Monday, December 26, 2011

By the Way, Merry Christmas

I'm always suspicious of people who rattle on about how much they hate celebrating Christmas. It's like sitting in the Barcalounger and grumbling about how you stubbed your toe the last time you walked across the living room floor.  Move the ottoman, for God's sake. Rerrange the area rug.  It's your house.

I've had more than the average share of truly miserable Christmases, but I've found, as I advance in age, that it's possible to wrest the holiday away from the past and turn it into something else entirely, without tradition or expectations. Sometimes, it can even be fun. Last year, for example, we lolled around Leah's apartment in Chicago all Christmas Day, went to the movies and then ordered in Chinese. It was a nearly perfect holiday, in my estimation. And this year, while it was nip and tuck there for a while, all turned out well, with a genuine Sam Goldwyn touch.

The Christmas surprise this year was not that we celebrated the holiday in a faux-European cafe in a Beijing hutong, watching Guys and Dolls being projected on a blank wall to a crowd of appreciative expats.  The absolute miracle was that all of us had arrived, together and in one piece, and had managed to find the place.

One stray listing in a Beijing City Weekend magazine had led us to this Christmas Day Folly. It had all seemed like a good idea until we were forced to take two cabs, agreeing to meet Emma and Olivia on a designated street corner in a neighborhood called Gulou Dong Dajie, in the Dongcheng district,which is roughly about the size and population of Iowa.
If I had somehow thought the street corner would look like the corner of Lyndale and Diamond Lake, I was soon disabused of the notion. As Dick, Mary and I skittered out of the taxi and began to look around, it was clear that the scene was more like the opening of a James Bond movie than a starting point for a family outing.  All that was missing was a motorcycle making its getaway and upending a few vegetable stands, and we were ready for Central Casting.

I scanned the crowd in vain, frustrated by Emma's refusal to answer her cell phone, and hearing my mother's voice in my head, muttering something about "white slavery." It would certainly be a challenge to explain Olivia's disappearance to her parents, I realized. I began to form a bit of a spin for them:  "The trip was going really well, right up until then..."

Thank God for O's height, and her hat, because she stood out of the crowd much more than Emma, who has a way of blending in here a lot more than she ever did in Minneapolis. In the fifteen minutes our poky cab driver had lagged behind them, they'd already been accosted by beggars and saved by an English-speaking resident. Olivia had had her picture taken "by someone with a huge Nikkon," she reported, smugly.  I felt as if I could cry with relief.

The trek through the narrow alleyway in search of 44 Baochao Hutong (宝钞胡同44号) seemed minor after that scare. We found it in no time, and while the rest of the gang went off in search of dumplings, I chatted with the owner, a Kurkistani who had partnered in the business with friends from Hong Kong, Spain and Italy. The Italian's grandma, here on a visit, was in the kitchen making gnocchi. Hot wine in hand (thank God; it was about fifty degrees in the place), I chatted with a girl from Ukraine and waited for the movie to start.

There was Nathan Detroit, setting up the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. There was Miss Adelaide and her chronic cold. Nicely Nicely was told to sit down, he was rocking the boat. And, as I glanced out the uninsulated window at the curved tile roofs, the red lanterns and the occasional passing scooter, there was old Beijing, still looking like a James Bond movie, but a little less overwhelming now that we were all together.

A few hours earlier, as we'd been making our way to the cafe, a young man had approached Emma and asked if he could have a picture taken with us. He needed it for his English class, he explained. I suspected that he just wanted a record of these incredibly pasty and puffy humanish specimens who had wandered into his ancient alleyway. After the photo was snapped and we started to walk away, he hurried behind us, remembering something.  "By the way," he said, "Merry Christmas."

You're not kidding, pal.

Here's a link to the cafe, the next time you're in town. Wear a sweater, order the hot wine and tell them that the puffy white family sent you.

Friday, December 23, 2011

One Day

One day in September 1989, I was at the New Center in Detroit, getting ready for a presentation. There was a new guy there, and I laughed at his jokes. In fact, he made me laugh so hard that we started to attract a bit of negative attention. I still recall Steve Maritz' raised eyebrow.
One day in November 1992, the two of us eloped to Las Vegas, and got married at the Little Church of the West.
One day in June, 1995, I stood at the top of a stone stairway at the Wuhan Foundling Hospital in China. Someone placed a bundle in my arms, and I was holding my daughter. She had red painted fingernails, a circle of red polish in the middle of her forehead, and a very annoyed expression, that, more or less, she has perpetually retained.
One day in July 1997, I refused to believe the results of the home pregancy test, so I tried again. Seven months later, Mary Katherine was born -- almost six pounds, utterly hairless and radiating love from the get-go.
One summer day in 2001, the boys who lived across the alley showed up, as they had been doing since the weather got warm, to see if Emma wanted to play outside.  Behind them was their sister, a solemn-faced little girl who asked me if Mary was available to play. I summoned Mary, and they faced off in the kitchen, deciding to play Barbies in the basement. They haven't, in many senses, ever stopped.
One day in September 2011, Emma left home in the middle of the night to fly to Beijing as a student in School Year Abroad, determined to conquer the language she'd heard only as an infant.
One day in December 2011, the five of us met up at the Marriott Beijing City Wall, ready to make our own crazy quilt version of a Family Christmas.
From where we've come, to where we are now, God Bless Us, Every One.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Where is Mary Poppins When I Need Her?

The first Mary Poppins book was published in 1934, but I’m starting to think that she truly was the ultimate light traveler for these times. That bottomless carpetbag would fit in any overhead compartment, and someone who is practically perfect in every way would certainly never have to pay any overweight fee, even if her potted palm tree weighed a ton. If Mary Poppins found herself cooling her well-turned-out heels on a runaway for several hours, she could reach in and pull out a feather bed, or a turkey dinner, or a string quartet to help her pass the time.

I’ve had reason to especially envy Ms. P. of late, since I’m packing for a journey (this thing is too massive to be a mere trip), and I’m wondering how to carry along everything I might need. Sadly, I lack a carpetbag, and possess only a ragtag assortment of cheap and capacious roller bags that I snapped up at garage sales this past summer, anticipating this very day when I would begin to say, “I don’t have enough room in this bag!”

There are some complications to my situation. One is the length of the trip – 18 days. I barely have enough underwear, tshirts and yoga pants to last from one laundry day to another. I anticipate plenty of spot cleaning, plus the opportunity to learn how to say “Laundromat” in Mandarin.

Then, once I’ve gotten my own needs covered, there’s the U.S. ambassador angle to this hoedown. The child who is being visited has requested just a few small reminders of the life she’s left behind, say 25 pounds’ worth, plus other necessities such as contact solution, deep conditioner (“the BLUE pot, Mom, not the white pot”) and gossip magazines. I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know that I can carry five pounds of Kit Kat bars over the border.

There’s also my Mommy self to contend with, an alter personality forceful enough to put the entire United States of Tara to shame. The last time I packed to go to China, I was a blissfully ignorant newbie who had no idea of the many things that could go wrong when on the road with kids – i.e., people for whom I am completely responsible. I don’t think I even packed a travel size bottle of aspirin, just some really cute onesies and enough diapers to handle a number of potential bowel scenarios. This time, I’m hauling along melatonin and mucus reducers and several other mysterious creams, ointments and all-purpose potions. Bring on the venomous Chinese snow snakes, just let me grab the antidote out of my carry-on.

Finally, there’s the Christmas issue, a holiday that will be celebrated one week after our arrival. The three teens in the group will probably have some well-ingrained expectations of how this holiday needs to go down, at least based on their past experience in our spacious homeland. I’m scrambling to tuck in enough tiny bits of festive Yuletide fal-de-ral to help in recreating the holiday from 6,000 miles away, and I’m falling a little bit short at the moment.

If I could just get my hands on a working version of that carpetbag, I could pull out a lovely colonial house, candles blazing in every window, snow gently falling outside. Perhaps I could root around at the bottom and produce a well-trimmed tree, a cozy fire and a load of large, heavy and well-wrapped presents.

It might not be too late to find something on eBay. I’ll just type “magic carpetbag” into the browser bar and see what turns up. But in the meantime, I have to finish packing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One Suitcase, Sixteen Years

The last time I was packing this suitcase for a trip to China, it was full of diapers and baby formula. Packed between the bulkier items was the unscannable subtext of near-hysteria at that thought that anyone, let alone a four-month-old, was going to be relying on me (me!) for motherly care and maintenance for the foreseeable future.

Emma, in that way she has of speeding through every life event, was ready about six months before it was even reasonable to expect a placement, according to the adoption experts. “Let’s get this show on the road,” I can almost imagine her saying, giving her diaper a hearty hitching up and exerting her considerable influence on life events. I’ve watched her win too many raffles and sweepstakes not to consider the possibility of telekensis exerted on that particular set of paperwork from the confines of a certain crib in the Wuhan Foundling Hospital. Some party hack in Beijing found himself impelled to place her file on top of that one from Minneapolis, and a family was created.

Back in the states, parent preparation was a one-month whirlwind of packing, paperwork, traveling and waiting. On the flight over, I read a bagful of baby and child care books, which only convinced me that she’d choke and suffocate the minute I held her, since that seemed to be the only things the babies in those books ever did. And, after about a thousand years of waiting, someone put her in my arms, and my body began to vibrate with the electrical current of energy that is the essence of Emma Bao Wei.

When that old suitcase was hauled from the attic on Sunday, there was still a faint residue of the sticker that some airport official had placed on it back then. Beijing. Wuhan. Guangzhou. Seattle. Finally, home to Minneapolis. This coming Sunday, the suitcase heads back to Beijing. And I'll be reunited with that girl I carried off the plane and into her new homeland on the sixth of July, 1995. “Well, it’s HER Independence Day, that’s for sure,” the U.S. customs official in Seattle had said.

He had no idea.

My biggest worries then: 1)that I’d drop her, 2)that one of her diapers would be so repulsive that I’d faint dead away and 3)that she’d cry in the night and I’d be sleeping so soundly that I wouldn’t hear her. When I enumerated these fears to my Mom, probably wringing my hands as I did, she took a long drag on her Chesterfield and finally said, “A lot is going to happen, but those aren’t the things.”

I had no idea.

I think back on those fears now. I was worried I’d drop her, that I’d let her out of my control and allow her to get hurt. She is so far from my control now (and maybe always has been), that all I can do is pray. Too bad I don’t smoke, or I’d try some long drags on Chesterfields, too.

I thought her humanness, at least the smellier side of it, would be too much for me.  And now I know that there is nothing she can ever do or say or be that will make me ever look away from her, not if she needs my help in cleaning up the mess she’s made.

I thought I wouldn’t hear her, that I would fail to rally to her side when she needed me most. The jury is still out on that one, I guess, and will be for the rest of my mothering career, no matter how much she tells me that she’s an adult and I’m ready to be retired. On that score, all I can do, once again, is pray:  Dear God, please let me hear when she’s crying in the night, wherever and whenever night comes upon her. Please let me know how to help. She is so far away, and the help these days requires something much more skillful than a bottle or diaper change.

I have a new worry, now that I’m in what she considers to be the sunset of this maternal gig. It's that I’ll allow her to get lost. Not lost at the playground or the zoo, but lost from herself. What I want most for her is to remember to stay on the clear and true path that’s waiting right in front of her. I worry that she’ll stop having faith in her own invincibility, which, however misguided for any other person, is totally logical for her. It’s been powering her up with supercharged strength for lo these many years.

What was packed between the baby clothes back then, in addition to the hysteria, was one thin layer of assurance. I knew, more clearly than I’d ever known anything in my life, that there was a kid on the other side of the world who needed a mother, and that, for whatever crazy reason fate had decided to throw us together, that mother was going to be me. I hope that she can find that level of assurance in her own life someday -- that she can head off on a path and know, always know, that it’s what she needs to be doing.

I knew my path was with her. I never looked back.

And if she ever gets lost, I hope she remembers that, as much as an adult such as herself doesn’t need me, I’ll still be hanging around, ready to help her when she’s crying in the night.  I can pack a suitcase right away and make my way to her side. In fact, I even know which one I'll use.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Extraordinary Ordinary

I think the magic started with the Cinderella-shoe, strangers-on-an-escalator moment at the IDS Center, but there was so much about that day that was purely extraordinary-ordinary. We look back now and say that it was a “great day,” but it wasn’t even close to being a full 24 hours of something special – more like five hours and change. It was just enough, though -- not only to make us happy at the moment, but to turn itself into a snow globe memory that we’ve been picking up more and more in this current, very different, holiday season.

The particulars: December 10, 2010. Emma had a performance with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, to be held over the lunch hour at the IDS Center downtown. With the sort of what-the-heck laxness that my children will probably use as Exhibit A of my poor parenting choices when they’re older, I told Mary Katherine that she could skip school in order to hear her sister play. We bundled ourselves and the cello into my Beetle, no small feat, and I managed to get us to the right spot downtown.

Everyone in our little group was carrying something – Santa hat, purse, cello, music stand. So it’s understandable that, as we arrived at the escalator to part ways with Emma, who was heading to a basement-level green room, that she had stepped on and begun to descend before Mary Katherine realized she was still holding the black heels that Emma needed for the performance. “Emma, your shoes!” she called out, and we saw a swivel from that dark, shiny head, as she considered how to get back to us. The escalator was jammed with lunch hour crowds, and it was impossible to turn back. 

And then our heroes arrived. Two young men, just stepping on to the escalator themselves, turned back at the sound of Mary’s cry, and reached out their hands in unison. “Toss ‘em here; we’ll get them to her,” one of them said. Mary lobbed one shoe into each outstretched hand. They arrived at the bottom and dutifully turned the shoes over to the lovely young woman, dressed all in black, standing patiently beside her cello. “Here you go, Cinderella,” one of them said, and they headed off without another word.

Mary Katherine and I sat on a balcony and looked down at the orchestra during the performance. We were cozy on the floor, flattening our cheeks against the acrylic guard, feeling the sound drift up. Afterwards, with the cello safely stowed back in the car, we tooled around Macy’s, trying on hats, squirting each other with perfume and wandering happily, and aimlessly, from department to department. I was able to make my favorite parenting statement of all time: “Take your time; we aren’t in any hurry.”

They were not just the oldest kids in the Santa Line. Because it was a weekday afternoon, they were the only kids who could see over the railing, or write their names in cursive. I had told my girls I wouldn’t buy them lunch unless they sat on Santa’s lap. “Have you been good?” he asked, a bit ironically, and I held back the urge to try a full Bette Davis retort: “Santa, you have no idea.”

 They’d done what I asked, so I bought them lunch at the Sky Room. We sat together at a small table, looking out at a snowstorm brewing over the late afternoon city. And we laughed together, over nothing, just happy to be together and to have no agenda, schedule, tournament, rehearsal or competition to attend, just this once. After Emma had written all over her cup, and the bus boy had been truly terrorized by our loud hoots, we gathered up our things and found the elevator to the first floor. A quick stop at Candyland for ride-home treats, and we headed home.  

And that’s it. Those were small things we did that day, not momentous ones. We attended a performance, sat on Santa’s lap and laughed together over a meal. But one year later, it seems that the day is still sending us a clear, strong signal, reminding us that we really do matter to one another, and that we have a bond which time, distance and circumstance can’t break. 

 For many families, their traditions seem rooted in the rigid belief that if anything is ever allowed to vary from the approved script, everything will fall apart.  If all my kids remember of our traditions is that we had a lot of fun one December day in the Sky Room, watching the snow as it fell over the city, that’s good enough for me.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How to Tell the Truth

I'd like to share a news flash that hit me after several years into my corporate career. It was one of those Life Memos that seemed to have been delivered to all the rich kids’ houses, but skipped over the chain-link-fence, Virgin-Mary-statue-in-the-front-yard estates of my Missouri hometown:

Just because you’re thinking it, you don’t have to say it.

Self censorship was not a concept I understood or even saw in action until I began to have grown-up jobs -- defined, for me, as places that employed more men than women (the public library and the all-girls’ high school didn’t count). Once I began to elbow my way into advertising agencies and corporations, I realized that not everyone conducted their lives in the manner of my parents.

Meaning: Sometimes, they shut up.

At my house, talking was a competitive sport, with top honors to the loud and the fast. With my current perspective on what an incredibly crappy life she had, I realize that the telephone was a life-line for my mother, connecting her with Eileen, Thelma, Marcella and all her other anachronistically monikered friends. I don’t remember any quiet from the phone when she was on it, so that means she didn’t waste much time listening. But man, could she talk. She was a devotee of the Continuous Loop School of Human Interaction, meaning that as the point of her story wound to a conclusion, it started up again at the introduction, through the insertion of the magic three-word set, Like I Say, which allowed for a complete reboot of all previously uttered information. It could go on for days.

My father, as he did in the rest of his life, relied on brute force and lung power to maintain the conversational top spot. Visitors would be treated to verbal displays that were only logical for a man who hogged everything, including food, stuff and physical space. He needed it all, and he never had enough. In our house, he even hogged the airwaves. “Listen, uhhhhhhhh,” he would shout to new arrivals, the “uhhhhhhh” serving as a noise placeholder until he could think of something to actually say. No one ever bothered to interrupt.

So I grew up believing that talking was winning, and that each of my brain’s thoughts deserved a complete airing in front of as many people as possible, often repeatedly.  I only learned to behave any differently because I watched some skillful corporate operators in action, and I picked up a few tips, most of them, tragically, far too late. So when Emma recently asked me for advice about how to talk when what you said has implications on others’ lives, I could only offer some guidelines, most of which I’ve usually failed to follow.

She was asking for the advice because there had been a rule-breaking incident at her school. With 57 kids who are living together in a foreign country, their lives are a 3D Venn diagram of who knew what, who did what, and who like, should have like, spoken up sooner. Emma proclaimed her innocence, but told me that she anticipated a few official questions being lobbed her way (they call the principal “Comrade,” if that gives you any idea) and wanted to know what she should say. “Write down some rules for me,” she instructed, “So I can remember them Monday morning.”

Here they are. If I could go back in time and give these rules to my twenty-year-old self, and follow them, I’d be writing this from my penthouse at Columbus Circle, just before I headed off to another fulfilling day at the Kendrick Foundation. In the meantime, I hope these help her a bit.

How to Tell the Truth
  • The one who is NOT talking is the one with all the power.
  • Just because there is a pause in conversation, you don't have to fill it. It is actually physically possible to sit silently and make eye contact. Even better, it drives other people nuts and they usually start to babble.
  • Just because someone asks you a question, you don't have to answer it. I worked on a project once with a customer who was a master of this. I would ask him a direct question, and he would smile, look me in the eyes, and begin to talk about a totally different topic. The smile was the secret to this ploy’s success, I realized. He arranged his face to say, “I will be happy to answer your question! Look at my face, I LOVE telling you the truth.”
  • Tell the truth as it relates to YOU and don't surmise or offer opinions about others' actions, thoughts or motivations.
  • Truth comes in many package sizes. It can be delivered in everything from a mini snack-pack to a jumbo Warehouse Club pallet. When you might be getting someone else in trouble by sharing a whole lot of truth, it’s okay to hand over just the minimum, at least as a start. Don’t lead with the jumbo size, ever.
I realize that for most people of even moderate levels of success, this advice seems on the “breathe in, but then remember to breathe out” variety. You’re probably thinking that someone who didn’t even know this much was not very well-prepared for corporate life. But don’t worry. I made up for it in other areas. When it came to an issue I’d never encountered in my family before, salary negotiations, I decided to approach the one person I knew who held a job that didn’t require union dues – my brother. He offered this gem to a young and stupid female just starting out to make a living as a writer: “Just say, ‘Mr. Employer, I know you’re a fair man, so I’ll let you decide what you think I’m worth, and I’ll be glad to work for whatever salary you think best,’” he suggested.

Armed with a worldview like this, I quickly ascended the corporate ladder, gained a huge circle of friends and had to beat the boyfriends away with a stick.

Or something like that.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Nail Polish Remover, Kit Kat Bars and this month’s Glamour magazine: The evolution of a modern CARE Package

I can’t imagine that the first French recipients, back in 1946, could get themselves too excited over what was in those packages. Opening them up with anticipation, only to find SPAM and liver loaf? ("Ou se trouve le baguette et le vin rouge?") But they were probably hungry enough not to notice. After the first shipment of 10,000, the bundles from the Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), were sent all over the world for the next twenty years.

“Care package” is one of those phrases that has ceased to be associated with its original acronym, perhaps because use the verb the acronym depicted is so much nicer than a mouthful like Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere. It’ easier to understand this:  I care, so I send you a package.

I’ve been gaining some personal experience in this world of needs, wants and postal scales, since I have a daughter who will be living in Beijing for the next six months. Her first couple weeks there were, from what I understand, a heady mix of new world, new life and a fair amount of shaking the dust of Minneapolis off her virtual sandals. It was all looking forward, with no energy for looking back.

Then, as the days passed and the mind-blowing new began to assume some aspects of routine, she began to think about peanut butter. And Cinnamon Toast Crunch. And Kit Kat bars. And she began to assemble The List. Soon, I was participating in a 6,000-mile scavenger hunt, tracking down nail polish remover (“There is not one bottle of it in the entire country.”) and lip balm (“It has to be vanilla; the raspberry kind makes me puke.”)

When the 57 kids in her program returned from the Autumn Holiday, three weeks into the program, it became apparent that all of them had voiced similar longings for the small, tangible items they’d forgotten on their mid-August packing lists. When they returned to school that Monday, after the baffling-but-required visits to the country to pick fruit with their host families, there was a pile of brown-paper-wrapped shoeboxes, sent from Atlanta, Sheboygan, Brooklyn … and one, thank God, from Minneapolis, which arrived in time.

That was the first, but of course there have been many more. The “Operation: St. Nicholas Day” mission included Christmas socks, tiny candy canes and homemade candied walnuts that so baffled the inspectors who opened the package that school’s principal got a phone call from Comrade Postal Inspector. “Is this candy?” he asked, and Comrade Becker assured him that it was.

At about $50 for a well-packed shoebox and $15 for a crammed-to-the-gills envelope (funny, didn’t know envelopes had gills), I’ve been spending more lately on care package postage then the contents of the packages themselves. But I’ve been learning that the value of what’s inside is not really important. Of much more value is the package’s backstory:  someone found me these things I have been missing, or that I might like, assembled them and drove to the post office to stand in line – all so that I’d feel better ten days later, when I opened it.

The stream of packages has slowed these days, as the students’ families are preparing for holiday visits. In 18 days, I’ll be kissing the top of my daughter’s head, and that, I hope, will be more valuable to her than all the nail polish remover in the world.

But just in case, I’m bringing along an extra bag of those candied walnuts, Chinese inspectors be damned.

See you soon, Emma.

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Which I Consider a Career Change from Writing to Tagging, Given My Fame as the Grammar Vandal

I have been driving a herd of teenagers (what IS the proper term for a group of  them: gaggle?  exaltation? outcropping?) to rehearsals for several weeks now, and, like carpoolers everywhere, we've covered a wide range of topics on the road.  Granted, the rate at which songs are sung (loudly), or lines of random dialogue are spouted (in character) is probably higher than the gang heading from Maple Grove to the Travelers Tower every day, but that's to be expected. They are, as I am frequently reminded, thespians.

I do my best to be a good sport on these jaunts -- to shut up most of the time, listen hard, buck them up a bit when their dobbers seem to be down. And my rewards have been immeasurable. The day Natalie confessed her dream of sticking her hand out the window to touch a moving truck. The crab-walking intersection guy. The book reader at the bus stop. Ian's repeated panic over directions. An entire carful of kids imitating Mary Katherine's laugh. 

After all this conversation, we're getting to the point where we know the other person's story before it starts. But this week, the topic that arose was a random act of vandalism I committed last October, and I received a thrilling, and unexpected, response. 

We were talking about getting older, and I was telling the girls that I was finding it fun to act like a crazy old lady whenever I wanted, and that they should remember, when they panicked at their first wrinkle at age 30, that good times might lie ahead. Age brings the freedom to act like a nutjob, I said. Mary Katherine took this as the opportune moment to mention the time I vandalized the National Coming Out Day Poster at Southwest High School by correcting the "you're" to "your" and adding, pedantically (but humorously; at least that was what I was aiming for) “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.”

Natalie gasped as if the crab-walking pedestrian had just appeared in the back seat. "That was YOU?" she asked. Usually a question like "That was YOU?" does not bode well, so, warily, I admitted it was.  She shrieked. "We were so excited about that!  A friend of mine xeroxed the poster with your comment and, like, papered the school with them.  EVERYONE saw it."

Gosh, that made me happy.  Some too-ironic-to-function Southwest High Schooler had made me a Grammar Vandal star.  And so, with a modest moue and a tug of my forelock, I re-present the original blog post, although I think it reads a little better now that I realize that it was my ticket to a snippet of fleeting glory.

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.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Theater Roulette

You must be out of town. Selection must be made based on trivialities – title of show, proximity to the hotel, or how nice the theater lobby looks when you peek in from the box office. No fair reading reviews ahead of time – just hand over your ticket, pick up your Playbill and hope for the best.

Those are the rules of Theater Roulette, a game that offers roughly the same odds as those experienced in Monte Carlo (37 to 1). But, like all reprobate gamblers, I tend to remember the nights I won big and conveniently fail to mention the times I suffered so badly that I had to leave at intermission.

Mary Katherine and I were in Chicago last week. She was going to be filming a scene in a friend’s independent movie and I was her non-Equity personal assistant. We had some time to kill before the poltergeist attached her on screen, so I tried a Google search of “Chicago theater” and landed on a page for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and a show in their tiny upstairs space called Murder for Two – a Killer Musical. It featured only two actors and one piano. Like the dope who thinks he has a lucky number and keeps putting everything on seven until the rent money is gone, I am a sucker for tiny shows in teeny spaces with miniscule casts and one instrument. Eventually I suppose I’ll find a revue with just a midget and his zither, performed in a broom closet, and I will die straightaway and go to theater heaven. Moving quickly (extra bonus points for speed in Theater Roulette), I bought two tickets for that night. We had picked our color and our number, and now the wheel was spinning. 

It’s such a pleasant feeling of anticipation to go through a day when you know it will end with a Playbill on your lap. When we finally made our way there at seven that night, we were trying hard to keep expectations low. Chicago has a terrific theater scene, but there have been massive highs and lows while playing Theater Roulette in this town.

The People vs Friar Laurence - The Man Who Killed Romeo and Juliet, a musical comedy (I know what you're thinking, but trust me). It was way too raunchy for our grade-schoolers (the box office said it was "PG-13" when we bought the tickets, I swear), but it launched both kids on a lifetime belief that Shakespeare is naughty and fun and a little bit forbidden, which can’t be all bad.

A production of Fiorello!, a play I’d never read much about (bonus points) in a church-based theater that had the smallest stage I had ever seen in my life, about the size of a roomy McDonald’s bathroom on a road trip, when you don’t even know what state you’re in anymore. They’d built a scaffold for the actors to hang from while they sang their songs, but it was all executed so well that by the end I thought, hey, everyone ought to hang off a scaffold while singing, it looks fun.

Guttenberg! The Musical (exactly as bad as it sounds) on a Sunday night in July. There were six people in the audience. Two of them were the actors’ friends. The remainder was our family. I think I was more tired after the show than the actors, because I’d been trying so hard to laugh and clap loud enough to keep them from Monday-morning suicide attempts. That’s too much responsibility for one audience member.

Pre-Broadway try-out for the Goodbye Girl. This marked the first time I had ever gotten to my seat, looked at the set and knew that the show would be bad. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. It was so awful that the next year, when The Producers came to town for a pre-Broadway run, we stayed away, certain that it would be a bomb, and that pretty much explains why I have a 401k and no theatrical producer credits to my name.

Since I'm on the subject, I've seen some truly awful shows in London, too, including Radio Times, about pre-war music halls in London (why yes, it was exactly as bad as it sounds, but the Japanese tourist next to us really liked it). The Play What I Wrote (why didn’t the title keep us away?) was about Morecambe and Wise, a long-ago comedy duo; it had the audience roaring and us rushing out at the interval.  The only thing I ever remember wincing through in New York was Wal-Martopia, the Musical.  Don't ask.

So, it’s last Thursday night, the wheel is slowing down and the croupier finally calls out the winning number. What happened to us at Murder for Two? We won. Not a jackpot, not a lifetime bonanza, but a truly hefty sum of amazement and laughter. The show is old-fashioned in the best possible sense, at least to me. Joe Kinosian, who looks as if he’s taking a break from his successful career as a silent movie star at Paramount Pictures, circa 1922, plays 13 suspects, sometimes simultaneously. He totally nailed the role of Steph Whitney, a ditsy college student who gets a wonderful second-act torch song. I’m not sure how you act blonde, but he pulled it off. If one of my favorite movies, The Imposters, had a show playing on its farcical 1930s luxury cruise ship, this would be the play. I smiled so hard that my face hurt. And Mary Katherine and I immediately began plotting to see it again when we’re back in Chicago for Thanksgiving.

I remember one night of Theater Roulette most fondly. I’d gotten my first real job, one that allowed me to rack up frequent flier points, and I used all of them to fly my Mom first-class to Ireland one spring, for a driving vacation to her second-generation homeland. On the Thursday before Easter, we rolled into Galway and wandered by a theater that was producing Noises Off. I’ve seen that show many times since, including on Broadway, but that night, it was just another shot in the dark of Theater Roulette. We got to the theater early and slipped into a pub next door to wait for the house to open. Some old geezers were at the bar, complaining loudly that when they were younger, people went to visit the churches on Holy Thursday. We eavesdropped amiably and noted to ourselves that these characters didn’t seem too eager for church visiting themselves.

On that trip, we’d already seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the venerable Abbey Theater in Dublin, so we had high expectations. The play had great actors and expert timing, but it’s the audience I remember most. They laughed, the hooted, they guffawed. They drank heartily at the interval and laughed even louder in the second act. They seemed like people who were totally comfortable with silliness, and I think I loved the audience even more than the show.

My mother and I both were so happy that night, sharing our Theater Roulette winnings with one another. And that, I suppose, is why I keep playing.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Covers, Judging By: Snap Judgments on YA Fiction

The Top Ten Teen Reads this year, according to a recent poll, have been announced by the Young Adult Library Services Association, lovingly known as YALSA. As in previous years, the apocalyptic siege continues. Check out these covers and see if you don’t want to start knitting yourself a noose. No wonder teenagers are so listless; if I read this stuff all day I’d be ready for a long nap, too. I can’t blame teens for the trend, however. Adults are the culprits who write, publish and assign the books in school.

The prevailing educational theory seems to be that it’s never too early to start harshing everyone’s mellow. Around fourth grade, I noticed that my daughters’ required reading included a one-two punch of the Big M’s – misery and mayhem. I wondered if someone shouldn’t slip a supply of antidepressants into the Coke machine in the teachers’ lounge, because the books they selected for class were so freaking unhappy, they could make kids want to hide under the desks until it’s all over.

What's available for "free time" reading isn’t much better.  After spending some time with my eighth-grade daughter, browsing the shelves of the local library with the assignment to help her find “anything I can read before bed without crying,” I was able to conclude that there are basically three sorts of books being written for young people today:

Dystopia, Fantasy Version:  Horrible world of the future, or horrible world of the present, with the addition of supernatural antics from vampires, zombies and/or nuclear Armageddon. Covers:  fangs, red eyes. Dust jacket intro: “When MK-12 was thrown into the Offenders' Camp of Big Brother World, she knew that only her smarts and her hidden atomic ray gun would help her escape into The Woods Beyond.”

Dystopia, Reality Version: Addictions and tragedies, all with a “ripped from the headlines” spin. Covers: Tendency toward microscopic body part photography. One wrist (cutters). One number on a scale (fat girls). Dust jacket intro:  “When Mary Kate’s parents got divorced and her mom lost her job, older sister Ellie started vomiting up dinner and younger brother Elwood took to huffing. Once the family began living under an overpass, only Mary Kate’s plucky smarts (and her drug counselor) helped her deal with the new burdens of teenage pregnancy, AIDS and a teensy smidge of cholera.”

Biology Class Meets Retail Therapy:  OMG I have a va jay jay! I’d better start using it pronto, as soon as I try on this supercute dress at the mall!  Covers: Hot pink, hot bodies (usually with the heads cropped out and shown only from the neck down). Dust jacket intro: “When EmKat’s socialite mom moved her all the way from Tribeca to Beverly Hills, she thought her credit rating and social status would plummet. But she soon met up with a superhot producer’s step-cousin-in-law, and made friends with a posse of shopping buddies, so things are looking brighter than ever on Rodeo Drive.” 

Of course, there are variations.  There’s historical dystopia:  “When MannaKato’s Shoshone tribe was driven from their encampment, only her knowledge of native lore could keep the group from starving to death in the Winter of the Howling Wolves.” Covers: uniformly tan. 

There is also a more PG-13 version of the Biology Class genre:  “When Mary Katherine went to spend the summer working at the beachside day care, she never dreamed she’d meet a cute lifeguard. But, would she get up the nerve to let him hold her hand before Labor Day?”

Frustrated during the library search, my daughter offered her own take on what an ideal novel would include. Here, then is her list:

Cover: polka dots, confetti, or both (no tan, no gray, no dragons, no fangs, no shopping bags)

Story: Big crazy families, general chaos, minor lawbreaking, hijinks, plenty of sassy gay boys and their wisecracking galpals

Bonus points: Everyone dresses up and puts on a show

Finally, no concentration camps, addictions, misery or reality.  “That’s what school is for,” she says.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

This I Believe: The Power of Soup

In 2005, I was standing at the stove, stirring a simmering stockpot and listening to the radio. I heard Deirdre Sullivan's submission for This I Believe, titled Always Go to the Funeral. The precepts and particulars of that essay stayed with me, and, this spring, I wrote a reflection on putting her words into action.

In all these years, though, I've never had an "aha" moment that could help me distill my own beliefs into one thesis statement and 500 words. Then, as I was reading the project's newest book, Life Lessons, it came to me.  I believe in the power of soup.  Here are my 500 words on that subject:

I believe in the masterpieces that everyday people can create, when they’re given a chance. I believe in sharing nourishment with my friends. I believe in warm, tasty liquids on a freezing cold day. I believe in the power of soup.

I started hosting soup swaps four years ago, after reading about Knox Gardner, a Seattle resident who loved to cook big pots of soup but who quickly tired of his own cooking. He had an idea to bring friends together for an evening to talk about, and swap, containers of their favorite soups. His hope was not only to fill his freezer with tasty meals, but, as he said, “foster a community of friends and families to create traditions around food and sharing.”

I held my first soup swap shortly after I read that article, and I’ve never looked back. I host two swaps a year, one in spring and one in fall, although I had a friend tell me recently that she thought I held them every month. That would just be crazy, but it shows what an impact the swaps have had. The concept is simple:  arrive with six containers of frozen soup, tell the group about your creation, pick a number, and then take turns selecting new soups to take home and enjoy.  

In Minnesota, where I live, the winters are cold and long, and the prospect of brand-new soup, maybe a kind I’ve never tried before, or one from a friend who’s a great cook, can liven up many dreary weeknight suppers and Saturday afternoon lunches. But it’s more than that, of course – it’s the friendships and bonds that are formed when we share the stories of our precious creations with each other. Like the woman who told us that she was the only grandkid who ever cooked with Grandma, and how now all her siblings want to come over to her house for bowls of Grandma’s Famous Vegetable Soup. Or the newlywed who swapped Artichoke Bisque, the same kind of soup that she and her boyfriend were eating when he proposed. Or the friend who told of her transformative vacation at a Colorado dude ranch, and how she’d convinced the chef to share the recipe for Roasted Poblano and Squash Soup to help her remember that time.

There are chances to give back, too. One year, I had a friend who had just started chemotherapy treatment, so I asked guests to bring along an extra container. Their generosity allowed me to deliver twenty quarts of soup to my ailing friend and her family.

Soup is slow. You just cannot rush soup. Soup is nourishing. Even when some of the ingredients are slightly decadent, it’s nourishing for all the parts of you, not just the waistline. And, perhaps most importantly for the place where I live, soup is warm. When I open my freezer and heat up a friend’s recipe, I think of her and I connect with her. All over one bowl of soup.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Church Ladies’ Cookbook

In October, 1970, someone in Rhode Island had a fabulous birthday. I know this because I now own one of the gifts this person received – the Centennial Cookbook of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in East Providence, Rhode Island. Better yet, the copy was inscribed by the authors.“Happy Birthday and Happy Cooking,” it says, and it’s signed by contributors Frankie Willis and Helen Bromage. Through the magic of the Interweb, I've discovered that the church is still standing; it's pictured here.

I found the cookbook in a twenty-five cent pile at a garage sale this weekend. How it traveled 1,300 miles to make it to that sale is just one of its fascinating mysteries. While I plan to use the book as first prize for this spring’s soup swap (“Joy of Jello” was first prize this fall), I’ve already read it a couple times myself, and I’ve found it riveting stuff. 

It offers a glimpse into a past where every organization had its own cookbook, typed by the volunteers, run off on mimeograph machines and GBC bound in complementary colors. I imagined every part of the process of putting St. Mary’s offering together. I wondered how the “Cook Book Committee,” as they called themselves, happened to be formed.  Were Suzanne, Helen, Evelyn and Nancy just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were they thrilled at the honor? Once they got to work, was there a great deal of political infighting regarding which recipes to keep and which to pass over? 

For example, was Hazel Johnston, who submitted the recipe for Grasshopper Pie, (which calls for a quarter cup of crème de menthe and two tablespoons of white crème de cacao), the falling-down drunkard of the congregation, the one who could never be left alone near the communion wine? Maybe she had a long-standing affair with equally pickled Frank Dearnley, who submitted a Low Calorie Egg Nog that called for Dream Whip and rum. Frank and Hazel, with the love, and the sweet tooth, that dared not speak its name.

The names of the contributors to this book are like a role call of ladies who, wherever they are now, are still wearing pastel nylon headscarves to keep their bouffant hairdos in shape: Gladys, Edna, Mae, Bertha, Dorothy, Mabel, Hazel and Marjorie. And, this being 1970, there are those women with no names to call their own, like Mrs. Arthur Salve (Franks and Corn Bread Casserole) or Mrs. Frederick Hauck (Pecan Pie, Spiced Pineapple).

In the midst of these mature women, there is a ringer, Lori Hassel, who contributes no fewer than 20 recipes, each one of which notes that she's 13 years old.  I wonder if this is a point of pride or a way of absolving St. Mary’s from any damages done by Lori’s newfangled recipes. I found myself thinking about Lori. She’s 54 years old now.  Still in Rhode Island?  Still an Episcopalian? Still known for her beguiling ways with tuna and chips?  These are questions that bedevil me.

The cookbook is full of recipes for stuff no one makes anymore.  Yeast bread, are you kidding?  There’s an entire section for preserves and relishes, with an illustration of a canning pot and rack (nimbly illustrated by the Rev. James P. Frink, according to the credits). The apparatus could just as well be a washboard and wringer, as old fashioned as it seems. Also, tellingly, there is no section at all for appetizers.  No cheese balls, no seven layer dips, no chicken wings. You’ll just ruin your dinner, I can almost hear Gladys telling me. 

What about ethnic foods?  Not really, although Bertha Sarganis (iffy name for an Episcopalian, if you ask me), has an entry for Spinach Pita.  Someone has typed in “GREEK” next to the recipe, and Bertha has added a note that the Filo pastry sheets can be found at the Near East Market at 253 Cranston Street in Providence. Sally Bagdasarian (must be Bertha’s sister-in-law), tried to slip in Rice Pilav, but the alert typist has sniffily added “ARMENIAN DISH” next to the entry. There is a modest attempt at regionalism, with a few recipes for foods native to the area:  Whoopee Pies (Ethel deMerchant), New England Baked Shrimp (Mrs. Clara Nichols) and Stuffed Quohaugs (Mrs. Gladys Dearnley, possibly the wife of pickled Frank). Also, I love this book's 1970’s definition of  “salad,” with recipes that feature jello, cans of condensed cream soup, or both.

This certainly made for entertaining reading, but I probably won’t be making any of these recipes myself. I mean, I had to read Secret Italian Recipe Meat Balls (Brenda Davey) several times, perusing its six ingredients to guess which one was the secret. Was it the “hamburg” the “two slices bread; wet bread and wring” or the Parmesan cheese? I’m going with  the Parmesan as the secret. Possibly, in 1970, it was a big secret, the kind of thing you had to get at that market on Cranston Street that Bertha was always gassing on about. Also, I think even Mrs. George C. Gartner, Sr. is overselling “Nice Luncheon Dish.” First, I’ve never eaten “luncheon.” And second, it’s scrambled eggs, Mrs. George, so stop fooling around and submit a real recipe, or we’ll get Mrs. George Junior for the next edition.

The dessert recipes included here invariably reminded me of my own mother and her friends. It seemed as if dessert recipes would whip through our neighborhood as if they’d been posted on Facebook pages, forty years before it was invented. I can remember when Watergate Gate hit the ladies hard, and I have a dim memory of Harvey Wallbanger Cake having a similarly popular run before that. The year of the Christmas cookies that were made of corn flakes, melted marshmallows and virulent amounts of green food coloring, and shaped to look like wreaths, is especially vivid. This cookbook, from simpler times, did feature the lemon cake with the poked-hole-and-goo-pouring method, as well as cookies like Aunt Ana’s Hermits (Vivian Hubbard), Hello Dollies (Mrs. Clara Nichols) and Leilani Bars (Bertha, again, but this time, no need to head to Cranston Street; all the ingredients are A&P approved).

I know that no one eats dinner together anymore, and that’s why our kids are all overweight drug addicts, but I have to question the quality of all those once-upon-a-time meals, with this cookbook as Exhibit A. So many of these recipes have the stink of four p.m. desperation, the sort of thing pulled together by a  woman who had too many highballs at Bridge Club, whose children are starting to whine, and who knows her husband will arrive on the late train from the city, blotto as usual. Entrees like Heavenly Hot Dogs (Caryl Frank) and Sauerbraten Patties (Mrs. L. A. Rabe) are sad excuses for family meals, the sort of thing prepared by a cook who keeps an ashtray near the stove, and whose countertops are always sticky.

As I reached the conclusion of this riveting read, I had to wonder if someone battled the woman who wanted to add the “Recipe for a Happy Home” that I had assumed was mandated by law for church cookbooks (“Take one cup of love, one pinch of fun … “). I can just hear Suzanne now: “God dammit, Evelyn, we’re St. Mary’s Episcopal. We have to have some standards!”  Possibly they placated the “Recipe for a Happy Home” submitter by allowing her to edit the Household Hints section, in which one paranoid soul warned, “Beneficial note: Never ask for a recipe in a restaurant.  You may receive the recipe and a bill … which could amount to $500.00.” Cue the scary music, Evelyn.

Some of the hints in this final section were real doozies, such as “To erase fingermarks from wallpaper, try rubbing with soft chunks of white bread.” I imagine the lady from Bridge Club trying this stupid idea, while she waits for the Heavenly Franks and Beans to finish heating up on her spattered stovetop. God, she needs another cigarette.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

“Dear Ms. Hill” An Eighties Survivor Offers a Long-Overdue Thank You

It’s been twenty years since Anita Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. In a recent interview, she mentioned that she’s received tens of thousands of letters since then, and that reading them inspired her to write her new book, Reimagining Equality.

I could claim that my letter to Ms. Hill was lost in the mail (remember mail? It was all the rage twenty years ago), but, the sorry truth is, I never wrote one. At the time, I didn’t realize the importance of her testimony, nor did I understand what the impact of that testimony would be. So here’s my belated letter, delivered with many thanks:

Dear Ms. Hill,
I started working when I was 16. I’ve worked in a public library, an all-girls’ high school and several advertising and marketing agencies. Except for my stint at the school, where every employee was female (except for the janitor), there was never a time when there were not men at my place of work who took every possible opportunity to engage in smirking innuendo, smarmy double entendre and blatant sexual discussions. The culture of the time dictated that everyone should laugh at, and pretend to enjoy, this talk, for to do otherwise was to be labeled “uptight.”

There was always at least one female in each of these work groups who indicated that she loved this sort of thing, and whose giggles and sidelong looks always encouraged the men to even greater feats of Hefner-esque blather. I noticed that these were usually the girls with the very large breasts. I suspected that if I also had very large breasts, I might think that the guys were just as funny as these girls did. In fact, I thought the men AND the girls were stupid, but I tried not to say so. To be uptight was a terrible thing, back in the eighties.

After working at a number of perennially failing local ad agencies (profits were low; cocaine costs tended toward the high side), I landed at a regular, mainstream marketing services agency, the largest operation in town. I was assigned to provide support for the all-male sales staff located in our Detroit region, where, I was told, women would need “a thick skin” and be able to “take it” from those rugged guys. I realize now that big breasts would have helped me a lot more than a thick skin, but I possessed neither, so it was, as one of those Detroit geniuses used to say, “a mute point.”

Since you’ve worked at law firms and universities, Ms. Hill, I suspect that you might not have met any men like these in your professional life, or at least until you ran into Justice Thomas. In any case, let me paint a picture for you of my world at that time, the time before you testified, using one fellow as an example of the archetypal behavior in that Detroit group. We’ll call him Bob, because that was his name, and we’ll skip over a detailed description of his beady eyes, his protruding jaw, or his tiny, mean mouth. We’ll just head right to some scenes that pretty much sum up my working life with him.

Scene One:  During a Presentation. We are gathered in a conference room, poised before flip charts (remember them? They were like cumbersome and unchangeable PowerPoints, just a step up from carved stone tablets, and even heavier). I am the only female present. Bob circles around the table, introducing each of “the guys.” He pauses a beat at me, then moves on. “What about her?” the customer asks. “She does the typing,” Bob spits out, looking very, very pleased with himself. 

Scene Two:  After a Presentation. We are packing up the slide trays and the flip charts after a presentation to GM Body Parts, and discussion begins about where we will be eating our celebratory team meal. I am the only woman in the group. Bob studiously avoids looking at me as he says, “Let’s go to the Men’s Grill at the Detroit Country Club.” Steve Maritz, a prince among these swine, points out that this will mean that I will be forced to eat, alone, in an anteroom.  Bob’s shrug indicates his lack of concern for this eventuality. I have heard, in fact, from other women upon whom this stunt was pulled. Joyce Irwin, a kind-hearted and creative member of the measurement team, told me that she once ate her entire dinner, alone, outside the confines of the Men’s Grill. “It was sort of fun,” she said, without a lot of enthusiasm. Steve suggests that we go somewhere else instead, and, mostly because his family name is on the building, we do. I never do see the women's anteroom, nor do I eat in it. But Bob continues to suggest it every time dining suggestions are being entertained.

Scene Three: During a Rehearsal. I use this term loosely, because “rehearsing” for an upcoming presentation to one of the big three auto manufacturers would seem to warrant an occasion for review, discussion and practice. At this company, at least back then, it was time for rushing out of the room on urgent phone calls, wandering around the office anxiously, and issuing graphic threats to the salesperson, who is frequently reminded that his genitals will be "on the chopping block," should the business not be won. By this time, I am used to the Betsy Ross craft work of making changes to the hefty flip charts, and rechecking the million-dollar budgets on a calculator. During this particular rehearsal, for GMC Truck, it becomes known that one of the salesmen in the office has accepted a job as a Regional Manager in the San Francisco office. This is a cause for great gales of homophobic hilarity. San Francisco, get it?

Bob tells the man, “Better not bend over to get the soap in the shower,” and everyone guffaws. Then Bob uses the speakerphone to share the news with several colleagues, always making sure to include his soap/shower warning. By the time the day is over, I have heard this remark dozens of times.

I keep at my work and I keep quiet. After a few years at this company, I have made a good friend. He is gay. I’ve always known that this talk is stupid, and I'm sure that, on several levels, it's just wrong. But to consider that what Bob is saying is illegal -- that people in business should not be allowed, by law, to be talking this way?  It’s not a concept I can even entertain.

Scene Four:  October, 1991.  Cue you. I watch every bit of the hearings. I know you are right.  I suspect that you are brave in ways I cannot imagine. And then I have to get back to work.

Final Scene, One year later. I am back in Detroit, preparing for another presentation, this time for Pontiac.  The group has grown weary of running around the room and threatening the safety of each other’s genitals, so we’ve gone out for lunch. There are maybe eight people at the table.  I am the only woman. Sometime during the course of the lunch, the smarmy freelance consultant says something. The funny part about this memory is that I cannot tell you what it was that the man said– it must have been so like what I heard every day from these characters that it became background noise.

But the moment we rise from the table and start to leave, the Regional Manager rushes over to me, smarmy consultant in tow. “Don didn’t mean anything offensive by what he said earlier,” the man says, “and he’d like to apologize.” The man then apologizes. To me. Because, he says, he hoped that what he said didn’t offend me. At first, I want to tell them that I don’t even know what they’re talking about, but I decide to keep that to myself. Grimly, I say, “I won’t report it. This time.”

When I see the relief on their faces, I feel as if the earth is shifting beneath my feet. I am in Detroit, a place where I have been demeaned, devalued and dismissed over the course of many years. And, Ms. Hill, because of you and what you were willing to do, these vermin are worried enough to behave politely towards me.  Not because they have suddenly sprouted souls, of course, but because the company’s corporate counsel has painted them a grim picture of how expensive a lawsuit from a mouthy, small-breasted bitch like me could be.

Work changed. It changed at that moment, and it changed every day after that. I’m not naive enough to think that these men are any different than they ever were.  When you put a lid over the sewer gas in a conference room, it just leaks out in different places, like talk radio, or Fox News. But, at least in the conference rooms I frequent these days, they have to watch their mouths.

And for that, Ms. Hill, I can only say – Thank You. 

God Bless You,
Julie Kendrick

Monday, October 10, 2011

Beautiful Sunday

Waking up on what might be the last beautiful Sunday for the next, oh, seven months or so, I have to admit that, as I thought about my morning, “spend a shift at the Crisis Nursery with all my under-age-six pals” was not in the top ten on my wish list. Not in the top 100, to be honest, and I tried to avoid thinking about all the wonderful life choices I could otherwise be making with such a lovely day. I attempted to wrestle the self pity to the ground and stuff it into my back pocket, and then I donned my extra-dorky “Volunteer” t-shirt and even-dorkier name-tag lanyard and hit the road to Golden Valley.

By the time I finished my shift that afternoon, Clifton (age 5, going on 50) was sucking his thumb and sleeping. In the next bed, Tristan (age 3, perhaps perpetually) was wide awake and thrashing a counterclockwise perimeter around his tiny twin bed, wearing out a crop circle on the Sponge Bob sheets.

I signed out, turned in my name badge, and headed back into a world that was just as lovely as when I’d walked in. See there? I told myself. And just what would I have done with that chunk of my day, if I hadn’t spent it as a volunteer? I answered both sides of the question:

I could have lounged about. Doubtful. I would have thought about lounging, but would have observed dirt and chaos all around me, then dealt with it, repeatedly. Even the very angry toddler at the nursery who, during a long crying jag, managed to drip quite a bit of, um, bodily fluid, all down her front and generously onto my dorky t-shirt,  was not remotely as disconcerting as a house full of misplaced items and dog hair. 
Point goes to: Volunteering

I could have achieved nirvana in a yoga class. Possibly. But no meditation labyrinth could have been nearly as restful as the slow shuffle I took across the playground field with a very quiet two-year-old. As a bonus, we stopped halfway across and played a rock game of his invention. I still got to enjoy the sunshine while I was opening my waiting palm, receiving a rock, then solemnly closing my fingers around it. Then, and this is the great part if you're two, I opened up my hand and showed him that the rock was still there, ready for the taking. His solemn pleasure at this game, and his diligence in the repetition, had to be better for my body than a thousand upward dogs.
Point goes to: Volunteering

I could have had a long, deep conversation with a friend. Not gonna happen. My friends talk about two things:  how their children are driving them crazy, or how their boyfriends are driving them crazy. (Or, with some friends, both, and that gets a little extreme.)

None of them ever reveals a secret worry that the emergency light in the bedroom will actually do some scary, unnameable thing (Clifton), how the nursery ID ankle band is so tight it actually prevents sleep (again, Clifton) or how anxiety over his mother’s safety kept him up all night (again, my main man, Clifton). We talked about some real stuff in that half hour before he fell asleep for nap yesterday. He misses his mother so much he could gnaw off his arm in misery, and all I had in my arsenal of comfort was a squishy lap, a mom-like demeanor and a willingness to offer some remedy.

So I thought very hard, and breathed very slowly, and tried. I explained about the emergency light, even offering a hands-on demonstration of its safe qualities. I persuaded the staff to provide him with a new ID band that I promised would be “the unscratchy kind.” I told him, over and over, that his mother was fine, that she loved him and that she was coming back for him, soon. I’ve never had a conversation with any of my friends in which we covered that many important topics in half an hour, and I’ve certainly never offered anything close to such direct and sincere relief. At least, not enough relief that they felt comfortable enough to suck their thumb in front of me and fall asleep, exhausted.
Point goes to: Volunteering

So I drove home. Surprise, I still had the rest of a day. And I spent it cleaning the chaos, going to yoga, walking the dog. Not one thing I did was as important as the time I had spent at the nursery. 

My better self was right (she usually is, when I stop whining long enough to listen to her). There will sometimes be beautiful Sundays, but there will always be children who need a little help in letting go of their worries for as long as it takes to fall asleep.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Communist Microchip in my Daughter’s Brain, or, what I learned about Sino-U.S. relations from a guy with a topographical sculpture of Hawaii on his office wall

Back when I'd let my subscription for Ms. magazine lapse and picked up twelve issues of Fast Company instead (plus bonus tote bag!), I worked as a corporate drone in a totally made-up sector of American capitalism, euphemistically referred to as “business services." (Or, when the computer geeks tagged along, “consulting.”) An essential part of these "services" involved going to lunch with out-of-town customers, usually with a ratio ten of us to every one of them. We really liked that power-in-numbers thing. Also, floppy neckerchiefs and big earrings, but just for the women.

At lunch, the ten of us would take turns spouting marketing department aphorisms like, “It’s the people who make the difference at our company” and “When customers hear about all we can do for them, they say, ‘I had no idea.’” The other nine of us would nod along in time, solemnly. I realize now that what the customers were actually thinking was, “When can I get the next plane out of this burg and back to my glass-walled cubicle at the RenCen?” But I was too earnest to figure that out. In fact, I think I even wrote the script for a promotional video called, obviously enough, “I Had No Idea.” It had a great deal of footage of puffy white guys shaking hands at the foot of the two-story, twisted staircase in our new red-brick headquarters, the one our owner’s brother had designed. I’m not twisted enough to make this stuff up, so you have to know it’s true.

It was at a ten-to-one lunch that I found myself seated across the slightly sticky table from someone I'll call "Mr. Travel." He ran our Incentive Travel Group, which, back in those fat 'n happy times, mostly required deciding which of the hundreds of possible “Fam Trips” to go on next. (If you don’t already know what a Fam Trip is, don’t ask; it will just depress you and make you miss the nineties, something you probably never thought possible.) That day when I sat down to lunch, I knew three things about this guy, and I was about to learn one more.

Thing One, he had served proudly in the Marines for a number of years, a fact which came up in every conversation I’d ever had with him, no matter how brief. Thing Two, he had a gigantic copper-glazed sculpture that took up one full wall of his office. It was a topographical depiction of the Hawaiian Islands, each one of which he had visited hundreds of times, on those Fam Trips you weren’t supposed to be thinking about. He sat with his back to the artwork, the better to allow visitors to gaze on its splendor during meetings. It made me think of dentist’s offices, and work-related road trips to sad factory towns, when I had to stay in Holiday Inns with exactly this sort of sculpture in the lobby. Every time I left a meeting in his office, I was thinking about root canals and New Jersey, and I wouldn’t be be able to do my best “I Had No Idea” work for days. Thing Three about him was that he liked to walk around the office with both his hands stuck down the front of his pants. Did I mention that all this was happening decades ago, or is that beginning to become apparent?

So there we were at lunch, drinking ice tea (mid-nineties, not mid-eighties, big difference). Back then, I only had one topic I felt was worthy of discussion – my adorable baby daughter. Had I mentioned yet how cute she was?  Did I show you the latest pictures? Did you want to hear more about her? No one ever did, but that didn’t stop me. I babbled on about the baby, hitting hard on the extra-specialness and super-de-duper wonderfulness of every aspect of her, mentioning a minimum of once every five minutes that she’d been adopted all the way from China. I really did love the kid (still do), but I’m sure I made it sound like she was some sort of imported olive oil or antique chiffarobe, not a human being. My apologies to everyone who had to listen to me between June 1995 and July 1997, when I got pregnant with daughter number two in a geriatric pregnancy that just about killed me. After that, I pretty much shut up about my damn kids altogether.

So there I was, ignoring the I Had No Idea customer at the other end of the table, babbling about my daughter. Mr. Travel took his hands out of his pants and leaned in, close. “Did you ever think,” he said to me, “that the Chinese government has put microchips in all those girls’ heads, and that they’re just waiting for them to get a little older and stronger and then set them loose to destroy you? And ...” (significant Marine Corps pause) "... all of us?"

Well, that shut me up about the baby. And helped me to realize Thing Four: Despite the sculpture and the Fam Trips, and possibly because of the Marine Corps, (and potentially hinted at by the hands-in-the-pants thing), this man was completely insane.

My husband and I had a good laugh about it at the time, as we put our daughter to bed and then went downstairs to watch videos of her that we'd shot during the day. (Yes, pathetic, and yes, I realize that now.) "A destructive microchip intended to ruin our lives?  Ha ha," we cried, merrily.

Then the years dragged on. The many, many sleepless years. And, every now and then, locked in some epic battle for survival with the strongest life form on earth, my daughter, I would think, suddenly, of that comment about the parent-destroying microchip. Was he crazy? Or the sanest man at the ten-to-one table?

Last week, Emma called home four times in three nights. From Beijing. Long after midnight, our time, each time. Her reasons were perfectly good, at least in the cold daylight of her tomorrow, which was still our trying-to-catch-up-on-lost-sleep yesterday. One time, her debit card wasn’t working. The next time she called, two hours later, guess what, it still wasn't working, and she needed to buy an Asian Miracle Bra, and how was she supposed to do that without a debit card? The last time, she called from a wedding, and wanted to let us she was having a good time, in case we'd been worried. That "good time" on a Beijing Saturday afternoon was way after midnight in Minneapolis, so it was a little less "good time" and more "nightmare that will not end" from the perspective of our time zone.

After the week we'd had, I suppose it was natural for one of us to let our sad, tired minds return to Mr. Travel.  My husband brought it up first. With his head lying on the kitchen counter and his bleary eyes rolling around, unfocused, in his head, he croaked out his new mantra, “He was right!”

“What did you say?” I asked. And then he told me his theory, the kind that can only come with sleep deptrivation: she’d returned to her homeland for a fresh recharge of her capitalist-pig-destruction batteries. That, he concluded, was the motive behind the Gitmo-level sleep deprivation campaign she'd been waging her entrie life. “If none of us can get any sleep,” he muttered, “then they’ll be able to flatten our economy even more.”

“They’re doing a pretty good job of it already. Too bad I don’t have an important job, or one with national security implications,” I said. He agreed. “All you do now is nod off during ‘I Had No Idea!' videos." 

“And order a lot of coffee at my ten-to-one lunches,” I reminded him.

Mr. Travel, wherever you are right now, I apologize.