Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nibbling at the Edges of Christmastime

I approach Christmas the way a picky eater deals with a fruitcake. Instead of wolfing down the season (and risking  mid-December holiday indigestion), I try to pull out all the stuff I don’t like, dig around for the edible bits, and savor the parts I love as much as possible.  It’s untraditional, and people look at my finished plate like I’ve got a major Christmas disorder, but it’s the only way I’ve found to keep sane. 

I found many crumbs of happiness this holiday season – little moments that meant more than any pre-packaged, tinsel-coated extravaganza ever could.  Here are some of them:

Gingerbread Houses:  For the past several years, I’ve bundled up the kids and taken them to the local community center to make gingerbread houses.  The staff is incredibly patient and kind, the atmosphere is lovely and – here’s the best part – the mess stays there.  The houses are pre-made (wonderful for someone whose architectural skills are lacking) and the array of decorations is much more than I’d ever be able to afford.  Over the years, the children have grown into tall teens, but they still want to make their houses every year.  I usually try to wrangle in a small child-shill from a friend or two, under the pretense that the teens are “helping” the little ones.  This year, we took up an entire table: three kids under age seven, a grade schooler, a couple middle schoolers and a large contingent of teenagers.  When they start driving themselves to the Gingerbread House event, we may have to develop contingency plans.

Starring in our own Movie: We usually plan one downtown day each season, and this year’s felt so relaxed and fun, with a fairy tale plot twist thrown in.  Emma was playing in the Youth Symphony at the IDS Crystal Court on a Friday at lunchtime, so I relented and let Mary Katherine ditch school early to go hear her big sister perform.  On the way into the building, Emma dutifully stepped onto a crowded downward escalator, carrying her cello and still wearing her snow boots.  Mary Katherine, holding her sister’s high heels, began waving and shouting, “Your shoes, Emma!”  Two quick-thinking businessmen, riding past us, put out their hands, and Mary Katherine gave one black pump to each.  When they reached the bottom of the escalator, Emma reported, they handed her the shoes and said, “Here you go, Cinderella.” She blushed mightily; passersby laughed and clapped.  It happened in just a moment, but it felt like a well-planned scene from a Nora Ephron rom-com, with the Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon parts played by Emma and Mary Katherine.

Santa’s Lap:  That great downtown day, I persuaded the girls to go see Santa.  It was 2:00 pm on a Friday, and the only people at Santaland were preschoolers, which made the teenagers look even larger.  But they sweetly sat on Santa’s lap and told him that they wanted a laptop (Mary Katherine) and an airplane ticket to an international destination (Emma).  Santa delivered a priceless double take and asked wryly, “Have you been THAT good, girls?” 

Double Bill:  In mid-November,we saw “Fully Committed,” a play set the bowels of a New York restaurant-of-the-moment, featuring one beleaguered reservations person and the 40 people who call him over the course of 70 minutes.  One guy does all the voices, and it’s a tour de force of acting chops and humor. Mary Katherine and I especially loved it, and quoted from it constantly.  We kept wishing we could see it again, but it felt like a major extravagance to buy tickets for a show we’d already seen. Then, as I was straightening up the kitchen bulletin board to make way for Christmas cards, I came across the “Two Tickets to the Jungle Theatre” certificate I’d won in a raffle at a fundraiser for Families with Children from Asia.  I hadn’t given it a moment’s thought since winning, but I suddenly realized that my prize could get us into that show one more time.  The world conspired WITH me for once, and I found that: 1)the run had been extended; 2)there were front row seats for Monday night and 3)Dick was in town and was willing to provide car service during (another) snow storm. We went to the show last night, and it felt like the Christmas present I was giving myself – time with Mary Katherine, a truly funny show, and a bit of non-tinsel-covered time in a dark theater.  

There is more Christmas time ahead for me, of course, and plenty of time to freak out and stress out, but I hope to find some moments in the days ahead – opening our presents on Thursday night, since we’ll be traveling; enjoying the train trip to Chicago, spending time with friends there; glamorizing for a family wedding on New Year’s Eve.  By the time I walk back into my house on New Year’s Day, I’ll be plenty full of Christmas fruitcake, but I hope I will have enjoyed just the best parts, and let all the other stuff sit on the side of the plate.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dollar Bills Falling from the Sky

Written during “Blizzard-like Conditions” in Southwest Minneapolis
I’ve been helping Mary Katherine with her study of Indian tribes lately.  I’ve learned which tribes created floating gardens, which lived on pine nuts and which sacrificed citizens so that the sun would keep rising. I’ve thought of how happy I was not to be living as an Aztec (too bloody) or a Shoshone (too boring). I’ve also found myself wondering how people a thousand years from now might view our little tribes of the 21st century.

I’ve been a tribe shifter in my life, moving from Nearly Southern to Utterly Northern, so I still observe the local customs with an outsider’s eye. As sophisticated as we humans like to think we are, our interaction with the weather is usually a dead giveaway of our more elemental selves.

Every part of the world, I imagine, has a sort of weather that shakes them to their core. I happened to be in San Diego one time during several days of – gasp – rain. Their evening newscaster broadcast live from a playground and showed images of empty swings dangling in the damp. “Children would normally be playing here,” he intoned sadly, “But it’s too wet.”

In my hometown of St. Louis, snow was viewed as a sure sign that we had displeased the gods. Weather forecasters would lead the evening newscast, no matter what had happened in the larger world that day. Stopping just short of wearing sackcloth and ashes, they would moan and beat their breasts, whimpering out the sad fact that Up to Three Inches was expected. The next story would inevitably be from some News Bunny doing a remote from the grocery store, pointing dramatically to the empty shelves where the bread and milk had been bought out by panicked and hoarding citizens.

While extended heat makes people in Minnesota little cranky, they turn their frowns upside down when it starts to snow. The same cold fronts that cause whimpers in my hometown make people positively giddy in these parts.  They invariably overpredict snowfall amount, optimistically wishing for even more happy snow time. Every newscaster turns upbeat and uses phrases like “good, old-fashioned snowstorm” to describe impending events.

The citizenry seems convinced of two things. One, snow is a sure sign that we are God’s Chosen Snowpeople; and two, our reaction to the storm will be an excellent chance to Prove our Character. No one here would ever speak (out loud) about the numbskulls in Atlanta or Washington D.C and how they react to snow, but you know those lightweights are crossing the minds of every person shoveling out their driveways today. Scrape, scrape, rueful smile at the thought of how badly others would manage this blessing; scrape, scrape, satisfied sigh at this sign of the Almighty’s Blessings Being Visited Upon Us.

Same weather, different responses. As crazy as the folks here are, I suppose it’s more fun to act as if dollar bills are falling from the sky than to run to the Kroger to buy up all the Wonder Bread.  I’ll choose frolicking over panic today, even if I am renouncing my tribe.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Seventy-five Seconds of Fame: Six Thoughts on being in the Newspaper

Everyone knows that Andy Warhol said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." But he said it back in 1968.  I figure that time has compressed considerably in the intervening 42 years.  Having a story about my family published in the local newspaper has convinced me that 75 seconds seems to be the right fame formula these days.

Here are six thoughts I've had since the article appeared yesterday:
Thought one:  People my age actually USE Facebook?  Based on all the comments from my aged chums via this forum, I suppose so.  And here I thought it was just a way to stalk one’s teenagers.  I resolve to enter the 21st century with all my pals, forthwith.

Thought two: Grainy newsprint does a lot for one’s overall youthful image. In my picture, I look like a dewy 47-year-old. I love that old-timey media. The Internet may be speedy, but it's not wrinkle-reducing.

Thought three: The particular volunteer gig on which the interview focused was, hands-down, the easiest one I’ve ever done. Interview me after a day at the Crisis Nursery, when I’m covered in precious bodily fluids from the tiny tots, and I’ll have a different yarn to spin.

Thought four:  The photographer told the girls to “sit on the kitchen counters; I’m sure you do it all the time anyway.” They were nonplussed. The counters are high, cold, and usually very sticky.  But because he had a press pass and a camera, everyone immediately complied. Later, Mary Katherine quoted from one of her favorite obscure films (Drop Dead Gorgeous), “If he tells you to take your top off, get the money first.” 

Thought five: Yesterday, Emma and her friend Rebecca decided to try sitting on the counter again, just to see if it felt any better.  I blame the pernicious influence of the media.

Thought six: Recycling works.  I sent the reporter a link to blog I’d written about volunteering, and he pretty much quoted it verbatim, as if we’d had a three-hour lunch in the meat-packing district or something. That’s okay. I sound better when I have a chance to edit.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Thanksgiving Under-Reach

I called my best friend on Saturday, just to see how her Thanksgiving had gone. For many years, she used to visit at the holiday, and we’d have days-before cooking marathons. I have such good memories of those years. There was first time we decided to brine the turkey, and left it in a cooler on the back porch overnight.  We were sure we’d die from a turkey-and-plastic bacterial infection, but found that the danger added a roulette-wheel zing to our meal the next day (which could be our last, we thought).

There was the Year of the Fire (and shouldn’t every Thanksgiving story have one?) when a friend turned the marshmallows on top of the sweet potato casserole into a mini-inferno in my blast furnace of an oven. There was a great deal of screaming. Flames shot out. Pictures were taken.  It was twenty times better than anything Norman Rockwell ever dreamed up. There was the Year of the Couch, when we’d gotten a new one delivered and wouldn’t serve anyone so much as a celery stick until they manned up and moved the old sofa to the garage. The party line that year was:  It’ll build up your appetite.

It was a regular little tradition there for a while, Debbie and I and our cooking escapades, and a good one. She’d arrive with clippings and printouts and tips that her close personal friends from the Food Network had shared with her (at least that was the impression I’d get, listening to her talk about Sarah and Ina like they were all sorority sisters). We’d usually strategize at least one folly-ridden new item for the menu -- a dish that used every pot in the kitchen, took hours to make, and ended up tasting like something straight from the can.

Every Thanksgiving has a little twist. Hers, this year, was that she had somehow developed the delusion that she lived in Kansas City, so she invited twelve people over for dinner to her Upper West Side apartment. I don’t know when it hit her that she truly wasn’t in Kansas anymore (I know there’s a dining room around her somewhere! I could just imagine her saying), but it might have been when the squeezed-in guests realized that there was not one single bit of space left to place the finished turkey when it emerged from the oven, nor was there anyone who felt comfortable carving it from the bathroom.

So, she over-reached, which is something we’ve both been known to do. Uncharacteristically, I under-reached this year, and I have to report that it felt good. We found a friend willing to take a party of six at their table (the basic issue family, exchange student from Rome, buddy college student from China), so I puttered around and made my one requested item: fluffy rolls that are the dream food of the inviting friend’s 17-year-old boy. I added a few bottles of sparkling cider for the kids, rustled up a champagne and cranberry cocktail for the grownups, and felt so guilty about my sloth that I threw together some garlic breadsticks on Thanksgiving morning, which the teens ate the moment I put them on the coffee table.

Debbie and I did our Saturday morning analysis and concluded that the only thing we’ve ever loved about this holiday was being together the day before, playing mad scientists in a kitchen. But we’re 1,197 miles away from each other now. She is an about-to-be adoptive mom for her foster son. There are, as they say, obstacles. “Honestly,” she sighed. “I think I’d be happy being a caterer, and just shipping it all off in boxes, because by the time the guests arrived I was sick of them, and they hadn’t even eaten yet.”

“But didn’t everyone like that new roasted banana and sweet potato thingy that Ina told you to make?” I nudged.  “Oh, I guess so,” she mused, and I could tell she'd already moved on.  “But I’m thinking about trying yams and jalepenos next year. Tyler Florent told me all about it.”

Value of 12 people having a Kansas City Thanksgiving in your Manhattan apartment:  $0.  Coming up with something even crazier to serve them 364 days from now: priceless.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Party Pooper

I didn’t exactly grow up at Tara, but I think that the Southern sensibility had a bigger influence on me than I sometimes realize. I’ve noticed this in a number of matters, including willingness to talk to strangers and tendency to wear too much perfume, but chiefly in the area of entertaining. I wasn’t invited to the Black and White Ball (it being a schoolnight and all), but I did grow up with a basic understanding of how to attend, and how to host, a party.

How to attend a party: If you said you were coming, come. Talk to a couple strangers. Compliment something the hostess has done, even if it’s to say, “I’ve never seen cocktail wieners with quite that shade of gray! Charming!” Find the correct place to throw your trash. Leave on time, and relatively sober.

How to host a party: Put out just a little bit too much of everything, especially ice. Don’t hide the trash can. If you’re tired or flustered or sick of the whole damn thing, don’t show it. Smile; for god’s sake, you’re the one who invited these people.

Moving to Minnesota was a shock to my system in many ways, but especially when it came to social matters. I quickly learned that eye contact and exuberant hand gestures were to be avoided as signs of the devil. Then I realized that there are only two times a Minnesotan entertains: 1) when a child is graduating from high school (begging for cash) and 2) when the hostess wants to get free swag from an in-home Party Ponzi Scheme (begging for stuff).

Nobody ever asked me over for a Friday night cocktail, but my mailbox was always full with requests to buy jewelry, Tupperware and sex toys, always under the guise of a “party.” My favorites of these is the “it’s really all about you, the merchandise is just an excuse” genre. Subject Line: “A Gathering of My Dearest Friends.” Text:  It's been too, too long since the hostess has really connected, you know, on a deeper level, with the amazing women in her life. An asterisk leads to the information that if these women prove to be as amazing as she hopes, the hostess will walk away with the free nesting canister set / choker and necklace combo / undereye concealer serum complex (with black cohosh).

My tell-it-like-it-is friend, Lisa, put it best when she told me, tartly, “I want to call up these chicks and say, ‘Look, do you need rent money? Can I write you a check? Help you apply for food stamps? Otherwise, take me off your mailing list, please.'"

Needless to say, I opt to stay home and miss these gatherings of amazing women on a regular basis. But it is fun to throw a shindig now and then, often just to provide an excuse to clean the bathroom. In my years as a hostess, I’ve witnessed some astonishing behaviors, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

The ridiculous includes those who see my party as merely a larger version of the Wings ‘N Things franchise at the mall. If there’s something they want that they don’t see, they don’t hesitate to demand it. In the old days, I used to comply, rustling through cupboards for a bag of herbal decaf tea for the Wiccan in my dining room, all the while ignoring the other 25 people who were holding their cups out, waiting for that decaf fill up.

Then, during an especially crowded and raucous Christmas Open House, my boss’ wife approached me with her three-year-old in tow. “Grace would like a juice box,” she said. “There’s a whole cooler of drinks right over there,” I responded brightly, doing my best human arrow imitation. “There aren’t any juice boxes and she wants one,” the women repeated. I blush to tell you that I said something about how maybe I had one down in the basement refrigerator, and yes, dear reader, I clomped all the way downstairs to get it for the dear little tyke, ignoring my other guests and sanity in the process.

That was the end. The next event I held was a party with the express purpose of dumpling making and eating, in honor of the Chinese New Year, for a group of families who had adopted kids from China. We got together on a Sunday afternoon. The kids rolled, I fried and steamed, and we all had a great time. Then one little darling decided that she, in fact, hated dumplings, and that what she genuinely wanted, nay, needed, was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The beleaguered mom smiled at me with the clear expectation that I’d spring into action with my loaf of Wonder bread and Skippy. I held firm. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s about dumplings today. Next time, bring a sack lunch.” She kept up a good, steady stream of whining, but I stood my ground and managed not to point out that there is a difference between being a guest in someone’s home and being a patron of the local Applebee’s. And, of course, I never invited the little brat or her parents again. Which was probably just fine with them, given my perverse refusal of her dainty whims.

There have been some sublime hosting moments, too. In addition to all the times when it’s great just to look at the faces of people who make you laugh and who expect nothing more from you than not to tell that damn story about the softball game and the woodchuck one more time, there are certain guests who rise to the occasion. At the Christmas Open House a few years back, a little girl, unbeknownst to the grownups, had a significant bowel incident in the powder room off the kitchen, an issue she tried to remedy by introducing several hundred sheets of toilet paper into the ancient plumbing. Here is how I found out about this incident: Tom Furey, a man who is in my Guest Hall of Fame, approached me apologetically. “The toilet was overflowing,” he said, “So I found a plunger in the basement and fixed that, and I’ve mopped up the mess and started a load of laundry. But,” he added sadly, “I just needed to tell you that I can’t find any more guest towels.”

Now there’s a man who deserves a glass of champagne.

This coming holiday season, I will be both guest and hostess. I will do my best to find the trash can, stay sober, and keep a smile plastered across my craggly old puss. And even if I don’t walk away at the end of the night with the stacking canister set, I’m sure that I’ll have a very good time when I gather with my amazing friends.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why I Volunteer

The kids and I were perched at the kitchen counter the other day and I was doing my television producer imitation (family style), including a rundown of the show for the day. In our kitchen, there’s no whip from London to Kabul – just the endless monorail ride (Mom, chief engineer) from middle school to high school to the mall to rehearsal to practice to the orthodontist to home.
My story segment sounded something like this: “Then I’m dropping off the dish for the teacher thank-you lunch, then I’m heading to school for a tutoring session, and don’t forget I’ve organized that food shelf cleanup tonight.”

Angie, our exchange student, (and, as usual, the only one listening to me) asked, “Why do you volunteer like this?”

I paused, not even realizing that the last several activities I had outlined were, in fact, unpaid. I thought back on the past week, during which I had helped with silent auction donations and set up for a fundraiser for Families with Children from Asia, assisted kids in casting ballots in the mid-term elections for Kids Voting Minneapolis, held some babies at the Crisis Nursery -- and, as we used to say for incentive videos I scripted long ago – more, much more.

Angie stumped me with that question. I am a “what and when and how” kind of woman these days, and I usually don’t have much time for “why.” So I offered her a generic, “I like to help out” sort of answer, one that really didn’t address what she’d asked, and then I brooded about it all day.

Why DO I volunteer, anyway? My dance card started filling up in earnest three years ago, when I looked at my life and decided that I hadn’t gone out of my way for anyone who wasn’t my child in way too many days. So I made a new year’s resolution to say “yes” to every single volunteer activity that anyone asked me to do for the next 12 months.

It was a full year, but, in the way of volunteering, one that brought satisfaction, fun and many new friendships. I was just congratulating myself on a resolution well done, when a friend suggested we meet for coffee on December 30 and asked me to volunteer for my third stint on the Families with Children from Asia Board of Directors. “Did you know about my resolution?” I asked. She smiled. Word must have gotten around. But she’d sandbagged her way in, just under the wire, so I complied. And of course, the whole friends-fun-accomplishment soundtrack can start playing now, because serving on the Board, in charge of service project development, has been a great experience.

So the resolution accounts for some of the “what,” but still doesn’t cover the “why” of Angie’s question. I pondered it some more as I drove to Southwest High School, where I volunteer as a writing tutor after school. I was assigned to Abdi, a skinny freshman with a big smile, who told me he had “many many many” five paragraph essays to write. He decided to tackle a character analysis first, from The Bean Trees, a book I remembered fondly, but vaguely. He typed in a few clumsy sentences, along the lines of “They were alike and also very different.” Then I started to ask questions, and I was, as they say, sore amazed. Turns out he’d not only read the book, but he’d memorized whole sections. More, he’d thought about the characters and had strong opinions on their motivations; he was just having trouble putting all his thoughts into words.

It didn’t take much effort on my part. A few starters like “Do you think that’s why she acted that way?” and “Is that what helped her understand what was really going on?” were all he need to get going. I looked over his shoulder and corrected a few things that spell check wouldn’t. When he decided to start a sentence with “Moreover,” I gave him a high five and told him that “moreover” is like crack for English teachers.

And then, in the way that always happens when people work together, the real stuff happened. First, he apologized for his spelling. “You know, this isn’t my first language; I am from Somalia, so I struggle.” I agreed with him that English was awfully hard to learn, and then I told him how my boyfriend Mr. Winston Churchill still said that it was the best and richest language in the whole world. It occurred to me that he thought Mr. Churchill and I had a thing going on right now, and I decided not to explain.

Work proceeded apace. The more questions I asked, the more Abdi realized that he already had all the sentences he needed; he just had to hit the keys and get this thing going. We were exclaiming about his brilliant use of “On the other hand” (another rock in the English teacher’s crack pipe, I promised) when the librarian told us to be quiet.

Abdi confessed, “I am always in trouble for my loudness. It is because I am Somali.” He puffed out his bony chest and thumped it. “We are proud to be ourselves, proud of what we say! But,” he confessed, “here at school, my friends say, ‘Abdi, I am right here, don’t shout at me.'” He shook his head, laughing at himself.

“It’s okay,” I told him, “My family is Irish. They’re loud AND drunk, so at least your people are sober.”

He liked that one.

The Media Center was closing, and we finished up the paper. For a moment, we both sat and stared at the screen, satisfied. In my world, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than writing exactly what you meant to say, writing it well, and, of course, being done. I was happy to share a little of that satisfaction with him.

The most important stuff always gets said at the front door, and this session was no exception. As he stuffed all his books into his backpack (such thin shoulders, I thought, to carry so much), he told me about his college plans. I asked about majors. Criminal justice, he told me. “My dad was killed by a rival clan in Somalia when I was two,” he told me, “and I don’t want anyone else to ever have to feel like that.”

Well, that stopped me. I put a hand on his arm. “Abdi, I am so sorry.” Big smile from him. And then he said, loudly, “It’s okay. Just be here next week and help me with my next paper, okay?”

We parted ways at the front door.

I thought about how to answer Angie’s question. Why do I volunteer? Because I only have so many hours on this earth, and I get to choose how to spend them. I thought of the hours that fill so many of my days, spent cleaning up things I didn’t get dirty, cooking food I don’t want to eat, taking people places I don’t want to go or listening to the people around me blither on like Charlie Brown grownups. If that’s 90 percent of the pie chart of my life, I need to save a sliver for something else, to make some space for hearing what Abdi has to tell me.

And that, for lack of a better answer, is why I volunteer.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Heal, Heel

I got up at 5:30 a.m. last Thursday, already behind on work. In the dark, I couldn’t find my heavy shoes, so I threw on a cheap pair of slippers. On this one choice, a woman’s future rested. Within minutes, I was in the downstairs bathroom, seeing something that needed a bit of a quick wipe up. Up two stairs to get a rag. Down the two stairs to—land on my ass, feet splayed out in front of me.
I had, it turns out, broken a bone spur in the bottom of my heel, a fact that would be revealed to me several hours later, as I sat, white-faced and exhausted from crying, in front of an x-ray of my foot.

Since I was a child who never left the basement for playtime and am an adult who prefers yoga and Zumba to anything involving point-keeping, I have never broken anything. And now, I’ve got an air boot and a set of crutches and a prescription for Vicodin, just like a Big 10 athelete who got tackled and who is in danger of losing his scholarship.

I can remember a time, long ago, when I was very sick. The day I came home from the hospital, a friend said, “I’ll bet you’re learning some important lessons.” If I hadn’t been so weak, I would have hit her.

So I’m trying to avoid turning this into a Very Special Episode of the Julie! Show, but some lessons have emerged. Of course this is the perfect opportunity to learn how much I am loved, and how much everyone wants to give back to me for all the family sacrifices I’ve made. My particular family seems to be passing on that opportunity at the moment, but hey, the door is open. They remind me of someone at a funeral who says “be sure to tell me if you need anything” and then walks backward out the door and leaves on a six-week vacation. To Bali.

Of course my daughter immediately posted the news of my accident on Facebook; bowel movements (so far) are the only thing that escape its pervasive, teen-ruling radar. But, on Thursday night, when I lay in bed, pleading for ice, the tv was on just a little too loudly, attention just a little bit elsewhere, so I crawled down the stairs on my butt and got my own ice. I'm learning that the true meaning of the offer is "be sure to tell me if there's anything I can do while staring at my computer screen."  Since it's not possible to "click to bring mom ice" in the way one can click to send rice abroad, I'm out of luck.

“Anything I can do” is easy enough to say, but not so easy to pull off. I’ve noticed, for example, that getting any object, even as small as a spool of thread, moved from one floor to another is not part of the Teamster Sympathy contract under which the house is currently operating. It’s a different union, is what I’m guessing, but when I ask, “could the basket of laundry get to the basement?” I see furrowed brows and quizzical expressions, perhaps indicating a hope that the laundry will fly there of its own accord.

There are some benefits to the situation, mostly, so far, the drugs. The Vicodin has mellowed me to the point of almost-scary agreeability, and the children love it. I think of Vitamin V as the ultimate man drug. It makes me just sit still, happy to watch the passing parade and see the busy little bees getting work done. Whatever, I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to get it all done, honey. Time for my nap. I started barking orders about putting things back in their proper place on Sunday and Mary Katherine said, “Isn’t it time for another pill, Mom?”

I guess this is the beginning of the end. Thanks to cataract surgery four years ago, I can’t drive at night, and now I’ve had a fall in the home. Next, the walker, and the portable commode. And I haven’t even joined AARP yet. I swear that I’ll check out on my own before I cling to strands of a useless life, but how will I know?

I have a trick question I ask the girls: “What brand of adult diaper will you buy for me?” The correct answer is “Shoot you.”

That's right, honey.  I just hope that the job of pulling the trigger isn’t handled by a different union.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Like the Other Mommies

“I’m so glad you’re my mom,” she told me as we were driving home. “I don’t know anyone else’s mom who would let them do something like this.”

There’s a statement that will strike fear in the heart of any parent.

In this particular case, I didn’t think that I’d done anything too off-the-wall, just purchased a cigarette holder (and fake cigarette) for Mary Katherine, all by way of completing her Halloween costume: Holly Golightly, as portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

I’d taken Mary Katherine and Olivia to the Halloween Store for this particular purchase. Mary Katherine and I had shrieked and hidden our eyes at the entrance, causing much embarrassment to poor, beleaguered Olivia. (Okay, I’m sorry, but somehow “disemboweled ghouls with rotting flesh” do not spell F-U-N to me, and I express that feeling with some gusto.)

We found the holder first and then began a lengthy debate on what we’d put in it. I suggested buying a pack of actual cigarettes and the girls gave me that “you’re being inappropriate” look, the one where they’re 80 and I’m 15. “It’s a good idea,” I said, “because then I could start on my new smoking habit before New Year’s Resolution Time.” I vow every year to take up smoking at the New Year, just to balance out all the quitters. I ask for ashtrays for Christmas every year. Needles to say, the charm of this little tic wore off on my children many years ago.

“You’re not going to buy cigarettes, and you can’t smoke them at the dog park, either,” Olivia (age 12) told me firmly. I had a big idea the other day that I could smoke at the dog park with impunity, and that it would be the perfect place for my new habit to begin. Olivia was not impressed and had been discouraging this plan for some weeks now.

Luckily, the girls found fake cigarettes at the check-out counter, another purchase for Mommy, and the one which prompted Mary Katherine’s tweeny gratitude.

Was it true, I thought later? Would No Other Mommy have allowed cigarettes to be part of a costume?

I thought about the other mothers of the kids at Mary’s school.

I realized she was right.

I’ve never quite been a Regular Mommy type, anyway. I was always more comfortable with the other adoptive parents in Emma’s set, but once I lighted in the land of birth parents, I was really out of my element. Play Dates? I never understood them and I quickly stopped being invited to them. Honey, if I enjoyed your company I’d hire a sitter and go drink wine with you somewhere, not try to carry on a conversation over the noise of the “Dragon Tales” episode coming out of your rec room.

If I failed at Play Dates, I really fail at worrying. I am, of course, a World-Class Worrier, Middle Weight Division. But I never seem to worry about the right things. I remember talking with another mommy recently about the School Year Abroad program, which Emma has been considering. “It sounds like great program,” I said, and the first words out of this woman’s mouth were “Alcohol! Sex!” She repeated this panicked cry several times. And while I had many worries about this particular program – Would we be able to afford it? Would Emma spark an international incident that would lead to a global diplomatic crisis? I had figured that alcohol and sex were a)pretty much already available in these parts, last I heard; and b) not under my current control, only my continued advice.

So there I am. Bad at play dates, bad at worrying, but great at buying inappropriate accessories for campy Halloween costumes. I give me an F Plus.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Sounding Like Myself

I remember a beautiful day in early summer, about ten million years ago. I had escaped my small child for a long weekend and had landed on the rooftop of my best friend’s apartment building, overlooking the Hudson River in New York. On that Saturday afternoon, the sun on my pale Minnesota face, I sat with her and some of her friends, drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade and relishing a rare moment of freedom.

Ryan, her pal, had bonded with me over our deep dislike for the Sangria Debbie had initially tried to serve us (it’s her single fault as human being, that Sangria, but it’s a big one. All I need to tell you is this: cardamom. Case closed.) The conversation turned to my daughter and he expressed vast, boundless buckets of amazement that I was an actual mom. Somehow, I didn’t seem like the mom type, he said. “Yeah,” I snorted, “That’s what my kid says.” Debbie overheard us and turned to Ryan with an explanation. “You’re looking at it the wrong way. She’s not any different with her daughter than she is with anyone else. She’s just like this. Exactly the same.”

Ryan gawked, amazed. “Like a … grownup?” he gasped.

Debbie nodded. “The child seems to be doing okay so far,” she said, “but I’m monitoring the situation.”

I remember feeling puzzled. How else would I act around my child, than just like myself? But, upon deeper reflection, and a couple or five more lemonades, I had an answer – I had never cultivated a Kiddy Voice.

I had always vowed never to use that voice, the sing-songy, treacly constriction of the vocal chords that grownups used as a way to “connect” with children. Even worse was when they pretended to be their own actual mute baby, suddenly brought to speech by the miracle of their parent’s ventriloquism. “What a cute baby,” a stranger would say (not me; I hated babies back then). “Can you say ‘Whhhy thank you’? Can you say ‘I AM a big boy! I am SO big!’” the mother would blither. No he can’t say it, dimwit, he’s four months old.

Okay, so I cursed around my kids and used big words and quoted lots of Broadway show tunes in their presence, but I never did THAT. Another thing I never did was talk about my child and I as if we, together, comprised a single unit. I have a friend, otherwise quite the Savvy Sally, whose kids are now in grade school, and she’s still displaying this strange tic. “How are you?” I will ask, only to be told, “Well, we had an ear infection, but we still love third grade.”

I also swore I would never treat my children like trained ponies. I grew up with parents who felt it perfectly acceptable to command me: “Sing Mr. Booze from 'Robin and the Seven Hoods.'” And they weren’t even an attentive audience. Once I started, and they remembered what a bad voice I had, they’d go back to smoking and arguing with the friends they were trying to impress. My entire childhood was like a third-rate club act. Downtown Vegas, not the Strip. I realize, of course, that my children will use my smug refusal of command performances against me. I can just see Emma, Kleenex box perched on her enhanced breasts, lying on the couch of a $500 a session Freudian that all the other venture capitalists visit, sobbing, “She never asked me to showcase my talents!”

I don’t have occasion to hear the Kiddy Voice very often these days, thank God, but I heard an especially ripe version of it recently, and it gave me a rash. I was back on Sunday morning shift at the Crisis Nursery, working without either one of my daughters (don’t ask) and serving up yogurt at lunch to a very sweet 8-month-old. I had spent the morning alone in the baby room and hadn’t seen who else was on duty. Then I heard the Kiddy Voice at a seat next to me: “You want to eat all wis num num yoggie so you’ums will gwow big n stwong!”

I got a good look at her. Why is it, I wondered, that the beefier the lass, the more annoying the voice? Since it was Sunday morning and she was here, I surmised that she’d been drummed out of her church choir and was torturing the two-year-olds instead. Because I am inherently Evil and heading Straight to Hell, I named her Mrs. Oh-My-Goodness. All she lacked was a Shirley Temple bow atop her porcine head.

She went on, narrating each biteful. The kids seeemed able to tune her out, but I wasn’t so lucky. I hated the fact that I was one more hag-faced white woman, just like her. I wished, not for the first time, that I could transform myself into Wonder Granny when I walked into the front door of the nursery. I would have a church hat and formal dress, beautifully dark skin, a pillowy bosom, and a thick Southern accent. I would be able to say, “Rest your head right here chil,” and the kids would melt, finally relaxed, into my lilac-scented folds.

I see the kids looking at me when I meet them at the nursery. One quick flick and their eyes move away. Just another bony white lady, nothing here that can give me what I need.

I shouldn’t blame the woman. I suppose everyone has different voices for different occasions. Our family called our home's doorbell “Daddy’s Happy Button,” because the sound of company at the door could transform my father from a raging, reptilian beast into a jovial host in mere seconds. When I was older, my mother had a “Julie’s on the Phone and Company’s Here” voice. I could always tell when someone was with her and I called, because she’d go through a very happy, affected trill: “Oh hellllloo, Juuuulllie!” At the time, it bugged me, but I realize now she wanted to show off to her friends that she was busy, and popular, and that I loved her. Not such bad things, really.

There are voices that simply have to be endured. I know that, for the moment, Mrs. Oh-My-Goodness' is going to be one of them, at least until she burns out on volunteering.  (The jovial types don't last very long, I've noticed.) She likes the sound of her own voice, and loves the idea of loudly showing all the other grownups how well she “relates” to children. And if the children aren’t paying attention, she’s still Doing Good, gosh darn it.

And, me?  I’m still rarely age-appropriate, and I continue to drop way too many F-bombs, but at least I can say I sound like myself, all of the time. For today, I’ll take that as a good thing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Banana Bread, Refugee Birds, Sulfurous Eggs and the Walking Ashtray: Four Steps to Home Office Survival

Last week, I was finishing a big project and finally making progress. The only sound in the house was the clicking of the laptop. Then the phone rang. It was a client who wanted to talk for a few minutes, so that was the time that All Hell decided it would be a good time to Break Loose. The dogs, the kids, UPS Man, the knocking-door neighbor, the whistling teakettle – everyone seems to know when a customer is calling Julie, who could use A Little Quiet Around Here, for Crying Out Loud. After I restored peace (the mailman had been arriving, and it was Boomer’s day, apparently, to alert everyone in a five-mile radius), I apologized to my caller. “I work from home,” I said, “so it’s hard to keep things under control sometimes.” There’s an understatement. I started working from home when my oldest child was an infant, and sometimes, I’ve succeeded beautifully. Sometimes, not so much. Here are my four simple rules for the home office, all learned the hard way.

Step One. Shut Up About Your Home Life. Back when I was still an office dweller, I had a meeting with two sales guys. They mentioned a colleague of mine who worked from home two days a week. They referred to her, with much venom, as “Banana Bread.” Turns out that they had been on a conference call with her and she had said, “Just a second, I have to take some banana bread out of the oven.” It seemed like a perfectly normal thing to me – I mean, she was at home and I assumed she had an oven there – but it enraged these two. I realized that these men, who were not exactly kings of multi-tasking, were uncomfortable with someone who switched roles so easily. Was she working on the Chrysler account, dammit, the most important sales opportunity in the history of time, or was she baking bread? The idea that she could do both things at once was ludicrous to these geniuses. So I learned to keep my mouth shut about life and speak only of business. I might be folding laundry during a boring conference call, but I tried to convey the impression that I was standing at attention, pencil poised to capture the genius I was hearing.

I’ve gotten pretty good at this compartmentalization. One day last spring was really my finest hour. Our cats were going through a phase that involved stunning small birds (sometimes I began to think they’d found little feline Tasers), dragging them into the house through the cat door, and then amusing themselves when the birds regained consciousness and tried to escape. After the thrill (screaming and pants wetting) of the first dozen or so of these events, I grew calm. Success depends on the right tools, and my daughter’s lacrosse stick proved a perfect small-bird scooper. One afternoon I was on the phone with a customer, mapping out a delivery schedule for a series of feature articles. I drifted downstairs for a glass of water and came upon a bird in the kitchen, flapping wildly. Without breaking stride, I pulled the lacrosse stick off the coat rack, scooped up the bird, and flung it out the door, all while discussing the schedule quite calmly. Client happy, bird saved. I felt like Wonder Woman.

Step Two. Everything is a Meeting. If I have to leave at 2:15 every day to pick up my kids at school: “Gosh, I’m sorry, could we do it a half hour sooner; I have a meeting at 2.” If I promised to wrangle first graders for the morning assembly: “I’m packed earlier in the day, but my afternoon is wide open.” Whenever someone is trying to schedule my time, I refer to everything I find more important than them “a meeting.” No one wants to hear about the chiropractor appointment or the Pilates class, either. It’s either Work or Not Work, and there is no need to provide any more detail than that.

Step Three. Define your Emergencies. A friend of mine, who also worked from home, was growing frustrated with the constant kiddie interruptions. So she held a training session with her tots, discussing What Is An Emergency (smoke, blood, police cars) and How to Interrupt Mommy (walk in quietly and lay a small hand on her forearm). The very next day, she was on the phone with a customer when she felt the hand on the forearm. Her four-year-old whispered, “If smoke is coming out of the kitchen, is that a ‘mergency?” Turns out she’d put some eggs on to boil, had gotten the phone call, and had walked away from the stove. She now had a kitchen full of sulfurous, roasted eggs, but her son had acted admirably, so she figured it was a win all around.

Step Four. Find the Mute Button and Learn How to Use it. I’ve gotten very adept at switching from “That’s an excellent strategic vision, Phil, and I think we should articulate it in an interpretive dance, or perhaps a PowerPoint presentation,” to [MUTE BUTTON ENGAGED] “You will never see the inside of a mall again if you don’t turn down that damn tv while I’m on the phone!” to [MUTE BUTTON DEACTIVATED] “So let’s start assigning roles and responsibilities, shall we?”

I’ve only ever handled the button incorrectly one time, and I think, in retrospect, that it was a job ender.

I had, at the time, a four-year-old and a one-year-old child at home. I also had a boss, the Walking Ashtray, who used her German luxury vehicle as a smoking lounge, among her other darling personality quirks. Childless and carefree, she frequently called emergency meetings at 5 or 6 p.m., which seemed to be when the hangover had worn off and the nicotine had reached its peak in her bloodstream.

During one of these marathon calls, I heard Mary Katherine crying in her crib in the next room and ran to get her, after deftly pressing the mute. I brought the sobbing child into my office and patted her back while I tried to listen. Ashtray kept barking, “Julie, what do you suggest?” and I kept pressing and unpressing the mute button, trying to mouth the right business words in between the sobs. Finally, confused, I failed to hit the button, and, in response to one of Ashtray’s brilliant bon mots, the entire conference call heard me mutter, “I love you, honey.” Ashtray hated children, hated love, and, after that phone call, hated me even more than before. It was just a matter of time before she told me that I had to work full-time in the office or be fired.

Guess which I picked.

That was several years ago. Ashtray, last I heard, was selling real estate in Florida, which is such a fitting occupation for her that I couldn’t have invented it. And me? I use the mute button more for the dogs than the kids, but I still keep quiet about what’s going on at home. And sure, I’d love to get together to discuss that project with you. My afternoon is packed, but I’m wide open in the morning.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beauty Base Zero

It was Southwest High School’s Homecoming this week, and I kept tripping over School Spirit in the hallway. It took up a lot of space, energetic and otherwise. But Emma and Angie really managed to pull off the “dressed in purple and sporting war paint” look, which can be tricky, so I was impressed. Last night was the Homecoming Dance, so the stylin’ was flyin’ at the Upstairs Bathroom Command Center.

If this house were a magazine, it would be a fall-season combo issue of In Style, Glamour, plus a supersize spread of “Who Wore it Best?” pages. Here is the magazine this house would NOT be: Real Simple.

Anyone under 20 who walks through our doors leaves with a makeover. It’s like a movie montage – sweet girls arriving for sleepover, sultry starlets leaving the next morning, having Dad carry their sleeping bags because the manicure needs to stay fresh.

Our house is like a giant Beauty Blob that spreads over its inhabitants. It misses me, consistently (honestly? Have you seen me lately? I look more like Ma Joad every day), but it covers the girls something fierce.

This summer, we hosted a lovely student from Nanjing, who told us about her school’s strict appearance policy: no nail polish, no earrings, nothing fancy with the hairdos. Within 24 hours, the girl could say “mani pedi” in flawless English, and was already well-versed in the stylistic differences between flat irons and curling irons, with the clear understanding that the “Chi,” whatever it did, was an object of deep aspiration. She went back to China with a suitcase full of lip gloss and a completely corrupted attitude.

And while Emma had been seriously considering asking for a boy as an exchange student, I can’t quite see how that might have worked. The brassiere-shopping marathons, the long discussions of threading vs. plucking – I wonder how he would have stayed connected to the family when all anyone around here wants to do is try on shoes.

At The House on Maybelline Street, we remain committed to gleaming, glossy, luscious gorgeousness, the sort that’s never found in nature but has primary residence in LA. The commitment was in evidence on the Saturday afternoon of the homecoming dance. The shower started running around 3 p.m. I was leaving for 5 p.m. Mass when I finally caught sight of Emma. Ducking into the bathroom to brush my teeth, I noticed an array of tubes and bottles I didn’t even know we owned. Her skin has been on the planet for all of fifteen years; seriously, what does she need to remove from it, anyway? Based on the exfoliation lineup on display, I was surprised there was anything left of her.

But there she was, striding purposefully into the bedroom. (Emma is a purposeful strider by nature; even when she was learning to walk, she went fast, and in a straight line.) “I’m at Beauty Base Zero,” she announced, conveying the attitude that I might want to pick up a notebook and jot this down.

“Do tell more,” I said, on cue.

“Beauty Base Zero is the pure, raw state in which you must put yourself before you begin to add on layers of polish and makeup and whatever.”

“About this Zen state of pre-glamour,” I inquired. “Do the boys get themselves to Base Zero, too?”

The returned look, pitying, indicated that if the boys attending this dance had bothered to take a shower, she would consider herself lucky. Boys, I sensed, were not going to get a lot of time with Emma tonight, at least not more than the mirror.

She flipped her well-conditioned hair back with her perfectly exfoliated hand and sighed. “Only three hours to go,” she barked to her flawless reflection. “Time to get to work.”

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Your Welcome: The Grammar Vandal Strikes Southwest High

Yes, officer, I did deface that poster in the halls of my daughter’s high school. But no jury in the world, as least one that knew the difference between possessives and contractions, would ever convict me.

Here’s what happened: Mary Katherine and I were killing time at intermission during a play. We saw a lovely four-color poster for National Coming Out Day (October 11! It just seems to come earlier every year. And I haven’t even wrapped my National Coming Out Gifts, or finished hanging the festive National Coming Out Day garlands!)

The poster encouraged everyone to celebrate that day by wearing a “name badge that identifies you’re orientation.”

Of course you can’t blame me for whipping out a ballpoint and changing the “you’re” to “your.” And yes, I did add just a teeny bit of editorial comment: “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.” Golly, that will learn ‘em.

Mary Katherine, by the way, thought all of this was great. It reminded me of one of her favorite games when she was small, which she invented and named, “Playing Hurdmans.” She’d loved the play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and she was especially taken with the smoking, cursing, bullying delinquents of the piece, the Hurdmans. We’d finish Sunday breakfast and she’d beg, “Let’s Play Hurdmans.” The game involved her acting out crimes – setting fire to the cat was a popular one, as I recall – and me reacting with shock and horror. Even then, this girl knew that villains get the best parts.

So there we were in the hallway, me feeling like a cross between a pinch-faced librarian and Zorro, her laughing and egging me on. The minute I’d finished with my egregious act of vandalism, she turned to me, eyes shining. “Let’s deface something else before Act Two!” she urged, grinning wickedly. Turns out her orientation has been a closeted poster-defacer all these years, and it took this one bold move for her to come out.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sparkle, Mary Katherine, Sparkle

Thank God for mandatory public education. Without it, my kids would have to be home schooled, and by me, which is a scary thought. My knowledge tends to run very deep in a few frivolous areas, and quite shallow in the ones that count (fractions).

Left to my own devices, I’d educate my kids on stylistic differences in the work of Richard Rodgers when he was working with Hart vs. Hammerstein, but I’d probably leave out stuff that teachers tend to care about. Hey, I’d say, “I Wish I Were in Love Again” is way more fun.

Even though she has been forced to go to a so-called regular school for eight years, I have done my best to provide Mary Katherine, the budding thespian, with a bit of curriculum reinforcement on the stuff that really matters. With this goal, I’ve occasionally held “mandatory movie nights” (usually when Emma, who fears black and white, is not home).

Was I wrong to screen “All About Eve” when she was nine? Too late now, and she does a killer Margo Channing impersonation, complete with fake cigarette and cocktail. Likewise, she’s been forced to watch “Casablanca” (And “Play it Again, Sam” for reference), “Philadelphia Story,” and other lesser films, all with the goal of building up her knowledge of what’s vital to me and arcane at best to people who can add and subtract.

This weekend, I had occasion to wonder if my Classics Curriculum was perhaps a bit limited. My pal Joel came to town, and, browsing at a garage sale the day of his arrival, I found a great fifty-cent treasure – a VHS copy of “Valley of the Dolls.” It’s for happy circumstances such there is still a VCR in the house.

Joel was delighted with his gift and immediately began spouting lines: “The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's ME, baby, remember?” and “They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope.”

Well, then.

We watched the movie together that night, and, while its charms were lost on everyone else, Mary Katherine understood right away. Who needs a classic of script and cinematography when you can have Patty Duke spouting “SPARKLE, Neely, SPARKLE!”

Mary Katherine and Joel reveled in the movie’s badness. She learned the important “so bad it’s good” lesson from our visiting professor, God bless him. Monday morning, dressed in her uniform and heading off to school, she turned back to me with a wicked grin on her face and declared, “I want a doll! I want a doll!”

I can’t wait to see where this lesson shows up on her transcript.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Buying Groceries

When I was growing up, my family could have won a contest for Best Use of Euphemism in a Suburban Setting, had there been such an award. If a sensitive topic couldn’t be ignored completely, there was a strange set of Kendrick-only vocabulary words with which it could be dealt. My sister, for example, was in her first semester of nursing school before she learned that the correct anatomical terms were not “front bottom” and “back bottom.”

My own parenting goal has been to remain euphemism-free as much as possible, but it often gets me into trouble. A few years ago, for example, I was chaperone for a cabin of middle-school girls who were members of the youth symphony. As they were settling in for the night, gathered at the end of my bunk (it wasn’t my magnetic personality; it’s where the chocolate chip cookies were), their talk turned to boys and dating. One of girls said, “I heard it’s illegal to go on a date with a seventeen year old.” They turned to me. I glanced up from whatever I was reading and said offhandedly, “No, dear, it’s just illegal to have sex with him.” Talk about a way to make kids get quiet. The cabin was stone cold silent, and more than a few mouths were gaping open. The question-asker turned to Emma, awed, and asked, “Is she always like that?” indicating that my frankness was way-cool. “Yeah, she’s pretty much always the same,” Emma sighed, weary and miserable. Sexual frankness may be desired in a cabin chaperone, but it’s a trait to be avoided in a mother.

One day this summer, though, I fell prey to euphemising, if that’s a verb. And I not only initiated the euphemistic use, I invented the new term. Our family, I think, will never be the same. Here’s how it started -- I was entertaining one of my best friends, Maren Woodhouse, for the afternoon. Maren is what I would describe as the exact perfect age for a human – four and a half. She’s old enough to put on her own shoes, but young enough to have thus far avoided the demoralizing experiences that will be served up to her for the next 16 or so years in school.

Maren was at the kitchen counter, enjoying a frozen Gogurt, when Emma and Mary Katherine wandered in. Emma started talking about the foreign exchange student she was hoping we could get, and she mentioned once more how much fun it would be to get a boy and finally have a brother (significant look at Mary Katherine). I told her that I’d had a frank conversation with a family friend on that topic just yesterday, and that he had expressed astonishment that I’d allow a boy in the house under those circumstances. “They’ll be having sex all the time!” he told me. “Really?” I had asked, surprised. I had honestly thought that Emma was more interested in a basketball-playing buddy than a sex partner, but I thought I ought to let her know the word on the street and get her reaction.

“He Thinks I’m Going to Be HAVING SEX?!” she shrieked. “Having sex in the basement? In my room? Having sex with a foreign boy? Having sex?!”

At this point in the conversation, my attention turned to the little Gogurt-eater at my elbow. I have had occasion to witness her word-for-word reenactment of conversations she found interesting, and I didn’t think her mom would appreciate this particular line of dialogue turning up at the Woodhouse dinner table that evening. But I hadn’t seen Emma much over the summer (my hours being 5 a.m. – 9 p.m., hers being 1 p.m.– 3 a.m.), and I thought we ought to talk about this subject. So I fell prey to euphemism.

“For the continued purposes of this conversation,” I said, nodding significantly toward Maren, “let’s say, um …” I floundered for the right verb, then hit upon it. “Let’s say ‘buying groceries’ to describe this activity our friend thinks you will engage in with the exchange student.”

Emma picked up the phrase without a stumble and continued her rant. “If he thinks I’ll just haul off and buy groceries with some guy just because he’s in the same house, he’s cracked,” she went on. “I am not a grocery buying kind of girl. And I could go off and buy groceries anywhere, not just be so lazy as to buy groceries with my exchange brother.”

Maren kept working on her Gogurt.

Emma went on. “And what if we bought groceries and then I decided that I hated him? I’d be stuck here with him til June, and maybe he’d want to buy groceries and I wouldn’t. Ick.”

Mary Katherine got into the spirit of the thing. “What about double coupon days?” she deadpanned. “And recyclable bags?”

She and Emma laughed so hard they cried, and Mary rolled around on the floor a bit, which is a pretty normal occurrence that Maren studiously ignored.

“I’m done with my Gogurt,” my friend announced, “and I want to play with the Barbies.”

Since that day, my girls have trotted out “buying groceries” as the accepted description for all manner of sexual relations. Soon, I’m sure, they’ll embellish the euphemism with even more detail, including side-trip definitions for a quick trip to the market, or Sample Saturdays. I blush to consider the possibilities, but that might make them happier than anything. It isn’t easy to get their crazy old mother to blush.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Act Your Age

You could never say I was a girl who loved math (hardly), but there was one formula I always found fascinating – dogs age seven years for every one human year. I pondered this handy math fact quite a bit in my youth, considering the method by which all the dogs around me were racing ahead to grownupness, while I was still stuck as a little kid.

There weren’t any dogs in my house (mom and dad seemed to believe that caring for an animal would cut into all that precious time needed for addictive behaviors and bitter recriminations), so I amused myself by making calculations for the few dogs with whom I was acquainted – Tag the beagle, Tammy the pekinese and Tequila, the frightening mutt with one blue eye, one brown eye, and not a lot of hair, who lived in a house with nine kids. Even if he was a sophisticated 21 while I was just eight, I knew that Tequila had a worse lot in life than I did.

Like most of the things I was certain of in my childhood, this one turned out to be wrong. The actual formula, I am now told by reliable sources, is 10.5 dog years per human year for the first two years, then four dog years per human year for each year after that.

And that, my fellow liberal arts majors, is just too damn much math for me.

I’ve been thinking about chronological age quite a bit lately, since I’ve been spending time with people whose age is wildly different from my own. It’s exhilarating and also a bit unnerving. I understand that I was a born 40-year-old, and that my twitchy ways, which seemed very strange back in fourth grade, really hit their stride about 1998.

The great chronological disparity in the clan belongs to Mary Katherine. She arrived with degree of emotional maturity that pegs her at about 80 years old. Yet, for a great portion of her early years, Mary Katherine was content to live in perpetual slow mo. She never wanted to hurry up to the next developmental stage, and she didn’t care who knew it. “Don’t you want to do this, like all the big girls do?” I would ask about toilet training or giving up the high chair or whatever developmental next step on which I was currently fixated. She’d shoot me a pitying look and say, “No, not really.”

Then, this summer, little kid Mary Katherine became 23 overnight, bursting to move on-grow up-get started. The fact that she’s 12 is a major bummer to her at the moment, and I can only sympathize.

Her sister’s is an easy age to calculate. Emma was born 25, she still is 25, and I suspect she’ll be 25 when all her teeth fall out and she’s toddling about on a walker with tennis balls on the front legs. In Emma’s picture of the world, she has finished all the school she needs, has a great house on the beach, and holds down an incredibly lucrative job that involves handcuffing perps and saving the world. She is always driving down the coast in her convertible, her long hair flying back in the wind and remaining fabulously untangled. Being only 15 conflicts with this vision, just a bit. If there were a chance to leap herself forward, even one involving risky time machines or untested serums, she’d jump at the chance.

The new dog, Boomer, is about two, according to the shelter, and he is one person in the house who is doing a great job of acting his age, which is that of a teenaged boy. Only an adolescent could hoover up two-and-a-half-dozen cupcakes off the kitchen counter, with wrappers, and show such little regret, even on the, um, back end. Look long enough at his face and you can almost hear him saying, “Dude. That was sweeeeet.”

I think back to my envy of the mature 21-, 28-, and 35-year-old dogs of my youth. Why did I think it was so great that they were getting older faster than I was? They were just hurtling themselves that much more quickly toward the Final Appointment at the vet, or, in Tequila’s case, a one-way encounter with the Peavely Dairy truck. Like all kids, except Mary Katherine, I was in a hurry to grow up, and I was appreciative of those who’d tricked the system to do it faster.

I certainly wouldn’t want to be eight again, and I really still think that poor Tequila, from the family of nine children, earned himself a special golden doghouse in heaven. But I wish I had appreciated, back then, that there is no formula for time passing. Some years do go slowly. Some, the good ones, fly by. And sometimes, in retrospect, even the awfulest moments gain a golden haze, like the closeup shots in a Barbra Streisand movie.

In the meantime, I’m refusing to calculate Boomer’s age with the newfangled dog year formula. Besides the fact that it involves those pesky decimal points that always trip me up, I just don’t want to know. He’ll live while he’s alive, and then he won’t. Me, too, come to think of it. I just hope that I fill up some of those empty spaces in the years with something worthwhile. And there isn’t a math formula in the world that can help me do that.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Musical Perversity in Manhattan (with apologies to Mr. Mamet)

Last year, the highlight of my birthday celebration was when I got the oil in my Beetle changed at the Valvoline on 58th and Lyndale Avenue. (To answer your question, yes, I felt very sorry for myself). This year, the highlight was an evening of rapturous, transcendent splendor, or as close as you can get to such a concept in Greenwich Village. For this dramatic change in my annual fortunes, I have my good friend Virginia to thank.

On the cozy island of Manhattan, I’d imagine that there are bars which cater to every sort of decadence and perversity, including some that a sheltered Minneapolitan like me can’t even begin to imagine. Last Thursday night, it was my great good fortune to find a bar which catered to mine. Virginia has been telling me for years about Marie’s Crisis, a dank, dark, low-ceiling-ed slice of heaven, right there on Grove Street. In addition to absorbing her tales of a place that seemed like Oz, I’d also read Marc Acito’s take on a very similar place, in “How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater.”

Marie’s Crisis is a watering hole that caters to the sort of people who write bathroom graffiti about Julie Andrews (see below; it’s true). On one magical visit, Virginia told me that she realized she was standing next to (and singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” along with) Cheyenne Jackson, so she bought him a gin and tonic. But I digress, a Bway Queens are wont to do.

On the night we went, there were no stars in attendance, just people who prided themselves on knowing every part to every musical ever written, including whether the introductory chorus required an “oooh” or an “aaah,” and how many parts of harmony. The crowd was utterly diverse and, of course, completely unified. At one end of the bar, a big black lady had a voice so deep and low that I felt my chest rumble when she sang. Behind me, there was a boy whose hips signaled that he couldn’t be straight if his rent money depended on it. He swiveled happily to “La Vie Boheme,” performing a well-remembered choreography with his pal, apparently from their days in the chorus. “Now we cross!” he urged, and the two locked arms and grapevined stage left as if they were at the Wintergarden. At the other end of the bar sat an utterly unremarkable looking guy, one for whom the word “nebbish” was invented. Yet, he delivered a crisp, deeply projecting take on every tune. Hearing the remorse he brought to the simple line “I was happy” in “At the Ballet” was a highlight of my evening, if not my year.

Most people in bars are utterly distractable, while this crowd delivered laser-like concentration to the piano player and the music. And, while I suppose one hears lots of guffaws and sees plenty of fake smiles in a non-pervert bar, I could not recall, as I looked around the dim room, ever spending bar-time with people who seemed to be so deeply at peace, and so full of joy. There are precious few believers in the world, the ones who know that evenings really can be enchanted, that every mountain can most certainly be climbed, and that we can all be gayer than laughter. When we have a chance to sing together, it looks, and sounds like, the sort of church I could happily attend.

Thanks, Virginia. That was, truly, the best birthday ever.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Entertaining Angels

Summer Sunday mornings have been the same in our household for a number of years. They combine as much rugged outdoorsmanship as our group can handle (a few breaths of fresh air, but always with quick access to pavement and bathrooms) with an eclectic sort of spirituality that seems to fit our love for random variety. On Sundays at 10, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we are at the rotating church services held at the Lake Harriett bandshell.

We bike or walk, and bring along whatever able-bodied dog wants to join (and be used as a pillow for maximum lolling). We sit as far back as possible from the action, under a faraway tree that’s just within earshot of the service. We can never, ever, be found on the benches where the holy, attentive people are gathered. In fact, we’re as far back as it’s possible to sit while still calling it “going to church.”

With blankets, drinks, snacks and sometimes even the Sunday funnies to pass the time, we listen sporadically and comment frequently, with special attention to the quality of the musical offerings. We are heard to frequently marvel that the same 50ish woman with the awful voice seems to be trilling loudly in every denomination in the Twin Cities. She sure gets around.

Summer is winding to a close, and there are not many more semi-spiritual Sundays left for us. This past Saturday night, I looked deep into the eyes of my brood, realized that Sunday would be their last sleep-in for a while, and declared services “optional.” Much as I’d miss the kids, I thought it might be fun to sit quietly, act like a grownup and actually, you know, pray.

And then The Boy showed up. He used to be in school with my youngest, a few years ago. He has since left her school, which is a great place for an attractive blond child of normal intelligence, with a mommy and daddy and a minivan. For anyone else, not so much. He was in the not-so-much crowd, having some behavior and learning problems of which I was vaguely aware. Mary Katherine moved then, and moves now, in an ocean of girls, but his name came up frequently as the instigator of  actions she found repulsive. Boys.

We have run into him at outside church from time to time. He loved our old giant dog, and was very sad when he saw us in June and heard that the big dog had died in February. This Sunday, I saw him approach with a sinking heart. This kid is a talker. He found us right when the service was warming up, and came to meet the new giant dog and to tell me everything that had happened to him during the past six weeks. I was about to make some grownupy comment ("let's pay attention in church, dear"), when I happened to hear  what they were reading up at the bandshell. It was from Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

There goes the Sunday morning.

The Boy was telling me his worries, but in that boylike braggy way those male types have. “I’ll be riding my bike to middle school,” he told me, and then described (in detail; this kid does not spare the detail) the way he’d be arranging his lock so no one would steal the bike. So he was worried about theft. He’d gotten a cell phone, and gave me a long description of its technical features, then told me he’d been allowed to get it because he’d be alone while riding his bike. So he was worried about kidnappers. The Ransom of Red Chief flitted into my mind, but I swatted it away.

He got out his camera and began to show me every photo he’d taken of his Chicago vacation, including those from the plane window. I heard the ubiquitous church lady warm up for a shrill hymn, and I imagined Jesus holding his hands over his ears from the misery of hearing her singing, and worse yet, about his own self. So I thought about what I was doing, just looking deeply into the eyes of someone who had so much he wanted to tell me. If he was talking to a boring old woman like me, he must be desperate for someone to hear him.  True, he didn’t seem much like an angel -- just like a skinny boy who was trying not to let anyone know how afraid he was.

I hope I did what I was supposed to on Sunday.  I certainly didn't pay attention to church, but I did  entertain. And even if he wasn’t an angel, I had a sense that spending time with this kid was truly how I was supposed to celebrate one of my last summer Sundays.

Good luck at school this week, Boy. God go with you.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Why Pea See

I’ve been reading a book about Stagedoor Manor, the famous performing arts camp in upstate New York that was attended by Natalie Portman, Robert Downey, Jr., and a whole bunch of neurotic Manhattanites. In the early pages, I was sold on what a swell spot it is. One camper quote that caught me was, “The camp is like Oz. Your real life is in black and white, but the minute you step off the bus, everything is in color.”

Wow, I thought, I wonder if I could set up a crack lab in the downstairs bathroom so I could raise the $15,000 to send Mary Katherine to this camp next summer.

Then, as I was about halfway through the book, she got a part in a Minneasota Fringe Festival play that was being produced by Youth Performance Company’s Young Artists’ Council. I finished the book while I waited for her at rehearsals, and I began to wonder if Stagedoor Manor was more like Oz than perhaps I’d realized at first – replete with a pill-addled teen who would soon become a boozy train wreck, and perhaps with a scary flying monkey or two thrown in for good measure.

Biding my time and sitting on YPC’s comfy red couch, I read about the highly sophisticated campers who clawed and fought for those juicy Sondheim show roles. One visiting instructor said she had middle schoolers describe themselves as “Kristen Chenowith types” or “Sutton Foster types.” There were many stories about the camp’s lofty industry connections, but after a while, it really began to seem like an industry – grinding out row after row of determined, ambitious stars, and very few whole, good people who just happened to be actors.

I began to compare the descriptions I was reading with what was going on in rehearsals across the hall. The play in which Mary Katherine had been cast, “Semidarkness,” was a parody of “Twilight” that was far from Sondheim and much closer to Looney Tunes. Written by a group of funny and energetic under-21-year-olds, the show was bursting with silliness, satire and plenty of physical comedy.

But more than the material, there was the production process, which was collaborative, inclusive and – have I mentioned this yet? – fun. Mary would bounce out of rehearsals with a glowing face, full of stories of how hard they had worked and how much they had laughed.

This was her first show, and the other cast members were much older than she is, with many heading off to college the week after the show closed. They were not veteran performers by Stagedoor Manor standards – no agents, managers or imdb listings. They’d started hanging around the supremely welcoming environment of Youth Performance Company, then they’d stayed and learned some stuff. Some of them were heart-breakingly talented actors, I thought. As I began to put the names with the faces later, I realized that some of the most talented ones were the very people who had gone out of their way to be kind to Mary Katherine. They were about to leave YPC for college at the end of the summer, but they still took the time to show my middle schooler how it was done. You worked hard. You created something good with your friends. You put on a show.

The results have been on display this week. The show has gotten good reviews (one public radio guy called it “the best of the Fringe,” but then he got the name wrong and called it “Sunny Darkness.” Critics.). The houses have been fairly full, even at odd festival times like 10 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. But more importantly, the cast has worked together to pull off something wonderful and entertaining, no matter what a bunch of old people say. To use an “industry” term, not only is their end product high-quality, but they had a terrific process all along the way. They cherished each other’s company and tried to learn from one another. They enjoyed the ride.

Mary Katherine is determined, for the moment, to pursue a life in theater, so it won’t be long before she understands what a rare thing her experience with this show has been. Perhaps I’ve seen “All About Eve” one too many times, but I have a pretty good idea that she will be shouted at, disrespected, manipulated and double-crossed, probably all before she graduates from high school. She knows now that it won’t be easy, but she’s the only one who can ever decide if it’s worth it. I’m just happy that her start in the “industry” was such a kind and glorious way to begin a career.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Short Informational Meeting (and a Small, Tasteful Gift)

Henry David Thoreau warned that enterprises requiring new clothes should be avoided. I have an addendum for that one, Hank: walk quickly in the opposite direction whenever someone says that you are required to attend a short informational meeting.

Some people’s summers have been full, as Jack Nicholson famously said, of good times and noodle salad. My summer, on the other hand, has been full of informational meetings. I‘ve gotten the folder, received the complimentary pen and sipped the watery decaf. As the proceedings have unspooled, I have (so far) refrained from laying my head on the conference table and moaning; nor have I attempted to poke out my own eyeballs with that complimentary pen. And don’t think I haven’t been tempted.

A quick review of my summer includes the foster dog volunteer who made me drive all the way to the outer rings of desperate suburbia, and then informed me, upon noting my prompt arrival, that we’d postpone start time for 45 minutes “because people are running late.” When she followed up this news with the 411 that the meeting would be THREE hours long, I died, just a little bit, inside. The three-hour training turned out be one hour of useful information, larded with a two-hour-storyfest that covered every dog she’d every cared for, including a lengthy discourse on pustules that was not, I have to say, an appetite-booster.

I've got enough material for a SIM (Short, Informational Meeting) Hall of Fame & Shame.  Shame is for for the Crisis Nursery staffer whose idea of a four-hour training was to make the volunteer group take turns reading the training manual aloud to each other. Fame is for Shari DeBlieck at VEAP, whose information-packed volunteer introduction meeting stayed true to her promise.  It started on time, lasted exactly sixty minutes and included green lollipops at the end. Snaps to Shari.

Back here at home, Emma has officially become a Citizen of the World. Hosting an exchange student turned out to be her lifelong dream. Who knew? If this turns out to be the same sort of lifelong dream that the guitar was in fourth grade, we’ve got a problem, because we have a sixteen year old Italian arriving on Saturday, and I don’t think she’ll be happy with two weeks of enthusiasm followed by six months on the floor of Emma’s bedroom closet.

For an enterprise as lofty as world citizenship, there was both a home visit and a SIM. I sat for the requisite three hours in another room in another suburb, hearing many a wry anecdote of La Vie Internationale. Helpful tips included the suggestions to arrive at the student pickup point with a “small, tasteful gift.” Say again? Many families, I was told, had created interpretive posters and meaning-laden artwork.

Dear God.

We had a family discussion on the S. and T. gift idea, which went something like this:

Me: How about a photograph of us? We could be holding a sign that says “welcome.” I could even go to the dollar store and get a frame.

Emma: Gum. We should give her gum.

Me: After a pause for a Brian Keith rub of the face ("Family Affair” on You Tube!) Honey, it needs to be meaningful and welcoming.

Emma: Nothing says “welcome” like gum. If I came to a foreign country, full of foreigners, the one thing I would want is gum.

Me: It’s supposed to be lasting.

Emma: Minty mintiness, that’s what anyone would want.

Me: Let’s think about it and regroup tomorrow. Meet me in the living room at six p.m. for a short informational meeting.

Emma: Bring gum. I don’t go to meetings without gum.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why I Ate That Spider

Just so there’s no confusion, I’m admitting it right up front. I ate a spider. I plucked it off the summer flower on which it was crawling, sandwiched it between two snowy white petals, popped it in my mouth and swallowed.

In my defense, I have only this to say: it’s August.

By this I mean: my children have been out of school for sixty days now; no, make that sixty-two. I have spent a significant portion of each day picking up things that don’t belong to me, putting them back, and then noticing their reappearance a few hours later. I’ve also devoted considerable hours to driving back and forth, and sometimes in multi-stop circles, to places I don’t want to be.

In the days leading up to the Spider Incident, I had been experiencing a bit more stress than usual. Daughter Number Two was gone 12 hours each day at a musical theatre workshop, followed by rehearsals for her Fringe Festival play. For Daughter Number One, this compounded the misery of one friend off at camp and another at a two-week family reunion. She was left with me, and only me, for each long, hot and boring day.

Granted, she used her time wisely. Any little character flaws that my father had missed or my mother-in-law had not yet gotten around to, she noted, in detail. My insistence, for example, that we keep our commitment to the Crisis Nursery for a 7:30 a.m. shift on Wednesday was cause for a Spanish Inquisition of verbal assault that commenced Tuesday afternoon. Nursery duties done (“Volunteer work!” was her chipper Facebook posting), she was so bored with my company, she reported, that she took a nap one evening, probably the fifth or sixth such event in her entire life.

So, when Friday morning dawned, I was a little, well, worn down. I did my usual rosarydogsmoredogsyogaerrandsbackagain drill. Because it was the birthday of the mother of Emma’s closest friends, and because Emma prefers this woman’s company over all other grownups on the planet, I wanted to make sure, before the next round of Places I Have to Drive people, that I created a bouquet of summer flowers to leave on her doorstep. She is a peach, and Emma loves her. I had mentioned this plan the night before, thinking it might all be done before I got home. Yes, I do still believe in the tooth fairy, funny you should mention that. When I got home, Emma was still in bed, so I picked the flowers, found a vase, tied on a ribbon and wrote a card. I estimated when we’d need to leave to give us enough time to drop the flowers off and still make it to Emma’s chiropractor appointment. (Volleyball season; wrist pain) and began a shouted countdown up the stairs.

As we got to the car and I handed her the vase, I swear I had a premonition. I knew this would not end well. “Is the water going to spill on you? Is holding the vase going to hurt your wrist?” I asked, trying to predict the disaster, never suspecting that Birnam Wood was, in fact, going to move right down my gullet. Withering glance duly noted, I started the car and drove off. Within moments, I heard a gasp that signified terror of the highest order. Assuming I’d see spurts of blood, or perhaps a villain in the back seat with a machete, I turned to my darling daughter while still trying to stay in my lane (if you’ve ever driven with me, that part just made you cringe). She was holding the vase out stiffly, under my nose. “A spiiiiiiiiiiider,” she whispered, as if the spider would hear her and commence to shoot frightening Flower Spider Poison.

I tried to think fast, not my strong suit. If I picked it up and squished it, she’d scream. If I tried to throw it out the window, she’d insist that it had crawled back in the car. So I did the only thing I could think of that would get rid of the spider forever and make her think about something else.

I made a spider sandwich with some petals, and I ate it.

I was right; the focus was way off the spider and back on Mom What Were You Thinking, just as it had been all week.

I'm sorry, little spider.  And, on the plus side, school starts in 22 days.