunication that happens between two people.

Those who know both Jeff and I would say we are fairly opposite, which means we strike a balance. He did the grown up laundry, while I did the kids. I handled the bills and the taxes. I don’t make “Honey do” lists. I coordinate the family calendar and write the Christmas letters. He puts up the Christmas lights and makes sure the gutters are cleaned. He goes to gun shows, I go to concerts and plays. He gets together with the guys from his Army Reserve Unit, I do getaways with girlfriends. He has planned four surprise birthday parties for me (30, 40, 45 and 50). I would never surprise him because he suffered from agoraphobia when he was younger and I fear it would cause a panic attack. With his buy-in I have arranged for celebrations when he turned 30, 40 and 50. He is the pessimist and I am the optimist. We both share a warped sense of humor. Betsy and Eddie would both tell you that we could go for days communicating only using lines from movies.

My advice to young couples would be don’t be polite, state what you want and mutually work toward common objectives. Choose someone who accepts your negative traits but also someone who sees the good in you that you don’t even know is there. Don’t try to please everyone around you or worry about what everyone else thinks. Find the person who you want to solve the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune with or who you can relax with in the car while they drive, the person who will remember what brand of deodorant you wear, the person you want in the waiting room when you come out of anesthesia. Figure out who you want to sit next to at both weddings and at funerals, Jeff is the guy who always has a handkerchief at the ready for me. Marriage is not about the grand gestures, it is about the common details of our shared days; missing each other when we are apart, knowing what the other is thinking. Find someone not that you can live with (as the initial plan was when I was 25) but the person who you truly can’t live without. That’s how you know.

Our marriage license says Douglas Torbert at the bottom and is signed by Rodd Johnson. Doug was stationed in Germany at the time we were married and unable to secure leave. We joke that we’re not legally married and Betsy and Eddie are our “love children”. I was married to Jeff for over three years before I finally met Doug. Timing is everything and both Doug and Rodd are currently married to women we introduced them too. Our “bachelor neighbor” at our current home is now married and the father of two. We introduced him to a woman I worked with while they were attending my 40th birthday party. While not hopeless romantics, we are suckers for love.

Thirty years have flown by, I’m older now than my own mother was on my wedding day and Jeff is older now than my father was. Sometimes the days pass slowly but the years move quickly. Company arrives in a couple of hours for Easter brunch and I still have things to tend to. As I open the cupboard to set the table I marvel at the fact that after thirty years we still have the original 8 dinner plates and 8 salad plates that we’ve eaten thousands of meals from. Only three bowls remain and the black and white set are supplemented with a rainbow of  Fiestaware. That’s what a good marriage is like, regular everyday things that last and unexpected color to enhance what may have gone missing. Things that may not appear to go together but ultimately work out just fine, as long as you don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.

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THE NERP METHOD OF LOVING YOUR JUNK RIGHT WHERE IT IS

Full disclosure; I don’t have a Netflix show (nor an account), I don’t have a book to sell you, your radio station has never mentioned me (unless you heard a broadcast of the Minnesota Boy’s State High School Hockey Tournament a few years back when the color commentator mentioned me as the “biggest fan” of the annual event, but I digress) and you have never seen me as a guest on any TV show. I’m not going to try to sell you on my method of “organization” but I can save you some time and guilt by telling you how I have learned to love the clutter that surrounds me.

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant who has sold millions of books regarding her method of decluttering by eliminating items in your home that don’t “spark joy”. I have not purchased her book, as I imagine it would likely be the first (and perhaps only) thing I got rid of in such a purge. I loved hearing her rather soothing staccato cadence in her native tongue recently (while driving) but I have no idea what she was saying. Based on my limited knowledge of her, I am convinced even if I had understood her it would not have changed my view on her way of doing things.

Marie is a 34 year old, with a husband and two young kids. A couple of decades ago I was in the same position (albeit on a much tighter budget). For anyone currently there, might I recommend a decluttering method of small plastic bins and sliding your forearm across a surface to place any items into these baskets. The resulting mixture of Legos, crayons and puzzle pieces can then be placed atop a cupboard, on a closet floor or shoved under a bed.

If I were to seriously consider getting rid of things in my home that don’t bring me “joy” my tax returns come to mind but I know better than to get rid of them before storing them 7 years. Partial gallons of paint might be an option but that seems like a foolish choice since they match the colors of my current walls and I appreciate their accessibility for touch-ups. The same school of thought applies to the brushes, rollers and pans that don’t “spark joy” but neither does running out to buy new ones with the knowledge I had discarded perfectly good ones. The only place this method might work for me is the kitchen and the bathroom. That half of an avocado that got pushed to the back of the refrigerator a few weeks ago can go, as can the package of meat that’s exceeded the “use or freeze”  by date. The Kondo method instructs that we’re to say “thank you” to the items we discard. As a timesaving method I’m skipping this too, I view it as a waste of time to say thank you for every decision I  make to avoid getting food poisoning. In the bathroom there are unused prescriptions, partially filled containers (the shampoo and conditioner never are empty at the same time) and every couple of years I do a sweep of the hotel sized lotions and soaps that somehow seemed important to keep during our travels.

I have entire spaces dedicated to clutter and I’m not ashamed of it. The birthday candles, drinking straws, cookie cutters and toothpicks (wooden and colored plastic shaped like mortar boards) all reside in a seldom used drawer. I would have no more inner peace knowing that those items (that neither increase or decrease my joy) were no longer there. At the same time I would not be fraught with anxiety over their absence. It strikes me as wasteful to need to purchase them again repeatedly when they are items without a shelf-life. Craft items are much the same, I rest easy in the knowledge that I can create something without needing to leave the house.

My husband and I were in a car last night with my brother, his wife and my grandmother’s 91 year old cousin. As seems to happen a lot recently, Marie Kondo came up and after offering a brief synopsis of our understanding of her method my brother succinctly responded “I’m not talking to my old shoes.”. Earlier in the evening my sister in law discussed selling some of the vintage clothing that she had acquired years ago from her grandmother. She talked about a pair of pumps from the 1940’s that she loved but realistically doubted she would ever wear again. I mentioned that I had worn a fur cape that had been my grandmother’s to a wedding last winter. I’ve often heard that if you have something in your closet you have not worn in a year that you should discard it, with some organizers suggesting that at the start of each year you hook everything in your closet backwards on a hanger and after wearing it rehang it normally to give you an indicator as to what is not worn that year. I’ll acknowledge I don’t wear grandma’s fur annually and will also tell you if you check my closet in five years, it’s still going to be there!

Stopping back at their house after our outing my sister in-law showed me some other items that she and my brother were ready to part with. That’s how, over forty years after his death my Grandpa’s fedora from the Dayton’s Men’s shop ended up at my house. I may not be my brother’s keeper but he has been the keeper of my Grandpa’s hat and now it’s my turn.

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Grandpa’s Hat

My husband and I come from two different families when it comes to passing along of family items. Even as a kid I received things that had belonged to grandparents and other relatives; a locket that had been my grandmother’s as a child, a shelf from my mother’s childhood bedroom (which hangs in my living room near the desk that was my maternal grandmother’s). My high school and college wardrobe consisted of many vintage items that had originally belonged to my grandmothers or a great aunt. I have paintings and sketches done by my paternal great grandmother, they hang near art created by my brother and my own children. My husband’s parents kept everything they had ever acquired, their possessions being distributed only after the death of one and the other being in a nursing home for over a year. It always struck me as a little bit sad that they were never able to see their own children enjoy the things they had accumulated over their lifetime. I am thankful that my children and extended family have dined using the dishes and utensils that past generations of my side of the family used and having both practical and decorative items in the home that have prompted the sharing of stories about people my own kids would never have the chance to meet.

Like my own father, I think it’s important to use things. So flowers go in the Limoges urn that belonged to his mother and the crystal salt and pepper shakers that were wedding gifts to my parents are always out. Candle wax is on the sets of silver candlesticks, because they get used.

Perhaps I am looking at the “KonMari Method” all wrong, maybe I just experience more joy than most. While I don’t qualify for an intervention on an episode of the show Hoarders, I acknowledge that I (like my brothers) enjoy stuff. While I have highlighted family heirlooms and antiquities, it’s not necessarily the age or sentimental value of an item that elicits joy in me. An item off a clearance rack, something from a Target end cap, a card from a friend, a ticket stub from a concert or a play…joy, joy, joy!

A Facebook post from a friend yesterday had her getting rid of a mug from two marriages and a lifetime ago and creating a space to increase the ease of using her family China. My first thought was for her to take that mug to the school she works at and place it on her desk with freshly sharpened pencils in it. I frequently use items for purposes other than what they were originally intended. For many years I used an antique pewter pitcher to hold my hair brushes. I use a sugar and creamer on my vanity to hold mascara and cosmetic brushes. I have a crystal champagne chiller filled with lipsticks and glosses, as I have more frequent occasions to color my lips than I do to have champagne flow over them. I use teapots to put flowers in and vases and glassware to hold candles. As I write this I’m within arm’s length of one of many cookie jars I own. The current snowman is from a second hand store, it holds dog food, thereby bringing joy to me and my rescue dogs. Bananas sit on a tiered alabaster stand that my kids remember from their grandparent’s dining room. While it may not necessarily translate to joy, it evokes memories of a time and place they will never be again.

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I was just a couple of years younger than Marie Kondo when my mother moved from my childhood home. I was living on-site at my place of employment with a good chunk of my worldly possessions already being stored in boxes in my best friend’s basement. I had neither the dedicated space nor the necessary time to rummage through the remnants of my childhood or to fully grasp the permanence of my separation from some items such as numerous family Bibles (which chronicled the births, baptisms, weddings and deaths of generations preceding me) my own journals and other artifacts of my ancestors or simply trinkets from my youth.

While my brothers and I all actually have plenty of what we consider to be family treasures, I still on occasion regret not having many of the items that are now in the homes of strangers or buried in a landfill somewhere. It was only last year while digging through a box that I discovered a small leather-bound journal that chronicled my Irish immigrant grandfather’s final year in Ireland and his early days in the United States. My adult daughter has enjoyed discovering the family history as she transcribes his words written 95 years ago. My hope is that Marie does not regret “thanking ” the concert t-shirts of her youth and discarding them. Not until my own children were teenagers did I regret that decision in what seemed like the grownup thing to do at that time. Fair warning Marie there will be things you will regret not having to share with others down the road.

During dinner last night my Grandmother’s cousin articulated (from the perspective of someone with the wisdom of over ninety years behind her) that at age 40 she did not value the possessions she would have valued at 60 and still today. She specifically recalled a desire for the new and current. The things she cherishes have changed throughout the years and she enjoys TBT photos that my brothers and I post to our Facebook accounts because they chronicle our childhoods, a time when she was living out of state and was out of touch with local family. While I am not advocating hanging onto every item that one has ever owned, I am saddened by the risk that comes with thinking everything is disposable and replaceable while knowing from experience that simply is not true. If I combine my age with that of my grandmother’s cousin, we have more than an additional century and a decade of life experience than Marie Kondo has. Who do you want to believe, us or her?

There are times that people “lose everything” through floods, fires or needing to escape a situation. While it’s true that life is not merely about possessions and that experiences and the memories that go with them are what make us who we are there is value in possessions beyond a monetary one. You see what people value when they grab items during a fire or pack a car during an evacuation or by what they choose to carry with them as they flee their homeland.

I thought perhaps my stance on this was a cultural difference but oddly one of the few things I know about Japanese culture strikes me as being in direct conflict with Marie’s school of thought. Kintsugi the centuries-old Japanese custom of fixing broken pottery with gold, also called Kintsukori which translates to “Golden Mend”. It is as visually beautiful as it is symbolic.

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As an interesting and timely side note, close family friends have a son who is going to share the experience of a lifetime with his girlfriend when they travel to Japan later this month. In researching the history of a centuries old Japanese sword his family had been given, contact was made with the original owner’s lineage. While I would imagine that an item like this is quite valuable in a collectors market, the owner recognized the true value and this impending trip is to return the sword to the family of origin. While the gifting of the item will bring joy, the receiving of the treasured possession of an ancestor will certainly bring joy as well. It’s fantastic that this antiquity will return to Japan because despite having passed through many hands nobody along the way chose to recycle the materials it was made of or discard it as a relic of a past era.

At a recent bridal shower I gifted a pin that my grandmother gave me 50 years ago, thinking that her great granddaughter should have something of hers. While I’d worn the pin at various times throughout my life, it had also spent a great deal of time in a jewelry box. Rather than thinking of things as being ours to keep or discard, perhaps we’d be better served to think of ourselves as the keeper of items and then relinquishing them with a sense of intent to a new keeper who can choose their future path of ownership. Somehow that feels more purposeful. I’m thankful that I had not put some timeline of use on it in my thirties, nor had I devalued it because it’s considered “costume jewelry” or discarded it because it might not have seemed fashionable by standards of the day. I had hung onto it, fondly remembering the day I had received it and treasuring it more after my grandmother died one summer while I was in elementary school. It makes me wonder if Marie’s parents and grandparents are still alive, if she has ever had the experience of coming across a handwritten note of someone who will never write another note or a photograph of someone who won’t be in another picture. Sometimes the value and appreciation of something is heightened by the knowledge that there will be no more.

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My grandmother’s pin

While there are appropriate times to discard the things of the past, or acknowledge that a possession has outlived it’s usefulness to you as the owner, I caution you to not simply dispose of things as part of a fad or for a temporary feeling of accomplishment. A good practice for those seeking a more minimalist existence would be to monitor the new that you want to bring into your setting before you dispose of something that you will long for later or wish that you had to pass along to someone who might find meaning in it.

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The Online Persona – Real People and Fictional Lives

I am fascinated by people. Not in the cliché job interview response “I’m a people person” sort of way that was second only to “thinking outside the box” for annoying answers during my decades of hiring people. Though socially I am comfortable among strangers, both in groups and one-on-one situations, for most of my life I have found myself most intrigued by people I didn’t interact with at all. Perhaps living across the street from a library as a child is what honed my capacity to develop an entire fictionalized scenario around a stranger seated near me in a restaurant or in the crosswalk while I’m stopped at a red light.

While I recognize that it’s entirely unfair to judge a book by it’s cover, my years of observation on the most basic level divide people into two camps; those who are very aware of wanting to make a certain impression and those who wish to go about their daily lives anonymously. Obviously there are many subcategories and I believe that people easily transition fluidly between these two states of being; the person who wants to be watched on the dancefloor at the club on Saturday night but wishes to be unseen at the gas station in their pajamas the following morning. It’s persona management.

To be clear, I’m not making assumptions about people in a judgmental way, what I do is develop an entire screenplay in my mind where these strangers are just actors. My favorite location for casting calls is the Minnesota State Fair. It’s a rich environment for pretending you are watching a first meeting from an online dating site between the outstate hayseed and the apparent cosmetology student who thought stiletto heels were a good idea for hours of walking dusty streets dotted with deep-fried  debris. Perhaps they’re really just siblings from North St. Paul, then again maybe he was her Uber driver to the Fair. No cost entertainment. Clearly, I recognize that the qualities and scenarios I attribute to these folks are merely a part of my fruitful imagination and not in anyway fact-based.

My brothers have had front row seats to my vivid imagination throughout my life, being the early observers to my imaginary friends and can attest to my lifelong attention to detail. While my memory of actual events and situations are keen, they would likely report that an ability to spin a yarn out of thin air is a well developed trait of mine as well.

I’ve done this since I was a kid and over the years figured out whom among my friends also enjoy this pastime. Fortunately my husband and I discovered early in our relationship that it’s a “skill” we both possess. Maybe it’s less productive than knitting or crocheting as a hobby but it’s budget friendly and nothing ends up in a landfill!

After a lifetime of observing people either in person or on TV, social media has provided me with endless access to source material and has been a real game changer. Almost like online gaming, you can play along with others that are not physically with you, like a “virtual” trip to the mall. The difference with social media is that it’s often not total strangers but friends (or more often acquaintances) who offer fragments of their life in sometimes detailed or cryptic posts with the intent of engaging others in their real or perceived drama. While most people post about events from celebrations to meals or family members (from pets to grandchildren) that are transparent and exactly what they say they are, others participate in crafting a desired persona that seems far from reality.

As someone who acknowledges their fascination with people (see opening statement) I’m curious as to how this relatively new form of communication and documentation of what will eventually be history will play out. I doubt that more liars exist now statistically than in the past. The difference is that now it’s harder for people to tell a whopper and simply deny it later. It doesn’t take a forensic expert to unearth discrepancies in a person’s online crafted persona. Whereas this habit of mine with strangers in the past was simply a harmless pastime, the online version of observations allows for others to speculate along with me regarding the motivation behind such posts.

In past blogs I have talked about familial situations, either with my father when I was a child or with my own kids where we intentionally offered a false trail of breadcrumbs to allow strangers to have fun at our expense. As a bored kid in the back of the family station wagon I would sometimes grab the phone handset my father had with his tools (as an electrician he would use it on new phone lines to ensure they were live) and pretend to be deep in conversation. While talking on the phone in a car is not at all unusual now, in the early ’70s it got quite a bit of attention! When my brother’s and I were cleaning out our childhood home we decided to leave an old China salt shaker in the dining room chandelier for the next owner to discover and fill in the blanks as to how they imagined it might have gotten there. Amusement and entertainment were the only objective, no deep need for acceptance or approval from others.

It’s a different “game” when looking at the posts of people you shared a neighborhood with, attended school with or have worked with. Basically your shared history calls into question what you see as their false claims and exaggerations. When their statement of fact is in direct conflict with your own recollections of the same events, individuals or experiences it makes one question the validity and motivation behind their claims. When musing about strangers one has no insight or shared past to base assumptions on in the way that you do with people you actually have knowledge of. My guess is that perhaps with no nefarious intent, in most cases we each actually are recalling what our experience was, even when those recollections appear to be polar opposites. This fascinates me and based upon responses to these posts, Messenger messages and texts from others, I am not the only one. I am entertained by friends who send me a snarky retort to what they see as an outlandish post and direct me to it. Much like a book club (with less of a commitment) we discuss the author’s motivation and even try to determine if the genre is History, Biography, Romance Novel or Fiction. It becomes sort of a validation to compare notes and verify our own truths.

As an extrovert with too much time on my hands I have utilized social media as a way to engage with all sorts of people that my life has overlapped with. I will acknowledge that from Facebook to Instagram and via my WordPress blog I have crafted my own persona based upon my reality. I like to think that it accurately reflects who I am and what I’m doing but also recognize the vulnerability that comes with sharing my thoughts and opinions on everything from my daily life to current events. I guess my own observations are perhaps the fodder of speculation for others who are asking each other “What’s wrong with her?”.

I am aware that while speculating with online friends has become a broader platform to discuss (at what times seems like bizarre behavior from) mutual online acquaintances that perhaps there is a different sort of obligation that comes with this format. At what point should one go from amusement to concern? How do you differentiate the angry rants from actual threats? Is there a way to figure out if someone is harmlessly venting or in crisis? It’s not lost on me that when a crime is committed that law enforcement and curious individuals now utilize social media to unearth clues. In some cases psychotic individuals post long rambling admissions prior to an event as a means of justifying their actions. It’s almost as though your social media footprint is another form of DNA, it tells others so much about you. Like a detective dealing with evidence one pieces together clues to try to make sense of a situation.

Whether isolated and lonely or balanced and socially active, it appears that online engagement is a way to draw others closer or in some cases push them away. I see it as a way to keep in touch, an efficient means of communication, a way to make someone in another country laugh, a place for sharing a memory and a venue to offer support and encouragement. Primarily I find it to be a source of entertainment.

I love keeping up and catching up, as well as rediscovering people from my past. I appreciate that the woman in another state who participated in the adoption of my beagle puppies and the local woman who fostered them can watch them grow and participate and comment on their antics. It’s fun being connected to a virtual fan club of mostly strangers via a page for a local athletic team. A decade ago I enjoyed political exchanges more than I do today, many having gone from civil discourse to personal attacks. I appreciated the large readership when a blog I wrote about a lunch with childhood friends was passed along through the network and people reached out with supportive feedback and someone printed hard copies so others who aren’t tech savvy could have access to it as well.

My generation comes from an era where communication consisted of notes passed between classes. When we got older and were no longer in arm’s length of our friends we had to rely upon letters and long-distance phone calls. These requirements kept our social circles fairly tight. With social media we are now “friends” with siblings of people we know, far flung relations, people we simply shared a lunchroom with in high school, actual strangers we share a common interest with. A number of years ago a man in another state messaged me to unravel the mystery of three mutual friends we shared. He attended college with one in Wisconsin, had worked with one in Michigan and the third woman who was considerably younger than us lives in his current hometown. Turns out I had worked with the one he had gone to college with, gone to college with the one he’d worked with and I’d been a supervisor (during her college years) to the one living in his community. Oddly, these overlapping friendships have me interacting with him more frequently than he does with his original friends.

While wildly popular with advertisers and organizations as a way to shape opinions and drive traffic to their causes and products, social media returns me to my most basic instincts. I’m the little girl who found sanctuary at the Linden Hills Library. I take the little clues posted like those in a Helen Fuller Orton novel and much like her own work (which I devoured as a child) create a piece of fiction which may include some historical basis.  Seemingly, others opt to do the work for me and fictionalize their own postings. When people message me regarding a particularly peculiar post the comment with it is often “you can’t make this shit up!” and my response is simply “I don’t have to, they already did.”.

Feel free to reach out with your own musings and insights on this topic (if you are not already part of my social media analysis posse). Whether you know me or not, try your best to keep it real when you are posting, chances are if you don’t remember your own past that others do and no amount of false posturing or unfounded claims is going to make a positive impression. Quite the opposite. While I enjoy the entertainment of super sleuthing there are enough phonies out there already to keep me amused.

 

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HERE WE ARE AS IN OLDEN DAYS:

As my husband wandered the back yard cleaning up after our two dogs the other day, I jokingly inquired “Do you think I should mow before Christmas?”. Two months ago, prior to Halloween, our backyard was blanketed in snow and it looked like we might have six months of winter here in Minnesota. This week it’s been unseasonably warm, the roads have been dry and until a light dusting of snow arrived last night, it appeared we would have a brown Christmas.
Christmas arrives annually based upon the calendar, not the weather. Christmas comes not as the result of the cookies that have been baked or the appetizers that are prepared. With two puppies in the house Christmas is coming in a couple of days without a large real or artificial tree this year. While I may miss some of the traditions that come with trimming the tree, such as asking the kids “Why do we put a piece of conduit on the tree?” so they can respond in unison “Because grandpa was an electrician!” the memories of the people who are no longer physically part of our annual celebration will remain and wash over me in the days ahead.
Somewhere among the old VHS tapes in my house is a video of Christmas 1988. My brothers and I (along with our significant others) are playing Jenga in the kitchen of our childhood home. It captures the first Christmas after my husband and I met and a few months prior to our wedding. It shows my parents laughing, my father wearing a sweater I had gifted him on a prior Christmas, none of us aware that it would be his last Christmas with us.
As I write this, my husband of nearly three decades is sleeping with the two dogs that we have acquired since last year. A year ago he was sleeping with a dog that was the last of the pets of our own children’s youth. My son is asleep in his childhood bedroom, having taken the train in from Chicago where he has moved since last year. Christmas reminds us that despite traditions, each year changes us. Thirty years ago I lived in Wisconsin, one of my brothers lived here in Minnesota and the other called Texas home. This year we all live in the states we were born in, my eldest brother will be joining us from his lakeside Wisconsin home. Our own children will be gathering and partaking of traditions that have always been part of their lives but were began by relatives they never met.

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The Rose clan (literally descendants of a Scottish clan whose damp-looking castle still remains) will congregate for Christmas breakfast at 9 am on Christmas morning, as we have always done. Early photographs of my life capture this event at my paternal grandfather’s little pink house in Golden Valley Minnesota, then my childhood home. After the passing of my father, a few gatherings occurred at hotel venues and eventually we fell into a rotation of hosting the traditional breakfasts with our own offspring in our homes. While the menu varies and nobody serves burnt bacon like Grandpa did, we will have egg nog and there will be pomegranates. The tradition of a small gift or candy cane at each place at the table has grown into “table gifts” that are either practical, funny, thoughtful or “D. All of the above”.

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This will be the twentieth Christmas with the youngest of “the cousins” present and we’ll welcome a guest from Germany to the fold as my brother’s family has an AFS student living with them.

Christmas Eve will look different this year. With my daughter and I both working shifts that day, we will gather for the first time without extended family. If tradition is the thread that weaves all our holidays together like strung popcorn, this year is a cranberry, the bead on the string that looks different in form than the many  lined up before it. Much like when I was a kid and transitioned from celebrating at home by opening a single gift to spending it with my best friend’s family and going to Midnight Mass. I have great memories of Christmas open houses shared at the home of family friends replete with champagne toasts. With marriage came visits to my in-laws on Christmas Eve and watching our nephew while the others went to Mass. By the time we had children of our own we were trading off hosting Christmas Eve and for the last decade as family dynamics and health have changed, we have opened our home to whomever wished to join us for holiday merriment.

Much like a snowflake, while they may appear similar, no two Christmases are the same. Each year I am surprised by the contentment the season brings, the satisfaction found in finding the right gift, creating a new recipe, time spent with those we don’t see enough of. I love the cards that arrive that share both the highs and lows of the previous year in the lives of those we care about.

What I enjoy more than any gift or confection is unpacking the memories, much like one takes out the precious ornaments that we have gathered throughout our lifetime. I remember sledding with my cousins down my grandparents long rural driveway with bread bags in our boots. I recall that warm feeling that came from eating my aunts rum balls as a kid. There was the Christmas spent at the family cabin with two new snowmobiles that my brothers were not aware that we were getting. The first big secret I was “in on”. I recall spending a Christmas Eve at my best friend’s cousin’s home where the number of kids was outnumbered only by the variety of cookies available. Each year there are more people I miss and  traditions that pass. My kids no longer make wish lists, I no longer select their outfits and it’s been years since I have stood in line with anyone to visit Santa. Like measuring kids on a door jamb, there comes a last time, you don’t realize it as it occurs, only upon reflection. Those “lasts” are more precious when looking back than they ever were as they took place.

There are also favorite gifts that I remember, the year my daughter got her certificate to acquire a puppy of her own, the time Santa gifted a family trip to Disney World. Both of those memorable gifts coming in the form of books on the topic. There was the year I gave my husband a new car and the many years that the kids selected heart shaped jewelry for me. The practical, the extravagant, the homemade and the store bought, the ones that were asked for and the ones you’d never dreamed of. Each of them precious, not for what they were but because of who they were from.

As I busy myself with holiday preparations and look forward to time spent with family I enjoy the familiarity of seasonal movies, childhood TV programs, traditional carols and holiday pop tunes from years gone by that I now consider classics. While my days of kids in pageants and concerts are behind me in the same way that sending gifts to their teachers has ended, there are new opportunities each year to fill the voids created by the passage of time. Among my favorite lyrics from a Christmas song is the poignant reminder  “Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow.” So enjoy the joy this year, even if it doesn’t look the same as last year. It’s my hope for you that it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

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Hating Math and Loving Numbers

As a parent perhaps one of the most rewarding things that can happen is having your kid repeat some sage wisdom back to you that you thought they likely ignored when you said it. Recently this came to pass when my son texted me “As you said, you only need to know enough math to not be taken advantage of.” regarding a specific financial situation that was not presented accurately to him. Though embarrassing at the time for them, both of my kids had many experiences of watching me make sales clerks adjust prices to reflect the correct amount of discount advertised. I’d say “You’ll need to override that, it’s 75% off but only coming up as 60%.” sometimes the clerk would ask how I knew that and I would simply reply “Math”. As we would walk away I would say to my kids something like “That $7.00 is mine, not Macy’s”. As a result of this parental role-modeling, my children learned to advocate for themselves and not just walk away.

While math as an academic pursuit was never a strong point for me I have always been fascinated by numbers. Coupled with my excellent memory of trivial things I have a particular interest in numbers as they relate to the passage of time. Often most intrigued by how age seems different from generation to generation or how historical events or pop-culture milestones relate to where we were, how old we are and how these events seem nearer or further from present-day than they actually are.

I was reminded of this yesterday as my radio station mentioned it had been 21 years since comedian Chris Farley passed. Here is a heartfelt tribute from Adam Sandler: https://www.bing.com/videos/searchq=adam+sandler+chris+farley+tribute+song&&view=detail&mid=92230C9CBA16C0441B4C92230C9CBA16C0441B4C&&FORM=VRDGARDespite Despite my kids being preschoolers at the time, he was part of their growing up, as we raised them with liberal ingestion of classic SNL sketches and movies that many might consider to be questionable choices. As a result they have an appreciation for the classics, which in our home range from Better Off Dead, the John Hughes film library, Monty Python, the series Kids in the Halls, Wes Anderson’s works and a plethora of other cinematic gold that for the most part never won awards but have brought more laughs and joy to the world than most Oscar nominated films ever will.

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You may wonder what this has to do with my preoccupation with numbers, so back to that. I believe that the first time I saw the Wizard of Oz was likely 1967. By then it was a classic, that seemed old, much in the way Gone with the Wind which was also produced in 1939 seemed. That was a 28 year old movie when I first saw it. I think now of films like Animal House, The Breakfast Club, St. Elmo’s Fire and other releases from my high school and college era and think that they remain relatively contemporary at forty years old (or nearing it). I recall a summer during high school that Loring Park in Minneapolis featured Marilyn Monroe movies and some Hitchcock films. Perhaps only because I was in my teens did these classics seem old but at that time they were actually a decade newer than the previous list of movies, some of which were being released at that time are presently. That is what I find fascinating about numbers.

On my Facebook page last week I posted a Throw Back Thursday photograph of me with my grandfather and all of his grandkids on what was my first Christmas. My eldest brother responded with “Grandpa was a year older than I am in that picture.”. Mind blown! My grandfather was born in 1900 and was 63 in the photograph, I just sold a ski-pass to an 80 year old man at work yesterday that appeared to be about a decade younger than my grandfather looked in that picture. Granted, physical labor and years of hockey without equipment likely account for some of the difference but it’s peculiar none the less. I’ve always been awed by yearbooks from the 1940’s and 1950’s looking like they are filled with middle-aged account executives and porcelain skinned women who look as though they could have a midlife crisis next week. Actually they are all a bunch of teenagers who likely would be married and have started a family by their five year reunion.

My mother had two kids by the time she’d been out of high school five years. It sort of freaked my daughter out this fall when I commented “When grandma was my age, all of her kids were married and she was a widow.” While my parents and their elders struck me as relatively old (in some cases deceased) when they were our age, my siblings and cousins (despite graying hair) seem youthful by comparison. Our own children gaining on us as they pass milestones we remember with clarity, even though it seems like Reagan just left the White House and the idea of kids was still on the horizon not that long ago.

Sure life expectancy is longer and more recent generations perhaps cling to their youth more than their predecessors but that doesn’t explain it all away. When I think of music that I grew up with and how much of it is recognizable to my own children because it’s still played with regularity. I try to envision high school students from the 1940’s (my father’s era) cranking up the Victrola at a party because they all wanted to dance to something from forty years earlier. I’m also trying to picture those who produced music in the first decade of the last century packing concert venues fifty years into their careers.

Just two days ago Paul McCartney (76) was joined on stage by former bandmate Ringo Starr (78) and Ron Woods (71) from the Rolling Stones. Not three old men tottering out for a lifetime recognition, they were three musicians center stage ready to jam for an audience. Like many of the music legends of our era, these men have not only proven that recreational drugs may not in fact kill you but are hell bent on proving that perhaps despite what Billy Joel (69) sang, maybe the good don’t die young. At least not all of them. Regardless, despite the passage of time, even despite the passing of the performers themselves, despite what the numbers indicate I think it’s the lyrics of Rod Stewart that best capture the mathematical conundrum of those we have aged alongside “In my heart you will remain forever young.”.

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Ideally, this won’t be my last on this topic, as it’s something that is triggered in me at the oddest times; while watching TV late at night, while driving or simply sitting in a lawn chair having a beer. Suddenly I’ll be overcome by what seems like a numerical oddity. Like recently at the funeral of a friend’s father, when I realized that even though I had not met him until after my own father had died, I actually had known him for longer than the time I shared on the planet with my own dad. The studio photograph of my daughter and her dog that is prominently displayed in our dining room was taken over half of her lifetime ago. If the puppies we got this year live a normal life expectancy, I’ll have them when I’m older than my grandfather was in our 1963 Christmas photo.

Grandpa

As a final thought, it’s my college friend Bobbie’s birthday today. We are both the youngest siblings in our families and during our final year of college both of our mother’s turned 50. I drove her home from school that year for her mother’s surprise party. In our early twenties we were fairly confident we knew most everything and it was a fact that 50 appeared old and was likely not going to be much fun. With a few decades under our belts we can admit we were wrong. It’s just another distortion of time passing and realizing that though the events of life can change you, that we are the same people just wrapped in older packaging. That’s simply math and earning another number is not to be feared but celebrated!

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Being Indignant Online – Our New Holiday Tradition

 

Over three years ago it was the “controversial” Starbuck’s cup (the virtual espresso-shot heard ’round the world!) and other social media related musings that I documented in this blog https://nerpribyl.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/half-full-half-empty-or-red-social-media-with-whip. This year it is the resurgence (as this is not a new conversation) over whether we should be offended by the lyrics to Baby It’s Cold Outside, a song written when my father was in junior high school. I’ll acknowledge that I felt the lyrics were a little creepy while watching a high school duet of it about a decade ago. In reality it’s not so much about the words, it’s the innuendo that some performers give to the line “what’s in this drink?” that felt a little awkward and might I say “dated”. Imagine that, a song written in 1944 that doesn’t reflect our evolved social norms.

It seems that with our ability to communicate with the masses (at 2 am while alone) we somehow have become emotionally lazy. We can jump off and on a social media bandwagon pretty quickly and with little thought. For many it appears this is their only form of exercise. This most recent created controversy has had radio stations polling listeners as to whether or not this song should be played, increased the number of downloads of the song and resulted in massive Google searches of the lyrics. There is a sort of self righteous superiority in the Me Too era to feel like you’ve really made a difference in the lives of others by removing a specific song from your holiday playlist. All of this energy keeping people distracted from real topics of the day. It’s generated numerous hilarious memes and made for what some believe are “meaningful conversations”. Nothing says Christmas like a polarizing topic!

This hypersensitivity has bled over into critical analysis of annual holiday televised  events such as Rudolph and Frosty. Lets be honest if this is the first year you realized that Rudolph’s flying coach was a complete dick than you should make sensitivity training part of your 2019 New Year’s resolution. A generation of school PE teachers fashioned themselves after this character.

This morning as I woke up to early morning news (but thought I was still dreaming) the anchor was reviewing the results of a poll indicating that people favor Santa being presented as gender neutral (no interview with Mrs. Claus in the broadcast on this topic) and others thinking he needs a trimmer physique. That’s what we do to the guy who is arguably the world’s greatest philanthropist! We generate polls that encourage fat shaming and we accept it as part of the “news”. Surely this is why Walter Cronkite was cremated, so he would not constantly be rolling over in his grave. Though we spend a fortune ensuring kids have an abundance of antibullying curriculum lets attack the fictional guy about his weight issues. Next year lets get in his business over having fur on his coat or how his milk and cookie habit is dismissive to the vegans, the lactose intolerant and the gluten-free among us. Lets pledge to take all of the magic and fun out of the season! After all, we’re adults now and some guy in a sleigh (the poll indicated that was an outdated transportation mode) simultaneously delivering gifts to children worldwide in one night seems childish. My own adult children will tell you that the one message they received repeatedly from me as kids was “don’t lose your imagination”. However there seems to be some idea that being a grownup is all about being serious and why not make children into little adults and spoil any fun or magic that previous generations had by just saying “spoiler alert” in the Delivery Room when they are born and fast-track them onto cynical adult thinking immediately?

I want to feel the power of being the catalyst of a conversation that launches a thousand memes or is the temporary water cooler topic. With each song I hear or holiday tradition that occurs I listen with great sensitivity and poke it with all of the journalistic acumen I can muster from my unused Mass Communications degree.

My easy mark came as a post yesterday on Facebook, footage of Do They Know it’s Christmas? I was immediately struck by the youthful appearance of the musical artists who provided the soundtrack to my college years. It was the 1985 closing to the Wembley Stadium Live Aid concert performed by the supergroup Band Aid. While even in the days before social media people questioned the wisdom of the lyric “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas” that’s simply too easy. Yes, there is snow in Africa but their winter is June-August, making the lyrics as obvious as “There won’t be snow in Malibu this Independence Day.”  While there are large pockets of Christianity throughout Africa, there are many locations where there is little Christian influence. So to answer the musical question “Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?” I would say “No. Absolutely clueless.”. That being said, I would not consider making the receipt of charitable aid such as food and clean water contingent on whether or not they know about Christmas. That’s simply my opinion and not what I consider worthy of long diatribes.

Maybe just chalk it up to the self-absorption of the eighties but the line I find hard to believe goes unchallenged in a “Christmas song” and even more ironically one that was arguably the largest charitable music effort ever, is Bono’s line “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you!” Even in a non-Christmas song that seems like one of the most callous remarks ever. Perhaps I am simply ahead of my time, the song was written in 1984 (40 years after Baby It’s Cold Outside) so perhaps in 2058 we can get around to rectifying this atrocity. After that I can expand on how ungrateful it sounds to act like “only” getting the gift of life is somehow being shortchanged.

Better yet, we can all relax a little and not hold the artistic efforts of the past to our standards of today. Perhaps we can commit to not taking ourselves or others too seriously or song lyrics too literally. Maybe we would be best served by not feeling compelled to convince others that they need to feel the same way about everything that we do. Enjoy the season, whatever it means to you and celebrate every day for the gift that it is. May the music of the season remind you of your past and my sincere good wishes that you can enjoy many more years of merry making with a song in your heart.

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Odd Jobs

People who know me are aware that in December of 2012, after nineteen and a half years at a position I loved (heading a program I had developed and grown) my work world changed dramatically on a Monday morning. The company had been operating somewhat in limbo for a few years after the death of the company’s owner, being run by a trio of trustees who opted to dissolve the trust and pass along ownership to a designated Foundation. I had been scheduled to have my first meeting with my new supervisor who I was anxious to share ideas with regarding changes that might be implemented to improve the operations of the student housing complex and the residential life program it housed.

Working in a college community, this had traditionally been among my favorite times of year, third only to staff selection and staff training week. I enjoyed it because of the traditions of purchasing Christmas trees for the building’s lobbies and decorating them with lights and candy canes that residents and guests were encouraged to take. The night prior to this meeting I had hosted my staff of live-in employees for a holiday meal and gift exchange. A favorite activity of mine was purchasing a book and writing a personal inscription in it for each of my employees. Over the years I had purchased hundreds of books that reflected the hobbies, interests, majors, career aspirations, or simply the humor of those I worked with. Each a memento with a message as unique as they were as individuals, intended to show my appreciation for their work. During this annual ritual I would verbally thank the group for their commitment and acknowledge that working for a company that operates 365 days a year requires sacrifice and hopefully a shared holiday meal with coworkers would not only prepare them for impending finals but also soften the disappointment of missing out on some of their own annual traditions. Somewhere among my things I have cards of appreciation from over the years that reflect that this gesture was as important to many of my workers as it was to me. Six years ago last Sunday, the event wrapped up about 9:30 pm.

The next morning at 9:30 am was my first meeting with my new supervisor and I was surprised by the presence of another person who was employed by the Foundation. It quickly became evident that they was not interested in maintaining the program that the Foundation had been gifted, viewing it only as a real estate asset and I was told to turn my keys in that Friday. It was then that I realized that even the wishes of a multi-billionaire don’t need to be honored once they are deceased. Not only did I have less than a week to pack up an office of nearly twenty years but I needed to step down from the  business association I was serving my sixth term as president of and leave behind numerous associations, boards and committees in the community I had been an integral part of as well.

My eldest was a sophomore in college, preparing for a semester in Europe and my youngest was a high school senior who had already been accepted to college. This new reality was not only a shock to me but to them as well. I had started my employment as a live-in Resident Director when my daughter was just nine months old and we lived on-site during the birth of my son who came home from the hospital less than 24-hours after he was born. My work had not simply been a job but a lifestyle and the only one my kids had known. While our health insurance ended, the household income was slashed in half and the tradition of summer cookouts and holiday celebrations with my team abruptly ended there was also concern for how my staff members would fare in my absence. Hiring, training and developing University of Minnesota students for work opportunities beyond college had always been a top priority of my role.

Now that the history of how my un(der)employment has been covered I can share some of the amusing tales of what has been the most challenging six years of my life. Last year I had six W2 forms to earn about 10% of my previous salary. While financially this has been a devastating period for me and my family, it has also been an opportunity to appreciate what we have. Having both integrity and a sense of humor has perhaps made this easier for me but it has been a truly wild ride that can best be summed up with “you can’t make this stuff up!’. So fasten your seatbelts and prepare to be entertained by what opportunities have come and gone over the past six years.

I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many people who have reached out with potential contacts, suggested employers and supportive suggestions. At an age where I am keenly aware of what my skills and assets are, I am also aware of what is not a good fit for me. While nothing has lead to what I refer to as “my next big girl job” I truly have appreciated every idea and offer that has been passed my way. The following are but a sampling of “Odd Jobs” not in the sense of occasional work (which some have been) but as in truly peculiar!

I’m going to dive in by starting with what is surely one of the most whirlwind bizarre opportunities I was given about five years ago. A friend put me in touch with a consultant that the large corporation she worked for frequently used. I was to meet her at 1:00 pm at a coffee shop in St. Paul. I met with a high school friend that morning for breakfast as the weather began to deteriorate into the first significant snowfall of the season. Rather than return home between breakfast and my meeting, I ran some errands and gave myself an adequate amount of time to get to the designated location and order myself some coffee. Once seated I texted the contact to let her know I had arrived and where I was seated. I immediately got a response “I left a message on your home phone regarding a change of location.”. So I transferred my beverage to a to-go cup and headed to the new meeting place where she introduced me to two college interns in suits. She explained that they were preparing a bid for hosting the World’s Fair and was hoping to use me for some communications work. She was taking calls, responding to texts and emails and instructed me to meet them at a building adjacent to the State Capital. The road conditions were now beyond horrendous, I basically slid over to the meeting place and found metered parking, climbed a snow bank and met up with the interns in a hallway. The woman explained that they would be filming a Russian delegation and I was to have them sign waivers permitting use of photographs and film from the event. As equipment was being set up I was shown to a table where I was given a pad of paper to take notes of the meeting. We were all instructed to silence our phones. In what seems like an almost dreamlike scenario, I was introduced to the Secretary of State and then a number of Russian visitors were introduced and seated at an adjacent table. I furiously documented the entire meeting from their review of their trip earlier in the day to the Mayo Clinic to the Secretary of State sharing the horrific story of the death of his daughter due to an accident with a drunk driver. Midway through the nearly two-hour event a cell phone (belonging to the consultant I was “working” for) rang on the table I was seated at, I silenced it while getting a dirty look from the Secretary of State. As the meeting ended, we regrouped in the hallway and I was instructed to send the meeting minutes and my hours to the consultant. It was the last exchange I had with her. I sensed that perhaps the Secretary of State instructed her to have nothing to do with the woman who left her phone on during the meeting and she never owned up to it being her own phone. I am the only person I know who has had a an uncompensated gig documenting Russians in a meeting with the Secretary of State. My only regret was not at least getting reimbursed for my parking.

From the moment my job ended I made it very public that I was looking for work and eventually a high school classmate reached out with what he described as an opportunity “beneath my skill set and pay scale” that I could do remotely for his Washington-based company. For two years I checked my email nightly and reformatted resumes to a specific company criteria and had them back to them by opening the following day. While the work was exacting, it was not difficult and I appreciated not only the income but additional insights regarding resume formatting which I have used in helping friends and family in their job searches as well. Eventually he sold the company which ended the opportunity.

A few years ago another high school friend suggested that a temporary gig working for a local business run by another graduate from our high school might be a good fit for me. That is how I began selling dog bandanas at a Minnesota State Fair booth (a position my husband affectionately refers to as “barking for the Yak woman!” a nod to the career trajectory of Cousin Eddie’s son in the movie Christmas Vacation). As an extrovert, I enjoy talking to customers and as a dog lover I never grow tired of hearing about the recipients of the amusing and clever bandanas or legendary Dog Biscuits on a Stick. As a Minnesotan I appreciate the tradition of the Fair and it’s been a great place to annually meet up with people from all areas of my life; with visits from a high school friend who resides in Hawaii, a college friend visiting from California, old neighbors who now live in North Dakota and many others. The accompanying photograph is from this year when the parents of two of my former staff members stopped by the booth for a visit. Not only available at The Great Minnesota Get Together, treat your canine friends and family members with gifts available at http://www.fundogbandanas.com

Currently I am overlapping a couple of seasonal positions. Wrapping up a season at a local garden center that closes when Christmas tree season ends and starting out a season at the local ski hill where I work in the retail shop and food court. There is an irony that I neither garden (beyond containers, hanging baskets and window boxes) or ski (I can fall pretty well on my own driveway which is flat) but I do enjoy talking to people and welcome the chance to work alongside high school and college students, as well as retirees. Both locations offer ample room for a favorite pastime which is simply the observation of people. While the State Fair is the epicenter of people watching, the ski hill allows for me to watch the awkwardness of budding middle school romances and the garden center has its own supply of amusing regulars. It’s certainly not the kind of work you take home with you and if I were to put a notch in my belt every time a customer said “Well it must be free!” when an item doesn’t register on the till or is missing a tag, my pants would be at my ankles. Every position leaves me with some sort of insight, be it profound or mundane. My most recent epiphany being that pine needles are merely “nature’s glitter”, equal parts beautiful to look at and annoying to deal with.

While nothing I have done over the past six years has truly utilized my skill set or provided me with any real challenges or growth opportunity, there is one job that I am literally reminded of daily that I found to be particularly soul-sucking. A temp agency hooked me up with a “Brand Ambassador” position which is a glorified name for “Consumer Harasser”. As someone who dislikes being approached while shopping, I found myself in the unseemly position of being the perpetrator of that very activity. After many hours of online training provided me with more information about a dog food brand than I ever cared to know, I worked shifts at various pet store chains, wandering the aisles and suggesting reasons that pet owners should try “my brand”. My shift ended with the completion of “call reports”, including all interactions and documentation of the “conversions” I’d made during my shift. While I enjoyed interacting with people and their pets I often found that the most rewarding part of my days were cleaning up the occasional accident of a puppy or senior dog, as it seemed to provide me with the greatest sense of accomplishment. The most awkward part of the role was the training with a ten-year veteran, which took place in the back storage area of one of the stores. The location had a motion sensor for the lights which meant every ten minutes my trainer and I were plunged into darkness, which caused him to spontaneously rise from his chair and flail his arms to trigger the lights. My company shirt and name tag never came, despite the reminder I submitted with each time sheet. The promised lap top for company use also did not materialize. It was work I did not look forward to, often scheduled over Viking’s games. This meant not only was I missing the game but that few people were in the stores. The upside to the job was I got a lot of steps in, occasionally ran into people I knew and interacting with the representatives from other brands, who were easily identifiable by their company shirts or lab coats (I needed to report which ones were present on my end of shift paperwork). I eventually found out why my own insignia wardrobe never was sent, the brand was changing temp agencies. I can think of only one previous job I was happier to have end. It’s been over a year now and I still get a DAILY reminder to submit “late call reports” and the automated request can’t be responded to, so I have that to look forward to for the rest of my life. While the temp agency was quick to find another dog food brand for me to rep, I simply could not justify using any more of my memory-capacity to retain ingredients, kibble sizes or other pet food jargon! A career move that went to the dogs.

I’ve often mentioned to people that one of the hardest parts of being out of work is that unlike when you are employed, there is no “time off”. You go to bed unemployed, you sleep unemployed and you wake up unemployed. It’s all-consuming and not quite the “extended vacation” that those working imagine it would be. The world keeps turning, the bills keep coming, people are born, while others die. There are weddings, there are graduations and anniversaries. The milestones continue but you remain somewhat frozen in a state of the unknown. In no way am I implying that I have been living in an endless sea of misery, in fact events and occasions to look forward to have been highlights of this period of my life.

Girls weekends and cabin getaways have provided me some “normalcy”. During one such occasion, a trip to my best friends cabin (a year ago this fall) we sat fireside while she scrolled through neighborhood websites where she had often found used furnishings for her lake place. She came upon a listing for a person near her community who was looking for what can best be described as personal assistant. She contacted the person with my information and the following week after a phone conversation I went to meet with her. I located the somewhat remote home and pulled up to the three car garage. I sat at the island in the beautiful kitchen while she went over the contents of a file folder which listed some of the things she needed assistance with. She then toured me through the lovely home where I was fascinated by the idea of having enough space in a Master closet for a washing machine and dryer. In the lower level were the bedrooms of her two teenaged daughters and across the hall their own laundry room. As she showed me the indoor swimming pool we exited through the adjacent bathroom which had an additional washer and dryer. The palatial home had a complete downstairs kitchen as well. Her husband owned a company and she homeschooled their youngest daughter and managed the books for the family business. They spent their winters in Florida and she suggested that perhaps I could collect their mail, check on the pool and perform other tasks in their absence over the winter months.

After reviewing her needs I set about tackling the tasks at hand; contracting a dumpster, booking a plumber to install a garbage disposal, arranging to have the carpets cleaned, contacting the pool company for cleaning and maintenance. I then moved on to organization of the pantry, cleaning of the refrigerator (it’s the third week of October, so I got rid of the meat that had expired in July). She asked if I could move my car so she could get out and asked that I park in front of her husband’s garage door in the future as he left for work by six a.m. daily and was rarely home before 10 p.m. I then watched as she headed out for lunch in her Maserati. Her homeschooled daughter took off on a four-wheeler to take care of her horses. I then moved on to breaking down boxes from Amazon, not simply a few but perhaps thirty. After that I went down to the piano room where she suggested some things be pulled out to go in the dumpster that I had ordered. All of the boxes and wrapping paper from Christmas the previous year were there and some gift bags with items still in them and a beautiful two piece dress which I hauled upstairs and placed on a table. The daughter returned and said she needed cash for gas and then called her mother. So I gave the 13-year-old a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet and wondered to myself if it was even legal for her to pump gas or be on the road. I was starting to experience the same dreamlike weirdness I had experienced while chronicling Russians meeting with the Secretary of State.

Eventually the daughter returned, a brother inlaw dropped off some neices for piano lessens, a piano teacher arrived and the oldest daughter returned home from school. None of them seemed to find it unusual at all that a stranger was in the kitchen, as though it were totally normal for an unknown person to be present in the home.

By the end of the day the mother had returned and wondered where I had found her daughter’s Homecoming dress that was lying on the table. “In the piano room armoire with the discarded Christmas wrapping paper”. I had also created a menu for dinner the following day and suggested to her that I grocery shop on my way over the next morning, which she agreed was a good idea.

The following morning I headed to the store and texted her at 8:45 that I was on my way. I let myself in and she shouted from the master bedroom “I’ll be out in a few minutes!’. I cleared the breakfast dishes, met the plumber and got him the “spare” garbage disposal from their Florida home that was in the hallway closet and set about prepping the white chili to go in the crockpot. I then met the dumpster delivery driver and made several trips from the garage with the boxes from the previous day. The youngest daughter and a cousin came into the kitchen and began making slime with glue, food coloring and glitter. By noon, with still no sign of the mother emerging from the Master the girls asked if I would make them pizza, which I did. Midway through day two and I’d seen no sign of “homeschooling”. By 1:00 the mother emerged and I updated her on the status of the day and she promptly left for lunch with the eldest niece. I was uncertain if I should feel flattered or concerned that she so nonchalantly left her daughter and niece with a virtual stranger or that they were seemingly so comfortable with the situation as well. I set about prepping side dishes for the evening meal. Upon the mother’s late afternoon return she grabbed her checkbook and wrote me a check for the groceries, the gas money and my sixteen hours of work and said “I’m meeting with a couple of other people who responded to the ad.” Somewhat perplexed, I left and the only contact I’ve had since was twice when I texted her to let her know “Your pool service is on their way” and remind her that all furnishings needed to be moved in the basement because the carpet cleaners were scheduled.

Nice work if you can get it. Albeit brief as it was!

So the search continues and as I often told my employment counselor “every day when I wake up brings me one day closer to my next job!”. Perhaps my next blog will be about the things I have applied for and the interviews I have had, the jobs I was excited about and didn’t land.

In the meantime don’t hesitate to send me job opportunities suitable for a creative, good-humored extrovert!

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