That Solid Inward Comfort of Mind

When I was growing up, I took piano lessons for nine years. At some point during my tenure as ivory tickler, my teacher, Mrs. Wolverton, asked me to start tracking my practice minutes each week and then submit them to her at the start of each lesson.

It was as though she suspected something was amiss.

The first week, I managed to sandwich a bit of practicing in between episodes of “Family Feud” and daily check-in calls to the automated Time/Temperature lady (“The time…is…6:49 p.m. Downtown temperature…34”). Diligently, I used a timer to count my practice minutes so that I could record them with accuracy. Less diligently, I neglected to note that I spent 1/3 of my practice time on Chopin and 2/3 of my practice time noodling out Frank Mills’ “Music Box Dancer,” a song that made me feel like a surprise one-radio-hit wonder every time I crashed my way through its delicate melody.

At 7:15 a.m. on the morning of my next lesson–

which was held before school since I had such a packed line-up of extracurricular commitments that scheduling a post-school piano lesson was impossible…and I completely hold responsible those formative years of enrichments for the fact that I’m sitting here at age forty-four in my pajamas hosting some seriously greasy hair at 11:19 a.m. on a Thursday because, honestly, racing around learning stuff during those early decades of my life left me plumb wore out, to the point that I’m still in recovery; however, on the upside, if you stop by my house, perhaps to ask if there is a plan in place for ever having a shower or putting on underwear, I can reward your visit with:

a quick run-through of “Music Box Dancer” during which I use white-girl scat singing in lieu of lyrics;

an explanation of basic ballet terms that ends with a stately révérence;

an extemporaneous original oratory for which you choose the topic and then watch, agape, as I fill three minutes with careful transitions and artful gesticulations;

or the Girl Scout pledge, my three-fingered salute symbolizing commitment to:  

  1. personal spiritual beliefs (represented by the middle finger, in my case)
  2. other people (the ones who don’t make me want to load myself into a rock-weighted burlap bag, tie it shut from the inside–not an easy trick–and hurl myself over the edge of the boat);
  3. The Girl Scout Law (“Sell more cookies, Bitches!)

–I tossed into my backpack a pile of school and piano books and the slip of paper onto which I’d jotted my practice minutes (and sketched a gnarly doodle that had started out as a simple spiral but which had gradually morphed into a dapper little man when I’d added legs, arms, gloves, and a fedora with a daisy tucked into the hatband; lucky Mrs. Wolverton was privy to a healthy cross-section of my talents!). Hopping onto my bike, I pedaled a couple of miles down Rimrock Road, hummed a breathless bit of “Music Box Dancer,” turned right onto Sunnyview Lane, and coasted downhill to the Wolverton driveway.

The next time my feet touched that driveway, thirty minutes later, there was no longer a dancer twirling around inside my music box.  Rather, the dancer had slumped her way to a dark corner of the box, clamped pink tulle between her knees, opened a comforting Hostess snack cake, and muttered, with a Russian accent, “All joy, all light, all happiness, they haff left me. I am svimming in bleak.”

My internal dancer was made slouchy and slumpy, you see, because I had been honest. On my practice report, I had written

Mrs. Wolverton’s reaction to my report was immediate and sharp.  “WHAT?” she barked. “SIX MINUTES? FOUR MINUTES? A SINGLE MINUTE? A DAY OF REST? THIS IS WHAT YOU PRACTICED? THIS?”

Although well aware it was unacceptable behavior while sitting at the piano, I allowed my spine to curve a bit, hunching my posture towards the keyboard dejectedly.  Attempting explanation, I started, “Well this is a Christian country, despite protests to the contrary in its publicity materials, and therefore Sunday has traditionally been a day of rest…and as for the other days, well, I was never really sure what the time and temperature were, so I needed to keep an eye on those…and then Richard Dawson kisses all the ladies on ‘Family Feud,’ and while it seems like a relatively-normal host thing to do, there’s actually something bizarrely creepy in the subtext of his actions, so I find myself riveted…and, well…”

“NO,” Mrs. Wolverton interrupted (which is actually a violation of etiquette, but I decided to refrain from pointing out her gaffe, as going Emily Post on someone’s perturbation is never well advised). “NO. There is no excuse. There is no reason for these unbelievably minuscule amounts of time spent practicing. You need to spend at least forty-five minutes, more like an hour, every single day, working on your pieces measure by measure, playing and replaying. You have a gift and are obliged to nurture it. You have to put in more time. This is unacceptable. I am astonished and ashamed that you would put in one minute, four minutes, six minutes. This is terrible. Starting this next week, you must aim for an hour a day, or you’ll never fulfill your potential, and you will be a waste of my time.”

The thing is, my music box dancer and I don’t do so well early in the morning, even on those ideal days when all that’s expected is that we eat warm scones while snuggled under our shared duvet. Thus, a pre-8 a.m. scolding administered by one of the region’s best pianists and teachers–not to mention a colleague of my father’s–was acutely traumatizing. My finespun dancer, never one to cope (she disappeared dramatically for three days when her hit single fell out of the Top 40), fell into her droop, so dashed was she, and evaporated into her dark corner for the transient assuagement of snack cakes. My response was to droop internally but, externally, to sit up straighter, look away from Mrs. Wolverton, and fixate, with very bright eyes, on the stick propping open the lid of the grand piano. Managing to emit a meek “Okay,” I felt my brain start to spin with, “How do I get through the next half hour without crying? How do I get through the next half hour without crying? How do I get through the next half hour without crying?”

The susceptibility of every carefree people pleaser is–DUH–not pleasing someone due to lack of care. I found myself, for the next half hour, hyper conscious of my suscept. Somehow, despite feeling strangled inside, I attempted to demonstrate–measure by laborious measure–that an accumulated total of twenty-nine minutes of Very Hard Work Indeed could result in improved performance. Countering, Mrs. Wolverton spent her time fussily pointing out my every error, stopping me cold whenever I flubbed more than three notes in a row, aggressively making her case that actual time spent on the music would have resulted in–of all possible outcomes!–something nearer to mastery.

That half hour was a misery for everyone involved, particularly for Dancer, who ran low on snack cakes within the first four minutes, which left her the sole distraction of digging chocolate smudges out from under her fingernails while lolling wanly yet huffily in her silk-swathed corner.

At the end of the lesson, Mrs. Wolverton regrouped and tried to shift the flattened mood from minor to major. “All right, so this next week you can really turn things around with your practicing, and I know we’ll see a terrific improvement as a result. So just get to the piano, every day, and spend some solid time there. You can do this!”

My ears heard her, but my heart still knew we had gotten in trouble. Dancer and I trudged to my bike and pedaled slowly to school, trying to make sense of the morning. Okay, we needed to practice more. Actually, I needed to practice more; Dancer’s pirouettes had long been constant in their perfection.

That afternoon, after school, after ballet class (it was Dancer’s habit to sit in the dressing room, extending her leg straight up to her ear, and snicker at us plebian elementary school girls galumphing across the studio floor while an accomplished accompanist [no day of rest for her] pounded out Prokofiev in the hopes of elevating our leaps to greater heights), after a big snack of mandarin oranges and saltines, after finishing twelve math problems, I sat down at the piano to practice.

I even used the metronome.

Setting it added approximately two minutes to my practice time. Fiddling with it between songs provided several more bonus minutes.

Our piano bench was non-adjustable, so there were no minutes to be gained there.

Deliberately, I started playing my first piece. Any time I hit a snag, I would stop and replay that measure four times. Then I would start over and aim for uninterrupted flow.

I was focused. Committed. Willing to put in the time, if it meant I would never get yelled at again.

Right around Minute Twelve, my eyes strayed from the sheet music and wandered down to the pedals. There, just behind the pedals, yawned an open floor space. Since we owned a baby grand, there was a fair bit of open territory under there. If I took all the pillows off the chairs and couch and piled them under the piano, they filled the space underneath, turning it into the inside of a genie’s bottle. My hair was long enough to pull up into a ponytail like Barbara Eden’s, and I could tie a dishcloth around my face for a veil. If Dancer wasn’t in one of her legendary tempers, I could probably convince her to play the Larry Hagman character (before her natural turnout and the agenda of the Soviet government forced her into a life as prima ballerina, Dancer had wished to be a cosmonaut). And if I first spent four practice minutes digging through the stacks of music stored in the bench, I might be able to dredge up “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and play that on the piano before playing “I Dream of Jeannie” under the piano. What an elegant transition.

Consequently, Minute Seventeen of my “practice hour” saw me, face swaddled in a dishcloth, body rolling around on couch cushions, closing my eyes and flipping my ponytail every time I wanted to make myself disappear. Oh, to have had that ability at 7:30 a.m.

When the timer reached sixty minutes, Dancer and I were flat on our bellies on top of stacks of pillows, scooching our arms forward on one pillow before sliding our knees to catch up. Crazy genie magic had turned us into caterpillars!

The timer dinged, and I molted. Human once again, I reached for my pencil to record that day’s practice minutes. Hmmm. I had just spent an hour in piano-related and -inspired pursuits. Sixty minutes it was!

I coasted down that slippery slope of logic for the rest of the week, some days spending six minutes in actual practice, thirty in front of “Wheel of Fortune” (although I was too young to notice such things, jaded Dancer drew upon her vast experience with vodka and posited that Pat Sajak was hosting drunk), twenty pulling cans out of the pantry, looking for a refried beans to make nachos, and four furtively listening in on our party line. There. That made an hour, too.

In the interests of appearing real and valid, my practice report for that week went beyond an obvious “60, 60, 60, 60…”:

The issue, of course, was that I hadn’t actually practiced more than the previous week, yet, if I hoped to pass of my practice report as truth, I would have to play better.

I decided to rely on magical thinking. Simply, because I needed to, I would play better. If I could will myself to play better without actually putting in the practice time, then I would have created an exquisite system that simultaneously allowed me to do what I wanted to and kept me out of trouble.

It was with a fair bit of trepidation that I handed over my practice report to Mrs. Wolverton that second week. It was with visible trepidation that she accepted it; as much as I hated a scolding, she hated giving one. Her face transformed to delight as she looked it over. “Why, this is wonderful! You’ve really done as I asked, and I’m sure we’ll hear the results today!”

It was with significant trepidation that I put my hands onto the keys. Dancer lounged on the floor behind the pedals, a dishcloth tied across her face, crossing her eyes at me as I began to play. Ignoring her, I kept my eyes on the music.

When I finished, I looked sheepishly at Mrs. Wolverton and began, apologetically, “I don’t know if it really sounds any better this week, but it’s a hard piece…” True to form, Mrs. Wolverton interrupted me. “Oh, my goodness, it’s so much better this week. You are clearly much more familiar with what you’re playing, and there is so much more emotion and dynamism because of that. That was excellent.”

Oh.

Her praise continued throughout the lesson. It seemed that a half-hearted intention to practice more had actually led to perceivable improvement in performance. Suddenly, it seemed like there might be merit in Magical Thinking as Life Strategy.

Except, well… Deep inside, I was disappointed. Definitely, I was disappointed with myself, for I had lied and hinged my success on hope rather than effort, and while I couldn’t stop myself from doing it, I did know it was wrong. Surprisingly, I was also disappointed with Mrs. Wolverton. She was supposed to catch me out and make me be the person I wanted to be. She was supposed to know I had lied.

That moment right there, sitting on the piano bench, feeling my nerves turn to relief and then to letdown, was huge. So rarely can we chronicle the moments contributing to the loss of innocence that is a natural part of maturation. For the most part, our innocence erodes gradually throughout our lives–we read books, watch movies, overhear conversations, take blows, absorb insults, regret choices, and walk through our days; as a result of being in the world, the scales drop, one by one, from our eyes.

Sentimental opinion often mourns this loss of innocence, implying that such a loss signifies something is wrong in the world, that it would be preferable if we all were allowed to remain in thrall to undiminished ideals. I disagree. I want to know how things really are. The more I “get it,” the more I’m in it. Innocence requires protection; innocence creates a kind of fragility. For me, even though reality often turns my stomach, makes me flinch, brutalizes my sensibilities, I feel more powerful for having looked at it straight on.

Certainly, The Incident of the Practice Minutes wasn’t brutal. Rather, it caused in me a cognitive dissonance that lead to important understandings. I found out I would lie to preserve peace. I found out I didn’t feel as guilty as I thought I should have for lying. I found out that the guilt I did experience grated but could be shelved. I found out that I could be disappointed in people who had done nothing wrong. I found out that I could manipulate situations in my favor. I found out that there was often much, much more going on in the room when it appeared that people were just talking to each other. I found out that very few things are, in reality, as they appear.

Even Dancer, she who presents as filmy perfection from her toe shoes to her tiara, is actually a complicated handful of loneliness and broken dreams.

Thoughts of losing one’s innocence have been swirling through my head this week because I recently witnessed a loss in my own daughter, one akin to my practice minutes story in terms of the distinct mark it left on the affected.

Allegra and I went to Milwaukee last weekend for her Discovery Girls photo shoot days. The month before her DG time saw her getting increasingly excited: she spent hours writing and typing her article responses to the questions sent; she made piles of “profile outfits,” “article outfits,” “props,” “jewelry,” “lip glosses” in her room and spent hours trying on various combinations; we got her hair trimmed and deep conditioned; my sister treated her to a manicure and a pedicure; Allegra rewatched every online DG video and reread every issue; she asked for an early birthday present so she could have a cell phone at the photo shoot since so many DG girls report that they exchange phone numbers with all their new best friends and still call and text each other, months later. In short, she thoroughly prepared herself so that the experience could be as wonderful and stress-free as possible.

The week before the photo shoot, she got the second zit of her life. It was astronomical in size and located smack in the center of her nose. Every day it grew larger, with her refusing to pop it (“I just can’t make myself do it. It hurts!”). By the fifth day, I was manic about it, irrationally obsessed with it. The day I walked into the kitchen, looked at her, and could no longer see her eye color because her irises were obscured by the height of The Zit, I went out and bought a spot treatment and face wash. All along, Allegra told me, “It’s not that huge a deal, Mom. DG wants girls who look like real girls. If I have a zit, I’ll just look real.” That kid is so chill.

I agreed with her. I even explained that the magazine could use Photoshop to help. And I completely don’t think acne has to be that big of a deal. But still. Inside, I felt like an overbearing reality tv mom; Byron and I actually talked, one night, about waiting until she fell asleep and then going into her room, pinning her down, and popping the thing.

Fortunately, the morning after that conversation, Allegra disappeared into the bathroom for a bit and came out. The deed was done. It was at the pus-filled point where a soft sneeze would have triggered an explosion, so she didn’t have to squeeze too hard. It was popped, and the healing had three days before Milwaukee.

I suspect some of you are wondering how all this ties into loss of innocence, right? The truth is (if you can trust me to tell the truth about anything, now that you know what I did to Mrs. Wolverton), the tale of the zit is irrelevant. The only innocence lost here pertains to the idea that I would consider molesting my own child’s nose, that Allegra found out zits take a while to heal, and that you had been feeling we were heading somewhere with this woeful tale of pre-adolescent acne.

So Allegra and I loaded into the car last weekend, feeling well prepared and as though the drama of the pimple had taken care of any need for DG-related angst. The drive to Milwaukee was uneventful, if you count 80 minutes of clarinet practicing as uneventful (clearly, Allegra is not her mother’s daughter in regards to putting in the time with her instrument). We met my sister, who’d flown in from Denver for this exciting girls’ weekend, and the fun began.

Sunday was the first big day. The twelve Minnesota Discovery Girls were to descend upon the Jelly Belly Factory for an initial meeting and a tour. The photos taken this day are for the “Behind the Scenes” section of the magazine. Allegra loves “Behind the Scenes”; it’s one of her favorite parts of every issue.  Everyone congregated in a conference room, and the girls did quick introductions and paired up to exchange a few more tidbits. We parents then cleared out for a few hours while the girls went on the tour and bonded further.

Two hours later, when we picked up Allegra , we told her she could choose some gifts and souvenirs from the gift shop. As is her way, she looked around cursorily, picked out a few things, and then said, “I’m good.” One other DG remained in the gift shop at this point, so I asked them to pose together and chatted with the other girl’s family for a bit.

Finally, we were finished and got out to the car.  The drive to our hotel took almost an hour. My sister and I asked a lot of questions and received short answers. Mostly, the car was quiet. Too quiet.

Eventually, I said, “So, was the tour as fun as you’d hoped it would be?”

“No. Not really.”

“Did you get to see how they made the jelly beans?”

“Not right there. Not in real life. They showed us videos of everything.”

“Wow. That sounds kind of boring. I’m surprised they don’t show you an actual vat of jelly bean goo and how the beans come out on an assembly line or something.”

“Yea, it wasn’t a bad tour, but it wasn’t very interesting.”

“So did you get to interact with the other girls as much as you’d hoped?”

“No. We didn’t really talk to each other at all. They just told us how to pose and took a lot of pictures.”

Quiet.

After waiting a few minutes to see if there was more forthcoming, I asked, “So, do you maybe feel a little disappointed about today?”

“Yes.”

Quiet.

Me again: “…because you thought you’d really be getting to know these other girls and genuinely having fun with them?”

“Yes” came the unsteady reply.

“And then you didn’t because it was all about staging and taking photos?”

With that prompt, her words finally started to tumble out.

“Yes. All that stuff in the ‘Behind the Scenes’ section of the magazine where all the girls are having fun with each other? That’s not really happening. I always thought they were hanging out and messing around together. But the photographers totally told them to act like that. They’re just acting like they’re friends.”

Me: “That does sound pretty disappointing. The staffers need to be sure they get the photos they need–because their magazine is a business–but that doesn’t dismiss the fact that the entire magazine sets you up to believe it’s a way to make a heap of new best friends. Aw, kiddo. I’m so sorry.”

My sister and I carefully didn’t look at each other. The silence from the back seat continued. Allegra’s internal processing of the afternoon overrode further conversation. Trying not to give in to tears, I felt impotent–gripping a steering wheel in the midst of four lanes of traffic while my not-yet-grown-up girl struggled alone in a darkened corner with a blindsiding of grief.

It was then that I sensed my soul’s accomplice, Dancer, peeling away from my heart and slithering to the rear of the car. Clicking into her seat belt, Dancer slid a slim hand into Allegra’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. As she pulled away to adjust her leg warmers and stare broodingly out the rain-speckled window, I heard the crinkle of a wrapper. Dancer had deposited her last, long-hoarded snack cake into Allegra’s lap.

After a few more minutes of silence, a newly-heartened Allegra spoke. “I’m still excited for tomorrow, though. We get to be pampered, and we’ll have more time together.”

Silence.

“I’ll just have to be not my usual self tomorrow. I’m going to get a piece of paper ready and go up to each girl and ask for her phone number or email address. Since we don’t have a lot of time together, I can’t be shy. I need to go talk to them and use the hours we have, even though it’s not very long.”

A bit more silence.

“It will be better tomorrow. I just didn’t know how it was. I didn’t know. Now I do.”

You remember that part, some paragraphs back, where I shrugged off sentimentality for its tendency to protect needlessly and to engender fragility?

Turns out, parents are terribly sentimental about their children.

I would have gone to serious lengths to prevent this devastation for Allegra , to have assured that her every expectation for the weekend was met. I would have stalked the “Behind the Scenes” afternoon. I would have cut off my Jeannie ponytail and sold it on eBay. I would have practiced piano for 73 full and honest minutes, without a single bathroom break.

Fortunately, such lengths weren’t necessary. Once she expressed her disappointment at the lack of genuine connection, something in her eased. An hour later, after she’d stuffed herself on sweet and sour chicken (“I only got to taste five Jelly Bellies on the tour”), her spirits rebounded, and she began to reframe the experience. We talked about what we knew of each of her fellow Discovery Girls. We talked about the next day. We talked about how true friendships develop over time.

Monday arrived, and Allegra was back in high spirits. She went to the official photo shoot in the studio feeling more powerful for her loss of innocence the day before. She hadn’t known. Now she knew. And reserved Allegra made herself plop down on a couch next to three other girls; when they plugged in Just Dance 3 as an icebreaker, our “I hate to dance” Allegra willingly took whispered tips from Dancer and got right up in the line with the other rocking Discovery Girls. She went through hair and make-up. She went through several changes of clothes. She smiled and smiled. She gathered some phone numbers–not as many as she might have with even more assertiveness, but enough to start connections that continue to pan out into texting and emailing with an ever-larger group.

She came out the other side of her huge experience feeling buoyant, bolstered not by fanciful expectations but, instead, by the steady certainty that comes from having dealt with reality. Currently, her favorite past time is to sit on the arm of my chair, a Discovery Girls magazine propped between us; she turns the pages and notes which girls are her favorites–which ones she’d most like to be friends with–and then she says, proud of her insider insight, “See this picture here at the bowling alley, where all the girls are laying on the floor together like they’ve collapsed with giggles? That’s staged. It’s fake. They were told to do that.”

With that, she looks me in the eye, a knowing grin breaking across her face, and slaps Dancer a quick high-five before declaring, “That’s just how it is. Now, I need to email Natalie. She doesn’t understand what we’re supposed to do for our Web diaries.”

Unencumbered by innocence,

she skips out of the room,

a bit more equipped to face

all the greater challenges that will define

her future.

——————–

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My Buddy

A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.
– Bernard Meltzer

One of my best friends is turning 9 today.

He is a character–funny, perceptive, bullheaded, complicated. He is a reader; tests reported that he started third grade reading at an eighth grade level. He is creative, seeing a rubber band, a pretzel rod, a pile of Legos, and a washer as a sculpture waiting to happen. He is peaceful, a favorite with children of all ages who feel safe in his company. He is intuitive, known to leave a group gathering and note, absently, “That dad said he didn’t mind all the noise, but I think the noise actually really stressed him out.” He is a brother who thinks his sister hung the moon and filled the sky with stars. He is more experienced and versatile than he knows. He will be a surprise to himself as the decades unfold.

For me, he is my boon companion. Perhaps it’s because I nursed him so long; perhaps it’s because there’s magical programming in our genetics; perhaps it’s that we’re innately connected by the universe. But many times it’s as though we’re extensions of each other, as is evidenced by the fact that we start and end each day in each other’s arms. I like to hug him. I like to talk to him. I have loved watching him grow from Wee Niblet to Dinko Junior to Paco. Currently, he has a feeling deep inside that his Big Boy name might be Thor.

One can hope.

What I know, more than anything, is that giving birth to Paco has made me less alone in the world. I can look at Byron and our girl and most of my friends and family and admire them, see them clearly, appreciate them, respect them.

What an exceptional joy, however, to have been given someone in my life who seems inside my skin with me; whose heart beats sympathetically with mine; whose brain, in all its irrationality, makes perfect sense; whose sensitive nature makes him uniquely attuned to nuance and simultaneously ripe for hurt. I know this kid because I was this kid.

He is an extraordinary gift.

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Armistead Maupin Preferred the Shelter of Fiction, But With That Attitude He’d Have Been Dead By Midnight If He Lived in Northern Minnesota

Probably because the weather has been so forbidding this week–damn cold and unbelievably blustery–we’ve been delighting in indoor pursuits. The grey and the dark and the blow-the-pants-right-off-your-legs wind outside all highlight the beauty of food, conversation, warmth, shelter, reminding us how fortunate we are to have relief from the elements. Last night, hours after my afternoon exercise (during which I became a human ice sculpture that shattered into a million tiny shards whilst hoisting frozen limbs over the threshold to enter the house), I was still shivering. On my way upstairs to take a long, hot shower, I remarked to Byron, “There is much that I would record in my Gratitude Journal As Suggested and Sponsored by Oprah, if I kept a Gratitude Journal As Suggested and Sponsored by Oprah, but today, the thing I would write about is how thankful I am we’re not nomads, having to set up a tent in this cold and wind and then, were we alive at the end of the process, sleep in the thing. On the flip side, if we were nomads, we might dig a pit and cook our food in it, which is always infinitely awesome, plus no one would ever invite us over to buy junk we don’t need at a Pampered Chef home party because, when you’re a nomad, there is no home nor chef nor pamper.” Rather, there are only unrelenting cold and wind and sand embedded into your privates.

Indeed, in contrast to the hellwinds circling around outside this week, all sheltered pursuits are a delight. As the sky outside roars, I chortle happily and sit at the computer, doing my job of teaching online classes. The new semester at my college has started up, and, here during the honeymoon phase, my students and I are loving each other. I know, of course, that by week 8 of the term we’ll all go seriously Brand-Perry on each other. For now, though, it’s just good fun, with everyone feeling chatty and happy to meet; during this beautiful week of chipper “ain’t anything possible, so long as we’re together” attitudes, we’re still pipping along and planning our wedding in India. Extra credit to those students who let me ride the elephant.

What’s more, yoga class at the Y this week was both snug and beneficial since Slightly-Scary Teacher Lady focused on our hips, and I do so love deep lunging and trying to get my shoulder under my knee as I lay my forearms on the floor and wrap my hands around my foot. Attempting such stuff reminds me that I’m made of oft-neglected joints and cartilage and sinew and that they deserve as much attention as muscles and bones. Further, I’m crazy about the corpse pose that ends class because I actually die when I do it.

It’s also been wonderful to watch Girl relaxing into winter soccer practices. She started soccer when she was four, but always participated in rec leagues. Then, this fall, she decided to try out for a competitive league that serves as a feeder to the big high school program in the city. She made the cut and is now doing a few weeks of winter practices before spring practices start up in April. Apparently, the spring and summer practices will be led by “foreign coaches,” which gives me hope that she’ll be marshaled through drills and scrimmages by a dental hygienist from Thunder Bay and a bus driver from Belize. This week, though, with boring old domestic coaches who merely grew up passionately playing soccer here in the U.S., it’s been wonderful to walk into the massive sheltering space of the Field House at the U up the hill and watch groups of girls in shorts burn off their mid-winter energy.

Byron kept himself out of the frigid winds this week by setting up shop in the teaching classroom at our Whole Foods Co-op. Monday night, he spent a few hours demonstrating six Turkish dishes to a full house, simultaneously playing Turkish music, projecting a slideshow, and chopping garlic. The response to his class was so enthusiastic that he’ll be offering it again this Spring and has started creating a series of Turkish cooking classes to be offered in the fall and through community ed. The only downside to this explosion of ideas and popularity is that it will seriously cut into his time as my personal houseboy. Who’s going to bring me my coffee if he’s off teaching mezzes, and the kids are at school?

The biggest indoor warmth this week arrived on Monday, and it’s heated up our hearts more and more each day:

Although I’d been longing for a piano in the house for eons, I finally made some calls last week and lucked into this restored upright. Each of the four of us spends some time every day, noodling around at the ivories, trying to dredge up notes and theory from years past (in my case, it’s been nearly 30 years since my last lesson, which is weird because I’m 24). Our Girl took lessons in second and third grades before having a year of viola (plus a fake year of viola in Turkey, during which she had no teacher and just had to saw out “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on her own), and now this year, she’s playing clarinet with surprising aptitude. Paco, however, moved into the school system just as musical opportunities were diminishing, and then we went to Turkey, so he–the most innately musical in the bunch–has never had a chance to learn an instrument.

The day after the piano was delivered, he had me sit down with him to explain the basics of the keys and the notes. Now, three days later, he has about six songs in his repertoire and is very proud to have memorized “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” I’m sure a significant part of his motivation comes from the applause he receives at the end of each song from his biggest fans:

The hilarious part of having a piano in the house is that we’ve delved into the heretofore-untouched stacks of sheet music left over from Byron’s youth, and each night, while the kids do homework or enjoy their screen time, I’ve been sitting down and lurching my way through “The Entertainer” and “Music Box Dancer” and–better yet–the collected hits of Billy Joel. Sometimes all that can be heard above the whistling wind outside is me thunking away. For, you see, I can give you a song. I’m the piano man. I can give you a song, tonight. Naturally, it will help if you’re all in the mood for a melody. I’ll get you feeling all right.

Incidentally, does anyone have the sheet music for “Nadia’s Theme”?

Keeping me warm while I figure out sharps and flats is my new Lululemon Scuba Hoodie. I agonized quite a long time over buying such a spendy thing, but finally I conceded that my desire for a Hoodie of Excellence would never rest ’til I tried one out.

And friends? Ladies? Sole Male Who Might Have Stumbled Across This Blog While Googling Information About the Debt Crisis?

It. is. so. killer. That whole business about getting what you pay for is born out in the Scuba Hoodie. All of Lululemon’s products are high quality and well made for women, but this Scuba Hoodie is so radically fabulous that I have to stop typing here in a few sentences so that I can head to the Unitarian Church, where Ms. Lululemon awaits me at the altar. Once we’ve exchanged liberal lesbian vows (“I promise not to get mud on your Carhartts when I our black lab out for a walk”), I will be Jocelyn Lululemon, rightful co-owner of all the Scuba Hoodies on the planet. I’m pretty sure that means I get to have one in every color. Or maybe it means I get one in half the colors, and my wife gets one in all the other colors, and then we share. Because, seriously, is not one of the greatest boons to a lesbian partnership the doubling of one’s wardrobe?

Ms. Lululemon better not be a size 2, though, or my entire plan derails.

Even if I’m limited to just one Scuba Hoodie in my life, though, it’s okay. I’ve got the piano-playing third grader and the cooking husband and the soccer star sixth grader and the yoga and the twenty-five-year-old male student whose favorite Spice Girl is Posh. My heart is full and very, very warm.

And if I still feel the wind drafting its way in through the cracks, I also have this:

These ambrosial colors were knit together by fellow blogger Kmkat, who saw my vlog a few posts back and noted that she had just the thing to keep me less shivery in my own house. Basically, it’s a knitted buff, and it showed up (dropped off by her med student son who was in town looking for housing for an upcoming residency) at a moment when my earlobes had ice crystals forming on them.

As it turns out, generosity, talent, thoughtfulness–

those are the things keeping me warmest of all this week.

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I Went to Weight Watchers and Refused to Do The Wave

When the tide is working its way towards the shore, it doesn’t just rush in, plop onto the sectional couch, and dig in to a plate of nachos. Rather, it flows in stirringly, breaches the sandy banks, and then recedes. As the water retreats centrifugally, giving in to gravity and the moon, regrouping for the next surge, there is a momentary pause in sound and energy–a quick second of breath caught–before the slack water reasserts its force. There is a blip of silence before the next roil and crest.

A few years ago, at a Weight Watchers meeting, I pushed back against a wave and created just such a moment of tidal paralysis. I could actually hear the intake of breath before the place fell silent.

It all started, as most fantastical tales do, with a children’s librarian, a woman with a silver-bell voice and penchant for motivational thematizations.

Toward the end of the meeting that night, The Children’s Librarian stopped taking notes (oh, yes, she did) for a moment to suggest, “Now that it’s 2012, we need to set our yearly group goal: let’s lose at least 2012 in 2012!”

Her suggestion propelled my brain to the year 13,022, when the 35 members of our group will not only ingest nothing for twelve months, but they also will go out and take hostage 10 of their closest friends and starve them into the grave, as well, just to reach the goal. As the calendar ticks towards 13,023, each member will push a skeletal hand up through four feet of dirt to report her losses on a whiteboard reading, “I weighed 232 pounds at the start of the year. I lost 232 pounds during the year. Please tally my contribution to the group goal and let me know if I should push my other skeletal hand up through the dirt now so that I can clap my bones together delightedly to celebrate our achievement.”

Far from skeletal in 2012, the group agreed that this was a good challenge to take on, at which point The Children’s Librarian put down her paper and pen and tooted, “This is so awesome we have to do The Wave! Come on: it’s time for a Wave! Let’s do it!”

A stir ran through the room as members tugged down their sweatshirts to ready themselves for the synchronicity that comes from standing and putting hands into the air as part of a group swell.

Taking charge, the weight loss Group Leader gestured towards the member sitting in the outermost chair at the end of the half-moon seating arrangement. “Okay, you start! Let’s have a great Wave!!”

She had gestured toward me.

With no delay whatsoever, I replied in a strong teacher voice, “Nope. It’s not going to be me. I’m not a Waver. Someone else, please.”

It was like the tide had been coming in, rushing forward merrily, and then the wave was rudely sucked back from shore, creating a vacuum of sound and energy. All breath in the room was suspended, hanging, waiting for the wave to break the tension, push back, and be realized.

I looked at the woman to my right and said, “You should go ahead and start. I can’t be part of A Wave, so it’s on you.”

She looked at me curiously, as though she wanted to ask, “Are you a Jehovah’s Witness or something?”

However, she simply yanked at her sweatshirt self-consciously and whispered, “Naw, you just go ahead.” At the same time, Group Leader gestured to me again and, thinking I needed the idea of a Wave illuminated, said, “You’re on the end, so that means you start us out, and then we all follow. Let’s start Our Wave!!” I shook my head un-self-consciously, glanced down to appreciate my lack of sweatshirt, and maintained, “I’m not a Waver. Someone else should start. I don’t do Waves.”

Seventy eyes looked upon me with confusion. Whaddya mean, not do A Wave? Attempting to lubricate the situation, Children’s Librarian called out, as she swooped up out of her seat and extended her arms to the ceiling, “It’s like this. You just stand up and do that, and then everyone follows.”

“Yea, I get it. I know what A Wave is. The thing is, no.”

At this point, a group of three women, working together, angled for my attention to show me how the thing would go, if only I would play my role and get it started.

Leaning back, crossing my legs, I debated my soap boxing options. I could use this opportunity to explain, “Here’s the deal: I participate in this group because my psychology responds to external accountability. Also, the food plan is not nonsense. That’s why I’m here. And I know women are acculturated to be apologetic about their impulses, but I seem to have overcome that tendency pretty admirably because I feel no need to say ‘Sorry’ here about the fact that I don’t want to pretend to be a scrapbooking sports fan type who thinks The Wave is cool or cute or, more confoundingly, meaningful.” Alternately, I could keep my mouth shut and let them riddle through my unpredictable behavior. I went with the latter.

Group Leader tried one more time, coming closer and urging, “Start now! Stand up! Then we all go!” In return, I raised my voice and noted, “There is another side of the room.  Why not start over on that side and have Your Wave end with me sitting here?”

Flummoxed, the group energy of the room tried to right itself but became agitated and fluttery. As something like desperation gripped the room–Whaddya mean, not do a Wave?–women from all corners started popping out of their seats, floating their hands upwards, reaching down and tugging on their neighbors’ sleeves in an effort to get The Wave flowing and crashing. Ultimately, The Wave came off more like a round of Whack-a-Mole, with heads bobbing up and down haphazardly, the disparate factions of energy never synchronizing into amplitude.

Like an offshore reef, I had broken The Wave.

On this note–with me feeling perversely tickled and the rest of them wondering what had just happened–the meeting adjourned.

As I was heading for the door, however, any sense of personal triumph over ridiculousness was deflated when the group leader chirped brightly,

“See you ‘lighter’!”

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A Bracelet of Barbie Hands for Everyone!

“I am haunted by waters,” ends Norman Maclean’s lyrical novella A River Runs Through It.

The word “haunted,” as Maclean intends it, is not so much “plaguing my nightmares”—in the fashion of John Lithgow’s serial killer turn on Dexter, where he plants a victim on the outside edge of a balcony and tells her she must choose to release her grip and let herself fall to her death, or else he’ll go get her children, bring them back, and toss them off the balcony in front of her, thereby forcing the kind of psychologically-laden murder that masquerades as a suicide. Rather, Maclean’s “haunted” is more one of “a low-level thrumming through my daily subconscious that colors my emotional relationship with the world”–in the fashion of the lifetime hangover brought on by one’s family of origin.

For me, “haunting” can be fear based, or it can be mournful, romantic, unsettling, elegiac, nostalgic, sweet;  sometimes the things that haunt me are full of ache, sometimes full of warmth.

As I look back on 2011, I see a year richly haunted. What has touched my core in a way that will linger beyond the confines of a calendar-defined 365 days?

1)      The time in Turkey.  This is a given, perhaps even much belabored at this point, I realize. However, I’ll express it once again. To have lived in a country positioned so uniquely politically, geographically, historically, and culturally was a gift whose tissue paper layers I will continue to peel back slowly and deliberately for years to come. My life will be forever different from that experience of profound loneliness, alienation, acceptance, tolerance, confusion, certainty, overwhelmedness, and hospitality. I wonder if I’ll ever completely understand all that it means to me.  I am haunted by gratitude and wonder.

2)      The giddy experience of returning to the States after our year in Turkey. I will never again be so excited to see a bag of Twizzlers and a bottle of Annie’s Gingerly salad dressing.  I will never again be so humbly brought to my knees by the promise of a good cup of coffee and a well-crafted beer. More than anything–more strongly felt than any desire to rip into a box of Triscuits as I drive home from the Cub Foods–I am haunted, five months after our return, by a deep appreciation for the wide and varied community of friends and family that we have built up over the years.

3)      Sky lanterns. A friend in Ortahisar took us out onto her terrace one night when the moon was bright and high in the sky; she and our Girl lit the lantern’s flame. Then we all watched as the thin paper filled with smoke and air. When it was full, they released their fingertips from its base, and we all stood silently, watching the lantern gain altitude over the valley. Ten minutes later, we still watched the lantern tracing a path across the night sky, getting smaller and smaller in the distance until it winked off into the darkness. Some months later, we stood on the beach near our house in Duluth and lit our own sky lanterns, this time with friends of longstanding. The lanterns rose above the water and drifted east, towards Wisconsin…towards Turkey. I am haunted by a sky that blankets the world.

[youtube]http://youtu.be/bK1Mje6Gs6k[/youtube]

4)      Good reads. I literally joined goodreads.com this year (thanks, Jess and Jazz, for the motivation!), and it’s helped me actually remember books I’ve read and what I thought of them. A few of the books that linger within my reading self are Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, and Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie. Mind you, I’m not asserting these books are great; I’m asserting that they contain voices, observations, and events that have haunted my days well after the last page was read.

5)      These guys. Like this. Even in a year when they finally figured out how to bicker, I have been haunted the magic of their genuine affection for each other.

6)      The music of Cloud Cult, The Avett Brothers, and Bon Iver. Cloud Cult, in particular—that hipster biodiesel-van-touring hippy group sprouting from a geothermally-powered organic farm—has become the soundtrack of my year. While I’m a confirmed agnostic, I do believe there is some free-form energy afoot in the universe, and when I listen to Cloud Cult, I feel like I’m hearing this energy harnessed and made audible.

If you’re feeling impatient, forward the video below to about 1:48 and then relax, Mavis. Just sit back and let it build in you. If you need more motivation, watch the lead man there, one Craig Minowa, and consider his story: in 2002, his two-year-old son died (unexpectedly).  Last week, in late December of 2011, he became a father again, this time to a girl named Iris Aurora.  How can we not lift our hands into the air and rejoice with him?

[youtube] http://youtu.be/udWIFQgAcYQ[/youtube]

I am haunted by the energy in us.

7)     Parks ‘n Rec and Mad Men (Season 4). Although we had cable last year in Turkey, which allowed me to catch such shows as Sex in the City and Keeping up with the Kardashians, our return to the world of Netflix and streaming on demand means that we have some choice in the television programs we ingest. Mad Men has been groundbreaking all along, so its beautifully-paced and dramatized Season 4 comes as no surprise. Parks ‘n Rec does. I had previously watched the first three episodes of Parks ‘n Rec and been left limp, not so impressed.  However, giving the show one more shot allowed me to witness its easy brilliance–a true ensemble satire with enough heart to be poignant.  Plus, Byron and I have realized that I finally have a television personality doppelganger in the crotchety Libertarian Ron Swanson. I burst into spontaneous tears when Amy Poehler’s character presented him with a birthday present of time alone in a room with a steak, some booze, and a movie.

I am haunted by fine writing, well packaged.

8 )     Winter and the lake nearby. Although winter has been relatively warm and snowfree thus far, I am aware that my body feels naturally attuned to this season. Some months ago, it was warm. Then it was less warm. Now it’s colder. It will get colder yet. Then it will get warm again. At that point, there will be asparagus and strawberries, and I will eat them, longing for the haunting beauty of gently-illuminated ice.

9)     The movie Weekend. This small, extraordinary film serves as an object lesson for those overblown, ill-handled wrecks like New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day. Weekend redefines a romance on the screen and satisfies my urge for a quiet movie that lets the actors prove themselves, that respects the audience enough to let them witness something rare and special. Ostensibly a “gay film,” Weekend actually speaks to the experience of anyone who’s ever navigated the choppy waters of seeking intimacy. Early on, there is a scene in which the main character hits a bar, hoping for a pick-up; it felt so painfully familiar and full of remembered discomfort that I almost had to avert my gaze and pick at my cuticles with rather too much deliberate distraction. By the movie’s end, in which sentimentality plays no role and subsequently leaves room for something quite genuine, I was haunted by missed chances and unfortunate timing.

10)    Mannequins and fake body parts. Mavis, what can I say? Turkey was rife with awkward-looking mannequins posed so as to bring to life the hard-to-imagine past. Even now when we watch slide shows of our year abroad, the kids sigh, long suffering, and say, “Oh, Mom. I know you just wish we could go to another ethnographic museum so you could see a fake guy cooking lavash or something.”

Indeed.

What a delight it was, therefore, that the annual Christmas display in downtown Minneapolis helped to assuage my “I’m missing the creepy mannequins” pangs.

 I actually heard this elf saying, ” I will hug him, I will love him, I will feed him and I will call him George.”

How like a nekkid pig to dance with abandon while all the other animals do the heavy lifting. Put on some Spanx already, Self-Absorbed Nudist Piglet.

Just as gratifying as the ethnographic mannequins and the nutty Christmas displays was the day I was directed to a website selling disembodied Barbie jewelry. Two words: Wow. Eek. Do I really have to specify what haunts me here?

11)     The WTF? podcast by Mark Maron. While I’ve traditionally enjoyed NPR favorites like This American Life and Fresh Air when it comes to filling my head and ears during exercise time, my recent months have seen a turn towards Maron’s conversations with comedians (and a variety of personalities). He sits in his garage with them, positions the mics, and they talk.  He asks a question; the interviewee responds at length.  They go back and forth. There are multiple follow-up questions. In this age of everyone trying to shout louder than everyone else–of all our voices getting swallowed into the cacophony of social media–it is a dadgum blessed relief to hear only two voices in a space set aside just for them. One side benefit of the good-old-fashioned conversatin’ is that I end up knowing and liking people about whom I’d had reservations.  Notably smart interviews are those with Conan O’Brien, Anthony Bourdain, and Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller).

I am haunted by the voices in my head.

12)      You. There is a you, and you mean more to me than you might guess. If you’re thinking, “But you don’t even really know me, J-bomb,” let me first ask you to stop using annoying faux-names like “J-bomb” before assuring you of my deep and pervasive impressionability. Sometimes I spend thirty seconds in the checkout line staring at a cashier, yet her affect and persona stick with me for days. I have one-sided conversations with her. I re-imagine the fatigue in her eyes. I hear again the rasp of her voice. I picture her with her family, sitting down to mac ‘n cheese and a game of table tennis on the Wii. Compared to the meaning I wring from such fleeting interactions, you are positively vital and enduring. I am haunted by the texture you lend to my head and my heart.

For the year past and the one to come, thank you.

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Girl, Discovered

Effortlessly, they became her best friends.

In a year nearly free of peer interactions, she needed them. In a year of new and strange and awkward, she needed to feel less alone.

And they were there.

Amber and Mollie and Madison and Abby and Arriana and Madison and Alyssa and Dakota and Sareena and Rebecca and Madison and Kyra and Ashley. Plus a few more Madisons, Dakotas, and maybe a random Cody or two. No matter the name, they were there for our Girl, providing her with the tween companionship she lacked in Turkey.

When we left the States, she had three or four editions of Discovery Girls magazine in her possession; she’d only recently become aware of this publication (“Created by girls, for girls”) and hadn’t had time to accrue a larger stash. As the isolation of our expatriate lives set in, she spent more and more time leafing through the pages of those issues. She memorized entire passages of text and would challenge me to figure out which girls featured in each issue were her most admired. Because each issue features twelve girls from a showcased state, I had only to winnow out nine or ten of the profiled girls to land on Girl’s favorites. Often, she liked the ones who looked most like her; more often, she liked the ones who shared her interests–who seemed most likely to be her friends in real life. As I scanned the twelve girls, trying to hit on Girl’s exact favorite, and I read about, say, young Sarah who “likes reading, chocolate, soccer, and hanging out with friends,” then I could easily see the similarity and won the “Gosh, Mom, I can’t believe you chose the right one!” award.

The hours she spent with her Discovery Girl friends gave her balance, excitement, courage–all things she needed to weather life in a foreign, dusty village. Shored up by her friends, our Girl greeted the entire year in Turkey with a matter-of-fact positivism. She was a champ.

Thus, after a few months–right around when she got comfortable with letting us hand her a 20 lira note so that she could run up to the grocer and get a few items off the shopping list–when she announced somewhat dolefully, somewhat mournfully, that she’d been watching eBay for auctions on back issues of DG and that there was a lot of 22 issues currently open for bidding

and that it was the only thing she wanted for her birthday, for turning 11 in a country where she couldn’t speak to anyone or have a giggle with a girl her same height,

well,

we listened.

Although international shipping to Turkey wasn’t an option for this auction,

the will always finds a way, doesn’t it?

Faced with a lonely daughter who only wanted new reading material chock full of comforting images and words, I went manic-eBay and won that lot. I had it sent to our great pal, Kirsten, who would hang on to the stack of past issues until we could get them into our daughter’s hands.

As it turned out, Kirsten ended up flying me to London a few weeks before Girl’s birthday.  I went there to surprise Kirsten’s wife, Virginia. Kirsten and Virginia were on a Spring Break trip with a group of people from their community. Once she had all the pieces of our travel in place, Kirsten announced, with the generosity that defines her, “I’ve got a bunch of folks on the tour lined up to each take a couple issues of Discovery Girls in their bags; that way, no one has to carry a lot of pounds, but we can get all 22 issues across the pond.  Bring an empty suitcase. What with the magazines and all the Twizzlers and American Delights I’m bringing you, you’re going to need it.”

Ultimately, Kirsten and Virginia were able to get all the magazines in their own baggage (“I just pulled out some of the clothes I was going to bring, and then they all fit!”). Not knowing I would be in London, Virginia was under the impression that the magazines would be mailed to Turkey from London. In addition to her generous heart, Kirsten is skilled at weaving a cockamamie tale into something believeable.

So I went to London. I felt the love. I got the magazines. I flew back to Turkey. I hid them away (thank you, Greeks, for carving all those convenient alcoves).

Here’s what the reveal looked like on Girl’s 11th birthday:

[set_id=72157628530374283]

…completely worth all those late-night bids.

As well, every visitor who came to Turkey during the year brought Girl the issue currently for sale. Her grandparents promised her a subscription upon our return to the U.S. By the time we headed onto the planes that wended our way home, from Kayseri to Istanbul to Chicago to Minneapolis, Girl carried approximately 30 issues of Discovery Girl in her backpack, from shuttle down concourse to under-seat storage. There was no way her best friends could have been relegated to checked baggage. She needed them near.

Before our time in Turkey was over, though, when her obsession had moved into its “slow burn” phase, Girl wrote a homeschool persuasive essay (I was trying to pound the standard five-paragraph format into her). She chose her own topic.

Discovery Me

            Discovery Girls magazine was started in 2000 around a kitchen table with 12 girls brainstorming ideas. Now it has almost a million readers. It started in Fall 2000. Now DG is nation wide and it can be found everywhere in North America. What is included in DG is “Ask Ali,”which is an advice column, embarrassing moments, quizzes, polls, true stories, fashion, and the most exciting thing they do is every two months they have a “Next Stop” announcement which lets readers know which state they are going to visit next. In the next stop state they pick twelve girls who submit the most creative questionnaires. DG has accomplished so many states like Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Kansas, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and so many more. Because it’s my favorite magazine, I should be chosen to be one of the girls in Discovery Girls magazine.

             The first reason why I would like to be in Discovery Girls is that I would make eleven new friends from around my state. Two of the girls from the New Jersey issue said that they became very close friends, and everybody who was chosen to be in DG said it was a great experience to make new friends. The New Jersey girls Catherine and Maria interviewed each other. One girl named Blake from Kansas said, “I applied because I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to make new friends and to be in a magazine.” If I were chosen to be in DG, I am sure that I would make a group of friends that would last a long time.  

            The second reason why I would like to be in the magazine is that I would get to participate in a special activity and be in a photo shoot with all of my new friends. For the special activity, some examples that other states have done are: Kansas had a Halloween party, New Hampshire had a spa day, Nevada had a sleepover, New York made and decorated cupcakes. I think that if Discovery Girls came to Minnesota, the fun day should be exploring the Mall of America! In the photo shoots, they first fix the girls’ hair up so they look nice for their profile photos. For their cover shots, DG has the clothes picked out, but for each girl’s profile shot it’s all up to her. In a profile it states some of these things: Dream Job, Hobbies, Friends Describe Me As, Prized Possession, My style Is, Favorite Food, Favorite Music, Fun Fact, Favorite Color. For each girl’s cover shot, she does it with one other girl, but only one of the shots gets on the main issue, and a different one gets on the Middle School Edition issue. During the photo shoots they dance to cool music and get a ton of pictures taken of them.

            The last reason I want to be a Discovery Girl is because I would get to contribute to the contents of the magazine. The Discovery Girls help write the stories, and they will model for articles. For stories they didn’t write, they will model for them, and DG has a section called “Matters of the Heart” where girls can contribute, and two girls from that issue have their advice and input about that topic contributed. There is another section called “The Great Debate” where two girls have their input featured. Also for articles readers send in, that issue’s Discovery Girls will model for them, and that issue’s Discovery Girls will come up with the quizzes, polls, and other fun activities. DG’s saying is “Created by Girls, For Girls,” and I think I would have lots of good ideas to contribute.

            Overall, I really want to be a Discovery Girl before I turn thirteen because I would make new friends, I would get to participate in a special activity and be in a photo shoot, and I would get to contribute to the contents of the magazine. This is why I am checking every day to see if they have a next stop announcement for Minnesota.

You know where I’m going with this, right?

In early November 2011, Discovery Girls announced its Next Stop locations (the magazine announces three places, all in the same region, as a single Next Stop). There was Wisconsin. There was Ontario. There was

Minnesota

I learned of this announcement from a quick skittering of feet followed by a breathless “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”

When your daughter is in middle school, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!” only comes out when she’s so possessed by genuine emotion that she forgets to overlay cool attitude and tone it down into a vaguely condescending “Oh, Mother.”

So, yes, DG is coming to our state. There was a series of questions for which she needed to write up essay answers. She needed to submit three photographs (full body, waist-up, and head). She had about two weeks to get her application in. This was no problem, as the Girl who only wants running shoes and office supplies for Christmas knows how to make a plan and carry it out. She chose the weekend for us to shoot some photos of her. She chose the hairstyles and clothes. She chose her backdrops. She set aside three days after Thanksgiving for writing up her essay responses to the online questionnaire. The last of those three days was Mommy–I’m sorry, “Mother”–Editing time, during which I tweaked her punctuation and grammar and suggested ways to beef up her answers (“You haven’t mentioned attending an international Space Camp in Turkey where you were the only native English speaker in a group of 166 kids!  DG needs to know that you’re a kid who shows up and holds her own”).

A week before the final deadline, she had everything submitted.

The wait began. In so many ways, our Girl embodies what this magazine is looking for: she’s active and strong and a “complete package.” Her presence on the DG pages would not cause an exodus of tween subscribers. Her presence on the DG pages might, rather, serve as an inspiration and comfort to some girl halfway across the globe

…as we knew, from firsthand experience, could happen.

On the other hand, tossing oneself into any application process is a complete afternoon at the casino. There are winners, and there are not-winners. I know from my years of serving on search committees at colleges that a selection process is more whimsical than logical–that one person’s agenda might override everyone else’s instincts. What’s more, in the case of DG, there would be hundreds, perhaps thousands (???), of Minnesota girls applying. Trying to lay the groundwork for potential disappointment, I asked her one day, “So, although I think you’re clearly a Discovery Girl in who you are, how are you going to feel if you don’t get chosen?  Are you going to be crushed?”

She looked at me with surprise.  “Mom, if I don’t get chosen, I will be so excited to see who they did choose from Minnesota.”

Have I mentioned lately that I aspire to be my daughter when I grow up?

The DG website indicated that decisions would be made and the twelve girls from Minnesota notified around December 16th. The 16th came and went. No email.

A few more days passed. The website message still read “We are currently reviewing questionnaires and selecting our Discovery Girls for this stop. Thank you to everyone who filled out a questionnaire and sent it in!”

DAY-um. Come ON.

Except.

Then.

A couple of days ago,

Byron went downstairs a bit before 7 a.m. He’s usually too busy warming up waffles and boiling water for oatmeal and coffee to turn on the computer.

It would seem the great Discovery Girl Goddess in the Sky likes Daddies, however, for she urged Byron to check the email.

Still lying in the darkness of my room, awaiting Paco’s morning visit for cuddles, I heard Byron’s methodical tread up the stairs. His voice in Girl’s room.

And then the skittering of feet down the hallway towards my room, accompanied by “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…!!!”

She threw herself on the bed, crossways into my lap,

in the exact position I had used to nurse her for two years.

My baby was a Discovery Girl.

My baby had grown up

lived inside an abstracted dream during a time when she needed comfort

stepped outside the dream and looked at its requirements, its demands

and made that dream her reality.

The very first time I felt her move, she was inside me, and the sensation was that of a goldfish flitting around, having a particularly exhuberant swim.

Nearly twelve years later, she is separate from me, which allows her to move my insides in powerful new ways.

It’s been three days now since we received the email, congratulating Girl for being chosen as a Minnesota Discovery Girl. We called a few people right away; we told everyone within the sound of our voices. We passed on the small tidbits of information we knew: the special activity and photo shoot days will happen in a month, in Milwaukee (a central location where the magazine will set up shop for its Wisconsin, Ontario, and Minnesota issues). Amongst the adults, there has been a fair bit of squealing.

Girl, though?

She still hasn’t told anyone at school, even her best pals. Her rational is that, “It’s embarrassing. I don’t want anyone to think I’m showing off.”

I like her so much.

For me, from the parental view, this week has surprised me on an emotional level. I knew I’d have a good cry, if Girl were chosen. That’s what I do; it’s who I am. But what I couldn’t have predicted is that I would experience an entirely new kind of joy, the likes of which I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. The thing is, this joy is so pure. When I think of the other occasions of heightened happiness in my life, like winning a speech tournament or having a first kiss or finishing a race or getting married, they all are fraught with complexity. Mixed into the bliss of such events are pain and planning and tears and confusion. Life’s best moments of happiness are awarded that status because they aren’t easy and because they entail risk, uncertain investment, follow-through, qualms.

With this business of witnessing my child’s achievement, however, my joy is pure. There is no thinking or processing or weight to it. I am just. so. happy.

At many points in my life, I’ve been disillusioned with the universe–wanting it to be a place of justice and rightness–wanting it to reward the good and punish the bad. I know that’s simplistic thinking, but it’s also motivational thinking. It gives us a reason to try. Yet the universe doesn’t play fair, and good people get cancer while bad people live in penthouses, and Paul Wellstone dies in a plane crash while Rod Blagojevich retains a full head of hair,

and sometimes it’s a little disheartening.

But then this really great kid gets her most fervent wish granted,

which, in the scope of things is small, inconsequential, of no matter–

yet for a few of us, it’s evidence that sometimes the universe gets things right.

It’s evidence that we should keep trying

because the reward of pure joy

is matchless.

Wishing you unadulterated joy this holiday season!

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Notes of a Memory

I was traveling

a trip to Ireland

when all I wanted to do was stay home with A Guy

whom, it turned out,

had no space for me

yet it would take him some time to inform me of this fact

At the time

I hung My Everything on him

In return, he flattened himself out and slid away

I didn’t know that impending future yet

All I knew was I was alone

traveling in Ireland

thinking of A Guy back home

Alone

knowing enough of confidence to approximate it through sheer will

I headed to Co. Donegal

the village of Killybegs

where I was the only guest at the B & B

treated like a daughter by the B & B hostess

–my B & B mom

She and her husband took me dancing at The Blue Moon

A wooden-floored makeshift ballroom

the hub of their social life

There, I communed and spun with the village’s grey beards

The rest of the week I spent

hitching

reading the treacle that is A Prayer For Owen Meany

all throughout, feeling the clump of my hiking boots as I did a foxtrot with a 65-year-old, hopped in to a handyman’s truck on my return from Slieve League, climbed the stairs to my top-floor room in the B & B

To travel alone is something

challenging

requiring that self-consciousness be benched

demanding staunchness in the face of solitude

At its best,

to travel alone

opens one up

increases approachability

Traveling alone made me accessible

my face never turned toward a companion’s

my conversation partner not pre-determined

When I traveled alone

People saw me

talked to me

cared for me

included me

The daily crucible

when traveling alone

was meal time

Usually, I would wade into a pub with my book for a companion

In Killybegs, I ended up with my own “local”

my neck bending towards the pub’s window one late afternoon as I clomped past

having tried and failed to work up the courage to seat myself and order a chicken breast at the establishment down the road

I was pushing against an unsatiated hunger

when my neck bent towards the window

Over the sound of my clomps, I heard

fiddle music

beckoning

my curiosity equalizing my dread at wading into a new place with no back-up

A deep breath filling my lungs, I leaned against the door

assuring myself the worst that could happen would be feeling out of place, pressed against the wall by the pressure of too many staring eyes

much like moving from social science to study hall in the junior high building had

In the pub, the door swooshing closed behind me,

I scanned a largely empty room

the focal point of which was a curly-headed man with a full beard

his facial hair framed by the chin rest of his violin

his fiddle

an extension of his shoulder

his bow

organic to his hand

one Martin McGinley

His eyes flicked up to take in the newcomer

He grinned

and played

The swell of elegiac notes mollified my nerves

and fell across the listeners

a tumbling cascade

baptizing the congregated

I sat

sipping a cider

at ease

listening

eating that chicken breast

The sky over the Atlantic darkened

pushing more people into the pub’s light

more drinks

more musicians opening their cases

joining in with the plaintive strains of the fiddle

Another fiddler

Pipes

Drums

A voice

No stage

Rather–

friends sitting at a table

surrounding Martin with a volunteer corps of fellow players

Together they were

amazing

their harmony swirling out the window

flying into the inky black

darting amongst the stars

I sat for hours the first night

on a cushioned bench in the back

engaging in conversation with a local…a lonely, homely native of the village

single

never married

no kids

He wandered in at dusk each day, sustaining himself with the cultural camaraderie

We talked of Louden Wrainwright—the third

We did not flirt

Free of artifice, we were two people in the same place, talking to each other,

tapping our fingers on the wooden table, rhythmically thumping our heels up and down

I returned to the pub the subsequent night

my dreams having jigged all the sleep before

By myself, but not alone, I ordered dinner

and a cider

caught eyes across the room with Louden Wrainwright—the third—guy

raised my glass in greeting

chose a seat close to the grouping musicians

and discovered, over the next few hours, that a young village fisherman with black-grey hair

intended to press drinks upon me

until I applied for citizenship

The next day

I walked some kilometers down the road to the beach

scoring a ride from The Strand back to the village in the car of an English lord

That afternoon, I wandered the village, looking for diversion

eventually remembering my B & B mom’s suggestion–

something about the Blessing of the Fleet

I looked towards the harbor,

the docks,

and spotted a huge building

into which hundreds of bodies flowed

My hiking boots clomped,

and I blended into the stream of humanity

As I had at the pub,

I stood at the back

Alone but surrounded

Not really so alone

A man in robes entered

strode to the front

a crucifix in hand

His words would protect the boats

save the sailors

protect the fishermen

assure a hefty catch

create a buffer of belief around the villagers

draw upon the collective power of persistent faith

They needed this

Standing amongst the crowd

in my thick-soled boots

encircled by women in skirts and pumps

men in cabled sweaters

I heard

a melody from Martin’s fiddle float across the harbor

an added blessing

I needed it, too

[tentblogger-youtube fh4ej7KpRSc]
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Don’t Be That Guy

A few years ago, on a frigid winter’s day, I went out for a run on Duluth’s paved exercise trail, The Lakewalk.  This trail is wide enough for foot and bike traffic to coexist–although it gets considerably narrower after months of snowfall, when snow-clearing machines have cut a line down its middle and packed rectangular drifts high on either side.

That day, I felt like I was running through a chute of snow, flanked on either side by rock-hard mounds of the stuff.  The sun was shining, and I was engaged in full internal conversation with the callers of the Dan Savage podcast as it piped through my earbuds. I listened to advice-seeker after advice-seeker delineating relationship problems, from sexual incompatibility to anger issues to passive-aggressive judgments, only to end the litany with the words, “But I really love him/her. When we’re good, it’s really great, and I just really love him/her.”  This is the point in every show when Savage pulls out his oft-used advice:  DTMFA  (“dump the motherf**cker already”).  His advice, again and again, is that the relationship is actually already finished; it’s just a matter of how many years the caller would like to devote to coming to terms with that fact.  Objective listeners immediately perceive that the floaty concept of “love” is rarely enough to overcome fundamental day-to-day disappointments.  Nodding and agreeing with Savage’s willingness to call a doomed relationship when he heard it, wishing he’d been around when I was 25,

I was yanked out of my advice-giving reverie by the voice of a man running up behind me, shouting, “GET OFF.  GET OFF THE PATH.  GET OFF NOW.  HE’S COMING, AND HE’S NOT STOPPING!”

For the briefest of milliseconds, I thought the real-life man was part of the conversation going on inside my head–an all-too-common problem, really, sort of like when I think my friends from high school know my friends from college and I wonder if they’ve had a falling out because they never get together any more.  When the shouting man tapped my shoulder and pointed behind us, though, I was completely jolted into reality.

A few hundred yards back, on the snow-locked Lakewalk, was a speeding jeep using the exercise trail as its private highway.  Behind the jeep were five police cars, lights flashing.  The scenario had the studied speed and focus of the famous O.J. Simpson chase; this one, however, was taking place mere feet from the edge of Lake Superior and was held to its course by a chute of snow.

Holy Flat Stanley, but that jeep was heading straight for us, eating up all open real estate. We had only a couple of seconds to get off the trail, and the options were limited.  Pretty much, when you have one choice, you take it.  Only slightly daunted by the shoulder-high wall of snow, the warning man and I jumped up, clawing our gloves into the ice and jamming our feet into the side of the mound, hacking out stair steps with our toes.  Just as we heaved our bodies up onto the top of the heap, the jeep barreled over the spot where we’d just been standing.  As the police cars flashed past us, two things flitted through my mind: “Oh my. I saw that jeep driver’s face.  Something ain’t right in those eyes” and “What if my friend Chrissy had been out here for a walk with her three little ones?  She would have had one on foot and two in a double stroller, and how could she possibly have gotten the kids unstrapped and tossed up on the snow, much less gotten herself hoisted up, before that maniac plowed over her still-swaying baby buggy?  I mean, mama adrenaline can do amazing things, but a single 120-pound woman could not have grabbed a double stroller and thrown it to the top of a mountain of snow while simultaneously boosting a preschooler and herself up it.”

A fair bit freaked out by the close call, both real and imagined, I sat for a minute with the man who had gotten my attention.  We exchanged relieved “what the hell was that?” small talk until our heart rates slowed, at which point we slithered back down to the trail, planning to plop ourselves in front of the news that night.

It turns out the man in the jeep that day had stolen the car, was mentally altered by a mixture of substances, and was chased by the police through the city and down the Lakewalk until he ultimately crashed the car into the side of a building, a development that made the snapping on of handcuffs infinitely easier for the pursuing officers.

For the man in the jeep, that day was a life changer.  For me, it provided a momentary reminder of the randomness of everything; of the need to keep the volume on the iPod relatively low; of thankfulness for a body that could climb; of the kindness of strangers; of having brushed up against danger.  It provided me, in short, with an object lesson that I can trot out for my kids on occasions when a little drama is needed to get their attention.

Since I’m not so much into heavy-handed parenting, I generally use references to that incident to convey one of my sparse parental morals, so I end my recounting of Near Death on the Lakewalk with the words:  “…and so, don’t ever be that guy.”

Yup, that’s about all I’ve got, in terms of the values I want to impart to my kids. Just don’t ever be that guy.  Be whoever you’re going to be, but not that guy or anyone like him.

I suppose my brief list of parental values stems from laziness.  I’m too low energy to form a vision of my children that I then want to direct them towards.  I don’t have the drive to try to mold them.  So long as they’re doing okay with my one stricture of don’t ever be that guy, I can stay out of their faces.

The ease of my parental values situation makes me feel for parents of faith. The sheer number of hours they have to put into getting their kids to believe in the invisible is staggering.  I still feel bad for my mom, when I think back to her attempts to motivate her sullen adolescent children out of bed each Sunday morning–years after I’d had the private conversation within myself that went, “When I’m in church, I don’t feel anything except annoyance, the need to pretend to be something I’m not, and that there is some seriously awesome people watching to be done here. Shouldn’t I feel something in this place–outside of my jaw dropping when I look at the amount of hairspray welding the bun to the head of Mrs. Johnson in the pew in front of me?”  After years of getting through services by playing hangman with my brother, we started to rebel.  We refused to go.  We rejected our parents’ values.

There went 2,000 hours of hard, faith-instilling effort they’d never get back.

As the cliche goes, you pick your battles when it comes to raising kids.  For me, provided they’re not the guy in a stolen car, about to crash it into a brick wall, I can hang back.  I know this will get more complicated as they get older, and we have to deal with the complications of maturing in a raw world, but for now, I’m only pushing two Rules for Being:

1)  Don’t be that guy

2)  Be kind

So long as they aren’t drunk behind the wheel of a stolen car, and so long as they treat the people in their lives with kindness, I’ll be over on the bed, reading Keith Richards’ memoir.

Speaking of drunks behind the wheel.

Actually, now that I think of it, there is one more Rule of Being on my list.  They need to not be that guy; they need to be kind; and also, they

never

need

to

smile

for

the

camera

if

they

don’t

feel

like

it.

In my mind, smiling for the camera is akin to attending church when you’re not so sure you believe.  It’s a kind of putting on the shine that makes me cringe.

You wouldn’t think You Don’t Have to Smile for the Camera If You Don’t Want To would need to be inked into my half-page book of parental values, but it does, for an amazing number of people on the planet wielding cameras insist on a smile as though it is somehow revelatory of true character.  I’d argue that Ted Bundy was able to put on a smile with the best of them and that the ability to smile on command should make us all a leeetle bit uncomfortable.

Smiling for the camera, if you don’t feel like smiling for the camera, is bull.

This parental value has probably evolved out of who my kids are.  They’re reserved. Their smiles are in their hearts and burst out naturally if the occasion merits it.  I can’t bear to see them try to work up a fake smile so that the person behind the camera stops yelling (encouragingly?) at them.  This past year, we had visitors in Turkey who were annoyed when Paco didn’t want to pose with a smile for a group photo.  He was told they’d come a very long way and, therefore, he owed them smiles in their photos.  Yea, I intervened on that one with a hearty, “No, he doesn’t.” Aiming for some small grace, I swallowed the follow-up sentiment of “…so back off your unreasonable emotional blackmail NOW.”

From that point on, I asked all visitors to submit in advance a list of what would be “owed” to them for their travel.  After reviewal of the list, we’d let them know if they should make the effort.  In return, I probably should have sent everyone a list of what we could promise, a quick breakdown of the household values:

1)  Don’t be that guy in the stolen jeep

2) Be kind

3) You don’t ever have to smile for a photo if you don’t feel like it, lest we be forced to ask the demanding photographer to weigh the merits of these two contrasting photos when it comes to capturing the spirit:

—————————-

As I note, the list of parentally-insisted-upon values will probably grow as the kids age.  In a few years, my list will probably read:

1) Don’t ever be that guy in the stolen jeep

2) Be kind

3) You don’t ever have to smile for a photo if you don’t want to

4) If you’re sexually incompatible with someone you “love,” DTMFA

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Himself Pleases This Mass

Much of this blog has been a love letter to Groom.

Himself.

Byron.

I’ve felt lately, more than ever, that the blogging conceit of pseudonyms can be fairly tiring.  Anyhow, so,  yea.  He’s Byron.  Most of you knew that already.

If not, here’s your pneumonic device.  Byron.  As in, Lord Byron.  As in, Romantic Poet.  As in, my personal romance guy.

Outside of the fact that I married someone with an actual name (versus my first husband, who went by —–.  Lawsy, but it was hard to call out to him as he browsed the produce section in the Cub foods when I was trying to get his attention to tell him that there were samples of Dublin cheddar out on a platter in the deli.  I’d be all “——! ———!” and he’d never even glance up from the bundles of asparagus he was handling a bit too fondly…speaking of why we ultimately broke up).

In case I just fooled some of you:  no, I never had a first husband.

Wait, I mean, I did.  I do.  It’s the one I have now.

Byron.

But there was never a ——- before him.

And I can’t foresee any kind of future with a —— after him.

Because he is my One and Only.  In every possible soppy way.

His many wonders have been chronicled on this blog in the past, so I needn’t belabor my swooniness.  But ho and what hark? Hold up! There is something new to add to the litany of Byron delights: he added a ton of spinach into our red lentil soup the other night because we’d brought home a big box of produce from his sister’s farm after Thanksgiving, and the spinach was going to go off pretty quickly,

and–don’t get me wrong, I really like spinach, just not as a flotilla in my soup–

…I’ll be damned if those lily pads of spinach streamers didn’t manage to enhance what was already a wonderful concoction.

This is what Byron did for my life.  His lily-pad-spinach-streamer self enhanced what was already a wonderful concoction.

He’s my lily pad.  He doesn’t like it when I hop on him, though.

He’s my spinach streamer.  He does like it when I pretend to eat him and then pop out huge muscles as I gravel, “I yam what I yam.”

He’s forty-one today.

Oh, hey, wait again.  Not only did he increase his repertoire of wonders when he pulled off the swampy spinach soup thing.

He also recently did this:

[tentblogger-youtube i6AmNsLdZGE]

He’s still working on mastering his unicycle, though.

Let’s give him ’til forty-two, ‘k?

Here’s the thing:  I want to acknowledge his birthday because he hung my moon, bedecking it with spinach streamers.  However, he will be bored worse than a presidential debate if all of y’all nice people just say “Happy birthday” in the comments.  To keep his attention, howzabout your comment contains the food/dish/recipe in your life that you were skeptical about…until you ate it, at which point you were won over completely?

I’ll start:  I have long been long-suffering and visibly tolerant when asked to eat soup with streamers of greens floating in it.  I can do it.  Don’t wanna.  Until the red lentil business the other night.

….which is to say,

I love you beyond all green things that stick in my teeth, Byron.

May you enjoy your new Lego set–although Paco’s pretty sure you might need intensive assistance with it.

May you continue to enjoy reading Habibi–although I had to pull it out of its hiding spot in the closet and give it to you a month early when you got all excited about requesting it from the library.

May you enjoy developing your art–although you are relegated to sketching it out in the darkest unfinished corner of the basement. I still love this “Seattle” that you inked after visiting there a few years ago.

May you tamp down your annoyed reactions when faced with the fluctuating attitudes of our middle schooler–for she really does love you.  Even though I sometimes hear that you squeezed her too hard when you kissed her goodnight.  Maybe tone down your brute strength? Because she’s very, very fragile.

May you savor the gradual return of the light in the next few months.  Until then,

may you enjoy my cold feet on your calves under the covers.

You are my human radiator.  You make my every particle thrum with warmth.

You are my spinach-streamer juggler.

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