Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Christmas miracle

I was sixteen when my father left.

That year there was no Christmas tree, no turkey dinner, no presents.  My mother worked two jobs as a cleaning lady.  I sold hats at the Emporium in downtown Saint Paul.

It was Christmas Eve, 1965. The store was closed.  The streetlights were decorated with the tinsel of the season.  Somewhere a church bell tolled "Silent Night."

I stood alone on the corner and waited for the bus to take me home.

The wind whipped my thin coat and threatened to tear off my hand-knit hat.  My mother had sewn a pair of corduroy pants to pull up under my dress, but I carried them.  It was better to freeze than look ridiculous.

It was a snowless night, bitter and empty.  I shivered against the wind and considered how one year had changed everything.

My parents' marriage was over.  My home and heart were broken.

The divorce did not surprise anyone but me.  My father's fierce anger had exhausted my mother's forbearance years ago.  But he had never gone away before - never abandoned us.

It was because of him there would be no holiday.  I resented him for the destruction of my family.  These were the things I pondered as I lumbered into the freezing-cold bus.

I found a seat next to the bus heater and placed my feet on the perfect spot. Hugging my corduroy pants I cherished the small comfort as the heat blew around my legs.

That is when it happened.

A man - perhaps in his sixties - appeared from somewhere in the back of the bus. He smelled of English Leather and Pepsodent and wore a hat like Frank Sinatra used to wear. A fine Pendleton wool muffler hid half his face and he held a large shopping bag.

"May I?" he asked as he prepared to sit.

I looked away.  I didn't speak to strangers - especially men.

He sat beside me and placed the shopping bag between us. I noticed the bus driver watching him in the mirror.  Everything would be all right, I thought as I closed my eyes and hugged my mother-made pants.

Then - the man touched my arm.

"Excuse me," he said.  "I couldn't help notice you're shivering.  Are you okay?"

He peeked at me from behind his muffler and when his eyes met mine, I saw something I hadn't seen in a long, long time.  It was the gaze of kindness. For a moment, I felt the chill of the bus dissipate.

"You look tired," she said. "Had a rough day?"

When he spoke,  I realized he was worried about me; truly worried.  The sensation was foreign.  My father's face never filled with concern for me or anyone else.  Anger, frustration and fear were the foundations of his personality.

Perhaps being a dad burdened some men more than others.  I wondered if this man had kids.

The bus made a gassy sound as it stopped, and he rose to leave.  He held the handrail of the seat before him and looked back at me for the last time.

"I get off here," he said.  "Merry Christmas.  Hang in there!"

I said, "thank you," and heard my voice break.

He was in the bus doorway when I realized he left his package.

"Wait" I called, lifting the bag.

He turned, pulled down his scarf to flash a smile.

"Keep it,"  he said.  And he was gone.

The bus driver insisted I take the package home - so I did.

The house was dark when I arrived.  My mother was asleep in her living room chair.  At first she didn't believe me when I told her what happened.  But my story was so marvelous that she came to accept it.

We opened the shopping bag and found three packages wrapped with red ribbon and gold paper.

A box of Fanny Farmer white chocolate - a bright red cashmere scarf - and the smallest of the three; a tiny mother-of-pearl music box.

My mother wrapped the scarf around her shoulders and marveled at the large almonds in the white candy.

"Maybe things will work out after all," she said. "Maybe next year will be a better year."

She handed me the music box.  The tune it played was "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

As the tune circled our cold little house, it occurred to me; there was one kind man left in my world.  If there was one, there might be others.  If there were others, the world was not an ugly place - and the lyrics of the song are true.

"Next year all our troubles will be miles away."

I treasure the tiny box to this day.  It holds a gold ring from  my husband, an old cameo my mother wore, and the memory of my Christmas miracle.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A crazy little thing called Holiday Spirit. . . .

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thanks, but no Thanksgiving for me

Thanksgiving is a holiday without a heart.  A feast without a focus.

Forget the hoopla about "gratitude" for good health, good fortune, good families, good jobs.

Let's get real.

We're together for two reasons;  to watch football and eat turkey.

Too much turkey.

Never eat food with a face.  

"Turkeys have faces. Sweet, sad little faces."
Not at my house, however.

My daughter was only in second grade when her teacher organized a field trip to a local turkey producer.

The experience changed her life.

"Turkeys have faces," she said when she came home.   "Sweet, sad little faces."

She couldn't spell "vegetarian."

But she was one.

Bad mommy.  Bad, bad mommy. 

I was a single mother, and not that good at it.

While other mothers relied on family recipes for turkey dressing, I roasted a bland, milky brown tofurkey, stewed wild rice, baked gluten free pumpkin pie.
I was determined to seduce my daughter into a wild love for Thanksgiving.
No dice.
“I refuse to celebrate the exploitation of Native Americans,” she said. “Why do we participate in a tradition that elevates Euro-Americans over indigenous people?”
This is what happens when you push a child to think for herself.

Teach your parents well

According to the Calorie Control Council, the average American will consume more than 4500 calories and 229 grams of fat on Thanksgiving day.
Left to our national traditions of greed and overeating, most of us will gain an additional ten pounds by the close of 2014.

The legacy of mommy guilt

Every parent knows that the old adage is dead wrong.
You can bend the twig — but the tree doesn't care about your soy-based mushroom dressing. The damn twig will grow as it chooses.
Today, my daughter and her husband celebrate their own traditions.
Instead of using the Thanksgiving weekend to overeat, they ski Lutsen, hike the Sawbill, travel to Chicago and catch a show.
My grandchildren are destined to grow up strong, healthy and light — never knowing the sleepy consequences of consuming massive quantities of L-tryptophan and carbohydrates.
I guess that's something to be thankful for.
Maybe I wasn't such a bad mommy after all.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tears on the job? Five strategies to buck-up

The undertrained thirty-something supervisor sat ram-rod behind her desk, hands folded on her lap.

"You ever hear of 'employment at will?" she asked,  her right eyebrow raised for punctuation.

My undertrained supervisor 
I smiled and allowed her to rattle on.

"'Employment at will' means I don't have to work with you if I don't want to.  I can fire you any time I want and I don't need a reason."

My heart pounded.  She had no reason to fire me, but would she?  Had I screwed up?  Failed her? Failed the company? My family? Myself?

I said  nothing.  My stomach tightened.  My jaw clenched.

Oh, how I hate it when I cry at work.

Humiliation is never a "teaching moment." 

I've read the essays written by the consultants who promise it's okay to cry on the job. The shedding of workplace tears demonstrates passion for work.  And our emotional outburst helps your supervisor grow into more compassionate, caring leader.

Horse pucky.

I say this.   Never, never let them see blood in the water.

Why?  Because when you do, you're dead meat.

It's a fricken' jungle out there, Bunky!  It's the wild, wild west.

And sometimes it's enough to make a grown person cry.

Some things never change. 
I don't care that this is Twenty-first Century.  I'm not stupid.  I've been in the trenches and I know the score.

You break-down at work - you invite the assumptions.

If you're a man, they assume you're a wimp. 
If you're a man -  they assume you're a wimp.

If you're a woman, they know for a fact you're crazy.
So, what's a sensitive, tender-hearted worker to do?

Don't accept abuse. 

If you're like most Americans, you 're  a strong, healthy person who functions well in most environments.  Your workplace should be healthy as well.

Hang on to this truth.  Keep your expectations high and don't accept abuse from abusive coworkers or your employer.

Sure - your job is important.  But other elements of your life are important as well.  You are more than an employee; you are a human being worthy of respect and the benefit of the doubt.

Employment should not be painful.   The social contract is straight forward; in return for pay, you deliver talent, time and intellect.  Nothing more is owed.

We live in a country where honest work is a virtue.  We believe every person has the responsibility to work and support him or herself.

We also believe our employers are responsible for a humane and civil work environment.

If your boss is not holding up his end of the contract,  I offer the following five strategies to cope.

Strategy One - Never suffer alone.  Call a friend.  
The Temptations said it first.  "When you feel the world tumbling down, reach out."  
 When your employer frightens, hurts, intimidates you,  escape to a private place and reach out for help. Each of us know a person who loves us enough to listen to our story.  Call that person.  Tell him or her what happened.

Don't feel self conscious about this.  Trust me - if you're suffering, others are suffering as well.  Many of your coworkers have done the same thing.

Why else do you suppose your boss provides a little room for (what he calls)  "private" conversations?

No one wants to see you cry like a little baby girl.

Strategy Two - Leave the premises.
If you're crying at work,  someone is bullying you.

You know how this works.  You've been around bullies all your life.

Remember what you did when you were bullied in high school?

You avoided the perpetrator.  When the bully approached, you crossed the street.   If the bully signed up for lunch at noon, you ate your lunch at eleven.

Use the same tactic at work.

Stay as far away from  your workplace bully as possible.  If you can't avoid the bully, go home.

I mean it.  Get away.

Slip out the back and hop on the bus.  Flag down a cab. Get as far away as fast as you can.  Phone human resources when you feel safe, and tell them you're not comfortable working with people who hurt you.

And stay away until things improve.

There's a name for what you're suffering;  it's called a "toxic work environment." You can sue your employer if it isn't improved.

Strategy Three - Breathe.  
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, you're trapped and can't get away.

When that happens, count to four and take a deep breath; hold it four counts, exhale to four counts.  Do this ten times - inconspicuously, if possible.

The extra oxygen will buoy you long enough to reconsider Strategy Two.

Strategy Four - Think of yourself as someone you love.
When you're abused by a coworker or humiliated by an employer, step back for a moment and consider how you would feel if if the same thing happened to your spouse, your child.

Many of us tolerate treatment we would deplore if it happened to someone we love.

Imagine your child in your situation and get angry in your own defense.

Fight back  -  and prepare for Strategy Five.

Strategy Five - Get out of Dodge. 
The lyricist Hal David wrote, "Knowing when to leave may be the smartest thing anyone can learn.  Go!" 

My humorless thirty-something supervisor was my last boss. Even though I was a fifty-nine-year old single mother without a back-up plan - even though it was 2008 and the Great Recession was in full swing -  I quit.

My story has a happy ending.  Free from the stress of my crazy-making job, my creativity soared.

Since then,  three of my stage plays are in production.  This past year the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned my fourth.

My essays have been published by international and national media including The Guardian, Huffington Post, National Public Radio and MinnPost.

If I can do it,  so can you.

So, dry your eyes, Bunky.

Get some pride.

Shoulders back.  Stand tall.

Don't  let the bastards get you down.

Remember - "employment at will" works both ways.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Why I no longer trust the St. Paul Police

(After Fox Network covered this story, my blog was "hacked" and the link to this post removed.  I post it again, here, with a live link.  If the message was censored by the St. Paul Police, I would not be surprised.) 

My dogs awoke me,  barking,  at 3:00 AM -  and I knew something was wrong.

I grabbed my under-the-bed baseball bat and stormed into my backyard.

The car next door had been burglarized; a neighbor's garage broken into.

And the woman who lives in the house behind mine was robbed in the middle of the night.

And so as the flood lights slapped across my empty back yard and my dogs growled, I determined to apprehend the culprit.

I searched the yard for the wretched, evil doer who would dare take advantage of the decent folks who live in Como Park.

Behind me, in my living room, someone walked out the front door with my MacBook and other electronics. Because I didn't check inside the house - I didn't discover the crime until the next morning.

"This ain't CSI, lady." 

I phoned the police at 7:30 A.M.

It took him almost an hour to get to my home - and when he finally knocked -  I opened my door to an overweigh, winded officer.

By then I was frantic. Where had he been?

"Don't  ever call the St. Paul cops between shifts," he said.  "We don't have our act together."

He yawned and rubbed his eyes as he walked through my ransacked living room.

"If I were you," he said, "I'd put bars on these windows."

Then he suggested I move out of the city.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," he said,. "I'm in the suburbs now. I wouldn't come back to the city on a bet. Too much crime."

I led him to the finger smudges on my coffee table,  window and bookcase.

Finger prints, I asked?

"This ain't CSI, lady," he snorted.

And thus began the hard truth I learned about St. Paul's finest.

"Get in line."

The folks at Hartford Insurance calculated my loss to be over $10 thousand. They asked for my assurance I would work to recover as much of my loss as possible.

I phoned the investigator's office, seeking the name of the person assigned.  For three days I reached voice mail - and no one returned my call.

Escalating, I phoned the Chief of Police.

My call was returned by a sergeant. Yes -  my case had been assigned.

No - the investigator would not be in touch.

The investigator was on vacation.

Yes - they knew she was out of town when they made the assignment.

And no - they would not ask another investigator to get involved.

My measly little home invasion was "not a priority" to the St. Paul Police.
"We got 60 people ahead of you,"  he said. "Each of our investigators works 30 to 50 open cases.  So - get in line, lady.  You're not that special - and you're sure not a priority."
Our busy, busy, busy civil servants.
"Oh, and get used to this idea," he said. "You'll never see your stuff again."
I called the East District Office where another sergeant confirmed this bad news. Property crimes, he said,  are the most frequent  in St. Paul -  but not a priority to our boys in blue.

Our cops are burdened, he said,  by the "many, many instances of violent crime" assailing our vulnerable citizens.

I checked the statistics - available to all of us online.

During the month of August, St. Paul citizens suffered:

  •  984 incidences of robbery, burglary and theft.  
  • 85 assaults.

"You're the kind of woman 

I can never make happy." 

If the majority of crimes in St. Paul are crimes against property, why not focus on property crime?

I asked the sergeant. 
"I know women like you," he answered. "You're the kind of woman I can never make happy." 
But I don't want to be "happy." 

I only want my property returned. 

And if that can't happen, I want to know that my police department is doing everything it can to make certain something like this never happens to anyone in my neighborhood, ever again.

The return visit

But criminals are not as stupid as our gallant officers believe. 

My thief knows his crimes will not be persecuted - his misdeeds will be overlooked. 

Two weeks later, my crook returned. 

Once again - my dogs awoke with vicious alarm in the middle of the night - and  I heard fumbling at bedroom window. 

Once again -  I stormed into the yard - bat in hand.  

This time I watched the lean, nimble form of a short, hooded man scamper through my garden gate and off my property. 

As he disappeared into the night I heard my dogs pant in relief.  

I checked my locked window - closed my doors - and returned to bed. 

I did not call the St. Paul Police. 

They were between shifts.