Wednesday, February 29, 2012

the path (vi)

My mother called me on Saturday morning to say she remembered the story I'd posted about in Section V. She laughed as she said, "You've always been strong willed, haven't you? Oh Dear, don't forget the time in San Diego when I'd invited over that young couple that had just moved to California from South Carolina. Do you remember them? He was a Master Chief in the Navy, stationed on Coronado. I knew his family from swimming at the Y..."

I remembered the couple, but I couldn't remember any of the details of the evening.

So mom reminded me.

"Well, after dinner, the husband looked at his wife - and then at you and said - why don't ya'll go clean the kitchen while the men talk? He was serious and his wife jumped right up. But I almost choked when you raised your eyebrows and in a southern drawl said, 'You ain't in the south no more. Do you not realize that *I* cooked this meal? In these parts, that means YOU clean-up.' Oh, my goodness that was the funniest thing I'd ever heard and to see his expression, I nearly died!"

The Jesuit saying (that I love and quote so often), "Give me a child until they are seven, and I'll give you the man…" is to highlight that who we become, is largely shaped when we are young.

Growing up, as the youngest of seven, with a six year spread between me and my brother, I truly was the baby. It was fun, except when it wasn't. I remember that people would treat me so differently. When they'd give me everything I wanted because I was adorable = awesome. When they'd treat me like a baby and make me go to bed early = not so awesome.

I remember that although my father would often call upon my siblings to help or confide in, he often treated me like I was incompetent. "Don't talk … don't touch … don't don't don't." I think it was largely because of how I perceived I fit in to the world, and the fact that there were six highly successful (in one way or another) kids before me, I felt like I needed to prove myself that much more. I am smart! I am strong! I am independent! I am funny!

In school and in work and in any situation where I need to demonstrate my brain power and resolve, I tend to go turbo. So whenever sexism enters the picture, it sends me clear over the brink. Lately, there's been chatter on internet sites about women who have felt victimized simply because they are a woman. The thought of this enrages me. As does any situation where women are attacked, condemned, treated as second-class citizens, or treated as an object.

I remember I was 16-years old and attending a party that one of the most popular (and handsome) boys in school had held at his house while his parents were out of town. He had a piano in his living room that I had sat down to play and it surprised me when he sat down next to me and said hello.

He actually noticed ME?!

After a moment or two, he slipped his arm over my shoulder and the next thing I knew, his hand had slid down to my chest. I was so shocked I didn't know what to do. That feeling of flattery that he'd noticed me, was instantly replaced with a feeling of disgust and violation. Slowly, I came to my senses and stood up. As I did, he shot me a dirty look.

I was at this party with one of my best friends, Laura. Laura was also the youngest of seven children. She had been adopted when after her mother had given birth to six sons, and decided that she couldn't endure another pregnancy trying for a girl. So Laura had six older brothers, all of whom, at one time or another, were linebackers on our high school football team. They were big. And strong. And fiercely protective of their little sister. (And her friends.)

On that night, two of Laura's older brothers were with us. I whispered to Laura what had happened and Laura whispered it to her brothers. And the next thing I knew, one of the brothers had grabbed the host and was holding him up by his neck and yelling, "Where are your manners, BOY? Is that how you treat a lady?" Romeo didn't look so handsome with his feet dangling off the ground and the coloring of an eggplant. Once they let him down, he came over and apologized to me, profusely.

I was so proud of those guys and wished:

1) That my brothers would do the EXACT same thing if in that situation.

2) That if I ever had sons, they would do the EXACT same thing if in that situation.

A few years ago, when I was working for my current employer, my job was to manage environmental activities associated with gas stations throughout southern California. One day, I drove my bright red convertible up the coast from San Diego to Orange County.

In those days, my modus operandi was to pull on to a site where I knew work was going on, and just observe the activities, before I announced my arrival. Because there were a lot of crews that were doing work on my projects, I didn't know everyone. But I found that once they knew I was there, their attitudes would change. So I preferred to watch people from afar, that didn't realize their client was watching.

So there I am, on this gas station property, filling up my car tank as I quietly observe a massive drill rig, with no less than five men, install groundwater monitoring wells. My plan was that I'd watch them for a few minutes, and then walk over and introduce myself. But before I had the opportunity to do any of that, one of the men started yelling towards me, "HEY BABY! HEY HONEY! HOW ARE YOU DOING, YOU HOT HOT THING!"

My attire consisted of blue jeans, a long sleeve shirt and work boots. But it wouldn't have mattered if I was wearing a string bikini. In my opinion: the presence of a woman in public, whether in work clothes or a bathing suit, driving a minivan or a convertible ... is not a free pass to act uncivilized.

Once the tank was full, I jumped back in my car and drove over to a parking spot. I climbed out of the car and turned to face the drill rig, and the guys started their whooping again.

I was feeling seriously offended. But I imagined I'd feel even worse and likely, intimidated, if I was a female customer visiting this location. I'd probably drive away and never come back. Or, maybe if I had the time or inclination, I'd write a scathing letter to the company.

My blood was boiling as I stood at the back of my car and popped the trunk. I slipped on my bright orange reflective vest and safety glasses. The whooping subsided when the men realized that I was there to work. And I could hear the audible gasps as I put on my hard hat, with the name of my company across the front, and walked over to where they were standing.

"So, this is how you behave around women? Or is this just how you behave on one of my jobs? I certainly hope that you aren't always this disrespectful and degrading…"

They quietly apologized as I sought out the foreman. Other than offering a weak apology, the foreman didn't say anything, until I told him to pack up his rig and leave. That's when he said, "But we're 45 feet on a 50 foot hole … we're almost finished!"

"No," I corrected him. "You ARE finished. And not until your crew learns some common decency and manners will you ever have the opportunity to work on one of these projects again. Bye-Bye. "

*******
What do these stories say about me?

(There were actually five stories that I wrote but I deleted three of them because they're all variations on the same exact theme.)

Depending upon your view on such matters, some might think I'm a humor-lacking, self-righteous, uptight feminist. But I look at the television shows, commercials and billboards. And the fact is, we do live in a male-dominated world. There is a brainwashing of young girls (and boys) that begins early and continues in to adult life. While I don't consider myself overly conservative, when we went shopping for Halloween costumes last year and I saw things like this and this for "tween" girls (i.e., 10-12 years old!) … I promised myself I'd never go Halloween costume shopping again. From this point on, we'll make our costumes at home.

It happens when you're driving and men shout, "Stupid WOMAN drivers!!" and recently, I read a story about an 8-year old girl that was spat upon by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men that insulted her, "and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code."

Whoa. "Godly" men, spitting on a young girl and calling her a prostitute? It's a shame Laura's big brothers weren't around to witness that.

Because of my predominantly math and science education and engineering career (and my own personal struggles in school), I am frequently asked to volunteer as a role-model for girls. I love serving in this capacity because I do believe that academically, young girls can accomplish anything that young boys can accomplish and can go on to achieve great things with their careers.

But of course, therein lies my greatest challenge. I have steadily been on the rise in my career and feel the pull to continue on and pave the way for other females. And yet, there are four little people whose childhoods I'm largely missing. If not by physical absence, by mental absence because my mind is almost always consumed with "other" thoughts. What I've long realized, but have displaced, is that the pull is even greater to watch them grow up.

Friday, February 24, 2012

the path (v)

Warning: There is profanity in this post. In all the years that I've written this blog (almost 6, CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?), I've never intentionally used profanity. But in this context, it has been deemed necessary to accurately portray the memory that I'm about to share. Delicate eyes - look away.

************

Before I'd even graduated from college, I had a job. Actually, several. There were two brief stints as a waitress, a teaching assignment, and an internship with the State. From the time I was 16, I also worked for various environmental consulting firms, in differing capacities.

When I was in graduate school, I worked part-time for a consulting firm in San Diego. They brought me on to help write reports and do entry-level field work. Which means, I'd go out in to the field (generally an old gas station) and do grunt work like collect groundwater samples from wells that were impacted with contamination from leaking underground storage tanks.

After I'd graduated with my Masters, they brought me on full-time. Although the job wasn't the most glamorous, the experience that I gained was some of the best experience of my entire career. I learned just about everything there was to learn about the technical side of the business, which would benefit me in later years when I'd be responsible for managing multi-million dollar projects and interfacing with regulatory agencies. In my opinion, you can't fully comprehend a report if you don't know, firsthand, how the data is collected and what it means.

One day, I had to collect samples from wells that were located along a busy intersection. My job was to set up the traffic control which was required to divert the cars away from the wells. I then had to get down on my hands and knees and remove the well lids, which are small manhole covers, that protect the well casing (piping) that extends far below grade (in this particular case, 30 feet or more.) For each of the wells, I had to hand bail approximately 20 gallons of water, before collecting a sample of groundwater. The 'purge' water from each well was placed in a 55-gallon drum, that once full, I'd have to roll on to a drum dolly and walk across the busy intersection and back on to the gas station property for temporary storage.

It seldom rained it San Diego, but when it would rain, it would often pour. On this particular day, it was pouring. I was wearing my hard hat and steel toed boots and had on a bright orange traffic vest. I was grubby and nasty and trying not to breathe the hydrocarbon fumes. Cars were driving past and hitting potholes filled with water which would splash all over me, as I'd be crouched down next to the well, trying to measure the depth to water. At one point, I overheard two women who were walking past. One of them shook her head when she saw me and said, "See, that's why it's so important to go to college and get your education..."

Oh yeah, LADY?!

Well … CAMPBELL'S ORDINARY SOUP DOESN'T MAKE PETER PUKE!

Once my drum was full of purge water, I had to move it back across the street to the gas station for storage. I rolled it on to the drum dolly and then tilted the dolly back to begin pushing it across the street, once there was a break in traffic. Mid-way across the busy roadway, one of the wheels got stuck in a pothole. I tried, desperately, to budge it, but it wouldn't move and when the entire drum started to tip over, just as a swarm of cars was coming towards me, a good samaritan jumped out of his car and ran over to help. He abandoned his vehicle in the intersection as he uprighted the drum and then rolled it to the side of the road.

I think he might have asked me, "Why are YOU out here doing THIS work?!"

It was hardcore, dirty, physical labor and I was a dainty young woman. In that moment, I'd felt like I'd learned what I needed to learn. So I finished my task and went back to the office and immediately began looking for a new job.

It didn't take long before I found one.

My interview lasted a solid eight hours. They wanted to know what I had studied in school, what experience I'd had in the field and what my career aspirations were. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? They took me out to lunch and at the end of the long interview, I sat down with the Operations Manager and he offered me a job on the spot. At the time, I was making $32,000 a year. The position they offered me was for $40K. My stunned silence made him think that I wasn't sure about the offer; when in reality, I was thinking about how Charlie and I would be RICH.

"I'll tell you what," the Operations Manager said. "You think about it. We'll send an offer letter to you in the mail and give you some time to decide." I thanked him for taking a day out of his busy schedule, shook hands - and left. After rounding the corner and disappearing from view, I skipped all the way to my car and pumped my hands in the air.

That night, I called my unofficial mentor, a woman who had been in the industry for years and was a close friend of our family. I told her about my interview and my outstanding offer and wow wow wow! She asked me the name of the company and when I told her, she let out a sigh.

It wasn't the sound I wanted to hear.

She informed me that this particular company was under investigation by the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Apparently, they had submitted data that did not appear consistent with prior site data; so the State decided to go out and remotely film them. W hat they discovered is that in an effort to save time, personnel were collecting ALL of their groundwater samples - on a site with 20 wells - from one well. So all the laboratory data came back exactly the same, instead of accurately reflecting the variability in contamination levels across the site.

It was a clear cut case of sample fraud and they were in big trouble.

BIG. BIG. BIG.

The next day, I called the Operations Manager and told him that before I accepted the offer that I'd had yet to receive in the mail, I'd heard a rumor that I'd like for him to confirm or deny. He was surprised, shocked even, that I knew the details of this investigation. But, I could tell he was also impressed that I clearly HAD MY SOURCES. Which I did, because I'd been working in this industry, in some capacity since I was 16 years old. My sister was an environmental laboratory director and I'd met scores and scores of people through her.

Ultimately, he confirmed that yes, the rumor was true, but then he carefully outlined what the company had done to mitigate the issue. Namely, fire all of the personnel that were involved and implemented a rigorous oversight program. My concerns were placated.

Four days later, my offer arrived in the mail. I ripped open the FedEx envelope and eagerly pulled out the letter. As I read it to Charlie, I had to stop and rub my eyes because the offer was now for $44,000, a whopping 10% more than had been discussed during the interview.

Charlie and I discussed if it was an error, but since it was signed by the President of the company and the Chief Financial Officer (on behalf of the Operations Manager), my initial thought was that it must be accurate. But I had a little nagging feeling that maybe I should call just to confirm.

Instead, I called my friends.

And everyone that I spoke to discouraged me from calling the company. Every single person, including some of my most admired colleagues, agreed that they had "made the pie a little sweeter" because they clearly wanted for me to come work for them, and I might be a little tainted since I knew about their snafu with the Regional Board and District Attorney's office.

That was enough for me.

So I accepted the offer and began a job that would truly shape the rest of my career.

Almost immediately, and partly because the prior Project Manager had flunked a drug and alcohol test and was shipped off to a rehab facility, I was tasked with managing the largest client in their office. The largest client, who it turned out was extremely frustrated with the level of technical competency and customer service that they'd been receiving and had pulled almost 50% of their work away and was threatening to pull the remaining 50% if they didn't see things immediately turn around.

It became my job to make things right. And I did. In less than four months time, I was beginning to pick up new projects and the company had to hire an additional four people just to keep up with the work that was suddenly flooding in.

I started in February. By September, things were humming along and I had established an excellent rapport with my client. One day, I was informed that it was time for my "introductory" review. The day of the "introductory" review just so happened to coincide with a pay-day and that morning, the Operations Manager popped his head in to the conference room where I was working and said, "Do me a favor and don't check your bank account until AFTER we talk…."

Sure!

Wait.

Huh?

When you think about it, what a silly thing for him to say. I mean, if I tell you NOT to look at the ceiling because there is something there that might interest you, whaddya think will be the first thing you do? So the first thing I obviously did, was to call Charlie (who had all of our bank account information) and ask him to please go check our balance ASAP.

A few minutes later, he called me back to say that it was lower than he had expected. Considerably lower. As in, "Jen, our financial aid and mortgage payments might not go through…."

I'd no sooner heard that news and it was time for my review.

Walking in to the Operations Manager's office, I pretended like I was oblivious to the information I'd just received. I sat down in the chair, directly across from his desk, and next to my immediate supervisor. The Operations Manager started off the conversation by saying, "We just want to thank you for your OUTSTANDING contributions since you've been here. You bring so much joy to this office, yada yada yada, and you've done a fantastic job, yada yada yada, we're so glad to have you, yada yada yada, so …. we'd like to offer you a raise!!!"

He paused for a moment and shot my supervisor a glance before continuing. "Now, it's come to our attention that there was a paperwork glitch when you were first hired. It seems that when we sent you the offer, it was for 10% higher than what we'd discussed during your interview and so we've made an adjustment to your salary, retroactive to your first day of work. Your new salary is for $41,500/year." Then he gave me a creepy smile and paused, like he expected me to thank him.

Before I go on, I should probably add that the Operations Manager (my boss' boss), was no less than 6'4" and 250 pounds. He was a big, strong, domineering man. So when he tapped his pen on his desk and looked at my supervisor with raised eyebrows, my supervisor piped up, "OK! I think that about does it. Thanks so much for your efforts and for taking the time to talk. Keep up the good work!" then he put his hands on the arms of his chair, poised and ready to stand up.

I sat still for a moment and softly chuckled. "Actually," I said. "That doesn't quite do it…"

The Operations Manager leaned forward, his creepy smile slowly giving way to a concerned expression and asked, "What do you mean? Is there something ELSE to talk about?"

"Well ….." I replied. "We can talk about my offer letter that was for $44,000 that was signed by the President and Chief Financial Officer of the company." My voice started to raise as I said, "Or, we can talk about the date on the offer letter which is the date AFTER I called to inquire on the validity of rumors I'd heard that this firm had been tampering with groundwater samples and was under investigation by the State..."

He interrupted me and said, "OK THEN. Perhaps you'd care to explain why you never called to ask if there was an error in the offer letter? Or, make some attempt to find out why it was 10% higher than we'd offered you during the interview?"

I nodded and said, "You know, that thought did cross my mind! But ultimately, I decided that you were sweetening the deal after I'd called you and expressed concern coming to work for this company because of what appeared to be ETHICAL FLAWS." I hesitated for a moment before continuing, "Considering the letter was signed by the PRESIDENT and CFO, I deemed it to be an accurate representation of this company's intent. And now, GOSH, it appears you might be pulling a bait and switch because quite honestly, I find it hard to believe that no one knew that a mistake had been made until now…"

The Operations Manager huffed, like a great big grizzly bear and then he growled, "Oh so, that's what you think? HUH? Well know this little lady, I don't FUCK AROUND about money." Then he slammed his clenched fists on his desk and glared at me.

Oh, people.

I'm really not sure what he was thinking would happen with that tactic. Perhaps he confused me with someone that would be easily intimidated by big strong men with fiery tempers. While his shock and awe might have worked for some, for me, his words were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. A red, hot, raging fire.

I'll guarantee he never thought that the pretty, perpetually happy 26-year old with long blond hair would lean across his desk and say, "SPLENDID!! Because I don't FUCK AROUND about money, either. I'll tell you what, Bud. You're in BREACH OF CONTRACT and if a SINGLE payment - mortgage, cars, financial aid or the little $12.00 per month cable bill does not go through because you have unlawfully withheld my wages, I will get the labor board on your ass so fast YOUR HEAD WILL SPIN."

Then I smiled brightly and said, "OK. I think that about does it!" as I stood up, flung my waist-length hair over my shoulder and walked out of the office, out of the building, across the parking lot and climbed in to my car for my drive home. That incident happened on a Tuesday at noon. I didn't go back to work that day.

Nor did I go to work on Wednesday.

Nor Thursday.

Nor Friday.

I called in, each day and said, "I'm sick today. I'm so sorry, but I won't be in."

To be perfectly honest, I didn't know what I was going to do. I felt so wretchedly sick about the whole thing, especially about returning to that place and seeing that horrible bully. But we did have a mortgage to pay. And we really needed two incomes. So I just gave myself an extended mental holiday as I debated my options. I could return to my former employer and get back in to the field. Or, I could continue to look around. Either way, it wouldn't be an easy solution.

On Friday night, the Operations Manager called my house. Charlie, who was alarmed that I'd just left without any concern for whether or not they'd fire me, answered the phone. He made some small talk and said, "Yes, as a matter of fact, she's right here…" Then he handed me the phone and whispered, "Oh, please BE NICE!"

Very cooly I said hello. The Operations Manager was calling to check on me (was I feeling any better?), but also, to let me know that he'd spoken to the President of the Company and it was insisted that they immediately restore my salary to the amount that had been presented in the offer letter. Moreover, they'd be immediately crediting my bank account for the unauthorized deductions in my paycheck. He apologized for his behavior and closed the conversation by saying, "I really hope to see you on Monday..."

But his comment came off more as a question than as a command.

On Monday, I returned to work and continued on like nothing had ever happened.

On Tuesday, I received a call from my client. He was calling to inform me that he was so impressed with the overall quality of work, he'd made the decision to transfer his entire portfolio of projects within that region, to me. Not only would I be receiving the 50% of cases that the firm had previously lost, I'd be receiving an additional 30 projects. In essence, I'd been successful in increasing the revenue to that office from just under $300,000 per year to well over $1,000,000.

On Wednesday, I was contacted by the firm that would be losing all of their work and was offered a position for almost twice what I was making. But I turned it down and went with another firm that recruited me to open an office for them in San Diego. They were hopeful that I'd bring the midas touch and land a coveted contract with my well-established client. Less than 10-months later, I did. But I no sooner secured a 5-year contract, I was contacted by my client and asked if I would come work directly for them.

And that is how less than two-years after the Operations Manager slammed his clenched fists on his desk, I found myself sitting across from him, once again. But this time, I was his top client, thanks to the work that I had landed when I was working in his office. He was pitching a proposal and trying to convince me why it was necessary that his budget was so high.

For a while, I patiently listened to the babble, but when I'd had enough, I started to point out all of the "fluff" that he'd built in to the numbers. He continued to try and convince me, so I raised my hand and quietly cut him off. "Remember who you're talking to…" I said.

With a slight smile, I added, "You should know by now that I'm someone who doesn't like to fuck around about money."

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

unleashing the boy inside the man

I'm taking a quick break from my deep soul-searching posts about the experiences of my past that have shaped who I am and some of the choices I've made and how I'm now in the process of re-evaluating my entire life's purpose, to capture some photos of my husband who is ahem, "helping" our young son prepare for his upcoming Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

DSC_0021

For those, not in the know, the Pinewood Derby is an opportunity for grown men to build little wooden race cars on their son's behalf; that they will then race against little wooden race cars that other fathers have built on their sons' behalf.

OK, maybe as they grow older, the children will actually help. But the only help that our seven-year-old has thus far provided to his father is the inspiration that he'd like for his car to resemble a rocket ship. Which Charlie, subsequently, convinced him should resemble a shark because it would be SO TOTALLY COOL. OK? OK? OK? OK?!

Once he had his son's concurrence, Charlie ran out to the store and bought the necessary wood carving tools and supplies and got right to work. William, meanwhile, went in to his room to read books and called out, "Great. Whatever. Can you tell me when it's done? Thanks Dad!"

Tonight, Charlie carved out the dorsal fin, which he'll affix to the top of the car with wood glue before drilling out holes and inserting lead-ball weights. He'll then paint the whole thing in shark-like colors. My husband was feeling pretty smug about his awesome design when the doorbell rang. One of the father's from his den had swung by our house to show off his son's car (although the son was at home, in bed asleep.) The dad is retired from the Army, so had decided to craft his son's little pinewood derby car to look like an army tank. It was an unbelievably PERFECT model, from the turret to the all-terrain track to the detailed camouflage paint job. He was incredibly proud and beaming from ear-to-ear.

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Charlie has since decided that he needs to add gills and a remora.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

the path (iv)

Many of my early childhood memories took place in my father's drugstore because that's where my family spent the majority of their time. My mother, and all seven of her children, in varying capacities (and some more than others), worked in that drugstore.

Or as my mother refers to it, "That God damned store."

My mother had six children in seven years. She had me, six and a half years after my brother, Wally. If I've got the facts straight, my dad bought the drugstore in 1964, which happened to be the same year that my brother was born. Dad didn't take his first vacation for six years, which ironically, is the same year that I was conceived.

My father lived and breathed that drugstore and it was his life goal to see it succeed. Without question, the drugstore came before his marriage and his family and well, anything else in his life. To the best of my knowledge, he never stopped to sit and enjoy a meal, or exercise. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, from morning until night, Dad worked. Late at night, he'd come home and do the books. He'd work. And work.

And work.

So did his wife and children. Because I was young, I didn't work as hard as the others. Although I was never recruited to "bring in the [news] papers", I remember my siblings being awoken at the crack of dawn to go down and lug in the Boston Globe on Sunday mornings and help get the papers organized for when the store opened and they'd fly off the stoop by people on their way to/from Mass. I remember helping to ring up customers at the cash register (candy bars were $0.25 and a pack of cigarettes were $0.75) and I'd dust the shelves by removing every single item on the shelf, and wiping every item and the shelf down with a damp cloth. Each item in that store - and the shelf upon which they sat - were dusted every single week.

The organization of that old pharmacy was unlike anything I've ever seen, in my life. That's how I was raised. There's always an inventory. Bottles line up and labels are turned out. The key to success is dedication, hard work, and a clean and organized process.

These days, it's hard for me not to notice the cleanliness of a store. I gauge the quality of that store by the condition of it's shelves. If the shelves are stocked and clean - it's a good shop run with a conscientious management. If the shelves are barren and items are in disarray and/or loaded with dust - it's a dump run by a bunch of slackers.

(I'm always willing to pay a little more to support the good ones.)

Dad offered a free "delivery" service to all of his customers and he would have prescriptions (and/or supplies) dropped off to anyone who couldn't (or didn't want) to make it the trek downtown. Some of my most vivid memories are driving around with my sister, Beth, on deliveries. She'd drive and I'd run the prescriptions in. We'd visit nursing homes, hospitals, and private residences. A lot of the time, people would want to talk with me. Especially the elderly customers that we're housebound, lonely, and knew my family.

When they'd see me, they'd smile broadly and pinch my cheeks and say things like, "Oh good heavens. You're growing up so much. I remember when you were just a tiny baby!" It would drive Beth totally crazy because sometimes I'd stay and chat, for several long minutes, and she'd finally have to park the car and come in to tell me, "JENNY, LET'S GO!!!"

But … but … Catherine was just telling me that she got her hair cut at a new salon and … look, she's got Pepperidge Farm cookies and Brach's butterscotch!

I believe that it is because of that store and the relationships that we built with the customers, that every one of my siblings has a rock solid work ethic and will push themselves harder than anyone I've ever met. I also believe it's the reason that we are all fiercely independent and feel completely responsible for our own success. The only person that comes close, is my friend, Marla, whose family owned a restaurant and she was raised in much the same way. Behind the counter - in front of the counter - working tirelessly for her family's business to succeed.

In many ways, that's a good thing. But in many ways, it's not. Now that I'm an adult, I largely blame the demise of my parent's marriage - and hence my primary family unit - on what happened to my family as a direct result of that store. More specifically, our inability to balance the store with other more important things in life.

My mother tried, though.

Good Lord did she try.

When I was a child, I always believed that Dad worked so hard so he could provide for his family. And yes, we had a nice roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food on the table. There was an in-ground swimming pool and a beautiful yacht that he'd take us out on, every summer. But, it always felt like there was some thing missing...

My father.

I believe, in my heart of hearts that my father is a good man and I love him very much. It is my most fervent wish that he's enjoyed his life and has many happy memories. It brings me joy to know that just about everyone who knew my Dad, liked him. Regardless of how busy he was, he'd always take the time to come out from behind the pharmacy bench and talk with his customers. He cared and appreciated each and every one of them and they knew it. But I've always believed that he appreciated and cared for his customers and success a lot more than he cared for us. Or at least, that's how it's always felt.

When my parents divorced, my mother left. She didn't take anything with her except the clothes on her back. She didn't want any of the money that my father had amassed over their 23 years of marriage. That money, in her opinion, was the culprit for why he had sacrificed his entire family. So mom wanted nothing. And Dad kept it all.

Despite the fortunes that my father had made, all of my siblings who went to college, were entirely responsible for paying their own way. I was the only lucky one to have a (small) trust fund, that had been established for me by a wonderful woman named Marge, who worked in my dad's store. Nonetheless, I still needed to take out financial aid and work various jobs to make it through. According to my sister, Mary, the fact that she received absolutely zero financial support for her college tuition turned out to be a blessing in disguise. She's said that if she hadn't worked so hard to get through, she probably would have dropped out her senior year of pharmacy school.

As for me, I remember feeling a pang of bitterness when dad would easily drop $5,000.00 in cash to fuel his boat and I'd think of how that money could have been sent to my mom so she could buy a car with power windows instead of the roll-up manual variety. Or how that money could have covered a semester of tuition and made my life so much easier. There's no question, my mother might not have accepted the money. And I appreciate my education and am very proud of my accomplishments. But for my own children, I think I'll try to strike a balance - somewhere between helping them, but not giving them a completely free ride.

In my opinion, financial assistance demonstrates that someone is invested enough in your life and success, that they're willing to help underwrite it. It's just something you do, if you can afford it, for the people that you brought in to the world.

Even though my mother was living on a shoe string budget, she would do whatever she could to help offset our costs during school. To this day, my siblings and I will receive rogue checks in the mail from my mother, who is sending "a little something" towards the cost of a new water heater, or a grandchild's braces, or preschool tuition. Meanwhile, Dad's money is Dad's money. Money is definitely something to be carefully managed.

But also spent on and shared with those whom you love.

Although my father still owns the building where his drugstore once was, he sold the store and all of it's contents, several years ago. In the drugstore's place is a Toy Store. Smack dab on the corner of Main Street in downtown Concord. To this day, every time I drive past, I mist up a bit when the "What-If's" set in.

My father married another woman, shortly after he divorced from my mother. A few years ago, he divorced that second woman, after 25 years of marriage. She cared a lot more about money than my mother ever did, and took a large portion of my dad's fortune ~ that was built upon my mother (and her children's) shoulders ~ with her. When I think of how hard my mother has had to work - it seems terribly unfair.

These days, my dad is living at an assisted living facility. His health has been on the decline for the past several years and I think it's a miracle he's still with us. While the divorce disrupted our family unit, my father's condition has torn it to pieces. There have been heated arguments regarding health care proxies and power of attorneys and lawsuit threats and it hurts my head (and heart) to think of all the controversy and rifts in my family that will likely never mend.

Not long ago, when I was visiting with my father, we talked about life. Dad was sitting in a chair, with his walker in front of him. He had a blanket across his lap and he looked very frail; which is something that I'll never get used to, because I always think of him as a strong, confident man that can do anything. As we talked, his voice shook and he had a sadness in his eyes. "I worked so hard for so many years," he said. "If someone drove down Main Street today, and didn't know better, they'd never know that Snow Pharmacy existed. Nothing remains that would show it was ever even there..."

He was quiet for a moment, caught in reflexion, before he continued. "So, I wonder, what was it all for? What in the hell was it all for?"

The thought of such regret makes me very sad.

But I suspect it makes my dad even sadder.

Monday, February 20, 2012

the path (iii)

I think you might be manic depressive. Or bipolar. Probably both. One day you're posting pictures of the children, looking absolutely adorable in their dresses and writing about the wonderful parties that you're hosting and the next day, you're ready to jump off a bridge. Good heavens, you're giving me a heart attack! You need to hire help, go find an au pair that will do laundry. Why didn't you call and tell me that you were having such a difficult time?

Okay. First, I'm doing much better now than I was. I'm writing more out of retrospection and to capture the series of events that I think have led me to this place. I promise, Charlie and I are fine and we're no where near the edge of a bridge. We've got a plan and we are executing that plan. Second, I did call you. Remember? I told you that I was capsizing and you told me that you found a new recipe for Grandma's Toffee Bars.

That never happened.

Yes it did.

It did? Well, I don't remember. I also don't remember you calling me and me telling you that I was watching Oprah.

That happened, too.

Huh. Well, I do remember that it was very difficult raising children. You know I had six in seven years and it felt like I was in a daze half the time. But I see you working so hard. You really need to slow down and get some help, Jen.

Enough about me. How are you doing, Mom? How's Jim?

Well, he's 88-years old and he's not doing well. He usually doesn't know where he is and he gets very confused. He's very dependent upon me, but he's such a kind and wonderful man and I love him very much. Most nights he's up all night coughing, which of course keeps me up all night so I'm drained and exhausted. Sometimes, it feels like I'm going to crack.

Have you thought about bringing in help?

Eh. I don't need help. If I can get out and play Bridge everyday, I'm fine. I'm also on the Welcoming Committee and play Bocci and try to get in to the pool for water aerobics every morning. Did I tell you that Pam was here last week and Beth is coming to Florida this week? Yesterday, I took one of my neighbors, who has a broken femur, to the doctor and then I took her grocery shopping at four different stores. I threw my back out lugging in all of the groceries, but I came home and started cooking and I've already got five different meals prepared, including a wonderful new cranberry bread that I whipped up, so it's all done when she gets here.

And …. you wonder where I get the crazy from?

I know. It's all my fault. I did this to my children, didn't I? All of you are such high achievers. *Deep Sigh* I must have potty trained you way too early...

***************

I've always envied people who have had friendships since kindergarten. Probably because I went to a different school every year from kindergarten through sixth grade. Each year, spanning the age of 6 through 12, I was meeting new people and learning my way around.

When I was in third grade, I started to struggle with math and soon, fell behind. When I was in fourth grade, I was in third grade math. And although my mother brought in tutors, I was never able to catch up. There was a mental block that literally prevented me from understanding and the harder I tried, the worse it got. Despite the fact that three of my four sisters had degrees in pharmacy and chemistry and could conquer any math problem, I could hardly subtract.

By the time I reached sixth grade, school administrators pulled me out of my science class so I could sit in a "Resource" (aka: "Learning Disabled") class and continue to work on my math skills. It was humiliating. My math book was fifth grade blue, but all of my friends - everyone that was smarter than me - had sixth grade red. So I wrapped that damn blue book in paper bags to "protect the cover" but more importantly, help disguise my embarrassment.

Math eluded me, but words never did. I like to think that I inherited my love of reading from my great-aunt Martha. When I was in sixth grade, I was reading on a 12th grade level. And when I was in 7th grade, I won the seventh-grade spelling bee. I remember that was a very happy moment for the slow kid with thick glasses and braces who couldn't do fractions to save her life. Maybe I can't do trigonometry … but I can spell it.

The fact is, I was never a very good student until I reached college. And it's a miracle I reached college, considering I had a 760 (out of 1600) on the SATs. The score might have been lower, if not for the fact that they give you 200 points just for filling in your name. Nonetheless, it took me 18 years before I understood the concept of studying.

It struck me my freshman year. I was taking a sociology class and I made a 27 on my first exam. (Yes, that'd be 27 out of a possible 100 points.) But the next exam, I made a 50. And the third exam, I made a 70. On the final, which was a comprehensive test over the entire semester of material, I made a 100. The teacher, Dr. Eckberg, an awesome man who loved cats, was responsible for a pivotal moment in my life when he gave me an A. I distinctly remember approaching him and asking, "How? When my average for the semester is only a 61?" He smiled and said, "You have consistently demonstrated continuous improvement and because you earned 100% on the final shows me that you've mastered the subject. You most definitely deserve an A in this class!"

It was incredibly empowering, that moment when I first realized that if I applied myself, I could do well. And when I saw people look at me as someone who was smart … well, that was positively intoxicating and I began to look at myself differently, too. Like someone who if they tried very hard, had control over their fate. So it became addictive, this whole work hard = do well thing and very soon, more A's followed. Every class that I took, it became my goal to ace. Not just to pass, but to master the subject. To accomplish that goal, many a Saturday night party I'd miss with my roommates, so I could stay behind in the dorm and sequester myself to studies beneath my green banker's light.

Although I'd never once made the honor role in the lower 12, I easily made the Dean's List in college. Semester after semester after semester. At one point, I won a collegiate speech and debate championship and was written up in the local newspaper. And then I earned an academic scholarship. It wasn't much, but since I was going to a state school, it covered the cost of my books. Teachers would summon me (me!) to help students in their class that would be struggling. And I thrived on helping others get to the point where they, too, could understand.

My studies slowed down once I transferred to school in California and met Charlie. But the intensity quickly resumed when I entered graduate school. Once again I bombed the standard examination for entrance and my graduate advisor would later tell me, "I saw your GRE scores and thought for sure you were an illiterate that couldn't write your own name. But then I saw your transcripts and letters of recommendation …"

Very soon, I was conquering graduate-level chemistry, physics and mathematics. I eagerly took on an associate position where I was teaching undergraduates the fundamentals of geology. My education could have continued beyond my MS, because I was contacted by a top university to pursue a doctorate. But I felt a bit like Forrest Gump, who after running and running and running decided one day that it was time to stop. I'd enjoyed the journey, but I didn't feel the need to continue. I'd finally proven my academic prowess.

If only to myself, alone.

Now that I look back, I often wonder if my passion was learning, or proving that I could learn? I think it might have been more of the latter, since I can't hardly remember any of the things that once put me at the very top of my class.

Well, except the geological time scale!!

Campbell's Ordinary Soup Doesn't Make Peter Puke.

Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian Mississippian Pennsylvanian Permian.

That's certainly come in handy at dinner parties.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

the path (ii)

"You know, I think you'd really benefit if you talked with someone. Not just a friend or Charlie. But a professional. They can offer an ear and an unbiased opinion, and they might really help you put things in perspective."

Those were the words of my mother. She's been telling me for a long time, possibly predating the closet event, that I could really benefit from "talking" with someone. Whenever Mom has raised this notion, my response has always been, "When? When do I have the time? Because if I have the choice of talking with a professional, or say, seizing a moment of peace to stare out a window, the window is always going to win."

Years ago, during my parent's divorce, and shortly thereafter, I did talk to someone. A few people, in fact. They were located in medical office buildings, or old restored Victorian houses, and there were always Highlight magazines in the waiting room. Once my name was called, I'd be escorted back to a room. There was always a table, a stack of paper and a box of crayons that I'd dive towards. We'd typically sit around a table and they would quietly ask me questions as I colored pictures. "What are you drawing? How does that make you feel? Is that what you wish for?" I remember the questions, but I can't rightly remember the pictures. If I had to guess, I'd say that they were sketches of my mother and father in a heart, floating above my big family. Everyone would be smiling and holding hands as they watch me win a gold medal in the newest Olympic sport: Horse Gymnastics.

Some people might really benefit from talking to a professional in the medical health field. But these days, I feel like I can best get in touch with my inner self more effectively if I just write out my thoughts. Usually, once I purge the chatter out of my mind, the solution is right there.

Or, at least, the obstacle is in plain view and I need to find a way to get around it.

This past fall, soon after I'd returned back to work and I was, again, crushing under the stress that comes with a full-time job, motherhood, wifehood, household responsibilities, and a newly diagnosed auto-immune disease, my mother finally convinced me.

"I've been talking to a very good woman for a while now. It's great because all of our discussions are over the phone. She is in one city, I'm in another. We talk once a week, or once a month - or how ever often I think it's necessary."

Mom gave me her number and I called.

There was an exchange of pleasantries. I told her how I'd been referred and as it turns out, this woman doesn't just talk with one of the members of my family … she talks with several. So, it might streamline our efforts if she already knows a component of my history.

We discussed insurance coverage and I told her my carrier, and she said it wasn't one that she accepted. So we strategized how I'd call and request an exception and she'e call and do the same and we'd circle back in a few days. But first, she wanted to hear about what prompted me to call her. "How much time do you have?" I joked. As much time as it needs for you to give me an understanding, she replied. So I took a deep breath and began...

We'd been married for ten years. We struggled with infertility. We went through hell and back. We became pregnant with triplets. We struggled with preemies. We triumphed with adorable infants. We returned to work part-time. For the most part, there was a good balance.

We became pregnant, again. It was a wondrous, joyous, miraculous surprise. We continued to work part time. My company soon required that I come back to work full-time. Charlie reduced his work schedule to the point that he was laid-off. He started his own company. It felt like we were outgrowing our house. There were changes in the wind. My company's business strategy was changing and soon, I'd be out of a job. An opportunity to move came up.

From the beginning, it was met with resistance because although I work for one of the largest companies in the world, I was protected from The Corporate World in my cozy little home office. But recognizing that my job would be gone soon and seizing the opportunity for adventure, and proximity to my family, we accepted the transfer.

Almost immediately, we learned that I was pregnant, again. Our world flipped on it's axis. I withdrew my acceptance to move. I shot myself in the career foot but I was perfectly OK with that. A few weeks later, I suffered an ectopic pregnancy and the devastation was crippling. In a fog, I reaccepted the move. We were packed up and gone in less than six weeks. The day before we left, my hormones levels were checked to ensure that they'd returned to "normal." Normal = no trace of pregnancy.

Life was a blur.

Realtors came and put a stake and sign in our yard. We said goodbye to San Diego and the lives we'd established for ourselves over the past 17 years. By the time we'd driven cross-country we had multiple offers on our home. Most of them were full priced. We accepted an offer. But because of the state of the economy, we lost almost 55% of the equity in our home. We lived in a hotel for nearly two months and because of the instantaneous demands of my new job, I was immediately working long (stressful) hours while my husband was going out of his mind. We put in an offer on a wonderful house that needed an even more wonderful amount of work. Unfortunately, the economy hadn't hit this part of the country like it had hit where we were living and our funds were rapidly depleting.

Simultaneously, we learned that we shouldn't have accepted the offer on our California home - there was a paperwork glitch - and sorry, but we'd be losing almost all of our relocation benefits. Charlie and I stayed up ALL NIGHT talking and we knew what we had to do. We immediately started to drive back to California. We withdrew our Virginia offer, hired a real estate attorney and would get our California house back. I'd lose my job. I'd be unemployed. We'd lose a huge sum of money. But we were on the precipice of a dual nervous breakdown as we committed financial suicide and what we thought we were getting with this move, wasn't what we were getting.

Looking back, I don't know how we survived that.

Management talked me off the ledge. They said they'd make things right. We reconsidered and drove back to Virginia. We put the offer back in on the house. It was accepted. The house in California sold, two days later the house in Virginia closed. The moving truck arrived the next day and my babies started kindergarten two days after that. I was back at work. WORK WORK WORK WORK OH MY GOD IT NEVER STOPPED.

But I was the primary breadwinner. And my income was required to support our family. At the same time, I can see that the children need me more now than they've ever needed me before. Less than 12 months in to the new job, I am rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with a life threatening case of pneumonia. I'm put on full disability for three months. Present Day, I'm back to work. And I don't know what to do because the pressure is starting all over again. I'm afraid for myself and for my family and … I don't know what to do.

The line was silent and then I heard her cluck.

Wow. That's a lot. This will definitely give me something to talk to the insurance company about. Now, our time is up. But let's talk again in … how's next Tuesday?

Sure, that sounds great. I hung up the phone feeling justified that YES, THIS IS A LOT. But I'm working with a professional and she'll coach me through this. What in the world took me so long to get the help that I needed?

The following Tuesday night, I grabbed a blanket, notebook and pencil and made myself comfortable on our bed. I picked up the phone and excitedly called My Therapist. She started off the conversation by telling me about her discussion with my insurance company. "I told them that you have FIVE CHILDREN and are struggling with balance issues. You've been in and out of the hospital and there is a potential you might be a threat to yourself."

"Um, what? Well, I don't think I'm a threat to myself. Although, I am my own worst enemy because I'm not taking care of my physical health. Also, I have four children, not five. Remember, I lost that pregnancy…?"

As my voice trailed off she laughed and said, "Thank goodness you did! I'm sure you'd agree that was probably the best thing to ever happen to you! Like you need ONE MORE THING to think about, right?!"

"Um, well. Um, no. Not really? It was actually one of the worst things to ever happen to me. I couldn't get out of bed for a week and still feel terrible sadness whenever I think of it. Which is almost everyday. I'm sorry … you're a MENTAL HEALTH doctor. Right??"

Ultimately, my insurance company wouldn't cover her services. As she gave me a list of therapists that would be covered by my insurance, her parting words were that I was a perfectionist in need of a maid.

Yeah. Like I didn't already know that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

the path

It's 8:30 at night and I just opened my boys' bedroom door, which they had closed two minutes prior. This was a very unusual thing for them to do because they usually opt to keep it open to ward off their nighttime fears. They prefer to hear their father and I mulling around the house, as they dose off to sleep. Even though I'd tucked them in to bed 15 minutes ago, I see that they are huddled beneath their blankets - a flashlight illuminating their happy, mischievous faces. They've got school tomorrow and they're supposed to be asleep.

They know it.

The scene of my two young sons collaborating over, who knows what?, touches my heart as I tell them, "Boys, you're going to be tired in the morning. It's time to go to sleep..." They excitedly giggle and turn the flashlight off. Of course it'll click back on again as soon as I walk away. I suppose I could confiscate it, or split them up so one is in the top bunk and only one is on the double bottom bunk. But what they're experiencing, is a distinct joy of childhood; this moment is the canvas upon which their young memories will be captured.

I know it.

So I smile and quietly shut the door.

*********

It feels like I've been keeping a lot inside, lately. I don't know if it's because I'm just so busy with life and work that I haven't had the ample opportunity to sit down and write; or if it's because I've been somewhat disenchanted by public blogging and have opted to hold my cerebral trivia closer to my chest. Whatever the case, I know that I haven't "openly" writing about some of the things that have been on my mind. I've bottled those thoughts up and have let them simmer while I do household chores and watch movies with my husband.

On the one hand, our house is somewhat clean and I've seen a lot of fantastic movies. On the other hand, it feels like there is a tremendous amount of data and mental information that I'd like to unravel and process in order to better navigate this next phase of our lives.

Where do I even begin?

Well, I guess I'll begin with the obvious and risk publishing in a public forum because this stuff needs to be documented. Not for the readers of this blog, per se, but for my own psychological health and prosperity. And for my children, who I hope will look back on these musings one day and think to themselves, "Oh, yes, now it makes sense!"

Charlie and I are in the midst of executing a significant life shift. It should come as no surprise, given the events that have transpired over the past 22-months and my nearly constant insistence that I can't do this much longer. No really. I MEAN IT THIS TIME. I can't do this much longer. OK, so I have no idea what "this" is but life has never seemed so challenging for me as it has these past 20-months, and the train that is my existence is in the process of derailing and flying off the track of reality. Even my husband, who understands his wife's flair for exaggeration, has recognized that we've been consistently hovering at threat level Orange.

At this point, I can't write about all of the details, but I hope too, soon enough. I'll elaborate on the events that transpired in December, a week before Christmas, when we temporarily rose to a threat level Red and I told my husband of 17-years (and four months) that I was leaving. That I was packing my bags and leaving. And we should probably call an attorney, or two, depending upon how amicable things would remain between us as we split up our family and assets.

He could keep the puppy.

And the steam mop.

Thank God that in addition to a race car track and a beautiful Nikon camera, Santa brought us a healthy dose of perspective. During a nearly three-week stint from "the real world" we regrouped. And we've since determined that we aren't raising the white flag of defeat on our marriage. We are, however, as quickly as possible, raising the white flag of defeat on the life that we've been trying to keep up with for the past 20-months. It hasn't been healthy, in any sense of the word. We've both gained weight and are out of shape (me more than him, which ticks me off tremendously). We've been sluggish and tired and frustrated and talk in tones that aren't conducive to peace, much of the time.

During Charlie's flight home from California, earlier in the month, he picked up an Esquire magazine and there was an article about "79 Things We Can All Agree On." The topic of this piece surrounded 79 things that everyone could agree upon. Item #12 was Kids, Career, Marriage. Beneath that, in bold it was written, "In That Order."

Wow, if that's something that even a slight majority of the population agrees upon, that would certainly help to explain the decay of the modern family.

Here's what my ideal prioritization looks like: My health. Our marriage. Our children. Our spastic puppy. My career. My career most certainly shouldn't trump my marriage; nor my children, who as much as I love the little buggers, should never come between their father and I. And yet, at this very moment, my career has been the one thing in my life that I spend the most time on, each and every day. My life orbits my career. I know it's largely my fault because I fail at managing a healthy work-life balance. But despite how much I work, there's always more to do, and people are consistently unhappy and maybe if I worked harder (or just one more weekend?) I'd finally get ahead of the curve.

Much to my surprise, that has yet to happen.

Despite my general self-perceived awesomeness and ability to make everything better, it probably won't get any better, any time soon. Because ultimately, there are people in this world who will never be happy, regardless of what you do or how hard you work. And at this moment, there are more of them than there are of me. And that constant feeling of being overworked and under appreciated is triggering a massively catastrophic burn out.

I'm perpetually stressed and have concluded this life that I've been living?

It isn't the ideal life for me.

Charlie and I have always had a pretty good handle on the important things. But when things get totally out of whack and it feels like you're completely drowning, you'll do anything to save yourself (refer to ideal prioritization, above.) Anything, like, tell your husband that he needs to find an attorney and start researching apartments.

To be continued...

(But I have no idea when.)

Monday, February 13, 2012

the playdates

Although Charlie and I are both social - we typically don't plan social events.

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Maybe it's that we're extremely busy and married with four children and our idea of a perfect night is to watch a movie and fall asleep by 10 PM. Despite our best intentions, it simply hasn't been in our nature to pick up the phone and coordinate an activity with other people. Probably because we are home bodies and we like Netflix. Very, very much.

But recently, it's been sinking in that although we seem to know a lot of people throughout the neighborhood, and at school, we don't have many friends. Acquaintances, yes. Friends, no. We went to church, but then we stopped going to church and then we went to a new church (and three more new churches) and that pilgrimage will be a fun post in and of itself.

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Ultimately, it feels like we've been skirting the periphery of building a community around ourselves and that is something that Charlie and I both want and need. Not only because a community is a good thing, but because at what point would people come looking for us, if we were to vanish? Would anyone notice?

Oh, sure. I suspect people might begin to wonder once March rolled around and maybe they'd ask themselves, "What ever happened to those Girl Scout cookies that were supposed to be delivered? Didn't they say they'd be here by the end of February…?"

So last month, on a whim, I suggested that Charlie call and extend a "play date" invitation to one of the boys in William's Tiger Cub Den that had recently moved in to our neighborhood. But instead of only inviting the boy, I recommended that he extend an invitation to the entire family. Then, I called another family in the neighborhood and extended a similar invitation to them. That is how two wonderful families converged on our home, on a bitter cold night, three weeks ago. And while nine children ran around playing, six adults stood around our kitchen table and rolled out homemade pizza dough. We talked and laughed and shared stories.

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The "playdate", which was supposed to last from 4 PM until 7 PM, extended until 11 PM. Most nights, our children are in bed asleep by 7:30, so this was way past their bed times. But it was a memorable evening that concluded with kids watching movies, buried under blankets, and adults strategizing how they'd best accomplish items on their bucket lists.

It was incredibly fun.

This past Saturday, when Charlie took our two daughters to the Father-Daughter Dance, I extended an invitation to all of the families in our Daisy troop. I'd suggested that if anyone wanted to swing by - our door would be open. People did swing by and while children ran around and played, adults sat around and talked. When the volume of food I had laid out wasn't diminishing, they texted their spouses and told them that when the dance was over - they could drop by with their big appetites. Very soon, fathers were coming in with their beautifully dressed daughters, and before we knew it, it was 11 PM.

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I've decided that for as much as I love my down time, I also love spending time with others. It's grounding to talk with people who are on similar life paths and have the same challenges, fears, joys and concerns. It recharges my husband's batteries to have a heated game of ping pong with other men. And it recharges my batteries to talk with women who ask, "Why is it so challenging to meet people? Am I the only one that feels like they can't get caught up? What should I be doing differently? And what the heck is happening with my eyes? Are you find it INCREASINGLY difficult to see things, or is it just me?"

I don't know.

But, then again - I do know.

Or at least, I know the feelings.

And the consensus is that once you turn 40, eye sight diminishes, almost instantly.

As Charlie and I were cleaning up, once everyone left and we'd finally tucked our children in to bed, we were glowing. Glowing because we genuinely felt like we had done something good. We are forging relationships and sharing in life with the people around us. While movies are awesome, we are actively creating memories, for ourselves - for our children - and for our new friends and their children. We are building our community.

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The chances are now a little bit greater that if we were to suddenly vanish, we'd be missed.

And not just because of the cookies.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

priceless

Dress = $40.00 (x2)

Shoes = $14.99 (x2)

Gloves, headband = $10.00 (x2)

Sweater = $15.00 (x2)

Tights = $7.00 (x2)

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The majority of a Saturday spent returning prior dress purchases (x2) because those prior dress purchases that we'd originally made didn't hold a candle to the beautiful WHITE dresses that the girls saw and really (really, really, really!) wanted and so what if they were First Holy Communion dresses and we're not practicing Catholics? These white dresses were the most beautiful dresses our girls had EVER seen - so gosh darnit, these were the dresses that they received = the majority of what might have been a blissful Saturday spent wading through crowds.

(If we ever make it back to the Catholic Church, we'll have something to wear.)

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Champagne, strawberries, brie, baguettes, pizza, brownies = $142.00

An evening that my husband spent with our two beautiful daughters out dancing, and an evening that I spent with my fellow Girl Scout mothers (who came over with their non-Girl Scout children while our husbands / manfolk attended their first Father-Daughter Dance) ... PRICELESS.

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Have you ever experienced a moment in your life when you think, "Wow. Life is awesome and it's great to be alive!"?

Tonight was one of those nights.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

housebreaking hell

Alright. It's been 17 and 19-years, respectively, since Charlie and I have raised puppies.

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But I don't remember it being this difficult. Of course, when we raised our first puppies, our efforts (and energy) weren't diluted with lots of little people. Charlie and I must have had more stamina then, in those days before we potty trained four children in three years.

Almost two decades ago, I don't remember the housebreaking that neverrrr seemed to end. We've had Louie for almost three months and it seems like just when we start to round a corner with him, he'll poop half his body weight smack dab in the middle of our kitchen floor. These days, we're literally pooped out.

We've been trying to crate train him. In that, he is in a crate when we're not around and during the night. When we're around, he's sequestered to our kitchen, which has both exits blocked off with gates and he's taken outside no less than eight times a day (Charlie estimates ten).

Here's a snippet of our typical morning schedule...

6:15 AM = Louie wakes up. Yelp. Yelp. Whimper. Whimper.

6:16 AM = Charlie, God Bless The Man, gets out of bed, gets dressed and takes Louie for a walk.

6:17 AM = I tell my husband that he is the bomb diggity before I stretch out across the entire bed and fall back to sleep.

6:45 AM = Charlie has walked Louie around the neighborhood, picked up the morning paper off our driveway, poured himself a cup of coffee and is sitting at the table, reading the headlines.

6:46 AM = Before the dog has even EATEN his breakfast, he'll poop on the floor. He gives absolutely no sign, no warning. One minute he's wagging his tail, the next minute, he's squatting in the middle of the floor.

6:47 AM = Awoken by my husband's aggravated sighs and tones, I force myself out of the most comfortable place in the world and stumble in to the kitchen where I grab a roll of paper towels.

Note: our paper towel usage has gone up three-fold in the past two months and I've watched more Cesar Millan than any other personality on television.

Today, Louie was outside running around our yard for several hours. He came in, took a drink of water, went outside again. He came back inside and immediately created a puddle. There was no scientific or psychologic evidence this was about to occur. There was no sniffing, no circling. And it wasn't even near our gate exit, but right there by the refrigerator.

This past week, when I was flying solo, I could feel my patience with the puppy beginning to wear thin. After he'd pooped on the floor three times in two days, I snapped. I told the children on the morning of the third day that they needed to take THEIR dog for a walk and they could not come back in to the house until he'd done his business, outside. If, in typical fashion, they sped walked around the yard and brought him back in and he promptly pooped on the floor, I'd put the dog in to the car and take him straight to the country (aka: pound).

I was 90% serious.

Perhaps, the children and Louie would sense that I was on the verge? Perhaps, Louie would pick up a tone in my voice that would facilitate his cooperation?

Instead, once he returned to the house, he chewed the zipper off his doggy bed and crawled inside to hide.

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I'm hopeful that once we get through this "housebreaking" stuff, and Louie grows up a bit, he'll be able to suppress his desire to jump on everyone and gnaw things that shouldn't be gnawed (e.g., hands, chairs, cabinets, shoes, non-designated stuffed animals, Legos, etc.). I'm very hopeful that one day soon, he'll be a fantastic - lower maintenance - addition to our family.

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In the meantime, it's that 10% adorably cute factor that keeps him around.

Friday, February 03, 2012

living the high life

Last year, a few weeks before I was put in the hospital, I took a business trip to Boston. Fifteen people were on the trip and I was tasked with lining up activities for our team to do at night. One evening, I planned to take everyone to a Red Sox game. On another evening, I arranged for us to have dinner at an upscale restaurant in town.

When I called the restaurant to ask if they had a private room for our party, they said yes, but there would be a $1,000.00 food and beverage minimum, that would require a 24-hour cancellation. That shouldn't be a problem, I thought. Seeing as there were 15 of us and we'd all want to eat dinner.

(At least theoretically.)

On the night of the dinner, seven of us gathered in the hotel lobby and walked together to the restaurant. As we walked, I began to receive text messages from various colleagues who informed me that for one reason or another, they wouldn't be able to attend.

By the time we arrived at the restaurant, our headcount had shrunk from fifteen to seven. Once we were escorted to our beautiful private room, that was elegantly set for our entire party, I summoned our personal waiter and told him that our numbers were down. He smiled, but then politely informed me that unfortunately, we still had a $1,000.00 food and beverage minimum and maybe we'd like to start with an appetizer, or twelve?

My first thought was that we'd order extra meals to go which we'd hand out to some of the people we'd seen on the street. But that, I was told, wasn't an option. So I moved on to option two which consisted of me sharing with my six colleagues our TERRIBLE predicament.

The waiter began taking orders and when he asked one of my cohorts if he would prefer the filet mignon or lobster, my co-worker paused, then smiled and said, "I think I'll have the filet AND the lobster!" When the waiter whispered to me that we still wouldn't meet the minimum, we bumped up our wine from the "house" to the "reserve collection". The whole situation struck me as so lavishly funny, I excused myself from the table and went in to the restroom, where I called Charlie.

Our conversation went something like this …

"Charlie, OH MY GOSH, you'll never believe it!! We're in this absolutely beautiful restaurant in downtown Boston and more than half of our party bailed out. But since we still have a food and beverage minimum to sit in the private dining room with our own personal waiter, we're ordering filet mignons AND lobster and drinking gorgeous bottles of wine and trying to figure out how to spend $1,000 across seven people for dinner. One of the guys just ordered an entire bottle of single malt scotch. Ha ha ha ha HA!!"

Hiccup!

There was silence on the other end of the line.

Finally, my husband spoke up.

"Jen, are you kidding me? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT I HAD FOR DINNER TONIGHT? I had a soggy taco because one of the kids spilled their milk ON MY PLATE. I would've had another taco but that was the LAST SHELL IN THE HOUSE. You know what I ate, next because I was so hungry my stomach was consuming my body? A tunafish sandwich on a stale english muffin, because we're out of bread. So I'd really rather not hear about your OH HA HA HA HA HA we've got a thousand dollars to spend in a TOP CLASS RESTAURANT woes while I'm at home trying to suppress my gag reflex!"

Then, for good measure he yelled, "WHAT'S THAT THING FLOATING IN MY WATER?!"

His diatribe only made me laugh harder.

I could just seem him trying to drain milk off his plate and who knows what was floating in his water. I once found a huge wad of PlayDoh at the bottom of my orange juice.

My opinion, as I later expressed it, is that he has the luxury of staying home everyday, while I'm carving years off my life in a very high pressure corporate headquarter environment. So a fancy dinner once in a blue moon, is extremely well deserved.

This past week, Charlie was on a business trip. I'm not going to chronicle the insane week that I've had (at least not tonight), but suffice it to say, it's been "a wee bit challenging" without my better half. I've been absolutely buried in an extremely stressful project that has been consuming me for approximately 12 hours a day (several weekends included). This "project" is the whole reason I was brought in to this job and the whole reason I'm strategizing my escape as soon as possible. Like, Monday, perhaps.

Nonetheless, on our about day four of Charlie's absence, I was cleaning up a dog spill from the kitchen floor (the bell on the door trick works only if your dog doesn't EAT THE BELL), burning spaghetti (yes, indeed it is possible!), neglecting my children's homework for the … well, fourth day straight … and feeling the familiar cloak of stress descend over my entire body, the phone rang.

It was Charlie.

His voice sounded like he was relaxing on a beach chair in the tropics.

My voice sounded like I was fending off a nervous breakdown, or "normal" as the case may be.

Alas, he was calling to tell me that he was in a restaurant. And not just any restaurant, Jen, the fanciest restaurant in the tiny California town where he was visiting. This surprised me since he owns his company, he typically tries to minimize his expenses.

Then with an air of sophistication, he told me the restaurant was called, "Bee Apples" or "Apple Bees" or something of that nature. My beloved wanted for me to know that he had just ordered a soup and a salad to go with his $11.00 chicken entree. And since he was the only person in the restaurant, he had his own personal waiter. I would have heard more about his decadent evening, but I had to hang up because smoke was billowing from the stove top.

Revenge sure is sweet.

Especially when it's served up with a side of honey mustard.