Category Archives: Writing

Ending 2012 with firefighters on my mind

Mike Chiapperini

Lt. Michael Chiapperini

I’ve spent the last two days watching funerals on TV. West Webster Firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were laid to rest and their services were aired live on one of our local news channels. (You can read more about the events that led to their deaths in this post.)

The services were so different. Chiapperini was married with children, and his funeral service focused on his family and on his 25 years with the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department and his 19 years with the Webster Police Department. The first hour was spent with first responders filing past his casket.

Tomasz Kaczowka

Tomasz Kaczowka

Kaczowka was just 19 years old, only a year out of high school; his funeral service was much more religious in nature, focusing on his committment to his Polish- American heritage and his strong ties to his church. The first hour of his service was a traditional Catholic mass.

In both cases, thousands and thousands of first responders from across the U.S. and Canada stood in formation outside the church or school where the services where held. Appropriate, as the two died together in the line of duty on the morning of Christmas Eve when a madman started a fire to lure first responders to the scene, and then gunned them down.

They died together, mentor and mentee.

Different funeral services, yes, but, like their lives, together they seemed to perfectly bookend the life of a first responder. Chapparini was the more experienced public servant, leaving behind a long legacy of public service and in the dozens of young people he’s mentored over his lifetime – one of them being Kaczowka. Kaczowka was in the spring of that call to a lifetime of service. That lifetime, though shorter in years, leaves a lasting impact that will be felt for decades through lives of other firefighters and coworkers who knew him.

On this last day of 2012, my original plan was to look back on the year and recap the positive changes I’ve made in my life and the obvious progress towards regaining my sense of self.

In other words: me, me, me, me.

But the events of the last week have left me pondering less about myself and more about the nature of service and community. Continue reading

Three lessons I learned this month about following God

So I’m up at 7 AM because I need to write. Not want to write or have something I’d like to think about writing. I neeeeeed to write. Like, if I don’t write it, it’ll cause me great pain.

It’s about the concept of following God.

As you know, I’ve volunteered for a project recently. Without going into a lot of details, I was ready to work. Ready, willing, and able to do this and this and that, because I’m very experienced at this and this and that, and I’m very good at this and this and that, and the project needed this and this and that.

Perfect match, right? So I volunteered. And talked at length about doing this and this and that and thought I was part of the team and all was good.

Except – and if you’ve ever volunteered for something and God was in any way involved – this and this and that just wasn’t happening. That and that and this other thing were going full speed ahead, and a whole lot of other that and that and this other thing were happening and successful. Except me and my this and this and that were over on the sidelines by ourselves saying, “Hey, what about us?”

It’s frustrating, isn’t it?

The problem, of course, wasn’t the project. The problem was me. I was focused on what I’d volunteered to do, not on what was being done. Sure, I can do this and this and that, but maybe this and this and that isn’t needed any more. Or maybe someone else stepped up to do this and this and that and they do it just fine.

But I wanted to help. I wanted to be part of the whole thing. I offered and they said yes and then everything moved and I was left behind.

Really. Even I see how glaringly arrogant that sounds.

So lying in bed last night, feeling left out - boo hoo for poor me - it occurred to me that if I focused instead on what did happen instead of what didn’t, maybe I’d learn a lesson.

Or three.

Here goes … Continue reading

Emma Moore, Sarah Bardwell and me

It took months, but a reward was finally offered for information leading to the disappearance of Emma Moore. While the citizens took up the search immediately, the mayor and police insisted Emma left town of her own accord. When her body turned up in the river, they were proven wrong.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately doing research on a woman named Emma Moore, who I learned about when I went on the “Mischief, Murder and Mayhem” tour at Mt. Hope. (For the record, I am there so much I joined the Friends of Mt. Hope and volunteered to be a tour guide in the spring.)

Anyway, in Rochester, NY in 1854, Emma Moore went missing. Left home one night and simply disappeared. She was a single, 37 year old seamstress who had a loving family, a good job, some money of her own, and no reason to leave town without letting her family know where she went.

Her disappearance stunned the community, and for months afterwards thousands of citizens met nightly to coordinate a search for her – since the Mayor and police refused to believe she’d come to harm or investigate her disappearance. (In fact, she disappeared in November of 1854 and it took until February of 1855 before an official police reward was offered.)

The citizens scoured the areas surrounding the city, the Lake, the river. They followed every lead and interviewed hundreds of people. The raised money and donated time and diligently searched for the woman they hailed as a modest woman of impeccable character.

Then in March of 1855, the body of Emma Moore was found, frozen in the river. When the coroner examined her body, he found she was six months pregnant.

Her 26 year old fiance was the prime suspect, but while an inquest found that Emma had drowned, the jurors were unable to determine if she had been murdered or if she committed suicide. Emma Moore is buried in an unmarked grave in her family’s plot, the woman once known for her impeccable character hidden away forever due to the scandalous nature of her death.

I’m fascinated by Emma Moore, her life and her death. In an era where woman had few rights or money of their own, she had a little money – about $20 cash left in her room, $20 cash on her when she disappeared, a savings account with about $100, and notes that indicated she’s lent out small amounts of money to friends.

In an age when woman married young, she was single into her middle years. Unmarried and with a much younger fiance. Was that unusual? Despite the fact they were engaged about 3 years, why didn’t they marry? He apparently had lost fingers in an accident and was unable to work (he was a cutter in a tailor’s shop); how would Emma have felt about working to support a younger husband – because upon marriage, anything she had would have become his.

How unusual was it for a woman to be sexually involved with a man to whom she wasn’t married? We like to think of our ancestors as pure and innocent, but was that really how it was? An unmarried, pregnant woman today doesn’t raise an eyebrow. But in 1854? Another story.

And of course, there’s the big mystery: Why did she disappear? Who knew she was pregnant? Was she killed or did she commit suicide? There’s much to believe the truth lies with the former.

I’m also enamored with the story of another woman, Sarah Bardwell. Her interment records indicate that she died of “insanity”. How does one die specifically of “insanity”? I get that you can die of causes related to insanity – suicide, walking naked around town in December and freezing to death. But just … going insane until you die?

Sarah Bardwell died of “insanity” after spending the last 25 years of her life in an asylum.

So I did a little digging and found a newspaper notice of her death, which said:

“Under the effects of religious excitement, at a time well remembered by many of our old citizens, Miss B. suffered mental injury, from which she never recoverd, and the latter years of her life were spent in an excellent Asylumn at Brattleboro, where her friends had placed her with the hope of restoration at first but where she remained for comfort and safety.”

From all accounts, the Asylum in Brattleboro was fairly progressive; treatment included nature walks and painting and music and lots of rest. And the “time well remembered” is most likely the Finney revivals that swept Rochester in the 1830s, making the city a hot bed of evangelism for the entire nation.

“Insane” is a little subjective, in this case. So you know I’m doing research into the Finney revivals, what a “mental injury” from that experience might look like, and what it would be like for a woman to be committe to an insane asylum in the 1850s.

What ties these two women together? When Emma Moore disappeared, Sarah’s brother was the Police Justice.

One of the things I’ve determined this year is that maybe my purpose is to give voice to those who can’t tell their own stories. It’s a general idea that I’ve been able to apply specifically without committing myself to any one genre of writing. And that realization has been really helpful for me. I can share about animal issues, although I find that I’m less and less interested (and often completely turned off by the aggressive, angry, divisive animal scene; but that’s a story for another day).

More importantly, I can share Emma and Sarah’s stories, two women lost in history but whose stories are interesting and important.

And soon, I’ll be sharing about some children in Uganda. Stay tuned for more on that.

I’ve been going through some old columns, written over the years for a variety of community newspapers or niche magazines. Someone suggested I compile them into a book.

That seems like a lot of work, so just for kicks (and to keep the blog fresh) I thought I’d start sharing them here. Up first: one of my favorites, written about the kid who checked out my groceries. I imagine Spencer now, drifting his way across the country and charming middle-aged moms from coast to coast. Keep the dream alive, kiddo …

Youth and Groceries
by Joanne Brokaw

At the grocery store today I watched Spencer, the checkout boy, as he talked a blue streak to the middle aged mom ahead of me in line, exuding youthful energy as he scanned broccoli and toilet paper, bantering with her young boy about how great it is to be sick because you get to miss school and watch cartoons all day.

When it was my turn in line, he greeted me with his usual “How’s it going? Did you find everything you were looking for?” and then suddenly said, “You have amazing eyes. What color are they? Blue? Green?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, a bit startled. “It kind of depends on what color I’m wearing, I guess.”

“You don’t know? Well, you’re wearing grey so today they’re blue. Piercing blue-green. Great eyes.” He flashed his surfer smile and shook his shaggy bangs out of his eyes as he stuffed my tilapia and cat food into a bag.

The grey he was referring to could have been the old grey hooded sweatshirt I was wearing, or the dark circles underneath my eyes that come from a lack of sun or sleep, or maybe from the stray grey hair that was poking out from my messy ponytail. Either way, it was clearly not a come on; I have leftovers in my refrigerator older than this kid. It’s just his natural personality, his ease with himself and with others, his ability to simply make conversation, unable to not converse. Continue reading

On a trip in 2006. Nope, still don’t know how the plane stays in the air. (That’s Key West below. If I have to crash, I guess it’s as good a place as any, right?)

In my continuing effort to pull out columns that might be worth reprinting in an e-book, let me share another of my favorites. It’s from 2008, just after the airlines started charging passengers to check their luggage. (Who knew I would be right, and that airlines would start charging to check our first piece of luggage? Really, I should play the lottery more often.)

Anyway, for the record, my brother-in-law, who is both a commercial and military pilot, has tried for years to explain to me how a plane stays aloft. I still don’t get it. Not that that should surprise any of my regular readers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

That’ll Be An Extra $25, Please
by Joanne Brokaw

I need to emphasize right at the start that I’m not an aeronautical expert. I can’t figure out how a plane flies without flapping its wings like a bird, so it will come as no surprise that I don’t understand the new airline policies about luggage.

If you’ve traveled by plane recently you know that most airlines, in an effort to offset rising fuel costs, are now charging passengers anywhere from $25 to $100 to check a second suitcase.

I thought perhaps the airlines were encouraging passengers to pack lighter so the planes would weigh less and therefore use less gas. But on a recent flight, our take-off was delayed so the crew could add ballast to the plane because, as the pilot happily informed us, the passengers “didn’t check enough luggage.”

Excuse me. Did you want me to check a second suitcase or not? Because I had a lot of stuff I could have packed if I knew you needed more weight. I just didn’t want to pay an extra $25 to haul three pair of black boots, two jackets and four pair of jeans through the friendly skies, just in case I changed my mind about what I wanted to wear while I was in Ohio for 48 hours.

I’m not sure what the charge for checking a second suitcase is intended to accomplish, if it’s not to make the planes lighter. Sure, the airlines will generate some additional income – for a while at least, until passengers learn to stuff everything into one suitcase. Then they’ll be forced to start charging us for the basics, like checking our first suitcase, using the lavatory during a flight, and breathing pressurized cabin oxygen.

First, though, the airlines are trying to save a few bucks by flying more slowly. One airline expects to save $42 million this year [at the time of this writing] by extending each flight by two or three minutes.

So let me get this straight. First you make me cram everything I need into one suitcase (and still keep it under 50 pounds) while you turn around and add extra weight to the plane? And now you’re going to fly slower (as if being suspended magically in the atmosphere for hours isn’t nerve-wracking enough already)?

How about a compromise? I’ll agree to pay an extra $25 for a suitcase filled with shoes so that your airline staff doesn’t need to add ballast to the plane, and I’ll be patient and wait three more minutes to get to my destination. In exchange, you’ll have let me collect tips as I undress in the security line. If I have to remove half of my clothing just to get to my gate I might as well get something in return.

Think about it. With a long enough wait going through security, I could make enough money to pay for that extra suitcase.

* * * * * * * *

Read more columns from the archives

Musings on the job hunt (and my lack of employable job skills)

This is the kind of “help wanted” sign I need to see.

I’ve joked recently about my attempts to find a job. A real job. One where I do stuff and people pay me. Unlike writing, where I think about writing stuff and occasionally actually do write stuff, and sometimes I get paid four or five months later.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing, and for a long time I had several fabulous editors I loved writing for. They are still fabulous but I’m not so much in love with crafting paragraphs for dollars. It kind of burned me out. It’s a lot of work for very, very little money, and as the industry has changed so has the income possibilities for writers like me. Lots of writing with pay tied to page views, which means that you not only have to write but then market the heck out of whatever you just wrote. All to reach minimum goals for minimum pay. It’s a great way to supplement a career as an expert something, but not such a great way to maintain a steady income.

I have a resume – at least, what I’ve always thought a resume should be. It’s a list of the jobs I’ve had for the last five years or so. For those of you actually more experienced at job searching in today’s culture, it probably will not surprise you to learn that my resume has yielded me zero responses.

That’s because, apparently, today’s resume isn’t supposed to be focused on your past job experiences but on your skills. As in “stuff you know how to do that people are willing to pay for.”

I’m screwed.

Over the last month or so, I’ve been brainstorming with friends (including my sister, who is a hot shot human resources expert) about what kind of job I might be good at. And like. And get paid for. (Those are all not mutually exclusive, I might add. Although it might be a lot to ask for.)

So what kind of job could I do? I am not trained in any speciality and I have been out of the traditional workplace for more than a decade. And let’s face it: I’m not really that much fun to be around all day long, especially if I’m hungry or need a nap.

I admit it. I’ve been spoiled.

My sister keeps telling me that I underestimate the effect that I have on people. She might have a point (if she meant that it’s a positive effect). I do very much like leading groups and I enjoy making people feel needed and special, taking time to include them in things when other people might not. But being nice isn’t really a marketable job skill, unless you can get paid just for making people happy. (And not in a job that requires you to stand on a streetcorner at midnight.)

Ada, my dog trainer friend, told me recently that she thinks I’d make a good dog trainer. For many years now, I’ve been an avid amateur student of dog behavior, communication, and health. I’ve read books, I’ve taken classes, I’ve done some online study. I volunteered at an animal shelter, I’ve interviewed and written about rescue groups. I even attempted to shadow a dog trainer. In short, I love all things dog. I can talk with legitimate knowledge about genetics, dog breeding, behavior, socialization, dog evolution and other dog-related topics. I love educating people about how to better communicate with their dogs, care for their dogs or choose a lifelone canine companion.

The problem? I’m kind of afraid of other people’s dogs. At the shelter, I worked at the front desk. I couldn’t even walk the dogs – partly due to the fact that several dogs I got chummy with ended up taking a one way trip to the tech room, if you get my drift. I don’t have the heart or the stomach for that.

But I also had several instances where I found myself, alone, trying to get a dog in or out of a cage without letting it escape (and not always successfully). I took one dog out for a walk and when he jumped up to put his paws on my shoulders, pinning me against the wall for several panic-filled minutes, I decided that maybe working with dogs wasn’t for me.

Plus, when I shadowed another dog trainer I learned that, in general, dog owners are pretty clueless and happy to stay that way, despite the fact that they are paying large sums of money to become educated on how to have better relationships with their dogs. My fear of strange dogs is eclipsed only by my low tolerance for stupid people.

And you already know about my lack of math skills. I mean, seriously. No numbers. When I was considering bartending as a possible career, it was the task of adding drink prices in my head that convinced me it wasn’t the job for me. Take three drinks at $2 each, then add in a drink that’s $3.50 and I’m in trouble. I need to figure that out by counting on my fingers; what do I do with the 50 cents?

So what am I qualified to do? Here are some of my skills. Somewhere out there, there has to be a job for me: Continue reading

On the job hunt

Maybe I should apply to be the Zamboni driver at the ice arena? Can’t you just picture me and Bandit riding around the rink?

I’ve spent much of this evening looking for a job, scouring pages and pages of help wanted ads on various employment websites. I need a job, and I think I need to bring in income from non-writing related sources for a while. Let’s give that puppy a rest. I need to just write for myself for a while.

I don’t know what everyone is complaining about, job wise; there are lots of jobs on these sites. Just none I want to do.

Receptionist with knowledge of Microsoft Office? Nope. Retails sales? Too screwy of a schedule. Product merchandising? What’s a plan0gram. Admin assistant, inside sales, outside sales? Boring, too many coworkers, too many numbers.

I’m not looking for a career. I just need to bring in income to help pay for the truck darling husband brought home last year, and to fund my list of “things I want to do before it’s too late” – most of which involved fixing the dogmobile so Bandit and I can hit the road for our cross country trip. But poor Pete the Jeep is in need of some serious overhaul before we head out for that kind of adventure.

The truth is that I’ve spent so much time alone over the last decade that it’s not going to be easy to find a job where I can utilize my skills while working within my parameters. I mean, who’s going to pay for all of this personality and still give me time off for a nap every afternoon?

I applied for a great part time job as a product specialist for an awesome dog food company. Basically, I’d set up a table at a pet store on Saturdays and talk to people about their pets, their nutritional needs, and ways to have happier, healthier relationships with their pets.

Yeesh, I do that whenever I go to the pet store. Someone might as well pay me for it.

My friend Pauline thinks I’d make a lot of money as a bartender. I told her that I don’t know how to mix drinks. She said she didn’t think that mattered.

The only other job I might be interested in is driving a Zamboni at the ice arena. Except they need someone who is “mechanically knowledgable”. I don’t know if fixing the tailpipe on my Jeep with duct tape and a coat hanger qualifies.

Thoughts on “The Alchemist”

“The boy felt jealous of the freedom of the wind, and saw that he could have the same freedom. There was nothing to hold him back except himself.” – The Alchemist

My new friend Pauline and I went out recently (she’s a writer, too; you can check out her blog here) and we got to talking about the book, “The Alchemist.” I’d started to read it a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. But after a tipsy conversation Pauline and I had at an Irish pub before she went home to Colorado, wherein she told me what effect the book had had on her life, I decided to pull it off the shelf and give it another shot.

I know now why I couldn’t read it before. I wasn’t ready for the message.

The book, which I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, is an allegory about a shepherd boy named Santiago who goes in search of his treasure. On the journey, he learns lessons about life, personal calling, and love.

In this new (scary, undefined) season of my life, it’s applicable because it not only holds a mirror to show me where I’ve been and what’s been holding me back, but also shows me that there is more beyond the reflection, and that I am the only one keeping me from stepping through the looking glass .

It got me thinking about what someone referred to as this security blanket of fear and insecurity that I seem to have wrapped myself in; this friend noted that it might make me feel safe but also holds me back, adding, “We are running out of time in this great thing called life…if you don’t throw that security blanket away now then it will be never and that would be really sad…”

This friend is right. And it’s a little scary that, despite what has felt like progress these last months, someone still saw it. Because I’m not secure at all and I don’t want to be held back anymore.

But wanting to move and knowing where to go are not necessarily the same thing. Do I have dreams? If someone came to me today and said I could have one of my dreams come true, I don’t know that I’d even know what to ask for. I don’t have a dream job. I don’t have a passion. Do I?

God knows I tried to explore some of that last year. Dog training? Job at the animal hospital? Starting (and stopping) various writing projects? Not only did none of it make me happy, most of it made me feel miserable, because I failed at it all. Not because I’m bad at the things I tried, but because none of them are my dream and none of them made me feel fulfilled.

I was at my happiest 8 or 9 years ago, when I was doing publicity for a local band, mentoring a few musicians (including John, my son I never had), volunteering for local causes, and even going on that trip to Mexico. (Yes, friends, for those of you who don’t know this story, I – who hated to fly, couldn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know sign language and once almost killed myself with a folding chair - flew to Mexico to do construction at a school for deaf children. Twice.)

I was giving and giving and giving, and it was the act of giving that renewed me. It was a wonderful season in my life.

So what happened?  The season changed – the band moved to LA; John died; my work in Christian music became empty; the volunteer projects changed; the well started to run dry and rather than stand back and refill, I kept giving.

I tried to find another band to work with, I volunteered for other projects, I started a writing group with a friend, but in truth I was exhausted. Eventually I was starting to feel annoyed in the company of other people. But rather than taking time to reflect on why that was or the dangers of not addressing it, I simply redirected my (exhausted) energies. 

Somehow, I had convinced myself that helping other people was not enough; that I had to turn it into something with my fingerprints on it. A book, an article, a … whatever, as long as it was something that would prove to the world that I had been here and made a difference.

I tried desperately to bring in income through my writing, but when it was financially successful it exhausted me creatively, and when it was creatively fulfilling I felt like I was writing in a vacuum.

Other areas of my life were also struggling, and while I recognized it I had no ability to change it. Fortunately, when most of your life is fulfilling and positive, you’re able to manage the parts that aren’t much more easily. But when you let failure and defeat creep in, you begin to see the dark shadows that have been lingering in the corners, and rather than shed light on them you invite them to take up residence.

In the introduction to “The Alchemist”, Coelho writes:

“I have known a lot of people who, when their personal calling was within their grasp, went on to commit a series of stupid mistakes and never reached their goal – when it was only a step away.”

Yup, that was me. I had forgotten my calling. I had forgotten that the ability to make people laugh is a gift, or that being able to introduce Person A to Person B so that they can make their dreams come true is, in itself, priceless. I was blind to the fact that I lived in every dream I made come true for someone else.

I have this quote written down in my notebook; I don’t know who Sonny Melendez is or where I saw a video, but here’s what he said:

“Our job is to first find our gift … then when you use that gift to give back, without asking or needing anything in return, that’s when you’ve really arrived. That’s what makes you who you are rather than what your title is.”

Perhaps, like me, you’re trying to find out who you are. Perhaps, like me, you convinced yourself for too long that a dark cave was the safest place to be. 

Perhaps, like me, you’ve recently decided that, consequences be damned, you will not just exist but live, and that while you’re still not sure which direction to move, you’re willing to just move in order to simply feel the sun on your face and the wind at your back.

If so, consider this: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation.” It really may be that simple.

This is a new season. My drought is over, washed away by laughter and love and renewing of the spirit. And I believe, as Coelho writes, that the Universe is conspiring in my favor.

Learning to say “yes” again (except when I have to say “no”)

I needed a photo to run with this post, and Bailey taking a dip in the Fountain of Eternal Life at the cemetery seemed as good a choice as any.

It’s been a crazy week, what with my outing to McGraws last Thursday and my last minute decision to attend my 30 year high school reunion. That’s more social interaction than I’ve had in the last six months.

But I’ve been mulling something over in my mind and I think maybe it’s fermented enough to mull over out loud.

Regular readers of my blog (or my column) already know I freely blab about my creative fears, hopes, successes and failures. I sometimes feel like a creative train wreck.

But I had a long chat last week with an old friend, Pastor Samme; we know each other from my days in Christian music. I had finally reached a place where, before I imploded, I needed desperately to talk to someone who knows and understands me (as opposed to, oh let’s hypothetically say, a relationship counselor of some sort who knows jack about me but still needs to offer advice because I’m paying her). And while I don’t attend his church (or any right now), I just knew in my heart Pastor Samme would understand what’s going on in my head and be able to offer some insight.

I was right. He gave me two plus hours of talking and crying and pondering. Continue reading

What I learned at my 30th year high school reunion

Yup, that’s me! At my reunion, with classmate and fellow writer Pauline. Awesome doesn’t begin to describe us.

Hold onto your hats, my friends: at the last minute I made the decision go to my 30th year high school reunion.

I know, I know. I bitched about not going. But in the end, my writing instincts kicked in and I realized that this was going to be a once in a lifetime (or at least decade) opportunity to really get some good column material.

Add “opportunist” to my resume.

Once I decided to go I jumped in with both feet. I connected with the girl coordinating the event and offered to help with check in/collecting information.  I convinced a few other people to go. Then I went spent money I didn’t really have on a dress that made me feel fabulous.

And guess what? I had fun. Honest!

OK, dear readers, I know what you’re waiting for … here are a few things I learned (or was reminded of) at my high school reunion: Continue reading