Copping Out Using LinkedIn’s ‘Endorsement’ Prompts

Last year sometime, I wrote a blog for Forbes regarding LinkedIn’s “new” phenomenon of endorsing someone’s skills by clicking off some boxes in a series of prompts the social media site displays at the top of their page. It asks questions like, “Does Sally Smith know about sales?” and so on, covering all the keyword skills Sally Smith typed in to represent herself, popping up ad nauseam among others they expect you to agree with. Even the nature of these questions are so g-d elementary, you’d think a third grader had made them up. And over the past year and a half, members of LinkedIn have gone crazy checking off just about every box for every connection they had, possibly hoping (1) the favor would be returned and/or (2) seeing a thumbnail of their photo representing their endorsement actually meant something to others looking at that person’s profile.

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This lame endorsement feature means little to nothing in my humble opinion and ends up being a bit of a scam. Why? Because people I have never met nor ever done business with began clicking away, “endorsing” me in this manner. How do they know I am skilled at writing press releases if they have never seen one I crafted? Why do they assume I am great at telling stories if they’ve never read a single blog I’ve written? In fact, it would seem that endorsing skills willy-nilly for people you’ve never worked with before on LinkedIn only de-values the endorsements of the people who actually have experienced your skills and talents.

While I don’t wish to insult those people who sincerely clicked these boxes meaningfully (in others words, they actually know me by my work), I maintain this addition by LinkedIn is a total and undeniable COP OUT — a lazy person’s way of recommending your work. What ever happened to the simple little message sent to your selected, qualified connections that asks that they actually say something about you?

Some time back I sent a message to dozens of my connections, changing the boilerplate message LinkedIn offers to “If you have a moment, I would very much appreciate your saying something about your experience working with me.” And guess what? I got a flood of 15+ well thought out, articulate recommendations sent by some of my most valued clients, all happy to write a few lines about me. Some of the people I asked me to write up something they could post about me, but I graciously turned those folks down, because I know they know how to speak and write English fairly well and certainly did not want to put words in their mouths.

My point is this: don’t ever undervalue the written word when it comes to recommending a business associate. Writing a recommendation for someone on LinkedIn is as close as many of us will ever come to creating a letter of recommendation for those we value in our business network. And believe it or not, people value a written opinion much more than a clicked box accompanied by a thumbnail photo among dozens of others at the bottom of a profile.

Okay, that’s my rant for now. When I think of more, I’ll let you know. Then when you click off “skilled at op-ed journalism” on my LinkedIn profile I’ll know you were paying attention.

Meeting Business Associates Up Close and Personal: What You See is What You DON’T Get Any Other Way

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Okay, I’ll admit it; I am by nature a storyteller. Having lived a lifetime with a jokester for a father, a romantic for a mother, travel as a hobby and writing as a passion, I suppose this should not come as a surprise.

So when I extricate my introverted self from behind a desk, clean up a bit and actually MEET people one-on-one as a result of the business networking group I belong to, there is always a reward. Leaving home for these special occasions, I never know what to expect. Sometimes I walk away with a tidbit of wisdom, other times it’s a genuinely good feeling, and at other meetings it’s about having learned the tale of someone’s life.

I still occasionally try to size up the reason for accepting a meeting when I am asked: is this person going to try to sell me something?; is he or she going to pick my brain for information and then never use me for a freelance job? You can see how my creative little mind over-thinks things and I can’t deny that both of those scenarios have happened from time to time.

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Most of the time, however, these meetings are golden. A person I may have interacted with on Facebook or LinkedIn becomes much more than a series of comments, likes and photos. Someone I may have met briefly at a business mixer shows me a side to his or her personality I may have not been privy to in such a short snippet of time. And there are others I may have even misjudged at first glance, walking away from an in-face meeting with an entirely new appreciation for who that person is.

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Whatever I get from these meetings causes me some kind of paradigm shift that is difficult for even me to put into words. All I can say is that time like this is well spent. So my advice is this to all of you who, like me, unwittingly use social media as a substitute for the up-close meet and greet — get out there and just do it. Give people more than merely the sides to yourself you portray on Facebook. Offer them an opportunity to identify with your charming faults as well as hear the back story of who you are. Then listen to theirs. It’s called engaging in life. And it feels pretty damned good.

Late (somewhat meaningless) discoveries in life

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They say it’s never too late to learn something new. Some things come to you in a silly millisecond and those discoveries make you wonder what else you may be have been missing out on during the decades you’ve walked the earth. Add to that the notion that everyone else may have figured it all out long before you did and the feeling is often bittersweet. Still, I prefer to think of these watershed “Denaism” moments as fun discoveries.

Lest I sound cryptic, let me provide more clarity:

• All my life I have squirreled a hanger under many a short-sleeved or sleeveless short or blouse, poking the hanger part through the top, as is normal. Just a few years ago, I discovered that putting the side (bent) part of the hanger through an armhole gets the job done in ¼ the time. Embarrassing. By the way, it is rare that you find a hanger manufacturer that offers strap-niches and rubber shoulder-nubbies all on one hanging device. When you do – collect them in hordes.

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• Breakfast nooks are overrated. Kitchen islands with seating are more practical, provide more countertop space and when entertaining, offer guests a place to hang out. Using up your breakfast nook space by expanding your kitchen is just the practical thing to do.

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• Don’t let your contractor talk you out of even a narrow broom closet in your kitchen. They’re still worth their weight in gold. Ours was created because our contractor mis-measured the cabinet space. The extra room became a narrow but useful place for a stepladder, broom and dustpan.

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• Piling things on steps you intend to take upstairs does not get them up there any faster.

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• Rearranging furniture once in awhile makes it feel as if you’ve just moved into a new home. In the process, it also forces you to clean up those convenient little “piles” of things in corners.

• “Weeding” out your closet of the clothes you haven’t touched for at least three years frees up space in your closet. Oh. And it makes you want to buy more clothes.

• You can never park your car in exactly the same spot in your garage twice. Muscle memory seems to fail at these times.

• A formal living room is a great place to read, getting you out of your routine surroundings. It also makes reading a good book feel downright elegant.

• Towel bars just for show in bathrooms are terribly overrated. They’re towels, for cryin’ out loud – not priceless paintings. We were all taken in by homebuilders who displayed towels tied with “chotchkies” in model homes – but if you take down the bars and put towels in cabinets or on hooks instead, you can hang REAL artwork in your bathroom (or even put up shelving with more chotchkies…). The view from the throne, by the way, is much nicer.

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• Separate, dedicated spaces for both you and your spouse: a marriage saver, especially as you grow older together. Fight the need to reserve a bedroom for your adult children to return home to when they visit (I love that IKEA commercial) just to help them remember their childhoods fondly. Instead, take a picture of how the room used to look, frame it, and offer it to them instead. Then demolish the closet and make an office, hobby room or man cave out of the space. It’s your home.

• Setting up arbitrary dates way ahead of time to entertain people forces you to clean and de-clutter, do projects you’ve been putting off and gives you something to look forward to. So pick up that phone and make those calls more often than you currently do, then plan way ahead on your Outlook or iCalendar. It’s fun to have people in your home, it creates memories, it shows others you care, and it might also result in your being entertained someday as well. Novel concept.

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As I discover more (or think of more) Denaisms I will surely report them to you as they surface. And if you had already figured out everything that to me were eureka moments, I salute you. You just discovered what a slow learner I really am.

Muncie Revisited: Family Day Drive-Around

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To those of you who have been following both my Lost Muncie Facebook posts and read my Saturday blog post, I offer my sincere thanks for being on this journey with me. Your comments (apart from a few that skewed political for no good reason) have been heartfelt, thoughtful and extremely appreciated.

It had always been planned that I would reserve my second day in Muncie for my first cousin, Georgia (Mentis) Buckmaster and her family. When I left Muncie, her first child had just been born, so you can imagine my delight in meeting her other two now-grown children as well as a few of their children as well, many of whom had been friends on Facebook with me for several years.

In preparing my cousin for my visit, I mentioned that a number of you had asked if I had seen other parts of Muncie apart from the downtown and the BSU campus. So she agreed to drive me around to see a few more meaningful sights during the day before settling in at her house to bring out the old family photo albums and reminisce about our parents, childhoods and families.

Our first drive was to the Minnetrista Cultural Center, a gleaming modern landmark Muncie citizens proudly refer to as one of the latest fine additions to their city. The Center is a museum containing exhibits and offering programs that focus on nature, local history, gardens and art. Its 40 acres include changing exhibits, the historic home called Oakhurst, many themed gardens, outdoor sculptures and a portion of the White River Greenway, while the museum’s collections focus on East Central Indiana local cultural history. Its lush grounds and gardens serve as a respite for local residents and its contemporary interior lends a peaceful backdrop for locals and visitors to learn about Muncie’s ancient past all the way to its modern times.

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As this charmed weekend turned out, we happened onto both a garden fair as well as free admission to the museum, and it was fun as my cousin excitedly showed the displays of miniature mansions, old Indian settlements and photos of some of Muncie’s earlydays. One of the most interesting things I saw, however, was a giant bottling (jarring?) machine once used in the Ball factories of long ago.

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Next was a drive down Minnetrista’s “mansion row” — where each Ball family home can now be seen in slow motion down a beautifully landscaped and designed single-lane road. The homes, most of which are now used for meetings, foundations and offices, were diverse in their architecture.

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Checking our smartphone clocks, we discovered it was time to head downtown to our scheduled lunch with Georgia’s family, to be held at the Barn Brasserie on W. Charles St. in precisely the location my father’s piano store used to occupy. There waiting for us were my other cousins to whom I offered cousinly hugs and remarked on how long we had already been friends on Facebook. I will admit, however — eating an omelette in same place I used to hear pianos being tuned during my high school lunch hours was a bit surreal…

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As we walked out of the restaurant after a very satisfying brunch, we delighted our waitress with the tale of the “provenance” of the building she now worked in, now one of Muncie’s historical landmarks and once owned by a family of Greek immigrants.

Before meeting back at my cousin’s house, she offered me one more drive, this one to my old homes and schools. I accepted eagerly. Muncie Central’s old building across the street from my grandfather’s building, was demolished shortly after my graduation in favor of a new, huge structure not far away. I had never entered the newer building, but through the followers of Lost Muncie, had heard that it became the only high school (aside from Burris, which is connected to BSU as a laboratory school) to survive the cut when closures began to happen. I sympathize with those of you reading this who have lost their high school alma mater. And while the purple and white will remain and the famed Field House still stands, I salute those Muncie graduates and their sports teams who will forever be a part of the fabric of Muncie’s past.

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A drive by my old homes, both in Muncie’s western reaches, were the final stops on our trek. Our Brook Drive home was being constructed before we had even left California and was a ranch-style limestone home with a side-loading garage. It was there my brothers and I crudely erected our first-ever snowman and experienced frozen feet and blue noses. Our second home, sold in the mid ’70s when my parents decided they wanted to be near their kids in California, was a contemporary home we adored, with a see-through fireplace from one living area to another, open-beamed ceilings and blue and green slate floors. The home’s architecture and design was so out-of-sync with what most Muncie residents found appealing that it had sat empty for several years after it was built, but for us it was perfect. My cousin shrieked with delight as I exited our parked car and went to the front door to ring the doorbell to see if the current occupants might let me peek inside. Unfortunately, no one was home.

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My final few hours in Muncie were spent with my cousins, poring through old family photos and digging into folders Georgia had saved from her father’s times in World War II. One of my favorite pieces of memorabilia was her father’s list of Morse Code instructions:

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The moment that made my day, however, was when my cousin produced an old newspaper article that she had placed in a large plastic protector envelope. It was the original clipping containing a Muncie Evening Press interview of my father who, at age 19 in 1938, had returned from his first trip to Europe. In it, he recounted how everyone he met was worried about war coming to their shores. My father had been able to see his grandparents on that trip and even took home movies of them in their village vineyard with what must have been one of the first portable movie cameras known to man. He also described in detail in the article what it was like to meet his relatives in Greece for the first time and see the place where two of his brothers were born. I cannot describe how my heart pounded as I held this piece of memorabilia and can hardly wait to return home to show it to my two older brothers.

So what have I learned from this blogging adventure that now serves as a chronicle of my trip back to my old home town? I learned, for one, that you can never really go home again; at least things will never be the way they were when you left there. People leave and others arrive to direct life along a different path. Buildings get demolished and others rise not to replace them but to guide a town to its future. I found Muncie to be both a sweetly beautiful and sometimes, with some of its abandoned structures and homes in disrepair, bittersweet statement on life in Indiana — not an uncommon phenomenon all over the country over the past ten years or so. To me, however, its shining glory is Muncie’s stunning college campus, where the new and the fresh mingles with the old and the stately. Feeling the cool green grass under my toes as I strolled down the lawn at the regal Arts Building is something I will never forget.

My memories of the 12 years I spent in a place called Muncie will forever be a part of me. To all of you who have a place like this in your past — a place that holds both good and conflicting memories — I urge you to someday pay it a visit once again. It will put to rest your misconceptions and make you realize that everything you have done and everywhere you have ever lived is part of what makes you who you are.

Again — thanks for reading.

Muncie Revisited: A Journey Through New Eyes

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I had been warned. Since having joined the 11,000+ followers on Facebook’s “Lost Muncie” page, dozens of people had prepared me for what I was about to see when I arrived there today. They had described much through their comments and posts, lamenting all the changes the town of Muncie had been through since I left there in 1973. Visual historian and Muncie resident Jeff Koenker is owed a huge debt of gratitude for make this amazing forum possible for everyone to share.

What I found as my friend and fellow college coed Kay Prange and I drove into town, however, was not what I expected.

My frame of reference for Muncie is one I had thought about long before I booked this special visit. Now in my 60s, I have the luxury of putting things into perspective over a much longer period of time than ever before. I knew Muncie had lost much of its industry. I knew Muncie was experiencing the pains of what much of the Midwest and other parts of the country were going through — including how a regional mall robbed its thriving downtown of life. But as we drove past budding cornfields and entered Muncie from the south, what I saw surprised me.

The town was clean, gleaming in the bright June sunlight. Everything was exceedingly green and the sleepy Saturday serenity of small town life began to fill my senses as we entered downtown, where we were about to be met by Lost Muncie acquaintances and lifetime residents Cindy Norrick Turner and her husband Jeff, who had graciously offered to act as chauffeur for an entire day. Cindy, after having worked as a student in the campus library, had made a career at BSU and still works on campus. And while she was in my age range, I knew by our communications that she was intimately familiar with everything both old and new at Ball State, making her an excellent choice for this task.

The first downtown street we drove down before meeting our hosts at the lively (even on a Saturday) “Caffeinery” was W. Charles Street, a street where my immigrant grandfather once owned a chunk of the block and where his three sons owned businesses. Tears filled my eyes as I recalled growing up and hanging out there past the age of nine, when my dad had moved us from northern California to a place where he could open his beloved piano store and, along with my angelic little mom, raise their three children who had only seen Muncie on cross-country vacations each summer. I recalled my Popou’s (grandfather’s) white shock of hair and how he would sit on the wooden cover of an old steam heater in the window of my uncle George’s dry cleaner/hat shop (now an Edward Jones Investments office), cane in hand. People would greet him as “Pop” when they entered. He would speak to them in his gravelly voice with a heavy Greek accent, but made his good wishes known to all as they picked up there freshly dry cleaned suits and dresses.

After saying hello to the newer owners of Normandy Florists (once run by my Uncle Nick) and a peek inside The Barn Brasserie, once known as my dad’s “Keyboard Shoppe”, my heart stopped as I peered through a door up a set of steps between the stores that led to my grandparents’ old flat. A sign on the door said “for rent” and while everything else on that part of the block was different than what I remembered, NOTHING in that one small scene had changed since I left. The walls were still the roughly textured surface that used to hurt my hands as I touched them when bounding down those steps as a child, and two squeaky wooden doors remained halfway up the stairs, just as they always had. It was as if time has stood still.

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Soon it was time to meet our hosts, and after a lively round of introductions all around, we climbed into the Turners’ SUV and began to slowly drive around the downtown. Muncie Central had long disappeared, but the bank across the street from our store looked the same. JC Penney, which sported Muncie’s only set of escalators, was no longer there in name, but the building remained in another capacity. And my beloved Ball Stores was gone, but the stately old post office building gleamed from a recent sandblasting, making it look nearly new. Walnut Street boasted classy eateries and jewelry stores still displayed their wares, made serious only by the law offices that peppered the streetscape.

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After having lived in the land of freeways, coastline and palm trees for so long, I had forgotten how CLOSE everything was in Muncie. Downtown is 5 minutes’ driving time from the campus. I used to WALK from my house on the west end of town through some stunning neighborhoods and past Christy Woods.

No matter which part of Muncie we passed through, nothing was more than ten minutes away from the heart of town or the campus, which had grown in size, beauty and majesty since I left. New buildings graced older ones, lush landscaping had been added outside dormitories and classroom-filled buildings, a newer, expanded stadium facility echoed the sounds of football games and homecoming activities, and Greek letters still boasted fraternity houses along University Avenue. A stunning new bell tower interrupted the skyline and as I listened to the bells chime. Their echoes served to remind me of a time 40 years ago, when I wandered a busy campus of disconnected buildings with excruciatingly long pathways that now looked clean, purposeful and perfectly designed.

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And then I saw it. The Arts Building, where I had attended so many classes, stood like a beacon in time, its towering trees and huge fields of green looking even more beautiful than I had remembered them. My friend and I removed our shoes and began walking through the cool grasses as if we were in our 20s again. In the distance, a summer school student reclined on the grass not far from the building’s entrance taking in the afternoon sun, just as so many of us had done decades before.

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My classmate’s epiphany came when we passed LaFollette Hall, where she lived for a while at BSU. When Kay saw it, she gave a shriek of delight and walked toward its entrance hoping to find an open door and walk down its old hallways. Doors were locked for the summer, however. I felt her delight as she gazed up to the dormitory windows, reliving her youth, but saw her face go crestfallen when she reminded me that the building would soon be torn down and replaced with a newer version.

By mid-afternoon, hunger hit us and soon we found ourselves in the “Village” where I had long ago frequented my favorite now-departed clothing store, The Collegienne Shoppe. Construction was going on everywhere, and shops with luxury student housing being built over them are now poised to replace many of the older, more quaint buildings many Muncie residents already miss. Kay and I nearly screamed when we discovered an old 2-story building nearby that once housed a hippie-era head shop named “The Kaleidoscope.” Beneath it, steps led down to “The Chug”, it’s facade looking just as raunchy as it did in the old days. Jeff remarked over how much beer and its digestive aftermath must now grace the bar’s floor after all these years, making the rest of us laugh out loud as young passers-by looked at us as if we were in full dementia.

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We sat for a while at Scotty’s Restaurant and Bar, obviously the oldest patrons there. And as we ate our low-cal chicken wraps, we poured out our life stories of jobs and grown children. Before we left the village, however, we walked across the street to the T.I.S. College Book Store, where I was tempted to buy a “Ball U” t-shirt. Feeling that saying might look better on a younger specimen, however, I opted for a more tasteful pullover sweatshirt with a BSU logo to wear over my yoga pants.

We then drove through the neighborhood of Westwood, where we took photos of stunning French Tudors, stately English mini-mansions and even an art deco house that had been returned to its full glory.

Next was a slow drive down White River Blvd. where a newly refurbished and expanded Tuhey Pool was teeming with swimmers. It was a place I had long ago enjoyed summer dips with my brothers during visits from the west coast, so seeing it in its new glory was a delight for the eyes.

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Across the street was a majestic bend in the White River, where kayakers and canoe aficionados paddled in the lazy summer sun. The river banks were now enhanced with walkways designed and installed by BSU students, offering Muncie residents a lovely promenade and bikepath-with-a-view.

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By 4 pm, our emotions had crested and ebbed like waves in an ocean, and we decided we had taken in all we could for the day. We thanked our gracious hosts and repeated our delight in having spent a fascinating adventure with them as we witnessed both the nostalgically old and excitingly new charms of Muncie during our visit. But before we parted company, I asked my tour mates about their take on Muncie’s past and present.

Cindy Turner was frank in her comments when speaking about the relationship some Muncie residents have with its newer downtown persona and its constantly expanding college campus. “I would say that what has happened in Muncie is typical of the times, even though things here happened on a smaller scale over a long period. Like any other town this size, we got a mall and the downtown suffered. In recent years, there has been a resurgence toward downtown as an entertainment locale. But there are still issues between ‘town and gown.’” she says, looking at me in the back seat of the car. “The fact remains, however, that opportunities exist here for everyone to enjoy what Muncie now offers. That old saying about ‘leading a horse to water but not being able to make him drink’ rings true for a number of Muncie residents who have not afforded themselves a trip to the downtown area or even walked the college campus. There are still people here who think downtown isn’t safe, or the college campus is only for the educated or elite but it’s simply not the case. This is OUR town — every square mile of it. It’s time to get over the misconceptions so many people have about Muncie and see it for what it is — a thriving, beautiful community with a wealth of resources. Not to enjoy all of it is truly a travesty.”

And my friend Kay waxed nostalgic seeing her college campus after not having visited for 40 years. “I was surprised that I had the sense that I was back home again and realized how connected to the campus during my college years,” she admitted. “But today I also felt I was somewhere I hadn’t been before. So it was a mixed bag of emotions and when I think about it, it’s all both good and surprising at the same time!”

My take?

No. Muncie does not look the same. But in all honesty, I didn’t expect it to. A town that has gone through so many changes since I left in 1973 and had experienced an industrial swan song had also budded a new persona — one of beauty, hope and plans for its future, both downtown and on its gem of a college campus. And now that I have seen it I realize how my youthful zest to get the hell out of Dodge may have been hasty after all. This little ‘ol town still has a lot to offer.

Fireball and a Benson & Hedges

“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.”
― Benjamin Franklin

“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Alcohol may be man’s worst enemy, but the bible says love your enemy.”
― Frank Sinatra

Okay, I am not much of a drinker. My chick friends always have a laugh when I ask if they’d like to meet for a “big girl” drink instead of chatting over a Starbuck’s grande nonfat latte, but that invitation happens rarely and is for effect only. On the forms at a doctor’s office, that question about how much alcohol I consume is answered as “occasional drinker.” But as I write this, I have a cheap drink on board – a fully iced glass of cinnamon whisky. And I smoked TWO cigarettes. In the sun. In my backyard. Our little dog has no idea what has come over me while my husband takes a much-needed nap inside our air-conditioned house.

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So what is it? The desire to numb myself? Nope. The desire to feel just a teeny bit off-balance and bodacious? Perhaps. The desire to recapture my youth, most of which was terribly sheltered, while reminiscing about the parts that made me feel as if I had broken free of the love/hate relationship I had with guilt? Maybe just a bit.

The answer, however, is one of celebration. I think anyone who knows me can tell you that I am a 62-year-old chick with an attitude. Of course, by the time you turn 62, you really don’t give a crap about what other people think. And if you do, there is something terribly wrong with your sense of time in the big scheme of things.

“Scheme.” That’s a Greek word, you know. Oh. Sorry. Free associative thinking happening there…

After all, how many years do we have left once we are in our 60s? 20, 30, 35 years? That is only, perhaps, another 1/3 tacked onto a 60+-year-old life. But just think. How important were those FIRST 30 years? In my mind, they were monumental. In other words, I have an entire LIFETIME (yes, I capped that) to live.

Perhaps that’s why I am celebrating. I still have time. I have time to travel, I have time to lose those 30 lbs. that drive me distraction as my husband gives up bread for three days and loses 8 lbs. by just breathing. I have time to enjoy watching my daughter’s amazing life unfold. And I have time to enjoy the company of someone I discovered had been there all along, just waiting for me to be free of constraints; a man who shares my every moment whether it’s near or from afar but happens to have become my (legal) partner in life. I have to keep reminding myself that we are not living in sin, because being with him is so much fun.

Yes. Life is good. My pack of Benson & Hedges reminds me of my college days. I have owned this pack of cigarettes for about eight months now and it still looks full. But B&H cancer sticks were my puffs of choice in college. One drag takes me back to the days I spent in Athens, Greece, as a student at an American college. I was blissfully out of the watchful eye of my Big Fat Greek Wedding parents, dangling a cigarette in one hand and a drink in another as I danced and partied with strange men in a foreign country. The alcohol? I am a cheap date (2 drinks is Valhalla), but the feeling it gives me – especially in the lovely spring sunshine of my backyard – is liberating and nostalgic with a little bit of horny thrown in just to make the experience interesting. (Oh gawd. Is my daughter reading this? I think I hear her puking…)

I am what I would call a holdout. I still get up every morning and put on some makeup, even though I work from home doing freelance writing. I still wear good-sized heels under my jeans, to the amusement of almost every woman-in-my-age-range I know. And I still look in the mirror and think of ways to dress edgily but cleverly enough that people don’t notice the middle-age waist, my sun-ripened skin, or the wrinkles in my neck. After all, no one described what your 60s would feel like, so I guess I am making up what it looks like as I go along.

My message in all this is to enjoy those small moments as you reach your 50s, your 60s, or even your 70s; those moments you realize you weren’t really a sucky parent and if you weren’t a parent, you probably enjoyed some fine times in life anyway; those moments you realize you may have brought joy or even enlightenment into someone else’s life; those moments when you feel fully charged with the knowledge that each day is indeed a gift. And if a drink and a cigarette once in a blue moon can enhance that thought process, what the hell? You can always take three steps back and punt.

There is always time.

Namedays: Still a Robust Greek Tradition

Today is the day you will see a number of people post good wishes on my Facebook timeline. But it won’t be for a birthday, anniversary, or graduation. This day is much bigger than that in the eyes of Greeks, whether they live in Greece, Canada, England, Australia or the U.S. You see, today is the day for which my patron saint, Constantine, and his holy mother, Helen, are honored – martyrs so revered in the Greek faith (or any of the Eastern Orthodox faiths as well) that for centuries, Greeks have named their children after them.

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Any Greek you speak to will quickly acknowledge that name days outrank birthdays in anticipation, scope and significance, and they will also tell you they are a lot more enjoyable because everyone is celebrating at the same time. My Athenian cousins pointed out to me when I asked why this is so much more fun than birthdays and their answer made sense. “No one has to remember a specific date to honor you, so we just check our calendars, then look through our address books for everyone we know named Peter, or Dena, or George, or Paul (etc.) and we know who we will be calling or seeing that day.”

Naming conventions in Greece are still observed, with the result that certain names are used for many individuals in a generation. Remember the scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Gus Portokalos is introducing the extended family to his future “dry-as-toast” in-laws? “Welcome to my home. Over here is my brother, Ted, and his wife, Melissa, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. Over here, my brother Tommy, his wife Angie, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. And here, my brother George, his wife Freda, and their children, Anita, Diane and Nick. Taki, Sophie, Kari, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, uh, Nikki, and I am Gus.”

Simple explanation. While Gus’ siblings and their spouses all had different names, they all named their children after grandparents who were, in turn, all named for their grandparents until it traces back to their all being named for saints.

Because of these naming rules, in some cases the same names have been used in an unbroken line for hundreds of years in a single family, if not longer, just as in Gus’ family. Some names even reflect a particular part of Greece or its history, such as how there is an abundance of “Pauls” on the south coast of Crete, where St. Paul is said to have been shipwrecked nearly two thousand years ago.

While not as common, the practice of naming children after mythological gods or goddesses still happens, such as with the names Dionisis, Apollo or Aphrodite, but somewhere along the way, a saint may have had that moniker anyway, since there were several St. Dionysises (Agios Dionysos) who would be the relic honored rather than for the wine-loving, party-hearty Greek god.

But what’s most fun about name days is that the day usually includes a party and small gifts to the honoree. Families and friends travel in small crowds to visit everyone close to them who has a name associated with that particular saint’s day. It is said that in past times, this was open to literally anyone passing on the street, but most parties these days are by invitation. Obviously, people will usually know where all the celebrations are, because most are celebrated in that person’s home, who “receives” guests in open house fashion, with a huge culinary spread offered all day long.

In Greece, since the saint is also having a celebration, people visit any local church named for that saint as well, make an offering and lighting a candle in remembrance of that saint’s sacrifice or significance. Bigger churches will put on the larger festivals, often with free food and drink, but even the smallest of chapels will commemorate their saint’s special day in some way. Many of the little chapels you see in rural or cluster-village areas will only be open once a year on the day of their saint. I can recall being in my father’s village on St. Mary’s Day – one of the church’s biggest holidays — where Greeks traveled from all over Greece to their family’s ancestral villages to crowd around churches the size of a small living room, donkeys braying in the background and everyone dressed in their best. And if the village itself is named for the saint, even travelers who happen to be nearby at the time can count on witnessing a terrific party on that day.

Greek children or those of the diaspora will never complain, however, since they get a full TWO days of the year – both their birthdays and their namedays – to be recognized, honored and partied over.

So next time you see one of your generations-removed Greek friend’s timelines plastered with good wishes on a day you know is not that friend’s birthday, be sure to wish him or her a hearty “Hronia Polla” – (many years to you). We welcome any and all those who recognize this tradition. And there may even be a little food in it for you.

A Different Drummer

I will be the first to admit that my daughter’s entrepreneurial talents have been a surprise to me. But if you have a child – especially a daughter — that defies the accepted norms, you may be able to relate to my story.

Some of the stories I tell now about my daughter didn’t seem amusing at the time, such as when she was a 4th grader and her teacher told me she thought my daughter had Tourette’s syndrome because she was “off task in class” and humming all the time. So I put my daughter to a test to see if this behavior was willful or uncontrollable. If she came home for one solid week with a daily note from her teacher saying that none of these behaviors had occurred, she would be rewarded with a trip to her favorite novelty shop for a small spending spree. She earned the spending spree, but when I told her teacher she needed stricter limits at school, it fell on deaf ears. It seems the attention issues my daughter was having were much more tolerated in boys than girls at the time. While distractible, antsy boys were dubbed as having “too much energy”, it was parenting skills teachers blamed most often when bored-out-of-their-heads girls had a hard time getting with the program.

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By her fifth grade year, I nearly popped a Valium before facing my next parent-teacher conference. But – no need. Because that was the year my daughter had a veritable army sergeant as a teacher. This woman’s retired husband sat in the back of the classroom and no one got away with squat on her watch. We breathed a sigh of relief and we had not one complaint.

It was, however, to be the only year like it.

Oh, I was fully aware that my offspring could manipulate situations and accounts to try to make herself look like the victim when she got into trouble. I grounded my “anxious” child until groundings became meaningless to her. But when comparing my parenting style to that of my own Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding parents, I was still a football field of freshly baked baklava more lenient than they had ever been. So I bounced from parenting self-help book to family counselor, and soon a therapist informed me after testing us that my anxiety was the highest of the three of us.

By high school she had stopped caring about looking perfect for her peers and began dressing in used clothing – something totally foreign to a mom with a Level II Nordstrom debit card. It was a nightmare to wake her up in time to get her off to school, so I decided to look into an independent study program for her through a local school district from which she eventually got her diploma.

By the time her father and I parted ways, she took her much-desired escape to the Northwest to live on her own. The risks she took living up there left me a bit grayer every time she called to tell me about them but somehow we remained bonded through it all, visiting one another and redefining our understanding of the mother-daughter dance we were determined to learn.

Over the next few years, my little girl developed a love of photography, turned vegan/freegan/anarchist/anti-capitalist for awhile, had her first long-term boyfriend and bought LOTS of clothing I thought only homeless people would wear. To my delight, toward the end of that painful chapter she walked me down the aisle to the man I loved in a 1950s vintage emerald green dress and a pair of beautiful high-heeled pumps she promptly returned to the store because she told me she would probably never wear them again.

Within a few months, she moved back to San Francisco. The pride she had begun to take her hair, makeup, and “hip” vintage clothing (I no longer refer to it as smelly used clothes) gave me hope, but I remained cautious about overdoing my praise. She asked to move in with us for a few months so that she could start an eBay vintage clothing business without the high overhead rent of a San Francisco apartment and we said yes. Together we shopped for clothing racks, figured out a labeling system for her merchandise and then I bowed out, leaving her to the business of doing business.

She hired Berkeley coeds to be her models and paid them with a $20 bill or a hamburgers after photo shoots. And when a slew of dresses sold for five times what she paid for them, she would shoot me a celebratory call from the pool house she had moved to in the dreaded suburbs, since she knew I was watching the bidding take place. It was, however, only the beginning. About a year later, this “off-task” child then launched her new web site with the help of an old high school buddy. Her work ethic blew me away. The precision with which she photographed, described, measured and even labeled her merchandise to ship off to eager young millennials was a sight to behold. I knew she was finding her way.

Over the past seven years my daughter has moved her business several times and now has operations between California and the Midwest, occupying state-of-the-art facilities and employing hundreds of people. She has been featured on the covers of magazines, written about in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, Glamour, Elle and even Vogue magazines.

And yes. There is a God. She writes. Her recently-released first book, Girlboss, is a manifesto to help entrepreneurial young women find their dreams while offering no apologies to anyone along the way as she lays her past bare for all to see.

My now 30-year old is driven by her passion to change as grow with her company but still has difficulty relaxing when she wants to. To overcome this she has hired key people to help her manage it all and has become adept at realizing she needs frequent weekend escapes just to regroup and regain her footing.

I will readily admit to being a mom whose daughter remains an enigma to her. I realized that her stubborn refusal to accept things without question came from a strength of spirit that she eventually grew to use to her advantage.

To avoid becoming a parent whose child was reduced to a collection of absolutes, however, I just stopped trying to be the shrink.

And that, it seems, has made all the difference.

Brainstorming for Topics: An Art Form

Mea Culpa. I will be the first to admit that I don’t blog often enough these days and when I do, I enjoy writing about more topics that are everyday life-related than on giving advice that sells my freelance writing services. That might have something to do with a lovely “certain” age I have become, when the “been-there-done-that” side of me just wants to share and celebrate the blissfully mundane.

But my business-building days of multiple writing accounts and several deadlines per week for those clients did teach me a lot and I wanted to share my little “system” with you.

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I developed this habit of “brainstorming” with my crazy creative side to plan ahead – something I am sure most of us try to do but often fall short. Each week, it took only about 30 minutes to an hour to gather an entire list of things to draw from for myself or for my clients after some intense Google searches that took me to new places and new tidbits of information, adding or subtracting words to my search to see what new results might reveal themselves. I’d go by what I found interesting and unique and what might not have been covered before on a particular topic or in a particular field.

Each URL that turned on a mini-light-bulb got dragged onto my desktop, making the messiest, “stacked up” computer screen in the home office neighborhood. But soon I would begin to categorize them and place them in folders for future use. Apart from things I found online, I sometimes resurrected some of my more popular past blogs and articles when in self-marketing mode. Other times I would simply make a mental note to “update” my nearly 1,000 Facebook friends on something I was planning to do or attend (or talk about it post-mortem) so I could take them along for the ride. Whatever it was, I wanted it to be fresh, entertaining and worthy of a reader’s time, since the average attention span on the Interest is ADHD-like short.

Some of these items are there to stir more thought and others are there for imminent launch whenever the mood strikes me. These can be in the form of articles I read, famous quotes that hit me like bolts of lightening, cartoons or jokes that illustrate something ironic or even bolster my belief system, or something that simply inspires me.

So next time you are reading something fascinating online – about your own business, about a passion you have, or about something you can talk about that helps brand you as an expert, do the “Dena Drag” and save those gems on your desktop. You’ll never be at a loss for words.

The Black Piano: Reuniting With an Old Friend

Four good-sized men were paid a hefty fee to take our grand piano up the switchback stairs to a loft area that had never been used for anything but a home for an inversion table and weight bench, both long ago sold on Craigslist. As it turned out, not a single mover in Sacramento would risk trying to put this enormous instrument into place. So we hired a San Francisco company for this monumental task. The City is, after all, one of the nation’s most compact, vertical urban places in the world, so it is not unusual there for movers to shimmy large objects up narrow stairways.

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Legs, lid, keyboard – everything was taken apart and carefully carried, step by step, to our loft, to be reassembled and permanently set up, giving a little-used part of our home purpose at last. It took a full two hours of grunting, avoiding walls and communicating with one another for these guys to do this. And once it was set up, it was a thing of beauty to behold.

You see, this isn’t just any piano. It is a vintage Yamaha ebony grand piano brought all the way from Japan, back in the late ‘60s, when my father owned a piano store in the Midwest. This one was placed in our living room for all to use. One of the first dealers to merchandise Japanese pianos in Indiana, my father would brag about the Yamaha brand as if it were a well kept secret – pianos made so well that they didn’t even need tuning after weathering such a long trip across the Pacific and over land to Indiana. Soon the university in our town would buy a fleet of them – for its music building, its dormitories, and its performing arts center. And the windfall of profit my father made from this transaction provided our family its first trip to Europe, when I was only 13. So what this piano represents in my life is much more than a mere piece of furniture.

My father played the standards by ear, wowing his customers and wooing them with the promise of music in their homes. Mom was a trained pianist, could read music well and play it hauntingly beautifully — as if each musical phrase were a prayer. To add to all that, one of my brothers was so good at playing nearly anything he tried that he eventually became a well-known pianist on cruise ships, making a 30-year career from it, evoking sighs and loving envy from the rest of us. Whoever played this piano remarked on its amazing tone, its delicate touch and the pleasure they got from playing it, so I guess you could say that it carries with it the parties, family gatherings, and at-home concerts that so richly populated my youth.

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As for me? I had a good ear and could play a lot of things from memory, but was undisciplined with piano lessons, always trying to short-cut and rebelling at learning the basics. I loved playing, but resented how it came so easily to others in my family. Having discontinued piano lessons around age 8, I refused to take lessons again until I was older and could pay for them myself. This time, I would dictate to my piano teacher what I wanted to learn to play instead of being told. My goal was to learn to learn to play the intricate and syncopated musical phrases of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It took me a full year to get to the score’s main theme, and there I stopped, admitting that 20 pages were enough to keep me therapeutically busy for the rest of my life, since I figured I was not all that great at it anyway.

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For a number of reasons, I all but abandoned the piano. College, travel and work got in my way, followed by having a life partner for 20 years who had little appreciation for my passion for music or writing, leaving me to believe I was not all that special after all. Sadly, it was not until I left him that I was able to cherish whatever skills lay untapped within me. Still, I saw piano-playing as something I would return to later – much later – in my life.

Losing Mom while she was still in her 60s was a sucker-punch no one in the family expected. Missing from our lives would be her care-taking, her intense sweetness, her sumptuous meals, the beautiful music she played on this special piano, and the reverence with which she would walk around our house on Holy Saturday with a candle in her hand at Easter time, singing the “Christ Has Risen” hymn over and over again after the clock struck midnight. Pop was lost without her and although he stuck around for seven more years, he would never be the same man again.

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Following Pop’s departure, my two brothers, in a moment of grace, decided to let me have our parents’ Yamaha grand piano when I remarried as a wedding gift; no gift in the world could have been more precious to me. And as my new husband and I moved from a rental home in the Bay Area to our own home in a Sacramento suburb, the piano became my most prized possession. At first, it occupied a huge space in our formal living room, leaving room only for a sofa and chair and robbing us of coffee table space because of how far it protruded into the center of the room.

When a plumbing flood forced us to evacuate and put all our furniture into storage, we carefully selected a mover that had a temperature-controlled facility for this beloved friend. And upon re-occupying a now partially remodeled space, we decided to use the loft as a music room in perpetuity, since we knew we would never leave this home, and the search began for a mover willing to take on the task.

Once the black piano was in place, I would sporadically sit down and play my oldies-but-goodies – Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” and a few other pieces that had become muscle memory over the years. But it wasn’t until last night that a paradigm shift took place in me that hurled me toward taking lessons again.

Please understand that I am not by nature a jumpy or nervous person. But last night was different. As I sat at my computer tapping out emails and editing client copy I was working on, I felt something missing – a void that pleaded with me to fill it. I called out to my husband, whose office is just down the hall from my own. “I’m all antsy,” I said. “I don’t know what to do with myself.” He suggested going to the gym and swimming laps, but I knew in my bones that that was not the answer.

Soon I found myself ascending the stairs that led to the loft – a place I visit only to prepare our home for guests. I turned on lights, grabbed a pile of sheet music from a nearby cabinet and sat down to play. I knew it would sound terrible – my sight-reading ability had atrophied and my fingers often missed important sharps and flats. But as I played old songs from my parents’ generation such as Misty, Makin’ Whoopee, Satin Doll and even a few classical pieces, I knew I had found my answer. The sheer pleasure of this long overdue act filled my soul and reminded me of the rich life and love of family that bears no price tag. It brought memories of my mother’s beaming smile and her high-pitched voice flooding back to me. At times I could picture her ensconced in the playing of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune”, with its other-worldly chord progressions and delicate melody.

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Perhaps Oz’s Dorothy was right. All you really need in life is right in your own backyard — or in this case, up a flight of stairs. Because truly reuniting with my old friend, whose 88 black and white keys were begging to be touched, was transformative. And in the tradition of many who came before me, I will once again let music flow through my fingers, taking its therapy, memories, and smiles along for the ride.