As many of you know, I was married on July 20th. Currently I am on my honeymoon and will return mid-August when I will continue writing about coffee meetings. If you have any interest, feel free to stay updated on our travels via our
Communicating with the dead is not like the movie Ghost, and Sheila would know because she does it. “I don’t go into a trance and I don’t… there’s no candles lit. There’s no ooga-booga. It would be like you driving in your car, lost in your thoughts.”
Learning to Connect with the Deceased
My chair grated on the hardwood floor as I took a seat in her dining room and she busied herself in the kitchen. We chatted as Sheila prepared me a green tea and warmed up some broth for herself (she was getting over a cold). A few moments later she set our cups on the table, steam curling from them, and told me how she discovered that she could connect with the deceased.
As early as 10 years old, Sheila knew there were things that set her apart from most people, including that she had flashbacks from a previous life, but it wasn’t until much later that she discovered the extent of her talents. That happened in 2005, the year that her close friend Mary passed away. Mary was from England and the morning after she died her husband Harry called and broke the news to Sheila. The loss was staggering for her and it was impossible to imagine that she would no longer hear Mary’s always chipper, “Hello Dear”.
She never guessed that just three days later, she would hear that friendly voice again saying, “Hello Dear. I want you to call Harry and tell him the veil is too heavy. I cannot get through.” Unable to call Harry and discuss this with him, Sheila brushed it aside as her imagination playing tricks on her. Until the next day when she heard Mary again. “Hello Dear, I want you to call Harry and tell him I have no more heavy legs. I can hop and walk and jump. I’m free!”
That was it. She called Harry and told him what she had heard and surprisingly, he understood. In the last 7 months of Mary’s life she had complained of heavy legs because her pacemaker didn’t always circulate blood well to her extremities. So, was this her way of telling him not to worry about her?
Neither of them was sure, but Sheila thought this was just a fluke. “I just couldn’t believe that I was hearing this shit. You know what I mean?” Not much thought was given to the incident and Sheila went on with life as normal, except that her morning routine changed slightly. Every day as she was getting ready, Sheila would converse with Mary in her head. Explaining it to me, she compared it to re-hashing conversations in your head. Never imagining that she was actually talking to Mary, she was shocked when one morning she attempted to start the conversation as usual by saying hello and received this answer, “Hello Dear. I cannot talk to you now because I have to go help Laura.”
Hm. Strange? Well, strange enough that once again Sheila reached out to Harry and told him what had happened. And again he confirmed the message. Harry and Mary’s daughter Laura had MS and that day she had fallen and broken a rib. For the first time Sheila wondered, “Am I really talking to Mary?”
Perhaps It Wasn't a Fluke
Several months later a second voice joined the conversation by explaining to Sheila that after death we vibrate at a different frequency. Convinced that it was Harry and Mary’s son who had passed away years before, Sheila asked Harry for his name but he wouldn’t tell her, hoping she would once again prove herself. And she did. “One morning, shortly after this, I was awakened with the name, Andy.” That was correct. “I consider this man one of my dearest friends. I have never met him in the physical in my whole life.”
The realization that these were not isolated incidents gave Sheila the confidence to begin helping other people connect with their loved ones. But, the stigma surrounding psychic mediums still has her miffed. “The reason I decided to come out was because of these transformations I see and because I have the balls to be one of the voices in the world… who… if we could just make end of life issues different, if we could approach it differently, regardless of the faith experience. Your faith and the way you handle your spirituality is your personal business. This is not supernatural. I have no psychic powers. It’s just a part of my brain that’s flipped on. We all have this part of our brain, but we come into this planet with different skills and abilities switched on.”
While the discovery that she could do this has been life changing, opening up to family and friends about it hasn’t been easy. The decision to tell them happened in part because of her friend’s brother who had passed away. He had been physically and mentally impaired and died in the hospital of pneumonia around the age of 40. One quiet morning as she was preparing for the day, he joined her by boinging all around her room on a pogo stick. In a perfect baritone he told Sheila that he was so happy to be out of that body and to tell his sister that she should not feel sad or guilty. For 2 weeks he would not leave her alone as she struggled with the decision to tell her friend. Finally, she made the decision and was rewarded with her friend’s confirmation. She did have a pogo stick as a little girl and he most likely saw her use it.
Can Science Back This Up?
I took a drink, my tea now sufficiently cool enough to take a sip, and asked her to delve further into the science behind all of this. First, she compared time to being in a room with three TV’s on. We have to tune into just one because we can’t handle all three. The past, present, and future she said, are all happening now. “We live pretty much in the future and in the past if you think about it. We do. It’s a shame. There is a loss there.”
She continued. “We don’t die, and science knows that. Science is trying to find a way to share that concretely with the world so it doesn’t offend anyone’s religion because this has nothing to do with religion, it’s about science. Consciousness survives the death experience, our body does not. Consciousness vibrates at a higher speed, at a higher vibration than our dense bodies do. Science knows that too. I’m talking about both medical science and physics.”
Since we all come in to this world with these abilities, Sheila thinks we should work on improving them. “I would love for there to be a course for kids starting in elementary school about how to develop this part of the brain we don’t use, as well as classes on how to balance a checkbook, and how to purchase real estate, and how to invest in the stock market. Instead of this bullshit they have us learn.”
Providing Relief to Clients and Friends
As our meeting progressed, I became curious, did she see anyone in the room at that moment? The answer (thank goodness), was no. “I don’t know why some I see and some I don’t see… I do see things that they show me.” But she was happy she didn’t see the dead all the time, “You know… imagine how distracting…”
Stories of her successes in this realm dominate her website and much of our time together. For brevity’s sake, I will bullet point a few here:
The Burden of Truth
Two hours later, my tea long since gone, we wrapped up our meeting with a few lingering questions I had, such as, if all people have this ability, what prevents us from doing what Sheila does? “The truth is, we all inherently can do this. That is the truth. Our belief systems prevent us from trying because most of us don’t want to go against the worlds linear view of what the truth of everything is. But it is only a viewpoint and it is flawed.”
I slowly gathered my belongings and asked a final question. Did Sheila ever feel that this was a burden? “This is not a burden because it’s something I love to do. I am as fascinated, I am as surprised… do you know what I mean? I never set out to do this.”
Tim had life figured out. Go to school, get the good grades, get a good job, move up the ladder, get a C suite position… but something was missing. Several six figure jobs and twenty years later, he figured it out.
At Cafe Ventana, we grabbed a table near the fireplace. Tim raved about the beignets, but I went for the smoothie this time. Cafe Ventana’s beignets aren’t the only food he loves about St. Louis. In fact, when I asked his favorite thing about the city he said, “Uh, probably the food. I was really surprised, pleasantly surprised, that there were this many good restaurants here. With an asterisk. I do not understand the fascination with Imo’s. It’s… there’s…” he paused, “I’m just going to end it with that.” He laughed. “I cannot eat it. It’s not pizza to me, but that’s just my opinion. But there are just so many good restaurants around. Good food. Good chefs, good sous chefs, um… good stuff!”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Tim finished his undergrad at Penn State. Looking back he realizes he didn’t really know what he wanted to do. Twice he changed his major, first from chemical engineering to electrical engineering, then from electrical to industrial engineering. While it turned out that this wasn’t what he wanted to do, what mattered at the time was… “I had that paper to get a good job”.
And he did. For 8 years he worked at Westinghouse Electric, which he compares to Maritz in St. Louis in that you either knew someone who worked there or someone who used to work there. He tried something different after that by working for an HR consulting company for 8 years. The experience was a good one, but when he had the opportunity to move to California and work for a manufacturing consultancy, he jumped at the chance.
That turned out to not be such a good decision. Six months later Tim had quit his job with nothing else lined up. It was that bad. But, after only six months he was recruited by an HR consulting company in Clayton and that is how he ended up in St. Louis! He worked there 2 years, then worked at a marketing agency in Soulard for about 1.5 years, followed by a healthcare consultancy. That was his shortest stint yet. His bad work experiences were affecting every aspect of his life, and looking back he saw that the time spent at each job was getting shorter and shorter. “I thought… enough! Time out! Now what?”
When he took the time to really think about it, everything in his life up to this point seemed to point him in one direction, his “common thread” was “facilitating learning in others”. So, he completed his life coach certification and here he is! He gestured as he explained that this could be temporary. “This is it for now. That’s the best part of this whole evolution. I’ve realized instead of worrying about what’s happening 2 years from now, because 2 years ago I would never have dreamed I’d be doing this full time, I’m therefore not worried about 2 years from now. So for now, it’s perfect!”
This is a message he is constantly trying to get across to his clients (mostly Millennials). Stop worrying, just enjoy the journey. “The pinnacle that we strive for is fictitious, but you have to realize it on your own. I always tell people, the best way to achieve your goals is to set them and then let them go.” This is so important he says, because we don’t know where something is headed when we begin. “We have expectations that it’s going to be X, but it could end up being X like.”
Seventy-seven percent of every communication we have by age 11 is negative. According to Tim, this has created adults who second guess everything. We think things like, ‘I’d love to do that, but can’t.’ It is possible, however, if we can overcome that thinking. “What it really comes down to is 4 or 5 things, fear, clearly, and this is everybody. Lack of self-confidence, fear of what others will think.” Coaching people helps them become a third party to their own behavior and they can practice changing it.
What he finds fascinating is the way people think before they meet with him. Almost inevitably they answer his questions with statements like, ‘well, I don’t want to be the type of mother who does this...’ or ‘I don’t want to...’ Tim immediately interrupts this train of thought. “It’s very clear what you don’t want. What DO you want?” The answer is usually silence. “They haven’t thought of it before. They finally have the chance to think what DO I want, without feeling selfish.”
I cannot agree more with Tim’s next statement. This belief has led me to try paragliding off a mountain in Switzerland, segelfliegen in Germany, and traveling to Turkey alone. “If what you’re following doesn’t scare you enough, your dreams aren’t big enough. That’s why the journey is all of it. You never stop learning.”
His first meeting with someone is a free 30 minute consultation where he assesses receptivity and asks some basic questions like, what if money wasn’t an object? what would you be doing? where? These questions are designed to help his clients start connecting the dots. Many times they see a pattern from their childhood that leads them to the career that will make them the most happy. “It’s never discovering,” Tim says, “It’s rediscovering.”
I told Tim my goals and how I get so frustrated with myself that I put my future in a box by imagining that I have to follow a certain path to get what I want. He laughed, “What’s so great about working with Millennials, is that for the first time and at a younger age, there is a group who is open and allowing and receptive to that mindset and that’s such an opportunity.” I asked if he thinks the internet is a part of that and he is sure that it is.
It was time for us to begin heading home for the evening and for Tim, home is the Central West End. This is his second favorite thing about St. Louis, his apartment. The building was built in 1929 complete with servants quarters, a milk door, beautiful archways, and hardwood floors. It’s actually one of the things keeping him here. “It just makes it a joy!”
Video games do not need to be violent. Greg has been developing them for big names like Sega, EA, and Lucas Films since 1981, so he has the experience to back that up. “If we saw anything like what a game does or a movie does in real life, it’d be horrifying. Shocking and horrifying, so why are we doing that? Why are we doing that in our media? In our interactive experiences?”
One evening after work, I waited for Greg at the Webster Groves Starbucks. Not many people are seeking a caffeine rush at 7pm, so it was relatively empty while I caught up on some work and drank a Green Tea Frappucino. About 10 minutes later Greg appeared around the corner looking slightly sheepish. We hadn’t recognized each other and had each been patiently waiting for the other to arrive. He ordered a Venti Mocha and told me that after many years of working for a company, he is currently developing his own game for mobile.
For a while now Greg has wanted to do something different from a lot of the video games that are out there, but that’s challenging to do on a small scale. It wasn’t until he took on a game development project for a client that he really learned how to program for mobile and that was eye opening for him. Nowadays… “If you have a good idea that’s original and you can execute that idea, you can do it with one to three people.” So he and his business partner are bootstrapping by developing games for clients until their company, minMOG, takes off.
Their first release (in the next few months) will hopefully create a new trend where games are more of a narrative, not short bursts of activity similar to Angry Birds. “It’s more about experiencing something. It’s possible to come up with an experience that has a sense of continuity to it,” he explained leaning back in his chair. “I’m really trying to break a bunch of cliches that have existed in the game industry for a long time. A lot of them come out of the history of board games.”
Greg is originally from California. Traditionally that’s where we think of movies and video games being created and Greg was at the center of that action for 13 years. First he worked for LucasArts where he produced the award-winning game ‘Secret of Monkey Island’. Then he started his own company and did contract work for Sega. He even won an award for “Best Producer” at a Game Developer’s Conference during this time. In 1994 he and his wife decided to move back so they could raise their 3 sons in the Midwest and that’s when he founded minMOG.
It’s not that Greg is anti-violence in games, it’s just that he doesn’t feel the need to add any more noise in that area. He would rather do something that makes people think a bit and entertains them in a different way. “The reason I feel the impulse to do things that are non-violent, is because I, I feel like there’s such an enormous contrast, disparity between what we experience in games, and modern media, movies and such and what we actually do in our daily lives. So, I’m, for my own benefit anyway and for the people I’m working with, trying to move the needle back towards a bit of common sense and normalcy and decency. This isn’t a morality thing for me, its much more about just encouraging people to have experiences and share their experiences with others.”
I’ve never been one for violent movies or games, so I asked how he thinks all of this violence came about. That question actually led us to a larger discussion about how gaming has changed and is still changing. He had four interesting things to say:
Ben’s mom is an artist and his dad works for Edward Jones, so he got the best of both worlds. He’s creative and analytical and that comes in handy as a financial advisor. But, it’s his work ethic that has helped him build his business so quickly.
I treated myself to a peppermint hot chocolate at the Webster Groves Starbucks and grabbed a chair across the table from Ben (who had already purchased his own drink). Having met once before we gave each other brief updates on our lives before we delved deeper.
At the ripe old age of 19, Ben moved from Chesterfield to Austin, Texas. It all started when his mom tasked him with building her a website to show photos of her paintings to family. This was an interesting request because Ben had never done anything like it before, but that did not deter him. Picking up the book HTML for Dummies, he quickly built her a site and within weeks it was ranking #1, #3, and #7 on the top search engines (this was before Google).
That led him to start his own SEO business. Within the year he was handling contracts all over the country from his parents basement. One particular client, Financial Services Group, called him 3 months into their agreement and asked him to move to Texas to work for them full-time. Ben and his girlfriend (now wife) decided it sounded interesting, so they made the move!
Working there was fantastic for him. He climbed the ladder and was able to wear just about every hat in the office including, search development, running the sales team, handling business development. When the company sold several years later Ben went out on his own as an independent broker, handling credit card processing between banks and merchants.
Sure, that was a good experience too, but ultimately it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for. He was up at all hours of the night for international meetings and he wasn’t able to leave the house much. It wasn’t until he and his wife had their first son, Jackson, that they decided it was time to move back to St. Louis and for Ben to join his dad’s practice as an advisor for Edward Jones.
For sales people, it’s an age old problem. How do you quickly grow your business network? The answer for Ben was to create a networking group. Twice a month he hosts a white collar luncheon that brings together about 65 “captains of industry” and “pillars of the community”, including Michelle (Coffee #60)!
Ben has found that, for him, the best thing about working for Edward Jones is that he can run his business as he sees fit. It gives him the ability to follow his gut rather than his boss' objective. Oh and… “I’ve always run my own business, because I’d make a terrible employee…”
As I’m sure you are dying to know, I DID ask Ben his favorite thing about St. Louis! He said “Oh boy… my favorite thing about St. Louis... Until this winter I might have said the snow, but I’m happy to be through with the snow. It’s my… It’s where I grew up, it’s what I know as home. It’s family. Yeah. St. Louis is a great place, there’s endless things to do. I think you can be anybody and do anything here. so the opportunities are endless, but when it comes down to it, that’s what’s most important to me and this is where they are.”
“If I can’t go buy an affordable home in my city because I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to my child when they go outside to play, or I’m afraid I can’t send them to the institution that’s teaching them without something bad happening to them, or they’ll get a sub-par education, or the whole day being spent around discipline versus education, that is a problem. We have to change that story.” Arlo is very passionate about fixing St. Louis, primarily our educational system and the racial divide.
We trudged through the snow to the Clayton Starbucks the day after the last big snowstorm. After ordering, Arlo and I peeled off our coats, hats, scarves, and gloves, and grabbed a table. Melting snow pooled at our feet and a grande bold and black tea warmed our hands, while he told me a little more about himself.
Arlo was an NFL agent, worked for Wells Fargo, and even started his own company, before he found his happiness at State Farm helping reps achieve their goals. As a territory sales manager, much of his time is spent mentoring and coaching a 34 person sales team. It’s a demanding role that he really enjoys. When he is not at work or with his family, his time is spent at Elite Football Academy coaching kids or youth training to go pro. “It gives me a chance to kind of give back. It’s really fulfilling.”
Arlo grew up in North St. Louis and attended The Wilson School, then Glenridge, and finally Clayton High School, where his race set him apart. He was in the minority in all of these schools, and he felt lucky to find strong African American teachers who mentored him. His parents taught at inner city schools here for 30 years, but he never questioned that he was getting a better education at Clayton than the kids in the city.
His parents were always an example to him and to others growing up. “Superficial as it is, my mom always wore a suit to school. She was always overdressed compared to every other teacher I knew, but her thing was, she always looked up to her teachers growing up and she feels like it’s her responsibility to give them an example of how to dress appropriately. She felt like the little girls, that may not have anybody else in their life to look at, had somebody.”
When Arlo moved to Mississippi to attend college at Mississippi Valley State University it was the first time he was in the majority since beginning school and that gave him the courage to take more risks. He became the executive editor of the campus newspaper, played golf his senior year, joined the forensics team and was an NFL prospect. “I really grew a lot from that opportunity.” Every time he came home to visit he set aside time to meet with his high school art teacher, Mr. Pearson, who challenged him by asking “What are you learning?” He told Arlo this was the last opportunity he’d have to really work on himself without other obligations in the way. The most important thing Mr. Pearson passed on to him was, “Humility with dignity is kind of the way I phrase it.”
Integration & Education in St. Louis
Just because Arlo felt more comfortable at a historically black university, does not mean he doesn’t believe in integration. “The south is starting to integrate, but it’s not forced. It’s through socio-economics, similar lifestyles. It’s more natural. If you force people to change their mind, they haven’t really changed their mind, they’re just forced to be in a situation. It almost creates an animosity. We have to let natural integration happen.”
Speaking of natural integration, the conversation quickly shifted to the problems with St. Louis' city schools. Arlo emphatically told me that he does not believe education is a right because that takes the responsibility for learning off of the kids. If the teachers spend half the class trying to get kids to sit down and behave, the students who are ready and willing to learn are at a disadvantage. “We can’t change the classroom to accommodate someone who doesn’t want to be part of the process. ‘Oh, we owe every kid education.’ No. We owe every kid the opportunity for an education. To get an education is the kid’s responsibility. If they’ve taken the responsibility for my growth, my maturity, off of me and put it on somebody else… It’s never going to work that way.”
“School is very simple. At the end of the day, a bunch of people who want to learn in front of somebody who wants to teach,” he shrugged. But the reality that city schools are failing while county schools prosper, is something he just can’t understand. “Why do we believe that the economic situation around a school limits the kids ability to learn?” Arlo asked. “There is a kid sitting in every classroom, in every economic environment, that can make it. I mean that really has a big dream and a big goal. Why isn’t our program sitting around helping those kids achieve?”
St. Louis’ voluntary transfer program sends talented city school kids to county schools and vice versa, but the numbers are very telling. From the city, 4,800 students are sent to county schools, while only 130 county students are sent to city schools. According to Arlo this program is often treated as an honors class for talented students. He compared it to sending all of America’s college graduates abroad. “How long would America survive?” He knows, however, that if city parents want their kids to have a good education they typically have just two options. Pay for it, or move.
The Impact & The Solution?
Another thing to consider, is the impact that our failing city schools will have on the entire metropolitan area in a few years. This leaves Arlo with more questions than answers. “We have to look at ourselves and we have to decide what we want to be as a city. Are we ok with the idea that we’ve given up on half the metropolitan area? What is our responsibility? What does that do for us? How long do we get to do this before that problem bleeds out to the whole metropolitan area?”
Whether the problem is in the politics (“We can’t keep electing mayors that allow the school system to get disenfranchised. Why are you the leader then?”), the teachers (“If these teachers can’t figure out how to teach on the salary we’re paying them, we get a teacher who can.”), or the kids (“We live in an environment where people are ultimately not responsible for the outcome of their lives.”) Arlo passionately believes it has to change.
Children & Civic Pride
One of the reasons he’s so outspoken on this point, is for the sake of his own children. Understanding that he can only do so much for them, gets him fired up to make sure they learn how to handle responsibility at a young age. But what can he do as one person? He’s not sure, yet, but he’s working on it. “I’m trying to gather a group of young people who are open to the idea that it doesn’t have to be this way. I haven’t figured out exactly how to do it, yet, but I have to do something.”
The other reason? Civic pride. Born and raised here in St. Louis, Arlo has lived in other states, but ended up back here when his dad got sick to help his mom take care of him. Living other places has given him a different perspective on St. Louis, but he’s still proud of his hometown and wishes more people were proud of our city as a whole. He pointed out the declining population of the city and the gorgeous homes for sale that don’t sell because of city schools. Admittedly, he is angry. “We should stop making excuses and make our city great.”
Listening to his intense indignation at the problems with our city, I suggested that he run for office. He looked thoughtful as he took a drink of coffee. “I think about that a lot.” But, he has qualms about being so beholden to different groups that he can’t be honest about the decisions he makes. He’s certainly not opposed to the idea, but he thinks there is someone out there who is better for the job.
Our drinks were almost full as the clock approached 8:15am, a side effect of great conversation. In the last few moments, Arlo wrapped up our meeting relatively succinctly, “Everybody can’t win at the same level. We have to accept it at some point, without thinking we’re throwing people away.”
There are certain expectations in our culture regarding marriage, family, and careers. We go to college, finish in our early 20’s, begin our careers, get married, have kids by 30 and by about 65 we are expected to be successful in our careers and approaching retirement. It didn’t exactly work that way for Scott, and he is happy it didn’t.
Initially our meeting was a bit of a disaster. We tried to meet at The Mud House but it was closed for renovation, next we tried Sump Coffee but they were closed on this particular day of the week. Finally, we followed each other over to Park Avenue Coffee in the Lafayette area and had success. After sitting down with a black tea and an Americano, Scott told me he used to work in politics.
For 11 years he ran political campaigns of all levels. In 1996 he ran 2 campaigns, one during the main election cycle and another during the special election cycle. That year had been difficult for him in a number of respects, so when his brother approached him about going into business together he had some serious thinking to do. He took a month off to weigh his options. The new business, a manufacturer of small duct, high velocity heating and cooling systems for architecturally unique homes, had its challenges. Sales hadn’t been great and the factory was “a dump”. But, after working about 60 political campaigns he thought, “I’ve had a pretty good run, maybe it’s time to go do something else.”
So, in June 1997 Scott, his brother, and a few other partners bought Unico Systems, Inc. When they made the purchase, sales were fairly small, but in time they have managed to increase business by 1,000%. Then things got difficult for awhile. “In 2007 with almost stunningly bad timing, right before the recession hit, we built this brand new building in Jefferson County,” he told me. They slogged through some difficult years, but things turned out ok. The new space ended up being very good for the company, and it now houses 140,000 square feet of manufacturing and testing labs for their equipment.
His career wasn’t the only thing that changed when he was a bit farther along in life. In 2001 he married his wife, whom he had known for years and they moved to the UK to expand this new business internationally. When his wife was about 36 they had their daugher and at 40 they had their son. Reflecting on their ages, Scott said emphatically, “I tell you there is absolutely nothing wrong as far as I can see, with having children later in life. I mean, you have a lot more patience, you have a lot of tensions in your life resolved, you kind of, I think, have a better understanding of who you are, you have a few more bucks in your pocket, which helps a lot. Make no mistake about that.” But he does admit it was “kind of pushing the envelope”.
Life also handed him another exciting opportunity several years ago when he and his wife became partial owners (along with artist Julie Malone) of an art gallery called Soha in the Central West End. “My wife and I collected art wherever we went, traveled, that sort of thing. We would bring art back and we bought a lot local. We got to know Julie very well, the two of them are very good friends and Kat, my wife is Kat, she used to do a lot of art projects with kids and things like that so it just kind of all fell into place.” He and Kat regularly visit artist studios to meet the artists and see how they work, “It’s exciting to us. You get a real sense of the production side of it.”
Being part owner of an international company has its perks. As he listed a few of the 28 countries that Unico Systems sells in, including India, Ireland, and France, I became curious, “So you’ve traveled to a lot of these places?” He paused and appeared to be doing some mental math before he answered, “Yea, I think last count, 73 countries?” Wow. As for his favorite and least favorite places to visit, “Anytime I can spend a weekend in Paris, I’m up for it. But Pakistan, is a place I’d never go back to, quite frankly.”
At 8:30am Scott had to dash off to an important meeting, so we said our farewells over the sound of baristas calling out orders and parted ways with the promise to stay in touch.
Lori and Sara are seniors at Washington University studying Psychology, French, and Anthropology. But… “I’m not doing anything with my degree,” Lori told me decisively. Sara nodded her agreement.
I was a complete mess when I met Sara and Lori early one morning at Rise Coffee House in The Grove. We laughed throughout our conversation as I spilled milk on myself, the table, and the floor. They had a sense of humor about most things, including the time spent completing the degrees they don’t plan on using (I can relate, one of my degrees was in music to be an Opera or classical singer).
Sara grew up in Nashville, but her extended family lives here which is how she heard about Wash U. She applied for early decision (meaning she applied and would receive an early decision from the school in exchange for committing to Wash U if she was accepted). Lori grew up not to far from here near the Lake of the Ozarks. When she heard that Sara had applied early decision she gasped, “I did too!” They both exhaled “Wooooah” in unison and laughed.
They became friends while working in Wash U’s peer counseling program but couldn’t remember exactly how. They knew I was going to ask, however, so they had an answer prepared, “Our eyes just met across the room.” In reality, there were about 20 people in the same class and it gets intense, with over 100 hours together sharing personal stories and emotions. In the end they had gained 20 new friends, including each other.
At 18, as we’re starting college, most of us don’t know exactly what we want to do and neither did Lori. “If I were to start over, I’d do women’s gender studies, but I didn’t care about that then.” For her undergraduate she is finishing up a degree in psychology with a focus on linguistics. She knows she has learned a lot, but “Am I coming away with any practical skills? That’s not something I thought about going into school, ‘I want to learn something practical.’”
Sara is majoring in French and anthropology, but she didn’t know what anthropology was when she came to Wash U. After learning about it in her freshman seminar she was fascinated by the huge spectrum it offered her. She took classes like The Anthropology of Clothing and Legal Anthropology (both taught by the same teacher) and loved that they all fit into her major, “It was cool to be able to do that.”
Eventually, Sara will probably move back to Nashville to be closer to her family. Lori, who has never lived outside of Missouri, will try a few other places. Right now her plan is to take a gap year with a friend and work in Seattle or Portland. I threw in an awesome reference to some high quality films/books when I asked if she was moving to Washington because of Twilight. The answer was no. Darn.
Uncle Joe’s is a Wash U peer counseling group open to all undergraduate students who need to talk. Lori is the co-director and Sara is one of the trainers. “There’s a big stigma around mental health and counseling,” Lori said as she was explaining that anyone can stop by and talk about anything they want or call the 24 hour hotline. They were both thankful that they had gotten involved with the program because it sparked much of their interest in social work and they met each other. I asked how they found Uncle Joe’s and they laughed. “You know, fumbling around as a freshman…” Sara began. “Maybe this! This looks fun!” Lori finished.
Lori worked an internship at the circuit attorney’s office with the victim services unit and up until that point she would have said that social workers just... “take babies away? That’s like all I would have had in my mind.” It was here that she met people who had their masters degrees in social work and that set her on her current course. “It’s an education on how to help people.”
For Sara, she didn’t have the slightest inkling as to what she wanted to do until she started working at Uncle Joe’s. Lori looked surprised, “Really?!” Initially Sara thought she wanted to do something with environmental issues, but she has loved counseling. It’s not the psychology she’s interested in though. “I feel like it reduces people to what goes on in your brain. There’s my anthropology coming out! There’s so much that makes you who you are..um… and for me… I don’t know, social work is a way to make people’s lives the best they can be. For me, a social work degree is more interesting than a Phd in psychology or something like that, because it allows you to look at a bigger picture, of not just like, what someone’s thinking but what are their relationships like, what are the big influences in their lives.”
Nodding her agreement as Sara spoke, Lori added, “It’s much more about serving people than learning about them.” According to both of them a degree in social work would add legitimacy to what they want to do. Lori has considered taking that a step further and pursuing a law degree but, “I don’t know if I’m brave enough for that yet. It’s a bit terrifying. Real person things. Ahhh… it’s scary!”
Lori doesn’t just help people through Uncle Joe’s, she also volunteers on the YWCA’s sexual assault response team. If a victim of a sexual assault crime is admitted into the hospital, this team is called to meet them there. The volunteer will then stay with the victim the entire time if they want it and then connects them with services afterwards. In terms of the healing process, Lori says that the response victims receive immediately afterwards has been found to be the most crucial in terms of their healing.
Sara is helping in a very different way. Did you know that Cahokia Mounds is an active dig site? Archaeologists from Wash U are excavating bones and ceramics and Sara is helping to sort them. Lori was just as shocked as I was. “Wait, I don’t think I knew that! So, you actually sort artifacts?” Sara shrugged, “Yeah. It’s not as exciting as it sounds.” Except that the other day a professor came into the office where she was sorting and said, “Don’t mind me, I’m just looking for some human bones.” Sara looked freaked out, “Wait… we have humans in here? This changes everything!” I was curious as to how old the artifacts were and Sara was very knowledgeable. “Actually, in North America, the…” she lost her composure and started laughing, “Um… GEEZ. OLD. REALLY OLD.”
There was a prolonged silence when I asked their favorite thing about St. Louis. Lori finally jumped in, “So I didn’t really, like… it wasn’t until this summer that I really felt like a true St. Louisan.” Apparently most students stick to the Wash U bubble and this summer Lori ventured outside of it to volunteer with the YWCA. Experiencing the city a bit more made her curious, so she took a class on community building.
“We did a lot of tours of St. Louis.” Lori continued, “We had two weeks where we had three different history lessons. We covered 200 years each time, like the same 200 years but with different lenses. So it was like, looking at, one of them was just like architecture, one of them was just like… I can’t remember. We talked a lot about race relations, white flight, and how things got to be such a segregated city. I think that gave me a greater appreciation for St. Louis, where it’s been and where it is now.”
Sara took longer to formulate her answer. “What’s my favorite thing about St. Louis… I think that it’s that, like, there’s like a really wide variety of people who live here. I mean I think that’s partially because it’s a big city, but I don’t know, for me, you know, New York or Chicago, those are big cities, but it’s a little more of a uniform mindset, maybe? Whereas St. Louis, people are coming from all sorts of experiences in the same city. I don’t think people are drawn to St. Louis by like a particular identity that St. Louis would give them.” Good point, well made.
We continued to chat about the city, the coffee house, and life after college as we packed up our things and stepped out into a brisk, overcast morning to start our days in earnest.
At 22 years old Jamie had already worked with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse. At 24 she was working with the families of homicide victims, extreme child sexual abuse and special assault victims. By 25 she was in charge of 15 naval bases and roughly 12 personal on each base making sure their assault programs met standards and training them on protocol.
Mellow music was playing as I walked into Rise Coffee House and saw Jamie sitting at a table in front of their large windows facing Manchester. She had already ordered a coffee, so I quickly ordered a green tea and took a seat across from her. I asked about her career and she immediately began telling me her story.
Originally from St. Louis, Jamie began her career with the Prosecuting Attorney’s office in the victim’s unit. Early on her focus was victim advocacy, working with domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child abuse victims to help them navigate the legal system and find outside resources to cope with PTSD or other issues.
Not long after, Jamie’s husband, a navy pilot, was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, so she accepted a position as the head of the victim services unit there. “I was focusing on the special assault division. I graduated from dealing with, and this sounds terrible, but lesser crimes, to dealing with more serious crimes. Families of victims of homicide, extreme child sexual abuse, the special assault cases…”
Her husband’s role moved them to San Diego not long after, where she worked with the U.S. Navy in charge of the southwest region of the country’s sexual assault program. This position challenged her in a different way. “That was a phenomenal, phenomenal leadership opportunity, travel opportunity. Not only was I dealing with higher echelons in the military, but also I’m a female so I’m dealing with mostly men. Some of the people at the bases I managed were much older than me, so it was really a challenge to establish credibility in myself.”
In California, a ground-breaking and controversial law was passed stating that if a woman is intoxicated her sexual consent is invalid. Jamie was working in the Navy’s sexual assault program when this law was passed, giving her the momentous task of educating Navy recruits and the general public. She organized a 5k to promote awareness, ran public service announcements on TV, and put together brochures explaining the law. “It was kind of at that point, that I realized, you know, I kind of really wanted to focus more on marketing. And I knew my passions were non-profits and wellness, so I was like how can I meld the two together?”
The cost of living in San Diego is “atrocious”. That was one factor that brought Jamie, her husband, and their two daughters back to St. Louis. The other was that juggling two jobs and family wasn’t easy especially while moving all over the country for the Navy. In December 2007 they moved back and Jamie quickly accepted a grant funded position through the Jefferson County Department of Health.
I grew up in Festus, so when she told me there were heavy amounts of chronic disease in Jefferson County, I can’t say I was surprised. She was hired to start a wellness program for the city of Festus in conjunction with the hospital and was shocked with what she learned. “Some of these kids had never had a celery before!” The lack of farmer’s markets, no place to walk, and a lot of fast food in the area were huge factors in the problem, so she implemented cooking demonstrations, walking groups, and a 5k called Get Fit Festus that is still an annual event.
The economy hit Jamie pretty hard. After her stint with Jeff County, one of the largest marketing firms in St. Louis hired her and was sponsoring her to attend Washington University’s MBA program. But the economy tanked and Jamie’s entire department was eliminated. Her plans for attending Wash U were put on hold indefinitely. After months of fruitlessly searching for a job, she thought, “You know what, I’m going to start my own thing. What do I have to lose?”
She began a marketing consultancy, focusing on non-profits and small businesses. “I always had this entrepreneurial streak in me, but I just didn’t know like, how to like channel that.” But running her own business wasn’t exactly easy either. “I quickly found the challenges of running your own business, in terms of, you know, the ups and downs. One month it could be totally kick-ass awesome, the next month its like ‘oh, my god’.”
Yeah. That wasn’t enough of a challenge for her. So… “I utimately decided, because I’m type A and I’m all or nothing, I decided, ok, running my own business isn’t enough, we’re going to go back to school too and screw it, I’ll just pay for it myself.” There’s no time like the present, I guess! Except that she was also pregnant. “That goes to my craziness, because I was actually pregnant with my daughter at the time. I don’t know how I did it. That whole period of time was a blur.” On top of all of this, her husband was deployed.
In the middle of her degree program Jamie had to do a 2 week international residency. She was off to Shanghai! Her class toured the largest Wal-Mart in the city. “Aubrey, it was crazy. It was a 3 level walmart and, ok, so… in the meat and fruit department OSHA would have had a field day. They had bins of ice with raw meat just in there. People go and hand pick their meat. Us Americans, we were shocked. Plus, I don’t understand the placement of like, here’s some tampons and here are like, cupcakes. I mean just WEIRD!”
Jamie is very into natural health and wellness, but when she was recruited to work for a local agency as an account executive for Monsanto, she reluctantly accepted. As a co-founder of a wellness organization, a contributing editor for Natural Mother magazine, and a sales rep for health wraps, working with Monsanto was a big stretch. It finally got to her. After being micro-managed and struggling to work with a company that goes against many of her beliefs, she left.
When we met, Jamie was looking for her next career move, but still keeping busy by selling wellness products. Something much more in line with her passion for healthy living. “I’ve been doing this for about 2 years and the company and the products are top-notch."
When I asked about St. Louis she said, "St. Louis is on the brink of a revolution. There are a bunch of innovative and creative people here that see what potential this city has. If people would take the time to get out of their comfort zone and meet people, they'd be in for a unique surprise. Everyone is rallying for STL to be better. Better for all of us and generations to come. What a kick ass time to live here!"
It was getting close to 8:30am, time for both of us to head out. We struggled to finish our conversation, as we kept stumbling onto topics that interested both of us. Finally, we said our goodbyes and left the cozy coffee house to pursue whatever else our day would bring.
UPDATE: Jamie has found a new job with HD Supply Waterworks as their Senior Communications Manager but is still looking for freelance writing opportunities. Learn more on her website.
Michelle used to sell toilet paper. Seriously. She was hired by Proctor and Gamble right after college and traveled to “glamorous places like Des Moines, Iowa” for 15 years, touting the benefits of their brand of TP.
A poetry reading was scheduled at Stone Spiral in Maplewood the evening that Michelle and I met, so our conversation about Michelle’s work was punctuated by the murmurs and exclamations of novice poets. The smell of our chamomile lavender tea hung around us as she told me about making the big decision to leave the toilet paper industry. “I just decided one day at the airport, crying, with two young kids at home, this is ridiculous.” She liked the company and she liked the people but, “selling toilet paper is not exactly my passion, so…”
One day not too long after she left, Michelle decided to try something that promised weight loss results or your money back. Sixteen weeks later she had lost 18 pounds, she wasn’t craving the junk food, her rosacea had substantially improved, and she just felt better. That was when she realized, “People need to know about this!” So she decided this was her next career move. Sharing her success by selling Isagenix products, which offer the opportunity for users to “live a healthy, clean, and lean lifestyle”, is her new passion.
Michelle may believe in taking care of your whole self and “providing the opportunity for optimum health”, but she sure hates exercise. Twenty minutes of resistance training per week is the most she’ll commit to. When she told me about her friends who do pilates and marathons she raised her eyebrows and her voice in mock consternation, “Are you crazy? I don’t get it!”
For her mental health and to stay at the edge of her game, Michelle participates in Toastmasters, an educational organization that helps members improve communication and speaking skills. The reason she is a “big believer” in the organization is because of all of the beautiful things she has learned about the members through their speeches. There have been stories about survival, illness, and overcoming incredible obstacles. One story in particular from a woman who had been a slave worker in China, really made her realize how lucky she has it here.
These stories are eye-opening, but two situations one with a taxi cab driver and the other with a massage therapist made her realize that everyone has a story and she should be open to them all. She was on a business trip and grabbed a taxi from the airport, it was dirty and the driver appeared as though he hadn’t showered in days, but she got in anyway. In the back window were numerous beanie babies, so she decided to ask. It turned out he used his free time to drive kids to the Shriner’s Hospital when they had to go for surgery and their parents didn’t have the money to take off work. On the way he would let them pick out a beanie baby to make them feel better and then let them keep it. “I’m sitting there like, ok, number one, I thought you were this schmucky, homeless idiot, and here he is the most beautiful giving person I’ve ever met.”
The next story was when she began chatting with a massage therapist from Eastern Europe. As she started telling me, she took on a Russian accent. The therapist’s country had formerly been under Communist rule and one day the therapist’s husband disappeared. She was devastated and didn’t know what had happened to him, but weeks later he was able to call her from Greece. He had risked his life and lived off of berries in the woods to try and escape to Austria where he could then send for her. They were both finally able to get to America and have lived here now for 24 years, her working as a massage therapist and he working in IT. “There are all sorts of stories like that, we live our life and never hear…” Michelle mused.
Excitement about what is happening here in St. Louis has Michelle looking forward to the next few years. “I do think there’s an awakening. I think people are coming alive, wanting to make changes, stirring things up and I think the older people are open to that and the younger people are sticking around and going for it. There’s this critical mass now. I think people are starting to buzz. It’s cool.”
As for her favorite thing about our city, “Number one, it’s simply a great place to raise a family, and it really hit home the other day when my daughter said ‘I’m coming back to St. Louis to raise my kids’. And so it still is a good place for family. Number two, there is so much generosity in this town. The giving. People that keep the money in corporations that are so giving in this city. It’s awesome for what it’s done for the city.”
After telling me she thought “what I was doing was awesome” (I had to fit that in here somewhere), we began slowly packing up to head home. I asked her if there was anything else she wanted me to include and she thought for a moment before saying:
We cleaned up the remnants of our tea and walked towards the door as Michelle shared her final thoughts on St. Louis with me, “There really is a community on the edge of greatness here.”
Follow Michelle on Twitter @haveyourhealth for tidbits on healthy living.