The Funny Thing About Cancer

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Learning that my mother has cancer changed everything. From here on out, I’ll think about my time in terms of life before cancer and life after cancer.

Before cancer, I felt that my work and my life took priority over my family. I used to wait days before returning calls from my mom. After cancer, I realized that every call I get from my mom is a gift I won’t have forever.

Before cancer, I had this idea that time was infinite. I have spent so much time doing things that are so unimportant to the grand scheme of my life that I don’t even remember them. After cancer, I view time as the most valuable thing in the world. I respect others’ time more than I used to, and I don’t waste as much of my own. Note to Adam: iPad games and Netflix are only rarely a waste of time.

Before cancer, money was constantly on my mind. Am I making enough? Am I saving enough? How can I make more? After cancer, I realize that while money is awesome (it really is) other things are even more awesome (they really are). I’d rather spend a few more hours sprawled out on the couch with my husband and my dogs than spend those precious hours on constant freelance work.

Before cancer, I spent way too much time worrying. For example, here’s a list of my current worries for today:

  1. How is my mom feeling today?
  2. Is my dad overexerting himself as her caregiver?
  3. I’m getting fat again.
  4. I said/did something I shouldn’t have last week.
  5. I said/did something I shouldn’t have ten years ago.
  6. I might be watching too much Netflix.
  7. I hope people like me.
  8. I hope people think I’m smart.
  9. Was that joke funny or inappropriate?
  10. What if I am worrying too much?

After cancer, I’m trying to worry less. I haven’t mastered it yet. But I’m hoping I’ll get there.

Cancer is teaching me to be kinder to my family and less of a jerk to everyone else, including myself.

The funny thing about cancer is that while it is simultaneously making life hell, it can also make you a better person.

Before Cancer (circa 1987)

“Before Cancer”
Dad, Emily, Me, Mom
(circa 1987)

 

 

 

Beat This Cancer So I Can Make Fun of You Again

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I’ve always been the neglectful of the two daughters in my family when it comes to remembering important dates. My sister, Emily, is the one who reminds me of my parents’ anniversary, birthdays and other important dates throughout the year.

There is one birthday I will never again forget. November 8 was my mother’s 58th birthday.

It was also the day she found out she had cancer.

Since her diagnosis, I’ve been through five stages of emotion. I’ve been told by those around me that nothing I’m feeling is out of the ordinary or surprising. Still, it feels like the first time this has ever happened to anyone, ever.

Denial…
So, she has cancer. A lot of people have cancer. They get surgery, do chemo, radiation, whatever. They get better. My mom will get better. It is only a matter of a little surgery, maybe some radiation, and she will be good to go.

Acceptance…
She has a stomach tumor. It is inoperable. The cancer has also spread to her liver.

Anger…
This wasn’t supposed to happen to my mom. She is a good person. She doesn’t deserve this. My dad doesn’t deserve this. Of course I’m not naive enough to believe life is fair. But this is wrong. It’s just wrong.

Who can I blame for this? Who can I direct my hatred toward? Who can I punch in the fucking face?

Avoidance…
I have a faceless enemy. My rage has no outlet.

So I hide. I hide behind sarcasm and inappropriate remarks.

“Get better soon so I can make fun of you,” I tell her.

For the most part my tears have now been replaced with compulsive cleaning, organizing and eating. (I really need to add compulsive exercising to the list.)

Despite feeling like my family is the first to ever experience this, it also feels like this is supposed to happen to other people. The people whose pictures you see on the donation buckets at fast food drive throughs. The women whose bald heads have come to symbolize cancer walks. This is not supposed to happen to my mom.

Hope…
My mom is enrolled in a clinical trial at Siteman Cancer Center, the best place she could possibly be for treatment. She has started chemo. Our goal through the treatment is to buy as much time with her as possible.

My dad shared some wisdom with me the other day. He said something along the lines of, “Time is one thing God got right. It is the only thing that can heal us and get us through the worst experiences.” In a recent email to my sister and me, he explained, “It is when we fight together as a family that we prove our worth. With that as our barometer, we are going to beat this thing.”

No matter how much advice people have shared with me since this journey began, none of it rings as true as what my dad says.

Time and family: two things I used to take for granted. Never again.

Pooping in A Leotard

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As a little girl, I was always a big fan of playing dress up with a big trunk of assorted clothes from my mom’s closet. She even dabbled in sewing a few items herself. Over the years, the trunk grew as my sister and I added various accessories gifted to us, as well as our ridiculous dance recital costumes.

If you ever dabbled in dance as a young child, or you have ever watched “Toddlers and Tiaras” you know how obnoxious and utterly amazing the sequined, stretchy fantastically colored toddler slutwear is at a dance recital.

A age five I remember doing a tap number to “Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Yes. We wore itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikinis with sequins around the waist.

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Apparently the classmate on the right had a tanning bed at home…

As five year olds.

We also had a little beach towel as a prop.

I distinctly remember feeling self conscious about my pot belly hanging out. Did I mention I was five?

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I almost didn’t include this one, but then I remembered I have no dignity.

Anyway, back to dress up time. My sister and I would put our dance recital costumes in the trunk to use later for cosplay. The other girls in the neighborhood would come over to play in our basement and we would all pretend to be fabulous women, or drag queens. I’m not totally sure. But we looked amazing.

Then one year, I danced in this spectacular magenta leotard with silver ruffles on the sleeves. As was the standard, into the costume box it went.

One day, I was playing dress up alone in the basement and I felt an ordinary, average toot welling in my belly. Oh, you don’t know what a “toot” is?

When I was a kid, my mom didn’t allow us to use the word “fart” to describe our farts. Toot was the preferred nomenclature. She said it was more polite.

So, I tooted. Suddenly, my heart sank. I didn’t know what was happening. But something was happening. Something bad. Really bad.

And I was wearing my magenta leotard.

I scrambled up the steps to the bathroom. I peeled away the spandex and discovered, to my horror, what I would only learn many years later is referred to as…a shart.

I sharted in my leotard.

I couldn’t believe what had happened. My terror was twofold. I was afraid I would be punished for ruining my leotard. But even scarier was the idea that I somehow had lost control of my own body. I was six years old, for Christ’s sake – old enough to control my own BMs!

Oh, you don’t know what a “BM” is either? BM stands for “bowel movement” and it was the preferred nomenclature for poop when I was a kid.

I rushed to the sink and started scrubbing the best I could. I managed to wash it out completely, with the exception of maybe a slight trace of shadow. I put the leotard back in the trunk and swore to never speak of it again.

A year or two later, some friends were in my basement and we were playing dress up. I was cautious to avoid the magenta leotard. As we rifled through the assortment, one of my friends grabbed it.

“I’m gonna wear THIS!” she exclaimed. I wracked my brain trying to come up with some excuse for her not to wear it.

“NO! You can’t. It’s, uh, my favorite,” I stammered.

“But I saw it first,” she whined.

“No, I don’t want anyone to wear it.”

Some sniping followed, and eventually Mrs. Haynes, my nanny, came down to intervene. She explained the importance of sharing, or threatened to spank me or something. In the end, I was forced to relent.

As my friend stood there in my pink poopy leotard, I felt like the worst person in the world. I felt guilty for letting her wear it, and at the same time, I was afraid she would realize she was wearing my poop and not want to be my friend anymore.

She never found out. And I never told anyone until now. I’m really a horrible person.

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But I sure looked great in that leotard.

Texts from My Husband: Anniversary Edition Redux

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Happy Anniversary.

Today was my four-year anniversary. It was pretty bad-ass. I forgot about it and I told a friend she could stay at my house for a couple of days. Then Adam had to work late. So yeah, things got pretty romantic up in here.

My gift to him? A bag of Twizzlers Pull ‘n Peel, a bag of Reese’s Eggs and a Lowe’s gift card. His gift to me? Flowers and a big wad of cash to put toward resetting/sizing my wedding ring. He always kicks ass with gifts and outdoes me every year. (It’s kind of awesome.)

To celebrate our ever-enduring love, I’d like to relive some of my favorite texts from my husband from the past year.

Just got a 100% on my airport safety class. Suck it, terrorists.

I’m going to eat ice cream cake for breakfast.

I just saw a lady riding an unicycle for exercise. She was doing arm circles. 

(at the dentist) Got nitrous for the first time. I was so relaxed I almost peed myself.

I had a dream we were getting divorced. When I woke up I threw all of your stuff on the front lawn. Then I remembered it was just a dream. Sorry.

And here’s a few recent ones:

I have a headache so bad, I’m going to buy a chainsaw and cut my head off. Don’t worry. I’ll do it in the driveway so you’ll just have to hose it off.

You’re bringing me down. I might as well call you “Fox News.”

Forecast for Saturday is calling for meat. And lots of it.

Damn, diapers are expensive. I should have just bought them a 5-gallon bucket and cut some foot holes and attached suspenders.

Happy Anniversary to the man who makes me LOL all over myself.

PS – I really think you should get on Twitter.

The Worst (Best) Car Ever

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This is the story of the worst car ever – or the best car ever – depending on how you look at it. I was a college freshman when I bought “Audrey” a burgundy 1995 Honda Accord. She was the basic model, not a bit of automation on her, from the five speed transmission to the crank operated windows.

She was the first car I had bought with my own loan, in my own name, with the few dollars I scrounged together working three part-time jobs in between attending classes.

She was beautiful.

I drove her to school and work, quickly surpassing 100,000 miles without a single engine problem. But Audrey would soon become a victim of the worst driver I know: me.

Audrey’s first battle scar came when I slid on a patch of ice right into a concrete pole in front of a gas pump, ripping the plastic black trim right off the side of the driver’s door. The trim bowed outward like a broken wing. I raced to see Adam in the hope that he could fix it.

I quickly learned that “fix” is a relative term that should be more clearly defined when talking about cosmetic damage.

Adam got a bolt cutter (or possibly a hedge clipper) and cut the trim off at the spot where it separated from the door.

Trim sufficiently fixed, I continued driving the car without much excitement until my next accident. I rear-ended a man in a nearly new Acura. Having just purchased a brand new Acura bumper, I wasn’t in a financial position to purchase one for Audrey.

Having already proven himself a master of car repair, Adam stepped in to save the day once again. This time, he reattached my plastic bumper to another plastic body part using drywall screws.

A few weeks later, my car was broken into. The thief smashed my rear right window, entered my car, unlocked the left side door and driver door, exited the car, entered the car again via the driver’s seat and popped my trunk. Once in the trunk, s/he rifled through the purses of my companions and me, considerately leaving behind our IDs, credit cards and personal belongings. This was very considerate on the part of the thief. In fact, the only thing s/he took was our cash – cash which, in hindsight, would have been better spent parking in the lot with the security guard instead of across the street for free.

But, back to Audrey …

Not wanting me to suffer the embarrassment of a plastic trash bag covered window, my father set out to make the repair this time. he fashioned a double paned plexiglass window and sealed it in place using waterproof packing tape. It was the classier alternative to a trash bag, without being so snobbish as to be a genuine window.

Unassuming but proud, Audrey and I drove through life until one cold winter day, I was at a stoplight when I heard several rapid fire thuds as something hit my car. When I finally comprehended that the yellow ooze running down my front and back windshields was in fact egg yolk, the car full of assholes to my right was already speeding away. By the time I got home, the yolks were frozen to the surface of my car. Despite my best scraping attempts, the yolk remained in some spots until the spring thaw.

Before that could happen, however, I would receive the best Christmas gift since the sweet baby Jesus himself.

Santa brought me a new window for Audrey! Sitting under the tree with a big red bow was a junkyard treasure ready to be installed. I was giddy with excitement at the prospect of a real window.

My father was nearly as excited as I was. He and my mother beamed with pride at their own gift-giving triumph. He told me we could go install it right away.

We quickly got to work, gently peeling the packing tape, which had cured to the surface of my car and now had to be removed with the assistance of adhesive remover. The process of taking off the plexiglass window took at least an hour, maybe more. Finally, the window was gone. Next, we took to the task of taking apart the door, piece by piece, screw by screw. If you have ever attempted to take a car door apart, you know it is much like surgery. You have to make sure all the parts go back in the right place – and remember not to leave any gauze inside when you close ‘er up. By the time the painstaking process of demolition was complete, we had been at it for more than three hours.

Now, with the final bits of old broken glass removed, we were ready to witness our Christmas miracle!

My father ceremoniously lifted the window, slowly raising it to the opening in the door. I heard a drumroll in the background. Someone released a flock of white doves. A harp played heavenly tunes …

My father held the window up to the skeletal remains of the door. He looked at the door, back at the window. Looked at the door again, and back at the window. Then, with the most deflated sigh I have ever heard, my father stated simply, “It’s the wrong fucking window.”

This was the first time in my short life I had ever heard my father drop the f-bomb. Alas, the wrong fucking window, it was.

We spent the next hour reapplying the plexiglass – only one pane this time and leaving the inside of the door carcass exposed. When we finally went inside, my father poured himself his favorite holiday drink, Bailey’s on ice. Meanwhile, I attempted to soothe myself with my various other plunders, socks, sweaters and giftcards.

A few days later, my father exchanged the window for the proper one and we finished the job.

In the spring, once the last of the remaining egg yolk had thawed and been washed away from Audrey, my father got a new car and gave his to my mother. I decided it was time for Audrey and me to part ways. Astoundingly, the window under the Christmas tree was not the only miracle Audrey would bestow upon me. I sold her for $2,900, which was $500 more than what I had paid for her two years earlier!

Perhaps the new owner saw all of her physical flaws as “character.” Perhaps he recognized something I didn’t. Perhaps he was a moron. I’ll never know. All I know is that Audrey was the best worst car ever.

I like to picture Audrey in all her original glory - before her body work.

I like to picture Audrey in all her original glory – before her body work.

Tales of Humiliation: Just Another Trip to the Grocery Store

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Yesterday, I went to the grocery store wearing a flowing knee-length skirt. So flowing, in fact, that a bar from the turnstile I was walking through rotated right up under my skirt – snagging me in a standing/leaning position, nearly hanging above the floor.

As I struggled to free myself, I silently thanked God I was wearing full coverage briefs with no conspicuous design elements. How fortunate was it that I had opted not to wear underwear with the word “Skank” spelled out in pink sparkles across the back? (I had worn those the day before.)

A man I’m pretty certain was a meth addict approached the turnstile from the front, stopped dead in his tracks when he saw me, grinned and turned on his heels so quickly you would have thought they were giving out free Sudafed in the pharmacy. “How dare you judge me with your stupid skinny face!” I shouted. “I’m a professional! This is not my fault!” Maybe it was less of a shout and more of a thought in my head.

I was caught in that position – turnstile up my skirt, bum on display – for maybe a second, but for what seemed like several excruciating minutes.

I writhed in awkward terror, finally realizing that if I stood on my tiptoes I’d slacken the fabric enough to yank it loose of the bar. Freedom!

I don’t know if anyone saw me from behind during the ordeal. But I like to imagine they thought of me as some sort of hero like the rock climber who cut of his own arm to free himself from a boulder.

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An Awkward Love Story

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No one escapes high school without going through awkwardness – some of us more severely than others.

I was a complete goober from the first day of freshman year until the summer before my junior year.

After having had a rather traumatic junior high experience with male classmates, I’d chosen to attend an all-female high school.

I loved it! I wasn’t even interested in boys. In fact, I kind of acted like one. I didn’t wear makeup, cut my hair short and wore sports bras exclusively. I probably didn’t own a real bra until I was 15.

Needless to say, my first couple of years in high school were not spent going on dates, save for twice a year when I got to go to a semi-formal dance. And thus began my series of male conquests. Here’s the timeline:

Homecoming 1998: I knew no boys. So a classmate invited her friend from grade school to go with me.

Winter Dance 1999: I invited a boy I kind of had liked when I was in grade school. He said he “didn’t dance.” So I invited his best friend instead. His friend happened to be the biggest nerd in my elementary school. I’m still not sure why I invited him. I think I probably had low self esteem and needed to practice being comfortable around a nerd before I could ever be comfortable around a boy I really liked. My friends at the time ridiculed both of us. If only geeks had been as cool back then as it is now!

Homecoming 1999: New set of friends. New random bro a girl set me up with. Her boyfriend drove us in his Camaro. It was an automatic, but for some reason he pretended it was a stick shift by putting it into Park at every stoplight. He tried to hard. We met at my friend Becky’s house for pictures. There were a group of us, including this one kid who seemed almost as awkward as me. He mainly stood in the corner slouching a lot.

The other day, Becky found some old pictures from high school complete with handwritten captions I’d added to the scrapbook!

Notice the weirdo on the right...and the other weirdo on the farthest right.

Notice the weirdo on the right…and the other weirdo on the farthest right.

More poses. And that weird boy in the background is still slouching.

More poses. And that weird boy in the background is still slouching.

Winter Dance 2000: New set of friends. New red dress. New random dude a friend set me up with. He had bad acne and wore a looney tunes tie.

Homecoming 2000: Yet another new set of friends – but these were the keepers! I don’t remember who I went to the dance with, or even what I wore.

Junior Ring Dance 2001: This was the first time I ever invited a boy I really liked. I’d had a crush on this boy – we’ll call him “Joe” because his name was Joe. He was my very first crush! It was the best dance ever. I didn’t wear a bra and I felt quite daring. At the end of the night, we went to an after-party. When it was time for me to leave, he walked me to my car. I told him I liked him, literally quoting a line from Sixteen Candles. He said he liked me as a friend only. I told him that was okay and said goodbye.

I sobbed so hard on my way home, I almost drove off the road. It was the worst night of my entire life.

About a month later, I started hanging out with this boy named Adam. I’d developed a bit of a a crush on him when we were introduced by mutual friends. I started visiting him at his after school job at a local sporting goods store. He liked me back. I found out his phone number and called him to invite him on a date. We went to the movies and he kissed me – my first kiss ever. (It wasn’t his first kiss. He was a total stud who had made out with several of my classmates already.)

He invited me to his Junior Ring dance.

Nice posture.

Nice posture. Sweet Doc Martens.

2001 Homecoming: I wore a blue strapless dress and brought my boyfriend, Adam.

Favorite dress of all dances, ever.

Favorite dress of all dances, ever.

2002 Valentine’s Dance at Adam’s School: I’d passed out and thrown up after donating blood earlier that day. But I was too amped about my sassy red dress to skip the dance.

Admittedly, I look a little pale...

Admittedly, I look a little pale…

2002 Prom: I wore a black and white ballgown and brought the boy I loved, Adam.

True story: My friend Becky and I went shopping together and each found a dress for only $29.99.

True story: My friend Becky and I went shopping together and each found a dress for only $29.99. Also, I sewed that purse myself.

So, the other day when my friend Becky sent me the pictures from freshman year above, imagine my surprise when I realized I knew who that awkward kid was.

2008: I married the boy who slouched in the corner and barely spoke a word.

We’ve been awkward together ever since.

And the awkwardness goes on...

Pictured: the opposite of awkward.

Finding My Guts

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 I was told it was nothing personal, just business. The rejection stung like a paintball gun to the kidney. Cognitively, I understood that it was “just business” but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. It may have been business to them, but it was personal to me…

This week, I will graduate from a four-month leadership program through FOCUS St. Louis and Coro Women in Leadership. I’m really glad I participated in the program, and I gained some invaluable lessons and insights. For example, I learned about:

1. Risks. I am an ambitious risk-taker. A Coro classmate described me as “taking a swan dive into every new situation.” I like the sound of that.

2. Mistakes. Recognizing my mistakes is not the same as hating myself for them. It’s more important for me to be willing to learn from screw-ups than to be perfect all the time.

3. Guts. My gut is smarter than I give it credit for. I should trust it more often.

I wore floaties until I reached high school.

Here I am prepared to take a “swan dive” into any new situation.

Acceptance
I was accepted to the leadership program in August. My supervisors had enthusiastically written letters of recommendation for me, and my boss allowed me the time to attend the program.

Most attendees in the program had their tuition paid for by their employers. Without this kind of support, the program was a significant financial investment for my husband and me to make. We had to weigh the benefits of the program against the likelihood we could only afford to eat saltines and generic Kraft cheese slices for the next few months. But I saw the value in professional development, and I needed a challenge.

Actually, scratch that. What I really needed was to change my career.

Let me step back.

Finding My Tribe
My employer had been a positive part of my life for two and a half years. My position was exactly what I needed after having worked for a sociopath during the 10 months prior to being hired there. My new boss quickly became a mentor, teacher and friend. Under his tutelage, I improved as a writer and as a professional.

My coworkers laughed at my jokes, granting me permission to be myself in the department. I quickly found my place in the pack. I belonged.

I don’t always express admiration or care toward others in the warmest way. My modus operandi is to deflect personal emotions with sarcasm and humor. But I feel things very strongly. I internalize everything.

Over the years, I grew to care very deeply for my colleagues, and I was passionate about my work. Plus, I was good at my job – really good.

A Tough Blow
At my annual performance review in April, I received perfect marks and glowing feedback – as I had in each previous review. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to garner the raise I requested. I was told it was nothing personal, just business.

The rejection stung like a paintball gun to the kidney.

Cognitively, I understood that it was “just business” but that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking. It may have been business to them, but it was personal to me. My self-esteem has always been reflective of my professional achievements.

Until then, I had imagined myself working my way up the ranks to a VP someday. I had even brushed off a couple of recruiters throughout the years. But now everything had changed.

I hadn’t positioned myself as a good enough investment. From the company’s perspective, they had me for a bargain. I had already developed a comprehensive strategy and was leading several projects and initiatives. Upon making it into the boardroom, I noticed I was the lowest level employee in there. I certainly appreciated the seat at the table, but if they already had the milk for cheap, why should they give the cow more money? That would have been udderly ridiculous.

A Second Opinion
Friends responded to my plight in one of two ways. Some said I was right to ask for what I deserved. Others said I asked for too much and should be grateful I had a job at all.

Was I deluding myself?

My gut told me I was worth it. But the only power I had was the freedom to leave. And at the time, I didn’t fully realize just how powerful that freedom was. I had no idea I wielded the only power I needed.

L is for Loser
I started feeling like a schmuck for putting myself in this situation. I was bummed. Then I was sad. I became depressed. Fortunately, I learned that the company’s Employee Assistance Program covered counseling.

Perfect! My company was kind enough to provide someone to help me address the depression I felt because of my company.

To call this period a really dark time would be the biggest understatement ever written on this blog. I don’t want to get into specifics, but let’s just say even I couldn’t muster enough sarcasm to combat the deep melancholy of those months. I was in the shit.

It’s amazing how differently my year ended than it began.

It took me some time to accept that I wouldn’t be advancing at the company. But walking away is a risk.

I took my time. I sent a handful of applications, went on a few “interesting” interviews – some of which are blog posts for another day. But in August, right around the same time I started my leadership program, I was called in to an interview.

Then, I was called in to an interview somewhere else. Fast forward a few weeks, and I had two job offers in front of me.

My gut was cheering me on! And simultaneously telling me to puke. I had never been so optimistic nor so terrified.

Moving On
When I put in my notice, my boss wasn’t surprised. No one was surprised. I’ve never had a very good poker face, but I never wanted to give the impression I was unhappy. Unsatisfied, certainly. But I loved my work and enjoyed every day collaborating with the talented people around me.

The departure was rough. Having deflected emotion via sarcasm for the past two and a half years, I found tears welling upon informing colleagues.

Despite everything, I left the company in the best way possible. I know they made a business decision. I understand that it wasn’t personal, even though it hurt. I wish everyone could find joy and passion in their job the way I did at this one. I will always be grateful to the company for my experience, and I can honestly say I found something to get pumped up about on every single day I came to work. I laughed on every single day of work. How many people can say that?

Guts and Glory
My gut has been shouting, “I told you so!” ever since I began my new gig. And since starting, I’ve been challenged in ways I never anticipated. I’ve learned several valuable lessons from this past year’s experience:

1. My self worth is not determined by the value an employer may put on me.

2. I’m very, VERY good at what I do.

3. I’ve got good guts.

I will never again let my self worth be defined by my net worth – a lesson I want to record here lest I need a future reminder.

My gut tells me I’m not the only one who needs a reminder.

For less about my own personal triumph and more about my own personal humiliation, check out some of my other posts:

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