About Me

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

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Bliss

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

Some weekends you just really get it right.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fist Bumps for Everyone

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Right on Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have airport friends.

I have friends who share my passions and my annoyances.

I have friends I can sit with in quiet solitude.

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

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

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


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bless His Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Answer is Yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Buh-Bye, Jenny

I'm just going to warn you now.  Right out of the gate.  I am not going to hesitate or sugar coat it or mislead you in any way. If you are not blood-related to me, you are not allowed to call me Jenny.  And if you do, I might not acknowledge you.  If forced to acknowledge you, I just might give you the stink eye.  If you are blood-related to me, you may need to provide proof of such before you can call me Jenny. Then, and only then, will I consider giving you a waiver.  Why, you ask?  Because I am not Jenny.

The reason I am no longer Jenny (or Jenni - the high school rendition of my name) is because I outgrew her. Jenny represents a girl that once was, but no longer is.  Jenny wasn't all bad, I suppose, but enough of her was someone I no longer wish to be.  She had a side to her that was fully capable of being a sassy, ruthless, mean girl.  She didn't stop to think about how her actions and her words affected others.  For obvious reasons, Jenny is dead to me.

I was talking with a friend a while back who has recently joined AA.  Of course I've known a lot about AA over the years, and working the field of addiction and mental health I've had plenty of colleagues who have been involved.  But having a friend become deeply invested in AA made me spend some time sitting with the 12 steps a little more thoughtfully. While I can see the value in each step, it was steps 8-10 that stood out to me the most.  They are:

8.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.  Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Wow.  That is powerful stuff.  What if all of us did that?  Listen, I get it. Alcoholism and addiction take a toll on the person living it and everyone in their life.  It can be a massive path of destruction.  But haven't we all engaged in our own transgressions?  Haven't we all, at times, hurt others with our actions or our inactions? Our words or our lack of them?  Wouldn't the world be a better place if we could all just own it?

It's been said that the most difficult words to ever say are, "I'm sorry." Know what's harder than that? Meaning it.  It's harder, because it requires you to take a good, long look in the mirror and face the ugly side of you.  It also requires you to make a personal vow to do better. Because to truly be sorry, sorry from the bottom of your heart and all the way down to the tips of your toes, takes a whole lot of grown up, painstaking commitment.  If you are saying you are sorry and meaning it, what you are really saying is,  "I won't do that again."

Look, we are all human beings.  We are sometimes complicated, emotional, irrational, heaping piles of complexity.  We are all capable of doing less than honorable things.  So let's not beat ourselves up for making mistakes, because as human beings it is just something we are probably going to do.  Instead, let's recognize it, face it, and vow not to do that again.  Whatever that may be.