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.