Over the River and Through the Woods…

Thanksgiving is upon us and I have premature Scrooge syndrome. I blame my co-worker. The one who enthusiastically exclaimed she couldn’t WAIT for Thanksgiving. So EXCITED to host her “orphan” dinner with friends and travelers and random stragglers who have nowhere to go. Her eyes actually twinkled. I could almost see her exquisite menu scroll lightly in their shine.

“And you… what are you doing?”  Shrug. “Going to my mom’s…it’ll be nice….” Sigh.

I am thankful for my family, my pets, the roof over my head, the rain on the roof…

I am not jaded by my memories of Thanksgivings past. They were fine. Typical. Most annual turkeys have been served in the childhood home. Aunts, uncles, cousins, cousin’s kids and canine cram into the small Midwest farmhouse festively infested with country crafts. The men watch the game, the women watch the kids, the kids brave the steep stairs that climb up to the toys. Every year, the turkey goes in at the butt crack of dawn, and every year, Mom wonders why it’s done so early? And why Aunt Sharon isn’t here yet? Well, we say under our breath, lips pursed, we’ll just have to eat without her.  Aunt Sharon manages to arrive before carving time. Sing Johnny Appleseed, dig in, make dump salad jokes. Remember when Brent broke the bench but saved the dump salad? God, I’m so uncomfortably full, who wants pie? “Ugh”, my mom exhales at the end of the day, “this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here.” 

I am thankful for my health and Wisconsin micro-brewed beer. I am thankful for Stephen Colbert.

My “orphan” Thanksgivings began in ’91 in Seville, Spain. We gathered at Alex’s house in Nervion. A mezcla of locals and expats, lisping on about pavo and what- is-the-Spanish-word-for-stuffing? A pasty white New Englander named Jeffrey who, if you closed your eyes, had the uncanny voice of a Southern black man, exclaimed “that is some hot mutha’ f*ckin’ ajo in those tomatoes!  JO-der! ”  Years later I found myself in San Diego fussing over 25 lbs. of  rapidly desiccating poultry. My friend Shiri “helped”, by nervously putting every cooking utensil I used into the dishwasher the second I set it down. Dinner started with a civilized toast, and ended with “There Once was a Man from Nantucket…” in a raucous chorus of 25 voices, one for every pound of that dry-ass bird.   

I am thankful for indoor plumbing, organic carrots, fine-tipped Sharpies, and gay men.

Orphan memories of dancing wildly after dinner, bellies full of great food, heads full of fine red wine. Of playing hopscotch on an outdoor patio in 70 degree weather. Of scintilating conversation. Of singing “Piano Man” at the top of our lungs. Of potluck dinners with gourmet cooks, vegetarian dishes, dishes to pass, joints to pass.

But I would call home every year.  I could hear Uncle Gary in the background, telling it like it is, and Uncle Tony telling him why not. I felt that lonely, empty ache in my gut. I wish I were there. My intuitive mom would reassure me, “It’s hectic and loud…this is probably the last year I’ll have it here.”

I’d venture home on rare occasion, “Yes, I’m still single….no, I’m not seeing a woman, even if cousin Sara thinks you’d all be ‘fine’ with that…”  I head back, next year an Albuquerque turkey topped with green chile stew.  

I am thankful my husband came home alive from Iraq. I am grateful my son’s tic calmed down this week.

Seven years back in the motherland and my voice in the Thanksgiving plans is but a hoarse whisper. I recall those orphan days with an ache. I wish I were there. My brother and sister got off scott free this year, I am the sole representative. Do it for me, she says, this is probably the last year I’m going to have it here. I add green beans to my grocery list. Bacon. Defrost roasted peppers. I dust off the slow cooker, Mom’s oven is too small for multiple casserole dishes.

I hear the catch of excitement in my son’s breath as I tuck him in and remind him to pack tomorrow for grandma’s house. I can feel his smile penetrate the dark. I can almost see the reflection of dump salad shining in his eyes.

I am thankful for my mom.  I am thankful for my mom. I am thankful for my mom.

I am thankful for Johnny Appleseed, and the dry turkey and the nervous chaos and the where’s-Aunt-Sharon. I am thankful that my son has a tradition. I am thankful for that warm, roasted smell of my childhood home on Thanksgiving Day.

 I am grateful that even a Scrooge will always be welcome.  

September 11th, 2008

On September 11, 2008, I was working on my glib response to a new ad campaign promoting high fructose corn syrup, when I heard two pretty loud bangs out on my usually snoozy street. I hesitated, and then decided it was loud enough to warrant a peek outside. As I parted the curtains, I heard a woman yelling so I booked outside. “Call 911!” a woman in a minivan yelled to me, “That house is on fire!” I whipped my head around and saw a roar of flames shooting out of the house two doors down. I grabbed my phone, dialed 911, breathlessly babbled my address and repeated “It’s bad, it’s bad…”

Fortunately the owner made it out and was being vigorously coaxed by my next-door neighbor to get up off his lawn and away from some fallen wires. He finally did after both tires on his van parked by the house exploded. Whoever was home at 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon on our block was now outside gaping slack-jawed at the smoke finding its way out of every window. The fire department was probably there in less than five minutes, (which is pretty good for a volunteer crew who has to make a stop at the station before getting to the scene), but those minutes counted. By the time they arrived, I knew it would be a complete loss. All I could do was stand there with my hands on my head muttering, “Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod…”

In ten minutes, our block was crowded with three fire trucks, an ambulance, police cars, and several other random emergency vehicles. Within 15 minutes, people had parked their cars on our lawns and joined the spectacle. Call it morbid curiosity. I don’t doubt some of it was. But this is a small town. When people hear about a fire on a certain street, they KNOW that street. Their cousin, their co-worker’s cousin, their best friend lives on that street. People need to know who might need their help.

I know very little about this neighbor. He is an older man who keeps to himself. He has lived in town all his life. He recently separated from a woman who seems a little unstable. She now lives in an apartment across town and makes frequent treks past his house, occasionally yelling profanities at it from across the street. 

At that moment, I wished I knew him. I wanted him to know that I would do anything to help him. I wanted to comfort him. I offered him a drink of water, but he looked right through me. I so desperately wanted to do something for someone. What about the firemen? As I rapidly racked my brain for the hydrating options in my house, the EMS team came in with cases of water bottles and 20 lb. bags of ice. That policeman, he’s been here awhile…maybe he needs water. Who needs to use my bathroom? But I stayed put. No one needed a busybody neighbor getting in anyone’s face trying to satisfy a personal need to feel useful. The emergency crew needed to do their job, and my neighbor needed familiar faces. His estranged wife finally made it across town, dazed and confused, his bar buddy joined him, a niece came. My next-door neighbor, the one who pulled him off his lawn, never left his side. She used my cell phone to call work, so that calmed my failing sense of purpose.      

It took almost an hour to extinguish the fire. Apparently our water tower was being painted, thus empty, so they had to bring water in from other sources. By 3:30, the smoke had cleared. Half the block was covered in foam, Alliant Energy was fixing wires, the crowd dissipated. And a shell of a house remained.

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. It is not the worst disaster anyone has ever witnessed. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Considering the anniversary of this date, this is a drop in the bucket. But it is a dramatic event. My nerves were frazzled. I have never been so close to a fire. I had no idea how fast your entire castle could go. I have never seen firemen drenched from head to toe in foam and soot and sweat. I have never before watched a fireman sit on the curb, propped up against a bag of ice, red-faced and hyperventilating but getting enough air to tell the EMS “You better check on Tom, he went in right after I did”. It hurts your insides to watch.

But nothing gnaws at my gut more than the lingering image of my neighbor sitting on my front lawn with his head in his hands. I have never before seen the face of someone watching their house burn, and I hope I never do again. 

On a very small scale, this was my 9/11. Although horrified by the attack seven years ago, I was so far removed from it. The images were on TV. But this is my block. That is my neighbor. I was here for the whole thing. I can only now grasp, again to a small degree, that gut-wrenching feeling watching a disaster happen to your folk. What I’ll never fully comprehend is how painful those images must have been for anyone who witnessed the big 9/11 and lived to tell about it. My neighbor started his fire working on an old motorcycle. It might have been prevented. No one in the World Trade Center was recklessly playing with airplanes that day. What did those witnesses do with their level of gut-wrench? Their feelings of helplessness?   

Today, we have plenty of traffic on our block. It is the number one news item in town. The neighbors are chattering like squirrels about where they were when they heard the big bangs. But people need to air it out, get it out of their heads. Talking loosens the tightly wound bundle of nerves. And I know its not supposed to be about The Stuff. Obviously, you get an immediate dose of what is truly a priority, and that is no harm or loss of life. But that Stuff represents your hobbies, your money and hard work, your collections, your memories. It represents you. That Stuff is important. And almost everything that man has worked for and earned and treated himself to is gone.   

My life has not changed. This was not my tragedy and it would be foolish of me to claim it as such. Last night, I did not curl into a ball, I made cookies and attended an Open House at the school. I will not march over to enthusiastically introduce myself to all the neighbors I haven’t met yet because we should rally around this house fire as a reason to unify. On this block, that would just be weird. I will get back to picking apart the nutritional content of processed foods and lipstick on pigs and who will get eliminated on Project Runway next week.

But today, the burnt smell in the air haunts me. I can still see the look on my neighbor’s face. The shell of the house two doors down disturbs me. I can’t deny that I have been given a moment of crystal clear perspective. So today, I will do some praying for my neighbor, count some blessings and watch when my son says, “Watch this, Mom!” for the 25th time. 

Because today it is fresh on my brain that your life can change in seconds.

All Grown Up

While in the process of “staging” my home for the impending Big Sell, I decided that a nice bedspread for the master bed was essential. We did some quality work renovating that room, so the old-dog-paw-hair-infested-once-puke-brown-then-dyed-blue piece of crap we call the Sophie Sheet just won’t fly at the Open House.

 I’ve always had a Sophie Sheet. I’ve never owned an official bedspread. My parents never splurged for the matching set of cartoon bedding. And I’ve never considered myself the “matching set type”. From college on, I’ve always bought king-sized sheets in nice, bold colors to not only to spruce up any sparsely furnished roach-infested apartment, but to protect other bedding from Sophie’s shed and paw residue.

 Now keeping Sophie OFF  the bed isn’t an option. As a half-assed disciplinarian, I crumbled one particularly cold New Mexican winter night in a mildly heated (roach-infested) apartment and called my little 6 mo. old snuggler into bed, letting her burrow down at my feet like a little lump of toasty coal. We were both happier, and have been enjoying this sleeping arrangement for the last nine years. Oh, she’s been demoted to the foot of the bed now. She actually used to sleep alongside me, making appropriate use of the pillow. Jeff saw to her reduction in the bed ranks after his attempts to completely banish her failed. She’ll protest with low groans now and again when having to, god forbid, shift her body to avoid our tossing and turning feet, but she’s still one happy sleeping pups.

 But even pre-Sophie, I had a Kitty Sheet. Yes, I got a lot of mileage out of my bold king-sized sheets. Oh they work wonders as couch covers as well. Such clever yet frugal fashion.

 But its time. Its time for a big girl cover. One that says, hey, I’m worth something solid. Something quality. Something that doesn’t say penny-pinching, incense burning, thrift store decorator. Nothing fancy, just a good deal. But good deals eluded me.

Normal bedspreads, as it turns out, are no cheap fix. I was willing to see what I could find at Goodwill, had my husband not visually demonstrated some repulsion at the thought. And after parting with another round of dollars at Home Depot, it seemed that a fresh, bold new king-sized sheet might step up to the plate and serve its dutiful purpose once again.  

Lo, the skies opened and the angels sang above the back wall in the Kohl’s Bedding Dept. today, where we happened to take a peek before fulfilling our mission to finally buy poor Jeff some new work pants… There it was, an entire wall of four-piece bedding sets, normally priced at $99 now on sale for (dramatic pause) $18.99. We were so excited, we bought two pairs of khaki’s in celebration.

 I have never owned a bed skirt. Or a sham. We didn’t even know what a “sham” was. I now own two shams. We now keep peeking back into the bedroom to look at our new toy. Ah, so pretty. Jeff calls it Asian Delight. I’m going with Regal Asian because the colors and designs suggest royalty. We feel official. We feel a little more adult. And with Regal Asian on our side, I think we can hold our own in this world. 

 Of course my five-year old begged to sleep in the newly adorned bed tonight. He’s already tested out its bounce factor. And of course, the Sophie Sheet will be tossed over it most of the time when we are not showing the house.

 Because really, no matter how official or adult you want to feel, how can you deny a happy sleeping pups?   

Goodbye, my sweet baboo

I know of at least four people I love who will cringe when they see this post due to their belief that football and its fans are a feces smear on the marble floor of civilization’s bathroom. Oh sure, they have inklings that I attend Superbowl parties just to “socialize”. But the time has come for me to jump out of that fan closet, wearing my cheesehead and a glittering green and gold #4 painted on my chest. I am a Packer fan. I have been engrossed, enraged and impassioned with football for way more than one season. And I cheered like an obnoxious construction worker because I loved this man.   

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I wasn’t always a Packer fan. My father was an artist and not your typical Pabst drinkin’, football watchin’ WI fellow. Our idea of Sunday sports was hiking and bicycling. Quiet sports. And in September of ’92, I was too busy figuring out where the hell I was going in life to give a rat’s ass about the new kid who signed on with the Packers.

It wasn’t until 1996 that I was submerged into the revelry of fanatic behavior. The place was San Diego. A good friend invited me over for Sunday morning Bloody Marys and some football. I settled in on their tattered bachelor pad couch. Hello, what’s this!?! I don’t remember Packers EVER being ruggedly handsome. From what I recall, Lynn Dickey looked a little like Dudley Moore…

Almost every Sunday for the next three seasons found this token Wisconsinite on that couch or a barstool watching football by 10:00 a.m. (Packer games air early on the west coast), adult beverage of choice in one hand, Pipe’s breakfast burrito in the other. Those were carefree Sundays. No cramming for exams, no parental guilt. We were a mixed bunch of 20- somethings, some natives of the land of “Dude, high five!”, some misplaced cynics wondering how we ended up there. We were Packers, Patriots, Cowboys, Niners, and Redskins fans. And one seriously creepy Steelers fan who somehow just kept silently appearing on the tattered couch. And seeing my kinfolk in Lambeau Field gave me a goofy sense of connection to home. I was ever so proud of my cheeseheadedness.

After Superbowl XXXII, mistakes and wake-up calls caused both Favre and I to reassess our futures. Although he admitted it way earlier than I did, Favre and I shared a penchant for abusing alcohol. It was time to grow.

And that we did, Favre and I. We ceased some questionable behavior before it pushed loved ones too far away, or killed us. We got smarter and worked harder. But we both entered adulthood without letting go of the little kid inside. It’s the childlike spirit that has made us wiser, happier adults.  

And that’s why Brett Favre was a pleasure to watch, interceptions and all. He’s the reason why I became a fan. I won’t ignorantly spout off stats or argue if Favre was the best quarterback in NFL history. No, mine is a personal, estrogen-influenced tribute. And after watching this charismatic, hottie quarterback jump around on the field like a big kid for 17 seasons, I am sad to see him go.

And a young, curly haired woman with a sunburnt nose, Bloody Mary in one hand, Pipe’s breakfast burrito in the other, follows him out the door….

Are you in crisis or a narcissistic jerk?

In this article, Dr. Richard A. Friedman writes, “There is no handier excuse for human misbehavior than the midlife crisis”. I love this guy.  

I am turning 40 this year. Despite a few idiosyncrasies that accompany an anxious personality, I am balancing on the pinnacle of my midlife quite well. I am not leaving my husband for a lesbian lover or trading in the family wagon for that red Trans Am with an eagle on the hood.

In conducting fifteen minutes of highly scientific Internet research, I discovered that I am not alone. Carl Jung once explained that middle-aged people enjoy life when they drop the roles they were playing and outgrow their pretenses.  In one oldie-but-goodie study funded by the MacArthur Foundation, researchers found most participants reported an increased sense of well-being and control in middle age. Some reported actually feeling liberation in situations considered a “crisis”, such as the death of a parent, the end of a relationship, or running out of Abercrombie & Fitch in a cold sweat, never to return.

Loss in midlife can actually bring freedom from sinking your time, identity and dreams into another’s life. For women in particular, midlife can be an awakening. In her work,Sue Shellenbarger found that women “spend a good deal of our life taking care of everyone else. We come to the place where we say, ‘It’s my turn.'”

But hold on. There is a new study in town (2007) using data from a significantly larger, cross-cultural sample. It finds an “extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels” that demonstrates middle age is indeed miserable. The researchers describe a “U-shaped” life pattern, indicating that people are happier in the beginning and later years of their lives, with a decline in mental health and happiness in midlife. This pattern occurred across cultures, genders, marital status, class, and for those with and without children. The authors believe this actually stems from something inside human beings rather than from the difficult situations that rise in midlife.

Well that just blows my theory all to hell. I was going to hypothesize that the “midlife crisis” was a luxury of self-indulgence affordable only to middle- and upper-class Americans. How in most cases it’s a classic demonstration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that given worldwide poverty rates most 40-50 years olds are focusing on family survival, not personal life goals. I was going to again quote my buddy Dr. Friedman, “…you have to admit that ‘I’m having a midlife crisis’ sounds a lot better than ‘I’m a narcissistic jerk having a meltdown.”

Damn those Warwick and Dartmouth professors and their access to 2 million people in 80 countries. I suppose their research techniques were more thorough than mine too. I admit defeat. The midlife crisis is real and it is universal.  And I was so happy.

So what I WILL protest is this flagrant use of the word “crisis”. Most research points to a downward dip that occurs gradually, not in a single year. Crisis, to me, insinuates a quick and traumatic life change. An emergency. A mudslide tearing through your uninsured home. A child abduction. But to address this slow and chronic decrease in mental health as a crisis may lead most sufferers to take drastic measures, (i.e. the illicit affair inside the red Trans Am with the eagle hood) rather than more appropriate, slow and lasting steps toward happiness.

And that’s where I think Americans generally differ from midlifers in other cultures. There is an innate sense for most humans between the ages of 40-50 that life IS half over. It is time to decide if the path we are on will lead us to die happy. And it’s time to make some changes if the answer to that question is “no”.

But our culture is notorious for the quick fix. We take this opportunity for introspection and lock it in the basement with the dirty kitty litter box. “Crisis!!!” we cry. Run away, run away!! Stop the wrinkles. Tuck the tummy. Sex it up! Where’s my pills? Midlife suffering is universal, but WE will work our damnedest to find the cure.  

Like the kitty box, its time to buck up and scoop the chunks of poop out of your life. We are not immune. Death looms, and that sucks. Now, how are you going to handle it?

Personally and professionally, I KNOW depression is serious business. Midlife may be the breaking point for some, and that is very, very scary. And with most mental illness, I believe there are a small percentage of people who will truly suffer a midlife CRISIS and need professional help. The rest of us are merely uncomfortable with the anguish and fear that an honest evaluation of our current life brings. Rather than delve into and identify the pain, we smooth it over. We replace it. We hide it.

Most of us probably handle true crises better than sloth-like chronic issues. I do. It is easier to fix the moment than to fix the soul.

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Pema Chodron acknowledges that we don’t like aging. We change our appearances in order to “miraculously escape the truth of impermanence”. But life is not permanent, nor is your youthful body, nor your once-passionate relationship. She suggests that once we relax wholeheartedly into the obvious truth that we are changing, we can become happy with ourselves. We begin to “understand that we’re not the only one who can’t keep it all together”. I love Buddhist nuns.    

Hey, two million people in 80 countries can’t be wrong. No one escapes the uncertainty that time brings. It’s okay to be scared. It IS possible to redefine crisis. Die happy.  

what the hell is a meadow frolic anyway?

I am not having a midlife crisis. But I must confess that I am currently not frolicking in any meadows. Mostly because there is 2 feet of ugly, slushy, dirty snow on the ground with another 6″ in the way. This winter sucks ass.

Anyway, I am taking suggestions for a new title. Something that suggests midlife doesn’t have to be a crisis. You are not allowed to use the words “introspection”, “rumination”, “musing”, or “reflections (puke)”. It can be cynical, but it must be witty.

If I choose your suggestion, I will write an ode to you and your superior brain.

Welcome to it….

Ever since I was little, I have loved to write. I am not the best writer on the block, but I seriously enjoy doing it. I was the only graduate student in my Masters program who was pissed that we had comprehensive exams with no option to write a thesis. I was the student who had a problem editing 20 pages down to the required 10. If you were one of those students who had a hard time turning your 5-6 pages into 10, you hated me.

There are multiple reasons as to why I’ve started this blog. I recently had an argument with one of my closest friends, with whom I usually communicate through emails. I literally spent hours formulating and editing my thoughts, choosing words carefully, selecting areas in which to be personally vulnerable while still effectively showing my anger. It was a labor of love. I have not stayed up until 1 a.m. since my son was a sleep-challenged toddler. My husband watched this process and wondered aloud what would happen if I put all this energy into writing elsewhere.

The argument subsided, and my friend and I returned to exchanging our normally dark-humored, but still lengthy emails. My husband’s comment rattled inside my head. I started making little lists of subject matter, random notes of title ideas. Little life events became titles. Then last weekend, my brother, unaware of my stirring intentions to start writing, showed me the Word Press blog he uses for work. It was a sign. I am a firm believer of signs.

There were other glaring, neon signs, but these are broken down into titles on scratch paper next to my grocery list, and will be saved for another blog on another day.

So what can you expect to see in my ramblings? I am a woman, so you will see some female musings. Or downright bitching. Don’t worry, I won’t go into depth about my menses or my womb. I am a parent, so to leave out my sometimes bittersweet, sometimes brutal thoughts on parenting (mine and others) would be a crime. I am currently very interested in the state of our children’s nutrition, or lack thereof, in this country and seem to be developing a personal crusade to change how kids eat. I also love to cook, so look here for some recipes, tips on feeding your family, or cheesy kitchen – life metaphors. I am also a wife, so I’ll talk marriage but I won’t bash my husband. Unless, of course, he is lauging WITH me. I will talk at length any day about mental health and therapy, problems with the current mental health system, interpersonal relationships, communication problems, gender issues, current events, nutrition and diet, education and working with children. And expect me to be blunt.

What not to expect? In-depth political discussion. I have a few thoughts to share, but I’m not the most well-spoken in politics. I know, how irresponsible of me, but its just not my language. I will talk about counseling and mental health guidance, but don’t expect personal therapy here. Don’t expect hardcore feminism, but don’t expect June Cleaver either. And don’t come here to save my soul with Christianity, but if you want to tell me how to be more Zen, I’m all ears.

I’m also from Wisconsin, so don’t expect me to talk about the Packer game yet….it’s still too raw…(sniff).

Ok…I have a lot to say and am looking forward to saying it. Stay tuned…..