Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Baby blankets I have known

This is my daughter Emma, somewhere above the Pacific Ocean in July, 1995, in one of the few moments she slept during her long journey to the United States from China. (It’s off topic, but I just have to say: notice her hand. You can only see one, but she always slept with both of them up, as if someone had just said “stick ‘em up.” What a kid.) 

More importantly, and more to the point of this post, notice the blankets, above her and below her. She is in a blanket sandwich of love.

The pink blanket, on top of Emma, was crocheted by my best friend in all the world, Debra Gail Buxton, who was running an afterschool kids’ program in Hell’s Kitchen at the time, and probably had one or two other things on her mind, but who managed to finish it, even though we left for China about three months before even the most optimistic estimates had said we would. The blanket is, these days, the absolute favorite snuggle spot of Betty, the kind and orphaned cat who hides in the basement because the monster dog is trying to kill her. I like to think that the blanket comforts Betty. I also like to think that, someday, if I need to cover a grandchild with the blanket, I’ll be able to wash off all the cat hair. I might be overly optimistic on that last point. It has a lot of hair on it right now.

Back to the picture. Beneath Emma is a little peep of blue blanket. It is covered, though you can’t really tell in the picture, with images of big-headed, big-eyed cocker spaniels. I believe they were wearing blue bows around their necks. This was the blanket that my Aunt Helen, one of my mother’s three sisters, made for me before I went to kindergarten. I hated kindergarten. The only part I ever liked was the part the normal children hated, rest time. They squirmed and fidgeted and talked to each other, and I cried on my blanket and felt sorry for myself. God, I really hated kindergarten.

When we got ready to adopt Emma, my mother began a Great Search for baby things. I was the third child, a late-in-life accident, and there wasn’t much in the way of celebratory baby items, but she dug up this blanket somewhere, and I loved taking it along and having it be one of Emma’s first comforts.

That blanket was destined for a lifetime as a target for self pity, I guess, because as soon as Emma could talk, she did two things:  she named it “puppy blanket,” and she began to chew it when she was angry at me. Emma was often, often, angry at me.

Her favorite activity during her naptime, instead of napping, was to stand on tiptoe in her crib, where she could see the mirror in the wardrobe across the room. There, she would get a big eyeful of herself as she wailed at the injustice of enforced sleep. And she gave herself a big bellyful of blanket along the way. Emma chewed, gnawed and otherwise ingested the entire blanket, leaving only snot-covered strings that were once the binding.

She still has the strings. At college.

It’s quite a story. We love our blankets. We tell them our sorrows. And, sometimes, we eat them.

My beloved cousin Erin is due to have a baby quite soon, far away in New York City, and I wanted to do something to commemorate the big occasion. When I found out she was expecting, I was in the process of making a quilt to donate to the silent auction for Youth Performance Company, made out of squares of old show t-shirts. I started setting aside the wilder tie-dies and the bolder colors, and, as I did, I began to see how a quilt for Erin and Roger’s baby just might come to life.

I am a terrible seamstress – sloppy, easily panicked and utterly flustered around the mechanics of the sewing machine. But I managed to grind through the blocks I’d cut by hand (I also lack a rotary cutter, cutting mat and any other niceties of modern sewing). And then, miracle of miracles, I found the perfect backing -- a piece of the softest yellow fleece -- at the Saver’s Thrift Store MLK Day Half-Off Extravaganza (because Dr. King had a dream that someday we’d be judged not by the color of our skin, but by the contents of our shopping carts full of fabulous bargain-snagging).

What resulted was a baby blanket that’s perhaps a little more on the hemp-and-granola side of life than I had been anticipating, but it’s very soft, and well, very colorful. I hope Erin doesn’t look too closely at my crookedy seams, because she truly is a good seamstress. She inherited that from her grandmother, my Aunt Dorothy, who inherited it from her mother, my grandmother Katie Dalton Clifford, who was, it is said, a seamstress for the Anheuser Busch family. From my mother, I inherited no sewing skills, because Katie Dalton Clifford died when my mother was only seven years old, before anyone had a chance to teach her. Instead, I inherited from my mother a tendency to run on at the mouth, and a great capacity for self pity (hence the kindergarten moping).

I have to confess, and I realize I have a little ego and attachment going on here, that I hope that this dumb blanket of leftovers and half-off bargains becomes that baby’s favorite blanket, more beloved than all the trendy blankets, if there are such a thing as trendy blankets, that Erin has gotten from her arty New York friends.

I realize that this means that I am dooming this blanket to become loved to death – to be cried upon, eaten, thrown up on and generally wrestled to the ground and have the stuffing knocked out of it. That’s okay. Puppy lives on, just a corner of him, in this photo, and probably somewhere in Emma’s intestinal tract. (Plus, there are those snotty strings still at college.) I’m willing to offer up my goofy blanket for the same terrible and wonderful fate.

Good luck with that baby, Erin and Roger. You will be, and I know this already to be utterly true as I write it, wonderful, wonderful parents. Plus, your kid has got one -- um, unique -- blanket.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Four reasons why I unfollowed you on Facebook (and three reasons why I hid you on LinkedIn)

Say what you will about those pioneer days when the only way most of us had to communicate on the interwebs was through our AOL email accounts. Yes, there were hideous “Today’s Laff” emails from smutty uncles, and the inevitable “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Forward this to an amazing woman!!!!!!!!” chain letters. 

But at least we didn’t have to see pictures of each other all the time, at least without a bit of effort. Call me a reactionary, but I’ve had a hard winter, and there are some things of which I have tired of late. You know I love you (or, in the case of LinkedIn connections, respect your professional acumen immensely) but I must the draw the line somewhere. And here, forthwith, is where it is drawn.

Four reasons why I unfollowed you on Facebook
The cat pictures? The shots of every meal you consume (with resultant “yum!” and “I’m coming over with a fork” fellow food obsessives)? The snaps of your children's report cards, SAT scores and college acceptance letters? Well, of course all of those = Unfollow.

But, as we used to say in the industrial video biz, "Wait, there's more ... much more." Here are my current "unfollow" guidelines, with a note that they may tighten up even further if we have another ground blizzard in these parts.

The weather
What, may I ask, is up with the incessant thermometer shots from your iPhone? Do you honestly find this to be new, fresh information that you, and only you, are able to report? What are you, the Edward R. Murrow of the freaking winter? Shut up already and put on a sweater.

Closeups of casts. Arty shots of IV tubes, stuck into your actual flesh. Lovely photographic arrangements of the black eye from your car crash. One word: Unfollow. And, while I admit that I may be old fashioned in saying this, I wonder if a Facebook post is the best way to announce that you've been diagnosed with cancer, or if posting your chemotherapy schedule is .... okay, I think I'll just let that one lie there and flop about in its own ellipses.
Politics (even my own)
For most of my friends, I’m going to vote the way you do, I’m just less – well, convinced, I guess is the word – about it. Except for the guy I worked with 20 years ago, who clearly has joined a Michigan Militia group in the meantime, and who sent me the most horribly racist illustration of Obama I have ever seen within five minutes of my accepting his friend request, just calm down. I’m on your side, already, I just don’t like being berated.

Here is a true story. I loved my friend Joel. We had a lot in common, not that it ever seemed that way on the surface. I probably voted for every candidate and issue he did, just with a lot less vocalizing to accompany my decision. In September of 2012, he was driving me NUTSO with the daily assault of politically minded Facebook messages, with enough exclamation points in each one to overseason a punctuation stew, each with the screaming message that Mitt Romney was a tool. I knew Mitt Romney was a tool, but I didn’t want to be reminded of it every time I clicked a mouse.

So – and alert, here is the bad part -- I unfollowed Joel, intending to start following him again in mid-November, after he’d had a chance to calm down. And then, here is the awful part: he died in October. No, I do not think Mitt Romney killed him, unless Mitt Romney was at the Springhill Suites in Boise, Idaho at the time, and was able to make it look like a massive coronary. (And that, right there? Is the first joke I’ve ever made about losing Joel, so I feel a little proud of myself right now, and I think he would be too.)

Of the one million reasons I am sad about his death, the one millionth and one-th (that’s a number, isn’t it?) is that I unfollowed him on Facebook a month before I lost him. It felt like a modern betrayal, even though he never knew about it (like all the worst kind of betrayals, I suppose, Guinevere excluded). 

But even if he got a magical pass from the afterlife and called me on the phone tonight, after I told him I loved him and asked him pointedly about the weather where he was and reminded him that he’d promised to save a seat for me … and after I told him about the lead in that Atlantic Monthly article I SO MUCH wanted to forward to his afterlife address, about the drunken frat boy who shoved a bottle rocket up his butt because he thought it would make him fly … and after I got to hear him laugh so hard he snorted … even then, if Joel somehow got control of his Facebook page again, and started sending me six messages a day about Chris Christie, whom no one, not even Mrs. Christie, should have to look at that much, and when you tell me there is no Mrs. Christie, I say, my point exactly … even then, I would still unfollow Joel, because that is just too much of that stuff for any normal woman who has other things to think about.

Your happy-money-happy-leisure-happy life
I know this particular type of unfollow makes me a terrible person, so let me offer a little bit of backstory. I haven’t been out of the state of Minnesota since December 2012, not even to Wisconsin, God help me. Restaurant meal? Not so much. Spa day? Don’t make me laugh. So a shot of the $200 bouquet your husband sent you for Valentine's Day?  Your toe selfie in the sand on your fab vaca, with your perfect pedi from the hotel spa? The shot of you in a bathing suit with a caption: “I hear it’s chilly in Minnesota, ha ha”? Look, I’m sure you’re a great person, but I hate you a little right now, and as I look down at my emerald-green fingers (that's frostbite, right?), they seem to be selecting  Unfollow. Ooops.

Three reasons why I hid you on LinkedIn
If Facebook is the high school cafeteria of social, then LinkedIn is the student council meeting, all buttoned-up and asking about extra credit. (In case you were wondering? Tumbler? stoner/smokers across the street from campus. Pinterest? home ec room. And now I’ve run out of analogies, so keep reading.) The reasons for my “hiding” people (LI version of “unfollow”) are different, but just as annoying:

Liking new profile pictures
First, this tells me that you have connections who are so clueless as to not have unselected “show every move I make on this site” from the LI settings page. Second, it tells me that you somehow think you are still on FB, “liking” pictures and all. Check that browser bar and act accordingly, I beg. Or I hide, up to you.

The "eye test"
There is one thing more pathetic than posting this old chestnut (see image at start of blog), and that's posting it with a full student council report on what your first choice was. Here I am, cranking away on a deadline, but unable to stop checking LI every few seconds to see what you chose – “Did Lulabelle pick Joy or Wealth? Joy or Wealth? Sweet God above, just let me find out!” And then – oh blessed relief! I discover you’ve finally posted and announced to the world that you picked “Joy.” Whew. I can get back to work, my children will eat tonight, and all is well. Thank you, thank you so much, for posting that vital information:  Hide.

Old guy got fired
See above for the part about clueless people who don’t realize the tracks they’re leaving on LI. When a friend’s over-50 husband suddenly has 12 posts in a row on a Sunday night, all about new companies he’s following, and when he throws in that Roman Galleon analogy about leadership, yeah, he’s been fired. And nice way to keep yourself looking up-to-date with the ancient Romans, pal.

Ditto the braincases who can't tell the difference between the LI search bar and the status bar. When you see a person's post that's just a lowercase name "mary headupherbutt," that means that a search for a name has been entered as a status, and, somehow, pathetically, posted. Hide.

Finally, a conclusion
It might be possible that I feel this way because social is just too wide-open for some of us, obviously me. Maybe we need to form some tighter groups, some like-minded bands.

Which is my way of saying that I’ll bet there are lots of people who WANT to see your appendectomy scar pictures, fascinating as they are, so you just keep posting away. And me? I’d go take a toe selfie right now, but I’m afraid I’d get frostbite.

See you on the interwebs. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Just a gingerbread house

“You make your own fun. Otherwise, it's entertainment.”     
David Mamet, “State and Main”

As transplants to these frozen parts, our family could never rely on the ready-made holiday calendar-fodder that are the benefit (or the curse) of having a long history in one place, a large family, and a natural resistance to novelty. When it came time to celebrate Christmas with two little kids in a place where the closest relative was a thousand miles away, I could never fall back on the familiar time-fillers of long, argument-filled holiday dinners, simmering-feud present exchanges or resentment-laced cookie exchanges. Poor me.

We had to make our own fun, and, as I look back on 18 years of subzero Christmas holidays with the girls, I think we did a credible job. The start of our season was always the trip downtown to see the Dayton’s-Marshall-Field’s-Macy’s Santa (loudly teaching them the lyrics to “Downtown” on the drive there, coaching them to sound like a couple nascent Petula Clarks). The visit was traditionally capped by dinner in the Oak Room, which, in the early days, felt like fine dining with a time bomb at the table (“She’s gonna blow any minute, cap’n!”). Tableside boredom was averted by the presentation of a “Santa Day” gift: new Christmas color coloring books and a box of sharp crayons. Each meal included several trips to the enormous 12th floor ladies’ room, less for reasons biological than for the joy of lounging on the leopard-print couches, observing one’s fabulous self in the multiple curved mirrors, and generally trying to approximate the behavior of Hollywood starlets who had somehow been transplanted to Nicollet Mall.

There were other holiday outings too, clearly the result of plenty of desperate Mom research into the cheap, fun and worthwhile. We made annual trips to holiday plays like “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” I hosted many gingerbread cookie-baking afternoons, with no-holds-barred on the frosting and sprinkles. We’d string cranberries and popcorn to decorate the (then) tiny boulevard pine tree at the corner. We used to make an official procession of the Transfer of the Garland, complete with candles and carols. I would take photos and demand that the children hop about like Peanuts’ characters.

For many years, the one unmovable day on our calendar was the first Saturday in December, when we made gingerbread houses at the Fuller Park Community Center. Every year we picked up a moving tumbleweed of friends and buddies, so we usually filled a table. Together, we created enough houses to be the slumlords of our own confectionary-laden tenaments.

I can remember many details of those events. We were always the first to arrive, usually about a half-hour early, because no one in our savvy group wanted to miss out on “the good candy.” We’d wait outside the door to the multipurpose room while the staff finished their preparations.

It was an event that could not have run more smoothly if it had been planned by Martha Stewart, the White House and Captain Kangaroo. Everything was well-thought-out and easy to navigate. The staff had always made the houses in advance, and a perfect mountain of residences would be stacked and ready in one corner. There was quiet Christmas music on a boom box. Hot cider and – coals to Newcastle – cookies were provided. A long table included tiny bowls of every possible candy decoration, in every color imaginable. Back in the kitchen, there were always a couple of sticky staff people cheerfully whipping up another batch of the mortar-icing.

The kids loved just about everything related to this annual endeavor, including the welcoming, no-rush atmosphere of the staff. Think of standing in line for three hours to see Santa at some odious suburban mall, while the mom behind you shrieks to her snotty offspring, “I’ll give you something to cry about,” and you hear the top-volume version of “The Little Drummer Boy” for the ten thousandth time.

Now think of the opposite, and that’s what this afternoon was. All was calm, all was bright. There was no need for performance anxiety, nothing to preserve for posterity or put in the Christmas letter to the relatives. Even better, there was nothing to go into debt or find a storage space for.

This was just a chance to sit with friends and make something pretty, or silly, or festive, or fun. It was a rare opportunity to sample candy until your teeth hurt, and then sample a little more. It was a self-paced day that didn’t require a bell to ring or Santa to declare something for you to know when it was over. When you were happy with the way everyone’s houses looked, you cleaned up the newspaper off the table, put on your coats, and, on your way out the door, said thank you to the nice
ladies who ran the event, unless they were already
washing the world’s stickiest dishes, back in the center’s tiny kitchen.

You carried the houses home, displayed them somewhere high so the dog didn’t eat them, and, on the first day you went back to school, your mom dumped them in the compost. No worries. You can make another one next year.

Or not. We participated in this neighborhood event for so long that a truly surprising thing happened – our kids grew up. One year we were the darling family with the sweet table of tots, and the next, we were that strange group of large people who took up an inordinate amount of space. It was so embarrassing one year that, the following December, I hit upon the idea of adding shills to the mix, and recruited a couple of friends' young kids to accompany us. While the story we told was that all these massive, hulking teens were there to help the party’s two kindergarteners, the big kids insisted on making their own houses, usually with references to reindeer shoot outs, laser-tagged snowmen and bad, bad Santas.

I took pictures at that last event. Maybe I knew, somehow, that it really was the last. The next year, it overlapped with something on the holiday schedule, and the next year as well. Then we were travelling to China over Christmas to visit Emma during her exchange program, and no one had time for gingerbread.

Mary Katherine and I were driving home by Fuller Park a few weeks ago, and she began reminiscing about those Gingerbread House days. “Can we do it again?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, but when I called, the park told me that the person who had always run the event was no longer working there, and they were not happening at Fuller any more.

I felt a pang of guilt. I remembered that woman who ran the event. She had a sweet, open face and an incredibly calm demeanor that must have hidden very well what a pain in the ass it was to glue together hundreds of damn houses, get the cider heated to the perfect temperature, put on the calm Christmas carols, not the creepy ones, and then spend most of the afternoon making frosting and cleaning up. I remember that I did write a thank you letter one year, saying how much our family and friends appreciated it. Still, that woman thought that all she did was set up an event at a community center. And, I am here to testify, she did so much more.

Now I’ll never have a chance to say thank you to her again, or to scrounge around for an at-liberty five-year-old to serve as our beard. Like so many things about the times that we make magic together, whether part of a holiday or not, this perfect little place to create something sweet can never be visited again. And all I can do now is wish that I’d had a chance to tell everyone at Fuller Park that, for our family, it was never just a gingerbread house. It was so much more.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Dropping a gratitude bomb

Last month, a friend confided that 2013 had been so terrible for him that all he could do was hope for better luck in the New Year. “When you say something like that on October 15, you know it’s been a pretty rotten ten-and-a-half-months,” I responded. But I also had to agree that I would be mighty glad get this year behind me, even with the well-worn wariness that comes from asking, “Hey, it can only get better from here, right?” and receiving, with thunderclaps, the universe’s gleefully disastrous reply.

Given that my greatest hope for the future is being able to stay awake to see the ball drop in Times Square a couple months from now, knowing that 2013 can wreak havoc on me no longer, it’s a bit of an understatement to say that I haven’t been approaching the rapidly approaching Thanksgiving holiday with an Oprah-like level of gratitude. The way I’ve been feeling lately, I’m surprised that the National Day of Kvetching (and I’m sure there is one) hasn’t asked me to be Grand Marshal of its parade.

So I wondered what I could do about that -- how I could convince my heart to turn away, just for a moment, from such depleting levels of fear and worry. I feel as if I have so little to offer these days, even thanks. When I tried to think about what I did have, I realized it's the same thing I can always count on not to let me down – words.

So I started there. I found some tacky garage-sale notepaper and wrote a letter to the brother and sister-in-law of my friend who died 13 months ago. Not long after his sudden heart attack on a business trip, his wonderfully plucky and resilient mother died, too, leaving this family, for whom Thanksgiving was the most important holiday in their multi-faith clan, with two empty places at the table this year. 

After I addressed the envelope and added a stamp, I sensed a clear internal directive: “write more,” it said. So I did. I wrote a letter to each of the out-of-towners whom I’d most love to see magically arrive in time for dinner on Thanksgiving Day. I told them I was thankful for the gift of their friendship, for their innumerable wonderful qualities and for the many memories we shared.

And then I just kept going. I thought about the colleagues I’ve worked with this past year – kind-hearted and patient corporate teammates who showed me the ropes of a new publishing system, editors who gave me a first-ever chance at a writing assignment, interview subjects who amazed me with their great accomplishments and generosity of spirit. So I wrote letters to some of them, too.

And then I thought about the everyday people in my life, especially those few who consistently make me feel safer, lighter and more hopeful each time I encounter them – in an email, a Facebook post or, too rarely in my life, face-to-face. And I wrote to them, too. I wrote until my hand was sore and I ran out of stamps.

And then, before I could think better of it, I drove to the post office and mailed them all – a raft of gratitude bombs that would, I hoped, convey some authentic and heartfelt attention in the ramp-up to the official, pumped-up holiday.

I had found more in me than I’d had when I had started writing, just like I always do. Thanks, words. Thanks, friends.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sweaty and broken: what I learned on a stranger’s yoga mat

Glowing and gleeful on the stage at Aria, surrounded a cadre of fellow yoga teachers, Nan issued the first instructions of the practice: “Turn to the person on the mat next to yours, introduce yourself, and say what you’re grateful for today.”


Introductions and handshakes are the kale of my life – I know they’re good for me, but I endure them, barely. (Also, I’m less than fond of small group discussions that involve writing on flip charts, but I digress.) Still, a Gorilla Yogis event is, by design, a sociable gathering, so I ignored the wall to my right (intentional choice; cuts the chit-chat factor down by fifty percent) and turned to the man on my left, hand out, corners of the mouth turned up.

“Iiiiiiiiiii’m Miiiiiiiiike,” he said, lurching out a hand toward mine. His voice sounded like one of those electronic scramblers the villain uses to call the cops after he’s kidnapped the plucky heroine and wants to issue a threat. He pumped my hand up. Pause. Then down. “I’m grateful to be here today … because a while ago, I was in a car accident. I rolled over three-and-a-half times. And so … I’m glad to be here.”

He let go of my hand, head listing down, eyes looking up. He was waiting for my Oprahtastic-life-is-good declaration. I paused and listened to gratefulness being shared all around me, as the roomful of sleekly groomed yoga muffins shook hands, setting thousands of Tibetan prayer beads and armfuls of Mexican hammered-silver bangles to jangling. Perpetually babygirl voices introduced Kayla-Kerrie-Katelynne to Meghan-Maya-Madyson. And here I was, looking at Mike’s face, which, I now noticed, seemed as if someone had, once upon a time, given the features a slight quarter turn, with not-insignificant force, and had left them there.

I reached over and touched his arm. A moment ago I had not been able to think of one grateful thing, but now I could.

“You, Mike. I’m grateful you’re here.”

He nodded, suddenly shy, and we both looked at our feet.

The practice started. I breathed, closed my eyes, stayed on my own mat. Still, it was hard to ignore Mike. He moaned. He creaked. I heard odd popping sounds from time to time, like his bolts were falling off. He stopped, frequently, to wipe his dripping face. At one point, the class turned to face in another direction, and I realized he was no longer on his mat. I started to worry, to wonder if I should call over a teacher, or go look for him. He’d rolled over three-and-a-half times, he'd said, and suddenly I realized the significance of that “half.” At the end of whatever had happened, Mike was hanging upside down. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, we were directed to stretch out our arms in a “t” and grasp the wrist of our neighbor. A sweaty hand found mine, and there was Mike. I squeezed back in welcome.

We were instructed to stand and find a partner: “Hold on to your partner’s wrists, then lean back,” Nan told us. All around us, shiny heads, sleek with expensive botanicals and argan oil, leaned in toward each other, and hundreds of manicured toes lined up in perfect symmetry. Over in our dark corner, Mike and I faced each other like Quasimodo and his menopausal gargoyle. A weird, burbling chuckle came out of Mike as he grasped me. “I could break your wrists right now,” he said in that techno-villain voice, and he sounded equally awed and frightened at the thought. Jesus, I thought, just put your hands around my neck and put me out of my misery. Aloud, I said, “I trust you.” He relaxed, visibly, and leaned back. Based on the sounds he was making, I’m not sure if he was enjoying the traction or painfully slipping several vertebrae, but he stayed with it until Nan told us to stand up.

“Now find a place on your partner’s mat,” she instructed, and Mike companionably patted a spot on his towel-covered mat, which shot up a shower of moisture. I remembered the time we’d done yoga at the corner of Lake & Lyndale during a boiling-hot Open Streets festival. We'd all put our arms around each other in a giant Circle of Love. I was feeling the love, oh yeah, until I realized that my right hand was nestled directly in the hairy and gushing armpit of the man next to me.

Guess what, I lived.

I sat in front of Mike, toboggan style, and Nan instructed the person in back to deliver a back-and-neck massage. “Oooooh, I’m not that creepy,” Mike said, in a voice that actually sounded like a textbook definition of  "creepy." I said what I’d said before: “I trust you.”

After a few lovely moments, Nan instructed the massagers to put their hands directly behind the hearts of their partners, and she told us receivers to lean back, to lean into those hands that were holding us up. “You are not alone, you are never alone, there is always love and community around you,” she said.

Nan, I thought, this is crazy talk, so please shut your lying mouth. I let my mind play over the alone-making conversations in which I participate every day, most beginning with the ultimate lie-of-concern, “how are you?” I hear “How are you?” as a prelude to “Next, I will tell you what you're going to do for me,” or “How are you?” as a quick trip into “How am I, really, let me talk a little bit more,” or “How are you?” as “I’m sorry, did you say something? I was looking at my iPhone.”

That creepy villain voice brought me back, practically in my ear. “You can lean back farther,” Mike was saying. “You won’t hurt me. I can hold you.”

His fingers were sweaty. His body was broken. He was, based on what I'd heard and seen in the last hour, experiencing some serious levels of pain. But he was sure he couldn’t hurt me, no matter how far I leaned into him, and he was willing to hold me up.

Nan, I thought, I take it back, I’m sorry. There’s only this moment, this Sunday morning with the sleek-haired girls all around me, and this sweaty, broken man who is willing to support me. Since all I have is now, then I am not alone, not in this perfect moment. And you’re right, Nan, you’re so very right. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The “B” word I never use

Perhaps you promised to get those edits to me overnight, and now it’s next week, and you need them an hour ago. Or maybe I asked you to participate in a service project with me, or attend a fundraiser for a cause I care about. It could possibly even be several days after some social gathering I hosted, to which you’d RSVP’d, but did not show up.

In any case, I know the magic word you’re going to lob in the air, one that will float over to me and instantly extricate you from any consequences. You know it, too. It’s your all-purpose pass for ignoring, forgetting and blowing off anything, everything and everyone.
       “I’m just so busy.” 
      “I’m crazy busy.” 
      “It’s insane right now.” 
     “You have no idea how busy I am.” 

You’re right. I don’t have any idea how busy you are. Even if you’re a very close friend, I don’t have an opportunity to observe how you order all your days or fill your time. But you don’t have any idea what’s happening on my end of the exchange, either, and, to be honest, I’ve never noticed you asking.

That’s why, lately, whenever someone wails about their “crazy busy” life, the more I hear something else – “I’m the busiEST. I have the most jam-packed schedule, and my life is way bigger than yours. And, now that I’ve invoked the “B” word, you are hereby obligated to murmur sympathy and offer condolences on my lamentable busy state. Poor, poor me.”

So, yeah, I’m starting to feel the weight of that a little bit – to be tugged down by the crazy-busy-ers who seem to fill up the airwaves all around me, competing for space and sympathy. I don’t even know if I’m busy or not, because it’s so hard to hear myself think above the drone of everyone else’s hyper-full lives.

But here is what I do know – I’m not going to tell you every detail of my crazy-busy-ness, even if that’s what I’m feeling right now. Instead, if you ask me to do something or be somewhere, here is what I will do. I will look at my schedule and make my decision about how I can and want to allocate my time, and then, with all due haste and as little drama as possible, I will tell you: “Yes, I can come to the party, or help you paint that room, or visit you in the hospital. When should I be there and what can I bring?” Or, “No, I can’t be there, I’m sorry, but what else can I do to help?”

 And then, my friends, I will shut up about it.

 So you can have some more time to tell me about how crazy, crazy busy you are.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

I Heart Betty

1965 Betty, the St. Paul resident of my dreams

To say that I admire Betty Crocker, or that I'm fond of her, does not begin to plumb the depth of my feelings. Offering the thought that I would gladly burn incense sticks and joss paper while prostrating myself in front of her portrait at General Mills headquarters (assuming that security guards would let me, which is unlikely) might be getting a little closer to the heart of the matter.

As I write these words, I realize it seems as if I think Betty Crocker is a real person.

Of course she’s real; what do you think I am, stupid? I know that Betty lives and breathes and cooks warm and tasty desserts somewhere, and now that I think of it, I even know where that place must be – St. Paul. How could she live anywhere else? I picture her house, a darling cottage on suitably adorably named St. Paul street. None of those big-city Minneapolis number-and-alphabet streets for Betty.  No, she lives in a tree-shaded glen on Juno, say, or Juliet.

I imagine going to visit Betty. Of course I’d be late, because how can Juno follow right after Juliet in the order of streets? Can’t they lay out the streets in any rational order in this god-damned city? Okay, calm down, breathe deeply and stop cursing, I tell myself. Betty is waiting, right behind that perfectly painted door with the two charming pots of traditional geraniums on either side.

She lets me in, pretending not to notice my sweaty and typically Minneapolitan-frantic demeanor, because Betty is a Perfect Hostess. She leads me to the kitchen, which is appropriate but not over-the-top. No Aga for Betty, just a perfectly good Hotpoint, thank you very much. It might even be Harvest Gold, which, to Betty, is still a swell color, no matter what those hipsters in Uptown have to say about it.

Is Betty wearing her trademark red suit and pearls? Hmmm, I’m stumped there. It seems a bit formal for a casual afternoon entertaining a sweaty woman from Minneapolis, more what she might wear when applying for loan at the bank or posing for a box of brownies. I hit upon the solution: Over the one outfit she seems to own, Betty wears an apron, something vintage-looking that she whipped up herself in the downstairs sewing nook. (I’ll bet Betty’s house has a lot of nooks, just saying). As she pulls a pan from the oven, I notice that her oven mitts match her apron. Of course, duh, she’s Betty Crocker.

And then she places a dish of something warm and chocolaty in front of me, and offers me a glass of cold milk. Milk! I haven’t had milk in 25 years, but yes, Betty, I’d love some!

…. and, as I lift the glass to my lips, my reverie ends, and I’m back in Minneapolis, home of many orderly streets and very few Harvest Gold Hotpoints.

And I wonder, what is my deal? Why I am so taken with a woman who is (to some naysayers, I have to say it) an imaginary spokesperson? It’s not like I wish I could meet Uncle Ben, or poke the avoirdupois of the Doughboy. My heart belongs to Betty, and I think I know why – because my mother loved her, too. My mom became a housewife in the 1950s,when it truly was a miracle to toss an egg into a bowl, add a mix, and whip it all up in the Sunbeam. For my mother’s generation, packaged food was always better, and Betty Crocker was the symbol of the perfect housewife who knew how to please her family with reliable packaged goods.  

As I look back on what must have been my mother’s own eating history, I’ve realized something – our mother’s mothers were, most likely, terrible cooks. In my own poor mother’s case, her mother died when she was seven years old, so I can’t imagine how many delicious meals anyone cooked for her. And, oh yeah, the Depression, which hit when she was nine. So of course she loved Betty Crocker. The food tasted the same way every time, and no dim-witted big sister or dopey dad could mess it up.

I’ve been doing some writing for General Mills the past few months, and, recently, I pitched a story to the editor of When she accepted my idea and gave me an assignment, I was happy beyond all rationality. I was going to be writing for Betty herself. If I couldn’t get over to her house in St. Paul (And, let's face it, I could never find my way Over There  anyway), I would be writing for her, which didn't even involve trying to figure out the GPS.

I wished the thing I always wish when something nice happens to me. I wanted to call my Mom and tell her all about it. I could almost hear her, wanting to celebrate with me, but also eager to cut the call short so she could call all her girlfriends: Writing for Betty! Her own little girl, the one who used to insist on adding brewer's yeast and bran flakes to every sodden, leaden thing she baked! Finally, she had seen the light and would be worshiping, one egg and half-cup of water at the ready, at the altar of Betty.  

If there's a way to eat package-mix brownies in heaven, I hope my Mom is having a little celebratory treat for me. Here's to Betty -- long may she reign.