Living with Strangers on my Birthday

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We’re each given a canvas at the start of the day. Sometimes it’s dirty and sometimes it’s clean. It’s all ours for 24 hours.

We’re on our third week of living in the shelter called Family Promise. Cameron spends this weekend with his dad, snoozing in his own bed, watching cable networks on television, and he’ll golf. He enjoys that short commercial break of “living the dream” once in a while. But Cameron almost didn’t get to this time.

The family I mentioned last time, Shawn and Kiwi, came a week ago last Thursday. Although she was separated from the rest of us, the accordion curtain that separated our families wasn’t enough to keep her untreated illness from spreading. After a long three-day weekend, I woke up on my birthday with a headache, sore throat, and body aches. But I couldn’t let the dreaded Norovirus stop me for several reasons.

First, if you miss a day of work after a holiday, as with most companies, your holiday pay isn’t available. Second, I had already paid for my birthday celebration with my kids. And third, well, I didn’t feel like sitting this one out. It’s been forever since I’ve celebrated my birthday, so everyone else can suck it and let me have a good time being sick!

The Friday before, I’d been talking to my manager at work and discussed my plans for having a fun birthday and she suggested a place called, “Painting with a Twist.” It was fun, allowing Cameron and Nikki to freely express themselves on canvas. For my birthday, we all copied from the same painting, you can see the variation in each of our psyches and how it reflects on our outlook. Can you tell who painted each? (See bottom for answers)

We returned late and went straight to bed. I felt pretty bad. The night refused to hold any promises of sleep. Between the city nightlife of passersby yelling at each other and cursing with the competition of a runny nose, sore throat, throbbing head, and having to empty my intestines, I didn’t sleep very well.

The following morning was surprisingly worse. I went to work and was so worn I could hardly hold a thought, much less work. The day would have dragged if I could remember it, but it was a murky mess of mistakes and apologies.

When I arrived at the church, I discovered Cameron was also ill. We decided to take Wednesday off for the doctor. The illness was so nasty we were treated with medication that was a liquid-based prescription level ibuprofen that could only have tasted worse if scraped from the bottom of a farmer’s boot. We were each given a bottle of water before the nursing assistant cautiously left the room. I swallowed hard, twisted the cap off my water, and then downed the medicine in one fatal drink before chasing it with the entire bottle of water before coming up for air.

Cameron didn’t swallow his water with the same vigor as me. He sipped his, and then took a swallow of water—several times between intermittent mini-convulsions. Afterward, we were given Z-packs containing Azithromycin. Fun? But the paintings will last forever AND Cameron’s stealthy play won him a painting created by the instructor. The scowl I received with the suggestion he might consider it a gift to his girlfriend, Trinity, was at least notable. He smiled warmly and declined.

At the shelter, “residents” must be absent between seven a.m. and five p.m. for typical services and upkeep of the churches. So Cameron and I went to a library—a public library where we could cough and “share the glory” with others. Although, we did manage to stay in our own little corner and keep our breathing to a minimum. We always cover our mouths and wash our hands in an attempt to stave off infections. Doing what we could in distancing ourselves and keeping calm so we could heal quietly without infecting others, but gain intelligence at the same time.

Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 12.27.14 PM.pngFriday, I had a weekly review at work. I wish I could say that despite the havoc in the rest of my life that my job is going smoothly, but I can’t. Tuesday’s pathetic average worked itself in to bring my score even lower than it was, which was a very “unbirthday” surprise. My average of files per hour still sits at about eight. I have two weeks to bring it to a ten or I’ll be in danger of losing my job. All I can say to that is that it would really suck—but with two more weeks, I can only hope that positive occurrences happen.

After I picked Nikki up and left Cameron at his dad’s, we entered our room to discover things had been moved. Nothing major has been noted missing, but I have a real issue, especially when chaos is breaking out around me, to have everything organized and placed evenly. Although my suitcase was still positioned in front of the closet door, the door wasn’t latched and my suitcase was half unzipped. Now we lock our door when we leave and have the host open it each night when we get back.

The family of Erica and Justin with the kids—a five-bedroom home has been found for them if you can believe that. It’s a lower portion of a home, which must be gigantic to have five bedrooms in half of it! I’m happy for them, but a little sad because that’s the only family we’ve been conversing with regularly. Awaiting the next family is like playing the shell game. I figure we’re here for another four months or so. I still have a lot to learn about finances before we can move.

When I went into the playroom to notify Erica of the Norovirus, because I heard the Hispanic grandma hacking up a lung in the room half an hour earlier, the host entered just after I finished relaying the warning signs of the virus. It’s both viral and bacterial, meaning the room most likely churns with contamination. But as I was leaving, Erica informed the host that the Hispanic boy urinated in a bin and carefully placed the lid on top just as her son entered. Norovirus doesn’t seem so dangerous all of a sudden, OR perhaps this is exactly where it was born.

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Washing hands helps. When others touch your food with contaminated hands, you could get ill.

Shawn came running out of his room next to ours yesterday screaming about having bedbugs and demanding he saw a really big one. I’m thinking, if it was that big, it probably wasn’t a bedbug. They’re relatively small.

Cameron still suffers withdrawals from his friends, which is only to be expected. The school he’d left behind is the only real group of friends he’d associated with, but the adjustment is necessary. He’s trying to find some resonance with reality, but it’s hard.

The resilience of Nikki beams out of every pore of her body whenever school studies are mentioned. It’s fun to watch her boast about her typing scores, but we have discussed the importance of humility. I’m happy to see her excited.

Both kids plan on joining the CERT training at the end of the month through their school, Utah Military Academy. This provides the certification necessary for rescuing people from flood, fire, or other catastrophic events. Empowering–we need this.Screen Shot 2018-09-09 at 12.36.56 PM.png

Today is Sunday. It probably sounds petty to say we’re not eating breakfast because it’s the day the church doors are open to feeding the homeless. While there are courteous transients, addicts, pedophiles, etc. in the mix, I’m guarded. When it comes to my kids, I’d rather avoid than take the time to sort— it’s quicker and safer.

Meanwhile, I’m working on an interesting story that’s a bit off the beaten track of what I normally write. Could it be the position in which I find myself? There’s some blood and death—maybe because my dreams are a bit askew at the moment.

My goals for my next birthday include living in a separate dwelling, barbecuing, and the three of us going out to an incredible play after we eat. Time to pull out the blank canvas and start on those plans for the future.  

My memory will always hold this birthday as the learning experience of a lifetime.

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Nikki’s crow on a dead tree has no idea it’s about to become the owl’s dinner in the light of the rising sun; Cameron’s is a tree with the sun setting behind it; mine is cherry blossoms by a still lake on the mountain front after a long and prosperous day.

 

I Dare you to Beat This!

I’ve always been competitive as a kid growing up. Had a big family of nine kids total. The situation with our parents was sort of like puppies fighting for nipples when there never seemed to be enough nipples. With that many pups, getting your share was pretty tough. It took the right kick in the right place to ensure your place in line without getting caught by the watchful eyes of my parents and sent to the back of the feeding line.

The best part of being part of a big family was the hand-me-downs. There’s nothing like getting handed down your sister’s Halloween costume of a homeless person. It always fit each kid too, no taking anything in or letting it out. It was one of our favorites. Plus, on Halloween, we found the parents with the bowls would offer us more candy than they offered the pretty princesses. Once in a while, even the other trick-or-treaters would donate from their own bags. We’d make that candy last for six months! Sometimes we’d each place a share into our family community Christmas bowl. Trust me, there’s nothing like seeing a wicked chocolate witch mingling with a marshmallow Santa for the holidays. The true spirit of Christmas!

Sure, we were poor growing up. With that many mouths to feed and parents who missed graduating from high school, we had to fight for our food. Dinner time was the most organized our family was, we each waited until my father was served before we helped ourselves. No smacking, no reaching, and no talking ’til my father finished and left the room. Sort of like he was the king. But after he left, it was every man for himself.

Everyone had a favorite; mine was potatoes. You wouldn’t guess it then. I was so small, my choice was to either have the waistband so huge my belt gathered my britches around my waist or absolute floods that hit halfway between my ankles and my knees. I usually wore the belt cinching them up with safety pins strategically placed on each side. That way, no one could see my unmatching socks so big the toes were doubled over. All of our socks were interchangeable that way.

Because we couldn’t afford lunch, we reused our lunch bags for a week. Some people consider that cost conservative. It isn’t like there was anything to ruin the bag. Every day a peanut butter sandwich and some change for a milk. Multiply that with the number of kids and my father’s meager income and you can get a fuzzy picture of where we were.

Still, I remember fighting this big kid named Mike in elementary because he wanted my lunch. The kids were standing in a circle around us as soon as I told him I wouldn’t give my peanut butter sandwich to him – sort of a modern-day David and Goliath story going on in the schoolyard. A hefty boy against a scrawny, four-eyed little girl too hungry to back down. One hefty punch was all it took. Yes, from him. I was a twiggy-armed girI half his size! I didn’t see him for the rest of the day – or anyone else for that matter. He’d knocked my glasses halfway across the playground and broken them. The rest of the school year I looked like one of those nerds from the television sitcoms with tape holding the nosepiece together. But the bullies still didn’t bother me after that and I’ve never trusted another Mike. And I continued to receive little notes in my lunch from my mom–usually the highlight of my day and the main reason I was excited about lunchtime.

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Here I am, allowing Mike to draw first blood for my peanut butter sandwich!

We moved a lot too. The longest I went to school in one district was two years. There were several I went to less than half a year, and that was tough. As soon as my name was no longer “the new girl,” it was time to change schools. You can imagine my horror when at one school another girl stole my “new girl” title. I was pissed. That’s when I became “Michelle Z.” There were already two girls who had the name “Michelle.” It made sense that in addition to being new, I was also always the last in line. And no one could ever pronounce my surname. Nine letters long and starting with a Z; I was proud of anyone for making an effort to sound out the extensively long German name. Even the people of my immediate family had an individual way of pronouncing it. I chose the shortest – Zetner.

I remember in school one time, in third grade when we lived in Bradenton, Florida. I went to a school called Orange Ridge Elementary. Yep, third grade was a long time ago. But I’ll never forget that school and Mrs. Sanders, this black woman that kept forgetting I was in her class. The principal called over the speaker system to, “Please send Michelle to the office.” Mrs. Sanders explained she had two Michelles and needed to know if he needed Michelle Winters or Michelle Barker.

There was silence for a moment before he continued, “Could you please send Michelle Z-e-h-e-n-d-n-e-r to the office?”

My third-grade teacher exploded, “We ain’t got one of those!” That’s when I understood why she was a third-grade teacher.

I raised my hand from the back corner of the room. “I’m talking to the principal,” she reminded me. That’s when I explained my name was Michelle Zehendner. Her face softened for a second and then she said to the speaker, “Here she comes.” You’d think she’d remember me after that – but she didn’t. That’s okay because we moved a few months later.

I have a feeling my parents moved so much to dodge the bills. You can’t do that as easily now. Yep, those were the Good Ol’ Days. It finally occurred to me one Sunday after church. My mom had already run away from home to “find herself.” I don’t think she ever did, but I’m certain she had more fun searching than sticking it out at the “Zehendner’s Funny Farm.” So my father and five kids get home from church. I was the new mom at 14-years-old and four siblings remaining. My dad jumps from the car and runs up to grab a paper from our front door. He comes back to the car and announces, “We’re going to play a game, okay?” I was old enough to understand anytime my dad said there was going to be a game, you definitely didn’t want to be the loser.

But we loved games, so we were chomping at the bit. Perhaps that’s where my competitive edge stems from – everything was a competition. “Who can eat their liver first?” was always a game I lost at. But this game was to see who could pack their things the fastest. The amazing part was how many of the toys we’d been fighting over the day before were lost in the name of winning the game. For us, winning was everything!

I believe I won that time. My brothers were only six and four, so they still didn’t have their bearings straight. They packed all their toys. Clothes weren’t that important. Then again, they would have been happier naked with an excuse to remain that way. But it figured their toys were always first because they were never taken out of the box. They stayed in the bottom of the closet with the flaps tucked inside like big toy boxes. But if they ever got tired of their toy box, they’d simply stomp on it so they could have a new one to decorate with markers. They actually became pretty good at styling their boxes.

My sisters who were about 3 years younger than me were about eleven months apart. A lot of times my parents would dress them as twins, although one was blond the other brunette, and they were absolutely nothing alike. Still, the real fun came when only one outfit was packed and when we unpacked, they fought over who actually left their outfit behind. They became so engulfed in winning, they’d rip the outfit to shreds fighting over it. Needless to say, my family participated in cheap family entertainment. Perhaps I’ll share some later.

But we did something that day that I bet 98% of American families could never do. We moved within 5 hours – in my favorite white church dress and heels.  So you can guess where my tenacity of being a single parent with a university degree, and standing up to fight rather than running comes from. I may have been born in the depths, but I’ll be damned if I don’t rise to the top!

Beat that!

Teen Hormones on a 3-foot Leash

So much has happened, but I’ll fill you in on the most pressing item of parenthood — lack of control with the necessity to work. If you remember, I’m on a 90-day probation period for my new employer, which puts me in an uncomfortable position when things go awry, because I cannot have any time away from work for the first three months without suffering a write-up. I already have one, due to an accident that lengthened my arrival from one hour to an hour and 12 minutes, despite speeding at 90 mph. After two, the write-up goes in front of the council and they determine whether or not you’ll remain.

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Low wages, high stress, no control

Last Friday was the final day of school and an early release. With Cameron dismissed an hour before Nikki, I asked him to pick her up. She usually rides her bike. But I took them out for breakfast. When we were finished, there was no time to go by the house to get Nikki’s things. Besides, she wouldn’t need anything on the last day, right? Wrong.

I dropped Cameron off with $20 so he and Nikki could celebrate getting out early and purchased a yearbook for him to have signed. Off I drove, wondering how the summer will go. Cameron wants to work a summer job. Nikki wanting to swim. (This is a big deal considering a non-English speaking woman nearly drown her in a tub when she was four. Ever since, it’s been a trial even giving her a bath.) Cameron can’t be working while Nikki swims, so it was quite the conundrum. But, I had an hour’s drive with time to consider the options.

When I arrived at work, I submitted a text to Cameron which read, “Hey. respond when you get this… Nikki is out @ 1:15 p.m. Please be there BEFORE that time.” He texted back, “Ok I will.”

Neck-deep in a meeting, taking notes concerning a new system, I ignored my phone until it insisted I answer. I slipped into the hall to answer a call at 1:30 from Nikki, calling from the school’s office, saying he hadn’t come yet. I called six times, and he didn’t answer. As I was leaving a message, he picked up. “Oh,” he said, “I forgot. I’ll go right now.”

 

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Screenshot of my phone

My phone rang and rang within the next couple of hours from a Blocked Caller. Considering them sales calls, I ignored them, I slipped out periodically calling my son to no avail. Worried, I relayed my situation to my instructor, who reminded me that if I leave, I may lose my job. This means I’d also lose my apartment and ability to provide food, etc. for my children.

My mind raced around all the possibilities that may have occurred, preventing both kids from answering their phones. Was my daughter alive?

I hurried into the break room and listened to my messages. There was a call from a police officer, left at 3:55, stating he’s bringing Nikki home from school. She’d waited three hours and her brother never arrived. Because we failed to go home before school, she’d left her phone in her room and couldn’t call Cameron or me herself because the faculty had gone home.

Turns out, he was making out with a girl at the park after going to lunch with the $20. He’d saved enough to purchase frozen burritos for Nikki’s dinner.

The short answer to my solution? I’ve confiscated his phone and texted

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The game’s been set. Will he make a winning choice?

his girlfriend he cannot see her until permission is given. Snapchat and Instagram have been deleted. (And he’s freaking out because he can’t continue his “streaks” on Snapchat, as if it’s the end of the world.)

After three days, Cameron begged me to call his dad who thinks Cameron getting a job is a great idea. I explained that unless Cameron could handle the regular responsibilities, he would not get the privilege of payment.

 

I am signing both kids up at a military academy. Drastic, I get that. But I can’t afford to lose my low-paying position. What else can a mother do with a teen’s raging hormones but pull the leash in?

 

If Energy Never Dies, Where Does it Go?

If energy never dies, where does evil go? Physicists have spoken for years about energy and how it never grows or dissipates, it changes from one form to another. Sort of the way ice melts, changing into water. While they’ve changed physically, the components of the H2O remain the same. This is the simplified version of what I’m trying to express about energy not disappearing but changing from one place to another. So, if energy never dies, what happens when someone evil dies? Where does the energy go?

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Men of science say energy doesn’t evaporate.

 

When someone has the death penalty or anyone we consider an evil person dies, what happens next? Are there ghosts or haunted houses? The energy remains. I have a little bit of a story about this happening, although I wasn’t decked out in Ghostbuster’s gear. In fact, I was working at Utah State Prison in Draper’s administrative offices. Seeing how the experience was about a decade ago, the government offices are way behind technologically, and Utah is reportedly about an additional ten years behind our sister states, it’s not a surprise to know my job was taking the hardcopy files and typing them into electronic files. And there were rows and rows of files, practically stretching to the ceiling.

One day, shortly before my supervisor left on vacation, I turned up an interesting file which had been misfiled. In fact, it wasn’t actually one file; it was three big fat ones. They were the files of Gary Gilmore. I’m not sure if you even know who he is anymore, but he was a murderer who insisted on being executed. And, he wanted the firing squad. Controversy surrounds Gary’s father of being the illegitimate son of Harry Houdini. But, regardless of whose son he was, his father, Frank, was an irresponsible and reckless individual as was his son, Gary. The apple certainly didn’t fall far from the tree. Gary’s last words were reportedly, “Let’s do this!” With that, Tommy Lee Jones got a role in The Executioner’s Song, about this occurrence. If you get a chance, look up the story online.

 

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The shelves were jammed from ceiling to floor, both sides, and practically endless.

Anyway, as I grabbed the file, unknowing whose it was, it was crammed into the back. I felt determined to get it out, but I did it. Without glancing at the name, I plopped it on my desk and opened to begin the mundane task of typing the contents. I have to admit, many of the folders contained crimes that desensitized me a bit. For this, I’m glad that my supervisor had two men escort me from the office the day before her return from vacation. Mrs. Redding determined to take credit for locating the file herself.  But the electricity that ran through my fingers as I turned the pages, reading this intelligent man’s train of thought during these killings was evil — for sure — but it was unlike any I’d ever felt. My only thoughts are of the two people who received his corneas before his cremation. If I felt the evil run through my body from my fingertips, what of the people’s eyes? And with that energy flowing through them, was their good strong enough to win?

 

Sometimes we wake up in a bad mood and it follows us throughout the day, causing a chain of events. My daughter Nikki was waking up every morning at 4:00 and coming into my bathroom. Being a sleeper so light that an ant farting powers my eyes open, she undoubtedly awakened me by walking and finished it off by flushing. I begged her to empty her bladder before bed thinking this would help. It didn’t. It wasn’t until I took her phone, for her misuse of it, and placed it in my closet did I discover the truth. Her alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. I was angry. I immediately woke her up, describing I had been getting five hours of sleep every night because of her shenanigans. Her reply was that waking up that early allowed her time to prepare for school–except, she would always return to bed! I was the only one who stayed wide awake until taking her to school.

I was so angry, nothing else seemed to go right that morning. It wasn’t until I stopped to take inventory of myself that I made the decision to have a pleasant day, regardless of the events. Turns out, it was one of the best days I’ve had at work. Energy begets energy, whether it’s positive or negative. But, my friend, energy never disappears. So what unfortunate person roped it for his own? Honestly, I wash my hands of it. I got rid of it and so can s/he. The only point I can make for certain is I haven’t killed anyone.