Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

Career Advice From a Bunch of Smart Ladies…my friends.

 

Growing up, I often fantasized about being a “career lady”. When I thought about my future, I could picture it a million different ways, but it almost always included me living in a big city and working in a job that made me feel good about myself. I’m pretty happy to say that after many setbacks, multiple returns to school, plenty of very low-paying jobs and several years of utter confusion, I have finally achieved both. Plus, I don’t even have to wear heels or pantyhose to work, which is doubly exciting.

I’ve been a therapist since 2009, which makes me a career-changer. Prior to this latest incarnation I also spent time as a beauty writer and editor, a nanny, a cocktail waitress, a private tutor, an elementary school teacher and a freelance copyeditor. The path to my career was definitely not straight– it was very wriggly, and occasionally rocky– but the struggles and setbacks have been strangely worth it, and ultimately very, very helpful.

So when comprehensive career resource The Ladders asked me to dole out career advice to recent graduates, I jumped at the chance. In fact, I’d had the idea to ask my friends for their career advice months ago in hopes of writing something like that already. In my therapy practice, I always have at least six or seven 20-somethings on my roster that are either current college or high school students or recent graduates, anxious about starting their professional life. These tend to be some of my favorite clients to work with, not only because I can remember and relate to that experience, but also because of their energy, optimism and hopefulness for the future.

So whether you’re just starting out, or at a place in your life where you’re looking to make a change, these are the words of wisdom from some of my most trusted sources–my friends. A few of my thoughts are sprinkled in too:).

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<My niece Allison, future career lady>

Jenn (me), Clinical social worker/ Psychotherapist

Bridget, Learning and Development Supervising Associate for a major corporation

Aimee, Stay-at-home-mom, Former HR professional

Michelle, Interior Redesign and Staging Specialist, Feng Shui Consultant and Owner of Inspired by Design, LLC

Rachel, Plastic surgery nurse/ Rock musician

 

What do you wish you had known when you were younger and just starting out?

“I was very lucky early on in my career to find a mentor. It is extremely beneficial to have someone to bounce ideas off of, to provide guidance on next steps, to be a sounding board.  Don’t be intimidated, strike up a conversation with someone further along in their career. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be happy to talk and help.” - Bridget

“Don’t try to take on a job that you’re not ready for.  Don’t try to impress people so they like you.”- Michelle

“It’s really okay if you don’t know what you want to do. Most of the time there’s no thunderbolt, a-ha moment where we magically figure it all out. A lot of stuff happens simply by process of elimination. Prepare to hit a few bumps and plan for an exit strategy. Start backward; what do you definitely not want to do? This might help narrow things down a bit.”- Jennifer

“I wish I’d known that everyone felt the same as me–lost. I was too shy to speak up.  I wish I’d known that it’s okay to ask for help.”- Rachel

 

What’s the biggest mistake or setback you’ve made professionally? How did you get through it?

“I don’t believe in mistakes. Everything is just a learning experience. I think the only mistake would be to view something as such. Again, things will go well, things will go badly. When things go badly, look at what happened, learn a lesson, and move on. No need to dwell, no need for a pity party.” - Bridget

“Success comes from confidence and knowledge gained by learning from mistakes.”- Rachel

“I make mistakes daily at work. I forget things people told me. I have said things that weren’t helpful. I always take ownership of my mistakes at work and am very quick to tell people when I’ve done something wrong, don’t have an answer for them, or feel like someone else would be a better fit for them as a therapist. To err is human, and taking responsibility for mistakes is important. Plus, if we did everything perfectly the first time out, we’d never learn or grow personally or professionally.”- Jennifer

 

To what do you attribute your success?

“I think my success is not professional but personal — I believe I am successful at being a mom because I am so proud of the way my daughter is developing. I guess I attribute my success at motherhood to listening to my instincts.”- Aimee

“Not giving up. There will be amazing months and years where everything seems to fall into place. There will be terrible months and years where you will question everything. It’s all part of the ride. None of it is permanent. So don’t get too cocky when things are good, and don’t get too down when things are bad. Just keep going, always.”- Bridget

“Having strong communication skills and a positive attitude. You can be the most well-qualified, impressively educated job candidate, but if you are unpleasant to be around or have a poor attitude, you’re going to hit a really big wall professionally. Don’t discount the importance of honing your interpersonal skills.”- Jennifer

Finally just admitting it was time for a change, doing what I love, and making my own rules. I love being my own boss and am proud that I’m able to do something I love and get paid for it.”- Michelle

 

What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to your personal life?

“I think it’s important to find a hobby or volunteer work that can be scheduled into your calendar so that it becomes as much a priority as your work. Doing something that you truly enjoy is important for the soul and will keep you well-rounded.” -Aimee

“You are no good to yourself or your employer if you are burned out. If you don’t have time for balance, you need to discuss your workload with your employer. If they expect you to give over your life to the job, it may be time to find a new one!” - Bridget

“Try to leave work at work, whenever possible. Don’t internalize your job.  At the end of the day, it will be more important for your headstone to read “She was a loving mother/sister/daughter” than anything else. - Michelle

“It’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think everyone needs to be in search of their “dream career” in order to be happy. Plenty of people find jobs that may not stoke their creative fires, but pay the bills and allow the flexibility and financial ability to pursue other interests, hobbies and passions outside of their work.”- Jennifer

 

What’s the boldest choice you have made in your life? What have been the payoffs and drawbacks?

“Quitting my corporate job to to be a stay-at-home mom. The payoff is that I get to be the one to raise my daughter exactly the way I see fit. I get to witness every achievement, milestone and nuance in her days. I am proud to be the one to guide and shape her life. The drawback is that my work skills are getting rusty. I don’t know when or if I’ll return to the corporate world, but if I do, it’s going to be a huge adjustment.” - Aimee

“After being laid off of multiple jobs in one industry, I decided to start my own business in another one that I had always felt passionate about. Starting a business is very hard. Getting new clients is hard. Building a reputation is hard. But doing and enjoying the work makes it all worth it. The fulfillment I have when a job is done and a client is happy is the best feeling. Feeding my spirit and soul through creative work that helps people is one of the best feelings in the world.”- Michelle

“The decision to live my life for myself, not others.  To not worry about the opinions of others.  It might not seem very bold, but it was a very difficult shift to make in my head, and it’s something I have to remind myself of often.  People are going to question your choices, people are going to think you are wrong.  But people don’t have to live your life for you.  Listen to that voice in your head telling you what you truly want, follow it, and block out the voices of haters.”- Bridget

 

What is your best career advice for women?

“I would suggest looking toward careers that could offer flexibility, which would be helpful upon returning to work if she decides to stay home with her children for a few/many years. Careers where she could have her own practice, such as accounting, real estate, education, or therapy would be suitable for part-time work or flexibility.” - Aimee

“Be honest, upfront, respectful and never get overly emotional on the job.”- Rachel

“People aren’t mind readers; you need to let your expectations and desires be known.  If you want a promotion, your bosses need to know that. If you’re not satisfied with your compensation, they need to know that too. And if nothing is done about it, you need to look elsewhere. It’s  imperative to open your mouth and not be afraid to ask. And don’t languish someplace that is not filling needs for you. You have to be getting something out of your job. If you aren’t, you’re not building a career.”- Bridget

“Don’t avoid doing something you really want to do (like graduate or medical school) because it will take 2, 3, 4 years to complete it. Money is a different story, but the time will pass regardless. Make the most of it. Don’t say “it’s too late to do that”. It probably isn’t.”- Jennifer

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Tin Cups and Tea Saucers

Vin and I recently spent 24 hours with my grandparents in Texas–just the four of us–and I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time. I really cherish time with them, and it breaks my heart that we don’t live closer. I think I annoyed them by asking a million questions about their lives–financial advice, health tips, thoughts on long-lasting marriage. I think if your grandparents are alive and you don’t ask them lots of questions you’re missing a golden opportunity to learn some of life’s most important lessons. My grandparents are content, in good health, financially stable, independent, and have had a strong marriage for 67 years. If I’m gonna get advice about life from anyone, they’re the ones I trust most to dispense it.

My grandmother worked as a teacher for over 20 years. She taught several grades, but the job she held the longest was teaching high school math. This has always impressed me, not only because I can’t do algebra to save my life, but also because it was uncommon for a woman of her generation to leave the home to work. Girls of this generation are still being told subliminally by toys that math is hard, but my grandmother taught it at the high school level 50 years ago. So knock that off, Barbie.

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Grandmother’s senior photo

I asked my grandmother if a lot of her female classmates had joined the workforce the way she had.

“Not many. A few did. There was this one gal Joan, who worked and cared for her mother, and then her sister for many years. She always worked and never married. Her mother said to her, “You don’t have to get married! You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do!”

Grandma lost touch with Joan over the years, but like all people of this day and age, reconnected with her over the internet. They began corresponding again, and Joan made a plea to her fellow female classmates. She said she’d heard enough stories about the husbands and fathers who were frontier settlers in West Texas. She wanted to hear the stories of the mothers and grandmothers from the previous generations, the sturdy Texas women who worked hard raising children, were active in their community and sometimes worked outside of the home.

My grandmother Susan (the retired high school math teacher) and her sister, my much-adored Great Aunt Harriet (one of the first women in the state of Texas to be licensed as a CPA) wrote the story of their mother Kathryn, a trailblazer who didn’t marry until she was near 30, then raised five children. When her husband passed away, several of her kids were under 18 and still living at home, but my great-grandmother managed to put herself through college and become an English professor at the local university.

If this sounds like I’m bragging, I am. I am unbelievably proud to come from this strain of strong, independent, smart women. Their stories have influenced and motivated me all my life, and they’re too humble to share them, so I will.

Anyway, Grandma’s friend Joan took all the stories that her girlfriends submitted and turned them into a book. It was called “Tin Cups and Tea Saucers”, which ventures so close to Steel Magnolias territory it makes me lose my mind.

Here’s where you come in.

I want to hear your stories.

I want to know about the women who have influenced you–your mothers and grandmothers, aunts and sisters.

What they were like, what they read, what they wore, the stories they told you, the songs they sang.

Please send a paragraph or two by next Monday, January 12 to muchtomydelight@gmail.com. I’ll write a post publishing snippets of everyone’s submission later in the week.

And cheers to you– the strong, smart, interesting women of this generation.

 

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Thank YOU.

As we start 2015 (have you ordered your flying vehicle yet?), I wanted to press pause and take a minute to thank you for following this little blog of mine. I’m a sporadic blogger with no actual schedule, occasionally inconsistent content material, and a small-ish readership. Size may matter in some departments (closet space comes to mind), but in this instance, I’d rather take quality over quantity. Which I have.

I have very cool readers and several regular commenters that really boost my motivation to keep blogging. As anyone who blogs and works a full-time job knows, it’s challenging to balance both, and there are definitely days when you want to back away from the keyboard and stay away forever. But just when I get close to shutting this bad boy down, I’ll receive a comment that encourages me to keep writing. You have no idea how much this feedback means to me, and how appreciated it is. One of the best things about writing for a blog (as opposed to other publications) is the immediate feedback you receive. For me, personally it’s a huge motivator to continue writing.

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Thank you so much for reading what I write. It means A LOT to me.

Hope you all have a wonderful start to this new year, and I hope to have many more stories to share with you.

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I didn’t send Christmas cards this year. Here is my holiday greeting to you.

I love this time of year, when my mailbox is flooded with more than cell phone bills, junk mail and Oriental Trading catalogs (warning: never order from there. You’ll get seven catalogs a month for the rest of your life). I’ve gotten quite a few Christmas cards this season, and let me tell you — your kids keep getting cuter and cuter. But you, on the other hand, may have noticed that your stack of cards looks thinner this year.

It’s not you, it’s me. I’m not sending cards this year. I’m simply not on the ball. I only started shopping a few days ago. I guess I was still hoping that Santa is real and would let me off the hook.

Did I just ruin Christmas for anyone?

My grandmother has been sending out one of those “year in review” Christmas letters for years, and they are always one of the highlights of the season for me. Over the years, our family has been updated on the status of her garden, granddad’s golf tournaments, and physical ailments ranging from sciatica to hip replacements. This year they got a Vitamix, which is actually pretty awesome. She usually encloses a recipe she thinks I’ll like from her local paper. Since marrying Vinny, she also sends me any article that mentions Croatia. She’s as sweet as she sounds.

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As a non-practicing Half-Jew/Half-Christian hybrid, I feel like I should probably call this my holiday letter, rather than assign it a specific denomination.  It’s a pretty cheap substitute for Tiny Prints, but I’m saving a ton on stamps and contributing to the welfare of our planet. Anyway, here’s my year in a nutshell:

To tell you the truth, this year has been a bit of a blur. It went really fast, and without anything major to report. We work, we take the subway home, we eat ourselves some dinner, and we have a few giggles with our friends on the weekends. Life is simple, but good. Very good. Few complaints, many blessings. God bless us, everyone.

We still live in our rented apartment, and are faithfully socking money away for a potential home purchase.  This is basically the focus of our lives and energy right now. It is taking longer than anticipated because we continue to torture ourselves by staying where the majority of our friends and family are, which unfortunately happens to be in one of the most ridiculously expensive places in the country.

2014 was our official “year of saving”, which makes it one of the least interesting years ever to report. Turns out, the money you spend is often equivalent to the amount of fun you have. I added some longer hours to my schedule and spent $60 on thermoses so we could take hot lunches to work with us everyday. We already lost one, so if any of you are looking for any last-minute gift ideas, that’d be pretty high on the list.

The highlight of our year was the birth of our twin nephews, who are so cute I want to cover them in gravy and sop them up with a biscuit. I hope this doesn’t creep out their parents. I think they’ll take it as a compliment. So basically, the most exciting thing about our year happened to someone else. That’s okay; we still get to sleep through the night.

Hope you guys are having a wonderful holiday week and your boss lets you out early. We’re currently road-tripping through Central Texas, visiting every relative possible along the way. And for all you would-be-robbers who now know about our empty apartment, save yourself the hassle of heading to our place. Vin packed his entire closet and half of mine for this trip, so all the good stuff’s already been cleared out. Go next door– they have a karaoke machine I’d love for you to take off their hands.

Have a great holiday, everyone! And save the neck for me, Clark!

 

 

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Sweet Dreams are made of Boobs. (Yes, you read that right).

 

Do you fall asleep listening to music? I do. And when I do, it is always with the same album. I drift away to the sweet, sweet tunes of a record none of you have ever heard of called “Night Tracks”.

I bought Night Tracks (on compact disc!) in the early years of my city life, when I was living with three girls in a duplex on the Upper West Side. As if multiple roommates weren’t enough to tune out, the asshole who lived right above my room would climb his Stairmaster late at night after work and the never-ending mechanical hum was like attempting to sleep in a field that was in the middle of being plowed. Additionally, my bedroom was on the first floor facing the street, which means I heard the door slam every time someone went in or out of the building, and every smoker on West 93rd street gathered directly in front of my window.

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My desperation for sleep was palpable–it still is–and so I went to my local Best Buy and scooped up Night Tracks, an album whose very cover made my eyelids heavy. I tossed it years ago, but it featured a picture of a dark, starry night sky with the title scrolled across in a loopy, dizzy cursive font. The songs on Night Tracks are the kind of moody, melodramatic piano instrumentals you’d hear as background music in a movie about war or star-crossed lovers. It makes perfect sense that I would purposely lull myself to sleep with movie theme songs since I have conked out in approximately 75% of all movies I’ve tried to watch since the age of six. Don’t even try to get me to explain the plot of The Hunt for Red October. I think I set some kind of record in that one. I didn’t make it past the opening credits.

I’d forgotten about Night Tracks until a few months ago, when I just happened to pull it up on the old bedside Ipod. “Hello, old friend.” I whispered as the first familiar song began to play. I don’t remember what I said to the second song, since I was out like a light.

So now, every evening, I tune into Night Tracks before tucking myself into bed. I think I might actually be addicted to it, because I’m finding it harder and harder to get to sleep without it. If I’ve already shoved my legs under the sheets and forgotten to turn it on, I harass Vinny to put it on for me by crying out “I need my traaaaaaaaaaacks” until he offers a patient “yes, dear” and presses play. Ugh, what a doll. I should make out with him more.

So last night, after a bowl of unbearably spicy pho that made my belly drop into my shoes, I got cozy in my sheets and summoned Vin to put on “the tracks”. Next thing I remember is waking up in a cold sweat after a really awful nightmare. We were on our private double-decker ferry, commuting to brunch on the Hudson River after a terrible rainstorm. We hit a huge wave and Vin says flatly, “I hope this boat doesn’t tip over.” Next thing you know we’re upside-down and fighting for our lives Titanic-style while NY1 is filming the whole thing from Chelsea Piers.

This was almost as frightening as the time I dreamed I was trapped at the top of the winding staircase in my enormous mansion, as the walls around me went up in flames. Downstairs, Ben Affleck wore a blue-velvet tuxedo and calmly smoked a pipe while tickling the ivories on a baby grand in the foyer.

Clients will often ask their therapist to analyze their dreams. I have no training in dream interpretation and I’m never going to pay for it. I look that shit up on the internet just like everyone else. But clearly, my subconscious is trying to warn me that Wealth = DANGER.

That, or I need to start listening to Katy Perry before bed so I can dream of happy things like dancing jujubes and cupcake boobs.

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All in a day’s work.

 

“Let me feel your hands,” he asked, before extending his right arm toward mine.

One of my therapy clients had just accused me of “never working a day in my life” and wanted physical evidence of how easy I had it.

I laughed at the irony of the situation, as the evidence of my working was right in front of his face. “What do you need to feel my hands for?” I asked. “You know exactly what I do for a living.”

I was reminded of this conversation Saturday while standing on a hardened mound of snow with a large plastic shovel in my hands and utility boots on my feet. Vinny and I were finally making strides to unearth our Honda, which had been fossilized by several feet of ice and snow over the past two weeks. It was a hell of an undertaking as every snowplow in the county appeared to have rolled down Broadway in the interim, essentially burying the vehicle in a copious mix of snow, filth and salt which had now hardened like a rock and clung like a barnacle. Last week the snow was vanilla soft-serve. Now it had deep freezer burn.

The top layer was pretty easy to scoop away, but once we started going lower we realized our grave error in letting this task go ignored for the past week. Plastic shovels work great in sand but serve no purpose in ice, and it was starting to look like that freakin’ groundhog was about to cost us a fortune in parking tickets as this car wouldn’t be leaving this spot until the ground thawed in mid to late April. Or July, the way this winter’s been going.

And then, like some kind of urban fairytale, two sanitation workers parked their plow truck behind our car. They walked toward us with ice picks and metal shovels, their neon green bibs gleaming like shields. They started stabbing the ice around our car with the pick so Vin and I could easily scoop it away. They dug and dug until the ground was clear, and waited until Vin warmed up the engine to make sure we were truly free. Everything was working out so well that my hopes climbed too high; as more and more snow was brushed off the car I started feeling the anticipation of a dramatic reveal, as some part of my brain actually began to believe that all that snow was actually a magic dust sprinkled from the sky, the kind that turns soap into bars of gold and 15-year-old Hondas into brand new Mini-Coopers. Alas, that was not the case.

Still, we were happy as clams and super grateful to the city, who put these two hard-working fellas in our path. They were our knights in rubber armor, and they were clearly doing the kind of job my client would describe as work.

Vin shook their hands. I wanted to touch them.

 

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12 Wallet-Friendly Ways to Get in the Holiday Spirit

 

While my better half has been listening to Harry Connick Christmas albums for the past few weeks, I’m a big proponent of waiting till Thanksgiving has had its day in the sun before getting my yuletide on. So now that the turkey’s in the Tupperware and the sweet potato pie has been reduced to crumbs, it’s officially time to hammer lights onto the roof and blow up the yard inflatables. Unless of course you live in Queens, like me. Then it’s time to creatively rearrange your furniture so your tiny tree doesn’t block every available doorway.

But I’m also a big proponent of doing the holidays (and everything else) on a budget. I love creating merriment in December, but I refuse to cry over credit card statements in January. Tis the season to be merry, not out of moolah.

 

ROCK AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE

This weekend seems like a pretty good time to break out the holiday branches. As apartment dwellers with limited space, a big tree would absolutely overtake us. But that’s okay, because little trees are cheaper anyway. You can get a mini-tree for $25-$35 (depending on where you live) as opposed to spending $75 and up for a full-size tree. Plus, everything little is cute.

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 If you don’t have the money or space for a full tree, a fresh pine wreath is a festive option that won’t break the bank. And they smell just as good:).

 

 LIGHT THE MENORAH

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The passing of Thanksgiving ushered in the beginning of Hanukkah! I was raised half-Jewish, so the month of December has always brought with it a host of ways to enjoy some mixed-faith merriment. Spin the dreidel, light the menorah and serve some latkes next to that leftover turkey!

DECK THE HALLS

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I’m always amazed that most Christmas ornaments cost between $8-$10 EACH. I love the idea of adding one new ornament to the tree every year. As for us, we keep the decorating costs down by picking up stuff at the dollar store, Michael’s and small shops on our street in Queens. We were also lucky enough to score some vintage ornaments that belonged to Vin’s grandparents. They’re my favorites:). Our tree (clearly a faux fir) was only $35 at a local dollar store in Astoria, and the decorations on the wall were handmade out of scrapbook paper.


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 Thrift stores are also a great place to find seasonal decor. If memory serves, I scored the silver platter for $2 and the tiny nutcrackers for $1 each. I’m not into buying a bunch of new stuff to decorate, and tend to repurpose a lot. Red and white striped straws mesh perfectly with a jar filled with candy canes.

 

SAY HI TO SANTA

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One of my all-time favorite holiday photographs is of my mom and her best friend Debbie sitting on Santa’s lap together. Two college-aged Jewish girls working as Santa’s helpers—adorable. I think I need to recreate that photo this year. Warning Vin- I may be dragging you to a lap soon.

TAKE TO THE ICE

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Nothing says winter like strapping on some skates and hitting the ice. Doesn’t matter if you suck at it. Doesn’t matter if you face plant. What matters is that you are KILLING IT with your skater outfit. By the way, if you’re in NYC, skating is FREE at Bryant Park. Bring your own skates, or rent for $15.

 

HANG OUT WITH A KID. 

Photo_2008_1_6_22_13_57Read a classic to a kid:  it’s FREE and priceless. I cherish this photo of me with my Great Aunt Harriet.


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I wish I was going to Texas for the holidays so I could make another gingerbread house with my niece Allison. Kids love doing these types of projects and they’re cheap! These things are everywhere (Michael’s, Wal-Mart, Target) and cost about ten bucks. Watch the gumdrop on top though. You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

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One of the coolest things my brother did for Allison last year was register her for “The Nice or Naughty List”. There are a lot of websites that offer this service, but this one makes a customized video and certificate for your child based on information and photos you enter into the site. The kids went NUTS for this! (and it’s free).

GET YOUR BAKE ON

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My favorite thing to do during the holiday season is bake my face off. My friend Crystal and I have a yearly tradition we call Bake-a-Palooza. I lay out all my baking supplies in the kitchen, she brings over her favorite recipes and a million sticks of vegan butter and we collectively make about six or seven things. She distributes to her friends and family, and I usually bring my stash to the office to share with co-workers and clients. We skipped our tradition last year and I really missed it.

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A great way to keep the cost low is to make one basic sugar dough, then use different mix-ins (nuts, sprinkles, chocolate chips, candies, pretzels, various extracts, different spices) to create a wider variety of treats.

DON WE NOW OUR GAY APPAREL

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Go plaid. Go red. Go glitter. Remember, every time you wear a dorky Santa-shirt, an angel gets its wings.

GIVE A LITTLE BIT

Vin loves going to the mall at Christmastime. I hate it. I either make homemade food gifts, or I do my shopping online.  Ever tried carrying a bunch of presents on the subway? It’s N.G. (no good). Online is the way to go. I haven’t decided which of my friends’ kids I’m buying these adorable animal heads from Urbanara for yet, but someone’s about to have a safari party in their bedroom.

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PS: If you’re looking to take a vacation any time soon, lots of travel websites run deep discounts on hotels, air fare and car rental packages on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Vin and I are taking a quick cheap trip this year in lieu of swapping presents.

SEE THE LIGHTS

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No one can resist driving around pretty neighborhoods looking at the Christmas lights. In New York, we strap our boots on and walk around the major holiday hot spots– Rockefeller Center, Central Park, 5th Avenue. And because I live in an apartment, there’s no pressure to spend money on decorating the outside of our crib. I just get to enjoy the fruits of everyone else’s labor:). Merry Christmas to meeeeeee.

LOOK AT FROSTY GO

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Grab a corncob pipe and a button nose, and some hair made out of pretzels. Creativity is the mother of invention. Thumpety-thump-thump…where’s the hummus?

 

AND HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS…NOW!

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What are your favorite budget-friendly ways to usher in the holiday season?

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Am I Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

Over the weekend I took the train out to Long Island to visit my sister and brother-in-law and their kids- Ethan and Reese. They are ten and eight, respectively, and are just sweet, smart, adorable, all-around great kids. I love spending time with them and need to do it more often before their hormones get screwy and they start refusing hugs.

One of the greatest things about being an aunt is being introduced to a completely different culture than you’re used to. As a kid-less adult, I am generally not hip to what the kids are into these days (are Garbage Pail kids still in? What about Teddy Ruxpin– no?), so having nieces and nephews keeps me from feeling like a completely clueless old fart.

The first thing they wanted to show me were their Rainbow Looms. If you’re a parent to kids of a certain age, you’ve probably caught wind of this rubber-band-bracelet-making craze. They were cute and colorful and looked like they’d been strung together by the tight, tiny rubber bands most commonly found in the back of kids’ mouths to keep their braces from popping a spring. It was like my ’80s childhood exploded all over the table–my jelly bracelets hooked up with my friendship bracelets at the 7th grade dance and had like, 10,000 babies.

 

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So then Ethan and Reese showed me how they used a loom to create these things. They were doing all these complicated loop-de-loops and triple lindys and figure-eights with the tiny rubber bands, and none of it had any rhyme or reason to me. I was totally blown away that these kids could visualize an end product, keep up a pattern on these things and have them turn out so well.

I didn’t get it.

So I asked Ethan if I could have one of his, since I couldn’t figure out how to make one myself. He pulled out his list of prices. The kid had set up shop and was taking custom orders. I hope to get it before the big holiday rush.

Then it was time to show me Mine Craft. This is a game on the computer and they’re both very into it. At first glance, I thought I was looking at Tetris, but then Ethan just sat there and watched some  other kid in Great Britain playing while he giggled and shouted and showed his support. In the corner of the screen, a British teenager was narrating all of his moves, none of which made sense to me. It just looked like a bunch of blocks and cubes with a few people running around like they were lost in a corn maze. Meanwhile, E is on the edge of his seat exclaiming, “Man, this is the greatest game ever!”.

I didn’t get it.

Then it was time to look at Reese’s math homework. Reese is in the third grade, and they apparently teach basic math in a completely different way than they did when I was in elementary school. I don’t understand why they would change the way they teach basic math. This makes no sense to me. If they were going to change something in the curriculum, why didn’t they start with taking Beowulf off the reading list in 9th grade? I hated Beowulf. But about the math–the process was overcomplicated and silly and it took me twice as long to compute something.

And then I started thinking about my brain and its capacity to learn and grow and do important things like compute simple math problems and remember my own phone number. These kids seem to pick up this new stuff so quickly. I know I did when I was their age. What if I’m slipping? My fear is that I actually piqued 28 years ago, back when addition was taught in a reasonable fashion and we learned cursive on wide-lined paper instead of typing on donated Macbooks.

Still, my brain must not have turned to total mush yet. After all, I did have the acumen to visit two very adorable kids in the suburbs the weekend after Halloween.

I ain’t no dummy.

You can keep your gummy bracelets and computer games. But nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger.

 

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keep everything weird.

 

I just returned from a quick trip to Austin to visit with my fabulous family. If there’s one thing I miss about Texas more than chicken fried steak, it’s the motley collection of people who share my DNA. Collectively, they are the warmest, funniest and most delightful people I have ever had the honor to know.

My aunt, uncle and grandparents live in the hill country area, and the rest of the family drove up from Houston for some fun family time. On Sunday afternoon, while the rest of the group went to the theater to catch Les Mis, my brother and I took off on our own to catch up and reminisce about our younger years in our old college town.

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stigmata

{not sure what’s happening with my lip. some weird blip appeared on my lip in several pictures. no cold sore. i think it’s a stigmata}

My brother and I haven’t spent a lot of time together since I left Texas for New York, and our phone conversations are unfortunately few and far between. I adore my brother, but we don’t share any common interests and we have completely opposite communication styles and personalities. So while I was excited to have the rare opportunity to bond with my only sibling, I also felt kinda anxious and nervous, like I was gearing myself up for a first date.

What should we do? Where should we go?

What if we run out of things to talk about?

What if I annoy him and he ends up saying “Shut up, Jenn.” over and over again like he did when we were kids?

Before we left for our outing, he shared his concern that people would think we were a couple rather than brother and sister. He also told me my shirt was too low-cut. If this had been a real first date I wouldn’t have gotten my hopes up about there being a second.

Our first stop was South Congress, an eclectic street with funky shops and hip restaurants. This was my kind of place. Vintage clothing shops, authentic cowboy boots, food trucks and fun stores with imported knick-knacks. I was in hog heaven. My brother, on the other hand, was not. Aside from Allen’s Boots, there wasn’t anything on that street that was anywhere up his alley.

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trucks

“People in Austin are weird,” he observed. Well of course they are, I thought. It’s written on every t-shirt and bumper sticker in town. Keep Austin Weird. Everybody’s saying it.

He elaborated. “Did you see how many people we’ve passed that have lots of tattoos and pierced faces?”

Actually, I hadn’t noticed a single one. My brother failed to remember that not only am I employed in a mental health clinic in New York City, but I also work on one of the most historically counter-culture streets in the entire world. These days it’s mostly home to cheap sunglass vendors and bubble tea parlours, but back in the day, St. Mark’s Place was the center of the punk rock scene and the stomping grounds for anti-establishment types.

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{A store I pass every morning on my way to work}

Some of the old charm still lingers; during an average morning commute, I routinely dodge bulldogs with spiked collars, puddles of vomit and young guys in sleeping bags. Last week I saw a man with a bucket on his head playing a homemade didgeridoo and just yesterday I passed a guy with a yellow python coiled across his neck and shoulders like a pashmina. Needless to say, it takes a lot more than a few tattoos and facial piercings to really grab my attention.

“I really didn’t notice, honestly. Are tattoos and piercings really that weird?” I asked. I was genuinely surprised that they’d caught him that off-guard. I know we left college a while ago, but geez, we’re not 1,000 yet.

“I dunno,” He looked down at his sparkling white sneakers. “I’m not used to seeing that stuff. I’m a pretty mainstream guy.”

Truth is, I’m pretty mainstream too. Sure, I like to think that being married to a long-haired man makes me appear slightly less conservative and relatively cool by proxy but I’m not exactly cutting edge in my fashion choices either, and with blonde hair and a name like Jennifer, I’m basically as All-American as one can get. Someone once told me I looked like a walking GAP ad, and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.

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But even though I look like the girl next door, I get an inordinate amount of pleasure when I’m surrounded by people that look, dress and act outside of the societal norm.  I wasn’t getting the sense that my brother was a judgmental person, but he certainly doesn’t seem to delight in the nuances of human behavior the same way I do.

Once we’d had our fill of shopping, we headed to UT to walk around our old campus. I loved walking past the old buildings, and was still able to remember where each of my classes were. My brother was feeling less nostalgic.

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“A lot of people here dress like nerds.” he reported. We had just passed yet another pair of heavy dark-rim glasses and we’d already seen a few dudes with curlique and handlebar mustaches. “The weird thing is, they look like they’re actually trying to look like nerds. I don’t get it. When you walk around the mall in my area, everyone dresses really well. People try to look attractive.”

It was in that moment that I realized:  My brother had never seen a hipster before. This blew my mind. Suddenly I felt like I was reaching the tail end of a 20-year sociological experiment involving nature versus nurture. Raise two kids in the same house in southeast Texas, then let ‘em grow up and set ‘em loose in different regions of the country and see what happens. Fascinating stuff.

I have spent the better part of 14 years trying to convince my brother to come visit me in New York. I aborted that mission last Sunday.

If he thought Austin was weird, my neighborhood might kill him.

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10 Questions: My friend Kerri from Queens

I am of the firm belief that every woman should have a friend like Kerri, and by the time you finish reading her answers, I’m pretty sure you’ll understand why. Kerri is a very good friend of mine here in Queens, and she is one of the most capable, confident, down-to-earth and genuine people I know. Kerri says what she means and means what she says, and it always, always makes sense. I’m not sure I know anyone who is as passionate about her work as Kerri (she’s a kick-ass high school English teacher/vice principal), and I’m continually amazed and inspired by her devotion to her students and her school. To sum it up: She is wise and she is wonderful, and my life is richer with her in it. Her husband Nick–also a good friend–is fantastic too (you’ll agree with me quickly once you’ve read about the day she fell in love with him). Enough gushing…meet my friend Kerri!

 

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Would you rather meet your great-great grandchildren or your great-great grandparents?

I would rather meet my great-great grandparents because I would love to know more about what and where I come from. Growing up, my grandparents lived with us and I heard lots of stories from them and from my father about growing up in Ireland, farming, and in the case of my grandmother, about not having enough to go around in a family with 14 children. I took that presence of the past for granted and now that they’re all gone, I find that when I reflect on their life experiences, I would love to know more about how the day to day unfolded, how hard decisions were made, etc. Turn of the century Ireland lives in my mind darkly and I’d love to illuminate the corners and understand.

 

Do you possess any of the qualities of your astrological sign?

Pisces are creative, loyal, sensitive and in need of the help of others to keep them grounded. I think I neatly fit the bill for all four of these characteristics.

 

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What perplexes you most about motherhood?

I’m 7 months in and motherhood has been more wonderful and terrifying than I could have possibly predicted. I could not have imagined how amazing it would feel to see joy on my son’s face because I’ve come home or how natural and important simple things like nursing him or holding him when he’s upset could feel, like suddenly your primitive self remembers what you were really designed for. I am inclined to make a flip joke here about how perplexing it is to function with little or no sleep, but if I answer seriously, then what perplexes me the most is how to make peace with the arbitrariness of the world that I am entrusting him to. Carrying and birthing and then day-to-day caring for this little person – it marries my life to his. If you think of the risk you take by loving a partner (or even a close friend) and making them such an integral part of your life experience, try on for size the risk you take by going into this parenting business and get ready to be blown away by the vulnerability.

 

What one goal do you hope to accomplish this year?

In the next calendar year I want to accomplish the goal of completing my dissertation. I have done all the coursework for my doctoral degree in English and I’ve taken the comprehensive exams, but the big written project that caps the requirements is still looming over me and between my job and having a baby, I keep letting more and more time slip by without completing it. My goal is to submit it in the fall 2014 semester and to finally complete the journey to that degree.

 

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What do you think is the ideal age?

Although I particularly loved my mid-late 20s, I think the ideal time is still ahead. I want to say 40 but perhaps older than that. My reason is that as we go along we figure out more about ourselves and if we pay attention, hopefully find and grow ways of living that are more compatible with health, peace and fulfillment. I was on the phone with my oldest sister tonight who is turning 50 next month and she sounds happier and more at peace with herself and her world than she ever has. She takes time to do things for herself, she doesn’t seem to stress over inconsequential things, and she knows who she is. She goes to the beach in the middle of a weekday and stays until she feels like leaving. She really enjoys her days. She makes 50 look great, in more ways than one.

 

Which is more important–intelligence or common sense?

Common sense is more important than intelligence. And rarer. The more people I meet, the more groups I work with, the more kids I teach, the more I notice how many people can’t make a simple judgment call, how often folks get in their own way, how often things go awry for being unable to see the forest for the trees.

 

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What do you like most about your husband?

My husband is the most competent person I know. Whether it’s pitching a tent, building a deck, assembling a computer, swaddling a baby, speaking Chinese, installing an attic, he can do it and do it well, even if he never has done it before. He’s confident in his ability to complete projects big and small. He does what it takes to figure out or learn the necessary steps and then he gets to work. There have been countless times I’ve thought, “You can do that?” in response to a proposed solution to a problem at hand. The day I fell in love with him was in high school when my favorite ring slipped out of my hand and bounced below several levels of choral risers in the chorus classroom. I finished up the school day sad because I had lost it and when I told him why I was upset, he marched me back to the chorus room and proceeded to dismantle the risers one by one until he found it and then put them all back in order as they had been. I was amazed that this 17 year old kid could do that and that he would do that for my little ten dollar ring. Most people would have thrown up their hands and said, “Aw, that’s too bad,” but he’s just not like that.

 

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What experience has shaped you most as a person?

Becoming a teacher has most shaped me as a person. When I was younger I used to have a very rigid worldview but teaching has taught me to be flexible, to value the varied talents people bring to a table and I think to understand the world, society and people better. To be a successful teacher you have to marry assertiveness to patience and approachability. I think I do a good job of that. And I like who being a teacher has helped develop me into – someone who is not quick to anger, who tries different methods of solving or explaining rather than getting frustrated when one doesn’t work, someone who can roll up her sleeves and work and someone who can laugh at absurdities. Teaching has also taught me just how far respect can get you – if you show students that you respect them consistently, the leeway you get back in terms of being able to push them to work harder, do more, etc. is tremendous. The same goes for the rest of life – if you respect the cashier, the gas attendant, the pharmacist, the nurse, the insurance agent, they sense that and your interactions with them are infinitely smoother because of that reciprocity.

 

What advice would you give to teachers just getting started in their careers?

Buy in. Don’t be an 8 to 3-er. You’ll never get financially wealthy in this profession but you can get wealthy in other ways if you choose not to hold back. Prepare yourself so you can prepare the kids. Tutor after school. Coach. Volunteer to help out with community service on Saturday. Ask the sad kid why they are sad. Ask the mad kid why they are mad. Call home. Go to the basketball game. Wear the school colors. Attend prom. Be a real person for your students. I promise you, the rewards are tenfold.

 

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Which Steel Magnolias character do you most strongly identify with?

Melynn … She’s not the easiest character to like and she’s not my favorite character but she’s the one I identify with the most. It’s not exciting or sexy to be strong when shit gets hard but it’s a position I’ve been in a number of times. And like Melynn, I’ve realized that strength doesn’t inure you from pain. So, she has my respect big time. That said, I will never wear my hair in a brown football helmet ;)

 

 

 

Jenn: (See what I mean? Kerri rules.)

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