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.