Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Another Auld Lang Syne...

Last night I stood at the stove in my bare feet, mindlessly staring into a pot of spaghetti sauce, slowly stirring and watching as the little bubbles were rising up from underneath and breaking across the surface. It was a nice change from the leftover turkey and mashed potatoes we had been force-fed since Friday’s Christmas dinner. Food wasn’t on my mind, though. As I lost myself in that sea of red, I was ruminating over how different my life is this New Year’s Eve 2009 than it was New Year’s Eve 1999. That day seems like yesterday and a lifetime ago all at once.

In December of 1999, I was pregnant with my first child, my son. While everyone around me was hoarding canned goods and ammunition to prepare for the coming apocalypse of “Y2K”, I was thinking less about the catastrophic failure of our world-wide computer system, and more about which pattern to choose for his crib bedding. I didn’t care that the world as we knew it might come to a screeching halt at the stroke of midnight, with planes falling from the sky and ATM screens going dark forever. I just knew that I had plans to do some shopping at Babies-R-Us on New Year’s Day, so put on your big girl panties, people, and get on with your life. It was the first time in recent memory that I woke up on January 1st without a headache, and luckily for us all, civilization plodded on into the new millennium without much of a glitch.

I couldn’t know at the time how much the coming decade would change me, starting with being slapped in the face with the harsh reality of parenthood. I had to let go of my puffed up, self-absorbed persona and actually put another human being’s needs ahead of my own for the first time in my life. It’s funny how looking into the eyes of your newborn will make you forget that your nail polish is chipped, and that all you’ve had to eat in the last twenty-four hours is a slice of bread with peanut butter on it and seventeen cups of black coffee. Now that I have two children in the house and several years of parenting under my belt, I realize that there is no such thing as the “Perfect Mom”, but I do my best. If I can just get them through college while avoiding addictions, jail time, pregnancy, and stripper poles, it will mean more to me than winning the Nobel Peace Prize. (And I hope the kids come through it unscathed as well…)

I never imagined in the year 2000 that there would be a time in my life when I would fear for my safety from foreign invaders. I remember September 11, 2001 so clearly, as I’m sure we all do. I sat on the floor in front of the television in stunned silence, holding tightly to my toddler as we watched the World Trade Center crumble. The uncertainty of where they would strike next left me paralyzed with fright. Would they go after the media? My husband, a newspaper employee at the time, was in his downtown Charlotte office that day, and I was convinced they would be next. In the end, it was comforting to me how our country rallied after this tragedy. It does make me sad, however, that we’ve mostly become jaded to the whole event. It seems to be the American way of moving past the heartache. I suppose we should thank “American Idol” and Britney Spears for the distraction.

The years following brought with them health scares, surgeries, job changes, new homes, and more hairstyles than I can count. From visiting Disney World to watching my baby head off to kindergarten, this has been a decade of firsts. Each moment had its hand in molding and shaping who I have become, just like a clay jar on a pottery wheel, but none of them changed me like the death of my mother in August of 2008. I liken that singular event to the instructor taking the clay jar off the wheel, mashing it into a ball, and handing it to the student with nothing more to say than, “Here, start over.” So, I did. The wheel spins a little out of control at times, by the clay is starting to take shape again.

Standing here on the cusp of a new decade, the irrepressible pessimist in me refuses to look too far ahead. I could have never imagined the tragedies and triumphs in my life up to now, so I’ll leave all predictions to the experts at the National Enquirer. I can only hope for good health and true happiness for my friends and family in the coming years. As for me, I’ll just keep searching for that ever-elusive Perfect Hairstyle, and pray that one day, somehow, with all of the technology at our disposal, someone will discover the secret to creating a recipe for decadent and delicious fat-free fudge.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

My Favorite Things (with sincere apologies to Julie Andrews)

After hearing this song played one million times so far this Christmas season, I thought I would give my own personal spin to this much-loved holiday classic, so here goes:


Yoga and sushi and David Sedaris,
Drinking strong coffee on my backyard terrace,
Listening to music while eating hot wings,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Black shirts and black shoes and bell-bottomed blue jeans,
Joan Jett and Neko and garden-fresh green beans,
All of the creatures from "Lord of the Rings",
These are a few of my favorite things.

Children that sleep late and frosty beer glasses,
Mascara that gives me those long, luscious lashes,
Red wine and Youtube and running in spring,
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the dogs bark,
When my hair's flat,
When Fox News makes me mad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Watching my five-year-old girl pick up lizards,
Snape and sweet Harry, my two favorite wizards,
Watching the ocean from our beach house swing,
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the heat's out,
When my knees ache,
When my car sounds sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Sorry Julie...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

They called it Amazing Grace

I harbored a painful secret as a pre-teen. It was something so embarrassing to me that I did everything in my power to keep my friends from ever knowing the truth. I just knew that if it was ever discovered, it would bring a horrible shame on me. It would be a shame worse than hurling my lunch on the boy I had a crush on right in the middle of the school cafeteria. Now that I am safely into my forties, it is time to come clean, to rid myself of yet another skeleton... my family was part of a traveling, old time-y, Southern gospel singing band.

That’s right. Although the line-up tended to rotate from time to time, my immediate family was the gospel-singing, prison-ministry version of the Partridge Family, even down to the matching polyester outfits, and my father was their Reuben Kincaid. I traveled around with them to the back-woods country churches, and the charismatic Pentecostal revivals as an unwilling roadie of sorts, not old enough to stay home alone during their concerts, but certainly old enough to be completely mortified at each performance. I endured so many Sunday afternoon covered-dish lunches that I may never eat deviled eggs and potato salad again.

I didn’t even get a reprieve at home. Our house was the “studio”, so our living room held an organ, a piano, and two four-foot tall speakers. On practice days, my sister would set up her drums, my brother would get out his bass guitar and with amplifiers cranked, there wasn’t a single place for me to hide from the music. When the weather permitted, their rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross” would blast out from opened windows allowing every neighbor to be privy to my secret.

Don’t get me wrong. My mother had a very nice voice, and the group was often showered with “love offerings” (money) after their gigs. It’s just that during that period of my life, I was transitioning from Andy Gibb to The B-52’s, and I would have rather had my teeth pulled than listen to hours of church hymns. They were a big hit with the medium-security prisoners, though.

Upon entering junior high school and joining the concert band, my father thought it would be a great idea for me to join the group on my saxophone. I was distraught, thinking the horror would never end. “Oh yeah, the boys are going to love me now” was my first thought. I could picture myself rocking the homemade polyester and lace pantsuit while belting out traditional gospel favorites on my horn. Fortunately for me, the jazzy sound of my alto sax wasn’t a fit for their “Amazing Grace” with a southern twang. I was allowed to keep at least a shred of my dignity and was never officially a part of the group.

Eventually the band decided to go their separate ways citing “creative differences”. (Okay, so I made up that last part.) The equipment was sold, and the members retreated back to the obscurity of the church choir. I had forgotten about “The Gospel Singers” for years until I came across an old picture of them recently. I laughed again at the ridiculous outfits and my brother’s white boy afro. It was bittersweet though, because the leader of the group, my mom, is gone now. But then I had a revelation: isn’t it a parent’s job to completely embarrass their kids every chance they get? Yes, and in that respect, I finally realized after all these years that my mother was a genius.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

It's beginning to look alot, Thanksgiving?

I love to brood, but I also take time to stew and fester. I casually put circumstances that have ruined my day on the front burner, turn up the fire, and watch it come to a full, rolling boil. I whisk away until my bitter soup is thick as mud, and I lap it up straight from the pot like a thirsty dog. Then later, I wonder why I have heartburn in the middle of the night. Yes, I am aware there is a black cloud following me. Thanks for noticing.

So, in light of my unhealthy addiction to gloom and doom, I thought it would be utterly refreshing to list some of the things that I am thankful for today. These are every day conveniences that go unconsidered or taken for granted, but actually keep me from ending up on the roof with a sniper rifle and a long list of targets. Here they are in no particular order:

1. Coffee – Jack had it all wrong. True, coffee beans won’t grow a beanstalk into the sky, but these beans really are magic in that they keep me from committing a crime each morning. I would trade my cow for coffee beans any day of the week, if I had a cow, that is.

2. The garage – I love that I can back my car into the garage and unload my groceries directly into my kitchen, and the weather can just be damned. I revel in my smugness as I pull out of my spacious garage on a cold, January morning to find neighbors shivering as they scrape their ice-covered car windows because they chose to use their garage as an attached storage building instead of its original purpose. Hey, put Aunt Janie’s armoire and the dusty foosball table in the attic, and you won’t be 15 minutes late for work with frost bite on your fingers.

3. The dishwasher – Growing up, we did not have one of these miracle contraptions in our kitchen. Actually, we did have a dishwasher, but not from Maytag. Our dishwasher had mousy brown hair and an affinity for loud music. Because I spent my youth submerged in Palmolive, I flatly refuse to wash anything by hand as an adult. You’re telling me the instructions say this pot can’t go in the dishwasher? They lie. EVERYTHING can go in the dishwasher.

4. The internet – I’m going to step out on a limb here to declare that the World Wide Web really is the best thing since sliced bread. Are you having trouble remembering the breed of Benjamin Franklin’s dog? Google knows it. My life can be clearly defined in two phases: before Facebook and after Facebook. How did I live before without knowing that my long, lost friend on the other side of the country is about to do her laundry and get dinner on the table? Thank you, Al Gore!

5. Indoor plumbing – All you have to do to truly appreciate this modern convenience is attend an outdoor music festival in the heat of the summer, drink lots of beer, and then stand in line for the Port-a-John behind a Chris Farley look alike who probably shouldn’t have mixed the chocolate-dipped bacon-on-a-stick with the bratwurst and sauerkraut sandwich. Enough said.

6. Living in the USA – Yes, it does make my blood boil that the cashiers at the grocery store won’t say “Merry Christmas” for fear of offending someone, and that the local mall is lighting the “Great Tree” this year instead of the “Christmas Tree”, but at least our government can’t tell us how many children to have or what religion to follow. I’m thankful that any food I so desire is usually just a short car ride away and that my daughter is afforded the same education as my son. Now, if we could just get them to make every Friday an official holiday…

7. Aluminum foil – Along with keeping our food fresh, foil (or tin foil if you’re Southern) has also been known to double as a TV antenna in certain local trailer parks. You can even make a fashionable hat out of gently used foil. Google told me so. (See #4 above.)

8. Sex Offender Database – Not paranoid enough? Just enter your home address into this magical application to get a specific list of which neighbors to avoid while trick-or-treating next Halloween. Priceless.

9. Wine – It knows what to do without being told. How can I make everyone in my house behave more like wine?

10. The refrigerator – I sure would hate to have to make a run to the root cellar if I had a late-night hankering for leftover chicken. And I hear that botulism really sucks.

Now, on to write a list of things I’m not thankful for today. That one is going to take a while…

Friday, November 13, 2009

It's Just a Little Hocus Pocus

It is comforting to know that I am far from being the only weirdo in this world. By now, it’s no big secret that my mind really does turn in a way contrary to everyone else in line at Target. Lately, I have felt the need to expand my blogging horizons away from this straight-laced town of mine, and decided that Asheville, North Carolina should be my next destination. I have been doing my homework, exploring their local newspaper to get a feel for this Bohemian refuge. It’s clear to me that artists and freaks alike have found a home in this unlikely mountain oasis. I have no doubt that I would fit right in like a missing puzzle piece. Have they been looking for me? I’ve just been lost between the sofa cushions, that’s all. So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that one of the newspaper’s featured bloggers is the local village witch, a bona fide Witch-i-poo right there amongst the trendy coffee shops and retro consignment boutiques, and no one is even batting an eyelash. Yes, I think I have found my home.

Let me state for the record that I do not worship dirt or light candles to please the moon. Although I did have to fight the urge to kiss the ground once after a particularly frightening and stormy mid-summer flight from Chicago, and I have been known to praise the Sun for its appearance after a long and rainy autumn. Other than that, skulls and gourds have never been a part of my religious experience. But this woman is the real deal. She describes herself as someone “who writes about traditional Appalachian witching and modern Earth religions.” She is the “Priestess, and Clergywoman of her tradition.” I read her blog in awe, not because of any pearls of wisdom she imparted to me, but because I’m amazed there is a town in what I affectionately refer to as “the armpit of America” that actually promotes the musings of a self-proclaimed witch! And I couldn’t be more excited.

Can you imagine how my fellow Rock Hillians would react if our local paper endorsed writings like, "Tonight, we did Samhain and I included meditation and chanting as part of the ritual. They mostly come out of Christian traditions and have come to Paganism through a hard road. We had a fairly traditional altar with a black cloth and Muerte candles, skulls, black stones, leaves.” I can only imagine that the citizens of this town would rally at the J & K Cafeteria, then charge over in their Chevy trucks to the newspaper parking lot with pitchforks and torches in hand, demanding the dark-haired infidel be burned at the stake. Well, maybe I’m a little dramatic, but my neighbors would certainly fire off some heated, grammatically-incorrect letters to the editor, threatening to cancel subscriptions while invoking the names of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly in their defense. Oh yeah, I’m sure of it.

I hope they will embrace me in my new home away from home. I want to be a part of this pocket of diversity, this culture of poetry readings and questionable fashion choices. I want to pretend I’m cool enough to sip my chai latte and discuss the latest gallery opening with the performance artist I met at the dog park. I just want to eat sushi with The Village Witch. So, be sure to leave the light on for me, my new eclectic friends. I’m getting there as fast as I can.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mmm, Mmm Good...

I made soup today. It was homemade chicken noodle soup with vegetables, and it was really tasty. I’m sure that to you, this is hardly newsworthy or even interesting for that matter. For me, though, it was some kind of a breakthrough. I made a meal today that was more than just heating up something that Betty Crocker or Marie Callender started in a factory somewhere. I made a meal that required buying and chopping fresh parsley. This, a steaming pot of soup made by the woman who previously shunned any meal that didn’t have “instant” in the title. It was a home-cooked dinner, meticulously prepared by someone who, before children, thought Jell-O with fruit in it was an acceptable meal. Today, I sautéed vegetables and reduced chicken stock, people. Can you see me beaming across the world wide web?

I have always prided myself on the fact that I hated cooking. Other people cook. I do not. When I was a child, my mother tried to force me into the kitchen to learn the fine art of Southern Cooking. I flatly refused her attempts to domesticate me, to turn me into some lucky man’s slave. That is honestly what I believed. I was convinced that if I was a good cook, or even marginally so, that I would be the personal chef to a husband some day, tied to the stove while he sat in his La-Z-Boy watching football. No way, that is not the person I am. That is not the person I will ever be.

My mother was that person. She was my father’s indentured servant. She would get up before the roosters to make a hearty breakfast for him. She would then put in eight hours at work, only to rush home to get a made-from-scratch meal on the table by the time her husband walked through the door. He would sit in his chair while she plated his food. She brought his drink to him and dropped her fork to assist him immediately if he was ready for a second helping. On many occasions, I saw the man sit in the den hungry, waiting for my mom to get home to prepare a snack for him. He would rather go without food than put a foot in the kitchen to help himself. That disgusted me. It disgusts me still.

Cooking is a chore that ranks right up there with cleaning toilets and damage control after a pre-schooler’s stomach virus, or at least that is what I told myself. It had to be done to survive, but enjoy it? Never. I watched my mother slave away unceremoniously and under appreciated enough to know that ready-to-eat meals were the way for me. Peel potatoes? Forget about it. Homemade Chicken and Dumplings? Why, I never! Then I started thinking back to a conversation I had with a friend. He told me that he had happy memories of his mother, aunts and grandmother in the kitchen, lovingly preparing meals for his family. It was a joy for them to provide this nourishment, these meals from the heart to those closest to them. It made me think that maybe I had a terribly skewed view of something that could actually be fulfilling for me.

So, I started sneaking around the internet looking for recipes, all the while trying to put up a front of indifference towards cooking. The recipes I found called for fresh ingredients and not just “add water and microwave”. I was intimidated, but I didn’t back down. First, I played around with lasagna, and then baked ziti. I tried my hand at some chicken casseroles, and dallied with some marinated steak dishes just to test myself. Then, after a cold snap, I decided I was ready to try soup, some comfort food. I chopped and sautéed and baked and reduced, and consulted the experts just to be safe. The end result was delicious. It was probably the first time everyone at my table agreed on a meal. I was proud.

I’m going to admit right here in front of God and everyone that I actually enjoyed it. I had fun cooking. There, I said it. I realize now that it doesn’t make me a slave to cook a meal for my family. It’s more of an expression of love. One that tastes even better as leftovers.

Monday, November 2, 2009

It Came From Within...

I would be lying to say it was a day just like any other. When you are fifteen months pregnant with a due date three excruciatingly long weeks away, every day could be The Big Day. Even though I had an inkling that something was stirring, I decided it was probably just the hot picante sauce, a steady part of my preggo diet, rearing its ugly head from the night before. This was my second time around, and I was becoming an old pro at this now, certain to recognize labor pains. Or so I thought.

I left for work with an uncomfortable and vaguely familiar sensation spreading through my abdomen. I kept checking the clock during my thirty-minute commute. “I’m sure it’s just cramps” was the lie I was repeating unconvincingly. Those little “cramps” had an undeniable punctuality to them. Every three minutes I would cringe and take a deep breath. I had a brief flash of fear. After my son was born, the doctor told me to be sure with any future pregnancies to let the doctor know that I have a history of rapid delivery. Now, here I was driving in the opposite direction of my doctor with contractions coming at an alarming rate. A scene played out in my head of me, parked along side of the interstate, lying in the back seat of the car, door open with my private parts exposed for all the morning rush hour commuters to see, while a passing UPS driver plays doctor and delivers my daughter somewhere near the South Carolina Welcome Center. The unlikely obstetrician would surely tell his story to the local television station, using words like “crowning”, “vagina”, and “placenta”. Years later, I still shudder at this thought.

I walked into my office and announced to my co-worker, “Good morning! I’m in labor.” She looked at me wide-eyed. “Are you serious?” she asked. “Yeah, contractions are three minutes apart,” I told her, almost as if I was wearing some badge of honor to be standing in my cubicle mere moments from giving birth. I briefly fantasized that the story of my unusually high tolerance for pain coupled with my unwavering company loyalty would find its way back to the company President, who would promptly double my Christmas bonus.

At my friend’s urging, I called the doctor’s office and was told, in no uncertain terms, to get to there now. Once I arrived, they whisked me back to the exam room where it was confirmed that I was 5 centimeters dilated, halfway there. At that moment, I was all at once thrilled to know that I would soon get to meet my daughter and sip a glass of wine at my discretion, and terrified at the excruciating pain that was in my very near future.

In the brief span of time from the doctor’s office to the hospital, the pain seemed to have increased ten-fold. My plans were to change into my fashionable, nurse-issued, cotton lingerie, and walk the halls to hurry this show along. My reality was that I was writhing in the bed, being slammed with contractions that were one after another with no rest in between. I thought my grand plan of “no pharmaceuticals during childbirth” seemed quite foolhardy and lame, that is, when my brain caught a brief respite here and there, and was able to form a thought at all. It didn’t help that I was sent a crusty nurse who kept telling me to “quit fighting against the pain”, as if there was some lady-like alternative to nearly ripping out the bed rails and cursing that bitch, Eve, who started all this in the first place.

When my pain quickly reached its zenith, I threw in the towel and asked, no, begged for an epidural. I could rest, maybe watch “Jerry Springer” or “The View” and perform this miracle of life without breaking a sweat. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Before the good doctor arrived with the magic vial of happy numbness, I knew it was time to push. As the troops were scrambled to prepare for the birth, a stranger in a white coat popped his head in the door. “Oops, I guess I’m too late,” he said. Through clenched teeth I asked, “Who the hell was that?” It was the anesthesiologist. I won’t even tell you what I thought of calling him through my thick fog of pain.

With only two pushes, Hannah Noelle arrived in time for lunch. My sweet, tiny princess was here. That was five years ago this week. Only after becoming a parent did I begin to see how quickly the sand flows through the hourglass. It seems like only yesterday I was changing poopy diapers and cursing the high price of baby formula. I’ll try to remember that this week as she struts around in her cowboy boots singing “Hannah Montana” songs. I will make myself stop for just a moment and appreciate this age and understand that soon, her childhood will be a precious memory. Yes, I will remember all of this as I begin to make preparations to have her locked away in the highest room of the tallest tower, guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, and fitted with a padlocked chastity belt until she turns thirty.

Friday, October 30, 2009


If you are into people watching like I am, there is no better venue than the annual Renaissance Festival. I never miss it. It is a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of carnival regulars and community theater wannabe’s. If you have a hankering for a corn cob on a stick and some poorly executed British accents, then look no further. The freaks have arrived.

You can’t begin your tour of the pretend sixteenth century without first securing your adult beverage and over-sized turkey leg. Sure, you can try the corn chowder in a bread bowl if it’s a chilly day or sausage on a stick for some variety, but eating a roasted turkey leg the size of an adult male’s thigh is an absolute requirement. It makes me feel all “Henry the VIII” when I walk around with my turkey leg in one hand and a goblet of ale in the other. “Off with her head!” I say, but usually only when some wench is holding up the Porta-John line by yapping on her cell phone. Now, with food and drink in hand, off we go.

The first thing I always notice is bosoms, lots and lots of ample bosoms. They are spilling out every where, from the tavern wench selling beer to the peasant girl washing her make-believe laundry on a rock for our viewing pleasure. I frequently need to avert the eyes of my pre-pubescent son, lest he get a nearly X-rated peep show while waiting in line to ride the Flying Dutchman. “Look”, I say quickly, “here comes the talking tree,” as the well-endowed Lady in Waiting passes too close for comfort. It is evident that modesty is not a virtue for these Renaissance women.

Another festival must-see is the Jousting Tournament. I face a dilemma deciding who to root for each year. It’s a well known fact that I have a thing for bad boys, so I’m usually drawn to the rider in the black cape on a black horse that always seems to pull a dirty trick or two. As I take my place on the bleachers, I think how, back then, this was the big night-on-the-town event for the Renaissance folks. And who among us wouldn’t enjoy getting gussied up and watching as grown men charge at each other, lances in hand, hoping to quickly end the life of his unworthy opponent? As strange as it may seem, I have to admit that I would take watching my fellow man being gored to death over watching “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol” any day of the week. Jousting was the original reality entertainment.

No trip to the Renaissance Festival would be complete without emptying my wallet at several of the gift shops along the way. What little girl can live without a twenty-five dollar princess hat that will be squished under her  bed in less than 24 hours? Don’t forget the wooden sword that will set you back another thirty-five bucks or know, the one that will be taken away by the time you get home because your son is bonking your daughter on the head with it. My favorite tent to visit is the one with incense and hemp skirts for sale, though. I know for a fact the stoners behind the counter really dress that way every day, because I saw them recently stocking up on Ramen noodles at Costco.

As the sun starts to descend on the horizon, our trip back in time must come to an end. Another successful freak show is committed to memory. We smile at the dancing maidens, and wave good-bye to the Court Jester. I’m almost reluctant to leave because this is the one place on Earth where, for a couple of hours each year, I am always regarded with a deep bow of respect and the title of “m’ Lady”.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Mummy

My family’s worst-kept secret is the fact that my paternal grandmother was the spawn of Satan. She was evil incarnate by all accounts of those unfortunate souls in her inner circle. Okay, so more than likely, she wasn’t technically a child of the devil, but maybe just his Girl Friday, whose job it was to torment and torture her kin. She was sent here to make their life a special kind of hell on Earth, and she excelled in that capacity.

In the 1920’s, my grandmother married an unlikely suitor – a Reverend in the Church of God. My grandfather was a much-loved and very well-respected southern preacher with a kind heart. I certainly don’t have knowledge of their courtship, but I can only imagine that either he never saw her evil side, or that he knew of her diabolical ways and felt that, with God’s help, he could change her. I also wonder why she would choose such a life, to be at the right hand of a man of God, putting on her fake smile as she sat in the front row of church each Sunday. It could be that she was sent by the devil on a covert mission to infiltrate this congregation of Christians who engaged in speaking in tongues and running the aisles of the church. That seems plausible.

Whatever the reason, somehow it worked, and they were married for more than fifty years. However, on his deathbed, my grandfather gave a solemn warning to his children, “Watch out for that one”, and by “that one”, they all knew what he meant. He spent his entire married life working to keep this evil woman under wraps, and now, he was handing over the reigns.

My grandmother’s specific crimes against her family are too numerous to mention here. She seemed to specialize, though, in humiliation and degradation. When her six year old wet the bed, she would hold his face down in the wet sheets as punishment, and then hang the soiled laundry out to dry in the front of the house for all of his friends to see. She harbored a special hatred toward my mother, and held tightly to the opinion that my oldest brother couldn’t possibly belong to my father because there was no family resemblance. You can see that in a newborn? Don’t most children look like Mr. Magoo’s side of the family at birth? She declared her suspicions proudly, and made sure everyone knew. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.

When my second brother was born, my father was deployed with the army, leaving my mother to care for two boys only fourteen months apart in age. My grandmother was partial to the newborn because he looked more like “her side” of the family. She came in from out of town under the guise of helping my mother, and then offered to take the baby home with her for a few days to give my mom some rest. She knew my mother had no means of traveling, and proceeded to keep my brother for nearly two months. She did this despite my mother’s pleading for her son’s return. For lack of a better term, she held the baby hostage. I can only imagine the lies she concocted to fool my grandfather into believing this arrangement met with my mother’s approval. I assume that it was sometimes easier for him to turn a blind eye than to engage her in battle.

My grandmother also frequently dabbled in falsely accusing male family members of inappropriate sexual advances and nonchalantly telling the world that those closest to her were being physically abusive and mistreating her. She would hug you and tell you how happy she was to see you one moment, then rip you a gaping new one when you were safely out of earshot. I guess you could say she wasn’t exactly the kindly, sweet Grandma who bakes you cookies and cuddles by the fire.

When her ninetieth birthday came and went, we all reached the same conclusion – she was continuing to live for spite only. She had already outlived her husband and two of her four children, so we figured she was going for broke this time. No one in the family wanted the responsibility of caring for her, and so she was placed in a nursing home several hours away. On the occasional visit from her daughter, it was confirmed that even in her declining state of health, she was still spewing hatred, although her new victims were the nurses and assistants charged with her care. She hadn’t lost her touch.

She died on April Fool’s Day in 2002 at the age of ninety-six. There was no family visitation, no funeral, not even a memorial service. My aunt, the oldest of her children, instructed the mortician not to bother with dressing my grandmother in her Sunday finest for the traditional viewing by her loved ones. There would be none of that. Instead, they were told to simply wrap her in sheets and put her in the coffin. And so they did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but that scene evokes a humorous image in my mind - my grandmother, The Mummy.

Her two living children accompanied the hearse to the gravesite, and she was unceremoniously interred. Even though I was two hundred miles away, I am certain that, at the moment the coffin was lowered into the ground, I heard a resounding sigh of relief.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Talkin' About My Generation...

When did we cross the line as adults and become a youth obsessed, backward baseball hat wearing, slang talking, video game playing population of slackers? I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

A few days ago I was looking through some of my mom’s old black and white pictures. At first glance, it seemed that my family was at the top of the 1950's social scene, as each photo depicted what looked like a fabulous soiree, with dapper guys and gals all smiling for the camera. All of the pictures were the same in that no matter the location, the women were always in dresses (even hats and gloves sometimes) and the men were never without a tie. I even found a picture of my mom playing in the snow with my two oldest brothers circa 1954, and she was wearing a dress, with galoshes of course, but still – a dress. I have fond, although somewhat fuzzy memories of my grandfather mowing his lawn in dress pants and a button-up shirt. I’m sure they didn’t give it a second thought at the time, because that is how grown-ups were supposed to dress. It was common knowledge that only farm kids and Rebels Without A Cause wore denim pants and plain tee shirts in public. For me, there seemed to be a palpable sense of decorum in every one of those pictures. It was as if there was a sour, old school marm standing just outside the camera shot with a ruler poised to smack the hand of anyone who dared to engage in any sort of levity.

But gone is the time of gentlemen in fedoras and women with their lace hankies. Nowadays, the line between grown-ups and kids has been smeared to the point of almost being invisible. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, although I will confess to being guilty as charged when it comes to dressing twenty years too young for my age sometimes. A glance at my fashion statement today confirms it – skinny jeans, fitted tunic top, and ballet flats. Walk the halls of any high school, and I’m sure you’ll find a sixteen year old sporting the same look. I guess I should be ashamed of myself, but Miley Cyrus says it’s cool, and she knows best.

Our media-driven society deems getting older as unacceptable, and we follow along like little lost lambs devouring every morsel of gossip and footage on those fashion forward celebrity youngsters. How dare you let a wrinkle show through? Botox, chemical peels and plastic surgery are an essential part of aging because you should look like your child’s sibling, not their parent. Oh, and most certainly be sure to cover that gray hair, lest you be mistaken for the Jonas Brothers’ Grandpa.

Another side effect of our loosening of the Grown-Up Dress Code, is that it seems to have opened the flood gates on our dirty laundry as well. People are fighting for the chance to be on reality shows where they will swap wives, reveal their alcohol and drug abuse, or claw their way into the bed of a has-been rock star. And millions of us tune in each week to revel in just how nasty, vile and over the top crude our fellow Americans have become. Fifty years ago, even the President could have an affair, and it would be kept secret. Now, if you are a celebrity without a sex tape, you obviously haven’t arrived.

It is abundantly clear that our society will never return to the days of starched white shirts, petticoats and poodle skirts – a time when there was a clear line between adults and children. “Grown-up” is a relative term now that applies mostly to chronological age as opposed to mentality. I’m blaming it on the hippies. All of those psychedelic drugs, poor fashion choices and rebellion against authority set a precedent that can never be undone. We all just want to be young and hip forever, man. Don’t you know that forty is the new twenty?

That’s enough for now. I’ve got to grab myself a Red Bull, because “Cougartown” is about to start.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dem Bones

I’m thinking about skeletons. Everywhere I go this time of year, I’m accosted by the images of skeletons. I see them on front doors, coffee mugs, and tee shirts. I see them dancing on my television screen inviting me to shop for furniture with prices that are “spooktacular”. And I have even spied that creepy figure in my neighbor’s front yard, just patiently waiting for Halloween night to scare a trick-or-treater with its battery-operated moaning. But that isn’t the kind of skeleton I have on my mind. I’m interested in the skeleton you are keeping at your house. You know, the one you have hidden in the back of your closet, banished from ever seeing the light of day.

We are all harboring a dirty, little secret, although granted, there are varying degrees of naughtiness. Underneath the façade of the beautiful house, beautiful family, perfect job and perfect life, you will always find some little detail, an unattractive piece of your history that was shoved to the back of the closet and then covered hastily with battered, old galoshes and your high school yearbooks. No one will ever think to look there, so close the door quickly before it gets out.

Maybe it’s just the jaded cynic in me that can’t comprehend a life where everything goes exactly as planned. The Homecoming Queen marries the Football Star, and they produce a gorgeous son and daughter who excel both at academics and sports. They have an impressive home and are surrounded by a bevy of well-connected friends who are more than happy to accompany them to wine tastings and trips to their stellar beach home. No life can be that perfect. I am imagining (secretly hoping, really) that the Football Star is suffering from erectile dysfunction, which causes the Homecoming Queen to engage in a sordid, lusty affair with the nineteen-year-old neighbor two houses down. In my sick, twisted world, the gorgeous son would be a pothead who frequently skips class, and the pretty daughter would be hiding the fact that she’s a lesbian and is sleeping with her softball coach. Now that’s more like it.

I will be the first to admit that I have an entire posse of old bones rattling in my closet. At first, I stood with my back against the door, digging in my heels with all my might to keep those skeletons at bay, my reputation at stake, no less. Now, I just sit back with a glass of wine, reacquaint myself with the ghosts of my past, and let them know they are free to go if they so choose. Some of those skeletons have retreated to the safety of the closet floor for now, while others have run amok, doing their best to bring me shame, but without success. These crafty skeletons couldn’t have possibly known that by virtue of being released, simply put out there for the world to see, they were no longer a threat to me. They lost their power, and I am free.

Your skeletons will escape sooner or later. Sometimes, you mistakenly leave the door ajar, giving them an open invitation to walk out under your nose, and sometimes, they pry their boney fingers into the lock and slip away on their own. But know for sure that if you aren’t in charge of their exodus, you will certainly one day feel a cold tap on your shoulder only to turn around and look into the empty, black eyes of a secret you thought was long ago dead and buried.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Run, Forrest, Run!

I run. It is not because I want to. It is not because I like it. I run not because I was born an athlete with races to win and personal records to set. I run because I splashed down squarely into a gene pool worthy of a carnival side show freak. Simply breathing in the heavenly fumes emanating from the Cinnabon store at the mall will add three inches to my waist. I get no “runner’s high” from enduring eight miles of hills and over-protective dogs with a vendetta against all moving objects. No, I run for the sake of my butt. And by that, I mean the size of my butt…and by that, I mean that if I don’t run, my butt will be the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

The mandatory nature of my running encourages me hate other people. You are quite possibly among the lucky members of my I Hate Skinny People club. I say “lucky” because my hate is truly borne from envy. If you are one of those people who have maintained an acceptable weight while adhering to a steady diet of cheeseburgers, french fries and cold beer, then yes, I hate you. Welcome to the club, and help yourself to the sausage balls and cheesecake.

I don’t even experience remorse from harboring these ill feelings. I hate you because while I’m eating a plain turkey sandwich or another piece of grilled chicken, I am forced to watch you eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a meat lover’s pizza. You plop your satisfied, skinny rear end on the sofa with your pork rinds or lounge by the pool drinking a Mountain Dew as I labor through a sweaty, difficult run to keep myself from having to shop in the husky girls section. You complain about how tired you are and I think, “Oh yeah, playing on Facebook or watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is tough. You should take a break.”

The odds are stacked against me. You only need to look through my family photo album to confirm this truth. I hail from a long line of hearty eaters and plus-sized Southern cooks. But the chunk stops here, folks. Gone are the Sunday dinners of fried chicken, fried okra and home made biscuits with butter. I no longer partake in decadent fudge, gooey macaroni and cheese, or country-style steak. If I plan to keep my jean size in the single digits, then seedless grapes and a breath of fresh air will have to do.

Whenever I start missing onion rings or hot fudge sundaes, I just keep telling myself that there is no food that tastes as good as being thin feels. And do you know what Myself has the nerve to scream back at me? “You liar!” I just nod my head in agreement as I solemnly lace up my sneakers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

“What’s the scariest thing you have ever done on purpose," a friend asked me recently. It made me laugh at first, because when you are scared of everything like I am, getting out of bed each morning can be frightening. Trying to pick one singular terror of mine is like trying to decide which of your children you love the most. All of my fears have their own special, terrifying place in my life, and they have been carefully crafted by my sick brain over the course of forty years. I know them all like the back of my hand, and it’s hard for me to say that one is worse than another. But even with so many choices, the answer came to me quickly. The scariest thing I have ever done on purpose is writing this blog.

When the invitation to write for this blog came in February 2009, I felt special to be included, but at the same time, I knew that I would be the one person in the group with nothing to say. I don’t write. Hell, I don’t even speak most of the time. The others in the group have writing or English degrees, and I was intimidated. Why would anyone want to know about my boring life anyway? I assumed I would sit back and enjoy the prose of my more talented and creative high school classmates, and make excuses for not contributing pieces of my own. Sure, I might occasionally insert a witty (in my own mind) remark here and there, but I just didn’t see myself putting words together that were coherent and, most of all, interesting to read. Apparently, I was wrong.  I was the one who took the blog as her own.

In my real life, I don’t want you or anyone else to know me. I am invisible, and I like it that way. I keep my emotions, my experiences and my memories in a little box safely locked away from public viewing. You don’t need to know that I’m sad or frustrated or excited. You just need to see the calm, cool and collected Me, and accept it as the truth. I am a pillar of strength, or at least that is what I want you to think. What I know now is that my little box had reached its maximum capacity and was bulging at the seams. It couldn’t take one more deposit without exploding. My friend had no idea that, by offering me this blank canvas, the box would burst open and a torrent of words and feelings would pour out uncontained for the world to see. It was more like a pyroclastic flow – caustic, burning, raw sentiment rushing down from the volcano without regard to any object in its path.

There has never been a time in my life when I have felt so vulnerable and so naked, but at the same time, so alive. Now that my secrets are leaking out, I can slouch in my chair a little and softly exhale. I don’t have to be prim and proper with my back straight and my chin forward any more. I told the world that my family isn’t the Cleavers, that my life hasn’t been a bed of roses, that I’m frequently sad and uncertain about my life, and you know what? The Earth kept spinning, and my friends didn’t leave me. Imagine that.

So yes, the scariest thing I have ever done on purpose is putting the real Me on display for your viewing pleasure each week. I hope you are enjoying the show.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Same As It Ever Was

I stepped out into the rain and took a deep breath. As I gripped the handle of my shopping cart with one hand, I pulled down the bill of my baseball cap with the other and made a mad sprint for my car. This was the not-so-storybook ending to a craptacular day – standing in the pouring rain in the Wal-Mart parking lot, loading soggy bags into the back of my dirty car on a Friday night. At that very moment, as I watched the distant flash of lightening approaching, thunder rumbling in some town not far from mine, these words consumed my brain with a vengeance…

“And you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right? ...Am I wrong?
And you may tell yourself
My God!...what have I done?”

After the cart was safely returned, I quickly retreated to my car. I was feeling sorry for myself because of my lack of social butterfly-ness. My dance card was empty tonight, and I saw a Disney/Pixar film in my future. I turned on some mood music and sat there for a few moments. My beloved Neko was so kind as to serenade me this rainy night. I pulled away with the sound of a barn full of pianos weaving a tapestry of melancholy in my car. “Don't forget me. Don't forget me. Make it easy, only just for a little while. You know I think about you. Let me know you think about me too.” And I drive.

It’s a dark road, and my night vision leaves much to be desired as I have entered my forties. I move slowly while the pounding rain envelopes my car…and me. Slap, slap, slap, slap - the wipers act as a metronome somehow keeping time with the music. The road is red with the glow of the tail lights in front of me, and green with the glow of go lights from above me. And Patrick Swayze is a romantic movie icon with a mane of hair that any woman would covet. Whoa, how did that creep in here? Sorry, my mind wanders in the dark.

I pull slowly into my garage. It’s okay, now. The drama of the day is soon to be washed away. A cocktail is all but constructed at this point. Pajamas will be donned, and my cares will be temporarily unplugged.

And so it goes - my Friday night ritual. Never underestimate the power of computer animated feature length films, popcorn, and the deep, red wine that swims in my glass.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

My Baloney Has A First Name...

The refrigerator, desperate to be part of my inner circle once more, beckoned me with his cold, metal finger and a promise to once and for all purge the forbidden goodies cooling behind his doors. He wanted me to take him back, and seemed to be keenly aware that there were deals to be struck and compromises to be made. I was perplexed by this very complicated behavior from a major appliance.

He sat alone in the house all day remembering my loving touch and the joy in my eyes when the tiny light bulb inside of him revealed the last slice of cheesecake that was to be all mine. He reminisced about the days when I arrived home, arms laden with heavy bags of sinful treats and luscious, fatty meats to be fried, breaded or otherwise covered in naughty, extravagant sauces. He longs to know again the weight of thick, juicy steaks on his bottom shelf, just waiting to be grilled and devoured as if the humans were hungry lions. Oh, and the memory of that pungent smell from leftover late-night Chinese take-out was more than he could bear to recall.

But now I dare that Maytag bully to tempt me. Too many years have gone by now, and the pounds that were lost are never meant to be recovered. I swear on the soles of my Nike running shoes that all the miles passing under my tired legs will not be in vain. I shall never again fall victim to the heavenly fudge or spicy sausage balls he once kept in his chilly darkness. How dare he insinuate that low-fat yogurt and sliced turkey breast do not satisfy me? Does he truly believe that my skim milk and Crystal Light pale in comparison to his decadent eggnog and bubbly Mountain Dew? I am insulted by his food snobbery.

Let this serve as a warning. Do not push me, you behemoth of the kitchen, lest you be banished to the garage, doomed to be forever filled with bottled water, popsicles, and grape flavored Juicy Juice boxes.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Bad Touch

I hate politics. I keep myself removed from all things C-span if possible. I simply do not care. I do, however, when I feel so moved, quietly support a candidate and cast my vote if I see fit. Usually, I just bow out of it. I am fine with letting other people decide the fate of the free world. I am the Queen of my own precious universe, and I have better things to do like making sure homework is completed, lunches are packed, bills are paid and plants are watered. You know, the truly important matters of the day. You go on and debate the war in Afghanistan, the health care crisis, and our greedy banking system like you have some control over it, and I’ll be on the back porch with a glass of wine. Let me know how all of that turns out. However, lately there is one issue that is causing me to actually read something in the paper besides the obituaries: Mark and Jenny Sanford.

I must state for the record that I have never been a fan of Mr. Sanford. I thought he was a kook at the get-go, and I stand by that assessment. I’m not here to talk about his political career or lack thereof. Regardless of your political leaning, we all agree he screwed up by lying in front of God and everyone about his travels and indiscretions. I’m here talking about this fool because I have never seen a forty-something man so giddy over a woman before. If there wasn’t a well placed, jilted wife relaxing in luxury on the deck of a million dollar beach house, I might even giggle about his whole sordid mess.

We have all become accustomed to the protocol for cheating politicians. It doesn’t matter if you are the President of the United States dropping your britches in the Oval Office for an average looking intern, or the governor of New Jersey dropping your britches for a same-sex member of your security detail. It goes the same route each time. First, they vehemently deny even knowing the person. Second, they stand at a podium and confess the sin, begging for mercy, saying it was a moment of weakness, and praying that a big celebrity dies soon or a plane crashes to get their name out of the headlines. Meanwhile, the wife stands beside him, staring at her feet, grinding her teeth and cursing him like the sailor she wishes she could hook up with in retaliation for his dalliances.

The Sanford’s were different though. This time, the wife said, “You’re on your own” and let him stand at the podium solo. Second, he didn’t say it was just a fling, a moment of weakness. He said she was his Soul Mate, “This was a whole lot more than a simple affair. This was a love story - a forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.” He just can’t seem to quit talking about her. He has come down with an acute case of Mention-itis. This syndrome is most often caused by puppy love, and he’s got it bad. He said he’s going to try to fall back in love with his wife. Good luck with that one, Mr. Governor. Doesn’t he know you aren’t supposed to say that out loud, much less to the media?

It took him more than forty years, but he finally found the love of his life. At this point, his best bet would be to remove himself from politics, concentrate on real estate or some other such rich man hobby, and spend the rest of his days loving his Argentine sweetheart. Maybe he will realize that life is too short to be in a marriage where he must learn to love his wife again. Odds are, that ship has sailed. And the sour grapes between them won’t exactly make for a loving atmosphere for their sons.

If I could talk to Jenny Sanford, I would tell her to move on, cut her losses. This wasn’t the man of your dreams, and you know it. It was a business partnership at best, and the deal went bad. Stop wasting your energy on someone who doesn’t love you. Dare to come down from your tower, and I’ll bet you will find that the love of your life is out there somewhere, too. You settled the first time. Try to hold out for true love on the next go-round.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Story About Chocolate and Vanilla

It was no secret growing up that my father was a racist. He did not hide his despicable light under a bushel, my friend. Oh, no. He was a dyed in the wool, almost-card-carrying bigot. I overheard him make the comment once that he thought the KKK was a respectable organization. He even went so far as to boycott “The Jefferson’s” because there was no way he was going to watch George and Weezy live the good life in their “deee-luxe apartment in the sky” while he labored away in a crappy mill town carrying a big, fat grudge on his shoulders. He preached that “those kind of people” were the root cause of everything wrong about our country. He never did figure out that there is no way to find joy in your life when you harbor such hatred and resentment for an entire group of our fellow human beings.

At a very early age, I chose not to subscribe to his philosophy of bigotry. My best friend in elementary school was a beautiful African-American girl named Lisa. This was a secret that I knew better than to share with my father. At eight years old, I couldn’t fathom what it was about Lisa that my father hated. He had never even met her. If he had, he would have seen that she had beautiful skin, impeccably styled hair, clothes that were nicer than mine, and she was one of the smartest kids in the class. What my third grade mind couldn’t comprehend was that by virtue of simply being born with brown skin, my father concluded that Lisa was a second-class citizen, not even worthy of being in the same school as his child.

In junior high, I faced the same challenges, although by now, I understood how simple-minded and backward my father’s beliefs were as we neared the end of the twentieth century. One of my closest friends back then was a smart, good-looking boy who had the biggest heart of any one I knew. His father was educated and successful, and his mom was beautiful, articulate and caring. I loved this boy like a brother, and he was an integral part of our group of friends. His one flaw, according to my father, was the color of his skin.

A defining moment in my life came during a seemingly innocuous outing at his house during a day off from school. Our group had gathered to hang out, eat junk food, and play Dungeons and Dragons. (Don’t hate. It was 1982.) When the time came for my mom to pick me up, my friend, the gentleman that he was, stepped out the door with me to see me to the car. Only, it wasn’t my mom. It was my dad in the car, and he had no idea that my friend wasn’t white. Although he said nothing in the driveway, I was berated the entire way home for associating with “those people”. I was furious right back at him. How dare he judge this beautiful, intelligent person solely based on the color of his skin? I have yet to get over that conversation.

My children will not know this hatred from me. I have within me a gigantic sense of fairness that I can only guess was conceived through years of witnessing my own father’s spittle-flecked, misdirected anger. When my daughter was born, my son, then four and a half, was surprised that she arrived in white skin. He thought it was a crapshoot as to what color your skin happened to be when you are born. He also wants to know why it was such a big deal that our President is an African-American. His response? “Well, why not?” EXACTLY! Why not? That’s my boy. He gets it at nine years of age.

I have no political agenda. I simply have a passionate belief that we are all on this planet together, not to fight but to thrive and revel in our differences, to learn from one another. We are all the same and beautifully different at the same time. We look different. We sound different. We worship and celebrate with our own unique traditions, but pain and happiness are universal. Don’t we all have the same goal - to live a happy, healthy life and raise our families in peace? Please tell me how the color of my skin factors in to that equation.

I know that my one, small voice won’t change the world. My only hope is that by stopping generations of hatred in one family, I have somehow made a difference.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon

Do you believe in fate and karma? The older I get, the more I’m convinced that fate has its hand on the paths of our lives. My mom used to always say, “When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. Nothing you do can change it.” I’m beginning to believe it. I’m beginning to believe that even though we may be given choices, there seems to be some grand outline in place, and we are just following along in a cosmic PowerPoint presentation, filling in the bullets points under each header, with the ending already penned for us. We just think we're driving the boat.

I am neither a very religious nor spiritual person. Although I like to play at it during my yoga, my mind is usually wandering off to think about what my butt looks like in my yoga pants or that funny clip I saw on youtube last night. Having said that, I can’t help but believe that karma is behind my four-year-old daughter’s interest in a belly tattoo or the fact that I thought my prayers were answered with the invention of fat free potato chips, only to find that Olestra makes me deathly ill. (That could just be irony, though.) But karma isn’t really about punishment as much as it is simply about cause and effect, which means I’m also hopeful that some of my good deeds might bring a peace of sorts for me somewhere down the line.

I know without a shadow of doubt that fate has brought you into my life. Some of you, I understand why you crossed my path. Others, I’m left to ponder your purpose. Is it to impart knowledge that is vital to my well-being? Or to make me feel better about the size of my thighs? Or to serve as a warning against putting inappropriate comments and photos on social networking sites? (I seem to have an abundance of that last variety in my life these days.) Maybe you are here because I have something meaningful (or not) to add to your life. It could be that bearing witness through my stories to some of the hard times I have endured will make you better appreciate the hand you have been dealt. Or maybe you’ll just be reminded of the certain pain and suffering in store for you if you chop off all of your hair in a moment of temporary insanity as I did. I would feel validated either way.

It is clear to me that not everyone was meant to be in your life forever. Some will inevitably move on for better or for worse. For me, there is only one person outside of family that I have known since birth who is still an active part my life. I have no doubt why he was brought to me. His purpose in my life is to randomly pop in unannounced and make me laugh at things I should be ashamed of, and for that, I am grateful.

The control freak in me wants to believe that I am the overseer of my destiny. Yes, I’m peddling this bike, but fate keeps throwing in speed bumps and detour signs that are forcing me off the road to places I would never knowingly add to my travel itinerary, places that scare the hell out of me. I have found that using fate as my mystic GPS means handing over a little of my power and trusting my instincts more than ever. I’ll go where the stars direct, and, if you have the guts, you are welcome to tag along. Although you may want to take my hand. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Oh, Fall! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

Fall is on his way. I heard his crunchy footsteps off in the distance as I opened the door this morning. He scurried away from my sight. I smelled him, too. My son said, "It smells like cold." Yes, the delicious smell of cold on a September morning. That is Fall, the one I love.

I am aware that Fall is a player. He knows the depth and breadth of my desire for him, and yet he still plays games with me. He sneaks up behind me to put his cool hands over my eyes and whispers, "Guess who?" But as soon as I turn around, he has dashed away again leaving me to suffer through another sweltering day. Fall likes to tease me, and I let him. We'll play hide and seek for another month or so, and then he'll decide it's time to settle down with me again. I always welcome him back with open arms. No questions asked.

Most people see autumn as a time of winding down. Not me. I see it as a time of renewal. When Fall wraps his arms around me, it puts a skip in my step. When Fall ruffles my hair with his cool, refreshing breath, I feel alive again. I cherish the time that Fall and I spend together walking at sunset through the fallen leaves, carving pumpkins, and sharing a slice of my birthday cake (if I were to ever eat a piece of cake). Fall knows how to treat me like a queen when he comes around. He has me wrapped around his finger.

Oh, Fall, it has been so many months that you have been away from me. I have longed for you each day. Now that I have unpacked my sweaters, my boots and the rake, all that is missing is you.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from New Kenny

I learned a lesson a couple of days ago that made me stop and think about how jaded my perception of the human race is now that I’m into my forties. I have always been one to secretly snicker at those folks that proclaim every day to be “the best day ever”. You know those people. They always have a smile on their face, and even though the cat ran away, the toilet overflowed, and they don’t have two nickels to rub together, doggone it, today’s going to be a great day. I hate to admit it, but the older I get, the more I just assume that most people are jerks or witless morons, and I’m happier keeping to myself. That seemed to be working fine for me until Friday morning.

For you to understand, you need to know a boy named Kenny. When we moved into our house four years ago, Kenny was fifteen years old. I knew right away that he was different from other teenagers when he came up to my doorstep pulling a little red wagon and selling popcorn for the Boy Scouts. You wouldn’t find Kenny cruising the mall looking to pick up chicks. Instead, you would find him cruising the neighborhood on his bicycle, chatting up the moms out in the yards watching their children. He seemed to delight in showing off his family’s Yorkies and talking about NASCAR to anyone who would lend him an ear. He was quick with a hearty wave and a big grin.

Although I never heard it officially, I just always assumed that Kenny was mentally handicapped on some level. Others confirmed that they assumed the same thing. Even still, his parents let him be a normal kid. So, one night in May of 2007, he was sleeping over at a friend’s house. For reasons we’ll never know, he decided he wanted to go home. He left his friend’s house late in the evening, and, unbeknownst to either set of parents, he set out on foot down a dark and busy highway. Unfortunately, Kenny never made it home. As he walked down the side of the road that evening, a drunk driver hit him, and fled the scene. Kenny died alone on the side of the road that night. (And yes, the drunk, under-aged moron that hit him was captured and prosecuted.)

Fast forward to this year. As I have been out on my runs, I’ve noticed another young man on his bike around the neighborhood. He is a good bit older than Kenny, but still quick with a friendly smile and wave. He dutifully wears his helmet, and is frequently seen chatting up the gray-haired homeowners as they check their mail or anyone out walking their dog who happens to cross his path. It made me feel good that we have a “New Kenny” as I have taken to calling him. Although I haven’t had the pleasure of engaging New Kenny in conversation, I figured that he, too, was mentally challenged in some way and probably lived with his parents or other relatives. Why did I assume this about him? Because what other adult male do you know who spends his free time joyriding on a bike and grinning and waving at everyone? The only time I see other men in our neighborhood outside is when they are mowing the lawn.

During my run Friday morning, I was coming around the corner to New Kenny’s house as he was coming out - in a suit - carrying a briefcase - and getting into a BMW. I was shocked. This was no mentally handicapped guy heading off to the workshop with the other adults from the group home. This was a successful businessman who has a bigger house and nicer car than I do. Oh yes, he was smiling as he motioned for me to go in front of him and then waved again as he pulled away from me, happily on his way to the office to make someone else’s day brighter, I’m sure.

It speaks volumes about me that I couldn’t imagine a grown man could be so happy as to smile at everyone who crosses his path, and enjoy a pleasure ride on his bicycle any chance he gets. He’s not mentally handicapped. He’s happy! How can someone endure the same pressures as me – mortgage, kids, job, - and do it with a grin? I don’t have the answer. I do know this, though. I have a lot to learn from New Kenny.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Year of Living Dangerously

One year.

It’s hard for me to believe. It has been one year since my mom died, and somehow, I didn’t end up in the fetal position, locked in a closet, rocking back and forth. This has been a year of changes for me like no other in my life. I had a not so eloquent acquaintance from high school ask me how it feels to be an orphan. (And who said cheerleaders were airheads?) It made me think, though. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you still want to talk to your mom when you are happy, or sad, or just because it’s Tuesday and you stubbed your toe.

Events have unfolded during the last twelve months of my life that I would never have believed could happen, both good and bad. This includes, of course, the fact that I now routinely reach in, pull out my heart, and drop it on the table for strangers and friends alike to see via the world wide web. What I have come to understand is that maybe, for the first forty years, I was an observer, cruising on autopilot. With a jolt from some cosmic alarm clock, I finally woke up, and I have taken over the wheel. Yes, I’m steering, as scary as that may be. Right now, I’m more like the foreign taxi driver, swerving to miss bike couriers and pedestrians while occasionally getting lost and running red lights. It’s going to take a little longer for this old dog to master the new tricks. I’m still very much a work in progress. Stay tuned.

When my mom entered hospice, they were quick to load us down with literature on the dying process. I found it incredibly fascinating that there were so many ways to explain something that has been going on for years now. Don’t we all know how this works? If you have seen the movie “Beetlejuice”, you’ll remember that all of the dearly departed are given a manual, “The Handbook for the Recently Deceased”, to guide them through their next stage of being. Hospice did the same for us, only this was a manual for the living. It explained in detail the stages of dying, beginning at six months from death to the final moments of life. It told us what to expect at each stage with my mom, from her talking to dead relatives at three weeks out, to the raspy “death rattle” in her throat when the end was moments away. It was eerily accurate, and the disciplined organizer in me was thankful to have an outline to follow. Short of a PowerPoint presentation, they couldn’t have done any better.

On the back of one of the booklets was a passage that never left my mind. I have thought of it many times in the last year, and it sums up my feelings better than I can now.

Gone from My Sight - Henry Van Dyke

“I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side
spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and
starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty
and strength. I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where
the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: ‘There, she is gone!’

‘Gone where?’

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in
mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and
she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her
destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the
moment when someone at my side says: ‘There, she is gone!’
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout: ‘Here she comes!’

And that is dying.”

I certainly hope so…

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saved by the Bell!

School has been in session for all of four days now, and I am completely over the carpool line already. Each weekday, along with what seems like 700,000,000 other parents, I dutifully line up to retrieve the little darlings. It’s a scene that reminds me of the end of “Animal House” when the parade has been sabotaged, and people are running amok in the street. Kevin Bacon is standing in the middle of the chaos and screaming, “Remain calm! All is well!” In this case, it’s not Kevin Bacon. It’s the assistant principal shepherding confused five-year-olds to their cars and smiling apologetically at sweaty parents who have been trapped in their cars for half an hour in the hell that is South Carolina in August. We wait and wait and wait as we swoon from the dizzying exhaust fumes.

My son’s school is a public magnet school located in one of the worst neighborhoods in town. We moved him there because of the amazing curriculum being offered and the promise of (gasp!) teachers that actually care. When you have a school in a lower class attendance zone mixed with parents from across the district taking advantage of forward thinking studies, you are going to have quite a diverse group of families in the carpool line. I decided to make the best of it today and take note of some of the folks around me.

The first thing that caught my eye today was the action from the car in front of me. In the car was a very skinny woman with a blue bandana on her head. For some reason, she opened the door to her Chrysler every couple of minutes or so to spit on the pavement. My guess is that she was enjoying just a pinch between her cheek and gum. She got me the first few times (not literally). I would see movement and look up just in time to catch a glimpse of the spit hitting the ground. After being disgusted over and over, I finally learned to avert my eyes any time the door would swing open.

Beside me in a late-model Ford Mustang was a white-haired, grandmotherly woman sporting a hair net and an iPod. Her head was down the entire time, as she seemed to be feverishly writing something very important. My guess is that she was preparing a draft for her blog about the spiky-haired woman in the red Honda parked next to her who was also feverishly writing and craning her neck to get a good look at the crowd.

Next, I saw a young man who had parked his car and was walking toward the office. He caught my attention because I noticed that his belt was precariously positioned in the space where the bottom of his rear end meets the top of his legs. I stare at him, mystified by the science that allows his pants to stay in place even with his pronounced swagger. He heads back to his car with a very small girl by the hand, and I am praying for two things at this point – for a spontaneous wardrobe malfunction to occur and that the little girl is his sister and not his daughter.

Just a few cars ahead of me was a young dad in a black pick-up truck. He had both windows down and his country music cranked up to a level that was certainly less than appropriate for a school parking lot. Even though the music was loud, his singing was even louder. Actually, I have to admit that he sang fairly well. What impressed me most was his complete lack of inhibition. I wish I were that free. Maybe he was hoping a record producer was in the line behind him. Either that, or he was just really digging that song.

At the front of the line, you will always find the same kind of people – the kind that don’t have jobs. This group usually consists of soccer moms and grandparents. The soccer moms are most likely to be those in behemoth SUV’s with various types of stickers on the back of the vehicle that say, “I’d rather be at Edisto” or “OBX” (short for the Outer Banks). Sometimes they are proclaiming their support for their favorite college team or proudly informing all who have the luck to be in their wake that they are, in fact, a “USC Grad” or in the alumni association at Clemson. I’ve noticed one of the latest trends in car decorations is the decal that shows a family of stick people, one for every family member and usually even the pets. “We’re the Russell’s!! Aren’t we lucky to be so cute?”

The grandparents are also easy to distinguish. They are the smart folks who actually get out of their cars and walk up to the front of the school to sit on the bench in the shade and read the newspaper, while the rest of us either swelter in our cars, or burn 6 gallons of gas to keep the engine running and the air conditioner blowing.

I am sure that, with fall just around the corner, the carpool line will be less and less dreaded. I can sit in the car and read while the crisp autumn air swirls around me. It might even be nice to have a few quiet moments of “me” time. I can write or rest my head for a short nap. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll have that good ol’ boy three cars up to serenade me with his fabulous version of Alan Jackson’s greatest hits.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

This one time at band camp...

Reminiscing has been my favorite hobby lately. I find myself lost in thought, dreaming about my high school days and all the fun I had back then. I think it’s a common occurrence when you hit your forties. You realize the brevity of life, and it’s comforting to look back and know that you’ve lived your days to the fullest. One recent afternoon as I was strolling down memory lane, a terrifying thought screeched across my brain and stopped me dead in my tracks: what if my kids turn out like me?

Anyone who knew me intimately in my teen years knew that I was a bad, bad girl. On the outside, I was the preppy teen who made good grades and was a member of the marching band. I didn’t get in trouble at school because I made a point of behaving and living just below the radar. I wore Izod shirts, penny loafers and khaki skirts. Hell, I was even a Candy Striper at the hospital! It was hard not to notice the halo floating above my head, right? Not even close.

What the outside world didn’t get to see was that I was a drinking, smoking, punk-music-loving kind of badass. I spent my weekends sneaking out of my bedroom window to go party, or sneaking people into my bedroom window to party. I frequented my best friend’s college dorm room while I was a high school senior, where we spent our time smoking pot, playing quarters and just generally sinning and breaking the law. Ah yes, good times, they were. I don’t know how I made it out alive. It was just pure luck that I never ended up in jail, dead on the side of the road, or with a communicable disease.

I was a master at lying to my parents. They must have thought I held a Guinness World Record for having seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the midnight movie so many times. This was a lie that never seemed to wear out. It allowed me to spend the evening raising hell, and my parents wouldn’t expect me to be home until 3am. Yes, after six kids, they didn’t care how late I was out. Even still, I was a master liar who got away with murder, so to speak. Did my parents not wonder why I needed to get a hotel room on prom night? Maybe they were just too tired to care.

With this sort of history behind me, it makes me wonder how my kids will ever be able to get away with anything. Even though I am several years from having teens, I’m already the Drill Sergeant and Gate Keeper who grills them on a daily basis. “Did you brush your teeth like I asked? Come here, and let me smell your breath to be sure.” “Did you wash your hands? I’m going to go check the sink for bubbles, so I hope you’re telling me the truth.” This is either going to keep them on the straight and narrow, or they are going to raise hell tenfold over what I did. I haven’t decided yet.

It’s really pointless for me to worry about it now. I’m a strong believer in fate and karma, so I’m preparing myself for the challenge. My daughter already delights in tattoos, older men and hiking up her skirt, so I have my work cut out for me. Like mother like daughter, I guess. They just need to know that I do still recognize the smell of marijuana smoke, know all the best places to stash liquor and other contraband in the house, and oops, sorry honey, that window must have been painted shut.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gone Daddy Gone

I was so tired. Pulling out of the parking lot from work, all I could think about was how much I just wanted to go home, sit on the sofa and eat a cheeseburger. It was cold and damp. It was January. I really hate January. It’s my least favorite of the twelve months. But there would be no rest for the weary on this night. I had obligations. My mom was expecting me at the hospital. My father was there, and it looked like his days on this Earth were numbered.

He had only been sick since June. One day while watching television, he suddenly lost vision in his left eye. The diagnosis was melanoma – skin cancer that had spread beyond control. It was just that fast. It was in his bones, his lungs, his brain. He was only fifty-eight, but he didn’t even want to fight it. He gave up that very day and let the cancer take its deadly course unchallenged. And now he was in the hospital because his pain had become unmanageable. I know this may sound harsh and I hope that I will not be struck down for admitting it, but I hoped he wouldn’t linger. This was no life. Throw in the towel, man. Surrender. The Big C won this time. I just couldn’t watch it any more.

I was never close to my father. In fact, we spent most of my life as enemies. He was part German, part Irish with some Cherokee Indian thrown in for good measure. This isn’t exactly a great ethnic mix unless you like your men stoic, short-tempered and soaked in alcohol. I just mostly kept my distance and tried my best to be invisible. What I didn’t understand back then, was that our personalities were very much the same. We were both simmering just below the surface at all times. Unfortunately because of this, any time our paths crossed, there was sure to be a firestorm of Biblical proportions. We butted heads nearly every time we spoke to each other. The tension between us was almost palpable.

He decided to live out his last days at home. My mom was his primary caretaker, but I helped, along with my sister, aunts, and fiancé. He quickly became bed-ridden and many times as he lay sleeping, we would walk over and bend down to his nose to make sure he was still breathing. He coughed and hacked and wheezed and wasted away to a wisp of a man.

So here we were in mid-January wondering how long he was going to hold on to this world. As fate would have it, my sister went into labor and gave birth to my niece on Wednesday of that week, the day after my father was admitted. It was a strange dichotomy for our family – the miracle of birth on one floor and the certainty of death on another.

That cold Thursday afternoon as I was driving home from work, I decided to stop by the house to change my clothes and grab a bite to eat before going to the hospital. Who knew how long I might be there in an uncomfortable chair watching the clock and watching his breaths? I was stalling. It was the last place I wanted to be that night.

As I was on my way, my mom leaned down and whispered to my dad that she was heading to the maternity floor to visit my sister. Despite the awful event unfolding, she had a new granddaughter to spoil. Surprisingly, he was conscious and nodded, “Okay”.

My mom arrived back to his room just a few minutes ahead of me. The door was closed and I peeked in to see her standing there by the bed with my aunt. I knew. She didn’t have to say a word. I knew. The battle was over. The burden was lifted. We could exhale. While my mom was out, he decided it was as good a time as any to make his exit. Maybe he wanted to spare her the pain of watching him die. He was stubborn that way.

As I slowly walked into the room, my brain trying to process the scene, she looked at me and quietly said, “He’s gone.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Public Television Saved My Life

I am a very big fan of PBS. I’ll admit it. Actually, I think they take your Liberal Card away if you are a left-winger who doesn’t support your local PBS station. I routinely check the programming guide to see what our public television stations have to offer if I ever find myself with a few unscheduled, quiet moments. It’s a hidden treasure that unfortunately gets overlooked in this day of a thousand channels and skank-filled reality shows.

I fought my husband for years over cable. I believe that less is more when it comes to television, and the more channels you have, the more tempting it is to waste your life away in front of the screen. Until he was in school, my son only watched the children’s programs offered by PBS (if he watched at all), and that was fine with me. Elmo and Big Bird helped him with his letters and numbers while “Dragon Tales” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog” offered giggles and a life lesson every now and then. He even enjoyed “Anne of Green Gables”.

So, what’s not to love about PBS? I can’t imagine celebrating Independence Day without watching “A Capital Fourth”. And before we had seventeen food channels, Julia Child and Graham Kerr showed us with ease how they could whip up fabulous dishes while keeping us entertained at the same time. What about Ken Burns? I thoroughly enjoyed watching his interpretation of the Civil War and then arguing back at him that he didn’t have his facts straight. And how would I have gotten to know Carl Sagan without “Nova”? Oh, and don’t even get me started on “Austin City Limits”. I could fill a book with the names of all the great bands I’ve seen on that show.

Even though my children have access to hundreds of channels, we still watch “Arthur” in the morning while getting ready for school. They complain when the station has glitches (and this is frequently), but I tell them that PBS is poor compared to the Disney channel or Nickelodeon. I ask them to be patient because someone’s Uncle Bob is probably running the control board and more than likely, he just dozed off for a minute or two.

I appreciate the fact that I’m not bombarded with smart-mouthed “tweens” and toy advertisements on PBS like I am with the cable networks. I have to remind my kids that talking back to their parents like Hannah Montana does, won’t result in a chuckle from a Disney laugh track. It will result in them never watching that trash again. I don't have to worry about that happening with the children's programming on PBS.

Last week, I was having the day from hell. It was one hundred degrees in the shade, with arguing children, a husband working long hours, and school supplies to be purchased after a crappy day at work. I was dragging my kids from store to store, sweating down to my underwear, on a quest for the elusive “perfect pair of shoes”. We finally arrived back home close to 9pm and still the kids needed their baths. I passed them off to my husband and plopped down into my chair with a glass of wine. I was contemplating either running away to join the circus, or simply sucking down every ounce of alcohol in the house. Instead, I turned on PBS. And there he was - the late Stevie Ray Vaughn, one of my favorites, filmed live in concert at various locations around the world. I couldn’t believe my luck! I relaxed back and tapped my toes for the next two hours.

I realized at that point that I was probably going to make it. I got a commercial-free concert and my sanity back all at once. PBS came to my rescue again. So the next time you complain about funding public television, just look at it as your tax dollars saving one frazzled 40-year-old mom at a time. And this mom thanks you.