You aren’t your story. Uhm, what?

millertypewriterThe Dude threw himself on my office floor, face down. “Aaaaarrrrggggghhh.”

“Good day, then?” He raised his head enough to give me the look. If he wanted tea and sympathy, he chose the wrong cabbage patch. Still, I’m better at the emotional stuff than his father.

“For a school that talks about preparing us for college, you think they’d give us enough time to actually submit our applications.” He’s been hammered with work. Junior year was supposed to be the big hurt. Apparently it was just the warm up. “I’ve forgotten everything we talked about yesterday.”

I’ve been helping him with the essays. When he speaks, he’s engaging, funny, even poignant (he gets it from me), but somewhere between his head and the pencil his words take a snooze. So we talk. I ask him questions and he takes notes. He writes something heartfelt and his English teacher edits the crap out of it until he sounds like every other kid from his high school. My guess is that he sounds like every other kid from every other high school.

“Dad says my Red Sox hat as beacon analogy doesn’t work.” I knew his father’s critique had bothered him. The Dude had closed up like a hermit crab, arms across his chest, slumped in the teenage hunch of lalalala I can’t hear you. “It’s my favorite sentence in the whole essay. It really says something about me.”

He’s right. It does. His father is also right. As analogies go, it’s a little clumsy. Like something a seventeen year-old might write.

Coincidentally, I just attended a workshop on voice–the unique character of a writer’s work. We struggle with finding our voice, refining it while keeping it authentic and real. It’s the soul of a writer’s work, and what keeps the reader coming back again and again.

Getting critiqued is hard. It helps us grow, but let’s face it. It’s much more fun to hear about how wonderful we are.

Authors often quote the platitude “Our stories are not ourselves.” I don’t find this statement comforting. At best, I hear “We like you, it’s just your writing that sucks.” The real truth is that we are our stories. That’s what voice is all about.

I try it out with the Dude anyway, and he responded, “If we are not our stories, what’s the point of writing college essays? What happened to all that talk about wanting to know who we are, blah, blah, blah.” He’s extra emotive with the blah, blah, blah part.

That, Dude, is an excellent question (he gets that from me as well).

I think our stories are ourselves–as flawed and quirky and beautiful as we are. Perhaps hiding our voice might make us less vulnerable to the sting of rejection, but as the Dude would say “What’s the point?” How else do people know who we really are?

Writing is only one form of telling our stories. We each tell our stories every day in what we put out in the world. Be brave. Share your voice.

And Dude–don’t let the world edit you out of your own story. So far, it’s been a real page-turner and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photograph : Typewriter of Capricorn by Emdot © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr




My son applied to college and all I got was this essay

draftMy son is applying for college and our entire household is on Valium. The source of our stress, however, is not the shift in our family structure or the cost of out of state tuition. It’s the college application process.

I applied to two colleges. The Dude is applying to eight. I’m told this is on the low end of average.  Each application has anywhere from one to three essay questions. And we’re not talking about lame, tell me about yourself, what you’re studying, why you’re buckets of awesome essay questions. These are theses worthy of a philosophy doctoral student or an entire White House Cabinet. Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff than having to outline a position on the Affordable Care Act in 300 words or less, in a way that shows the reader the real you. After all, it works for the Miss America pageant, right?

One of the essay questions is actually “Why do you do what you do?” I’ve been asking the Dude this question for years (although it’s generally worded “What were you thinking?”, and he’s yet to come up with any answer, let alone an articulate one. The best I can get out of him is an indiscriminate mumble and the head hang of chagrin.

Another question gives a quote about momentary connections with strangers that can have profound emotional impact. It asks the student to share a similar experience. We’re talking about a 17 year-old boy. Connecting with human beings would require him to look up from his phone, and compared to his friends, my son is freaking Oprah.

Show, don’t tell. Share something unique about yourself. Show that you’ve done your research. Articulate your career aspirations. Have career aspirations. No wonder the Dude is having a nervous breakdown. They’d might as well ask for the history of ball point pen spelled out in interpretive dance.

I understand that colleges need some means to distinguish between applicants, so let me suggest a few questions that will actually help illuminate the character of prospective students.

You have two critical assignments that will take all day, and both are due tomorrow. You could provide partial work on both, or complete one in its entirety. How long have you been procrastinating and what did you do instead?

Your mother has just asked you to answer her question and you have just realized she’s been speaking for the last five minutes. What is your response?

Which is the greater offense, driving the car home without enough fuel to make it to the gas station, or spilling your Caramel Crunch Frappuccino on the driver’s seat? Defend your choice.

Which is more transparent to you, the mass of  tortilla chip shards surrounding your desk, or the pile of dirty Kleenex next to your bed? Which one will your mother notice first, and why?

Your mother is a writer who churns out 500 word essays on a daily basis. What makes her uniquely unqualified to critique your rough draft?

I tell The Dude that writing is fun, and he looks at me like I’ve told him his Dad and I have sex. He’s actually a good writer, funny and creative. Adults, however, have done everything they can to suck the joy out of stringing words together, transforming meaning and cadence into points on an AP exam. Is it any wonder we tell them to show us who they are and they’re afraid of giving the wrong answer?

I don’t know where he’ll end up going to school. I only know both the Dude and the school are lucky to have each other. I only wish I could be there to see him find what he loves. As for knowing why he does what he does, I’m not holding my breath.

Photograph “Drafting” by Sebastian Wiertz © 2012 Creative Commons/Flickr


Advice to my 50 year-old self

winecoolerSo it happened. I turned 50. And I’m totally okay with it.

I remember when 50 seemed so old. When my brother turned 50, I sent him a batch of his favorite cookies–Christmas wreaths made from Corn Flakes and melted marshmallows–but I dyed them black. He didn’t get it. Humor is subjective.

What does the future hold? As the Magic 8 ball says, “Reply is hazy, try again.” Despite my accomplishments, the marketplace views me as unseasoned and untested, yet assumes I hold unreasonable expectations of advancement and compensation. There you have it. 50 really is the new 20.

I have HuffPo in my Facebook feed, so I’ve read countless women’s letters to their 20 year-old selves,. I hate to be repetitive. I wonder if my 20 year-old self might have some words of wisdom for my older self. Hear that, 20 year-old Jeannine? What do you say?

Thanks for asking. So much wisdom is lost to the ages. Listen up, b*^#$.

1. Wine coolers are totally sophisticated and cool. Have another one. If you keep one foot on the floor the room will eventually stop spinning.

2. Clothes look better with a little shoulder pad action. Very authoritative.

3. Aqua Net, Extra Hold.

4. You can save money by highlighting your own hair. Get a friend to help! No one will know you skipped the salon. Use the money you save to buy more wine coolers.

How on earth did I make it to 30, let alone 50?

I should have known you’d turn out all judgy and condescending.

Hard to believe, given the depth of your wisdom.

*Sigh* Fine, I’ll bust out the deep stuff.

5. You don’t know everything, and neither does everyone else. But they don’t know you don’t. You aren’t required to warn them.

6. There is no harm, however, in admitting that you’re wrong. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

7. Professor Apple is right, you should be a writer.

This is a little more useful, young self.

But wait, there’s more!

8.  If you have something to say, just say it. Even if class participation isn’t part of your grade. Being wrong is better than being invisible, and it takes infinitely greater courage. Besides, when’s the last time you were wrong?

You don’t want the answer to the last part.

Can I finish, please? You need to learn not to interrupt.

I’m afraid I’m still working on that one.

9. Don’t stop learning just because you have to graduate.

10. Don’t be so afraid. Woman up. If you’re going to fail, go big. It will make for a better story. After all, you’re 50. You’re old. Get a move on.

Easy for you to say.

That’s because I’m not afraid of screwing up. I do it all of the time. Perhaps you’ve forgotten.

No. It’s just that when you’re younger, the universe expects it.

Nah. It’s that when you’re older, you forget that the only person tallying your mistakes is you.

Younger self–you aren’t as clueless as I thought.

I take back the judgy comment. Sort of. Go be a badass.


And Happy Birthday. The wine cooler is on me.

Photograph “Pretty Coolers” by Natalie Litz © 2008 Creative Commons/Flikr

I married for tech support

monkeywrenchThis morning, my husband informed me that the landscape lights at the end of the driveway were burned out. I told him I’d email the landscaper and let him know. Maybe I was reading too much into the tone of his breathing (I do that) but I detected a hint of “Gee honey, I could do that myself.” In return, I breathed back “Why don’t you, then?” picked up my Iphone and fired a quick note to the company I paid a small fortune to install the aforementioned lights.

I feel bad for my husband sometimes. He’s the only person in the household that takes any interest in how things actually work. He has a scientist’s mind and an engineer’s soul. He can rewire the house and build a computer from spare parts. He reads Maker magazine and built a model that predicts how long a power outage will last based on prior performance. I think he should sell it to Dominion Power. His assessments are pretty accurate. Most importantly, he ensures the cable and internet work no matter where we are in the house.

The Dude and I, however, have no interest in the inner logic of the universe. My general troubleshooting mode is turn it off/turn it back on/get the hubby. If he’s not home, I might try Googling the problem. I was quite tickled to have figured out how to turn off the shake-to-shuffle option on my IPhone all by myself. The Dude is even less adept at all things mechanical. It took him awhile to figure out that the basement lights weren’t broken–the dimmer switch was turned down.

Yesterday, my husband was doing some plumbing work and asked my son if he thought the water heater would empty with the intake valve shut.

“Yes, he said. I mean no. Yeah. No. No?”

“Do you know why?” my husband asked.

“Because it sounded like the answer you wanted me to give you.”

The Dude is nothing if not honest. I knew the correct answer, but only because that’s why the extra-large Tide bottle has a vent along with a spigot.

It’s not that I don’t understand basic scientific principles. I just don’t care to remember them. This is why I have a masters in business and not nuclear physics.

My husband knows this about me, yet when repair people come to the house, he has a million questions about how they performed the work we paid them to complete. It’s hard to explain how the plumber fixed the upstairs shower leak when I spent the entire time in my office on the first floor. He once asked me if I was even the least bit interested in what the people were doing in our house.

Exactly how big is the micro**** I don’t give? Let me think about that. I’m the woman who loves a robotic vacuum.  If I push the button and it works, I’m happy. If he wants a play-by-play, he married the wrong gal.

I know my husband appreciates me for who I am–Luddite tendencies and all. I’m unlikely to change at this point, and he doesn’t know how to cook. Since I have to do that every day, I consider it more than a fair trade.

That being said, I understand my husband’s efforts to educate the Dude on the basics before we send him out into the world.  One can’t always rocket an email a third party to solve their problems for $100 an hour plus parts. The Dude will need to know enough to assemble IKEA furniture someday and shouldn’t be as clueless as his mother. Since he’s majoring in business, however, I’ve taught him how to cook just in case. Find yourself an engineer, Dude. Trust me on this one. You’re welcome.

Photograph : “Monkey Wrench” by Shaggy © 2009 Creative Commons/Flickr


The Principal’s Welcome to the New Year

backtoschoolWelcome to the new school year, Eastland High School Chipmunks!

We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few details in order to make your educational experience and safe and happy one.

Enclosed is a packet of information for your parents (who are we kidding? Give it to your Mom). It includes the annual PTO appeal, along with flyers from a raft of organizations selling tee-shirts, candygrams, bumper stickers, and other items specifically designed  for maximum child embarrassment. Nothing says parental support more than the “Mommy loves her Chipmunk” yard sign.

Please remember that we have a dress code. Enough with the mini-skirts and micro shorts, ladies. Fingertip length–and we don’t believe you have exceptionally short arms, nor do we see bra straps as a fashion accessory. Gentlemen–banning baseball caps is not an infringement on your religious freedom, and contrary to popular opinion, we do know the difference between a marijuana leaf and the Canadian flag.

All students are prohibited from going into the Forbidden Forest. Same goes for under the bleachers, the book storage room, and the teacher’s lounge. Especially the teacher’s lounge. I don’t care what you’ve heard, we don’t have an espresso machine, ESPN, a minibar, or a ball pit. We have a copy machine, a formica table, a table, a dirty microwave and a refrigerator full of Tupperware containers. That’s it. No big mystery. All we ask is for one child-free space besides Latin class.

Speaking of off-limits, lay off the freshman. All those swirlies are a waste of water. Just in case, we’ve installed panic buttons in the bathrooms and escape latches in the lockers. If you’re caught harassing underclassmen, I will invite your mother to hug you at our next assembly.

On that note, I’ve received your petition. While obtaining 3,000 signatures from a student body of 1,200 is an impressive feat, we will not be changing the “Kiss and Ride” area to the “Be My Chauffeur While I Pretend You Don’t Exist Zone.” It won’t fit on the sign.

A gentle reminder–All student absences must be called in by a parent to be excused.  We do not accept texts from prepaid phones, notes written in crayon or messages left by SIRI. I’m not beyond calling parents for verification. I will not call you sir and I know you aren’t Abe Froman, the sausage king of Chicago. Any unexcused absence will result in a robocall to your parents, which they’ll mistake for a political solicitation or Rachel with an important message about their credit card.

To create time for the new state-mandated Health and Nutrition class, we’ve cancelled lunch. Always efficient, we’re reducing childhood obesity and exposure to food allergy lawsuits in one fell swoop.  From what we hear, you only eat the cookies anyway. To ensure you’re getting sufficient exercise, we’ve cut the period between classes down to two minutes. So get a move on, just remember–no running in the halls. Brisk walkees, my little chipmunks, brisk walkees.

Let’s work to make this the best year yet! Have fun (but not too much), learn a lot (at least what’s on the test) and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for all of the latest Eastland news @chipmunksqueaks.

Best Regards,

Your Principal

Photograph : Reason by Capture Queen © 2005 Creative Commons/Flickr

Need a job done well? Hire a Mom to do it.

wordleRemember that old yarn–a woman over 40 is more likely to get killed by a terrorist than remarry? Try being a 50 year-old mother returning to the workforce after a ten year hiatus.

I’m thinking of going back to work, so I did some research. There’s this thing called Google. Who’s antiquated and behind the times? Not me. I have mad skillz.

Articles describing the post-motherhood job market all indicate that having voluntarily left my seat at the table, I’m not welcome to come back. Employers, however, are advised to bend themselves into a pretzel to hire Millennials, who, according to these same articles come to the meal with the eating habits of a toddler. No onions, mushrooms, or green things. The food must not touch. The crusts of the PB&J must be cut off and only cut diagonally.

In the interest of balanced press, here are a few reasons employers should consider hiring a Mom returning to the workforce.

1) We are the market. Studies show women control 80-85% of all consumer purchase decisions. The millennial market is estimated at $200 billion. The Mom market? $2.4 trillion. No one understands the mind of a mom better than another mom. These are my peeps, yo.

2) We are the embodiment of can-do. A mom will never say “that’s not in the job description.” Sometimes you just have to get shit done. The job might be messy, demoralizing, or just plain disgusting, but in my house, the cat vomit is invisible to everyone but me.

3) We are used to working without appreciation, validation, or any form of recognition for working above and beyond the call of duty. One glitter and macaroni covered card a year and I’m good to go. The cats don’t even do that much, and I still feed them.

4) We have long attention spans and a high tolerance for pain. Ever hear a 5 year-old give a synopsis of the Spongebob Movie? It’s longer than The Odyssey and has no periods. A monthly forecast meeting is a cakewalk in comparison. As for my pain tolerance, walking on coals is for wussies. Try walking on Legos. I dare you.

5) I bake cookies. A cheap ploy, yes, but we’re talking cookies, people.

6) We are fast learners, and even faster re-learners. I get it. I’ve been away for a while. I’ve been away from high school even longer and managed to relearn logarithms well enough to tutor the child. I suspect he’ll need them just as much in his life as I have in mine. As for social media, even my son’s friends find my feed amusing from time to time. I also have more followers than they do.

7) We can manage complex assignments. Assembling Cybertron Primus requires PhD level skills and the patience of Job. So do most PTO assignments. Triage isn’t just another skill for mothers, it’s a way of life, and we’re used to putting other people before ourselves. As for complaining, we only do it behind your back.

8) We invented multitasking. Don’t even try going there. I have a can of multi-purpose whup-ass in my purse and I know how to use it.

9) It’s one less person on Social Security. I’m trying to be part of the solution, but I need someone to hire me first.

10) Finally, and most importantly, if you want to test my managerial skills, meet my son. He’s the best, most amazing thing I can ever take credit for, and like most things in life, we made the rules up as we went along, because that’s how life, and business, rolls.

I did what was right for me, and my family, and I have no regrets. Not once, however, did I stop being a badass. I did not put my brain in a lock box or my ambitions on the shelf. I did what every good manager does. I trained my son to do the job without my help, so now I’m free to do the same for someone else.

So next time you see my resume cross your desk, take a chance and call me. I’m worth the risk. There might even be cookies in it for you.