Monday, August 31, 2009

How'd I Get Here?

Many people who meet me for the first time are interested in my work as a historian whose specialty is gathering life stories of people. As they get to know me better they are even more surprised to learn that my first career was dedicated to animals, not people, and that I hold a degree in, of all things, Exotic Animal Training and Management.

In high school I had one determined goal in mind for my life’s work. I wanted to work with animals. I lived in a farming community and the only animals I had the opportunity to work with were dairy cows. In fact I attended an agricultural college for one semester thinking that would be my ticket to working in the animal field. It wasn’t and I soon found myself back home attending our local community college until I could figure out a plan.

It was there that I saw that forces outside myself worked on my behalf because it was a coincidental encounter that changed the course of my life. It was just one of those wondrous Universe Interventions that have been a mainstay of my life, but that’s the topic of a future blog.

I was waiting to speak to a college advisor to help me figure out my path when I flipped through a copy of People magazine and came upon the story of Bill Brisby and his college program (Moorpark College) that gave students hands-on experience working with lions, tigers, and bears! I left without seeing the advisor and knew in my heart that I would be one of those students.

One of the many articles written about the EATM program since its inception

Getting into the Exotic Animal Training and Management (EATM) program wasn’t easy. First, I left home for Spokane, Washington without having my mail forwarded to me. Letters from the school offering me an interview finally reached me but it was almost too late. Luckily I was able to make the appointment and I flew to southern California to meet with those who would ultimately decide if I was a worthy candidate for their program. Out of the then 500 applicants only 60 would be accepted. I received word I had been accepted and made arrangements to get settled in my new town before the fall semester started.

In April 1977 I arrived at a bus stop in Thousand Oaks, California. There I was met by current EATM students who so graciously offered to pick me up and allow me to stay with them until I could find a place of my own. I soon found a home to rent, roommates, and a job in walking distance until I could afford to buy a car.

In August, the “first years” were inducted into the 2-year program. It was the hardest, yet the most rewarding two years of my life. The program’s director, Bill Brisby, was a tough talking disciplinarian whose rule was to be followed to the letter or students risked the boot. Three late arrivals to class or duty and you are out. No vacations. Animals come first. And work harder physically than you have ever worked before. Brisby was also the kindest-hearted man I had known up to that point in my life and unknowingly became my surrogate father. His rules taught me self-discipline and accountability, characteristics that helped mature me.

Bill "Briz" Brisby , the program's director and famed animal trainer Wally Ross

My dreams were coming true. I worked closely with every exotic animal I had wished for, training or cleaning up after them and learning about their specific behavior traits and potential for danger. The lessons I learned during that time of my life have taught me to be a better mother, employee, and human being. If it were possible to go back in time to relive specific years, those years in the EATM program would be at the top of my list.

That's me atop an elephant (although the reporter got my name wrong)

Although I no longer work professionally with animals I continue to surround myself with the animal world. In many ways that short period of time in the company of “Briz”, like-minded peers, and animals from mice to elephants has influenced every other moment of my current life.

I love the idea of fate and the Universe can intervene in my life any time it wants. I cannot wait to see what else it has in store for me.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Do, I Don't - Taking a new husband's name

A forty-something friend of mine is going to remarry soon and she asked my opinion on changing her last name. Her soon-to-be husband wants her to take his name. As she was married once before she has been there, done that, and undone that and isn’t sure she wants to go through the hassle again. On the other hand, she isn’t sure she wants to hassle over it with her man as they begin a new life together. My response was “don’t change.” But, that’s just me. My two daughters recently married and they both took on their husband’s names. I don’t think women of today should lose their surnames to a tradition that is, in my opinion, outdated and unnecessary.

I married for the first time in 1980. I hyphenated my last name just like Farrah Fawcett-Majors did. I liked the independence the new trend allowed. Then I got divorced and had to undo it all in the courts, on legal documents, my mailing labels. When I remarried my husband asked that I take his name. We compromised and I left out the hyphenation (which I’ve since reinstated). Truthfully, I wish I had just kept Gioia and left it at that. It is a big, huge pain to carry two last names as well as an attitude like mine that gets peeved when people automatically assume saying Acres is adequate.

I have several reasons for harboring this opinion. First, I was born a Gioia. I am not a Reynolds (first husband) or an Acres. When a woman takes her husband’s name I believe she loses her identity. I know my mother-in-law doesn’t mean disrespect to me when she addresses mail to “Mrs. John Acres”; she’s from a different generation but it irks me to no end to be lost in that title. Of course I love my husband and am mighty proud to be his wife; but I am still me, not a reflection of his “ownership.”

Another reason I insist on using Gioia is much more symbolic. My dad, Joseph Gioia, died before I was old enough to know him. He committed a heinous act when he took the life of his wife, my mother, in a moment of alcohol infused rage, otherwise known as a crime of passion. In his remorse and perhaps fear of incarceration and probable execution, he took his own life. For years his name and that of his family was sullied by the story.

One of the few photos I have of my dad, Joseph Gioia

It wasn’t until I began to investigate what might have inspired a man who, by all accounts, adored his wife and family to do what he did, that I discovered the “pat” answers were anything but. There was more to the story than what the Batavia Daily News headline, Father of Four Accused of Murder and Murder Suspect Takes Own Life reveals. Through my research I have discovered that my father was not the monster he was made out to be; there were many mitigating circumstances that led to that tragic moment in time.

My feelings for and about my father are complicated: I want to love him but I never knew him and how can I ever forgive him for what he did? Holding on to the one thing he gave me (his name) that can’t be taken away is one way I feel I can honor him.

It also is my ticket to getting to know him and my history. In the town where I was born and where the “incident” took place, there are many people who remember. I count on my last name to open doors in order for me to gather all the information I can about my parents. I wrote a few articles published in the (Batavia) Daily News that spurred several readers to come forward and share their memories of both my parents and the aftermath of their deaths. I treasure those offerings as they provided me with more evidence that Pat Oberlander and Joe Gioia really did exist.

For me, holding on to one’s birth name goes far beyond the feminist reasons to maintain identity. So perhaps I’m not the ideal person to ask, “Should I take my husband’s name?” The decision to do so is personal and can only be made by the individual for reasons that make sense to them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

So What Do You Do For a Living?

I have worn many different career hats in my life: waitress, animal trainer, business owner, program coordinator, volunteer manager, grant writer, museum technician, archaeologist, teacher, and now historian.

This past week I was in Death Valley National Park doing a research project for a former colleague. If I hadn’t met her for the short year and half stint that I worked with her, I wouldn’t have been asked to participate in this most recent job. Each and every job, no matter how small or short-lived, has provided me knowledge, experience and contacts to take me on more adventures and journeys than I ever believed possible.

Job hopping isn’t for everyone and it doesn’t always look so great on a resume. As I tried one job after another, some just to pay the bills, others with the intention of being my life’s work, I heard mocking jabs from many that I was flaky and unstable. To me, however, my tapestry of jobs is a source of pride and fulfillment; each and every one of them a stepping stone to teach me something new and open the door to opportunities I could never have imagined experiencing.

I consider the in-between jobs such as waiting tables, office work and business owner as basic training. I learned how to be organized and efficient, but I never once considered those positions to be my life’s work. No, it was the animal caregiver, the teacher, the nature lover and the storytelling parts of me that drew me to the career choices I have made.

As a child I knew, after watching the television movie Born Free that I was going to work with animals. That determination took me from my small town life in western New York to southern California where I got my training and experience in the animal field.

Training a wolf in Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training and Management Program

A move to Las Vegas came about because I got a job working in an animal care facility. I lasted only one year at that job where I couldn’t tolerate the working conditions, namely the boss who was an egocentric tyrant.

From there my husband and I opened a business, one of two we would try, but hopefully not our last.

Acres of Animals Pet Shop, Las Vegas, NV 1989-1991

Signature Cafe, Attica, NY 1999-2001

Then it was back to college in order for me to have a degree which would enable me to get a better paying job. That’s where I got the training and contacts to work as an archaeologist. By the time I was academically trained I was almost too old and too settled with my family to live the life of a wandering anthropologist and archaeologist.

Trekking up mountains for 10-12 hour work days was too much to ask from someone used to a daily shower and a home cooked meal, not to mention how much my late-forty-year-old bones protested.

My "home" during field excursions

Recording prehistoric Rock Art, Nevada

It was that job and that gave me my first real experience as an oral historian. Where some people relish people watching, I am drawn to their stories. That, along with my hobby of researching family genealogy is what made me realize just how much I love research and the reason I went back to college for a degree in history.

So here I sit in front of my computer with a mountain of research material to tackle and I couldn’t be happier. I can see this work taking me into my golden years, which isn’t a bad gig.

I do, however, continue to yearn for more. I have often wished that reincarnation were true because there are so many other careers I want to try: geologist, biologist, dolphin trainer, animal behaviorist, world traveler, published author, motivational speaker; the list could go on and on.

For now I am content to enjoy the work I am blessed enough to have. But, who knows what’s next? I’ll just have to wait and see.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Look Alike Links

The greatest thing I ever did in my life, and I’ve done some great things for a small town girl, is to give birth and raise two children. The hardest thing I’ve ever done or will ever survive is being the mother to children. The latter is because I never expected to feel the depths of emotions, from joy to despair, as I watch my daughters navigate life. This, however, is the topic of another blog. Today I’m going to share how cool it is to have human beings on the planet that resemble me in looks and personality.

I got the idea for this post when a friend was over and looking at photographs of me when I was a toddler. She was amazed at how much my seven-year-old grandson looks like me.
Lisa around age 5

Grandson Aiden at age 5
Her comment made me recall how often I was told how much my daughters, Erin and Adrian, look like me. For a time I assumed it was just people being nice but when I heard it over and over I began to really believe it.

Lisa with her girls

For me, it was more than just flattery. I never knew my own mother, had no one to compare myself to, although I was told time and time again how much I looked like her. So to have my girls look like me gave me some comfort in the knowledge that I carried a little of my long-dead Mom with me.

My mom, Patricia Oberlander Gioia as a young girl

I hoped that my daughters would feel the same way.

My youngest, Adrian is a real jokester. As a teenager whenever someone told her she looked like me she would respond with, “I was adopted and my ‘Mom’ made me get plastic surgery to look like her.” Ha ha, funny kid.

Adrian holding her son, Aiden

And me with the same goofy smile and glasses
I have spent many years of my life researching my family history, documenting the lives of ancestors to get a sense of who they were, where they came from and how they conducted their lives. Doing so has given me a sense of the continuity and belonging that long eluded me. Having the tangible evidence of a paper trail such as documents and photographs is wonderful.

Another method of feeling a connection, I have finally discovered, is by looking in the mirror.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What Price Those Words?

The price of speaking what’s in your heart can be very costly. I have discovered this harsh reality over the years. I always thought I was a people-pleaser, not wanting to say or do anything that would offend someone else. I was raised that way. I remember going to BINGO games with my grandmother as a little girl and just hating the cigarette smoke blown in my face by the players who shared our table. My grandmother was quick to scold me when I would wave my hand to clear the air around me. The only time I recall her physically hitting me is when I talked back to her in front of a neighbor; that incident garnered me a sharp slap in the face.

Even as an adult I found it very difficult to speak up for myself, at least not to anyone’s face. The one place I have always been able to speak my truth and reveal what’s on my mind is when I write. That skill is one I treasure.

Writing for me is the greatest and most effective therapy. I believe that writing has allowed me to work through a grief that was denied me as the tragic events that took my parents from me happened when I was only a baby. I never had the opportunity to work through the effects of such a loss. When the obvious questions arose as I matured were not satisfactorily answered, I turned to the one source of comfort that was within my reach – I wrote about it.

At first I wrote only to myself in a journal that was intended for no one else’s eyes. Over time I found that I not only have become an adequate writer, I discovered that people enjoy what I write and want to hear my story. I fed on that acknowledgement and want to continue to write and share with others.

I am a good and passionate writer when I it comes from personal experience, when I reveal what’s in my heart. I have tried to tell my story from a fiction standpoint but I am not as good. My fiction writing is bland and stilted; it’s just not believable. And it just doesn’t flow from me like when I tap into my inner emotions; then my words can’t get out of my head and onto the paper fast enough.

What I have to say, however, is not always what others want to hear. There have been more times than I care to count where I have been shunned for sharing what is on my mind and in my heart. The problem is that I am not the only character in my story. I have long held back what is inside of me trying to get out. Over the years I have placed a toe into the water to test the reaction to publishing my story and have been scorned by those who would rather I keep my mouth shut, my feelings trapped inside, move forward and leave the past behind. I just can’t do that. It truly is a matter of survival for me.

My initial reaction to someone who gets upset at me for writing is “Oh my God, I’m in trouble.” It doesn’t matter that a piece of writing has released something inside of me, gives me profound joy and lifts a weight from my heart, offending someone causes me distress. I have learned, however, to work through those feelings and continue writing. I want to say I’m sorry to those who get mad at me for what I have to say. The truth is I do consider each and every word I write and, yet, I still displease someone.

I could offer all the apologies in the world but if I don’t stop writing I will not be forgiven. I’m afraid that in the 5th decade of my life I choose to follow this path and to see where it takes me.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Mirror Mirror

When I look in the mirror these days I don't often like what I see. That is unless I've got makeup on, my hair is cooperating, I've had enough sleep and I found something in my closet that's acceptable to wear. It was much worse before I started working out a couple of months ago. I don't see any drastic changes for the better in my overall appearance, but my mind/body image is in a much better place. I know I'll never again look like I did 20 to 30 years ago, but I know I don't have to be destined to look old, frumpy, fat, and used up.

I never really paid much attention to my looks when I was in my prime. My weight also never was an issue, not until my 40s. Then as the pounds creeped up I realized how much I avoided cameras. Actually, when I go through my old pictures I am quite pleased with the way I looked; I was rather cute and didn't even know it.

It didn't start out that way. Those old pictures in my collection provide me with a great opportunity to see me change from cute kid to awkward ugly duck to attractive young woman. Those transitional images give me hope that I can once again evolve into someone whose face I would like to see immortalized in a picture.

Even I think she's adorable!

She's so vain

My hair was/is so unruly, short is the only way my grandmother could stand it

Who could do this to a child?

Finally I got to keep my hair long

That's me with one of my big brothers - 1972

Young Mom

1988 - my wedding day

Here I am on my 50th birthday - 2007

Truthfully, I'm looking forward to the changes I'll be witness to on my face over the next 50 years. I hope some of you will be around to see that post when it's published!