Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve

So here it is, December 31st, the last day of 2013. So many of us are looking back at the year behind us, reflecting on the events in our lives and the world around us. In a few hours, we'll kiss and hug and wish each other a Happy New Year and ideally we'll feel hopeful with a renewed sense of optimism about life's potential. Maybe we'll make some resolutions to be better people.

I'm not really big on New Year's celebrations but I do feel hopeful. Lately I try to strive for hopeful every day although some days all I can do is strive for an absence of the sorrow, despair and ennui that hovers constantly on the outskirts of my mind. How's that for optimism?

The thing is, what does a "Happy New Year" really mean?

I generally tell people I did not have a happy childhood and it slips off my tongue without much thought. I can think of a lot of happy memories from childhood. I spent tons of time with my sister, Carrie, who is two years older than me and was, by far, my most favorite person in the world when I was a kid. Anything that involved playing with Carrie was fun. Rollerskating with Carrie and my best friend, Molly, pretending we were Charlie's Angels and the Bay City Rollers were our boyfriends? That was the epitome of fun. Summer was always filled with happy memories of swimming, playing outside after dinner until it was dark, sleeping with the windows open. Sure, there was happiness. But the whole of my childhood is also colored by my parents' divorce, the subsequent bitterness and passive aggressiveness between them, my abusive step-father and the way all the adults in my life consistently put their needs ahead of mine and neglected my safety and well-being. I know that's a big charge, but I make it with confidence that I have worked hard to heal from all of that, as much as I can.

College was not that happy, either, although I had some great friends and I had fun and I laughed a lot. I also drank too much, blacked out almost every weekend and did many unspeakably embarrassing things while blacked out that still cause me pangs of regret and humiliation when I think of them. I did untold damage to my already-fragile self-esteem. I did learn one or two things, though.

The alcohol abuse continued into my 20s, accompanied by an eating disorder and some bad "boyfriends." Finally, when I was 27, I started seeing the best psychologist in the world and have been taking Prozac on and off for most of the last 18 years.

So my "happiness" throughout my life has been affected by my parents, relationships, my own actions, chemicals and/or pharmaceuticals and probably more by genetics than any of us really realize. When someone asked me in my mid-30s if I was happy, I answered quite honestly, I have no idea. What's the baseline for happy?

Obviously, happiness is subjective. What feels like happiness to me could feel totally different to someone else. There's no way to measure it. So why do we go around wishing each other a happy new year? And all those resolutions we make to achieve The Happy New Year? They are pointless, although I'm sure I don't need to tell you that.

What I think we should really be hoping for is just a good life, not so much a happy life. Who says we are entitled to happiness?

When I was a senior in college and beginning to anticipate the "real world" that awaited me after graduation, a friend of mine gave me a book called Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood. I was obsessed with this book for several years as my charming and naive idealism convinced me that if I was happy, then that meant I was doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life. And obviously, by this logic, if I was unhappy, I was clearly doing something wrong. I believed this was true with every fiber of my being. This one belief ruled my life and I felt so passionately that this was The Truth, the one, most important philosophy by which I should live my life. I agonized over it every day, convinced that if I could just figure out what made me happy, then everything else would be clear. I would feel peace, I would understand my purpose, all my decisions would be easy. First, find happiness, then smooth sailing.

Wow. It's so stupid it's almost cute.

I'm not saying happiness is a worthless goal, but I just think we are so out of touch with what it really means to be happy and what makes us feel happy that it's become somewhat meaningless. It seems more concrete to me to just try to be good to one another. Be good to the people you love. Work hard to do things that make you feel good, physically, mentally, spiritually. Do good things for other people, even people you don't know or people you don't even like! Be a good driver, be considerate, be good to the Earth, be kind to animals. Be good to yourself, don't compare yourself to other people because you either put yourself down or someone else. Eat good (real) food, do something good for your health, and read a good book. Then lend the book to someone, because that's sharing and sharing is good.

Maybe I have simply replaced on silly, naive belief with another but yes, I am prone to this type of thinking. It's the only way to fight back against the crusty, old cynic in my head. I want to live up to my daughter's view of the world as a relatively good place.

And that's my message as we usher out 2013. I have to go now and feed the birds, maybe help some little, old ladies cross the street. After that I might get raging drunk with my sisters and entertain my nieces and nephew with my ability to make lengthy speeches composed entirely of swear words. Just kidding. I try to keep the alcohol consumption in check these days (but I do swear a lot). However you ring in the new year, I hope you feel happy or peaceful or just feel good. Life is hard. We just have to do our best.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Santa's having a goddamn Christmas crisis

A few weeks back I posted a photo of my 11-year old daughter's letter to Santa Claus on my Facebook page with the caption "I'm guessing the average 11-yr. old kid no longer believes in Santa. But obviously Martha is not average." Many friends responded that their 11-year old kids still believed in Santa or that their older kids continued to believe past age 11 and most people, adults included, maintain that they still believe simply because if doubt is actually verbally expressed then presents from "Santa" stop coming. And no one wants that.

I ended up thinking maybe it was not so unusual that Martha still believes in Santa Claus, which makes me happy because it is, in my opinion, a beautiful, enchanting part of childhood and even when you reach the age at which you begin to understand that is physically impossible to fly around the whole world in one night, stopping at every single household with children (and seamlessly skipping over every single household without children), even when you begin to imagine all those apartment buildings and homes with no chimneys and see that that there are just so many exceptions to the Santa m.o. that it almost renders the core tenets of the myth completely meaningless, even when you are mindlessly browsing through your mom's Facebook page and you see your very own letter to Santa photographed and displayed for all her friends and you wonder how did the envelope get out of the mailbox & onto mom's Facebook page, even after all that, if you still feel deep in your heart that it is simply right and good to believe in the magic of a man in red who delivers gift to all the boys and girls of the world then you have a good chance of surviving the many disappointments and heartaches that life will eventually throw in your path.

Fast forward one month and I am now ready to don my Santa hat and go purchase the desired and requested items for my dear child. I'll be honest, there are a lot of parts of motherhood that I have been less than fond of (for example, breastfeeding, much to my shame). But one of my most favorite roles as mom is when I get to play Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. When I do these jobs, I AM the magic. I am transformed from my mundane, boring self into a mysterious character with boundless powers to surprise and delight. I bring gifts and that's all I do, it is my whole reason for being. So despite the fact that my Santa shopping required me to go to the den of iniquity otherwise known as the Mall of America to shop at the only American Girl doll store in the state of Minnesota, I was excited to go play Santa.

There is a slight problem to begin with, as Martha has requested four items from Santa and she has been informed that Santa only brings three gifts. Several years back another mom shared her philosophy of Santa gifts, stating that each child shall receive exactly three presents from Santa because that's how many gifts baby Jesus got. If baby Jesus got three gifts, then any other child may also reasonably expect to receive three gifts, but no more. No child can receive more gifts than baby Jesus because that would be sinful and/or sacrilegious. What, do you think your better than Jesus?? You think you deserve MORE gifts than baby Jesus? Oh no, I think not. Three presents for you, kid, that's it. Don't be greedy. Just be glad you don't end up with a sock full of frankincense, and myrrh (although gold might be nice, especially a couple of big, heavy ingots).

So last year Martha requested three gifts and Santa ad libbed a little and brought one extra, unrequested gift to surprise her. Now she figures if Santa offered a fourth gift last year then it seems prudent to add a fourth request to her letter so that she can be assured of getting something she really wants and not some dorky pair of pajamas.

Well, Martha composed her letter to Santa based entirely on the latest American Girl catalog and the following is what she requested:
  • School Desk Set, price $42
  • School Locker Set, price $58
  • School Backpack Set, price $28
  • Campus Snack Cart, price $150
One hundred and fifty dollars?! Pshh... I don't think so. Baby Jesus did not receive a $150 Campus Snack Cart so I'll be damned if my kid is getting this item. Even the price of the locker set is a little steep, but I'll buy it and justify it in my head because at least it is not battery-operated and requires a tiny bit of imagination.

BUT! Oh no... when Santa arrives at the American Girl store and inquires as to where said Locker and Desk Sets might be located, she is told they are OUT OF STOCK! And BACK ORDERED! Until February! What the fuck American Girl? Santa does not deal in OUT OF STOCK and BACK ORDERED toys. He's goddamned Santa Claus for fuck sake! There is no such thing as "out of stock" in Santa's workshop; if something is out of stock he just gets the goddamned elves to make more. And they do it. Because they are elves and they are magic and they make the goddamned dollies and accompanying Lockers and Desk Sets because they can AND because Santa asked and they are bidden to do Santa's work and they do not go to the goddamned American Girl website and order the toys online and then wait for the UPS guy or the Fed Ex guy to deliver it! They're goddamned elves!

This was the elf in charge of lockers
Ok, so now what the fuck is Santa supposed to do? Obviously, Santa is now forced to cough up the money for the Campus Snack Cart because if she doesn't her kid is going to be one pissed off little girl on Christmas morning. Yeah, yeah, I know, I should have taken a break from the Tooth Fairy/Santa gig long enough to teach my kid about gratitude and the real meaning of Christmas and then maybe I wouldn't have this problem but you have to understand, Martha's autistic brain is VERY literal. Why the hell would she write a letter to Santa if he's just going to get all independent-minded and deliver whatever the fuck he wants? Or thinks she wants? Does Santa have ESP? I mean, seriously, she obviously can see that if Santa has to deliver presents to every little kid in the world, that's a fuck lot of presents and how the hell is he going to know what EVERY kid wants? He doesn't! He needs these letters. He needs some guidance, otherwise he's just flying blind and everyone's getting footballs and dollies. And Martha doesn't need a dolly. She already got that last year. The dolly needs a goddamned locker to put her goddamned books in but now she won't have that but maybe it doesn't matter anyway because there's no goddamned desk to sit in either so how the fuck is she going to go to class anyway? She should just skip school altogether and go have a smoke in the parking lot. Fucking school... it's for total losers anyway.

Well, as it turns out, Santa left the store with the exorbitantly priced Campus Snack Cart (but come on, look at the tiny hot dogs! Look at the tiny money!) and the School Backpack Set AND the Allergy-Free Lunch set which costs $28 and will not cause any American Girl doll or her friends to break out in hives or go into anaphylactic shock because it is ALLERGY FREE. No peanuts, no gluten, no eggs, no dairy. Let's just hope no one is allergic to plastic.

My dilemma now is how to navigate the whole Santa-had-a-little-acquisition-failure issue while still trying to preserve her belief in the jolly, old, magic guy. I have to create a plausible story and it really shouldn't involve Santa ordering shit from his iPhone. My other option is to just tell the truth, which, of course, involves crushing her tender, childhood soul so it is unlikely I will opt for this solution.

There's still time to travel around the country to other American Girl stores and see if they, too, have experienced the same run on School Lockers and School Desk sets and, quite frankly, this seems like the best option. Maybe school for dollies is not so popular in other, less educated states. OK, wish me luck. Ho ho ho!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Update to 30 days of giving (12 days late)

The truth? I'm not sure I actually succeeded in giving something away for every day of November. I lost track of stuff and sometimes I considered counting some act of giving as part of my list but then reconsidered, believing some acts should just be reflexive and not viewed as generous but merely common, everyday occurrences. This lead me to question all of my acts of giving and wonder how meaningful they really were if they were done only for the purpose of tallying up 30 days of giving. And that thought just seemed depressing and sucked the joy out of what seemed like a good idea at the beginning of November. Oh, you silly obsessive brain.

So, anyway, here is what I did give away (in addition to the 4 items listed in the first blog post about 30 days of giving):

Check out the coolness of this toy
Playmobil crane (given away on Freecycle): this was an awesome toy that I bought for Martha when she was very young and crane was one of her early words she spoke and she also loved to see them and point them out in the car when we were driving around town. Playmobil toys, for those of you who aren't familiar with them, are these amazingly detailed, German-made plastic miniature toys, similar to legos but a little less blocky. The crane cost over $200 dollars but I bought it for my then-more-severely-affected daughter with autism because I was a desperate mother who wanted to nurture her child's developing brain. If you ever know a child with any kind of developmental delay or disorder, you might understand the logic behind a parent spending oodles and oodles of money to help their child, regardless of how stupid the object of the spending seems. Well, in the end, we constructed our crane, Martha never played with it, I tried to sell it at a garage sale with no success and it sat in our mud room for a few more years until finally, I gave it away. Free. A $200 toy. But totally worth it to have the box gone from my house.

Plastic baby gate (Freecycled): I saw an ad for a gal wanting baby gates for her apartment because she wanted to start fostering dogs and needed to corral her new guests. Obviously, I support anyone who is helping dogs and the baby gate I gave away had this system for being secured in a doorway that my daughter was too impatient to figure out, so it collected dust in my basement instead.

Two bags of kids clothing and winter gear (given to a local organization that helps families in need): When you're raising a child, it seems to me there is a never-ending stream of clothing that no longer fits. Never-ending, I tell you.

Books (given to a neighborhood Little Free Library): This is one of the items I gave away and then thought maybe it was lame to include in my list of giving. I'm including it anyway.

1 lb. of coffee (donated at a local coffee shop): I went in to buy myself a cup of coffee and the kid at the cash register asked if I'd donate a pound of coffee, supposedly to U.S. Troops abroad. I did it. I needed to beef up my list but it also seemed like a fine idea.

9 monetary donations made to various non-profit organizations in Minnesota: A few years back Minnesota started this "Give to the Max Day" where people can make online donations to a wide variety of schools or non-profit organizations. I like it because I can do my donations all in one day, I don't have to field annoying calls from solicitors all year round and I don't have to remember when I gave last to some group. Somehow the number of groups I give to keeps growing. This year I donated to Secondhand Hounds (the rescue group I foster for), Pet Haven (rescue group that my former dog, Carson, came from), Leech Lake Legacy & Red Lake Rosie's Rescue (two groups that help round up dogs on reservations in Minnesota and provide low-cost spay/neuter clinics and immunizations). I also gave to the Friends of Hennepin County Library, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, People for Pride in Living, St. Louis Park Emergency Program, and Second Harvest Heartland. Dogs, books, homes and help for those less fortunate; these are things that matter to me.

Volunteer time, 3 different days: Twice I shelved books in the Media Center at my daughter's school, which is kind of the equivalent of pretending I still have my job from last year; one day I helped out in Martha's classroom.

Unbelievably cute dog treats
Howl-iday Hat dog treats: these were gifts I sent to my sister and two friends for their respective dogs, Chipper, Beijing, Luci, Sadie and Zelda (who used to be my foster dog). Is this 3 gifts given to 3 people? Or five gifts given to five dogs? I'm counting it as 3 gifts so as not to appear like I'm trying to cheat.

Donations to two dog rescue groups made as a result of my purchase of Howl-iday Hat treats from Treat Me Right, an organization that makes healthful treats for dogs and donates a portion of their sales to various animal welfare groups.

Several turtlenecks I passed on to my sister from my own closet: In order to understand the significance of this act of giving you need to understand my older sister. She wears the piss out of her clothes, which is both virtuous but also kind of sad. It's virtuous because she does not end up spending money on clothes she doesn't need and it makes her seem very thrifty and reduces her carbon footprint. However, it is sad because she is a grown woman with a professional job and she is still wearing items of clothing from the 80s because they simply will not die. The turtlenecks hadn't had much action in my own wardrobe lately, so I entrusted them to Cindi. It really was a charitable act on my part.

So that's what I accomplished in the actual month of November. That's either 27 or 29 items depending on how you count the dog treat gifts. You can see what I mean when I say I wasn't truly successful with my original pledge. I wasn't even going to bother with a blog update.

But I gave one more thing to a stranger yesterday that made me decide I was ready to write about my experience with intentional giving.

Yesterday morning it was about zero degrees outside and I was shoveling my sidewalk before Martha left to catch the bus. A teenaged boy who I'd never seen before came down the street and asked me if the bus to Edina High School had come by yet. I'm not positive when the bus for the high school comes by but I told him I was pretty sure it had come and gone already (it had). He was a tall, slender, African-American kid, dressed only in sweatpants, t-shirt and a light jacket. He had no gloves or hat and his hands were stuffed into his pants pockets but he kept taking them out periodically to blow on them to keep them warm. I asked if he lived nearby and he said he lived a block away, across a busy street which is the boundary between my suburb of Edina and the city of Minneapolis. He usually catches the bus by his house, he said, but he had stayed up late the night before, overslept, and missed his bus.

So I asked him, tentatively, did he want me to drive him to school. I said I'd be happy to take him because I was sure there was no bus coming but I didn't want to seem creepy. I'm not sure if housewives/moms in sweatpants shoveling snow can really pull off creepy, but you never know how this sort of offer might be perceived. He accepted. Once my daughter was on her way to school we walked back to my garage and set off for the high school. The roads were icy and snowy and the traffic was not great so we had some time to chat. His name was Abdi and he's a junior in high school. I asked him about college (he has many in mind) and he told me about his high school football career and torn ACL. He seemed like a nice kid and he reminded me a bit of my 18-year old nephew. If he was my child waiting around in the frigid weather with no gloves, I would hope that someone would look out for him.

When I dropped him at school I told him that I walked my dog around the neighborhood all the time so maybe there was a chance I would see him. I added that I felt like I should meet his mother so she would know who the strange lady was who drove her son to school. He laughed and said she'd probably be mad if she knew a strange lady drove him to school (I appreciated that he basically just referred to me as a "strange lady"). He said he'd just tell his mom that he caught the bus. And then I realized that the reason he accepted my ride was probably to avoid having to slink home and ask his mom for a ride to school, which would, most likely, also make her mad. So I gave him a ride and a pass on incurring mom's wrath.

On my drive home I thought about the 30 days of giving because a ride was one possible thing I thought I could give to someone but the opportunity did not present itself in the month of November. As soon as I wrote the initial blog about giving in November, I realized that December is also an opportune month for giving, it being prime holiday season and all, and I considered trying for 60 days of giving (or, okay, 61 days to be exact). But then I had another idea. Instead of keeping a contrived list of the things I give for a finite period of time, I can also just give any time of the year, as needed. My new friend Abdi might need a ride some other month of the year. Charitable organizations need my daughter's hand-me-downs regardless of the season. My daughter's school always needs my time. And it's not just that the need exists all the time. My ability to give is fairly constant, as well. It appears to be kind of my "thing," it's what I do. I am the go-to gal! Because I can be.

So yes, give thanks at Thanksgiving, give extra at the holidays, but most importantly, just give what you can, whenever you can. And you can almost always give something. If nothing else, give kindness. Or a fist bump. Someone will appreciate it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Storytelling

It's Sunday night and I am having my  "customary" (as of 3 weeks ago, so, like, newly-minted customary) bachelorette evening where I walk the dog, do some chores, eat a rather lonely-looking dinner and then try desperately to savor my "alone" time. In my mind, during this time I spend free from the bonds of motherhood I should look very free-spirited and comfortable in my alone-ness but more often than not I look like an idiot staring into space as I try to decide what to do with myself. There are so many things I want to do that I don't know where to start. Then, of course,  I think "let me check my email one more time while I decide," and suddenly a whole hour is lost to mindless clicking and tapping on pointless links and photos of dogs.

But not tonight. Tonight I am seated in my living room with the gas fireplace warming my feet and my adorable dog curled up next to me. I am ready to be a writer and express my thoughts and feelings using beautiful language and grammatically correct sentences that flow along the page. My leftovers have been eaten, my kitchen has been cleaned up, my home feels serene. It's time to write.

The problem is, I can't seem to find the proper avenue to follow that will lead me into my mind and allow the thoughts and feelings to flow in an organized yet melodic fashion. I hesitate to address what's really on my mind for fear that instead of producing one ounce of creative expression all that will come out is a whiney, self-absorbed accounting of how sad and lonely and frustrating it is to be a SINGLE MOTHER. In truth, the term "single mother" may be trite and inaccurate used here. I am not truly single; I am still married, it's just that my husband is not currently living with my daughter and me. And I have not been abandoned and forced to provide every single second of care and guidance to my daughter. My husband remains quite attentive to our daughter and therefore we end up spending time together several days a week. But I have moved closer to the single end of the relationship/living arrangement spectrum than I used to be and the knowledge of this movement is constantly on my mind.

The real issue is learning to live as the only adult member of my household which I haven't been since 1996. And it's not as simple as going back to living a single lifestyle because now I am responsible for the care of my child and my dog so I'm not the least bit free to pursue my own whims and interests whenever I want. Yet I no longer have a partner to talk to, upon whom I can unload the tedious and mundane details of each day. And that feels weird.

Despite the emotional distance that had taken up residence between my husband and I, he still occupied a very definite space in our home and now with that space vacated I am unable to navigate my way around the empty holes. I can't quite fill them all myself as there simply isn't enough substance to me to take up that much space. My daughter and I only occupy so much of our house. What is to be done with all that emptiness?

I never intended to use Facebook to announce my separation from my husband, oh-so-casually drawing everyone's attention to the minor fact that my relationship status mysteriously changed from "married" to something else that inadequately describes what is truly going on. But I do want to write about it and so inevitably I am (partially) baring my soul to the world (actually only about 5 people but "world" will do here) by posting this on my blog. Is it too much? Do I reveal too much? Of course, I know deep down I have revealed almost nothing. Being prone to a touch of the social anxiety, though, baring all can be terrifying and regrettable so I have to obsess over every word and hope my self-expression is genuine but still filtered enough that I don't sound like a psychopath. In the end, however, I am really just creating a story in which I happen to be the main character.

I know the story would be a lot cooler if the dog could talk and crack funny jokes all the time so if I can work that into the storyline, I will. Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 4, 2013

30 days of giving (stuff) (away)

So I have seen many people on Facebook doing "30 days of gratitude,"  whereby they post a status update each day stating something for which they are grateful. This is done in honor of Thanksgiving this month, obviously. I am all for expressing gratitude because I think there are so many things, gigantic and minute, to be thankful for, that mostly get overlooked until we are forced to really take a closer look at the abundance in our lives. But rather than risk repeating others' sentiments, I thought of something a little different. For the month of November, as a way to demonstrate my gratitude for the bounty in my life, I am giving stuff away; I call this 30 days of giving. Clever, huh?

I have all kinds of ideas about stuff to give away. And, okay, I didn't initially conceive of this challenge as a heartfelt way to honor Thanksgiving. I really just had some junk taking up space in my house and I gave it away via the Freecycle Network and it was so great to get rid of some stuff that I thought, hey, I can do this every day! I can't guarantee I will be able to give one item away each day, but I do think it will be easy to give 30 items away in the month of November and I'm not even going to cheat and give away a pair of Martha's old snow boots and count that as two items. I already have a bag of kids' clothes ready to go and I'm counting the whole bag as one item. Generosity is the goal here. Also, clearing out some closet space.

Conveniently, as of today, the fourth day of November, I have given away four items:
  • 1 box of ceramic tiles left over from tiling a hallway in our basement (left by previous homeowners).
  • 1 box of slate tiles left over from tiling the front porch (also left by previous homeowners).
  • 1 old door, dragged home by me from someone else's garbage and intended to be used for something very cool and crafty (I don't know what exactly) several years ago (alas, my crafty dream was not to be realized).
  • 1 wooden bench with a hinged lid for storage, purchased for an old apartment I lived in in Boston, circa 1999. 
All four of these items I gave away through Freecycle.org, which, if you've never heard of it, you should look up because it is a very handy way to connect your unwanted stuff to the people who may want or need the stuff and it keeps your junk out of the landfill and it generally makes the world a better, happier place. The first three items I posted as offers, but the fourth item, the bench, I gave away to a woman who placed a wanted ad looking for a bench to use for photo shoots. Do you see the balance and harmony of this? She needed a bench and I owned a bench (unwanted). We both walk away happy. And it conveniently gets me to four items given away in four days. Beautiful.

But I don't want to limit my giving strictly to my secondhand belongings. I can give my time and energy. I am already planning to give several monetary donations on November 14th, Minnesota's Give to the Max day. And I won't cheat there either and count each dollar as a separate item. I can give someone a ride. I can give someone coffee, bake cookies, buy someone lunch. What else can I give this month? If you have ideas, send them my way.

I should clarify a few things that won't qualify as "giving:" advice (especially unsolicited), compliments, a piece of my mind, the time of day, something to cry about, a shout out, a speech, a kick in the butt. I'm sure you can think of some more. There has to be some value to what I'm giving and although I happen to think I have some really valuable advice for countless people I know (as well as those I don't know), I can do that any time of the year and my advice might not necessarily be perceived as a gesture of generosity.

So, okay, let the giving begin. I have much to give, as I have been blessed with many things, both tangible and intangible. And instead of complaining about all that is missing from my life, I am going to focus on what others need that I am capable of offering. Give thanks. Or just give.
A symbol of my life: a veritable cornucopia of gifts

Sunday, October 6, 2013

New life, old life, life and death

Last week was one rough mother fucker, as weeks go. Pardon me, if I offend. But it really sucked. One high point of the week, however, was planting the tree seen here in this photo:


Several years ago I had planted a magnolia tree in my backyard and every spring it would produce beautiful white flowers. Last year I took a photo of my daughter with the white blossoms:

OK, not too many flowers... but still pretty
And how fortuitous that I snapped this pic since later the same year the tree was afflicted by magnolia scales, some nasty little insect that feeds on the sap and excretes this sticky stuff that coats the leaves and turns them all black and attracts the late summer yellow jackets, one of which ended up stinging my sister and she can seriously talk for hours about how terrible that was but the yellow jackets and the magnolia scales and the now-dead tree are neither here nor there, because what I really want to talk about is the new tree I planted in its place.

Not having any dogs this summer, my backyard was badly neglected and the dead magnolia sat poking out of the ground until late August, when I adopted my latest canine sweetie-pie. When I started taking him out regularly for his potty breaks I realized how truly crappy my yard looked and slowly I have been working on bringing some life back to the yard that has often been a little sanctuary for me, a place where I feel like I can hide from some of life's evils. (One day, however, I might be out there on a windy day when a dead branch falls from a tree and kills me and we'll see how hidden from evil I am then.)

So I bought a new tree, a Japanese maple, and I dug a hole and added some of the super-high-powered dirt I create in my compost bin that makes me feel like a bona fide, groovy, all-natural, locally-grown-organic-food-buying, hemp-clothing-wearing nature nut and plopped that tree in the ground. It's a damn fine looking tree, if I do say so. And I do.

Mandy
As I filled in the dirt, I added to it the ashes from my sweet dog Mandy, who I had put down last spring after she mauled the neighbors' dog. I had been waiting for a time when it felt right to put her to rest, when some of my sadness and guilt over her demise had eased up. She was the sweetest dog to the people in her life. I feel like she needed so much more than I could give her and although I gave her every ounce of love I could, I still couldn't fix her and maybe I did her a disservice by not letting someone stronger step up to take care of her. But she had needed a home and so I did what I could. When I had her put to sleep, I had a vet come to our house so she left this world in a peaceful place where she was loved and comforted and now I was adding her to my sanctuary, a place she could forever be safe and free. I pray she always knows how much I love her.

So I planted the tree, adding life to my world, and I tied to it a life that has passed. These things I did the day before my husband moved into an apartment, not entirely leaving our home, but embarking on something new that may not include the two of us living happily ever after in a holy state of matrimony. It is not what we had planned. But it can still be okay. Lives come to an end; whether it's a tree or a dog or a relationship, you don't really plan for it and it doesn't seem quite right if you did. But also new lives grow, not the same, maybe better, maybe not. I can't even take comfort in this fact because some endings are still incredibly sad and seemingly unfair. But stuff ends, just the same; lives, trees, good books, and seasons. And then there are new things. We keep going.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Directions

It's back to September
time for back to school
back to cooler weather.

I'm going back to old ways of thinking
old ways of living
always trying to get back to the basics.

I know my body is facing forward
but I'm always going back to something.

A month ago I went back to Colorado
the place where I was born
long ago I had said I would never go back.

I keep thinking about what went wrong
trying to figure out a solution to our problems
but I just keep coming back to the same old things.

I love the feel of your fingers running up and down my back
but I just wish everyone would be up front
about what happened and how they feel.

Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions
and we move forward with our lives
even when we are headed into the dark
but I'm crossing my fingers
hoping we all turn out okay.

We keep flipping calendar pages
hurtling forward in time
but somehow we keep coming back to something.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Moments

Lying there with my head on his shoulder, all I could see of his face was his left eye and the corner of his mouth. I watched, captivated by the way his face would crinkle when he smiled and it took my breath away as the thought formed in my head that his was the most beautiful face I had seen in a long time.

~~~~~

Martha and I walked the quarter mile back to our cottage along the darkened beach, the wet sand cool and firm beneath our feet and the stars so brilliant above. To our right the ocean stretched out infinitely and the blackness was absolute and gentle with the sound of waves. I held her soft, little hand and we talked and felt a little afraid because it was so dark but also felt safe because we were together, she and I.

~~~~~

He entered my room one last time and knelt beside my bed while I listened to my parents' voices murmuring downstairs. And on this night, for the first time, I felt waves of anger and violence and in my head I sat up and screamed and hit him, punched him and raged and I made sure he knew he would never, ever do that again.

~~~~~

Kindergarten, line up at the door, two lines please. I stood behind another child, looking backward at my sweater hanging on the door across the room. I needed my sweater. My mom would be mad if I came home without my sweater. But my teacher would be mad if I got out of line. We were supposed to stay in line. I had to get my sweater but I had to stand in line, don't move, don't ruin the line. What's a kid supposed to do? I decided to cry.

~~~~~

We ran a marathon, 26.2 miles, the last one taking us across a bridge towards the State Capitol in St. Paul and I thought in those final moments of running that I had never been so happy, never felt so good and so strong. I remembered our wedding day and how that was supposed to be the happiest day of my life but only I guess until we ran that marathon.

~~~~~

On vacation, sleeping in the darkened house, Martha awoke in the so-called wee hours. We spent the next few hours lying as still as we possibly could, barely breathing, waiting for her to fall back asleep. In desperation, we dressed and carried her outside, into the unexpected fog, so dense we could barely see our feet. We passed under the willow tree behind the house, fog and willow branches brushing our faces, our arms. A drive in the car, in the dark, in the fog, in the middle of the night seemed to make no sense but when she fell asleep, the three of us were safe in our tiny, quiet, little world.

~~~~~

In the summer, the front walk made of tawny flagstones stretched out to the curb, soaking up the heat from the sun all day. When the sun went down, we could sit for hours on that walk and feel the heat released back up into our bodies, like magic, like summer.

~~~~~

So many moments, all roll into one, moments when life and the world and my heartbeat seem suddenly more real, so real that I can feel the moment pressing in on me and imprinting itself on my head. It's exquisite and painful and fleeting. But it is mine and I keep them in a very special collection.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ooh, ooh I gotta crush on you

My daughter's social interaction with her peers is always a curiosity to me but the other day, under the impression that she might be acting on a little crush on a boy from school, I was watching the way she smiled uncontrollably and persisted in trying to get the boy's attention while waiting in line for the wave ride at the local pool. As it turned out, it was his first stab at body surfing on the waves and she was merely offering her very best encouragement and support. She later informed me that she does not have a crush.

As I wondered about Martha having a crush, I was, of course, forced to revisit some of my own childhood crushes to see if I had any brilliant advice to pass on to my child. I definitely do not. I was an absolute disaster when it came to liking boys. And the worst part of it was that I liked about 500 of them between age 5 and 15. Maybe it was because I didn't have any brothers and my dad was largely absent from my life, but from very early on I was extraordinarily fascinated with the opposite sex.

I remember a boy in kindergarten who I found irresistibly adorable. I remember standing behind him one day, staring at the nape of his neck and his tidy blonde hair and I thought, obviously, I should reach my hand out and tickle the back of his neck. As he swatted at his neck, he turned around, blushing bright red, and all I could do was stand there mute. He stared at me, as if to ask, why the fuck are you touching my neck (but in an innocent 5-year old way) and I stared back at him thinking what do I do now, why did I do that? And that was that. My budding romance with him was doomed by the bizarre, random tickling. Seriously, what was that all about??

So then we move on to 2nd grade and the boy with the palest blue eyes and the curliest eyelashes I had ever seen on a boy and I sincerely believed he was the most beautiful human being I had ever seen in my 7 years of life. Mute staring continued to my standard M.O. Oddly, this did not inspire his affection for me. It probably only inspired nagging discomfort around me. My love was misunderstood.

Why would my mom do this to me?
There were several other elementary school crushes, none of whom I actually spoke to, even when the boy sat directly across from me all year long. Elementary school was a bad time for me with boys anyway, probably because I actually looked like a boy. Oh, the countless times kids would stop me and ask, "are you a boy or a girl??" I can only hope that the instant weeping this question produced gave it away, but who knows, I could have just been a really sensitive boy and not just a girl with a bad haircut. Many of my friends in 5th and 6th grade had boys bringing them Bubble Yum every day, but do you think I had any big, fat, sugary gum to chew? No, it was all home-supplied Trident for me. Love hurts.

As soon as I got to junior high school, I got busy scouting out new boys to have crushes on. Before long I was scanning the entire C section of the phone book trying to locate any nearby addresses that could possibly be the home of the boy I liked from Shop class. Not surprisingly, he ended up asking my best friend to "go with" him. Although she did say yes, I never believed she fully appreciated his charming smile or the precision of his bowl-cut hair hanging straight across his brow.

The 8th grade crush was the crush to end all crushes. It's still a little heartbreaking to me to recall how much I loved that 9th grade boy who was the object of my affection. It's also a little disturbing to recall how bizarre my behavior must have seemed when I saw him every day and was so completely unable to even say hi. He sat behind me in math class and his locker was right near mine and after a few months the entire school new I liked him but each day I freaked out a little more.

Did not make me a boy-magnet
I blame Styx. They totally ruined it. It's all their fault that I put that picture of them from a magazine inside my locker door, provoking total ridicule from the pack of 9th grade boys. Even though I tried to replace it soon after with a poster of The Rolling Stones that was big enough to wallpaper the entire 2nd floor of Smiley Junior High, the cool factor was ruined as I wrestled my huge poster into my locker, practically rolling myself up in it before eventually abandoning the whole effort.

Despite letting him cheat off my math tests (which he totally needed) and finally managing to squeak out a greeting by the end of the year, that crush obviously went nowhere. By the time I got to high school my new BFF and I discovered the drive-thru liquor store in Denver that would sell beer to anything behind the wheel of a car and alcohol saved me from my debilitating shyness. Maybe "saving" is kind of misinterpreting the situation, but it did finally facilitate a first sloppy kiss/make-out session in the back seat of a car and for that reason, I will always have a soft spot for grape Kool-Aid and Everclear punch.

But the bottom line here is, I have pretty much nothing to offer my child in the way of helpful advice with boys. Martha is really not afraid to talk to anyone and she is largely oblivious to the subtleties of nonverbal communication, which may be a blessing. If she ever does ask me for advice, I think I will offer this: 1) mute staring becomes more creepy than alluring faster than you'd think; 2) do not let Grandma take you for a hair cut; 3) Styx just isn't the band for everyone, and 4) just be yourself, baby.



Friday, June 14, 2013

Signs point to yes

Back in 2000 my husband and I ran a marathon together. We were living in Boston at the time and just about every mile of our training happened along the paths that run on either side of the Charles River. Depending on how many miles we had to do, we could always piece together some route by making a loop over the various bridges that cross the river. We got to be very familiar with those pathways. When our training started to include 12-mile runs and longer, we found that while it was heartening to see that it was actually possible to run for 2-3 solid hours, we'd start to get a little whacky by the end of the run. And by whacky, I mean kind of like, mentally unstable. Like the time we did 16 miles and towards the end I announced "Just think, if this was the marathon, we'd still have 10 more miles to go!" and then I laughed and laughed until I had tears running down my face and my husband looked like he wanted to punch me. I was never sure if he was bugged by the reminder of just how long the damn marathon was going to be or if it was my unexplained hysteria that was so vexing.

Another humorous thing I used to do that was met with utter disdain and/or borderline rage was sing a favorite little song when we'd see a particular road sign that signaled we were near Cambridge again, and therefore approaching the end of another long-ass run. Who doesn't love the song "I saw the sign" by Ace of Base? I'll tell you who: my husband. Apparently he is an Ace of Base-hater of the highest order. Or maybe it's just my singing it at the end of a 2-hour run. But I just couldn't help myself. A) It is one catchy mother-fucking song and B) I SAW THE SIGN?!

Well, this little anecdote comes back to me repeatedly in life when, as I agonize over some decision, be it little or big, I think to myself, I wish fate would show me a sign. I am positive that pretty much everything happens for a reason and if you are really astute, you will recognize the signs that the universe is sending you, nudging you towards the "real" answer. Of course, there are gigantic, swiss-cheese-style holes in this philosophy because in most cases, you cannot go back and choose the alternate route and follow that to its conclusion and then use this as evidence that you made either a right or a wrong decision. Are you following me? Life is not a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. But my belief in fate may have something to do with the fact that I would prefer a life where I just followed the signs that I was brilliant enough to recognize, versus one where I have to slog through decisions and question why I am choosing option A or option B and is that an okay reason or a lame reason and am I fucking up my life because I am neurotic or am I actually really wise and methodical and therefore I almost always make sound decisions based on prudent thinking?

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day who is the youngest of four kids (just as I am the youngest of three), and we both agreed we don't much care for the role of planner and boss. Our birth order dictated we be the minions in our families. And now we kind of prefer following directions. I guess this is not always true for me, because there was that one time when I was 23 and I was working a part-time job serving frozen yogurt at Au Bon Pain and I had this scrawny, pimply little manager named Eric who loved to point out how I was not polishing the stainless steel counter satisfactorily. Let me tell you, I did not like following directions from that guy... I guess he picked up on it, too, from the way I walked out in the middle of my shift. I actually felt really good about that decision, like I was definitely making the right call and all the cosmic signals were clearly indicating that I should quit that crappy job, ASAP. I would like all decisions to be so obvious.

For example, should I get a dog? I actually have a dog currently living in my home right now but she is a foster dog (through Secondhand Hounds: if you are thinking about getting a dog, you should adopt a rescue dog because breeders are unreliable and puppy mills are just pure evil). My daughter wants to adopt our little foster dog but I'm too busy looking for a sign to think about adopting her. Physically, this dog is a perfect combination of the three dogs I was lucky enough to own in the last year. Is that a sign that she is meant for me? Sadly, however, the three dogs I owned over the last year have all passed on to doggie heaven for a variety of unfortunate reasons. Maybe that is a sign saying dog-ownership is not part of my destiny right now.

Another decision: should I get a job? I had a part-time job for 5 whole months and then my position was eliminated by the school board. Maybe the fact that I got a job in the first place was a sign that working would be beneficial and now I should be inspired to go find another one. Or, maybe the fact that my job only lasted 5 months is a sign that working is not all that it's cracked up to be and I should instead devise a path to livelihood on my own terms. What do the signs say?? For crap's sake, why is it so freakin' complicated?

And where should I live? When I was in college in Southern California, all signs pointed to Minneapolis as the perfect place for me to live. Now that I live here, all signs point to moving to a warm climate as it is no secret I detest cold, lifeless weather (but summer and fall are so lovely here!). I'm pretty committed to living here until my daughter graduates from high school, but even she is a bigger fan of sun and sand than she is of snow. What the hell are we doing here?

Someone mentioned recently that I may be guilty of over-analyzing things and it wasn't Sigmund Freud so amazingly someone else was able to figure that out about me. The thing is, that's just my nature. I believe the signs really are there and they are simple to see and understand. I need to go back to the split-second before I started considering all these options and if I tune in to what was in my heart before my head starts doing its psycho thing, I believe I will know what the signs are telling me.

Sometimes I wonder if I should give up my dream of trying to write for a living. And then I write. And then I know, even when my writing is horrendous and meaningless, all those little words on the page are a sign: it says continue on the road ahead.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Middle age: One Woman's Search for 6-pack Abs (or just a 6-pack)

"Bored with the day to day monotony of life? Take inspiration from Roz Savage, the first woman ever to row solo across three oceans, and put adventure at the centre of your life."

That is from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald that a friend recently posted on Facebook. It's about Roz Savage and her new book to be published later this year, Stop Drifting, Start Rowing: One Woman's Search for Happiness and Meaning Alone on the Pacific. The article can be found at http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/a-greater-cause-20130530-2ne5x.html.

To answer to the above question, yes. Yes, I am bored with the day to day monotony of life. Yes, I strive every day to find happiness and meaning. Yes, I do stare off into space frequently, wondering if this is all there is to life. (Such existential pondering is usually answered by an imaginary James Earl Jones-like voice telling me "Yes, in fact, this IS all there is to life. Suck it up."). Whereas my twenties were spent pining away for a romantic partner, the security of a lifelong companion, a child, a house, admittedly, yes, I do lie awake some nights wondering if this is everything I want. (BTW, it appears I also want a lot of chocolate chip cookies plus higher metabolism.)

It's possible I could take inspiration from Ms. Savage without actually rowing solo across three oceans. I suppose if I were to get really creative I could technically put adventure at the center of my life without having to abandon my child and family and all of my responsibilities and obligations. I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert when it first came out and I was sort of inspired by her story even despite feeling mildly annoyed at times that my, my, my, aren't we just so lucky to have the resources and opportunity to just go off to Italy, India and Indonesia for a whole year. I guess it probably comes through in my tone that I am actually a little more cynical than inspired.

I mean, sure, there is no doubt about it, rowing solo across three oceans is a pretty bad-ass thing to do. It is even more bad-ass and appealing because Ms. Savage is an attractive blonde who looks great in a bikini. But I can't row anywhere solo, except maybe in a canoe across the local Minneapolis lakes. Is this adventurous enough? I highly doubt it. And while I could ditch my kid for a period of months, hopefully without leaving her permanently scarred, it would be tremendously selfish of me to put my life at risk all by my lonesome in the middle of the ocean. Or three. Because while I like the idea of a little more separation from my child, I truly don't want her to end up motherless. So I kind of frown upon the type of adventure that entails such big risks.

What I'm really getting at without trying to sink too far into negative bitchiness is where is the adventure for the urban housewives and stay-at-home moms? Who is writing Eat, Pray, Love For the Homebody? Because while I am sometimes jealous of the 20- and 30-something women out there with no kids who get to follow their dreams and go live a life of adventure, I also don't think it's so hugely inspiring that they left their "perfect" lives of marriage and cushy incomes. How is that so courageous? Do you want to know what takes courage? Raising kids. That shit is rough even when it is mind-numbingly boring. Moms want adventure, too! We just want adventure unaccompanied by a visit from Child Protection and watching our kids end up in foster care. Plus, although there are many moms in bikinis around my suburb, childbirth and child-rearing is not always conducive to tight abs. It's just not. In my opinion, if you're not genetically programmed for a flat stomach, you're screwed after about age 30. But that's not necessarily a requirement for a life of adventure. It's merely a nice perk.


So I guess the bottom line is, I don't really want six-pack abs or even a whole six-pack of beer (2 or 3 is fine). And I don't want to row a boat across the ocean or spend a year in Italy. Well, maybe a year in Italy wouldn't be all bad. I like pasta. What I would like is to be inspired by women who are happy, content, spiritually satisfied but who also lead kind of mundane, boring lives. I want them to complain a lot sometimes and swear when they feel frustrated. And then, after I read about these women, I want to have lunch with them. And then, after lunch, I want to be that woman. But I might have to bring my kid along. Is that really so much to ask?


Monday, May 27, 2013

Brief Random Interview with a Person of My Choosing

Hello, and welcome to a new feature I like to call... (read Blog Post title above). Sometimes it's hard to think of stuff to write about and sometimes it's easy to think of stuff to write about but it's just hard to write about it in a way that is vaguely interesting to anyone besides myself. I've been toying with this idea for a while and I really think it has the potential to turn into something big. Like if I start out interviewing those poor, unsuspecting people I find nearby and I make them sound really interesting, before I know it, famous people will be knocking down my door trying to get me to interview them on my blog. I mean, that's just one possible outcome. There are others, I'm sure.

So anyway, for the big debut of the Brief Random Interview with a Person of My Choosing, I found the most interesting person I know and I sat her down for an interview. Actually, she was already sitting down so I just started talking to her. She was a little reluctant at first, probably because she was engrossed in a gripping episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. But my instincts told me there was a good story here, so I persisted. And here it is: My conversation with the one and only Martha D.

Me: So Martha, I'm going to interview you for my blog. What do you think of that?

M: Ok.

Me: What's your favorite color?

M: Pink

Me: And what's your favorite food?

M: Croissants

Me: What's the most hilarious thing you've ever seen?

M: Probably on the last episode of iCarly when Spencer lit a towel on fire. (Author's Note: Sincere apologies to those of you who are not familiar with the Nickolodeon channel line-up of shows, which primarily features never-ending episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants peppered with a small selection of bad tween-targeted shows starring 20-something cable tv stars in the roles of young high school students.)

Me: What is your favorite thing about being 10 years old?

M: Being a double-digit age.

Me: Why is that?

M: Ummmmm....... I don't know?

Me: Can you tell me what is so fabulous about having me as your mom?

M: The fact that you give me treats a lot, like tonight when you split the last piece of buttery, grilled bread with me. (Author's Note: To my chagrin, this policy of frequent treat-giving appears to be in conflict with my previous post about weight issues and our efforts towards healthier eating. Author wonders if a reduced tendency to give treats will lessen her popularity with the child. She was expecting the interviewee to report that her mother is just so hilarious and beautiful that every day is the best damn day in the whole wide world. Well, imagine my surprise.)

Me: What is your favorite subject at school?

M: Besides recess?

Me: Um, yeah, preferably.

M: Math. Because I'm good at it.

Me: Do you think that you're good at math because your mom is so brilliant?

M: (Look of confusion passes across Martha's face.) (Dead silence follows.)

Me: Nevermind.

Me: Is there anything else you'd like the world to know about you? Like if you could get up on a big stage and tell everyone something about yourself, what would it be?

M: That I like SpongeBob.
Martha in her girl-cave

Ok, perhaps my interviewing skills need a little work. For instance, it might be better to conduct my interviews without SpongeBob SquarePants on in the background, and this goes for anyone, not just my 10-year old child. That porous little sea creature can be very distracting. Lesson learned. Also, I get the sense that maybe my questions should be more provocative, less egocentric. This is only a guess. (Cue Violent Femmes music.)

Also, I want to advise against the urge to start referring to this feature as the BRIPMC, or Bripmac, because I'm just not really a lingo person. I'm not even good with nicknames. I don't know what it is about my personality that makes me so resistant to the shortening of words and/or names, but I much prefer the long, drawn-out version of things as opposed to worrying that I will sound like a pretentious idiot walking around talking in abbreviations 24/7. Do you see what I mean?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How I met my husband

Many times since this blog's inception, my husband has read a post and suspected that there was a secret message directed at him, hidden within my prose. Many times I have assured him that no, I am not trying to send him encrypted communication. While I have become fairly lame at informing him of certain details, like, "oh, by the way, Martha's teacher conference is tomorrow morning and if you love her, you will be there. Oh, can't make it? Yeah, I figured as much." Ha ha, just kidding, that's really overstating it. But what I started to say was that although I am not always on top of the passing-on-of-information, I have not considered the possibility of sending secret messages in my blog posts. That's because I'm not sure he actually reads it. But if I DID intend to encode subtle messages, it would be something like, "you might want to break out a new toothbrush... your old one may or may not have been used as a chew toy for the dog after I saw him eat poop on our walk today." See? As if that would ever happen... This is why I have not tried the secret message thing yet.

So today, I am writing about a story that is definitely, positively, directly related to him. No mistaking it. (That's why I put the word HUSBAND in the title.)

In 1995, I worked in downtown Minneapolis and I rode the #17 bus to work, complements of the Twin Cities Metro Transit (and my bus pass). Same story for Chris, although I lived a few miles farther down the route than he did. For years (I guess this makes 18?) we have been telling everyone that we met on the bus, because it sounds kind of cute and charming, a little unusual -- many people who are regular consumers of public transportation tend to be a little on the skanky side, which we obviously are not. What are the chances of meeting your future spouse on public transportation?! Very small, I'm sure I don't have to tell you.

But see, that's a lie. Although we did enjoy many jolly bus rides home, chatting and getting to know each other, we technically did not actually have our first introduction on the bus. One afternoon while I waited for my bus inside a small kiosk on Nicollet Mall, I was listening to two women discuss the Army and how one woman's brother had been in the Army and it didn't teach him nothin' but how to drink and shoot guns. I say I was "listening to" their discussion and not "eavesdropping" because it was a small space and these women were talking pretty loud, not like they were discussing top secret information so I really couldn't help but overhear the whole thing. And it was HILARIOUS. I loved their honesty, their cynicism about the value of the military experience. So there was this guy standing near me and I glanced over at him to see if he, too, was as highly amused as I was. He appeared to be minding his own business, like most normal people will who ride public transportation on a daily basis (and especially if you grew up in New York City, you have been taught early on not to make eye contact with other people because they are probably freaky axe murderers). Okay fine, I thought, I can mind my own business, too. Or, you know, pretend to. I never have been good at being discreet.

So here's the truth, bold and uncensored: later that afternoon I had gone to my local gym, the Uptown YWCA, to workout. I was in the weight room, most likely finishing up some bench presses with like, 100 lbs. or something, and I spotted Mr. I-mind-my-own-business-at-the-bus-stop. So I catch up to him by the drinking fountain and say, "So, did you catch that hilarious conversation at the bus stop this afternoon?" I am assuming he will take one look at me and know without a doubt that I was waiting at the same bus stop as he was because who doesn't like to just check everyone out and people-watch constantly? Well, I may have been off-base, I'm not sure he knew who the hell I was, but he did remember the Army commentary (I reminded him) so he was not totally oblivious and he was not entirely minding his own business afterall. We exchanged some chit-chat about where we worked and then he asked me my name. I told him. He told me his name, and presto! There's the actual introduction. All bus-based interaction took place following that exchange.

I'm not discounting the cute and charming potential of the story mind you, but I am pointing out that we've misrepresented ourselves and the initial moment our relationship began.

At our wedding, four years later, the Deacon who performed the ceremony told a story about us meeting at the bus stop and I believe he made reference to the 60s song "Bus Stop" by the Hollies. We had no idea he was going to say that, just as we were also quite taken by surprise when he pointed out to our wedding guests that our names were Christopher and Christen, which both contain the name Christ and he found that very meaningful but Chris and I had really never made note of that little fact and, although we are nice, good-hearted people, neither of felt any special affiliation with Christ but, whatever, it was a wedding, he was a religious dude, so we let it pass. It just seems like drawing a connection between our relationship and that Hollies' song is really misleading. It wasn't raining, neither of us had an umbrella, it was winter so the temperature was probably just above zero and we had big, puffy down parkas on that make you look like the Michelin tire man. And I can't claim to know all the lyrics but I'm pretty sure in the Hollies' song there's no loud woman disapproving of the Army's bad influence on her brother. Also, the Hollies make no mention of Christ, but I don't know if that observation is relevant.

Anyway, I apologize to anyone who has heard the bald-faced lie version of how we met on the bus. I'm sorry we made it sound so cute and charming. Chris may have thought I was blatantly hitting on him at the gym and how's that for the tackiest, cheesiest way to meet a guy/gal? I should probably feel more embarrassed about it. But I don't. Relationships are funny, as are the stories we tell, because they are so malleable. We shape them into what we want, what we need. All of history gets told in this flexible manner that leaves room for interpretation and perception to manipulate the truth.

On a totally different note, however, for anyone out there who is searching for that special someone, let me recommend the bus-ride-tactic as a very clever strategy in the big, wild world of dating. I mean, you don't literally have to be on the bus or even any other form of public transportation, but the idea is that you find some way to swing a conversation (or two or ten) before any actual dates have been arranged -- preferably something with a time limit of say, 20-30 minutes. It allows you to get to know a little about the person without having to be on an actual date, because you know how hideous dates can be sometimes. Quite frankly, if you can't think of a clever way to just bump into the person in a situation where they are stuck next to you for a brief period of time, I say just ask them flat out if they'd like to have a conversation which does not involve going to a public place and partaking of any form of food or drink together because you'd like to figure out if you want to ask them out on a date or not. Really, anyone with any sense of practicality will see the genius in this approach and appreciate your directness and the economy involved in the preliminary chat. If the chat doesn't go well, no one's out any money, barely any time was wasted, and you won't feel like a total loser because every date you have is a disaster. No date, no disaster. It's just a little chat. Everyone wins. You're welcome.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Like mother, like daughter -- only better

"Momma, am I fat?" Martha asked me recently.

"No, baby, you are absolutely not fat."

"But my belly is so big."

"Well..." I trail off. I am at a loss for how to respond. Her belly is a tiny bit big. I mean, it's not huge. She's not grossly overweight. But yes, she's got a belly. And not just a little poochie belly. It's a little plumpy, maybe. But I can't say that to her. I can't answer, "Yes, honey, your belly is big. That is because you eat too much bread and chips and you spend too much time watching SpongeBob and playing on your iPad simultaneously." I am the parent and I still have a fair bit of control over her activities. So if she's allowed to eat too much and watch too much tv, whose fault is that? Exactly.

On the other hand, I can't quite bring myself to tell her "No, your belly is not big." Because that doesn't feel entirely honest. What feels honest is what I tell her, which is that we are going to work on being more active this summer and making changes to her diet and maybe her belly will get smaller but even if it doesn't, I'm confident that her body will go through changes during adolescence that will make her belly not seem like a big deal at all. And I am in no hurry for those changes. She is my only baby and I don't want her to grow up too quickly.

I also don't want to whisper one single word that will make her self-conscious about her weight or her body image. I asked her if anyone at school ever called her fat and much to my relief, she answered no, in a tone of voice that implied that this was the craziest thing I could ask her, that the very idea that anyone would ever call her fat was so preposterous she just could not imagine it. Good thing, because the kid who insults my kid? He (or she) is going down. Figuratively, of course. Not like Nancy-Kerrigan-knee-clubbing down, but just, you know, they better watch out. I'm the momma bear and I will protect Martha from as much pain and heartache as I possibly can and this includes protecting her from my own misguided parenting sometimes.

The problem started when she was a toddler and was plagued by sensory issues and picky eating. There is no shortage of judgemental women of my mother's generation who tersely proclaim that if you feed the child what you are eating and she doesn't eat it , then she just doesn't eat. That's her choice. She'll eat when she gets hungry. Well, if I wanted to be a cold-hearted bitch to my child and let her lie in bed at night with an an aching, empty tummy, I could certainly have tried that approach. Instead, I let Martha eat buttered toast for dinner when she refused everything else. Yes, I fully enabled her picky eating, I won't deny it. And I'd do it again the exact same way if I had to do it over.

For several years as a toddler Martha had no chub on her to speak of. Her diet wasn't great, but I bent over backward to find ways to supplement her meals so that we could get all her food groups covered. She took vitamins. We got by. Then came the day she discovered God's most perfect food: the potato chip. She was in love. Hopelessly, undeniably, head-over-heels in love.

This is kind of our issue to this day: the salty, crunchy, chewy carbohydrate. It comes in many forms and it is delicious. It is buttered toast, buttered english muffins, buttered waffles, potato chips, various other forms of snacky, chippy, corn- and/or potato-based puffy, crunchy things; it is french fries, buttery croissants, any form of deep-fried breading (but rarely the foodstuff that is inside deep-fried breading), dinner rolls, bread sticks, garlic bread, croutons, crackers. Martha is kind of a bottomless pit for this form of food.

And I am a sucker and even though I have created a thousand rules about what I, myself, can and cannot eat, I let her slide by on a lot more of the starchy stuff than I should. In my defense, however, she rarely eats fast food, McDonald's is forbidden and she never drinks soda. She knows high fructose corn syrup is bad, GMOs are evil, and sugary cereals are to be avoided, even though she tends to stare longingly at the boxes of Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch in the cereal aisle.

The whole issue of weight, for me, is an unbearably complicated, sticky, emotionally-loaded mess. In terms of the big picture, it's incredibly difficult for women and girls in our culture to maintain a healthy self-image when so much of the media and entertainment and even toys promote unrealistic standards of beauty. I started to worry about my daughter's body image pretty much the day I got the ultrasound showing I was carrying a girl. No exaggeration, I swear. Add to this the fact that my daughter has a mother who has spent some 30+ years criticizing her own body, obsessing over her weight, restricting her eating, working out, trying to make her body more attractive, more like the images I see all over the place or like the millions of women and girls I've compared myself to who clearly have perfect bodies unlike my lumpy, ill-proportioned self. One of the most important things I have ever wanted to accomplish is to raise a daughter who loves and accepts herself in a way that I may never accomplish with myself. I work on it, I will always work on it, but it is work, every single day.

I could tell you about my eating disorder in my mid-20s but really, my self-perception has been distorted since I was about 8. And I doubt I'm alone among my friends when I remember putting myself on diets way back in elementary school, always trying to lose 5 lbs. The problem certainly was at its worst around age 26 when I invested pretty much every ounce of energy I had into exercise and restricting calories. I never achieved that state where I was all skeletal and hospitalized and eating 3 tic tacs each day like you see in the after-school-specials about girls with anorexia, but let's just say you don't have to be quite that bad off to still be kind of fucked up. With help, I worked my way back to "normal" fairly easily and I eat like a fairly "normal" person now-a-days and I threw away my scale at age 30 but then went and bought a new one when I was pregnant. All in all, though, I consider myself healthy these days.

But I don't really trust myself to be a good role model for my child without paying excruciating attention to every word out of my mouth and every way in which I might possibly influence Martha's attitude towards food and her weight. And that makes my summer project with her all the more important and difficult, you see, because I've told her we will work on her belly. I didn't say she has to be smaller or thinner or anything of the sort. I've talked about being healthy and active. Mostly I just detect some level of self-awareness developing in her about the size of her stomach and while I don't want to encourage her to think she needs to lose weight (unlike a classmate of hers who came to Martha's birthday party once saying her mom said she's not allowed to have cake -- so I served her two pieces) I do want her to be aware of what is healthy; I want her to feel comfortable with her body, to feel strong and powerful. Every girl deserves to feel strong and powerful. I'm pretty sure I can do this.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Navel-gazing (or Oscar Goldman is building me a bionic belly button)

I didn't want to freak anyone out with a photo of my actual belly button right off the bat... But my belly button is, in fact, what this blog post is about. I know, right??

Today I am engaging in literal navel-gazing but not because I am excessively self-absorbed. I mean, maybe I'm being a bit self-absorbed; I can see that this isn't really a relevant topic for anyone besides me, and maybe Martha, who is a big fan of my belly button in its current incarnation. There is no conceivable reason why anyone should be at all interested in this story. But I like to keep you abreast of my current goings-on. With my navel. Among other things.

The bold truth is: I am an outie. I have been an outie ever since I was born. My sister once tried to tell me it was because the doctor botched the job of cutting the umbilical cord when I was born, like he sneezed or something and the scissors slipped and he didn't quite make the cut where he planned and then bam, I'm stuck with this goofy-looking belly button the rest of my life. I'm not sure that's really accurate, but you know, older sisters will tell you all kinds of crap to try and torture you, make you think there is totally something wrong with you. And I did, too. Think there was something wrong with me. I thought the freakishly protruding nub in the middle of my stomach was clearly something to be ashamed of, something to hide from people. Only my closest friends could ever possibly know the terrible secret I carried under my shirt. And even still, I was never sure I would be accepted once I had revealed my mark of shame, or whether, upon exposure, my friends would shun me in horror and tell all the world of my gross deformity. I had an active imagination, I guess.

I have only one photo of the belly button of my youth:
This is a photo of my sister, Carrie, and I from 1986 when my high school friends and I went to Mazatlan for our Senior-year-Spring-Break-drunken-let's-pretend-we're-so-grown-up-I-can't-believe-none-of-us-died-vacation. My sister, two years older than I, was one of our "chaperones" (please be sure to visualize air quotes here). She was brutally strict with us girls, except for that one afternoon when she disappeared with Alan, the other chaperone, and they returned to our motel later that evening super stoned dazed and covered with sand. Huh... Whatchoo guys been up to?

So why am I talking about my belly button?

Today is a big day. The end of an era. I'm going to intentionally let a surgeon slice me open in order to correct the freak-show flaw that has been my belly button for the past 45 years. Not because I want to pursue a career as a swimsuit model, as fun and potentially lucrative as that might seem. More like so that my middle-aged self can cough without the fear of popping a section of my digestive track out the hole in my abdominal wall. Glamorous, huh?

It's called hernia surgery. That's why it sounds so glamorous.

In case you are curious, and even if you are not, I thought I would capture a parting shot of the fleshy little blob before it was fixed (sorry):



Then Martha and I thought maybe we'd have some fun with it. Maybe the belly button would like to go incognito to surgery.


Weird? Perhaps.

I'm undecided about an "AFTER" photo. It might be too strange. Or not strange enough. Maybe I will have moved on to obsessing over a different flaw. We've all got 'em.

...
P.S. The reason I was convinced to bare my midriff in that bikini in spite of the previous policy of concealment at all cost? One word: boys. Oh what a teen-age girl will do to try to win them over.