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.