Monday, October 24, 2016

That can't have been three years ago

My very good friend Olivia asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for the Common App for college. While I am absolutely positive that she can't be a day older than five, she seems to think she is 17. Worse, she somehow believes she's old enough to go away to college.

I struggled through my shock at this turn of events and relied on a writer's best friend -- self plagiarization. I cribbed heavily from the post below, which I wrote three years ago, from her recommendation for high scool.  I wrote a new ending, though, and I'll share it here: "Do I need to say it? I suppose I will. Any college which accepts this young woman is getting a gift. She’s not a sparkly, overwrapped gift that promises much and delivers little. She is a wonder, a delight, and a gift that will make your campus a better place – truer, deeper and wiser. Lucky you, to spend four years with this amazing young woman."


To the Admissions Office at De LeSalle High School

One of my favorite people in the world, Olivia Louise, asked me to write her a recommendation for high school admission. Once I got done, I realized that I wanted to share it, because she really is a person worth knowing, and should probably enjoy a wider fan base than she currently does. So here goes:

I still can’t remember the first time I met Olivia. It’s as if she materialized in our house, went off to play Barbies with my daughter, and, in many ways, never left, thank goodness. Over the years, I’ve served her thousands of dishes of mac and cheese, gone to see her performances in school plays (always stellar), noticed when her teeth fell out, sympathized when she got braces and celebrated when they came off. I’ve ferried her all over town, to day camps and drama classes and in between one sporting event and another (she is seriously sporty). Olivia has spent a lot of time being a passenger in my car, and that alone is a testament to her strength of character.

The hands-down best times she and I ever spent together were when my daughter, who is six months older than she is, was already in half-day kindergarten, and Olivia, still a preschooler, would walk up to the grade school with me to pick up my daughter for lunch and playtime. Olivia would get to hold the dog’s leash, all by herself, and she would walk by my side, telling me what was on her mind. I loved, really loved, hearing what was on her mind.

A part of me, the big, dumb part, or maybe the hopeful part, believes that these walks happened just a week or two ago, and that Olivia is still waiting across the alley for me. All I need to do is walk up the cowpath she and Mary created between our two yards, help her on with boots and mittens, and we’re set for our walk up to school.

But of course this isn’t true. She is taller than me, and smarter than me (always was, I have to admit) and ready, now, for high school. Despite all those changes, she is still someone whose company I enjoy just as much as I did on what I now must admit were long-ago walks.

Last year, our family went to Beijing to visit my oldest daughter, who was studying there. It was an arduous journey that none of us particularly wanted to make, and one of the few things that made it bearable was that Olivia came along with us. The truth is, we are a high-strung, excitable bunch, even worse when we’re all together, or when we’re traveling, and Olivia calms us down. She is the still, strong center to which we cling, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.

It was a better trip, because of her – her clarity, her observations, her willingness to do crazy things like fling herself in a metal sled down the side of the Great Wall of China. It was an outrageous thing to do, and Olivia and I, both Olympic-class worriers, were probably equally afraid of such a stunt. We’ve both spent our lifetimes thinking about all the things that can ever go wrong, and then working very hard to prevent them from happening. The difference between Olivia and me is that I rode back down on the babyish gondola, and she picked up the sled and went down the side of the Great Wall. That’s how brave she is, and that’s one of the many reasons I admire her so much.

Three other reasons I admire her (and these are just the top-of-the-head ones, I could come up with dozens upon further reflection): 1) She sees everything, I mean everything, but she doesn’t feel a need to comment. She just knows, and that’s enough. And I know when she knows, and sometimes that's kind of fun and sometimes it's a little bit scary. 2) She has been through a lot, more than the fair share for an average eighth grader, and, perhaps because of that, or just because she’s wonderful anyway, she is one of the most resilient people I know. 3) She does not toss away her smiles and laughs for free; they must be earned. This makes me try even harder to please Olivia, and when I do – whether it’s by pulling the banana bread out of the oven at the exact moment she wants it, or by getting all the logistics right and getting her to the place she needs to be at the precise instant she needs to be there – I feel as if I’ve earned a medal, and it’s not in Worrying, but in something really worthwhile, Olivia-Pleasing.

In some ways, she’s been a grown-up ever since I’ve met her, and it’s been interesting to watch her get older and become more of a fit with her actual outside self. She was one heck of a wise five-year-old, and she’s a wicked-wise fourteen-year-old. She’s the sort of person who won’t necessarily get any smarter or wiser as the years go by, because that would probably be impossible. Instead, she’ll just become herself,more and more, and that will be an amazing thing to behold.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Coming out & correcting grammar: Your Welcome

My mother was a high school graduate. My father was a high school dropout. We were not -- in any sense of the term -- educated people. So when a close cousin of the Clifford clan made it through college and got an English degree, it was Big News. Her graduation was followed by the equally big news that she had become, in just four short years, the smartest person in the room, at least any of the rooms located in Ferguson, Missouri. Twelve years older than me, she took to interrupting my grade-school self at family parties, pointing out my incorrect use of a singular pronoun or a plural verb.  I retreated to my room, thought dark thoughts, and planned how I'd do things differently if I ever managed to escape Missouri, and her.

Part of that plan is still in place today: I don't correct anyone's spoken grammar or pronunciation, ever, purely in recognition of my own basic humanity and the awareness that I, daily, am heaping up a pile of error that reaches to the rooftops. Even when someone asks me to proofread something they've written, I aim for a good mix of kindness to go with the accuracy.

But like so many people who, faced with anonymity, go a little bit rogue, I have to confess that I've penciled over typos in library books, written "Caesar!" in Sharpie on laminated menus, and defaced more than a small number of school and work posters.  My inner Delinquent-Grammarian strolled the halls of Southwest High School a few years ago, and this was the result, all in support of Coming Out with the proper possessive. Happy Coming Out Day, by the way, and keep your pencils handy.


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, August 12, 2016

Sixty years, more or less

Today would be my friend Joel's 60th birthday. Or perhaps he would have started lying about his age, so perhaps it would just be his 55th.

When he was alive, he was always full of surprises. And he still seems to have a few tricks up his sleeve around this time of year. I'm waiting for my annual "random" outreach from someone who loved him and wants to talk (see last year's post below). In the meantime, I'll try to do some Joel-like things today: laugh so loudly that other people turn their heads, make some wonderfully barbed observation to a pal, or just look somebody straight in the eye and not be afraid, not one little bit.


Birthday greetings (from the afterlife)

The first time it happened, I thought the timing was well, intense. But when it happened again this year, I just had to smile. If there was ever anyone who could have the sheer life force to keep popping up two and-a-half years after his own death to remind me to wish him a happy birthday, well, it's Joel Hershey, my now-gone but still-and-always friend. I used to tell him he could arrive on the moon and run into someone he knew, someone who loved him. One of my strongest memories is being interrupted as we walked together or stood in a lobby. "Joel Hershey," someone would shout, then trot to catch up with him. I can see myself standing to the side, watching him fling his big wide arms around yet another person who loved him and was happy to connect with him. They always thought it was random. Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder.

What I know for sure, after this week, is that he's still connected, he's still reaching out, and he's still driving me (just a little bit) crazy.

His birthday is August 12. He died October 23, 2012, in a way that was sudden and dramatic (like him), but also a little bit boring (very much unlike him). At the bottom of this post, I've included what I wrote and shared when I first heard the news. It's the post that keeps on giving, because it's the one that keeps popping up in Google searches whenever someone goes looking for him. And then they look for me. And, guess what, it just happens to be mid-August.

The first message showed up in my inbox on August 15 last year. It was written by Dave R., who said, "Hi Julie, I'll start off by saying you don't know me. But since moving back to San Diego early 2013, I had wondered a number of times why I hadn't seen Joel around. I figured he met someone, fell in love and finally left the area. I couldn't imagine any other reason why I wouldn't have run into him at the places I'd seen him regularly in the past. So in my half-stupor of just waking up this morning, he popped into my head, and I decided to Google him. And then the news appeared. I'm here a few hours later, still somewhat in shock that he's gone ... Denver, the summer time I think it was, I happened to run into him, of all people. He was staying at his brother's place, and I think his mom had moved there not too long before, if I remember correctly. That was the first time we really talked about his family or much about his background. He showed me pictures of his mom and her new cat. Things that we never would have discussed before. It was a nice change, to talk with him from the perspective of two middle-aged guys instead of whatever we'd spent time discussing 20 years earlier. 

 "I told him I was thinking about moving back to San Diego after I finished school, and we said we should get together again if that happened. Which is why I'd been wondering why we never bumped into each other again. And here I sit at my computer, writing to you, because your "Darling" post was really touching, and it gave me a taste of the Joel that the people he was closest to knew. Thank you for posting that. It was almost like a nice way to put memories of him back up on the shelf and let them go. It's funny how fate happens, how I was allowed one more time to run into him in a place that was not home to either of us, for one last, meaningful chat. Now I wish I'd gotten to know him better. I'm really sorry for your loss. Thanks for listening."

And then this year, on August 17, I received this message from Sheryl G.: "Dear Julie, I went to Wash U with Joel Hershey. We had not been in touch for years but some weeks ago I found myself thinking of him and did the Google thing. I was horrified to realize what had happened. I kept roaming around on Google and came across your blog. Thanks so much for the great photos. I could remember easily what it would be like to be near Joel, I heard his distinctive laugh, and his voice making a smart-ass but on-target crack. I am not sure how we lost contact, he moved so far away and in my twenties I was not as mature as he was in a lot of ways. I loved that he was reliable and steady. I don't remember contacting him when my mother passed away in the early 90's, but he showed up at our family home in Columbia Missouri, unannounced, after the funeral during the lonely time when the friends and relatives have just left. He spent the day, he was helpful, he was diverting. He was Joel. I hope you are doing well. Thank you again for the wonderful post."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, so I decided to write about it instead, always a good plan for me when I don't know what I think. This has, for me, been a year of letting go. I've lost a number of things I thought were important to me. Ways in which I've always defined myself have vanished, and relationships that were a true place of comfort have shifted and suffered inexorably. I am looking around and wondering what's next, and it's not at all clear.

And then I get an email, and I think about Joel. I hope that perhaps I am not as alone as I feel right now, appearances to the contrary. And all I can say is, Oh Darling.



I’m holding my own personal Irish wake tonight, cheap box wine and all. Like most wakes, it has less to do with the deceased than with my own specific experience of loss. And for that, I know, my friend Joel Hershey, who died yesterday, would forgive me. “You and your Irish and your self-pity,” he would snarl. “Didn’t you have a great aunt a thousand years ago who was a professional mourner?”

Well yes, as a matter of fact, I did.

For all the time I knew him, I was always a little bit afraid of what Joel was going to do, and I guess that’s why I stuck so closely by his side for twenty-five years. I wanted to see what would happen next, even as I was holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut and peeking through my fingers. He was, and always will be, my bad boy, and that’s just one of the many reasons I loved him.

Maritz Motivation Company Picnic, July 1987

 Annual No-Hope Dessert Classic Miniature Golf Tournament, 1991

We met in the most sterile and confining of corporate environments, back when he wore a tie and I wore pantyhose, and yet he found a way to poke his fingers through the bars of our cages and cause mayhem of the sort I could not resist. I followed along behind, the rules-obeying girl who finds herself swept away in naughtiness. And, as it turned out, in goodness. Jesus, that man was good to me – when I was heartbroken, when I was frightened, when I was unemployed – there were many nights when Joel was the thing that kept me from the edge. And now he’s gone over that very edge himself, and I keep wishing I had one more night to stand in line at the TKTS booth with him and hear him argue with the clerk about which are, actually, the best seats in the house. Him and his first balcony, center -- just try to get him to sit anywhere else.
These days, I am a nondescript woman who lives a nondescript life in a nondescript part of the world. I am invisible on good days and contemptible on bad ones. I am reminded, sometimes hourly, of all the ways I will never Be Enough. And yet, when I was with Joel, I unclenched enough to just be myself, the one who could never follow directions or understand how to split a bill or say no to that next drink at the happy hour. Lost or dumb or drunk, it didn’t matter to him. Or if it did, he loved me anyway.

The past two summers, we’ve met for a totally illicit and utterly impractical week of New York theater together. This picture below is from this past July, the day I dragged him to see the taping of the Seth Rudetsky radio show in midtown. I normally take a terrible picture. I tense up and worry that I’m going to ruin it for everyone, that my frozen, frightened and mud-ugly face will forever make the picture unusable. Look at how relaxed and happy I am, next to him. O Joel. 

The last meal we ate together was at Zen Palace on 9th Avenue. We'd met Mary Katherine at her Acting Workshop and were heading towards the neighborhood of the Brooks Atkinson, where we'd see our show for the evening, Peter and the Starcatchers.  See our show. For us, that was the phrase that brought everything into focus, and made us giddy with the thought that we were about to slip out of the grim fantasy of daily life and tumble into the true reality, the one that can only be  experienced with a Playbill on one's lap.

It was time to pay the bill, and I extracted a few sweaty dollars from the recesses of my cargo shorts. "Figure out what I owe you," I'd said, handing them over, and he repeated what he always said to me when we were splitting a bill: "Darling, it would be so easy to cheat you, but you'd never even realize it was happening, so what fun would that be?"

I am angry with myself right now, because he called me from the road, and I missed his call, and I kept meaning to call back. All this past weekend, as I stood at the edges of playing fields or stood still in traffic or stood at the stove grinding out yet another meal I wasn’t at all interested in eating myself, I was thinking, “I have to call Joel. Maybe he’s in Pocatello, Idaho, and we can sing about the Princess Theater, like the last time we did when he was there. That’s next on my list.”

I never got to the next thing on my list.  I never called.

And he died in Boise, not even in Pocatello.

I’m also angry with him for going out like such an establishment tool, just quietly passing into the next life while he was puttering away on his laptop in this one. How respectable. How boring. How unlike him. Me, I plan for my body to be found with a 20-year-old pool boy with whom I have been romantically linked. I want everyone, everyone, to be buzzing with gossip at my funeral, in between enormous gulps of champagne. I want to make a scene.

But I’ll be somewhere else by then. I’ll be with Joel. He and his friend Jon Prel, long ago dead from AIDS, used to talk about how they hoped there would be good lighting in Hell, how we naughty kids could sit up front, fanning ourselves and continuing to make catty remarks about everyone we knew.

Get some extra pink gel on that follow spot for me, Joel. And do save me a seat in first balcony center, darling.

Friday, July 8, 2016

When the grownups weren’t watching

I went to the theater last week. There were no tickets and no playbill. The audience was, entirely, just me and two other people. This wasn’t a mistake about the date or time, or a marketing/pr failure on the part of the new intern. Everything was perfectly fine. In fact, it was a little bit more than fine. The evening was, I’d have to say, one of the purest theater experiences I’ve ever had – full of heart and soul, bursting with youthful energy and generously sprinkled with theater magic.

This underground performance took place in the “wine box” theater (it’s painted a nice merlot instead of black) at Minneapolis’ Youth Performance Company (YPC). This was a farewell mashup--an unauthorized final presentation by the cast of YPC’s Young Artists’ Council “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The nine-person cast, mostly high schoolers and a couple college-aged young people, had rehearsed the show for six weeks and had just finished presenting it for the past three weekends. Their final show had been Saturday, and they’d already struck the set.

But, even after the last show, it seemed they didn’t want to be done. So they Snapchatted, texted and arrived at a solution--a one-night-only version that would require each cast member to move one chair over, into the part of the person who’d been sitting next to them during the show’s fanciful depiction of a middle school spelling bee. The young man who played the unhinged principal became a neurotic pigtailed blonde with a speech impediment. The beefy parolee doing community service became the prim woman running the show. The girl who’d played the “I Speak Six Languages” whiz kid now became the Little League Pitcher whose unfortunate arousal at the sight of an opponent’s dishy sister both sealed his doom and set him up for the funniest song ever written about—well, if you know the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

My 18-year-old daughter, who had been loving her role as the neurotic, lisping obsessive-compulsive, was now going to be performing as the home-schooled goofball boy who falls out of his chair, can’t keep his hands out of his nostrils, and who falls into a trance whenever it’s time to spell the name of another exotic rodent.

When she had told me she needed the car that night, and when I heard about the plan, I asked if this was something which might require a bit of an audience. Could I come? “Sure,” she shrugged, “up to you.” By 7:30 p.m., the audience had swelled to three: her game-for-anything father and one of her friends (“I told her I was bored, so she picked me up on the way to the theater”), arranged on folding chairs, facing the cast. It soon became clear that this entire “audience” would be needed to fill in during the early-show audience-participation section. We gamely agreed, and so we began with all of us “cast” facing empty chairs, ones we returned to when we were disqualified for not being able to spell words like “hemidemisemiquaver.” Or, in one case, “cow.” 

I struck out early and moved back to my seat, an audience-of-one observing the great switcheroo they were pulling off. Since they’d already returned all the show’s costumes, they dressed for their new parts themselves, some with great care (the new Little Leaguer seemed to have found a uniform), and sometimes not (the former BarfeĆ©, now a spelling-whiz girl, tied a shirt around his legs to indicate a skirt). I had gotten to know these kids over the past weeks, and it was a wonder to see them doing something fresh with material they knew so well. Seeing a 6’3” deep-voiced young man pull at his imaginary pigtails and lisp convincingly was amazing. I noticed that the kid who’d played the wholesome straight arrow had unleased dark reserves of weirdness to play the lugubrious, tortured BarfeĆ©. They weren’t only as good in their new roles as well as their old ones, I realized. These kids, undeterred by physicality or gender or even common sense, had range.

What I loved most, though, was how persistently they kept at the task they’d set out for themselves. They were knocking around this small merlot-colored space, with no adults telling them what to do, and they were focused beyond measure, occasionally policing themselves when a few inevitably lost focus. “You are not as important as this song right now,” the music director, who’s heading to Boston Conservatory in the fall, sternly told them when the chatter got out of hand during a solo. They all shut up. Well, most of them, anyway.

A few points became evident as the show unspooled: probably in spite of themselves, they had each learned how to spell the crazy-difficult words they’d memorized with their original lines. If the newly cast actor messed up a spelling, there was a quick and aggrieved “It’s ‘ie, not ei!’” from the “old” actor. Also, they clearly had been watching each other closely. Some of them, it seemed, had been harboring ideas about how certain roles should be played, and they, in the parlance of sports, left it all on the floor in their attempt to find something new in a character. Voice, dance, acting, interacting – they were ready for an audience much bigger, but seemed unphased by the six-palmed applause they were receiving from their tiny but appreciative cadre of observers. What impressed me most was that our presence seemed utterly superfluous. They were doing this for themselves and themselves alone, because they loved the show, they loved each other, and they just weren’t  yet ready for their final rendition of the misspellers’ exit song, “Goodbye.”

It was the sort of utterly ephemeral last word that could only be rendered by the young. Imagine famous Equity actors gathering in a toasty-warm, third-floor space on a beautiful summer night, acting out something that would never be seen by critics or industry connections, just to please themselves. Sure, these kids had the marvelous surfeit of time that grownups envy, and they weren’t currently worried about babysitters, mortgages, low back pain, or any of the million other things that, we adults tell ourselves, keeps us from living out our passions.

I found myself admiring them, and envying them, just a little. There aren’t many things I do purely for love, solely for the mere joy of doing them. These kids had taken it upon themselves to find a way to keep the magic going a little longer, and damned if I didn’t find myself tearing up, along with them, when it came time to sing “Goodbye.”

Friday, June 10, 2016

Swedes on the subway

I had a quick trip to NYC this week and as usual, I got at least one great story from it. Heading on the 1 train downtown, I noticed two ladies with Scandinavian accents, looking confused. Asked where they were heading and they told me sweetly: Harlem. Um. After explaining they needed the 2 or 3 uptown, not the 1 downtown, I asked where they were going & they showed me their 7:15 p.m. reservation for Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Blvd, between 125th and 126th).

Hearing this, other passengers chimed in about how they should wait to change trains at 42nd Street, not 59th Street, so they wouldn't need a new fare. We chatted about the Marcus Samuelsson memoir ("Yes Chef"), which I recommended, and then I pointed the ladies out the door at Times Square.

The passengers of the car held our collective breaths as we watched them hesitate, then head up the stairs in the ostensible right direction. I found myself wondering about them all night, hoping they'd found the restaurant and had ordered the fried yardbird (dark meat, white gravy, mashed potatoes, bread & butter pickles for $28). And had gotten home, wherever that was.

God, these Swedes can break your heart, right on the downtown 1 train.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Breaking up with Bill

I won’t be using my Topsy Turvy® strawberry planter this year. Even though inventor Bill Felkner insists, in caps and upper case and with a TM, no less, that it’s the “World’s Easiest Way to Grow Strawberries!”™, I just don’t have the heart for it. This is even despite the instruction booklet’s superhot beefcake shot of pudgy, combovered Bill, posing in front of his kitchen cabinets, wearing a manly pullover and proffering a basket of giant red fruit. Are those strawberries? Dear God, they look like softballs. But still, I must turn away. They are not for me. Why? Because to move past the Topsy Turvy’s colorful cover and read the actual growing instructions inside is to enter into one man’s personal shame spiral, and I just can’t take it this year.

I picked up my Topsy Turvy at the thrift store and gave it to myself for Mother’s Day (don’t ask). The first warm and sunny day this spring, I headed out to let the “easy growing” begin. “Laissez le bon temps rouler,” I hum to myself, full of happy, strawberry-colored anticipation. But those easy promises and trademark symbols, I’m sorry to report, turn to an onslaught of pointed fingers about mid-way through “Bill’s tips for success.” I should have grown suspicious when Tip #1 instructed me that I’d need to get myself “in the proper mind-set right up front.” By tip #3, Bill is all-caps castigating my possible cheapskate choices of soil and demanding that I use only GOOD Canadian Peat-based potting soil. He rants: “Bargain-priced potting soil is NO BARGAIN. Please trust me on this one.”

Standing in my backyard, holding my tips in one hand and my planter in the other, I start to feel a headache coming on. Bill’s tone is so, well, judgy. Not that he wasn’t right, of course. I’m just the sort of idiot who would try to pull off Bill’s miracle with NO BARGAIN soil. It is as if he can see inside my soul, um, soil.

After the opening salvo of Tip #3, the remaining tips contain mostly three things: capital letters, exclamation points, and pre-emptive blame. Bill seems sure, given the cheap nature of my soil choices, that I’ll be skimpy in my watering habits, as well. He whinges on for quite a while about that one. And if I watered frequently enough, dear God, this man is now criticizing my speed. “No matter how you add the water, do it SLOWLY,” he growls.

After 10 shouty tips, is he done? No, he is not. He has an all-cap FINAL NOTE in which to tell me that if I were willing to give my planter just a reasonable amount of time and attention, it would provide my family “with homegrown berry goodness.” My head is really throbbing now, and I wonder what he means by “reasonable.” I'm beginning to feel, well, shackled to this stupid ™ planter, and now, sweet Jesus, there's a P.S. I never knew P.S.'s were a thing in instruction booklets, but that rapscallion Bill is hard to stop. “It’s just a PLANTER,” he sternly postscripts, “No more, no less. So it is entirely up to YOU to regularly water, feed and tend it.”

And with that, he signs off, with a signature that I bet is consistent with a homegrown sociopath who has ready access to a trowel and an all-caps function. Seeing his signature, with what I take to be the catch phrase he shares with his millions of shamefaced fans (“Now THAT’S what I’m talking about!”), delivers the final swipe at my self esteem. I have had enough. Bill’s brochure goes in with the worm composter, and his planter is tossed in the trash. I’ll let the bunnies nibble away at exactly two-thirds of each single berry I grow this year, just the way they do every year. At least rabbits don’t have access to exclamation points. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Losing my job and liking it

I got an out-of-the-blue email from a friend yesterday, and not only was it good to hear from her, but the message was practically fan mail. A friend of hers had sent her a blog post about the end-of-year scramble at school. As she was reading it, she reports, she kept thinking, "This is funny; I'll have to send this to Julie," and then she reached the end of the post, and I'd written it.  Ouch ouch ouch, that's the sound of my arm being twisted to repost my musings on the secret benefits of looming job loss, so here goes.


The last bake sale

“I’ve never known so many people to be concerned about my mental health as the year my daughter left for college,” a friend confided to me recently. “After a while, I started thinking that I probably should have a nervous breakdown, because it seemed as though people were expecting it.”

I’m losing my job next August, that full-time mom-on-patrol stint that’s made up the last twenty one years of my life. I’ve moved from not being able to safely leave a room occupied by a conscious child (“Was that crash on Spongebob or in the dining room?”) to facing an autumn when both of them are in college.

Of course, it’s not exactly a “My work here is done” situation, clear to anyone who deals with the enormous emotional swells of older kids. “The bigger they are, they bigger they fuck up,” a straight-talking mom at the Catholic grade school once told me. True that, sister. But it is a year that’s marked with many “lasts” of my mom gig, and I’m beginning to notice.

I have laid down firm household rules on this topic. I’ve watched too many friends drive themselves crazy in this last year not to be aware of the warning signs. My vigilance began before school had officially started. The senior-to-be was nursing a late-August cold, and I suggested she stay home on day one: no one really needs to go to school on the first day, anyway, I reasoned. After a mighty nose-blow, she looked up at me pleadingly and said, “But mom, it will be my last first day."

“And that shit ends here,” I declared, realizing that we would be tying ourselves into a group knot if we allowed every single moment to be declared “The last Tuesday, October 3 ... ever.”

Re: Re: Re: yourself, toots
After we banned talk of “the lasts,” I had a bit of mental freedom to consider the positive aspects of being made redundant, as the British call it when you're summarily canned. After receiving an email message with the subject line: “URGENT: cupcakes needed for dance concert fundraiser!!!!” I dutifully turned the oven to 350 degrees and began to whip up a dessert. But I hummed happily at the thought that I was closing in on my last bake sale ever. The night of the concert, I found the Mommy in Charge and went through the ritual gratitude and inevitable instructions from her bossiness: “Don’t put it in that corner. That’s where we’re putting the items with sprinkles.” I walked away with a lighter load, and not just from the brownie dropoff. I was reaching the end of the time when some Martha Stewart wanna-be could offer me remedial instructions in brownie placement, napkin fluffing, or any of the countless other topics in which I've received schooling, all while keeping my lips drawn upward and feeling my stomach clench.

And Mommy Emails! I happily realized they were coming to a blessed death, too. Before the next committee meeting on whatever it is I go to committee meetings for, as I scanned the slew of “Re: Re: Re: Re: Tonight’s agenda” messages, I realized I would soon be able to absent myself from the land of Reply All Nitwits, too. Another “plus” went in the “no kids in school” column.

Three leaves and a rock
I thought back to elementary school. Not much to regret there, either. No more summers spent worrying over whether my child would be placed in the class with the functional alcoholic and the baker’s dozen of Mean Girls, or the room with the certified sadist and the pack of stick-wielding, uncontrollable boys. No more notes demanding three fall leaves and a rock, to be delivered with a jar of decoupage by 7:30 the next morning. No more middle-of-the night three-panel posterboard runs for the ruined Science Fair project. No Science Fairs, oh dear Jesus, no more Science Fairs at all.

I reached an apex of appreciation after hosting a cast party for the fall play this year. During the day, I had fielded phone calls from earnest parents who wanted a complete run-down of my security plans, with blueprints, if possible. I was sorely tempted to answer: “Just a minute, let me put down my loaded gun and light a cigarette before I think of an answer.” It was one of those nights that was doomed from the start, because by the end of the evening, I’d had to call for parental pick-ups of two drunken girls and their half-empty bottle of spiced rum. As I shut the door behind the last future Hazelden resident, it dawned on me that it had been the sort of night that made a person glad to be nearing retirement age.

Good luck, girls
Put your hand in a bucket of water, pull it out, and see how irreplaceable you are. My place will be taken by women made of sterner stuff than me. Standing right behind me is a long line of fresh-faced mommies, lined up in alphabetical order and ready to “reply all” to every email, whip up sprinkle-laden snacks, and host the best-darn cast parties ever. They have shapely figures, clean aprons, and the ability to sniff out spiced rum at sixty paces. Youth, and stupidity, are on their side. Good luck, girls. I wish you all the best at that next bake sale, and let me know if you ever need to borrow my Bundt pan. God knows I won’t be using it.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Was Earl right? Reconsidering the crazy man who said there was a microchip in my daughter's brain

We celebrated Emma's 21st birthday this week. Possibly I'm a bit worn down, but I'm beginning to wonder if Earl had a point.


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 hit so hard with the pregnancy stick (daughter number two) 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 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. “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 ten-to-one lunches,” I reminded him.

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Shame Cupcakes

I work for a very nice corporate client who was celebrating a recent business success. To mark the occasion, they created a lovely spread of cupcakes in the employee cafeteria. I was on campus covering other stories, and I wanted to get some photos of the event. And then I got sidetracked into an afternoon’s worth of ruminations on shame, joy and how hard women can be on themselves.

I saw a woman approach the table and take two cupcakes. I asked: “Would you mind posing for me by the ‘Congratulations!’ poster, looking happy and holding your cupcakes?” She looked at me aghast, as if I’d asked her to remove several items of clothing and lay herself out on the catering table. “No!” she said, scurrying away.

Undaunted, I wandered into the cafeteria, noticing a woman who had just returned with a plate of the cupcakes for her friends. As she doled them out, I approached: “Ladies, would you mind holding up your cupcakes and smiling for me?” Again with the quick and horrified refusals. Sensing my dismay, one of the women had a suggestion for me. “If you want a picture, go to that table,” she said, pointing at a five-top of guys about 20 feet away. “I bet they’ll let you.”

And lo, it came to pass. The men happily hoisted their treats and smiled obligingly into the camera. They looked as though they were generally happy fellows, possibly extra happy about getting a free cupcake at work. I got the sense that more than one of them might help himself to seconds, if he felt so inclined. If their lips turned blue from the lurid frosting, I doubted they'd care. Cupcakes were happy food, and they were happy about having them. And that was clearly as much thought as they’d given to the entire matter.

I looked back at the table of women, none of whom was willing to have photographic evidence that she had ever, ever eaten a cupcake. Their treats were not going to taste very good. It might as well have been frosting-covered mud pies those gals were wolfing down. And if they wanted a second cupcake, they’d have to sneak down when no one was in the cafeteria, and eat it all in one bite. At least no would have a picture of them doing it, thank God.

I write a lot about food. I write about trending ethnic cuisines and demographic shifts in snacking and what spicy condiment is about to knock Sriracha off its throne. I write about the importance of probiotics to create a happy climate for gut bacteria, the role of fiber in avoiding blood sugar spikes, and why just about everyone needs more magnesium in their diet. But I never write about joy, and I think it’s time I do.

It’s okay to eat food. It’s okay to let others see you eating food. And it’s even okay to eat a cupcake, as long as you savor and delight in every single morsel. If you end up with blue lips and a three o’clock headache, so what. I am not sure where we women lost track of this, but it’s time to reclaim the simple, goofy attitude of the guys at that table: Oh boy, free cupcakes. Don’t mind if I do.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

And now the mitten is frozen solid ...

Whenever I am stuck in an interminable line at the DMV or trapped in delayed airplane, I tell myself one thing to make myself calm down: at least you aren't doing this very same activity with a two-year-old.

The recent cold snap (and really, isn't it a bit more than a snap, more like a cold compound fracture?) has me sending some beams of comfort to all the parents out there who are, this very minute, trying to put a snowsuit on a back-arching toddler, preparatory to a brisk trot in subzero temps to the just-as-cold car.

Then I remembered my post about the millionth mitten, and thought I'd revisit it here.


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 early February – 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 (or is it nine?). 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. By 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 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.