September 14, 2015

The day I turned 49

I had been given notice.

Your life will never be the same.

That's what my new boss said. Those words. Your life will never be the same.

I tried to nonchalantly nod and act like it was cool, but the fact was, he was right. I'm not sure he knew all the reasons, but that's not important. He knew, traveling would change my life.

I've always had a restless soul. I fancied myself a bon vivant, melding into places around the world and absorbing the culture like a sponge. Yet, while 48 years of life had taken me many places, all of them were familiar. I'd moved around a number of times, attended three high schools, and seen a lot of places. I never had to experience a different language or currency. Small changes, but I wasn't familiar.

I've spent a lifetime processing my world with words. I've imagined the places I could go and the people I wanted to meet. I felt it.

The morning of my 49th birthday, I woke up along the Danube River in Austria. Our port was a little town of less than 900 residents. We had two hours there, but I had hoped to jump on a bicycle and ride 32 km to the next port. Alas, that trip was canceled, so instead I hopped on the ship, imagining my legs instead of the ship were carrying me to the next destination.

When I walked into the small town of Durnstein, I wandered the cobblestone streets and peeked in yards. I talked to people pushing wheelbarrows up their path to work in their yard and admired their handiwork. I pretended I was one of them. I got separated from my group and took a few moments to reflect. I walked along the shore and picked up a few polished river stones. I wrote the date in the sand along the bank.

I've never tried to obsess over numbers. But as my nest shrunk and my baby birds flew from the nest, I felt the sinking weight of age settling over my soul. I wondered what was next and couldn't imagine.

I wrote my soul on the screen, spilled my heart to the electronic world. I tried to make sense of a world one letter at a time. I used all 26 as often as possible. And somehow, it was noticed. I never stopped trying to find ways to work or use my talent for words. It was noticed. I was offered a job as content creator and social media manager for a travel group. Part of my compensation is travel.

I spent a week waking up in strange cities, with strange customs and unfamiliar languages. I paid attention and asked questions and made friends. I learned about my surroundings and did my best not to be an ugly tourist. I decided as I left the cruise to look up the way to say "Thank you for taking such good care of us" in the native language of all of the staff helped make our trip wonderful. My Romanian and Hungarian friends were delighted. I just told them they did so much to help me feel comfortable in my language, the least I could do was thank them in theirs.

The world isn't as big as it felt. I cannot wait to see more.

It's pretty cool. No, it's very cool. My boss was right. My life will never be the same.

September 4, 2015

Summer of the gypsies

The summer I would turn 14 my father made me change my tank top before I went to the county fair. I thought Dad was being overprotective and nerdy. He mumbled something about those carnies, on the carnival side of the fairgrounds. Cigarettes dangled freely from their lips, glowing hot embers complimenting the neon lights of their rides and games. Our farmer's side of the fair had old men with cheeks full of chewing tobacco, but no cigarettes around all the hay and sawdust bedding. An errant ash could set everything aflame. I see myself then, a skinny tomboy, with tiny rosebud breasts that didn't even need a bra. I talked with the kids about chickens that didn't lay. Some of the older brothers would laugh, elbowing each other knowingly. It made no sense to me.

Growing up on a farm, the pinnacle of our summer was the county fair. It was always the first week of August and we’d spend the prior two months preparing our livestock for show, our baking for judging, and our sewing for modeling. The Future Farmers of America brought in samples of their hay and crops, and the really cool guys were allowed to bring their tractor to the fair. It was wholesome and idyllic.

Ours' was a different universe, the farmer’s side of the fair, where we ate at church sponsored cafeterias or out of picnic baskets we brought ourselves. We rarely ate the carnival food. Someone would occasionally bring back a cup of fair fries, manna soaked in vinegar and ketchup. We’d circle like buzzards. The fortune tellers and games of chance tantalized us. The invisible fence wasn't electrified, but that didn't mean it was easy to cross. I rebelliously yearned to wear my tank top and walk down the midway, just to see what would happen. The carnies’ trucker chain wallets jangled with a hypnotic cacophony. Their greasy hands and sinewy muscles were a stark contrast to overalls and manure-caked boots. We camped on cots in the barn playing cards next to livestock pens while they huddled around their trailers comparing tattoos.

Every summer, my friends and I would take one day and explore the carnival side of the fairgrounds. We rode the creaky rides, ate the greasy food, and slipped inside the gypsy tent with a few dollars to hear our fortune. We wanted to hear that we would win a blue ribbon for our project. The gypsies were never that specific, but winning the blue ribbon meant the gypsies were right. The last night of the fair was the livestock auction where we would parade our blue ribbon animals before the crowd hoping for a high bid that would help grow our savings accounts. Our animals were carted away after the fair closed, destined to be a future dinner for the lucky bidder.

Livestock animals are raised for the sole purpose of one day gracing a dinner table. Fictionalized accounts of Charlotte the spider telling us that Wilbur was “Some Pig”, or that and Mary had a “little lamb”, were cute stories, but far removed from the reality of farming. We weren't encouraged to name the animals. Named or unnamed, they eventually disappeared in the still of the night, or more accurately, as the sun rose. We knew that it was best not to ask or be told where they went.

Very few farmers do their own butchering. We seized a bit of the frontier spirit on occasion, mainly with chickens. I witnessed firsthand how precise the expression “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” was. Those chickens for certain never lay again. When the spastic chicken’s muscles wearied, we would pluck the feathers, and then burn the remaining down off with a small blowtorch. The novelty wore thin, and we would crate the chickens and take them to the Amish farm down the road. They would kill and dress the poultry for 50 cents a bird, much more efficient and feather free.

One year, we hired some gypsies to butcher our pig. A huge family arrived, at least four adults and several children, probably ten people, total. The exotic dark haired children played hide and seek and flashlight tag with my brothers and me. It was patently clear that my parents didn't trust the gypsies. Our folks had told us ahead of time not to let anyone into the house, that if anyone needed to use the bathroom, to show them the outhouse. I was much more interested in watching everything than playing with the children, so I lingered near the barn. My father had a hunting rifle and shot the pig between the eyes. I only heard and felt the reverberation, but I didn't see it. The men tied and hung the pig in the air, from the front end loader tractor, and slit its throat so the blood would drain out. I watched with detached fascination.

The gypsy men carved the carcass with efficient expertise. They salvaged every part of the pig we didn't want, to dine on later. The gypsy women sang songs in an unfamiliar language while they caught the draining blood in buckets. They tucked the ears into plastic bags, and saved the intestines to stuff with their ethnic sausages. They claimed the hooves. They had ways to use what we discarded. Dusk came and the carcass was sliced into manageable pieces, wrapped in paper, and labeled. The mercury light cast a glow on our offering to the gods of the full larder. The gypsy men leaned on the side of their truck, casually smoking their cigarettes, while the women rounded the children into the back of the truck.

We carried baskets of wrapped meat to the freezer in the basement, stacking it neatly on a shelf. I don’t know why the gypsy butchers never returned. It makes me wonder how we found them in the first place. Were they mingling at the livestock auctions, offering their services? After that one time, we simply did what we did with all the other animals. We loaded them in the trailer and took them to the slaughter house. A few days later, we picked up our orderly packages of wrapped sustenance.

When I got older, I decided that I wanted to be a vegetarian. Maybe I had named one too many animals. Maybe I knew them too intimately to eat them. That was the same summer Sam died. For years, I had ignored the advice of my elders and I named my animals. Sam was one of my 4H lambs. He got an infection from an open wound. I tied him outside under a cherry tree and laid clean sheets on the grass for him to sleep on, so his infection wouldn't get worse from the less than sterile barn. I slept in a sleeping bag under the tree with Sam. In the morning, I woke up and Sam didn't. I remember being disappointed that I would only have two lambs to sell at the auction and closed the ledger book on Sam. I focused my attention on my remaining two lambs and that year I won the showmanship trophy.

Today, I buy frozen meat from the supermarket, in Styrofoam trays with sticky UPC labels, heeding the warning to cook to the right temperature to prevent disease and never ever thaw at room temperature. I wear tank tops when I wish and do not avoid the gaze of anyone. I hum to myself as I choose my meat. The song is an old one and a sense of déjà vu washes over me. The gypsies still intrigue me; I wonder what they dine on and their music echoes in my soul.

Life is sterile and tidy, but somewhere, away from my inquisitive eyes, the animals are still slaughtered and I wonder who catches their blood.

June 20, 2015

Lisa or Lakeysha: What's in a name?

In the aftermath of the hate-filled shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, my heart began to hurt terribly. I consider myself relatively un-bigoted and open minded. I have several black friends who I love dearly, but admittedly, I cannot begin to wrap my head around their experience or their despair. I will never truly understand what it's like to be black in America. I've started some discussions on social media and I've tried to ask questions. I've tried to listen and understand.

I wanted to write today's blog because unlike a social media discussion, this will not go away. This will be a permanent opportunity to think and question the different ways all of us may grow.

I pondered the times I have exercised subtle racism, some of which I've written about. One thing I believe strongly is that if I am unwilling to do some self-examination and try to consider where even on a micro-level I've been guilty, I need to expunge it and ask for forgiveness. I need to vow to do better and I need to encourage the same of others. It's the only way the needle moves.

One of the more subtle ways I'm guilty of racism is when I read a person's name. We all know what a "black" name is when we see it. The embarrassing thing is, I have to admit to mentally mocking those strange spellings and wondering how in the world to pronounce that name. Turns out, I'm not the only one who does that. According to a study from the Poverty Action Lab,  "Resumes with white-sounding names received 50 percent more callbacks than those with black names." (full report: Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination).

I've never done that for Giuseppi or Gianna, Raj or Raaka, Kieran or Siobhan, or Amtullah or Yahya. I've never wondered why their parents didn't give them an easier to spell or pronounce name. I've never been a big enough fool to actually ask someone why they didn't pick an easier name for their child. (Yes, I did that and my friend said, "How well do you think a Heather would survive in my world? She'd get mocked and teased daily for having such a white name.) I've never asked my friends why they'd choose Huxley or Hazel (names that are in the top growing elite baby names). This leads me to believe if I am so presumptuous to question what someone names their child, maybe I need to rethink myself.

This doesn't mean wipe away all my opinions. I still have a lot of opinions on names, and that's typical, it's why name lists exist and people spend nine months trying to think of a name for their baby. Why I should think any less of another parent's choice for their child's name? If that child is black and I have a hard time pronouncing that name, is MY problem, not the parents.

Where the problem comes in and where racism is at play is when I glance at a class roster and make assumptions about what sort of day it will be based on the names I see. Maybe a little chuckle as I navigate the apostrophes in places that I don't understand and letter combinations that I never would think to make. Little Keshaun and K'iana should proudly wear the first gifts their parents gave them. Maybe if we start to accept their right to have a name that speaks to their life and experience, we can begin to grow as a society.

It starts with a drop of acceptance hitting the water like a pebble.

Here are the names of the victims:
Rest in Peace
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Myra Thompson, 59
Susie Jackson, 87
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Daniel L. Simmons, 74
Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49

My essay Trouble Maker was about a young black boy. I didn't want to label him black in my story because I thought it would bring an unnecessary piece to the story. When I wrote it, I wanted it to be a color-blind story. I've realized if my young trouble maker was a white boy, he never would have faced the same scrutiny. He may have been considered "high-spirited" or a little "rascal" instead of a "thug". We can do better. 

June 10, 2015

[Giveaway] Microsoft Surface 3 Giveaway Contest

April 29, 2015

Dad Lecture Series

When I was a kid, I heard the same things over and over from Dad.

As an adult, I refer to them as 
"The Lecture Series"

There was an internet meme going around recently about things to tell your high school student. The words reverberated as things I've said repeatedly to my now college sophomore and my high school junior. We do our best to instill wisdom and hope it sticks.

I've told my children repeatedly, "This is a life lesson", "Be humble, not everyone has the same ability as you do", and "Have you had a token nod to nutrition today?" I wonder what their stories of my lectures would be?

My dad has his own series, but times change. I appreciate the wisdom dad gave me and try to live what I learned. A few key lectures I won't forget?
  • Speed for conditions (as in, I don't care what the road sign said, you should have slowed down while it was snowing or raining.)
  • I used to feel sorry that I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet (be grateful for whatever you have because someone else always has it worse)
  • You can choose your friends in life, but you'll always be brothers and sister, and you'll be all you have -- get along. 
  • And my favorite. Always split Aces and 8s
I drive carefully, I practice gratitude (especially for having feet), and I love my brothers. Oh and anytime I've played blackjack, I win money when I split aces or 8s. Financial advice rules.

Dad, your lifetime of advice has served me well.

Thank you.

March 25, 2015

Senior citizens rock

My family lives in retirement central USA. Their town in FL is known for their retirement communities and the lifestyle that surrounds it. The equivalent of a red corvette is a fast golf cart. Indeed, there are folks who "soup up" their golf carts. It amuses me.

In one of the local retirement communities is a restaurant and lounge, and my folks go there at least once a week. When we were visiting, they were particularly excited because it was karaoke weekend as well as a band. We booked a table.

The dinner was delicious. It really was. I had expected mushy flavorless food, but was overjoyed when I enjoyed my meal. The company and entertainment even more-so. Dad owns a local business and he's quite well known in the community. When we go places, all sorts of folks come to say hello. Our first visitor was a lady named Shirley. Shirley's face was a road-map of life and wrinkles. She was delightful. She told us about her family and her book club. After Shirley left our table, Dad told me that Shirley's daughter is worried about the vodka she consumes and calls dad to ask. Dad's stock reply, "I saw her have two".

Personally, I think that if Shirley's daughter was that worried, she'd not phone a local business owner, but maybe come spend time with her mom. My brief glimpse? Shirley has it going on. She's sharp and funny. If she drinks too much, at her age? She's earned it.

Then there was Nadine. She is a retired bigwig from DC. She regaled stories of every president from Nixon on. She then told us that she is addicted to that show Alias. I may check it out.

The best visitor of the night was Rocco. Rocco, as his name indicates, is a feisty Italian guy. Rocco in all his mothball-scented studliness took a liking to our table. He was giving us play by play all night. At one point, Rocco took his lady friend out on the dance floor, but not without stopping by our table and stage whispering to my husband and myself, "This is my lady friend, she's Puerto Rican and she's hot."

We smiled at Rocco and his lady. The whole evening felt like I was a stunt double in the movie Cocoon.

Then it was my turn. I used to sing karaoke on a fairly regular basis. I have no delusions of grandeur. I've got a decent voice, but not consistent and rather weak. I hit the notes, but cannot hold them. I'd never make it on Idol, but in a retirement village karaoke bar, I hold my own. I got up and sang. I chose an oldie-styled song, The Shoop Shoop song by Cher. I rocked the house. They all danced and thanked me after. Perhaps their appreciation had more to do with the ability to turn off their hearing aids.

After I sang, we had even more table visits. Then came the surprise. My dad had requested Daddy's Little Girl for us, and we got up and danced. At nearly 48 years old, twirling on the dance floor with my dad was a highlight. I love him so much.

It was a night I'll never forget.

March 24, 2015

Eccentric is as eccentric does

Very few stories can make me long for my childhood days on an organic vegetable farm. It's hard work and sometimes the only thanks you get is an algae filled pond with fish biting your toes while you drift on an inner tube. Rarely am I inclined to long for that life, but I remember the last time I did. I wore a necklace the other night and received several comments on it, to which I replied, "There's a story behind it." (To which my friends replied that they were not surprised.)

Our family has spent many summers on the Outer Banks of NC. We fell in love with the area during Hurricane Dennis in 1999. How funny is that? The first time we visited, a hurricane did as well! For years we returned to those beaches, enchanted by the wild horses, the fresh fish, and the relaxed pace of life.

There is an area of beach that is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles. It's on the North Carolina/Virginia border. One summer, we went exploring. As we traveled further north, we would occasionally see signs for "Libba's Place" with the encouragement to come visit.

After seeing the hand-painted signs for mile upon mile, we decided to indeed go visit Libba's Place. Mr. Fresh was more skeptical than curious, but a bit of prodding helped us find Libba's Place.

We pulled up to a ramshackle beach house, with a chicken coop, a "beach museum" (as she called it) and other oddities. She also had a gift shop that appeared to not have been visited in years. She was an ageless sort of older, somewhere between 50 and 80, but impossible to say. Her weathered skin had not seen many days of sunscreen, as evidenced by her deep smile lines. Wearing an over-sized man's shirt, glasses on a chain around her neck and hair in a disheveled bun flying errantly about, framing her face like a white/grey halo, Libba came out to greet us.

"Welcome to my Place," she said in a smooth drawl with a voice that capitalized place, "I was just getting ready to feed my chickens, would you kids like to help?" She nodded to the minis.

The kids went with Libba to feed the chickens, and when they were finished she invited us to see her museum. Her museum was a lean-to filled with things she found on the beach. A naked Barbie doll missing a leg, an old buoy, a few shells, sea glass, driftwood, and a special collection of sea glass folks sent her from elsewhere, including my hometown, back at Lake Erie.

We wandered around Libba's Place, some of us enchanted, some of us befuddled. The enchanted person was the one who didn't have emotional baggage to this strange beach creature the way she did with her own upbringing. I suppose I could add a phony disclaimer how any resemblance to real or imagined characters is coincidence, but that's a crock and we know it. Libba is real. (The kids kept saying she reminded them of the woman in "Because of Winn-Dixie") If you're ever visiting the Outer Banks near the NC/VA border, you need to find out how real. Go visit Libba's Place and say hello.

Aquamarine supposedlyShe told us how she would sometimes row a boat across the sound to the mainland and that was quicker than driving. She showed us flower beds bordered with upside down wine bottles, quickly explaining that a lot of her visitors brought her empty wine bottles. I suspect she was a bit untruthful there, and perhaps they were full when they first arrived at her place. Nonetheless.

She invited us into her gift shop where an eclectic array of her projects awaited for our bidding. Nothing was priced. I'm fairly certain she priced her merchandise based on what she needed for that particular day. My minis got small bracelets for a dollar. I was intrigued by the piece shown in the photo, a big blue glass chunk on a charm. She insisted it was the gemstone aquamarine. It's irrelevant that I didn't believe her. She gave me enough of a story that morning that I didn't mind her thinking she conned me. I've never checked if the stone is real, I don't think it is at all, but who knows? She also told us that she gives people things and a card if they don't have money and just trusts they will mail her the money when they can.

Her card is still tucked in my wallet and I hope to visit her again another day. I will take a bottle of wine, but it won't be empty. I hope I can convince her to help me empty it.


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