Thursday, December 9, 2010

Weird Like Erma

I was a weird kid. Which is not all that surprising, considering I am likely a weird adult. This is probably not a revelation to anyone who knows me and probably not news to my blog followers, since one of my earlier entries (see: Kids Say the Darnedest Things) recounts an ugly second-grade incident that served as the catalyst for many people classifying me as weird, at best, or full-out loopy, at worst. As a disclosure, in hindsight, I also find the child described in that story to be pretty weird.

I don’t think I was aware of being weird when I actually was a kid. I never really felt like I fit in, but that’s probably a universal feeling among kids…found in both “normal” kids, as well as the truly weird. Everyone feels like an outcast at some point, right? So I never thought of myself as weird then. But now, when I am having a conversation with someone and share a memory or detail about the-long-ago-me, I frequently have to pause as I discover that I really was a weird kid.

The most recent discovery of this weirdness has stemmed from some friends commenting that my writing and/or sense of humor are reminiscent of Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck. Though I am immensely flattered by the two comparisons (because I adore both), I have just recently come to the realization that it is weird that I have been compared to Erma Bombeck – who made a climb to fame as a wise-cracking housewife/mother of three in the 1960s and beyond– for about two decades now.

Dave Barry is, of course, more contemporary than Erma Bombeck, but I actually grew up with Erma. A quick review of her titles on Wikipedia confirms that, indeed, I have read everything she’s ever written (I fell in love with her at first read…she had me from the title page). I can remember being on a ski trip as a middle schooler (seventh grade, if I’m not mistaken), riding back on the bus from Powder Ridge, listening to Tone Loc on my walkman, while voraciously reading Family: The Ties That Bind…And Gag, which was my Erma favorite, along with The Grass Is Always Greener Over The Septic Tank (see what I mean about those titles?!?). This was January or February 1989, which would have made me all of 12 years old. How many 12-year-olds even know who Erma Bombeck is, much less has read her complete canon? How many 12-year-olds knew “supp” hose so intimately? While other pre-teen girls were flirting with pre-teen boys, I was curled up on a bus seat, by myself, laughing out loud to Erma Bombeck. I can remember Amy Testagrossa asking me what was so funny and why was I laughing out loud. I read her a passage from the book and, though I’m almost positive she laughed, I wonder now if she was just being polite, while thinking that I was such a weirdo. To complicate matters, Erma’s books were always mine….they were never my mother’s.

My early penchant for Erma, may she rest in peace, got me to thinking about my childhood reading habits. I can remember “babysitting” John and Ben Van Rheen – I was 11 and, though Ben was a few years younger, he was about the same size as me and totally didn’t listen to me; John was Ben’s lackey who participated in whatever mischief Ben could create– and busying myself reading The Hartford Courant downstairs, while they plotted the overthrow of the world (or, at the very least, me) upstairs. At age 11, I had my own subscription to the newspaper and my weekly gig for the Van Rheens –as painful as it was - not only paid for the subscription but also put some much-needed cash in my pocket to pay for my periodicals (Bop and Teen Beat, if my memory serves me correctly…finally, something about me that might have been normal!). I didn’t know what to do with those two boys, but I think their mother’s main requirement for a babysitter was someone responsible enough to call 911, when needed. Surely someone who showed up toting her own copy of the newspaper could give the police an accurate description of the events leading to the call and accurate directions to their out-of-the-way house.

I maintained a subscription to the newspaper for as long as I could afford one. In my financially destitute college years, I sacrificed fun for the newspaper, delivered to my dorm room. There’s a telling photo of me at a sleepover…all of my floor mates are passed out asleep and I am awake, reading the newspaper in my sleeping bag. The photographer – whoever it was – surely took the picture because I was such an anomaly.

Eventually, I climbed the social ladder and was able to add magazine subscriptions to things I could afford. My first subscriptions, excluding Highlights when I was five or so, included Rolling Stone, Better Homes & Gardens and Mother Jones. How I discovered Mother Jones is a mystery but I loved the investigative journalism. I was 20 and my magazine rack defined me: interests in home decorating, music and socialist-leaning government exposes. Perhaps there’s a good reason I’ve never felt like I never fit in. It’s probably because I haven’t.

Truthfully, I still don’t fit in. But I’m fine with it. There were some lonely adolescent years, but I think that happens for everyone – weird or not. And I’ve discovered throughout the years that “weird” is relative and comes in many shapes and sizes. There was once a discovery of someone who collected their toenails in a jar, which I thought was really, really weird, until one day I was talking to a completely different person who made a reference to…collecting toenails in a jar. I still think this is intensely weird, but if multiple people are partaking in this, maybe it’s not all that weird. Or maybe it is weird, which means that I am not so weird.

Along the way through life, I’ve met one or two of these suburban-housewife-idolizing, 12-year-old girls who grew up to appreciate shabby chic décor and investigative journalism. I’m not so sure that makes me any less weird, but weirdness loves company. Maybe they also didn’t go outside for recess in all of fourth grade (I preferred helping the teacher, Ms. Morton, correct our class papers), or maybe they played outside with friends, like a normal kid. I guess it doesn’t matter. Maybe Erma was weird, too, but she was able to mask it with funny. And that’s my hope…to temper the weird with humor, so that all that’s really remembered is the funny.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Thin Line Between Trash and Treasure

Trash. Treasure. Like love and hate, there’s a thin line between the two. I am reminded of this frequently, both in the larger world - I volunteer regularly at my local thrift shop, which is inundated with equal parts treasure and trash – and in my own garage, as I continue to look at the things I once thought were treasures but have since become junk that I couldn’t unload at my yard sale in September.

There’s been so much talk about the economy and its miserable state. I hear all the time how no one is buying anything and that consumers need to open their wallets and start spending again. Unemployment, underemployment and stagnant wages are frequently blamed for people not spending. I will freely admit that I am fairly ignorant about Economics, market forces, etc, etc, and only persevered through my college economics class because of a very handsome boy who I hoped would fall madly in love with me (I am still stumped on two subjects: macroeconomics, and why that boy let me get away). Yet, from my position as a Consumer of Things, I have some opinions on the matter.

I think it is possible that no one is buying anything because…just maybe…we have all bought so many things in our lives that there is just nothing left we need. Maybe we have inventoried our belongings and realized we already have all the crap we need, in addition to a bunch of crap we never needed in the first place. And not only do we have all we need, so does everyone we know. There’s just nothing left to buy because Americans are such excellent consumers that we all have everything that has already been invented. That’s one idea. My other idea is that every expert on the matter is wrong. People are totally spending money. But perhaps they are doing it on the cheap, at places like thrift shops and yard sales and eBay and craigslist, because consumers have finally realized that whatever it is they think they need is available somewhere at a deep discount, because someone somewhere has already become a convert and discarded the once-desired treasure as undesirable junk.

I will use the yard sale as my case study to prove both points. First, some yard sale background info. Several military posts participate in post-wide yard sales. Twice a year, on a designated Saturday in the spring and fall, everyone wanting to participate sorts through their belongings, classifying things into why-the-hell-do-I-still-have-this?! and oh-wow,-I-forgot-I-had-this! In the spirit of “If you price it, they will come,” we bust out the neon stickers and the Sharpie and coldly calculate how much someone might pay us for the stuff we have deemed to be junk. It is really a beautiful thing. Literally, there are probably hundreds of sales condensed into a few square miles; and it is the bargain hunter’s/junk lover’s Mecca. No cheapskate’s life is complete until they’ve made the pilgrimage to a post-wide yard sale. People come from miles away – we’re talking Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, etc – on a quest for discarded treasure. The first of the pick-up trucks drive around so early in the morning it’s still dark, and I have seen people armed with flashlights to get the best deal. While the sale officially starts at 6 AM on SATURDAY morning, you have lost a lot of business if you’re sleeping in that late. I made my first sale this year at 2 PM on FRIDAY afternoon. As a complete disclosure, I’d made my first purchase at 9 AM on Friday morning. Since I live in the glass house, I want to be clear that I’m not throwing any stones.

Yard salers continuously arrived and I, always anxious to unload some stuff so that I can eventually buy new stuff, would ask them, “What can I help you find that you need?” And people repeatedly said, “Oh, I don’t need anything. I’m just looking around.” To which I would always reply, “Well, what can I help you find that you don’t need?” And then I would start showing people various things, like my piece de resistance: a moose-faced egg separator (the egg white pours from the moose’s nostrils, of course, and it looks like a snotty-nosed moose). Frequently, I could convince someone they needed one of my former treasures (FYI, that moose flew off the table early in the sale). Some people were more discriminating. I’d say, “I have this lovely weed eater that works almost all the time,” and they would respond, “Oh, no thanks, I don’t have a yard.” Even without a yard, I might have bought that weed eater for the price I had it marked at. Yet for every discriminator, there’s always the person who sees the purse and exclaims, “Oh! I love purses. I shouldn’t buy it, though, because I already have 200!” and then goes on to purchase Purse #201.

While I do believe that most people just don’t need anything, I also believe that people do spend money all the time, and especially on crap they don’t need and crap their friends and family don’t want. I’m guilty of it myself. Despite the fact that I am always cleaning out, I am also always on the hunt for the next fantastic bargain; and second-hand shops are one of my great weaknesses. Which is why I volunteer at my local thrift shop. In addition to the fun I have interacting with adults once a week and studying consumption habits (I’m still chuckling over how I asked an older woman if she wanted a bag, or if she preferred to wear the leather chaps she’d purchased straight out of the store), I get first dibs on the donated items. And I am frequently startled by the things people give away. Many are brand new, quality items with tags still on. Plenty have gift tags still on, like the fuzzy golf club covers to Uncle Fred from Maddie, or the children’s literary collection for Jessica, with love from Grandma and Grandpa. I hope it truly is the thought that counts, as a lot of people are obviously not that fond of the actual gifts the thought produced.

But one person’s trash is another’s treasure, and I like to think of second-hand shopping as a green alternative to regular shopping. It’s recycling in its funnest form. The transformation of trash to treasure, simply by the changing of hands, keeps things out of the dump and saves money, so that people can have more money to go out and spend on the latest gizmo they never knew they always needed. It doesn’t even matter what the item is because, like beauty, trash/treasure is in the eye of the beholder. See my snotty-nosed moose egg separator as an example.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Miner Voyeurism

I don’t watch a lot of TV. I quit Dancing With the Stars and American Idol cold turkey several seasons ago, and joyously said goodbye to Lost (and five seasons of insomnia induced by this show’s maddening twists) this spring. I currently watch only two shows, of which Glee is a guilty pleasure and The Office is an admittable one. Though Glee’s saccharine life lessons annoy me, as well as the boy-band-tendencies of Mr. Schuester, I’ve found a bright spot in Sue Sylvester, or at least the version of her that interacts with her sister (disclosure: her conversation with her sister in the God episode actually made me cry). As far as The Office goes, I’ve heard a lot of people say that the Michael Scott character is ridiculous and not believable. I congratulate those people on never having had a Michael Scott as a boss. But believe me when I say that there’s an entire class of graduates of the Michael Scott School of Low Level Management and Improv, people who are now mediocre bosses at various locations throughout the United States.

I used to enjoy watching the news but I’ve largely given up on it. The 24-hour news channels just about destroyed news, having turned a lot of things that are not even remotely newsworthy into “news.” An event has to be major to get me to tune in, and there have been only a handful of times in my life when I have been “glued” to the TV. The first time I can remember was when Princess Diana died. I was 20 years old, living in my first apartment. I turned on the TV to discover the mangled black car and the news that Princess Diana had been a passenger in it. Her death began a news-watching marathon for me. I watched for days, and I can still remember those boys walking with their mother’s coffin and her brother’s powerful eulogy. My heart broke for the motherless sons.

The next event that glued me was the attacks on September 11, 2001. We lived in Germany at the time. I was at work and had gone down to the mailroom where Howard, the mailman, had a radio he listened to. He told me a plane had struck a World Trade Center building. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. I had no idea, in those initial minutes or hours, of the quantities of people that would be involved or the vast scope of the horror. As information trickled in, we all got sent home from work. I listened to the towers fall on the radio as I drove home. The TV went on the minute I walked in the door. I watched the smouldering rubble for days, just waiting for the rescues that never came.

The tsunami was my next overdose of news. I was very pregnant at the time and not working. I had a lot of time to tune in and did so. Nature’s savagery was startling, though it was good preparation for Hurricane Katrina, which followed eight months later. The storm made landfall at the end of August and I can remember still watching the coverage in mid-September as Grace recovered from a major surgery and we didn’t leave the hospital for six days. Of course, by this time, I was distracted and losing interest in the plights of others, when seven-month-old Grace had so many issues of her own.

I followed the Sago mine disaster pretty closely. It was Mike’s birthday, 2006. I still remember the heartbreak that followed the announcement that they’d made a mistake and it wasn’t that one miner had died, but that only one had lived. And so it was with the Sago outcome in mind that I tuned in two nights ago to watch the Chilean attempt to rescue those men who had been trapped in the mountain-mine for more than two months.

I hadn’t been following the story too closely…I knew they were down there and alive, but that was about the sum total of my knowledge. Yet when they hoisted that rescue cage up and a miner emerged, I wept. As I watched the child that I assumed to be the miner’s son weep with relief, I cried some more. Though I’d planned on going to bed early, I watched the capsule descend and then waited for it to come back up. The second miner came up and his exuberance was inspiring. He hammed it up and his sheer joy was infectious. I thought, “Here’s a group of people who probably know what’s important in life. And won’t forget any time soon.” I went to sleep overjoyed. As soon as I woke up, the TV went back on. The number rescued had risen to nine and I tuned in to the tenth rescue and cried again. I hoped for the best as the rescue efforts continued. I couldn’t tune in because kids needed to get herded to school and we had some stuff to do. I had a dentist appointment at 11, and never have I so looked forward to going to a teeth cleaning. At my dentist’s, there are TVs in the ceiling, they recline you, stick a pair of headphones on and pass you a remote. I turned on CNN and told everyone to take their time, that I’d be happy to wait if anyone was running late. As Emmy scraped and cleaned my teeth, I sat there with tears streaming, overcome with joy for the families that had waited so long. I dictated to Emmy the personal stories and the amazing details and reported the miners’ surfacing. After the cleaning was over and the dentist had finished with me, I asked if I could stay in the chair for a few more minutes because the next miner was almost up and I didn’t want to miss it. They all went to lunch and left me there. I was high on happiness when I left after another miner was extracted. I tuned in and out a few times throughout the day, as the events of the day allowed, and tuned in again with Mike after the kids were in bed, just in time to see the final miner emerge from the capsule. I cried tears of joy for every miner I saw exit the capsule, and have wracked my brain all day, trying to remember when, if ever, there was such captivating, good news on TV. Finally…something worth watching.

One of my favorite things is airport voyeurism. I love checking out the reunions – people brought back together after having been apart for who knows how long. I can’t leave an airport without tears. It’s one of my favorite places – assuming I’m not actually flying – because it’s so often filled with happiness. Yesterday, the mine in Chile was an airport on the world’s stage. And the world got a good look into the hopes and joy of 33 families reunited after 69 days apart. I absolutely loved yesterday, knowing that something wonderful was happening for so many people – not just the miners and their families, but for the entire nation of Chile, and beyond…to all of us voyeurs sharing joy vicariously, for all of us who finally had something on TV worth watching.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Problem with Princesses

I have several problems with princesses. I’m not speaking of real-life, actual princesses, a la Diana or Grace Kelly, since I’ve never met anyone of royal background and suspect that, despite the title and royal fanciness that goes along with the job, the demands of royalty are probably great and exhausting. My problems with princesses, specifically, are with the Disney variety, and my prime complaint is that my daughters are obsessed.

Grace and Nadia are only five and three years old, yet they are crazed when it comes to princesses. Earlier in the spring, I took them to a mother-daughter tea party, which included a special visit by princesses. As Belle, Cinderella and Jasmine mingled with the commoners, my daughters stalked them like paparazzi, with Grace seizing my camera and snapping pictures of their every move. Grace and Nadia followed them around constantly, while Nadia jabbered non-stop, asking questions about Beast’s well-being and how Raja was doing. In one of those a-picture’s-worth-a-thousand-words moments, there’s a photo of Nadia sitting next to Cinderella during a story and, though all other kids are looking forward at the storyteller and book, Nadia is beaming at Cinderella with pure adoration.

I’m not very girly and it is often a mystery to me how I got such girly little girls. We have princess dress-up wear, attend princess birthday parties, own princess games, go to princess tea parties and partake in princess pretend-play. At times, Nadia actually thinks she is a princess and if you address her as Nadia, she will firmly tell you to call her by her formal title, Princess Nadia. One time, one of the girls actually banished the other from the kingdom (the complaint came to me as, “Nadia kicked me out of her kingdom!!!”). It was quite a scene, complete with princess tears and a princess tantrum. Princess Nadia has chosen Prince Mike as her betrothed and there have been more royal weddings in this house than any one family can afford. Princess Nadia always outfits Prince Mike with a bowtie or, if the bowtie is nowhere to be found, a “tie” cut out of construction paper. After the wedding, there is always a dance, and the ritual is completed…until the next wedding tomorrow.

As the mother of the princess, I, appropriately, get to be the Queen. This sounds okay, but I already wear a lot of hats around this house and can’t risk getting saddled within any extra responsibilities around here. Since I’ve been stripped of my king, I am the apex of the monarchy and the ruler of the kingdom. It’s not the worst role, though I often suspect and fear that the princesses are plotting a coup, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Prince Mike was in on this scheme, too. Sometimes I debate getting my own taster.

Most of the time, the princess mania just baffles me. I don’t get the fascination. But after a recent viewing of Cinderella, I finally had an idea to make this whole princess-mania worthwhile. Now, I am the first to admit that I have a lot of weaknesses and pretend play is one of them. While Mike can expertly play the role of prince and patiently abides by Nadia’s every wedding demand (she’s your classic bridezilla), I am a fan of watching their show - a spectator, as opposed to a participant. But the other week, I actually had a great idea. I told Grace and Nadia they each could be Cinderella and I would be the evil stepmother (it’s unfortunate that this is the role I can most easily identify with). I then gave them some rags and a bucket of cleaning solution and sent them outside to scrub the floor mats in the van.

Before judgment is passed on my parenting, let me defend myself by offering that the girls love to clean things. As far as they’re concerned, the only thing better than getting to scrub a toilet, is getting to scrub a toilet while impersonating a princess. And the only thing that would be better than scrubbing a toilet while impersonating a princess would be scrubbing the toilet as a princess, in preparation for the tea party reception after the royal wedding to Prince Mike. I ask you…if the victims are eager and willing participants, is it really wrong?

But, like all good things, it didn’t last long. Kids grow and get smarter every day and it was just a few days ago that Grace came to us with a proposal: she wanted to do chores, in exchange for money. I don’t recall Cinderella ever being on anyone’s payroll. Perhaps now that Grace has started kindergarten, she and other five-year-olds will start comparing notes about what goes on at home. Maybe a more sophisticated princess let Grace know that the Evil Stepmother can’t get away this malarkey, and that there’s something called an “allowance,” which Grace would be entitled to as the result of the labor being performed as Cinderella. I don’t know quite how my great idea unraveled so quickly, but there went my one use for princess-mania…up in smoke, like the plume of dust they would’ve swept up, had the Cinderella charade lasted just a little bit longer.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This, Too, Shall Pass

We took the kids to see Toy Story 3 the other day. With a movie audience of several small kids, I knew to expect some noise, crying and disruptions. I didn’t expect, however, to personally contribute to any of the aforementioned distractions. But there were several scenes – when the mom looks around at Andy’s packed-up-for-college empty room, the display of friendship and acceptance by the toys at the dump inferno, and Andy (spoiler alert!) introducing the toys to Bonnie and playing with them one last time – that should have choked up anyone with a beating heart. My face was marked by the telltale mascara roadmap and I was still actively crying in the bathroom after the movie ended, as I changed Liam’s diaper, picturing him going off to college and my life being devoid of the very children that make me batty on a regular basis. He smiled his beaming baby smile at me, oblivious to the fact that his mom is just slightly unhinged, unaware that life is always changing, nothing is permanent – for better or worse – and that life is sometimes full of heartbreak.

My favorite mantra is This, too, shall pass. I remind myself all the time that whatever is difficult/frustrating/annoying/challenging won’t be that way forever. Because things change, things pass. Kids grow, and then they’re grown up. And though I look forward to the free time and peace and quiet that will someday come when the kids are less dependent, I also know that the silent void will be deafening, because these times are precious, and fleeting.

We recently went on our family vacation to the Black Hills region of South Dakota. The kids did great, all things considered. Twelve-week-old Liam traveled like a champ, and Grace and Nadia really could not have been any better than they were. None of this means that traveling with little kids is easy, but, for this trip, our kids were about as easy as kids can get. This time.

On the second full day of our trip, we headed to Mount Rushmore. It was a hot one – about 100 degrees. The kids were dragging a little bit, from the heat and crowd and probably the unspoken disappointment of having to look at a big rock all day. The plan was to rent the audio wands for the self-guided walking tour and, since it was lunchtime when we arrived, getting food, so as to stave off kid-discontent as we toured. At the audio rental stand, we, of course, found out the trail through Rushmore wasn’t stroller accessible. So, after schlepping the stroller back to the car and facing the prospect of wearing Liam in a pouch on a 100-degree day, we raced through a meal, during which Liam became miserable. I ended up feeding him - again, which bored Grace and Nadia, who were getting antsy to do something, after having sat in the car a while, then having stood in a long line, only to sit down again to eat and wait for Liam to be fed. I was hot and frustrated and feeling a little weepy about how exhausting and difficult it can all be (gone are the days of my great friends, Quick and Easy).

Just then, a man approached us. He told us that he and his wife were watching us from their table, remembering when their lives were like ours – youthful, full of kids, on an adventure – and envying us. He talked for a little while, offering sage advice from the perspective of life’s rearview mirror. He told us to enjoy our greatest treasure – the kids – because they grow up and it all changes (ends, I think he meant) so quickly. He told us that, even on the worst day, these are the best days.

After he left our table, I immediately started to cry, partly grateful for the reminder to be appreciative of the now and to not take any days for granted, partly shamed at my earlier frustration with my “difficult” life, partly in heartbreak for those future days when the kids are all grown up and too busy for us, or just not even interested in us. I know he’s right. Everyone old enough to have a little perspective, and distance, seems to say the same thing. We heard it again on the trip at a diner somewhere in central South Dakota, from a woman stirred to nostalgia because of our chaotic, mini traveling circus. She, part of a duo of retired couples, was traveling footloose and fancy-free, yet said the same thing as the man at Rushmore – to enjoy these days because they go by so quickly, and then we’ll realize how good these days were.

Even though I know what they said is true, I get so distracted by the demands of the day that I forget. Often. We are frequently nostalgic for the past, we are optimistic about the future, but the present…well, the present is another story. I think, if asked to describe their current life, most people would say something negative – it’s stressful or exhausting or challenging. The present is confounding; it’s all we really have, yet it is so hard to appreciate in real-time. It seems that only when the present becomes the past is it possible to appreciate fully. I wish it wasn’t like this.

It’s sad…that this life we’re living goes by so quickly and that the proper wisdom to take it all in, and properly appreciate it, develops so late in life. Today I am the changer of the diapers. Tomorrow, I will be the duster of the empty room and forgotten toys and, the day after that, I will be in the sunset of my life and on vacation, envying the young, burnt-out parents and their noisy brood causing the commotion at the table next to me, wondering where all the precious time went.

Again, it’s enough to choke up anyone with a beating heart.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Our Shared Pursuit of Happiness

Beginning last fall, I became involved in an English as a Second Language experience. I am hesitant to say that I taught, since teaching is such a vast and important job, and I would insult teachers everywhere by calling what I did teaching. I showed up once a week, sometimes with a snack, and wrote things on a chalkboard. I sometimes remembered to assign homework, and when I reviewed the homework, I would make notations in a red pen. “Teacher” in the loosest sense.

I learned a lot during my teaching tenure, of which the prominent discovery was: teaching is REALLY SCARY (although I have to wonder if knowing what you’re doing makes it any less so). I also discovered how maddeningly frustrating the English language can be. Having grown up speaking English, I was completely ignorant of how inconsistent it is. It is made up of equal parts rules and exceptions, which are only annoying when you’re trying to teach it (and, surely, when you’re trying to learn it as a second language). I also quickly realized how little grammar I’ve retained during all the years I’ve been out of school (discovering how much you don’t know about your native language is a good dose of humility). And yet, somehow, I was the resident expert. Yikes.

Once I realized how much I didn’t know, I shifted the focus of the class from me doing the talking to letting them do the talking. I’d ask questions that I thought would promote discussion, and that’s usually what happened. They got conversation practice and I got to learn about their homeland, culture, ideas and beliefs.

Interesting revelations: we have “pigs in a blanket,” Czechs have “sausages in pajamas” (lest you wonder what kind of questions I was asking these women, this one came up in a discussion of the Super Bowl). Everyone in the class had seen – and loved – Titanic in their native countries, and many students flocked to the movies to see Avatar when it was released (perhaps James Cameron really is king of the world). A student from Taiwan had her wedding reception at a place called the New York, New York hotel (this was, of course, in Taipei, Taiwan). The weddings discussion yielded several wedding photo albums (American brides take note: many Asian brides wear several dresses on their wedding day) showcasing weddings both steeped in tradition, and others that were startlingly American. Some even managed to be both.

One student sparked a lively discussion about in-laws after telling of a visit to a tarot card reader and the reader’s revelation that there was a witch present in the student’s life. The student informed us that she believed the witch in question was her mother-in-law. After the knowing laughs subsided, another student from a different continent then chimed in with her own mother-in-law problems (not a witch, but a packrat who had never met a garbage can).

More fun discoveries occurred as a result of the homework assignments. When asked to write about how they and their husbands met, one student, from an Islamic country, wrote a couple of very touching paragraphs about the “love-at-first-sight” experienced by her and her husband. Another student wrote an homage to the beloved family dog, Silver, she had growing up. In a “What do you think is weird about America?” assignment, one student asked about Halloween, “Why do Americans like to put fake graves on the lawn?” Good question.

I heard students express surprise at what living in America was really like, what Americans are really like. They had watched American movies in their native lands and formed a lot of opinions. They thought we never stayed married, always cheated on our spouses, and were all criminals, or victims of crime. Although they had stereotypes about America and Americans, I also (though I hate to admit it) harbored some stereotypes. Some of these women were from countries, or certainly parts of the world, that make headlines for their lack of modernity. Yet most or all of these women had attended college, held jobs, drove cars, had opinions, and chose and loved their husbands.

Though I was frequently surprised at the reach of American culture (from movies to music to celebrity to fashion), what surprised me more were the commonalities in love, marriage, parenthood, and every day life, whether it encompassed in-law woes or kids who don’t listen or a love of yard sales. I have believed for a long time that we are all pretty similar, regardless of our differences. More often than not, experience proves me right. The women in my class didn’t appear to have a lot in common. Some were from cities, some from rural areas. Some were from wealthy nations, others from countries less so. Despite their widely varied backgrounds, they were women just like me. They took scrapbooking classes, enjoyed traveling and trying new foods, and loved their children. Though they shared no language other than broken and heavily accented English, these women forged great friendships with each other (for which I claim absolutely no credit, though I am thrilled to have been there to witness it, and join in).

I’ve thought a lot about their shared friendship and the things that unite us. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the cornerstones of American ideology, yet it is, perhaps, the pursuit of happiness that’s the cornerstone of human aspirations. Most of us exist to love our families, learn new things and enjoy the ride along the way. My role in the class was that of teacher, but I was really just another student, likely learning more from them than they ever learned from me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

To Whom It May Concern

Every now and then, I get so frustrated with being a stay-at-home mom that I start to fantasize about going back to work. I’ve been home since October 2004, a few months before Grace was born, when I conveniently got laid off from a job I absolutely despised. My back-to-work fantasies never last too long, as I always quickly remember that I have hated just about every job I’ve ever had. If I liked the job, I couldn’t stand my boss. If I liked my boss, I detested my co-workers. If I liked my co-workers, I loathed my job. Occasionally, it was the trifecta of employment disappointment, disliking the job, the boss AND the co-workers. And always, always, always have I been disappointed with my salary.

Sometimes I mentally begin to rewrite my resume, wondering how most effectively to package my “skills” so as to sell myself to future employers who hopefully will hire me in spite of myself. I’ve given it a fair amount of thought and have decided that, when the time comes to work again, a resume probably won’t help me. So I’ve decided to omit the resume and go for a strong cover letter. It will read something like this:

Dear Sir/Ma’am:

I’ve been home raising multiple kids for a lot of years now. My husband is in the Army, so we’ve always moved around a lot and, even when I was actually employed, I was always at the mercy of the local conditions – usually small towns in the middle of nowhere offering mediocre positions for which I was overqualified and underpaid, which I would always take just to have something to do. So, in lieu of a resume, which would probably understate my abilities, interests and hopes, let me tell you a little bit about myself and you can decide if I sound like someone worth employing.

I’m a good sport. I’ve moved seven times in less than 12 years, covering a foreign country and five states. To further expound upon what a good sport I am, the most recent move was four houses up the street, in the midst of a blizzard, when I was good and pregnant. Almost all of the moves have included three cats – none of whom travel well - and a few moves have included various numbers of children. Throughout the last 12 years, I have found time and again that there’s not much that I can’t do.

I am adventurous. Once, when Mike was deployed and I was going stir-crazy after a long winter in the house with the kids, I embarked on a four-week, 3600-mile road trip up and down the East Coast, with a 14-month-old and a three-year-old. We slept in six states, visiting various friends and family, and everyone lived to tell the story. I did this without a GPS, because I am a big fan of charting my own course (and I have problems asking for help).

I am honest to a fault and am not afraid to say what’s unpopular. As examples: once, in a job interview, I answered the question “What did you like most about your last job?” with the response, “Lunch.” (If there’s any curiosity, I didn’t get that job.) I also think Americans should pay higher taxes. That’s right, I actually said it. Higher taxes.

I have a good sense of humor. One time, when looking out my balcony window, I saw my neighbor place a bouquet of flowers in a bucket behind my car. I didn’t know what he was doing. Later, when my husband came home from work, he was carrying the same flowers. He’d probably already been in trouble for something, hence the flowers. I asked him some questions about the flowers, allowing him to fess up that he didn’t actually buy them himself, yet he only dug his hole deeper. I finally told him I knew he didn’t buy them, and that he’d passed off the job to the neighbor. Not to bore you with the details, but I am still married. Apparently, I am also forgiving.

I am resourceful. I once talked my way out of a speeding ticket in Poland, with broken German to a Polish police officer. I also was able to catch a neighbor’s escaped pet rabbit (outdoors) several times. If this doesn’t impress you, I recommend trying to catch a free-range rabbit with your bare hands. Good luck.

I know a little about a lot of things. Not only can I identify four types of cockroaches (there was the Asian cockroach I met in our bathtub in Missouri, the water roach I’ve come to know here in Kansas, the common American roach that everyone who has ever worked in a restaurant or supermarket has met, and the much larger, scarier Madagascar hissing cockroach that I hope none of us will ever encounter except from behind a glass cage at the zoo), I also can tell you quite a bit about the Communist Party of Nepal’s uprising against the Nepalese monarchy (I do a lot of editing for my husband). Obviously, I am well versed and, as evidenced by the roach knowledge, have a strong stomach.

I’m what I would classify as a Jill-of-all-Trades. My home duties include but are not limited to: budget analyst/finance manager, accounting, event coordinator/party planner, travel agent, nursing with specialization in feline and pediatric care, head chef/baker, indoor and outdoor maintenance/landscaping, chauffeur/taxi service, teacher, editor, interior design, personal escort specializing in military functions, personal shopping, laundry and janitorial service, and manual labor including heavy lifting and packing.

Some prior paid work experience includes positions in editing, accounting and very, very brief stints with the 2000 census and Avon.

References (and eyewitnesses, in many cases) available, upon request.



It’s probably a good thing we’re so accustomed to life on one income. I wonder how long it will take me, once employed again, to long for the days when I was just a stay-at-home wife/mom. After all, it is the job from which I've learned the most, and from which I've earned the most. And, with my current job, I am mostly my own boss and I really like my co-worker. And I enjoy the job immensely, too, despite its challenges. So I guess it's not so bad...without ever realizing it, I may have achieved the trifecta of employment satisfaction in a job I never strived for. Although I still wish the monetary compensation was better.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Divorcing Weight

As my body attempts to return to a “normal,” pre-pregnancy state, I am thrilled to announce that something finally fits me. My wedding rings, which I had to take off weeks ago, are back on! I forced the band on a few days ago, but today, thanks to the fare-thee-well to all water retention, I was able to slide the engagement ring on, almost effortlessly. And since I’m already bragging…I might as well add that my shoes fit again, too! I had forgotten what unswollen, normal feet looked like but, by God, they are beautiful things. These are small victories, to be sure, but a harbinger of what will (eventually) happen with my clothes, I hope.

All this pregnancy recovery has, of course, caused an ugly subject to rear its ugly head. I am referring to two of my least favorite words in the English language…weight loss. Because I am scatter-brained and frequently distracted, my thoughts about losing weight have progressed only as far as deciding that we need a new way to term the process of subtracting pounds from our bodies, because “losing” is not really an appropriate description.

In my life, the things I lose happen to me without effort. And I lose things all the time. My keys are never where they’re supposed to be, and they must be cavorting with the remote, wherever it is they go to when they disappear. Papers of various importance frequently get lost, all without any effort from me. One minute, things are where they’re supposed to minute, gone. My kids lose stuff a lot, as I am confident all kids do. Nadia’s sippy cup is always missing, even though everyone is positive that she had it 12 seconds ago. Grace and Nadia lose socks quicker than Bruce Willis lost his hair. And then there’s the stock market, which has lately reminded us that it can lose a phenomenal amount of a person’s wealth, almost overnight, also completely without effort.

Which brings me back to the issue of why we call it losing weight when, for most people, weight loss is anything but easy or effortless. I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with a more appropriate, fitting term and have decided to rename the whole process “divorcing weight.” A divorce automatically invokes unpleasant thoughts and implies a struggle and a whole lot of hard feelings. And that sums up, quite nicely I think, what it’s like to subtract pounds.

The divorce analogy works on multiple levels. A weight divorce is a fight between the ideal self and the actual self. The ideal self feels betrayed by the actual self, while the actual self is left insecure and depressed. There are irreconcilable differences between the two, as the actual self turns on itself. There is resentment and there are tears, and the whole process often goes on and on, far longer than intended. Often times, the experts come in (in lieu of lawyers, we get personal trainers, diet plans, etc) and the fees start to add up. Time passes, progress is slow, exhaustion sets in. Standards are lowered, and there is bartering between the selves to achieve an acceptable outcome, though the actual self rarely gets what it wanted. The “children” involved are the skinny clothes, which have been hung onto and coveted for so many years that no one sees them for what they really are (faded, out-of-style) but as the trophies of thinner, self-loving, long-ago days.

Of course, losing weight sounds much more manageable than divorcing weight. But, then again, divorcing weight sounds permanent, whereas lost weight implies that the weight will return (which is perhaps why it’s called “lost,” since most lost things eventually find their way home again…see keys, remotes, sippy cups, pounds, etc). Since very few divorces result in reunification, I’m taking the bold(er) step and aiming for divorce.

Of course, thinking up new terms is likely not going to help me, as I have discovered that exercise of the mind does nothing for the body (which is a shame, because I waste a lot of time inside my own head). So let me finish this ruminating and get on to the business at hand. Please wish me a speedy and painless divorce.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Introducing ludicrosities

Recently, I was doing some Internet research for our summer vacation. Mike and I have apparently lost our minds completely, because we are seriously entertaining the idea of driving from Kansas to South Dakota’s Black Hills (Mapquest says 731 miles, 10 hours and 56 minutes) with a five-year-old, a three-year-old and a 10-week old. As I was browsing activities to entertain the masses, I stumbled upon the Old MacDonald Petting Zoo. A lively rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” began to blare from the speakers and I thought I’d found a winner. When I clicked on their rates section, another song fired up and, within a few bars, I realized that I was “singing” along. The song playing on the site? Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood,” as “sung” by a chorus of clucking chickens.

To my great alarm, my first notice was not that the classic song was being clucked, but that I was clucking along. Once I stopped the garbled chicken singing, I couldn’t help but wonder why the web designer would choose “In The Mood” as a song to be clucked by chickens. I get (sort of) that they wanted a song to be clucked, as this is the website for a petting zoo and it’s probably easier to cluck a song than to moo one, but why “In The Mood”? Nothing about that song is linked to chickens, to the best of my musical knowledge. And that’s a peculiarly titled song to have on the rates section of a petting zoo website. Granted, I can’t come up with a song off the top of my head that would be better, but I am confident there is one. It’s these ridiculous moments that I love to discover and that make me appreciate the many (new word alert!) ludicrosities of life.

Ludicrosity – noun. Something that is ludicrous. Something completely inane, defying explanation, provoking curiosity.

Surely you have plenty examples of your own ludicrosities. I see (hear) them all the time. Just today, I was reading an article about how April has been declared The Month of the Military Child. Now, I’m going to try very hard to avoid soapbox ranting here, as I think the military is very good at certain things (like fighting and winning wars, which is what they exist for) and completely out of their league in many of their other undertakings (providing their own health care, and their propaganda machine – which creates things like “Month of The Military Child” to show how much the Army “cares” about soldiers and families - are at the top of my list of Things the Military Should Avoid). Regardless, as a thank you to the military child for their many sacrifices, such as constant uprooting and parental absence for extended periods of times during the formative years of life, etc; one of the “promotions” is free gun rentals at the shooting range for all kids under the age of 18. A ludicrosity, if ever I’ve heard one, but this is, of course, just my own personal opinion. Surely, there is something somewhere more appropriate to offer to kids for free. Cigarettes, maybe?

This gun rental situation reminded me of the renovation AAFES did of our PX (for the layperson, AAFES is the wunderorganization that runs the PX, which is a small, understaffed, understocked WalMart-type store at each post) last year. AAFES’ idea of an upgrade included a firearms and ammunitions counter. Surely, some members of our community appreciated the addition. But when you can’t even go in the store and walk out with a basic item like a curtain rod or a bra, I’m not so sure we need a weapons section. Every house has windows and someone who wears a bra. Not every house has a rifle cabinet. But my favorite part of the guns and ammo addition was the marketing campaign behind it. It opened in November, at which time several signs were posted around the community, reading, “Looking for the perfect gift? Come check out or new guns and ammo department at the PX!” I sure hope my husband was relieved…he’s always had a tough time buying me gifts at the PX, but all those woes are behind him now that the PX sells pistols. And just in time for the holidays, as nothing says, “I love you!” quite like a crossbow.

My husband’s favorite ludicrosities are the instructions on packaging materials. Go ahead and pull out just about any box or bag of anything and read the fine print on the back. One of his all-time favorites is from the frozen pizza box, which reminds people NOT to eat the pizza still frozen, and to remove the cardboard and plastic from the pizza prior to cooking. The advice is ridiculous, but we have to believe it’s there because some moron didn’t cook the pizza and chipped a tooth on the frozen product, or that some moron (same moron, perhaps?) cooked the pizza on the cardboard and in the plastic, sliced the cardboard up and gave themselves a paper cut on their tongue or choked on the plastic, trying to get it all down. Then, said moron turned around and sued the pizza makers for gazillions of dollars and probably won, resulting in the ludicrous warnings on the box.

A package of Windex wipes offers this wisdom: “Do not use for personal hygiene or as a baby wipe.” I blame the movie My Big, Fat Greek Wedding for this warning, as the protagonist’s father was known to use Windex to cure acne, among other things. Surely, this launched the personal hygiene issue, with someone somewhere taking it a step further and cleaning up a baby with it.

While many ludicrosities are fun to discover (with “In the Mood” being the most enjoyable for me in recent memory), I recommend against looking too hard for them. Let them discover you. There’s a saying, “It’s better to be silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” It’s the same with ludicrosities. It’s better to think the world is full of ridiculousness than to seek and find the sheer volume of ludicrosities in existence, and worry that we are just a society full of loons and morons.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Derek and Ken, revisited

In hindsight, all the warning signs were there…the fear of commitment, the short-lived relationships, the frosted hair, the flashy clothes. Although it was the 1980s, which were a pretty flamboyant decade in the fashion annals, they were pioneers of the metrosexual movement, except that the term wouldn’t even develop for more than a decade. But still…only in hindsight is the view so clear. So imagine my surprise, 20-plus years after the fact, to discover my great childhood friends, Ken and Derek, are lovers. Perhaps you knew them, too? Ken was an ex of Barbie’s and Derek was the sole male member of Barbie’s girl band, The Rockers (as if this wasn’t clue numero uno). Barbie always swore she and Derek were just friends, but I never believed it. I always thought Derek was the reason behind her break-up with Ken, and I still think I was right, but for the wrong reasons. All the epiphanies, at such a late date.

I hadn’t seen all my old friends – Barbie, Ken, Derek, Skipper, and Miko, just to name a few – in a million years. You know how it is – friends grow up, grow apart, go their own ways. A few months ago, they all resurfaced to meet my then-four-year-old daughter, Grace. They were as fashionable as I remember them…decked out in classic, vintage styling. They must’ve come straight from that boutique we used to run together on Rodeo Drive. We all got reacquainted and Skipper was as cute and ebullient as ever, beautifully tanned and ageless after so many years. The same was true of Barbie and Tracey and Miko, though the astronaut (the most accomplished of all of us, it was all she ever dreamed of becoming) had lost a foot some years back in a space misadventure. Otherwise, they were all just as I’d remembered them – beautiful flowing hair, flawless skin, remarkably taut and in shape (likely because none of them had ever had kids themselves). How kind the years had been to them. I secretly wondered how different I looked to them, and if they were snarkily passing judgment after our reunion. Beautiful girls are united by one commonality – they are a catty brood.

I digress. Then, straggling at the back of the pack, came Derek and Ken. Derek’s dark hair was still frosted caramel (I thought that fad passed with the 1980s) and his eyes were rimmed with a hint of eyeliner, even though he hadn’t been in a band for two decades. He was sporting black leather capris, a sleeveless tuxedo shirt, white tennis shoes and a three-quarter sleeve, multi-colored, satin jacket. Oh…did I mention the snake tie? And then came Ken…Ken, Ken, Ken. How did I not know? His affiliation with USA Roller Sports (circa 1980) should have tipped me off, but I always thought he did that for Barb. That he tried out for various artistic and dance skate competitions nationwide (and Barbie didn’t) should’ve revealed it was his passion, not hers. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. But there Ken was, as muscled and toned as ever, wearing black shiny hot pants, a fitted red T, a sparkly purple jacket that matched the purple stripes on his shorts, a cowboy hat and skates. Had Ken always looked so much like a young Robert Redford?

Apparently, Ken and Derek have been together almost 20 years now and are well and happy, which is all anyone can really wish for their old friends. They survived some rough times in SanFran in the late ‘80s but they weathered the storm(s) together and are a stronger couple. The scuttlebutt is that Barbie is pretty well over it now, though she spent a lot of years in counseling following the discovery and developed yet another eating disorder. She always had a posse of friends to pull her through the dark times and she has had some relationships, though none has ever turned into the fairy tale she thought she’d achieve with Ken. She blamed herself for a lot of years, thinking she’d “turned” Ken gay and wondering if she’d somehow influenced Derek, too. But a bossy girlfriend (and band mate) does not a gay man make, so said her shrink, and she eventually found solace in yoga and feng shui and vegetarianism. It must be working for her because, as I said, she looks fabulous.

So, after catching up with my old friends, it was more obvious than ever that we – no matter who “we” are - are all the same. Everyone faces trials and tribulations, life is never what we expect it to be, and we, hopefully, emerge at the end of the sagas stronger and wiser, with good friends to help us along the way. No one has a perfect life, and “perfect” should never be the strived-for goal. Even the fairy tales are marred with misfortune; even the Barbies of the world get screwed over, and occasionally do the screwing over.

It was great to see them all after so many years, and so fun to remember all the good and funny times we shared. I wished my old friends well and they assured me they’d be around in the future to be friends to my daughters. I look forward to the adventures, and the occasional sagas, Grace and Nadia tell me about their new (my old) friends.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Pitch

Thanks to the vicarious adrenaline rush obtained during my frequent Olympic viewing, not only have I been retaining water (at eight months pregnant), but also endorphins. Two weeks after the fact, my Olympics recovery is complete. As happy as I always am for the Olympics to occur, I am equally happy to see them end. After the “Wow!” factor (to watch so many amazing athletes – so young and physically gifted – performing spectacular feats under so much pressure, and on a world stage) comes the “Whoa!” factor (the reminder that I possess no athleticism, am more than a decade older than most of these athletes, and that I have accomplished nothing spectacular on any stage, much less a world one).

Since I hit puberty, I’ve had all the athletic prowess of Bella Swan, the vampire-loving sourpuss of the Twilight saga. I’m not coordinated, I’m not graceful and I’m not fast. I can barely manage Frisbee with my five-year-old, and surely these days are numbered, too. But I like sports, both to watch and to play (if anyone will sacrifice and let me join their team). I know the basic rules of most of the major sports and, despite my own limitations, am perfectly capable of marveling at the abilities of others. Which is why I enjoy the Olympics so much, though often at the expense of my own self-esteem.

In addition to inducing a few more insecurities, I get frustrated with the Olympics because they claim most of my free time for a two-week period, as I religiously follow medal counts and watch all the drama that makes up the included sports (though Johnny Weir faced death threats for admiring fur, where was the outcry from bird-lovers over all the feathers adorning Evan Lysacek’s costume?!?).

Another thing that irks me about the Olympics is the analysis of performances. These know-it-all announcers bandy about the various sport-specific technical terms like every layperson in America knows the difference. We, as a nation, may be able to wade through the 31 flavors of Baskin Robbins, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could tell you what a triple salchow, double mctwist or triple lindy is. Though I watch the performances with awe, the skaters, skiers, and snowboarders move so fast that I can’t even count rotations, much less determine proper foot positioning, grabs, landings, etc.

Then there are the sports that no one really knows anything about (see: luge, bobsled, skeleton, etc). I can watch them, but my only method of determining success was whether the individual/team was able to cross the finish line. When you’re talking about lying down on the equivalent of a big popsicle stick on blades and hurtling down an icy track, who’s to really know how much skill is involved? I’ve often wondered what would happen if you pulled “Joe Six-Pack” (Sarah’s greatest contributions to society will likely be her W-esque folksy colloquialisms) from the crowd, stuck a helmet on him and strapped him on a sled, and then sent him on his way. Assuming he crossed the finish line, and lived, would it result in a new world record? (And don’t even get me started on curling! Essentially shuffleboard on ice with a 40-pound stone, it was invented by the Scots around 1511; Scotch whisky dates back to 1495…Coincidence? You decide.)

Hence my new great idea. Since the Olympics are always strapped for cash, I think there should be a pay-to-play option. The world is full of crazy people, many with plenty of money to throw around. Why not do an Olympics-type reality show? I had initially thought of incorporating this idea straight into the Olympic games, but there would likely be too many liabilities, surely causing the International Olympic Committee more headaches than it already causes for itself. Plus, the professional athletes would surely suffer as a William Hung swooped in, talentless and clueless, stealing the spotlight and winning over the world (Oh, sweet, clueless William, where are you now?).

So, my show would go something like this…Professional announcers would be paired up with armchair viewers to comment on the performances. A brief tutorial would be offered at the beginning of each sport segment, so as to help all of America get a better grasp on what, exactly, it is we’re looking for when we watch the performances. I know that, from listening to my husband’s commentaries, uninformed comments, and the words made up to describe various maneuvers, are far more entertaining than the commentary offered by the people who actually know what it is they’re talking about.

For the winter Olympics, I figure we could safely include the following sports for your average American: the biathlon (for those not in the know: cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting…but only with blanks, of course), curling, cross-country skiing and, possibly, speed skating. Also to be included, but with additional physicals required and a few extra waivers of liability to be signed, would be hockey, figure skating and ice dancing.

The last grouping of Olympic sports that may or may not get green-light clearance from the lawyers representing the TV network would include the ones most likely to result in serious injury (or worse) to the participant: luge (on your back, feet first, no braking mechanism), skeleton (on your stomach, head first, no brake), bobsled (crouching in a pill-capsule that weighs a few-hundred pounds which, at least, is equipped with a brake), and all of the skiing sports: alpine and freestyle skiing, ski jumping and snow-boarding (for those in the know who might nitpick that I included snowboarding in a skiing category…I admit in full disclosure that I frequently have only a minimal grasp on the things I am discussing…it doesn’t stop Sarah Palin from having a national platform, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it stop me).

So, in summation, here’s the basic premise of the show: armchair commentators paired with professional commentators, reviewing two simultaneous athletic performances - one from a professional, one from, say, your mailman. Surely, there would be some laughs, some people would make some money, and, I would expect, America would come away with a new appreciation for the professional athlete (and the discovery of what embarrassing shape the rest of us are in).

Once my show is signed, I will happily take a guest spot. Though, unless Frisbee soon becomes a summer Olympics sport, expect me as an armchair commentator. I’ve barely recovered from the trauma of high school gym class…there’s no need to embarrass myself any further.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kids Say The Darnedest Things

A recent exchange with my two daughters went something like this:

Grace (age 4): When I get older I’m going to marry Oliver (our cat).

Me: You can’t marry Oliver. People can only marry other people.

Grace: And cats can only marry cats?

Me: No, cats don’t get married at all. Only people get married.

Nadia (age 2): Yes. And chickens don’t have teeth.

And so goes a typical conversation in our house. I so enjoy conversations with the girls, as they are often an adventure for all parties concerned. Sometimes Grace and Nadia are immensely perceptive and thought-provoking; sometimes (in Grace’s defense, I am mostly referring to Nadia) they border on incoherent. But, in our house, there’s almost always a several-minute conversation at dinnertime, during which Mike and I recount to each other all the loopy things we heard the girls say throughout the day. I’d been mentally composing a kids-say-the-darnedest-things piece when, a few days back, I received an e-mail from someone who has known me a long time, referencing something I myself said some 20-odd years ago. The story goes something like this:

During a second-grade discussion about various career options, my seven-year-old comrades and I fired off possibilities to our teacher, Ms. Stec. We’d covered some serious ground, having listed all the dreams and aspirations of the average kid, and on the chalkboard was written our occupation suggestions, like firefighter (surely it was listed as “fireman” in the un-PC days of the early 1980s), teacher, doctor, nurse, police officer, etc.

I had wanted to contribute “cop” (which was my career goal in the days before I developed my continuing disdain for rules and societal norms) but a classmate had volunteered it before me. As the list burgeoned, our second-grade-ideas were petering. I think I was able to add “garbage man” to the list, not as a personal preference, of course, but as a career choice that would be more suited to some of my crayon-eating cohorts. With a furrowed brow, I continued flipping through my memory bank, trying to come up with something heretofore unthought-of by my classmates. And that’s when it came to me and I raised my hand in victory, blurting it right out.

First, let me offer some background. I am the last of five kids, with 12 years difference between my nearest sibling and me. Because of the age difference, I kind of grew up as an only child, with TV as my most frequent companion. This was in the days pre-cable, when we were lucky to get three channels and only as we held ourselves in precarious yoga positions, clutching the rabbit ears. Children’s programming was pretty much non-existent, unless The Price is Right qualified.

I must’ve been seven years old in the second grade and, by that time, I already had a years-old soap opera addiction. During summer vacations and school holidays (plus the well-timed “sick” days, whenever there was a pivotal storyline coming to its climax), I had a four-soap-a-day habit. On school days, of course, I was limited to just one soap…because I wasn’t old enough yet to master the recording feature of the VCR, and I was still in school during the other three. I stayed abreast of the characters and events of the other shows through my mother (from whom I learned my addiction) and would flip through an issue of Soap Opera Digest whenever one was at hand. Though I frequently asked for a SOD subscription at holiday time, no one ever obliged my wish and I eked by, without that oh-so-juicy, behind-the-scenes soap opera gossip. I was just your average seven-year-old.

My favorite soap opera at the time was The Young and the Restless and my favorite character was Nikki, who I thought looked just like a real-life Barbie doll (Barbies being my other great passion at the time). In the early 1980s, Nikki was still a struggling young woman, trying to make it in the world. She had fallen in love with the rich and debonair Victor Newman (they would later marry and divorce several times, as all good soap opera couples do) and was on her way to becoming Genoa City’s premiere socialite. In typical Girl-Meets-Boy fashion, Nikki had met Victor at a club where she worked as a stripper. Likely daydreaming about Y&R during this class discussion, I was probably profiling the show’s characters and their jobs, thus resulting in my career epiphany. So, as I was saying a few paragraphs ago…

I raised my hand in victory, blurting it right out. After suggesting “stripper” as a career choice to my classmates, there was a bit of a tumult. I remember some laughing (though, in hindsight, it seems odd that so many second-graders would even know what a stripper was…perhaps there were more Y&R fans in that age group than I realized?), and I wish I could remember Ms. Stec’s reaction. If I recall correctly, my stripper suggestion ended that class discussion, and we likely moved on to safer material that didn’t include much student interaction.

Many years after the fact, boys who had been in that class with me remembered this one event more than any other thing about me. Forgotten was my status as Timed-Math-Test repeat champ (no one could add and subtract like me), and the fact that I could run really, really fast. I defended myself for years, always reminding people that I never said it was my career goal, but it was instead just another option for people who were so inclined. Years later, one of my classmates, as I heard through the grapevine, actually did go on to become a stripper, though I do hope that it wasn’t a seven-year-old who first planted the seed.

So, now, when my daughters say something ridiculous or ridiculously silly, I’ll remind myself to look no further than the mirror to see where their lunacy might have originated. And though I wish I could say that I outgrew my verbal gaffes, Mike would be the first to tell you that I am still occasionally guilty of saying ridiculous things. And so, for those of you who haven’t known me forever, I offer this musing as evidence that I have been saying “the darnedest things” for at least 26 years now. As a warning to my daughters, it seems to be genetic and there is a real possibility you will not outgrow it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

We've Come A Long Way, Baby

While Mike, my husband, and I were watching a movie the other night, I came to an unsettling realization. Clerks was made in 1994, the year I graduated high school. Some quick math revealed the movie to be 16 years old, and a little deductive reasoning revealed that if Clerks and my high school graduation happened at the same time, then I have been out of high school for 16 years. Mike was three years ahead of me in school, so that means he had been out of high school for…16+3…gasp!...19 years. This discovery led to yet another…that life is flying by and that…again, gasp!...we are starting to get old!!! I was not previously aware of this. With Mike closing in on a 20-year reunion, that also means he is closing in on…can we bear another ‘gasp!’?...40.

I am just not old enough to have a husband pushing 40. There are a handful of things that scare the bejesus right out of me…having to live in Texas (though I’ve never even visited the state), swimming in the ocean (I blame Mike’s obsession with Discovery’s shark week and Jaws, along with Steve Irwin’s untimely demise), Sarah Palin having a role of prominence or importance – in ANY capacity, and turning 40, just to name a few of the more rational fears. Mike, the poor man, has no fear of 40, which must mean he is already at such an advanced age that his faculties are starting to go. He comes out with nonsensicals like, “Age is just a number,” and “You’re only as old as you feel.” Sometimes, I fear he is crazier than I am. Of course, he is very handsome, in great physical shape, and so youthful-looking that he still occasionally gets carded when he orders a drink. Almost four years younger than him, I can’t even remember the last time I got carded. I frequently wonder if waitresses think I am the cougar and Mike the naïve fawn. And I even have the benefit of make-up, and he doesn’t. That man!

So Mike and I were talking about all the adventures and events of the last decade or two when Mike proclaimed about himself, “I’ve come so far.” I asked him what he meant. Personally, in terms of maturity and intelligence and growth? Or professionally, from days of minimum wage at the local grocery store to doing pretty well as a major in the Army? And he just said, “No, I mean distance.” If nothing else, Mike is a literalist.

So, that got me to thinking about where we’ve lived and places we’ve visited. Mike has had a few extra years of moving around than I, and has gone to a handful of very far places, unaccompanied. I wrote down the places he’s lived, chronologically, and calculated the mileage (as a crow flies) between all those places. I did the same for myself. In a separate list, I calculated miles for the bigger trips we have taken together. The results: Mike has traversed more than 37,700 miles moving from location to location (from Connecticut to New Hampshire to Vermont to Alabama to South Korea to Alabama again, to Missouri, to Germany, to New York, to Iraq, to Kansas). I came in at a paltry 11,800+ miles (Connecticut to Alabama to Missouri to Germany to New York to Kansas). As for trips, I figure we can each easily add another 20,000+ frequent flier miles (which includes most of western Europe, the entire East coast, a good chunk of the West Coast and into Mexico, a couple of trips to various locales in the Caribbean and several trips throughout the United States). These calculations bring Mike’s total to about 60,000 miles and mine to 32,000. As a point of reference, the circumference of Earth at the equator is just shy of 25,000 miles. Which means, if our miles were laid out in a straight line around the center of the earth, Mike would be on lap three of the marathon and I, a slower runner, am working on my second lap of the earth.

Don’t tell him I said this, but Mike is very good at logic and perspective. Me…I’m good at other things, like irrationality and sudoku puzzles. As usual, Mike was right and helped me focus on how we really have come so far. Of course, there’s the mileage, but personally and maturity-wise, I think we’ve covered some amazing distances, as well. We’ve been able to do a lot for our relatively young ages of 30-something, thanks to the career Mike has embarked on. That being said, we’ve also endured a lot, due to Mike’s career, which hopefully has strengthened us and helped us focus on the few things in life that really, truly matter.

Suddenly, with Mike’s help, I don’t think we’re so old any more. And, despite how far we’ve come already, I look forward to the distance, both figurative and literal, still to travel with him.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Coming Out of the Closet

Coming out of the closet is a scary thing. There’s always been something that I have thought about myself, but have never had the courage to say out loud. I’m not even sure if my proclamation is truth, since I’ve never actively tried it out. I think about it often, but thinking (or fantasizing) about something doesn’t make it so (contrary to my friend George Costanza’s adage: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”). To transform a belief into reality, I need to have tried and it’s exactly the trying that terrifies me. If I try it, there is the very real possibility I will find out I’ve been lying to myself my whole life and that I will never be the one thing I really thought I could be. Or I will find out I’m right. I can’t decide which is better…to never try, but to have the dream; or to try, which risks the possibility of failure and subsequent identity crisis. If I say it out loud, I have to actually face it and do something about it. And this fear…that’s what keeps me from saying, “I am a writer.”

To proclaim something about oneself opens one up for evaluation, judgment, criticism. If I decide to try this whole writing business, the only source material I have is my own life. I know a little about a lot of different things, but I don’t know a lot about anything. Except me, and my life. And even though I’m outgoing and am generally an open person, I don’t put my politics, or anything else, on a bumper sticker. I will talk individually about most anything, but I don’t like to publicize the very same things I might say to you in private. I am happy to talk to you, about your life, about what you do. I am usually not that interested in talking about myself. Yet, if I write, not only do I open my talent (or lack thereof, as I may find) for evaluation, judgment, criticism; I am opening myself, personally, for evaluation, judgment, criticism. This water I am debating to wade gets deeper every minute.

So, why do I think I need to come out of my closet and declare myself as a writer? A person consists of multiple parts, I think: the person you meant to become, the person you are, and the person you hope to be. Who am I? I am (gasp!) a Stay-At-Home Mom and, while I am fully aware that I am doing an incredibly difficult and very important job, this is not the person I meant to be. I was supposed to be someone important (to a wider audience than my family). I was supposed to have a great job doing whatever it was I loved the most. I was supposed to have a legion of adoring fans who anxiously awaited my hysterical column, my riveting expose, or my recently published bestseller that got picked up by Oprah and turned into a major motion picture.

Except I didn’t do those things. I didn’t even try. Life, as I have heard before, turned out to be a journey, and not a destination. The closest I ever came to being a “writer” was editing obituaries for a college alumni magazine. But it’s hard to say “I’m a writer” with a straight face when the only thing you’re actively writing (rewriting, really) is obituaries. Somehow, fame, fortune and recognition never found me.

Personally, I kept journals in high school but a recent discovery of those deepens my unease today. I thought, then, of myself as a writer but there is likely much more truth in the statement, “I was a teenage drama queen.” Perhaps soap opera script writing was my true calling. Today, I maintain journals for each of my daughters (100+ pages…my only work of length), chronicling our lives and their growth and all of the things I want them to know about my husband’s and my adventures in raising them…all those great moments and memories that are already starting to fade from memory. But my only intention for it is as a personal work, for my daughters when they’re older. Likely, it will help their therapist wade through the quagmire of the mother-daughter relationship. And, occasionally, I will get an idea and start a draft (never finishing), and sometimes I only jot notes on a piece of paper, which has so far accumulated, neglected, in a folder on a desk. And it is exactly for all this lack of trying that I am so afraid to say, “I am a writer,” because I have no proof to back this statement, and nothing else to fall back on, if I find this dream is a lie.

There are plenty of things that I always meant to do, and haven’t. But none of them nag at me, except one. And I have to wonder if it’s because that was the one thing that was meant to be. I’ve never been afraid to try something, because how can you know if you like something or would be any good, unless you try? But all the other things…it didn’t matter if and when I found out I wasn't any good at them. There are tons of things I’m not very good at, a handful of things I am terrible at (riding a bike and singing, in case anyone is curious). And I am certainly not getting any younger and life only gets shorter. A friend recently sent an e-mail, announcing she was borrowing an idea from Nike and “just doin’ it.” If it sucks, she said, so be it, and she wouldn’t have to wonder if she could’ve done something interesting with herself. The logic in that is brilliant, so I told her I would like to borrow her borrowed idea. Recycling – even in the form of good ideas- is so good for us, in so many ways.

As of today, I nervously say goodbye to my closet and open myself to the judgment of the world (or, more realistically, the handful of people who actually read anything I write). I don’t want to always wonder what might have been, so instead I am going to actively pursue what might be.