Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

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Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

Kill ’em with kindness: Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and the ‘Old People Hypothesis’

Ever been told to be careful about that sour expression on your face because “It might freeze like that?”

The truth is actually simpler and more complicated, and I offer up as Exhibits A (male) & B (female) our current mess of a president and one of his “counselors.”

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Look at Donald Trump’s and Kellyanne Conway’s faces and try to imagine that you’ve never seen them before.

Now, picture yourself  in a situation where you need to ask a stranger for some small thing – standing on a corner in a strange city and not being sure whether to turn left or right to reach your destination, wanting to know what time it is or whether you just missed the bus you’re waiting to catch.

Do they look like people you’d want to ask?

Over the past five years, I have been spending a lot of time hanging out with old people. And by “old people,” I mean the 80-plus set.

Back when 30 seemed like 100 and I blew out the candles on my eighth birthday cake, those people looked unimaginably ancient. Now, those eight and 30-year-olds look at me and see what I saw back then.

[Confession/digression: I kind of like it. Sure, mass media is all about youth and beauty, and it might be fun to be firm and wrinkle-free and all. But the truth is that learning to steer older has been a fairly smooth ride.

Benefits include the ability to call out someone with nothing more than a smile and a kind word or two. There’s zero attitude and the exchange often moves on from there, ending on an upbeat note for everyone involved. Which is, I think, is directly connected to my sense of entitlement – or lack thereof.]

An angry co-worker at a previous job once accused me of thinking I owned the world, and in my head I was l all, “Well, yeah, and so do you!”

Also at that previous job was an older female co-worker whose features could have settled into something pretty, or gentle, but didn’t. She looked mean. Because she was mean.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then observing old people – and that was way before Mom went to the nursing home. The result is my Old People Hypothesis.

Old People Hypothesis: As we age, we tend to look more on the outside like we are on the inside.

In other words, that mean-looking older person (assuming they haven’t had “work” done or been caught up by some disease that changed their physical appearance) is likely to be a mean older person. Conversely, the one whose default expression is soft and kind is also likely to be soft and kind.

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I see it with the residents in Mom’s nursing home, and I see it now with Kellyanne Conway, who, at 50, already is well on her way to a truly gruesome old-person face. Then there’s her boss. Who, at 70, looks on the outside the way he is on the inside.

The Old People Hypothesis doesn’t extend to spreading that ugliness around. But after his first week in office, I’m pretty sure of one thing for those of us out here on the ground.

Killing ‘em with kindness has never mattered more.

Great moments in librarying (yes, it’s a verb now), with illustrations

The best seven months of my work life so far are the ones I’ve spent as a public librarian. Here are a few of my favorite moments librarying and some pictures of the reason I now describe myself as my library’s “Display Queen.” (Yes, I did use “library” as a verb. Thank you for noticing.)

  1. Putting a John Coltrane CD into the hands of an 11-year-old saxophone student. I don’t remember how we struck up our conversation. I asked what was in the instrument case, and when he told me I asked if he’d heard of Coltrane. He hadn’t. I fixed it.
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This display included books and recordings by the musicians listed above. It’s getting swapped out for the incoming class of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.
  1. Sending two aspiring rappers home with a visual dictionary and a copy of “Hamilton: The Revolution” in addition to the thesaurus they came in looking for. As I walked them over to where it was, I asked if they wanted it for something specific. That was when they told me they were rappers looking to increase their vocabularies. And that it was their first time in the library. It was my first time meeting two aspiring rappers, so we engaged in a beverage-free toast to firsts all around. (They were strikingly good looking – tall and slender with beautiful smiles and great hair.) I suggested the visual dictionary, which they thought was a good idea when they saw it. Then I remembered that we’d just gotten “Hamilton: The Revolution,” a book that includes the lyrics to the musical and also talks about how its evolution from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brain to the stage. THEY HAD NEVER HEARD OF HAMILTON! We don’t have the Broadway soundtrack recording in our collection, but I had my i-pod and a pair of headphones, so played them a few seconds of “Alexander Hamilton” and “Cabinet Battle 1.” Definitely a “Go, me!” moment.
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I asked for – and got! – a display case. This little exhibit is because I had the material. My end game is that patrons with interesting collections will share those.
  1. Something I did not know happens at libraries until I started working at one is that banning is a thing. A sad thing, but a necessary one. Upwards of 99 percent of the people who walk into a library bring their best (or at least second-best) selves. But the 1 percent who don’t? They really don’t. Some bans are short-lived; others can last a lifetime with the ability to appeal at annual intervals. My first experience with a banned patron was one who’d gotten the ban letter and wanted to know what was wrong with his card. When I told him, he left quietly. My second experience started the same way – the patron wanted to know why his card wasn’t working. But this time when the ban notice came up, the banning period was over. So I smiled, because his ban had ended and I was happy I got to welcome him back. He smiled, too.
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    This display was for Domestic Violence Awareness month. I wanted to include information for everyone who might be affected.
  2. In October, our main branch put together the most incredible Halloween extravaganza, including opening up a “haunted” and usually closed-to-the-public floor. It was my job to lead people coming off the elevator from the third floor up to the haunted fourth floor. But one little girl was terrified, and her family wanted to see the haunted floor. So we stayed on the third floor together and joined a group heading out to our green roof, where two telescopes had been set up, one for viewing Mars and the other Saturn. I’d never seen either as clearly and neither had she. We talked about school (hers) and planets (ours) and then I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken of the fourth floor earlier in the week before she rejoined her family.
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This picture was taken from the “haunted” fourth floor, but the window reflected the dome and the a view of the third floor, showcasing another non-public area.
  1. In December, Millie, our library educator (and an amazing librarian), hosted a gingerbread house construction project with a roomful of kids. One, the sweetest nine-ish year-old girl you can picture, wanted a couple of books. It took some doing, but we managed to track down and put them on hold for her. She turned to her mom and told her she wanted to give me her gingerbread house. Her mom said, “I thought you were going to give it to (name).” “But she was really helpful,” the little girl said. It turned out the named recipient was her little brother. So I told her I knew of a way she could give it to me and still take it home to her brother. I’m not posting the picture her mom took of the two of us holding the house because I didn’t ask permission to make it public. It makes me smile every time I look at (or even think about) it.
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This was one of my Christmas displays.
  1. Just before Christmas, a woman about my age came in to print out some papers related to a job for which she was in the process of interviewing. I called on some of my former “helping other people get jobs” skills from my past and gave her a few tips. Two days later, she came in with an acceptance letter!
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This is a close-up of the other one.
  1. One of the scary things about being a librarian is seeing how vulnerable people can be. A recently laid-off man building his profile in the state’s unemployment system (the only way to apply for benefits) turned out to not only not have computer skills, he also didn’t have an e-mail address. My 11 months in my own version of his shoes before getting this job became an instant asset as a result of a counselor named Jeff Armstrong, who’d been affirming and supportive when I’d gone to see him. In another stroke of great good fortune, Jeff answered his phone and the two of them had a conversation in which they arranged a face-to-face meeting.
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This is the rest of the other Christmas display. I was particularly happy about the Bukowski.
  1. The Syrian refugee who came in looking for ESL classes for his wife. A couple of months after she arrived, they came in together and got library cards.
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This isn’t a display. I found it while weeding and thought, “I have the greatest collection in the world!” It wasn’t on the weed list.
  1. The patron who came in to pick up a book that had been on hold for his mother, only to find that somehow the book had gone wandering. After we re-ordered it, she called. She told me about a couple of other books she was planning to read and I found and put them on hold for her. When her son came in to retrieve the found book, he was able to bring her the others, too.
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This was my shortest-lived display. It stayed up a day and a half, at which point a woman came into the library asking for it. She got the book and what was inside of it, which was the New York Times story about Mr. Whitehead winning the National Book Award. I didn’t think Oprah would mind me using her 2004 photo from the car giveaway, given that she was probably at least that happy for the success of her book club pick.
  1. On New Year’s Eve, the library was closed. At the grocery store, three medium-sized kids were gawking in front of the lobster tank. I asked the guy behind the counter if he was okay with me doing something unconventional, and with his approval I was able to resurrect my long-unused lobster-wrangling skills. Three round-eyed kids stared  as I reached into the tank and pulled out a lobster. I did the two-minute version of “Lobster 101” for them (sea cockroach, underside of tail how they swim, if not banded in the tank there’d be fights to the death, claws grow back, can only live in salt water, can grow to be upwards of 20 pounds, encouraged them as they gently touched it).

“Do you work here?” asked one.

“No, I said. “I’m a librarian. Come see me at my library!”

Two post-election vignettes: ‘Hamilton’ cast makes most of ‘Carpe Diem’ moment; Ephemeral display lets librarian do the same

This morning, I woke up to the Facebook village and Twittesphere going nuts over what happened when Vice-President Elect Mike Pence went to see “Hamilton” last night.

My first thought was “Geez! If I’d known becoming vice president would have helped me get ‘Hamilton’ tickets, I would have applied for the job.”

But who am I kidding? There’s no question that my political leanings, vagina  and average looks would have completely disqualified me from consideration.

On a more serious note, there were a couple of FB posts calling what the cast did “rude and out of line.”

My question, voiced to those posters, was this: When would they have been able to have that kind of access and opportunity to be heard? And that doesn’t just go for the cast of “Hamilton,” who, once the makeup and costumes are off, are just ordinary working Joes and Janes like the rest of us.

Their 90-second address, delivered by Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Aaron Burr, was a respectfully-delivered request. He spoke to the fear and anxiety many people are feeling about their well-being and that of people they love and care about. He refused to let the audience boo Mr. Pence.

It was a heartfelt speech, a request for reassurance in a situation where it is becoming increasingly apparent that reassurance is needed.

From all I’m seeing, the Trump/Pence administration is going to do everything it can to limit access to anyone who doesn’t agree with everything they believe in or want to do. This includes the press, which they seem to want to keep in the dark as much as possible. That scares the you-know-what out of a lot of us.

So Friday was a singular chance to be heard, and the cast seized its moment.

I’ve been seizing display space at the library, and, because of it was able, yesterday, to seize my own “be heard” moment.

The morning after the election, I cleared out my “He said/She said” display. This (below) is what I put in its place.

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My post-election display. Someone has already taken out the cat book (replaced with another cat book). I borrowed “Comfort Food” last weekend  and made maple glazed baked beans for Book Group. The book next to it is a recipe book for making cocktails. My fabulous manager, Amelia, helped round up books for the display – Cats, Canada and Jamaica were her finds.

 

Then, this past Wednesday, one of my favorite recent reads, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” received the National Book Award. So Thursday, I made a display. It was an Oprah’s Book Club picture, so I didn’t think she’d mind me borrowing this 2004 shot of her looking extremely happy (she was giving away cars). On Friday, a woman came in looking for the book. I felt just like Oprah when I handed it to her. I also seized the opportunity to recommend “Underground Airlines” by Ben Winters and “The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty, which just won the Man Booker Prize.

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I hope that woman likes the book and comes back for the others, but even if she doesn’t, seizing a moment to share something valuable is a valuable thing to do.

So go out there and seize your chance to be heard. In the face of uncertainty, a little love and reassurance  (in many forms, including between the covers of a good book) can go a long way.

Kudos to the “Hamilton” crew for showing us how to do it with grace and dignity.

An open letter to American Muslims and Anyone Else Unsettled by the US Election: a Dispatch from the Land of Trumpelstiltskin

Dear American Muslims and others feeling unsettled by the possibility of no longer being safe in your own country:

There is no delicate way to say what I am about to say, so I am just going to say two things that have been running through my mind since Tuesday night.

  1. I am so sorry for what you are all going through. My heart is with you.
  2. You now understand, in a way more visceral than any Jew of my generation, the reason for the creation of a Jewish homeland – which, although originally posited for anywhere available, ended up as the State of Israel in the Middle East.

Regarding the current state of Israel, its prime minister, its issues around settlements and all the other complications and messy realities of statecraft and daily life, please set it aside for purposes of this discussion. Not because those aren’t valid topics for conversation – they absolutely are – but because it’s not the issue I’m addressing here.

In 70 CE, the Romans dispersed most (not all, but pretty much all but the equivalent of a tiny rural village’s worth) of the country’s Jews. From then until 1948, we were an itinerant crew, depending on the hospitality and governmental vagaries of the countries to which we managed to hie ourselves.

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I think these two are my great-grandparents, who brought my then six-month-old  grandmother over from Russia in a valise. From what I understand, he was, to paraphrase our incoming president, “Not their best.” His offspring were better. Bobby married a peddler. They saved money, bought a farm and raised dairy cattle, cash crops and five children. My mother was the first to graduate from college.

 

It’s not a happy history. There’s a joke that so many Jewish kids played violin because you could pick one up and run when you got kicked out of whatever country you were living in.  Jews got really good at languages, because they had to learn so many. When we were allowed to live in a place, we were often made to keep to a restricted part of town, and wear visible clothing that marked us as different. (Note: It was a thing WAY before Nazi Germany.)

My lifetime has been a period of what is best described as a golden age for Jews. I live in a country where, for the most part, we’ve been pretty welcome. (Exceptions exist, but again, not the issue I’m addressing here.)

Some of that is due to what happened in 1948, when the Jews got what no generation for more than 1,000 years had had – a place of our own, a country of refuge in which we would never be “other.” A country where national holidays would be our holidays, our shared culture and religious observance would be the norm and not the exception, where we could raise our babies and care for our elders without having to explain what “kosher” entails. Most of all, it was a country where we never wondered when a mob would burn our neighborhood, round us up and run us out of town, arrest and/or kill us.

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The great-great grandchildren of the people in the photo above. This picture was taken in Israel, with Shelli the Labrador retriever. The great-great granddaughter on the left is in medical school, the one on the right is getting ready to apply for Ph.D. programs in biology.

 

Everything else aside, it’s a terrible thing to feel unsettled in your own home, whether that means the space on the furniture-filled side of your front door or the space beyond it, the public space.

I live in the United States because my grandparents fled Russia and Ukraine. I don’t want my country to be a place where those of us who are different are made to feel “less than.”

That said, I’m not gonna lie. Knowing what  – and that – my forebears sacrificed to try and create a place that would take me and mine in without question  gives me a sense of place and security.

It requires something else too. Because of my history, I have an obligation to do as much to ensure the physical, emotional and moral safety of those around me. Whatever happens over the next four years, for better or worse, I’ve got your backs. We’re in this together.

May rejection make you smile: my wish for job-seekers

My first week as a public librarian was all I could have hoped for and then some. There’s an overwhelming amount of information to absorb, all of it fascinating. The people I’m working with, to a one, have been fabulous. They’re supportive, welcoming and just the right amount of friendly – a matter-of-fact “here’s what I do, feel free to ask questions about it,” not the fake “rah rah team!” kind that makes you wonder if you’ve accidentally  joined a cult.

Also, a lot of my new co-workers started working there as teens and either stayed on after high school working their way up the various work tracks, or left and came back after going to other places. That says a lot.

Friday, when I got home, my e-mail in-box contained my 12th rejection e-mail from my former place of employment. I know I did good work there, and (as I said in a previous post), was turned loose because of funding cuts, not performance.

I’m honestly not sure why I’ve been turned down for every position I’ve applied to at my former employer. In at least one case, I know that the person who got the position had a degree that was more compatible with the position description than mine. And mind you, I applied for jobs at a lot of other places this year too – one of the requirements for unemployment is to apply for four jobs a week. Most were writing positions, some in student services at various local colleges, and a few library jobs.

I got really used to radio silence or rejection.

None of it was surprising. I spent 10 of the 11 years at my former job informing people of their particular barriers to employment (eg: old, fat, wrong ethnicity, wrong gender, criminal history, lack of experience, lack of stable work history, gaps in work history, etc), so they could be aware of and, where possible, do what they could to mitigate them. So I had no illusions about my barriers – older, female, and can strike more corporate-minded people as being a bit “unusual,” although under my strange-seeming exterior beats the heart of a corporate type’s dream colleague/supervisee.

My work philosophy is pretty simple. Show up on time, do what you’re asked to the best of your ability, do it with a cheerful spirit. Be kind to your colleagues, and respect the authority of everyone’s titles. Nothing is personal at work. I’ve never taken a job expecting it to fulfill my social needs. That’s why I have friends. And Sweetheart. And Matey, Betty & Grover. (I have made wonderful friends along the way at various jobs, but that was a happy by-product and bonus, not the main objective.)

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It’s her job to meet my social needs

Still, it’s no fun to get rejection letter after rejection letter, particularly when you’re applying for positions you know you could walk in, sit down and rock. I will be brutally honest here and say that I wasn’t overly keen on going back to the place where I spent those 11 years. Not because I didn’t love what I did, not because I wasn’t grateful for everything I learned there and especially grateful for having taken advantage of the tuition reimbursement benefit that financed the lion’s share of my master’s degree. It was because it was time to move on, and to grow in a different direction. The job I started last week is the one I never knew I always wanted until I went to library school.

But I did need to earn money. Sweetheart has done the most amazing job of keeping us afloat during the past year, and I was bringing some through my writing and editing. But there really is nothing like the feeling of steady income for some of us, and I’m one of those people. So, when jobs came up that I knew I could do well at my former workplace, I applied.

I suspect that any rejection e-mail I got this week would have made me smile and head straight to my keyboard to type up a response. But it was kind of fun that it was the same exact e-mail I’d seen 11 times before. So I typed up that response, which I did not send. Instead, I am posting a redacted version here.

To anyone out here reading this who is currently trying to find work, I wish you your dream job or one that pays well and that you don’t hate, and I especially wish you the chance to craft a fantasy response to the first rejection letter you get after you start your new gig.

Rejection e-mail #12

Dear Amy:

Thank you for your interest in {insert name of former employer here} and your recent submission to the {job I could do in my sleep} position. We have reviewed your application and have decided to pursue other candidates for this position. We encourage you to review other open positions at our career site and wish you the best of success in your careers search.

Sincerely: “Jerri Blank”

Unsent response to Rejection e-mail # 12

Dear Jerri:

Thank you for your interest in responding to my recent submission to the {job I could do in my sleep} position. I have reviewed your e-mail and have decided that you are absolutely correct in pursuing other candidates for this position.

I have no intention of reviewing other open positions at your career site, as your wishes for success in my “careers search” have been granted. I am deeply grateful for all 12 of them over the course of this past year. Clearly, someone was out there listening.

Sincerely: Amy Waldman

Love, loss, hope and backup plans: Making now count

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So, it’s been a few months. I could make up a whole raft of reasons for the radio silence, but the truth is job-related.

Last July, I was laid off from the job I loved, and not long after my last post in February, there were signs of a happy ending/soft landing. In a fit of holding off until I could share good news, I put off posting.

But I’ve waited long enough, and now I’m at that place where you just say “Now matters. Live here!”

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An expert at living in the now

So here’s a little story about the job I loved and lost. It wasn’t performance-related (the exact words of the HR official who hand-delivered my layoff letter). I was really good at what I did. But it was funded by “soft money.”  Which is code for “grants.”

The particular grant I worked on for 10 years was funded through the Wisconsin State Legislature. The program was almost 40 years old, and provided a whole lot of bang for the $895,000 it cost state taxpayers. I could venture guesses as to why it was de-funded. But those would just be guesses.

My program was one of 16 around the state. We worked with adults – mostly women but some men, too – who had not been the main breadwinner in their households, but for any number of reasons found themselves in a position where they had to become the main breadwinner. My participants were divorced or separated from partners or spouses, married or partnered with someone who’d become disabled and unable to work, or who’d lost a job. In a couple of cases I worked with people who’d given up good jobs out of state to come home and see an elderly parent through his or her last illness. Those people had been supported by the parent’s pension or social security. One of them was paid through an agency that provided elder care to be their parent’s caregiver. All that ended with their parents’ deaths, and they needed to rejoin the workforce.

For 10 years, I got paid to listen to these people tell me who they were, then help them figure out how to reimagine their lives. Most days I went home feeling like the luckiest, most blessed individual on Planet Earth because, having already gone through my own version of the horrible realities my participants were living, I could serve as living proof that it was possible to come out on the other side.

It was something I would definitely have appreciated when I was where they were. Most were also completely inspiring – making courageous choice after courageous choice to make their lives better. (I’ve stayed friends with many of them, and that’s helping me now. As I said, luckiest & most blessed.)

I had a sneak preview this might be coming down the pike in 2007, when a state legislator (Jeff Fitzgerald was his name) decided to cut the program because, according to one of my then-colleagues, he figured that if it wasn’t at all the technical colleges, it didn’t need to be at any. (There was a 100-day standoff about the budget that year, and the 16 program coordinators from around the state took advantage of the time. We spent it informing our representatives about what we did. When budget was passed, we were in it).

“Your backup plans need backup plans.”

One of my mantras is “Your backup plans need backup plans.” My backup plans since the ’90s  have been freelance writing, back-of-the-house for catering and anything else someone would be willing to pay me for.

It turned out, though, that I like having a steady gig with benefits and co-workers. When I looked at it through my Program Coordinator lens, the reality of my patchwork resume – a bachelor’s degree in music followed by journalism and project management experience – meant the average HR department would probably toss it for being too scattered. And there was the reality of my age – ie: not 30.

I needed something bigger.

 

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A rhino is pretty big, even on a Scrabble board.

 

I couldn’t do anything about my age (and didn’t really want to). But I could address the resume. So I started looking at graduate programs. I wanted something that would pull everything I’d done together and take it all to a different level. I also wanted something that would make me as fire-proof as possible for a 50-something woman whose work experience and college degree were at least as well matched as Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.

Which is the reason I went to library school. It’s a terrific degree – really versatile. People with library degrees work in all kinds of settings – IT, corporate, legal, financial, academic – the list is pretty long. And maybe it hasn’t gotten me a job yet, but the skills I’ve added to my existing toolbox have given me a level of confidence in riding out this layoff that I never would have had without it.

So, while I wait for my Prince Charming job to come along (I’m straight, which is why it’s not a Princess Charming job), my library degree is working for me. It’s also working for others. I volunteer two mornings a week at a university library, in one of their digital units. I’ve added book indexing and dissertation editing to the freelance journalism, marketing and technical writing/editing/content development I’ve always done.

And then there’s this blog, which started as a gift to myself. Thank you for reading it, and especially thanks for reading this post, which is mostly a ramble/meditation to get myself back into my once-a-week posting routine. A whole lot has happened in the past few months, not the least of which was finishing my first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

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My first knitting/quilting hybrid project.

Coming attractions ,with illustrations

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It’s all gluten-free all the time at the Kinnikinnick Bakery in Edmonton, Alberta.

 

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The Humane Society said Matey was a “three-month-old Shepherd mix.” She’s not.