Saturday, January 29, 2011

One Down, Eleven to Go: My Groundhog Day Resolutions

I managed to make it through January without resolving anything. Based on the overcrowding in my yoga classes, I was swimming upstream (Shout out to the guy who wore jeans to Myra’s Vinyasa class on Sunday:  good effort, but buy some sweats, honey). 

Now, in the spirit of contrarianism, I’m making resolutions for February 2, that day of fresh starts and keenly observed rodents. With only eleven months to toil away at the resolutions, I’m hopeful that my odds of keeping them will be higher.

My perennial resolution-threat, to start smoking, has failed again. I always feel the need to take up the habit each year, in order to balance out all the quitters. After all, Altria has to make money somehow. (By the same token, though, I should also resolve to gain weight, and that’s something I’m all too likely to do, so I’m tabling that proposal until the tapeworm takes hold.)

I’m beginning to think that my failure at starting the smoking habit comes down to a matter of equipment. While I am in possession of an ashtray stolen from Sardi’s in 1980, the only lighter I could use is the long wand thingy-y that’s used to light the broken stove, and that might set the wrong tone. Also, I could really use a Cartier cigarette case like the ones Linda Porter used to give to Cole on opening night, and I can’t seem to get anyone to give me one for Christmas.

So I’m tossing out the smoking plan until 2012, or until I get that cigarette case, whichever comes first. And, for Groundhog Day, I’m thinking of the following fresh resolutions:

Resolution One:  Learn Something New.  Some mornings, when I wake up, I swear that I can actually feel that my brain has shrunk overnight, like a pair of jeans after the Girl Scout cookies are delivered. My children are learning things all the time – Mary Katherine is learning lines for a play and Emma is learning polynomials. Even Boomer is learning how to ingest socks, plastic and entire sticks of butter with no ill effect. It might be a language, an instrument, or just how to frost cupcakes so they look like the ones of the covers of the women’s magazines, but I need to expand my repertoire before ’11 is a dim memory.

Resolution Two: The Yelling Thing. I grew up in a home in which belittling was the order of day, every day, at least for the grownup in charge. Every foible, mispronunciation, or bit of toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe was noticed, called out and mocked. Incidents from years gone by were stored, cataloged, and brought out to be discussed at moments when they were calculated to produce the most possible discomfort. To protest was to be told, in a disappointed tone, that one clearly had no sense of humor. I learned, in my home, that a loud laugh was always meant to accompany cruelty, not mirth.

So, good news, I don’t do that.

However, I also grew up in a home where “good morning” was uttered at a full-tilt shout, and decibels increased throughout the day from there. If happy, one talked loudly, and if angry, one shouted. I learned that a voice could be used as a weapon of intimidation. 

And I do that.  

I’m a yeller.  I try very, very hard not to yell directly AT anyone, but I yell ABOUT things all the time. Lateness and dirt and overscheduling are all opportunities to give my lungs a bit of a work out. Things break. We’re arriving late. Clothes are strewn all over the floor. Really, Julie, do you need to be quite so loud about it?

So I’m going to summon up my inner Minnesotan and try to keep things on an evener, and quieter, keel.

Learning Something New and Piping Down: They aren’t the most glamorous resolutions I’ve ever made, but, then, I only have to live with them for eleven more months.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

RE: RE: RE: Enough Already!

Mary Katherine arrived home last night with an instruction sheet regarding costumes for an upcoming play in which she’s appearing. The sheet was full of many long paragraphs that covered both sides of the page. For an extra challenge, THE ENTIRE SET OF INSTRUCTIONS WAS WRITTEN IN CAPITAL LETTERS. It made my eyes ache just to wade through the document for important information. I tried to imagine the writer of this missive, deciding that a flow of consciousness style was the best way to communicate with parents, (they’ve got plenty of time to savor the long form, right?) and hey, while I’m at it, why not hit the ol’ CAPS LOCK AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS?

Maybe all caps are making a comeback this season, like thigh-high tights and cowl necks. I just ran across a colleague’s bio on, and the entire thing was written in capital letters. The only description missing was: STRATEGIZED AND DEPLOYED MANY LARGE LETTERS FOR A MAJOR ALL-CAPITAL INITIATIVE ON THE WEB.

Excess takes many forms when it comes to writing. I have another freelancing friend who occasionally dips her toes into the waters of Mommy Volunteering, and she finds it to be a strange land, grammatically speaking.  “What’s with the exclamation points?” she asked me one day. “It’s like, oh, if I only put six exclamation points on this email about the Valentine’s Day Class Party, no one will open it, but seven points will have them clamoring for more.”

“Also,” I said, “Re Re.” 

“What?” she was baffled.

“You know, the complete inability to change the subject line, so every message appears with RE: RE: RE: RE: at the start.”

“While we’re at it,” she chimed in, “there’s “Reply All,” too.”

She’d hit a nerve. The bigger the committee I’m working on, the more likely the Mommies are to hit “Reply All” to a message that really ought to go to the chairperson (or to no one at all). Really, I didn’t need to know that about how that ovary problem will keep you from making the Saturday morning meeting at the coffee shop, but all 50 of us on the committee are happy to know now.

The two-page, ALL CAPS missive has its own evil twin, I believe, and that’s the outline. I hate outlines. I remember a time I was volunteering on a charter school startup project. One of the people on the committee was a big-time lawyer, or, as he would say, attorney. Everything this guy wrote, and perhaps thought, was crammed into an outline --  a serious one, with four levels down reading A) iii) b) iv).  I had been asked to create some marketing materials for the school, and I saw his look of utter distaste for my black and white photos of needy kids and short, punchy headlines. How can anything be worth reading if it doesn’t have a subparagraph c, section ii? Even though I prefer the pithy to the rambling, we were not destined to be friends, Mr. Outline and I. It’s the Roman numerals that kept us apart, I think.

I have a pal who jokes that no matter what work-related problem she shares with me, I diagnose that a PowerPoint presentation will fix her up in a jiff. I do admit to a deep and abiding love for bullet points, but it’s not as if I harbor a a secret desire to convert all of Shakespeare to bullet points or anything crazy like it.  Or do I?
·         To be
·         Not to be
·         Question? 

Or, as the mommies would say, Question?????????????

Friday, January 14, 2011

No Pictures, Please

Anyone who’s ever pointed a camera in my direction knows that I am something less than a Woman of a Thousand Faces. In fact, I only have two offerings, photographically speaking. My first look could diplomatically be called “pre-Hazelden.” No matter the time of day or the current state of my sobriety, I present a droopy eyed, slack-jawed mien that can cause some embarrassment when the photo being taken is, say, for the Annual Giving Committee’s Kickoff, or the Kindergarten Picnic Volunteers. One look at my visage and people start hunting for the bottle of gin in the background.

My second photographic presentation, which I affect to avoid looking like a sot, has been described by my children as “The Goosey Face.” Eyes determinedly wide open, mouth set in a rictus of sobriety, I look like someone who has just felt something very unpleasant happening in her backside region. No one doubts that I’m in control of my senses, but whether I’m in control of my arse is another matter entirely.

I wish I could say that I used to be a beautifully photographed child, but I’d be lying. I’ve been ruining class pictures and family reunion photos for as long as I can remember. Back in the days of Polaroid, everyone would gather around the shiny square to see the development process in action. I got used to hearing the inevitable, disappointed, “Julie ruined it; everybody back on the couch for another picture.” 

There are people the camera loves (think supermodels) and people the camera hates (think me). Over the years, I’ve resigned myself to it. I don’t want to be one of those strange people who runs away the minute the Minolta comes out. There’s just a bit too much creepy self-loathing in that schtick for my tastes. My feeling is, hey, I look the way I look, I’m fine with it, and if you want to take a snapshot, go right ahead, just as soon as I can loll my head a little bit more on my neck, Jimmy-Buffet-in-Margaritaville style.

And yes, to answer your question, I’ve tried Taking a Deep Breath, I’ve tried Having Happy Thoughts, and it does no good at all. I always have been, and I remain, a Film Freak.

Which is why I was so surprised to see an actual acceptable picture of myself from a recent family wedding. I look positively normal. It surprised me so much that I tried to determine why. I realized that, first of all, I didn’t know the photo was being taken, so my face didn’t have a chance to contort itself as usual. Plus, I was wearing a silly New Year's Eve crown, and I think just knowing that I was goofy looking helped me relax a little, facially speaking. I treasure the moments when I can stop taking myself seriously.

The company I was keeping while the snap was shot may be part of the reason for my relative comeliness, too. I was talking with a distant relative by marriage, someone who might possibly be the coolest soul every to consort with our clan. A native of Chihuahua, Mexico, Jorge, despite his less-than-towering stature, somehow conveys the attitude of a benevolent and wise king. Talking with him, it’s all I can do not to curtsy. I can only imagine that he descends from a long line of Mexican emperors. I really think he could pull off the gold-crown-as-everyday-headgear look, perhaps with an ermine cloak to accessorize.

The other reason I look almost-human in this picture is that I was in my happiest, most comfortable state of being – Getting Something Done. Emma had asked me to serve as her personal assistant in talking with every person at the wedding who was from another country or who had lived in one; I was conducting a series of informational interviews, disguised as cocktail party chatter, and I was just a teeny bit aglow with the rare thrill that accompanies the notion that Emma Was Pleased.

I realize that this represented a unique combination of circumstances that I may not see again, so I plan to hold onto the photographic evidence.  Next time everyone is lining up against the file cabinets for a group photo, I’ll just pull out this one, a la A Chorus Line, and let everyone know that once upon a time, I was sober, relaxed and almost normal looking.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Whole Fam-Damily

I went back to my hometown over the holidays, the first time I’ve done so in quite some time. The visit turned out be civil at all times, with occasional ventures into actual pleasantness. In the interest of replicating these circumstances in the future, I tried to analyze what made it such a relative success (pun intended).

Number One: Remember Who Your Real Family Is.  Before the family visit, there was a multi-day stop with a friend whose family situation is, um, complicated. We made our own holiday, without preconceptions, hidden requirements or unstated expectations. December 25 was declared “The Jewish Christmas.” It included a movie and Chinese food, and the whole day felt uncomplicated and happy. We were more a ragtag bunch of fellow earthlings than any group which felt the constraints of enforced togetherness and jollity. The unconventional fun helped steel me for the family of origin get-together that lay ahead.

Number Two: Five and 48.  What works for me is to visit no more frequently than every five years, with each visit not to exceed 48 hours. The relatives are just starting to remember who I am (what with the 60 months’ worth of additional wrinkles on my face) by the time I’m picking up my boarding pass at Lambert St. Louis International Airport to head back north. There’s no available time to remember the old grudges that are invariably unearthed when boredom sinks in and someone starts to tell “Remember the time” stories. The time my brother locked me in a closet and they didn’t find me for hours. The time I received a turkey butt as a supposedly hilarious Christmas present from the slyly sadistic side of the family (the other side verged closer to certifiable insanity). With my foolproof in-and-out-after-long-absence method, no one ever had time to remember any of those charming tidbits.

Number Three:  Make Time to Do Right.  In the course of my brief stay, I arranged a full morning to seek out and sit with the 87-year-old couple who were such good friends to me and my family when I was growing up. While somewhat bowed by age, health and circumstance, they are as beautiful, kind and caring as I remembered them to be. Seeing them reminded me that I did, indeed, have unconditional love in my childhood, just not always from the blood-relatives.

Number Four:  Have Some Fun, Dammit.  I made time to attend the 50th birthday party of a friend I get to see only about once a year. Although wary of a venture that would require me to stay up past 9 pm, I manned up and had a great time with people I hadn’t seen since I wore newscaster hair, Barbara Bush pearls, and floppy bow ties. It was well worth the effort.

Number Five :  The Great Leap Forward, Generationally Speaking.  Forget your peers; you already heard everything they have to say twenty-five years ago. Seek out their children and grandchildren, and you’ll be sore amazed. During the course of my visit, I giggled with a two-year-old great nephew, frolicked on the dance floor with adorable great nieces, and analyzed the intricacies of life in NY and LA with the twenty something set.  They were way more interesting than the lower back pain and mortgage talk of my age group.

Number Six:  Have an Agenda.  We attended a family wedding over the visit, and my eldest girl, who wants to live everywhere on the earth at once and speak every language known to humankind, found out that many of the attendees had studied abroad, spoke many languages and/or had married foreign nationals. She wanted to talk with all of them, and serving as her personal assistant for introductions and conversations (more like interrogations, but that’s Emma), helped me pleasantly pass the post-wedding cocktail party hours with ease. 

The most astonishing thing about the visit, to me, was that I not only survived, I had a little fun along the way.  In 2016, with a face even more wrinkly than the one I currently sport, I’ll be ready for another trip south.