Coming home

A long travel day, a long conference day, a long travel day. Moments of embarrassingly loud laughter, long stretches of insect-splatting boredom, sparks of intellectual fireworks, flawless time with friends, and a breathtaking moment of euphoria.

art institute of chicago Chagall exhibit

Back home, half of the plates are gone. The wedding china, which we’ve always used as everyday dishes. Their absence makes space for the boys’ two favorite dishes to rest together on the same shelf. Finally. I don’t like these little upsides. They feel like laughing at a funeral.

Half of the drinking cups are gone. Makes the collection a little coffee-focused. Kid glasses and coffee mugs and a set of happy-making mathematical highballs. With a lot of what I expect just…gone. Maybe I’ve expected too much. And by “maybe,” I mean “of course.”

The dresser he’s had for decades is sitting by the front door. It’s ready. I don’t know if he’s ready. I’m not ready. That’s too bad. We have to be ready. We don’t, of course, but he’s moving and “ready” isn’t the point.

We’re in for a lot of change. There is no “my side” of the bed anymore. Or the fun we had every year on New Year’s Eve of switching sides of the bed. Just for a year. Just to see if it settles anything. Or unsettles anything. Or everything.

What will I do now to shake things up? Have a conversation with myself?

I emptied the mission-style letter-writing desk I picked out, so he can take it to his new apartment that I hate and is too far and is all wrong and is none of my business. And I had him move my work desk from the dining room to the bedroom. My bedroom. Two closets just for me and more space than I’ll ever need. Maybe I’ll move the kids into the master with me, and we’ll move all the furniture in that too-big room and we’ll be happy forever without any problems or fights or unmet needs. The end.

The expectant hope of a new home, where unpacking the books and kitchen tools is so important because they set the stage for everything…I’m doing that in my own house. Not my own, really. A rental I can’t afford by myself. I’ll figure that out later. After I reorganize everything in the manic hope that rearranging until 3am will make the next day okay.

I want to move because there’s too much house for three. I don’t want to move because the last thing the kids need right now is more change. I pause for a deep breath of gratitude that we have that choice. I’m glad for that choice.

I offered some of the framed photos and he accepted. Will it upset the kids to see blank spots on the walls where their photos hung for three years? Will they be happy to know he wants their photos decorating his life or will they notice only the absence? Of photos, of couch, of father visiting four days a week but clearly just a guest.

Did I make him feel like just a guest in the marriage? An employee, an afterthought? Probably. A few plates and cups and a couch isn’t making as large a dent as I thought it would. Did he not have enough of him here, or do I just not notice how much is really leaving?

The little one, my sweet, irrational, King-Kongesque little butterbean wants to know why Daddy has to move his furniture. Why is he bringing things to his new place? They haven’t really understood yet, because it’s been just talk. I think he believed the new apartment he saw was somehow just a daytime space, like for work. Dad sleeping somewhere else because he doesn’t live here? He has literally no friends with divorced parents. Nobody else in our family is separated. I’m sure there will be a trophy or a plaque issued for that particular honor soon enough, but Butter has no frame of reference. Until now. So I’ve taught him about rainbows and mammals and glitter glue and divorce. Gee, that feels exactly the opposite of terrific. “We’re still a family, and we’re living in different houses. We still love you and we both want to be with you all the time. We just don’t do a good job of being with each other.” But that’s not true anymore. We do a very good job of being with each other. So then…why?

There will be questions. I know this will come. “But you are nice together now. Why can’t you be in the same house now that you know how to be kind together?”

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. I’ve asked that, too. For now, or for good, “he doesn’t want to” is the truth the boys won’t hear. We carefully unify in our answers in a way we never did when we were together. And I can’t tell them their dad said that he only has enough kindness for temporary, transitional interactions. I’m in the bargaining phase, though. “If we can keep being this way and we can both work hard on maintaining this civility and mutual respect and…can’t we just please…” It’s been so much work for years just to stay together, so much constant stress to keep from either sinking into depression or running screaming for a distant land that there’s an ease between us now. And I want to keep that ease. Can’t we be like this and stay a whole family? In one place? Can’t we please? I want someone to answer that for me. Because everything would be different, right? We’d be different people with different interests and different approaches and different priorities? We would heal all our issues and be to each other what we should be. To stay together we could do that, right? Maybe. Let’s just try…I know, but maybe try for four more years? It’s only been 15 years total. Why would we assume we know anything yet?

He’s happy and acts like the man I met, animated and clever and fun. The man I married. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s happy because he’s leaving. Because he doesn’t have to anymore. I was a have to.

The wine and the cookbooks are staying. We split the mixing bowls and he got new cutting boards. I want new cutting boards. The beer’s all gone. I rearranged the fridge at midnight, so the veggies are finally in the crisper and the shelves organized by meal. He doesn’t pack school lunches, so why does he get to put the peanut butter in the door? I don’t want it in the door. I don’t want tortillas in the cheese drawer. I don’t want soda crowding the shelves. One for when he visits, and one for my mom. One. They only get a tiny piece of my space because I need to control the space, hold up the house’s walls as they start pressing in. I want all the lunch options together, dammit. Can’t I have that?

Yes, now I can. Oh, and how’s that feel? Everything better now that you can control the peanut butter?

Didn’t think so.

His books are gone. My Modernism shelf has a lot of detritus cluttering it; bits and pieces he found as he packed are sitting by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t want old CDs and cat toys and a battery recharger blocking James Joyce. I reject that arrangement. I want to just sell all the books because there’s not much about language experimentation from the 1920s I want in my face right now. Thank goodness I don’t own any Hemingway or I would have burned it last night. He’s just exactly the guy on whom I’d like to take out my anger. My Faulkner shelf is too high to put things on it, thank goodness. Alphabetical, same publisher and cover system, not too carefully lined up, but solid and supportive in its panic-inducing insanity. Am I going to have to change these shelves? I grouped the books as intentionally as I could: by literary movement when possible, geography when appropriate, and read vs. unread vs. half-read status as necessary. But there are other methods that could make sense, could inspire more reading, could excite my boys into a world of incredible literature. I’ll do that tonight. Because at 4 and 8 it’s crucial that they see a wall of books arranged flawlessly? I worry myself at times, except that I’m consistent, so I know nothing’s too wrong.

What is going to become of my books? What if we move? What if I can’t bring them all? Should I sell them now and just say goodbye? What if, what if, what if? A good reason to get even less sleep. What if? Thinking myself in worried circles like a child rubbing a lovey against her almost sleeping cheek. Or a woman tracing the yellow wallpaper of her room.

My feminist theory shelf is still half-empty—listing and slumped with the freedom of not being packed like literary sardines—from my two-month effort to write the paper that begged me to write it for four years. It was well received. I need to edit it and get it to a journal soon. It’s just too awesome and I want it available to anyone who might care.

I don’t feel awesome, though. There is guilt for swelling with freedom and pride. Now that I’m supporting the kids on my income, there is a constant fear in my freelancing way of life, working this week on too many projects, that the projects will dry up next month. I’ll look for something permanent once these clients slow down.

There is frustration with the same conversations, the same petty bickering, the same nasty under-breath comments said in retreat from a dialogue. Get back here. Talk to me.

You’re not coming back, are you.

I want the ease, the kindness, the joy. I want a relationship, not a roommate. I want surety but not at the cost of how I believe a family should treat each other, at a minimum. I want to know what it will be if we fight for us, though he said he’s not going to try anymore. I want to know what it will be if we give up, so I can decide based on what it’ll be like in a year, two years, ten years. I want to know what is best for everyone, I want to know in advance, and I want to know precisely. With numbers and measurements and guarantees.

Because so much of life is measurable and knowable. Ha. If you want guarantees, get married. I’m pretty sure a promise to someone you love is good enough to carry you through 80 years or so.

I want to know what to want. And while I’m figuring that out, I’ll move the dining room table and change where we keep the art supplies just in case that helps. Anyone have a feng shui book for where to put glitter glue and markers to ensure good decision-making and emotional well-being?

Just close your eyes

There is an exercise we do in fencing warm ups: we balance on one foot. And then we switch to the other. And after we switch back, we balance on each foot with our eyes closed.

You find out two things when you close your eyes and balance on one leg. 1) A surprising amount of balance predicates itself on vision. 2) Your proprioceptors function amazingly well if you get out of their way. Because the human body should adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to stimuli. In fact, the human brain should also adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to input.

So why do I feel as though, only a few weeks into the initial process, that a divorce is knocking my body and brain so far out of whack they can’t adjust?

I know this isn’t supposed feel easy or simple. I know after 15 years the path isn’t going seem as clear as we’d hoped when we finally, finally admitted how wrong our marriage has been for so very long.  I have proof, from the Interwebs, which tell me whenever I ask, that feeling all of the feelings is normal, even during an amiable split. Read some really lovely and awful and heart-felt descriptions of the journey from the incomparable Heather of the EO and my new blog-crush Carla of All of Me Now.

By the way, any time someone says their divorce portends a good thing, and that they’re both doing a great job of addressing the issues they could never address while married, you should give them caramel, the way two of my friends did. Because I can tell you that “doing a great job” of splitting up is something like doing a great job reading Heart of Darkness. It’s ugly and awful, and nobody would ever recommend it to anyone else. Caramel I can recommend unequivocally to everyone. Divorce and/or Conrad? Not so much.

But until a couple of weeks ago I thought, because I’m quite keen on control and planning and overthinking, that I could make a nice tidy plan for how this breakup would go.  And that it would. Go. Just follow a path toward eventual harmony and paperwork and a co-parenting friendship.

Rather like the way I thought I was rather balance-y at fencing. Until I close my eyes. Turns out I balance myself by finding stable points ahead of me and staring at them. When I close my eyes, that stable fixative point ghosts into a bleeding black puddle behind my eyelid, and the swimming scarlet and yellow vitreous drowns my efforts to clench myself into balance and unnerves my thinking mind enough to make me wobble. A lot.

Navigating through the day in an almost-former-marriage feels a lot like wobbling on one foot with your eyes closed. [My eyes closed. I can't speak for you, nor should I. If you ever try both the blind one-foot-balancing trick and the initial phases of separation in the same week, let me know how they compare.] I feel as though I have it all under control, barely, until I blink. And then logistics and hurt and choices and relief and work and timing and panic and money and regret and discussions and feelings and my poor, sweet, vulnerable little boys all swim in green and blue and purple venous blobs before me like a lake of bruises beneath which I’m drowning.

So I open my eyes. And I try to balance without focusing so hard. I try to let my body balance me rather than trying to force everything with my mind. I try to trust and I try to breathe. And I try to memorize how my body feels with this balance so that when I close my eyes I care less how it looks than how it feels.

And each day happens. And each night does, too. And the next day there’s another endless string of challenges.

And when I let my body handle those obstacles, rather than relying just on my mind, it’s like living in molasses. Because letting go and not controlling the hell out of everything taps proprioceptors I’ve never used before. I’m so slow right now. I type slowly. I think slowly and answer slowly. I’m even running so  slowly that I’m considering seeing a doctor. I’ve lost more than a minute per mile off my regular, don’t-have-to-try-for-it pace. That minute, on every mile I’ve run for the past month, is gone. Lost to the ether. I hope some young person in love and full of hope is running faster with my minutes. I miss them, but I’m willing to lose them forever if they go to a good home.

The words “a good home” make me a little maudlin. And by “a little” I mean “ask me in person because I’ll admit very little on a public blog even though I’m pretty darned honest here at good ol’ NaptimeWriting.”

All I know is that if asking my mind and body to do too much leaves me wobbling, I need to balance smarter. Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed, rolling with the wobbles. Because that’s what learning experiences are for, right? Strengthening muscles you didn’t know you had? Part of me says, “but I don’t want these muscles because I promise I’ll never need them again.” But I will. For the rest of my relationship with the boys’ father, I will need these blind-balance muscles.

And that right now is the saddest part for me, after the waves of gut-punches at what this adult tower of cards means for the boys: I’m building muscles I don’t want to need. But I do need them. And so I will build them. I have to.

Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed…let go.

 

photo

 

Is that manic or depressive?

Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure.  I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.

It's not bipolar. It's chimera!

It’s not bipolar. It’s chimera!

Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.

I liked it.

We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.

I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky  man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”

I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.

Oh.

And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.

And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?

My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.

Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.

I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.

Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.

But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?

Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?

Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.

IMAG4729

If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.

Teachable moment about “gay”

index

The phone rang and I hit dismiss because I didn’t recognize the number. A few minutes later I  listened to the message.

“Can you please meet me after school with your child,” said my seven-year-old’s teacher, “because he has been acting out today in ways that are just not like him. There were a few incidents in the classroom, and then he was calling kids names, including calling someone gay.”

Needle across the record: He WHAT?

We are a relatively progressive family. We talk openly about equality and tolerance and people being accepted for who they are. Heck, today, when I couldn’t find shoes to match my pants, he sighed and told me, in his most bored pre-pre-teen voice, “It doesn’t matter what you look like, Mom. It matters how you treat people.”

So when I heard that my son had teased other kids, including calling someone gay, I prepared to give an epic lecture.

As I thought about the impending conference, though, I wondered if my son even knew what the word gay meant. Both my boys know all kinds of families look different from ours: we know families that have one parent, others with two moms, some with two dads; we know families that include one child, three children, pets, no pets, humans with dark skin, light skin, everything in between, and some of all of the above. There are so many kinds of normal constituting our village that I don’t know if my son knows what to call any of them. We don’t label our friends, so maybe he was just repeating a word he heard at school. Maybe.

So I planned how I would approach The Talk.

First, obviously, I had to ask what happened and why?

Second, I had to ask what he thinks the word gay means.

And the rest would pivot from there.

Except that it shouldn’t, I railed inside my head. Even if my son didn’t know that “gay” has been cruelly hurled as an epithet to make people feel bad or not, he will learn today. I’m going to tell him that trying to make someone feel bad by criticizing who they are is mean, not just to the person called gay, but to all the people nearby who hear that word and infer from the context that gay must be bad. Because there is nothing bad about gay. This is indicative of a culture that demeans with words like “girly” and racial slurs precisely because words buttress power structures. When child calls someone gay, it begins a process where an entire peer group learn to categorize gay in the “thou shalt heed this word and feel shame or disdain when you hear it” category. And all I can say is, “no way.” Not after all the hard work the LGBT community has done to fight for civil rights. Oh, hail no.

All human beings deserve respect and fairness. So my family will not use words that make people feel less-than. A new mantra was brewing. “There are no greater-than or less-than symbols in human interactions, children. We will not even practice using wavy lines to hedge our bets a bit and suggest that some humans are ‘approximately equal to.’ No. We will only use straight equal signs in all our interactions, so help me Math!”

“WAIT! I didn’t mean straight!”

“Wait again! I didn’t mean that straight’s not okay. Everything is okay! Different is good! I’ll just wear these shoes because they’re closest to the door!”

Sigh. My mantras need work.

Ahem.

We will not try to gain power by making others feel bad about who they are.

And that is the righteous banner I held aloft as I marched to my child’s school. The doors swung open and I prepared for an epic lecture on historical repression with…my small, tired, slumping little guy with the too-big backpack and the bedraggled hair.

Oh, pumpkin. I think I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t a battle. This is a talk about kindness.

Reboot parent mode. I climbed off my high horse and sat in a tiny chair at a tiny desk so I could listen to my sweet, sensitive, wonderful little guy.

What happened?

Teacher: I was at the sink when I heard voices saying, “Quinn is gay. Quinn is gay.” When I turned around, Peanut was one of the kids saying it.

Me: Why did you say that Quinn is gay?

P: What? He is gay.

M: What makes you say that?

P: Jason told me he’s gay.

M: I see. Um…what do you think gay means?

P: I don’t know.

M: Oh. Well, gay is when a grownup wants to start a family with someone of the same gender. So our friends M and K are gay, J and N are gay, and M and L are gay.

P: Oh. [beat] But G and K don’t have kids.

M: Family doesn’t mean kids. Family means who you love. But who we love is not all we are. When we go to M and K’s house for dinner, I don’t say “we’re going to our gay friends’ house,” right? I say, “we’re going to our friends’ house.” And when someone is meeting T, I don’t say, “This is my gay friend.” I say, “This is my friend.”

P: I know.

Teacher: If you are kind of teasing, saying “Quinn is gay, Quinn is gay,” he might think there’s something wrong with being gay, and there isn’t. We don’t tease. Just like you don’t say, “Quinn is blond, Quinn is blond.”

M: Right. If you did say that, Quinn would think there might be something wrong with being blond, but he can’t change that. And if you say that he’s gay, he might think there’s something wrong with being gay. And all the people around you in class start to wonder if blond or gay are bad things for them to be. So calling someone blond or gay might not hurt their feelings, but it might teach other people to feel bad about being blond or gay or tall or thin or whatever the tease is. Gay isn’t who someone is. It’s part of them. Like their hair. Brown or blond or gay doesn’t change, so teasing about those things is making someone feel bad. And it’s not okay to do something to make someone feel bad.

P: Okay.

M: May I also point out, really, that the things Jason tells you usually aren’t true. He told you girls aren’t allowed to play soccer. He told you that boys should like dogs because girls like cats. He told you “every single person in Mexico, even the old people and babies have machine guns.” None of those things is true. In fact, they’re pretty ludicrous. So I’d do some serious fact checking before I believed anything Jason said.

P: Okay.

We left the whole discussion at the door. I didn’t bring it up again, which took a lot of restraint. I still had many, many words I wanted to use. But I have to let the poor child breathe.

And I have to breathe, too. I don’t think he was trying to hurt Quinn or to cement hatred against the LGBT community. I think he was trying out a new word. And I think my son just learned that some words are simply unacceptable. I still remember my mom walking me through a whole list of racial slurs I may not ever use, including definitions and an explanation of how horribly each group had suffered under that epithet. Looking back as a parent, I wonder if she unleashed that lecture because I had used one of those names. Or someone said one to me.

So can I maybe relax and realize this is just a rite of passage, just the first step in a long series of conversations about how words have power, and how some people use powerful words to bully other people. A long, evolving conversation about finding your own power rather than taking it from others by devaluing them.

I take really seriously…perhaps too seriously…okay. definitely too seriously…my job of raising people who make the world a better place. I really hope my sons and their peers grow up knowing there’s more to people than their skin color or sexual orientation or gender. Allowing people to be more than the single words we use as labels builds the holy grail of attributes: kindness. Thankfully, that one comes from nurture.

Or lecture. I’m not sure which, nurture or lecture, but I’m going to try both.

Side note: heaven help me when I have to explain that sometimes, when people are old enough and their hormones tell them to, they change their hair color. Then all my metaphors are going to crumble and with them my authority over empathy and tolerance. Maybe.

Midlife realities

When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.

I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.

Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.

Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.

What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.

Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.

Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.

We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died.  And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.

And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.

But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”

Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.

Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky.  There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.

But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.

It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.

Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.

Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.

Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.

It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.

Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.

 

Ask the Internet

I’m sitting at the computer, searching for answers to questions Peanut has asked this week. When he asks me something I can’t answer, I save his queries on my phone for a calm moment at home. Then we sit down together and search for answers at least once a week. Part of the process is teaching him how to search for answers in a post-encyclopedia era. And part of the process is nestling next to each other and staring at a screen.

It’s unreasonable, I know, to make the learning process into a fear about some day losing him. But that’s where my brain goes when he’s not in the room. When he wants to know something, I can help him, but too much of the time he’s with someone else, asking someone else, exploring the world without me. And it will only get larger, the chasm of time that exists between moments that I get to see him. Breakfast…blink…almost dinner. I can’t help but think, as we find photos of icebergs and technical discussions of cave extraction, that he’s with me for so short a time. And I ache with the thought that some day he’ll be gone. I want to tell him all the things and listen to his every thought and absorb the way he thinks. And I know that sounds creepy and it’s probably just early-morning-me waxing affectionate about a wonderful creature who will frustrate me to within an inch of my life over the next 13 hours. But my love for my children grabs me at quiet moments and shakes me until my teeth chatter and my brain liquifies.

I want our lives full of wonder and exploration and creation. But how to create that when our days are chock full of getting ready and doing chores and running errands and doing things that need to be done? All of us. Not just my family, but every adult human on the planet. Paying bills and getting to work or looking for a job. Preparing food, cleaning up, making appointments, taking the bus.

So much of life is drudgery. How do we find enough magic to get us through the inane tasks?  How much wonder does a child need so that she arrives at adulthood appreciating life and marveling at the world enough to want to take care of it? How much wonder do we need to create to engage them?

I have tabs open so we can read through a slideshow of megaliths, glaciers, and base jumping technical equipment. And I  marvel at how far we’ve come from my childhood when you took questions to the encyclopedia at the library. I wonder what life and technology and knowledge will look like when my children are grown.

And gone.

See what my brain does? “How to get through, is this enough, are we enough, this is nice, my children will leave.”

Anybody else turn a question about glaciers into a panic that this moment is fleeting and that loved ones will change, grow, and drift away?

Can’t just be me, right?

Doesn’t matter, I guess. It’s almost time for him to wake up and make me pancakes. It’s the least he can do, since I’m going to show him what the Internet has to say about cave extraction techniques and since he will someday need to make pancakes for himself…and probably someone special. Oh, geez. I need to go breathe into a paper bag.

Decembexpectations

Maybe it’s the lack of vitamin D. Maybe it’s the cold, the dark, the crush of humanity in every corner, as though the calendar hits December and millions of residents normally housebound show up and get in my way.

Whatever it is, something has put me in a MOOD.

I don’t much care. I stumble upon moods regularly. They sneak up on me with surprising regularity and it’s only because I am oblivious to the rapid passage of time that I’m shocked. Oh, look!  A rotten mood! Why, it’s been ages, since…oh, well, yeah. That makes sense. My moods are rarely perky or cheerful or celebratory. The best I do is grateful. Grateful and industrious are my two best moods. My worst moods are downright malignant. I don’t think I technically reach down to depressed, but I definitely mood along like a fungus, infecting everything in my path, nurturing morose and disaffected as though they were teeny tiny balls of cynicism and depression in need of snarls and unreasonable reactions to survive their nasty infancies. Oh, how I coddle those moods.

So I readily admit that I get malignantly depressive often enough.  But I believe I save my genuinely misanthropic worst for December.

It’s not my fault. Everyone else’s is culpable for my mood. They‘re the ones driving through parking lots and stopping just because someone else is walking, maybe toward a car, maybe to get in the car, and maybe to leave. That’s a lot of maybes, jackalopes, so drive your stinking car until you see white tail lights.

Everyone else is the problem in part because they feel they have to be out of their dens, forcibly creating merriment and cheer for their own families but in the process obliterating all the joy and peace in my life.  Get out of my way, people. Don’t frown at me. I summoned all my social-expectation training and smiled at you, bastard.  The least you can do is smile back. Or look down. Don’t effing sneer at me or I will break off my own femur at a dangerous angle just so I can use it to CUT YOU!

[Did I tell you the lovely story about New Year's in Boston? New Year's Eve morning I'm in California, and walk to the post office. I lamely wait in line until some nice people point out that I can take my stamped letter to the slot over there. I thank them, note embarrassingly that I've forgotten to wear my glasses, and drop my mail in the out-of-town slot. On my way out the door, two stop me.  "Since you don't have your glasses, we can drive you home. It doesn't seem safe if you can't see." Thank you, you delightful people, but I walked. I'll be fine.
Fast forward fourteen hours and I'm in Boston walking to the T from a performance. Red light, all revelers stop and look around at the magic that is Newbury at 2am the first day of the year. Green light, walk. And I hear someone say, "Why the hell are people smiling? Can't they look down like the rest of us and get on with their day?" Ah, Boston. Would it kill you to lighten up a bit? Say, for instance, spew grouchiness about the people who don't smile, as I'm doing so well in this post?]

Everyone else ought to try just a bit harder in December. I’m not talking the poor people working retail and food services. There’s a special place in the Universe full of sunshine and purified Martian water for people who have to work with the public in December. No, when I demand more effort, I mean the jackasses who are barking coffee orders and complaining about stores’ blazing temperature and sneering about tips and generally making humanity look bad. Yeah, I’m talking about that guy, but I’m also talking about all the people around him who ignore that he’s being a jerk.

Look, people, it’s time to step in. When someone’s yelling at a clerk, please, for the sake of all that’s hopeful about December, ask that rude s.o.b. politely if it would help for you to find a manager. When he says, “No, it’s not that big a deal,” please tell him, “Yes, it is, because you’re being abusive and I want to help that poor clerk.” When someone is whining about being in a line, please, for the sake of all of us who have to be in the crush of humanity this time of year, tell that whiner that even though it’s frustrating, everyone else tries their best not to make the situation worse and could she please put a sock in it before you take a poll amongst the other residents in the world’s longest line whether to vote her off the island right now.

I’m so tired of people! I want all them all home, shopping online, giving to charity online, shipping packages online, paying bills online, and socially interacting online. I’d like more of them to consider grocery delivery. And muzzles.

Because seriously, y’all, humanity is working my last nerve this December.

Descriptive linguistics FTW!

Last night after a Board meeting, I was talking with friends and one expressed shock bordering on horror that I text using abbreviations and conventions created and commonly accepted within that linguistic space.

“I’m rather surprised to find out you’re an LOL and OMG and emoticon person.”

Well, I’m a linguistically adaptable person, actually. I don’t use those conventions outside texts and social media, in which characters are constrained and, generally, keyboarding is limited. I don’t say “LOL” in conversation, nor when using a keyboard. I do, though, use LOL where it is a standard part of the lexicon, because I’m speaking in a colloquial language and don’t feel the need, surrounded by LOLers, to destroy my reputation and thumbs with “oh, wow, that is truly funny.”  Recall David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Modern American Usage (which review appears in the nonfiction essay collection Consider the Lobster, and which review reiterated the annoying grammatical tic in which Wallace uses “which” in ways that make me itch ), in which Wallace explains that, when talking with Midwestern friends he uses expressions like “where you at?” because conditional, situational lexical conformity performs significant social functions including masking an erudite prescriptivist snobbery amongst those who disdain such ridiculousness. You know the type…for instance, the raised eyebrow of disdain arched toward a friend who fully embraces emoticons in text messages.

My friend last night seemed to believe that my using LOL and winky emoticons made me shockingly deviant in my linguistic standards. But am I actually failing the language because I OMG when I reply to a text about how awful I am at karaoke? Of course not. (I am, however, failing both George Michael and Rick Springfield when I belt their songs in a key somewhere between those singers’ ranges and my own. Said performances deserved several horrified OMGs.)

The older I get, the more I tend toward descriptivist linguistics. I have been out of academia long enough to know we can’t stem the tide of language shifts, texting enough that I appreciate the culture’s willingness to embrace an abbreviated language parallel to government employees’ acronym dialect, and old enough to know that my pedantic “kids these days are ruining the language” tendencies unveil a knowledge that kids these days are actually going to rule the world. And I, for one, I don’t want to be railing against their language from my rocking chair, cane aloft, countering every miscast objective who with “it’s whom, you linguistic hoodlums!”

Okay, yes, I do.

But I am in my old age moving toward the point of linguistic early adoption, at least within technological theaters.  I gleefully read the Atlantic’s piece about the new preposition, used in online English. Though I was late to OMG and LOL and LMAO, I have jumped on the prepositional-because trend, thanks to my social-media bestie, Twitter.

I love Twitter. I don’t read my feed as much as I used to, for in the land of “may your days be merry and bright starting next week with a rare Thanksgivukkah,” I don’t have time to get my Twitter fix. But I’m quite fond of the prepositional-because.

I do plan, however, on shaking my cane from my rocking chair and bellowing, “it’s not a ‘because-noun!’ Because grammatical naming conventions!”

Go check out the article, whether you find my texts irritatingly colloquial or not. The Atlantic has posted as pleasant a read on descriptive-linguistic developments as possible, and that’s saying a lot.

Which language deviances do you commit in limited settings? Do you eschew LOL unless you’re actually laughing out loud? Will you text a “K” to avoid all those messy characters in “okay”? Do you reject all emoticons or employ them with reckless abandon? Have you crossed into “srsly” and “pls” to save characters or do you share Steve Martin’s insistence on proper spelling in Tweets?

Wise, wise women

A group of friends, sharing cheese, wine, sourdough, roasted garlic, and kale the other night asked each other what they remembered from childhood.

After we all answered, one woman said, “But what do you remember most, the good or the bad?”

In unison, we all answered “bad.”

My friend then explained her theory that if we remember moments of bad from our childhood, it’s because the bad was shocking and abnormal. That most of our childhood was kind and calm and uneventful because we were loved and supported and able to do the play and learning and exploration of childhood. This is not the reality of many children in the world.

The bad bits we remember, she argued, are anomalies. And that’s why we remember them. So, too, our children will remember the stuff we agonize over: the moments of short temper, the unreasonable “no,” and the time we’re too busy to play. But they’ll remember that because their lives are full of patient “yes”es when we do whatever they need.

When I got home that night I had a link to this post from another friend. In it, a mother discusses how doing her best is exactly enough for her children, who need her more than they need perfection.

It’s a good read and I recommend you click over, because remembering to cut ourselves some slack is a really good idea.

Earlier this week someone asserted that my best wasn’t good enough. A friend who knew about my effort and about the criticism emailed me, “You’re doing so much, and fuck perfect.”

Do you think we can get this month National ‘Fuck Perfect’ Month? It’s just the right time of year for kicking should to the curb, I think.

Would you choose another month for Fuck Perfect or is November okay with you?

Sulking

I mentioned a few weeks ago that life is settling into a quite lovely reprieve lately. The boys are old enough to hold their own, to help, and to navigate life with a level of alacrity that informs our interactions. They’re people more often than actors playing needy little whelps, and I enjoy being with them.

Client work is winding down, as it typically does before the holidays. I’ve been looking forward to this window so I can work on my book. I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo because I’m participating in NaNoWriDecade. My novel needs at least two more huge overhauls before it’s decent, and I want to do that work.

And I’ve been contemplating going back to work. The sacrifices of curtailing my career for child-rearing smacked me right across the mouth with Ann Marie Slaughter’s article on working and motherhood…I’ve given up almost a decade of income, a decade of retirement savings to be with my children. I’ve stayed in the game by consulting, but there’s a certain point at which I need colleagues. In writing, in editing, and in brand naming (a seriously awesome niche of the linguistic world wherein companies call me to name their widget, their salad, their company) I’ve been working alone or hiring the same small group of trusted creatives for a decade.

Then LinkedIn sent me an email. “Did you know Awesome Niche Company is looking for someone like you?” I clicked, read, gasped, and submitted. Jobs like this don’t come along often, and I had to acknowledge the fit. So I applied. I got an interview. I researched nannies and school schedules and I waited, day after day rethinking my every interview answer. I talked too long on that point, I didn’t turn that back around to the issue at hand, I poorly articulated something at which I excel…If you’ve ever interviewed, you know the process.

And then I got the email. “Lovely to meet you…experienced and enthusiastic…better qualified applicants.”

I wish them great luck and I’m sure they’ll find the right person for the job. But in my head, I was the right person. And hearing they don’t agree is a ridiculously oversized blow to my ego. I should focus on the fact that clients don’t agree. I get hired quickly and repeatedly for jobs because I’m good at what I do.

But for now I’m having a good sulk.

This is the first time I’ve gotten excited about a job in a long time. A job like this won’t come around again for five years. This was the job.

Oh, goodness, am I pouting.

I need to polish my interview skills, so this doesn’t happen again. And I need to work on my book, so when I get the perfect job I won’t have an unfinished novel looming over my head. And I need to write proposals for two nonfiction books and apply to law school and write that scholarly article I’ve been promising for three years and turn down more client work and actually ditch sugar and…

I just want someone to look at my accomplishments and be impressed. And ask me my opinion on something. My children can’t and won’t fill this function. My husband can’t either. My colleagues don’t care because they have their own baggage to manage. My clients think they’re engaging in exactly this sort of supportive respect by hiring me.

So why the big ol’ pout? this isn’t high school. “You need 100 auditions to get one gig, so just go do another 99,” my acting coach always said.

Why not go and do something on the List?

The List. The List shall guide you. Use the List, Luke. Help me, List, you’re my only hope.

But I’ve written my own to-do list for more than a decade. Can’t someone else hand me a list?

Wait, do I really want that? Haven’t small people and clients and students and employers been handing me a list for twenty-plus years? Don’t I want my own list?

Yes, but that’s not possible. I have a family and bills and clients. My list will never be my own. Just as it’s not your own list when you’re under your parents’ roof, or in college, or gainfully employed, or imprisoned, or unemployed, or an elected official, or…wait, are independently wealthy, single people the only ones with self-generated lists?

Does LinkedIn send opening for that role? Single and independently wealthy?

I hope so. Until then, I have things to do.

Minimally processed experiment

Oh, heaven help me, I’m trying to eat healthfully for a month.

Actually, for a few hours I said I was going to eat nothing processed.

But I realized that someone cut the mint leaves and put them in a bag for me to make tea. And someone toasted the coconut and someone sprouted the pumpkin seeds and put tamari on them. All that is processing. I’m not going raw and I’m not doing too much work myself. So minimal processing of whole grains and legumes. Raw or sprouted nuts and seeds. No sugar, no corn, no wheat. Because I don’t like the way I feel lately. Runs are like slogs, and afterwards I stuff myself with bread and sugar. My posture is terrible, so I feel tired, which makes my posture worse. I keep myself up late with candy instead of just going to bed. As a result, my body acts as though it belongs to a long-lost neighbor who it increasingly suspects is not coming back. I don’t like feeling like a renter in my body. I like to own it.

And I feel that the mortgage is paid and I owner occupy when I make healthy choices for food and exercise.

So I finally gave myself a talking to and started this eating plan. Last night.

After two hours I wanted cocoa. Desperately. So Melissa Camara Wilkins tweeted me a recipe for cacao, date, coconut-milk cocoa. I have none of that right now, but will. I still want cocoa, but I know Melissa’s recipe will get me through. I kept on going.

After twelve hours I was mad. I wanted granola and candy and crackers and toast with jam and cocoa. I had mint tea and went running. After the run I chased some chia seeds with more mint tea. I had a handful of tamari pumpkin seeds and a small bowl of locally made granola (yes, sugar but give me a break. I’m new to this). I didn’t think about sugar or bread or cocoa for hours. And I had a handful of stupid ol’ peanuts. And I kept on going.

By then I was really, really grouchy. Not hungry. Grouchy.

Dinner was a stupid Napa cabbage salad with stupid lentils and stupid beets and a stupid french vinaigrette. And a handful of stupid toasted coconut.

I WANT COCOA. Cocoa is warm and sweet and promises good things for the morn. Cocoa is love food.

Stupid vegetables and stupid lentils are stupid growing food. It’s the stupid stuff I make my kids eat while I sneak delicious, wonderful candy in the kitchen.

Stupid October. Stupid not-yet Thanksgiving. Stupid plans to feel better about myself.

This cacao Melissa told me about had better be all that. I’m getting some raw cacao nibs tomorrow. They had better make a good cocoa. They had better blow my mind. And make me feel like Wonder Woman.

Otherwise everyone near me will hear five weeks of grousing about stupid nuts and seeds and veggies and fruit for a stupid chance to feel better and stronger and healthier. So much stupidity.

[If previous experience going off sugar is any guide, I'm going to be mean as hell for two weeks. Minimum. My poor family.]

Nothing bonds like gas

Every week at our family meeting, we talk about what has worked and what has not worked for the family. (Still a pretty big fan of The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler.)

And every week we all agree that time spent together outside makes us feel good about the ways in which we interact. We’re nicer outside. Hiking, running, playing ball, and exploring make us kinder to each other. Kinder makes us all feel warm, fuzzy, and proud. And it begets more kindness. Cycle of goodness, circle of life, and all that.

But tonight trumped even the best hike.

Some second-grader at school taught Peanut and his whole class to use their armpits in the way nature intended: to fake fart.

He was so excited walking home. “Mom! Mom! Did you know this? You can make a toot with your armpit. Watch!”

I was so proud. I recalled my aunt armfarting with her sons, and relished the thrill of finally feeling my role in the tradition of the lone-woman-in-a-family-full-of-males tradition. It is my sworn duty, in this pivotal of all parenting moments, to produce better fake flatulence than my kid.

So I tried. And tried. Nothing.

Peanut didn’t notice my colossal failure. But later in the evening, he produced his new, Harvard-entry skill for the rest of the family. And I renewed my efforts to show him how it’s really done.

I tried so hard, so unsuccessfully that I made the little guy laugh. “What’s wrong with Mommy?” Spouse asked Butterbean, as I flapped my elbow furiously, trying to make my barely audible puffs of air into the best nonverbal noise available to humans.

Nothing.

Peanut rolled his eyes. “It’s so easy, Mom. I’ll bet Dad can do it.”

armpit

Oh, boy did he. We all laughed ourselves teary as Spouse put on an armpit symphony. He grinned, and bowed.

“See, Mom?”

No way. I will not be shown up. I build furniture (sure, from Ikea, but I do it myself and it doesn’t wobble, so it counts), I change lightbulbs, I replace batteries, I splice wires, I build circuit boards. I won’t be bested in the simulated arm-gas competition.

I changed my hand position. I cupped my pit more carefully.

Nothing.

I tried the other side.

Nope.

And I realized why.

There wasn’t a complete seal. Because of my undergarments.

So I shoved Spouse out of the way, for his demonstration was wearing on my patience. I casually employed the quick and easy unhook-and-yank-out-through-a-sleeve.

And I let out four of the most beautifully resonant arm farts you ever did hear.

Success.

All I’m saying, is if you’re fighting a fake-flatulence war with Y-chromosome-bearing armpits, ditch the bra. In all other cases I say unto you, “wear what you want to wear, when you want to wear it, if you want to wear it.” It’s your body. Support your Cooper’s ligaments as you see fit.

But if you need to rip a fake one? Remove the interference.

[This post will self-destruct before I apply to law school or run for public office.]

Caught a case of the fuckits

Oh, good gawd I’m in a mood.

My children are adorable. And wakeful and needy and hungry and whiny and male, and I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care if they eat complete meals. I don’t care if we remember to do our nightly meetings and our family meditation and our dinnertime highlights and lowlights conversation and our homework and our vitamins and a bath.

I don’t give a flying fig newton right now.

I got myself elected Preschool Board Vice President, and I’m going to warn you, if you don’t want to see behind the scenes of a 200-person cooperative, do not run for elected school board. Good heavens there’s some fraught interpersonal fiascos and some seriously tedious human resources stuff and some exciting opportunities that take seventeen hours of follow-up going on up in there. It’s possible for that part-time, unpaid job to be a bit more work, but I’m not sure I want to complain yet about my own insanity for signing up, since it’s only September.

And I don’t give a flaming foxtail right now.

Now that both boys are in school, I have a whopping two hours to myself, two days a week. Yeehaw, y’all. Don’t even know what to do with myself for two whole hours twice a week. Except maybe the six trillion items on my list that have been half done since my darling eldest was born seven-and-a-half freaking years ago. So I have plenty to do and four hours to do it in…and you know what?

I don’t give a frisky firefighter right now.

The process to schedule a windshield replacement for my car took half an hour, during which my preschooler tried to assassinate me. The four-HOUR window I chose for this morning was, of course, blown off by the windshield-replacement-expert-person, who rescheduled with me moments before the window expired. He offered me an hour slot smackdab in the middle of my two-hour freedom window.

I don’t care. Everybody waits for repair people. Everybody complains about the waste of time. Everybody is busy, everybody is exhausted, and everybody is just trying to get by.

So I don’t care. I’m going to pour this bowl of broken tortilla chip pieces, smother it in salsa, and eat it with a spoon. Because I just don’t see how I can, in fifteen minutes, write a book, read a book, do yoga, take a shower, set up a second-grade science project, email people for babysitter references, drive to the armorer, write get well cards, mop the floors, watch a movie, start a strategy project, update my resume, look for jobs, post useless crap on craigslist, or write a blog post.

So I’m not going to. Fuckit. I don’t care. I’m going to sit very still for one whole minute and see what it feels like.

Crap. I forgot to mow the lawn and call to reschedule a doctor’s appointment. Again. Gotta go.

Dental guilt

Raised by a dentist, I have always held dental hygiene higher in importance over most other personal hygiene. I’ll skip shampoo more often than advisable and I’ll forgo shaving. But I have to brush and floss twice daily. Because that’s what people in my family do.

And I’ve brushed my kids’ teeth since the very first one erupted July 9, 2006. I did not need to look that date up, because I know my children’s dental histories.

When Peanut was diagnosed with a cavity at age 7, I felt shock and sadness. We’d been slipping a bit on the brushing, and had remembered very few morning toothbrush communions that year. We had split parental duties a bit and I brushed the younger child while Spouse monitored and rebrushed for the eldest.

But Spouse is not as dentally retentive as I am. And he let two minutes become one. Or less.

So after the cavity was filled I resolved to do all the brushing myself.

At night.

In the morning, though, I reminded Peanut of his jobs and wrote (and drew) a morning chart as suggested in The Secrets of Happy Families. His jobs were to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, pack his backpack, and check the weather to decide on shoes and jacket. But he rarely brushed in the morning. And I started to rely on Spouse again during the interminable evening routine. Chaos. Screaming, wailing, running, tickling chaos. So once again I brushed the little guy while Peanut increasingly took on his own dental hygiene.

Second cavity at age 7.5.

Both have been in permanent teeth.

Both, I have to note, have been without dental insurance.

And both are my fault.

Yes, I should be able to give a seven-year-old child a task and expect him to do it passably well. But I suppose there’s no need to get petulant at having to ask repeatedly and remind and plead and cajole and glare and remind again. I suppose I was wrong and it’s every parent’s job to ask seven times every single day for a basic and important task to be done, right?

Yes, I should be able to trust his father to brush him well after the initial juvenile pass. But I guess there’s no need to rely on other parents in the family to do a good job with something as important as dental health. I guess I should have to brush three mouths three times a day if I want us all to be cavity-free.

I guess.

So for at least a night I laid awake, terrifically disappointed in myself that my small child, for whose health and safety I am wholly responsible, will for his entire life have two molars that have been drilled and filled with foreign substances. And that will probably, in decades, need to be further drilled and additionally filled. It’s my fault that he will probably also have potentially toxic (though BPA-free) sealants on his teeth.

That he is broken. Invaded by bacteria. Vulnerable. Weakened. Compromised.

All because of me.

And then I woke up and thought of all the things I try so hard to do right. Food and kindness and respect and exercise and reading and science and math and listening and vocabulary and five-point harnesses and non-toxic lunchboxes and lead-free backpacks and friendship and history and family and sunshine and sunscreen and connection and nature and…

I stopped.

And thanked goodness for dental science and dentists and glass ionomer and resin composites. For disclosing tablets and timers and hygienists who teach what a child will not believe from his parents.

For lessons learned from making mistakes.

And for peace following acceptance and a plan to move on.

Maybe I’ll sleep better tonight. Right after I brush my teeth.

Beginner mind…fail

Perfectionists don’t deal well with failure.

Seems obvious enough, right?

While some people savor the lessons learned through mistakes, I begrudgingly accept my lesson and fume, often for years, over the failure.

I harbor residual embarrassment that I misspelled Connecticut in eight grade and am still painfully aware of exactly where I sat when I corrected the teacher for adding an unnecessary “c”. (I was also totally right. There’s no need to Connect anything in that name. It’s Conneticut. Or it ought be Conneticut.)

Mindful always of the failure implicit in mistakes, I stoke the fires of mortification at misunderstanding an attorney colleague in 1993. I had to make a joke at my own expense to hide my shame at the company softball game and I can still see the rolling fog and the skyward reach of the home-plate fence when I mistook “tort” for “tart.” And I still remember the warm wash of relief that flooded me on the third row of metal bleachers when They—the smarter, better educated, older, wiser—laughed at my cover joke. Thank goodness for the wounded-pride salve of comedy.

And thank goodness that I’m still self-flagellating over spelling and jargon errors from the 80s and 90s. Consider the world saved, y’all, because I know how dumb I was twice as a teenager.

Many of my struggles with parenting come from knowing I can do better, of knowing what kind of mother I aspire to yet failing to get there. I don’t believe I should ever yell. I should calmly explain expectations and requests and never inflict the psychological damage of raising my voice in anger. Each time one of the boys is hurting the other and I react with the panic of a raised voice, I judge myself harshly. How can you teach kindness with anger? How can you teach calm, measured responses if you don’t model them?

And how effective are cage matches as a parenting technique?

For the daily successes and failures in all that I do, I force a bedtime shrug and recall a mantra that insists, “I honestly did the best I could, I’ve thought about what could be better, and I will try my best again tomorrow with this new knowledge.” That hope and promise applies to writing and parenting and cooking and running and marriage and friendship. Though zen is a state of mind 180-degrees from my normal state of being, I do actually believe that approaching everything with beginning mind opens up possibilities for acceptable, awareness, and joy.

Of course, it’s a ruse, because I prefer to stick with what I’m really good at: cultivating a festering depression born of the self-suggestion that I make the same mistakes every day.  Since mediocrity is unacceptable, I roil in my shame and promise to work harder, work smarter, do better. Mostly as an exercise in roiling in shame, not because I actually plan to work harder, smarter, or better.

As I mentioned, totally un-Zen. Thank goodness I was born in a Western culture that digs perfectionism a tiny bit more than mindfulness.

Because my biggest failure lately is physical. Last night I left my beloved fencing academy knowing that I suck at fencing.

Oh, I have myriad excuses. When poor Spouse is foolish enough to get caught in a room with me after fencing, he hears about how few years, really, I’ve been practicing. Two years in college, a frightful amount of which was spend drilling not fencing. Perhaps three hundred hours of drills and three hundred hours of competition. Twenty years off for life, work, school, children. One full year back in earnest, practicing, training, and actively seeking bouts an average of once a week. One hundred hours of trying to stab and not be stabbed, perhaps, since I’ve been back.

Rank beginner by the numbers, I insist. Excusable levels of failure for one as new as I am, I pretend to believe. Four hundred hours of fencing really isn’t much.

Yes, I know how stupid that seems. Four hundred hours of anything and I should totally be an Olympian, right? What a loser.

“But, but, but,” I sputter, “practice begins at 7pm. Ends at 10pm. I’m exhausted all hours of the day, but being expected to have quick reaction times and good form at 10pm is ludicrous. It’s not possible. It’s everyone’s fault but mine!”

Often I spend most of the ride home plying myself with perspective, mostly to fend of the inevitable self-medication-by-desserts. “Buck up, self. You’ve been working as hard as you can, and you’ve shown marked improvement.” (That much is actually true. Some weeks I have a flashes of skill at this game that is often described as athletic chess. Teammates have watched and have cheered my successes, have noted to me that they see how quickly I’m improving. Shhhh. Don’t tell the perfectionist in the corner whose withering glare is making me eat another brownie.)

Sufficient progress eludes me. It’s not quick enough. I don’t want to be perfect…I want to be as good as I think I should be. Reasonable expectations, yo. The weeks where I surge precede, obviously and predictably, lengthy plateaus. Weeks, or recently months, of feeling as though I am not progressing. Not doing well enough. Not trying hard enough. Too slow and stupid and old for this sport.

A long, mournful ride home last night followed five bouts, each lost 5-0. For those keeping score at home, that’s 25-0. Pathetic beyond pathetic. It’s a new low. In 22 years of fencing I’ve never been this bad.

(Quick note from my pride: I did score several touches, but not when we were keeping score. We usually fence for ten to fifteen minutes before we finally say, “okay, let’s go to five.” Usually means one of us feels tired or thirsty or bored of the other fencer.)

(Do you like how, in a post about how I can’t bear knowing I’m bad at something, I have to adjust an admission of being terrible with a caveat that I’m not that terrible? Perfectionism is a disease, people. Inoculate your children now, if your physician allows it.)

So, with clarity of mind and resonant self-awareness born of a dreadful night of fencing failure, I decided I need a new sport.

The other fencers laughed, and we talked about how I would most likely approach baseball, hockey, tennis, and croquet by standing about lunge-distance from my opponent and trying to hit her with the bat, stick, racquet, or mallet.

Ha ha, we chuckled.

And I died a little inside.

Because we all knew I’d be bad at those sports, too.

I felt sorry for myself for being unathletic. Whimpered in the car about being terrible at every sport I’ve ever tried. Wallowed in the reality that I was a slow triathlete and a miserable fencer and a mediocre tennis player.

And after the self-pity waned, I knew that, as with all failure, I have two options. Learn. Or Quit.

 

attack out of distance

feint out of distance isn’t fooling anybody

searching for the blade begging for attack into preparation

searching for the blade is begging for attack into preparation

better parry that or you're gonna lose another touch

 stop counterattacking and parry, for heaven’s sake!

 

 

I can work harder and smarter. I can make running and weight training a priority, incorporating plyometrics to get some of the speed and agility lost with age; I can pay for lessons; I can take better notes to process what is and isn’t working each week before and after class. I can better plan my weekly goal, which I generally formulate on the drive to the studio, and focus on it more clearly during the evening. I can add simple carbohydrates to the evening, strategically applying calories to the work of getting better.

Or I can quit.

For a perfectionist, there really aren’t many other choices. Just showing up as often as I can and pushing as hard as I can is not acceptable. There must be Lifetime-television-celebrated moments of triumph at least every half hour or so.

Achievement isn’t called do-your-best-ment. I either have to step up my game, or I have to give up.

Now. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go speak quietly and respectfully to my kids.