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People Today: Lauren Barbieri Assesses Life

Photo: Lauren BarbieriLauren Barbieri is committed to leading an interesting life. She can recall a fair share of adventures, and through them she has developed a strong sense of how to handle problems on the spot.

"You have to be able to assess a situation and decide what the best course of action is," she says calmly amid the buzz of activity around her desk in the Human Resources office. In Barbieri's case, assessing situations has meant everything from handling problems that arise in the office to staying calm and alert while traveling alone in Central America. To her, learning how to tackle new challenges is what life is all about.

When her son turned 19 and moved out on his own, Barbieri had enough money saved to go to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where she majored in anthropology. During a school research trip to Costa Rica, her more mature assessment skills came in handy. "When we were out in the jungle, I wore these yellow dishwashing gloves all the time. The other students thought it was a hysterical choice of jungle-wear. They couldn't stop laughing. But I was never bitten by anything on my hands and arms. Not once. Others got all kinds of bites." She smiles with fond satisfaction.

After graduation, Barbieri began a road trip to assess as much of America as she could in two months. Instead of heading to the usual tourist traps or visiting often-frequented cities, she looked for small towns and hidden nooks. (The only exception yielded a total of seven passes through Graceland over the course of her travels.) Wherever she went, she says she met down-to-earth people and engaged in wonderful conversations, staying at least a few days in each town. She recalls, "The best meal I had on that entire trip across the country was in a trailer park in Kansas. I had great pork spare ribs, potato salad and chocolate cake. Nothing green."

One humid fall afternoon, Barbieri stopped in Washington DC to attend the National Book Festival on the lawn of the Capitol. It was September 10, 2001. The next morning she and dozens of people stranded by cancelled flights congregated in the bar of her hotel. All talked for hours while watching the events of 9/11 unfold.

Barbieri waited to hear from her son, Joshua, who was working in Manhattan at the time. Her face stays calm as she recalls being unable to reach her only child during the mayhem. Finally, after two days, they got in touch. He was safe at his home in Brooklyn. He later told her that he was one of the few people who kept going to work that week. "He's a hair stylist, and the only shops open were hair salons and liquor stores. Women flocked to beauty salons that week," says Barbieri, "I guess they just wanted to feel normal."

When she finally made it home to Menlo Park, Barbieri moved to the house in which she grew up, where she continues to live today. She has settled into her job at SLAC and enjoys time with friends and family.

It's been a few years since her American adventure, and she says that perhaps it's time for a new one. "I think it's time I throw on a backpack and high heels and go to Europe, look at Italian architecture, swim in the Mediterranean... welcome whatever steps in front of me."

Calla Cofield, SLAC Today, July 9, 2008