Category Archives: What I Meant To Say

It’s All About Respect

I spent 45 minutes today applying for a single job. This time included writing a cover letter and tailoring my resume to fit the job description (which all headhunters and advice web sites say is crucial) and then navigating the on-line portal for the company. You know, uploading the specifically tailored resume and then retyping all the information contained in that resume into little boxes. And supplying references and defining preferences and trying to jump through hoops just so someone would look at my resume before filing it in the round file.

I hit “Apply.” And got the message: “This job is no longer available. Please try another.”

Never mind that I went to the company’s web site to make sure the job was still posted – job boards can be unreliable in pulling jobs down. It was listed as an open position; and a half-hour later, it wasn’t.

And you know what? This was not an isolated incident. It’s happened more times than I can count, which is why I always go directly to a potential employer’s web site rather than apply through Monster or Indeed (if possible). Normally, I shrug it off and go on to the next web site. But today, it made me mad. Maybe this year of job hunting is starting to get to me. The migraine certainly didn’t help. Instead of shrugging it off, I searched out an e-mail address for the office manager and fired off an e-mail asking that they be more respectful of their applicants, because our time is just as valuable as theirs.

I probably won’t get an answer – but I don’t expect to. It was more an exercise for me to put some control back into this chaotic adventure of trying to convince someone that over 50 does not mean unemployable.

And it got me thinking. Like many of the great unwashed lazy people who don’t work, I read a lot of web sites giving us advice on ways to better present ourselves, ways to search for work, things to say and not to say, and other well-meaning blather spouted by happily employed recruiters. Most of this advice basically boils down to:

“You’re unemployed, which means you have no value. You probably brought it upon yourself. You can’t get a job because you don’t try hard enough. We’re just writing this so think you control your fate and you won’t realize how screwed you really are.”

And it’s always accompanied by HR staff and recruiters moaning about how hard it is to be in their positions, what with so many people wanting to work for their company and how they have to actually look at these resumes and cover letters and talk to people and try to fill these jobs. And they whine that the unemployed have no respect or understanding of how hard their job actually is.

(As an aside, forgive me if I have no sympathy for them. I know of millions of people who would gladly take the burden from them and do their jobs. I myself have done HR work – it’s not the job seekers that are the problem, it’s the company policies that make HR such a difficult career. And the mindset that accompanies the staffers. But I digress.)

So, in light of all this advice about respecting the employers, I thought of a few things I’d love to tell the employers about respecting candidates. This may blacklist me forever, but it needs to be said.

1. Please take some quality time to consider the job you are filling and what you want in a candidate. A vague, opaque and incomplete job description shows me you really don’t want a quality candidate to apply. The more information a job seeker has, the better able s/he is to respond appropriately, saving both of us time.

When I apply for a job, I look at more than just the job duties, because there’s more to a job than a list of things to do.

Requirements (job duties) are the first things to consider, of course. If I don’t think I can do the job, or have no experience for 60 percent of the duties listed, it’s a waste of my time and the employer’s for me to jump through the hoops.

I want to know about the company, because company culture tells me a lot. The list is a start, but usually just a “perfect world” wish list. How the company describes itself tells me whether my 60-percent match is going to be acceptable or not, it tells me how to write the cover letter, and what words to use.

The requirements are written for a “perfect world” desire. Usually, degrees are not negotiable, but majors can be. “Preferred” qualities are clues into some of the goals and objectives of the position and firm, and can be circumvented by explaining how your particular experience can meet those goals.

Here’s where most employers suffer epic failures: compensation. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve applied for, jobs requiring 5 to 10 years of experience, degrees, qualities, and whatnot, only to find the job pays squat, or is an entry-level position, or – my least favorite – a temporary contract with no possibility of morphing into permanence. Since I have to put in the same amount of effort, why would I waste my time on a job I can’t afford to take? And why would a recruiter even consider someone with 10 years of experience for an entry-level job?

Most of the complaints that job seekers waste their time arise from the HR staff not doing their job well enough to give us the information we need to apply appropriately – or not, as the case may be.

2. If you’ve filled the job, or have several candidates you are seriously considering, take that job off line.

As my experience today proved, job seekers waste lots of hours applying to jobs that have already been filled, with really no way to know it. And yes, I realize that right now, our “job” is to apply for work. And since we’re not working, we can hardly complain about having other things to do, right? Wrong. If I was being paid to do this, and there were so many hours wasted on noon-productive activities, I’m pretty sure my employer would get annoyed. And I would sure think twice about patronizing such disrespectful companies.

3. Communicate, for crap’s sake. Throughout the process. Don’t leave us in application limbo.

Occasionally, I’ll get an e-mail acknowledging an application submittal, sometimes with a timeline for the process, and a promise to let me know my fate.

This is always followed by – silence. Nothing. No further contact. Okay, after a few months, you figure they’ve found someone else, and try to move on. But not always – I once got a call for an interview three months after I sent in the application. Sometimes companies are very slow.

“But wait,” I hear some whining starting. “Who has time to communicate with the lazy unemployed? We have real work to do.”

Most companies these days have streamlined their application process through the use of the Internet – there are numerous programs out there that handle everything for you – applications, resumes, hiring records, status – and most of these programs include ways to send e-mails to candidates at each step of the process. Setting up standard responses takes a little upfront time, and the screener has to make a few decisions when screening people out, but the candidates are notified quickly if they’ve been screened out so they can move on.

Granted, smaller companies don’t use these programs, and still rely on old-fashioned human beings to accept, screen and process applications. And some larger companies just haven’t gotten on the tech bandwagon, preferring to wait to make sure this Internet thing is really a thing. And yes, reading e-mails, looking at resumes, perusing cover letters, and composing what I like to call (when receiving them) “you suck” e-mails is time consuming. But as an HR professional, isn’t that your job? Isn’t that the reason you were hired in the first place?

Yes, smaller companies have their employees filling multiple roles, so HR may not be your primary duty. That’s the way it was at my old job, which is one of the reasons they went to the on-line portal. But even before that, when I had to send actual letters or e-mails, it never took more than 5 percent of my time. When we were heavily recruiting, I may have spent a bit more time on it, but we weren’t recruiting constantly.

Just create some boiler plate, copy and paste into an e-mail or on a computer, and acknowledge that a human being (just like you) has put time and effort into your company, followed your procedures, jumped through a number of flaming hoops, and fell a bit short. That’s all I ask.

4. Don’t treat me like a pariah. I was obviously interested enough in you to send you a communication – if I ask a question, answer it or tell me I’m not company material, but don’t ignore or patronize me.

Sometimes, when I haven’t heard anything, I will send a follow-up e-mail asking where they are in the process. Response vary from none to a snarky “We filled that position months ago, loser, and you weren’t even considered.”

Do I even have to say why this should be unacceptable?

5. Be absolutely truthful and upfront about the job and company from the beginning. No, really, I mean it.

A few months ago, I sent a resume and cover letter for a position that was right up my alley – a job I could enjoy and do well. When I received an e-mail saying the company would like me to call them for a phone interview (that should have been a red flag), I scheduled it and made the call. I spent about 40 minutes speaking with the hiring manager (on my long-distance dime), learning about the position and telling her why they should hire me.

She did point out early on that the pay was about half what I’d indicated I wanted (and expected, based on the job description), but I know someone who’s been unemployed for so long shouldn’t expect to be paid like a hedge fund CEO, so I said I was interested in continuing the process.

A few days later, I got an e-mail inviting me to take a skill and personality assessment to see if I fit into the company. I had 24 hours to follow the link and complete the tests. I did (another
30 minutes of my time), and waited for about three weeks (the hiring manager told me they needed to hire someone ASAP, so I figured I’d failed the test). But I finally got an e-mail inviting me to an interview with the CEO, set for about a week later. Right during the time I had scheduled to be out of town (which I mentioned during the phone interview, BTW). I replied I was out of town, but would be happy to reschedule if that was okay.

Again, a few weeks before a reply, but it contained a rescheduled day and time. After an interview that lasted 90 minutes (when it was originally scheduled for 30 minutes), and after the CEO told me all the ways I failed the interview (in the interest of honesty and helpful critique, she said), she said she’d check my references, but she really liked me and thought I’d be good at the job. We’d spent the time talking about the position, what it required, what travel it entailed, how I thought I could make the company proud. She told me she loved my marketing background and my experience with the engineering world, and we discussed ways the company wanted to expand into that world. I left the interview stoked that I was finally looking at gainful employment, albeit at a much reduced rate of pay than I’d hoped for.

So, when, more than a week later, she called and offered me a job not even remotely connected to the one I’d applied/interviewed for, and one I wouldn’t have applied for, I was a bit shocked. What happened to “need this position filled immediately?” She wouldn’t even give me a hint about how long I would sit in this “entry-level” sitting on my ass making cold sales calls position would be before I began the job she said I was perfect for. When I, understandably, failed to turn cartwheels over the offer, she told me I didn’t have the right level of enthusiasm for the company.

Right, because we love to be lied to and jerked around.

Had I been told from the beginning that the possibility existed I might be given a job I didn’t want, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted that time. Granted, I have lots of time, but I don’t have that much resilience left after this year of joblessness. And I’m losing my sunny personality, too.

Bottom line: I’m a human being. I’ve spent my adult life working or raising children. I pay taxes, I volunteer in the community, I’m kind to kids and animals and I’m not a serial killer. I also just happen to be without employment at this time. That fact does not negate or abrogate my humanity, and shouldn’t make me any less deserving of respect than the employed.

Employers: You need workers. And I know, you get thousands of applications. But your HR staff is human, and each resume represents a fellow human who has been whacked and run through the wringer in their job search, and really doesn’t need any more. If we all remember this fact, maybe the air wouldn’t be so fraught with anger and tension and we could all do what we’re best at – make this world a better place.

Just a thought.

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity yields amazing dividends

Host Soceity Puzzle Pin

I spent the week of March 15-22 volunteering with the Arctic Winter Games – about 70 hours in all. It was an amazing experience, watching almost 2,000 athletes, hundreds of coaches and chaperones and officials, and 2,600 volunteers participate in 20 sports and meet other youth from different countries.

The Games are a biennial sporting event for youth to 18 years old (with a few exceptions – we’ll get to that), from countries in the circumpolar north. They were started in 1970 by Walter Hickel, then governor of Alaska, and Stuart M. Hodgson, Commissioner of the Northwest Territories from 1967-1979. As I interviewed one of the contingent’s media people (a contingent is what the entire team is called), he said the Games were started after Canada hosted the Olympics in the early ‘70s, when it became obvious that many of the northern athletes suffered a disadvantage compared to other countries’ athletes, simply because the opportunities to compete with athletes of the same age and caliber were so limited in the North.

The men decided to set up a competition, run biennially (every two years), which would allow youth from the circumpolar north to get a chance to experience competition at a higher level than local or regional. It is also an opportunity for kids from smaller villages to see more of their country and the world, compete and hone their skills, and meet people a lot like them from different countries.

Fairbanks hosted the 2014 Games, and recruited 2,600 of us (along with a number of out-of-staters) to run the event. The Host Society had only a few paid staffers – and these Games take way more than that to pull off. There were volunteers who met for several years before the Games actually started – chairs of so many committees I can’t list them all. There were committees for security, accommodations, marketing, sports events, venues, transportation, food – everything that had to be done was pretty much done by volunteers.

The 2,600+ volunteers put in 17,000 hours of work just during the week of the Games.

The contingents came from four countries – Canada, Greenland, Russia, and the U.S. The nine teams were: Team Alaska, Team Yukon (Canada), Team Nunavik-Quebec (Canada), Team Nunavut (Canada), Team Northwest Territory (sensing a theme here, are we?), Team Alberta North (Canada), Team Greenland, Team Yamal (Russia) and Team Sampi (Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia – the Sami are an indigenous people in a region spread across these four countries).

The youth participate in 20 sports, most of which are pretty familiar to anyone who watches sports or has kids involved in them – basketball, volleyball, skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, etc. But there are a few most Outsiders (that’s what we call you guys who live Outside Alaska) might not recognize.

Curling, for instance – although after the Sochi Olympics, more people have an inkling of this sport. Frankly, even though I spent an afternoon at the curling club watching some of the competitions, I still don’t get it. There’s a “rock” – a large heavy object that is slid across the ice. The goal is to get it into a circle, and not get bumped out by the opposing team. There are two team mates who walk ahead of the rock sweeping the ice with brooms to somehow determine its course. Even after a cute Canadian tried to explain it to me, I was lost. But the kids, though quite serious, seemed to enjoy themselves and the fans did too.

**(My curling friends, please do not try to correct or school me on this – my head will explode!!!)

Hockey, though slightly familiar to the non-circumpolar north, isn’t as big a deal as it is here. There’s a reason Sarah Palin didn’t call herself a Soccer Mom. The hockey players, male and female, were amazing. They hit hard, skated hard, and scored hard. I had so much fun watching I kept forgetting to Tweet and Instagram the action (my volunteer assignment).

Of course, my favorite sport was the one I didn’t get to watch – dog mushing. Yes. That is not just a strange Alaska thing – dog mushing is big wherever there’s lots of snow and few roads. And most of the contingents come from places just like that. The media pool got to meet some of Team Alaska’s dogs one morning – my favorite day ever!

Now here’s where the Arctic Winter Games veer away from the Olympics. One of the intents in starting these games, besides giving northern youth some experience, was to pay homage and respect to the indigenous Native cultures throughout the north. So there are two sports I can guarantee few people have seen.

The Dene Games are Inuit events, familiar to anyone who has attended the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, that come from traditional Native cultural values and traditions. Dene is the word for the Athabaskan people, aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska and Canada. Traditional subsistence hunter and gatherers, the games they played helped them survive in a harsh land, giving them strength, speed, endurance – even resistance to pain. Even though the games were fun, and helped while away the long winter nights, they also served a purpose – to prepare them to survive in their inhospitable environment.

The Dene Games are the only event in which adults (older than 18) participate. This is a way to teach the younger people some of the traditions they may have forgotten in modern times. These are high-energy, loud events. I covered the Hand Games for the Ulu News ( ), and was entranced by the enthusiasm of the participants. They swayed, jumped, waved their hands (it’s a distraction technique –read the linked article for explanations). Some had painted their faces with wild colors and patterns.

And the camaraderie – even among competitors – was contagious.

The Dene Games include five events: finger pull, pole push, stick pull — all tests of strength and strategy — and snow snake and hand games. Watching the finger pull is painful; I wouldn’t even want to be a competitor. You know a sport is gruesome when buckets of ice sit close by for the players to plunge their aching hands into after a round. Yowie.

The snow snake consists of throwing a spear underhanded along a snow field. The longest throw wins.

Another set of traditional Native activities – in this case, Inuit – are the Arctic Sports. There are 11 events in this sport — the one-foot, two-foot, and Alaska high kicks; arm pull; kneel jump; airplane; one-hand reach; head pull; knuckle hop; sledge jump; and triple jump. All of them require a combination of strength, conditioning, technique, and high pain tolerance.

The most remarkable thing about these games is that the players give advice and technical support throughout the competition – to their rivals! In the Inuit culture, winning, although important, isn’t the be-all and end-all of the event – sportsmanship and respect for each other are the overriding objectives. Helping another athlete, even one competing for the gold ulu against you, achieve their best possible performance, is of high value.

Because, as was mentioned numbers times, in the harsh world of the circumpolar north, the only way anyone survives is by cooperating.

As a matter of fact, fair play and sportsmanship were emphasized by everyone involved – from athlete to coach to officials to overseers – as the most important aspect of the Games. Officials and others carried “Fair Play Pins” throughout the week, giving them to athletes, coaches, and even volunteers who showed respect and sportsmanship in the course of their week. Players got them for helping competitors, even if it put them at a disadvantage competition-wise, or assisting players who were injured.

At the end of the week, the team who has amassed the most pins gets the Hodgsons Trophy, a highly coveted piece of Inuit Art (actually, they get a framed photo of the art, since it’s too fragile to move around the world, and considering it’s made of a narwhal tusk and ivory, almost impossible to get past Customs) and bragging rights for the next two years. The award is named after Commissioner Hodgson. He was a big supporter of the AWG, and donated the trophy in 1978.

And speaking of pins – everyone was infected with pin fever ( ). Pins and trading are mega huge deals among the athletes, coaches, volunteers, and spectator. Fairbanks created a bunch of pins for the Games – commemorating the sports, the contingents, the Host Society, and other aspects of the Games. Each contingent had a puzzle set, in which each segment, representing aspects of the team or country – were available separately; when all pins in a set were accumulated, the fit together into a unique shape – Alaska had an ulu (an Inuit round-bladed knife used for almost everything), Nunavut had a fisherman, the Northwest Territories a plane, complete with rotating propeller. The sets were the big prizes for everyone – some people were really persistent and focused – I just gave an Anchorage parent one of my Yukon Quest jackets and got the entire ulu set without having to give up any of my pins.

The week was long – I started my volunteering on Friday at 5 p.m., when the Red Cross set up one of the athlete villages at one of the elementary schools – and finished up on Saturday eight days later with my media liaison gig. In between, I think I put in about 75 or more hours. I was wiped out by Sunday, but the experience was worth the fatigue. I met some amazing youth, accomplished in their sports and humble, friendly, and eager to meet new people. I met their coaches and elders, media people – and yes, some warm fuzzy sled dogs.

My only regret? I won’t be able to volunteer for the 2016 Games, unless I can con someone into floating me a trip to Greenland.

Note: The volunteer journalists did an amazing job with the daily Ulu News, finding tons of stories (and yes, I was one, but that praise came from the visiting teams, and Greenland is wondering how they’ll match us), all of which can be found at the AWG website, at this link:

And check out the photo gallery at the site – there were 70 volunteer photographers who got the most impressive shots. You’ll be astounded.



Pin Sharks


Livin’ the Dream in Paradise


When people find out I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, they almost always have lots of questions. First and foremost is, “Why?” (Actually, that one is usually phrased more like, “What the fuck are you doing there?”)

Other common questions concern living in a place where it’s winter seven months out of the year, where there’s lots of snow, how do I stand the cold, and what does an indoor girl who hates the outdoors do in Fairbanks?

And, of course, I get a lot of advice and opinions about my adopted state, especially where Sarah Palin is concerned. For the record, I don’t know her, don’t want to know her, and don’t agree with anything she says (what I’m able to understand of her word salads, anyway). No more Palin questions, please!!!!!

So, without further ado, here are some random thoughts about living in Fairbanks.

I came here for a job, planning to stay about a year. Nine years later, I’m still here and don’t ever want to leave. I love this place. It’s a beautiful state, inspiring and awesome in every sense of that word. When I look out my window, I see birch and spruce trees, willows, raspberry bushes, mama moose and her current litter (twins, usually), fox, ravens, squirrels (I can hear them on my roof, too), and myriad birds whose species I don’t know, but whose songs are splendid.

I do not live in an igloo, or even a snow house. Since it gets up to 70 or 80 degrees a few days each summer, that would be bad. I live in a house. Just like everyone else.

You may have heard that Fairbanksans live in dry cabins. And no, a dry cabin is not an abode that does not leak or stays above the floodwaters – a dry cabin is a not-plumbed, usually very small log cabin with an outhouse in the back. Yes, it is legal to rent/sell cabins with no indoor plumbing up here. I, however, am not that adventurous. Or young.

I live in a cabin which is not connected to city water or sewer – I’m too far out for that. So I have a holding tank which brings water to my kitchen and bathroom and laundry room. I have water delivered once a month – some people haul their own, but I drive a small SUV, and those water tanks are big and heavy. I also have a septic field behind the house. Civilization, what a wonderful thing.

My home is part cabin, part frame. The cabin part is very old, completely refurbished inside. It’s approximately 12 feet by 12 feet, one room. The kitchen is in a corner. It has high ceilings and skylights. It is roomy and spacious and, during the summer, very bright. The rest of the house was added a few years ago by the former owner. It includes the bathroom and laundry room, a bedroom, sewing room, and an upstairs loft, which is like a full-floor penthouse. All wood – and the stairs were hand-built from trees on the property. Four high triangle windows bring light in even in the dead of winter.

It is an amazing place to write. Yes, I write in a loft. Such a cliché, but … My desk sits next to a window overlooking the back 40, which never ceases to inspire and re-energize me.

Summers here are the best. They’re short, yes, but since the sun doesn’t set for very long, we always get the most out of every 24 hours. Once summer hits, few people want to be inside – we take advantage of the nice weather to garden (okay, some of us garden – others of us just go to the dog park and take walks to photograph every flower that waves its petals at us).

Mom and I like to take one-day road trips – pack up the car with water, snacks, the dog, and a big emergency kit – and drive. We usually have a general destination – say, go up the Haul Road, or take the Steese Highway to the Yukon River – but we have been known to take detours and side roads when the moods hit us.

Some Alaskans think we’re nuts – after all, the roads in the upper part of the state aren’t really what most of us term “roads.” They are usually two-lane dirt or gravel tracks that wind through hills and pingos and over small creeks (we call them ‘cricks” up here) and some pretty big rivers. The gravel is great for putting cracks and chips in windshields, and I’ve seen numerous motorcyclists wipe out and mess up their pretty bikes on the roads. Also, there aren’t many gas stations or other amenities along the way (hence, the loading up of water and snacks). There’s not even cell service, so a flat tire or other vehicle emergency could be bad. Thus, the big emergency kit. And flat tire filler. And extra tires. And …

But the scenery and landscapes are amazing. We generally don’t get as far as we plan because I always have to stop to take photos. Lots and lots of photos. Sometimes, if I’ve forgotten my memory card, I have to go through and delete a bunch halfway through the trip so I can take more. I know. **Sigh.** It’s a disease.

March is kind of the worst month here – the snow is old and dirty, dripping onto badly paved roads or non-paved roads. The gravel set down for traction flies off car tires, and most Fairbanksans have cracked windshields as a matter of course. Worse, as the snow melts, all the trash people have thrown out of their car windows or that has flown out of their trucks is stripped of its covering. It’s gross. In May, the local Chamber of Commerce sponsors a road clean-up – and for one whole day, the roads are lined with volunteers picking up trash, broken furniture, discarded mattresses, old appliances, nasty stuff, and anything else that doesn’t belong. One of the bigger companies volunteers its trucks and drivers to pick up the bright yellow bags the trash is put in, and the landfill waves the tipping fees. It’s an amazing community effort to start the summer off right.

In the winter, after a big snowfall, the world is quiet, blanketed in white. Stepping outside, I can feel the air bite, but it’s a dry cold, so I don’t usually feel cold. The world is still, almost like it’s waiting for something. Maybe it’s just conserving energy. Winter is long here, and dark. Even though we don’t hibernate, it’s really easy to lock yourself inside a warm cabin and avoid undue activity. However, the dog loves the snow, so couch-potatoing isn’t usually an option.

Like almost 98 percent of the dogs in Fairbanks, ours is half-husky. She laughs at cold. Well, okay, she laughs at it unless we’re forcing her to go out in it. Then she lets her red heeler half take over. She body surfs in the snow drifts, with the biggest grin on her face. She also thinks the large mama moose is a big dog, and her favorite thing to do is play with other dogs. We have had no luck convincing her that mama mooses are not doggy playmates. So now, we just keep her leashed all the time.

I could go on and on about living here. It’s the kind of place you either love or hate – guess where I am on that scale. Lol. My year has turned into almost a decade, and I can’t imagine leaving. The fact that jobs are scarce and heating costs astronomical make that possibility more and more likely each day, though, and I’m dreading it. I bought my little cabin with the intent of staying for the rest of my life – I even have my final resting spot picked out.

One final word – yes, it does get cold here. I’ve seen a few winter days when the temperature dipped to 55 below zero. Really. When it’s that cold, just breathing hurts. Boiling water evaporates in the air. Fingers and toes freeze before you can pick up a dropped set of keys. It’s not the kind of atmosphere you screw around with.

But layering, buying good (read: expensive) cold weather gear, and knowing when you’ve had enough go a long way toward mitigating damage. I always keep an emergency box in the car filled with blankets, extra outdoor gear, and flares and other necessities. Never go anywhere without coats and boots and hats and gloves. Once you learn your limits, and really respect the harshness and brutality of the landscape, you can live within it – you can never beat it – but you can survive. Some of us even thrive.


Bull moose near the Richardson Highway

Bull moose near the Richardson Highway

Closets are no place to keep your skeletons

Every family has secrets – skeletons no one mentions, or mentions only in whispers and half-sentences.

Some families keep their secrets in clean, mold-free, cedar-lined closets, taking them out and dusting them off occasionally, placing them back in their proper order neatly, and closing the door tightly on them.

Other families, however, have so many secrets the closet is stuffed full. They seldom open the rickety door, so the carcasses molder with time, until they are so noxious the door to the closet bursts open unbidden, and anyone standing too close is buried in a pile of musty old toxic bones that submerges them into an abyss of darkness no light can penetrate.

A lot of secrets involve family members. There are those aunts who took the Women’s Lib movement far too seriously, chucking all responsibility – and often clothes – and moved to a commune in the wilderness where they live freely and unfettered by lingerie or expectations. There are sons or daughters who took their Wild West outlaw ancestors’ way of life to heart, and live on the wrong side of the law. Then there are those whose crimes are so awful, so unspeakably sinful, their names have been erased from the family Bible, and no one remembers them – out loud, anyways.

Aside from the colorful ancestors, most family secrets seem to involve birth dates, “love lives,” or medical conditions.

In the past, babies that arrived sooner than nine months after a wedding date were cause for shame and embarrassment. That’s no longer so in most places, but when I was growing up, finding out your grandparents anticipated their honeymoon by a couple of months was a big scandal, and therefore, dates were fudged a little.

In the same manner, a baby that was a few months “early” was commonplace, although I often wondered how those early babies could be so big and healthy if they’d only been in the womb for seven months.

It seems rather amusing these days to look back at that. Since it’s no longer a source of shame, younger folks wonder what’s the big deal? They’ve grown up with special high schools for pregnant girls, day care at the schools, and many have had at least one friend graduate next to them with a huge belly. There’s not the sense of shame their grandparents and great-grandparents felt.

I remember, back in the late 1970s, my friend Cheryl** suddenly stopped coming to school about three-quarters of the way through the year because she was “in the family way” and unmarried. Although she had shared her secret with me, no one else in school knew where she went or what happened to her. I lost touch with her before graduation, and to this day don’t know if she had a boy or girl, if she kept the baby, where she is now, or anything. It’s a hole in my life, but back then, a girl who got pregnant before graduation usually disappeared from school and was never heard from again. Although that sounds slightly gruesome, it just meant she quit school, had the baby, and spent the rest of her life supporting and caring for it. I can’t say the shift to ‘less shame, more acceptance’ is a bad one.

Back in the unenlightened days, if you found out a friend or relative had bizarre sexual tastes, (and I’m using those words the way my elders did, not because that’s how I think), one didn’t speak of them at all. And coming out of the closet – whew. That was fraught with danger – physical as well as mental – because being gay was as bizarre and wrong as it got.

My very best friend through junior and senior high, Rosa**, was always a tomboy – best softball player I’ve ever seen, tough, profane, and loyal. Her Catholic mother (my friend was Mexican) couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a frilly little girl who had lots of boyfriends. Our little gang, though – two boys and two girls, who spent every waking minute together in and out of school – didn’t care about being conventional – and who needed boyfriends and girlfriends when we had each other. To us, Rosa was Rosa: caring, compassionate, and a good friend to have your back when walking through the Mission District at night. I don’t know that I ever thought about her sexual proclivities then – it wasn’t important to me. I just loved her because she was Rosa.

A few years after we graduated, I received a letter from her, in which she told me she was gay and had always had a crush on me. That was hard, since I didn’t reciprocate, but what was harder was the rest of the letter – when she told her mother, Rosa was thrown out of the family, dismissed as if she had never been born. That hurt her far more than my letdown. It hurt me too, and confused me. How can you dis-born a daughter just because she loves differently than you do? To this day, I know families who haven’t accepted that homosexuality is a biological impulse, not demonic life choice.

The other family secret that fills the closets has to do with medical secrets – illnesses both physical and mental, although I’m betting the latter outnumber the former by a lot.

Before we became enlightened beings—or partially enlightened, as the jury is still out on that — mental illnesses were shameful, and families did everything they could to hide the fact – “What will the neighbors think?”

Obviously, the neighbors would believe the family had done something horrible and sinful to have this type of misfortune visited down on them – rather a Biblically medieval way of thinking.

Even now, this way of viewing mental illnesses persists. And this is where I think secrets have no right to be kept.

Since doctors are finding many illnesses, including mental disorders, are genetic, it is irresponsible to keep secrets about mental illness in the family. Imagine the horror you might face when your teenager threatens suicide, and you wonder what you’ve done wrong – only to have your mother admit your older brother, the one we don’t mention, suffered from depression and other mental illnesses before taking his own life. Knowing this little tidbit could have meant the difference between getting the girl treated and losing her to self-destruction. There is no excuse to keep this kind of secret – none.

Physical illnesses suffer the same fate — when my husband’s grandmother died, it was discovered she had suffered from breast cancer several years before Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of her senses. She went through a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation without telling anyone. When the news filtered out, there were some very angry family members. Since breast cancer seems to be one of those things that curses families over many generations, to keep an incident secret out of shame is selfish. Now, of course, they know and look for it, so maybe it’s no harm, no foul.

Humans live their lives trying to be different people than they really are. We hide our true natures, play games and put on masks, hoping to fool those who look at us. But trying to fool our families, those who love and trust us, and those who come after us, can lead to more disaster than a little shame or embarrassment can cause. Secrets have no place in a family – ever.

And there’s this to remember – that door always opens, even the well-kept one. And it usually opens at the worst possible moment. Personally, I’d rather be the opener than the one buried underneath all the secrets.

** I have chosen to use a pseudonym for people in this article, not because I’ve forgotten them, but because I don’t have their permission to detail their lives before the world.

Love is never a failure

There are some who would say I have failed at the relationship thing.

It’s true, I am divorced and single, no significant other anymore, nor any possibility on the horizon. My children, grandchildren, and most family members are 3,000 miles away, and my circle of friends and social contacts is very small. I live with my mother and a dog.

However …

I would argue that few relationships are total failures, and few people fail in all the relationships they have. Sure, there are some sociopathic, anti-social, best-let-them-be loners who will never “play well with others.” I’d like to think I’m not quite in that category (no, you’re in the “runs with scissors” category, usually).

Relationships are, by their very nature, funny things. Individuals who revel in their uniqueness come together and try to meld that uniqueness into a cohesive, unified whole, smoothing out the rough edges and mushing down the parts that stick out.

I’ve always held the belief that people come together for a reason – as Mel Gibson says in M. Night Shmalyan’s “Signs,” ‘there are no coincidences.’ The people who have come into my life have given me something, even if it was just relief when they left (sorry, old joke. But you have to admit, some people do make the world better by leaving the room).

The lovers who have broken my heart also gave me the strength to defy life’s harshness, to stand up in the face of strong winds, to keep going even when it feels like I’ll never get there. Hearts are resilient little things, broken into small, seemingly irreparable pieces one minute, and soaring to the heights of passion the next. We have an infinite capacity for love, we humans, and we crave it like a junkie craves smack. And yes, I meant to imply that love is addicting. It is. Even for us loners.

My ex-husband, with whom I spent 22 years, and with whom I planned to finish out my life, had other plans. It was sad. It hurt. And I thought I’d never survive it. But I did. And when I’m tempted to regret the 22 years of my life I spent with him, all for nothing, I stop. Because he gave me my three wonderful, gorgeous, smart, incredible daughters, who are the light of my life and the reason I get up each day. As bad as the divorce was, I would go through it again because of what I got out of the marriage. And even knowing how painful it was, I’d do it again, because I can’t imagine my life without my girls.

Other lovers who came and went also contributed to my well-being and development. The last guy, who tried to sneak away while I was at work (only to find me at home, having been fired the day before), brought me to Alaska, got me out of the rut I was in, and encouraged me to be adventurous, to try something new and radically different from anything I’d done or even contemplated doing. My life is better now than it would have been had I stayed in California, even if my girls are so far away.

I have six absolutely wonderful grandkids, again, miles and miles away, but I enjoy talking with them on the phone or over the Internet. They remind me of the girls when they were young and the world was ripe with possibilities. And they emphasize there will be more after I’m gone.

Right now, my favorite people are actually not people, but rather, canine — with four legs, lots of hair, and wagging tails. I have a few good friends with whom I chill, but mostly, my “friends” are the characters I create in my stories or the people in the books I read.

When my father and I started writing our book, “I’m Just Her Father,” we discussed subjects to explore, and, in addition to the usual – life, love, death – we decided to include a section on what makes us who we are. I called it “Interflections”; it eventually became “Lifeboat.” The whole point of that section was to explore the people in our lives, those who, if the ship sank, we would make sure had a seat in the life boat. Concurrently, we discussed who we would throw out if space was at a premium. My father, 76, discussed the nature of evil and how that would colour his decisions, citing Hitler, and it made sense from his viewpoint (the whole point of the book was how two people who share genes could see the world differently). I, being a child of the ‘70s, and parent of the ‘80s, was more futuristic in my views.

Like my father, I have room in my boat for everyone who has touched my heart. They are all etched inside that little organ, for better or worse, because they did touch me and contribute to who I am. But, unlike my dad’s boat, I have a high-tech, sci-fi, new technology vessel that expands as necessary to encompass all the souls who need to be in it. That way, no one gets thrown off, and I still get to steer. I am, after all, an unabashed control freak. Who sometimes plays well with others.

New year is a good time to change our spots

Tomorrow, it will be 2014. And I don’t know about you, but I am so looking forward to the end of 2013. Kick that old geezer out the door.

Today, class, we will discuss humanity’s annual self-flagellation exercise –the cataloging of our sins, vices, and flaws, and the promise never to do any of them again –or at least for a month. Maybe a week. But I digress.

In a new atmosphere of brotherhood and community I hope to spread throughout the land, I propose a new tradition: community-flagellation.

In that spirit, I present: A few things the human race needs to work on in 2014.

Number 1: Patience. We don’t have any.

Collectively, we are a dangerously hyper nation, scurrying here and there like ants without a hill. Nowhere is this more evident than on our overcrowded roads.

Cars zipping in and out, trying to be first, cars running red lights as if they didn’t exist, the famous Fairbanks rolling stop – only now it should be called the “Fairbanks I’ll think about maybe slowing down a little” rolling delay.

Our bodies aren’t made for this constant rushing — the stress of it causes our blood pressures to rise, our tempers to explode, and general mayhem to be committed in the name of getting there first. Not to mention that ice thing sending us careening into snow-filled ditches. Or other cars. Or upside down. None of which are good for your health.

The solution, of course, is for us to slow down. But after a while, your body gets so used to rushing that it’s hard to do. Physics state that a body in motion tends to stay in motion – once you get going, it’s difficult to get that body in rest.

My resolution is this: When in your car, turn off talk radio and tune to classical music. I know – classical? But there is something very soothing about it — it calms you, makes it not so important that the blue Mazda just cut you off. Or – how about this radical solution – drive to work in silence. Pay attention to the road, instead of the music or spouting heads, and arrive at your destination calm, serene, and ready for an awesome day.

Number 2: Racial profiling. We’ve got to stop.

Admit it – you’ve sat next to someone of a different ethnicity at some time and thought, “Gee, S/he sure is different. Could s/he be dangerous?”

Even now, 12 years after 9-11, anyone who looks even remotely Middle Eastern is suspect – to the point that passengers have been booted off planes because the flight attendant “didn’t like his looks.”

Allegations of police stops for “Driving While Black” abound. What ever happened to all men are brothers?

And we won’t even go into Trayvon Martin territory or Stand Your Ground.

The problem is we base our judgments on first impressions. It’s physiological, folks – we’re hardwired to do it. And back in the caveman days, it made sense – automatically assuming that saber tooth tiger wasn’t a nice kitty or that Neanderthal from a competing tribe isn’t Ogg from next door might just save your life. Our technology has advanced, but our bodies still party like it’s 10,000 B.C. But these days, it doesn’t have to be that way. And anyway, initial visual threat levels aren’t always – in fact, they are rarely – obvious; ask the parents of any of Ted Bundy’s victims.

Living in fear has obvious results: our blood pressures rise, our tempers explode, and general mayhem is committed in the name of “being safe.”

The solution: Let’s retain or retrieve our long-lost child-like sense of solidarity.

True story: During the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, I lived in Pittsburg, California, with my three daughters, the oldest of whom was 7 at the time. Pittsburg in those days was very ethnically diverse, with Caucasians outnumbered three to one. With the daily news and radio reports blasting out statistics and beatings and rioting and general mayhem, things in our little corner of town got very tense. We all started looking at each other suspiciously. If California had been one of those Second Amendment states, I believe there would have been a lot of bloodshed.

The kids, usually quite indifferent to the fact that some were white, some brown, some dark brown, and some tan, started feeling the tension. Eventually, my oldest daughter lost her patience.

“Why is everyone in such a bad mood,” she asked me one day.

Trying to explain racial violence to a child raised to see people, not colors was … difficult. But I managed. I think.

She surprised me, but I shouldn’t have been. She was, and still is, remarkably perceptive about things like that. She looked at me like I’d just told her Santa had two heads.

“Don’t they know we all look the same under our skin?”

Resolution: Duh. It shouldn’t take a child to make us see the obvious facts – there are good humans and bad humans: sometimes good guys look a little ratty; often, evil wears an expensive suit and drives a Mercedes. Here in Fairbanks, we’re told that the ratty man with moose-blood-stained Carhartts might be the richest man in town, so treat everyone accordingly.

Try being a little less paranoid and a little more open.

Number 3: Multi-tasking. We’ve gone insane.

In the beginning, multi-tasking sounded like a good idea. Use some of your “wasted” time to accomplish something, therefore not wasting any time.

But now we fill every waking minute with tasks – and it’s making us nuts. We don’t have time to reflect anymore, to look at the landscape, to appreciate a V-formation of Canada geese overhead. And in this landscape, that’s sinful.

And please, watching a man cut his nose hair at a red light is just not a sight I need at 7 a.m.

All this stress is causing our blood pressures to rise, our tempers to explode, and general mayhem to be committed in the name of getting more done.

The solution is to cut down on the number of things we do at any one time. What, do you get a prize if you have the longest To Do list checked off? Instead of “He/She who dies with the most toys wins,” it’s now “He/She who gets the most done before they die wins.”

The proliferation of smart phones and other electronic gadgets has only made this worse. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone just sitting on a bench in the park, watching the clouds roll by or laughing at the antics of the kids or dogs. Most of the time, if they are sitting, they sit hunched over a teeny little contraption, staring gape-mouthed at some news site or You Tube video, twisting their thumbs in unnatural positions as they make birds drop stuff on pigs (I think that’s what that game is all about), or scrolling through Facebook posts or tweets.

The next generation is going to be born hunch-backed with gigantic thumbs if we’re not careful.

And did I mention how sinful it is to waste this beautiful place?

My resolution is this: Priorities, people. Most of the stuff we wear ourselves out doing won’t matter in five years anyway. Heck, they won’t matter in five days.

If we learned nothing else on Sept. 11, 2001, or after Hurricane Katrina, or Superstorm Sandy, or any of the other disasters we’ve lived through this past decade and a few, we should have figured out that life is fragile, and there are no promises, no guarantees. Houses get dirty, laundry piles up, bills come due — but those things are always going to be there. Our children, our parents, spouses, friends, and colleagues may not be, so it behooves us to cherish them.

If you don’t get the Christmas cards out until next week, I don’t think anyone is going to cut you out of their will, unless you send one to Martha Stewart, and she’s seriously obsessive-compulsive anyway, so she’ll probably leave all her money to her cats or something.

And for those who must pursue their personal hygiene in public, I say this: Try getting up five minutes earlier and cut your nose hair in private, thank you very much.

For the record, my personal resolutions for 2014 include: find a job; write at least two books; come up with fascinating, interesting, and amusing blog posts weekly; continue to write honest (if snarky and scathing) book reviews; love and cherish my dog, mom, kids, grandkids, and friends; and spend more time outside (even when it’s cold – really) appreciating and loving this beautiful world I call home.

Join me?

December birthdays suck

Today (Christmas Eve) is my mother’s birthday.

(Happy Birthday, Ma!!)

I mention this only because the way we used to celebrate this important day in her life exemplified why those of us who have the mischance to be born in the last month of the year hate having birthdays in the last month of the year.

We were always up rather early, even though it’s a holiday, because there were so many tasks as yet not done.

After a rushed breakfast of pop-tarts and coffee, we’d run to the store for some last minute stuff – like wrapping paper (because the kids used twice as much as they need, so those six rolls I thought would last us for two years barely made it through half the presents), tape (see above), pumpkin pie spice (because we never had any – don’t ask me why), and those other necessities you never think of until you actually have to use them.

When we finally got a place to park, after we’d circled the parking lot about 1,000 times, we’d rush in, find what we need, and spend the next hour or so in line, wishing the people in front of us with baskets piled high understood the concept of “Ten items or less.”

We might get time to stuff a hamburger down our throats before we went home, but we never counted on it. Reasons: see afore-mentioned long lines and indecisive people.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wrapping presents, making pies, hauling the 30-pound turkey out of the freezer so it would thaw, chopping vegetables, making several more trips to the store to deal with unexpected guests who brought presents by (and of course must be reciprocated).

Mom’s birthday dinner, the one meal she should get to choose, was always hot dogs. It’s always been that way, because on Christmas Eve, the kitchen is full of turkey innards and pie fixins, and who wants to cook anyway? Even after my kids were older and wanted to to spoil grandma, the lack of time set the menu.

After dinner, and a last-minute, store-bought pathetic little cake with one candle – no need calling the fire marshall on Christmas Eve – we got to her present. Yep. That’s right. Present in the singular tense. After all, tomorrow she’ll be opening another one, won’t she?

This present, wrapped in Christmas wrapping, because we could never find any birthday wrap and I’d already made too many trips to the store, occupied her attention for about 10 minutes – not because it’s not worth more or she doesn’t love it, but because it’s the night before Christmas, and there are still chores to be done.

Hanging stockings, seeing Christmas lights, midnight candlelight service, getting the kids to calm down, write Santa’s note, and go to bed (with firm warning NOT to wake the adults up before daylight – preferably 10 a.m.), putting the big presents together, watching daddy gulp down the soggy milk and stale cookies so the kids know Santa actually came, and then it’s bedtime.

Hell of a celebration for a birthday, huh?

Even those of us whose days don’t come the day before or after hate having December birthdays. Let me count the ways …

Most people, in their pre-Christmas frugality, believe we won’t notice we got only one or two birthday presents, because we’ll make up for it at Christmas. The only thing wrong with that is, on Christmas Day, we’re usually short-changed again, because everyone figures we just got a bunch of birthday presents.

That’s if our birthdays are remembered at all, because after Thanksgiving, it seems people get this tunnel vision that precludes anything not Christmas-related.

That’s bad enough, but I personally get tired of red and green wrapping paper, stars and angels, and all that Christmas-themed stuff. I’m not alone. My middle threatened violence the year she turned 13 year if we decorated the house in Christmas for her birthday party.

And, of course, there’s that sharing thing. Admit it, most of us really like having that one special day when we are the center of attention. Even us “grown-ups” get a kick out of that. And December is all about a special birthday, when a baby’s birth captures the attention of a large part of the world. That kind of shoves the rest of us December babies out of the limelight. And that’s the part that really sucks.

Right, Ma?

Surviving is A Matter of Resilience

I’ve been having a run of misfortune lately, so I was quite excited last week to find a four-leaf clover. Turns out, I’m allergic. Now I have a rash of good luck.

Note to self: Find followers with sense of humor.

Back to work. How many of you watch the TV series “Survivor?” It’s okay to admit it; it’ll never leave this room. (Evil smile)

For those who kept their hands down, “Survivor” is an alleged “reality” show following a group of strangers stranded on a desert island or dropped into Dante’s third level and given really disgusting tasks like eating bugs and stabbing each other in the back.

Every few days or so, the group, which has split into smaller groups, “votes someone off the island,” which is supposed to be a punishment. Imagine, being forced to return to civilization, hot baths, and no worm cakes. Sucks to be them, I guess.

What makes this so funny is that the last man (or woman) standing is the SURVIVOR and wins a ton of cash.

But in actuality, surviving a few weeks in what most of us would see as a vacation paradise, knowing rescue is coming and emergencies will be dealt with immediately, doesn’t really take that much stamina. The real trick is surviving this episode we call Life.

In this reality show, we don’t get to chose to participate. We don’t travel to exotic locales and we don’t get prizes for eating bugs and leaves. For some, that’s a luxury meal.

Our challenges aren’t to build a bridge of leaves and cross it, or start a fire with two wet sticks and a piece of charcoal. We get things like mortgages, bills, kids, work, traffic, stress, cancer, unemployment, and reality TV.

We don’t get to go home just because we don’t like each other. We’re pretty much stuck where we land, with no rescue in sight, no matter how uncomfortable or dangerous our circumstances become.

And we don’t get a gajillion bucks for sticking it out. When it’s over, we’re usually 6 feet under.

But, as in TV reality, people react to their challenges in different ways. Some whine, kvetch, moan, and go home with their tails between their legs at the least little toe stub. Others, however, stand tall no matter how strong the wind. They are unbending in an F5, swim strongly in a flood, stay on their feet in a magnitude 9 earthquake. They are, in a word, survivors.

But what is it that makes a person survive the most Life can throw at them, while others fall apart over a hangnail? What qualities make people stronger than it seems this fragile container of blood and muscles and bones should be?

I asked myself this question after a conversation with a friend several years ago. After telling her about losing my job and breaking up with my boyfriend on two consecutive days, not to mention the broken toilet in between, she gasped and said, “Oh, my gosh! What are you going to do?

I shrugged. “Now I’m going to bring my sweaters up from the basement because I have extra closet space.”

She looked at me with either admiration or horrified incredulousness, I’m not sure, and asked, “How do you remain so up all the time?”

Have to admit, I was at a loss for words there. So I began to wonder: What is it that keeps some of us going? What gives some people emotional resilience, the ability to pick themselves up after a fall and keep walking, blisters and skinned knees and all?

Emotional resilience is defined by psychologists as being able to spring back emotionally after difficult or stressful times.

Stress leads to negative emotions, such as anger and depression. When someone gets trapped in those emotions, they have lost their resilience. Resilient people are able to tap into their positive emotions no matter what the circumstance and pull away from the negative.

Emotionally resilient people—survivors—share some personality traits. Among those traits are a strong sense of control, reasonable expectations, persistence, responsibility, empathy, optimism, and a strong sense of humor.

People who have a sense of control over life, who have realistic expectations and embrace responsibility never get overwhelmed—for very long—even when Lake Ponchartrain is carrying away their antebellum mansion. They say, “I may be evacuating today, but I’ll be back tomorrow. And the house will rise again!”

That’s the attitude that will rebuild New Orleans, not the “The government failed so sue the (expletive deleted expletives)!” off non-resilient non-survivors.

My daughter told me she was hearing voices, so naturally, I overreacted and dragged her to a psychiatrist. He put her on some anti-psychotic medication and told us to come back in a week.

At the follow-up, he asked my daughter if the prescription had helped.

“Well,” she said. “Now I’m seeing things.”

“You’ll have to change her meds,” I admonished the doctor.

“No, I don’t want to change,” my daughter said. “Now I can actually see who’s talking to me.”

Optimism is, of course, the ability to see the positive side of any situation, the “glass is half-full” school. Pessimists, on the other hand, always see a half-empty glass and focus on what’s not there, whether the liquid in the glass is brandy or sulfuric acid.

I used to be the other one: not only was my glass half-empty, but someone probably spit in it when my back was turned. Being a pessimist made life a lot more predictable—nothing good was ever going to happen, so I was never surprised by disaster.

And you have to laugh at Life. Kids know how to do that.

M oldest daughter took the news of an impeding divorce between her parents rather matter-of-factly. She told me she thought our problems were largely psychological.

“How so?” I asked.

“You’re psycho and Dad’s logical.”

Persistence means never giving up. Some people call it stubbornness.

As babies, we don’t walk the first time we put our feet down to the ground. We fall. We stumble. We totter and fall again. Sometimes we fall easy, sometimes hard. But eventually, we get our feet under control and start cruising. That’s persistence. And it’s hard-wired into all of us. Some of us just lose it as we get older and more fearful.

Psychologist Peter Ubel, author of You’re Stronger Than You Think: Tapping Into the Secrets of Emotionally Resilient People, says most people underestimate how resilient they are.

“Many more of us have that kind of resilience or DNA within us,” he said in an interview for CanWest News Service in May 2008. “We just haven’t been forced to recognize or use it.”

Adversity can overwhelm us, but it doesn’t have to. Often, Ubel says, the trite saying is true: Adversity can help us focus on what’s important.

“If you don’t think every day is a good day, just try missing one.”

–Cavett Robert, Something to Smile About

So, I’m unemployed. And single. I’ve survived both before, and can again. I can find a better job, one more suited to my talents. And if I decide I need a man in my life, I’ll look for one who adores me and treats me like the goddess I am.

I can look at my life as half-empty or half-full. I’ll stick with the half-full, because while a glass half-full of beer is half as satisfying, a half-glass of castor oil is much less nasty than a full one.

Guest Blog #3- Casey Burk

What doesn’t kill me makes me….


Struggling to make ends meet day to day isn’t something new to me. I have been on my own for a long time and there hasn’t been a day since then that I haven’t struggled. Emotionally, financially, sometimes even physically. It’s no surprise to me that the upcoming arrival of my second child is causing more stress than most pregnant women experience. I am a single mother of almost 2 children, no job, and no promise of hope in the near future. All I have are my children, some scattered family members for some support, and a back bone that gets stronger every day.

I started working when I was 15. Not because my family was poor and I had to but because I wanted to. I wanted my own money and my freedom. I liked work back then. I wasn’t forced to be there, I didn’t have rent to pay or food to buy. Working gave me a new sense of responsibility and made me feel independent. It wasn’t like I was working in some special career that would last a lifetime, but I felt good about myself. I had no idea that one day working would feel forced and I would be so unhappy doing something just to keep a roof over my head.

I chose not to go to college right out of high school. I got into some trouble in my senior year and barely finished school as it was. College seemed like the last thing I should be doing. I didn’t think it would have an effect on my life. I had worked many jobs by then, creating a buffet of skills that employers would be pleased to see. I figured I could get a great job and start my lifelong career with no training at all. I had no idea what that career would be, but that didn’t worry me. Besides, soon I would meet my husband and could stay at home with my children, right?

When I was 18, I met “the man of my dreams”. I moved out of my mom’s house to be with him (at the exact time my mommy moved thousands of miles away for her Mr. Right). Things seemed to be going in the direction I always thought they would. We were poor and I had to continue to work, but I knew that one day he would step up and be able to take care of us while I started a family. We struggled with money for a long time, and I started to get worried that my fantasy of the perfect life was just that; a fantasy. I questioned whether or not this was the right man for me and came close to leaving that life behind. Until I got pregnant. We got married. All of a sudden my fantasy was back on track and I was getting the family I always wanted. Except I was still working. I didn’t get to stay at home and raise my son the way I had pictured. Most of the time I was the one who had the job while daddy got to stay home with the baby. Something was seriously wrong with that picture.

I can’t pinpoint just one reason as to why that marriage didn’t work out, but that’s not really important. Just as fast as I had fallen in love with him and started a life with him, it was over. I was broke and alone with a confused three year old little boy. We couched surfed for a little bit until I found a permanent place for us to live. We had to split time between myself and his father while I held down a full time job, hoping to make enough money to get a place for the two of us and to make some sort of life for us. This was all wrong. This was not what I signed up for.

After some unfortunate events, I ended up with primary custody of my son and had to move away from my job and my life to live with my sister. I remember waking up in a panic sometimes, wondering when my life would settle down and I would have at least some piece of that fantasy back. Stress from worrying about making ends meet began to wear my body down. I was emotionally and physically deteriorating. All the while I had a bright eyed little boy looking at me and forcing me to stay strong. If I couldn’t do it for me, I had to do it for him.

I managed to make it through that time in my life relatively sane, but not nearly as physically strong as I once was. My body slowly started to give out on me and I found myself in and out of doctors’ visits and even in surgery. A new relationship helped get me through that, and I had some hope that maybe that fantasy wasn’t too far off. But once again, I was the one working while he sat at home. I was supporting us, even when I was too sick to do anything else. How had I managed to put myself in the same kind of relationship as before? To make a long story short, I ended up pregnant and alone (who cheats on their pregnant girlfriend and then expects them to stick around?)

I sit here today, 8 months pregnant, with all the stress and fear that I had before, except now I have TWO bright eyed children that I am responsible for. I lost my job when I got pregnant and have been unable to work since then due to having a high risk pregnancy (having surgery while pregnant isn’t the best idea.) I once again live with my sister and her family. I wake up in the middle of the night with that same panic feeling, wondering how I got myself in this same situation. I figured I would learn my lesson the first time, I figured I would have grown at least smarter, if not stronger. I have that voice in the back of my head reprimanding me for letting it happen again.

I feel that way until my son looks at me and says things like “You are the best mommy in the world” or “I love you more than any kid loves his mommy ever”. Coming from a five year old who has been through his share of emotional letdown that has to mean I’m doing something right. Comments like that are what keep me pushing forward. His hugs and kisses keep me from completely melting and hiding under the covers every day. The love that he has for his unborn little sister gives me all the hope in the world that not only can I make it as a single mother, but I can give my children the life and love that they deserve. I may not ever have someone to take care of me and give me the things that I need, but I have a feeling I may be strong enough to do it on my own.

Saying Goodbye is Never Easy, Even to A Dog

I’ve always kind of snickered at people who refer to their pets as their “children.” I mean, come on – they have four legs and a tail? Who are they kidding? I have inherited my father’s allergies and antipathy to felines. Dogs, though – no home is complete without one. But that doesn’t make them one of my children.

However …

Dogs have a way of worming themselves into our lives. Before you know it, they’ve got those big hairy paws on your lap, that hard head resting on your knee, those soulful eyes watching your every move intently. Soon, that big butt’s on the sofa, stretched out, taking up far more room than you’d think a 70-pound mutt should take, snoring contentedly.

By the time they wake up, they’ve wrapped themselves so tightly around your heart that removing them means removing a big part of yourself well.

Having them adds a burden on our lives and gives us responsibilities no one ever prepares us for. A pet is a commitment for life – and that life can be 10 or more years. Like children, they need us to give them food, water, shelter, love. And when the time comes, we have to decide how their lives should end.

Our 14-year-old chow dog Shiba was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. The vet was grim about her life expectancy at the time, saying at her age, she didn’t have the strength to fight it. Besides, he said, we’d already beaten the odds – chows usually only live to be about 13.

Shiba (“brushwood” in Japanese) was 5 weeks old when my 2-year-old convinced her daddy the handful of orange fur with sparkling black eyes was desperately needed at home. Never mind that Cori had a 6-month-old sister – a puppy would be way more fun.

What no one bothered to mention is — chows have issues.

Number one: they don’t like people. Or kids. Or cats. Or other dogs. Chows are genetically alphas – at the top of the hierarchy. Shiba attached herself to my husband, because she knew a softy when she saw one. She tolerated me, because I fed her. She tolerated the older girl, because Cori spoiled her and used her orange fur as a pillow. Shiba didn’t like the baby, but mostly because the baby kept trying to eat her food.

And under no circumstances could we let her stay around when other kids came over. She’s so soft and furry little kids couldn’t resist, but Shiba had a tendency to snap when annoyed.

She chewed – everything.

And she shed – mounds of orange fur everywhere, no matter how often she was groomed and I vacuumed.

It took seven years for her to outgrow the chewing stage – typical with chows, I’m told. She’s over hating kids, too, although she still doesn’t like anyone messing with her face or feet. She still hates other dogs, loves to chew on cats in the yard, but tolerates the half-Siamese black cat that torments her hourly. The third child (she came along two years after Shiba so is seen as an annoying puppy that won’t grow up) treats her with respect, so Shiba tolerates her.

Shiba is still trouble, though. She’s allergic to wheat, so for years we’ve had to buy expensive “designer” dog food. She won’t tolerate baths, so we have to take her to a groomer monthly to keep the fleas and fur at bay. When we want to go away for a few days, she’s the one we have to make arrangements for.

The cat is fine if we leave out lots of food and an open window. Dogs are more high maintenance. And given a chow dog’s anti-social temperament, we can’t just send her over to a friend’s house for a sleepover, like we do with the kids. Chows have no friends. We used to be able to give a neighbor kid five bucks to come in twice a day to care for her, but not anymore. Shiba takes her guard dog duties highly seriously. And now, she’s so deaf and blind she assumes anyone who sneaks up on her is an enemy. And we’re all sneaking up on her, she thinks. So there’s the added expense of a kennel.

Now, we’re facing some high vet bills. Maybe it’s easier just not to have a dog.

But when we told the kids about her cancer, they were devastated. Kind of surprising, in view of their benign neglect. In light of our concerns about high vet bills, hygiene and potty issues, and others problems with an old sick dog, they advocated patience.

The youngest reminded us she’s never known not having the dog.

Cori reminded us of the years of loyalty and devotion, no matter how much the kids tortured her.

And the middle girl reminded us they have been smelly and noisy and messy and expensive, but we kept them.

Good point.

And we’ve all had days when we felt we had no friends and life sucked, only to have the 55-pound lap dog look at us and remind us we are loved, no matter what.

Never mind that thunder sends her into a frenzy – it has the same effect on the 14-year old.

Never mind that she takes up half the couch – so does the 12-year-old.

Never mind that she uses her deafness as an excuse to ignore me – at least she has an excuse, while the oldest just ignores me.

So, like my biological children, my four-legged “daughter” with a tail has spent her life with us, sharing moves and new babies and fears and concerns. She’s become so much a part of the family that, like my two-legged kids, I cannot imagine coming into the house and not have her sitting there. While they usually greet me with grunts, Shiba’s ears perk up and her tail wags so hard half her body goes along with it.

So I guess I can’t snicker anymore. I have to accept the fact that I have four children, not three – a blonde, a brunette, one with hair that defies color definition, and an orange-furred, black-tongued, blind and deaf canine who still chases her tail and thinks she’s a lap dog.


Six months later …..

She gave it her best, but age, gravity, and a lifetime of loyal service finally got the best of her. Though she tried hard to convince us – and herself – she was the same grumpy, strong protector she’d always been, it became increasingly obvious Shiba was losing the fight we all lose.

It’s not an easy thing to decide to take a life. When I made the appointment with the vet, I was looking at an animal barely breathing, whose eyes were filled with pleading. She had had some really bad nights, and putting her out of her misery seemed the only humane thing to do.

No matter what euphemism one uses – euthanasia, putting to sleep, putting down – it really means killing. You walk into the vet’s office with a living, breathing, four-legged animal, and you leave with an empty collar and dangling leash. It’s important to keep that in mind.

Years ago, I was at the vet for one of Shiba’s regular checkups. I watched a woman bring a dog into the office. The animal was old, but seemed spry enough. A few minutes later, she came back without the dog, just a leash. I didn’t think anything about it until I looked out the window and saw her in her car, her head down on the steering wheel, her shoulders heaving. It was the most poignant, heartbreaking sight I have ever witnessed.

Well, last week, that was me. When it was time to get into the car and go, suddenly that old dog was up, her tail wagging joyfully. Her ears perked up and she began her “Let’s get going” dance, the one she’d always done when it was walk time. This was not a dog who was suffering; I began to wonder if maybe I had acted a little hastily. But she couldn’t hop into the Jeep – I had to lift her. And she seemed more carsick and dizzy than usual – she was never much for riding in the car.

Doubts assuaged.

Being a normal day, I had teenagers to pick up on the way – they filled the car with noise, and Shiba seemed happy to be a part of it, even though she’s never been a “people dog.” Once at the office, I asked the vet if maybe I’d been wrong – Shiba seemed fine, interested in the fascinating odors, trying desperately to find the cat she smelled but couldn’t see (she’d been blind for months). Dr. Shuff, who’d known Shiba for years, looked at her and said many dogs pull a final burst of energy out of their reserve. He didn’t know if it was because they know we need them to, or what, but it wasn’t unusual.

He took her into the room, and we did what had to be done. I had the choice of staying or going, and I chose to stay. No one should die alone, especially not an animal who gave her entire life to protect my babies.

Watching her relax, knowing she was finally at peace and not feeling the pain of arthritis or cancer, did not make it any easier. I had still made the decision to end a life, and it’s always been my contention I do not have that right.

And there was that seriously painful empty spot in my heart – you know, the one I swore I didn’t have (the heart, I mean). Now I understand the pain that other woman felt, and I’m not sure how to fill that hole.

This is not something I’m going to be able to make a joke about and move on. There’s no clever ending, no phrase to get me out of it easily. It’s a part of life we all have to deal with, and it never, ever gets easier.

Due to the imminent birth of grandbaby #6, postings and reviews will be on hiatus for two weeks. Check Facebook for baby news and thanks for your understanding.