Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Fix a Crying Baby

There are certain things men can’t resist, and just get your mind out of the gutter and stick with me for a minute. I’m talking, of course, about sinkholes. It has been my experience that any hole in the ground, especially one surrounded by sawhorses and tools and workmen, is irresistible to men. They have to walk over and look down, and then they feel compelled to make comments that indicate how much they know about what’s going on.

We had a sinkhole appear in our street a few summers ago. Moments after the thing appeared, there was suddenly a great huddle of male neighbors around it. These fellows hadn’t done much more than nod at each other for the past ten years, but they were now engaged in muttering, pointing and -- as if they'd worked out a little schedule of shifts on a notepad -- standing around to make sure the hole didn’t go anywhere.

To keep things fair, I will confess that, while women don’t seem to care much about sinkholes, the thing that most of them can’t resist is a crying baby – not necessarily in the hands-on-and-helpful sense, mind you, but with a steady stream of advice about how to handle the situation. You’re holding him too high. You’re holding her too low. That’s too much jiggling. He’s going to throw up if you keep doing that – see, what did I tell you, he threw up.

The fact is, no woman has the inside track on what will make a baby stop crying, any more than all those attorneys and actuaries and account executives gathered around the sinkhole in Tangletown had the slightest idea how to fix it. We just like to offer advice, because we figure we’re supposed to know about these things.

My experience with sinkholes may be strictly limited, but I do know that, once in a while, you can experience pure, dumb luck with a crying baby. My best example of this happened a few years ago, when Emma and Mary Katherine had agreed to babysit for three little boys who were ridiculously close in age – something like three, three minus eight-and-a-half-months-and-fifteen-minutes and He Just Got Here. The girls had been at their gig about an hour when I got a telephone call. I could tell by the ring it was Emma – her rings, I swear, always have a “Pick Up or Else” quality about them.

Her response to my hello was a barked plea-demand: “How do I fix this baby so he stops crying?” Emma holds the deep belief that there is an Operating Manual somewhere, one which contains all the secret instructions, and that I am refusing to share it with her.

I sighed. “I’ll be over in five minutes,” I said, pulling on my coat. And five minutes later, I was opening the front door and bracing myself against the wailing. There was Emma, jostling a shrieking baby, and there was Mary Katherine, standing nearby and wringing her hands. I crossed the room in a couple strides. “Hand him over,” I commanded, and Emma did, shaking her fingers after I’d taken him, like she wanted to get rid of the excess baby juice.

Now, here’s the great part:  he stopped crying immediately. I had just delivered enough of a shock to his little system to make him stop and think before he recommenced his caterwaul. It probably helped that my coat was still bracingly cold, I smelled different than the girls (if “less gullible” is an actual odor) and I was putting off some serious Joan-Crawford-at-the-Pepsi-board-meeting vibes.

Three females stood still in a suddenly quiet living room. My girls gasped, and I saw them look at me with something I’d never seen before – respect. “How did you do that?”

I tried to maintain the illusion. “Just hand me the bottle,” I barked. “This baby is going to fall asleep right now.”

And he did, before I even had a chance to take off my coat. And yes, I did a little victory dance in his bedroom before I closed the door, walked down the stairs, and left without a word, like Shane.

It doesn’t always go so easily, of course. I am a longtime volunteer at the crisis nursery, so I have lots of experience with crying-baby-failure. Sometimes I just can’t help a kid stop crying. And sometimes I bump myself up against that conviction from other women that they will always know what I really should be doing, instead.

Even after all these years, each time I stand at the nursery’s front door and press the buzzer to be let in, I  say a Hail Mary with the hope that I’ll do my best, help a child, and keep my mouth shut. This past week, I should have said a couple extra prayers, but I didn’t have time, because as I was still signing in and stowing my snow boots, I could already hear the sorrow rolling down from upstairs, and I walked up toward it, like a brave fire fighter.

Early mornings at the nursery can be hard. I often wonder what the kids are thinking and feeling – I want to stay unconscious a little longer, I just opened my eyes and realized that I’m still here, It smells wrong, This person dressing me has cold fingers. I always walk up the stairs with my hands tucked into my sleeves, trying to make it easier for their warm little bodies to bear my chill.

I was assigned a staff person and given a crying boy and a bundle of clothes. He was sad, so sad, and he kept crying, “mommmmm.” I know, I thought, me too. It’s St. Patrick’s Day and I’d love to be sharing a Jameson with my mom, although you’re a little young for that sort of thing, pal. I leaned in close as I helped him into his shirt and pants, almost whispering the words to “Harrigan,” one of my mom’s March 17th standbys. He calmed down, a little bit. Warm fingers and a whispered song, sometimes they do the trick, I thought. 

As I was helping him off the table and toward the next thing he was going to hate (tooth brushing and face washing), the staff person turned to me, speaking very slowly, like a nurse in a senility ward. “That was very good, the way you sang to him. It calmed him dooown,” she said. She made a “down” gesture with her hands, in case she had used too many syllables for me.

I could feel my eyes narrow. She has taken one entire child psychology class, I thought, possibly even two. And she was practicing her skills with the elderly, which was, I realized, me. I kept my eyes down (it goes along well with keeping my mouth shut, I’ve found) and continued with the sad, sad boy.

He had a hard time in the elevator. He had a hard time at breakfast. By the time we got back up the elevator and into the playroom, he looked as if he might shatter. I scooped him up and laid him against me, leaning back in the window seat and trying the song again. He started to feel a little limp, and, just as we were both letting our guard down, I heard scolding being directed my way: “If you hold him like that, then when you leave, he’ll just cry. You have to put him down right now so he can play.”

I looked up at the clock. I was leaving in two hours. He didn’t seem as if playing was on the top of his “to-do” list for today. Couldn’t he have ten minutes, just to be? No. Someone knew better than me, I told myself, and I needed to muster up some humility and do what she was telling me.

The little boy did fine when I let him down, of course. I’m not offering magic, just arms, and the kids always manage, somehow -- I suppose because they have no other option than to just pick up a stuffed animal, or a Spiderman truck, or a storybook, and try to make it through the next five minutes, and then the five minutes after that.

When the wise staffer decided that she would give the crying boy a plastic butterfly to hold when he was sad, accompanied by much opaque explanation on her part, I thought, what about having him hold onto me, I’m right here and ready to go, but I kept quiet.

But I do have an opinion about what usually works, in case anyone ever might ask. What works, I think, is to be broken, and to know it, and to put myself in front of these broken children, as open as I can manage to be, and for us to abide with one another. All around us can be a sea of rules and schedules and the infinite wisdom of petty bureaucrats. But those kids can see my jagged places, and I can see theirs, and sometimes, we get left alone for a little while, just to be together.

That’s how I’ve been managing, for so many years, to keep coming back and presenting myself to the world of crying babies, no matter why they’re crying, and no matter what happens next. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Millionth Mitten, Revisited after a Frigid First Day of Spring

I first wrote this blog post last year, when I was already sick of winter in early February. Now that we've had a below-zero first day of Spring, I realize how soft and pampered I was back then. Yesterday, I thought of all the poor moms who are still living under a mountain of snowpants and unmatched gloves, and I felt for them. Here's a revisit of that blog post from last year.


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 14thbirthdays, 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 my lips back with my fingers and stuck out my tongue, and both of those cursed and sodden mittens slipped on without a struggle. 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.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Magic Hour

Here’s a Kendrick Koan: If Jesus sent me an Evite today, asking to meet Him for a cup of coffee and a hug, but the coffee shop was in the deepest, darkest western suburbs … would I go? That’s a tough one.  How many different highways would I have to drive on? Any left merges? How far from home, overall? Will the women in the shop have fake tans and big rings? What is Jesus doing in Maple Grove anyway?

Is there an option where I can just Skype Him and still save my immortal soul?

Yes, I do harbor an extreme geographical prejudice, and to say that I “keep close to home” is putting it mildly. The glove box in my car carries printouts of directions to the homes of all my suburban friends, even though I have known some of them 20 years. But still, is it Flying Cloud or Black Dog where I make a left at the lawn jockey, and what direction am I going when I’m driving past that enormous strip mall, the one with two different outposts of the Cheesecake Factory (just in case you need a snack and you’re at the other end)?

Tell me that you live on a nicely alphabetized Minneapolis street with a numbered cross-street, and I like you already. If you’re in the first part of the alphabet (I get a little antsy after Newton Avenue), you’ll probably be my new best friend.

Still, for every rule, there is the time that it gets broken and everything turns out okay, maybe even better than okay. This past Tuesday turned out to be one of those days – an absolute gift of grace that took place a good 25 miles from home, go figure.

A new customer had asked me to attend one of their monthly informational meetings, and I had readily agreed. “It’s in St. Anthony Park,” she had then said, and I had kept my eyes big and my teeth showing, all the while thinking, “Farfarfarfar. This sounds far,” and all the while saying, “See you at 6:30!”

On that fated Tuesday, I had to drive a teenager somewhere first (you may have noticed that this is how most of my stories begin), so I arrived ridiculously early. I parked behind the customer’s building and wondered what to do next. I had noticed some retail-ish looking stuff on the way in, so I got out of my car and stood at the corner, waiting for the light to change. Just as I was gazing over at the Dunn Brothers Coffee sign, sighing at the thought of spending money for the privilege of drinking lukewarm coffee and passing the time, I looked to my left. In the way that some women must hear the birds sing when they see a “Saks Fifth Avenue” storefront, I instantly felt elated at the sign in front of the stately building: “St. Anthony Park Library.”

I practically skipped over, climbing the stairs, taking in big, deep lungfuls of dusty, papery breaths. My friends were in there, thousands of them. When I walked into the main reading room, I hoped, deep in my heart, that heaven might be like this, and that I could devote a few thousand years to hanging out in a space just this perfect. Huge windows fronted one side, and the watery March light, newly released into Daylight Savings Time, was spilling in over the stacks. The room was round, and tiny, and dotted with little window seats, just big enough for one person and a good story. There were laminated signs posted on the walls, extolling the power of a good book. Preaching to the choir, I thought. I had to keep consciously closing my mouth, because I could feel my jaw dropping.

I hadn’t even found a book to read when the lights were turned off. “Are you closing?” I asked the librarian. “Five thirty on Tuesday,” she said. And then I made a decision, not be sad, but to be grateful. It’s not a choice I manage to make very often, but it felt good, just this once. “Thank you for letting me be here, just for a little while,” I said. She looked at me quizzically. You get all kinds in the public library.

I climbed down the stairs and back onto the street. The Dunn Brothers was still there, ugh. I decided to take the long route to get there, and that’s when I found Miracle Number Two. It was a bookstore – an actual, independent bookstore, just sitting there on the street, as if it didn’t know it was supposed to be on life support. And (I checked the hours this time), it was open until 8 p.m. I let myself in. Of course there was a little bell over the door. And leather chairs with reading lights. And a nobly scarred wooden floor. I fell into a chair and just sat there, looking at all the choices of actual, paper books. The clerk didn’t even look up. You get all kinds in a bookstore.

I sat in the leather chair a long time, letting my eyes run over the contents of the shelves and tables, until it was time for my meeting, and then, slowly, I crossed the street and completed what I had initially thought was my purpose in coming to this place. It turns out that a work assignment wasn’t the reason, though, it was just the medium.

I had gotten a free pass out of the jail of my current life, and I had spent a Magic Hour with my best friends in all the world. Books have never ignored me, or shouted at me, or lied to me, or let me down. They have never sneered or disapproved of me for not understanding them. Thanks to the good graces of the Minneapolis Public Library, they haven't even cost me any money. They have just waited for me, patiently, in so many unlikely places, until I am lucky enough to find them, no matter how far from home I may happen to be.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Corporate policy, the retro-world of St. Paul (and some seriously bad karma for Corepower Yoga)

The sort of person who arrives an hour early for an interview with a potential new customer is not expecting things to go well, and, on  Monday, I certainly wasn’t. But still, I had no idea what perils lay in store for me. I had already been unable to find the St. Paul coffee shop where my potential new customer had asked to meet. Weeks before, when her assistant had confirmed the appointment, I had dutifully Googled it, and now had the address and telephone number in hand, along with a Google map.

But there wasn’t a coffee shop at 752 Grand Avenue. There wasn’t any building at all marked 752. I called the number. A cheerful granny answered, “St. Paul Chamber of Commerce.” Baffled, I explained that I was looking for the coffee shop. She chuckled, “Well, it’s just the funniest thing, doncha know. That googly thing keeps putting a wrong address and our phone number where theirs should be. What you need to do, hon, is turn around and head back up to Victoria. It’s right at the corner there. You have a good day, now.” Then, I think, she went back to her knitting, or to check on the pie she was baking.

Dutifully turning the car around, I tried to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time (not my best subject). Google had lied to me, and I had landed in Mayberry, a place where actual people picked up telephones and handed out accurate directions, for free. St. Paul, I thought. It’s different over here.

If only I knew.

I entered the coffee shop and ordered the smallest, cheapest thing they sold. “Unlimited free refills!” the girl behind the countered chirped, as if it were suddenly 1955. Bottomless cups, only in St. Paul. I briefly considered going on an unlimited-refill bender and giving the fastest interview on record: 


Bad idea, I told myself. Time to get the wireless code and set up my online portfolio. I hadn’t arrived an hour early to over-caffeineate myself, but To Be Prepared.

“Oh, yeah, we don’t have that wireless here,” girl told me, smiling. I looked around. This was a coffee shop, right? Wasn’t wireless access in a coffee shop in the Bill of Rights or something? “There’s a Corepower Yoga upstairs, though, maybe they can help you.” I looked down at the iPad, which indeed was telling me that Corepower had wireless, but required a code. I sprinted up the steps and walked into the studio. I gave my spiel to a small woman behind the counter. “Hi, I’m here for an interview, do you think I look okay?” I paused to point out my earnest blouse and jacket, looking for an ally. “But I need wireless to run my online portfolio, and the girl downstairs thought you might share your code with me.” I stopped for a deep breath and big smile, ready to tap in that code. The woman’s eyes darted over to a corner of a studio. “You have to ask her,” she mumbled, looking down, and then ran to a corner of the room and began to vacuum up the cashmere, mohair and unicorn tears that had been shed by last night’s customers.

“Her” approached the counter and I started all over again – the interview, the earnest suit, just needed a little help. Before I had even finished, she flicked her head back and starting walking away. “We don’t do that here,” she said icily. “It’s against Corporate Policy.” I could hear the capital letters in her voice. “No, really,” I said. “It won’t cost you anything, you already have it, you can just share it with me for half an hour so I can do my interview.” She purposefully turned her back to me and took up her post beside the little woman, supervising the vacuuming, which had now, it seemed, become a two-person job. Lots of unicorn tears last night, Imelda, make sure you don’t miss that one over there.

For a minute, it was quiet, except for the sound of the vacuum. Then a loud, sad voice said, “I hope you never need a job.” I realized it was me who was speaking, and then I realized I was saying it again, trying not to cry. “I hope you never need a job.”

I was halfway down the stairs, but she caught up to me, shrieking and hissing as she leaned over the banister. “It’s Corporate Policy,” she said, as if that explained all the moral decisions that ever needed to be made in a yoga studio. I turned my head back over my shoulder. I was honestly afraid to look at her, because I thought her head would be made of snakes (all branded with the lululemon logo) and that she’d turn me into stone with a single, withering glance. “Corporate Policy?” I asked. “Like that nurse at the senior home in Sacramento who refused to perform CPR on a dying woman because it was against Corporate Policy?” I picked up my pace down the stairs. “Well,” she sneered, in a voice that I realized she’d been using to destroy other women with great effect since junior high, “you certainly aren’t off to a very good start for your job interview.”And then, I swear, she cackled.

I ran down the last few stairs, expecting a lightning bolt to be hurtled toward me at any moment. What kind of yoga do they practice up there, Satanic? “Yoga” my ass, I thought, but I guess “Corepower Evil” wouldn’t be as catchy a company name.

I stood in the entrance to the coffee shop, panting and waiting for the brimstone to clear. I had no idea what to do next, and my potential customers were arriving in half an hour. I looked up. I saw a guy, the most generic sort of guy possible. He was working on a bulky, uncool computer. It might have been an IBM. I sat down across from him and started talking, breaking about nine unwritten (and possibly several actual written) rules for conduct in St. Paul.

“So,” I said, plunging right in, “I’m having a bad morning, I need a wireless code and there’s a scary woman upstairs who just tried to put a hex on me, I think. What should I do?” He was so taken with my story that he almost, for a moment there, made eye contact, which is the equivalent of a marriage proposal in these parts. “Take the pad and go stand in the street right there,” he pointed, “and hold it over your head. You might be able to pick up the free wi-fi from the hair salon.”

I sprinted out the door, coatless. As directed, I stood in the street, dodging traffic, wishing more than a little bit that a big pretzel truck would run me down and put an end to my misery, somehow sparing the iPad, which I’d borrowed. The iPad connected itself to Juut (God Bless them right to their follicles), which seemed to operate profitably without Corporate Policies against Sharing. I ran back in. Connection lost. I ran out again, and when I returned to the coffee shop this time, I moved the table as close to the door as possible, right in line with my mid-traffic stance. The wireless seemed to hold. I sat down, took my first breath in ten minutes, and waited for the potential new customers to arrive.

They did. After that awful start, I am pleased to report that they were lovely, I adore their business, and I have a strong hope that I will be able to do some work for them soon. It would be good, meaningful work, and that would make it even better. I mentioned that I’d had “a bit of trouble” getting the wireless to work, which was why I was holding the iPad in the same odd angle (and why I was covered with a thin sheen of flop sweat), but the connection lasted while I presented my portfolio. They were appreciative.

I half expected the woman from upstairs to come down and jinx our conversation, but she didn't.  I guess a little person like me wasn't worth the walk. Still, I wrote a note to the Corporate Policy people at Corepower Yoga when I got home, mentioning her unique approach to customer service  and suggesting that they either need to change their policy or just go with a name change to "Corporate Policy Yoga" and be upfront about it. (Hey, the monogram would still be the same.)

And I really do hope that the shrieking woman never has a job interview that starts out as badly for her as mine did for me. I just don’t have that much room for bad karma in my heart.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are You From Chicago or Something?

Yes, I blame the ever-changing Minnesota weather for the whole thing happening in the first place. But I suppose I also have to give credit to the Land of 10,000 Check Writers for the story’s happy ending.

Here’s how it started: I had a meeting downtown with a potential new customer. As I was reaching for my coat to head out the door, I took a good, hard look at my parka. Too big, I thought, too bulky, and I’ll probably look much nicer in my light jacket, which hasn’t been rubbing up against my dirty car for the past couple months. And besides, it’s freakily warm today, so I’ll be able to dash from car to office without a significant risk of frostbite.

I left the parka and took the jacket … and somehow didn’t hear that scary soundtrack overlaid on the footage of my exit from the house.

My wallet was in the big, dirty parka.

Of course, I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know it when I blithely pulled into what I still refer to as the Dayton’s parking garage, but which I now know – thanks to what was about to happen to me -- is officially called the “Park and Shop.” I didn’t know it when I met with the client, or when I made my way back to my car.

It hit me about halfway down the ramp.

Have No Money. Have No ID. Have No Credit Card.

Don’t panic, I told myself, and promptly proceeded to panic. I pulled into an open spot and began to think, not always the fastest of operations for me in stressful times (okay, in calm ones either, thanks for noticing). I looked over at my purse, my knockoff Louis Vuitton that Emma’s pal Koko sold me at the Pearl Market in Beijing last Christmas, the one that is wearing so badly that the straps are slowly beginning to resemble that famous Chinese specialty -- "Bean Threads with String, Sold to Gullible White Lady." I began to rummage, and that’s when I found my checkbook.

This was a slim hope at best, since I had no other ID, and parking garages probably didn’t take checks, anyway. All I had going for me at the moment was a checkbook, a clean coat and a rising sense of desperation.

I decided to walk, not drive, to the little booth where the attendant was sitting, assuming that when he spurned me and I had to take up lifetime residence in the garage, I wouldn’t need to put the car in Reverse (not my best gear) or anger all the people waiting in line behind me – the ones with the big, dirty parkas and the wallets in their pockets, those lucky ducks.

I approached the booth and assessed my audience. There were two guys wedged into that tiny space, one sitting and one standing. The one who was sitting had seven total hairs on his head, buck teeth and fisheye spectacles. The one who was standing had a gut that looked like he had carried that beer to term, and a big walrus mustache.

I took a breath and began my plea, beginning with the wardrobe malfunction and ending with how I was now standing there in front of them, check in hand.

Walrus interrupted me and pointed to a small sign, the one I was sure would say, “We will never, ever take a check, even from an about-to-cry woman in a clean jacket.” Instead, I heard him say, “Just make it out to Park and Shop, like it says on the little sign there, and have a nice day.”

I was dumbstruck, but not struck so dumb that I didn’t begin to hastily write the check before he changed his mind. (I found a nice working pen in the jacket pocket, a remnant from last fall that was certainly appreciated but Was Not A Wallet Now, Was It?)

I skedaddled back to my spot, pulled the car up to the booth, and shot out onto the street, exhaling for the first time in several minutes.

On the way home, I sent some blessings to Fish-Eye and Walrus, my new best friends. I thought about the 20 years that I’ve lived in this state, never quite believing that I managed to end up somewhere other than 10 miles from the place I grew up, like so many of my old friends still do. I’ve mocked the Minnesota accents, the lack of eye contact and the strange appreciation for massive snowstorms. And yes, I’ve hooted merrily at the natives’ strange propensity for writing a $1.50 check for a coffee and a bagel.

I remembered the first time I went grocery shopping here, in September of 1993. I had walked over to the Lund’s on Ford Parkway. I don’t live in Michigan anymore! I wanted to shout, but instead, with a great new-in-town feeling, I had gone up to the service desk to ask for a check cashing card. The clerk eyed me suspiciously and said, “You don’t need nothing, just write us a check and we’ll take it.” Then he paused. “What are you, from Chicago or something?”

I wasn’t. I was happily escaping my hometown of St. Louis and my short-term stay in East Lansing, but I wasn’t quite ready yet to call this place home. And, I realized on that drive home, that I’ve spent 20 years dodging the question, still referring to the people who live alongside me as “they.”

But now, thanks to those guys at the Park and Shop and my nine dollar check for parking on a weekday afternoon, I think I’m finally ready to take the plunge.

My name is Julie, and I live in Minnesota. Will you take a check for that, please?