12/25/13

Bitter/Sweet Thoughts on Christmas Morning

I'm sorry, friends. Not one of my happier posts. You might want to skip it today. I had to get this out, though. Just had to. 




Behold the Hausfrau family's Christmas Bush. They sold it under the guise of it being a tree, but there is little tree-ness about it. It stands about 5 feet tall, there is no pointy top on which to place the vintage Noma twinkling star. The branches poke out haphazardly, here and there wherever they please. The traditional triangle tree shape has given way to a stout mass of needle-emblazoned branches. Hanging ornaments on this thing was actually easy, since there was no narrowing towards the top.

It's a bush. And that's perfectly okay with us.

When I was little, we had a fake tree. It came out of a box the day after Thanksgiving and went back into the box shortly after Christmas. I was a kid, it didn't occur to me that there were people who had real trees. All I cared about was the pile of presents underneath it, and why my brother had two more than I did and why did mom and dad like him better?

When I first met my in-laws, it was Christmastime. I walked into their charming riverfront home and was greeted by a majestic Fraser Fir holding court in the living room. Tastefully gaudy Radko ornaments twirled silently in the soft glow of tiny white lights. The smell...oh Lord. The smell was what got me. It smelled like love and forests and security and cookies. I wanted to throw the smell on the floor and roll around in it like a cat does catnip.

We've only ever had real trees. Before Divorce, we made a grand show out of going to a tree farm and cutting one down. The kids remember nothing of those trips except for wrestling in the snow and the hot cocoa. I'd like to think that some day they'll recall them with more fondness than they do now. But that's for them to decide.

After Divorce I was determined to carry on the tradition. Especially so when the kids came home from Dad's house and announced that his tree was a FAKE. That pronouncement, along with the one that at Dad's house, Santa wrapped gifts instead of leaving them free and unfettered under the tree on Christmas morning, cemented my decision to keep Christmas real at my house. Real and true. I attempted the tree farm, once. A single woman and four kids does not a fun tree farm trip make. The lots are easier and the trees smell just as lovely.

There are no trees, real or fake, at my mom's house anymore. She doesn't move much, her legs have mysteriously stopped working. Parkinson's was the guess for a long while but was eliminated after some tests. She lives in a room. A single room. When I visit her, I stand at the doorway of that room, the room that was my bedroom and is now her world. She has a toilet chair, a laptop, a small television and an ashtray.

"Hi Jenny, it's your mom" her messages always start that way, as if there is another person with a Harvey Fierstein voice calling me, ever. "I was wondering if you could come over...." The messages she leaves me are always the same. Sometimes I answer her calls, other times I can't handle it and I let them go to voicemail. And when I listen to the messages I am consumed with a sad anger, a bitterness that stings my eyes and squeezes my heart.

My mom loves her cigarettes. I've only known her as a smoker. She smoked while I was in her belly, she smoked when I was a baby and a toddler and a school girl. Mom and her smokes. I stole them from her when I was a teen, hiding the absurdly long Virginia Slim 120's under whatever kind of hat I fancied at the time. I quit when I was pregnant with Charlie and aside from a brief, pathetic backslide after The Divorce, where I'd hide in the garage and puff away when the kids were with their father, I haven't looked back.

I hate cigarettes. Loathe them. I hate the smell, I hate the way they bounce on the road after being tossed from some careless asshole's window. The bright orange coals bobbing and weaving and sparking beneath the tires of the cars, like a tiny meteor shower.

I have become my mother's own personal cigarette shopper. She can't drive and her husband won't get them for her. There are times I simply refuse. "No." I tell her, without further reason. "No, mom."

Other times I will give her my excuses: I'm broke. I'm busy. It's embarrassing for me to buy them.

But usually, I do it. I drive to the convenience store and walk from my car to the swinging door and filled with resentful shame I approach the register.

"I need to buy cigarettes for my mom" I always begin. I think sometimes they don't believe me. I want to show them my work badge, the one with the name of my school district plastered over the mug shot photo. "I work at a school!" I want to say. "I hate cigarettes!".

I'm a 47 year old divorced preschool teacher, buying a pack of Mistys. "The blue ones..." I say. "The long ones," I add.

When I bring the smokes to my mom she shoves money at me. "Take it" she croaks, her huge watery brown eyes meeting my contemptuous, sad blue ones. Some days I take the money. Some days I don't.

She opens the pack like a kid on Christmas morning, and before you can say "CANCER" the room is filled with the noxious scent. It makes my nose burn and my eyes well up and fills my body and my mind with memories. I need to escape, need to go back to my safe world, where there is no cigarette smoke and no bad feelings and no toilet chairs and cat shit everywhere. I need to go home.

I drive away from that house, my hair and clothes reeking even though I left just minutes after she lit up. I put the windows down, now it's freezing outside and I drive and drive, the cold air caressing my cheeks, making the tears on them feel like tiny sharp icicles. I cry, almost every time I leave her house. I cry and I get mad and I ask God or whoever why? Why can't I have a normal mom, a normal family. Why can't I have a mom who is busy golfing with her friends or gardening or curled up on a couch reading a good goddamned book? Why do I have the mom who is addicted to nicotine, who sits in a room day after day just waiting for the weather guy to come on and tell her what it's like outside?

Why did I have the just plain bad luck to be born into a family where dysfunction is as hereditary as the color of your hair or the tilt of your nose?

Somewhere inside of me is a good daughter. She reminds me of the times, the times I did have a fun mom. A mom who walked and drove and who sang along to Pat Benatar with me in the car. We'd sing at the top of our lungs "HIT ME WITH YOUR BEST SHOT" and I'd look over at her and admire her auburn bob haircut and her cool patchwork jean jacket and the way she could hold a cigarette and the steering wheel with one hand. I love her, I'd think to myself. Singing with my mom in the car. That made me happy.

Today I'm home. Home with my kids. Home with them and our dog and our Christmas bush. I have a ham to make and Roadside potatoes to bake. I can admit to you guys that when the kids came home from Big Daddy's last night and announced that Secretary's ham was dry and her cheesy potatoes sucked, I beamed inside. Today our ham will be moist and our potatoes will be crispy deliciousness.

Our home doesn't smell like cigarettes, there is no animal crap on the floor and no monsters come out at night to hit my kids. We opened presents this morning and now I look around, I see William with the body pillow he wanted, lying on the floor reading his new book. Henry is wearing the fuzzy Batman pajama pants I got for him and Molly has changed three times, trying on the jeans and the sweater and the footie pajamas. Charlie is sad today. But he'll get through it, I know he will. Christmas is hard for him and I get it.

We're going to a movie tonight, as a family. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", I think. We'll clamber into our little car and sing along to Justin Timberlake: "SIPPING FROM YOUR CUP TIL IT RUNNETH OVER (Jay Z: uh, uh)....HOLY GRAIL". We have fun together, my kids and I. I make sure that when they are my age they'll have good things in their heads, good memories of the times we had.

I never tell them that I worry. I worry that someday it'll be me sitting in a room, wearing Depends and staring at a little screen waiting for the weather guy. I worry that someday they'll let my calls go to voicemail and they'll listen to my message, the one I leave all the time. Asking them to bring me martini fixings or Red Vines or a box of wine or shrimp pad thai. I worry that they'll feel pity for me, or not.

Tomorrow, Christmas will be over. Life will keep chugging along and I'll buy more smokes for my mom. I'll stifle the rage and the grief that shows up whenever I cross the threshold of her home, shove it back down for the millionth time as I hand my mom the blue pack of Mistys and she slides a folded twenty at me.

"Take it" she'll say, her yellowed fingers already peeling the plastic from the box.

Her eyes will leave mine and look back at the screen as she lights her cigarette and waits for the weather.








12/22/13

The Descendants: The Best Movie About Divorce That Isn't About Divorce



There are some fine films out there, all about divorce. My all time favorite, of course, is Heartburn, based upon the novel by my personal heroine, Nora Ephron. And every divorced woman is supposed to gobble up Eat, Pray, Love. I liked it, but didn't really relate to it so much. I mean, yeah, it would have been oh so lovely to take off on a whirlwind binge-meditate-hump vacay after being dumped but I don't think the kids would have approved.

My least favorite movie about divorce? Stepmom. Creepy old Ed Harris is the husband in that one, who is in a relationship with the much-younger Julia Roberts. Forever sexy Susan Sarandon plays the first wife, and although I thought this one was watchable, it planted a sick seed in my hypochondriac mind...now, whenever I diagnose myself with something terminal I go back to the scene where creepy Ed goes to visit cancer-ridden Susan and gifts her with a Christmas tree. And then gets ready to leave (again) to go celebrate Christmas with leggy Julia. In the movie, Susan is all beatific and dying and just sits there, accepting the tree and her ex and the cancer, and smiles. I hated that scene. I wanted to see her get up, and jam the tree up Ed's stereotypical dirty old man ass. And I find myself wondering, if I were dying, would Big Daddy come bring me a tree? Extend the evergreen olive branch, tying up that last loose end? Because I think I know what I'd do with it if he did.

I might have some unresolved issues. Sorry about that. Where was I? Ah...THE DESCENDANTS.

Have you seen The Descendants? It's one of my favorite movies. I had sworn off of George Clooney, completely, and then one bored night sat on my couch and watched it. I ended up bawling, and head over heels back in like with not only Clooney, but Hawaii, with the music, the houses...all of it! It's a keeper.

Cliff notes plot summary:

With his wife Elizabeth on life support after a boating accident, Hawaiian land baron Matt King takes his daughters on a trip from Oahu to Kauai to confront the man who was having an affair with Elizabeth before her misfortune.

Filled to the brim with metaphors and symbolism, this movie speaks to so many of us. And as a bonus, it gives us some of the best lines, ever:

"In Hawaii, some of the most powerful people look like bums and stuntmen."

Clooney's character, Matt King: "Nothing 'just happens'."
Matthew Lillard's character, Brian Speer: "Everything 'just happens'."

"What is it that makes the women in my life want to destroy themselves?"

"You give your children enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing."

"I'm the backup parent. The understudy."

"That was unreal. I mean, how often do old people just haul off and fucking coldcock you like that?"

"Shut up, you motherless whore!"

It's like an alphabet tree filled with ripe words, this movie. I haven't read the book, which was written by Kaui Hart Hemmings, but it's on my wish list and I can only imagine the word-smorgasbord it must be.

Of course, since I still see everything through divorce-tinted glasses, I found myself in Clooney's character's shoes. Even though it's not a film about divorce, it captures so many of the feelings a traumatic split evokes: the abandonment, the shock, needing closure with "the other", the helplessness one feels when faced with raising kids solo...I could go on and on.

Most of all, I felt his sadness. His awful, deep, angry, grieving sadness. This movie brought me back to a dark place, and even though it makes me sound like some sort of masochist, I think it's okay to revisit that place once in while. Just to know you've survived.

I also found myself fantasizing a little morbid fantasy scenario. What if Big Daddy had died unexpectedly, maybe crashed his stupid little car, before he worked up the courage to leave me? What would life had been like, then? For me, for the kids? Would I have done what Clooney's character does? Would I have ever found out about the lies, the cheating, the Other Woman? Or would all of it, all of the dishonesty and the betrayal...would it have died along with him? File that one under "Thoughts You Probably Shouldn't Admit Having".

I've watched this movie a least half a dozen times since that first bored night. It's one of the very few films I can watch over and over without losing interest in the middle. Yep, it's right up there with Shawshank Redemption, Mean Girls, and The Family Stone. Are you rolling your eyes at Mean Girls? That's okay.

When I watch The Descendants I'm transported into another time. Another place, another dysfunctional family. I love the barefooted aspect of it, how nobody wears anything on their feet except maybe flip flops. I guess living in a land that is inhospitably cold and harsh, where you have to wear thick fuzzy socks for six months out of every year has affected me more than I know. I start planning a make-believe trip to Hawaii, where I introduce my kids to the ocean and the volcanoes.

I love the cast. It's utterly perfect. Bonus points for having one of my girl crushes, Judy Greer, in it, as the unsuspecting wife of the Other Man. The kid who plays the eldest daughter's stoner boyfriend, Sid, provides most of the much needed humor and surprisingly, a good bit of the heart. Matthew Lillard, who plays the Other Man, is always good in his lanky, Shaggy way. The daughters, played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller, do a wonderful job as the angsty teen and the struggling prepubescent, respectively. And Hawaii? It's hard to screw that up. I've only been there once, on a three-day layover back in my flight attendant days. I fell in love with it, opened up a Liberty House store charge account and got the worst sunburn of my life. On the flight home I was serving up cans of pop with blisters the size of silver dollars dotting my arms. That was fun.

And Clooney? Even if you're not a fan, he won't annoy you. I was impressed with this keyed-down version. Not the cocky, jutting-jawed, "I could eat myself up with a spoon and so could you" sort of performance here. He's good and believable.

One of the benchmarks of a good book or movie or poem or song, is if it makes you think. This one did that, in spades. And that's why I love it. If you haven't watched it, and I'm talking to you, my divorced friends, I highly recommend that you do so. P.S. it pairs well with a nice pinot noir. I had Cupcake and it was delicious with both the laughter and the tears. Yes, laughter...this movie is also bitingly funny. Guffaw out loud funny, even.

While looking up information on the novel "The Descendants", I came across a quote that pretty much sums it up for me. Although I know that the author of the book, and the people who made the movie, didn't set out to speak to strong, weepy divorced ladies like me, this got me right in the gut:

"My wife's not coming back, my wife did not love me, and I am in charge now."

For all of you who are, like me, in charge now...I highly recommend this movie. And Mean Girls, but that's another story for another time.

Aloha, friends.




12/18/13

The Rotten Mouse Smell is Disappearing! Unfortunately, so is MY JOB.

Last week I smelled something bad in my kitchen. Now, that's not a completely unheard of phenomenon, what with my sketchy culinary skills and the fact that there is almost always a fragrant teen standing in front of the open fridge.

But this was bad. Like, rotten potato/onion past it's prime/spoiled meat kind of bad. So I did the seek and destroy mission: dug through the tiny pantry looking for an alien-like potato or a dark liquid spot where a rogue onion had fallen. Nothing. I thought mayhap a can of veggies had sprung a leak. So I checked all of the cans in there (and believe me folks, you know I'm a proponent of canned goods. There's a lot.).

Nada.

The smell worsened as the day meandered into late afternoon and by evening, it was painfully obvious that this was not the odor caused by food.

This was the smell of death.

I believe the angular and beautiful actors on CSI call it "Decomp", and I began wondering where they get that camphor stuff they put under their nostrils when dealing with putrefied remains. Because the smell emanating from the corner of my kitchen was not good, people.

I began a new search, this time wearing gloves and a grimace as I looked high and low for a corpse. A mouse corpse, I hoped. We have lots of critters in our neighborhood so I kept my latex-covered fingers crossed that I wouldn't find a dead squirrel or oozing chipmunk behind the stove or on a high shelf.

No body. But oh Lord, the smell. By this point it had permeated not only the kitchen, but the noxious tendrils had unfurled into other sections of the house. I caught a whiff of it as I walked out of my bedroom. A good and trusted friend came over just to reassure me that the smell wasn't as bad as I claimed and she almost threw up at the front door. Sorry Danielle.

I turned to my lovely friends on Facebook and was handed tons of great advice: Use charcoal! Burn some candles! Find the critter! Move!

We did the charcoal odor absorber things, and used up every scented candle in the house (even the Christmas smelling ones). I considered crafting DIY surgical masks out of dryer sheets. We avoided the kitchen (which I tend to do quite often, smell or no smell) and every so often one of us would ask, "Do you still smell it?" to which we'd all reply, "Yeah."

We have a large, unfinished attic here. Sometimes,we'll hear random scratching noises coming from the attic. Last winter, we found a bat stuck on the stairs. My hero landlord Dave came over and not only retrieved the bat, but took it to a rehab place so it would survive the rest of the cold season and be released in the spring (have I mentioned lately how much I love my landlord and his wife?). I have taught my children well, however, and we pretty much ignore any sounds even though in my head I'm thinking: "That's definitely not flowers in the attic I'm hearing". In my fantasy land, the creatures who are up there are simply stopping for a rest on their journey through the neighborhood. Surely they aren't copulating and making thousands of babies. Surely.

So I've surmised that a wayward animal fell between the walls, somewhere behind the pantry, starved to death and then began rotting. Is it weird that I feel kind of sorry for it? What a way to go.

After a few days, the smell was pretty much gone, unless you stuck your head into the pantry and smelled the wall, hard. I imagined the mummified Stuart Little in there, a "WTF" expression forever frozen on his tiny dried out face. RIP, my stinky little friend.

Unfortunately, another thing might be going away.

My job.

This week I learned that I might not have a job after August of next year. It's a long, complicated story that makes little sense to anyone outside of the public school system. It has to do with all-day kindergarten becoming mandatory in Minnesota, with seniority and with, it seems, just plain old fate.

It hasn't completely sunk in yet. I told the kids, just because I wanted them to know. Eight months is a long time, and yet, it's not. I'm sure I can find another job, probably in the same school district. I've worked here for 7 1/2 years, so I've made a few connections, networked in my own awkward way, over time. Eight months gives me time to cut back, to keep socking a little into my meager savings account, to PREPARE.

Believe me when I say, I know this isn't the worst news a girl can get.

But, still, I'm finding myself looking up and asking, "Why?"

2013 seemed to be the year things didn't suck. The child support finally started coming in, beginning in February. After almost 5 years of not having it, there it was. It's only for 3 kids, it's not a king's ransom, but it made a difference. For the first time in ages, I've had some breathing room in my little budget. Not enough to take big gulps of air, but I no longer feel like I'm suffocating every month.

And then, the job. After piecing together 2, 3, sometimes 4 part time jobs together, I got that Holy Grail: the full time job, with benefits. Paid holidays? Sick days? INSURANCE? I felt like I had won the freaking lottery, and even went all "Hear Me Roar" about it here and in the Huffington Post.

Time for another Plan B, apparently. Although at this point, I think I'm well past B. I might be hovering over E. Or F.

But first, I'm going to get through the rest of 2013. I'm going to enjoy Christmas with my kids, enjoy seeing them open presents that I paid for, that I didn't have to pick out at a charity-run Christmas shop. I'm going to take them out to dinner and look at their beautiful, almost-grown faces as they trade barbs with one another and laugh. I'm going to continue to help Molly plan for her fist year away at college (she got into the school of her choice, CAN I GET AN AMEN? More later about that) and not let her see the worry behind my "it's all good" mask.

I'm going to console myself with the knowledge that although my life may seem tangled and knotted and so-not-perfect, it's precious and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Like I told my coworkers when we got the news about our jobs:

I've been through worse. And it didn't kill me. In fact, it made me grateful for all that I have.

I'm grateful for everything, folks. My health, my healthy kids, my kick ass friends and my angel landlord. My crappy little car that starts even when it's 18 below. Family that still likes me, wifi and coworkers who make going to work seem like happy hour every damn day. A dog who wears his Christmas elf collar with pride and who greets me every single day with a wagging tail and adoration in his eyes (okay maybe that's hunger but I am taking some artistic license here).

Plus, my kitchen no longer smells like death. But I am making chili this weekend, so I'm not getting too cocky.

Have a great day, friends.






12/3/13

Self Doubt with a side of Insecurity, please!

Pretty much everyone who blogs is writing a book. Everyone I know, at least. Some are writing fiction, some are writing collections of essays, a couple are writing children's books.

Most of us, however, are writing memoirs. We are writing about ourselves, our lives, our children and our spouses.

Because that's what we write about on our blogs. OUR LIVES.

Our lives are all so different. And somehow, in some ways, they are so alike. We are moms, and dads, and women and men. We have cats. Dogs. Jobs. Homes.

Kids.

Some of us are rich, some are not. Some of us wrestle with demons, some of us cuddle with serendipity.

We all have stories.

Ever since I started writing here, I've heard it. At first, it was from friends...which made perfect sense because those were the only people who read my stories. And when friends tell you, "Hey, you should write a book!" you take it kind of like they've told you "No, those pants don't make you look fat! You look beautiful!"

Your friends love you. Everything you do, say, wear...or write, is tinted by their love and affection for you. Kind of like moms and their kids, you know? How many of you have looked at a scribbly crayon-drenched note and felt your insides melt at its beauty?

It's a whole 'nother thing when strangers enter the picture and start telling you, "Hey, you should write a book!"

That's when you start to think: Hmm. Maybe this is something I can do. Maybe there really is a book inside of me!

And so you start thinking. Writing. Plotting.

In my case, what I've heard over and over is, "I started reading your blog and couldn't stop." "I started at the beginning and when I got to the end I wanted more!" "I was so sad when I got to the end!".

People, mostly women, send me emails telling me their stories. Stories about husbands gone wild, about sad kids, about the comical first post-divorce dates. And their stories about financial struggles, about hopelessness and trying to find the strength to get through the crappiest of times. I read every single one of them, and each one holds me firmly in its grip long after the words have flitted by my eyes.

We all have stories.

I thought it would be easy. I thought it was just a matter of gathering up the posts I've written which have garnered the most response. The posts that have made people laugh, cry, get mad. I thought it would be just that easy.

One of you, one of my dear readers, stepped forward and wanted to help. "Let me edit for you" she proffered. Edit? Be still my wanna-be writer's heart. Someone out there thought I was editor worthy! This splendid woman took my "manuscript", my collections of essays and posts which had been separated into their own little collections ("Before the Divorce" "The Kids" "Dating", etc.) and polished it up. She took on the massive job of correcting my woeful grammar, my apostrophe abuse, my chronic overuse of ellipsis.

I began to look forward to her emails, wondering if she liked what she'd read, if she thought I'd done good. We writers are a weird lot, you know. Kind of like puppies who just want reassurance that yes, yes, yes, you're a good girl! You're such a good girl!

And she did tell me I'm a good girl. I mean, writer. She brought up issues with tense, wondered whether or not some of what I had deemed as integral to my story was really that integral. She questioned me and praised me and then one miraculous day, she sent me the revised, complete manuscript. I looked at the little paperclip icon thingie, and the words "complete manuscript" in the subject line.

It was terrifying. I put off reading it, for several days. It was Thanksgiving, after all, and besides having to cook 50 pounds of potatoes (I was in charge of starches this year), we also had a hockey tournament. I took a few vacation days in order to set aside some WRITERY TIME.

Today was my WRITERY TIME. I sat down this morning, and cracked it open. I read it.

And guess what? I don't like it. I hated not liking it. It felt as though I had posed for a picture, thought I was looking good, thought "This picture will be so awesome!" and then seeing the finished product and immediately noticing every single flaw. Every wrinkle, every blemish, every hair out of place.

I read it and I thought to myself, Nobody will want to read this. I'm actually embarrassed that I thought this was good enough to be a book. And, WTF was I thinking? 

I thought to myself: I hate this.

I wrote to my dear, sweet editor. "I hate it!" I told her.

And then, because I'm me, I hastily wrote back:

"I don't hate your editing! That was awesome! I can't write. My writing sucks. I gave you a pile of goo and asked you to try and shape it into something readable..which you did, but MY WRITING SUCKS."

Because this chick, this reader, this lovely and kind woman, she's good at what she does. Not only is she good at it, she loves doing it. And it shows.

So I spent the better part of my Writery Day feeling insecure. Feeling foolish and stupid and so naively optimistic. I watched a couple episodes of my latest Netflix obsession (for the love of God, a Canadian cop show called Flashpoint...copy that, boss) and shared my woes with some of my writery friends.

I mentally broke up with my book, the tome I had so lovingly labored over and had named "What To Do When Your Husband Leaves You". I decided that maybe I didn't have a book in me after all, and that maybe all I'm cut out to be is an unknown blogger who sometimes writes things that people read.

And I was okay with that. For a minute. Then, I had a talk with my son.

My sweet, smart, wise-beyond-his-years son, Charlie. The kid who has gone through so much, who is en route to adulthood at a dizzying pace. Charlie and I bounce things off of each other. We talk about our hopes and our dreams and give each other encouragement. We also give each other shit when applicable.

"Charlie" I started. "Oh man. I'm feeling really icky today, son."

He sat down next to me, all muscles and height and that little boy face.

"What's wrong, mom?" he asked me, genuinely concerned.

I sighed. Picked at the last egg roll on the plate we'd shared.

"I don't think I can write a book, Charlie. I think it's not meant to be." I blurted this out, finally admitting it, finally saying out loud what I'd been thinking all day long.

Charlie scoffed. He stood up, folded his arms and scoffed again. And then he said:

"If you give up on this, I will never forgive you." And then, for good measure, he added:

"Seriously. Like, I will literally never forgive you. And you'll never forgive yourself."

Well, shoot. How can this kid be so smart?

He's right, of course.

If I give up on this, I will never forgive myself.

So I put on my big girl panties. I looked at the manuscript again, only this time, I looked at it with less critical eyes. I looked at it the way we moms look at those crayoned love notes from our babes. I looked past the obvious flaws, the garishness, the crudeness. I looked through all that, and you know what I saw?

I saw my book.

It's in there. And it's beautiful.






12/1/13

Will work for food

This essay was originally posted on the now-defunct website, Smartly.com. I wrote it over 3 years ago (my baby was only 10!) but I thought it's just as, if not more, relevant today. Yesterday I found myself sitting at a stoplight, trying to avoid looking at a woman who was standing less than 3 feet away from me, holding a sign that said "Single Mom Needs Help". I had nothing to give her, not even some change. It reminded me of this essay, and I thought I'd share it with all of you. It also reminded me to keep some spare cash in the car...just in case.





They started showing up just a few months ago. Sitting on overturned utility buckets, or standing there, facing oncoming traffic. Handmade signs, black ink on cardboard scraps:

WILL WORK FOR FOOD or

LAID OFF, CAN'T FEED MY KIDS, PLEASE HELP or

HOMELESS VETERAN, NEED WORK

There they are, when the busy suburbanites like myself exit the main highway that leads from Downtown to the cities we come from. The cities we live in. There they are, in the bitter cold, the snow, and now the rain.

I see them as I make my way home after a long, exhausting day. As I turn right, headed to Costco or PetSmart or OfficeMax. I see them, and yet I don't.

Some days I make eye contact, try to communicate with these sign holding strangers. "I'm sorry" I want to say.

Other days I feel resentment and yes, even anger. Are you really homeless, are you really a veteran, are you really willing to work? I ask them, silently. Or are you one of those "professional panhandlers", the guys who are supposedly making a nice living on these corners? Do you kiss your wife and kids goodbye every morning, leaving your comfortable home with your bucket and sign?

"Please help"? Who helps me?, I wonder as I sit there, waiting for the light to turn green. I work multiple jobs, I pinch pennies til they bleed, I live without so many things. I found myself divorced and broke...and yet I've managed to keep a roof over my head and my children are fed and clothed and warm. Help you? Why don't you help yourselves, like I have?

Then I feel the guilt. I feel the shame. I look at the man standing there in his dirty coat and slipshod boots. I am appalled at how easy it is for me to judge him.

And then I remember the help I've had. The mom who slips me some cash now and then, the friends who just happen to have a gift card they aren't going to use, the anonymous souls who gave my kids Christmas this past year.

Oh, I've had plenty of help.

We aren't so different, the bucket men and me. All it would take is a big illness, a lost job, a blown engine and maybe I'd find myself without any options other than to stand on a corner with a sign and an oddly dignified detachment from the souls in the cars speeding by.

A few weeks ago, my 10 year old son and I were coming home from Target or the grocery store or wherever. We pulled up at the stoplight, chatting about school and the summer and all of the random stuff you find yourself discussing with boys of that age.

There, to our left, was a man with a sign. He looked younger than me, but it was hard to tell with his face wrapped up in a scarf and the hood of his coat pulled tight around his head. His sign said:

LOST MY JOB. KIDS TO FEED. PLEASE HELP.

My son, my sweet William, who wears hand-me-downs and eats reduced price lunches at school, who has never flown on an airplane and most likely won't see DisneyWorld as a child, who plays sports and goes to camp on scholarships...this boy, my boy. My dear, wise son.

He turned to me and said, "Mom. Give him some money. Please."

By some miracle I happened to have some cash on me that day. Not much, just a few singles, but I rolled down my window and handed them to the man with the sign.

"God bless you, ma'am." he said.

He already has, sir. He already has.

11/29/13

Do You Know This Band Pearl Jam? YES I KNOW THEM SAM I AM!

I do! I do! I do so like this band Pearl Jam!

So you know I teach preschool. The kids in our care are Pre-K, which means they are either 4 or 5. Which means we deal with parents who range in age from mid-20's to mid-40's (and a few older). It didn't hit me how young some of the parents are until the day last year when we were discussing volcanoes.

"Miss Jenny! Have you ever seen a real live volcano erupt?" one of our budding seismologists inquired.

I answered in my teacher voice, "Well, no. But I do remember when Mount St. Helens erupted. That happened in another state but we all watched it on the news. It was crazy! I bet if you ask your parents tonight, they'll remember, too."

And then I did some quick math in my head (yes, I can do some quick math in my head. Just not algebra. Or fractions.).  The girl who asked me was five. Her parents were some of our younger ones, probably 29, 30-ish.

I am 47. Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, when I was 14. That meant this girl's parents hadn't even been BORN yet. This was one of the first times it really and truly occurred to me: I WAS NO LONGER ONE OF THOSE "YOUNG" PEOPLE. My middle-agedness smacked me upside the head with a resounding thwap. 

Since then, I've taken note of the signs of youthfulness so many of my preschool parents exhibit. They don't look as tired or as soul-drained or as thick around the middle as many of my peers do. The women have natural hair colors, very few wrinkles and most days, it looks as though they've put some effort and thought into dressing themselves. They wear pants with zippers and fancy shoes that make my feet curl up like the Wicked Witch of the West's did when Dorothy got the ruby slippers.

And the dads: they are so much cooler looking than the dads in my demographic. They wear distressed jeans and shiny puffy jackets and knit caps. Don't get me wrong, there are oodles of men over 40 who wear these exact same items, but let's be honest: you can't hide life's wear and tear under a Patagonia jacket and some True Religion jeans. Some things just can't be denied, and age is one of them.

So anyhoo. One of our dads, who normally drops his child off in the mornings, was gone for a few days. His wife took over the drop-off and as we were making small talk she mentioned that her hubby was out of town, seeing his favorite band. We ladies all giggled as she sighed and hoped out loud that he was behaving himself. "Oh, of course he is!" we assured her.

A few days later, dad was back. Now, he's not one of our baby-faced daddies. This one has a little bit of mileage on him. God, no, he's not quite as old as me, but I'm thinking he probably remembers Mount St Helens. He hung out for a few minutes, making sure his kid washed hands, signed in...all the morning routines a preschooler has. I approached Dad and said, "So your wife told us you road-tripped to see a band? Which one?"

He looked at me the same way I must have looked at my mom when she screamed "THERE ARE NO WINDOWS ON MY COMPUTER! HOW CAN I OPEN ONE?". Or how my kids look at me when I say "What's the dealio with this "snapchat", Coolio?".

Slowly, he began explaining things to this here granny: "Well, there's this band called Pearl Jam..."

WAIT. HOLD ON. BACK THE TRUCK UP, SON. beep beep beep

"this band" called Pearl Jam? I know a little bit about this band called Peal Jam, boy.

I wanted to pull up one of our little tiny chairs and sit down and discuss this band called Pearl Jam. Mayhap I'd regale this Dad with the story of Lollapalooza '92, where a not-so-grizzled Miss Jenny danced in the dirt wearing cut offs, a black t-shirt and a Guatemalan purse from Pier One...first we rocked out to that band called Pearl Jam, then dreamy Chris Cornell and Soundgarden, then front freaking row for Ice Cube and THEN gazed up at the toned trunks and loins of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I have hazy memories of bonding with strangers in line for the porta-potties and also of pretty much melting into a grungy puddle when I saw Eddie Vedder in the flesh, understanding that we were quite possibly sharing some of the very same oxygen molecules.

I wanted to tell this Dad all about how in my dreamy fantasy life I have a reunion with the boy I loved for 12 weeks one summer, and while we are first embracing and catching up I can hear the lyrics to "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" resounding through my mind. Hands down one of the best songs ever written and damn if I don't shed a tear every single time I hear it. I may or may not sing this song, loudly and badly, at the top of my lungs when I'm throwing myself a pity party now and again.

Maybe I could've told Dad that one of my crowning achievements as a parent was the day I realized that my two toddlers who were strapped in their carseats behind me were crooning "ooooh I'm still alive...." along with me and Pearl Jam. Raffi? Please. Baby Beluga's got nothing on those Seattle gods.

We could have rapped about one of the first dates I had with my future ex-husband, where we went to see the movie "Singles" and I gasped out loud when Eddie and Stone and the rest of Pearl Jam appeared on the big screen. And then I'd tell him that I bought the soundtrack and the movie and every once in a while I'll pop it into the DVD player and have a look at it just for shits and giggles.

And then I would have asked him, "For the love of Pete...how old do you think I am, man?"

As you know by now, I am not one to actually say out loud what I'm thinking at any given moment. I have these big dialogues in my head and then go home and write a lengthy blog post about it. So, no, I didn't tell Dad any of this. I think I said, "I'm so jealous!" or something equally brilliant and was satisfied to see the look of surprise in Dad's eyes when he realized that his child's frumpy middle aged preschool teacher with the gray roots actually knew who "this band" is.

I colored my hair later that night. While listening to some Pearl Jam, of course.


11/25/13

7 Things You Totes Need To Stop Saying if You're Over 30 (oops, there's one of them)

UPDATE: Apparently I should have added the term "butthurt" to this list. Because there's a world of hurt butts out there. People, this is not a serious post. It was meant to be read tongue-in-cheek, in a very non-serious way. Some of you need to unclench, just a little. mkay? 



A lot of us are guilty of it. Especially those of us with teens, or tweens, or kids of any age who watch kid-centric television shows or who spend a lot of time on Instagram.

We start to talk like them. Words, phrases, the flotsam and jetsam of another generation's vernacular seeps into ours and before you know it, we catch ourselves (or our friends) dropping these little beauties into everyday conversation, facebook updates, blog posts and tweets.

Someone needs to step in now, and beg of us all: STOP IT. For the love of all things good and pure and age-appropriate, please stop.

Here are the things you need to stop saying if you are over the age of 30. Or if you have a mortgage, or a job that comes with benefits. Or if you have teens. Especially, if you have teens.

1.  TOTES.  When used as an abbreviation for the word "totally", of course. If someone approaches you on a rainy day and says "Hey, I love that cute, compact umbrella! What kind is it?" and you answer, "Totes!", it's all good. But when you walk into the the living room and announce, "Dinner is totes ready!", not so good. Please stop.

2. I KNOW, RIGHT? Last summer I spent a week subbing with a beautiful, tanned, Amazonian 20-something with a beach-volleyball player's body. She was sweet, but answered everything with the words, "I know, right?". I'd walk into the classroom and say, "Holy crap is it hot out" and Tall Tan One would say, "I know, right?". I'd say "Thank God it's Friday!" and she'd look up from the Dora the Explorer Puzzle she was working on and say, "I know, right?".

Yes, I do know. Right. Because I JUST SAID IT.

Now, despite my holier than thou approach to speaking, somehow this virus-like phrase started slipping out of my own mouth. I was horrified by the ease at which it popped out, usually in response to a friend's innocent, middle aged statement along the lines of "I'm so sick of peeing my pants." Only I shortened it, and dropped the questioning nature...and in my head it sounded more like a clipped, British, Colin Firth-ish "right, then" instead of the other way. My head was wrong. It still sounded lame.

3. AMAZEBALLS And while we're at it, let's retire "amazing" for a while, too. "That pumpkin latte was amazeballs!" or "That meatloaf was amazing." No. Nobody really needs to walk around saying the word "balls" except for gym teachers and coaches and boys between the ages of 7 and 15. And the word amazing has been stuck in my craw since my homegirl Nina Badzin wrote about how it's being overused as a compliment. BECAUSE EVERYTHING ISN'T AMAZING. Sometimes it's really good. Sometimes it's yummy. Sometimes it's just so-so. We have so many adjectives in the English language. Let's dust some of the lesser-knowns off and use them for a while.

(and yes, oh the irony of the 47 year old blogger using the word "homegirl"...I almost typed "home-skillet" which would have been even more sad. Amazingly so.)

4. CRAY (OR CRAY-CRAY).  Crazy just sounds better. Or one of the ten million synonyms for crazy. I like a good "crazier than a shithouse rat" but I can't say that when I'm surrounded by 5 year olds. So I oftentimes use "whackadoo". When I hear you say "cray" I think you were going to talk about either crayons and had a brain freeze or else Robert Cray, who happens to be a pretty badass blues guitarist.

You might say he has some cray cray skills.

5. I WILL CUT YOU/ I WILL CUT A BITCH  No, you won't. You're sitting behind the wheel of a Honda Odyssey, you have groceries from Costco melting in the back and you're in the parent pick-up line at school. You're not a character in Orange is the New Black. You're not going to be cutting anyone any time soon so please stop saying you will.

6. ADORBS Are you saying this with any sort of frequency at all? Are you 14 and talking about your BFF's new Harry Styles iPhone case? If the answer to my first question was yes and the answer to my second question was no, then this word needs to stop coming out of your mouth.

7. INTERNETS/INTERWEBS I'm guilty of using this one. And I have no rational explanation for doing so. If we call it Internets does that make it cooler? If we call it what it truly is, "the internet" does that make us sound stodgy and old? I guess it probably does, because who really uses the word "internet" anymore? "Mom, I'm going to access The Internet and get some homework done!" or "Billy, I was using The Internet to look at your grades on Infinite Campus. We need to talk."

Okay, so maybe 7 could use some tweaking. But like that funny lady on YouTube says, "ain't nobody got time for that." Oh! And the word tweaking reminds me of one other thing we should all stop saying:

8. TWERK/TWERKING I know it's kind of ironic when a middle aged mom uses the word "twerk", like when she threatens to start twerking in front of her kid's friends, but honestly, I think the closest any of us are going to come to twerking is that spastic thing our bodies do when we see a big bug in the shower.  Like a centipede. Augh.

That's all I've got. I was going to add that thing where people refer to cats as "kittehs" but that one is over now, right?

If you need me, I'll be channeling Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls and trying to make "fetch" happen.










Did you get big mad feels after reading this? Then you need to A: pull the stick out of your nether-regions and then B: READ THIS

11/18/13

Five Ways Toddlers Are Easier Than Teenagers

Oh mommies. I read so many blog posts and articles about the trials and tribulations of raising toddlers. And YES, oh sweet 18-month-old Jesus, YES they are all spot on: having a toddler (or two) at home is kind of like having the most obnoxious, handsy, drunk frat guy at the party living with you 24/7. Parenting the two, three and four year olds deserves its own special child-proofed circle in Hell some days.

But let me tell you something, ladies. There will come a day when you look back on these years with something that feels like wistfulness. A longing, even.

Because that pea-soup spewing, head spinning, chicken nugget-clutching abomination in the car seat behind you is going to be a teenager some day.

And then things get really fun.

I can't write something like this without first pointing out the merits of teens. They are a wonder to behold. Some days it's like living inside an ABC After School Special without any commercial breaks. You get to relive your teen years, good or bad. Every single thing you did as a teenager comes back either to haunt you or to give you fodder for speeches and diatribes and guilt trips to lay upon your own teen.

You can have conversations with teenagers, which is mostly cool. They can do things like drive and tie their own shoes and use the stove without supervision. Most of them are adept at personal hygiene and rarely need help in that area, except when they scream from the downstairs bathroom that they need a towel.

Don't get me wrong: I love my teens. Which is good, because at the moment, I have four of them living under my roof. We have some good times together, me and my gaggle of teens. We have interesting talks, we watch The Walking Dead together, some days our coexistence feels a lot like harmony.

But the past few weeks have been a doozy. I've gone apeshit with my teens. My least-proud moment was when I was driving around a nearby city looking for "a Dairy Queen" trying to find my 17 year old daughter who had gone there after school with some friends. I'd been trying to get the map feature on my phone to work, and it kept stopping. It was dark, I was pissed because that had been the one and only night my youngest didn't have hockey, and there I was, driving like a tourist and scanning the horizon for one of those freaking Dairy Queen signs. "Mom, where are you?" she called to ask. "I'M DRIVING AROUND HOPKINS LOOKING FOR EFFING DAIRY QUEEN, THAT'S WHERE I AM!! WHERE IS THIS DAMN PLACE?" I barked back at her. "God, Mom, it's not that hard to find. It's down the road from the movie theater." She sounded like she was smirking as she said this. I could tell. "CAN YOU BE MORE MOTHER EFFING SPECIFIC?" I shrieked into the phone. I heard muffled laughter and felt a shameful hot horror as I realized she had put me on speaker.

Yep. I'm that mom. The spastic f-bomb dropping one. In my defense, I'm also the one who always lets the kids have oodles of friends sleep over and I provide donuts in the morning. Bacon if I'm feeling rich. So there's that.

But this morning, I got to thinking of my kids as they used to be. I actually got moist eyes thinking about my directionally-challenged daughter as a toddler. She'd wear these stretchy knit headbands all the time, so that she looked like a mini-John McEnroe. She loved wearing her older brother's training pants. She'd often leave the house wearing Batman undies beneath her sparkly tutu. She was obsessed with backpacks so much so that I took to calling her "Packy" and at any given moment she'd have one strapped to her back, stuffed with treasures.

I then remembered her tantrums. I remembered the poopy pants and the croup and the sibling rivalry and the endlessssss bedtimes.

But still...for just a moment this morning, I kind of wished I still had toddlers. And I came up with a few reasons why TODDLERS TOTALLY TRUMP TEENS:

1. SLEEPING: I'm sure you've heard of the book "Go the F*ck to Sleep". Get ready for the teen version I'll be writing called "Get the F*ck Up, You'll Miss the Bus". Seriously. These people sleep like vampires. Sure, no more being awakened by two scary eyeballs peering at you from the side of the bed at 5:00 a.m., but waking a teenager is kind of like reenacting "A Weekend At Bernie's". God help you.

2. INAPPROPRIATE USE OF TOILETRIES: Oh it's so funny when Junior gets into your lipstick or maxi pads and gets all messy. Sometimes you take pictures of them and post it on Instagram. But get ready for the waves of nausea when you find your good bottle of body lotion tucked in your 14 year old son's underwear drawer. Alongside two dozen wadded up tissues. You won't be so quick to post those pictures, my friends. (this seems like a good time to tell you: HIDE THE EXPENSIVE LOTION, LADIES..keep only the Suave and St. Ives within child reach)

3. HOMEWORK: Your toddler has none. Boom. I'll be honest here: I became useless as a homework helper around 5th grade. Math has changed since I was in school, and even back then I couldn't do it. Now, if you want me to help you write something? Bring it on. But not the math. Please, God, not the math. My kids stopped asking me for help years ago. Phew.

Teens have a lot of homework and while you may not be asked to help out with it much anymore, you will certainly have to hear them bitch and moan about doing it, and you might have to run damage control when they magically remember that they have a ginormous project/paper/4-course meal to prepare for culinary class at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night. And yes, I did live through the 4-course meal thing. Thank God for a best friend who can cook like a boss and who doesn't judge when you call her, sobbing, and ask if she can "HELP US MAKE A FOUR COURSE MEAL" at 10:04 p.m. on a Sunday night.

4. AXE BODY SPRAY: You think you're sick of smelling poo and pee and sour milk and ketchup? Just wait.

5. SLEEPING (YES, AGAIN):  When you have babies and toddlers, you want to sleep but you can't. When you have teens, you finally can sleep but you don't want to. Because teens go out. Without you! And sometimes, you don't know exactly where they are, or who they're with. Out of sight definitely DOES NOT mean out of mind when it comes to being the parent of a teenager. Out of sight means your imagination goes into overdrive and every worst case scenario unfolds in your head with ugly clarity. You don't mentally exhale until you touch base with your teen/baby.

I imagine that I'll probably be able to sleep again someday. Like when I'm dead. Which reminds me, I should probably tell my friends to put my sleep mask with me in the coffin....mama gonna sleep, y'all!

So there's five ways toddlers are easier than teens. Now, we could flip this around and go all Opposite Day and say Oh yeah, Jenny? Here's how teens are easier! They can talk! They don't crap their pants! They don't crawl into bed with you and lose control of their bladder! They don't need their hot dogs cut into non-lethal bite-size chunks! They don't cry at Target! They dress themselves! They don't go boneless and refuse to move in the middle of your Mommy and Me class, the one with the perfect mommies who silently judge your shitty parenting!

And you know what? We'd be right. Parenting is hard. It doesn't matter if your charges are tiny and have soft little feet or if they tower over you and sometimes startle you with their man-voices.

IT'S HARD.

Just different kinds of hard, that's all. And here's a little secret for you, something I think about when my four teens are all seemingly conspiring to make me insane:

If you look hard enough, you can still see your toddler in there. It might be the curve of a cheek, it might be the way they twist their hair, it might be the way they sleep with their mouth open and one hand curled up near their face (yes, it's okay if you sometimes sneak a peek at your snoozing teens, people, just avoid the underwear drawers). Sometimes it's an expression on their face or that certain stance of theirs that jumps out of nowhere and says "BOO! I'm still in here, mommy! Miss me??"

And when you do get that glimpse of what once was framed so beautifully in what is yet to be? It takes your breath away.

Here's to all of us and our sometimes-impossible children, big and small. May they always keep us tired and worrying and cleaning....

and loving.

Packy in the crack den.




















11/7/13

Fall Like A Lady

I'm not the most graceful person you'll ever meet. I tend to walk with my head in the clouds, which means I miss a few potholes here and there. And edges of rugs, and bottom steps, and patches of ice. 

Every once in a while I have a great fall. There's at least one spectacular spill every winter, living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes means there is no shortage of ice. One of my most memorable winter falls was a million years ago, back at my old house. It was the dead of winter and every flat outdoor surface was coated with a thin, shiny layer of ice (sometimes in Minnesota winters everything looks like a giant glazed donut)(at least to me). I had a set of 8 thick, glass tumblers from Ikea, you know those heavy, clear glasses with the beveled edges? So I had a set of those, and on that particular January day one of them met its demise on the kitchen floor. 

For some reason, I had decided it was a good idea to walk the pieces of broken glass to the garbage can outside. And that's what I did: proceeded to descend the slippery front steps, both fists curled around jagged shards of glass. Because I'm brilliant like that, folks. I believe anthropologists call it "survival of the fittest" or something along those lines. 

Of course I fell. It was a comical, Broadway-worthy pratfall, complete with a guttural exclamation from yours truly as I cannon-balled onto the sidewalk. Now, the first thing a lady does when she falls out in public is to look around to make sure nobody saw it happen. Which I did. And then I checked for damage. Somehow I had managed to fall down those steps clutching broken pieces of glass and the only thing that was really hurt was my pride. And my butt. 

That's because I fall like a lady, dammit.

I grew into adulthood watching Eddie Murphy. The Golden Years of Eddie started when he was a fresh-faced baby on Saturday Night Live (Velvet Jones, anyone? I WANNA BE A HO!) and ended around the time he did "A Vampire in Brooklyn". 

A rite of passage back then was to wait until your parents were asleep and then watch one of his naughty stand up routines on cable. My favorite of those was "Delirious". I can still remember sitting in the dark on a scratchy old couch that smelled of cigarette smoke and cats, watching Mr. Murphy pace back and forth on that stage, jacket open to the waist, his tight red leather pants leaving very little to my hormonal imagination. 

Delirious brought us the most totally awesome "Ice Cream" bit, wherein Eddie described how the poor kids in his neighborhood would taunt the poorer kids who couldn't afford a treat from the Ice Cream Truck. And Delirious is also where we met Eddie's Aunt Bunny. 

A couple days ago, I became Aunt Bunny.

Mornings are whackadoo in my house. Granted, now that the oldest child is out of high school and is in college where the classes start later, they are easier. Less draining. Less everything. But, since I have to be to work by 7:30, and the three remaining children need to be on a bus or picked up by friends around 7:00, there is still a scramble.

Three minutes. 

That's how late I am for work, pretty much every morning. Doesn't matter if I've dragged myself out of bed at 4:30, doesn't matter if each kid got up in time, showered, ate something and made their bus/ride. I'm consistently running three minutes late. Luckily, my "boss" is someone I've known for years, and in my line of work we are kind of creative with our schedules. Three minutes late gets made up when you have to stay five minutes after quitting time. It all comes out in the wash.

But still...three minutes. It kills me. I like to be on time. So there I was Tuesday morning: ALL READY. This was it, folks, I was going to walk into the classroom, a smile on my face, homemade iced coffee in hand at 7:30 on the dot. I had a spring in my step, and felt a bit smug as I donned my long down coat (oh yes, it's winter here) and made may way through the porch and out the door that leads to the garage.

Here's the thing about long coats: they sometimes get caught in doors. Especially when the person who is wearing them is smug. And holding a cup of homemade iced coffee in her hot, smug little hand. 

The steps in my garage aren't plentiful, but they are steep. As in, "feels like you're doing a lunge when you climb them" steep. So when my coat got caught in the door, it knocked me off balance, and I dangled there for a few seconds before my weight pulled the fabric free from the door frame. In those few seconds I had time to think. Here's what went through my mind:

"This is not going to be good."
"Please don't drop the coffee."
"Oh shit. Is that my bike down there?"

And then, like Eddie Murphy's beloved, fat Aunt Bunny, I fell down the stairs. Time slowed down and I had a few more thoughts.

"Yep. That's my bike."
"Please don't drop the coffee."
"Yay! I have great health insurance!"
"I'm halfway down!"
"I haven't shaved my legs in a month. If I break anything, I'm army-crawling into the bathroom and shaving them before calling help."
"This is definitely going to make me late for work."

Impact. Pain. Almost had an intimate penetration encounter with one of the pedals on my bike. Even though I was in a dark, closed garage, I looked around to make sure there were no witnesses. I got up, did a cursory broken bone check. Gingerly lifted my yoga pants, parted the sasquatch hair and decided that the gash on my knee would have to wait for a Dora the Explorer band-aid at school.

The coffee survived. Because that's how a lady falls.

And of course, I was three minutes late to work.

Watch your step, friends. 


Have you met Aunt Bunny? Here's Eddie Murphy describing her descent. WARNING: So many swear words in this one. Use your headphones, dears.



11/5/13

Old Things

This is not a post about what you'd find in my underwear drawer, despite the baiting title.

Nope. It's about things that we keep around, even though they're old. Things we don't toss out, or donate, because they still work. They do what you need them to do.

Here's a picture of the glamorous array on my nightstand:



Yes, that's the vicodin I've been hoarding since my root canal. And you can see that my nightstand is also where I file receipts for taxes. But that's not what I was focusing on. Feast your eyes on my sweet Sony Dream Machine, circa 1989. I've been using this alarm clock for 24 years. Some of you were still just eggs chillin' in ovaries back in 1989, weren't you?

Please note that aside from one little digital line that has quit working (it was actually 9:10 when I took this picture), this thing works perfectly. Not that I need an alarm clock anymore, since my sleep cycle now resembles an old-timey farm lady's. I wake up before it has a chance to go off, sometimes on my own and more recently, thanks to the mother effing flock of turkeys who roost in the cluster of trees next to my bedroom window and start gobbling before the sun rises. Yes, turkeys. And no, I don't live in the country. We can discuss those later.


Here's one of those loud feathered bastards in my driveway.


I've never been one to hop on the NEW AND IMPROVED bandwagon. Maybe it's something I inherited from my Depression-era grandparents, maybe it's a trait handed down from my uber frugal dad who can pinch a penny until Abe Lincoln screams like a little girl. Maybe it's just me. 

Is it a habit that develops during times of financial leanness? I'm sure that's part of it. After all, when you can't afford to replace things "just because", you take really good care of what you have. My car is a janky piece of aluminum foil with Hot Wheel tires attached to it, but you'd better believe I get the oil changed on the regular and take it in for maintenance when it needs to be done. Because if anything happens to it, I'm screwed. 

But, I have friends who can definitely afford to replace anything, and they are also in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" camp with me. So I think it might be more of a personality characteristic than anything else.

I have a couple purses that are older than my children (Coach bags used to be made even better than they are now), mixing bowls that have been around since before microwaves were invented and I use computers until they literally die in my arms. Up until this summer, we only had huge, heavy televisions which were the size and weight of portable dishwashers. There is a storage room in my basement that is kind of like the legendary Elephant Graveyards except instead of dead elephants there are corpses of big, unwieldy televisions. 

My kids have grudgingly hopped on board this particular car of the crazy train. Probably because they have no choice. Comforters are used until the morning one of them wakes up looking like they've been tarred and feathered. Hoodies and jeans are worn until people start throwing change at them on the street. And school supplies? Forget about it. My kids are the ones at school with the spiral notebooks that have two subjects crossed out on the covers and a new one written under those (BECAUSE THERE IS STILL A TON OF UNUSED PAPER IN THEM). 

I'd like to think that I have a firm grasp on reality, and we aren't the Minneapolis hillbillies. I don't let things go too far, and yes, when we are able to do so, we will splurge and buy new things. When our last giant t.v. died, I used some of my tax refund to buy one of those new-fangled flat screens. However, I did research and price comparisons and waited until the cheapie off-brand one at Target went down even lower. And then used my Target debit card to get an extra 5% off of that low price. For the record, I cringed when I paid for it. Spending money is never easy once you've been down Poverty Road. I wonder if that ever changes?

There will come a morning when I roll over and my trusty old Dream Machine will be flashing some illegible hieroglyphics, or simply not flashing at all. I imagine there will be a moment of silence. Knowing me, I'll probably try to fix it by unplugging it for a few minutes and then plugging it back in. 

I have already decided that when the time comes, I will donate its lifeless remains to the preschool. One of our teachers loves to let the kids go to town on dead appliances with screwdrivers and tweezers. I used to let my own kids dissect broken electronics, and I think it's a dignified end for such a loyal, trustworthy alarm clock. 

If you know me, you know there's an analogy buried in this post. Yes, if we were smoking wacky tobacky and getting real deep and all philosophical-like, you could say that I AM MY ALARM CLOCK. I'm old, I've seen lots of things, I have some battle scars, but dammit. I still work. Oh sure...the digital display works better on the newer models, and the sound is probably super crisp. When you have visitors in your bedroom they'll notice that you have the latest and greatest alarm clock. But I have a feeling that the new one won't last as long. 


They don't make 'em like they used to, you know. Thus ends the analogy portion of today's post. 

How about you? Do you have old things in your life, too? Or are you always looking for the upgrades? Not that there's anything wrong with that...without your kind our thrift stores would be sad, empty places. I love people who upgrade.

Leave a comment and tell us what you hang onto just because it still works. And please don't say "My spouse!". Although, that's funny. In a non-derogatory way, of course.

Have a super day, friends.









11/1/13

Hashtag: Quinoa

So. The little post I wrote about food shelves has gone kind of crazy. I'll be honest with you: 

I'M KIND OF FREAKING OUT.

You see, I'm not used to this much attention. And you'd think this kind of thing would be a blogger's wet dream, right? Tons of hits, seeing YOUR post shared and tweeted and linked all over God's green earth (or green internet, as it stands). Comments upon comments upon comments. Bloggers are attention whores at heart (don't deny it, girls) so one would conclude that this is just the bee's knees. 

Well. It is, and it isn't. 

It IS because, hell yeah! It's totally validating to see something that tumbled out of my head and onto a keyboard being read by so many people. Not only read, but LIKED. I keep getting emails and messages from women sharing their stories, telling me about how they ended up in the parking lot of a food shelf, willing themselves the strength to walk in there and do what had to be done. My favorites are from the feisty chicks in their 60's and 70's, who blazed the trails for me and my single mama sisters and raised families on their own back in the day. One thing in particular that I love about these ladies? They use the word "bullshit" a lot. I'm so looking forward to being the ballsy, silver-tressed gramma who wears funky scarves and says "bullshit" a lot. 


It ISN'T because it's scary to have a few thousand new sets of eyeballs reading my stuff. When it's just my "regulars" here, it's like we're all sitting in my living room, curled up on the couch and gabbing. Now I kind of feel like I need to vacuum. And maybe put on my good yoga pants. 

Obviously the things I wrote about in "Those People" touched folks. And that prompted them to share it, a lot. Which is great. Hopefully eyes have been opened, some prejudices have been dropped, and hearts have been softened. I know many people have mentioned that they've gone shopping for their local food shelves, which of course is wonderful. Every little bit helps.  

The post wasn't about what kinds of foods are appropriate for donation. I know I mentioned quinoa and artichoke hearts and tapenade, but I didn't want those (delicious) items to be the focus of the story. 

People have been asking, though, so here's some advice about what to give: donate what you can. Please check expiration dates. Fresh=good. Call ahead and see if your local food shelf has a freezer or refrigerated section. If they do? Give 'em some meat. A couple fryer chickens, some ground beef. Fresh dairy products are awesome too. I remember almost soiling myself when I walked in there one time and saw GALLONS of milk. I have four teenagers, yo. That stuff is like gold. If what you usually donate is mac and cheese? Cans of soup or vegetables? PERFECT. It's all good. People who end up at food shelves just need something edible to put on the table. Trust me, if your family is hungry, you make do with what you have.

Another thing to consider donating: toiletries. Deodorant. Toothpaste/brushes/floss. Lotion. SOAP. Toilet paper. Tampons. Pads. Q-tips. Shampoo/conditioner. I'll never forget having fumes in my checking account and then *BOOM* it was period time. You know what sucks? Having to spend $6.00 on a box of tampons when you have $10.00 to your name. Help a bloated, crampy lady out!

I wanted to write about how I felt that day in the hallway of my school. We really don't know squat about the people we encounter in our day to day routines. We don't know who is struggling with unseen health issues, who's dealing with relationship strife or wrestling with demons big and small. "Folder Lady" is not a bad person. I do regret using the word bitch in my imaginary tirade against her, the one I'd never really act out in a million years. I used her as a figurative punching bag for all the little comments and offhand remarks I've heard over the past couple of years, things that have made me bristle for just a moment here and there. For that, I'm sorry.

The only thing she was guilty of was assuming that I was her socioeconomic equal. That when the topic of who uses food shelves came up, she and I were on the same side. She assumed I was part of the US in "Us and Them". Which isn't the case, obviously. If we were Sneetches, I'd totally be the one without a star on thar. Or with. Whichever.

I wanted to tell you all about it because I learned something that day. We hear warnings to not judge books by covers, to be aware that appearances don't tell the whole story...but that day I learned those things up close and personal.

You don't look at me, and my kids, and think "They're poor." We wear decent clothes, some have been purchased second hand, some have been gifts from generous grandparents and friends, and yes, some are from REAL stores, hoity-toity ones like Target and Old Navy. I'm the mom in the stands at the hockey game. My son Henry is the kid ringing you up at the grocery store. You might have seen my daughter walking our dog around the block. We look pretty much like everyone else here in the good old suburbs of Minneapolis. You just never know.

One thing I have learned from the response is this: poorness and hunger and need is epidemic in our country. Yes, it's obvious in some places. There are people living in the streets, filling up homeless shelters and soup kitchens. 

In other places, it's not so obvious. The poor walk next to us on the crowded sidewalks, they drive past us in the carpool lane, they sit next to us in churches and synagogues. They are in the next checkout lane at the grocery store; you'd never guess that they are holding their breath, waiting to see if their debit card goes through or if it will be declined. Your child probably plays with their child on the playground. 

One of them might even be waddling down the hallway of your neighborhood school, ogling the loot in the food drive bins. 

All of us live here together. We share the same air, the same ground. Our bodies operate the same whether we have a million dollars or just a couple. Some of us have better haircuts, nicer houses, newer cars or cooler gadgets, but deep down...way down where it really matters...

we aren't so different. We want our kids to be healthy and happy and have full tummies. We want a roof over our heads, a warm place to sleep. We want to earn our keep, to be productive members of society. We all want to get through the day, close our eyes and then face the next one with hope and optimism. 

And sometimes, dammit...sometimes we want quinoa. 

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for all of your comments and emails and messages. I promise you, I'm going to answer each one of them if I haven't already, I just need a day without work, kids and laundry...so expect a reply in about four years :). And a huge thank you to Jill Smokler, aka Scary Mommy, not only for sharing my essay but for all she's doing to help struggling families at Thanksgiving. Jill, you rock. 

10/27/13

Scary Mommy's Thanksgiving Project. Need help? Want to help? READ THIS.




I'm going to let you in a little secret: 

Scary Mommy (aka Jill Smokler)...she isn't really so scary. She's actually kind. And generous. And very real. Three of the reasons I'm so thrilled to be getting to know her. 

If you've read my blog for a while, you know I've faced some adversity. Nothing truly horrible or life threatening, but adversity just the same. I've been in low places. Dark places. Scary places. 

And each time I found myself in one of those places, something beautiful happened. 

I GOT HELP. 

Sometimes the help came from my kick-ass friends. Sometimes it came from my mom. Sometimes it came from strangers. But each time I got it, it felt the same. 

IT FELT SO GOOD. There's nothing like being pulled up, brushed off and given a boost. A nudge. A pat on the back and a bag of groceries. A free haircut. Some cute hand-me-down clothes and shoes. A gift card for the grocery store. It makes you feel human again. Worthy. Capable of getting yourself back on track. It's priceless, that feeling.

Here's the deal: Scary Mommy is doing her third annual Thanksgiving Project. She matches people who need help with people who want to help. Mommy to mommy. Woman to woman. Person to person. A mom in need is given the means to buy food so she can make Thanksgiving dinner for her family. It's as simple as that.

I'm actually crying as I type this out. Sitting (truthfully slouching) in my bed, crying over my laptop. Because thinking about this brings back so many memories. I can't tell you how much it sucks to be in need. It makes you feel like a failure. It makes you feel like some kind of sub-human creature. Lowly. It's depressing, and when it happens around the holidays, it only feels worse. 

My kids and I are doing better this year than we were last year. Hell, last Thanksgiving I was in Amsterdam with a beau, enjoying an all-expenses paid trip of a lifetime. But when I got back from that trip, life hadn't changed. And we were still poor. Three months after sitting in a 5 star European restaurant, I was pushing a cart through the aisles of the food shelf, picking out things to feed my family. The irony of it wasn't lost on me. 

But as I said, things are better this year. We're not rolling around on piles of money, or using dollar bills to wipe our bottoms, but I haven't needed the food shelf for 8 whole months. Money is still stretched as tight as Kris Jenner's face. The kids are still on reduced-price lunches and we're still one of those "scholarship families". BUT THINGS ARE GETTING BETTER. And hopefully they'll be even better next year. And so on, and so on.

Here's the truth, though: there are moms out there who AREN'T better yet. Mommies who are worried sick about money. About paying rent. About putting gas in the car. For those mommies, Thanksgiving isn't something to look forward to (and don't even get me started on Christmas or Hanukkah). It's something to dread, actually. And that stinks.

So, if you want to help Scary Mommy make this a brighter Thanksgiving for a mommy-in-need, go HERE. Psssst....IT'S 100% TAX DEDUCTIBLE.

Do you need help? Swallow that pride, girlfriend, and get your ass HERE. It's easy and it's not humiliating one bit. I should know. I've done it.

On behalf of every woman who has ever looked in the fridge and wondered if she can make dinner out of grape jelly and half a cup of milk, I thank you. 

And for those of you who are struggling, hang in there. It will get better. 




10/25/13

Those People




There's a food drive happening at the school where I work. Several bins have been set up throughout the hallways, with cute kid-decorated signs that implore us to SCARE HUNGER and donate non-perishables for the local food shelf.

As I am wont to do, I look at the food as I walk by. Why? Because I like food. It's like porn to me. I wish I was lying. So I walk by, several times a day, and gaze at the donations. 

Dang. We have some swanky grocery shoppers at our school...the bins are filled with "fancy" foodstuff, lots of organic offerings, and some deviations from the standard mac and cheese/boxes of spaghetti. There's rice pasta, artichoke hearts packed in seasoned oil, gluten-free crackers, olive tapenade....and quinoa. I look at those bins like Sylvester looked at Tweety Bird.

Like I was doing earlier this week. Walking by, checking out the bins. One of the women who helped organize the drive was in the hallway, and I called out to her "Wow! Look at all this awesomeness!" or something similarly enlightening. She beamed and said, "I know! The parents at this school are amazing." 

As she was saying this, another woman happened by. She smiled at us, like people who see each other several times a day in passing do, and then she said this:

"Too bad they won't know what to do with most of it." 

It was one of those moments in life, when your ears hear something but your brain can't quite process it.  I was fairly certain I'd just heard her say what I thought I'd heard her say...but it didn't really sink in. It floated there, like a film of rainbow-hued oil over a puddle in the street. 

I spoke up, while she was still within earshot. "What do you mean?". I wanted to know. I wanted to verify what she said, make sure I hadn't misunderstood.

The woman stopped. She turned towards me, one hand holding a couple of manila folders, the other resting lightly on her hip. She was still smiling.

"Those people won't know what most of that is. I mean, really, quinoa?"

Yep. I'd heard her correctly. 

Those people.

The last time I got groceries at our local food shelf was this past February. Eight months ago.  The long-overdue child support from my ex-husband kicked in later that month, and even though it wasn't much, it made the difference between buying groceries and getting them from a food shelf. For that, I'm grateful.

Those people.

I can still remember the first time I visited the food shelf. I had driven by, so many times, trying to work up the courage to pull into the parking lot. I'd whisper to myself, "Dammit. I can't" and I'd keep driving, home to the barren fridge and the Old-Mother-Hubbard cupboards. Until the desperation overshadowed my pride.

Those people.

Once you get past the hardest part, which is walking through the door, being at the food shelf isn't so bad. I mean, it's not something that inspires one to burst into song and run around high-fiving people, but as far as life experiences go, not so bad. Sure, there's the heat on your cheeks as you fill out the paperwork, giving these strangers your life history. Telling them how you got into this pickle. This predicament. Telling them what you do for money, how much you get and how you spend it. But you get used to having hot cheeks. You become accustomed to averting your gaze so as not to make too much eye contact. You eventually become, dare I say, comfortable at the food shelf.

Those people.

I quickly found out that food shelves are a lot like TJ Maxx...it's hit or miss. Some days the shelves are full, and full of really good things. Annie's Mac and Cheese. Organic marinara sauce. Fresh vegetables. Whole chickens in the freezer. Brie from Trader Joe's that's only 2 days past the expiration date. Other days, you have to scramble to even get near the required weight of food in your cart (yeah...you get a certain number of pounds of food, depending on the size of your family). Dented cans of creamed corn. Spoiled produce that even the most resourceful, broke chef couldn't salvage. Individual sleeves of saltine crackers. But beggars can't be choosers, right?

Those people.

I visited the food shelf a total of 5 times in about 11 months. I only told one friend. I told my kids, and when I did, I expected them to laugh, or get angry, or embarrassed. They didn't do any of those things. They helped me put the groceries away, and they did so quietly, not saying much other than the occasional exclamation of "Yum!" or "Gross!". I can recall for you, on command, most of the meals I made with food shelf goodies. Oven roasted chicken with quartered rosemary potatoes. Turkey chili. French toast. More mac and cheese than I care to admit. One of my favorites was an organic risotto, flavored with mushrooms and olive oil. 

Those people.

I wanted to walk up to that woman in the hallway, and smack the folders out of her hand. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her as I got up in her face and yell at her "YOU CLUELESS, PRETENTIOUS BITCH! YOU DON'T KNOW HOW IT FEELS TO WALK INTO ONE OF "THOSE" PLACES AND BE ONE OF "THOSE" PEOPLE! YOU'VE NEVER HAD TO SWALLOW YOUR PRIDE AND ADMIT THAT YOU NEED A HAND! YOU'VE NEVER LOOKED AT YOUR KIDS AND HAD TO HIDE YOUR TEARS BECAUSE YOU HAD NO IDEA HOW YOU WERE GOING TO FEED THEM! YOU KNOW WHAT??? "THOSE PEOPLE" WILL BE MOTHER EFFING GRATEFUL TO SEE THIS FOOD. THEY'LL BE SAYING SILENT PRAYERS AS THEY BOX THAT SHIT UP AND BRING IT HOME AND MAKE IT FOR THEIR FAMILIES. AND THEY WILL NEVER FORGET HOW IT FELT TO BE SO THANKFUL FOR SOMETHING AS SIMPLE AS FOOD!!"

I wanted to say that, but I didn't. Instead, all I could muster was, 

"I like quinoa." 

To which she replied, "Well yes, of course. You're not one of those people."

If only she knew.




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