Thursday, September 24, 2015

Bare feet on a stranger's back

"Respect the unexpected" is the Gorilla Yogis' motto, and they live up to it, every time. Those fierce folks inevitably manage to create experiences that are comfort-zone-pushing and utterly surprising.

On what must be one of the last truly warm Sundays of the season, I recently was practicing in the middle of the street outside Birchwood Cafe. With my arms linked through those of a long line of sweaty, happy yogis, I found myself standing across from a face I recognized, but could not place. The woman greeted me warmly, asked me to be her partner for the next segment, and followed me to my now gravel-covered mat.

I remembered her, but not until I was holding her arms behind her back and massaging her low back with my bare feet (I know, but you get used to it, and then it feels wonderful). She is a staff member at a place where I've volunteered. It was a rare chance to meet with someone outside the walls of that institution, and I found myself having a strong, honest conversation with her == the kind that's impossible to have while kids are screaming and running around your knees, but which somehow seemed much easier while massaging the back of a virtual stranger with one's feet.

The Gorilla Yogis operate donation-requested events throughout what they call the Urban Jungle, each benefiting a different local charity. When it was my turn to get that back massage, I found myself remembering another one of their sessions that truly moved me from my safe place and into some moments that were deeper, richer, and scarier than any I'd ever experienced on a yoga mat before. I'm reposting that blog here.


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 is holding her for ransom. 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, but not, I hoped, too hard.

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 pedicured 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 as a straight-line-route into “How am I, really, let me talk a little bit more,” or, truly, “I’m sorry, did you say something? I was looking at my iPhone.”

That creepy villain voice brought me back. Mike was leaning into 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 pretty, pretty 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. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Birthday greetings (from the afterlife)

The first time it happened, I thought the timing was well, intense. But when it happened again this year, I just had to smile. If there was ever anyone who could have the sheer life force to keep popping up two and-a-half years after his own death to remind me to wish him a happy birthday, well, it's Joel Hershey, my now-gone but still-and-always friend. I used to tell him he could arrive on the moon and run into someone he knew, someone who loved him. One of my strongest memories is being interrupted as we walked together or stood in a lobby. "Joel Hershey," someone would shout, then trot to catch up with him. I can see myself standing to the side, watching him fling his big wide arms around yet another person who loved him and was happy to connect with him. They always thought it was random. Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder.

What I know for sure, after this week, is that he's still connected, he's still reaching out, and he's still driving me (just a little bit) crazy.

His birthday is August 12. He died October 23, 2012, in a way that was sudden and dramatic (like him), but also a little bit boring (very much unlike him). At the bottom of this post, I've included what I wrote and shared when I first heard the news. It's the post that keeps on giving, because it's the one that keeps popping up in Google searches whenever someone goes looking for him. And then they look for me. And, guess what, it just happens to be mid-August.

The first message showed up in my inbox on August 15 last year. It was written by Dave R., who said, "Hi Julie, I'll start off by saying you don't know me. But since moving back to San Diego early 2013, I had wondered a number of times why I hadn't seen Joel around. I figured he met someone, fell in love and finally left the area. I couldn't imagine any other reason why I wouldn't have run into him at the places I'd seen him regularly in the past. So in my half-stupor of just waking up this morning, he popped into my head, and I decided to Google him. And then the news appeared. I'm here a few hours later, still somewhat in shock that he's gone ... Denver, the summer time I think it was, I happened to run into him, of all people. He was staying at his brother's place, and I think his mom had moved there not too long before, if I remember correctly. That was the first time we really talked about his family or much about his background. He showed me pictures of his mom and her new cat. Things that we never would have discussed before. It was a nice change, to talk with him from the perspective of two middle-aged guys instead of whatever we'd spent time discussing 20 years earlier. 

 "I told him I was thinking about moving back to San Diego after I finished school, and we said we should get together again if that happened. Which is why I'd been wondering why we never bumped into each other again. And here I sit at my computer, writing to you, because your "Darling" post was really touching, and it gave me a taste of the Joel that the people he was closest to knew. Thank you for posting that. It was almost like a nice way to put memories of him back up on the shelf and let them go. It's funny how fate happens, how I was allowed one more time to run into him in a place that was not home to either of us, for one last, meaningful chat. Now I wish I'd gotten to know him better. I'm really sorry for your loss. Thanks for listening."

And then this year, on August 17, I received this message from Sheryl G.: "Dear Julie, I went to Wash U with Joel Hershey. We had not been in touch for years but some weeks ago I found myself thinking of him and did the Google thing. I was horrified to realize what had happened. I kept roaming around on Google and came across your blog. Thanks so much for the great photos. I could remember easily what it would be like to be near Joel, I heard his distinctive laugh, and his voice making a smart-ass but on-target crack. I am not sure how we lost contact, he moved so far away and in my twenties I was not as mature as he was in a lot of ways. I loved that he was reliable and steady. I don't remember contacting him when my mother passed away in the early 90's, but he showed up at our family home in Columbia Missouri, unannounced, after the funeral during the lonely time when the friends and relatives have just left. He spent the day, he was helpful, he was diverting. He was Joel. I hope you are doing well. Thank you again for the wonderful post."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, so I decided to write about it instead, always a good plan for me when I don't know what I think. This has, for me, been a year of letting go. I've lost a number of things I thought were important to me. Ways in which I've always defined myself have vanished, and relationships that were a true place of comfort have shifted and suffered inexorably. I am looking around and wondering what's next, and it's not at all clear.

And then I get an email, and I think about Joel. I hope that perhaps I am not as alone as I feel right now, appearances to the contrary. And all I can say is, Oh Darling.



I’m holding my own personal Irish wake tonight, cheap box wine and all. Like most wakes, it has less to do with the deceased than with my own specific experience of loss. And for that, I know, my friend Joel Hershey, who died yesterday, would forgive me. “You and your Irish and your self-pity,” he would snarl. “Didn’t you have a great aunt a thousand years ago who was a professional mourner?”

Well yes, as a matter of fact, I did.

For all the time I knew him, I was always a little bit afraid of what Joel was going to do, and I guess that’s why I stuck so closely by his side for twenty-five years. I wanted to see what would happen next, even as I was holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut and peeking through my fingers. He was, and always will be, my bad boy, and that’s just one of the many reasons I loved him.

Maritz Motivation Company Picnic, July 1987

 Annual No-Hope Dessert Classic Miniature Golf Tournament, 1991

We met in the most sterile and confining of corporate environments, back when he wore a tie and I wore pantyhose, and yet he found a way to poke his fingers through the bars of our cages and cause mayhem of the sort I could not resist. I followed along behind, the rules-obeying girl who finds herself swept away in naughtiness. And, as it turned out, in goodness. Jesus, that man was good to me – when I was heartbroken, when I was frightened, when I was unemployed – there were many nights when Joel was the thing that kept me from the edge. And now he’s gone over that very edge himself, and I keep wishing I had one more night to stand in line at the TKTS booth with him and hear him argue with the clerk about which are, actually, the best seats in the house. Him and his first balcony, center -- just try to get him to sit anywhere else.
These days, I am a nondescript woman who lives a nondescript life in a nondescript part of the world. I am invisible on good days and contemptible on bad ones. I am reminded, sometimes hourly, of all the ways I will never Be Enough. And yet, when I was with Joel, I unclenched enough to just be myself, the one who could never follow directions or understand how to split a bill or say no to that next drink at the happy hour. Lost or dumb or drunk, it didn’t matter to him. Or if it did, he loved me anyway.

The past two summers, we’ve met for a totally illicit and utterly impractical week of New York theater together. This picture below is from this past July, the day I dragged him to see the taping of the Seth Rudetsky radio show in midtown. I normally take a terrible picture. I tense up and worry that I’m going to ruin it for everyone, that my frozen, frightened and mud-ugly face will forever make the picture unusable. Look at how relaxed and happy I am, next to him. O Joel. 

The last meal we ate together was at Zen Palace on 9th Avenue. We'd met Mary Katherine at her Acting Workshop and were heading towards the neighborhood of the Brooks Atkinson, where we'd see our show for the evening, Peter and the Starcatchers.  See our show. For us, that was the phrase that brought everything into focus, and made us giddy with the thought that we were about to slip out of the grim fantasy of daily life and tumble into the true reality, the one that can only be  experienced with a Playbill on one's lap.

It was time to pay the bill, and I extracted a few sweaty dollars from the recesses of my cargo shorts. "Figure out what I owe you," I'd said, handing them over, and he repeated what he always said to me when we were splitting a bill: "Darling, it would be so easy to cheat you, but you'd never even realize it was happening, so what fun would that be?"

I am angry with myself right now, because he called me from the road, and I missed his call, and I kept meaning to call back. All this past weekend, as I stood at the edges of playing fields or stood still in traffic or stood at the stove grinding out yet another meal I wasn’t at all interested in eating myself, I was thinking, “I have to call Joel. Maybe he’s in Pocatello, Idaho, and we can sing about the Princess Theater, like the last time we did when he was there. That’s next on my list.”

I never got to the next thing on my list.  I never called.

And he died in Boise, not even in Pocatello.

I’m also angry with him for going out like such an establishment tool, just quietly passing into the next life while he was puttering away on his laptop in this one. How respectable. How boring. How unlike him. Me, I plan for my body to be found with a 20-year-old pool boy with whom I have been romantically linked. I want everyone, everyone, to be buzzing with gossip at my funeral, in between enormous gulps of champagne. I want to make a scene.

But I’ll be somewhere else by then. I’ll be with Joel. He and his friend Jon Prel, long ago dead from AIDS, used to talk about how they hoped there would be good lighting in Hell, how we naughty kids could sit up front, fanning ourselves and continuing to make catty remarks about everyone we knew.

Get some extra pink gel on that follow spot for me, Joel. And do save me a seat in first balcony center, darling.

Monday, June 8, 2015

And now it's really summer

The irises faded and the peonies started to bloom. People began to stroll by with containers from the frozen yogurt stand at the corner. And on Friday night, there was yet another sign of summer -- the first bike accident of the season. She was a scrappy ten-year-old, very determined not to cry while I applied towels, ice, and sympathy. When her father showed up, I understood why she was so insistent on keeping that upper lip especially stiff. He launched into a detailed explanation of why he'd ridden ahead with his other child, very determined that I should understand why this was not his fault. Not at all did he get off his bike, look his daughter in the eye, or ask how she was.

Sometimes it feels to me as if everyone is an attorney, building their case, defending their innocence and not once noticing the very important thing--a bleeding and brave daughter, for example--that's right in front of their eyes. I hope her scrapes heal soon, and I hope someone besides me finally gave her a hug that night.

The whole bloody thing made me think of Theo, my favorite-ever accident victim, so I dug up this post from the dusty blog basement.

July 14, 2013

Living at the Bottom of the Hill

I live at the bottom of a hill. More specifically, my front yard faces the base of one of the steepest slopes in what’s called “The Grand Rounds” of our municipal bike path. On uphill cycling journeys, the sight of this hill generates gritted teeth, groans, and, often, the decision to hop off and push the bike up on foot. On the downhill side, the swift ride to the bottom seems to demand an exclamation from even the most taciturn Scandinavians -- “whee” being the standard utterance for someone who is letting go and letting gravity take over on West Minnehaha Parkway.

One of the happiest harbingers of spring is on that first Saturday afternoon when it’s warm enough for the windows to finally be open all afternoon, not just for a brisk morning airing. With the open-windowed house facing the path across the street, I’m once again connected to the community that’s passing by my door – the wisp of a baby’s wail, being shuttled past by an exhausted parent, the jingling of a heavily tagged dog trotting by, launching my dogs into an agony of “no trespassers!” warning barks.

But when I hear the first exultant “whee” from a cyclist flying down that hill, then I know in my heart that spring has finally made its way to Minneapolis. People cycle on  these paths year-round, but it’s only in spring that the “whees” return.

With every joy there is a sorrow, and, mixed in with all those happy-faced, delighted encounters with terminal velocity, there are also a goodly number of brutal examples of the essential vulnerability of our mortal selves as we combine machines, speed and gravity, fancy bike helmets notwithstanding. When you live at the bottom of a steep cycling hill, you not only hear a lot of “whees” – you see a lot of accidents, too.

I always have big band-aids on hand, and gauze, and ice packs that I can hand off -- for the woman who broke her ankle when a teenaged boy, racing his friends, decided to take a shortcut on the pedestrian path and plowed right into her last August, or for the boy who tipped over his handlebars, cut his lips badly with his own braces, and lost his eyeglasses in the underbrush a few years ago. Ambulances have been called. Seriously bad things have happened, right outside my door.

By those standards, what happened on Tuesday night was pretty mild, even if it resulted in twelve stitches administered to a tiny, but valiant, chin. I had just stepped outside that evening when I heard a boy’s cry, then looked across the street to the bike path and saw the telltale signs – a bike lying flat, a Mom kneeling down over a small figure, an older sister standing by. “Do you need ice, a towel or a band-aid?” I called out, my usual First Aid Menu, here at the Accident Cafe. The mother’s face that appeared, her head snapping up at the offer of help, was wide-eyed, beautiful and worried. “A towel,” she called back, “and thank you.”

By the time I’d raced into the house and come back out with a dampened towel, the trio had made their way into my front yard, as the injured often do. Bikes were tossed in the grass, the boy sat on the curb, and the mom began to dab at spots on his arms and legs. “Do you think he’ll need stitches?” she asked, tipping his chin up and revealing a very deep and ragged gash. I was conscious that both of them were looking right at me, so my first reaction -- "For the love of Jesus!  Don’t show me that! Now I have to go upstairs and lie down; goodbye!” didn’t seem like such a good idea. I tried to keep my face neutral, because I could tell the boy was watching it closely. “Tell you what,” I said, “Let’s put a few band-aids on it and see what happens.”

The older sister began to assert herself. You can’t be five years old, the ordained boss of a younger brother, and not begin to let everyone present become aware of your opinions on unfolding events. “This would be his fifth set of stitches,” she archly confided, in a tone that indicated that she was hoping for some tsk-tsking on my part. I just nodded, noncomittally. This is a boy, I thought, who will always lead with his chin.

Once the sting from that first hard slap of reality had begun to wear off, the practicality of dealing with the aftermath of an accident began to emerge. The question is always the same -- what happens next?

“Do you think you can ride your bike home, Theo, or walk it?” the mom asked, in a jolly of-course-you-can manner that fooled no one. Let’s just say here that “Theo firmly declined this offer,” and draw a veil over the actual words that transpired.

“We can drive you home,” I suggested, “and put your bikes in the back of our car.” She thought this over for a moment, then looked up at me with her big, lovely eyes. I could tell I was talking with a woman who had read every single brochure in the pediatrician’s office, twice. “But you don’t have car seats in your car,” she said. Right.

Finally, it was decided that she would run the four blocks back to her house, get the car (with the car seats, thank God), and drive the kids home, then figure out how to have that chin stitched up. As she started to go, she realized that the one hitch in this plan was that she was forced to leave her children with a complete stranger, and she looked back to me for mother-to-mother comfort. “We will not leave this spot,” I promised, patting the very safe-looking grass of the front yard. She hesitated, then turned and ran off.

And that’s how I got to spend some time with Flora, age five, and Theo, age three, who, even though a bit battered by recent events, were really the nicest part of my Tuesday. “The first order of business,” I declared, “is Fruit Roll-Ups and some glasses of water.” Flora’s eyes got very big. “I’ve never had a Fruit Roll-Up before,” she confessed. As I handed over the shiny little packets, their eyes gleamed with the zeal of kids who have seen a lot of organic baby carrots in their day. I almost said, “Let’s not mention this to mom,” but quickly realized the folly that lay down that particular rabbit hole. Instead I cheerily declared, “First time for everything,” and watched the two of them ravenously gobble down the sugar bombs.

“I think Theo’s teeth are bleeding, too,” she said, peering in at him, but closer inspection revealed a gummy chunk of roll-up between a crevice. She was used to looking at him very closely, I realized, probably out of the corner of her eye, when she didn’t think anyone else noticed.

For his part, the injured party was having a pretty good time. I had an ice pack on his knee, and I kept applying fresh band-aids to a chin wound that can only be described as “gushing.” In the meantime, he busied himself patting the small dog and looking at the big one.

“I think that big one looks like Scooby Doo,” I told Flora. “We’ve never watched that, but I’ve heard about it,” she told me. Oh, you darling children, you've been raised on PBS and baby carrots, and now here you are at the witch's gingerbread house, I worried. Well, they'd have a lot to talk about at dinner tonight.

Theo, I noticed, was wearing a bead bracelet, which spelled out, it was revealed, “Worm.” Asked why, he declared matter-of-factly, “Cause I wuv em.” Flora’s bracelet, appropriately, said “Love,” and she hadn’t forgotten the silent “e” when she’d spelled it, either.

We talked about school, about what books they liked to read. Theo told me he loved a series about pirates who wore “dirt perfume made out of dirt,” and Flora was compelled to tell me, “that’s not a real book.” “But it could be,” I said, “Maybe he’ll write it.” She thought about that for a while.

I wondered what it was that seemed so remarkable about these children, and then I realized:  they were relaxed. Even though something bad had happened, their mom had told them she was going to fix it, and they were going to be okay. They were spending time with a stranger, but, based on current experience, strangers turned out to pretty nice, with sugary snacks and dogs to pet. No matter what had happened so far in their short lives, it was clear to me that they have always had a place they can lean into for a bit of rest and comfort. So far at least, there had always been a set of loving hands to hold them up and give them peace.

I thought about the children I encounter at the Crisis Nursery, and the contrast is so marked. It’s as if Flora and Theo are allowed to face life’s dangers from the safety of a big, comfy recliner, supported by the wise and loving adults who care for them. My nursery kids have usually been dealt the life equivalent of a hard metal chair, the sort with one wonky leg and a spring that snaps shut on little fingers. “Relaxed” is the last word I’d ever use to describe those kids with whom I've spent so much time, so it was strange to have two relatively calm children right there in front of me, even if one of them was bleeding bucketsful onto one of my kitchen towels.

“Mom should be here soon,” Flora said, and lo, there was mom, hustling up the sidewalk. You have a need, and the answer appears. What a good way to start out a life.

I hugged the kids goodbye and told them to wave the next time they rode by, but carefully, please. As they walked away, I could hear Flora telling her mother, “I have something to tell you. She gave us Fruit Roll-Ups.”  I hustled inside, quickly, to put away all the band-aid wrappers, wash off some spattered blood, and say a small prayer for Theo’s battered chin. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Sitting in an auditorium on a beautiful May day

You probably spent the month of May attending picnics and frolics and lilac-picking excursions. I spent it in an auditorium, sitting in a folding chair for two hours at a stretch. I waited through hours-long programs for the two minutes I could clap for whatever beloved child was the most special that particular day. May is the month of extreme Special Specialness, so I thought it might be a good time to re-post my musings on the topic, curmudgeonly and gender-bashing as they are. And hey, if you're going to a graduation party this weekend, tell the harried mom in charge that she's never looked better, and then clean up your own damn paper plate and punch cup. She's got enough to do, trust me. 


Special Specialness

There are seven billion people on the planet, and sometimes I feel as if I’m responsible for baking a birthday cake for every damn one of them.

My name is Julie, and I have a problem with special specialness. If last year’s “fill the house with balloons until Mom passes out” party was a hit, what about a color-coded scavenger hunt this time? Original sonnets for every party guest? Goody bags that rival an Oscar nominee’s swag bag? Sure, just let me slip on my comfortable shoes and I’ll get to work.

If I can't control my crazed event-related behavior, at least I realize I’m a victim of my gender. Garrison Keillor (a man) once said that Christmas, in its current over-the-top incarnation, would not exist if women weren’t around to perpetrate it. The same, I feel, goes for birthdays, book clubs and every grade school production ever mounted since Jesus was in First Grade.

Only women are willing to turn themselves inside out to please others, or at least to attempt to impress them. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: High Heels. 

Exhibit B: The special specialness that turns up every February at my house, when my daughters celebrate their birthdays. The fact that one of them was studying in Beijing this year didn’t stop me. I drove myself crazy trying to come up with thoughtful gifts that could lie flat in a first-class envelope – a newly minted DVD of videotaped birthdays past, a hand-made accordion-fold card with recently scrounged and reprinted photos of her blowing out the candles on the specially special cakes I’ve baked her over the past 16 years. Just reading this makes me want to smack myself and go mix up a pitcher of martinis.

If something can be done with that magic combination of sickening thoughtfulness and insane exertion of effort, women will find a way. There's no point in blaming Martha Stewart, either, because I've done it to myself -- no one pulled that trigger on the glue gun for me.

I’ve been in a number of book clubs in my time, and every single one has started with a “wine and chips” motif that quickly escalates in one-up-woman-ship into a multi-course, sit-down dinner, served by a sweaty and stiffly smiling hostess, with every morsel themed to a chapter of the book in question. (Don’t even ask what my latest group did when we read “The Help”).

I know a woman who is an absolute marvel – the sort who hosts a meeting of the planning committee, gathers silent auction donations and bakes one hundred dozen cupcakes for the school Bake Sale, all before noon. I serve on a board with her, and, on a recent day, we arrived and walked in to a meeting together. I noticed that she was carrying a giant armful of agendas and reports she’d prepared for this deserving nonprofit. With grace and good cheer, she mentioned that she’d been at her child's school since early that morning, toiling at an event.  As we reached the door of our conference room, she stopped. “I just need to run back to my car and bring in the crock pot of jambalaya. I thought we all could use a snack, and today is Mardi Gras!” she said, brightly, as she trotted off.

I used to be a feminist. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine (remember that one?) I believed that some day I would be living and working in a world with total gender equality in pay, recognition and social status. And now I’m blowing up balloons, and she’s toting crock pots through icy parking lots.

I wonder if Gloria Steinem wakes up every morning and smacks her head against the wall. Possibly, but then she runs to the kitchen to whip up a batch of jambalaya for that board meeting tonight.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I want to be a cowboy’s sweetheart

Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, 1935

I don’t know how she got the name Putszy, but, what with her being Catholic and all, it wasn’t pronounced the way you might think, more like “POOT-zie.” Something tells me it was a “y” on the end, not an “ie,” and I’m pretty sure about that “sz” combo, but I’m not sure I ever asked anyone. And I have no idea how she ever got such an odd moniker. She was just one of the gang of girlfriends my mother palled around with, women with names like Eileen and Mary Margaret and Thelma and Marcella. When they all got together and had a few highballs, they loved to sing. Like, campfire singing, but in living rooms, with cigarettes.

I try to imagine myself with my friends, sitting in my living room and singing songs, and it’s not something I can imagine I would ever want to do. But for my mother and her friends, learning how to amuse oneself cheaply had always been a part of life: dancing, cards, Monopoly games. Singlaongs were part of that Depression-era ethos, and that willingness to make one’s own fun instead of to demand entertainment.

I haven’t thought about those singalongs in a long time, but yesterday I was in a core class, of all places, and the ghost of Putszy Wyland came right up and touched me on the shoulder. The teacher, whose taste in music is wonderfully eccentric, had passed over her usual mix of merengue, bluegrass, African drumming and 80s hair bands. Instead she’d picked an all-country set. And there the song was, spinning into my ears as I struggled to remain upright on a fitball: “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” the one song Putzy could reliably be called upon to sing at any gathering. (Here's a link, so you can hear experience its grandeur for yourself.)

I thought about Putszy, and my mom, and I tried to remember some of the other songs they sang together, but I drew a blank. As I listened to Patsy Montana and the Prairie Ramblers, I wondered in anyone in that group of friends could yodel. After enough highballs, I suppose everyone can yodel. Once again, I found myself wishing I’d paid attention back then, but my mind was always on other more interesting topics, like myself.

Then, that afternoon, I received a beautiful reprieve from the singalong gods. I was in my office, clicking away, when a bit of song came floating up to my window.

You're a grand old flag, You're a high flying flag, 
and forever in peace may you wave.
You're the emblem of the land I love, 
the home of the free and the brave.
Ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the Red, White and Blue, 
where there's never a boast or brag.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, 
keep your eye on the grand old flag

For a moment, I could hear my mom, gathered with her daffy girlfriends and their agreeable husbands, raising their highballs for this rouser. Here it was, a number one hit on the singalong hit parade, and people were boisterously singing it, right in my neighborhood. Either that, or I was having a major hallucination. I shook my head for a moment, then realized the voices I was hearing were not the Costellos and the Rothers and the Kelleys. It was the kids next door, hanging from their jungle gym and belting out a George M. Cohan tune, for reasons mysteriously unknown. I wondered if they had highballs and little candy cigarettes in their hands. Determined find out what was going on, I hit “send” on an email and headed outside, just as they were launching into “America.”  

“Kids!” I said, trying hard not to be the crazy old neighbor lady, but suspecting that’s exactly how I sounded. They looked up, startled into silence. I steamrolled on: “I LOVE your songs! You are great singers! WHERE did you learn them?” I was secretly hoping there was an old highball-sipping granny tucked away upstairs, someone I could bond with and maybe bum cigarettes from, while she patted my hand and called me “hon.” But it was not to be; as the mom-in-charge reported: “They have a new music teacher at school, and they’re doing a unit on patriotic songs.” Hmmm, I thought, I’ll bet that music teacher is the one with the granny.

I briefly flirted with the idea of teaching the kids “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” but didn’t want to freak them out completely. So I wrapped things up with another compliment on their fabulous pipes, and headed back home. As I pulled on my gardening gloves and started weeding, I reached for my earbuds and my nightly NPR fix, then stopped.

Encouraged by the knowledge that they had an actual fan, the kids had kicked it into overdrive, and were belting out “Grand Old Flag” to the top of their tiny lungs, relishing their reception by an appreciative audience. I kept the earbuds in my pocket and let their voices be the soundtrack of my evening, laid over that cracking vinyl sidetrack in my head of the way my mother’s voice sounded, especially when she sang with her friends.

Putszy is riding out through the plains and desert now, as her favorite song says, out west of the great divide. There are so many things I don’t know about her, or about my own mother for that matter, but sometimes, I realized, it’s just not important to remember every detail. We hold on to what we can, even if it’s nothing more than a scrap of song on a summer night.

I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart, 
I want to learn to rope and ride
I want to ride through the plains and the desert, 
out west of the Great Divide
I want to hear the coyotes singing as the sun sets in the west
I want to be a cowboy's sweetheart, 
that's the life I love the best

I want to ride Old Paint moving at a run, 
I want to feel the wind in my face
A thousand miles away from all, movin' at a cowhand's pace
I want to pillow my head beneath the open sky 
as the sun sets in the west

I want to strum my guitar and yodel-le-hee-hee, 
that's the life I love the best

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


The city of Minneapolis only charged $15, so I was skeptical, but the cherry tree in the front yard is proving to be a real treasure. One of its long and lovely branches has extended over the sidewalk, creating the perfect spot for lilies of the valley to thrive. Last year was the first I had enough to justify putting them in a vase, and I wrote this blog about it, which I'm re-posting.

TUESDAY, MAY 27, 2014

Rose and the Lilies

When I was in my 20s, I had an awful boyfriend who had only two things in his favor:  he taught me how to parallel park, and his mother was wonderful. Other than that, well, thank God I didn’t marry him, because I would be writing this from the loony bin, and you know how bad the Internet service is there.

He taught me to parallel park because he lived in a cramped part of the city, it was the only parking available, I could not do it successfully, and he liked to shout instructions at me in a disdainful manner, so it all worked out. And now, while I can drive only passably, I can park anywhere. But enough about him and my skill acquired through scorn. On to his mother.

Golly, Rosemary was a great lady. She was spunky and sassy and opinionated, but in a way that was always motherly and kind, at least to me, not that I always deserved it. Her kids were all variations of her husband (mean drips like my boyfriend, or just general all-around drips, like the dad), but she was a rose among thorns. I don’t know if any of them ever appreciated her, but I did.

I would have married that guy, just because of her, but she died before we got around to it. I was at her deathbed. We played a Cardinals baseball game on a transistor radio that we held up to her ear, and then, eventually, the game was over, and she was over, too. It was just a few months after my father had died, and all of that seemed to make a good enough reason not to get shouted at by the mean drip any more. Besides, I had learned to parallel park by that time, and without her around, there just didn't seem to be much point to any of it.

I thought of Rose yesterday, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. The reason was that, after years of trying to get lilies of the valley to grow in my front yard, they finally did, this year. When I walked outside and saw all of them, going crazy against the edge of the sidewalk and looking like they had plans to grow right through the front door, I thought of Rose. She had loved lilies of the valley, and they had bloomed profusely for her, those couple magic weeks a year. I can remember walking up her front sidewalk and seeing them, there on my left and for as far as I could see, it seemed.  I can’t remember why I just walked into my own kitchen fifteen minutes ago, or what I was looking for when I got there, but I can remember those flowers, clear as an Instagram, which hadn't been invented yet.

My lilies are only blooming, I realized yesterday, because our $15 tree from the City of Minneapolis has grown enough, these past two years, to give them the required amount of shade. I put this together in my best scientific method by realizing that the flowers on the other side of the front path, the ones without shade, were not growing, but were looking as miserable as the whole bunch of them had looked, all these years, until yesterday.

As soon as I made the connection between the lilies of my memory and that dear departed woman who was almost my mother-in-law, God help me, I sat down, fast, on my own front walk. I thought of all those old-timey gravestones in cemeteries that say “Say a Hail Mary for Me,” and I said one for her. And then I remembered one time when I took some significant umbrage with something she had said on that very topic. She had mentioned something about going out to cemeteries for an afternoon and tending the graves of relatives. I shot off a hasty remark, in my mid-twenties-I-know-everything way: “What a waste of time,” I snorted. I was nothing if not productive in those days. “They’re dead, what do they care?”

Because she was a very kind lady, she settled for giving me the fish eye instead of a smack on the back of my head, which I richly deserved. And now the cherry tree has shaded the ground, and I wish I knew where her grave was, because I would take these newly blooming flowers straight to her, and offer up a few more Hail Marys while I was at it. Yesterday, I had to settle for just the prayer, and a long-overdue apology, sent out, vaguely, to wherever she might be. I cut a few of the flowers and put them in a tiny vase on the kitchen counter. 

Every time I've walked in the room the past couple days, wondering why I’m there or what I’m looking for, I’ve seen the flowers. I've offered them to her - these delicate little marvels of complicated architecture and saintly smell. I wish I could see her again. I wish I could listen to a baseball game with her, one called by Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. But still, with all of that, I'm really, really glad that I didn’t marry her son. And she probably is, too.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

In honor of the NYC blizzard: Some Other Time revisited

It is snowing again in New York today, but for every general aggravation, there is an upside for someone. Case in point: my pal Virginia snagged a $32 seat to "On the Town" tonight as a "snowstorm special." I sent her all my best theater wishes and then remembered seeing that great show live for the first time a few years ago, and being surprised at how different it was from the movie version. My favorite new (to me) song was "Some Other Time," and I wrote a blog about it. I asked Virginia to think of me fondly when they played it, and I'm reprising my blog post on it here.


Some other time

I had a conversation with a friend the other day and, in one instant, I made the poor guy feel fifteen years older than he’d felt when he picked up the phone. And all I did was tell him a hard truth about the passing years.

We’d been chatting about business and kids and some desultory topics, and then he raised the question of half-birthday parties, one of those “any excuse” events which I persist in cooking up and celebrating. He’d been thinking about such a party himself, and he had a question for me. “You gave your husband a 49-and-a-half birthday party a couple years back,” my friend said, “and I was just wondering how you went about that.”

I experienced that rare thing for me, a moment of speechlessness. “It was a THIRTY-nine-and-a-half party,” I said, giving him the cold slap of reality as gently as I could. “That party was fifteen years ago. You were there,” I added, perhaps unhelpfully.

He started through the seven stages of grief right on the other end of the line, beginning with denial and transitioning quickly into bargaining. “I can’t believe it!” he said. Then switching tones, he said, “Okay, let’s say it was three years ago, tops.”

“Mary Katherine was four months old when I gave that party,” I said, wondering for the first time what sort of idiot (me) would give a surprise half-birthday party when she had two kids under age three, but there you go. Any excuse. “She’s a sophomore in high school now, so that means that the party was fifteen years ago.”

He sighed, heavily, and I could tell he’d reached the acceptance stage. Nothing forces the realization of passing time like other people’s kids, a sad fact that seems to be getting worse for me the older I get. My niece Blake sent a lovely birth announcement this spring for her new daughter, and I keep it up on the bulletin board because I love to see the child’s darling face. I’m sure it will be just a matter of months before I’m pinning the girl's high school graduation picture on top of it, wondering how it all moved so fast.

When I was young, I used to hear grownups talking about how rapidly the years had flown by, and, like most things the grownups I knew said, it was stupid. I was living out a life sentence right there in St. Ann, Missouri, and the clock ticked at 108 Constance Court more slowly than anywhere else on earth. For a girl who is itching to get out and start a fresh new life, one that never repeats the mistakes her mother made, time practically stood still.

These days, I’ve become my mother in so many ways, recreating so many of the dumb mistakes she made, and understanding her much more than I ever did. Yet here I am, running into a woman of passing acquaintance at the grocery store, asking what grade her little boy is in this year, and she tells me the kid is a sophomore in college. I want to examine her handbag for signs of prescription med abuse, because I know that’s not possibly true. Just hand over the bottle of Xanax, sweetheart, tell me that he’s in fourth grade, and we can get through this without anyone getting hurt.

Mary Katherine took me to see “On the Town” for Mother’s Day, and there was a wistful song, sung on the subway late at night, when the couples are about to part. I’m sure I’ve heard it before – let’s face it, the Great American Songbook and I have been around the block together a time or two  – but somehow, that day, it seemed so incredibly new and poignant. I blew loudly into my handkerchief, that crazy lady on the aisle, as the couples sang:
Where has the time all gone to?  
Haven't done half the things we want to.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.
This day was just a token; too many words are still unspoken.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

Just when the fun is starting, comes the time for parting,
But let's be glad for what we've had, and what's to come.
There's so much more embracing 

still to be done, but time is racing.
Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.

I never really heard the song before, I suppose, because I didn’t fully appreciate the irony until that day.  The heartbreak of the song, of course, is that there won’t ever be another time, ever. I will never be standing at the top of a staircase in Wuhan, China, waiting for someone to put Emma in my arms for the first time. I will never be corralled onto the couch for one of Mary Katherine’s countless “shows,” and she and I will never walk down to the stand of pines trees where her imaginary friend, Lulu, lived, so she could slip in and talk things over with the invisible.

In another fifteen years, I’ll have run out of the steam to throw parties for no reason, or I won’t be here at all. And all these kids can pick up where I left off, wondering how other people's children are growing so fast, and  looking for pill bottles in crazy friend's handbags at the grocery store, steadfastly refusing to understand how the years have managed to slip away. 

Oh, well, we'll catch up some other time.