Lost in the Winner’s Circle

Parts of it were funny. And other parts were humiliating.

And even though I’ve told the story before, it deserves another telling, if only to show that maybe humiliation can diminish over time while the humor of a thing can grow.

I went to New York in July of 2015 to get a BlogHer Voice of the Year award for an essay I wrote about hearing loss called Blindsided. The person who told me I’d won, Rochelle Dukes Fritsch, a good friend also from Milwaukee, won for her remarkable essay What’s Behind My Tears for Ferguson which I wish I could link for you but can’t. We were flabbergasted, astonished, but both of us knew we’d written really good essays, pieces with meaning and importance. The awards were well-deserved and we glowed about being recognized in this important way for weeks before the big conference in New York. Still, I dreaded the trip for all the reasons I’d written about in my essay. Hearing loss had weakened me, taken the wind out of my sails. I was worried about navigating it all. But I went anyway.

On the night of the award presentation, we were summoned, along with a couple dozen other award winners, to a champagne reception on an elegant balcony overlooking a vast room where the names of the winners scrolled on a giant screen. Later, we would go down the stairs from the balcony to the big stage in front of a sea of people and have our picture taken. In the back of the balcony, past the champagne servers and the little bunches of people taking selfies and congratulating each other was a table with the BlogHer VOTY awards arranged in alphabetical order.

My name wasn’t there.

Rochelle’s name was there. She picked up the fancy box with her award and held it to her chest. Then she joined in the search for mine. We went through the rows of awards a dozen times. No Jan Wilberg. I checked the emails on my phone to confirm that I’d actually won. I did this while wearing a name tag identifying me as a BlogHer VOTY. Maybe I was some kind of auxiliary VOTY, I thought. A runner-up. Maybe I was supposed to be at the root beer reception. I checked the BlogHer website. Maybe they’d reconsidered. and I hadn’t been paying attention. No, my name was on the list of winners, plain as day. Jan Wilberg for Blindsided.

“Here. I think they just got your last name wrong.” She handed me a box with the name Janice Winkler. “That stuff happens all the time. This has to be you. Here.” And so I took the box and decided it must be mine but wondered hard how Jan Wilberg had become Janice Winkler.

We joked about it. I untied the ribbon, opened the box and showed the lovely glass award to people I knew only because of their blogs. We had instantly become birds of a feather and I wanted comfort and support from my new flock. “Look! They got my name wrong.” Oh, they’ll fix it, they all said. So funny. To come all this way and have your name wrong but so what, that’s life. It’ll make a great blog post. Ha, ha, ha.

Then, Rochelle nudged me hard and gestured over her shoulder. Behind us, Janice Winkler’s name was scrolling on the giant screen. She had won an award for Photography. For a photo of two people skydiving. Which is what I felt like I was doing at that very moment. I crammed her award back in its box and tried to retie the ribbon. It looked awful, like a present a kid had swiped from under the Christmas tree and then put back hoping not to be discovered. I was terrified someone would see me fumbling with Janice Winkler’s award. That I was wearing a hideous striped red and black shirt didn’t help. The thief wore neon.

My goal then was to melt into the crowd, pretend I’d put my award somewhere so I could handle the champagne with both hands. I felt naked though like I’d lost my pass to the Jamboree. So when I spied the leader of BlogHer coming down the stairs, I went up to her and told her that somehow my award hadn’t been on the table.

“Are you sure you’re a winner?”

Here’s where the humiliation part of the story picks up. She waved me away like I’d somehow wandered into the wrong room on my search for the Needlepoint Convention. This old broad with her two hearing aids and her hideous shirt must be lost because she couldn’t be one of us, nope. I was incredulous. Me, an award winner, albeit without the physical evidence, being waved off like a champagne server with an empty tray. It was a scorching, eye-blinking, I wanna call my mom to pick me up from school moment which I will probably never forget. There was more to it, you know there would have to be, more back and forth, more questions and answers. But what I remember most clearly were the accordion folds of my age, my disability, the disregard, the embarrassment, and my horrible shirt, a squeezebox of humiliation.

But I overcame. There was no choice. And there was Rochelle, my kind, funny, compatriot friend. I decided to act like I belonged there, like I was a winner, isn’t that what they say to do? So that’s what I did. I drank champagne and later I stood on the stage with all the other winners, next to Rochelle, and had my picture taken. A few months later, my award came in the mail. No ribbon, but with the right name. It’s right here sitting on my bookshelf, looking like it belongs there.





A Talking To

Get rid of those scarves. You’re never going to wear them.

Huh? Who are you?

I’m your Fashionista! Your fashion sense.

What are you talking about? I don’t have any fashion sense.

My point exactly. You need me to tell you to ditch those stupid scarves.

What if I want to add color and excitement and verve to my look?

Yeah. I’ve seen you try. You wrap a twenty-foot scarf around your neck like it’s a python and then rip it off panting for air.

Other women wear scarves and they look great.

Maybe you need a longer neck because you always look like one of those ancient turtles on its way to lay eggs at the Galapagos.

That’s harsh.

I know, I’m so sorry. But it’s my job to protect you from being a laughingstock.

A laughingstock! You think wearing a scarf makes me a laughingstock? That’s terrible. What about all the times I’ve worn scarves in the past?

People are still laughing.

I guess I should thank you for your honesty but I don’t feel all that appreciative.

That’s okay. I totally understand. Now should we pack these up or leave them hanging here so you can remember all the good times?


I saw grass today and it was like being transported to a mythical country.

It’s something for a person raised in the Midwest, who has lived here for 70 years, and just got back from Alaska, to be sniveling with gratitude about twelve blades of grass at the end of the block.

It’s the unique magic of winter. It makes you all happy at the beginning, stoic in the middle, and sniveling and weak at the end.

The winter has definitely contributed to my intermittent bouts of pretend frailty. I’ve made the ice on the driveway a murderer lying in wait so I tiptoe out of the back door to my car like a fairy princess lest I awake the monster. Oh little sweet defenseless me!

It’s disgusting.

After my husband read my post about my cochlear implant battery dying, another episode of weeping defenselessness, he motioned at my closet and said, “You need to put on a power suit and get your act together.” It’s one of the things I like best about him. He is the least emotionally indulgent person I’ve ever met.

He isn’t cold or unfeeling. He just doesn’t indulge a lot of weak talk. Like “I can’t get this project done.” “Nobody likes my essay.” “My life is pointless.” “The ice is too slippery.” He just yawns and goes back to reading the paper. This tactic has kept me going for 35 years. I think he learned it in some deescalation workshop when he was a youth worker a century ago. Ignore lamenting and it will go away.

I’ve come to depend on this reaction of his. There’s no sympathy here, little lady.

Being on the receiving end of sympathy is nice sometimes but it can quickly become a debilitating thing, at least for me. When people feel sorry for me, I get worse. I don’t know what it’s like for other people. I never presume.

Silver Lining

What winter has going for it is hunkering down. It is in the hunkering down that we appreciate things like blankets and dogs. And we aren’t compelled all the time to be outside because it’s good for us.

We took a walk today but it started to rain. So we went home to hunker down.

We had wine and churros after dinner. There are two more churros to have in the morning with cups of strong coffee.

Maybe it will still be raining.


Here’s the question of the day. What is the deal with chewing gum and having gas?

When did this start being a thing?

I mean I’m so dainty and so not wanting to look like some 1930’s gum-smacking dame hanging on Jimmy Cagney’s arm that I only chew a half a stick of Trident at a time. Discreet, I tell you. You could barely tell I’m chewing, I’m like a Texan who moves to New York but still keeps a wee chaw tucked in his beautifully-shaven cheek. Chaw? What chaw?

It took me days to figure out the connection. First there was the puffing up, so bad that I had to lay flat to zip up my beloved insulated skirt so I could be warm and hip at the Iditarod and then the zipper bit into my side like an open pair of scissors. What the goddamn hell? I thought. What is making me so pillowy?

And then, well, there were the consequences, only some of which I heard because, as you know, I’m hearing impaired. If a tree falls in the forest and only one hand is clapping does it still make a noise? I’m not sure but maybe. I acted as though I didn’t hear it regardless. I never acknowledge bodily faux pas. I learned that in 2nd grade. Look elsewhere. Always look elsewhere. A passing child, your companion, a distant bird.

So today I embarked on an experiment to determine if it was, in fact, chewing gum that was causing my puffery – all forms of it – and it seems to be true. No gum all day and I am now svelte and silent. I could model ballet tights, I am so sleek. But I am longing for a toothpick or a cigarette or maybe a No. 2 pencil. No gum, at least not while I’m traveling with a companion. It’s a bummer that now I can only chew gum when I am somewhere alone, by myself for days, wearing a muumuu. That’s what it’s come to.



Cheap Trick

I’m about to have made four meals out of one chicken.

First there was the brined and roasted chicken, then leftovers from said chicken, then a chicken casserole, and then chicken soup. 

This makes me feel like we should be dressed in holey turtlenecks and singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” while we forage around in the root cellar looking for the best rutabaga. Those were heroic days and heroic people, though, and I don’t mean to mock them. 

I know thrift. It’s a place I visit pretty often but I don’t want to live there all the time. 

Still, I think the skills of thrift are valuable and I’m glad I have them. Making food last would be an obvious one, less obvious is the well-developed skill of foregoing, not buying something even though I can, because it is too expensive or I don’t really need it. What I have found is that the wanting is often so slim and transitory that I barely feel deprived.

I frequently used the response that “we can’t afford it” when one of my kids asked for something even though we almost always could. I just wanted them to have that in their heads, that question, ‘can I afford that?’ I don’t know if it worked, I try not to talk about money with my kids, they work hard, what they do with their money is their business. As mine is mine.

Years ago, I teased a friend about how his mother, who was quite well-off, would turn an old dish soap bottle upside down so it could drip its last drops into a new bottle. “Your mother’s rich, why would she do that?” “How do you think she got rich?” was the reply.

Of course, as off-hand comments often do, this made me think – about dish soap, maple syrup, ketchup, and a million other opportunities for impatience and carelessness because ultimately wasting food and things is about those two things – impatience and carelessness. And indulgence, which is something I prize but not about ketchup. I’d always rather have a new bottle of ketchup than the dregs of an old one. But I turn it upside down and let it drip. Or, more honestly, my husband does. He is the thrifty coach in our lives.

The casserole and the soup make me feel like I could get through tough times (well, I have gotten through tough times but not for a long while), that I haven’t strayed so far from my roots of potato soup and boiled beef heart, and that I could slap on the flannel shirt and soldier through catastrophe with the best of them. And I like that. Even if it is ridiculous. I will need more than a chicken to survive the Apocalypse.