Friday, April 13, 2012

Leave the Driving to Us

For reasons that will be of no interest to anyone I was recently motivated to review my position on transgender issues. I think it is wise to periodically reassess your positions on social and political issues to make sure they still make sense to the person you are today with all of the new experiences and knowledge that you have acquired since your last review. Of course, doing this can take you down some interesting side streets and alleys. So be careful.

I understand the idea of feeling like you were “born in the wrong body". But, it really is just a feeling. My own approach to this feeling would not be to change the body, but to change the feeling. Do I mean that if you were born a boy and you think you should have been a girl that you should make yourself like Star Wars or Monday Night Football? No. You should accept that you are a boy that likes girly things. You shouldn't chop off your penis and use it to fashion a handbag to hold your lipstick.

Why should I even get to weigh in on this? I was born a girl who likes girly things. Full stop.

I’ll tell you why: because I was born a girl who likes girly things and who looks Asian. For good reason. I am Asian. Half anyway. And for a while, I wished I did not look Asian. I never wanted to stop being Asian. I just wished it weren’t so physically obvious because I didn’t feel Asian. But because of the way I looked there was an expectation on the part of everyone (yes, everyone) that I would bring some level of Asianness to the table.

I didn’t. There was nothing particularly Asian about my upbringing. We didn’t speak Vietnamese. We didn’t eat Vietnamese food. We didn’t hang with any other Vietnamese people. We didn’t do much Vietnamesing of any kind. My mom didn’t talk about Viet Nam much and didn’t try to impress upon us anything about the culture or tradition. I identified strongly with my Irish heritage. I felt closer to that tradition and those people.

I could have rejected my Asian appearance. I could have had that funky eyelid surgery to get a more “eye-shaped” eye with a well-defined crease. I could have made my nose less flat and more pert. I could have dyed my hair red and gotten a perm.

I actually did get a perm once in college. Let’s not.

If I had done that I could have avoided a lot of situations that were awkward, annoying or just plain asinine. Like the relentless teasing from the thug at the end of the street. My being or looking Asian was pivotal to all of his ridiculous jeers up to and including the time I had my leg casted after a soccer injury and he shouted to me from across the schoolyard, “What happened, Rice? Ya get yer leg blown off in ‘Nam?”

Sidebar: when I told my parents about this at dinner that night. They shared the exact same reaction. Their eyebrows shot up into their hair (or not-hair in the case of my bald father) and they quickly looked down at their plates and didn’t say a word. This was weird. Then they both started quivering around the shoulders. Then they both started laughing. Hard. That kid was a jerk and I hated him. Still do. But, yeah, that one was kind of funny.

Certain responses could have dropped out of my lexicon entirely. Such as these:

“No, I don’t know karate.”

“No, I don’t know your cousin’s wife from Korea.”

“Yes, that’s my biological dad. Yes, I’m sure.”

“No, I don’t want to be your best friend so that you can tell all your other easily impressed friends about your new Asian best friend.”

But I would have missed out on a lot. Like the time I met a friend’s mother for the first time and she got right up into my face and shouted, “HELLO! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” Seeing the look of horror on his face was a priceless moment. As were all the tiny gasps from around the room. I simply said, “Yes.” But I was thinking, “This. Is. Awesome.”

Or the time the Vietnamese girl doing my nails told me that I shouldn’t marry my fiancé because he was white and I needed to marry my own kind. I told "Tiffannee" that this strategy would pretty much limit me to my brother given my particular ethnic mix. I added that I did not think he would be cool with that so I was going to go ahead and marry the white guy.

And I would have missed out on the time that I spent a day on a Greyhound bus between Detroit and Muncie and at some point in the journey a grizzly looking fella with a bushy beard boarded the bus and headed straight back to where I sat. His outfit was liberally festooned with accessories that indicated his status as a Vietnam Vet. For some reason, that made me nervous. I sat very still and tried not to look up. After about 10 minutes he leaned over and said very directly and gruffly, “Are you Vietnamese?” How to answer? My mind raced for the right thing to say but my mouth elbowed its way to the front and said, “Yes.”

He hopped over to the seat next to me and spent about a hour telling me about his time there. And about how after the war he and his wife adopted and raised several Vietnamese children. He talked about them and showed me pictures.

That memory actually led me down one of those alleys I talked about back in the first paragraph. This was another bus ride from Detroit to Muncie. I was about 18 and I’m not sure there’s a word that could adequately define my naiveté. A quick google search suggests "stupid". Let's go with that.

I wasn’t really prepared for the kind of ridership that the typical Greyhound bus attracts. All I knew was that it was going to take a long time and I wanted to be able to smoke. Which meant I was going to have to sit in the back. So I strode to the back, tossed my suitcase into the overhead. Looked that the 3 rows of young, black men in the seats behind the one I’d chosen. Smiled and chirped, “Hello!” Then sat down and popped open a book.

There was a buzzing of low voices behind me. That I did notice. I wondered why they were whispering and laughing. I felt self-conscious. But, I was awake so that was a normal being awake feeling.

It is only with the wisdom of hindsight that I understand that as a young woman who was clearly from the suburbs I had just plunked myself into the middle of situation that I maybe should have avoided. I probably would not have done that today. And I would have missed out on a lot. Because at some point in the ride I fell asleep and woke up having no idea where I was. I popped up and turned around and asked. They told me we were in Bowling Green, Ohio. I panicked. They asked where I was going and I told them. They assured me that I hadn’t missed my stop. We were taking the scenic route.

We started talking. They asked where I was from. I told them. They laughed. They asked if I’d ever been to Detroit. That made me mad. Of course. My dad worked Downtown. They asked if I’d ever been to some area I’d never been to. Then they laughed again, “You ain’t been to Detroit, then.” They asked if I’d ever had an interracial relationship. I said, “I’m biracial. All my relationships are interracial.”

They told me they were going to Gary “for business”. More laughing. That I understood. One guy didn’t talk to me at all. That made him more interesting to me than the one who asked for my phone number (yes, I'm THAT girl). I gave less-interesting guy the number. “This is a real number, right?” he asked, “Not like dial-a-joke or something?” I assured him it was the real number. It wasn’t.

The bus stopped at a McDonald’s and they all got out. The guy who hadn’t said anything to me stopped by my row and asked, “Can I get you something to eat?” I thanked him for the offer but assured him I was fine. He got back on the bus and handed me a bag. “I got you some hamburgers. It’s a long ride. You should eat something.”

I did. And went back to sleep. I didn’t talk to them anymore before the ride was over. I can’t remember if my stop came before or after theirs and this is where the alley dumps us back out onto the main street.

Can you imagine the uproar from the same camp that advocates for the normalization of gender reassignment surgery if I had demanded to be made to look as white as I feel? The accusations they would launched against “society” for making me reject my true self instead of accepting, embracing and owning it?

And, you know, they’d be right. It would be wrong for me to do that. And, I’ve figured out over time how to synthesize all the parts. How to deal with and organize the assumptions and expectations. How to understand that I get to define myself as an individual without having to hideously disfigure my body and pump myself full of hormones (which I thought were an evil plot by Big Pharma to poison us all).

Why do we tell everyone else to accept themselves and love their differences (and not take synthetic hormones) except when it comes to the issue of gender?

I don’t know. But, I think the moral of the story is this: men won’t always insist that you need to eat a hamburger so for goodness sake, enjoy it while it is happening.

Wait. No. That isn’t it.

No. No, that’s it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Still Kicking on the Whiffletree

I was 16 when I got my first grey hair. Or at least, that's when I was told I had grey hair. I wasn’t looking so I probably wouldn’t have noticed but I’m quite short and most people can see the top of my head and they let me know. My high school soccer teammates used to amuse themselves on bus rides to games by plucking out the greys. It wasn’t exactly fun for me but I think I was just glad to be able to ride on a bus without fear after a long period as a school bus Untouchable.

I didn’t start coloring my hair to hide the grey until I was in my mid-30s but I had been coloring my hair for fun for about 10 years (skunking = so much hindsight regret). I hadn’t seen my real hair in so long that the grey didn’t bother me at all right up until it did. I think it was when the grey crossed over the 40% mark and the tell tale stripe at my part started to require more frequent trips to the salon, which meant more listening to my stylist blahblahblah in my ear for 3 hours.

I think my journey to quitting color might have started when I broke up with my long time stylist after the morning when she catalogued her abortions for me. She didn’t know it was over that morning but I did. I floated around after that, but had one marginal experience after another and I was going longer and longer between appointments. I could actually see what things looked like up there. I was really grey. I was not quite 40 but I was more than 50% grey.

On the plus side, it was mostly white and silvery. I started wondering what I would look like if I didn’t color my hair. Then I started to think about how much time I’d be saving. And money. And the germ of an idea was planted.

It was a complete reversal of my hair philosophy to that point. My hair appointments were set in stone and we planned our lives around them. I was rather vain about my very long, very lush brown mane. I’m not really low maintenance when it comes to fashion and beauty. I’m not the first person you would think would decide to embrace her aging and “go natural”. Which is not to say that I’m high maintenance. I don’t have a dermatologist. I’m unapologetically anti-cosmetic surgery. I don’t like the word “anti-aging” because of the suggestion that aging is something to avoid. I’m not the last person you would think would go natural but I’m also not the first.

Over the next couple of months the idea kept pushing its way to the front of my hair thoughts. I floated trial balloons with a few friends. “I’m thinking about letting my hair go grey.” They would react the same they do when I say things like, “I’ll be back. I’m going to go stab the person that put the dressing on the salad when I asked for it on the side.” That means they reacted with some internal eye rolling and changed the subject and immediately forgot I’d said anything.

Except for Thor. Thor was all about me letting my hair grow in. He insists that it wasn’t because of all the money we’d be saving but he bought an iPad 3 shortly after our talk. You do the math.

And one other friend who will remain nameless but might recognize herself here. She said that she could never do it because of her job. That she would not be taken seriously in her position (an impressive one in a male dominated field) as a woman with grey hair. I was stunned. I had never considered that. I was worried that I would lose considerable MILF cred but she had to worry about her career. It would not be exaggerating to say that I wanted to flip the table between us all BillyJoelwedidntstartthefire and rage against the machine about the injustice of her being judged for having grey hair in an industry where it is acceptable to wear sweatpants to the office (yes, computers are involved).

That probably settled it for me. Listen, I am not a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m a homeschool mom. I have never had a career. I don’t have my own bank account. I don’t even have an ATM card. I ask my husband for money when I need money. I don’t know the state of our finances. I tell my son to quit acting like a little girl when he gets whiny. I think the right shade of lipstick can solve most of life’s problems. I think Rachel Maddow is annoying. I have started questioning Women’s Suffrage ever since I first heard about the Kardashians. (Unless exiling them ever gets put to a national referendum because I want to vote on that.)

I’m not a feminist but I have a very Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner fire that burns in my belly when I hear about stupid prejudices. Like the prejudice against maturity. And it is a prejudice against maturity and not just old age. Anything that isn’t young and sexy and of the moment is rejected as irrelevant.

But I was not old or irrelevant. I was 40. I had run over 1000 miles in 2011. (Not straight.) I was in the best shape of my life. I had my sh---act together. I had young children and I could still have more if I wanted to (but I really, really don’t). And I had grey hair. And so did lots of women just like me. And I wasn’t going to let a bunch of barely socialized turbo-dorks in sweatpants tell me what do with my hair.

So I decided to let the grey come in.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make once all the factors were there. But it wasn’t easy watching it happen. And it got harder as the hair around my face started to get less brown. There’s no way around it. Grey hair makes you look older. I started to question myself and my decision. But I also made myself promise to stick with it long enough to give it a real chance. I could always change my mind later.

But every week that stripe on the top of my head got wider and greyer. And now I had two-toned hair. I was still going to the salon but walking out looking like I desperately need to get to one. It bothered me. It looked careless and disheveled and no shade of lipstick in the world could fix it. Unless it was brown lipstick applied directly to the roots. But I only just thought of that right this second. Darn it.

I’d been reading the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was, well, an ass. But his design philosophy was solid. I developed a real appreciation for his work and his commitment to simplicity. Simplicity is something I had been trying to incorporate into all areas of my life for about a year since reading an unassuming little book called Organized Simplicity. Check that out if you get a chance.

I was reading the Jobs bio and huffing my way through an interval work-out on the elliptical at my gym when I realized that there was really only one workable solution to the hair problem. I had to cut it all off and start over. There was no way I could live with bicolored hair for the 6 months to a year that it would take to grow the old color out. At my next appointment I was going to have my G.I. Jane moment.

Here I was taking a stand against a bunch of imaginary tech nerds by following the example of their king.

I had about 4 weeks to mull it (mullet?) over. I got more and more certain as the weeks went by and then about 3 days before the appointment I started to panic. Not really panic-panic but not really not panic. I had never had REALLY short hair. I hadn’t even had kind of short hair in 20 years. Up until the past year I’d had long, wavy mermaid hair. And now it would be short and grey. That’s not a look I had ever, ever liked. In no way did that fit my image of myself. And in no way did it sound pretty.

And I was really clinging to pretty.

The kind that looks a little wind blown and tousled even when the wind isn’t blowing.

Whether or not that image had anything to do with reality doesn’t matter. So let’s not discuss it. Just let me have that.

I had a lot of mirror talks with myself over the three days. Talks that centered around letting go of pretty. Accepting a new kind of status. Not waiting until there was no choice but to accept it, but actually rushing up to it, tackling it unawares and making it my bitc…own.

But, it wasn’t easy. And I can’t help thinking that it should have been. That’s a contradiction that I’m still working through. The answer is more complicated than ‘facing your own mortality’. I’ve already done that. That’s not it.

The act of cutting wasn’t dramatic. My new stylist is unflappable. When I handed her the picture of Jean Seberg she looked up at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I said, “No. But let’s do it anyway.” And then less than an hour later everything I thought I knew about how I looked changed. So, you see, no drama.

My face, as it turns out, is not as round as I thought. The hair that isn’t grey isn’t brown anymore. It is nearly black. And there isn’t a lot of that. My ears don’t stick out. And I look…older. But also, something else. My oldest daughter said, “Professional”. I think she meant, “professorial”. I really think she was being diplomatic but let’s go with professorial. I loved my new hair. For the whole rest of the day.

Then I woke up in the morning looking like an angry hedgehog. I went and ran 8 miles just to prove to myself that I still could. That it wasn’t a Samson thing. That helped a little but I scared the living hell out of myself every time I passed a mirror. I had to change my lipstick to something brighter. I had daymares of old ladies with bright pink lips and splotches of unevenly applied rouge. By evening I was awash with remorse. I cursed the memory of Steve Jobs. I started thinking about running to the drugstore.

But by the next morning I was okay again. I was already getting used to that angry hedgehog in my mirror. She looked older but she didn’t look old. She looked like she knew stuff. And, the maintenance? Forget about it. Ladies, want to know why men are still getting paid more than you? Because it take them 2 minutes to do their hair. That makes them 40 minutes more productive than you every damn day. Also, they are smarter and can lift heavier things.

A whole new generation of women are heading into middle age. We aren’t part of the early feminist revolution. We actually have more options than that generation told us we have. But we have to exercise them. And we aren’t. And that’s, as the kids say, not cool.

They still say that, right? What? Never mind. I don’t have to care about that anymore. Plus, Murder She Wrote is starting and I need to soak my bunion. Only one of those things isn’t true.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Homeschool Sale

One of the great things about the homeschool community is that you never feel obligated to brush your hair when you hang out with them...pajamas are considered formal never feel like you're being're never subjected to unsolicited advice on child rearing or pedagogy moms are pretty generous about the items they are no longer using. They are usually happy to either donate them or sell them for a very reasonable price. I've acquired a few items this way and try to contribute to this cause whenever possible.

The best loot usually comes from the moms who have completed their homeschool journey. I was looking over just such a list recently when I started to consider a time when I might have a similar list of items to post. I'm hoping we're a long way from there, no matter what you've heard me scream from the room where I'm sitting now, but if I were having the sale tomorrow it would look like this:

  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind". Includes significant amounts of hand crafted marginalia done in pen and ink. No extra charge. (One example: next to paragraph on scheduling first grade is printed in an emphatic font, "HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!") Smells slightly of garbage from the time I threw it in the garbage only to retrieve it 2 hours later. And from the other time I threw it in the garbage but regretted it almost immediately.
  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind: Second Edition". Same notes apply.
  • One dog-eared copy of "The Well Trained Mind: Third Edition". Same notes apply.
  • One copy of "Screamfree Parenting". Never opened.
  • "Ecoutez! Parlez!" French program. Years 1 - 3. Year One gently used.
  • "Escucha y Hablemos!" Spanish program. Years 1-3. Year One gently used.
  • "Sprechen und Zuhoren!" German program. Years 1-3. Never opened.
  • " " Chinese program. Years 1 - 3. Never opened.
  • Slightly used copy of, "Learning to Write is FUN!" Pages 1-4 used. Some tear stains on page 4. Some ghosting from where I had to erase the word "NOT" from the front cover.
  • One copy of "Teaching Craft Projects is FUN!" Some tear stains on page 4. Some ghosting from where I had to erase the word "NOT" from the front cover.
  • Several bottles of wine. Empty.
  • Pencils of every variety. All are guaranteed to provide some kind of impediment to getting the work done in a timely manner.
  • Unlimited lead bits fired from the tips of mechanical pencils. Some are still embedded in my face which will add to estimated ship date.
  • Every coloring book published by Dover. All unused.
  • Seventeen jillion dictionaries. All unused.
  • One t-shirt. Adult small. Says, "I SAID TO LOOK IT UP!" Slightly shredded.
  • One pack of cigarettes. Unopened but shows significant wear.
  • One Page-A-Day Latin Phrases Calendar. 2009. January 1 - 10 missing but otherwise complete. Also available for years 2010 and 2011.
  • One "Hot for Teacher" coffee mug. Slightly inappropriate.
That is not even close to being a comprehensive list but I have to stop because I'm getting sentimental. I'm glad my children are still very young and that we have so many more pages in so many more subjects to mark with our blood tears effort. I find, as I write this, that I'm not ready to even think about parting with any of these things yet. Even the mug.

Especially the mug.

And the cigarettes.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hello, My Name Is?

This weekend marked the advent of my life as a woman in her 40s. I find myself in need of a label. Let me stop you. I need a label. I'm a labeler. In my perfect world I would be allowed to walk around with a huge stack of those "Hello My Name Is" stickers and just fill them out and slap them on everyone I encounter. You might be "Tends to Go On About Not Needing Labels". Or, "Doesn't Vaccinate". Or "Thinks I Don't Know She's Getting Botox". Or, "Gave Birth To Me". Whatever. Just something on which I can hang the rest of my interaction.

In my quest for a label, I actually did a google search for "forty year old woman". Don't do that. That was worse than the time I wanted to have a Dick and Jane themed birthday for my one-year old. *Shudder*

There are a lot of way to describe a woman in her 40s but I'm not in love with any of them. There's "mature". I actually like that but in the past week I've told at least four jokes involving the word, "balls". I'm pretty sure that disqualifies me from this category. There's "cougar". I don't really care for this one although turning 40 does usher in a newly bewhiskered phase of life that makes it accurate on some level. That's all I'm going to say about that.

There's "matronly". I do wear a lot of grey but very few of my shoes are truly sensible. Well, there are the clogs but they are all lamé or animal print. There's "40 and fabulous". This is popular mostly because of the aliteration. But it's too gimmicky and the hard sell smacks of desperation. There's "of a certain age" which isn't bad but suggests that I could be much older than I already am. There's "premenopausal" but that feels a little too personal and directs the eye in a downward direction in a way that makes me a little squeamish.

"Past Her Prime", "Over the Hill", "Commercially Irrelevant" and "Almost Dead" are out for obvious reasons.

So, I'm still looking.

I've already written about embracing turning 40. I knew it was coming. I had time to prepare. I wasn't anticipating any problems. I popped a calcium chew, was retinoled up and felt ready to cross that bridge but as I put a foot on the first board I paused. In my anticipation of saying hello to 40 I had forgoten about saying good-bye to my 30s.

And I had a moment.

My 30s were good to me. In my 30s, my face lost its youthful moony roundness and I finally got some flat planes and stopped looking like an infant. People stopped dismissing everything I said right away and actually listened to me before dismissing it. I was nursing for nearly the entire decade which gave me a functional quality that I certainly didn't possess in my 20s, when my primary purpose was decorative in nature. I was pregnant a lot which provided me with lots of opportunities to be forgivably imperious - and eat ice cream by the quart - that was fun. I had a houseful of babies and teetered on the edge of madness most days making it not entirely different from my twenties in that way, actually, only with much better furniture and much better hair.

I was leaving the gym when it hit me. I had just finished my work-out and had tossed on my jacket and headed to the stairs that lead out of the club. I thought, "This is my last work-out of my 30s." And as my foot hit the first step, my 30s ran before my eyes like a movie reel that had been hooked up to a jet engine. I saw anew each slimy, pink newborn placed on my chest. One screaming, brown toddler pushing me away in terror. A realization that Life is Beautiful wasn't just an adequate movie but a succinct summation of all the everything. That time I threw a carafe of coffee across the family room in the kind of rage I find it much too tiring to muster these days. The time shortly after that when I had to clean it up (now I remembered why we got rid of those white slipcovers). 9/11. My grandfather. My father-in-law. My sister-in-law. My great-grandmother. My brother's wedding. The arrival of his children. My husband turning 40. My father turning 60. The movie stopped as I pushed open the door and stepped into the crisp morning air.

I probably looked like it was just any other day as I walked to my car in the post-dawn mist that morning. Not like I was leaving behind a entire decade's worth of events and friends and family. I let the sudden heaviness I was feeling drop away with each stride. By the time I got to the car I had recovered. I mean, my hair still didn't look great but I was feeling better.

I was ready to start a new decade that will be characterized by my changing role as my family gets older and we shift away from babies and toddlers to whatever comes after that. It will contain its own joys and losses (don't worry, I'm sure it won't be you) and will (hopefully) be looked back upon nostalgically by a future version of me. And I hope I can say for my 40s what I can say most emphatically about my 30s and not at all about my teens and 20s...I would do that all over again. Every minute.

Saturday, October 15, 2011


I'm an old fashioned girl. In a way. I prefer Jane Austen to science fiction. I prefer Beethoven to Beyoncé. I make my kids say "Mr." and "Mrs.". I like black licorice and black jelly beans. I say, "For Pete's sake." I don't think pajamas have a sartorial place outside of your designated sleeping zone. I call viewing a streaming movie, "Watching a video."

And I'm not really into technology and gadgets. I mean, yes, I have an iPhone but it isn't the version that came out last week. I'm satisfied with my version 4 (with the iOS 5 update). Still, I'm willing to take advantage of technology from time to time. I don't churn my own butter, for example.

My niece is going to have a baby. Let me stop you before you exclaim, "But you can't be old enough to have a niece who is going to have a baby!" Because you were going to exclaim that, right? I thought so. She is my niece by marriage and she is only 10 years younger than me. When I met her she was just a kid. About 14 years old. I remember looking at her beautiful young face and thinking, "Dang. This girl is like six feet tall. What is the deal with this family?"

Funny story. My niece, henceforth to be known as Mist (as in the Valkyrie of the same moniker), came to visit her Uncle Thor and me when she was about 16. I took her into the shopping district of the little town where we lived at that time and met a friend of mine there. As we walked down the street my friend suddenly laughed.

"What?" I said looking around.

"That guy," my friend explained, "He saw us and started to check us out. His eyes went from me to you to Mist like a pinball machine. Like, 'No. No. Bingo!' You can't win against youth."

I was not happy. For one thing, I didn't know I was in this game. For another. I didn't know I was supposed to be trying to out-hot my teenaged niece. For another, I hate losing. And finally, at 26 I was horrified to realize that I was reaching a place where I couldn't just rely on the glow of youth to attract unwanted stares from strange men. I was going to have to bring more game or pretty soon there wasn't going to be anyone on the receiving end of my disgusted eye roll filled responses to being checked out.

Mist is now older than I was when I had that revelation. Also smarter, more grounded and still taller than I was but most importantly - older. And she's going to have a baby.

I don't go to the baby place anymore so I often forget the things that are important in your world during that time when your focus narrows to the tiny pinpoint that is Baby. I encourage this narrowing of focus. Be single-minded in your pursuit of excellent parenting. We don't live in a time that encourages us to narrow our focus at all let alone honing it in on something outside of advancing our own comfort. And if it gets to be too much focus, a second child usually fixes that.

But when she and her husband - I'll call him Samson because I haven't had the chance to get to know him that well outside of my observations that he is kind and patient with my children, loving and sweet with my niece and he has great hair - decided not to peek at the baby's gender, it did raise an old debate topic when I told this to a friend and that friend responded with the standard, "Oh, how nice. A surprise. There are so few surprises in life anymore."

Now listen. I've done this both ways. With my first child, Thor was rather insistent that we not learn the baby's sex before seeing it for ourselves. I reluctantly agreed even though I found the logic to be extremely flawed. For one thing, there is no shortage of surprise. Life is one hellish surprise after another. One day when I was 15, I left my house to go to a baby sitting job and when I came home I found out that my father had had a massive stroke. Surprise! Once, the phone rang and when I answered it a voice told me I had INRTAT. Surprise! One time, I was taking a walk with my niece and found out that I wasn't hot anymore. Surprise! See, what I'm saying? I'm good with the surprises. I'll take the Venti Guarantee Extra Certain.

And, I'll be frank, the least surprising thing that happened to me that day, which started with me waking up in labor (surprise!) was hearing, "It's a girl!" There was a 50/50 shot.

This is how I got the big news. I was numb from the waist down but I could still feel stuff. Bad stuff. Basically, people were doing bad stuff on me that was unpleasant but I couldn't get away because my legs didn't respond to my commands to move. I was the size of a small whale which was appropriate as I was definitely beached, I was out of my mind high from the narcotic I had been encouraged to take, my legs were splayed open in a room full of strangers and suddenly someone was pulling stuff out of my body and saying, "It's a girl!"

"Oh my gaw!" I shrieked, "How can you tell?"

"What? No! That's the placenta. She's over there being weighed."

I looked in the direction the nurse was pointing but all I could see was my doctor, framed by the enormous expanse of my thighs, hunched over my nether region.

"Are you...sewing?" I asked in exasperation.

"It's a girl!" she exclaimed.

"Stop saying that!"

I'm kidding about the placenta. That didn't happen because my body didn't deliver the placenta on it's own (surprise!). Two nurses had to punch me in the stomach for 15 minutes first. You think I'm joking but I assure you that I'm not.

Compare this to the day in the OB's office when I found out the sex of my second child. I had been anticipating this day for ever since I found out I was pregnant again and I said to Thor, "We're doing it my way this time!" Before she told us the doctor asked, "Do you have names picked out?"

"Annabel for a girl. Henry for a boy." I beamed.

"Well, then I'm glad it's a boy," she said, "My kids' 4H pig is named Annabel."

I very deliberately chose efficiency and competence over bedside manner when I made this particular decision so I had to let that slide.

It was nice to get the news when I wasn't stoned and being pummeled by nurses who I suspect were enjoying that a lot more than they ought to have been. I had the whole day to revel in just this one piece of news. And I could distribute or withhold the news as was my wont. I mean, if I had control issues I could have done that.

I actually don't think that one approach is superior to the other. While I preferred finding out, there's a lot to be said for not knowing and thus not mentally constructing your child's entire life before you've even met them. And I'm glad I experienced it both ways. I just don't like when people get so smugly superior about electing to wait. In general, I don't much care for bragging about NOT doing stuff.

I didn't write this (just) because I really want to buy stuff for Mist and Samson's baby but I can't because I have to wait until I know whether to buy pink or blue (remember, I'm old fashioned). And I didn't write this to scare the bejeebers out of Mist about the impending delivery. Not even out of some kind of primal revenge for being the catalyst in my awakening to the fact that I wasn't YOUNG young anymore. I honestly don't think I could scare her. She's tough and she doesn't scare easy. I've always admired that about her and I can't wait to see her put it to good use in her new role as a mom.

I wrote this because I needed a way to tell her that.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Hardest Hue

I love this time of year. Take all of the usual love songs to fall, add a big scoop of pumpkin pie and a hot mug of cider. Mix until just combined and that about sums up how I feel. I have nothing new to add to this recipe so I won't even try. I will say that sometimes I'm not feeling all the red so I'll substitute a little turquoise. It's okay. As anyone who has ever read the comments thread of an online recipe can tell you, red and turquoise are no more different from one another than butter and the beaks of 6 baby penguins. You can swap one for the other at any point without significantly altering the results.

I also hate this time of year. I have to start running indoors. At the gym. On a treadmill. There are people there and even though I keep running I don't get any further from them. Outside I can be reasonably certain that if I have the misfortune of an interpersonal encounter it will be satisfyingly brief. Not so at the gym. And the gym is full of troubled souls. When I look just the right way in the mirror on the treadmill I can see all of us and I want to go down the line and go completely Oprah on every one of them. It would sound like this:

Ma'am, your work out would be a lot more convincing if you weren't performing it in what appears to be your bra and underpants and full make-up. And, if you were actually running. And if the treadmill were on. And you, Sir, I can smell your feet through the normally secure odor-border of socks and shoes. That's either a medical issue or a hygiene issue. Either way, people have been killed for lesser offenses. Or so I hear. That's not a threat. Just to be clear. Just in case my parole officer...never mind. Miss, how old are you? Twenty? Eleven? Whatever. You can slow down. We can all see you're very fast. How great for you. I used to be fast. See all this? This is you in a thousand years. Sobering, isn't it? Not so smug now, huh? And you, Lady of About My Age, you can relax too. You're going to get bursitis. It's okay to eat a piece of cake on your daughter's birthday. You don't have to punish your body for an hour the next morning. Sure, the old grey mare she ain't what she used to be but you really need to move past that and be nicer to yourself. And, hey, I have those shoes. Don't you love them? And we're wearing the same top. And shorts. And...wait a These mirrors are really clean. I wonder what they use.
But even if the weather and the dark mornings didn't drive me inside I think the Halloween decorations would. On my favorite route someone has elected to string up disturbingly realistic effigies from their trees. The first time I saw them I caught my breath as they swayed menacingly before me while I chugged and huffed up the hill in the dawn hours. I got literal chills even though I was pretty hot and sweaty by that point in my run.

And these poor souls have been up since the end of September. I don't understand loving death that much. So much that you have to get a head start in peacocking your depraved notions of folly. What drives that? You know what, don't tell me. I won't understand.

I've never liked it but it didn't bother me as much before my grandfather died. He died on October 20th and I was grieving his death at a time when reminders of death were everywhere. I would drive around my neighborhood, sobbing, and have to quell the urge to run up to the houses and tear down the effigies and the tombstones and the skeletons. Now, six years later, the destructive urge has passed but the churning in my gut on seeing these displays remains.

I didn't go to my grandfather's funeral. Big mistake. Don't miss the funeral, Kids. Even if you're pregnant. Even if you're in shock. Even if people you trust convince you to stay home. You should not spend your grandfather's funeral sitting in a dark cantina on the other side of the country. While he gets a full military funeral you shouldn't be staring out the window at the driving rain while a tinny and frantic version of "La Cucaracha" plays on the sound system. It will make you sick to your stomach to type it out even years later. Go. Just go.

It was Thanksgiving when I went to my grandparents' house for the first time after he died. I love that house. I've already written some about the time I spent living there. One of the things I loved most about that house at that time was how absolutely quiet it is there. Between the acoustic ceiling and the thickly padded wall-to-wall and the heavy drapes you couldn't hear an elephant running from one end of the house to the other unless you put a bell on him first. Bumping into a fellow housemate as you turned the corner was a regular occurrence.

Which is probably why I spent the entire week expecting him to turn up at any moment. I thought I'd see him come padding around the corner into the kitchen to warm up his coffee in the microwave. He'd absently say, "Hi hi," and then disappear just as noiselessly until his coffee was cold again. Or maybe he was out and if I just watched out the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows in the family room I'd be able to see his car turning into the driveway any second.

At some point I found myself in my grandparents' walk-in closet. Just looking at his clothes. The beautifully pressed shirts and slacks. The elegant sport coats and sweaters. He was so trim and tidy all his life and his closet reflected this orderly nature. I was startled when I heard a voice behind me say, "You're looking for him, aren't you?"

"It's okay," my grandmother said, "I do it too." We cried almost silently together for a while. She looked frail and tired. I felt frail and tired.

When Thor and I got the kids into the rental car to head to airport I was already wrung out. Leaving my grandmother had been painful and draining. I thought I was too tired to do anything but sleep but as we backed down the driveway I felt my throat tighten and a rising sense of panic. I started wailing, "He never showed up! I kept thinking he might show up!"

Maybe it seems like a lot of anguish for a grandparent. Grandparents die. Unless things go horribly wrong you should bury all of your grandparents and you should be prepared to do so from the time you can really grasp the concept of death. But I felt completely unmoored by my grandfather's death.

Maybe because he had saved my life. Maybe because one day, on the brink of true despair I had made a solitary effort to reach out to someone and dialed his number and said something so alarming that he drove 5.5 hours to collect me within 12 hours of hanging up the phone. I have never doubted that this gesture alone changed the course of my life. And he had remained a kind of talisman to me ever since. And now he was gone. I knew I'd be okay in time but it hurt like hell in the moment. Even though it wasn't that unexpected for a man in his 80s to die and even though things were happening the way they're meant to happen.

Even now there are moments when the wound is so shockingly fresh that it feels like a brand new injury. These moments are mercifully infrequent but exquisitely painful. And I had one of those moments when I was chugging up that hill and saw those bodies swaying in the trees like some kind of perverse, evil fruit. I was instantly transported to that awful Halloween, that dank and musty cantina, the impossibly orderly closet and the long ride to the airport.

So I ran faster up the hill until it peaked and leveled and turned me toward home and then I slowed down a little. I shook out the creepiness and agitation at a red light while cars filled with drowsy early birds ignored me. And by the time my foot hit the front porch the gaping wound of a few miles back had closed again and I had mostly moved on to mentally prepping for my day. But I recalled this poem just before I walked through the door:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
-Robert Frost

Friday, October 7, 2011

Coloring Inside the Lines

We don't do creative here at the Aquitaine Academy. We do structure. We color inside the lines. We think inside the box.

Even on art days there are rules and guidelines and not just the free-wheeling slathering of paint on paper that's encouraged by most institutions for learning. I picked our art program in part because the instructor on the video tersely mocks the typical child's artistic interpretation of a tree. "That's not a tree," the instructor says witheringly, "That's a lollipop." Sold.

Creative writing? Sure. On your own time. I don't spend valuable resources teaching that. There's outlining and sentence diagramming to be taught. I'm fun like that.

My kids, most kids, don't need to be taught how to be creative. They need to be taught how to sit their asses down and follow directions. And, they don't need to be taught how to think outside the box before they even know what's in the box.

I guess if there were a symbolic setting for my little home education endeavor it would be in that box.

Why? Is it because I hate creativity and art? No, that's not it. I'm looking forward to the day when I surprise them by suddenly and without warning lifting the box. And then watching them blinking and squinting into the light I'll ask, "Now what?"

So if that's not why, then, why?

It's because this:

is even more impressive when we know that you can also do this:

but you chose not to. And knowing that it was a choice makes us listen to you more closely than we would have if we thought you just couldn't paint people that look like people.

I have a print of the second painting hanging in our home. It reminds me that even though my own mind tends to live in the world of the first painting, my obligation to my children is to stay in the realm of the second painting for now. Our world is increasingly full of people given to the free expression of their every thought and desire and it becomes daily more apparent that so much time was spent on "teaching" them the process of expression that there wasn't any time to fill them with anything worth expressing.

I submit the following:

Hit show:

"Best Selling" Children's Book:

Fashion Icon/Pop Superstar:

To be fair, Gaga has some range. She can also dress like this:

And what expresses our free spirit and independent-mindedness more than an outfit that requires us to have full-time assistance when we wear it?