Category Archives: Top Ten of Jen

Top Ten of Jen – 2015

Man oh man.  Another year has come and gone. Another year with laughter, challenges, love, lessons, grit.  Another year with life.  This life of mine, it is charmed I tell you.  Must be all those angels I have watching over me.  So that being said, in no particular order, here are my top ten most remarkable experiences of 2015:

1)  Did some adulting.  There’s no denying it, kids.  I’m officially a grown up.  I do turn 47 in a few months, so I guess it was inevitable that I face up to this truth.  So in 2015, I decided to take this adult thing by the horns.  I met with an attorney, and together we drafted my will, my living will, and my power of attorney for healthcare and finance documents.  I grappled with the hard questions, and I gave some careful consideration to my mortality.  Which I know is coming, but hopefully not soon.  But when it does, I’ve made life for my family a little bit easier.  Yaay, me! It feels good to be a grown up….most of the time.

2)  Did some experting.  It’s been said that to be an expert in one’s field, you must first acquire some knowledge, and then you must travel more than 300 miles to share said knowledge.  In February, I did just that.  I traveled a whole lotta miles, made my way through customs, drove a couple hours and eventually found my way to Guelph, Ontario.  While there, I conducted a series of workshops and a video recording of continuous quality improvement practices in behavioral health settings.  It was fun.  It was exhausting.  It was scary.  And I can’t wait to do it again and again.

3)  Did some laughing.  Anybody who knows anything about me knows that I love my girl Mindy.  This past summer, she and I met up in Waterloo, Iowa for a weekend of fun.  Is there fun to be had in Waterloo, Iowa, you ask?  Why yes, yes there is.  That is, if you have Mindy, Jen and the booster powerpack of our friend Mike.  Fun, it turns out, can include tractor museums and eating giant tenderloins the size of your head and doing a little late night shopping at the local Kum n’ Go for some swag.  I love it when I get sore cheekbones from laughing.  Even in Waterloo, Iowa.

4) Did some staycationing.  I had a day off this summer where my original plans had fallen through.  I could have gone to work, I guess, but – wait, catching my breath from laughing there – no.  No I could not go to work.  That’s just crazy talk.  I decided I had one day and not a care in the world and I was going to turn this town upside down.  So one by one, I ticked things off the Milwaukee to-do list and one by one, I realized how much I love this little town of ours.  I went to the domes – because they were free that day – and while there I ran into a friend.  I had an impromptu lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in forever.  I went to the art museum with yet another friend and saw the wonderful Modern Rebels exhibit.  I sat by the lakefront and drank local beer. And at the end of the night, I decided I needed custard, because – well, custard.  At the custard stand, I ran into yet another friend.  This is a city, right?  It is – I promise you – it has all the amenities a city should have.  But it is a town, too.  And that is why it is just right for me.  Love you, Milwaukee!  Mean it.

5)  Did some celebrating.  Here is what I believe is a well known fact about me, but lest there be any confusion let me be explicitly clear:  I love my birthday!  It’s true.  I love being the center of attention for one day.  Actually, it’s not one day.  It is, at minimum, one fortnight.  One of those celebratory activities during said fortnight is Birthday Eve.  Birthday Eve is, as the name would imply, the night before my birthday.  And it is always spent with my work homies, of which I have many.  I am lucky in that way – I have really, really great work friends.  In fact, I could never survive my job without them.  So this year, like every year, we went out for Birthday Eve.  But this year, I didn’t feel like talking about work, so I brought a tin with little slips of paper for possible conversation topics.  Topics like Burt Reynolds and black jelly beans and people named Larry and traumatic childhood memories.  That little tin of random topics made for one energized, hilarious, very different evening.  I think it will be a staple at every Birthday Eve. Because Birthday Eve is totally happening every year.

6)  Did some dating.  Yes, that’s right.  You heard it here first.  I got myself back in the game.  The dating game, that is. Which is not always an easy game to be in, I might add.  Don’t get me wrong, there has been much to love about my single life.  But, I am finding, there is much to love about not being so single either.  So yes, I have been spending time with a thoughtful, funny, affectionate, handsome gentleman suitor for the last few months.  And, I would say, it has been good for me.  Good because I am reminded that even a 40-something, strong-willed, set-in-her-ways woman like myself has plenty to offer someone who gets to be with me.  Truthfully, it’s been a little scary, a little exhilarating, a little challenging, a lot of fun.  And, for the record, I’m still all in.

7)  Did some friending.  There are many things that make my life great.  My house, my family, my job, my opportunities.  But few things contribute to my life the way that my friendships do.  I cherish them and protect them, love them and honor them.  This year, I’ve had some friends go through some things.  Some things that haven’t been so easy.  And the things is, those same friends have turned to me to be there for them.  This is not a burden, it is not a chore.  Rather, this is a privilege.  This is the kind of thing that gives friendships staying power.  I love that the foundation we built over time has made me a safe harbor for the difficult times.  And I trust that when I need them, they will be there in the same ways for me.  That is a good feeling. A feeling so good words can’t do it justice.

8)  Did some roadtripping.  My friend Danielle and I had been talking about taking a road trip for years.  This year, we finally did it.  What started off as contemplation of a four day weekend in Kansas City ended up instead as a 7 Cities in 7 Days epic tour all the way to Myrtle Beach and back.  Our mantra from the start was “it’s just one day.”  So if it’s terrible (like Myrtle Beach) you can laugh it off because it was just one day.  (And laugh we did, that place is dreadfully, hilariously awful.)  But if it’s amazing (like Charleston) you can only do one or two incredible things because all you had was just one day.  (And we did those one or two incredible things as well.)  We loved traveling by car, having a cooler at our disposal, being in charge of our own schedule and stopping at any given time to do precisely what we wanted to do.  I can promise you this, another epic road trip will be happening and the plans are already underway.

9)  Did some lanterning.  OK, lanterning isn’t a real word.  But it should be!  My girl Alex turned 40 this year. She’s a baby, I tell you!  She happened to be in town for the big day, so she assembled a group of her best gals for a night out on the town.  After a fantastic dinner, one of her friends arranged for us to have dessert and champagne at the lakefront.  Now mind you, it was cool, and it was damp.  But not just a little damp, the fog was so thick we could barely see.  So we walked for what felt like a mile, and there was our little picnic set up.  As an extra special part of the plan, there were paper lanterns for each of us to light and send off into the sky as we made a wish.  Sounds beautiful, right?  Well it was, but part of the beauty was the knock down, drag out, nearly pants-peeing hilarity that ensued as several of us had great difficulty lighting our lanterns and had to chase them as they tumbled across a plot of tall prairie grasses.  In the end, the deed was done.  The lanterns went adrift in the sky, the wishes were made, and our girl Alex had a most memorable birthday. All without starting the entire lakefront on fire.

10)  Did some family bonding.  My beautiful little family and I made a big decision this year:  No Christmas presents.  Maybe it sounds a little harsh, but I assure you it is not.  It’s not, because we all have everything we could ever need.  How lucky are we?  So this year, in lieu of gifts we agreed to make a charitable donation and focus on spending time together.  We saw a comedy show.  We went out for a lovely dinner.  We went to the movies.  We played board games.  And at the end of it all, I think we all knew in our hearts that we are rich in many ways – but we are especially rich in love.

So that’s a wrap, 2015.  Thanks for another great year!  Onward and upward for more adventures in the year to come.  As usual, I can’t wait.

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Top Ten of Jen – 2014

Life.  I spend a lot of time thinking about it.  Don’t we all?  I think that life is grand and complex, and I also think that it is comprised of thousands of tiny remarkable moments.  This past year had a whole host of rich, invigorating, heart-warming moments.  In no particular order, here are my ten favorite moments of 2014.

1)  Patio Perfection.  I declared 2014 to be “The Year of the Patio.”  This sounds a little more exciting than perhaps it actually was, but it included new furniture, new throw pillows, new planters and some professional landscaping.  That was all well and good, but The Year of the Patio also served as host to a moment I loved.  After a delicious dinner one night with five of my favorite people, we all sat together in quiet solitude and strung together the custom up-cycled strings of lights my brother-in-law David made to complete my vision of patio perfection.  The assembly line quickly became a well-oiled machine and the lights were put together in very little time.  Moments later, David and my friend Fern hung the lights on my house as I stood back to take it all in.  I saw whimsy, bright colors and a patio that suited my taste. What I saw more than that, however, was a group of people I love deeply and who love me back, all working together to bring that moment’s vision of happiness to life. I tell you, there is no better feeling one can have.

2)  A Ban Lifted.  In June something happened in Wisconsin that was long overdue and a wonderful development:  the state’s ban on gay marriage was lifted.  The timing was impeccable because it occurred the day that Pride Fest was commencing.  I was on the other side of the state when news came through that this had occurred, and I was instantly beside myself with joy.  So many friends and people I hold dear would now have equal opportunity to marry – it was truly a beautiful thing.  Later that same day, I learned that my friends Matt and Fernando had rushed to the courthouse and gotten married, much like many other couples in Wisconsin.  Because I wasn’t home at the time, I could not be there with them.  So what I did instead was get on the road early that Sunday morning so I could make it back in time for the Pride parade.  I knew Matt and Fern were walking in the parade and so I quietly waited for them, then ran out in the street to hug them when they made their way toward me. Surprising them to share in their joy and standing in the streets of Milwaukee hugging and crying was a most incredible feeling.  It was as if the vibrational energy of our whole community had elevated as justice was served.  Even though on so many fronts we still have far to go, I am so happy that I got to see this happen in my lifetime.

3)  BFF Time.  I spend time with my life-long best friend Mindy every year, usually more than once. This year was no different.  We met up in the summer for a weekend of shenanigans, and I went to see her again in the fall when she needed me and I needed to be there for her in that moment.  We spent a day dilly-dallying all over eastern Iowa and ultimately landed in our college town bar on the Saturday afternoon of what happened to be Homecoming weekend.  We sat in a booth and drank cheap, crappy drinks. We shared our tales of woe and our vision for a happy life and everything in between.  And at least four times during that hour long conversation, I laughed so hard I had to put my head down on the formica table and wipe away tears of laughter.  It’s just so amazing to have someone in your life who you can say anything to.  Anything.  At all.  Does not matter how sassy or crass it is. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this friendship or the freedom that comes with it, but it is one of my life’s greatest blessings.

4)  Kissin’ Cousins.  OK, we don’t have kissing cousins in our family – at least not that I know of. But we do have an awesome group of family members who like to be together and we make a point to do it with some frequency.  This year we resumed our annual Cousins Weekend in Spooner, Wisconsin.  It is a tradition that we all love, and it incorporates a lot of hanging out, pontooning, getting sun-soaked, eating, laughing and storytelling.  There was a precise moment of hilarity during this year’s Cousins Weekend that is etched in my memory.  My cousin Joel, my brother-in-law David and I were playing a rousing game of Qwirkle, which is a strategy game that involves matching shapes and colors.  Joel and I were ramping up the smack-talking with one another and relishing each and every “Qwirkle-tunity.” We were laughing so much that everyone in the vicinity joined in on the laughter and fun.  It was wholesome and pure and everything I love about my family.  More, please.  I need more of that.

5)  Nashville Cats.  In July my sister, brother-in-law and I took a trip to Nashville to see our friends Kate and Eric.  We have been to visit them several times, and each visit brings new adventure. This trip was no exception.  We saw a bluegrass show at the Ryman Auditorium, went to the Johnny Cash Museum, went to Jack White’s incredible record store, did some shopping, ate great meals and maybe one night drank (way) too much.  The entire weekend, there were repeated reminders of my dad, who would have surely loved everything about Nashville. It was notable because the specific weekend we were there was the anniversary of his passing so many years ago.  This all culminated for me when I stopped at a grocery store with Kate and Eric, and upon entering the store my dad’s favorite song “Aimee” was playing on the radio.  I had just experienced sign after sign after sign that Dad was with us and this one blew me away.  I strolled through the store looking for ingredients for our dinner and periodically wiped away my tears.  I miss that man every day, but he is always by my side.  I was grateful for this reminder.

6)  A Challenge Met.  In January I decided I was going to set a new crazy challenge for myself: Write 52 blogs in 52 weeks.  I was inspired by my friend Jan who has more than once now written 100 blogs in 100 days.  I pretty much stayed on course with one blog per week, and found this relatively challenging, enlightening and very, very fun.  The weeks I traveled or felt I had nothing to say got me a little behind, and then in November Jan came at me with yet another challenge:  30 blogs in 30 days. I was hesitant, but honestly I needed to make up some ground anyway.  So I dug in, and met that challenge, too.  It was haaaaaaaaaard.  Not every day, but many days, and I think that pushing through that was in fact the beauty of it.  I realized at the end of this exercise that I have more to say than perhaps I originally thought and that by writing with greater frequency, my storytelling and my writing skills improve significantly, as does my thoughtful observation of the world.  The precise moment of meeting a big challenge – when I hit 52 in even less than 52 weeks – was a great feeling. Onto the next writing challenge…whatever shall it be?  Stay tuned.

7)  A New-Old Friend.  In addition to the wonderful Mindy, I have another friend who has known me almost my whole life and is still part of my life to this day.  Her name is Ellen, and she is beautiful, sassy, smart and funny.  Even though we grew up in Iowa, Ellen and I both ended up living near Milwaukee.  Even so, our lives were so full and so different, we typically only saw each other once or twice a year.  All that changed this year, when Ellen went through a personally challenging time and we reconnected in an incredible way.  There were dinners and overnights and parties that were all very fun.  But my favorite moment with Ellen was one night when we were instant messaging one another. The conversation turned sassy (hard to believe, I know) and we were laughing so hard at each of our computers that Ellen claims she actually frightened her cat.  As I pointed out to her some months later – sometimes when something bad happens, something wonderful happens at the exact same time.  A renewed friendship with someone who knows your past is a glorious thing.  Thanks, universe.  (And Ellen.)

8)  One Happy Memory.  My sister and I made a commitment this year to take a trip using some money we had inherited from our step-mother earlier in the year.  It was an unexpected windfall, and we were determined to create a happy memory with it.  After months of planning, we set out for a ten day tour of the Pacific Northwest and our first stop was Vancouver, British Columbia.  Vancouver is a stunning, cosmopolitan city and we loved everything about it.  Our second night there, we set out to find some sushi which wasn’t hard to do.  After considerable research, we landed on a little hole in the wall restaurant called “Sushi Mart” with long, plain tables, fluorescent lights, counter service and zero ambiance.  That being said, we had the opportunity to gorge ourselves on and incredible platter of sushi for less than $20.  Even better, Jess and I had an incredible conversation about life, love and the pursuit of happiness.  That’s what this trip was all about, right there.  Love, love, love.

9)  Two Happy Memories.  After Vancouver, Jess and I hopped on the train and made our way to Seattle, Washington.  Quite unexpectedly, I loved this city.  I mean I loved, loved, loved it.  We met up with friends who were local to the area and our travel partner for the next leg of the trip, my friend Vance.  One afternoon, we hit up the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum.  Glass is my favorite artistic medium, and Chihuly is the master to end all masters of it.  There was a moment in the museum where we turned a corner to enter a new exhibit, and it was so stunning that I think it took my breath away. There was another moment at the same museum when Vance I returned at nightfall to see the outdoor garden exhibit in all its colorful lit-up glory and I’m pretty sure I was breathless again.  I could spend days in this magical place.

10)  Three Happy Memories.  We left Seattle and made our way toward Portland, Oregon where plenty more fun with friends and family awaited us.  But before we got to Portland, we spent a night on the Oregon coast in a sleepy little resort town named Manzanita.  We went to the local grocery store and purchased bread, cheese, a couple bottles of pretty low-brow wine and some cheap plastic glasses to drink from.  Jess ducked out early, but Vance and I sat at the beach for hours drinking, talking and mostly quietly taking in the powerful beauty of a rugged coastline and crashing waves.  It was the kind of moment that has a way of making your life feel big and small at the same time.  It was humbling and awe-inspiring, and precisely what my soul needed at that moment in time.

So for each precious moment I experienced in 2014 – some described in this blog and so many more that were not – my heart remains full and my life better than ever.  If happiness is the goal – and I believe that it is the only one that really matters – I am almost always there.  To which I simply say to the universe, my creators and all the people who contribute to it – thank you.  Each passing day and year leaves me more and more humbled.

Top Ten of Jen – 2013

I may be a day (or two, or three) late in getting to my annual Top Ten of Jen blog post, but I promise you I am not a dollar short.  As is true every year, this past year had some very remarkable events.  And if someone would be so kind as to offer a drum roll, here they are in my favorite order – which is no particular order at all:

1)  Reminded myself that reading is fundamental.  My friend Alex had been poking, prodding, and pleading for me to join her book club for awhile.  While the book club sounded like a fun group of gals, the prospect of having to read a book sounded unappealing.  I feared it would feel like homework, and I would resent it and blah blah blah.  But after about a year of coaxing, I decided to join in.  What a great decision!  The books have been fantastic, the book club nights have been a blast, and most importantly, this has gotten me to read again.  Not just the book club books, but all kinds of books now.  My new favorite thing?  A Sunday with no obligations, a pot of soup simmering on the stove and a full day of reading.  Yaaay, me!  My brain is no longer turning to mush.

2)  Got sun-kissed in Florida.  I’ve been to Florida many, many times.  The big draw, in addition to some sun and warmth as a break from the dreary 414 winter months, is that I have free lodging there with my aunt and uncle who treat me like one of their own children and are two of my favorite people.  That, and the best banana cream pie on the planet.  This year, I waited until April to go and I spent a full week there.  Aunt Lois doted on me while Uncle Wayne pretty much read a bunch of books and took us out to dinner every night.  I lazed around in the sun every day.  I went searching for manatees several times unsuccessfully.  I read two books.  I had some thoughtful debates and heart to heart talks with Aunt Lois.  I got to see Uncle Wayne tell some family stories that made him belly laugh so hard he could hardly catch his breath.  The last evening there, I saw a pod of twenty or more dolphins.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about going to Florida alone, but this was truly a great trip.  I’ll happily do it again.

3)  Reconciled my past.  The full story behind this is much too long for this blog post.  But here is the Cliff’s Notes version:  In February, my step-mom passed away.  I heard about this through extended family, because to be honest we hadn’t had but maybe two or three instances of contact since my dad passed away seventeen years ago.  The days that followed were a roller coaster of emotion and decision-making. Ultimately, my sister and I decided to go to the funeral.  As difficult as this decision was, it was equal parts right.  Something washed over me, as we stood out in the brisk February wind in her family’s old country graveyard.  I think it’s called forgiveness; maybe it is understanding, too.  Understanding that everyone on this planet is a mix of good and bad, a cocktail of rights and wrongs.  I have often traveled the high road, and this day was no exception.  This time, more than any other, I am surely glad that I did.

4)  Made a life changing decision.  This is a big one, folks.  I changed out all of my socks to be only Gold Toe brand socks.  I was tired of wearing socks that would fall down incessantly throughout the day or wear thin too soon or annoy me for any reason, any time.  Life, I decided, is too short to wear bad socks.  Boom.  Just like that – I got rid of all the bad socks and replaced them all with Gold Toes.  The quality of my life has since improved significantly, and there is no turning back.

5)  Co-hosted Cousin-palooza in Milwaukee.  For years the Swearingen cousins have descended upon Spooner, Wisconsin (which always prompts a “Spooner?  I hardly even know her!” response) for Cousins Weekend.  This year, we decided to mix it up and gather in Milwaukee.  Many of our cousins, and our lovely Aunt Lois and Uncle Wayne, made their way from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee.  My sister and I did our best to roll out the red carpet for them, because we were so honored they would drive all the way to Milwaukee just to see little old us.  We made incredible dinners that still have people talking.  We took them on a magical mystery tour of our great city.  We sat around and looked at pictures, told stories, and laughed our behinds off.  We even arranged for the Twins to beat the Brewers at the game we attended on Memorial Day.  It was a great weekend, which is no surprise.  No surprise at all, since we have the greatest family ever.

6)  Celebrated my 44th birthday in style.  For years I had thought that my 44th birthday would be kind of a big deal, because my mom never made it to 44.  The day arrived and I really just felt happy.  I worked that day, and my co-workers did all kinds of things to make it an extra special day.  That evening, I went out to dinner with a group of a whole bunch of my favorite people.  I picked a newer restaurant in town that is an upscale Wisconsin Supper Club.  It was a Tuesday, so we were afforded the luxury of our own private room.  We had a server who was sassy and spot-on.  We had food – lots of it- that was incredible.  But more than that, we had a lot of love in that room.  When I went home that night, my stomach was full, but my heart was certainly fuller.

7)  Lost a special friend.  In the last couple of years, I forged a new friendship with a wonderful man by the name of Henry.  Henry was different, and there was something really special about him.  He exuded warmth and humility.  He was bright and exceptionally articulate.  When he wanted to get something done, like self-publish his own incredible children’s book, he just did it.  We quickly became kindred spirits, and had our own little Mutual Admiration Society.  One Friday in August, Henry worked all day and then headed out for dinner with his family.  At dinner, he collapsed and in an instant he was gone.  Just like that, at 38 years old, it was over.  The whole experience rattled me to my core and made me face my own mortality.  But the real story is, I miss my friend and I am sad that we didn’t have more years to develop what was undoubtedly going to be a long-lasting fantastic friendship.  I hope he is at peace.  I think about him every day.

8)  Wrote a damn letter.  For years, a local journalist has written stories about the mental health system in Milwaukee.  She has an agenda, and it’s clear she won’t stop anytime soon.  As someone who works in the public mental health system, the articles can be taxing on my spirit.  My solution?  I try not to read them.  Mostly because they are repetitive and have a lot of inaccuracies and also because it is an unnecessary distraction from the important work I have to do.  But every once in a while, I put myself through the torture of reading a new series. The new series this year really got to me, and I kind of felt like I had to stand up for what I believe to be the truth – that the people who work in this field, especially the direct caregivers, deserve some respect.  I spent an entire evening at home crafting a letter to the editor.  I worked hard to not sound defensive, and did my best to set the record straight.  The main point I was making was that for anything to change, there must be a balance of discomfort and hope, and that while discomfort is aplenty, hope has all but vanished.  Mostly I wrote the letter because it was cathartic for my spirit.  But then, a week later, much to my surprise it was published.  There was an outpouring of emails saying “thank you” and “finally” and “this is so long over due” and a few people even hugged me tearfully when they saw me. It felt good to stand up for the little guy and everything I hold true about my work.

9)  Ordered some salad and some breadsticks.  My friend Matt and I have a confession.  We love the Olive Garden.  Don’t judge us!  And if you do, we don’t care!  Matt and I are part of a fantastic group of friends who get together regularly.  But about once every six weeks or so, Matt and I sneak off to the Olive Garden with our $4 coupon in tow.  We’ve learned a lot about the Olive Garden, like that the wait staff are only allowed to put one of every vegetable in the salad for each person at the table.  Hence, we were only getting two olives in our salad and this was very disappointing.  But we further learned that if you ask real nice, the waiter will sneak you a whole bunch of extra vegetables.  On a more serious note, Matt and I also learned a lot about each other, and love having this excuse to spend some quality time together.  The advertisements aren’t all entirely inaccurate.  When we are at the Olive Garden, we feel like family.

10)  Celebrated Thanksgivukkah.  I love Thanksgiving – it is absolutely my favorite holiday.  This year, Thanksgiving coincided with Hanukkah, which was truly a once in a lifetime event.  I think it won’t happen again for something like 70,000 years.  My brother-in-law’s family is Jewish, so we made the most of this momentous occasion.  My sister decorated her table beautifully with a Hanukkah tablescape.  The whole family spent the day together cooking, and we added in some special treats like matzo ball soup, sweet potato latkes and challah bread stuffing.  I loved, loved, loved this entire day, and it is a Thanksgiving I am sure that none of us will ever forget.

It amazes me every year when I reflect back what a fun and layered life I have.  My days are filled with love, friendship, work I am passionate about, a little bit of heartache and a whole lot of joy.  This year, as is true every year, the Top Ten of Jen reminds me that it is good to be me.  Happy New Year to each and every one of you…I can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store!

Top Ten of Jen – 2012

Oh, sweet reflection.  How I love you so.  This year has been another one for the history books.  Okay, no history books.  Busted!  I am totally exaggerating.  But the year has been a good one, nonetheless.  As I look back, it has been a year of learning, of laughter, and of love.  My top ten most remarkable experiences from the past year are (drum roll, please…):

1)  Got busy living.  Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, cautioned us, “It comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying.”  I love this movie, and love this quote.  And for the most part, I think I have done a pretty good job of getting busy living.  But, I have to admit, I’ve always had something holding me back.  That something is worry that I would carry the same fate as my mom, who died at the very young age of 43 years, 2 months and 9 days.  Was this fear of mine irrational?  Perhaps.  Her demise was a fluke, a one in a million chance.  On the other hand, I am practically my mother’s carbon copy.  I look like her, I think like her, I am her.  So, this was the year.  It had been looming in the distance for awhile.  A couple of years ago, I marked my calendar.  June 5, 2012.  That was the day.  That was the day that I would turn 43 years, 2 months and 10 days old.  That was my day of emancipation, the day I would have officially outlived my mother.  I woke up that day, and I truly felt free.  Something changed.  For one, that day, and every day thereafter, has been acknowledged as a gift.  I have a renewed sense of purpose, and a heightened sense of gratitude.  I’ve got this, kids, and it is good.

2)  Una cerveza, por favor.  In March, my sister and I spent countless hours trying to plan a vacation.  I wanted to go to Savannah, but we realized pretty quickly that we could go to Mexico for less money than we could go to pretty much anywhere interesting in the continental United States.  The trip was, in a word, HOT.  I don’t fare well in the heat, so Jess had to put up with a lot of whining and complaining on my part.  But, we took in the culture, learned a lot and got some quality beach time.  The highlight was a day spent in the Mayan ruins, which were incredible.  I honestly don’t know how those Mayans did it, building those pyramids and all.  And in that heat, no less!  I can honestly say I would have been a terrible Mayan.  In the end, it may not have been my best vacation of all time (it was really hot, after all) but I spent it with one of my favorite people on the planet.  And that is all that really matters.

3)  Cleaned up the dump.  So I’ve been in my house about eight years now.  I love this little house o’ mine.  It’s cute and it’s perfect and it’s totally reflective of me.  But, eight years of life had worn the place down.  It was time to do something about it, and in May I took a week off to give the place a boost.  I coordinated friends to move furniture around, my gay boyfriend to select new paint colors and window dressings, painters to repaint the entire first floor, flooring guys to replace some of the flooring and landscaping guys to add some long overdue professional landscaping to the front of my house.  All the while insisting, “I don’t need no man!”  At the end of this most exhausting week, I moved everything back in place and fell in love with my house all over again.  I love to travel.  I love to go out and have fun.  And more than any of that, I love to come home.

4)  Didn’t say “I told you so” but could have.  Have you ever had someone in your life who didn’t believe in you?  It’s a terrible feeling.  Try having that feeling for, oh, I don’ t know, a quarter of a century.  Well, this person was going to be in the periphery of my life whether I liked it or not, so for all those years I made a conscious effort to take the high road.  I used to quip, “Know what’s great about the high road?  Not a lot of traffic.”  Oh yes, there was the occasional rolling of my eyes, muttering under my breath or venting to my friends.  But overall, I stayed true to myself and that high road.  Well, this year, all that traversing on the high road paid off.  It paid off because someone finally noticed.  This person who took notice pulled me and my sister aside, commented on the remarkable nature of a high-road decision we made together a couple of years ago (if he only knew, I thought), and said the most heart-warming thing I’ve ever had anyone tell me:  “Your parents must be so proud.  They did an incredible job raising you girls.”  I got in my car and I wept with my sister.  They did do an incredible job, those parents of ours.  It’s okay every once in a while to be proud of yourself.  That day I was.

5)  Had a heavy heart.  My family is pretty amazing.  I am so lucky in that way.  In June, our family suffered a tremendous loss.  We lost our Ted, my cousin’s husband.  He really was the very best of what our family has to offer.  He was the kindest, most patient, most gentle and fun-loving soul of all of us.  Ted had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer eight and a half years prior.  This made no sense, because Ted was the embodiment of clean living.  But he was a fighter, that guy, and he beat a whole lotta odds.  In April, Ted’s daughter got married.  Ted was losing the fight by that time, and we all knew it.  But he made it to the big day, and he walked his girl down the aisle.  That evening, Ted gave a speech that moved every single one of us.  He talked about how, when diagnosed, he was sure he would never see his own daughter get married and how he wept at the thought.  He talked about marriage and relationships and how we had best let go of the little stuff which is practically everything.  He talked about never having a single day of regret being married to my cousin – a true testament to the strength of their bond.  In the midst of all of this, Ted also made us laugh.  And he made us cry.  And he made us all hold each other a little tighter.  Ted saw his son graduate from college a few days later, and passed away just a few short weeks after that.  His words and his perspective the day of his daughter’s wedding meant something to all of us, and I suspect they always will.

6)  Ate a few tacos, and then a few more.  Taco Bar!  This has become code for: Fun! Time Together! Laughter! My friend Matt and I talk about our two families.  There is your biological family, and then there is your logical family.  I borrowed that phrase from a college friend, and I love it because it fits.  Your logical family should be the people who you choose to surround yourself with – the ones who are always there for you and do everything they can to lift you up.  Well, it just so happens that my logical family loves Taco Bar.  But it’s not really about the tacos, though they are undeniably tasty, it’s about everything that goes with it.  (And no, I don’t mean taco sauce, but yes, I do love that too.)  We can literally talk about anything (example:  Is jello a salad or a dessert?) and laugh our fool heads off.  I always leave happier than I came and that is the thing about Taco Bar that I love most.  Even more than the tacos.

7)  Rocked on.  So last year for Christmas, Jess asked for tickets to see Neil Diamond at Summerfest.  I obliged.  We laughed as we walked the Summerfest grounds at how easy it was to identify a Neil fan:  they either traveled in groups of 20-somethings wearing T-shirts that said something like “Bum Bum Bum” (an homage to Sweet Caroline) or they were little old ladies carrying sweaters.  At any rate, I must say that Neil might be 70 but he can still put on a good show.  Now, this is where things take a turn that may result in some judgment.  The Neil concert inspired me to also see Barry Manilow a month or so later.  I am telling you, I have been a Fanilow since the age of 10.  I love that man.  Yes, he is old.  Yes, it’s true he hasn’t had a new hit in like 30 years.  Yes, he’s had so much surgery that he bears a resemblance to Lady Elaine Fairchilde from the Mister Rogers show.  (Don’t believe me?  Check it out:  http://cheezburger.com/2315838208.)  Here’s the thing:  I DON’T CARE.  I went to the concert with my friend Jill, and we sang our little hearts out.  We danced in the aisles.  We screamed, “I love you Barry!” with all the other girls.  And, most importantly, we had fun.  And I don’t even care if you judge me.  At least not very much.

8)  Took my summer back.  I’d been thinking about this one for a while, and I finally just did it.  I hired a lawn service.  Here’s the thing.  There is no division of labor in this household.  (Trust me, these cats are useless.)  I work hard.  I make a solid living.  And I want to have some fun.  Given that we have about two solid months of summer weather in Wisconsin, I decided I was tired of spending any portion of it mowing my lawn.  So I broke down and I hired a service and here is what I have to say:  It was a life changing decision.  Oh how I love when I come home and the lawn is mowed.  And it’s not just mowed, it is mowed at a perfect angle and beautifully trimmed.  Yes, my friends, I have arrived.  And there is no turning back now. I am officially one of those people.

9)  Learned that “cobblestone is stupid.”  In October, I finally got that trip to Savannah that I had been longing for.  My sister and I met up with our friends Kate and Eric for a long weekend.  Our visit was long overdue, as it had been a couple of years since we had all seen each other.  It had been a couple of long and hard years for the two of them, so we in fact really needed the time with each other.  It was great to catch up and it was great to learn all about this fantastic little city.  We took a haunted carriage ride.  We ate all kinds of crazy southern cooking.  We toured a few cemeteries.  We drank way too many cocktails and maybe we even tripped and fell on a cobblestone street.  Oh wait – that last part was just me.  At any rate, it was the kind of trip that had me loving every minute of it.

10)  Embraced traditions.  The Girl Scouts have a song they sing that says, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold!”  I feel the same way about traditions.  I think it’s important to make some new ones every once in a while, and this year I may have found one that will stick.  On Labor Day, I had my “logical family” over for an amazing dinner.  I grilled steaks, skewered shrimp and asparagus.  I marinated some heirloom tomatoes and chilled some craft beers.  As one attendee noted, “Hats off to whoever invented Labor Day!”  It was a great way to end the summer and a tradition I hope to keep.  On the other hand, I upheld a tradition that has been in place for several years:  my annual “Boys Have Cooties” cooking baking party.  Always situated a good ten days before Christmas or so, all the girls of all ages descend on my house to bake, decorate, and kvetch.  This year, things almost spiraled out of control until my friend Danielle stepped up as the Cookie Traffic Controller.  That’s the thing about the cookie party.  It’s messy. It’s chaotic.  And it is a tradition that we all love.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So there you have it.  Thank you, 2012.  You were a heck of a year. How will I ever top you?  Well, we’ll just have to see.  Away we go…..Happy New Year, everyone!

The Top Ten of Jen – 2011 Style

Oh, 2011. It’s been real. I have to say, you were a pretty normal year. In some regards, I have to say, ho hum. And yet…more and more experiences for which I will be forever grateful. Funny how that works. Lucky me! As is tradition (two solid years running now), in no particular order, here are the Top Ten events of 2011:

1) Started experiencing a new tradition with a friend that I love. (I love both the friend and the tradition.) My friend Alex is a very thoughtful friend. She has frequently reminded me what it really means to be a friend to someone. Alex has two little girls. Adorable little girls who are funny and sassy and sensitive and smart as whips. So Alex decided since she can’t go out like she used to, she will do what it takes to maintain her friendships. Almost every single Wednesday night, Alex makes an amazing, delicious, meticulously planned dinner for me and another friend. Wednesday was never my favorite day of the week. Who likes “Hump Day” after all? Well, I do now. Wednesday night dinner has become a highlight of my week, and the cornerstone of a remarkable friendship.

2) Went to sunny San Diego. People make fun of me and my many travels for my job. I can’t help it! If being a good steward of the taxpayers means I have to go to San Diego in January, I will do it. I am that committed to the good people of this fine county. But I will say this: opportunities like that generally result in me mixing business with pleasure. So I extended this trip by a few days and had my sister Jess and our friend Matt join me. Enter hilarity, stage left. From the moment our plane landed, everything was funny. Jess kept stopping the car too far in the intersection and had to back up four times in the first 30 minutes on the road. We took tourism advice from a 3rd shift convenience store worker who was missing teeth and I’m pretty sure was a meth abuser and/or hardened criminal. We checked into a hotel where the price was right but the cleanliness was not. We ate at amazing places and spent all kinds of time on the ocean and even saw a whale or two. We cheered the Packers onto the Superbowl in a local Packers bar with waves crashing off in the distance. All told, that portion of my trip cost me something like $130 thanks to Priceline and splitting the bill three ways. Yipee! I love my life. Er, I mean, I love serving the good taxpayers of this county.

3) Reconnected with another Matt. I have some long lost cousins. And this really bums me out, because they are the cousins I grew up with in Iowa. We literally spent every holiday together, and for many years we were together most weekends, too. My dad and their dad were brothers and best friends. But after our parents passed away, our relationship did too. Nobody was mad or fighting, but one month turned into one year turned into fifteen years and wow. What happened? So a while ago, I found one of these said cousins, Matt, on Facebook. Matt was my bud growing up. We are one year apart in age. He is a funny, charismatic free spirit. And this year, as “the rest” of my family was preparing for our annual Cousins Weekend in Spooner, Wisconsin, I suggested to Matt that he should make the trek from Colorado to Wisconsin to surprise the rest of the family. It took some convincing on my part, but we made it a reality. Matt flew to Milwaukee, and then drove 6 hours with us to see the rest of our cousins and the only remaining living sibling of our two dads. When Matt stepped out of that car, our family about freaked. They too had not seen him in 15 years or so. Hugs were shared, tears flowed, and disbelief continued throughout the weekend. It was the best surprise ever. And the memories – oh, the memories. This event more than any other in 2011 truly made my heart happy.

4) Philadelphia, Part One. My BFF Mindy and I planned a trip as we tend to do every other summer. This time we invited her friend Meri along whom I had also gotten to know over the course of the last year. Oh, we did all the usual Philadelphia things. The stupid Liberty Bell. The snoresville Constitution Hall. Ran up the Rocky Steps at the art museum. We ate cheesesteaks and big pretzels and drank local beers to our heart’s content. But mostly, we laughed. And laughed some more. And then a little more. One night I laughed so hard….well, I will spare you the rest of that story. During this trip, I did harvest a story about Betsy Ross that has become a “must tell” at any party, happy hour or social gathering that doesn’t include any sticks in the mud. Oh, Betsy. If you only knew. Our last night there, I met a cute boy. Actually, he was a man. But sparks flew and numbers were exchanged…and you will just have to keep reading for the rest of the story.

5) Visited my mom and dad’s best friends in Iowa. Jess and I took a road trip to Iowa mid-summer. My best friend was holding a wedding reception for her Christmas Eve wedding from the year prior and we were happy to go celebrate with her. While back on our old stomping grounds, however, we revisited some of our favorite places and things. College campuses, pork tenderloins, and a few friends along the way. On our way to the Quad Cities for one last visit, we made a detour and drove through the tiny little town we grew up in. We made an impulse stop at the home of our parents’ best friends, Jim and Jan. We rang the doorbell. We held our breath. They answered the door and we jumped up and down and hugged and I even got a little verklempt. We only spent an hour with them, but it was an incredible hour. We all shared updates and brought everyone up to speed, and then they shared some hilarious stories about our parents that made me laugh and feel a little pang in my heart. That hour was so good. It was unexpected and spontaneous and full of love. I was reminded – don’t hold back. Take a risk, get off the beaten path, and don’t be afraid to step back in time if only for a minute. This was easily one of my favorite moments of the whole year.

6) Put my big girl pants on. My immediate supervisor at work left in August. As the deputy director, I had to step up in a big way and do all of the director duties. It was budget season, then contract time, and I had what felt like an insurmountable amount of work to do with no previous experience and no one to train me. Admittedly, I left in tears a couple of days. But I reached out to my resources, I approached things in my own way, and I got the job done. And I even feel like I got it done really well. While managing the whole department on my own, I have assembled a dream team and am in the process of helping to pick out my new boss. It is an entirely different department, in a matter of four months. It feels goooooood. And I am all in! My prediction: we are going to kick some serious ass in 2012. Watch out!

7) Philadelphia, Part Two. Remember that spark I mentioned from my last day in Philly? After seven weeks of texts, emails and phone calls, said spark came to Milwaukee for a four day weekend visit. We spent copious amounts of hours at the lakefront, went to an antique car show, visited Lambeau field, said a prayer together at Holy Hill, made an amazing dinner for my sister and brother in law, went to the movies, went to the farmer’s market, ate custard, took a boat tour of downtown, drank Spotted Cows and had every bit of fun we could squeeze into four days. Sparks continued. Sadness ensued upon departure. And even though life has kind of gotten in the way of more permanent togetherness, I have no regrets. I have been happily reminded of exactly what I want out of a relationship. Best. Weekend. Ever.

8) Got a reminder that I am no spring chicken. This year my Cornell College class of ’91 and I celebrated our 20 year reunion. Twenty years! Wherever has the time gone? A whole bunch of us descended back upon that little slice of New England on an Iowa hilltop. Cornell is a special place. My classmates are special people. And I must say, we have aged remarkably well. It was fun to regress for a couple of days and revisit my humble roots.

9) Took an adventure all by myself. More grueling work travels ensued later in the year – this time to San Francisco. I tried to find someone to tag along and couldn’t find a taker. So, I decided, I am not missing this opportunity. I am going anyway. I booked a hotel and it was out in the sticks. The first day I panicked. I had no rental car and this was going to be a challenge. I had to put on my thinking cap and rise to the occasion. Even worse – I had to ask for help. I had to master the use of the subway and numerous forms of public transportation to find my way around a new city. By the third day, I could get anywhere in that town. While most of my time was alone, I did reconnect with two college friends I hadn’t seen since 1991 and a former co-worker whom I adore and hadn’t seen since the mid-90s. I spent time exploring and reflecting and falling in love with a new city. Traveling alone is not my first choice, but I won’t ever shy away from it in the future. I left the bay area with a new confidence and sense of resolve.

10) Lost a friend, suddenly. One of my favorite co-workers passed away rather suddenly at the end of this year. He was a whopping 48 years old, and pancreatic cancer got the best of him. Oh my gosh, it was so sad. He was a great guy. Funny, charming, smart, driven, and really good looking to boot. He had a family he adored. He did work that mattered, a whole lot. And he left this world much too soon. The funeral was exhausting. At one point I stopped trying to dry my tears and just let them roll down my cheeks and drip right onto my sweater. As is always the case when at a funeral, I got an important reminder: Live, Jennifer. And trust me, that is just what I am gonna do. Bring it, 2012. I am ready for you!

Top Ten of Jen

The year’s end is always filled with a host of Top Ten Lists. Top Ten Movies. Top Ten Vacations You Must Take Before You Die. Top Ten Bad Reality Shows You Really Need to Watch. Top Ten Celebrity Mugshots. So my Top Ten list is a day late…but it’s still worthy of review.

The Year 2010 has been fun to reflect upon. That is not to say that the whole year was fun. It wasn’t. Like any year, it had its ups and downs. But mostly ups, and in no particular order, here are the ten things I remember and cherish most about this past year:

1) Moved on. Almost two years ago now, I had a professional dream dashed. I had “grown up” at a non-profit agency that I treated like my baby. I loved that place. I nurtured it. I worked my ass off for it. I made it my own. I believed with all my heart that one day, and for many days to follow, I would lead that agency. But then something happened. Our Board of Directors made a decision to merge with another company. I went with it at first, but the fit just wasn’t right. Without assigning blame, I will simply say that I lost my bearing. Not only did I leave in 2009, I left with a broken heart. And it took me a really long time to get over it, because things didn’t work out as I had planned. But you know what? I did get over it. I have a totally kick ass job, that is the same in some ways but also really different, and I have learned a gazillion new things that I never would have learned at the old job. I am grateful. Finally.

2) Spent a day honoring Honest Abe. That’s right–Abe Lincoln. My sister Jess is a huge fan. She dreams of stovepipe hats and log cabins. So this year, Jess and I took the day off on Abe’s birthday and celebrated it right. We drove to the Land of Lincoln and engaged in some good old fashioned consumerism at Ikea. We carried around an Abe Lincoln figurine with us everywhere and laughed about it. We ate at Steak n’ Shake–no relevance to Abe but we just like it. Then we went to the Admirals game, where we got Abe Lincoln bobbleheads and did fist bumps with someone dressed up as Abe Lincoln. It was a really fun day. It was ordinary stuff with a twist. And it is those ordinary days with a twist that are really what life is all about. I have the best sister in the world, and I want everyone to know it.

3) Got into teaching. So this actually started in late 2009, but I furthered my teaching gig in 2010. This just in–teaching is hard! It takes a lot of preparation and a whole lot of energy to pull it off well. But I absolutely love it. It has helped me fulfill a promise I made when I got my own graduate degree to help inspire more young people to see the joy and importance of working in the mental health field. I don’t think I’ll ever stop. That’s how much I like it.

4) Went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. So I was there on business, but what good is a business trip without a little fun too? I wasn’t prepared for how emotional the National Archives would make me. The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution. The Emancipation Proclamation. All right there for us to see. All that history. All that love, and sacrifice, and hard work. I am so lucky to live in this country, flawed though it may be. I was reminded, and happily so.

5) Saw a friend fall from grace. My very long-time friend and mentor recruited me to come work for Milwaukee County in 2009. Then, during a highly political year, the winds changed suddenly and he made a difficult decision to step down from his job in August of this year. In short, it sucked. I mean like it really, really, really sucked. A lot. I stood by this friend and did my best to walk with him through the valley. I never stopped believing in him and I never will. And as a true homage to him and his brilliance, I picked up the pieces, waded through the rubble and regained my focus at work. His legacy will live on for a very long time, and I will make sure of it.

6) Saw another friend arrive where she belongs. Not everybody has a friendship that has endured their whole lifetime, but I do. OK, so I didn’t meet Mindy until I was 5. But in all fairness, I don’t remember a whole lot about my first five years. (Dropped a rock on my toe, had my bicycle stolen, got a puppy. Yep, that’s about all I remember.) I met Mindy in kindergarten and we went to school together all the way up through college. We weren’t best friends all those years, but we have been for many of them and the history speaks for itself. We have seen each other through a lot, and laughed at the absurdity of it all every step of the way. We have made a lot of bad decisions (bad decisions are my favorite!) and sometimes we made them together. On Christmas Eve, I got to see Mindy marry a fantastic guy who loves her and her boys in all the ways they deserve. It’s awesome, and it warms the cockles of my heart. (Yes, I said cockles).

6) Fell for somebody. Though not widely publicized, I fell for somebody this year. It’s not widely publicized, because the other half of the equation didn’t exactly fall back. But you know what? No regrets. I put myself out there, I took a risk, I gained a friend and I learned a lot about myself. Mostly this: There is still love in this steely old heart of mine, and someday I will find it. And when I do, well, they may just be the luckiest person in the world. Here’s to not looking, but finding it anyway.

7) Took a road trip to St. Louis. Admittedly, I slept a good portion of the way there. But my travel partner Steve packed us some fantastic snacks and let me pick the radio station part of the time. We connected with two of my college friends and went to see the Brewers (lose) at Busch Stadium. We laughed ourselves silly. We got in a stupid little spat. We ate too much. We slept too little. And we wouldn’t change any of it. Road trips are the best.

8) Found some old friends. People can say what they want about Facebook, but I have had some amazingly positive experiences because of it. In May, I spent a night out with two very long-lost friends. One was from college and I had not seen him since 1988. The other I met right after college and I had not seen him since 1992. Both met me out for a night of cocktails and bad bar food in Minneapolis. It was quite a walk down memory lane, and I loved it. Thanks, Facebook! You’re the best. Forget about all the haters.

9) Returned to the birthplace of Jen Wittwer. Little known fact: I was born in New Mexico. So when I had a chance to take a business trip to Albuquerque, I did not hesitate. New Mexico is amazing. I hadn’t been back since I was 13. It really is the Land of Enchantment–they’re not just making that up. At the end of my conference, my friend Colleen met up with me for a long weekend. We went swimming in the middle of a thunderstorm (Colleen’s famous quote: “One more bolt of lightning, and then we’ll head inside!”), taunted the unsuspecting doppelganger of my ex-husband, saw the mass ascension of hot air balloons, drove to Santa Fe in true Thelma and Louise style and met the most handsome, charismatic and perfect artist ever, and laughed until we could not breathe while singing to Andy Gibb and eating sopapillas. My cheeks hurt for days upon my return from all the laughter. This trip was credited with my funniest moment of 2010–no small feat.

10) Made a whole bunch of new friends. I have had years that were devoid of meeting anyone new or really all that interesting, but 2010 was not one of those years. I have made some amazing new friends. People who are interesting, thoughtful, bright, clever, energetic and full of chutzpah. People who are willing to challenge me and inspire me to be better. People who are just downright funny. My life is richer on the other side of 2010, and that’s just cool.

So thanks, 2010….it’s been real. And here’s to hoping that my list in 2011 will be equally grand. I can’t wait to see what you have in store.