Low Expectations Holiday Gathering

‘Tis the time of the year for my annual celebration of hosting mediocrity.

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The invitations went out. By email. With no reminder two days before.

This is your casual, heartfelt, and festive but unadorned invitation
to our annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. Come to our house for a
minor-key gathering of joy, adoration, and minimal preparation as we
begin the seasons of Too Much to Do and Too Little Time.

Cheer with us an ambivalent welcome to Hanukkah, Winter Solstice,
Christmas, Kwanzaa, and any other cultural eating and drinking holiday you
embrace.

With music!

Come as you are, with your favorite minimal-prep-time food or drink.
We will be here, without any promises to clean or decorate, but with
warm exclamations of how much we cherish you in our lives.

Guaranteed to be unassuming, but not underwhelming.

RSVP so we know how big a pot of apple cider we need to leave
simmering until you get here.

The day before the party I bought some cheese. I’m not gonna lie: it was good cheese. The kids were fighting and I offered threats and bribes in equal measure so I could select a triple-cream brie, petite basque, herbed goat cheese, and salty mountain gruyere. Later I ate the gruyere and had to serve a cheddar/parmesan blend.

I cleaned the bathroom. Then went for a run.

A few minutes before the party was supposed to begin I surveyed the Martha Stewart scene I had created.

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Microwave covered in crap: check.

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Mantle undusted and still home to a Lego piece, Pokemon card, and related detritus I have no home for: got it.

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Decorative gourds still on the porch two holidays too late: handled.

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Wax-covered menorah ready for next week and almost hiding random Halloween gift bag I’m too lazy too move: check.

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Lots of crap shoved in a closet: nailed it.

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Bag nobody uses and box of important projects crammed under antique seating: perfect.

I knew then that we were ready to underwhelm.

I think we exceeded expectations, actually. Hard to disappoint when you promise fair to middling.

I’ll admit it: I moved the candy corn bag off the table. Because good cheese deserves better than that. But I didn’t move the cat toy.

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Or the spider ring and backpack tableau. Yes, seriously. So little effort required and so little given.

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Redefining baggage rather than ditching it

There are many things in my house that shouldn’t be here anymore. Not because I’m a hoarder, though, honestly, I have more of a tendency than I’ll admit on a blog.

But I’m not talking about dozens of unused tchotchkes or decades-old, half-eaten yogurt parfaits. I’m referring to items that represent a time in my life that’s gone; stuff that I should rightfully give to charity so someone else can make a life with my stuff sans the bad memories.

But for various reasons, I hang on to a few key items that both remind me of a painful time in my life and offer me a portal into the future. Not the flux capacitor kind. Just the “hey, I’m okay with the choices I’ve made so I’m moving forward despite not having a DeLorean” kind.

The most obvious, and frequently used items that some people might shed as life progresses, are remnants of my marriage.

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But it’s pretty easy to keep winding a gorgeous clock twice a day, marveling that it’s still as compelling to me in its metronomically clicking timekeeping as it was when we found it in a small mountain town on our honeymoon. I don’t need to still be in the marriage to appreciate the clock. Or the memory. Or the joy visitors find when they stumble upon the lovely mechanical creature.

The same goes for the wedding china. The kids and I eat off wedding china every meal, and some nights, the man who helped pick the pattern joins us. Do I want to be cooking several nights a week for four people rather than three? No, gentle reader, I do not. Do I cook meals to be enough for four anyway, and (somewhat) warmly invite the boys’ dad to join us when he comes over? Yes, I do. And whether he’s there or not, the plates are gorgeous.

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They’re important to me because they represent grownup decisions that I stand by even if I would now do things differently, given volumes of information and a dozen years’ additional experience. We all know that’s not how decisions work. There is no going back to change history just because you’re older and wiser and in a completely different place mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. I stand by my life and I stand by my wedding china. (Plus, honestly, the stakes are much lower if kids break dishes—they haven’t yet, but I have. It’s not as though the tableware is any indication or harbinger of the health of our marriage. In fact, a dear friend recently broke a crystal wine glass, and it made me quite happy. Really. I use the wedding crystal every day, because we don’t have many fancy things, but the fanciness we do have I like to be part of my daily life. That one broken wine glass reminds me a of joyful, funny evening with people I love, and I’d rather have something momentous like a broken glass cement my gratitude than have a full set of unforgettable wine glasses and boring, forgettable friends.

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Maybe I’m blase about using fine china and crystal every day because I don’t care about stuff. Sure, that’s part of it. Maybe I don’t get rid of it because I don’t have many genuinely fancy things and it’d be a shame to ditch them just because I’m not married anymore. The relationship changed and did not survive, and the plates and glasses remain. No need to be weepy and metaphoric about it. They’re plates. And glasses. And maybe that’s because I’m not in pain about the end of my marriage. It was clear the relationship was over. Irreconcilable. Painful to maintain, kinder to dissolve. So sure the plates aren’t a big deal.

But these glasses are.

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The family who gave us these researched the best glasses for red wine, my favorite beverage (other than water), and chose these because they look a bit like beakers. We were science nerds together, and I respected and envied their research once I ditched the lab for a career in language. So they bought me carefully crafted nerd goblets to show their attention and care. We all married around the same time, and we supported each other. We had babies around the same time, and we supported each other. And they ditched me, saying I was too much. After fifteen years it finally dawned on them, it seems, that I’m not worth knowing.

But I still use the glasses. I got rid of every other gift they’d given me over the course of our long friendship, but I kept the glasses. Because the glasses are gorgeous. And they’re for red wine and for sparkling water, and I will not let them take from me the joy of red wine in a flawless glass. No, ma’am and sir. I will not. I am worth knowing and I am worth really nice glassware.

I don’t let the kids use those.

One of the items in my house that, by all logic should be tossed straight into the trash, will never leave my possession if I can help it. As with the treasures hand made by my grandfather, and the photos of beloved family and friends, I get weepy about this particularly dear item in the living room.

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My penny sculpture is a pile of coins made molten and fused by the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991. I retrieved them from the pile of rubble at the Parkwood Apartments, which had gone from a delightful roommate compromise to an elevated concrete slab of ash and post-apocalyptic barrenness in a matter of hours.

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When I repossessed the pennies, I had to sign a waiver stating that, to the best of my knowledge, these were my pennies. I’m going to be honest: I have no idea if these were my pennies. I have no earthly recollection whether I even kept a pile of coins in my bedroom at the time. But the penny sculpture, formed by natural forces and placed by the management company right near a coffee mug that had definitely been mine, claimed me when I saw them.

So I signed for the pennies, thinking, “damn it, there are dozens of fused-coin sculptures around here, and it’s not as though I’m taking one that clearly has a wedding ring or an heirloom necklace melted into it. I’m taking a small, worthless clump of coins that might or might not belong to me because I’m not fully functioning, I’m a bit of a hoarder, and I cannot walk away from this tragedy with just a coffee mug that has a lump of concrete fused to it. I signed my name and bond that I was the rightful owner of the mug, too. I did not take or sign for some corningware that looked familiar. “I don’t want baking dishes,” I thought angrily, “even if they are mine.” A lot of corningware survived intact, and there were distinctive flowered logos on baking dishes with and without fused cement blobs in most of the regions on card tables marked by address with white copy paper and black sharpies.

I didn’t scan through all the items, as some survivors did. There might have been more to claim, I suppose, after the entire community burned to nothing in a 14,000 degree exploding landscape of eucalyptus and oak. But I didn’t care about getting more stuff. I went to the area labeled as our address, grabbed pennies and a mug, and left. Probably sobbing. I threw away the mug away soon after, some time in the beginning of the year of undiagnosed PTSD. I have no memories of that year other than a music class in which the room swam every time I opened my eyes, a smelly and disordered breakfast of seven hardboiled egg whites peeled on the walk to literature class, and a meeting with my counselor in which I asked to drop organic chemistry after two months of trying, desperately, to do homework in a cavernous frat house room.

I don’t keep and cling to and commune with the pennies to rub salt in a wound. I keep the pennies as a “holy fuck, if you made it through that, today is going to be okay” talisman. Because holy fuck. In fact, I should, rightfully, call them the Holy Fuck sculpture, but every time I ask if anyone has seen them, I call them My Pennies. Has anyone seen My Pennies? I moved My Pennies and I can’t find them…Peanut, do you know where My Pennies are? Wedding China Picker Outer, where are My Pennies? Yay! I found My Pennies! They’re just where I left them.

Of course they are just where I left them, placed ceremoniously in front of Foucault’s History of Madness or Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood or the complete works of Faulkner. Or in the bird’s nest I found walking Peanut to school. Nobody is going to move My Pennies. Some objects are too important, both for the past and the future, for anyone to mess with them.

Did you look in the kitchen?

Tonight I couldn’t find my book. Could not. This distressed me for several reasons, the chief among them not the potential cost of rebuying a book or of trying to find my place again.
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Most of what frustrated me about not being able to locate the key piece of entertainment and escape in my day is that there aren’t very many places the damned thing could be.

Computer bag is the most likely place. Nope.

Desk? Nope.

Ah…hiding under the covers? Nuh-uh.

In the kitchen, next to either the stove or microwave, the two places I’m often putting down a book so I can attend to the whistling tea kettle? No.

On the dining room table where it often naps because of that space’s central location in our house and lives? No.

On the boys’ bookcase where I placed it when I traded my reading material for family time? No.

On the floor by my bed? By the LEGO staging site near the couch? In the car?

No, no, no.

I gave up. My phone was down to 20% charge and it was time to get on the train for a talk downtown, so I couldn’t get enough battery power to listen to a book. I grabbed a magazine and stuffed it in my bag, then stomped up the stairs, musing that I had actually been meaning to read The Atlantic article on midlife crises so this wouldn’t be a total loss.

I stopped in the bathroom and saw the magazine I skimmed three nights ago while the boys took their baths.

And right underneath, I remembered, was my book.

I like that my life revolves around family and food, LEGO, my briefcase, and a whistling tea kettle.

I just wish my memory could save me some damned time already. Or that I read frequently enough to remember where my book is.

Priorities, people.

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The end of almost daily blogging

I missed three posts. I made twenty-seven. I like two of those twenty-seven. Not bad.
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I’m descending into hibernation mode. As much as I love lights and celebrations and family and cocoa, this is the time of year I want to curl in a ball and cry for a month. The Counting Crows’ song Long December makes me stand immobile and bawl my eyes out every time. Every time. I once played it on a loop in December and drove from Quincy MA to the ocean near Cape Cod at 3am because Oh My God, December could you be any harder?

Seasonal Affective need for long days and sunlight, holiday obligations, end-of-the-year panic about not having done enough or been enough, serotonin-seeking bread consumption, knowledge that I have nothing to give yet knowing family and friends and colleagues and homeless neighbors all need me to…these are the colors that paint December gray on grey on silver on slate on granite on gray.

Even the word December gets me a little downcast.

So I’m going to try to wake up early every day of December and sit with my light box. Writing. Either the old novel or the new novel. No client work. No cleaning. No email or audiobooks.

Writing.

Not “every day writing challenge” writing, but”do it because it makes you feel whole and you really need something in December that keeps you feeling human” writing.

Goodbye, November. It’s been a lovely time, really. And I now take all my energy and ask myself to rise to December.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Make hay while the sun shines

Because of Thanksgiving, Self-care Saturday has become Facial Friday. And that means the 20 minutes I spend scrubbing toilets and scouring the boy-grime out of our tub tonight also includes a light glycolic mask quickly smeared on my face as soon as the kids were in bed. No time like right now to exfoliate, I always say. Or sometimes say. Or just said right now on this blog, so at least I have it in writing and you can’t go back later and claim I never said it.

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[sure, you can buy a facial mask. But why not use the sand your nephew dumped out of his shoes on your floor? That’s making lemonade out of lemons, right there.]

I find these simple moments of bathroom-cleaning and pore-extraction multitasking leave me with not only my signature Glow of Accomplishment but also with Opportunities for Self Care amidst the Chaos of Life. I also feel that capitalizing random Moments as though they’re Life’s Lessons Writ Large helps sell my theories and ideas better. Because we all learned capital letters first, we all assume those who uses them most knows that mythical Something We Don’t.

Since the mask needs another five minutes to chew through my epidermis, and I’m sitting here in flannel jammies, leisurely panicking while I listen to the sound of rain sloshing from the gutters into the walls and eroding the house around me, I thought that I’d share with you some of my multitasking self-care tips. They apply equally to working moms, stay-at-home dads, grandparents in too many book clubs, and time-pressured people of all genders. The only readers who might not need ideas for cramming seven things into ten minutes are the many newly graduated, single, child-free, and slightly-employed 20-somethings who flock to my blog. Never fear, though, friends. Since you aren’t trying to shoehorn thirty activities into your one free hour a day, you’ll never notice that this post might waste your time. Because all of your time is free time. There’s no penalty for the extra 90 seconds reading this post will cost.

Some day, however, you’ll benefit from my genius. So read on with the rest of us poor creatures who need every bit of help we can get.

As already mentioned, apply a facial mask before you toothbrush the grout in the shower. If you find one that pretentiously lists chemical ingredients by the Latin name of their natural source, you’ll find that the time pondering mildew goes more quickly.

When you’re driving to school, then a different school, then work, then the first school again, then the second school, a lively podcast will make you feel as though you’re engaging with the world around you. When life conspires to keep you locked in a mobile machine for most of the day, try The Serial or Radiolab. You’ll get to vascillate between how clever you are and how deprived of genuine human contact you are. And seeing both sides of an issue will keep that pesky self acceptance at bay!

Since preparing meals requires a significant portion of every adult’s day, let’s all do ourselves the favor of putting the power of MOOCS to work for us. Nothing compliments carefully julienned peppers like History of Physics. You’ll be amazed at how quickly time flies when you’re trying to hold complex theories in your head while timing the preparation of stir fry. And if mistakes happen, remember that there’s a 30 second rewind button, a modern 911 system, and 10 somewhat redundant fingers.

Finally, use your self-care multitasking ideas to boost your income! Start a Strolling Cafe where people get a cup of coffee, then join their friends on side-by-side treadmills. Using what you learned from your online physics course, modify the equipment so nobody can walk faster than 3mph. That saves your gym from spills and keeps away annoying runners whose insistence on sprinting while reading is making the rest of us feel grossly unproductive. Make sure, too, to alter the view so the floor-to-ceiling glass panes don’t actually reveal the harsh world outside, but rather reflect a dream scenario in which sunshine and genuine racial and gender equality drift comfortingly past the multitasking coffee walkers.

See how easy it to be Glowingly Accomplished and Culinarily Edified and Socially Fit?

Delightful.

Moby Dick Parenting

When a friend posted on his blog that one of his favorite artists, Matt Kish, was selling off the original artwork he created for every page of Moby Dick, I clicked right over.

I actually dislike a fair percentage of Melville’s text, but there are some moments in his novel that resonate. I spent seven years studying literature, plus a reading of Moby Dick in high school, which lands me squarely in the “well, damn it, after reading it three times I at least appreciate it, so show me whatchya got” camp of Moby Dick art lookeylooism.

And as I scrolled through the artwork, I realized that the most compelling images correspond with parts of the story that I’ve always connected with. Not man vs. whale, because honestly that trope is too annoying for words; but man against natural elements and against darker forces within himself.

I love these images drawn and painted on found paper by Matt Kish, each inspired by a line from Moby Dick, and each recalling for me some of the hardest moments of parenting.

And my post yesterday inadvertently featured the artwork, so here’s a detailed look at each.

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Moby Dick aphorism #6: “When a fellow’s soaked through, it’s hard to be sensible, that’s a fact.” I have to admit, this one makes me smile, then choke back the sob that still lives in my throat remembering the intense undertow yanking violently at me when I was the sole source of everything for newborns.

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“‘I say, pull like god-dam,’ cried the Indian.” The vivid graphics of this and the wave of rhythmic belief in the way Matt penned the words gives me courage when I don’t have any. Melvillean racism aside, I’m buoyed and girded by the Indian’s entreaty.

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“A sort of badger-haired merman, with a hump on his back, takes me by the shoulders, and slews me around.”  This piece is, for me, the most aesthetically beautiful. This is ocean and woman and chaos and man and embodiment and swooning all at once, and I love it. The mental image, too, of a rough and scruffy sea-creature just shaking the crap out of me evokes the paint-spattered, tyrannical toddler who has to power to absolutely upend my life, one moment to the next.

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This I selected with the intention of hanging it over my son’s dresser to calm me and ground me when nighttime rituals went all to hell. “So, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all the Typhoon. It will sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb upon a dazed and sleepy town.”  Resplendent, oceanic, dire, exploding, sudden? Yup. That’s my kid, and I love him. And instead of placing this in his room, I centered it with the other art in the living room. It’s the frame most often threatened by children illegally jumping on the couch.

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My photo of this is terrible, so here’s the original.  I love so intensely that the found paper on which Kish painted this vicious and tempered and vibrant art is the dedication page to a book that says “To my Mother and Father with Fondest Love.” Because juxtaposing that parental adoration with the text is priceless. “You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.” Melville had it all over Freud, because Superego besting Id has nothing on sharks well governed.

This concludes the art tour of my living room wall. Join me tomorrow from the art on the other side of the room.  Maybe.

On calling a spade a spade

This morning, I was trying to find my lightbox. It’s finally raining in California, praise Neptune, and moisture is so welcome I have to hide my fear of all things dark and cloudy.

But I really can’t make it through winter, even winters that are overcast only 10% of the time. I have biochemical needs, y’all, and bread can’t fill all of my seratonin gaps.

And as I pulled all the sheets down to look in the linen closet, my first thought was, “Seriously, woman, why don’t you fold your sheets?”

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My second thought was, “I should really learn how to fold fitted sheets. My grandma can do it, and I’m pretty sure it’s what defines civilized people from uncivilized.”

My third was, “What a bunch of hooey! There is no correlation between civilization and fitted sheets. None. There is no reason I have to fold anything in this linen closet. I am a good person and I absolutely reject the notion that my worth and my family’s happiness revolve around the status of my stupid effing sheets!”

The lies we tell about “should” are increasingly unraveling my thin hold on propriety.

Because here’s the thing. For a long time women were expected to keep house. And there were no floors, but they swept dirt floors. And there was one set of sheets and they washed in the tub (or creek) and scrubbed on the washboard, and they wrung out sheets and banged them against rocks. And they hung their clothes to dry.

And I have no idea what that was like. Maybe I would have folded my sheets.

But now I have an electronic box into which I type my ideas, and buttons to push to get those words sent places, and sometimes someone pays me for those words. And from that box come tales of others in desperate need, forsaken by their government or their employer or their family and pushed into small corners by violence or racism or hatred or hunger or disease.

So you can take your folded fitted sheets and shove them in your linen closet, but I’m fresh out of fucks to give.

I refuse to buy into the bullshit of what I should do. I have never folded my sheets, and though there is something dark inside me telling me I’m wrong and bad and weak for not folding sheets, I absolutely refuse to start now. No way. Folded sheets don’t make me grown up. Making tough choices and doing the best I can and remembering all of every day that I am not the only human trying to make my way on this planet, and that, in fact, many of the rest need help seventeen levels beyond folded goddamned sheets…those are the things that make me a grownup. Holding up friends as they die and bringing dinner to a family whose child is dreadfully ill, that is what makes me a grown-ass, don’t you dare tell me about fitted sheets, woman.

You know what I thought as I defiantly rolled up the sheets and shoved them in the closet after I found my lightbox? I thought, “Eleanor Roosevelt sure as hell wouldn’t want me folding fitted sheets.” What has stuck with me most over the past few days since I finished the biography examining the personal lives of those in the White House during World War II, are two relatively simple concepts: 1) women’s role in society is almost always circumscribed for her by others and 2) really great thinking requires taking long and frequent breaks.

Doris Kearns Goodwin makes very clear that Rosie the Riveter was persona non grata after the war. “Yeah, thanks for the help, but we were kidding about you being important.” Once all the efforts of women on the homefront helped secure peace, years of begging women to sacrifice for the country, of asking them to work as hard as they could, had produced results beyond anyone’s hopes. Women kicked ass in the factories. They owned their work. And they loved doing it. According to Goodwin, 79% of women said after the war that they preferred work to being at home, and 70% of those were married with kids. They preferred being with others doing something meaningful to ironing and folding fitted sheets. Of course they did. So the women wanted to continue to work. But factories fired them without a second thought, telling the women who made the American war effort possible that they weren’t wanted.

And that’s when the propaganda morphed from Rosie the Riveter to Suzy Homemaker. This is the part ringing in my ears a week later…the ads that for years promised automatic dishwashing and automated clothes drying to enable working women were all of a sudden ads for intricate recipes that took all day to prepare. Magazine articles that had urged women to help their men by helping the military-industrial complex became articles about how children whose mothers work grow up to be delinquents and criminals. (All of this is paraphrased, from my faulty memory that is boiling in rage against linen closet manners. This is not my thesis, it represents the tea leaves left in the bottom of my cup by Ms. Goodwin. If you want the exact wording from No Ordinary Time, get it from your library and read for yourself. For now, all you have is me and my seething indignation to go on, so roll with it.)

And so what is the propaganda telling us now, I’ve been mulling this week? Be thin and pretty and submissive, paint yourself perfectly, write the code but don’t criticize what the code depicts or enables, be there for your kids all the time unless you’re a CEO, buy lots of things, have a bucket list, spend time in nature, care about those in need, meditate, do yoga, put away your phone, buy another phone, be fully present every moment of the day, promise to sleep a lot but cheat and barely sleep so you can play the ‘I’m more tired than you are’ game of personal success, and eat only what you’ve grown yourself and spent 48 hours sprouting and 12 hours preparing but then god help you if it’s not raw and exactly as it was hunted by cave people.

Because pancreas. Or something. Spleen? Spleens that you need if you’re freediving, for that burst of oxygen just before you die? Save your freediving spleen with the paleo love of coconut and dates!

Geezus Cheeses on a Cracker. What else are we supposed to do? Please, do give me another list. I’m sure you can tax the limits of human endurance further.

So I see balled up sheets, I begin to tell myself to fold them, and I rage against post-war misogynist propaganda for a while.

Easy enough, right?

Nope. Because the other thing that stuck with me about No Ordinary Time is how much time FDR spent relaxing. And I’m not making any allowances here for his physical pain and exhaustion, and I note that. But I’m not mocking his leisure, so I feel rather free to recap the man’s daily schedule, which included a lot of sleep and entertainment. I’m reiterating what I understood from the book: that his leisure, including copious time spent with good friends over good food and good wine and good games, was integral to his ability to create. That without nightly card games and trips to the islands, he never would have come up with lend-lease. The guy woke late, ate, read, worked a bit, ate, relaxed, worked a bit, and held court in the library every evening. He played cards and spoke with friends and took some time to stare across the yard now and then. And he was a war-time President. I’m guessing he had quite a few things to do. I mean, he didn’t have to submit FSA receipts by the end of this month, or anything, but still.

Still.

He managed to take a break several times a day. We don’t do that. As a culture, we don’t do that enough. There are now articles telling you that it’s important to let your brain rest. To do some dishes and let information sink in so you can really process it. The are gorgeous, moving diatribes against productivity that render me incoherent with longing and sadness and a renewed refusal to fold my sheets.

So what is this bullshit about doing everything and having everything? I can’t do or have or be everything. Can’t. Won’t.

I will not fold my fitted sheets.
I will not do yoga retreats.
I will not make my nutty spreads.
I will not make my family’s beds.
I will not mop the stupid floor.
I will not scrub my muddy door.
I will not put my dear self last.
I will not eat my food so fast.
I will not say yes anymore.
I will not take on tasks galore.

I will not keep a crazy pace.
I will not join your insane race.

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Sigh

I have intermittent wifi on a ladies’ birthday weekend. So I don’t care that I missed a post day in this most honorable “post every day” NaBloPoWriMo. And I don’t care that I can’t upload an awesome photo for you today. I’ve tried.

I have clean air and homemade toffee. And I think I can say without qualification, that this is the meaning of life.

Now I lie, not lay, down to sleep.

I don’t do well with rules, so National Blog Post Writing Month’s premise of posting every day for a month is irking me. But I signed up for the challenge voluntarily, it’s time to put on my Big Girl pants and get it done.

If a tree can artistically render another tree species in its leaf, I can write a blog post.

If a tree can artistically render another tree species in its leaf, I can write a blog post.

I just finished a two-month challenge with different parameters and different aims. But I bristled at those rules, too, mostly because I’m a grown-ass woman and I know what’s good for me and what’s not, and I’ll do the choosing, thank you very much.

I made it through the longer challenge, and I will make it through this daily blogging thing, too. Even if I want to rail against boundaries and melodramatically perceived imprisonment.

Now, I’m tired, so I’m only telling you one thing today: my eldest’s son shirt was in my drawer and I had my arms in it to put it on before I noticed the 8 on the tag. I’m not 8. He is.

It struck me as very sad that my son is almost big enough to share my clothes. Soon he will share my car keys. Then he will leave. And I’m so excited to find out what he will be and where he will go.

But for now I want him here and I want more time, not less.

I’m going to go pull his size 6s out of the garage, where they’re waiting for his brother. And I’m going to make my third grader wear size 6 until I’m darned good and ready to have him writing in cursive and multiplying and performing Greek plays.

I think, in base ten, that’s about 8 more years.

My app and me

I don’t think writing on my phone will ever feel as natural as typing. But tonight I’m trying the WordPress app for three reasons.

1. It’s National Blog Post Writing Month, and I’ve committed to writing every day all November.

2. I’m already upstairs curled up next to cats.

3. I’ve been in front of the computer all day, catching up on deadlines, and for now is like to use my left thumb and right index finger only. Or nobly, as autocorrect wanted me to say. I think it’s rather pretentious to find me noble for phone blogging, Phone, but I will take that compliment. At least you love me more than the kid who fake cried for 5 minutes because I wouldn’t let him hold the obscenely bright book light as he fell asleep, and who paused the fake cry long enough to tell me he hates me.

Hated by a four-year-old yet noble to a phone.

Anyone wanna guess why parents are glued to handheld devices at the playground?

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Language Lessons

My preschooler loves his Spanish teacher. He sings the songs she teaches him and he tells the stories she shares.

Sometimes it's hard to be so super

Sometimes it’s hard to be so super

And he tells me the words he learns.

“Mom, did you know what mutara means? It’s Spanish for burrito.”

Um, no, it’s not.

“Honey, I’m pretty sure burrito is a Spanish word. It means little burro, or little donkey, and where I grew up, a burro was a HUGE burrito in a homemade tortilla.”

“Hugenormous?”

“Yes.”

“Well, did you know what fremata means? It’s Spanish for taco.”

I laughed. Because, again, nuh-uh.

in his world, every day is Halloween

in his world, every day is Halloween

Tonight he told me has some words to teach me. I waited, eagerly.

“I have a new word for sausage. Ready? That word is lentils.”

I started laughing, and he kept going.

“The word for lentils is strawberries. The word for strawberries is grapes. The word for banana is beer. The word for wine is stove. The word for counter is step stool. And that’s all. Mom, laugh about the counter word.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Once the wine became a stove I grew contemplative.”

“Know what my word for that is, Mom? It’s minkie.”

Sounds about right, buddy.

My love letter to audiobooks

I’d gotten to the point in my midlife when I thought I wouldn’t fall in love again. I’ve had my turns with relationships, and learned something glorious from each. My love for my children teaches me about infinity and about dark human frailties. My love for my friends dances about like dandelion seeds, unpredictable and lovely.

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And until I found you I thought nothing could surprise me.

Friends told me about you. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t really hear them. Blah blah podcasts, blah blah library downloads. “No, thanks,” I thought. Audiobooks are what my parents listen to when they drive cross country. Books on tape we call them. You can’t hope to get a good story going in the 20 minutes on the way to the increasingly-too-freaking-far-away preschool. I can’t hear a story…really hear…on the way to the grocery store or a meeting.

The kids and I checked out audio CDs for long day trips. King Arthur legend stuff and The Hobbit. Things I didn’t want to read aloud at night. Because that reading is precious. First the back and forth of “little guy chooses a book, then big guy reads from his Just-Right chapter book, then little guy gets another, then big guy reads again…” until we brush teeth. Then the big story after lights out. Well, lights out except for the sea turtle who throws stars on the ceiling, a gift from their uncle that keeps us company all Fall and Winter. Turtle time is big story time…Peanut and I deliberate in the library and in front of our bookcases full of kids’ books. Charlotte’s Web, Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter. I save those marvelous books for “real” reading: my voice, our mismatched-but-once-inextricably-linked bodies cuddled in the big chair, focused on the spotlighted page that becomes, in the book light’s insistence, a stage on which our nightly story plays out.

Audiobooks were for the stuff I didn’t want to read. That we could finish on a trip to the beach and back, or that took too much work.

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can't an audiobook do this for me?

Crawling back to the river is too hard. Can’t an audiobook do this for me?

But then I got an email. Two free books to try it out. Any titles you want.

Um…can’t hurt to try? Blind date with an audiobook. I’m not ready for something new, and I don’t foresee love in my future, but I can try. Whatever. Free is good. Novelty is sometimes okay, even for the change-averse.

Oh, good heaven how you bowled me over.

Our first date was in the car, after a client kick-off meeting when I needed to relax a bit. We connected. I laughed. At once I knew we were going to be friends. And when I got home, you came in with me. You followed me around as I set up my desk for the new project, as I planned dinner. You walked with me when it was time to pick up my son at school, and it just felt right. I wasn’t ashamed. I was having a good time.

I knew our relationship would be challenging for my children, and I knew they had to come first, no matter how I was falling for you. I believe very firmly that they shouldn’t meet anyone new in my life right now. They need to know they’re the most important voices in my life. So I hit pause on our new…whatever this is, I don’t dare label it yet because you’re too new and I’m too caught up to be objective…and walked home with my son. And we played and talked and did our family things. Without you. We picked up my younger son and we all went to soccer. Without you. On the pitch we had dinner, the one I had prepared while you were reading to me. And I smiled a silly schoolgirl grin. Because eating now reminded me of great books. And walking reminded me of great books. And the car, that dreaded convenience that gets me to and from the 10,000 places a day we should be? It reminds me of you and how happy you make me.

Predictably, I’ve gotten a bit lax about keeping you and my family separate. Now when I make breakfast you’re with me, reading to me and filling our hectic morning with measured, adult speech where was there was only shrieking and teasing and laughter and whining. And when the kids want something or I have to help them, you steel me for the less-savory of my tasks with your gentle 30-second rewind and your reassuring pause button. “I’ll wait for you,” you seem to say. “Go ahead. Take care of your family. You love them and they love you and I’ll just wait.”

And you do. And when I return, hours or days later, you know just where we left off. You’ve wooed me with humor and impressed me with heart-wrenching moments. You keep me company while I clean, cook, and write invoices. You make carpooling and grocery shopping engaging.

You make me love mindless tasks, something I haven’t felt since I was young and child-free and trying to discern the origins of the Universe while I vacuumed. Though I value what I do for my family as much as I do the tasks I complete for clients, somehow I don’t feel the family-work is enough. Before you, dishes were a necessary waste of time, and they kept me from what I love. Grocery runs were just stupid burdens. Making lunch? A chore.

And now, with you, I love the grocery store. And dishes. Lunches have become intricate and engaging because I can justify seeding a pomegranate and shaping sandwiches. I have to do these tasks with or without you. But you make them interesting. And productive. I know I could try the rest of my life to fight the need to make every waking moment productive, but why? It’s who I am.

And you get that. You love that. You understand me, and, I am here to say loudly and in front of the whole Internet, I love that about you. What I’ve missed most about my old life, my life before kids, is reading. Frequent, barely-pausing-to-blink, all-engrossing engagement in books.

I’m not going to get into semantics. I don’t know if our relationship is reading or if it’s listening or if it’s entertainment. I won’t slow down long enough to care. I don’t do the high-brow/low-brow arguments that graduate school pretty well beats out of readers. And I don’t want to examine yet…oh, heavens, not while our love is still new…what you’re doing to my relationship with music.

Thank you for the three wonderful books you’ve read me over the past two weeks. I hope my intense love continues to grow. I adore you so much I’m willing to share you with others, which is something I could only ever say about my children. You’re welcome to be as compelling as you want and to draw as many people to yourself as you want.

The more the merrier, dear love. Bring ‘em on.

Make it stop

“You have a new bill. The school carnival is coming up. Your library books are overdue. 50% off two great deals. A note to parents. Fly from $79 one way. Your photos are on their way. Listserv digest. JSTOR daily. School announcement. ICYM. Blog post. Confirm auto billpay. You have a new bill. Kickoff meeting. University Press new release. You’ve been added as a member to the share site. Eye appointment reminder. Reply to your post. Friend in need. You have a new bill. Picture day tomorrow. Half marathon coming soon. Public radio needs you. Congress needs you. Please give money. You have a new bill. Halloween party needs planners.” —one of three inboxes

We all have detritus cluttering our lives. Floating bits of to-do and should-do and hurry-and-do that drift around in our vision and settle as a thick layer of dust on our counters. And books and beloved objects.

But not on our computers. Oh, no. Those get plenty of use.

I’d like a day, as would every single person I know, without emails to return, without lunches to make, without bills and crap and nonsense. I’d really like, as I’m willing to bet most people would, to focus on being my best self, engaging with my family, working hard on the things that make me valuable to society. And I’d love to do that without the flotsam and jetsam of crap that litters my to-do list.

So I delete the unnecessary emails and I unsubscribe from lists I swear I never joined.

And that eats 20 minutes of my day.

I feed the humans and felines in my house and I tidy and I ask them to help and we get the tactical stuff done.

And that eats hours of my day.

I think about the ways in which I can be an advocate and an ally, and I weigh the time or money I would need to contribute.

And I guiltily cut saving the world to 30 minutes of my day.

And I work on client deadlines and dream of a day when I can write my own stuff. I want to work on my book so badly it’s making me itch. But it will be at least a week before I have the time. Because I work for people who will pay me now for my writing.

And to that I willingly give hours of my day.

Transporting small people and navigating their conflicts and helping them learn to talk to each other kindly and reading and playing and cooking…they take up hours of my day. Good use of time. But hours nonetheless.

I don’t know why I keep coming back to this space, but I do. I’ve wanted to commit blogicide so often it’s become normal to think, “well, clearly I’ll never write there again, so do I delete the whole thing or just never go back?”

A flair for the dramatic, but also, I’m beginning to see, a perfectly normal state of being for bloggers.

I’ve had several long-term bloggers tell me that killing your blog and reinventing it is a moral imperative.

So I feel guilty for not writing here, and now also guilty for writing here, my blog 1.0?

I only know that I’m functionally incapable of life without a journal. And for more than six years, this has been my place.

So maybe I should kill the blog or reinvent the blog or abandon the blog or reinvigorate the blog.

But for now, I dash of a quick complaint about my inbox whining at me that it needs more from me. That it wants to be heard. That it needs a glass of water.

Grow up, inbox. I have other things to handle, and you can do it yourself.

Mr. or Ms.?

My oldest son, Peanut, was reading to his dad while I read to the youngest. We were spread across my big bed, west to east: 44, 8, 41, 4. And Peanut was reading something mythical that involved Dukes and Duchesses. But he didn’t know what those titles meant. So his dad explained briefly about Prince and Princess versus Duke and Duchess in the way that only postcolonial, anti-feudal Americans can.

credit hotblack via morguefile

The gist of it was: peripheral royalty, different word for each gender.

“What would Jay be?” Peanut asked.

It’s been six months since Jay died. I’ve written about him often, including once since his death.

And in none of those posts did I mention that he was transgendered. Mostly because it’s none of my business. Part of being an ally means that friends who are different from me aren’t marked by what they are or how they self define, but by my relationship to them. I said as much to my son when he called someone at school gay.

Jay wasn’t just my friend who was born an adorable Mormon girl and lost family and Church and marriage as he found out who he was. He was my friend, a kind dad who was also a mom; a human who had great days and bad days but was always nice even to really dreadful people. And who he was—day to day—was more important to how I thought of our relationship than the long road that brought him into my life.

And Peanut knew Jay as kind and funny and awesome. And he also vaguely knew Jay used to be a woman, because it had come up in a conversation about being who you really are inside. So I told him casually about transgender people when it was pertinent to the discussion. I didn’t bring it up to shock or preach or titillate. I mentioned Jay being able to finally be who he really was, because it was part of what we were talking about that day.

And after a few questions entirely appropriate for a kindergartener (which he was, at the time), it was just another fact about another friend. No big deal. Never came up again, nor should it have.

But this week, six months after Jay died, six months after he left his new wife and their blended family of three kids to figure out how to live without him, Peanut asked if Jay would have been a Duke or a Duchess.

I choked back the sob of surprise and pain that catches all of us unaware just as we’ve learned to live with loss. And I tried my best to answer.

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“Well, back in the time that book is talking about, a long time ago, people believed you are what you’re born. They didn’t talk about people wanting to be a different gender, or about wanting to marry someone from the same gender, or about women having jobs or anyone voting. So Jay would have been born a Duchess, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t be a Duke. There were definitely people back then who didn’t feel right in their bodies, and some who wanted to be different than they were born. But it just didn’t happen. People didn’t like difference.”

He frowned. “But if everybody agreed that it’s okay to…if everybody agreed…if…” He couldn’t find the words he wanted. “If everybody agreed it was okay to be whoever you really are, then could Jay have…?” He paused and waited.

“Do you mean could he have changed his body? Did they know about hormones and the way bodies become men and women bodies?”

“Yeah.”

“No, they didn’t know about the science of bodies. And so even if everyone agreed that Duchess Jay could go ahead and be himself as Duke Jay like some people do now, he wouldn’t have been able to take the hormones that gave him a beard and a lower voice and things like that. They didn’t know about hormones, and they didn’t have the science to make them and give them to Jay.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, buddy?”

“What.”

“You don’t need everybody to agree for you to be who you are. You just need a few allies, people who believe in you and support you. Doesn’t matter everyone else thinks.”

And I kept reading to Butterbean, telling myself I could cry later.

Because even more painful than the fact that I’ll never see Jay again, can’t talk to him and can only see his kids in a new house without him, is the idea that for thousands of years of human existence, Jay would have had no idea he could be anyone else, would have had no way to become who he really needed to be. I can’t imagine living in a world like that, where Jay would have been and remained and felt wrong as Julie.

But I’ll bet in that world we would have been friends. Because Jay’s friendship wasn’t about gender, not when I met him and not when I found out about his transition. Or his pregnancy. Or his cancer.  Friendships aren’t usually about gender. Who Jay was for me is entirely defined by what kind of friend he was. And that wasn’t based on anatomy or hormone profile or what existed under his clothes. It was based on his heart.

I miss you, Jay.  And I don’t care whether you’re a Duke or a Duchess. I just really miss your kind heart.

 

 

Open Tabs

My draft list of ideas to post includes seven items, none of which I have time for tonight.

Instead, I’ll regale you with a story of how many tabs I have open right now: 38 total.

I have 20 tabs in one window, which is exclusively for the research I’m doing for a client project. At least four of those are PDFs with more than 56 pages to read. And with an air-tight NDA, that’s about the most I can tell you.

I have 18 tabs in another window, which comprises my personal search results. This includes:
1. Some Bored Panda stuff for the reluctant little carpooling friend who’s scared to come over. I want to briber her with carefully curated content she can see and I can then send to her parents for an evening showing with her older brother.
2. Several Instructables, including kinetic arts and dragons’ egg
3. Recipes I know the kids will help me make and eat, like baked granola bowls for serving yogurt
4. A New Republic article on Updike that my buddy Matt Bucher linked to on the Twitters, the article itself representing not much more than my wish that somehow reading it will get someone to sponsor a conference so a nice group of us can have another dinner together.
5. Some FTP client file management tutorials including character encoding verification dialogs that made me cry when I read them, because foreign language
6. A Five Dials special issue memorializing David Foster Wallace
7. A Brain, Child article on introverts
8. Event website mounting a search for local half-marathons
9. Pinterest boards of emergency bags so I can remember to update our earthquake supplies and manually backup my computer

I need to close these tabs. I need to schedule email time and not respond outside those hours. I need to schedule some yoga time, too.

And I need to pull out a book, after closing those tabs.

Dozens of open tabs that signify all I *want* to be doing but clearly am not. Tabs that promise efficiency and productivity “if I just have five minutes…”

But maybe I really will attend to those pressing and compelling matters, the portals to which I’ve opened by the wonders of the Interwebs. I try the email thing first, before closing all the work I did to find those tabs in the first place. Because life is too short to throw away all your useful web searching time by closing valuable tabs.

And don’t tell me to Instapaper the pages, by the way. I never read the articles I save there.

How many tabs do you have open, and do you actually read them, or just spend weeks wanting to read them?