Wednesday, June 24, 2009

And What Do You Do?

Its a fair question and a good opener. It's natural for people you've just met to want to know how you fill your days. Frankly, I'd like to answer them. Instead I'm awash in dread and self-loathing. This well-meaning question, asked with sincerity, reaches my cochlea as, "What do you have to say for yourself?" I'm in trouble, but I'm not sure why. It's the same feeling I get when police lights flash behind me. Busted.

My inability to answer this question will surely reveal that I am but a sack of meaningless cells, oozing across the intellectual horizon, falling formless through the sewer grate of the unambitious into the Dead Sea of mediocrity.

Its not that I do nothing; I do many things. I even do two of them well. But I don't go to a job and a job is how we answer this question without grappling, over the chips and hot dip, with existential questions of self and identity.

I used to have a job. I was a production manager for a company that made wee jeans for tiny Hollywood starlets with impossibly erect nipples and toddler waists. And though the stress of that job made clumps of hair stay behind on my synthetic office chair long after I'd stood up, I had no problem identifying myself to the world. That's what I did, that was me.

Then I fell in love and moved to Cleveland where I discovered they don't keep fashion. I'd stepped off the reassuring, orderly pavers of a career path and into the drainage ditch of freelance employment. Then came kids and freelance became no-lance as the demands of motherhood overtook the demand for sporadic and meager income. At the fatal intersection of motherhood and isolation, a gruesome casualty was made of my creative and employable selves.

The void created a suction into which every shitty household responsibility flowed. Not only the obvious and immediate demands for snacks and entertainment, laundry and groceries but all the other tedious chores like waiting for service people, arguing with creditors, finding tenants, mowing rental property lawns, sorting through soggy papers, smog checking the cars, getting the trash to the curb, creatively paying bills for which there was no money, making appointments for my family's many orifices and keeping the house from physically sinking into the morass. My toddlers became children while I was on hold with the health insurance company.

So, when people ask politely what I do, such a rush of hostile embarrassment floods my temples I actually go blank. What the hell do I do? Certainly not nothing, but rather, nothing you casual-stranger-I-may-never-see-again wants to hear about. No one balancing a paper plate on their knee wants to hear a lengthy and angsty account of the many ways I've served my family, or the myriad ways I've made other people's lives possible and pleasurable.

So I started coming up with pat answers as a diversion. I say things like, "I'm an angry pleasure portal for my husband" or "I enjoy sex with animals" or "I'm a geisha girl for my children." Sometimes I'd call myself a writer. Sometimes I'd say Fabric Arts. Sometimes Property Manager. Though all of these were accurate, none of them felt true, and none of them expressed the yearning I felt for a definitive answer that would make me feel like my life wasn't slipping away on the banana peel of housewifery.

All of this can sound like sour grapes. Poor me, living a life of freedom and privilege, well fed and loved, enjoying the luxury of being able to raise a family without going to a job. And to anyone who feels that I'm grousing without basis, I say, with love, take a drink of my ass. The work of being a parent is hard, really hard, but losing your identity is painful and disfiguring. We need only to look to Michael Jackson for proof of how deadly this condition can be.

This fall my kids head off to school together on a bright yellow school bus, creating a new kind of sucking void. But into this space I already sense not the rush of a million thankless chores, but a stream of new ideas about myself. My saggy identity is being reshaped in the dryer of opportunity.

I'm already practicing some new answers to the age old question, and I'm pleased to say, they sound just like me.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who's the Luckiest Girl in the World?

I don't mean to brag, but my husband, Vild, is extremely talented and I don't want another day to go by without him getting the recognition he deserves.

He can balance a wet filter filled with coffee grounds on an overfull can of trash like the last in a house of cards, so delicately perched in perfect equilibrium that really there's no need to empty it, it can just stay that way indefinitely.

He can use one knife in both the peanut butter and the jelly so adroitly that by the time you make your fifth sandwich from the new jar of Jiff you may not even need to bother with the jelly, its already mixed in.

He can use five towels a day, he's that concerned with freshness.

He can fit fifteen shirts on a single hook in his closet.

He can make the pool go from green to gray and back to green using only $200 worth of chemicals.

He's really good at telling me ways not to spend money on groceries. His suggestions are always excellent, and I love his help.

He can poop with the door open.

He can cut wire using only my fabric scissors.

He can be on the roof with the kids without being the least bit nervous.

He can balance his laptop on his chest, just under his chin and type with little elfin flipper hands protruding from his neck, in the dark.

He can come up with a new and exciting way of putting the dishes away, every single time, so that I'm never bored by finding the can opener.

He's considerate about venting the zip-lock bags so that the cheese can breath in the fridge.

He always reminds me to put the vacuum away in a way that I can hear it, even if I'm in the other room, which I appreciate.

Whenever I forget that he's a Republican he can think of new and more subtle ways of reminding me, so that I never forget, and that's a comfort.

He's more than willing to share my toothbrush with me.

I'm the luckiest girl in the world.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Class Act

High School reunions are supposed to be a horror. Is anyone really comfortable with name tags? I don't know where to put them, above the boobs or below? Besides, large groups make my feet hurt. I don't remember anyone's name, even before they're horribly disfigured by the cruel glacier of life traveling across the continent of their face. All that, and its just a little too Then vs. Now for my taste. I'm typically better with incremental change.

You can get worked up before a reunion over things like Spanx. Do you run out and buy a girdle? Or just let the good times roll over the top of your pants? But even greater than concerns born of vanity, is the scary potential for some person, having gone completely off the rails in their own life, to come hurtling toward you, gasoline soaked and sparking, looking for some recognition of their former selves, as reflected in your terrified eyes.

For these and other reasons, my high school has never had particularly well-attended reunions. As students of a liberal arts boarding school whose academic focus was, almost pathologically so, the cultivating of the individual, we are not, as a result, joiners. This quality makes it hard to get a group of us free-thinkers to gather under our laminated badges when called to do so. We have a fuck-that-shit kind of attitude, in the nicest possible way.

But something happened this year, 25 years after, with the explosion of Facebook, and maybe just a little well-honed nostalgia, and dare I say it, a meaningful handful of us showed up to make it happen.

It took about an hour for all of us to gather our courage in the form of cold brews and snacks, to find ourselves collected in an ever more hilarious tangle of memories and one-liners. It was delightfully casual doings. Burgers, beers and suprises pulled from rental cars in the form of smokey treats, photo albums and The Cure. At one point, as two of our friends accidentally turned an adironack bench into a pile of kindling using only the weight of happy times, our friend, nervous about getting in trouble asked, "Where are the grown-ups?" and it was with genuine surprise and not a little concern that she received the news, "Jules, we are the grown-ups."

It was then that the official golf cart silently arrived, and sure that we would all be called before the Judicial Board, we stiffened. That is until we realized that it was our host, arriving with a quiet cart full of additional wine and beer...and give-away hats!

For ten hours I laughed so hard that my cheeks cramped and my voice dropped an octave. There is something about that kind of laughter - when you realize you are with people who are not only like you, but are actually formed from the same stuff. Its not the same as finding someone of similar tastes and humor, its better. The realization that you are beating the drum with your tribe - that these people became the people they are, at the same time you became the person you are - its a simple but sweet revelation.

We're each different now. Fatter, balder, more scarred, more emboldened, or mellowed. Some of us are found, some only more lost - all of us happily embedded with an entirely different cast of characters. But none of that changes the fundamental fact that we grew wings in cocoons of the same fiber. What we are now, we became then, in each other's company, groping, stumbling, flinging our way outward from that delicately dangling pod, until this weekend, when we all came fluttering toward the porch light and hurled ourselves indelicately into its warm glow.

We burned that adirondack bench in a roaring fire bowl and many of us spent the night on bunkbeds in the dorm, cackling into the wee hours, gasping for breath and creaking on our rubberized mattresses. We laughed, reminded so vividly, from so many angles, about how silly it is to be us, how wonderful and bizarre and unique. If only name tags could convey all that, we'd have burned them too.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Preparing for My High School Reunion - Fifteen Things That Could never happen today, but happened then.

1. Driving to Cape Cod in the middle of the night to save our friend from her family, only to find her sleeping peacefully in her childhood bed.

2. Riding around with the maintenance guy in the plow truck, 5 am, coming down off an acid trip.

3. Telling-off the interim Principal at a town hall meeting. Him calling me a "spoiled little bitch" later, when no one else could hear.

4. Charging $400 in cab fares to my dad, so we could get pizza and cigarettes.

5. Making an imprint of my boobs in the fresh cement in the lower parking lot. My nipples bled from the lye, and I'm lucky they're still attached correctly.

6. Running top speed through the woods, no moon, feeling like I was flying, feet never touching ground, face never hitting bark.

7. Believing my friends had eloped, because they said so, when in fact they just really liked each other.

8. Sitting through an entire lecture from actress, Patricia Neal and never once bothering to know who she was so I could ask a smart question, or even a stupid one.

9. Losing my virginity on a classroom floor after dark, before curfew.

10. Smoking as many cigarettes as I could possibly bum, in the condoned smoking areas.

11. Watching my friends induce vomiting in the bathroom and thinking only that it was dumb.

12. Having a religious experience. Ok, on hallucinogens then too, but hey, none the less real.

13. Unsafe sex and lots of it.

14. Buying beer from the senile pharmacist by showing a glorified bus pass as I.D.

15. Wearing fish net stockings and moccasins in the same outfit.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Death of Mischief

I just got through watching Man on Wire, the documentary about Philippe Petit, the French high wire artist, who, in 1974 strung a line and walked between the Twin Towers.  The feat itself was of course extraordinary, but more remarkable to me was the reaction of the people of New York after he'd completed his forty-five minute walk in thin air.

One cop, who waited at the end of the wire to arrest him, was so clearly moved by what he'd seen, he said to a reporter, in his thick N.Y. accent, "I'd cawl him a tightrope dancuh, more than a waalkah, cuz he was really more dancin' up dere." and then later, "I was watchin' sumthin' once in a lifetime." This officer was not a guy you'd think would be comfortable with a Frenchman, in tights, or even with saying the word dancing, but he didn't take the act as an affront to his authority, or position or ego. He just scratched his head and watched something beautiful unfold, something once in a lifetime. 

They took Petit away in cuffs, as you'd expect, but his sentence from the judge was appropriately lenient -  to perform for the kids of N.Y. in central park.  The whole episode was regarded as a most beautiful act of mischief, which is exactly what it was.  Never mind that Petit and his accomplices had forged documents, trespassed, hidden out in plain sight of the night watchmen, and generally made fools of the security of the building, the law and gravity. 

The irony that this event took place at the World Trade Center, can't be lost on anyone.  The collapse of the towers marked the beginning of a new, more serious era and subsequently the definitive end of mischief as we knew it. Can we never again take things lightly, or see the forging of documents by a foreigner as anything less than a water-boarding offense? It is my sincere hope that one day we might.


When I went to boarding school there was a cook named Art.  He was a strange, very tall, man who spoke in what I can only describe as a Marty Feldman, Igor voice ..."Abby Nooormal". Very nasal and wispy and sort of pervy-sounding. This was his natural register. He was weird and wonderful in ways that I hope to post about later, but suffice it to say, he was an original and I really loved him.  

Art cooked for the whole school, some 350 students, from scratch.  Every pancake, every cookie, every piece of baked chicken was made by him, from actual ingredients, with the help of a  small staff and a rotating crew of students on kitchen duty. The food there was incredible and I hope there were a few people who new how good we had it.  

In particular, Art made these pouffy dinner rolls that came hot out of the oven, twenty-five or so at a time, that were flawless. Perfect buttery baseballs of love.  Everyone loved those fucking buns.  How could you not?  So, when a student snuck up onto the dining hall roof in the middle of the night, and with a four inch brush painted across the shingles, "WE LOVE ART'S BUNS" I don't think there was soul there that felt it was anything less than proper homage. It was great; a perfect act of mischief.  How do I know that if this same thing happened today, the kid(s) responsible would be kicked out and their parents sued for the repair of the roof. 

Our old friend, Henry, told us that his nephew, Sam, a stunningly bright kid, with all the wit and promise in the world, was recently kicked out of his blue-blazer private school for writing his name,  the first day of school, on the passed around roster,  as follows:

Hugh G. Rection

After the humorless teacher read it aloud - just as you would hope she would, sounding out every syllable before realizing what she'd said -she felt humiliated, and Sam was summarily expelled.  

My own nephew has been called to the office of his prep school, and his mother, too, called in,  for loosening the tops on the salt shakers, making objectionable art(!) , and, I think, texting in class. These are serious offenses apparently, and garner serious consequences. 

I worry about a society that takes itself so seriously.  It shows a rigidity of character that I find unpleasant in the extreme.  I've never trusted or enjoyed people who didn't laugh first at themselves and then at everyone and every single thing, next.  

Self-seriousness is the buzz kill of a thriving culture.  Might not some gentile breaking and entering do well to be forgiven if the intent can be discerned to be playful and not damaging to anything other than ego? Can we not find our way back to a time when kids could screw the caps off the shakers without a call home?  It seems to me a school is not educating if it cannot find suitable, equitable punishment for such a child.  How about making my nephew fill those shakers for the rest of the school year?  Or have Sam come up with thirty-five more such monikers by tomorrow and recite them in verse?

There is a jolliness missing in public discourse, and an over-seriousness that I think may ultimately be the demise of our empire.  What cannot bend will be broken, and I for one see mischief as the yoga of of the soul - it keeps us supple and lubricated. Mischief reminds us that walking the line is not an act of freedom, unless its done 1000 feet up, by a laughing man in tights.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Motherhood, Brought to You by Wes Craven

(Edward Gorey, Gashlycrumb Tinies)

The world is a dangerous place. There are so many ways we can fall prey to the hazards of being alive.  The spectrum is glorious; A plane can, for dramatic example, crash into your brokerage office, or in a more subtle turn, one could simply die from the anemia of loneliness over a long, long time. Anyone with a vivid imagination, or kids, has run through the myriad anxieties, the scenarios of potential harm that can befall the ones we love. Some of us might, from time to time, require a sedative to prevent these anxieties from ruling the day.

I, for one, can see ordinary events through, to their very most horrific and unlikely conclusion, in nanoseconds.  I see my son, Lou,  running joyfully across the yard with a stick in his hand and for a flash, I daydream that he trips, ramming that stick through his soft palette. 

Lily hangs upside down from the monkey bars and I cinematically imagine her neck hitting the ground  first, a muffled thud, when she falls.  My kids wrestle constantly and my consistent, begging plea is, "Watch the neck, watch the NECK!!" Because I see every summersault as a plausible brain injury and every leap off the couch as potential C1 fracture.

Vild has none of this, as I suspect is true for most men.  Vild will do the very most stupid, dangerous, life-threatening thing, and never, for a  moment, worry.

My worry has little bearing on my mothering style. I am not an uptight parent, nor an overly cautious one. In fact, I'm kind of lazy and stubborn. I give my kids a lot of rope. Vildy lets both the kids drive the tractor mower in lazy circles around the yard.  Lily can cut her own fruit. For fun, in summer, they don helmets and ride a sled down the grassy hill, between the trees. I let them jump from impossibly high places. Our house came with a pool, the greatest safety leap of all time.

But somehow, since I became a mother, I became the director of horror films, shown only in the midnight screening room of my own mind. Concurrently, I also became incapacitated by squeamishness.

There was a time when I'd crane my head for a better look at someone's gash, or held my hand to a gushing wound without so much as a wince.  I used to enjoy a nice surgery show, delighted by a colorful look at someone's diseased spleen. But no more. 

Now, I get the swoons.  Im thinking about carrying smelling salts in a vile around my neck until my kids grow up and Vild becomes a totally different person genetically.

Last summer I came home to a scene in which Lou had caught his finger in a folding lawn chair. The rusty  joint had removed his fingernail in one piece, Syriana style, leaving it attached only by a stubborn piece of cuticle.  He screamed like a wild animal in the bathroom while Vild, thankfully home for this devastating slice of repulsion, triaged and administered first aid. Lily was running around in our tiny hallway, flapping her arms and giggling in grossed-out shock and certain delight that it wasn't happening to her.

I walked in, and walked right back out.  The blood in my temples did too.  I stood in the hallway for about forty seconds deep breathing, hands on my knees.  Lou needed me, was calling for me, and I knew I had to keep my Chinese chicken salad in repose and face my boy's agony. But it was a horror of its own to realize I might not be able to help him.

It has always been a source of prideful vanity for me that I am good in a crisis.  That I can keep my head, be counted on to pull people through, and remain unflinching in a disaster is nearly a resume item for me.  But I've been demoted.  Steadfastness-in-the-face-of-gore has been handed a pink slip. I am no longer the Sigourney Weaver of my emotional Alien, but the bikini clad coed in a b-film who screams with a round mouth and lidless eyes, while the whole community is devoured by zombies.

One night, I awoke to the sound of Lou falling through the air from his loft bed. This seems impossible, I know. It must have been the thud that woke me, or his cries, but I swear to you, it was the change in air pressure, the wispy sound of his decent that roused me.  I was outside his door when I heard him hit the floor and then scream.  There was blood all over his face, sliding into the terrified ditch of his mouth. The night-light illuminated only a dreadful dark oozing without detail. I grabbed a wash cloth as he bled into my t-shirt and together we went for ice. All the while I said, "Ok, ok. It's ok.  You're ok." Over and over, like a mantra or a summoning. Bring forth the OK. Surround him in the OK. Buffer the darkness, absorb the blood, with the desperate power of OK.

He'd hit his nose on the ladder going down, and had bloodied it, nothing worse.

"I want to be in Mama's bed," he said, his voice muffled by my neck. Mama's bed, that pillowy place away from hurt, from dark, from loneliness. "Ok. Ok." I whisper and carry him toward Mama's bed. Mine. 

His nostrils caked with dried blood, he falls instantly back to sleep.  His Dad, also in Mama's bed, sleeps soundly, none of the preceding drama having disturbed his rest in the slightest. 

Where the film of my psyche is one directed by John Carpenter, his is directed by Ron Howard, and he rests in the tender cotton of a less offensive Parenthood.

When I stand up, to go pee, my blood pressure catches up with the plot points of the evening, and suddenly I'm blacking out.  "Ok, Ok" I say to myself now, as I crawl retching on hands and knees toward the toilet.

I call Vild's name three times, four.  Then he's up, confused, irritated, assessing.  With Lou in bed sleeping, and me retching over the bowl, he sees me as the patient, and perhaps now I am. I don't actually barf, but instead rest my head on yesterdays pajamas and a damp towel thrown in a heap on the floor. I hear Vild carry Lou back to his own bed.  And then I hear the familiar strain of springs as Vild climbs back into ours. 

"That's it?" I ask. 

"Was there something else?" He wants to know.

"I guess not." I say, as my equilibrium returns and I crawl back under the blankets.