Category Archives: relationships

Hotter than Hot

You know what’s hotter than hot?  It’s not abs.  Not eyes.  Not arms or thighs or even a well-shaped butt that is high and tight.  (OK, I lied.  That last one is kind of hot.)  I’ll tell you hat’s hotter than hot.  It’s banter.

I love banter.  Banter, when done masterfully, is as good as it gets.  I consider myself the Queen of Banter, don’t you know?  So when someone can step up, accept a challenge to go toe to toe with me, ignite the twinkle in their eye, cock their head, and give me a run for my money, I am all in.  All in, I tell you!  Bring it.

If you can forsake all others for a moment in time, and point by point match me on wide-ranging topics such as micro-brewed beer, marriage equality, art, Milwaukee’s restaurant scene, the glaring truth that no one cares about the Bucks, the glaring truth that it is not possible to care too much about the Brewers, the Pope, and then end it all with a Shakespeare quote, I’m pretty much all yours.  Do it all with a layer of sass and sarcasm?  I mean really, just take me now.  I’m a puddle.

And sometimes when this happens, your friends whisk you away from a perfectly beautiful match of banter to go eat a mediocre (at best) meal at a restaurant you hate.  While disappointing at the outset, that’s okay too. Because the second best thing to it actually happening is having an encounter that reminds you it will happen again.

Two Ships

I looked at him and realized twenty-some odd years had passed.  I can’t say with any degree of honesty that I had ever loved him, but then again the timing had never been right for me to have the proper chance to love him.  Maybe in the right set of circumstances I could have, but to think so is nothing more than sheer speculation.  I certainly had spent a good couple of years hard crushing on him.  And then when he was out of my sight, I pretty much forgot about him.

But then one night, all those years ago, we ended up in the same place (a divey, dirty small town bar) at the same time (a hot summer night) by pure happenstance.  There were a lot of contributing factors – cheap beer and a lot of it, raucous laughs and his bruised heart – that resulted in us staying up until the sun peeked through the windows.  Kissing even though we knew we shouldn’t, laughing, talking, examining figurative wounds and then laughing and kissing some more. And that was it, really. It was lovely and fleeting.  He was gone once again, headed his own way and I headed mine.

So to see him again all these years later, hair graying at the temples and laugh lines around his eyes, was really something.  But I looked at him, and then I looked at his ordinary wife (who is no doubt perfectly lovely and wonderful but ordinary nonetheless), and I thought,  “I bet she makes him Swiss steak for dinner. And I bet after dinner they watch Dancing With the Stars.”  If that sounds judgy, I promise you it’s not. Eating Swiss steak and watching reality TV is a perfectly acceptable way to live if that’s what makes you happy.

But it occurred to me, right then and there, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, that I am no ordinary woman.  Even if I tried with all my might, I could not be that ordinary woman. No, I am complicated and layered, difficult even.  And sometimes twenty-some odd years of time passing gives you perspective that everything is exactly as it should be, ordinary or not.  It’s a good perspective to have.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have airport friends.

I have friends who share my passions and my annoyances.

I have friends I can sit with in quiet solitude.

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

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

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

The Answer is Yes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jimmy Crack Corn

One of the more beautiful things about getting older is that you really stop worrying about what other people think. Maybe it comes from wisdom, or maybe it comes from fatigue.  Realistically, it probably comes from a little of both.  These days, I have to confess that I don’t care much at all about what y’all think.  And that right there takes me right to the edge of bliss.  Truly, it does.  It’s delightful to see others get there, too, to see them get that taste of freedom.  Because when you bask in the glow of not giving a rat’s ass, your true self can really shine through.  And nothing is lovelier than you being authentically you.  Nothing, I tell you.

This weekend was an historic weekend in the State of Wisconsin.  After months of eager anticipation, the ban on gay marriage was lifted.  We weren’t even the last state to do it, though there were days I wondered if we would be.  And it’s about damn time. Because really, and I promise you will not convince me otherwise so don’t even try, love is love.  This day was long overdue.

So on Friday when the judge’s ruling was announced, two men I love very much – like so much I would lay down my life for them – made a mad, crazy dash to the courthouse and were the first same sex couple to get a Wisconsin marriage license.  They then stood right there at the courthouse, with their very good friend officiating, said their vows and made the whole dang thing official.  They became the first gay couple to be legally wed in Wisconsin, and since then the whole story has gone viral.  (Seroiusly, I feel like I am going to have to have my people call their people going forward if I want to get together for dinner.)  Their picture on the front page of our local newspaper on Saturday says it all.  The picture, which I think is stunning, captures the joy of the occasion and the sorrow of the long and twisted road it took to get there.  I saw the picture in my Facebook feed on Saturday morning, and I could not hold back my tears.  Even though I was on the other side of the state visiting with my lifelong friend Mindy, I could feel the arc of justice and love reverberating all the way to me.

On Saturday afternoon, Mindy and I decided to take a little jaunt down the road and we did a surprise “pop-in” visit to my friend Vance on his southwestern Wisconsin prairie estate.  He had no idea we were coming or that I was even on that side of the state.  So when we pulled up next to him on the long, windy road leading to his cabin “down in the holler,” he was plenty surprised.  He was busy cutting invasive plants out of his carefully tended natural prairie, and yelled at us to give him another 20 minutes before the impending rain arrived.  We happily obliged, and sat on the front porch of his cabin drinking beers and listening to the thunder in the distance.

Vance didn’t beat the rainstorm back to the cabin so by the time he got to us he was soaking wet.  This wasn’t some gentle little drizzle, it was rain coming down in sideways sheets.  He went inside to get changed into some dry clothes, and by the time he did so Mindy and I weren’t far behind.  It was a monsoon out there.

About 30 seconds into our indoor exchange, where I finally had a chance to formally introduce Mindy to Vance for the first time, Vance realized that the door to his shed was open and that this sideways rain was going to ruin all of his chicken feed.  He quickly announced a plan to take his clothes off and run outside to shut the shed door.  Now we thought he meant he was going to put his wet clothes back on to achieve this feat, but no, that is not what he meant.  In short order, we saw this beautiful friend of mine running toward his shed in only his underwear.  A couple minutes after that, we saw him running back in the other direction toward the cabin, now only in a pair of very wet underwear.  As you can imagine, disbelief and considerable laughter ensued.  That man is nuts, I thought, and I love every fiber of his being.  He doesn’t care if a woman he just met 30 seconds ago sees him running through his yard in his blue cotton briefs.

And so, this was the theme of the weekend, a weekend for the record books, and perhaps one of my favorite weekends of all time.  It was a weekend I decided I would name Jimmy Crack Corn, because really and truly, I don’t care.  From the big decisions, like being the first gay couple to marry in your state and having your love declared on the front page of the Saturday edition of the newspaper – to the small decisions, like doing whatever you need to do to save your chicken feed, you might as well just be you. Brilliant, passionate, loving, caution-to-the-wind throwing, life-embracing you.  It is the best and most beautiful thing that anyone could ever be.

The Best Laid Plans

I believe it was Oprah or some other famous person who tells us what to think who proclaimed, “Love is in the details.”  It has become my mantra over the years and has been a driving force behind my work, my gift-giving, and most importantly, my party-throwing.  To make things perfect, I just need a good theme to latch onto.  A theme, I tell you!  A theme will always make things better.

Many years ago, my friend Colleen and I went to The American Club in Kohler for an overnight spa excursion.  While we were there, she shared the news with me that she was going to be having a baby.  I remember how excited we were, and we sat in that hotel room in our post-massage glow and talked and talked and talked and talked.  In fact, if memory serves, we were so invested in our talking that we may have economized our time by taking a bubble bath together in the huge jacuzzi tub.  Which sounds kind of weird when you write it in a blog posted on the world wide web, but it seemed perfectly normal to us at the time.

Having worked at two different jobs together, Colleen and I had a lot of history and knew a lot of the same people.  I knew I wanted to throw her a baby shower, but it would have to be a different kind of party to include both men and women.  I picked a Friday night in September, and invited a whole bunch of people – many of whom Colleen hadn’t seen in years and she had no idea I was inviting.  I still remember the little ditty I put in the invitation, too.  It went something like this:

The days are dwindling
The time has drawn near
Soon we’ll be looking 
At a new baby Dier.

Your attendance is needed
A baby gift is not
But if it makes you feel better
Bring a book for the tot!

As the day of the party approached, I attended to every possible detail to make the party perfect.  I purchased a lovely little bookshelf so everyone could place their favorite children’s book in it for Baby Dier. I purchased my own favorite book of all time, Free to Be You and Me.  I hired Colleen’s brother-in-law Tony to do the catering and picked a fantastic array of delectable treats for the evening.  To make it a little extra special, I ordered a specialty cake from Hartter’s Bakery – a delicious, double chocolate cake with a layer of raspberry filling.  This was going to be one special night.

The day of the party arrived, and I took the day off of work to attend to every last detail.  The house was immaculately cleaned and the backyard was prepped for a bonfire, because my house was really too small to comfortably fit the 25 people who had said they were coming.  Feeling confident, I looked around and surveyed the situation.  Final assessment? I was perfectly pleased with myself.

About 30 minutes prior to arrival of the first guests, there was a clap of thunder so loud it frightened the dog and then the skies opened up. Although Wisconsin is not known for having a monsoon season, we had one that night.  It didn’t just rain, it rained sideways.  It rained so hard you could not see five feet in front of you. I quickly sprang into action to bring tables and chairs inside and put them in places they didn’t really belong and didn’t really fit.  It was going to be a cozy evening.

Colleen and her husband arrived, and soon after guests braved the unrelenting storm to come, too.  Surprise after surprise was unveiled. Your brother-in-law is catering!  Your co-workers from the homeless shelter you worked at ten years ago are here!  Your baby is getting books, all kinds of them!  Yaaay!

I took a break from the festivities to go to the kitchen and get things rolling.  I wanted people to eat and I had to get that started.  As I turned the corner and entered the kitchen, I could not believe the horror before my eyes.  My 105-pound dog Jethro – a dog I liked to say was of the “big dumb yellow variety” – had seized the opportunity to lick the frosting off two full edges of my beautiful, expensive, decadent perfect Hartter’s cake. Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at it and for a moment I froze. Shortly after that, I panicked.  Then I think I might have screamed.  I quickly narrowed my choices in that moment down to only two:  I could laugh, or I could cry. Truthfully, I probably did a little of both.

As tends to be true in life, everything about that night turned out to be perfectly imperfect.  People who had not been together for years laughed and told stories and gave warm hugs to one another. Although we were short on seating space in that tiny house, we were not short on love. While Jethro was in some serious trouble that night, his shenanigans helped make a memory that would last.  And in case anyone is wondering: yes, we still ate the cake.

The Story I Never Told

I remember it now as vividly as if it only happened yesterday.  It was a sunny, brisk April morning eleven long and short years ago.  I woke up at my usual time and immediately thought something was off – my then-husband was already up and out of the house.  I didn’t recall him saying he had an early morning meeting, but I quickly shook it off and got ready for work in my usual way.  On the way out the door, I shooed the cat out of the way and patted the dog on the head.  I went out to the garage, got in my car and saw a gold manila envelope on the car seat.  When I opened up the envelope and looked at the contents, everything changed in the flash of a single moment – life as I knew it would never be the same.

Without a single utterance or warning of any sort, my husband had left divorce papers on my car seat.

I really don’t even have words to describe the moments that followed. Shock, disbelief, panic, and rage were all hurling at me with the force of a Mac truck.   I felt a hurt so deep, so searing, that I thought I might not make it through the day.  Truthfully, I’m still not sure how I did.  I ran inside to try calling him at work. Of course he did not pick up.  I paced and I sobbed and I screamed.  I had no recourse, and in that moment, no way to know what was happening.  I have had some days in my life, days that were truly, deeply terrible. Days of loss and grief, of confusion and pain. But I’ve never had a day, before or since, that shook me to the core like this fateful day.

In the days that followed, I searched for answers but got very few.  After thirteen years in a relationship that was almost entirely devoid of conflict, it appeared that my cool, calm and usually collected husband had gone off the deep end.  There was an evening about ten days after the divorce-papers-on-the-car-seat incident when he really lost his mind.  One sassy question from me along the lines of, “Why do you have to be like that?” unleashed thirteen years of suppressed rage.  After a massive blow up, the likes I had never seen in this otherwise almost passionless relationship, the evening ended with him laying on the bed in our spare bedroom sobbing a deep, guttural sob – a sob I could not in good conscience ignore. Balancing my own sense of safety with all of my other sensibilities, I went upstairs and laid on the bed with him – consoling him, crying with him, caressing his hair – and promising him that even though we were in the middle of a mess right now, we would both be okay on the other side of it.  It was my last act of affection toward him, and it came from a genuine place.  It was also the last night I ever spent in that house.

If there was a victim in this story, it would make sense to conclude it was me.  He made it so easy – too easy – so I let him take the blame.  Friends and family stood by my side and made speculations about the how and the why of it all, none of which put him in a favorable light.  A few months after our divorce was final, he was engaged to a co-worker of his and all of the unanswered questions seemed to have answers. It was easy and convenient to end the story there, so I did just that.

But time has a way of simultaneously gnawing away at the hard exterior shell and softening the edges to reveal the truth. What I didn’t say at the time, and really haven’t said to many until this very moment, is that I hold myself 100% responsible for the demise of my marriage.  I’m not letting him off the hook entirely, because I actually believe that both people in a relationship have 100% of the responsibility for it.  But this is the story I never told.

When I was 22 years old, I met a perfectly lovely man and willed myself to love him.  Because he met everyone else’s approval, I fell deeply in love with the idea of being in love with him. The deeper I got into the relationship, the more unstable my state of mental health became.  Over time, I developed a full-blown panic disorder, with my body protesting (sometimes violently so) the choices I was making.  I ignored all of this and did what I “wanted” anyway.  Now this is not to say that he was a bad guy – quite the contrary, actually.  He is a good man, with a good heart.  For a variety of reasons, though, he just wasn’t good for me. I knew it, and I married him anyway. Thereafter I invested myself in every part of my life except my marriage. I distracted myself with work and school and social opportunities.  I gave the best and most important parts of me to everyone else.  In the context of our relationship, I was moody and demanding and kind of lazy – all the while being funny and charismatic and hard-working in every other aspect of my life.  He desperately wanted children and I held back, knowing the relationship was not strong enough to handle it.  Over time, I became little more than a roommate – and kind of a pain in the ass roommate at that.  It eventually got to a point where even I really didn’t like me.  The long and the short of it is, he got the worst of me.  And he got it for thirteen long years.

So the bottom line and the story I’ve never told is this:  he did what I never would have had the courage to do.  He examined what really had become of our relationship – not what we portrayed to the outside world – and recognized that not only was it not working, it really wasn’t even salvageable.  He may not have chosen the most compassionate way to end the relationship, but he ended it with good reason and the only way he knew how.  In the end, he gave us both a chance at happiness.  And while he left me with many gifts in all our years together, that was the most loving gift of all.  Today, almost exactly eleven years later, my heart is grateful and my life is full.  I hope the same is true for him.

The Church of Santa’s Misfit Toys

Seven years and a day ago, my family said goodbye to a most remarkable man.  He was the Dr. Reverend Thomas Barth, but to me he was simply “Uncle Tom.”

It is a rare and beautiful thing when you have the opportunity to connect with someone whose spirit is so loving, so disarming, that you can truly be yourself – all of you- without hesitation.  Keenly and wisely connected to a God greater than himself, there is no question that Uncle Tom was steadfast in his Christian beliefs.  But unlike many others who so deeply believe and identify themselves as Christians, Uncle Tom was comfortable in the midst of anyone.  Atheists and agnostics were not welcomed in with a plan to convince them otherwise; they were welcomed in with a plan to love and accept exactly as they were.  I will say this boldly:  more than anyone else I’ve ever known, Uncle Tom embodied the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Uncle Tom’s story, as he told it to me, was that when his older sister Sally – my mother- was on her deathbed, she cautioned him, “Life is short.  Go be you.”  This life-altering exchange put him on a trajectory to take an honest inventory of himself and his life.  Over the course of the next 18 months, Uncle Tom lost and buried many more people in his life, including his own parents. He struggled with his own health challenges and faced his own mortality.  As dark and lonely as this time of his life was, it ultimately led to him ending his marriage and telling his family after 40 years of painful secrecy that he was gay.

Now I would love to tell you that my family applauded his efforts to be true to himself and sprang into action to provide loving support, but that simply is not the case.  It took years and countless hurtful exchanges for some people in the family to arrive at a place of peaceful acceptance.  I have no doubt that there were some very dark days where Uncle Tom felt the searing pain of a broken heart.  Even so, he stayed the course.  He had left the corporate world so he could follow his passion and return to seminary school.  He eventually received his doctorate in theology and was installed as a pastor in the United Church of Christ.  After being part of a few different churches, he found his home as the pastor for a small, fledgling church in Waukegan, Illinois – a church I had affectionately dubbed “The Church of Santa’s Misfit Toys.”  It was the perfect place for him to be, because no one can heal a broken soul like one that has been previously broken itself.

It was over the course of these years of painful growth that Uncle Tom’s life really coalesced.  He met and married a partner who was a partner in every sense of the word, and was eventually assigned the term of endearment “Aunt Bill.”  He built an incredible allegiance with his two children, Todd and Carrie, and loved them as fiercely as I’ve seen any parent love.  When he moved just an hour away from my sister and me, he welcomed us in as part of his “Christmas family” and treated us as affectionately as he did everyone in his life. He told us stories and made us laugh with his silly, outlandish antics, and he helped my sister and me keep the memory of our mom alive.  He even provided mentorship to our friend Matt, and helped him understand that it was possible to fully reconcile being gay and a Christian – a reconciliation Matt desperately needed and carries with him to this day.

Greater than any of this, though, Uncle Tom lived out the values he so frequently preached.  In short, he forgave. It is the single most important thing I learned from him, that the key to a happy life is forgiveness.  He lived it, he breathed it, he taught it by example.  His forgiveness of those who had hurt and betrayed him in his times of desperate need was one of the most profoundly beautiful things I have seen.

He left us in the blink of an eye, but Uncle Tom stays with all of us in subtle and tender ways.  A cardinal landing on a branch to pause and sing their sweet song, a bowl of chocolate ice cream before going to bed, a hearty laugh at the absurdity of life.   Seven years and a day have gone by, and I’ve never stopped missing him.  I’ve also never stopped knowing my life was richer for having had him in it.

The Good Doctor

Many years ago, my career took a most unusual turn.  Truth be told, there’s been nothing normal about the path my career has taken, and looking back I’ve been grateful for each and every step on its broken and winding road.  In 2001, about a year after completing my graduate degree, I had the opportunity to apply for a job at Milwaukee County.  It was a job that would assist in the oversight of the publicly funded community-based mental health services, and it was a job I wanted so fiercely I had labeled it “The Job.” Against all odds, I got this job, and I was certain I would be there until I retired.  True to Milwaukee County form, however, within about 86 days I was bumped out of my position due to a massive round of layoffs in another department.  I called my brief stint at Milwaukee County my “summer internship.”  All kidding aside, I was devastated.

With the help of my new Milwaukee County boss (who is now a long-time, much beloved friend), I made a soft landing in a local non-profit agency serving adults with mental illness.  I’ll be honest, I was just grateful to have a job.  Granted, it was a director position and by taking it, I was jumping over a few precursory steps to be adequately prepared for it.  I wasn’t climbing the corporate ladder, it seemed, I was leap-frogging it.  I am not sure what people saw in me to give me these chances I hadn’t earned, but I knew I could not let them down. Fiercely determined, I had never worked so hard before, nor have I ever since.

About a year into my new gig, I got a lucky break.  Looking back, I’m convinced, however, that luck wasn’t involved at all.  It was an aligning of the stars, a moment of kismet, an opportunity that was truly meant to be. Our team’s psychiatrist at the time, who was….ahem…hmmmmm…how can I delicately say it…the President of His Own Fan Club….gave us a two week notice that he was leaving.  He had been the doctor for these most vulnerable patients for over seven years, and he gave us a two week notice like he was working at McDonald’s.  I spent about 90 seconds being annoyed, because statutorily we were required to have a psychiatrist on the team and two weeks wasn’t much time to find a doctor.  After that, I sprung into action.  I knew exactly what I wanted for my team:  The Dr. Vance Baker.  He was the best of the best of the best in this town; everyone knew that.

I remember telling my supervisor that this was my plan.  It was interesting, because this agency I had joined was really struggling at the time.  I characterized it that the whole agency had a self-esteem problem.  My supervisor let out a quick chuckle that admittedly kind of stung, and then realizing I was serious tried to bring me back to reality.  She said, “There’s no way Vance Baker would want to work for us.”  I set out to prove her wrong.

Now, there were a few things standing in the way of having The Dr. Vance Baker join our team.  One glaring problem was that I didn’t know him, I only knew of him.  Second was that he was already employed. Third was that my supervisor was right, our agency was not exactly the premiere agency in town (yet) and why would a rock star want to join this band?  Undeterred, I shut out all the noise.

My tactic was simple:  I was going to reach out to every single person I could think of who was a psychiatrist or who knew a psychiatrist.  I put the word out on the street that I needed a doctor for this team and I needed one yesterday.  That’s exactly where the magic began.

About 48 hours into this exercise, my phone rang.  At the other end of the line was none other than The Dr. Vance Baker. Now mind you, I had put it out into the universe that I wanted him on my team, but I had not yet made any efforts to contact him directly.  He said he heard our team was looking for a new psychiatrist and he wondered if we could talk.  We set up a time to meet at a restaurant a day or two later, and I think when I got off the phone I probably squealed like a girl in junior high who just got asked to the dance.  I did not know how or why, but things were taking shape.

When the good doctor and I met up a couple days later, I was nervous as all get out.  I had to convince him of the appeal of building a team with me.  I explained to him my vision for this team and described us as a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  We talked through some of the job’s mechanics – what the job entailed, how many patients were on the caseload, what kind of hours were expected.  Somewhere in the midst of this, Vance said, “What I really want to do someday is retire and just spend my days on my land out west collecting bugs.”  To which I exclaimed, barely able to contain myself, “Oh my god!  I am a lepidopterist!” Vance might be the only person I’ve ever personally met who already knew that meant “one who collects butterflies.”  I don’t remember a single thing that was said after that.  The deal was done.

What was truly interesting about this whole ordeal was that more than a year prior, Vance had been looking for a way to leave his current outpatient practice and spend more time on his beloved prairie in the western part of the state.  One night, during a fit of insomnia, he realized that if he structured his weeks on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday basis, he could spend a full 7 days on the land, followed with a full 7 days in Milwaukee.  This would allow him to spend more time on his land, and be available to his Milwaukee jobs every single business week.  This newly revised and ingenious plan came to him in the dark of the night, and the following morning he woke up and gave a year’s notice at his job.  Funny thing, that year was coming to an end in just a couple of weeks when he got word I was looking for a psychiatrist.  He needed a job, and I needed a miracle.  In the end, we both got what we needed.

I consider the eight years I spent at this agency one of the hallmarks in my career and I am proud of every single thing that team accomplished together.  The secret I don’t say out loud very often, however, is that all of the transformation and rising through the ranks as an agency was really only because I did one great thing: I convinced Dr. Vance Baker to join our team.  Never before, and never since, have I been so clinically and philosophically aligned with another person.  We had the same ridiculously high and probably unreasonable standards and the same self-deprecating sense of humor.  We had the same love for the people we serve and the same intolerance for all the things that got in the way of serving them well.  In the end, I could reduce my job to this:  I take care of Vance, and he takes care of this team and our clients.  He taught me and my colleagues all kinds of valuable things:  the importance of honest self-assessment and admitting your mistakes, that helping someone with a mental illness complete a simple task is not in fact enabling them, that our work is riddled with ethical landmines but if you are smart and considerate you can navigate them, and that if you have acid reflux you should put two phone books under the posts at the head of your bed to make it slant so you lay at an angle.  Yep.  He knows a little something about pretty much everything.  He is amazing that way.

Many years passed and over those years, many things changed.  Eventually I was promoted and my duties took me further away from that team.  A couple years after that, the agency merged with another local non-profit and the landscape of my administrative duties took a turn I couldn’t reconcile.  After eight glorious years, I felt the pull back to “The Job” I had been bumped out of at Milwaukee County so many years prior. I struggled with the decision, but it was Vance’s wisdom that ultimately helped me.  He said, “Look, there are lots of people with mental illness who deserve your help.  It doesn’t have to be here.”

I left that agency knowing I had given it the very best of me.  I left a little broken-hearted, a little sad, but also a little excited for a new opportunity.  I knew I had done great things and that where I was headed, I would do more.  My colleagues gave me a journal where everyone wrote a page or two expressing their thoughts about our time together.  Vance wrote simply, “We will remain friends, but my career will lament your loss; I suspect permanently.”  Just reading that still brings tears to my eyes, because I feel precisely, deeply, in my heart of hearts, the exact same way.

Interestingly, my friendship with the Dr. Vance Baker has only strengthened since I left that job so many years ago.  We email, we talk on the phone, and once or twice a year I make my way westward to his land where we can sit and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk.  But my favorite of all the things we do is a monthly dinner outing we always keep at my request. I always pick the place, and he always picks the time. We almost always end up in a restaurant neither of us have ever tried, and when we get our cocktails we start the night by clinking our glasses:  “Here’s to keeping the love alive.”  And I have to admit, it is a love that is not just alive, but still growing.

Making Your Bed and Lying In It

“It is better to be alone, than to wish that you were.”

These words of wisdom with honest, gritty staying power were shared with me by my former colleague Sandy (may she rest in peace) as I was wading through a path of post-divorce rubble about ten years ago.  They have carried me through days of doubt and angst and loneliness, and in a way, have been a guidepost for my new-but-not-so-new life.  ‘Tis true, Ms. Sandy, it is better. Thanks to you, I won’t forget.

On the heels of “Singles Awareness Day” which is otherwise known as “Valentine’s Day,” I find it is near impossible to avoid reflecting on my current state.  Sure, I am single and I have been now for a good long while.  And sure, I’ve grown accustomed to it over the years.  I long ago let go of the fact that I won’t be able to wear a dress that buttons up the back (like I ever would) and that there is no division of household labor when you live alone (but guess what, you can hire people to do pretty much anything).  I’ve settled in and I’ve found my way, but I’ve done a whole lot more than that.  Just shy of full-on embracing it, I’ve acknowledged that I’m really good alone.  Really, really good.

I think part of the reason I’m so good alone is that there is no one here to fuss with.  I have long believed that it is the minutia in a relationship that has the greatest chance of killing it.  People joke about the age-old annoyances of the toilet seat being left up or the toothpaste in the sink, but it’s true…if you let these things bother you (and many of us in the human species do) resentment can seep in and create cracks which turn into fissures and then huge, gaping canyons.  It happens all the time, and most people can’t find their way back from that.

I heard a story recently that was the greatest and saddest example of this I had heard in a long time.  A friend of a friend of a friend (or something like that) was in a long-term relationship and had been living with her boyfriend for several years.  Recent word had come about that they were breaking up, and then this story was revealed.  More than five years ago, the two had an argument that was reportedly the beginning of the end.  The argument was not about politics or religion or your mom is so rude to me or why did you have to flirt with the waitress like that.  It wasn’t even about I can’t believe you depleted our savings account at the casino or what do you mean you accidentally slept with your ex-girlfriend.  No, no, no.  The argument was about who was going to put the linens on the bed.

So five years ago, neither of them wants to make the bed and so neither of them does.  Each of them is secretly resenting the other for not making the bed and holding their ground that I will not be the one to make the goddamn bed.  One holds their ground and sleeps on the couch, and the other holds their ground and sleeps in the recliner.  Day after day this goes on and and then before you know it, five years have passed and no one has made the bed and probably no one has had a good night’s sleep in half a decade and now here they are breaking up.  And still, to this day, the bed remains unmade. Five years of this!  Unbelievable.

Now, it is pretty clear that the unmade bed is the symptom of the problem and not the actual problem.  I don’t even know what the actual problem was, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it.  In fact, they probably didn’t have just one problem, they probably had a whole lot of them.  But what if it really did start right there, with a set of clean linens and a six minute task standing in the way of this couple and their happiness?  The problems had to start somewhere.  Maybe it started there.

And so, my point is this:  Whatever your relationship status is at the moment, you have a choice.  Believe it or not, you can always choose happiness.  If you are alone like me, love the fact that the only mess in the house is yours and that you can have peaceful, joyful solitude every minute you are home.  If you are in a relationship, take stock in the fact that you have someone to ask how your day was and snuggle with you while you watch Dexter.  The truth is that every situation has something that can make your heart sing, and every situation has the potential to incite the screaming in your head.  You get to pick if you feed the singing or the screaming.

There’s an old saying:  You made your bed, now you must lie in it.  Or in this case, you didn’t make your bed, now you have to sleep uncomfortably in a recliner.  Please, I am begging you, don’t be that person.  Be the hero in your relationship.  Or if you are single like me, be the hero in your own life.