Monday, July 26, 2010

Jelly Belly

Wherever you are, I hope you are not beating yourself up over that comment. If it makes you feel better, I thought I was pretty hot in my empire-waist-tank-dress-and-rolled-up-jeans ensemble. And I will wear that outfit again.

I am visiting my BFF in NorCal, and when we walked through the gates of the Oakland Zoo, I had that feeling I would run into someone I knew. You spotted us just before we exited, looking very much like you did in high school twenty-odd years ago, with a mane of honey-hair and that radiant smile. I hadn't seen you in a decade or more, but I instantly recalled your kindness.

Even as you explained you were admiring me from afar, what with my pregnant glow.

Except, no, I'm not pregnant.

I patted my Food-Baby Belly and laughed as I set you straight. Only twenty minutes earlier Little Sis had haphazardly patted my stomach and then cocked her head: "Mama, what's in there?"

I wanted to reassure you by happily continuing our conversation, but your stricken look suggested you would prefer an emergency evacuation of the area. And as my buddy noted, the air around our conversation had grown heavier post-the-partum part. So we said our goodbyes and left you to gather your four daughters and give yourself a swift kick in the ass.

But I hope you didn't. Because, see, I would rather be me than you just then.

One time years ago in a long line at The Gap, I struck up conversation with a woman behind me who appeared to be about eight months pregnant. I broke my rule of not assuming pregnancy (but this time it was So Obvious!), and cheerily inquired, "When are you due?"

"I had my baby four weeks ago," she muttered into her chest.

Oh heck, really?

(I actually love myself for not saying that second part).

As it turns out, there are no spontaneous trapdoors at The Gap which eat alive Moms Who Should Know Better Than to Say Stupid Sh** to Other Women. We come to expect the ignorant and rude commentary from older and younger ladies at the grocery store, from innocent kids, and from hapless members of the other gender on occasion, but issuing from sisters of our own generation?

Yet, here I am, guilty, and I haven't completely lived that moment down.

Platitudes, backtracking, effusive explanations: none of those make embarrassment better. A quick apology and internal note to self is the best antidote.

And in this case, my friend? Your embarrassment far exceeded mine. If I had any at all, that is. For when you approached us, you noted I looked wonderful, that I appeared comfortable in my own space.

I'll call that "pregnant with promise and confidence," and take your compliment home with me.

So next time I see you, please don't let Phantom Baby come between us. My gut (amply full of good instincts) tells me we have bigger things to worry about.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

In Her World, Everybody Has a Home

We went camping earlier this month, so we still have tents and shady sites on our minds (and marshmallows and Jiffy Pop in our cupboard).

Camping is fun when you have a house to come home to.

En route to various summer funspots, we pass some homeless encampments, which have not escaped my daughters' attention.

On a recent excursion, four-year-old piped up, "Mom, LOOK! People are camping over there!"

"I think those are people who don't have houses, honey."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, not everybody has a job, or money, or a house, or a car..."

Long silence and deep thinking.

"Maybe not, Mom. Maybe it's just a really nice spot."

Under the freeway overpass.

I want to hug up and hold tight to that youthful innocence and optimism.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Good Thinking

Daughter #1 wants to go to Paris. It's on her top-three list, along with China and Hawaii. Her 1st grade teacher went to Paris; one of her neighborhood friends is in Paris. It's all the rage among seven-year-olds: go to Paris. It's where we're having her birthday party.

Not.

In the car tonight, she reasserted her desire to visit the City of Lights.

"So, what is it you think is in Paris," I asked, "besides..."

"The Eiffel Tower, Mom."

Her teacher brought her and each of her classmates a little miniature Eiffel Tower when she returned from her Spring Break trip to France. I am not lying when I tell you that my daughter sleeps with that replica next to her bed each night.

"Well, there's also the Arc de Triomphe..."

"What is the Arc de Triomphe?"

"It's...an arch. Of triumph."

"And there's also some...thinking guy?"

"Oh...yes!! You mean, 'The Thinker', a sculpture by Rodin? One of my favorite places in Paris, the Rodin Sculpture Garden!"

"Uh huh! Oh, Mom..." (switch from excited to serious tone)..."Janie was naughty when our teacher talked about that sculpture..."

"Oh, really?"

"Yeah, she said he was NAKED."

"Well, he is naked. Many sculptures are of naked people, and that's okay."

"But she said, 'I'm thinking...I'm thinking...I'm peeing."

(Choking back laugh spasms) "Really? Did anyone laugh?"

"No, Mom. No one laughed." Daughter shook her head gravely.

"Did your teacher get mad?"

"No; she didn't hear it."

Well, damn. There's one famous work of art which will never be the same for me. Haha!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Heartbreak Warfare: Me and Myself on Our Better Selves

"Once you want it to begin, no one ever really wins...in heartbreak warfare."

Me: I just finished reading Nick Hornby's How to Be Good.

Myself: I really enjoyed it, even though it was sometimes like stabbing myself in the eye. It's the chronicle of a marriage in the trenches, and like the opening scene of the otherwise comedic Date Night: sometimes a little too real.

Me: There's something I appreciate about raw portrayals of everyday lives. I think I come out feeling more normal. But the few close friends I asked who've read the book either loved it or hated it. I am curious to hear the analysis of my fellow Book Clubbers at our discussion next week...

Myself: It's painful to read the honest revelations of a dissatisfied wife in a wretched union, albeit fictional. For example: "There have been times recently, since the beginning of our troubles, when the sight of David awake, active, conscious, walking and talking has made me want to retch, so acute is my loathing of him..."

and,

"Phone calls like ours only happen when you've spent several years hurting and being hurt, until every word you utter or hear becomes coded and loaded, as complicated and full of subtext as a bleak and brilliant play."

Me: Ouch. I spent a good portion of the book hoping to never resemble those remarks too closely. However, it's Nick Hornby, and therefore there's humor, as well as glimmers of hope.

Myself: The book is partly about making peace with the lot you've both been dealt and chosen, and partly about how simple it is, ultimately, to be little more good...a little, dare I say, nicer.

Me: I could relate a little to protagonist, Katie, a doctor who gives herself "goodness" credit for having chosen a helping profession. But she admits she's not always nice to her patients...

Myself: I am definitely guilty of wanting to be a nice person.

Me: "Guilty" of it, haha.

Myself: Well, I think that's a little at the heart of what this book explores. Goodness for the sake of sanctimonious purity is not all that pure, after all.

Me: If you're shoving it down others' throats, or being superficial, certainly. Goodness isn't a competition. One of the questions Hornby asks is do we strive to be good for our own sakes, for others close to us, or for our audience (society/community)? And what about people who totally reject the notion that we should be good, or nice?

Myself: I think it would be interesting to live without conscience for a day or two. I analyze too much.

Me: Goodness shouldn't be driven by guilt.

Myself: I know. I feel guilty that sometimes I think my goodness is driven by guilt.

Me: This book makes me think that maybe in a marriage, no one should be measurably "gooder" than the other.

Myself: Actually, I think no one should be measuring. When someone starts measuring, that's when the trouble starts.

Me: Yes!

Myself: Hornby sets up this awesome juxtaposition with Katie and her husband to explore these questions. Husband and wife are in cycle of hatefulness; Katie has a brief affair; Katie confesses such to her husband. She just about brings her marriage to its knees, except for the fact that her husband won't agree to divorce her, and then consults an alternative healer and becomes a Really Good Guy. Perhaps too good: Katie evolves from being annoyed with her generally pissed-off spouse to being annoyed with a mate who not only refuses to fight with her but wants to shelter homeless people in their house.

Me: Her husband turns everything upside down, and the change is abrupt, as Katie observes: "We are the ideal family. We eat together, we play improving board games instead of watching television, we smile a lot. I fear that at any moment I may kill somebody."

Myself: Imagine having all of your values and ways of life evaluated not only by your newly philanthropic husband, but also by a live-in Spiritual Guru named GoodNews.

Me: I love the dialogue between GoodNews and the family members. In one of his first scenes, GoodNews explains to Katie that he doesn't like beds: "I just think they make you soft. Take you further away from how things really are." When Katie asks, "And how are things?" she gets, "That's a big question, Katie...and I don't know if you are ready for the big answer."

Myself: Katie balances coping cynically with the changes around her with trying to participate genuinely in a search for goodness. She goes to church. She reinvests in some relationships she's neglected. When GoodNews suggests "Reversalism," ("If you stole something, give it back...if you were horrible, you have to be nice"), Katie gamely invites her least-favorite patient over for dinner.

Me: I love that part--"Barmy Brian" is such a tragicomic character.

Myself: And he too almost moves in with the family, along with homeless teen "Monkey" and GoodNews.

Me: The Reversalism idea is the straw that breaks the back of this journey, though.

Myself: Well, really--would you want someone who wronged you in the past to call you up and invite you to dinner or make some charitable offering, all with the purpose of making their own self feel better?

Me: I would probably go along with it to be nice. And out of a sort of curiosity.

Myself: It's a turning point when both Katie's husband David and GoodNews call up people they've detested to make nice and despite themselves, find they still detest them.

Me: You can feel Katie's little sense of glee when these schemes GoodNews and David come up with falter.

Myself: Well, because it's a novel portraying extremes: extreme unhappiness attempting to be remedied by extreme lifestyle change.

Me: Kind of the definition of mid-life crisis.

Myself: Ultimately, the answer lies in the middle somewhere. Perhaps starting with agreeing not to use sarcasm, contempt, and blame as the commerce of your relationship.

Me: I have to bite my lip sometimes to stray from the script. A gift I can give my husband is often simply not saying what he expects me to say in response to whatever annoying action I expected him to do. One annoyed person who can tell herself to get over it is better than two annoyed people locked in detente.

Myself: More John Mayer lyrics: "I swear to God we're gonna get it right if we lay our weapons down..."

Me: At the end of the novel nothing is really better. There's still a marriage that requires work and a family in need of healing.

Myself: Which leads me to what I think is the other message of the book--one that newlyweds and idealistic unmarrieds don't want to hear, perhaps: That sometimes happy marriages rely on the conviction that This Life I've Chosen is quite good, actually, despite not matching up with Hollywood standards. "I can do this," Katie concludes, "I can live this life."

Me: I think she should summon up a little more enthusiasm. Maybe sign up for a class or exercise more often.

Myself: Look inward.

Me: Right. It seems to me that dissatisfaction with a marriage, or one's life, is usually about dissatisfaction with oneself. Before looking outward--blaming others, having an affair, charting a path of self-destruction--one should explore small changes to one's life.

Myself: And be hopeful and optimistic.

Me: And nicer.

Myself: But not necessarily to be better. To feel better, to live better.

Me: Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

List: Signs of Summer

1. Kids took their first bath in five days last night.

2. I am wearing the same outfit for the third day in a row. Yesterday, I changed earrings for variety.

3. There are unpacked bags all over the house: a bag from the beach, a bag from the pool, a bag from the zoo (with, oops, half-eaten lunch inside), a bag from Concert in the Park, a bag from a sleepover, and, uhhh...a few bags from camping. We are too On The Go to concern ourselves with the artifacts of the last activity.

4. The pile of garage sale/Goodwill items outside is growing. The enthusiasm for a garage sale and momentum for loading things up for Goodwill? Diminishing.

5. Gritty coating of sand on the floor.

6. No bread or milk in the house. We are subsisting on dry cheerios, juice boxes, cheese sticks, apples, trail mix, and the occasional peach we find on the ground at the neighbor's.

7. Bathing suits and towels strewn on the front porch. Which is convenient, because we just grab them and go, and then return them to the porch to dry. Front porch=summertime closet.

8. Girls still in bed asleep at 7:19 AM. We call that sleeping in. And a by product of late-night summer fun.

9. Doo Dads and crafts from playdates, camps, fairy projects, and sleepovers decorating our home.

10. I am feeling blissed out. Happy. Satisfied. Fulfilled.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Time Out for Camping

On a workday in May when I dreamt of time away from work, I booked a campsite for us in the mountains, with the first night away coinciding with my first day off.

So into the mountains we drove last Thursday, dog and kids and Way Too Much Stuff in tow.

The camping trip was everything we hoped for: friends joining us in the site adjacent to ours; marshmallows in hair; tent pitched on surface sloped just enough for us all to wake up downhill together in a heap; deer, bullfrog, and assortment of wild rodent sightings; roasted weenies; raucous games of telephone around the campfire; mosquito bites forming constellations on exposed body parts; dirty dirt dirtying up everybody quite dirtily.

And by dirty, I mean especially the dog.

But there were a few low points; I won't lie.

Husband loves to fish and I chose our campsite based on this premise. On our first day he had the good luck of fishing in a pond that is normally stocked with 250 pounds of fish but which on This Particular Day was overstocked because the Stocking Machine got stuck or something and what do you know, there were 400 pounds of trout and my husband was celebrating what he characterized as shooting fish in a barrel.

The girls got to help him catch and clean five trout. I recalled the last time I was involved in cooking fresh trout; it was in the Aberdares of Kenya. My aunt caught, cleaned, and then steamed the fish in tin foil over a fire. So we did the same, the second night, after we found and then paid a pretty penny for tin foil and a lemon. Not to mention the $17 six-pack of beer, which tasted almost as good as $13.

But freshly squeezed lemon did not mask the Marinade de Pond, which was the distinguishing flavor of our fresh trout. Indeed, husband caught the trout and kept the fish in the pond on a rope so they would be even more freshly pondish: a technique that worked! We were all amazed when our friends' daughter chowed down on that trout like pondishness was going out of style.

On the second day, we went for a hike. It was a most pleasant foray into the woods, through a meadow, and along a stream. But our four-year-old failed to recognize the virtues of said excursion, and wailed for the duration like our own natural Mountain Lion Deterrent. It was annoying for the first twenty minutes, and then the moans became part of the landscape, like the grasses swaying in the breeze and the incredible cedar trees.

My husband's tolerance for the white noise of whining is lower than mine, so he would occasionally threaten to put our daughter on Time Out in the car upon our return. Assuming, of course, which our daughter did not, that we would actually return from this interminable walk. He added his famous five-minute increments with each shriek she let loose when a bug dared to fly in her face.

Miraculously, all duress ended abruptly when the terrain around the pond grew familiar and the rocks Little Sis liked climbing were in view. The hike ended happily.

On the evening of our last night on the mountain, a family with an indeterminate number of children rolled up to the neighboring campsite and unloaded their gear, thus beginning a Long Night of Loudness. At first it was all just boisterous fun, with kids shouting and giggling and running around the campsite. At 10 PM as we lay in our tents exhausted and listened to repeat episodes of tent zipping and unzipping and children misbehaving and parents' recriminations, I tried to convince Big Sis this was better than watching TV. By 2 AM I wanted to put Little Eli and Charlotte and also Rachel on Time Out along with their dad, who repeatedly threatened spankings and helpfully bellowed across the valley, "People are trying to sleep!!" every ten minutes or so.

On the bright side, this family's ruckus kept the skunks away from our site that night and we eventually fell asleep.

Only to wake up to the sound of our dog puking in the tent.

Nevertheless, nothing could tarnish the glow of campfires, family time, pine trees, and night skies full of stars.

We can't wait to do it again.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Growing Humanity in Bureaucracy

In the spring as I was driving up the winding hill that is part of my weekly running route, I noticed someone planting rose bushes under an oak tree just on the other side of an old stone wall.

On my next run I stopped to survey the little garden that was establishing itself behind the scarred tree. Crumbled portions of the wall a car's width apart supported my suspicions that someone had driven off the road and into the tree, and had most likely died. With a lump in my throat, I admired the flowers and honored the effort and sentiments behind them, paying respects to the planter and his or her loved one.

A few weeks later as I jogged down the hill I spotted two rocks piled amidst the plantings, with a paper tucked in between. Curiosity got the best of me, and I read the note, which was from the City. "If you are the person who planted these flowers, can you please call me? Thank you," read the handwritten missive. A Parks and Recreation worker's card was inside.

I figured there must be rules about planting flowers along public roads, but was glad to see that the rose bushes weren't simply torn out. I wondered what would happen next--where the need to consistently enforce city policies would meet the wishes of a grieving relative to honor his loved one. The note gave me hope for an amenable solution.

This morning on my run up the hill I found two City workers digging up the plants and gently placing them in pots. "You have to remove them, huh?" I stopped to ask.

"Yes," replied one of the men regretfully, leaning on his shovel. "We're putting the flowers in pots and he will pick them up later. This is a historic oak grove," he explained, "and we have to protect the plants. But we will be placing a dedicated tree here instead." He pointed to a spot a few feet away, near the wall.

He told me that one night in the spring an elderly woman had driven off the road, over the wall, and into a tree. She passed away from injuries sustained in the accident and from other preexisting medical conditions. Her son had planted the little garden at the base of the tree.

I admitted I had been interested in the fate of the memorial and appreciated the compromise as well as the respect shown for the feelings of her mourning son.

I learned our city has a dedicated tree and bench program worth knowing about, and there are caring people working in its departments.

I'll be looking for the tree in that sacred spot on my run.