Flashback Friday

Since I posted yesterday about my early career in Residence Life, I thought I would share one of my favorite photos from that time period: my first RA staff on the day of their Fire Safety Training! In this photo: Naomi, Mike (Pookie), Ryan, Bridget, Cody, Lisa, Melissa (Monkey), Marco, Megan, Tricia, Johanna. One of the great pleasures in my life is when I get to see my former students as they are now – professionals, parents, volunteers – after fully becoming the amazing adults they were just beginning to be in college.

Other Duties as Assigned

I was 35 years old when I accepted my first position in Residence Life, and moved into an on-campus apartment. In my career, as in so many other areas of my life, I did things backwards. Most people do their live-in position(s) early in their careers – when they are young.  With good reason.

My boss gave me a welcome gift on my first day: a  “survival pack” containing a roll of duct tape and a channel lock wrench. And that’s when I had my first true misgivings about the job. I had been working in professional student affairs positions for ten years, advising and educating students. Nothing I learned in my graduate program in Counselor Education or in any of my previous positions suggested that duct tape and/or a wrench would be useful tools in my profession.

We were seriously understaffed, and I was responsible for a 24/7/365 operation, sometimes without any assistance (though usually overnight, weekend, and holiday coverage was split 50-50 between myself and one other staff member). While the schedule was grueling, and the responsibility sometimes crushing, I loved my job with an intense passion. There was constant stimulation (I often saw 2 a.m. in my office, hanging out tossing a baseball with students or having a Minesweeper tournament on my computer while filing paperwork). There was the regular adrenaline rush that came with beingthe responder to all types of emergencies (busted water pipes, acute alcohol intoxication, a high-speed police chase driving across the residence hall lawn). And there were the Night Guys.

Have you ever seen those movies where the items in a store or toy room come alive at night, when the humans go home? A small college campus is a little like that – it comes alive in a completely new way at night. The seasoned professionals go home, the intellectual crowd thins, whole buildings go dark. And the remaining spaces come alive with students, completely at home and indulging in a proprietary swagger they don’t show during the day. At night, I was the ranking administrator and most things came my way: behavior issues, strange questions, facilities problems. I quickly realized that it was me and a few hourly night crew – housekeeping and security – who would be expected to find a way to deal until daylight.

Most of the Night Guys were engaged in solitary work, cleaning offices and classrooms in empty buildings or making security rounds with Detex wands tracking their progress. On breaks, they were grateful for anyone to talk to. We had almost nothing in common, me and the Night Guys (Dave, Lorenzo, Carlos, Dick, Ed, Jim and others). But we talked about their lives and their job complaints, and we shared lots of pizzas. We wet-vac’d together more times than I can recall, we sheltered in the tunnels during tornado season, together we were vigilant for the safety of our students. They called if they saw an intoxicated student vomit on her way up the hill from the parking lot (then they cleaned up the mess). They were with me in the aftermath of the tornado that hit in the middle of the night, taking down dozens of old trees on the campus. Together, we checked for the safety of people and buildings, readied an empty apartment when we deemed one roof damaged and possibly unsafe.

They watched out for me. In the winter, they shoveled my car out after the plows went through. They came running when I screamed after seeing a mouse in my apartment. They said, “It was a late one last night. Why aren’t you in bed tonight?” or “They should pay you more,” or “That kid should be more respectful to you.”

I learned a lot from the Night Guys. I learned that sometimes the people who are most overlooked in a workplace are among the most committed to doing a good job. I learned that a quick, sarcastic wit isn’t the only kind of humor that can make you laugh – so can self-deprecating stories about flubbing a simple task, or someone’s terrible Sean Connery impression especially if you’re not expecting it. I discovered that it doesn’t much matter whether someone is entirely scrupulous about personal hygiene if they are kind and generous of spirit. I learned to admire someone who instinctively gets how machines (and boilers, and toilets) work. Most importantly, I learned that my master’s degree did not mean I knew more than others. It just meant I knew different things.

Over the years, my job and the campus have changed. I no longer work multiple 18-hour days in a week, and I live in a detached house, rather than in an apartment one flight up from my office. Weekdays, I head home at a decent hour, and eat a dinner I cooked, rather than another “all you care to eat” meal in the dining hall. Occasional late night crises are addressed as quickly as possible, and I don’t linger to shoot the shit with whomever happens to be around. It has literally been years, now, since I personally used a channel lock to shut off a running toilet. The Night Guys have moved on too: retired, transferred to day shifts – or continue with their work at times and in campus corners where I rarely interact with them. Mostly, I prefer it this way now, though sometimes I run into one of the Night Guys and it strikes me that I miss the old times. I know I miss the guys, but I hope I’ve held onto the valuable things they taught me.

Flashback Friday

A recent flashback – March in Las Vegas with one of the “sisters of my heart”: Wendy. One of the things I love about Wendy is her determination to help others realize their goals and dreams. She grew up in an incredibly selfish environment, yet has chosen to be one of the most giving people I know. THAT is truly amazing…SHE is truly amazing!

Sisterhood: Part II

It is a chilly, blustery, very gray day in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Early afternoon finds me in a local coffeeshop. It is a work- and school-day, so the other patrons are a different crowd than on the weekends: the few men here are solitary individuals, grabbing a quick lunch or working on their computers, while the rest of the tables are filled with pairs of women, deep in conversation. My computer allows me the luxury of eavesdropping without appearing to do so. At one table, the women are reliving last weekend’s tailgate at the Hawkeye game. In the comfy chairs by the electric fire are two older women discussing art history and their recent book tour. Another pair prays over their soup bowls, while yet another is going over an astrological natal chart. What these pairs have in common with one another is not immediately apparent. However, as I watch their interactions what I see is a certain intensity of communication – they lean toward one another, they nod, their faces are animated whether they are speaking or listening.

When I first began my recent ruminations on the idea of sisterhood, I was thinking about sisterhood from the perspective of women supporting other women in the great movements for social justice: equal rights, ending domestic violence, working to address the unfairly high percentage of women/single mothers among the ranks of the poor and hungry. I was thinking about women like Wangari Maathi, Zainab Salbi, or Catherine McAuley. And because I couldn’t think about the concept of sisterhood without considering the reality of it, in part one I wrote about my sisters and my relationships with them. In part two, I intended to speak more abstractly.

And then I started hearing from my women friends. They made it clear that in part two, they expected to read about themselves. To them, it naturally followed that once I spoke about my biological sisters, I would write about the “sisters of my heart”. How can I, whose life has been immeasurably enriched by these women, deny them? So I will attempt, on this autumn afternoon, to write about the women who have become my sisters through shared conversation, shared philosophies, shared history and experience. But how do I begin this task?

The women friends who have taken up residence in my heart range in age from their 70s to 11 months. They are professionals, mothers, athletes, writers, beautiful children, wives, straight and lesbian. They have challenged my intellect (through education, book clubs, their writing, provocative conversation). They have nurtured my heart (seeing past my flaws, allowing me to see theirs, holding me when I have cried and celebrating when I have laughed). We have shared an energy that became synergy, and talked until we’ve entered the true definition of dialog. I can’t name you all by name, but you may recognize yourself if you’ve ever: eaten an entire pan of brownies with me; helped me learn to craft something beautiful in words or other material; invited me into your family when mine was far away; or (God love you for this) plucked stray hairs from my chin. If you’ve allowed me to mentor you, or if you’ve mentored me. If you have been there, and been there, and been there for years of being stuck – then been there cheering when I got unstuck. If you quietly continued to offer me love and support while I took you for granted.

Biology may teach us our first lessons about sisterhood, but true friendship teaches us how to spread that idea beyond our own gene-pool. Whether we are talking about our circle of friends or we’re talking about the great social movements, women reaching out to other women are powerful beyond all expectations.

(True story: the music-track playing in the coffeeshop as I write this is Bette Midler singing “Wind Beneath My Wings”).

I work with young women, and I have been dismayed by the oft-discussed concept of “mean girls”. At first, I fought the idea as a media-generated concept designed to sensationalize and sell magazines. In recent years I’ve seen this phenomenon grow among my students, and it troubles me. I wonder if it isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy – as we talk more and more about girl-on-girl violence and bullying and present it in the news as the new norm, aren’t we teaching our daughters (and young friends) that this is how it should be? I grew up in the 1970s, when the women’s movement led to the portrayal of women’s friendships as life-saving. Either my women friends are counter-cultural holdouts from the 70s (which as a description would insult over half of them!) or there is something MORE TRUE than the mean girl phenomenon. I believe we have a moral imperative to teach this truth to the generations behind us: that women loving and supporting one another is the real phenomenon. “Mean girls” are not natural – this trend is one sign of an unhealthy culture.

Finally, as I think of the amazing women who are my sisters – in every definition and nuance of that word – I feel like a fertile delta, where the generous river has deposited its gift of rich soil. My sisters have helped to make my life truly generative. Whether I ever change the world in a big way, like a Wangari Maathi, it will be enough to know that together we have sewn the seeds of a powerful vision of strong women loving strongly – a vision that our young friends and daughters will want to emulate as they see how deeply nourishing it is.

Flashback Friday – Brothers

I have posted the first in a series of reflections on sisterhood. But I know that brothers, as well as sisters, can share strong connections. And the concept of brotherhood is a powerful one throughout our cultural history. So, today, I am celebrating a special brother relationship: that of my nephews, Ben and Tim Finnegan. This photo was shot one afternoon in the 1990s, in my parent’s house. Ben and Tim are both married men now. Tim, and his wife Nikki, are the proud parents of Emma Joy, who is one. And just this week, we learned that the little one Ben and his wife Elsa are expecting is also a girl – Adaline Bell.

These young men were wonderful as children, and remarkable as adults. I look forward to the joy of seeing them nurture and grow their own families.

Contemplating 300

One of the great things WordPress does is keeps stats for its users. I can always click on my stats page to see how many people have visited Jenion on any given day (or ever), how many comments have been shared, etc. When I posted Flashback Friday last week, I happened to note another statistic that really got me thinking: it was post #299 since the inception of this blog. Which means that this very post you are reading is #300.

Three hundred posts later, what thoughts can I share about this blog or the experience of blogging? To say that it has been a life-altering experience may, on the face of it, seem dramatic. However, it is no more than the truth. So, below, are my reflections on what I have learned from maintaining Jenion.

What I’ve learned about form:

  • There are many ways bloggers try to appeal to their readers: photos, catchy catchphrases, polls, weekly/daily features. When I (briefly) experimented with daily blogs, I tried some of these. What I discovered was that sometimes they were just too gimmicky. I attempted a Triple Word Tuesday – but let’s face it, I’m not good with brief and pithy. What works best for me are posts that reflect my personality – which isn’t stylish or trendy, or the blogging equivalent of cheerleading.
  • That said, it doesn’t pay to be too rigid in style. You end up boring yourself, not to mention anyone kind enough to regularly read what you post.
  • It is way more difficult to write funny than to be funny. In life, being funny just happens sometimes. In writing, it rarely ever happens without forethought and rewrites.

What I’ve learned about content:

  • I used to think that people weren’t interested in what I had to say. That no one ever listened to me carefully enough to understand me. The unexpected truth I’ve learned over the course of 300 blog posts is that people can’t listen to what you’re not saying. As an introvert, I wanted others to intuit what I was feeling, based on my minimalist approach to conversation. That doesn’t work interpersonally, and it definitely isn’t a successful blogging technique. However, when you speak up, and what you share is authentic, other people will connect with it. They will want to talk about it, offer support and encouragement. They will respond in big ways and small, and in so doing enrich your life.
  • Saying what you mean isn’t as easy as you expect it to be. Sometimes, this is caused by a lack of skill or facility with the language. Other times, your self-censor prohibits direct expression. In either case, it can be frustrating to have something unique and nuanced to say, only to find yourself mired in trite platitudes. (True, Molly?!)
  • Despite my best efforts, I’ve learned that, no matter how “transparent” I hope to be,  I always hold some things back. Even those of us who have a propensity to shout publicly what others would, with difficulty, only whisper to themselves have our limits. Even we have our secrets and hidden places into which we prefer not to invite the light of blogger’s day. The extent to which I am willing to uncover these in my writing, though, determines the extent to which others connect with what I say. Apparently, the things we don’t talk about are the things we have most in common with others.

What I’ve learned about myself:

  • I love writing. Ok, I actually knew this before I created Jenion. But I had mostly forgotten how much. I’d forgotten the joy of crafting a sentence or paragraph. Of finding just the right word to express a moment or sensation. I love editing and paring back and even, on occasion, scrapping the whole thing and going back to a blank page.
  • What I didn’t know before this blog was that I also love readers. The format of a blog makes it less nerve-wracking, in some ways, to put what you’ve written in front of others. You just press a little button that says “Publish”. Not scary at all. But then the most amazing thing happens: someone reads what you’ve written and comments. Or not – but a year later sees you in line at the grocery store and says, “I love your blog, I can’t wait for Thursday every week!”. Or cuts your hair and says, “What the hell happened to Flashback Friday?” Every now and then, someone says, “I didn’t know anyone else ever felt that way.” And suddenly, the writing that you’ve always loved becomes something that brings you into dialogue with the world and people around you. It is no longer an endeavor by and for yourself.
  • For perhaps the first time in my life I truly understand the concept of humility. Yes, I am proud of my blog. Yes, I have enough ego to hope others like to read what I’ve written. But I have never felt so acutely that something bigger than myself is at work. In writing about my own experiences, feelings, journey I sometimes receive the gift of touching someone else’s hurts or struggles in a helpful or healing way. And while that makes me happy, I am completely conscious that it isn’t my doing.
Three hundred posts. When I began, I was engaging in a challenge which had me committed to the blog from Thanksgiving to Easter. 18 weeks. I wasn’t sure how I would fill the pages for that length of time. It wasn’t long before I realized that something unlooked for was happening. I had found a way to open up my closed life and let in some fresh air. Seems like a contradiction, like writing these reflections is a way to let things out rather than bring things in. But that paradox is at the heart of why blogging has been life-altering: as soon as you let something out in words, you create room for new things to rush in. New people, new experiences, new words and many new observations to share.
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(Note: Do not be concerned: I will publish Sisterhood, Part II next time. I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to celebrate my 300th post!)

Flashback Friday: Pixies

This week I uploaded a current photo of myself to Facebook. A lot of people have been commenting on my short hair – its been a long time, but I have periodically gone short, as can be seen in this photo! In the winter of 1968 my mother gave Chris and I (I am the shorter of the two, above) pixie cuts. Pixies were all the rage in 1968, popularized by models and film stars with names like Twiggy.

Mom had an ulterior motive (in addition to being “on trend”): in the winter, we were notoriously bad about brushing our long hair. With turtlenecks, scarves, winter coats and hats, we would develop huge snarled rat’s nests in our hair at the back. It would take hours and many tears for mom to untangle these globs of snarled hair. Pixies=problem solved!