Saturday, February 25, 2012

Special Specialness

There are seven billion people on the planet now, and sometimes I feel as if I’m responsible for baking a birthday cake for every damn one of them.

My name is Julie, and I have a problem with special specialness. If last year’s “fill the house with balloons until Mom passes out” party was a hit, what about a color-coded scavenger hunt this time? Original sonnets for every party guest? Goody bags that rival an Oscar nominee’s swag bag? Sure, just let me slip on my comfortable shoes and I’ll get to work.

If I can't control my crazed event-related behavior, at least I realize I’m a victim of my gender. Garrison Keillor (a man) once said that Christmas, in its current over-the-top incarnation, would not exist if women weren’t around to perpetrate it. The same, I feel, goes for birthdays, book clubs and every grade school production ever mounted since Jesus was in First Grade.

Only women are willing to turn themselves inside out to please others, or at least to attempt to impress them. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A: High Heels. 

Exhibit B: The special specialness that turns up every February at my house, when my daughters celebrate their birthdays. The fact that one of them was studying in Beijing this year didn’t stop me. I drove myself crazy trying to come up with thoughtful gifts that could lie flat in a first-class envelope – a newly minted DVD of videotaped birthdays past, a hand-made accordion-fold card with recently scrounged and reprinted photos of her blowing out the candles on the specially special cakes I’ve baked her over the past 16 years. Just reading this makes me want to smack myself and go mix up a pitcher of martinis.

If something can be done with that magic combination of sickening thoughtfulness and insane exertion of effort, women will find a way. There's no point in blaming Martha Stewart, either, because I've done it to myself -- no one pulled that trigger on the glue gun for me.

I’ve been in a number of book clubs in my time, and every single one has started with a “wine and chips” motif that quickly escalates in one-up-woman-ship into a multi-course, sit-down dinner, served by a sweaty and stiffly smiling hostess, with every morsel themed to a chapter of the book in question. (Don’t even ask what my latest group did when we read “The Help”).

I know a woman who is an absolute marvel – the sort who hosts a meeting of the planning committee, gathers silent auction donations and bakes one hundred dozen cupcakes for the school Bake Sale, all before noon. I serve on a board with her, and, on a recent day, we arrived and walked in to a meeting together. I noticed that she was carrying a giant armful of agendas and reports she’d prepared for this deserving nonprofit. With grace and good cheer, she mentioned that she’d been at her child's school since early that morning, toiling at an event.  As we reached the door of our conference room, she stopped. “I just need to run back to my car and bring in the crock pot of jambalaya. I thought we all could use a snack, and today is Mardi Gras!” she said, brightly, as she trotted off.

I used to be a feminist. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine (remember that one?) I believed that some day I would be living and working in a world with total gender equality in pay, recognition and social status. And now I’m blowing up balloons, and she’s toting crock pots through icy parking lots.

I wonder if Gloria Steinem wakes up every morning and smacks her head against the wall. Possibly, but then she runs to the kitchen to whip up a batch of jambalaya for that board meeting tonight.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Strangest Valentines Ever: The Yam, the Herring and the Abused Cow

Mary Katherine’s junior high class decided to exchange Valentines this year. “Ironically, of course,” she informed me, but I didn’t care. I’ve always been a big fan of Kid Valentine’s Day.  Couple Valentine’s always seemed highly smarmy to me, all that dining out and acting happy, but I Love Love Love the children's version, including cutting out red paper hearts and finding the doilies buried under  the sprinkles, the cookie cutters and other seldom-used cooking supplies. When I was small, people were not jumbo-sized as they are now, and all we exchanged were paper valentines. Now, every card comes with candy attached, and that’s why none of us can squeeze into our desks anymore.

But I digress.

I implored Mary Katherine to let me research vintage valentines online, so she could be even more ironic than the average Scooby-Doo-Valentine-buying tween. She relented, I think just to please me, and we found some doozies: a blonde mermaid insisting that there was “nothing fishy” about her love; sledding kids declaring there was “snow doubt” that they wanted the recipient to be their valentine; a ponytailed teen, lying prone, telephone in hand, somehow rhyming “yak” and “it’s a fact” that she wants U to be her valentine. I was in heaven.

Then I found the strange valentines, the ones that were clearly made the day the office staff went out for lunch and had too many cocktails, or perhaps when one of them just snapped at all the stupid rhymes. Perhaps the artist was simply a victim of his own success. One day, feeling hungry, he came up with giant, romantic fruits, declaring they’d be “a peach of a pair.” He followed that up with a bowl of salty snacks and the line, “I’ll pop a corny question and ask you to be my valentine.”

Perhaps they were huge hits. The public loved them. The boss demanded more food-related valentines. The artist was stuck. Then, in a fit of desperation, he created this:
 An orange-fleshed tuber in a valentine?  Hey, it worked with the bowl of popcorn. For the record, I have to tell you that this yam frightened Mary Katherine, and she insisted that his cane was menacing. I retorted that it was a walking stick, not a cane, and that the yam was probably best buds with Mr. Peanut.  When he wasn’t sweet-talking lady yams, he and Mr. P. probably took long strolls down the boulevard, stunted arm in stunted arm.  I imagined the yam had been saving up for a monocle.

But back to our desperate artist. The boss accepted the yam-entine, grudgingly, so now where should he turn? Why, to oily fish, of course:
 Our love can be pickled, our love can be smoked, but it will last forever, said this genius card.

By this point, I imagine that the boss was getting angry. No one wants a valentine like this, he shouted.  Go back, literally, to the drawing board.

And then, our artist created it:  a valentine that combines cruelty, red meat and love in a perfect trifecta of Valentine’s devotion:
Did the boss fall for it?  I like to think that the artist was carried around the office on the shoulders of his adulatory co-workers, and that he eventually married the boss’ daughter, took over the company, and sold it to the Japanese in 1965 for one million dollars.

Or something like that. Happy Valentine's Day, by the way.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Funeral, Unplugged

My grandmother was a Dalton and my mother was a Clifford. I grew up surrounded by Kelleys and Morans and Meahans and Costellos. With this sort of ethnic background, it stands to reason that I’ve already given considerable thought to planning my funeral.

Funeral planning calls for the perfect Irish Stew of self-pity, maudlin focus on the negative and, of course, a big, loud party. My Mom’s friend Mrs. Koboldt (nee Mary Margaret Meahan) used to extract the same promise from her friends every time she’d had a few highballs: “Everyone has to drive separately from the church to the cemetery. I want a cortege so long that it’s backing out the gates and onto the street.” That someone would give this much thought to creating a traffic jam, even after death, offers just a glimpse into the interior life, such as it is, of the people I come from.

It’s a tradition that goes back a long way. My grandfather, Walter Aloysius Clifford, had a sister, Nanna, who had worked, in her youth, as a professional mourner. Back in the days when bodies were laid out in the back parlor of a shotgun flat, Nanna’s job was to sit with the deceased while everyone else sat in the kitchen for the wake. Nanna’s frequent sobs and moans were the perfect reason to offer yet another toast to the dearly departed, and everyone left the sad occasion feeling happy, usually very happy.

Last year, I went to way too many funerals to allow for denial of my own encroaching years (here’s another blog about one of them). When you start to bury your contemporaries, you’re getting old. But I used to love to go to funerals when I was a child. My mother was the youngest in her family, so lots of old Irish aunties were always being laid out for three-night visitations (the Irish believe that too much of anything is just about right).

I saw a lot of dead, embalmed bodies in my childhood, and learned that discussion of the “natural and peaceful” look of the corpse was perfectly acceptable conversation. The funeral parlors in which these shindigs were held achieved a level of elegance – fresh paint, fresh flowers and carpet instead of linoleum – that I never saw in my own home. I remember ladies’ rooms with fainting couches, cousins I got to see only at funerals, and uncles who gave me quarters to buy sodas from the Coke machine in the basement. What’s not to like?

I had a long stretch there, between childhood and last year, in which I went to very few funerals. So entering into the world of mourning again, after being away so long, was quite a shock. I suppose I should have expected it in an age where weddings have taken on the nature of long-running Broadway shows, but funerals have become glossy, technological Life Shows! After experiencing a few of these events recently, I’m not entirely sure that it’s a trend I welcome for myself -- not the table after table of artifacts and photographs, and certainly not the ubiquitous continuous loop PowerPoint of Happier Times.

When a beautiful and brave friend recently died, I was surprised to find myself receiving a telephone call from a woman who gave me a display assignment. I was to gather photos from an annual event in which the deceased and I had been regular participants. “30” x 40” foamcore,” she had told me crisply. “I’ve got the costume she wore at the opening night play, so see if you can find a dress form.”

Suddenly, I felt as if it were 1990 and I was working on the flip charts for the big Chevy presentation in Detroit. Or, worse, that tomorrow was the Science Fair and I hadn’t even conducted my first experiment. I sent out frantic messages to friends, trolling for photos, and visited Office Max for my presentation board.

As I pulled my display together, I felt a decided mix of emotions. On the one hand, this woman was an incredible source of light and love to anyone who ever met her. Paintings should be painted for her, poems written. I felt that my Science Fair offering, while well-meaning, was selling her a little short.

I wondered what she would have wanted. The funeral was the Saturday before Christmas, and I was leaving the following day for 17 days in China. I had a few other things I could have been doing besides wrestling with the double-stick tape. I could easily imagine my friend saying, “Really, don’t bother, just attend to your ‘to do’ list, and think a nice thought of me when you get a chance on that long flight.” But she deserved a memorial that was brimming over with intention and care, and I understood the desire by those who were planning it to create something tangible, and to ask the people who had benefitted from the joy of this woman’s friendship to contribute a tiny tribute, however homely and ineffective the effort.

When I arrived at the memorial service on Saturday night, toting my display, I found the proper easel and stood back, taking in the contributions from all the other people who had gathered their memories of this dear lady, all within the confines of thirty by forty inches. I understood the message, loud and clear: She mattered. She mattered enough for me to dig through the photo album, for you to make a trip to Office Max. She was worth a little hassle with the double-stick tape.

We pass through this world so quickly, and our departure, often, has the impact of a hand removed from a bucket of water. I can’t fault anyone for wanting to show that their beloved has left something lasting behind. I remember a sermon once where the congregation was asked to raise our hands if we knew our grandparent’s names. Then we raised our hands if we remembered the names of our great-grandparents. By the time the speaker got to great-great-great-grandparents, no hands were raised. “How quickly we are forgotten,” he said.

But still. Because I’ve worked in corporations most of my adult life, I think I’m just not the right person for the Life Show! experience. Those easels have held too many logos and scope charts and Venn diagrams of the latest thing we’ve been trying to sell somebody, for me to ever feel anything but itchy in their presence. I’ve had enough disasters with PowerPoint formatting, lenses, projectors and screens to forever fix that particular program in my mind as an Instrument of Torture, not a vehicle for happy memories. And, however therapeutic the simple act of creating a memorial board might be, I want my friends to take their time having a bubble bath before my service, and to spend time at my funeral lapping up champagne and gossiping relentlessly about the 20-year-old cabana boy with whom my body was found.

So, it’s official: I never, in life or death, want to be responsible for the creation of one more PowerPoint. Just take another glass of champers from the tray that’s being passed by that twinkly out-of-work actor, and relax for five minutes. When you think about it, raise your glass to me, and know that we’ll be seeing each other again, soon enough.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Millionth Mitten

I was leaning back on the one bench they’ve provided at my newly renovated Y, grateful for an unwobbly place to switch out my shoes, and content to watch the passing show. Mid-mornings have a unique flavor at a health club in January – the stalwart elderly, proud to be out the house, the new-resolution types who are clogging up the parking lots and forever turning the wrong direction in yoga class, and, always, the mommies.

I see the mommies trudging along in the parking lot, holding one child in arms while commanding the second to grab her leg and not let go. I see them in the bathroom, having long conversations about how yes, the toilet is loud, but no, it will not swallow you up, just go, please. Mostly I see them fighting the good fight in the Battle of the Mittens, insisting that it’s cold outside, we need to bundle up, just stick your arm out and Mommy will do the rest.

This particular day, as I sat on my bench, the mother next to me had already undergone a couple skirmishes and a full-scale retreat, and she had only gotten as far as boots and coat. From the corner of my eye, I noted a children's hat that looked very itchy, and featured big ear flaps, and I felt for her. Minnesota parents are a noble lot, nowhere more clearly evidenced than by their ability to bundle up, debundle and rebundle their progeny several times a day for six months of winter. By January, it starts to get wearing, and by February, it’s positively exhausting. Back in my Mitten War days, I used to think of all those California parents, and their easy lot in life. Come March, I’d come to truly despise them. How hard is it to be a good mommy in California?  “Be sure your flip flops coordinate with your sunglasses, dear!” Ha.

I remember that gloomy mid-March evening, years back, when I finally lost it. I only had two children, but two, by my reckoning that evening, was feeling like Two Too Many. I sat at the kitchen table, trying to unsnarl the knot from a wet pair of pink Sorels, and I let it rip, “They will NEVER grow up!  These children will stay little forever, just to Spite Me!” My daughters, ages six and three, stopped their argument about whether brown hair was prettier than yellow hair, and stared at me with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, not really feeling very sorry at all. “I just think the winter is getting to me.” They gave me the fish-eye for a bit and then resumed their discussion with vigor. Stupid Mommy. How could winter be so hard? There was sledding and there were snowmen and maybe, if they were lucky, they might even live long enough to see a Snow Day declared in Minnesota.

I thought of that night as I sat on the bench at the Y and watched the exasperated and exhausted mother struggle with the mittens, one more time. It’s never just one mitten that causes a Minnesota parent to go over the deep end. It’s the parade of mittens, the unending string of them, culminating in the Millionth Mitten, the one that leaves you screaming nonsense about how your children will never grow up, just to spite you.

In a few weeks, my girls will be celebrating their 17th and 14th birthdays, one day apart and half a world away from each other. They put their own mittens on now, or usually don’t, and they need me for very little these days. I don’t have enough distance on those early years, at least not yet, to say that I wish I could go back to the Winterwear Wars. And I knew enough to keep my mouth shut around that young mother. She didn’t need to hear any advice from me, or accept my admonition to Cherish Each Moment. She just needed to get the damn mitten on and get home before naptime.

So I stayed quiet, but I tried to help. I made a crazy face at her child, behind her back. It startled him so much that he allowed some genuine progress to be made. I pulled lips back with my fingers and stuck out my tongue, and his boots slipped on. She never saw the shocked look on his face, because she was too busy hustling him out to the minivan. I’d given her the only gift I had to give that day – a crazy lady’s distraction to help her get on her way. Someday, maybe she’ll do the same for some other poor soul, sitting on a bench at the Y.