There’s a winter storm in the forecast. Freezing rain, ice, and up to six inches of snow, in that order.
Right now, it is a balmy spring-like temperature outside, and the ground is a little muddy, nothing more. Keith is out there raking leaves in his shirt sleeves. (“Important to get the leaves off the ground before the snow comes,” he says, and I nod because it is important to respect the things your life partner finds important, even when it is about the yard, which as far as I am concerned is something you walk through on the way to other places.)
I love a good storm, but sometimes what I love even more is these odd, quiet moments before the storm. The sky is a little gray, the air is developing a bit of chill. But that’s all. It’s just another gray, wettish day in December. Nothing special. But you know something big is coming. You know that a day from now, all of that mud and those leaves will be covered in ice and snow, deep to your knees. Cars will be sliding into each other out on the roads, and a lot of the schools will be canceled. Walking down the driveway to pick up the mail — which will come; snow, sleet, darkness of night, etc. — will be an athletic exercise in balance and flexibility.
It’s coming, but it’s not here yet. So we wait, in breathless anticipation. Some people go grocery shopping, and some people put snow tires on their cars. Keith rakes leaves.
I just watch the sky through the window, and I wait.Share on Facebook
What if we threw a War on Christmas and nobody came?
Imagine a world in which holiday greetings — Christmas and otherwise — were offered and accepted in nothing more than a spirit of goodwill. In this world, you would not have to wonder if the “Merry Christmas” spoken to you by your Tim Hortons cashier had a little bit of an edge to it, maybe because she noticed the COEXIST bumper sticker on your car and wanted to make a point. You would not have to try to decide whether or not your holiday cards, which do feature a tree but don’t feature the word Christmas but do say “season” but don’t say “holiday,” are in keeping with where you fall on the War on Christmas spectrum, and perhaps more importantly, where everyone on your mailing list falls on that spectrum. And is it okay to use one of the Eid stamps you bought? I mean, it’ll get your letter there the same as any other stamp, but is it sending the wrong message?
In this world, when some blowhard pundit tried to whip everyone up into a frenzy of outrage about what word we do or do not choose to wish each other greetings with, everyone would chuckle and say, “Aren’t crazy people adorable sometimes?” and go on about their lives. We would not pause for a second before wishing someone a merry Christmas or a happy holiday season to make sure we were picking the correct term. We would just say what we felt. And if Target decides to have holiday trees instead of Christmas trees, that’s no skin off our backs, because we can still call them whatever we want, and we will.
Because it is, after all, a season of goodwill towards fellow man, not a season of driving a pickaxe of verbiage between you and anyone who doesn’t think exactly the same way you do.
In this imaginary world, I mean.Share on Facebook
Winter is a strange time of year for me. The light is failing, and I can feel myself winding down like a clockwork doll.
I’m not depressed. At least, I don’t think so, and after so many years I think this is the sort of thing I’d know. I am just low-energy. Running in standby mode. Waiting for the light to come back and with it my desire to experience the world outside my house.
The house is so quiet during the day. You get used to a certain amount of noise and chaos, with small children. Then suddenly they are all trooping off to the bus every day, and there are these hours in the middle when you are in a big, empty house all alone. You can hear the hum of the heat pump. You can hear the mail truck drive past outside. You can hear everything, but there is not much to hear.
I bounce around the inside of this house like a ping-pong ball for a while, straightening this and tidying that, putting a load of laundry in upstairs and then loading the dishwasher downstairs. And then I settle into my spot in front of the computer, with a cup of coffee usually, and I write or I game. Or I work, when there is work. (Lately there is work more often than not, which is good.)
In the summer, the doors of this house feel like gateways to the outdoors, an invitation to go and do things, see people, feel the sun on my face. But not in winter. In winter they aren’t gateways; they are barriers, and I savor the protection they give. The dark and cold can stay outdoors. I am in here, until the light comes back.Share on Facebook
Something that drives non-parents crazy, in my experience, is when they are told by parents that their child-rearing advice is neither wanted nor appropriate, because they are not parents and therefore they just do not get it.
I understand why this attitude is infuriating. It is beyond annoying to be told that you really have no right to have an opinion that you very legitimately hold. Perhaps you have a lot of experience with raising a sibling, or with babysitting. Perhaps you work at a nursery or a day care. And anyway, we were all children ourselves once, yes? Which means that we all have something to share on the subject of parenting, whether we are parents ourselves or not. (And oh yes, people do love to share on this topic.)
This is all true. And I have heard excellent parenting advice from non-parents, so telling them to shut the hell up about this topic of which they know nothing is a little bit of a dick move, in my opinion. Fellow parents, stop doing this.
That said, I will explain to you now where this attitude comes from.
Before you have children, you have ideas about how you will parent. Maybe you got these ideas from TV or the movies, or from watching people you know, or from your own upbringing. Maybe you read these ideas in books. Regardless, you have an image in your mind — perhaps not a very clear image, perhaps not well-defined, but some fuzzy shape of it, at least — of the sort of parent you will be, and the sort of ways you will raise your future children.
Think of these ideas as a stack of books, each one filled with pages about how to appropriately raise a child. You have the idea that if you just follow the instructions in these imaginary books, then you will succeed. You will raise a child well. Oh, you might make some small mistakes along the way, but generally, if you follow the guidelines, everything will turn out just fine.
You know what I’m talking about, because you’ve heard it from people in your life, or you harbor these notions yourself. “I won’t ever feed my child Lunchables.” “Parents who let their children watch more than an hour of television per day don’t care about their children’s mental development.” “Violent movies and TV shows are harmful to children and I would never let any child of mine watch one.” And so on, and so forth. There are a million of these, populating an imaginary shelf of imaginary books in your mind. In my mind, in everybody’s mind.
Before you become a parent, that is.
Then you have a child. An actual person, with an actual mind of his or her own. A living, breathing entity with a personality and all sorts of quirks and tics, all sorts of mental oddities. Just like you have, just like I have. Just like anybody has. You start trying to apply the guidelines from this magnificent shelf of books you have mentally prepared, and maybe some of them work. Some of them, in fact, are bound to work, because there are certain parenting philosophies and techniques, passed down through the millennia, that work for nearly every child, even the tricky ones. This is what saves us all from going insane.
But a lot of them won’t work. You don’t understand this at first, and you keep trying them anyway. I mean, you’ve had this book for years. You’ve given other people advice from this book, for god’s sake. Surely the problem is that you are just not applying the principle correctly. You keep trying. And the child continues, obstinately, not to respond to this technique that you just knew would work, that you in fact were 100% supremely confident would work.
So you have to throw that book away. And in peering at the books more closely, you see that some of them aren’t books at all. Some of them are just a bunch of rotten garbage that got mixed in with the books somehow. You’ve effectively been trying to parent your child with a moldering banana peel. You fling it away in disgust and realize that you are going to have to try to figure out something else, because clearly a moldering banana peel has nothing useful to offer either you or your child.
This is what parenting is like. It is a painfully slow trial-and-error process of discovering what things are actually good advice that will work for your child, and what is just a bunch of rotten trash that you need to dispose of before it poisons your family.
Most, if not all, parents have gone through this… crucible of garbage (to coin a phrase). We have used parenting techniques that worked for our parents, that worked for us, that worked for our friends, that even worked on our previous children, only to realize that in the end, we were only waving around a rotten, useless banana peel. And that we would have to discard this banana peel, no matter how attached we were to what we thought it had been, and we will have to start over, find something else. Find a way to parent this real, living human being who will not always respond to the things that worked for your parents, for you, for your friends, for your other children.
Non-parents have not been in this crucible, and so when one of them offers sound, firm advice that they just know will work — “trust me, all you have to do is this, and it will fix the problem instantly” — all we can do is shrug and smile. Because we know that there is a good chance that this advice will turn out to be the equivalent of a rotten banana, but this knowledge is earned painfully and slowly, and it is so hard to accept, so very hard. We know that we cannot convince this well-meaning advice-giver that there are no universal fixes in parenting. This is something you can only learn for yourself, at the point of a knife, over days and months and years.
So that is why sometimes those who are parents will roll their eyes at advice proffered by those who are not. Though we shouldn’t, because our non-parent friends often have excellent advice. Not everything is garbage. So, parents, listen to your friends without being dismissive, because being dismissive towards your friends is a dick move. And non-parents, when you offer advice, don’t offer it as though it is the One True Solution to any particular parenting problem, because it’s not, and is also a dick move.
Now you may all go forth, and sin no more.Share on Facebook
Keith and I went to the cinema tonight. (I like saying “cinema” because it sounds classy, as though there is a marquee out front with bijou lights and a red carpet filled with photographers who have those old-timey cameras with the giant flash bulbs.)
The movie was good. It was Loki, or “Thor 2,” as the cinema people insist on calling it. But instead of reviewing it (it was good; there’s your review) I am going to review the people who were attending the movie with me.
Keith: A+. Did not hog the drink, and chuckled appreciatively at the occasional sotto voce comment I made to him during the film.
Girl Sitting Behind And To The Right: D-. All that I know of her is that she eats popcorn. She loves her popcorn. Mm, mm, popcorn. You know what the only thing better than eating popcorn is? Rattling your bag of popcorn. It’s important to do this every few minutes or so to make sure that you still have some delicious popcorn left in your bag. It’s dark in the movie theater and therefore you can’t be expected to do visual reconnaissance on this.
Girl Sitting Directly Behind: B+. She made a valiant effort to shush the popcorn eater and her other chatty friend, mostly to no avail. She does not get an A because I think she had some involvement with the popcorn situation.
The Other Chatty Friend: F-. There is a right way and a wrong way to talk back to a movie screen. No, bear with me, there is. In The Avengers, when Hulk starts Hulking out the first time and climbing walls, bashing cars around, etc., some guy in the front of the theater I was in, yelled, “YEAH HULK!” and his friends all chimed in with “woo-hoos.” This is fine and appropriate. The movie is loud at that part, it’s an exciting moment, and you’re not missing any dialogue. Other Chatty Friend, however, had a habit of simply narrating what had just happened in the movie, about a nanosecond after it happened. “Damn, he’s gone,” she would say, after a character had been sucked through a wormhole. “Damn, that hurt,” she said, after Thor body-slammed someone into a mountainside. “Well, that’s the end,” she said, shortly after the credits started rolling.
Kid A Few Rows Back: A. Didn’t even know there was a kid in the theater until I saw him leaving with his parents at the end. Well done, kid.
Me: A+. Why? Because if you’re grading yourself you always give yourself an A+. Didn’t you learn anything in school?Share on Facebook
I never actually got around to watching season 7 of Doctor Who. Zeke didn’t either, because Netflix — which is how he watched all six previous seasons of Who — doesn’t have it yet. So he’s been occasionally pestering me about downloading the season 7 episodes.
I finally got around to it last week, but still haven’t managed to make time to watch them.
So today we went to the family Thanksgiving party, which was lovely, with lots of wine and food and socializing, and then we drove home and listened to the Pogues and Dar Williams in the car. When we got back, I originally planned to maybe fire up my computer game and spend some time subjugating the Franks to the iron boot of Britannia. But then Zeke asked if he could use my laptop to have his computer time, and I remembered that I had these episodes of Doctor Who to watch.
So I asked him if he wanted to watch some Doctor Who, which is kind of like saying, “Hey you nuns, want to see the Pope?”
I loaded it up on the big screen of our iMac, and Zeke pulled up a chair. Then after the opening credits, Keith wandered in from the kitchen, where he couldn’t help but see the beginning of the episode. He sat down and chuckled at a joke or two, and then he was hooked. And then Stazi heard something about dinosaurs and spaceships and dragged a chair in too.
So we all sat here together and watched. We don’t all enjoy the same things, and certainly not the same media, which is as it should be, I think. Everyone has their own interests they want to pursue, and I don’t need to read everything the kids read or watch everything they watch, and vice versa. But for a while tonight we all came together, and we made this tight little ball of family, and we shared an hour. Not just near each other, but with each other.
It is the sort of moment that you think of when you ask yourself what makes a good life.Share on Facebook
You ever hear the El Camino rule? The El Camino rule is that if you say the phrase “El Camino” over and over again enough times, eventually the word will lose all meaning.
(There is an official name for this phenomenon. It is called “semantic satiation,” which sounds like something you do to your boyfriend in his El Camino. I prefer the term “El Camino rule.”)
Anyway, the word “thankful” has reached El Camino levels for me right now, ever since Thanksgiving Day apparently turned into Thanksgiving Month. It’s great, and a positive thing, etc., but the word has pretty much lost all meaning for me at this point. I might as well talk about all the things I’m El Camino for.
Yeah, actually, what the hell? Here’s some stuff I’m totally El Camino for:
Bottomless hash browns at Beth’s Cafe on Aurora Ave N in Seattle.
That look a man gets in his eye. You know the one.
Marching band halftime performances.
The Civilization series of PC computer games.
The bathtub in the studio apartment I had my senior year of college, from which I could sit and watch passersby on the street, three stories below (but who, due to the angle, could not see me).
People who clean stuff up for other people.
This one day at Northwestern when a snowstorm blew in, and some trick of the light made the falling snow look like little glittering ice shards, like we were all walking through a glitter-filled snowglobe.
When I dropped my iPhone in the bathtub but it came out totally unharmed.
The Book Loft, in Columbus O.
The people who love me. This will sound banal and mundane – no, stop, don’t argue with me; I know that it will, because it always does when you hear it from someone else, “oh, my kids, my husband, my family” – but that’s OK, it doesn’t matter how it sounds, because they are the shining jewels in the nighttime sky that is my life. They give me direction when I am lost and they lift me when I am down. I would like to think that I am the sort of brash and independent person who does not need other people, but I am the farthest thing from that. I need them, but that’s OK. Because they are there for me.
I am totally El Camino for that.Share on Facebook
I was listening to the radio in the car today, on this twelfth anniversary of our generation’s day that lives in infamy — even if I were inclined to forget, the fact that I have elementary-aged children means that I cannot, because September 11 brings along with it patriotic poem assignments and red-white-and-blue shirt day — and just before the moment of silence, a guy on the radio said, “It feels like it was just yesterday.”
And I thought: It does?
To me, it feels like a lifetime ago. It is a lifetime ago. I woke up that morning pregnant with my first baby, and this morning I was in the car on the way to drop off a forgotten homework assignment at his middle school. Three children, half a continent, two presidencies, and most of my ill-spent adulthood lie between today’s date and that one.
The weirdest thing for me on September 11 — the original one, I mean; not the anniversary — was how fast people put American flags up on everything. I do mean everything, and this was in pinko lefty-leaning Seattle. Where did people even have those flags? They just…appeared, on houses and in yards and on people’s cars. When I noticed it, I didn’t even understand it at first. Why are people putting flags up because New York got attacked? I thought.
I mean, it seems obvious now. America was attacked, so in a symbol of American solidarity, you hang up a flag. Okay. But at the time I was genuinely mystified. I couldn’t connect the dots. We don’t even know who did this, or why. What’s with the flags?
I didn’t see the 9/11 attacks as an existential threat to our nation, I guess. But a lot of other people did. Maybe they were right, in retrospect. If 9/11 was a wound torn in our nation, then the PATRIOT Act and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and all the other abrogations of what we formerly thought of as American freedoms are the gangrene spreading from it.
It doesn’t feel like yesterday to me. It feels like 12 years of our nation collectively losing its way. On this day, I don’t hope for remembrance, because remembrance is unavoidable whether one hopes for it or not. I hope for healing, and I hope for peace.Share on Facebook
It is 1983. I am 6 years old, and my grandmother is holding my hand as we walk along the beach, somewhere along the Atlantic coast. She and my grandfather have woken me up at dawn so that we can get the best pick of the seashells that washed ashore during the night before. From the moment my eyes open that morning to the moment I am feeling the damp sand between my toes is no more than twenty minutes. I inform my grandma of my plans to bring all of my collected shells home to Ohio so that I can set up a shop to sell them to all my friends, and she says, “Oh, that sounds interesting!” and smiles at me in the indulgent way that grandmas do. Her hair is going gray but there are still traces of the jet-black that it was in her younger days, the way I see her in the old photographs sitting on top of her piano at home.
It is 1985. My mom leaves my stepdad, and we move in with my grandparents. This is like a miracle to me, because where could be better to live? Some of my uncles still live there too, and the ones who don’t are there all the time anyway. I am at the center of a whirl of familial activity, presided over by my grandmother, who raises children the way some people breathe. She wakes me up in the morning for school and makes me toast and an egg sunny-side-up. I learn that you are supposed to salt the egg a little bit and then mush your toast into the yolk. On cold mornings I stand over the radiator vent and let the hot air blast onto me. We didn’t have radiator vents in any of the other houses I’d lived in. It was one of the many ways in which Grandma’s house was clearly superior.
It is 1986 (and 1987, and 1988, and every summer for a long time), and we have moved back out, but I am spending the days of my summer vacation at my grandma’s house. She teaches me to make lunch, which generally consists of Campbell’s tomato soup (made with milk, never water), a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a stack of saltine crackers. If I am lucky, we also open a can of fruit cocktail and serve it in her fancy cut-glass dessert bowls, which in my opinion are so perfect for the serving of fruit cocktail that they were most likely made with that purpose in mind. I eat my lunch on a towel that she puts down in front of the TV so that we can see “The Price is Right” during lunch, and then afterward she watches her soap operas and puts her feet up in her recliner. She has earned it, because she has been up since 5 o’clock in the morning, making breakfast and cleaning her house and doing the other mysterious grown-up things that she does. 5 o’clock in the morning sounds exotic to me. I cannot imagine waking at that hour on purpose. I think that this must be something I will learn about when I grow up.
She assigns cleaning jobs to me and teaches me how to do them. I finish dusting and polishing the coffee table one day, and with a critical eye she stands so that she can see it in the light, and points out that I missed several spots, clear as day. So I re-do it, correctly this time, and every time afterward when I’d finished, I would stand in the light to check my work with a critical eye. It is my first introduction to the importance of proofreading.
On warm afternoons, I get to make us both a Nestea. We take them out to the porch swing out front. She talks to neighbors and to me, but mostly to the neighbors, because I am usually trying to follow a bee’s path through the air with my eyes, or watching my ice cubes melt in my drink so that I can see the exact moment when the ice cube turns from ice into water, or some cryptic kid thing like that.
I am happy, and I feel safe. It is a good time.
It is 1991. I join the local community choir that my mom and grandma are already a part of. One of the songs – a hymn that I know well, having sung it many times at Sunday Mass – has a flute part, and I am asked to play it. I do, and my grandma tells me later that every time she hears that hymn now, she thinks of me and how lovely and ethereal my flute sounded. I don’t think I sound particularly ethereal or even all that good. I am in the middle of the painful process of discovering that musical talent in small-town Ohio does not necessarily translate particularly well to musical talent elsewhere in the world (or even the state). But she thought I sounded beautiful and playing for her was one of the few times I was able to play without feeling self-conscious, without feeling like a fraud.
It is 1995. I graduate from high school and have to find a summer job to save up for college expenses that fall. I end up working at McDonald’s. It’s an unpleasant job full of unpleasant people. After work, I often drive to my grandma’s house to hang out, have some tea, watch TV, and just… chill out. She and my grandpa are always happy to see me. The house is a nexus of family, just as it always has been, and it is where I go to feel at peace and to stay connected with the people I love and who I know love me. I am a teenager and not prone to thinking about age or mortality, but on the rare occasion I give a thought to such a far-away topic, I think that my grandma is just the same as she always has been. Maybe more white in her hair these days. But otherwise no different from the woman who helped raise me as a small child. She is there, and has always been there, and will always be there. It is one of those fundamental truths that as a child you do not question.
It is 1999. She and my grandpa make the long drive to Chicago for my college graduation. She meets Keith for the first time and expresses approval. I notice that she still has a tissue tucked into her pocket “for emergencies” just as she always has. I feel I have only the vaguest passing resemblance to the person I was when I left for school four years earlier. The town I grew up in is a distant memory; it feels surreal every time I visit and realize that it is still there, just like always, even though I have gone through this massive transformative experience. Now I am about to leave for Seattle with my boyfriend, putting even more time and distance between me and the life I used to lead. It is exciting and terrifying, and I am feeling unsteady, questioning whether any of this was really a good idea. But my grandma is there, and she loves me and is proud of me. I can see it in her face, feel it in the way she hugs me. It reminds me that no matter where I go, my home and my family will always be just where I left them, any time I need them.
It is the last time I will see her before she gets sick, although I do not know this at the time.
It is 2000 and I fly home for Thanksgiving. I have heard that she is becoming more and more forgetful, although she seems more or less okay to me. Except that she keeps staring off into space vacantly, as though she has forgotten something and is trying to remember it. It is odd, and not like her.
It is Alzheimer’s.
I am writing this to remember my grandma, and the person she was, and Alzheimer’s is not the person she was. In some ways it took away that person, piece by piece over many years. But I am not going to write about the progression of her disease. It was slow, and terrible, and if you have been through it yourself, then you know. And if you have not, then that is a gift that you should be thankful for.
It is 2013 and I am standing at her bedside in a nursing home. I’d like to think she knows I’m there, though there is no real way to tell. She brought eight children into the world and raised them well, and she shared her love with all of them and that love has propagated like flowers in a well-fertilized garden. She was the bedrock in what was an otherwise turbulent childhood for me. She was safety, and she was warmth, and always, always, she was love.
Her time is ending now. She saw JFK assassinated (she told me once that she sat watching TV all that day, that everyone did, that “you wanted to do something but you just didn’t know what to do,” and I heard the words but didn’t really understand them until 9/11) and she saw the Beatles, who she liked, and the advent of MTV, which she didn’t (“all the singers are yelling. Why do they always have to just yell?”). And she saw us, growing up and going out into the world and building our own lives and families.
She had a life well-lived and I just hope I can say the same someday.
It is 2013, and I miss her.Share on Facebook
I have been in the sort of mood today that makes my children run away in the manner of small animals fleeing the advancing front of a wildfire. One of them timidly suggested, from the back seat on the way home from their science camp, that perhaps we could go to Tim Hortons.
“Because then you could get a coffee!” this small voice so helpfully said.
They know me well.
I did not get a coffee, because I already had a coffee. I, too, know myself well. Today when everyone had safely arrived home from wherever they’d had to go to today, I wordlessly gave Keith a certain look and then I retreated with my laptop to our bedroom. I propped up pillows behind my head, turned a floor fan directly on me to create a nice breeze, put on the little lamp that I like, and slouched down like a teenager with a trashy romance novel.
I have not emerged for hours. Nor will I be expected to. This is because my family both loves me and fears me.
It is not perhaps an ideal state of affairs, not perhaps a perfect one. But it is mine, and I will take it. Tomorrow the mood will pass and meanwhile no one will have been burned to a crisp by a woman who wields words like a flamethrower sometimes.Share on Facebook