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.”

Shit.

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 was 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 that she had many home-cooked meals. 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 BettyCrocker.com. 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 around 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. And here's to Betty -- long may she reign.



Saturday, September 14, 2013

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.

Monday, August 19, 2013

This Writing Life – the Drunkard, the Hook and the BML


I’m a freelance writer, which means I will write anything, including a grocery list, if someone will pay me money to do it. When I am feeling professional and composed, I tell people at networking luncheons that my work “includes a lot of variety.” When I have a glass or five of wine with my girlfriends, I say, darkly, “I never know what’s going to happen next – or not happen,” and because they know me, they know that this is not a good thing. But still, I show up at the keyboard every morning, including most weekends. There is a mortgage, and there is college tuition, so nobody’s asking for your opinion, I tell myself. And then I sit down at my desk and get ready to meet the next deadline, whatever the next deadline is.

Here is how my writing life went last week: on Sunday morning, I got up early and noticed a frantic email message from an agency account person. So I had a conference call with her at 7 a.m. (yes, on the Sabbath), then spent the rest of the day doing research and writing snappy magazine-format copy for a leave-behind for a pitch to a major telco that was going out the door the next evening. On Monday, I talked to three different pediatric neonatologists for a story in a U of M publication about optimizing infant brain health, and because no question a journalist asks can ever be called stupid (to her face), I got to ask the head of the pediatric department what is was that red blood cells are supposed to do, anyway, and he told me all about it without calling me a moron (because he is very polite, not because I’m not).

On Tuesday, I pulled together a big mess o’ “fun facts” for a nonprofit theater company for which I volunteer, because a local magazine had agreed to run a feature on our twentieth-fifth anniversary season. It was fulfilling and time consuming, which might describe whole big chunks of what happened to me last week, except for the parts that were scary and frustrating, which was the rest.

On Wednesday, I interviewed district mangers for one of my customers about a program they have called BAM, which, it turns out, is about customer bulk orders, and has nothing to do with the Flinstones, even though I kept toying with the idea of “BAM BAM!” as a headline. (Really, I was having a hard time stopping myself.) On Thursday, I did more research for my upcoming MN Parent story on how to cope when your child gets a mental health diagnosis, and started ramping up all the sources I needed to contact for a piece on upcoming trends for a meetings and events trade magazine article that will appear this winter.

On Friday, I had an interview for a profile of a woman who is the new President and CEO of the oldest and largest women’s small business assistance center in the country, based in Chicago. Then, at the end of the day, I had an unsettling phone call from a couple who had been sources on the mental health story, who decided that they didn’t want to be quoted after all. It involved shouty talk on their part, the kind I hate. When I finally hung up, I realized that I needed to write an email to my editor about the situation, so I got that done. But still, I wanted to cry, especially since one of the chief reasons it’s good not to work in an office is that my coworkers aren’t around enough to make me cry (just my family, but that’s another story).

And then, just as I was thinking that surely, surely, I could stop for the day, I saw an email from a friend, whose subject line indicated the need for a favor. It was a writing favor, I knew, before I even read the message, because that’s the only favor anyone ever asks me to do. The other things I can do really well besides writing – worrying, going to bed early, reading too many books, worrying some more – don’t tend to be things for which people really require extra assistance.

Writing is one of those things that people think just naturally happens, until they have to do it themselves. I’ve had friends who try to gloss over the enormity of what they’re asking me to do by saying, “it’s already practically written,” or using phrases like “wordsmithing” or “polishing up.” I hate that. I’m not a polisher, I’m not a smith, and if the thing were actually already practically written, you wouldn’t be coming to me. This friend, though, was honest. She knows that I don’t have a Disney-princess cageful of writing pixies to unleash on my projects, and that putting all those nouns and verbs together in an actual working order does tax my increasingly diminishing brainpower to a significant degree.

Still, she really needed help. She’s single, she wants a kid, she’s been investigating adoption, and she’s at the point in the process where she has to write what is called a BML, or Birth Mother Letter. (Too bad, I mused, thinking about what I’d written on Wednesday, that it’s not called a BAM, or I’d already have a great headline.)

I am, myself, an adoptive mom, but my little girl was sitting in an orphanage in Wuhan, China, when we started to create the paperwork mountain that made her part of our family. The Chinese government was not interested in Birth Mother Letters, which are essentially chatty, cheery “pick me” acts of desperation that make online dating profiles seem like the height of authenticity. The Chinese government wanted Proof of Income and Guaranteed Payment in American Dollars, and that was pretty much as far as it went. (Later, after Emma had come home, they added restrictions to the effect that the adoptive parents’ combined ages couldn’t be over 100, and that they couldn’t be morbidly obese, but back in 1995 China, things were pretty much wide open for the ancient, the fat, and the generally infirm, as long as they were toting the correct number of greenbacks.)

In 2013 Minnesota, I discovered, not so much. There are rules, a lot of rules, and they are clearly rules written by women who went into social work because teaching first grade wouldn’t give them enough opportunity to boss people around. My friend attached a five-page set of instructions she’d been given on how to create this letter. I’ve answered enough RFPs in my life that I am usually just fine with reading a long list of requirements on what I’m about to write, so I scanned through the directives. The horror quickly mounted, as did the exclamation points: Three-dimensional decorations, like ribbons, it turned out, are strictly forbidden, but be sure to show your creativity! (All I could think was – ribbons? Who would ever do that?) Everyone in all your pictures must be smiling! But there can be no pictures of you in your wedding dress because -- um, well, you know, seemed to be the general gist on that one.

Then I read this gem [punctuation theirs]: “If your letter has a winter theme, be sure to change it in March to a summer theme! The opposite is not true; a summer themed letter is still appealing in winter!”

Did they conduct focus groups with birth moms to find out which seasonal clip-art was most appealing, I wondered? I felt so terrible that my friend had been forced to subject herself to the sort of people who clearly saw the adoption process as a good opportunity to slip in some of the wisdom they’d picked up in those marketing classes back in community college. In 1988.

No topic was too small not to be the subject of the written equivalent of a shaken finger-in-the-face. After pointing out in an underlined directive on page four to “Run spell check on your computer each time you’ve made changes,” the instruction-giver switched things up by repeating the Exact Same Information, but this time reaching for the big formatting guns – italics plus multiple exclamation points. This accounts for page five’s perky admonition: “Reminder: spell check your letter!!” Was there no formatting mish-mash to which this person would not stoop?

I began to get a picture of what my friend had been going through, because I just knew that someone had made her sit in a badly lit conference room this letter was read aloud, slowly. I knew this because someone who would write this many instructions would really enjoy adding to the torture by reading them aloud to a captive audience. I could picture myself in my friend's situation, only I’d be sitting in the back row, doodling on my paper and not paying attention, then livening things up with some smartass remark like, “So, Ms. Halvorson, how do you feel about spell check? Do you think it’s something we ought to consider doing And where do you stand on exclamation points, by the way?” 

It was clear that no one would ever let me adopt a baby these days, not with my sassy mouth. But I had what my friend needed to possibly reach her baby goal, so I got to work with the notes she provided and starting writing a letter. I began, as I usually do, with some research, checking out the other prospective parents on the agency’s web site. Happy. Very, very, very happy people. Lots of cheeks pressed together, as if there had been tragic superglue accidents just moments before the flash went off. The three most common words in the introductions were “Suburban,” “Married” and “Christian,” not that I have anything against Suburban Married Christians, or Christian Married Suburbs, but I saw what my Urban Single pal was up against.

I took a long walk and thought about her, and how much I admire her and and enjoy her company, and what a good mom she would be. Then I went to bed. I got up at dawn and started writing. I tried to think about the person who would be reading these letters. I doubted that she would care very much about the hobbies that the prospective parents enjoyed, which seemed to be a big part of every letter. Really? Kayaking and jigsaw puzzles -- hopefully not at the same time, right Kayla and Chip? (Not their real names!  Just the most Christian ones I could think of at the moment.) Desperate for a place to start, I tried to remember the last time I had read a stack of applications for anything, and that was when we had interviewed for a nanny 15 ½ years ago this very month. It was hard to keep track of all those forms from the nanny agency, not only because every single girl’s name ended in “i,” but because they all just seemed so drearily similar. One of the questions was about alcohol use, and each of  the girls wrote something to the effect of, "I never let demon rum touch my lips." Only Leah wrote (and I still remember her phrasing):  "I like a beer now and then."

It set her apart. It made her seem refreshing and truly authentic. When we were arranging the interviews with all the “i” girls, my husband kept saying, "When is the drunkard coming? I want to meet her." Saying she liked a beer now and then was Leah’s “hook.” It was the only thing that made her stand out from a sea of sameness. Granted, Kayla and Chip (not their real names!) would have been horrified by her, but we liked her. And then, of course, we loved her, and still do, but that's another story.

I tried very hard to strike the same tone in my friend’s letter – real-for-true, not Happy Happy Happy. I mentioned a homemade gift she had made for a kid she’s close to – at the time I saw it, it embodied for me the kind of person she is – supportive and silly and so full of love for that child, who is supremely blessed to have her in his life. In my letter, I described the gift and its significance. For the mom in me, it was a heartwarming moment. For the writer in me, it was my drunkard hook, the thing that would make my friend stand out.

It must have worked, because when I reread my draft of the letter, I cried, and heck, I had written it. My friend said she cried too. Now we just have to get some scared and pregnant teenager to cry when she reads it, and we’re home free.

Who can say what will happen? This whole business sounds like a total crapshoot. But maybe there will be one Birth Mom who is getting really sick of Kayla and Chip (not their real names!), and maybe she will read this letter and decide that her baby belongs with someone real. And maybe someday, like about nine months from now, I will run into my friend, carrying a squalling baby in one those ridiculous front-loader carriers, and she will look exhausted, and happy, and complete.

And I will think, words did that. Words helped her get there.

And I will be very, very happy.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fifteen interviews, one brown box


I’m sure there are many ways that my “freelance women in communications” networking group is not like a room full of feral cats, but, when someone mentioned “going to work full time at a corporation,” at our lunch today, I swear I saw some hackles being raised under those pretty print blouses. And when the stories of “HR encounters I have known” came up, several members of the group were practically hissing.

There were two especially great stories. One woman talked about working a short-term contract gig that, because it was for a massive conglomerate, required her to trek across town to St. Paul for an interview with someone who had no day-to-day role in the location where she’d be working. The interview went fine, she thought, and they signed her on. But at the end of the gig, her manager was required to conduct an exit interview, and, referring to the notes from six months back, shared that the bigwig in St. Paul had “not appreciated your wearing open-toed shoes to the interview.”

You could practically see the black thought bubbles over the heads of the freelancing feral types in the room, most of whom consider clean pajama pants as “office dress up day.”

Then the conversation turned to a “can you top this?” beaut of a story.  Another woman told us she has a friend who works in HR, and when they’d met for coffee one day, the woman had seemed especially harried. Pressed for details, she revealed that she had passed along what she considered to be a very well-qualified candidate to a hiring manager in her company. On the way over to meet my friend, she’d gotten a phone call from the manager, who had told her she’d need to see more people, because the woman hadn’t liked the way the candidate “had held her purse on her lap.”

THAT started some lively conversation among the felines, let me tell you.

I’ve been working in the freelance world for more than ten years now, and it’s provided me with interesting work, terrific clients, lots of variety and decent, if occasionally a bit too sporadic, pay. It’s also eliminated by several muck-bucketfuls the amount of manure with which I must deal. The interview process in my line of work is usually pretty simple: “Help! Can you work over the weekend?” The way I know  I’ve succeeded is when I get called back the next time they’re in a panic. My performance reviews are my paychecks, and all anyone ever cares about is that I can get the work done well – I don’t need to be a team player, a good brand ambassador or a drinker of any particular flavor of Kool-Aid.

As much as I have thrived under this system, I’ve been watching several people of my close acquaintance struggle mightily of late with the giant cluster-cuss that is the current trend for the interview process in the corporate world. The first thing I have noticed is that, unlike in my world, no one, ever ever ever, is hired on the first interview. I’ve heard reports of as few as three and as many as fifteen for these all-day-interview-slash-soul-crushing-sprees that entail having a “chat” with everyone in the company, except (so far, anyway) the guy who empties the trash cans at midnight.

The interviews, I hear, are always positive, all-smiles affairs, but they contain unexpected land mines that can destroy a candidate for reasons as obscure as toe-revealment or purse deportment, as mentioned above. And, once you’re out of the running, no one ever calls to say, “Sorry, we picked another candidate. Your second toe is longer than your big one, and that creeped out the head of HR.” Instead, the phone simply stops ringing, and your upbeat emails (Subject line: “I’d love to come in for even more evaluations of every aspect of my personality!”) go unanswered.

It’s as if corporations are the teenaged boys of the working world, and the candidates are the girls of the sophomore class, waiting endlessly by the phone. It’s enough to make you wish that every corporate logo would suddenly sprout acne and floppy bangs that get in their eyes, but that sort of poetic justice will never come to pass, I fear.

Why do companies do this to people, you may ask – make them return for round after grueling round of interviews, smiles pasted on their faces and sweat stains spreading in their underarms? Here’s my theory – Because They Can. When you enjoy unlimited power, why not spend whole big chunks of a workday making other people miserable? Sounds good, right? Well, not to me, that’s for sure, but I imagine a group of people sitting around a conference table, reviewing the “next round” of candidates who have made it through the previous six, eight or twelve rounds of job interviews. Someone picks up a resume. “Ooooh, I HATE her!” the staffer says. “She uses ampersands, and I HATE ampersands, plus I thought her pearl earrings were too small.” “Shall we tell her she’s not going to be hired?” asks a well-meaning colleague. “Of course not! Maybe she’ll have to buy another new navy blue suit for the next interview. She really pitted out that one she was wearing last time,” cackles the woman, reaching for the phone to “schedule availability” with the doomed ampersand lover.

And so it goes. Here’s the part of the process, though, that causes me to experience what they like to call “a disconnect” in certain, annoying circles – if it takes fifteen interviews, a personality test and lunch with the president to decide if someone is worthy of being asked to “join our family,” how long does it take to decide that, due to “deselection,” or “a reduction in force” or “rightsizing,” that this very same person is going to lose that job? My observation: ten minutes, or as long as it takes the HR person to uncover the stash of cardboard “personal effects” boxes from the secret storage shed hidden behind a painting in his office, then press the red “Outta Here” button that summons security to the revolving-door conference room. Oh, and some Kleenex. It might take an extra minute or two to grab a few of those.

Once that sad sack is out of the building, the only thing left to do is sent the secret “Shunning Memo.” I have never actually seen one of these, but I’ve witnessed their principles put into action so often that I’m sure they exist. They must go something like this: “Dear Colleagues, We fired Suzy’s sorry ass today. Her earrings were always too small, anyway, and don’t get me started on the shape of her toes. If you call her, text her or communicate sympathy with her in any way, you will catch Unemployment Cooties, and you will be next. I just got another shipment of cardboard boxes delivered to my secret storage shed, and I’m not afraid to use them. Make it a productive day! Your HR Director.”

This is just one feral freelancer’s opinion, but, given the current state of our economy, there are only two growth industries that any of us can truly count on these days – sweat-proof interview suits and cardboard boxes. 

Sunday, 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, even if it resulted in twelve stitches administered to a tiny, but valiant, chin, was pretty mild. I had just stepped outside when I heard a boy’s cry, then looked across 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 my own 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 the matter. “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 man, I thought, who leads 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, while a bit battered by recent events, were really the nicest part of my Tuesday afternoon. “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 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 little packets.

“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, “and 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 strangers, 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 has 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, always 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 papers, wash off some spattered blood, and say a small prayer for Theo’s battered chin. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Seven things I learned at the sno-cone booth


For an unadulterated display of mindless patriotism, summer celebration, stressful family dynamics, addiction-in-the-making and the blank, unholy inability to make a simple decision, there is no experience more educational than staffing the sno-cone booth at the annual Fourth of July picnic in the Tangletown neighborhood of Southwest Minneapolis.

We’ve been going to the parade since 1996, when we wheeled our oldest daughter up to the local high school, tied a balloon to her stroller, and followed the shambling crowd on the five-block-or-so “parade route” over to the local park. Occasionally, we’d even spot an observer -- some bleary-eyed grownup sitting on a front porch, clutching a mug of coffee and wondering why all these wound-up families were shuffling past at such an ungodly hour. For the parent of a young child, ten a.m. is the shank of the day, and we’d wave energetically at our sparse array of spectators, full of energy and good cheer.

Years passed, another child arrived, and we continued to wake with the birds on Fourth of July morning to decorate bikes, tie bandanas around the dogs’ necks and be first in line for the balloons in the parking lot.

Back then, the food was a potluck lunch, served on tables set unhygienically in blazing sunlight (the trees were smaller then), and the games were of the “toss a bean bag in the hole and get a dum dum” variety. But the neighborhood has taken a significant turn upwards in the past 20 years, and the festivities yesterday featured two different varieties of giant inflatables, Guthrie-level face painting and, that ultimate hipster beacon of fun, a food truck. I looked around at the crowd this year, and I was definitely out of my element, especially in terms of fashion.

Several women sported attractive sundresses and chic sunhats, and I saw more fresh pedicures than I could shake an orange stick at. People had painted their children’s buzz cuts to resemble the American flag. There were red-white-and-blue top hats and vests, with a minimum of beer guts or lighted jewelry, once staples of my decidedly blue-collar childhood Independence Days. One had the sense that, later, processco and sparklers, not brats and bottle rockets, would be the order of the day.

At this event, I always wear my WW II shirt, a bizarre bit of Joe Boxer’s less spot-on haberdashery, featuring tiny pictures of Churchill and Roosevelt, plus key battles. One year, it so upset a fellow parade marcher, who had examined it and declared it "warmongering," that I swore to myself that I'd wear it every July 4th until my demise.

But the shirt has gone missing this year – hiding alongside that set of steak knives we misplaced about fifteen years ago, I guess – so I had to settle for my best fifty-cents-at-a-garage-sale purchase ever – a hot pink women’s bowling shirt with “Heather” written in black script over the pocket and “Gutter Galz” on the sleeve. But, even with Heather and my getting-pretty-beat-up paper Independence Day crown, I was no match for the groovily tattooed and snappily dressed folk lining up for empanadas at the food truck. There goes the neighborhood, I could see them thinking, as they shot surreptitious glances over at the slobs manning the sno-cone booth.

And just how did I end up at that booth, wearing my bowling shirt and my paper crown, letting gooey syrup run down my shins? Several years ago, I had sat at this very event, dipping my feet in the lukewarm wading pool (whose contents, I surmise, are 90% chlorine and 10% urine) and realized that my children were no longer hanging directly off me at all times, shrieking. They were, I realized gradually, no longer little kids, but kids. Perhaps, I wondered, it might be time to give back a bit to this event that we had enjoyed so much, giving us, as it did, a chance to leave the house and Wear Them Out a Bit.

The following June, I announced to my family that I had volunteered us all to work a booth at the picnic. “I asked for the sno-cone machine, because I figured it would be cool.” No one seemed overly thrilled with this idea, but I argued that we’d spent enough years lazily holding down a blanket on the southwest edge of the Fuller Park hill, so we arrived for early duty and got to work.

As these things usually turn out, we had much more fun working than we’d ever had lolling. Even during the hottest years, we have stayed cool at our icy station – well, at least our hands have. We have run into lots of people we knew, gotten up-to-date on neighborhood gossip and enjoyed the perfect perch for people-watching. This year was no exception. So, distilled for your reading pleasure like a full gallon of iridescent sno-cone syrup, here are several of the more trenchant observations of Team Sno-Cone, 2013 version.


1.     Everything is more fun with kids
Of course I love my practically grown-up teenagers, but I firmly believe that all social activities are more fun with a soupcon of children. This year, I invited my friend Tammy’s two darlings, Mike and Maren, to assist at the booth. They made everything about 25% more fun, and the obvious delight they took in being the big kids behind the counter made all of us happier.

2.     There is a Zen of filth
When you’re covered from fingernail to sneaker with drippy, sticky, gooey syrup, there is only one logical choice to make – just go with it. Ever since the year our booth was next to the Girl Scout Troop’s cotton candy maker, we discovered that the filth of syrup is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the worst kind of dirt. Try being up to your elbows in hot, hairy cotton candy, and sno-cones will start to look like a clear mountain stream.

Once you can decide, “I am just going to be sticky and disgusting,” it’s easy to become Zen with the muck. And there were some simple joys among the goo. Maren’s elbows increasingly looked like a Jackson Pollack painting, my left hand resembled something out of a Steven King novel and Mary’s shins developed a strange case of bluish varicose veins, so we had plenty to look at during the lulls in the action.

3.     No one is sad in the sno-cone line
While there may be frowny faces aplenty at the DMV, everyone seems very, very happy in the sno-cone line. And – I swear this is true – every single person, even the ones who look like they’re planning a suicide attempt for later in the evening – genuinely smiles when that sno-cone gets handed over. It’s just some ice and whole lot of sugary food dye, but it’s a daymaker, I tell you.

4.     Your neighbors appreciate a quick decision
This year, as with most other years, it turns out that the very first thing most people want to do after they’ve finished that grueling parade route is head to our booth. We had a long, long line. Our workers were keeping up their end of the bargain, but the customers … well, let’s just say that waiting until you're asked for your order to begin the negotiation with your two-year-old about what kind of sno-cone flavor he wants, then asking the both staff to remind you once again what your choices are, because you weren’t able to observe them at any point during your ten-minute wait – you, sir or madam, will not be named Tangletown Neighbor of the Year.

5.     Sno-cones are simple, but some people make everything complicated
And also? When I tell you we have red, green and blue, please do not ask what “flavor” those colors are. They are not flavors. They are dye and sugar. I told one woman that the day-glo green syrup was made with kale, and she was so excited that she ordered for four cones. My feeling on that is, if you want to believe a woman wearing a Gutter Galz shirt and a paper crown that's been mended with Scotch tape, you deserve to be deceived.

We also have a secret staff-only contest every year, won by the first person to help the customer who, when asked "What do you want?" says, “I want a sno-cone.” Really, as we stand here under the giant tent with the "Sno-Cone" sign out front, we thought we were selling parboiled-unicorn-meat-on-a-stick, so we're not sure we're going to be able to help you, standing as we are In Front of A Giant Sno-Cone Machine.

Our favorite fellow this year was an otherwise intelligent-looking hipster, who, when he finally had finished his wait in line and was asked what he wanted, looked around in confusion and said, “Oh, I didn’t know there were flavors.” Yeah, life is complicated like that sometimes, pal. NEXT.

6.     Our daughter is good at customer service, who knew?
Our oldest daughter has been working at the local grocery store for four months, and, in that short amount of time, Kowalski's seems to have accomplished what I failed to do in 18 years. She looks people in the eye. She bares her teeth in the form of a smile. She says chatty things like “Hey, how are you doing?”

Her father said that if she had begun to speak fluent Urdu, or levitate off the ground as she scooped ice into paper cones, he could not have been more surprised than when he heard her say, “How’s your Fourth going so far?”

Still, it was funny to see the kid-I-know-and-love return as she shut down an old guy who tried to hit on her. He trotted out a Pepe Le Pew accent and told her he’d come all the way from France to enjoy her sno-cones. Her glare, it was withering, and I felt sorry that he was from the one country Emma is least likely to ever give a break to, ever again.

7.     There will always be addicts
Some people get one sno-cone. Some are so refreshed by our delicious offerings that they come back for a second. But, every year, we have our contingent of addicts. This group always fits a very narrow demographic: affluent (hey, it’s three tickets a cone) white boys, about age 11, who tend to travel in a pack. I served each member of this year's group about 10 sno-cones apiece. And this year, they had a king – a swimsuit wearing titan whose lips, tongue and teeth had  become stained blue from the number of “Blue Raspberry” cones he was downing.

“I can imagine this guy at his first fraternity party,” my husband said, “and it’s not going to be a pretty picture.” Toward the end of the afternoon, the kid wove his way back to our booth with a giant, sweaty wad of tickets. “Keep ‘em coming,” he roared, his eyes spinning in his head from the simultaneous sugar rush and brain freeze, “I just won these in a bet.”

“Oh good,” my daugther murmured under her breath as she scooped ice and started hitting the pump of blue syrup, “he’s got a gambling problem, too.”


Friday, June 7, 2013

My Rules



A friend of mine, who clearly prides herself on running a tight ship at home, once told me that it was no wonder her son always had fun when he was hanging out with my kids. “Of course he has fun, since there are no rules at your house.” I was a bit taken aback by this declaration, but when I looked at the situation through her “sit-down-every-night-for-two-veg-and-meat-dinner” filter, I suppose I could see her point. I have rules, they’re just odd ones.

This past week, I’ve been noticing myself abiding strictly to a couple of my more eccentric guidelines for my own behavior, and I had to laugh at how precise I am about matters that most people ignore. The rules, I’ve noticed, are all about basic human kindnesses, the kind I suppose I crave most deeply. We get what we give, so I give these things, and I hope that they matter, somehow.

Find the One Kid. At every amateur performance or recital I attend (and I attend a lot), I try to pick out one kid who does a really good job … the kid who steals the show in the bit part, the class valedictorian who clearly spent several late nights trying to find just the right words to say, or the dancer in the back row who really kicked it, even if she hadn’t gotten the lead. After the show is over, when everyone in my family is standing around with crossed arms and jingling car keys, I’m still focusing my attention on the crowd, refusing to leave until I find the one kid. Then I race over and offer my hand. “I’m just a regular old mom who happened to be in the crowd,” I say, “but your performance really blew me away. You were just terrific.” Even the most unapproachable-looking kids just melt at this. Praise is one thing from your mom, but when an ordinary-looking stranger takes the time to tell you how great you were, it really packs a punch. Sometimes, the kid starts to cry. It’s even better when they have lots of family around, and I speak Very Loudly so that that crabby-looking granny who clearly thinks theater is a waste of time can hear me loud and clear. The origins of this rule are with my daughter Mary Katherine, the budding actress. I remember her giddy excitement after performing in her first real show. “A stranger came up and told me I was good!” she gushed. If that’s all it takes to make a kid happy, I thought, count me in, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Stop at the Lemonade Stand. This rule came from my mother. She and I used to love what she called “bumming around” together, running errands or visiting garage sales with no particular agenda. She always insisted that we stop at every lemonade stand we passed, and that we each buy one tiny paper cupful of tepid, watery lemonade, chatting up the kids as we did. She even carried a little stash of quarters with her, and would grandly tell me, “my treat,” as she handed over the cash to the beaming six-year-old in charge. My Mom died 14 years ago, but I still stick to her edict. Sometime I am racing home, feeling the pressure of a deadline, and I want to pretend I don’t see that stand on the corner, but I do, and I stop, and I ask the kids about business, and their special recipe, and usually find out some thrilling fact in the course of our conversation, like that they’re leaving to go visit grandma next week, or that this tooth, the one right here, might come loose soon with enough pulling. Who needs to worry about deadlines when you can hear about how much the Tooth Fairy brings at a kid's house?

Talk to the Unemployed. There’s an unspoken rule among working Americans that the unemployed have cooties, and that if you talk to them, you will become infected, too. The minute the guys with the brown boxes come around and start escorting a colleague to the door, it’s as if all those late nights and softball games and happy hours never happened, and the shunning begins. I do not believe in these cooties. Instead, I make phone calls or send emails to the unemployed on Monday mornings, which I know is a bad time, checking in and letting them know that they haven’t become invisible, at least not to me. I arrange to meet for coffee, my treat. Yesterday, I was having a pretty rotten day, one in a string of many. I was just at the point of realizing I couldn’t do much damage by jumping out of my second-floor office window when I got a LinkedIn message from a guy I worked with ten years ago, asking if I’d talk to a friend of his, who is unemployed and applying at a place where I freelance. I wrote back without hesitating: Yes, I will talk to her. I sent emails to a couple friends at the company, seeking some information that might be helpful to this complete stranger. It doesn’t matter that I don’t know her. It matters that she needs help. And that, at the bottom of everything that's piled up in my fearful, cluttered heart, is the only sort of rule I need.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Her 19-word writing career (and rodents the size of bulldogs)


This bulldog-sized rodent is native to Central America. 
 I hope I never see one up close, unless it's in the damn zoo.

Every contractor can tell a story about seriously underbidding on a job – the plumber who forgot that all the pipes were lead, the carpenter who didn’t realize that the house was nothing but crooked walls and plaster – that sort of thing. A couple weeks ago, I was approached by a travel web site to create some content. I asked questions about the scope of the project, and got some webby answers about subsections and character counts. I still felt baffled. “Perhaps I’m just acting all print-centric and looking for a word count, and that’s not the way the world works anymore,” I thought, always the first cheerleader to run out on the field in the “Julie Sucks” halftime show. “I’m sure I’ll be able to write 20 pages a day,” I thought. “What could go wrong?”

Turns out that I, the person who can usually offer a very long list of reasons why anything, anywhere, could possibly go wrong, had failed to consider this project thoroughly enough. Here’s the one part that wasn’t in the job description: I needed to write 15,000 total words of well-researched, snappy and character-count-correct copy. I was able to complete about five pages a day if I kept my fingers – and brain – moving fast, not the 20 I had originally estimated. And, I realized, I was making a fraction of my current professional rate, a really big fraction. Or do I mean a really small one? (See why I’m a writer and not a professional fractionator?)

I logged a lot of hours on this virtual round-the-world writing jaunt, starting at about 3 a.m. every day, when I’d wake up in a cold sweat, realizing how many more descriptions I had to write that day. As I kept working, stopping just long enough to wiggle my fingers to get the blood flowing, I tried to stem the self pity that was oozing out of my home office, down the stairs and onto everyone who passed by on the sidewalk outside. To accomplish this, I thought of two things. First, I remembered that I wasn’t a coal miner or a cop, and that the only things getting tired were my creativity and my fingers. And second, I remembered back to a few times in those fat and happy days of 2007 (Remember then? When you weren’t scared all the time?), when agencies, desperate with overwork and looming deadlines, had happily sent me tidy sums for completing writing projects that were only mildly vexing, or time-consuming, or possibly a teeny bit annoying.

Of course, I had already been paid for those jobs way back in 2007, so the money was spent long ago on trips to the emergency room, groceries, grade school tuition, dermatologists, triple-ply toilet paper and boatloads of daughter-approved hair care products. I wish I’d had the foresight to have taken a few of those gigs on “deferred payment,” with the proviso that a check would be cut only during times of financial crisis, national and/or personal. I’d be getting one of those babies in the mail right about …. now.

But that’s all paid-for toilet paper under the bridge (a phrase I just made up but think I will continue using), and did not provide much solace to me, last week, making my way through my Slough of Despond (which is, I hope, the only Pilgrim’s Progress reference you’ll encounter this week). But then, just when things were looking bleak, one of my children entered the sad, dreary picture, and things got a little bleaker still.

My children usually adopt a very firm policy of refusing to offer any sympathy to me, on the principles of 1) It will just encourage her and 2) Was that mom’s voice? I thought I heard something through my earbuds. I managed to pierce Emma’s protective shell, however, because, while she was ignoring my kvetching about worn out brainpan and fingers, she quickly picked up my distress over what I considered to be the overly  modest payment (like “Amish girl” modest, I’m not kidding).

“Really? I would like to have that much money,” she mused aloud, “Maybe I could be a writer. Could I ever get a job like yours, Mom?” Since she calls me “Mom” about once a year, I was instantly suspicious. But still, maybe she’d want to follow in my limping, energy-drained footsteps one day. “Okay,” I said. “You can write one page, as an audition. Then maybe I’ll recommend you to the editor for the next project, if there is one.” She looked happy. I think I even saw her teeth, a rare occurrence for me, but apparently a quite common one for tall, handsome college men.

“But if I have to correct ONE mistake – a run-on sentence, a fragment, anything – then the whole deal is off.” She looked less happy, and I knew why. My girls have grown accustomed to 24-7 access to an in-house copy editor. (I’m not exaggerating; I have been woken out of a sound sleep to proofread an essay that was due the next day.) As I’ve heard is the case with privileged people, when you have staff, you forget how to do things for yourself. As a result, my kids are terrible proofreaders, especially in light of their reputed intellectual capacities.

While we sat together at the kitchen counter, I showed Emma a list of topics I was working on that day: Central America, Eco-Travel, Fishing and Destinations for Bachelorette Parties. Guess which one she picked. I handed her an instruction sheet. “Here are the SEO keywords you need to include in a 150-word intro. Then you need to write about these four featured cities in 325 characters each, and the next six cities in 110 characters each. I’ve been getting a first draft done in about 45 minutes, so try not to take longer than that. I’m going to be proofing the pages I wrote this morning and eating my sandwich, so I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

I started reading, eating and waiting for the quick tap-tap of my very smart daughter as she cranked out this work that could be done by a roomful of monkeys (as she’d indicated in past remarks about my chosen career). Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause. “I could do this,” she finally said, “except for the beginning part. It would all be easy after the beginning.”

“That’s called the lead,” I told her through a mouthful of turkey. “It’s always the hardest part. You have to write that, or no deal.” Tap. pausepausepause Tap. Tap. pausepausepause.

“How’s this?” she said, turning her laptop screen toward me. “Your friend is getting married. You should have a party. You should go to one of these good places.” 

I looked her in the eye, suddenly the editor, not the mom. “Is this the best you’ve got?”

“Yeah, I erased the other two. They were worse.”

I chewed my sandwich reflectively, waiting for the stench of her lead to clear the room.

“I give up,” she said, finally. “I don’t want to be a writer.”

“Well,” I said, “You gave it 19 words. I think that’s fair. Hemingway only had six.”

“What?”

There’s a story that someone bet him he couldn’t write a story in six words, and he wrote “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Used.”

No one can twist the moral out of a story and ego-boost it quite like this kid. “Well, I wrote 13 more words than Hemingway did,” she self-esteemedly said (and if that’s not an adverb, it should become one, exclusively for this generation). “Good for me.” She went back to Facebook, I went back to work, and the project continued on, and on, and on.

As with all life challenges, I did learn a few things while writing those 15,000 words, and I share them here now:

First thing I learned: There is some truly bad travel writing out there on the interwebs. One site described a location as “dripping with history,” a thought that made me get up from my desk right away and go wash my hands.

Second thing I learned: I would most like to have a beer with the characters who write content for Lonely Planet. Their description of why it would be fun to visit Central America included this sentence: “Wander through dense jungle to find Mayan pyramids that date back a millennium as bulldog-sized rodents scurry past and howler monkeys commute in the treetops above you.” Hoo boy, when can I book my ticket, fellas? Can I bring a rodent back home as a souvenir?

Third thing I learned: After researching and writing about 370 destinations, all over the globe, I was able to compile this list of dream vacations:
1.     New York
2.     New York
3.     New York
4.     New York
5.     New York
6.     New York
7.     New York
8.     San Francisco
9.     New York
10.  That place with the bulldog-sized rodents and overhead-commuting howler monkeys (Just kidding, I really meant New York)

Fourth thing I learned: Hey Julie, it might be good to ask a few more questions the next time you’re bidding on a project.

Fifth thing I learned: Emma won’t be enrolling in journalism school anytime soon. Ditto that MFA program for creative writing.