Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Ten Thankful Thoughts of 2009

I don't know about you, but my basket of bounty is overflowing with gratitude this week.  I'm practically oozing with it.

So, it's time to spill.  Here are a few (okay, my Top Ten) of the many, many, many things for which I am thankful in 2009!

1)  My boys.  Not everyone has a fan club like I do.  Rick and Connor are the center of my universe.  And, they are handsome to boot!  I'm a lucky girl!

2)  Hershey's Dark Chocolate Kisses.  Really, who doesn't love them?  Little bits of Heaven wrapped in foil.  Delicious!  When necessary, they serve as a temptation stopper for me as I forage for a mid-afternoon snack.  They also are handy as a coercion method for luring a dawdling Kindergartener out the door in the morning (yes, I give my child little chocolate kisses on the way to school, better than screaming at him the entire way!).

3)  The Hens.  Everyone needs someone to gossip with over celebrity snafus and the mundane activities of life.  Rick refers to my gaggle of gals as "The Hens."  He means that in an affectionate way, I promise.  We stay connected by e-mail now that we don't see each other every day -- and we still make each other laugh after all these years.  Ladies of a feather stick together (corny, but I'm laughing as I type . . . ).  Thanks for the memories -- and the constant banter -- Amy, Deanna, and Susan!

4)  Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.  Ahhhhh.  Everyone needs a go-to wine.  This is mine.  You can share, just get your own bottle.  I'll drink anything.  Well, everything.  But, for a tasty end-of-day libation, this one makes me smile every time!  Cheers!

5)  Sisters.  And, brothers.  I've got lots of them and I wouldn't want it any other way.  We've been through a lot.  Some of it sucks.  Some of it sparkles with joy.  We don't always agree -- in fact most of the time you will find at least one disparate opinion in the bunch -- but we always listen with interest.  Then, we talk louder than whomever we disagree with and make our own point.  Family.  You've got to love them . . . no, really, you HAVE to love them . . . mom said so!

6)  100 calorie snack packages of virtually anything.  I hate counting out the proper serving size of tasty treats like shortbread cookies or Cheez-its.  These are dummy-proof.  Well, except for my propensity to eat several at a time.  Hmmm, maybe that's why I haven't lost weight!

7)  Facebook.  Stop laughing.  I love it.  I'm just a little addicted.  It's so voyeuristic, yet narcissistic.  Big words.  But, really, who doesn't want to know what all of their high school chums are having for dinner every night?  Mixed in with the mundane are loads of fun tidbits about the lives of people you know.  Joy!  Wanna be friends?

8)  Book Club.  Assigned reading always gets my competitive juices running.  Sure, there isn't a grade (anymore), but I don't want to be the only one without something interesting to say about the book of the month!  Plus, we gab about real life too.  With food.  And, wine.  Or beer.  Really, what's not to love?  This year our reading selections ranged from "Twilight" to "Catcher in the Rye" to "Are You There Vodka, It's Me Chelsea" to "A Thousand Splendid Suns."  Something for everyone and lots of books I never would have read.  Big thanks, ladies, for another amazing year!

9)  An incredible Kindergarten teacher.  Not for me, goofball!  As the overprotective and insanely involved parent of an only child, the transition to kindergarten loomed larger than life in my eyes.  After all, nobody would truly appreciate how brilliant my one and only child is!  Enter the fabulous Mrs. Kurlenda.  Connor digs her.  She teaches and inspires.  And, she knows how to wrangle parents like me.  Brava -- if only every child could experience Kindergarten the way we are -- the world would be a better, smarter place!

10)  Blogging.  I'm thankful for this wonderful way to hone my writing skills and share my deepest thoughts.  Okay, the thoughts aren't really that deep.  Or prolific.  Sometimes they don't really make sense.  But, gosh darn it, I like writing and this is fun!  We should all find our own true joy and grab hold of it with both hands.  I have.  And, for that I'm thankful.  Every writer needs a reader, so thanks for lending me your eyes.

So, what are you thankful for this year?  Post a comment here and share your thoughts.  I'd love to know.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Living Your Story

I'm a big fan of story telling.  Use humor.  Be truthful.  Be bold.  Never let your story be at the expense of someone else.

For so many, their story is told after they are gone.  It's as if death were the finish line, indicating that its time to spill the beans and share all the secrets of what made you special.  What made you love.  What made you screaming mad.  And, what truths you exhibited in your everyday activities.

When really, if we are careful, we can clearly see that the most prolific among us are living our story in every moment.  Not waiting for the culmination at the finish line to sum it all up and draw a conclusion.

Those are the stories that won't find their way to the Best Seller list -- but will infuse light and joy and comfort and sometimes passion or anger into the world.  Those are the stories that are being lived out among us every minute.  They are pretty amazing.

Five years ago on November 8 my brother, Steve, lost his life.  It was a gut wrenching ending to a life that was crammed with fantastic stories.  Steve was 41.  I always recognized that he had a creative soul tucked into his common-man appearance.  We often talked about what kind of story he would tell some day, whether with the written word or through cinematography.  I couldn't wait to read it or view it.

When his sudden death robbed us all of this promise, I was angry.  Not only had I lost my brother, but the world had lost his voice.  What was the story that had not yet been told?  I was heartbroken that we would never know.

Over the past five years I have realized that Steve told us his story in his own way.  He shared himself with humor and with passion.  He never turned down the opportunity to coerce me with his political viewpoints (we agreed often and yet disagreed more often!).  He was busy telling his story each and every day.  I was so wrapped up in searching for his grand opus that I failed to truly enjoy every moment along the journey.

Since then, I've experienced joys that felt like I was flying through the night sky igniting the stars with my fire and passion, leaving a reflection of my soul in my wake.  I've also been awash in grief and sadness that circled me like a pack of rabid dogs.  Those moments are clearly a part of my story and the very fabric of who I have become.  I've become a story teller, not waiting for the big whopper at the end, rather sharing the little stories as they occur along the way.

Heck, if we wait we may never learn about someone's experience dancing at the USO while the world was at war or about the secret to making the perfect spaghetti sauce (depending on the life story of the person in question!).  No more waiting.  No more finish lines.  We've all got interesting stories to tell and we shouldn't hesitate.  Live it. Then spill it, people.

Thanks for the lesson, bro.  I miss you.  But, I often sift through the moments we've shared and the stories you told and then I can't help but smile.  You are on my Best Seller list and the Oscar goes to you.  Story well told.

PS -- The photo I've included here has a great story, too.  We were in front of the hospital in Jackson where my mom was recovering from a serious car accident.  We'd just left my father's funeral, a result of that same car accident, and everyone had been filtering up to the hospital to spend time with mom.  Rick, Connor and I ran into Steve, my sister-in-law, Kris, and niece, Jessica, outside and they surprised us with a first birthday gift for Connor (he turned one the next day).  It was a coincidence that I had my camera handy and snapped off a few photos as Steve gave Limbo Elmo to Connor.  Simple destiny that Steve was wearing one of his favorite tropical shirts at that moment, just like the Elmo he selected for his nephew.  It was the last time I saw Steve.  He died about six weeks later.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We Won With ArtPrize

For several weeks this fall the city of Grand Rapids was transformed into every artist's dream (well, maybe not every artist, but jeez get your mind out of the gutter!) -- a giant gallery!  The inaugral ArtPrize has come and gone with much fanfare.  And, as I come down from my contact high brought on by so much visual stimulation, I thought it appropriate to reflect for a moment on how the Fitzgerald Penn Family won with ArtPrize 2009.

1)  Connor and his dad got to enjoy an unusual version of their "guys night" -- those nights when I have an evening commitment.  The two of them wandered about for a while gawking at Nessie and the usual suspects along the pedestrian bridge.  Much to Conn's delight they were able to take in some of the performers at the B.O.B.  His favorite was, ". . . the gymnastics girls who had hula hoops that were on fire and the other girl put fire in her mouth, but she didn't get burned, and you really aren't supposed to eat fire anyway . . . "  Ah, to be six again! 

This night was captured by Rick in this mobile phone photo of Conn at a TGIFriday's sidewalk table enjoying dinner (yeah, we know it's fuzzy, just squint and it looks great!).  After Conn assembled his crayon duo in the table cutouts he announced to his dad, "See, I made Art for the Prize too!"  Darn if he didn't get it!

2)  Grandma Carole had never visited our lovely downtown.  We couldn't believe this news.  But, in order to remedy this situation we packed her and Grandpa Bill and Conn into the truck and sped off for the bright lights of the city immediately following a nailbiting soccer game one Saturday morning.  It was very fun to see the sights of our city, the things we take for granted and have come to ignore, through the eyes of my six-year-old and his grandmother.  Both saw everything in a fresh way.  And, none of us could agree on which entry should win ArtPrize, but we loved it all!

3)  Not to be outdone by Grandma Carole, Conn's Aunt Colleen and his cousin Ryleigh came to Grand Rapids too.  Okay, so the reason was not entirely for ArtPrize, it was Connor's birthday after all, but they were happy to check out the fun too.  So, after celebrating a birthday dinner with the cousins, Rick and I, joined by Colleen, corralled Conn-6, Ryleigh-5, Reagan-5, Rachel-9, and Sarah-11 and headed out to see what this crew thought of all this Art.

We had a blast!  The kids loved it -- and we spent a lot of time voting thumbs up and thumbs down for the pieces.  It was fun to see how every child felt empowered to come up with their own decision.  And, they each had unique reasons for liking or engaging with something, or just not enjoying it.  Again, pictures tell the story best.  But even these don't capture just how magical this evening was for all of us.  Too bad my camera battery died before the kids were exhausted, we traveled much farther than it would seem here that night!

So, in the final analysis, ArtPrize was more than just the world's largest prize for art.  It was an excuse to spend a lot of quality time with people we loved in a city we adore surrounded by interesting and sometimes thought provoking visuals.  Our family soaked it up!  We feel like the real winner from ArtPrize 2009 was us (even though we didn't get that check for $250,000!). 

Oh, and here's a little heads up . . . we've got something creative cooking for ArtPrize 2010 with the neighbors . . . and these little artisans want to win it all!

Friday, September 25, 2009


September 26, 2003.  Probably the most important day in my life.  The day my son, Connor, was born.

In less than an hour the celebration begins.  He will turn six.  But, for now he is sleeping and probably dreaming about balloons and an unlimited supply of cake being showered upon him. 

I, on the other hand, am awake and tracing my thoughts as they wander over mountains and through deep valleys.  Once again, this celebratory milestone in my son's life reminds me of how big the sacrifice was that his birth mother made when she choose to share his life with Rick and me.

On September 26, 2003 I was living my life and harboring dreams of someday becoming a parent.  I probably went to work and shared a laugh with my coworkers over lunch.  Chances are I cooked something innocuous for dinner and Rick and I went to our local gym to work out before sharing a glass of wine and discussing our day.  We may have wondered out loud if our baby was out there and who might be caring for him or her at that very moment.

I certainly didn't know that the day was soon to become an integral part of my family's history. 

I am often struck by the enormity of that single day.  A young woman, with noone to support her, suffered through countless hours of labor to give birth to a baby whom she loved so much that she decided his life would be more complete living in another country.  Wow.

So, today I think about Juana.  I always seem to shed a tear for her at Connor's most important moments.  Tomorrow morning when the little boy who captured my heart with his engaging smile asks me to tell him about the day that he was born, I will repeat the story as we know it. 

I want him to know how powerfully he is loved.  By me.  By his daddy.  And, by a woman who hasn't touched his sweet hands or looked into his expressive brown eyes since he was only 6 months old. 

Tomorrow we'll celebrate everything that makes my Connor who he is.  We'll eat cake till we feel dizzy from the rush.  And, when we tuck in at night, we'll ask God to Bless Juana, Connor's Birth Mom.  Like we do every night.

And, I'll add my very own prayer thanking her for giving me the gift of this very most important and special day. 

Happy Birthday, Connor John.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Family History via E-mail

I could hear the disbelief in her voice as she repeated the question again, “Are you sure you really want the e-mails?” Even over the telephone I knew that my sister-in-law thought I was nuts. Why would anyone want to take possession of printouts of 10 years worth of family e-mail?

I really wasn’t sure why. But I was absolutely certain that I did. I couldn’t imagine sending the binders that our mother had constructed off to be shredded, like the cancelled checks or invoices for home improvements that we had discovered. We were discussing the e-mails again because it was finally time to wrap up the last of a wide variety of mementos, remove the final pieces of furniture, and put my parent’s home on the market. In just over two years, both mom and dad had passed away. Mom died most recently after a very short illness, leaving her children awash in the tedium and sadness of dismantling the home that she had shared with our father for more than 35 of their 50 years together.

In the late 1990’s our parents discovered that they wouldn’t have to endlessly repeat the same stories time and time again over the telephone if they would just register for an e-mail account (it really is their own fault that they had to tackle the communication issue head on – after all I am the seventh of nine children!). And, thus, our talkative family began to e-mail – about everything!

Now, as I sit in my cool basement, I revisit my past and that of my siblings (and cousins and assorted others that have become a part of the Fitzgerald Family e-mail list) through the binders that our mom insisted were important. They are reminiscent of cherished letters from a loved one away at war or a holiday greeting card sent by a treasured friend from the past. My mom always wrote to those friends, but once she was online she wrote more frequently and shared more of her day-to-day battles and cheers. Now I need to thank my mom for ignoring our laughs and incredulity about her commitment to the e-mails that she dutifully printed and three-hole punched. Ten years worth of joy, sorrow, change, and even the mundane were saved for future generations to engage with the family that went before them.

After all, who wouldn’t want to glimpse backward in time and review all of the family dissertations regarding every important aspect of the past decade? Politics ad nausea; graduation celebrations for grandkids moving from preschool through high school; hometown sports teams from all across the country (seriously, don’t get any of us started on this topic!); the challenges dad faced in recovering from several strokes; the tragic car accident that claimed dad’s life and injured mom; poems; prayers; and crazy urban legends that mom was curious about; and lots of support and words of love – always tempered with humor.

My mom treasured her family. She was a born communicator. She feared that if we stopped writing letters and notes that were tangible, there would be nothing of ourselves to pass on to the next generation. She embraced technology and its assets. In fact, she always gave others in her circle of friends tips on how to send e-mail or to view photos from the grandchildren. But, she couldn’t conceptualize how we could all spend so much time bantering back and forth and not attempt to save our thoughts and phrases for posterity.

My mom’s jump from pen and paper to the digital expression of thought seemed like a natural move to me. But, for her it was a leap of faith. It was a transition that she chose to temper with her own security net – the binders that I am charged with keeping.

Flipping through Binder Number 1, I find a note from my mom dated March 31, 1996. Her humor came shining through when, sandwiched between a paragraph about the local high school Spring Break starting that week and the death of one of her neighbors, she jabbed at a taunt I’d launched at one of my older brothers in a previous e-mail with a paragraph that read, “There are five NAH’s in NAH, NAH, NAH, NAH, NAH, just in case anyone is interested.”

I recognized the phrasing immediately and, yes, I flipped back in the binder to confirm that I’d inadvertently only used four NAH’s in my original message. Reading this again, more than a decade later, brought a flood of feelings that caught even an emotional girl like me by surprise. The phrasing of the jaunt was not important, rather, the gentle humor that my mother always used and hearing her voice once again through the words that she wrote. That was important. I miss her often, but with each week that passes it gets harder and harder to remember her voice. However, her voice was clear to me again simply because she insisted on maintaining this treasury of our electronic nonsense.

I plan to sift through the remaining years of binders and enjoy the trip that my family has taken – and I’m sure to dash off a quick e-mail to my siblings about the treasures I’ve found at each new discovery. But, the big question is, will I print off a copy of those e-mails and start a new binder?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Coffee Spots!

Let's recap, shall we? We've got indoor plumbing? Check. Central air conditioning? Check. Automatic dishwasher? Check. Telephone access ANYWHERE? Check. Streaming video and Internet access on those wireless telephones anywhere? Check.

Can someone harness all of this technology and provide me with an electric drip coffeemaker in my home with a decanter that doesn't drip all over the place? Please.

No, really, I mean it!

We've got the power to create spandex pants that can stretch beyond imagination, yet every time I pour a simple cup of java my coffee pot splashes the precious liquid everywhere. My kitchen looks like a war zone after only two cups.

I've tried everything. I mimic both the long pour and the tight cup hold that I've seen in diners. To no avail.

I've sampled a variety of coffee pots from several manufacturers. We're still making messes at my house.

It's a personal mission now. Not only am I sick of the mess, but I'm ridiculously frustrated that I haven't been able to conquer this challenge.

Someone out there must have the secret. Help me save my white porcelain sink from those ugly brown stains. How do I make this dream a reality? How do I stop the senseless wasting of innocent coffee? Anyone?

And, to my friends at Mr. Coffee, if you are listening, the least you could do is consider a cross promotion with Lysol wipes. It would take some of the sting out of this mess!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One More Turn Around the Sun!

Happens every year.  Same date.  I age.  I complete yet another revolution around that big orange ball in the sky.

This anniversary of my birth encourages a number of responses.  Mostly mirth that I've held on for another rotation!  But, also a sense of wonder regarding my splendid life.

There are so many people to thank for the fact that later today I'll be sitting outside on a patio overlooking the channel that leads to my beloved Lake Michigan and enjoying a delightful glass of wine!  Who knew that it would really take that whole darn village to raise me up and transform me into the person I am today?
But, let's be honest, the village was always involved in my life at the discretion of two people.  Specifically, John and Jackie Fitzgerald.  My parents had the courage to create a family of nine independent-thinking individuals.  And, to revel in the way that each of us grew into ourselves, warts and all.  With me they understood my emotional side (whether the bouncy baby or the tearful teen) as well as my need to organize and streamline everything around me.  According to my dad, at only a day old I orchestrated the entire nursery at Big Rapids Hospital to cry on my command in order to garner more attention!
On this birthday, I intend to swallow a deep gulp of lake-infused air, sip on my chardonnay, and channel Jackie.  I share her physicality (heck, just look at that photo, which person is me?!).  But, I miss her wit, her charm, her ability to warm everyone in the room to her idea, as well as her innate sense of when it was time to frost someone out for their lack of manners.  She was truly one-of-a-kind.  Its days like today when I miss her most (and, for the record, its not that I don't miss my Dad, but he is not my birthday memory maker!).
The early morning just wasn't the same today without her phone call and out-of-tune singing of "Happy Birthday" to me.  Midday was sullen without her perfectly timed Hallmark card (my Dad seemed to think these were the best and always made fun when we gave him anything else!) waiting in the mailbox.  And, this evening, while lovely, will be missing the phone call that I would have placed to fill her in on details of my special day.  Even if it was only filled with work and commonplace events like laundry.
But, the day is not without a gift.  Forty-two years ago Jackie Fitzgerald gave me life.  And, for the following 39 years she reaffirmed that gift over and over with her commitment to me and my siblings.  Pretty amazing.
Thanks, Mom!  And, tonight, when the sun sets on this fantastic day and I start working on circling that gorgeous sun again, I'll raise my glass to her.  Happy Birthday to me!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pen or pencil?

I've always been a fan of the pen. Even before I acquired this surname and found myself dodging adolescent humor regarding my chosen profession (and before I turned the tables on that humor and put the power of my "Penn" to good use in a business moniker that makes sense and brings a smile to my face!).

Simply, I'm not a pencil kind of person. Many are. For that, the makers of silly eraser tops and yellow No. 2 jumbo packs are grateful.

It really comes down to the way a pen feels in your hand. I like the flow of fresh ink on paper. It seems to magically transfer itself from the thoughts in my head to the glistening page before me. But, that magic disappears like the first snowflakes on a child's tongue when a pencil is the implement of transference.

It feels unwieldy and somehow makes the words less effusive and colorful. Pencils are perfect for geometry lessons and keeping score at a golf course. I've even witnessed a pencil or two bring a third grader's musings on summer vacation to life. But, that is really where it must end.

The pencil has one downfall that simply cannot be overlooked. It is erasable.

Not just forgettable, like bad prose. It is erasable.

You are giving control over to anyone wielding a rubber smiley face or some such molded bit of horror. The thought quakes my very soul. Erasable.

No need for a better idea or a new thought. Just the power to swish the surface with the reverse tip of the pencil and forever eradicate thoughts, feelings, hopes, invitations, scribbles, or declarations of love (okay, let's face it really anything!). Turning it into roughened pulp or scattered bits of reddish/orange synthetic rubber.

Whether drafting clever advertising copy or creating the weekly shopping list, the pen is a mighty and satisfying tool, offering more than just its ink. The pen is confident. Often colorful. Bold or delicate, as is needed for the moment.

Rediscover your pen. Draft your thoughts in unbridled bliss, forever etched on 20 pound text, with or without lines. Writing with a pen is a little like the taste of apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream -- delicious and reminiscent of an unspoiled time, rich with hope and promise.

There, now that I've gotten that off my chest -- let me tell you what I think about the backspace key!