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:

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…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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If These Old Walls Could Speak

It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one’s neighbor–Eric Hoffer

For years, I watched her wandering the city, talking to herself, hugging her clutch of plastic bags to her chest defensively, avoiding eye contact, wearing dirty and mismatched clothes–her entire being an illustration of unchecked mental illness.

I saw her everywhere: muddling around downtown; getting off the bus; scuffing along the train tracks; tramping down the nearby avenue. The very sight of her rent my heart. I would look at her and feel every sting of homelessness. I would look at her closed-in, tight, disconnected, angry face and wonder if she would take a coat or blankets if I tried to offer them to her, or if she’d back away fearfully, yelling at me to leave her alone. I thought of her being so very cold, so very hungry, so very sick.  I thought of her sitting inside the foyer of the transit station, perhaps warming up a bit before heading back out onto the icy sidewalks. I thought about the nobility of the soup kitchen and shelters that offer assistance–that are brave in ways I am not. I wondered what was in those plastic bags she carried around all the time. I wondered if she was aware of herself. I wondered if she was lonely.

I wondered if anyone loved her.

Then I started noticing her shuffling along our block.  The second or third time I looked out the window and spotted her shambling self, I pointed her out to Byron.

He responded, “Yea, she lives across the street, kitty-corner, in the house on the triple lot. She’s walking home.”

HUH? Someone actually lived in the abandoned house diagonal to ours?  Sometimes, with the things he knows that I don’t, it’s like Byron lives a life entirely separate from mine, one that exists outside his head and in the world around us. That’s probably also why he knows how to rewire lamps while I am only able to imagine nighttime conversations between the Obamas, those words they exchange as they set down their books and reach over to click off the lights (Barack, yawning: “I still think Dick Cheney is a real-life Voldemort.” Michelle, adjusting her spaghetti straps: “True dat, puddin’ head.  Now sleep well; keep the red phone on your nightstand, but only use it in the case of impending nuclear disaster or a pressing need for midnight sausage pizza delivery. Order me some cheesy bread, if the latter crops up. Oh, hell, even if it’s the former.”).

As it turns out, Byron also knew that this woman, whom I’d assumed was alone, homeless, and unloved, lived in the house across the street with her husband.  He was home bound with some sort of health problem. Her name was Jackie. Beyond that, beyond what we could see of the broken front steps and rotten porch floorboards, we knew nothing. Her name was Jackie. She had a name. And every day she would make her way out of the house that should have been condemned, take the bus downtown, and start walking the streets with her plastic bags. Her husband, nameless to us, never once seen outside of the house, stayed in. This was their schedule.

Eventually, a few of the neighbors who had known Jackie before her deepest descent into mental illness learned more. I caught one neighbor as she carried a huge styrofoam container of warm food across the street. “I try to check in with Jackie sometimes. She told me today she’s really hungry and hasn’t eaten for a few days.” Then the family on the end of the block gained enough entrance to the house to realize that things needed to change. The city was alerted; support services were called into action. The husband was given a place in a home that could provide the medical care he required.  Jackie started sleeping in his room, on the floor, so that she could eat his meals. The rest of the time, she and her plastic bags roamed the streets.

The family at the end of the block, headed by a high school principal, facilitated her move to a home with proper care.  They convinced her to sell the house on the triple lot.  They spent a week heading into the ramshackle structure and filling big black garbage bags, ultimately carrying 40, 50, 60, 70 bags of hoarded junk to the dump.  As they emptied the house, they recoiled from the mold coating the walls; the walked carefully, so as to not plunge through the broken boards. They attested to the house’s appalling state.

Then a “For Sale” sign went up.  It stayed up enough months for a family of raccoons to move into the attic, using the broken windows as a point of easy access.

Then the “For Sale” sign came down.  The neighborhood awaited the day big machines would come and tear down the house. Every toddler on the block was aquiver with anticipation. We wondered if an ill-imagined McMansion, completely out of character for the feel of the block, would be erected in its place. In the preferred scenario, we wondered if some clever architect would come up with a plan for a new house that felt “old.”

It was a moot discussion, as the buyers intended to keep the structure intact, to put in new boards, to wipe and paint the walls, to replace broken windows,

to flip the place and resell it at a hefty profit.

This they did.

The buyers moved in a couple of years ago. Whereas Jackie and her husband’s inability to function normally created unhealthy boundaries around their lives, the new family immediately exhibited their own unhealthy boundaries–in this case, with the children having none at all and the parents replicating the presence of Jackie’s husband: unseen to the point where onlookers question their existence.

In my worst moments, I like to pretend we went to Turkey just to get a year away from them.

They’re really not that bad, but I do enjoy the drama that comes from cultivating a feeling of annoyance. Also, every story’s better with a villain, and since our neighborhood is, by and large, exhorbitantly wonderful, I sometimes need a little pissy yang for all that positive ying.

So I jam figurative black hats onto their heads, just to differentiate them from all the white hat wearers doing hopscotch on the sidewalk-chalked pavement in front of our house. Truth is, if I cast my mind over Villains I Have Known, it becomes quickly apparent that black hat wearers are, to a person, fascinating characters. That is, if they’re not pulling guns from their holsters outside the saloon and pointing them at you while you scramble around the back of your pa’s wagon, trying to find a pitchfork with which to defend yourself.  Pointing guns is just mean, especially when you only have a pitchfork at your disposal, and what are you supposed to do with that? Toss it like a spear at the moment the gun fires?  Here in the Midwest, we call those odds “really not very nice at all.”

Abstractedly, they are fascinating, these black-hat-wearing neighbors who moved in two years ago.  Because the adults don’t present themselves directly, we’ve had to sleuth out the bits of information we have on the family.

There are three kids. (UPDATE: since this post was written, another has been added; a few months ago, I spotted her toddler self in the middle of a busy throughway. By herself.)

That, we knew off the bat.

What with the kids swarming our lives and all.

Since the week The Black Hats moved in, the welcoming types in the neighborhood have had ample opportunity to consider the concept of boundaries and how we often don’t know lines exist until they’re crossed. For example, the kindly family next door to the new family was extremely excited that their nine-year-old boy hit it off with The Black Hats’ seven-year-old boy.  For so long, nine-year-old boy had been craving a nearby friend close to his age, for weaponry play is infinitely more fun when you have someone to stab at. With the two boys living next door to each other, there could be some backing and forthing, with an easy flow between houses and families.

Right?

In reality, seven-year-old Black Hat boy spent all day, every day, in the yard, house, porch of the kindly family. At no point did the play take place on the Black Hats’ triple lot. Black Hat boy’s two younger sisters spent all day, every day, in the yard, house, porch of the kindly family, too. It was never a matter of invitation. It was a matter of waking up in the morning, with the Black Hatted seven, five, and three-year-old children wandering next door for their daily amusement. All the better when snacks were provided.

Within a month, the kindly dad on duty sat outside for hours every day, looking frozen as four children mobbed his previously-controlled life, one where people would come to his house when it had been requested. Had it been only his nine-year-old boy on the premises, Kindly Dad would have had some time off throughout the day, for parents of young kids design their days around the odd moment of respite for themselves. Had it been only his nine-year-old boy and the new friend, the seven-year-old next door, Kindly Dad would have had even more time to kick back and dwell in his own head as the lads threatened each other with light sabers.  However. With the two younger girls attacking his space, both of them too young to be left untended, Kindly Dad found himself running a distinctively not-for-profit daycare.

Bewildered in the way of a Midwesterner who takes a loaf of bread over to the new neighbors to welcome them to the neighborhood and subsequently ends up with the new family’s children in his care from that moment on, Kindly Dad sank into the kind of long-suffering tolerance that is, in fact, repressed panic. When he wasn’t bandaging scrapes or refereeing the interactions, Kindly Dad would sit in the rocking chair on the front porch where he, formerly, had sat every afternoon and snoozed a little while his son read Harry Potter. Overwhelmed, he’d put his hands over his face and sink his elbows down on his knees. At that point, the three-year-old Black Hatter would climb up the back of the chair and over top of his skull, landing with a plop in his lap to say “I’m firsty.”

During all of this?  Black Hat mom was off site, as ever, and Black Hat dad remained indoors. We knew he was in the house because we could  hear his voice bellering out “BOYYYY!” a few times a day, usually when one of the girls headed inside, wailing, and Boy needed to be taken to task for not watching her well enough. Boy was in charge of everything; Boy was in trouble a lot. Boy was seven.

It appeared Black Hat dad had missed the parental lesson advising those with youngsters to work in consort, as in “If you have my kid over for a playdate, then I’ll have your kid over for a playdate because not only will that make our kids happier, it will give each of us a few quiet hours in our lives to wash dishes or write some emails or shower for the first time in four days. In short, yes, let’s help each other out.” Instead, Black Hat dad seemed–still seems–more than happy with a one-way street arrangement…although “arrangement” implies there was some agreement made and not simply that his unwillingness to engage catapulted his neighbors into Default Childtender Mode. His agreements were struck through passivity, inked by his absence.

Thus was the state of affairs as we left for Turkey. When the Black Hat kids weren’t mobbing the kindly family, they were wandering the neighborhood. On one occasion, the same woman who used to take styrofoam containers of food over to Jackie found herself chasing the Black Hat three-year-old as the girl raced towards one of Duluth’s busiest streets, a road that serves as an urban freeway for all the southerly traffic heading up the popular North Shore.  Styrofoam Neighbor caught the three-year-old just before she plunged herself into the steady flow of traffic. At this point, the three-year-old was three blocks from home.  No one in her family had missed her.  No one knew she had been saved by a neighbor who had caught a glimpse of her Too Far from Home for a Three-Year Old Alone.

A big part of this issue, of course, is that the neighborhood fears conflict and, hence, holds up its part of the “agreement” by continuing to support the system Black Hat parents created. Some of that fear of conflict comes from being Minnesotan; some of it comes from wanting to do the right thing when it comes to children who are under-parented; and some of it comes from not wanting to live in a state of sustained hostility, which is the most likely outcome were anyone to lodge a list of grievances with the Black Hatters. How to tell a parent that he/she is doing a crap job and has disrupted people’s lives through an unwillingness to step up and take charge of his/her own spawn…without that conversation falling into a nasty thrust-and-parry in under a minute? On the positive side, that would be one less door to knock on every October 31st, which means the overstimulated trick-or-treaters could get home a few minutes earlier to sort out the Almond Joys from the Snickers, which is a little something I call bonus!

For me, I went from zero to peevish with this family in record time. Before I even had the chance to make a friendly overture, I was reeling from the boundary violations. Before I even could bake some cookies that would serve as a vehicle for introductions, I was being asked by the Black Hat children what was in my pantry. It was breathtaking, and it got me, very quickly, to a point where I didn’t want to play nice with any mom and dad who fostered such behavior. The repeated disregard for boundaries–both literal and figurative–got my back up right quick, and I realized that my elevated level of annoyance rendered me unable to walk across the street and begin a non-ranty conversation. After months of brainstorming, my best opener still was, “Okay, so this business where you let your children roam freely through the lives of people whom you’ve never even met? I find it appalling. If we’d ever,  say, spoken before, then perhaps your children’s over-familiarity would have some small basis.  However, and here’s the easiest parenting tip I can give you: if you can’t pick someone out of a police line-up, then your children shouldn’t be in his house.”

So, yea, I’m pretty sure with an opener like that, the conversation could only disintegrate. Even with the passage of months, years now, I’ve been unable to calm down my emotions on this issue enough to attempt a more even-handed approach. Because it just. ticks. me. off. that the desire for hours free from children means these kids are allowed into the private spaces of people the parents have neither laid eyes on nor spoken to. How dare those parents not protect their children, not serve as the buffer between their progeny and potential dangers, not vet the world even a little bit? There’s something incredibly selfish about that–and even when I consider the Black Hatters’ point of view and how they might regard their children’s lives (“I’m really introverted and don’t like interacting with people I don’t know” or “We want our kids to have an old-fashioned childhood, where the world is their playground, and they just head out in the morning and play outside until dark; we’re no helicopter parents!”), that remains the obstacle:  on some level, blasting your children out into a new neighborhood without ever walking around that neighborhood with them or getting to know a few people, well, it’s irredeemably selfish. Get over your introverted, “we’re like the pioneers” selves and show the freak up for your kids because that’s part of the bargain when you made sweet hot love to someone with a functioning uterus:  if something with lungs later emerged from that uterus, and you decided to keep it, you would show the freak up.

—————————-

This seems as good a time as any for a commercial break. Today’s ad features Jocelyn’s Black Friday List of Things That Make Her Crazy! (accompanied by a promotional shot glass filled to the brim with Jim Beam, available for a limited time only):

1) Meetings

2) Committees

3) Whiny Martyrs

4) Whiny Martyrs at Committee Meetings

5) Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Hope Solo (see #3)

6) People who never venture outside of the place they were born, especially people who live two miles from a state border yet have never left their home state

7) The last ten minutes of the daily Elmo segment on Sesame Street

8 )  Anti-gay “reparative therapy”

9) The fact that alcohol isn’t calorie-free

10) Outdoorsy, athletic types who can only have conversations about their race times and not what books they’ve read

11) That Kar-douche-ians (finally a use of “douche” that feels right!), Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh can marry repeatedly in ways that clearly sh** on the institution, yet these couples can’t (UPDATE: YES, they CAN!)

12)  Off-leash dogs within the city limits

11) Parents who rationalize their way into not minding their children, especially at the expense of other people’s comfort

This advertisement has been brought to you by the letters “C-R-A-B-B-Y J-O-C-E-L-Y-N.”

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From the start, Byron and I dealt with the Black Hat kids according to standard household policy: you can come over if you’ve been invited; if you haven’t, and you put even one toe into our yard, we will be in your face on the issue. This was a hard lesson for the Black Hat kids, particularly when other children were playing in our yard, and I had moments of being The Scary Lady Enforcer who would head outside, head outside, and head outside again to remind them, “We have a rule at our house that you can only play in our yard if you’ve been invited. We invite kids over when we have deliberately decided we’re ready to be in charge of them and when we know their parents. You can run home and tell your mom or dad that.” Mostly, what the Black Hat kids would do, though, was line up along the sidewalk, toes touching the edge of our grass, and holler out suggestions and commentary to the kids in our yard. That was–how to put it delicately?–challenging as a mo-fo. A few times, I went out and told them that their presence was making it hard for everyone and that they should just head on over to their own yard and make some good fun there and that if Mom or Dad wanted to come out and have a chat, we could probably arrange something. Meanwhile, I remind you, Black Hat Dad was sitting in his house, the windows open, well able to overhear everything, if he cared to. After awhile, our kids didn’t want to play out in the yard so much, as the political relations involved in enforcing household policy were getting them down.  In actuality, they didn’t want the Black Hat kids to come over and play, as there was no match in age, gender, or interests, and the Black Hat kids interacted with each other disrespectfully–as siblings often do–but with a level of anger and tension and smack talk that upset the ease of our relatively-peaceable kids.

So, with vigilance, repetition, and less time outside, we dealt with the constant infringements on our space. Inside myself, I wrestled with wanting to assign blame to the Black Hat kids when I knew my real anger was targeted at their parents. I worked on treating the kids reasonably well at the same time I shut down their efforts to move in.

Then we went to Turkey, with the sounds of our warnings to the family renting our house still echoing across Lake Superior.

When we came back, a few things had changed. For example, the family renting our house loved the neighborhood enough–despite its accompanying headaches–that it bought a house two doors down, having proven to be not only the best renters ever but, additionally, the most organized, best-disinfected, most efficiently-run family on the block. What’s more, the Kindly Family had completely retreated from relations with the Black Hats; the boys never played together anymore, and the Kindly Family was extremely cagey about how and when they spent time outside their house. Equally notably, the divorced dad next door to us had managed enough conversations with Black Hat Dad that they had worked into something like an agreement to have an arrangement. Sometimes, now, Divorced Dad leaves his kids in the care of Black Hat Dad, which, in reality, means all the kids head into Divorced Dad’s house without supervision and wreck the place until he gets home.  At one point, Divorced Dad leaked it to us–with the self-conscious shrug of a father who’s afraid to cross his children’s whiny, martyred wishes–that the Black Hat kids had slept over at his house 26 nights in a row the previous summer. Can we all holler a collective “EXCUSE ME?” at this juncture? At any rate, when school is not in session, Divorced Dad’s kids are in the habit of spending all day, every day, with the Black Hat kids, an arrangement that suits both fathers. On the days Divorced Dad’s kids are with their mom (she has primary custody), Divorced Mom, who lives several blocks away, can expect at least one Black Hat kid to be on her porch by 8 a.m. every day. This summer, upon opening the door, Divorced Mom, a woman who’s having trouble feeding herself and her kids these days, would routinely be told by the now-seven-year-old girl, “I’m hungry. I haven’t had breakfast. Can you give me breakfast?”

Again, routinely this summer, while one kid would be at Divorced Mom’s house, the now-four-year-old Black Hat daughter would be heading a few doors down from her triple lot to the home of a couple of empty nesters in their 50s.  Every morning at 8 a.m., the four-year-old would be on their porch, waiting for Mom Empty Nester to spot her. When that front door would open, she’d say, “I need someone to play with. Will you play with me?”

Every. Day. For. Weeks.

The crowning moment of our return to the neighborhood took place after we’d adjusted to the fact that the Black Hat kids had been somewhat more absorbed into the neighborhood and that, if Paco wanted to play with his longstanding excellent pal, Daughter of Divorce, that meant her ubiquitous sidekick, a Black Hatter, had to come along. So we decided to capitulate and let Daughter of Divorce and Black Hat daughter play in the yard, as it had become impossible to snag Daughter of Divorce on her own. Of course, when Black Hat daughter was in our yard, Black Hat son was a natural add-on. He was supposed to be watching his sister, after all.  Our return from Turkey, therefore, saw the two girls playing with Paco (his verdict? “I like it so much better when it’s only Daughter of Divorce”) and the now-nine-year-old Black Hat brother sitting on our frisbee swing

…or jumping on the trampoline.

Before either of the elder two Black Hatter kids got on the trampoline the first time, I wrote up an ad hoc permission slip that required parental consent not only for the activity but also for paying any associated medical bills. Certainly, it was in no way legally binding; certainly, though, it helped make some sort of point.

It was the trampoline that brought about the crowning “you’re back!” moment for me. On that day of opening up the trampoline as an option to the Black Hat kids, when I stood out back on the deck overseeing the first few minutes of jumping rotation and making sure everyone was abiding by the rules, I suddenly had a visitor.

It was the four-year-old Black Hat daughter, decked out in her swimming suit, all keyed up for some trampoline jumping herself–despite the lack of invitation. Not ready to take on the increased level of responsibility necessary to keep a preschooler safe in a crowd of older kids, I stonewalled a bit (because hell if it isn’t a slippery slope once you’ve let some of the kids in a family come touch your stuff but then want to turn away the younger set). As she stood, teetering on a line of rocks between our property and that of the Smartypants Family next door, I told her she needed to go home and tell her dad he had to come talk to the stickler neighbor lady before she would consider allowing a four-year-old on the trampoline.

The compact, swimsuit-clad body raced away.

Two minutes later, she was back, tears streaming down her face. “He says I can’t.  He says I’m too young.”

I KNOW. I wondered when Black Hat Dad had sprouted that tendril of assertive judgment, too. Well played, Black Hat Dad. I’m going to give you this one. Well played.

Have relayed her father’s word, the four-year-old looked at me, still crying, and asked pleadingly, “So I can go on the trampoline?” No, honey. Nope. I summarized it for her one more time: you have to listen to what your dad says, and so maybe in a few years, you can come play on the trampoline.

My refusal tripped her into full-on meltdown, the likes of which I–worker in church nurseries, fully-booked babysitter, full-time nanny, parent of two–had never before witnessed. The shrieking. The wailing. The screaming. After that, there was a fair bit of screaming. Some wailing. Then shrieking. During one particularly spectacular twenty-second stretch, gnashing was interrupted only by clawing at the swimsuit straps.

I used the moments when her head spun around on its axis and green bile spewed from her mouth to wrap up my role in her display (I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be playing Concerned Audience, but, um, yawn). “Hey, kiddo, this is not going to change anything. You heard the rule. We’re done talking. I’m sorry you’re sad, but now you need to go home and tell your dad to play with you. You can find something really fun to do at home, so trot on over there now. Maybe you can find a pet raccoon up in the attic.”

Naturally, every time I spoke, my words echoing from on high as I stood up on the deck and watched her try not to fall off the line of rocks upon which she teetered, the preschooler’s tantrum escalated. Once actual devil horns started sprouting from her forehead, I changed my tack. “Now you’re done. You have until I count to five, and by the number five, you need to be out of my yard and off my property, or I’m coming down there and picking you up and carrying you out to the sidewalk. You may not be on my property any more.”

“BUUUUUUT,” she choked, her forked tongue darting out and lashing her blotchy cheeks, “this isn’t your yard. I’m on the rocks.”

“Ugh. If you want to split property lines, I’ll play. If it isn’t my yard, then it’s the Smartypants Family’s yard, and although they’re out of town right now, I happen to know their rule, too, is that you have to be invited before you can be on their property. You haven’t been invited. No matter whose yard it is, you may not stand there any longer. This is your second warning: I am going to count to five, and then I’m coming down there, and I’m carrying you out to the street.”

Mentally, my brain was gaming out the possible endings for this scenario. Most likely, she’d see me coming and bolt. However, if it actually came to my woman-handling her, it would be essential that I grip her hard and fast and make sure her legs were in my clutches. I’d probably have to go for some sort of Gordeeva and Grinkov pairs skating move and hope for no deductions. Also, what if Black Hat Dad broke form and responded defensively to my actions? What if he, using the thing in his house called a window and spotting me wrangling his daughter in full crouching curve lift,

(I do favor a plunging neckline)

opened his front door and snarled, “What in the name of histrionic flourishes are you doing to my kid?”

Were that to happen, I knew I would need to keep myself from cramming his four-year-old down his esophagus and holding his lips closed until he swallowed. I would need to be able to counter anything he might say in a way that felt authentic but controlled. As I slowly counted to five, I hit upon the way I would handle an interaction that was veering towards confrontational. I would deposit his fit-thrower in front of him and simply clip out, “This is YOUR responsibility. Not mine. Do not ever make it mine again.” Then, before I could get more wound up and back myself into a position to feel regret, I would stomp away.

Quite fortuitously, just as I wrapped up my countdown, hovering between “four” and “five,” the oldest Black Hat child showed up, looking both sheepish and apologetic. “Sister,” he said loudly enough to be heard over the sound of her head exploding, “Dad says you need to come home now. He says if you’re having this kind of a fit, that means you’re tired, and it’s bedtime. You need to come home for bed now. Dad says.”

Her response was awe inspiring.  The very clouds in the sky shuddered with fear, and the sun hid behind the moon in full lunar eclipse, as the Black Hat preschooler screeched, “IIIIIIIIIIIIII.  AAAAAAAAMMMMMMM. NNNNNOOOOOOOTTTTT. TTTTTTIIIIIIRRRRRRRREEEEEDDDDD.”

She had a point. I mean, it was only 5 p.m. And her behavior had been impeccable up until this unfounded accusation was thrown at her. I almost wanted to counsel her, though, “You really ought to latch on to that ‘tired’ alibi. Because if you’re not ‘tired,’ then everyone will have to start suspecting you’re actually a colossal piece of work. Generally, and this is firsthand experience speaking, it’s best to go with ‘tired.'”

Her nine-year-old brother looked me in the eyes with well-justified desperation. More than happy to take the rap this once, if it meant he got a freebie, I quickly got him up to speed with my whole Countdown and Carry strategy, ending with “So I’m on my way down the stairs here in a second, at which point I’m going to grab her and take her out to public property.”

“She doesn’t know what ‘public property’ means,” he advised.

“Yea, but what better time to learn that there’s a distinction between kinds of places in the world?” I countered.

As we conversed, the meltdown From Her Swimsuit Self continued, causing monks in Tibet to stop ringing their bells, clap their hands over their ears, and mutter, “Kee-rist, what the frick was that?”

I mean–reality check here–wouldn’t you say it almost seemed like, well, you know, so long as we’re on the subject,

even the most lax parent might have bothered himself to head outside and round up his child, if she were throwing a tantrum of such scope that, 9,500 miles away, chunks of the polar ice caps were breaking off and sliding into the ocean?

Not when you have a nine-year-old to do your dirty business, apparently.

Sliding into his life’s assigned role too easily, Black Hat brother assured me, “I’ll get her home.” Then he called over Son of Divorce and told him that they were going to pick up his sister and take her home.  But first, in a gesture so lovely it momentarily staunched the emotional hemorrhage, Son of Divorce put on the sweetest voice I’d ever heard from a kid who lives for Legos and the Mario Brothers, bent down on one knee, and asked the wreck in front of him, “Hey, Neighborgirl, do you want to play ball with your brother and me? We’re playing ball, and we want you to come play with us. Do you want to come out front so we can throw it to you?”

The echo of her negative response was later heard by a climbing party just heading out from the base camp on K2.

Looking at each other, shrugging, garnering my complete admiration, the two boys plucked up her feisty form, one taking her armpits, the other her ankles, and they trudged her wriggling body the 30 yards home.

Well, I thought to myself, reflecting on the previous eight minutes of my life, at least I know Turkey’s still there if I ever need it.

Shortly after The Standoff, I was chatting with Mom Smartypants next door, letting her know about the drama-filled boundary enforcement I’d been doing while they were out of town. She did me one better; she told me, “Okay, so I was a little bit crazy stalker neighbor a few weeks ago.” I urged her to go on, assuring her I could out-crazy anything she might offer up. “Well, so I know the Black Hat Mom’s first name. And I know that she started her own [textile-related] business when they moved to town. So I googled her first name and her business and ‘Duluth,’

and GUESS WHAT?”

No, really, you guys.  GUESS WHAT?

Black Hat Mom–remarkably absent from this story thus far–is

a

blogger.

Right about here, I’m tempted to lay out my biggest-ever load of malarkey and tell you I registered the fact of her blog and then, quite maturely, returned to the usual la-di-da of life.

Oh, please. Let’s get real. I hightailed it to the computer so fast I left track marks on my husband’s back because he made the mistake of trying to climb the stairs in front of me.

I found her blog easily. I spent several late nights trolling through the archives. I read each new post avidly.

What I have learned calls into question every single thing I knew for sure–every single thing I’ve reported in this post so far. Here’s the rub: the Black Hat Mom is smart and funny and has a clear voice and is self-deprecating and is hugely talented. I really like her blog. Her unseen husband used to be a professor and continues to run a non-profit in Washington D.C., where they used to live. I guess that’s what he’s doing inside the house all day, every day. I guess he doesn’t necessarily see himself as the Dad on Duty. She grew up in Duluth. She taught high school for 12 years when they lived in the D.C. area. She is more than a little obsessive about her work. She travels frequently. She posted a vignette about growing up with the kind of freedom that let her do rock jumping into a local river at age 12, with her mother never caring where she was. She posted this a couple of weeks after a 13-year-old, rock jumping in the exact same swimming hole in the exact same river, was swept away. Every last emergency vehicle in the city raced past our neighborhood that afternoon. Emergency workers spent days trying to find the teen. His body was eventually found floating in Lake Superior, having been fed into that vast body of water by the freedom-loving river. She wasn’t home when any of this was happening.

And yet.

In her blog, I really like her.

Wait. How can I really like her?

To have such deep issues with a person in real life yet be presented with such an entirely different person in her blog is disorienting, to say the least. To have rarely in two years seen this mother with her children (it’s been twice:  she let them swirl around her while doing some landscaping this fall, and she followed them around with her camera during trick-or-treating), to have never once seen this woman’s face until I studied it on her blog, to have been an onlooker to her children’s anger, need, and neglect–to have such disrespect for someone who lives across the street but be so charmed by the same person in her blog–

well. My, my.

Certainly, my skeptical self reads into her blog what she doesn’t say.  Even more, I get a fair bit tired of how everything in her life and work is packaged as an issue of Martha Stewart Living. Groom reads her blog and finds himself exasperated with how she uses the same Photoshop tricks to edit every single photograph (“blur the corners!”).

We are able to see how the carefully-packaged blogging persona can be out of alignment with the reality.

How else could I have been Madeleine Albright all these years without any of you knowing?

The business of our unseen neighbor, the passionate textiler, posting photos of her adorable children is disconcerting, though. I also have felt sad, when reading her blog, that she seems so fun, so worth knowing, so interesting, yet she has never given any of the people closest to her on the planet the chance to be her friend. I can’t feel insulted, as it’s not personal. She’d have to know me for it to be personal.  But I do feel sorry about it.

Worst of all are the posts where she does this thing all homeowners do:  she makes fun of the people who lived in her house before her, taking photos of their terrible choices and tragic handiwork.

Those of us who know the story of her house could share at least some tidbits of its history with her. We could provide her with the larger context that led to dumb nails being nailed dumbly into the wainscoting in the dining room. Over a glass of wine, we could fill in some of the blanks that would help her re-package her complaints into understanding.

We could develop the idea that the walls she frets about painting the right color used to house people with feelings, worries, and fears. They used to house people who were hungry.

As they do now.

We could talk together about the kind of courage it takes to show up inside a house and view its pains and take charge, as the Helpful Family on the Corner did for Jackie and her husband.

We could suggest that her life choices oblige her to treat the humanity within her newly-decorated porch as though they matter more than the daybed purchased “at a steal.”

We could accept, with her, the idea that we all should follow our passions in life–and she has been fortunate to find hers, in her new business–but it would also fall upon us to suggest, from the perch of friendship, that if one has children, and they are loved but not The Vocation, it still behooves that person–her–to drum up an effort, to make the children feel special, to make them feel seen, to know where they are, to view the world through their eyes, to give them limits, to find them enrichments, to assure them of their value,

to convince them, whether or not it’s completely true in the recesses of her heart, that she would not know passion without them–that they are her greatest obsession.

I look across the street, at the newly-landscaped front yard, and wonder what really goes on in that house. It used to be a dark place. Then it was a ruin. After that, it was confusing and annoying. Often, I brooded that a house so closed-down to the outside world must have some bad, bad things happening inside of it. Now, thanks to a barrage of predictably-Photoshopped pictures, I know it is superficially glossed up with suitably complementary colors, sassy accent pillows, and artfully-folded napkins.

Still, I look across the street and watch the now-being-homeschooled boy mow the lawn; I listen to him mock his younger sister for having to repeat first grade; I see a barefoot four-year-old running down the street in November,

and it still feels dark.  Like something beautiful is being ruined.

If you care to share, click a square:

Autumnal, Not a Summer’s, Eve

There’s a famous tale–if you’re a fan of fantasy or Tertullian, perhaps you’ve heard of it–concerning Eve and a feeling of being dirty.

I refer not to the famous douching scene so histrionically dramatized by Bette Davis (with a notable assist from Anne Baxter) in All About Eve.

What?  You don’t remember that scene?  Time to add the title to your Netflix queue and prepare a bowl of parmesan black-pepper popcorn to nosh on while you savor that cinematic gem.  If, at the end of the film, you’re still waiting for the legendary douching scene, wondering when it’s going to happen, relax. You missed it when you dozed off there for a bit in the middle. Try backtracking the DVD to approximately minute 43, and give it another whirl. Maybe stay awake this time–or you might not only miss the douching scene; you might also miss that quirky moment when Godzilla and Mothra lumber through the background of the awards ceremony, fully engaged in monster battle.

Incidentally, why are we even dwelling on this, when I told you from the start that I wasn’t even referring to All About Eve?

I refer, rather, to the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden and that sly serpent turning simple Eve’s head and beguiling her guileless self into eating the forbidden apple–persuading our jejune ingenue that receiving knowledge of all the world’s goods and evils is worth risking the wrath of The Capricious Pappy in the Sky. Eve, first woman, template for all who would follow, falls sway to the serpent’s charm, and in doing so, sets up an enduring construct wherein females–credulous, immaculate, malleable–become the device of downfall.

I like to fancy that Eve had a bit more going on than tradition credits to her. I like to think that Eve, although trapped by the limiting circumstances of the garden, a judgmental, all-powerful God, and a whiny mate, has developed an internal life and emotional complexity that keeps leashed the justified rage that would have her scything the garden into compost; renouncing her role in a needy God’s plan to keep Himself blame free; and lashing Adam to a quince tree with grape vines, shouting as she departs, “By the time you free yourself, Gomer, I’ll be halfway up the Euphrates in the company of a passing band of faintly-apeish nomads whom I fully intend to join once I hop over that popsicle-stick fence you and Yaweh built in an attempt to keep me corralled for your Fall-Taking purposes. Oh, and I’m disavowing the name Eve. From now on, if you ever meet up with me in the bazaar by the Tigris, call me Ayla. I will probably have invented the needle and thread by then and will be accompanied by a cave lion and a recently-domesticated horse. Peace. Out. Laddies.”

I mean, really. With only God and Adam for company, she has to be scrappy as Satan’s hell, well able to resist their agenda of scapegoatism.  Thus, while this multidimensional Eve might exist in the thrall of God’s spell of innocence, and while she might not yet have had her chance to leap the fence and make a break from the bizarre for the bazaar, I daresay her moment with the serpent evidences a more complicated dynamic than Evil vs. Gullible Greed.  At the very least, the idea of shaking up her world, of teasing an incomprehensible possibility into reality, of shattering God’s glass ceiling

has to create in Eve fear, awe, power, unease, excitement–a goodly mental freak-out. Standing there under the apple tree, entranced by the serpent’s flickering tongue, roiling with suppressed unrest, trying to play the diplomat after years of diminishment, Eve is fully human, and it is thanks to her courage–look at Adam camouflaging himself in the canopy as he eavesdrops!–that the apple ever got bitten.  Without knowledge, consciousness, dimension, nudity, sex, love, blame, embarrassment, shame, anger, wonder, regret, guilt, freedom, individuation, and death, humans would remain God’s pets, the mascots of His hubris.

Eve breaks us free from oppressive paternalism.  Her bite of juicy apple frees us from eternal mascotry.

Nebraska Cornhuskers mascot.

Aw, c’mon.  She couldn’t save everyone.

Delicately, she nibbles at the peel–wary, yet wanting to convince the serpent she’s not intimidated by impending wisdom; gaining confidence and tapping into the insatiable hunger that lives like a phantom pain down by her left rib, a space in her being that is completely fed up with Adam’s insistence that she “eat like a lady,” she tucks in to the flesh of the orb with a more determined CRUNCH…

And suddenly, all is brambles and exposed cellulite.

And nothing is ever the same again (*she typed while miming a dramatic whew across her forehead*).

A woman did it. An apple did it.

Now, thousands of hedonistic, sin-filled years of painful childbirth later, I am the new Eve, except for the part where my weakness in the face of temptation paves the way for humanity’s damnation and creates an object lesson for values creation in millions of sponge-like children. Seriously, that Garden of Eden business is a seriously unjust load of nonsense to assign to any one individual, and I feel pretty certain I can get my name into the Bible without having to weave myself into The Origin Story of Misogyny.  Like, for example, I could change my name to Joshua and learn to play the trumpet, and there ya go: I’m in.

I’m like Eve, rather, when it comes to problems resulting from apple eating. My fall from grace, however, won’t involve a peevish God or a resentful mate but instead will hinge on mindful, healthy eating (stacking my daily food pyramid with heaps of apples!) that leads to loss.

You see, one of my baby teeth never fell out,

and now its gum is receding,

and the hygienist (that serpent) hisses into my ear every six months, “That baby’s gonna come out one day when you bite into an apple,”

and then she lays out the bridge vs. post options for repairing the inevitable black hole in my head,

and I try to marshal those thoughts to the back of my brain, because, if the tooth has made it 44 years now, why not enjoy that ride instead of worrying about a potentially-unrealized future?

But then I go out running after dark, as you do when you’re in Weight Watchers and have a metabolism as stubborn as Eng Bunker**, and so, several times a week, I do this thing called Exercising Twice a Day (bumping up my normal once-a-day daily commitment) in the hopes of peeling off another recalcitrant quarter pound before the next weigh-in. Thanks again, Eve, for all that cellulite awareness.

And what happens one lovely November night (for Eve, it was a lazy July afternoon) is I hit the length of sidewalk near a house on 43rd Avenue where the owners never trim their hedges, and because it’s dark and the sidewalk is broken, I do this lurching lope thing where I hold a hand up to my forehead like a salute to passing cars whose lights blind me; because my vision is partially blocked, I take an untended and unintended branch to the face,

and after a nanosecond during which this non-voter rants internally about the importance of upholding the Social Contract (in my case, that means trimming your greenery along the sidewalk and not necessarily showing up for the referendum on that topic),

I then think, frantically, “That untoward bramble not only whipped my cheek; it went so far as to insert itself into my mouth with great effrontery. OWW. Did that effing branch just knock out my crazy baby tooth? Am I a hillbilly now?”

Sorry to deny you the desired moment of crisis, but NO, it didn’t, and NO, I wasn’t. Despite the intrusive stick to the mouth, my tooth remains intact, so there is no high-larious photo of me dandling on the knee of Granny Hatfield-McCoy, sipping ‘shine and playing the banjo, to accompany this story.

If anything, the stick to the mouth drives home the fact that the hygenist hasn’t been talking bunk to me–that my tooth is going to fall from its current and extended state of grace one day, and if I feel like twisting quirky allegorical logic towards my tooth, I can rejoice in the tooth’s refusal to be God’s mascot.  Or something.

Fortunately, once I am certain I still have every tooth in my head, once I’ve accepted that my tooth will one day hop the popsicle-stick fence that is my mouth (um, which actually further makes my tooth the Eve in this story, but I find myself deeply amused by the image of a tooth hopping a popsicle-stick fence, so I refuse to revise), my brain works its comfort and takes me off into thoughts of Other Stuff Besides My Face with a Hole in It.

I flit through a thought of how I’m trying to exercise two times a day several times a week and how my students, curiously, misuse “several” (startlingly often, they write things like “Several soldiers have died since the war in Iraq began” or “My grandma lived for several years and died when she was 94”).

Then my thoughts bounce to how cliched stereotypes about hillbillies are, yet somehow I persist in applying them, and why do I do that?

Then I marvel at all the houses that have three-car garages yet have six vehicles parked outside on the driveway; I may love Stuff, but we have a single-car garage, and we are quite able to park a car inside of it, so maybe other people’s multiple cars on their driveways somehow indicate I’m a actually good person.

For a quick moment, I wish I’d cut my toenails before heading out to run.

After that, though, I contemplate “douchebag” and the idea of misogyny, which then leads me to thoughts of famous misogynists in history.  In a way, that’s a list too easily compiled, as it could just read “All the men who ever did or wrote anything since Forever up until 1974” because what we now call ‘misogyny’ was pretty much just accepted as ‘regular thinking’ until them Libbers came along and started making some noise.  Anyhow, I’m not able to come up with many individual names–and here Eve went and started the process of individuation, but for what?–so pretty much I have to go back to laughing at the Mark Maron podcast piping through my earbuds.

The day after I was attacked by foliage, I applied the Magic Google Machine to unearthing the names of famous misogynists throughout history, which is a pretty good time, really, because it drives home a feeling of relief that most of those bastards are dead and buried in their own Gardens of Eden. The main thing that comes through, when one is doing a cursory overview of The Words of Misogynists, is how miserable they all seem, so hamstrung by their own certainty of superiority that they are paralyzed into petulance. It’s not that they were stupid; it’s that they didn’t want to know better.  Nothing summed up that fact better for me than a single quote from Norman Mailer, who once commented that women don’t make good writers because “The sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn.”

The staccato power of his comment strikes me as starkly beautiful compared to the bullshit sentiment he’s expressing, a feat which underscores how very much better he could have been, had he not been hindered by the popsicle-stick fence of his biases. Mailer’s forceful words stick with me and remind me–should remind all of us femmes who compose–that the purpose of our every recorded word is to smear Mailer’s long-dried ink, that thinking so very turgid, antediluvian, Brutish Alter Kocker, fireplug, too straiggoty cocksure, stunted, gallish, choleric, fatuous, entrenched-oppidan, caparisoned in sybarite’s debility, or else cavalier and vainglorious.

I’m pretty sure Eve would agree.

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**Long after medicine had progressed enough to assure them of a safe separation, Eng Bunker and his Siamese twin, Chang, refused the surgery because it would put an end to their marketability. When Eng woke up one morning to find Chang had died, he refused to have his brother’s corpse excised from his still-living body, a decision that assured his own death in quick order.  At least he died knowing he’d stuck to his, um–what?–principles? (haha: if Chang had been the head of a school at which Eng taught, Eng could have died stuck to his “principal”!)

Anyhow, kudos to all of you who realize I jammed this Eng Bunker simile into a sentence where I was kvetching about excess weight, and yet you refrain from “Hey, maybe you could go Full Siamese Twin and excise little ‘dead’ flesh off your body, too, Joce!” comments.

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The Douchebag Counterargument

Sometimes, it alarms me that my job is to teach critical thinking to others,

what with my own significant deficiencies as a critical thinker.

I mean, I’m still shocked that Roseanne and Tom Arnold didn’t work out.  And then there’s that whole much-too-recently-made connection between sunflower seeds and sunflowers. It seems one comes from the other.

Good thing I remember my belly getting really big and then some pushing and moaning, or I’d look at my kids and assume they’re the result of neglecting to fold the laundry for two weeks.  Thanks to the whole belly growing and moaning stuff, though, I’m well aware that the kids came out of me and that they got inside of me when Keebler elves tiptoed out of their hollow tree at night and sprinkled crumbs from Chips Deluxe Mini-Rainbow Chocolate Chip cookies into my belly button when I was sleeping.

Anyhow, the comments on my previous “slang” post reminded me of how unquestioningly I trip through life; specifically, it was a complete surprise to read that the word douchebag has been regarded as misogynistic.  I never before had thought about douchebag as being linked to a soft rain on a country lane on a summer’s eve and thereby an emblem of womanhood.  In other words, I had never before really thought about either the douche or the bag part of douchebag, probably because douching feels so “thing of the past” to my frame of reference.

Thanks to your comments, I did think.  About douchebag.  No, not Girls Gone Wild‘s Joe Francis.  The word douchebag. I thought about the word, mind cranking with every step, as I went down into the basement to get a water pitcher from the storage pantry but then suddenly found myself cleaning up toys and ninja costumes and considering, for entirely too long, the options on a shelf of snow boots before heading back upstairs, looking at the kitchen counter, and thinking, “Hey, I need to go downstairs and get a water pitcher.”

I was thinking about douchebag when Groom came upstairs one afternoon to announce, “I just made some brown rice and sauteed some kale and onions with soy and sesame sauce, if you want some for lunch.  I had a craving.”

True story.  I know.

Propelled by the gusto of my stomach engine, I trotted down to the kitchen and, chatting away with Himself, I loaded up my plate and num-nummed my way through sunlit conversation.

An hour later, out for a run, I wondered why I was so damn hungry already.  Then, and only then, did I realize I’d had a plate of kale and onions but had forgotten the rice. Groom had said “rice-kale-onions” in one breath, and that meant they were in the same pan, right?  He should have used a two-tiered one-pan/one-pot breath to indicate that I needed to serve myself from both, yes?  So my hunger was his fault? We are agreed?  When I accosted him later with the accusation that he’d made me hungry by not making sure I took rice, that easygoing bastard merely replied, “Huh.  I just figured you were trying to stay away from carbs today or something. I don’t ask anymore.”

I thought about douchebag as I watched the construction crew next door take down their ladders and scaffolding, having finally received the just consequence of a sacking after spending too many months dicking around and acting like it takes three guys to light one cigarette and all three guys to support the smoking of that 52-minute cigarette (this, on the days when anyone showed up at all).  In this case, douchebag sprang to mind as a direct association of what my eyes were viewing–because, holy hell, what a passle of dinkwads them fellas were, taking thousands of dollars from the neighbors just to leave the exterior of their house exposed to the elements, windows covered with brown paper, as winter begins its ominous descent.

Even as they packed up their equipment, Dinkwad Passle seemed confused about what was happening to them, seemed bewildered about why accepting the equivalent of a year’s salary in Turkey to stand around and smoke 84 hours on the rare days they visited their work site somehow disappointed the homeowners.

I expect to see Passle of Dinkwads at the community college one day.

And when they walk into my classroom, it will become clear that Dipskittle Jocelyn is, in fact, equipped to pass on at least a few critical thinking skills to these lads.  It’s all relative, and I’m pretty sure continued faith in Roseanne and Tom Arnold trumps inability to spot a box of nails in the back of a pick-up truck.  So, Dinkwads, let’s do it.  Let’s try to learn to think.

Good job scratching your heads, boys.  I’ll just leave you there, mining for scalp flakes and wondering where all the nails went, and move in to my own head space.

For me, the process of figuring out my thinking about douchebag began, as most thinking does in Jocelyn’s Modrrrun Age, with an airing of every passing thought to my husband followed by a trip to the Magic Google Machine.

When I told Groomy of the objectionable nature of the douchebag, he said, “Callers on Dan Savage’s podcast have been addressing this recently, arguing that it’s not a sexist bit of slang in an era when douching is most often carried out by people preparing for anal intercourse.  If anything, douchebag is a slur against Rear Entry-ites.”

Bowing low and kissing his hand, which tasted faintly of onions, I backed away and bolted to the computer to do further research.  Here is what I mined:

At Throw Grammar from the Train, blogger Jan Freeman tackles, in an essay called “The Pejoration of ‘Douchebag’,” the history and impact of the word in question.  It’s a very interesting and informative analysis, as is the subsequent discussion in the comments.

A commenter named Kelle wrote:

I and plenty of other women have taken to using “douchebag” or “douchehound” and the like as insults without finding that useage misogynistic. The reason is that douching is not actually good for women, it causes irritation and infection of a system which has no need for it and they have traditionally been used to make women feel that their natural bodies were something to be ashamed of. Therefore, douche-based insults are perfectly appropriate to apply to jackasses who are displaying their misogyny.

Kelle’s idea is explored in more detail in an article at a site called Feministe.  A writer there named Jill wrote “In Defense of ‘Douchebag‘,” noting that the slang douchebag actually takes the idea of the douche and puts it in its place:

I’m happy to see the douchebag demonized. Unlike a lot of other common insults — “bitch,” “cunt,” “retard,” “fag” — “douchebag” actually insults something that deserves to be insulted. Douching is terrible for women; it can lead to infection and irritation. Even teen magazines will tell you this! Douches exist only because women have been told that our bodies are unclean. Douches, and the bags that reportedly accompany them, are terrible, no-good products. Insulting douches doesn’t insult women — the existence of douches insults women.

The term douchebag, too, is also directed as a certain type of dude. It implies a particular parody of masculinity, or it’s the total smarm-ball.

A commenter on this post points out an important piece of information:

I am of a generation that considers “douchebag” to be a sexist term, though I always thought it funny that the bag was the insulting part as it is the nozzle that comes into contact with the “unclean” body part. The bag just hangs there.

My college-age daughter tells me she never found it sexist because she and her friends thought it referred to a rectal douche.

As Groomy indicated, too, this same idea has surfaced on Dan Savage’s podcast; this blogger at Sound of Rain notes:

People have been calling for the retirement of this word for well over a year now, to no avail. I love it because it’s fun to say and reminds me of my East Coast childhood, when we used it all the time (without having any idea what it really meant). Plus, it fills the gap nicely between “slightly annoying guy” and “total assh**e”.

However, I’ve read various comments around the internet about how the term douchebag is sexist, because it’s used to degrade a man by referring to him as an object used only by women.

As Dan Savage pointed out in a recent podcast (number 154), anyone interested in receiving anal penetration with a minimum of santorum uses them for enemas, though I suppose in that case the term would be enema bag. Not a bad pejorative in itself, now that I think of it, being non-gendered and associated with unwanted poo. It’s not as satisfying to say, though.

But my argument is different. I haven’t seen anyone else point this out, so I will gallantly step up:

The vagina is self-cleaning and self-regulating. Douching is not only unnecessary to the health of the vagina, it can in fact throw off its natural floral balance, and also interferes with the vagina’s ability to keep its delicate tissue moist and happy. Douching is also completely ineffective in the prevention of pregnancy and disease, two other bullsh** reasons women used to be told we need to douche.

Thus, a douchebag is a guy who is unnecessary, useless, and possibly harmful to women. Therefore it’s quite appropriate to say, for example, that Tucker Max is a douchebag.

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So there.  Everyone gets to be right! Douchebag has been regarded as misogynistic; douchebag has been regarded as an apt summary of the misogynists themselves. It boils down to personal preference. From this linguistic controversy, there have emerged three things I know for sure:

1) I’m pretty sure that if I ever decided to go back to graduate school, I’d be itching to tackle the topic of “the origins of slang.”  However, if I went back to graduate school, I’d have to do something with Dinkwad Passle–I couldn’t leave them there in the classroom, scratching at their scalps while I hied off to scratch my own semantic itch; they’d be dead in a week, once their smokes ran out–and the prospect of toting a crew of dinkwad douchebags into my Syntactic Theory II class pretty much squelches all desire to even enroll in the first place;

2) If my mother is reading this post, she’s completely aghast, having just learned of rectal douching before anal sex.  Please, please, Mom, don’t click on the “santorum” link above. You’re 76 now. Some things are best left unclicked.  Don’t you hear your cross-stitch calling?  Heed that call, Jocelyn’s Mom.  Go make a pretty angel with metallic threads now, and leave the santorum to the youngsters;

3) If nothing else comes out of this whole line of inquiry, I’ve also recently learned that a scumbag is a condom.  I was too busy thinking Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett should still be together to ever register that scum is semen.

Seriously, Mom.  You have to stop reading now.

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