Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mayan Apocalypse Bucket List

I really, really think we will be here on 12/21/12. I do. But I am not one to let the threat of a possible apocalypse go uncelebrated.

Maybe I just want an excuse to party like it's December 20th. Apocalypse Eve, if you will. But I've been thinking that if there is a chance those crazy Mayans were right, there are a few things I'd like to enjoy one last time. You know, just in case.

Of course, I have limited resources and energy to devote to this pre-apocalypse shindig. So think of this as a lazy, middle-class American working mom's apocalypse bucket list. Fun, but budget-minded, and using ingredients you probably already have in your pantry!

Here's my "enjoy life for one last day" plan for Apocalypse Eve:

1. Get up at 5am, go to work.*
* This is not really on any sane person's bucket list unless followed by the words, "and tell everyone to f--- off." But it's our last day before Christmas break and the only way I can skip is if the Mayans are a day off. I will say that I would actually want to see some of the people I work with one last time before we all go poof, though I'd rather spend the morning of my last day on earth with a soy hazelnut latte watching the sun rise from my front porch. And rejoice over the chipmunks tunneling under said porch, because surely if the world ends they're going with it.

2. Deny no chocolate that is offered. This is not the day to diet, people.

3. Hug my kid extra tight when she gets off the bus.

4. Work out.
(I debated over this one, and yeah, I would go for a run on my last night on earth. I kinda love exercising. I know, I can't believe it either.)

5. Have Chipotle for dinner. And what the hell--get the guac on it.

6. Have a Unibroue La Fin du Monde. Which translates to "the end of the world." Yay for ironic drink choices!

8. Listen to some of my favorite songs*.
*Including "MmmBop." Admit it, you would miss that song.

9. Go downstairs to find some of my favorite passages from some of my favorite books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Absalom, Absalom!, and Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. Give up because my home library is a mess and head back upstairs to watch "D--- in a Box" and an episode of Breaking Bad.

10. Fall asleep with the Christmas lights on--live dangerously!

Yeah, so planning for the end of the world looks an awful lot like a Friday night in my house. I am not sure whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Either I'm already living the dream, or the dream is as dead as the ancient Mayans.

Oh, well. Pass the Munchos, open another bottle of Belgian-style ale, and party like there's no tomorrow. But rinse the bottle and put it in the recycling bin afterwards. Just in case.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sorry, guys. I got nothin'.

Sometimes life renders me speechless.

I have some thoughts in the wake of Friday's tragedy, but I've taken the temperature of the room, and this is not really the time or place to spout off on gun control, or mental health, or parenting. Others are doing this far better than I can, and you know where to go if you want to lurk on some thoughtful internet arguing followed up with some anonymous internet hatred.

My thoughts are with the families who have Christmas presents under their trees that will go unopened, stuffed animals and toys in lovingly decorated bedrooms that will never again be cuddled and played with, and framed school pictures that will never be updated. I have spent a lot of time this weekend putting myself in those parents' shoes, and experiencing so much heartache just from the thought of "what if" that I have felt actual pain in my chest. So I can't even imagine what they are going through, and have been praying to a God I don't even understand today that this never happens to us and to my beautiful and beloved child.

So I guess what I'm saying is I'm fresh out of both humor and wisdom today, and if I don't have one or the other in my soul, I just don't have anything to write about.

I will leave you with this, though.

The teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary are heroes. I am moved by the stories of how they died, or risked their own lives, to try to save the children in their classrooms. But I am not surprised.

Earlier this year, we were asked to review our school's security sweep and lock down procedures with our classes. I huddled up my small group of technology and library students each block and showed them the room I deem to be the safest in my area of the building and explained where they should hide in that room and how I would lock them in in the event someone was in the school trying to do them harm.

"You'll be in here with us, right? If this is the safest place?"

I told them I would, but not before a scenario played out in my mind of how first I would have to lock and barricade all the entrances the best I could, and block windows, and make sure I was in an area where I could get reception on my phone so I could tell authorities where my students were hidden. I realized that in my own disaster scenario, I was putting myself out in the open after securing my students to make sure I was doing everything I could to keep them safe. I was putting their safety above my own, and not even giving it a second thought until that student asked where I would be.

This does not make me a hero. It makes me your average teacher. Because any one of us would tell you the same thing--the kids come first. We care about them. We see them as ours for the time every day they're with us. And when tragedy strikes, we would die for them without thinking about it. So this week when you are understandably jumpy about putting your precious cargo on that school bus, take some comfort knowing that the person you're leaving your child with would put herself in front of the bullets to keep that kid safe.

And that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Long December

I am not relaying the following story because I at all think I am a psychic or a mystic or have any real-life extrasensory perception that would allow me admission into Hogwarts or anything. I do intend this to teach a very important lesson, though, about holding close the ones you love.

It's no secret that I am not a big fan of Christmas. For the last several years, Christmas has become simply one long to-do list that leaves me feeling wiped out, overly commercialized, and definitively Scroogy come December 25. Christmas joy has been hard to come by.

Which makes last Christmas rather remarkable. I really enjoyed myself on Christmas morning when I had my sister, brother-in-law, nephew, and mother over for our annual brunch and gift-opening. We all seemed a little more jovial than usual, and no one was quick to pack up their toys and head home in a sugar coma. My mother went completely overboard on gifts, despite a years-old agreement that we were only going to buy gifts for the two grandchildren in the family and focus instead on food and merriment for the adult children.

"Mom, you shouldn't have," I said when my generous haul had been unwrapped. "We agreed we weren't going to buy for each other anymore and just make Christmas for Kyle and Ainsley instead."

"I wanted to." She smiled and had a glass of wine.

Something made me want to keep pouring for her, even after my sister and her family left. At that time, Mom's significant other had been assigned to in-home hospice care for his cancer and I knew she was already grieving for him. I offered to have Jason drive her home if she wanted to stay past dark.

"No, I better be getting home. I don't know why, but this was more fun this year. I don't want to go, but I know I have to."

As I reluctantly watched her leave, my heart felt heavy. Jason and Ainsley retired to the basement to play with new toys, and I sprawled on the couch and watched our fire. My mood suddenly went blue, and with no one around to catch me being sappy, I cried.

Something felt...over. I had the distinct sensation that Christmas would never be like that again. It was a feeling that I would not spend another Christmas with someone who had been in that room that morning.

When Jason and Ainsley came back upstairs, I shook the feeling off. I am a pessimist with recurring mild-to-moderate depression and annual bouts of seasonal affective disorder; feelings of impending doom in December aren't terribly unusual. I wrote off the sudden sadness I felt at my mother's departure to knowing that this was her last Christmas with her gentleman friend, a man who had given her three very happy years. I took comfort that Christmas wasn't over for us; I, too, had violated the "no gifts for adults" rule and purchased a tasting at a local winery for Mom, my sister, and me so we could have a holiday-themed girls-night-out the following Friday. I would be seeing her again soon, and surely I would feel better after that.

Thank God I arranged a second Christmas celebration for us. For you know what happened next.

My mom's best friend, who tagged along with us to that after-Christmas wine tasting and dinner afterwards, called and talked to me recently about last Christmas. I told her how, the week before Christmas, I became obsessed with the idea of getting us together through the holidays. A voice in my head would not shut up about the need to, instead of buying a tangible gift for my mother, take her out and enjoy her company. And let her bring a friend. Mom's friend, too, felt sad when she had to say goodbye to my mother after our evening out and wept on her way home. She even called Mom after she arrived home to tell her again how much fun she had. We all had such a good time with Joan last December, and several of us felt something with her we hadn't before. A sense that something was changing. That Christmas 2011 was special. That she was special, and maybe not long for this world.

Even if you don't believe in such things as psychic premonition, you have to admit that human intuition is powerful, and sometimes you know deep down inside your gut when you've just seen someone for the last time.

This December has been difficult. I put up our tree and our decorations knowing Mom wouldn't be coming over to see them. I wear the gifts she bought me last year remembering the joy it gave her to surprise me with them. I prepare for a Christmas party she will not be attending. It feels empty and hollow, but I try so very hard to see the beauty.

I talked to Jason about it one night. About how even if you think you know how next year will look, and who will be in your life and who won't, you don't really know.

"Well, that's the thing, isn't it?" he said. "That's why you should enjoy every Christmas. It could be your last."

Morbid, but wise.

So, dear readers, do me a favor. Take a moment. Look around you. Appreciate the lights, the food, the smells, the sounds, as if you might not see them again. Have another glass of wine. (Unless you're driving.) And when you are with your loved ones, hold them close. Cherish them. Listen to any voice that says this might be the last time you all get together; even if that voice is wrong, the worst that will happen is that your Uncle Eddie might not annoy you as badly.

And the best that will happen is that you will have a special holiday that you can look back on when your family isn't as whole and be glad that, amidst all the hustle and bustle and stress and familial conflict, you had that one really great Christmas together.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

If It's Wednesday, This Must Be The Dairy Queen

Our apartment was tiny, had brown shag carpet, and neighbors who smoked little fragrant cigarettes and partied until 4am on weeknights.

Our parents were 45 minutes away, which didn't seem a long drive until we craved our mothers' cooking or needed to do laundry for free. One close friend lived about 20 minutes away, all other friends more like an hour. Life followed a routine: teach, stay late at school planning lessons and grading papers, drive home, attempt something out of a beginner cookbook, watch The X-Files reruns, microwave a personal pan pizza because a beginner cookbook plus a beginner cook often equals failure, and then collapse into bed somehow both overwhelmed and bored.

We were lonely, we were frequently homesick, we had career dissatisfaction, we were poor. We were not yet parents but no longer kids and learning that being newly wed isn't all giggles and roses.

And yet, when Jason and I look back, we fondly remember the Falmouth year as one of the simplest and happiest times of our lives. This is in no small part because of the Dairy Queen.

When your life follows a monotonous and tiring routine, and when you live in a town with only one main intersection, you have to find something to break things up. Something to look forward to. For us, that something was a Wednesday night dining out on chicken strip baskets with Texas toast and gravy, followed by Oreo Blizzards.

Did we gain weight? Of course we did. And yet it was a date night worth every pound.

I'd long known the glories of the Falmouth Dairy Queen. Before we lived there, I knew Falmouth very well because that happened to house my father's favorite substance abuse treatment center in the tri-state area. I don't blame him for this preference; it was a quiet, sleepy little town where life moved at a slower, less-stressful pace. And on release days when my mother and I could come visit and spring him from the facility for a few hours, we could go get the best restaurant cheeseburgers any of us had ever had. I don't know what a "brazier" is, but that DQ had one, and it was magical.

When we spent our first year as marrieds in that same town, Falmouth was still recovering from a devastating flood. Few businesses had opened back up; there was a Lee's Famous Recipe chicken place inside of the (not "a", but "the") gas station, and we have a strict rule to not eat food prepared inside gas stations. There was also a McDonald's. But that was it. No pizza deliveries, no dingy Chinese restaurant with questionable meat sources, no diner, drive-in, or dive.

The Dairy Queen filled our culinary needs on those evenings we needed to escape our 4-room apartment with a kitchen so small my rear-end dislocated the table every time I opened the oven door. We started stopping by every Wednesday as a way to get over the hump and survive the rest of the week. If we made it through Wednesday, we only had to prepare our own  dinner one more night before we could hit the road to bum food from our parents or haunt the Applebee's in Lexington with our friends.

Even on Wednesday, the Dairy Queen was hopping. When you're the only game in town, you get a lot of game. We were the youngest adults in the joint, but that was fine. Our food was prepared by older ladies who had been there for decades, and our orders came out hot and greasy--the best way DQ food can possibly arrive at your table. TVs displayed the UK game, when it was on; Jeopardy when it wasn't. No one knew us, but that didn't stop the locals from being friendly and talkative just the same. It was a community that had recently been knocked on its ass, but was beginning to rebuild. They were fiercely proud of their Dairy Queen, run by the same man for many years, brought back to life quickly after the waters receded. It might technically have been a chain restaurant, but it felt like the corner drug stores and soda fountains of old--a place where the whole community could meet up, grab a treat, and talk about the weather and the grand state of UK basketball. (Did I mention this was 1998?)

Wednesday nights out died the next year when we found ourselves even poorer and relocated to Lexington where we both were taking time off teaching (for Jason, this was a permanent hiatus) to further our educations and pave new career paths. Besides, the Dairy Queen close to our apartment sucked, and proved to only be good for an occasional poorly-blended Blizzard. It's a tradition I miss to this day, when Wednesday nights have become so hectic that dinner is usually a rushed affair worked around piano lessons, homework, and errands. How nice would it be to have a weeknight family date to a place where, if everyone doesn't know your name, they at least care enough to fry your chicken fingers and fries when you order and not invest in holding trays and heat lamps?

I think I could even do without the Texas toast and gravy. Because I am much more health-conscious now. And because I would still want the Oreo Blizzard for dessert.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hey, Guess What? Everything's Fine, For Once.

My MRI results came back and, to paraphrase Tangina from Poltergeist...

This breast is clean.

Though when Tangina said, "This house is clean," she was totally wrong, and there was still that big, white skeleton-spider-ghost thing guarding the kids' bedroom door, and the pool was still technically full of bodies. So it really was not clean. That might not be the best reference. I hope her shaky criteria for "clean" never applies to any of my body parts.

So I'll start over:

No signs of cancer at this time. Whatever has been flashing since last January has stopped its light show. Nothing to see here--move along. These are not the boobs you're looking for.

Normal feels really, really great.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

They're Small, But I'd Really Like To Keep Them

Dear God/Earth Mother/Supreme Being/The Force:

Hi! Remember me? I haven't been to church for a while, and I wrote a blog post about a year ago talking about my long history of not being really sure what your true nature is, but you and I both know (because you know everything, after all) that I do believe someone/something listens and responds to prayers, and that sincere pleas to whatever the guiding force in the universe is do have the power to influence that force which surrounds and binds us. So, to that effect, I want to offer up a serious plea for the health and well-being of my right breast.

Tomorrow I have my third breast MRI this year because something pesky keeps lighting up in the right one, a small area whose normality or abnormality cannot be confirmed or denied by further ultrasound or mammography. There doesn't seem to be a lump there, but when I am inside that scary, noisy, claustrophobic machine and get injected with contrast, it makes something in my right boob light up like a Christmas tree.

And while that's awfully festive to look at, I'd be lying if I said it didn't cause me mild to moderate anxiety despite reassurances from various medical professionals that it's probably not malignant. Especially since these medical professionals keep wanting to look at my right breast every three months. My girls do not really stand on their own merits, so the fact that someone wants to keep seeing them without being legally bound to do so by the bonds of marriage is a bit...troubling.

So here's the deal, God--next week when the results come back, instead of the person on the other end of the phone telling me there's an area of enhancement, I'd like to hear that the scan was normal. Pretty, pretty please with pink bras on top.

My family and I have been through a lot in 2012. I mean, a lot. I had the strength once to handle a cancer diagnosis, and if push came to shove I think I have one more in me. If that's your will. Though let me just say I'd really rather not have to, but like the chick Bono sings about in that one song, you move in mysterious ways. But I don't have another cancer diagnosis in me at this time. If this is your plan for me, I'd really rather we schedule it for a future date when I'm not still so tired, heartsick, and full of raw grief. Maybe sometime in 2046? I don't have anything planned for that year yet.

I know you're getting a lot of pleas right now, what with Sandy and the holidays and a fiscal cliff and that whole Mayan calendar thing and all. And my little (very little) area of enhancement probably isn't that important to you. But it's really, really important to me. And to a family that has already weathered some pretty big storms themselves this year.

Thanks in advance for your consideration in this matter. And might I add that your sunrises this fall have been truly outstanding. You outdid yourself, and it did not go unnoticed.


That Girl In Kentucky

And then I have to add this. We were watching Monday's The Daily Show last night, and Jon Stewart made a plea to God for peace between Israel and Hamas, and he also made a Bono/"Mysterious Ways" reference. And since that show aired before I posted this, you're probably thinking I was influenced by Jon. While I am frequently under the influence of Jon Stewart, I had not seen that yet when I wrote this, but am thinking it's proof we just might be soul mates. Call me, Jon! Maybe?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

And For Dessert, Suzy Qs

I never, ever enjoyed school lunches. Occasionally I would get excited about the cafeteria's chicken noodle soup (before meal worms were spotted in a batch in middle school, and the noodle supplier changed, and my innocence was lost) or something called "Taco Boats" and, for a brief but glorious moment in high school, those little orange Mexican pizzas. But mostly my feelings for the school lunches my mother prefer I eat because she was not inclined to pack for me ranged from ambivalence to abhorrence.

Except for fifth grade, when for an extra quarter I could buy a Suzy Q every single day as a healthy side dish for my sloppy joes.

The news that the cafeteria would be selling these to anyone buying a hot lunch swept the school like a contagious rash. We all had the fever. I had an advantage, though--my doctor had recently told my mother I was still underweight from an illness years before and should be allowed to eat whatever I wanted, the higher the calorie count the better.

"Can I start buying a Suzy Q with my lunch? They cost an extra quarter."

"Here," my father said, rummaging through his loose change and handing me a stack of silver, "if they let you, go ahead and get two."

For the rest of the school year, I bought a school lunch every day, even when we were having things I absolutely hated. Even on "Chicken Two-Fer" day, where we were served little chicken sliders meant to resemble chicken White Castles. Two for/fer the price of one! One day, after biting down into one of these sandwiches onto something hard enough to make my jaw crack, I started calling them "Chicken Toothers." I know chicken don't have teeth, but I'm pretty sure one was in that sandwich just the same.

So addicted was I to my daily Suzy Q that nearly all memories from fifth grade are colored by my different experiences eating and enjoying my little chocolate-cake-and-chemically-preserved-whipped-cream treats. The afternoon I sat down at the table with aching legs and my first swallow of Suzy Q felt like someone had just used my throat to light a match--I was diagnosed with my first-ever case of strep throat that next morning. The time I had to take the Suzy Q apart and scoop out the whipped goodness inside and just eat that because my mouth was a disaster--that was the day after I tried to lick the frost off of the inside of our metal freezer, got my tongue stuck, and ripped off most of my taste buds. The time I giggled all through lunch and was nearly too excited to eat my dessert because our teacher had decided we needed to sit boy-girl for a while to curb high cafeteria noise levels, and he seated me next to my first crush--I was so giddy from love and sugar I could barely stand myself.

It was a golden time. Middle school came the next year, along with new school lunch guidelines, and my daily Suzy Qs were no more. Occasionally we got pudding pops, and on the very best days I was lucky enough to get a chocolate-vanilla-swirl one, but it was not quite the same.

The last time I tried a Suzy Q, long before Hostess's recent woes sent people rushing to snatch them up for the coming snack-cake apocalypse, they weren't quite the same, either. I wanted to taste nostalgia; instead I just tasted a bunch of artificial flavors and preservatives. Is there anything that can be re-tried as an adult that lives up to the love you had for it as a child? I don't think there is.

I was tempted on my weekend grocery trip to snag one of the last boxes of Suzy Qs off the shelves; it may have been my last chance to re-live 5th-grade school lunches and share them with my own 5th-grader.

But I chose not to. For some things are better (and healthier) to just live as memory.

Count Your Blessings Instead of Turkeys

It's here. First Thanksgiving without my mother. Because I know it will be terrible, awful, horrible, no-good, and very bad, and because I cannot duplicate her dressing, my sister and I have decided to go out to Thanksgiving dinner instead of cooking while grieving. We will be going to a semi-traditional buffet at a local Irish pub; if you have to mourn someone's absence at a major holiday, you might as well do it somewhere that has Guinness on tap.

Despite my prediction that even Guinness and pub-fries-instead-of-mashed-potatoes will not fix this upcoming fourth Thursday in November, I would be remiss not to stop and give thanks. It's been a bad year, but more than ever, I am aware that I have many, many blessing to count.

For I would be a red-hot mess right now if it weren't for the people in my life.

This year I am thankful for...

Angels disguised as oncology nurses.

The group of teachers who pitched in and bought me gift cards to restaurants to use the weeks after the funeral, so that when I was having a bad day I at least didn't have be in my kitchen.

My husband, who is the best person I know.

My daughter, without whom I wouldn't want to get out of bed most mornings.

The friends who, in my times of need, bring beer, bourbon, books, and cookie bars.

The friend who read the eulogy I didn't have the voice for at the funeral.

The friend who sang at the funeral.

The friend who put a big, metal chicken on my doorstep. (This also happens to be the friend who sang, so I am doubly thankful for her.)

Our neighbors, who treat our kid like she's one of their own.

Justin Cronin, who has written my two favorite books of the past 5 years.

Jenny Lawson, whose memoir made me laugh when I didn't think laughter was possible.

My grief counselor, who gave me her cell number and encourages me to text on bad days. It's like getting a free 5-minute session when I need it.

My students.

And finally--the dozen or so of you who will read this. Thank you for letting me know I have an audience.

I know that for so many of us Thanksgiving is just a quick pit-stop on the Polar Express, a place we stop to fuel up before the Christmas shopping and decorating season. But do take a moment to stop and give thanks especially if, like me, you are surrounded by really great people.

Love you guys. Mean it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Meditations In a Grocery Store

Friday night, grocery shopping. A collection of scenes and people.

A lady buzzes past me with her phone to her ear, carrying a basket and dropping f-bombs willy-nilly. Hey, I want to say, don't use that language in front of kids! However, no kids are anywhere in earshot. And even if there were, in all honesty, they've probably heard that word before. But I'm still annoyed. And still think that people who talk on the phone in grocery stores and roam around oblivious to whose way they're getting into are douche-y, regardless of their language. your language, douche-nozzle.


My particular grocery store just rearranged the entire store in an effort to make it "consumer-friendly." They clearly did not seek help from any librarians, who would have done a much better job grouping like items together and organizing crap so it makes sense. I should not have to go to two different aisles to get both jarred and individual snack packs of applesauce, people. I'm pretty sure they both have the same Dewey number and should thus be adjacent on the shelf.


At the meat counter I ask for a pound and a half of ground chuck. The guy puts 1.28 pounds on the scale and asks, "Is that good?" You're like a quarter pound off. It doesn't have to be a bullseye, but it does have to be on the dartboard. He is not thrilled when I politely tell him I would like for it to be closer to 1.5, because that is what I asked you for, damnit!, and I come thisclose to being one of those annoying control-freak perfectionist women I've seen at the counter who make the guy keep adding and taking away crumbs until it is precisely the right amount down to the thousandth with no margin of human error. Just for spite. But when he grudgingly throws a chunk on and it totals 1.58, I gush a breathless "Thank you so much! That's exactly what I needed!" because I'm thinking maybe the guy just needed some positive reinforcement in converting from fractions to decimals.


There's a grumpy old man on a Hoveround who I keep almost literally running into. When we first meet we're both in front of the canned soft drinks, and his daughter asks, "What kind of soda do you want this week, Dad?", and he replies, "Just get what you want, because you always do, anyway." And she just stays calm and carries on and doesn't try to kill him, which I imaginarily high-five her for.

We meet again at the end of an aisle where I step out and he doesn't see me and almost runs me over with his Hoveround. I was taught to be polite to my elders, so I apologize and quickly navigate out of his way even though it really isn't my fault. I hear him mutter as he motors towards the dairy case, "Probably thinks it's my fault, I'm just an old guy, clearly I don't know how to drive this thing." I imaginarily high-five his daughter again, because this man cannot be a joy to deal with.

The last time we meet he and his daughter are in front of the eggs, bacon, and sausage.

"I've already been in this part of the store three times, what else could you possibly want?" he asks his daughter.

"Help me figure out what we should have for breakfast. Tell me what you like."

"What the hell does it matter, anyway? My life is miserable and isn't getting any better. You think eggs are going to make it better?"

And suddenly, I have to look away, because this is possibly the saddest thing I've ever heard a stranger say, and I feel my heart breaking for this man and his daughter. I vow to be a little kinder to the people I meet in the store, even the ones who annoy me. Maybe especially the ones who annoy me. I have no idea what's going on with these people, and if I knew, I wouldn't spend so much time getting worked up over slow walkers and people who can't find the ketchup.

Who am I kidding? I will still get worked up over this, I'll just feel a lot guiltier about it now.


Well played, Kroger. You have a big display full of Honey Grahams, marshmallows, and Hershey bars. Once s'mores have been thought, they cannot be un-thought. You darn manipulative bastards.


It's getting dark when I head into the lot. It was a warm day, but the air has become crisp and smells like fall. The store was packed, but the lot feels strangely empty. I think of how I have to rush home, throw dinner together, and make sure Jason knows he's picking the kid up from swim. I am tired and more than a little resentful that my adult life has come to this--grocery-shopping and people-watching on a Friday night.

But I think of the old man and his daughter. I am grateful that the only burden I'm carrying in this moment are some reusable cloth grocery bags; the burdens they share are far heavier.

And I know when I go home and get my chores finished, I can make s'mores.

Friday, November 9, 2012

So Raise Your Glass

Saturday is my favorite night of the year. More loved than Halloween and Christmas and my birthday and the UK v. U of L game. It's the annual Leukemia and Lymphoma Society fundraiser in which participants sample beer, wine, and liquor from all over the world while touring a giant aquarium.

Looking at fish is awesome. Looking at fish after a few glasses of wine is awesomer. And looking at fish after wine and celebrating another cancer-free year while giving money to the organization that supports your flavor of cancer is the awesomest.

Even though it was not easy finding a sitter this year, and even though going means the kid doesn't get to participate in both days of a big swim meet, I would not miss this event for anything. I started going as a way to say "F-U" to my own lymphoma and to honor my two friends who have had leukemia.

This year, I will go knowing that leukemia took my mother from me. So this time it's personal.

One of my favorite memories of my mom, one from those dark days when she was in the hospital just diagnosed, was when her young doctor asked her if she had been a drinker. She was a little hard of hearing and looked to me to answer his question.

"She drinks a little bit, a glass of wine here and there on special occasions."

"Looking back," my mother said, "I should have had a lot more."

So one glass of wine will be for her. Another for my friend Missy, and one for my friend Robyn. Don't worry, you guys, they're not full glasses, and I'll be there for like 4 hours, and I'm not driving, so I'll be fine. Unless the Milagro tequila guy is there, and then chances are I won't be fine.

Being a lymphoma survivor sucks. Loving and losing people to leukemia is hell.

On this one night of the year, though, I celebrate that I have come out on the other side. It never makes it easier or worth it that I got sick, and then got treatment that made me sicker, and then watched my own mother go through it nine years later.

But clinking glasses with my husband and two of my best friends, surrounded by hundreds of people who are lending support to the cause...I at least know I'm not alone.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


There I was, showering at our family rec center after a Friday-night workout, basking in the afterglow of making myself exercise when I really wanted to be home watching an old episode of The X-Files and drinking a Magic Hat #9. I turned off the water, reached an arm out to the towel hook...

...and realized I left my towel out in the common area of the women's changing room when I stopped to get my clean clothes out of the locker. Motherlover.

I had a few options:

1. Run out of my private shower room nekkid and wet and not only offend my own modest sensibilities but also any poor woman or girl-child who happened to be minding her own business out in the locker room;

2. Beckon one of the 8-and-under girls who just finished swim practice and ask her to fetch my towel and bring it to the old naked lady in the shower, which would probably get my teaching license revoked;

3. Put my clean post-workout clothes on over top of my sopping skin long enough to retrieve my towel and make them effectively unwearable and make my drive home and trip to our favorite pizza joint kind of awful;

4. Throw on my scrungy workout gear, which was just...GROSS, and wander out both wet and sort of disgusting and cancelling out the cleanliness of my shower just to get the flipping towel I can't believe I forgot in the flipping first place.

I went with 4. And still got strange looks from onlookers. And wanted to get another shower but didn't have time because Ainsley was getting out of swim practice herself in five minutes. So really it was a great start to the weekend and set a tone of vulnerability that lasted through Sunday.

Because is there a more vulnerable feeling in the world than being wet and nude and separated from your towel in a place that's not your home? I am not sure there is.

I know there isn't a life lesson or poignant thought in this but tomorrow is election day and we all need to read something that isn't political commentary or fear mongering or "Your guy sucks and if he wins America will collapse into itself and land headfirst into the tenth circle of hell." Did the thought of me stranded naked in a public shower take your mind off Obama/Romney for just a minute? Yes? You're welcome. Now go vote.

Friday, November 2, 2012

It Tapped Me On The Shoulder And Said, "Boo."

Thanks to Stephen King, I was convinced that I would die an early, tragic death. And possibly come back from the grave.

I read my first Stephen King novel in 7th grade at the urging of my best friend Denise, and even though that damn rabid dog heightened the fear I already felt when big, unleashed canines sauntered in my direction, upon completing Cujo I immediately put myself on the public library's waiting list for the novel that had started it all for my friend: Pet Sematary.

I devoured that book in three days flat, coming home after school and shooing off Guiding Light and homework so that I could get to the final, grim conclusion.

The soil of a man's heart is stonier; a man grows what he can and tends it.

I was haunted by this book. So haunted that I dare not pick up another Stephen King for a few months. I was haunted by Victor Pascow. And Church. And Gage. And Timmy Baterman and Rachel and the Wendigo.

But mostly I was haunted by the dream.

To this day it remains the clearest, most vivid dream I have ever had. So real did it seem that when I woke I leaped out my bed, felt my limbs to make sure they were, indeed, intact, and burst into tears of relief that I had lived to see another sunny day.

In the dream, I found myself walking across my side yard at night. I felt dew on my feet and looked down to see that I was wearing a frilly, ruffled pink dress that looked very unlike me; pantyhose; no shoes. I went to my own front door and instead of opening it, knocked quietly.

My mother answered. But she was not happy to see me.

"Oh, you're not supposed to be here. This isn't right."

But she let me in anyway, and before I could ask her why I wasn't supposed to be here, I saw my reflection in the gold-veined full-wall mirror of our living room:

I wasn't supposed to be there because I was very clearly dead.

My face was overly-rouged but still a lifeless white. The first stages of rot discolored my lips and created soft hollows below my cheekbones. I realized my teeth were loose in their sockets. I could even smell a cloying, sweet smell that I knew was decay. I had walked out of my own grave, still in a young girl's funeral attire. Right down to a lack of shoes.

In the dream I listened to my broken-hearted mother tell me about my funeral, and how all my friends were there, and how so many people cried. She told me she didn't know how she would go on without me.

"But I know you're not supposed to be here like this, and I know you have to go," she said, over and over.

Finally I raised myself up and went to my front door, where I could not see other houses, or lights, or cars. I only saw darkness. And very sadly, not wanting to leave, I walked into it.

And then I woke up. For days, even weeks after, I was certain of one thing: I was going to die. Soon.

I grieved for myself. It's not easy to be 13 and perfectly healthy and still know you're going to die. I hadn't realized until that moment that death really was final; I thought if I died young I could be an angel watching over my family, or be reincarnated like Audrey Rose in the TV movie. It destroyed me that in the dream I just walked out the door into nothingness.

I wrote up a last will and testament and tucked it into a dresser drawer. I didn't have much of worth, but I decided to leave my treasured hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird to Denise; her choices in literature had just changed my life, the least I could do was return the favor. I hugged my family and friends a lot just in case I never saw them again. I cried after watching TV sitcoms that made me laugh because I would really, really miss laughing.

Yeah, I was sort of a mess.

Mom was no dummy and knew something was going on after catching me wipe tears away after The Cosby Show.

"What's the matter with you? Are you on drugs?"

"No, but I think I'm going to die."

The floodgates opened, and while Mom patiently listened, I started with Pet Sematary and ended with my own rotten corpse sitting on her couch in a dream that didn't feel remotely like a dream. After listening, and handing me tissues, and rubbing my back when I sobbed too hard to speak, she gave me sage words of wisdom:

"That sounds like you just got too wrapped up in that crazy old book. Don't read those things if they're going to do that to you. But just in case it means something, you better make sure your life is in order. You still accept Jesus as your savior, right?"

I rolled my eyes, because dying or not, I was still a 13-year-old. And I just realized I was mostly being an idiot.

I eventually went on to read many more Stephen Kings, and later some Anne Rices, and Thomas Harrises, and watched many horror movies in between. Nothing ever led to quite the nervous breakdown Pet Sematary did.

A couple of years ago, my library's copy of Pet Sematary wandered out and I had to order a new one. As I got the book ready for the shelves, I flipped through the pages, reading the highlights. I got to Gage's funeral, and could take no more. I was a parent at that time; the greatest horror was no longer my own death, but the death of my child. I made a mental note to never, ever allow myself to browse that book again. The nightmares I could face this time would be much worse than seeing my own zombified face in my mother's living room mirror.

Sometimes, dead is better.

Happy belated Halloween, y'all.

Friday, October 26, 2012

It Just Got All Serious Up In Here.

Here is a sample conversation I would have had with the kid last year right before one of her swim meets:

Kid: I'm nervous.
Me: Don't be nervous. Just go out and do your best. Your coaches want you guys to go out there and have fun and do your strokes right. You'll get beads for your swim chain if you do!
Kid: What if I don't win?
Me: Don't get too caught up in winning. Just see if you can get better times than last year. Remember, you're only competing with yourself.
Kid: I'm not nervous any more.
Me: Good! Now go kick some butt.

And here is the actual conversation I had with her before her first meet of the new season, also her first meet in her new age level with her new coach.

Kid: I'm nervous.
Me: Don't be nervous. Just go out and do your best. Try to have faster times than last year; that's all we ask.
Kid: That's not what Coach says.
Me: What does Coach say?
Kid: That we should go out and win our heats.
Me: Oh. Okay, then. Do what Coach says. It's about winning. Apparently.
Kid: I'm still nervous.
Me: Yeah. Me, too. Kick butt though, right?

It's a new game, you guys. And things just. Got. Serious.

It was a nice two years of award beads, encouragement, praise, "fun practices" where they played tag in the water as reward for surviving a swim meet, Halloween and Christmas parties, and lots of that self-esteem-raising "Every kid is special!" stuff. But Ainsley aged up over the summer and left the fun behind. Now the prizes are real and the points do matter. Yay?

Participation ribbons are a thing of the past. Welcome to the real world, kiddo. If you want a ribbon, you better touch the pad before the kid next to you. May the odds be ever in your favor.

This will be a new world for all of us. It will not just be an adjustment for the kid, but for us as well. Swim meets are not fun for parents, but for two seasons we could rest assured that we at least wouldn't have to stick around for finals. And the season would end earlier for us than for those poor suckers whose kids made state junior olympic cuts, who I am sure were super happy for their litle overachievers, but who always shuffled around every swim meet looking like zombies and who might as well have been pitching tents in the lobby of the natatorium for the hours they kept there. We had a nice existence of being able to show up at meets, cheer for a few hours, and still make it home in time for margaritas, waving excitedly to the zombie-parents as we left.

 I have a feeling those days are over. We've been bitten, and will soon run fevers, and then the zombies...they be us.

For our child still loves the water, even with a more serious coach and more serious expectations. She has risen to the challenge. I'm not bragging when I tell you she did shockingly well at this first meet, because everyone on her team did; nearly every girl in her new age group got within striking distance of a state J.O. cut, or heard her name out loud as a top-ten finisher, or walked out with at least one ribbon with a number on it instead of the word, "Participant." Between events, Ains studied heat sheets and time standards and lane placements as thoroughly as an Olympic color commentator. Not because that was part of her team expectations, but because she suddenly realized..."I'm kind of good at this." And without the help of any self-esteem chat, no words to the effect of "Everyone's a winner," she felt like a champion. Hard work pays off, kids. Who would have thought?

Last week, she told anyone who listened,

"I really, really, really want a Furby."

This week, she tells anyone who listens,

"I really, really, really want a J.O. cut. And a Furby."

By Christmas morning, I have a feeling both will be in her possession. And life as we know it will never be the same.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All Over Again

In case anyone was wondering, this whole grieving thing does get easier. Until suddenly it doesn't.

I should have seen what happened yesterday coming. Through the entire first week after Mom died, my sister and I searched for contact information for one of Mom's dear friends who we knew simply as "Donna." We could not remember a last name, but remembered that she had recently moved. We had both heard Mom say that their contact over the last couple of years, since Mom developed a boyfriend, had been limited to marathon phone conversations two or three times a year lasting upward of 3 hours. I hoped she read obituaries and would see the news of her friend that way, but after she didn't make an appearance at the funeral, I sort of forgot that we were supposed to be looking for her.

Turns out she found me.

While in the area for one of her foster kid's soccer games, she ran into a mutual acquaintance of my mother's. According to Donna, the conversation went like this:

"I've been trying to call Joan for months. I know she went to her boyfriend's a lot; did she move in with him? I really need to catch up with her."

"I don't know how to tell you this, but...Joan died in April."

And that's how someone who once called Mom her "Other Mother" found out she was gone.

Donna couldn't remember mine and my sister's married last names, either, but she found the obituary and did enough cyber-stalking to find me. So at 5:30pm yesterday I re-lived the pain of losing my mother all over again as someone she loved and who loved her had to hear it all from me for the first time.

Grief is a funny thing. Like all the oil that washed up in the Gulf oil spill, you might think you've got that mess all cleaned up, but then along comes a tropical storm and tar balls unearth themselves on your once-recovered beaches. Shit washes right back up on your shores, and you stand there, gritty and blackened, and realize the clean-up never, ever ends.

So many of the things Donna said to me over the phone took me right back to April 2nd, sitting in a quiet office in the hospice center, making phone calls to her closest family and friends before driving home and letting myself begin to grieve.

I loved her so much. I can't believe she's gone.

She was one of the most caring people I've ever known.

At least I know she's in a better place.

I'm sure you'll be fine. Joan always said you're the strong one.

A few minutes after we hung up, I didn't feel very strong. Jason came home, saw that I wasn't doing great, and offered to take me out for wings and beer.

"Good, because I don't think I can do this."

And by "this", I mostly meant the dinner I was half-heartedly starting to cook. But also "this" as in putting one foot in front of the other, keeping my chin up, and soldiering on. I'd been doing so well; for the last week or so, I've been feeling like maybe I turned a corner. Like I had moved from the darkest room of grieving into a place where I could see a little pre-dawn light in the eastern sky. Like maybe, just maybe, I could feel joy and hope and wholeness again. And yet some, if not all, of that progress came crashing down at my feet with one phone call. The person on the other end was living my mom's death right there in that moment; by proxy I was, too.

There will be other moments like this, I know. There's more tar beneath my feet, I can feel it. I will learn ways to cope over the years and as time goes on, maybe these storms won't make me feel quite so weathered and worn.

In the meantime, I guess Jason will just have to keep taking me out for beer and wings.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Dear Class:

Dear Class of 1992:

Twenty years ago and some change, I stood in front of you as one of three valedictorians giving a three-part speech we wrote together called "The Three L's: Life, Laughter, and Love." I took the "love" chapter and cried a little at the end, just enough to make my voice break and embarrass my poor mother. All in all, I think it was a good speech we gave and we hit just the write chord between looking back in nostalgia and looking forward with anticipation. High off of achieving my dream and graduating at the top of my class, I filed past my classmates to go back to my seat.

"Who's that?" I heard someone whisper just as I walked by. And that was my first important real-world lesson: being one of the smartest people in the room sometimes doesn't mean squat.

This weekend you will be reuniting and celebrating twenty years out of high school. Some of you met the goals you set for yourselves that sunny day in June, 1992; some of you took a different path carved from disappointment and necessity. But the fact that you are able to dress up, drop your adult responsibilities for one night, and have a beverage or three with your former classmates is a good sign that you are at least a functional member of society. Congratulations! You're not dead, completely broke, or homeless. Success doesn't always mean a private jet and money hidden in the Caymans.

I am sad that I can't be there with you this year. I am the mother of a swimmer, and instead of toasting you I will be toasting in a heated natatorium having a nervous breakdown over whether or not my kid finds her way to the correct lane for the 100 IM. But I am lucky in that a few of you are close friends who I get to see or talk to whenever I want. And I am Facebook friends with enough of you to know who's gone crazy, and who's gained weight and who's lost weight, and who married well and who divorced well.

Even though I can't be there, I am sure you and I will share these two thoughts over the course of our Saturday evening:

1. I can't freaking believe I've been out of high-school twenty years; and
2. Beer is awesome.

If anyone were to wonder, "Whatever happened to that one girl? The one that ugly-cried during her speech?", here's what you should know.

I went to college, graduated, started a career, got married. Went back to college, got a job in a related field, moved back to northern Kentucky. Had a daughter, got cancer, beat cancer, did not beat the daughter. Yet, anyway; the teen years are still ahead, so there's always that possibility. Lost some people I loved, learned to hold on tight to the ones who are left. Started writing a little, discovered craft beer, became a founding member of a fake video-game-based rock band, found that I'm a pretty good cook. Travelled a teeny bit to locations mostly coastal, and plan to explore the world more. I live a fairly quiet, happy life, and though I'm not quite where I thought I would be when I stood in front of you, I have no valid complaints or regrets.
I finished my speech on love all those years ago with a quote from Les Miserables: "To love another person is to see the face of God." I am still moved by this line, and when I look at my child, I know that it is an absolute truth. But today I am going to leave you with another quote I've come to love from yet another musical (some things twenty years doesn't change.)

Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.

(From Wicked, by the way.)

I know you can't see me, but I might be crying a little.

So raise your glasses, class of 92. In twenty more years, who knows where this crazy roller coaster of life will have taken us. For some, sadly, all the way back to the station. But try not to think tonight about your eventual death, or the fact that our best years may be behind us, or that we are, oh yes we are, getting old. Eat, drink, and be merry. Enjoy one another's company. Change a life simply by being a friend. For, the three L's aside, that's really what it's all about.

That, and a good craft beer. Trust me on this one.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


The following conversation took place in our house during a certain debate at a certain little college in Kentucky.

Ainsley: Why is Mommy hiding her eyes?
Me (from a fetal position on the couch, my voice muffled because my face is buried in my lap): I hate conflict!
Jason: I live in conflict every day at work.
Ainsley: Do I live in conflict?
Jason: In this house? Yes.

And then he looks at me and laughs, as if he has just said the funniest thing in the world.

Oh, it is on. You want conflict? I will so totally show you conflict.

(Actually, his hysterical-to-himself comment lingered with me for a while, and I realized I have been a little belligerent and hard-to-get-along-with of late [and by "of late" I mean for like, the past 20 years] and I have promised to be a kinder, gentler mother and wife. At least that's my promise for now. New promise next week when the shine wears off and I go back to being cranky.)

((And yes--I also hid my eyes for much of the most recent debate. For as much as I love to antagonize and verbally spar myself, I absolutely cannot stand to watch others do it. The only way I could ever moderate a debate would be if the candidates were okay with me asking questions while crouched under the table with my fingers in my ears during their responses.))

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Faking the Crazy

When I was ten years old, I was not a crazy person. But I occasionally played one in the grocery store.

It was partly boredom, partly a lack of parental supervision and oversight. Mostly, though, it was a way of strange and conscious rebellion. When I was in fifth grade, I became very aware that little about me was, technically, normal. My parents had just gotten back together after a separation that was supposed to fix everything but ultimately fixed nothing. I had become acutely aware that my father was an alcoholic who would probably never recover. I had also become conscious that I was different; most of the girls in my class were starting to look like pretty young ladies with maturing bodies and faces, while I had just acquired a mouthful of orthodontia and looked like this:

If you think that's bad, you should have seen me after my Christmas perm.

The weird thing was that, despite all this, I was a pretty happy kid. With low self-esteem and an occasional sense of impending doom, but overall I did not see myself as a victim or a problem child. And yet every time I accompanied Mom to an Al-Anon meeting, or every time I found myself watching an after-school special, I felt like I should be acting out. I should have been making bad grades, running around with the wrong crowd, cussing out my parents, and having local police know me by my first name. I wondered what that might be like.

One evening at our local Thriftway grocery store I decided to find out.

My father was an organized grocery shopper who went with a list and a budget and a sense of urgency. My mother was more of a boredom shopper who went with about a dozen items in mind but wandered the aisles for 2 hours looking for The Next Big Food Thing. When Mom dragged me to the store, I lost interest before we ever got to the pickle aisle (my mother spent a large portion of her 40s searching for the perfect bread and butter pickle. That was exactly as glamorous as it sounds.) So I often asked permission to roam on my own and browse for school supplies and cheap Wet 'n' Wild cosmetics.

On this one trip, I became annoyed at a family who seemed to always be in my way. It was a large family with a mom and dad and multiple children, and everywhere I turned, there they were, blocking me from the composition notebooks and index cards I liked to buy with my allowance money. Remember, I was going through a weird phase. In my annoyance, I started muttering under my breath. I was a little loud and got their attention. And I found I liked that.

I started lightly stalking them. And whenever I was near, I would mutter nonsensical things under my breath. I developed a dramatic tic of occasionally smacking myself in the forehead just hard enough to make a startling sound. My mother was way over in frozen foods at this point and had no idea I was putting on a veritable play over by the baked goods.

For my last act, I rushed up the aisle to get the jar of peanut butter I knew Mom had forgotten to grab. Just when I was in earshot of the family, I muttered just loudlyand menacingly enough that they would be able to make out the words:


They stepped aside and I hightailed it to the checkout to meet my mom. It was ridiculous, it was rude, and it was so unlike me that I just knew security was on its way.

It was also a surprisingly satisfying release from my usual straight-A, parent-pleasing self. 

Future trips yielded a host of different characters I would turn into. My right ankle is double-jointed and I can turn that foot almost all the way backwards, so on some trips I walked entire lengths of aisles with one foot facing forward and one facing back, limping dramatically. Other trips I pretended to be blind, staring straight ahead like the actress who played Mary on Little House On the Prairie and feeling around for just the right glass jar of mayonnaise to almost drop. Other trips I was deaf and used my slight knowledge of the sign alphabet to sign "Hello" to confused strangers. Because I loved Helen Keller and read every biography of her in my school library, I sometimes tried to be both. But that was mostly outside the range of my acting abilities. Patty Duke forever has my admiration for pulling that off.

My favorite part of the whole exercise was when it was time to meet up with my mother and all my physical and emotional ailments were cast aside like a New-Testament miracle. The same people who saw me limp, stagger, wander, mutter, and sign were aghast when I was returned to normalcy at my mother's side. I made sure to look them in the eye and return their quizzical looks. Nothing's the matter with me; what's the matter with YOU?

For the purpose of the game was not to to convince anyone I had a physical disability. The purpose was to come off as completely bat-shit crazy and troubled. In that, I succeeded.

Once I took the show on the road and carried my mini-rebellion outside the Thriftway, the jig was up.

On the way home from the grocery one afternoon, a pickup truck cut my mom off in traffic. She cussed quietly and I decided this was not enough punishment for the driver. At the next light, when we pulled up beside the truck, I put my face against the back passenger-side window, snarled, and raised my middle finger.

The truck began to follow us home and I realized, way too late, that the driver was one of our neighbors.

There was a meeting between my mother and neighbor in our front yard. I tried very hard to find a place to permanently hide inside the house. When Mom came in, she was madder at me than she had ever been in her entire life. Even madder than the time she had on full hair and makeup to go out with her girlfriends and started to run my bath water, only to find that I had pulled up on the button to turn the shower water on when she wasn't looking.

"What...the hell...were you THINKING?!"

"Um...I'm the troubled child of an alcoholic?"

That didn't go over nearly as well as you'd think.

I was punished, and talked to, and told to never, ever use anything happening at home as an excuse for bad behavior. Alcoholic or not, my parents had taught me better than that and if I ever tried to pull that again, they would openly call "Bullshit."

Chagrined, I never again faked the crazy in public. Though I have been sorely tempted.

Saturday afternoon grocery-shopping has become the bane of my existence. I am a misanthrope with depressive tendencies and mild anxiety issues; throw me into a crowded canned-goods aisle with a bunch of assholes on cell phones taking 10 minutes to decide between Red Gold and Hunt's diced tomatoes and I feel a little mania coming on. Sometimes those manic words muttered in a fit of meanness almost come bubbling back out. Though this time, I would mean them.


If only.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Take That, Soul.

Among the non-medicinal therapies my counselor and I are talking about to help me get through the Dark Forest of Depression is the idea that maybe I need a good cry. You know, one of those cries that flushes out all the toxic waste in your soul and allows sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns to prance their way back in.

Because I have wanted to retain my status in the family as The Strong One, She Who Gets Shit Done, I have not really allowed myself a good wallow in grief. I am supposed to use the next two weeks to entertain the idea of taking a one-day vacation from life to try to initiate a good sob session and/or temper tantrum and give myself the privacy and permission to just cry it out, bitches.

It is an appealing thought. However, Jason needs to play the role of jail guard and take away all sharp objects, shoe laces, and belts. Because while purposefully trying to make myself cry, there's always the chance that it will, you know, not end well. Though I think if I just stay away from the last episode of Lost, I'll be okay.

While pacing the floor Thursday evening trying to both pay attention and not pay attention to the Presidential debate (when I am emotionally unwell, my tendency to get embarrassed for people explodes, and I simply could not watch either candidate speak despite my intense desire to be able to understand all the jokes SNL will later make about them), I started to make a list of things I could watch or listen to that would bring on the tears. I started with the first thing that ever made me cry: Snoopy Come Home. When I saw that cartoon as a little girl, I scared the crap out of Mom when I began crying so hard that I got hives and ran a fever. True story.

By the end of making my list, I got the giggles. Some of the sad stuff out there is just so outrageously sad that it becomes funny when you pile it on. There must be evil geniuses out there who sit in an underground Tear Lab and think of ways to make grown people sob until the blood vessels in their eyes break.

And then, just to make it sadder, they throw in a dog. Because if you take a sad situation and add a dog, it multiplies the depressant factor by 30. Again, final episode of Lost.

So here it is: the things I will try to watch or listen to on a future date where I can try to wring the sadness out of my soul like wringing water out of a wash cloth.

Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." It's the music that plays during that one scene in Platoon. Yeah, that one.

Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, also called the Pathetique, also called "I wrote this symphony right before I died and right after I realized life might just be a hopeless mess you can't crawl out of."

The last ten minutes of To Kill a Mockingbird, from when Scout says, "Hey, Boo." I think we're supposed to be happy at that moment, but I just want to curl up in a ball every time, because o my God Boo is misunderstood, you guys, and saved their lives and will probably get the crap beaten out of him for sneaking out of his house after Scout walks him home.

When Debra Winger's character talks to her sons right before she dies in Terms of Endearment. Of course.

When Sally Field has her tearful, angry breakdown at Shelby's funeral in Steel Magnolias. Of course.

The episode of Party of Five where Charlie is supposed to marry Kirsten, but he gets cold feet, and then when he decides he's ready she decides it's too late, and when he tells her he still loves her she says, "Maybe you'll get over that." Gah. And then Bailey talks to Charlie after it's all over in a speech that boils down to, "Yeah, you screwed this up pretty bad...but you're still my brother, and I love you." Gah. And then Vincent runs out of the woods and curls up next to Matthew Fox so he doesn't die alone. Wait, I might not have that last part right.

When Billy dies on Ally McBeal.

The dog episode of Futurama, a show I never watch, but watched that one episode online thinking, "This can't be as sad as people are making it sound," and I was right, because it was sadder.

This song.

No, wait, this one.

Stop the presses--no, really, this time. It's this song. Here's a fun game with that one--try to guess where the song is going when the second verse starts and you catch on to the pattern. And just when you're rolling your eyes thinking, "Dear God, this country song is cheesy and predictable," your eyeballs will roll right out of your head because of excess moisture caused by a tear deluge. Because that stupid Vincent crawls right up next to Momma.

Wait, I don't think I have that last part right.

If any of this fails, I have a few less-worn and non-conventional rain makers. The Casino Night episode of The Office. (Damn you, Jim Halpert.) A video I have of Ainsley at around 18 months running around our house and blabbering in a way that's so adorable it makes my heart hurt. The Wizard-of-Oz-themed episode of Scrubs. (I have never seen The Wizard of Oz as remotely happy; there's no place like home, but there was no place like Oz, either, and the Scarecrow and Dorothy clearly had something special going on.) The card Scout's vet sent us after we put her to sleep that had a lock of her fur sewn inside and a post-mortem paw print. (That thing really, really should have come with a warning.) The mound of pictures we displayed at Mom's funeral, pictures which not only make me ache because so many show my Mom beautiful, young, and happy, but because so many of them show me beautiful, young, and happy and remind me that every day I'm a little older and a little closer to my own mortal end.

I've got lots of material to work with.

If you can bear it, feel free to join me. Let's do some soul-wringing. Either we'll all feel better afterwards, or we won't, and we'll have to be hospitalized. But we'll at least have heard some beautiful music, seen some fine acting, and watched network TV at its finest.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I hear a dog barking deep in the bamboo.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Just Keep Swimming. Or Sinking. Whatever.

I don't know how good of a job I've done of hiding it, but I am kind of a mess, y'all.

Any normal person would be having a hard time 6 months after losing their mom to a short and sudden battle with leukemia. So I know part of this is normal grieving. However, my emotions have never really been normal, and I have this long personal history with clinical depression, and there are days when I see myself circling the drain. I think what I have been feeling for the past several weeks goes beyond grief and into a dark path I've walked before. I recognize the decaying tree stumps and the gloom and the monsters hidden in coves and know exactly which Dark Forest I've wandered into.

Thankfully, I also know the way out.

Don't worry, I am dealing with it. I expect I will feel better soon. The descent of fall, starting a new school year after a summer where I really took it easy on myself, beginning the process of cleaning out my mother's house and all of her and my father's worldly possessions--all these things have messed with my brain chemicals enough that I have started to get the help I need.

It's just a matter of giving myself time to heal.

I think if I tried to keep writing at this time, it would be the same kind of gloomy posts I did there for a while about my childhood but which didn't seem to go over well. If you are one of the dozen or so people I think read this thing regularly, you probably want to hear me talk about funny stuff the kid has done, or some irritation I have with the world that I can write about in a snarky way, or a story about some stupid thing I did in college. But I don't have any of that in me. Not right now. And trying to find it takes more energy that I currently have.

I don't think I will ever stop writing. I enjoy it, even if no one reads it. But I might be taking yet another break, or I might start talking openly and honestly about clawing my way out of this most recent case of the deep, intense blues. Either way, fair warning. The road ahead is dark and dangerous.

But there is a light in the sky.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Innocent Until Proven Worldly

The Easter bunny. Santa. The tooth fairy. They all three still visit my house. And now that the kid has rolled over into the double-digits and is the grand old age of ten, I've been thinking it's time we uninvite them. Like Sookie has done to both Vampire Eric and Vampire Bill on various occasions.

Yesterday provided the perfect opportunity for The Talk. Not the Sex Talk, the "You do realize none of these people are real and that it's your dad and I who have been sneaking around on Christmas Eve and Easter Eve and wandering into your  room at 3am with singles we almost forgot to put under your pillow?" talk. The kid hid in a far corner of my library after school with a Kleenex and some ambition and emerged a few moments later with a freshly-yanked baby tooth and a bloody grin.

I thought that, even though she has not asked, she knows deep down that there is no tooth fairy. She hangs out in a locker room with a bunch of pre-teen girls after swim practice; I know some innocence is being lost on numerous fronts. By her age, the bubble had been burst for me and only babies still believed in Santa and the tooth fairy, which when you think about it, is a pretty big leap of faith, anyway. A real-life tooth collector who sneaks into children's bedrooms at night while they sleep is beyond creepy, and you just can't spin that situation the way you can with a kind, fat man who breaks in but doesn't steal anything and leaves Furbies in his wake.

I took a breath.

" we still believe in the tooth fairy?"

She looked at me like I had just asked if the sky was still blue.

"Yes. She's real. And Santa, too." And with that she finished her homework, no doubt or uncertainty in her mind about whether or not she would get some coin left under her pillow that night.

She could be playing me. Any kid would be smart to hold on to these cards as long as possible. But if you believe that, you don't know her. She's clever and quick and funny, but she's also innocent and emotionally immature. In a good way. The ugliness of the world has not shown itself to her yet, and she still believes in magic and miracles and the inherent goodness of humanity.

God, how I envy her that.

Her times, though, they are a'changing. She's in fifth grade--that horrible time in a kid's life where you leave most of your innocence behind. Girls buy their first training bras, which boys will learn about and start snapping. Boys will start noticing girls and feeling torn between liking the Transformers movie for Optimus Prime and liking the Transformers movie for Megan Fox. Both genders will find themselves divided up and seated at tables of uncomfortable silence in the school library watching a video called "Your Changing Body." Nothing will be the same after that. Few will unwrap toys this year at Christmas; there will be clothes and wallets and cheap jewelry and a strong, lingering odor of adult disappointment. When you don't believe in Santa, and you're no longer really a child, and you know all about menstrual cycles and nocturnal emissions, is this all that's left? Yes, kids-who-aren't-kids. Yes, it is.

As much as I want her to stay my innocent little girl who has never asked me where babies come from despite my long-standing offer to answer any question she ever has about sex honestly and openly and without giggling, the time is coming to break some facts to her. Before she can get teased about it in the swim team locker room or by the boys in her classroom after they can't find a bra strap to snap, I will have to tell her about the whole Santa thing. And possibly about the baby thing. And by way of extension, the Easter-bunny thing and the tooth-fairy thing and the "You-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be-regardless-of -talent-or-skill" thing. Because when one domino of innocence falls, the whole mechanism tumbles.

I know it's coming, and soon. But it did not happen last night. The tooth fairy came, though not without drama. (Unbeknownst to me, Ainsley came home and put her tooth in a Dixie cup of water on the bathroom counter to rinse the blood off. I thought it was just an errant cup and dumped the water and tooth down the drain. So Ainsley wrote a note to the fairy and still got a few bucks, and I get the joy of knowing there's a lower incisor rattling around the bathroom drain somewhere.) I wanted one more time to creep into her room and make magic happen. And see the joy on her face this morning, and know that this, too, shall pass. And that right soon.

For the first training bra is only months away. Today, though, she's still my innocent little girl.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You Might Be Appalachian

It was a bad weekend. I sought comfort in soup beans.

If you know better than to correct me and ask, "Don't you mean bean soup?", you might be Appalachian.

Because I've seen way too many Jeff Foxworthy comedy specials and maybe, in a dark corner of my home library, have a book full of his redneck jokes, I've been compiling a list since I cooked those soup beans on Sunday night of how to tell if someone is Appalachian at heart. Many of us are one generation removed, and have moved into Yankee territory, but if you pay attention, you can still find us out.

You might be Appalachian if:

You didn't know your great aunt's real name until you saw it in an obituary because no one in your family pronounces names the way they're spelled. (My example: when my Mamaw died and her surviving sisters were listed in the obit, I asked my mom, "Sarah? Who's Sarah?" Turns out she was the woman I knew as "Surrey." Without a fringe on top. This also goes for my other great aunts "Berthie" and "Donie.")

 Your great-grandma was rumored to have been a half-blood Cherokee. (The amazing part here is that no one seems to make the connection that this would mean one of your great-grandma's parents was an actual full-blooded Native American, which is kind of a big deal if true, but no one seems to know or care which parent it was.)

You have ever been told you are descended from either a Hatfield or a McCoy, or Pocahontas, or all three.

You've ever given directions to your house and described your specific part of the county in a colorful term such as "up Stinking Creek" or "down in Scratch Ankle", and the person you're talking to needs no further instructions than that.

Your mailing address is a house number followed by  "_______________ Holler Road." And you can spot a Yankee a mile away if they say it as, "____________ Hollow Road."

Somewhere among your most treasured family recipes is your granddaddy's top-secret moonshine formula.

You have to drive an hour and a half to make a beer run in the closest "wet" county.

You've ever gone out to pick poke.

Your kin are buried in a cemetery up the side of a mountain only accessible in good weather with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, but you haul yourself up there every year on "Decoration Day" just the same.

You've ever needed a translator despite the fact that you are technically speaking English. (Rule also applies to people representing us on reality TV shows who have to be subtitled.)

If I left any out, feel free to chime in in the comments. Keep it classy; after all, jokes about missing teeth and inbreeding are low-hanging fruit. Y'all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Blame It All On My Roots

I can sometimes go years without remembering that I am, indeed, a little bit white trash.

My branch of the family tree behaves well and has been well-educated, so we blend in. I was raised above my raising. Good manners, cleanliness, appropriate clothing, and a strong grasp of proper English usage were values taught. My parents had very humble beginnings, but they strove for me have better.

I can honestly say that I didn't even understand the term "white trash" until college. I started being aware of the use of the term in different formats both from pop culture and from literature. Reba's "Fancy" was born just plain white trash, but Fancy was her name. Hannibal Lecter wounds Clarice in his first meeting with her by telling her she's just one generation removed from it. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! makes a distinction between poor white trash and black house servants in a scene where a house slave prohibits poor-white-laborer Sutpen from entering the plantation house at the front door and orders him to go around the back. In our class discussion of the scene, our professor told us to ponder what this meant for antebellum southern caste systems: white trash is absolutely the bottom rung.

Being raised mostly as a middle-class child, I thought I had seen enough and experienced enough to feel comfortable in any social setting. I had never been an attendant at a formal wedding reception with a fancy-sit down dinner with multiple plates, forks, glasses, and spoons, but I had worked as a caterer in high school and knew enough to fake it. I had never eaten in a restaurant nicer than Red Lobster, but I had seen tuxedo-clad waiters on TV scraping crumbs from white cloth table coverings and knew that when one orders a bottle of wine, one is supposed to swish it around delicately and pronounce it serve-able.

What I did not account for were social settings where you're not outclassed so much by the place as by the people in the place, with whom you have to make conversation.

My sophomore year in college, the singers got invited to sing at the annual trustee's dinner. We would be singing for them after dinner, but as a special treat (and no doubt to make the trustees feel in touch with their investments), we were also invited to mingle during cocktail hour and to be spread out among the tables at dinner, breaking bread with the upper crust. We begged our director to just let us all sit together; it was for naught. There would be two of  "us" and eight of "them" at every table. And our job was to be delightful.

Carefully sipping my cocktail of straight ginger ale, I waded into the waters. I was lucky to have as the fellow singer at my table a girl from upper-middle-class Boston who knew how to swim in these depths. I whispered to her that I could figure out what the little spoon at the top of my dinner plate was for, but that if someone asked me where I summer, I would need her help. I was joking. Mostly.

I can answer any question put to me. I love to talk about myself (clearly.) But I froze when asked:

What do your parents do?

I had listened to my friend handle this question first, and listened as the various rich old men at my table introduced themselves to us as lawyers, doctors, and chief executives. I am ashamed of my own discomfort when I told the group, rather quietly, that my father was a laborer for General Motors and my mother was a beautician. Today I am ashamed of myself that I let myself be intimidated in such a way, and that I was not in that moment intensely proud that my father worked on an assembly line to put food on our table and send me to Uppity University.

A few minutes later the whole table bonded over the mysterious white meat product on our plates that seemed neither chicken nor fish and was later identified as broiled swordfish steaks. One of the trustees announced that he would really rather be home eating a fried bologna sandwich, and I felt comfortable enough that I immediately regretted not just letting my hillbilly flag fly.

Since then, my knee-jerk reaction to feeling a little outclassed and over-judged by the people surrounding me at whatever snooty event Jason and I have found ourselves mistakenly invited to is to just go ahead and Cousin-Eddie it. I so far have been able to successfully stop myself from coming out of the bathroom and announcing that the shitter is full, but someday I will have too much beer at one of these things and then I can't completely rule out that possibility. Don't get me wrong, I was raised too well and respect myself too much to not keep my behavior classy. But the minute I detect a dash of condescension served alongside the risotto, I feel a rush of meanness that can only be expressed by exaggerating my accent, looking for pork rinds, and ordering an MGD that will stand out among the martinis and pinot noirs. Not that I wouldn't rather have a martini or a pinot noir, but I feel obliged to play a certain role here. I'll show up in boots and ruin that black-tie affair yet, y'all.

This Sunday, we found ourselves in a private box suite at a Bengals game. Jason was offered them through work, and though I am not a big fan, I was not about to turn down this opportunity to see how the other half enjoy sporting events. A few hours before, I actually started to get nervous. I wouldn't know anyone else in the suite; the likelihood of snootiness could be high. And yet, as a friend reminded me, this was a Bengals-Browns game; there is no such thing as classy at such an event. I blended in just fine, save for the fact that I have no Bengals fan attire. In fact, I chose the bottled Sam Adams from the cooler while everyone else was drinking canned Buds; I may actually have been the designated Snoot at this particular gathering.

My parents would be so proud.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Voices In My Head Have Names

I threw him out of the car window while traveling down I-75. I launched him into our gas furnace. I even ratted him out for taking my grandmother's J.C. Penney card when it's quite possible he did no such thing. And yet he was one of my best friends.

Starting as far back as I can remember, and staying with me until I was in elementary school, I had two imaginary friends who were my constant companions. Their names were Kitty and JoJo, and we got each other into all kinds of trouble.

I've read a lot about children and their imaginary friends in the years since I said goodbye to Kitty and JoJo, and I know that this is completely normal behavior, particularly when a child is an only or has a large age gap with her sibling, as I did. I needed companions, so I made a couple of them up. But because these creatures were born in my brain, they were not your normal, average, everyday imaginary friends. In fact, JoJo was kind of an asshole.

When I was with Kitty and JoJo, I was not a child. We were three young adults hanging out together. We weren't sitting in my living room watching movies on TV; we were transported to JoJo's convertible outside a drive-in. I didn't sit at the kitchen table with them drinking a Coke; we were at a posh supper club sipping Cold Duck champagne. I was even a bridesmaid at their wedding, held in my mother's bedroom. I wore a baby blue beach towel wrapped around my bare torso and tied in a knot below my shoulder; it was a stylish gown years ahead of its time.

They were so real to me as a young child that they had to be accommodated by my patient parents.

"Don't sit there!" I hollered to more than one house guest. "JoJo is sitting there!" And to my mom's credit, she simply asked me to invite JoJo to sit elsewhere, rather than freak out and have me evaluated, which I might have done.

She didn't even freak out the day I rolled down the car window on a trip back from Knox County and made a throwing motion with my little arms.

"What did you just throw out the window?"

"JoJo. He was being bad."

I never knew what Kitty saw in him, but she married him, so she must have been able to look past his constant teasing and wisecracks and being a big meanie in general.

They were tolerated, but not without controversy. When the J.C. Penney charge card that my depression-era-raised grandmother guarded in a bottom dresser drawer disappeared from its hiding spot, every member of the family was interrogated, including me. I denied having ever seen it or touched it, but did offer what I felt was helpful information:

"I bet JoJo stole it and threw it in the garbage."

When Mamaw and Mom and her two sisters thought I wasn't listening, I heard them say that by my saying that JoJo did this, I was clearly confessing to it. Children blame their imaginary friends for the bad things they do, one of them said. She probably sincerely believes he did it, chimed in someone else. They all agreed: I had thrown the card away in an unusual fit of mischief, and I felt badly about it, so my alter ego JoJo became my scapegoat.

What they didn't know, and what I tried to tell my mother for years, is that no such thing happened. I did not throw out my grandmother's sole credit card. I was merely trying to offer a suggestion, and clearly thievery was not out of JoJo's character. I an guessing Kitty eventually divorced JoJo; she was pretty smart and had been taking classes at NKU when I last saw her, and I bet she realized that bad boys cannot be reformed.

I remember one cold winter morning walking to school and realizing I was too old for imaginary friends. I had made real friends at school and no longer felt the need to populate my life with Kitty and JoJo. I also had become very aware that they were not, in fact, real. I was 6, not 16. The TV movie was just a TV movie and the Coke was just Coke. But I felt the need to say goodbye to them just the same.

Midway up our street, where one of the driveways seemed to disappear into the wooded area that separated our street from the next, I stopped. I imagined them right beside me, holding hands.

"I think it's time for you to go," I whispered. In my mind's eye, I watched them walk down the driveway and into the woods behind it. I shed a tear; I might have been a child, but I knew something was ending that I would never get back.

The way my mom told it was that I stopped talking about them, and when she asked where they were, I shrugged and said they went away. She never knew that it was a conscious decision, and never knew just how real they once seemed to me.

When we spoke of it when I was an adult with a child of my own, she confessed that she never worried about it because a psychic she once visited told her that I had two guardian angels. When Kitty and JoJo first appeared on the scene, Mom figured they were angels in disguise and let them be. If that were true, she should have been worried--if JoJo were an angel, he was definitely a fallen one.

I am pretty certain they were not guardians of any sort but were figments of a very active imagination. I even think I know where the names came from. One of the first TV shows I can remember watching was Gunsmoke; I loved the reruns, and greatly admired Miss Kitty. My Kitty was even a redhead like her. (Though Miss Kitty would never have put up with JoJo's shenanigans.) The first time I really listened to The Beatles' "Get Back" with my best friend when I was in 7th grade, and paid close attention to the lyrics, I recognized my JoJo:

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn't last...

Get back Jojo, go home...

My sister listened to The Beatles when I was very small, and this song could have entered my subconscious and created a character so vivid that his star completely outshone Kitty's.

Or maybe I could see dead people. Either way, it worked out fine.

A friend recently asked for advice dealing with her daughter, who is engaging in epic power struggles with her imaginary friends. This is a non-spanking home, and yet her young child is bossing her imaginaries around, threatening them with spankings, and getting so frustrated with their bad behavior that she's asking her mother to intervene.

Do not worry, I assured her. Imaginary friends are a normal part of childhood and a sign of a vivid imagination.

And sometimes, they misbehave.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Probably Nothing But Possibly Everything

"I heard a heart murmur when she was sitting up but not when she was laying down so blah blah blah anemia blah blah blah blood test something something something six months."

This is how I heard the kid's pediatrician at her 10-year well-child visit this week. As soon as I heard "heart murmur", my brain switched off and I can't really be certain what was said after that. The pediatrician started sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown TV specials. Because when you hear there might-maybe-possibly-but-not-terribly-likely is something wrong with your child's heart, you sort of go numb and shock-y and I am pretty sure your soul leaves your body for like, a minute.

No, really, I did understand most of it. Eventually, after a period of serious thought and remembering and Googling. There was a new murmur not noticed at previous physicals; about 50% of kids have an audible heart murmur at some time in their lives and only a few of those will go on to have a heart condition; she was tested for anemia, since that can cause a murmur; the test was negative so we are just going to watch it and have another listen in six months. Everything's cool. Nothing to see here.

Except that later that night, right after dinner, Ainsley suddenly looked up from her plate with a suddenly white face and hollow eyes and announced, "I'm so tired." She then burst into tears and moaning and groaning and not making a whole lot of sense for about half an hour.

And that's the story of the night I thought my kid was dying, and I couldn't feel my face for a few hours.

Just so you know, everything ended up being fine. It turns out the freak-out and sudden onset of fatigue and an unwell feeling was just extreme constipation. (Someday, she will kill me for writing this. Honey, everybody poops. Or tries to.) She also had a flu shot at this particular appointment, and I am sure that didn't help. It was all just a coincidence that she had a meltdown and scary physical symptoms the night after the heart murmur was found. A trip to the bathroom and a warm bath later and all was well, and she even went to school the next day.

When it was all over, when she was sent happily to bed and the color and smiles had returned to her face, I had a meltdown of my own. Statistics that are meant to comfort you that your babies are going to be just fine are not comfortable to me. It just makes me think of Fate standing on some parent's doorstep holding the world's worst lottery ticket.

"Somebody's gotta win...might as well be you."

In the past year and a half, I've seen two children be diagnosed with cancer. One of them is on Ainsley's swim team, the other is the younger sibling of someone on Ainsley's swim team. There have been fundraisers and bracelets and t-shirts celebrating the bravery of these two young girls, and I see them often at meets and waiting outside of practices. They have a tough road ahead, but the statistics, for what they're worth, are in their favor. They are responding well to chemo, though the toll on their little bodies is evident. Every time I see them, I hug Ainsley a little tighter and pray a little harder.

Please, God, not her. Not the only one I have.

But praying that makes me feel like I'm wishing it on someone else, and that's not that case. I wish it for no child, ever. A deathly sick child is the ultimate evil that nature can throw at us. A complete reversal of the very laws that govern our universe. A smack in the face to order and justice.

It is, I think, the very worst thing you could live through.

This morning, when she zipped through my library before catching the bus, running around and smiling and laughing like nothing's wrong (and I'm sure it's not, almost), I stopped her for a long, embarrassing hug. I felt her heart against mine and thought of how I had gone into her room the night of the heart murmur scare of 2012 and, while she was sleeping, put my ear to her chest and listened to what sounded to my untrained ears like normal, healthy rhythms.

And how many other parents have listened to their child's heart in the middle of the night, and felt their breath blowing on their faces, and known that while the news they got from the doctor's office is probably nothing, it's possibly everything.