Lists and Real Life

“Knife fight or sex are the only two acceptable answers, remember?” asked Max. I had just told him when people asked me about the stitches on my face, I was going to say I’d been in a car accident. But that excuse isn’t on the list.

I have various lists I keep in my head. Not like David Lettermen who counts down his lists following Mark Twain’s method of going from the odd to the outlandish (read the list of what people will bet on in Twain’s short story, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and you’ll see what I mean). My first list, started in my childhood, was promises for when I became an adult. Sadly, I didn’t write that list down and have forgotten much of it save for three items:

  1. Buy good Halloween candy. I think this is something of a universal promise of children to their adult selves yet amazingly many adults forget what it was like to get those generic nougat candies wrapped in orange and black wax paper. Sadly, we don’t get trick or treaters at our new home, not a one. Last year, the first year we were here, our teenagers who had stayed home to hand out the candy were the delighted beneficiaries of my candy largesse.
  2. Do all you can to help your kids’ acne go away. Again, a no brainer if, like me, you were ever a teen with acne. My ex-husband didn’t ever have acne, which is perhaps why he told the court that I was inappropriately spending money on non-essential medicine when I took Claude to the dermatologist when he was fifteen.  Claude’s skin had erupted like a painful field of spring dandelions and he could not shave his face. It seems the judge had acne as a teen too because he found Claude’s expenses to be entirely reasonable.
  3. Buy high quality, soft toilet paper. My mother, who was a cocktail waitress, stole the commercial POM brand toilet paper from the bars she worked in. You could use POM teepee to scrub floors it’s so rough. Charmin or Cottonelle are the only brands allowed in my house. (Yes, it makes us fall short yet again on the reduce, reuse, recycle mantra because these brands don’t use post-consumer contents, but this is a promise I am keeping)

“Knife fight or sex” fall under the list of Rules for Life, as the only responses to questions regarding physical injury in order to avoid going into the mundane details of what really happened. Saying the stitches on my face were caused by sex would only encourage further questioning. A knife fight, however, holds some water for the three incisions on the right side of my face found just under my eyebrow, below my nostril and on my cheek. The dark blue sutures add to the effect. Little Leif asked if he could kiss my boo-boos when he first saw them, but when he leaned in and looked closer, he changed his mind and just kissed my mouth instead. Fair enough.

The knife-wielding assailant was a plastic surgeon and the scene was a full-blown surgical suite at a nearby hospital this past Monday. It seemed overkill to me and I said so. I was told that insurance providers require it nowadays (and if you want to know the real reason why American health care is more expensive, with costs rising faster, than in any other first world country, look no further than insurance companies, but I digress). If I had known I was going to be required to wear a hospital gown, I might have shaved my legs for the occasion (I stopped some weeks ago when we went from skirt to pants weather).

Overkill indeed. I had removed from my face what the paperwork described as “lesions.” Years ago, I called these same spots beauty marks as I felt they were not unattractive, think of the character Peppy Miller being given a signature beauty mark above her lip in the film The Artist, which helped make her a star. But with time, and especially pregnancy, my beauty marks grew. And grew. Morphing into witches’ moles, I could have cackled, “Candy, my pretty?” at Halloween had any little beggars come to our door. When pregnant with Lyra, these grotesque growths also became suspiciously itchy. And so, after consulting with my doctor, I decided to trade in lesions for scars.

You find out how good your insurance is when you file a claim. The same it seems is true with Rules for Life. I wish just one person would play along with me. Instead, many friends and acquaintances have looked at me with a mix of horror and sincere concern and ask What happened? Or, Are you okay? And when I say, as I have many times this week, Knife fight! They say, come on, really, Were you in a car accident? (What did I tell you, Max?)

I like the idea of being mysterious, but I have lived a relatively filter free life. It’s not something I chose but rather, like Turret’s syndrome, what was in my mind used to flow unencumbered down the path to my mouth and out a wide delta of public speech. An insanely acrimonious divorce helped me cultivate a modicum of privacy and I no longer tell anyone everything. But when friends are clearly worried by my gruesome appearance, I cannot toss it off with humor. I cave and tell them I had bits taken off.

You may ask, Why not hide the evidence under Band Aids?  Sure, there’d be some questions, but perhaps not as many. First of all, the surgeon said not to, but I’m hardly a model patient and have bucked medical recommendations aplenty. I’ll tell you the real reason: because I know what I like and how I like to look. And I’m mighty comfortable in my skin and don’t need to hide my cosmetic imperfections. That is now. Consider this quote:

Those “precious middle years—those beautiful years when a man finally understands what he is about to lose and is eager to make the most of it.”

I read this line in the novel Suite Française while waiting in pre-op for my “surgery.” Published in French in 2004 and translated to English in 2006, it was written in the early 1940s by Irène Némirosvsky and left with her daughter when the Germans sent the author to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died soon thereafter at age 39. Only in the 1990s did her daughter realize it was a novel and not a collection of handwritten notes. The history of this manuscript and its author is as compelling as the novel itself, which is about the German occupation of France during World War II. For more see: Irène Némirovsky – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Most days, being middle aged feels like a gift. Yes, I feel osteoarthritis in my right knee when the weather turns cold and dry as it has this past month. Yes, there is only so much good lotions can do for aging skin. But I also see that I’ve likely lived more years than I have years left to live and perhaps therein lies liberation. I’ve already had eight more years on this planet than Irène Némirosvsky, how have I made the most of it? I ask myself this almost everyday. The quotidian—I have loved my children and by all accounts raised them well—is that enough for me? It is important, but the fact that I beg the question reveals the answer. No, it is not. So far mothering my children has been the most important work of my life and perhaps it always will be. But it is not enough.

Not everyone who is lucky enough to live a long life becomes introspective, philosophical or spiritual (I know several choice examples of those who haven’t and I’m sure you do too), but many do. A good part of that comes with letting go. I will never look as good as I did when I was nineteen. But at nineteen I didn’t like the way I looked and now, at nearly 47, I do. At nineteen, you would never have found me in public with stitches all over my face—not if I could help it. But at 46, I not only carry on, I rather enjoy the way the grocery store cashiers struggle with the impulse to stare at my wounds. (A wee obnoxious, I know)

Still to this day women are steeped in a societal stew that encourages us to be the objects of desire. I know I was. But such an object has no real desire of its own and truly many women still struggle to know what it is they want. I know I have. Many women “d’un certain âge,” as the French put it, become lost when they can no longer trade in on their looks. And who can blame them? Consider the film Searching for Debra Winger, which directly addresses the fact that few Hollywood actresses, regardless of talent, continue to get good roles after the age of 40. (Searching for Debra Winger – Movie Trailer – YouTube)

At the top of the Rules of Life is: Don’t let someone else give you your rules to live by. That’s not as easy as it sounds and it certainly wasn’t always the case. It took me over 40 years to shrug off the rules for womanly living complicit with keeping me from following my life’s desires. Even though I studied French feminism in college, even though I had a subscription to Ms. Magazine early on, even though in my 20s I intellectually knew the very points I am making right now in this post. At 41, I realized what I was going to lose and woke up to make the most of it. The choices I made as a result were scary at the time. But I saw that death without living was far scarier and a very real possiblity. It happens all the time.


(Over the River and through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go) x 2.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

We blew the first rule of green living. We try to live simply, but with seven people in this family,  it’s not so simple. Our new Toyota Sienna, purchased when the cost of fixing the old Sienna was greater than its value by a couple thousand dollars, can theoretically transport eight passengers, all seat-belted.

Figure two adults in the front seats. As my two oldest sons are now 6’2” and 6’ tall, four of us fit the physical description of “adult.”

The two captain’s seats in the second row are each dedicated to a car seat—one for two-year-old Leif and the other for this year’s newest member, Lyra. The middle seat in the second row, which is almost as narrow as a coach seat on a commercial airlines, had to be removed in order to access the back row of seats.

The back row, with the least amount of leg room possible as the middle seats have to be pushed all the way back to accommodate the toddler and infant car seats, might work if we had children under ten years of age, but note the heights mentioned above. Also, in this family, our height is all leg. Hugo and I have 32” inseams, Claude’s is 34”.

Lily & Hoover, ready to roll

In the very back, where the families in the Sienna ads store their luggage, we have a folded down stroller, which we very much will use, and two Shelties. Those are dogs that look like little collies and luckily like lying together in close quarters.

Where to put the turkey? The small suitcases of clothing? The diapers? The boys’ backpacks? My laptop? So much for simple living.

We departed  in two vehicles on two different days.

I left yesterday in the Sienna with Jules and the babies, the dogs, the turkey and all that these beings needed. Max is leaving shortly in his Camry with Hugo and will grab Claude in Ann Arbor on his way up north to Grandma’s house in Charlevoix. Until the kids drive on their own to Grandma’s, I don’t see how we will be able to do it any differently.

We are a modern family.

Grandma is my stepmom. Grandpa is her husband but not my dad. My dad and stepmom, who married when I was three, divorced in the early 90s after Dad had moved to Arizona in 1990. My stepmom never joined him in Arizona and he never returned to Michigan. Fulfilling the cliché that is life, Dad met another woman with children of her own and eventually seemed to forget about us. My stepmom never did and she has been the primary grandparent of my boys’ lives until I met Max through whom they have gained a second set of grandparents. Even before Max and I began producing blonde babies of our own, Max’s mom claimed my three boys as full members, with all privileges, of her grand-brood.

Every time I’ve had a baby, my stepmom was soon there to take care of us for as long as she could stay. As soon as they were old enough, my boys began spending many weeks each summer with Grandma and Grandpa in northern Michigan,  their house just a block from sandy Michigan Beach on Lake Michigan. And we come up every other Thanksgiving for Grandma’s holiday dinner. Her herbed rolls, made from scratch and cooked in loads of butter, are worth every gram of fat. I’ve never mastered her herb rolls and I’ve told Jules, who began baking breads this fall, to pay close attention tomorrow.

For years I have supplied the turkey, fresh-killed on the farm for which I host a co-op, which makes me sound like one of those über-mom-bloggers, but the way I host it is pretty lazy. All I do is reveal to the people in the co-op the code to my garage where I keep a refrigerator for the weekly deliveries. The members take turns (in alphabetical order) driving each Saturday to pick up the orders and bring them to the fridge in my garage. As a result, my food is delivered to my home every week.

This year’s turkey was executed and sealed in a plastic bag on Monday and delivered to my garage fridge that evening. I popped him in the Playmate cooler before we left yesterday and later today I will brine the bird in the same cooler. Playmates are the perfect size for brining a turkey and with a fresh-killed bird brining is, in my opinion, necessary.

When you buy your meat straight from the farmer who raised it, you inevitably learn a thing or two that you won’t pick up with your frozen Butterball. For example, meat must age in order to be edibly tender. We’ve all heard of aged beef, right? What that means is not some secret preparation, like the Kobe beef cattle who get massaged in life. Aging means a little decomposition. My fresh Tom hasn’t aged, but the brining will meet the requirements by helping break down his tougher connective tissues. Meanwhile, because he’s never been frozen, he’s not full of water. Nor chemicals or drugs because he’s also organic.

Grandma & Lyra

Which I guess gets to my point—know what is real and what really is. Your meat was an animal with a body who enjoyed being alive but I enjoy eating meat more than letting some animals continue to enjoy life. I don’t eat animals from factory farms when I can help it. Factory farm animals didn’t enjoy life as much as my organic turkey, though I’m sure they didn’t want to die for someone’s meal. I am thankful for our food, the people who grew it and the creatures who died so we could eat them. If it sounds ecumenical, it should.

That your blood relatives are genetically related is real. But real family are the people who show up, regardless of what you call them—mom, friend, brother, neighbor. Some of us are lucky to find family in our relatives. Some of us have to look beyond genetics to find our families. And my boys and I know the difference. We are all eager to get over the river and through the woods to my stepmom’s, and their very real grandma’s, house whenever we can.

When we arrived at 11:30 last night, there was a pot of split pea & ham soup waiting for us on the stove and bread baking in the oven.


Getting to Goals

One reason why I started this blog was to give myself deadlines. I didn’t plot out goals when I began, but I see now that posting once a week, at minimum, is my goal. I got that memo last week when I did not post and felt like my boss should write me up.

Who’s my boss? You might ask. She’s a severe taskmaster named Helga. She lives inside my head and is always ready with a pen and a long pad of legal paper, the yellow kind, to list my mistakes in grand detail. Her hair is wound up tightly in a French twist and her glasses perch in the middle of her nose so that she can look over them and glare at me, which she does often. Come to think of it, Helga looks quite a bit like me—only thinner and perpetually wearing suits (usually slate-grey wool flannel, pencil skirt ending just below the knees, silk blouse with elongated collar points).

We have a love-hate relationship, Helga and me. Not easily amused, she makes me write and miserable when I don’t.

Ah, but last week. My dedicated writing days are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays–the days when two-year-old Leif goes to daycare. But, I tell Helga, last week was not any old week. There was the election and anxiety kept me up much of Monday night. A week later, I cannot recapture that heart-thudding anxiety, which was so real and is now literally unimaginable, though factually I know it was there. Big events will do that—wedding preparations, a set of final exams, even Christmas—all truck in anxiety in advance of their arrival. Born, I imagine, out of the desire to control something that is never controllable. I know others were feeling the same early last week, because so many (of all political persuasions) were posting it on Facebook.

Feeling groovy after finishing a four hour shift of GOTV on Election Day.

Tuesday was, of course, Election Day. Akron Public Schools are closed when we have elections because many of the schools are polling locations. Currently, Hugo is my only child in an APS school and I signed him up to work Get Out The Vote (GOTV) with me. His only complaint was that we had to be at the Democratic Headquarters at nine a.m. Four years ago, when he was eleven, Hugo walked to the Obama headquarters on his own volition, while I was at work, and asked what he could do to help. They had him roll posters for as long as he was willing.

Last week, we went together to a union hall for packets of addresses and directions to the neighborhood we were to work. If you haven’t done it before, you might think GOTV would be stressful, going to the doors of complete strangers. On Election Day, the goal is not to convince people to vote for the Democratic candidates but rather to make sure previously identified Democrats have voted and, if not, encourage them to do so as soon as possible. Generally, these voters are happy to see you, but Hugo was naturally nervous and went with me to the first few houses before we split up and took opposite sides of the streets we were working.

Working GOTV often reminds me of an issue that is important to me—the reality versus the mythology of poverty. See this Truthout.org piece on what these myths are and how perniciously they impact society: Lies of Plutocracy: Exploding Five Myths that Dehumanize the Poor. By chance, this year the neighborhoods I walked for the Democrats were poor, working class neighborhoods including one near the Akron Zoo, which I drive through often. When driving, I see the boarded up houses and the few that are in derelict condition.

But when going to the doors of the homes in this neighborhood, I saw what I do not when driving by at 35-45 miles an hour. Modest homes kept as tidy, if not tidier, than mine. Lawns edged around the sidewalks, weed-free gardens, porches swept clean.  Children well cared for and friendly. Ubiquitous evidence that poor people are overwhelmingly NOT lazy, no more so (perhaps even less so) than any other demographic. Many people gave me guarded looks when answering their doors—just as I do when strangers knock on my door, but once I identified myself as working for the Obama campaign, many adults were happy to talk with me about the election. Lyra was a great assist as I carried her on my chest in her Ergo baby carrier, older women often telling me to “keep that baby warm, now!”

Citizen Lyra helps with the 2012 GOTV

True confession: I enjoy working in predominantly African-American neighborhoods where I would not typically have reason to venture. It’s no secret that black Americans frequently do not feel welcome in predominantly white neighborhoods. The tragedy of Treyvon Martin earlier this year gives grim evidence as to why. So why should I feel entitled to waltz through a black neighborhood? Well, I don’t. Not because I am afraid I will be shot, I’m not, but as a white woman, I do not want anyone in a black neighborhood to think I’ve condescended to ask for his or her vote. And were the candidate for whom I was urging them to hustle to the polls for white, it just might smack of condescension. But he isn’t. The candidate, our president, is black and my children will not recall a time when a black president was unimaginable. But it is my opinion that Barack Obama is, irrespective of his color, one of the best presidents of my lifetime.

Shortly after Obama won his first presidential election, the satirical online magazine, The Onion, posted this piece: Nation’s Blacks Creeped Out By All The People Smiling At Them | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source. I suppose I’m one of those people, I felt so good after we elected (and re-elected, perhaps just as remarkably) Barack Obama. Yes, there is so much work to be done with regards to race relations and poverty in this country—and don’t think the two aren’t connected, they are. See point number three in the above TruthOut.org piece. Seemingly the hardest part is how to even have a discussion in this country about race, particularly across racial lines. Having a black man win the presidency and then win re-election does not mean we do not have significant work to do with regards to issues of race and poverty, we do. But we are, at least in leadership, in this one instance, moving in the right direction. And it momentarily puts a white middle class mama like me on common ground with some working-class black Americans. It is a place of hope for change, real change, because we all want the economy to improve and good jobs to become more plentiful. But to move past the intransigence of “Us versus Them”–whether the paradigm is class, color, religion, sexual orientation–is tectonic change. And a worthy goal. Perhaps the most worthy goal in life.

And so Hugo and I worked our packets, going to each and every door on our lists. That night, we stayed up to watch the results come in and, as we did four years ago, when Ohio was called for President Obama, we trudged out back and shot off three Roman Candles, before filing to bed. We were spent. Wednesday, my head ached and I was tired like a sick person. I did not drink the night of the election, but I felt hungover nonetheless. It’s over; finally this long election is over. May the work of our government, the essential work, now begin. May our leaders work with sincerity and not cynicism, for all citizens, not just those they agree with, and may they guide the nation out of war and economic recession. And perhaps in so doing, guide themselves away from polemic politicking.

On Thursday of last week, we took our little Lyra to the Down’s Clinic at Akron Children’s Hospital for an evaluation by their medical team. But that is a topic for another post, which I know Helga believes should reasonably post this week. If I can be sure of anything in this world it’s that she’ll keep after me until it does.


Addendum to Voting Like I Parent

Many of you have asked if I’ve talked to my neighbors who are, to my surprise, voting for Romney-Ryan. Briefly, yes. And then I followed up with an email asking them to read the New Yorker’s endorsement of Obama (The New Yorker’s Endorsement of Barack Obama : The New Yorker). Because it’s a magazine, and not a newspaper, the New Yorker can and does go into greater depth and detail about why Obama should be re-elected and why Romney does not deserve the presidency.

Also, the Newsweek piece by Andrew Sullivan that I cited can be found here: Andrew Sullivan on the Promise of Obama’s Second Term – Newsweek and The Daily Beast.

Finally, I forgot to add that in addition to keeping good (great) grades, Hugo obtained a job at a dog groomers just before school began. He never has a day where he has not a single obligation, be it choir, band, or work. And he seems the better for it. He has so far paid $400 of the $750 he needs to go to NYC in March with the choir. He has also had to learn to navigate with his boss a performance schedule that at times conflicts with his work schedule. We parents do our children a great favor when we neglect to save them. They are better off saving themselves. Or, as I tell them, I will always push you, but I’ve got your backs.