A Rose By Any Other Name…Friend

“I force people to have coffee with me, just because I don’t trust that a friendship can be maintained without any other senses besides a computer or cellphone screen.” – John Cusack

Snapshot: Saturday afternoon, East Village, Des Moines, Iowa. My friends, Layne and Kristen are ahead of me on the sidewalk, my friend Tammy is walking beside me. I can see the state capitol behind the two leading our small pack, so I call out and ask them to stop so I can take their picture. Layne says, “It feels like we’re out shopping with our moms.” We all laugh, but I still take the photo.

We were in Des Moines visiting Layne. A few weeks ago, we were reminiscing about our friendships on social media, and I thrust this weekend gathering upon her – “Let’s all meet at Layne’s”, and she gracefully accepted the challenge of houseguests despite her busy life as a working mom whose job requires regular travel.

In these first few hours of our reunion, the pace was a bit frenetic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me it felt like we were meant to be jubilant in our togetherness, yet hadn’t quite shifted back into in-real-life mode, as opposed to texting and direct-messaging mode. No one said, “OMG!” or “LOL!”, though it would not, perhaps, have felt out of place.

It didn’t take long for a shift to happen. In one store, Layne said, “Let’s go home and hang out with Oliver” (her adorable toddler son) and that was all it took. The honest longing in her voice to be at home, and our willingness to move past the triteness of the “girl’s weekend” cliche of being out on the town (not that we weren’t planning an evening involving much wine and “Cards Against Humanity”, also a girl’s weekend cliche) were all it required.

Here is what wasn’t cliche about our weekend gathering: The five of us (sadly missing our fifth wheel, Tricia, who could only be with us in spirit due to family obligations) are unlikely friends. We span four decades of life – with at least one of us in each decade from their 20s through their 50s. We have a variety of academic degrees and divergent interests. Some have families, others do not. We met in our workplace, where I hired and supervised all but one of the others. Often, this alone would prevent my inclusion in the group – people may love their boss as a boss, but it is somewhat less likely that they will become the kind of friends who crash at each others’ homes.

The two youngest, whom I hired as Hall Directors right out of college, have a light in them that shines warmly. Like other millennials, they grew up reinforced and supported for their uniqueness. While many people my age lament what they see as the problematic aspects of this generation, I celebrate their positive qualities. I wish that women in my generation had been taught to stand up for ourselves, to believe in our competence, to allow our unique qualities and quirks to be more than fodder for bullying or self-shame. Since the day we met, and for the rest of our lives, I will do everything in my power to help these two hold on to that shine – despite the ways our world may work to dim it.

The middle two are literally two of the most supportive and loving women I know. Empathic and honest, they don’t shy away from those difficult places that friends sometimes to fear to go with each other. And they love to shake things up a bit, to belly laugh, to be occasionally outrageous.

For the five of us, it was a soul-satisfying adventure to work together. It remains an adventure as we maintain our connectedness while living in different cities.

One of the most surprising things in my life has been the richness of relationships: rich in variety, depth and nuance. Because of this richness, I have often been disappointed in the dearth of words to describe our relationships. We have concrete words for family connections (though everyone of us experiences the actualities differently), a few words for romantic relationships, and some for friendship. Many of these words are used so broadly, as placeholders for suck a multitude of variations, they end up lacking degree or depth.

This is why, I suspect, my younger nieces and their age-cohort tend to call whichever friend they are with at the moment “my best friend” in the comments on their Instagrams or Snapchats. It is also why, in graduate school, my friend, Cathann, and I began calling each other “comrade” – not because we shared a political affiliation, but because we felt words like “pal”, “buddy”, “friend” didn’t capture the intellectual quality of our emotional connection with one another.

What is the word for “my friend whom I love like my child except that I also get to be my totally flawed self with unlike a mother gets to be”, I wonder? Or the one for “this woman is exactly the person I want to be except that I get to keep my own stuff, just take on some of her loveliness while also experiencing it in her”? What do I call “my not-brother who makes me feel loved and protected and respected as a woman even when I swear like a longshoreman when we’re together?” The best word I can find for each of these friend.

I am grateful for the multiplying ways we are able to remain in contact with the people who offer this rich texture to our lives. But one thing the weekend in Des Moines reminded me of is that there is no substitute for time spent in physical proximity to the people we love. To see the shifting facial expressions, hear the laughter and the vocal expressions of emotion, to feel the hugs and occasional slugs on the shoulder – the sensory experience of relationship is so vitally important. And it is for this reason that, like John Cusack says, I will continue to force people to have coffee with me – or foist my company upon a distant friend. I am so deeply grateful for each and every buddy, pal, comrade, colleague, co-conspiritor in my life…for each and every friend.

“Wherever it is you may be, it is your friends who make your world.” – Chris Bradford





Showing Up

I have a friend who, for years, has talked with her retired father on the phone each morning. Over time, these daily telephone conversations became a source of jealousy between my friend and her siblings. Her adult sibs would grumble about how she was “the favorite” and that they wished they got daily time with their dad. After listening to their complaints, my friend finally threw up her hands in exasperation. “Go ahead, YOU be the one to listen to him endlessly recount what he said to the guy at the meat counter yesterday, or repeat word-for-word what every single guy at the retired men’s coffee klatch said this morning! I’m happy to let you in on these scintillating conversations!” Faced with the reality of long, mostly one-sided, and sometimes boring interactions – as opposed to the idealized version in their heads – her siblings reconsidered. They told my friend, “No, no. You go ahead. It was your idea in the first place.”

Here’s what my friend understood, that her siblings didn’t necessarily get: what makes her interactions with their dad meaningful is that she shows up for them every day. No matter what else is happening, or what size the mountain of tasks she is facing that day might be – regardless of how mundane the conversation –  she shows up. Her siblings wanted the end result, the closeness, without the responsibility or the tedium of doing the daily thing.

And really, isn’t that true for most of us in at least some of our relationships?

Unfortunately, it is too often true about our relationships with ourselves, as well. This became especially clear to me the other night. A friend who is a cross-country coach posted an invitation on Facebook to come to his annual open meet. I typed the following reply: “I’m too fat to come this year.”

Of course I erased that self-shaming message before I hit send. Besides, what I really meant was, “I don’t feel good enough about myself right now to show up for you.”

That thought gave me pause. I have excused myself from exercising regularly due to tendonitis in my shoulders; I have allowed myself to eat fast food frequently because it is late in the evening when I arrive home; I have treated my minor depression and other menopausal symptoms with snack foods and junk TV. In other words, I have not been showing up for average me, much less my best me.

As a result, I just don’t feel like showing up for my friends or my family if it requires any effort on my part – or when doing so means they might notice how I’ve let myself down.

When we stop showing up for ourselves – when we consciously forego the kind of daily self-care that allows us to feel good in our own skin – we are much less likely to have the energy or ability to be present with, to or for others. And that is no way to live.

“Growing into your future with health and grace and beauty doesn’t have to take all your time. It rather requires a dedication to caring for yourself as if you were rare and precious, which you are, and regarding all life around you as equally so, which it is. ”  — Victoria Moran











“Gotta Get Through Here, Dude”


Do not be your dorky self. Do not make a scene. Do not call attention to yourself. Do not show your feelings. Do not, under any circumstances, act as if you matter.

I don’t believe in any of these dictates.

I don’t believe in living life as if I don’t count.

I don’t believe in accepting whatever anyone else wants to dump on me.

But I sometimes find myself living as if I do believe those messages and dictates. As if I have no choice but to take whatever is being handed to me. When I feel insecure, when I feel alone, when I am anxious for people to like or love me, I revert to behaviors which, instead of making me more lovable just make me easier to take advantage of. To disregard. To hurt.

The other night, I was on a social ride sponsored by a local bike shop. We were riding to St. Paul for ice cream at Izzy’s, second-best ice cream in the cities (sorry, but Sebastian Joe’s remains number one in my heart!). We were a large group, and were asked to ride in pairs. I fell into place alongside my friend, Kate. As we rode, we got on the subject of body image and how it can impact every part of our lives. If we let it. If we choose to accept all of the cultural messages we receive. Kate told me that she had a “come to Jesus” moment in her own life.

“I realized, this is what I’ve got. Short of surgery, I can’t buy a new face or body. So I’ve got to be down with the ones I have. And anybody who tries to make me feel bad about that will just get the five fingers of death!” (she brandished her fist in the air to emphasize this point).

As we crossed into St. Paul, we faced the dreaded Marshall Avenue hill. I’d never ridden it before, but those who had warned that it was a tough one. I was feeling good, had been enjoying the ride and conversation, and I’m good at riding hills thanks to RAGBRAI. So while Kate waited to take the hill with her partner, Victoria, I forged ahead. I charged up the hill, passing friends and fellow riders. When I reached the top, I was winded but felt great – for about thirty seconds. And then…horrible, unbelievable pain whapped me in the head. I have never felt anything like it. My head felt both as if it was being squeezed in a vice and as if it were coming completely apart at the same time. I didn’t know what to do. Several friends rode up and, as they passed, asked if I was ok. At first, my indistinct answer was, “I don’t know”. But as the pain continued without abating, it became “I don’t think so” then, “NO”. I wasn’t ok.

As I stayed put, trying to breathe through the pain, the ride sponsor stopped beside me. He sat quietly and patiently while I tried to figure out what I might need. Kate and Victoria rode up and stopped, their faces full of concern. Then two other friends rode back from further ahead to see what was wrong. I was frightened. And I didn’t have a clue if the appropriate response was to shake it off or ask for an ambulance to be called. But what I focused on, what I was worried about, was that my “emergency” was interrupting everyone else’ good time. I didn’t want them to miss their ice cream, or have to stop having fun on my account.

So I insisted we move on to Izzy’s. I got off my bike and locked it up, and realized that Kate and Victoria were planning to stick with me. Victoria said, “If we’re bothering you and you’d prefer us to give you your space, just let us know.” But the last thing I wanted or needed at that moment was space. I don’t really remember waiting in line for ice cream or what we talked about. I was just doing my best to appear completely normal while feeling nauseated, in pain, and scared. Every time I made eye contact with Victoria, I knew she knew that’s what I was doing. As we got our ice cream and tried to exit the shop, our way was blocked by a bunch of guys who were just coming in the door (the line snaked halfway down the block outside). I stood there wondering how to make my way out, when Kate stepped up and just calmly said, “Gotta get through here, dude!” and the crowd parted with ease, apologizing for blocking the way.

Such a simple thing. The three of us burst out laughing on the sidewalk. Kate proudly repeated her line, “Gotta get through here, dude” several times, enjoying our response to her directness. And then she said, “Jen, you have to be more like that. You have to stop caring and develop an attitude. ‘Hey, I’m sorry if my health crisis interrupts your trip for ice cream, I can’t care about that right now – deal with it, dude!’ That’s what you need to say. And if anyone has a problem with that, you know what to do…”

In unison, we both lifted our fists and said, “Give ’em the five fingers of death!”


The Mary Lambert song, Secrets, is posted for two reasons. As a dedication to Kate and the great conversation/life lesson, and as my new theme song! My past theme songs, Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” were also aspirational. I love the message of Secrets: namely, that you shouldn’t hide yourself inside – be who you are, without apology or shame. 

When the Dog Bites

This looks a lot like the little yapper that bit me.

So, Thursday evening, I got bitten by a dog. It was my first real dog bite ever, and from a complete stranger dog, too.  Last night as I arrived home late from visiting a friend, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before as I parked my car – he wanted money and couldn’t understand why I refused to get out of my vehicle after he assured me, “I’m a good guy, I promise!” (I was fine, I opened the window a crack and passed him the only dollar I had. I watched until he was a full block away before turning off the ignition and going inside). Today, I inadvertently left my favorite gloves on the fender of my bike while locking the bike to a rack. When I returned to the bike: yep. Totally stolen.

But am I going to let these things harsh my buzz? No way. Because today I am focused on the things that make me happy.

Instead of the dog bite, I’m thinking about the awesome weekend I had with friends and family. Hanging out with Sara and her kids helped me truly relax. Friday’s dinner with my brother Jeff and his wife Marsha was particularly special because it served as a reunion between Jeff and our friend Mike after decades apart. I’m thinking about how grateful I am for the blessing of positive health news on all three family members about whom I’ve been concerned – a late-night panhandler can have my last dollar in light of that! The kindness of a stranger who wrote a personal note to me in a rejection letter or my coworkers bringing me information about low-cost services are good counterbalance to the theft of my gloves.

Earlier today I read a post on Allison Vesterfelt’s blog (This is Where Your Fear Comes From) in which she recounts watching an interaction between a mother and child in which it appears that the mother, in an attempt to reassure her child, actually convinces the perfectly content child to be afraid. Allison’s “AHA” that fear is a learned response got me thinking about how so many of our reactions to life’s events, big and small, are learned responses. And once we’ve learned to respond in a particular manner, we practice it until it is habitual.

If you’ve been following Jenion since I moved to Minneapolis, you’re aware that I’ve been living in two different realities at once – the reality of loving my new life and new city, engaging with new experiences and people; and also the reality of panic, fear and loneliness. Here’s the thing: most of my life I practiced what I learned as a kid and I got really good at risk aversion/avoidance, waiting for the other shoe to drop, feeling insecure, and worrying about bad things that could happen. Then, I experienced life-altering change, and began developing new skills like optimism, trust, confidence in my ability to figure things out. Also a belief that joy is readily available if I choose it. But these are fledgling skills, neither as strong nor as ingrained as the others. So I struggle to keep them active, to make them the default instead of the less-helpful skills I’m valedictorian of.

The lyrics of the song “Pompeii” by Bastille perfectly illustrate my conundrum these past few months:

I was left to my own devices
Many days fell away with nothing to show

And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we love
Great clouds roll over the hills
Bringing darkness from above…

A pretty bleak picture, that. But the song goes on to ask what, for me, is an all-important question, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?” 

No matter what we may have been told in the past, optimism and pessimism are not mutually exclusive or immutable traits with which we are hard-wired. You may, like my sister Gwen, be born with a disposition that bubbles with laughter. Or you might have an Eeyore-like tendency to overemphasize that which is glum. But these are predispositions, not personality requirements. We can practice rewiring our thinking, keeping the best traits of both optimism and pessimism, thereby impacting our physical and emotional health for the better. “Both personalities could use a little bit of one another to really keep an individual at peak health. The optimist needs the caution of the pessimist, and the pessimist needs the drive of the optimist. For well-balanced health, the middle road is the ideal way to go.” (“How being an optimist or a pessimist affects your health”)

So, since I may have been describing myself, above, instead of Eeyore, I am taking my cue from Bastille’s “Pompeii”. Whenever the negative threatens to overwhelm me, I’m asking, “How AM I going to be an optimist about this?” The truly amazing thing is that I can usually come up with workable answers. Answers that allow me to invest my energy in skills and beliefs that take me out of the anxious reality and back into the engaging one. Because there’s no question which one I – or any of us, really – would prefer to live in, is there?





Notes from the Vortex

As you are reading this, the weather phenomenon none of us had heard of before has, hopefully, begun to spin its way out of the Twin Cities. However, the Arctic (or Polar) Vortex has been nothing if not instructive. Scratch that. First off, it has been damn cold. THEN it has been instructive.  Now that I am a resident of the state that laughs at cold weather – while also being the first to cancel school statewide in anticipation of the Vortex – I have been doing my best to soak in the lessons. Foremost, I’ve learned that there is no substitute for maintaining good humor and positive perspective at these extreme times. Here are a few other things I’ve learned, filtered through my (mostly intact? bizarre? macabre?) sense of humor:

Never shut off your car. Or really any vehicle, when the temperatures are dropping to -30 degrees. I understand even jet batteries die when it gets that cold. My car, which was driven and got good and warm at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night was dead as a doornail by 7:00 a.m. on Monday. My co-worker’s car started right up, though. Her trick? Wake her husband to start and run the engine for 10-15 minutes every two hours overnight. Her solution will never work for me, though. First, I have no husband to force into the unenviable role of starter-bitch. Second, I love my neighborhood, but I am not that comfortable venturing out alone at 3 a.m. to sit in my vehicle. Third, I actually sleep at night. A friend posted this meme, which says it all, on my Facebook page:


There is no bad weather, only bad clothing. I had never heard this phrase before but it, apparently, is the state motto. Kinda catchy. And I almost – though not quite – believe it. In fact, I’ll buy it right down to about -5, at which point I believe bad weather officially exists. I have successfully managed, by combining layers of inner- and outer- wear, plastic bags, and rubber electrician glove liners, to be outside at those temps for short spurts of activity – without feeling like my toes and other assorted appendages were about to fall off. I can even ride a bike around the block within acceptable levels of discomfort.

I have been told that clothing (and boots) specifically designed to protect against even more frigid temperatures exist. However, they might as well be mythical as far as I am concerned. I don’t have a house on which to take out a second mortgage to finance such attire. Or an elf queen of Lothlorien to gift me any.

plastic bags go over wool socks, under boots

Beware the “cascade effect“.  On Saturday night, the heat went out in my apartment. As did the electricity in all of my outlets except for the kitchen. I wasn’t home at the time, but when I returned, let’s just say it was a dark and very cold night. And that’s when I became familiar with the cascade effect, which, put simply is this: as soon as the first thing goes wrong in extreme weather conditions, prepare yourself for the next several to hit in rapid succession. No heat, no electric, no vehicle, AAA only taking calls for stranded motorists in dangerous situations, no mythical cold-gear so you can walk the 7.4 miles to work (or try to figure out the bus routes for the first time). Eventually, my landlord brought me space heaters, which blew all the circuits again. My friend and native Minnesotan, Kathe, predicted these things. I ought to have listened. Forewarned = fore-armed.

Responding to the “cascade effect”. IMPORTANT NOTE: it is actually warm in bed!

If you can afford it, invest in ski goggles. It doesn’t matter if you never intend to hit the slopes. If you wear glasses, it is impossible to cover your face AND see out of them at the same time. In temps low enough to freeze exposed skin in seconds, this presents a conundrum. Yesterday, the temps rose to 0 and I went for a walk in the beautiful sunshine, glasses in my coat pocket. There were icicles, formed by condensation from my breath, dangling from my eyelashes and bangs when I finally came back inside. The delicate skin around my eyes is chapped and red (I toned it down with green eye shadow). Amazingly, if it keeps me warm I don’t mind being seen wandering the city looking roughly like a yeti about to rob a bank (there are others of this species about town – we nod when we meet on the sidewalk). Goggles would just add a little extra touch to the ensemble. Yeti bling, if you will.

Try to have friends. Preferably kind ones. All joking aside, friends are vital to living through extreme weather. They offer practical advice (“Try to stay warm!”), actual assistance (rides to and from work), and emotional support (“Just checking in to make sure you haven’t frozen yet!”). It takes a lot of energy to put on three pairs of pants, two shirts, and extra socks every time you go out to retrieve the mail. Not all of us feel equal to that on our own. Friends are definitely my favorite survival gear.



Special RAGBRAI Edition: Sunday Roast (A Conversation Between Friends)

NOTE: Occasionally, I’ve invited guests to blog on Jenion. The feature has typically been posted on Sunday and in addition to my Thursday post. This week, however, I am riding my bicycle across the state of Iowa. Today’s guest kindly volunteered to cover the weekly post so I wouldn’t stress about it while on the ride!

Today’s Guest Blogger: Mike Beck

I can’t believe I actually said it out loud.

Last Thursday evening: “Are you going to blog while riding RAGBRAI?” I asked Jenifer.  “I don’t know.” She replied with some hesitation.  “Maybe I’ll guest blog this week!”  (This is where I should have bit my tongue. Hard.)  Her reply? “OKAY!”

 I’m Mike.  I’ve been mentioned occasionally in Jenion, so the name may seem familiar.  Actually, I’ve been mentioned more frequently than what may be obvious, but often, it is in single statements with no names; lines repeated from past conversations where only I know that she remembered something we shared.  You see, Jenifer and I share a lot.  When we’re together, we gab.  And when we’re apart, we text and email each other frequently.  We cover any array of topics.  Nothing is off limits.  We speak ironically.  We delve into deep discussions.  We often laugh with abandon. We’re close friends. 

 I met Jenifer in the fall of 1979.  I was a sophomore at Loras College, Jenifer a freshman at Clarke College, both in Dubuque, Iowa.  A mutual friend brought Jenifer along to a gathering at the Loras Christian Center, a place where many of us found the foundation of our faith, the freedom of our young adulthood, and the bonds of what would become life-long friendships.  Oh, and folk music!  Lots of singing and guitar playing took place there.  (We were so cool!) 

I have learned so many lessons from the people who used to hang out at LCC.  But the most important lesson, and one I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my entire life, is that friends are precious, deserve to be cherished, nurtured, and celebrated.  I have been blessed with many wonderful people in my life just because we took the time to get to know each other a little bit, and decided the investment was worth it.  My relationship with Jenifer is clearly one I intend to hold onto as long as she’ll put up with me.  (I’m not too worried since she recently relocated to my city of Minneapolis and lives in an apartment in my building!)

And ever since she landed on Franklin Avenue, we’ve spent a considerable amount of time together, grocery shopping, bike riding, and hanging out with my visiting family.  It just seems natural that we knock on each other’s door as we pass in the hall and check in, coordinate trips to Kowalski’s or Target, and plan our new favorite thing: night bike rides around the city’s amazing bike trails!

Then she left to ride in RAGBRAI, a week-long bike ride across Iowa.  I texted her the first day she was gone: “I’m bored.”

 And that is where the blessings of having friends kicked in.  The boredom lasted about five minutes.  My friend JC was laying sod in his yard Saturday morning and I offered to help.  Just as we got the last of the grass installed in the back yard, I had to take off.  I was meeting FA for lunch downtown and needed a shower.  As our sunny summer rooftop lunch ended, my youngest son texted and wanted to have dinner together.  JW texted in the middle of my pulled pork sliders to see if I had dinner plans.  Yes, but we were going to head back downtown for the Aquatennial fireworks.  Please join us!  (Which he did.)  In between, EP called and wanted to go for a bike ride.  Not tonight, but how about tomorrow?  On Sunday, SB joined us and we rode the entire chain of lakes.

Monday evening, I had a relaxing time with three other friends catching up over a glass of wine on a backyard patio.  Tuesday night, I made it to Moto-I for a roof top happy hour with a large group of other friends.

So, even though I knew I was going to miss having Jenifer around for a whole week, I was also reminded of how important it is to have close friends, people I care about deeply, who remind me what a privilege it is to be part of their lives.  A text from Jenifer put it in perfect context: “When you start really living your life, people want to be part of it!”

So, as I hijack Jenion for this week only, I would humbly propose that we repent our anemic understanding of love, and actually get out and do something, anything, with our friends, not because we need them in our lives, but because we want to be part of theirs. And frankly, it’s simply how we have been called to live.