Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Take a Spelling Test? Or Apply for a Promotion?"

You cannot think this was easy.

Yes, that's me in the back there, sandwiched between future cheerleaders. (As long as we're all here together, can we stop a moment to admire the costly and chic backdrop used in this photograph? Too bad it didn't occur to the photographer to zoom in a little, thereby cutting the overhead lights out of the shot. Och, look at me going on about this, when perhaps the framing of the shot was a very intentional artistic statement about how illuminating young minds are...)

So there I am: Jocelyn the Redwood, Precociously Pubescent Sixth Grader--the one in the white Polyester 'Z Me cowl-necked the "born for square dancing" red skirt...sportin' them "if I were Native-American, these would be flesh-toned" nylons...towering supremely in my platform wedges.

Even better, take a moment to admire my glasses. You could take the triplets sledding on those babies, couldn't you? And my hair...a soft-serve artist at the Dairy Queen worked many hours coming up with the prototype for that 'do ("Jes' a little swirl here on the sides, and we'll call it feathered!").

And, honey? The boobies. Tacked there on the front? They don't show up so well in that class photo without the use of your Stalker Magnifying Glass, but trust me, they had not only made a reservation but had been checked in and using room service for two years by the time this picture was taken. Bane of my angst-addled existence, they were. (I know, I know. I was wretched and ungrateful. Who knew then they'd come in so very handy thirty years later? I mean, nowadays I can prop a snack on them, carry it around for a couple of hours, and then dig in when I'm getting peckish. And when I'm doing laundry? I can just toss a folded towel or two on the old rack and then head up to the linen closet, hands-free. If only I could get them to answer the cell phone while I'm driving).

At any rate, I did, indeed, find myself locked in some serious hormonal havoc--light inches ahead of my peers--for four or five years there. In 4th grade, I reached my adult height; in 5th grade, I could buy booze without getting carded; and by the time this picture was taken in 6th grade, I was well able to stand in for our teacher, Mrs. Surwill, if ever she was suddenly struck down by The Epizudy and had to take the afternoon off. I could literally fill her shoes: after a quick scan of the lesson plan, I could, realizing it was music time, break out some hand drums and lead my classmates through a quick "ta-ta-ti-ti-ta" and then announce it was time for social studies and a review of cultural geography before having everyone work on their diaramas of the marketplaces of South America.

Finally, at the end of the day, I could carpool everyone home in my two-toned station wagon.


The truth is that, even though I could just sit on the bullies to make them shut up, these years of looking like the mother of three when I really just wanted to play H-O-R-S-E at the basketball hoop and whoop it up during flashlight tag...well, they sucked. Certainly, I had my group of friends, remained a "smiley people pleaser" (as my mother aptly described me), and earned good grades. But my insides often hurt in ways that even the boobies couldn't cover.

I felt the freak.

All the other kids were in that stage of unofficial dating--the whole "will you go with me?" time of life, which basically entailed everyone else whispering things like "They're going with each other, so it's okay" when Darrin and Andrea sat together on the same seat in the back of the school bus. Every six days or so, the "going together" couples would break up, mix up, and emerge reconfigured, Darrin now with Deanne and Andrea now with John.

It was all so frickin' glamorous.

But I, with my intimidating height of 5' 6" and shouldering the boobies as I did, was sidelined during these social machinations, an observer of them, a cataloguer of them, but never a participant. I'll spare you the litany of the resultant self-esteem issues, but if you want to bandy about some words like "weight issues" and "would date anyone who seemed to like her, all three of 'em" and "shopped to fill a void" here, I'll wait.


Fingers tapping.

Tra-la-toodley-doo. "First, when there's nothin', but a slow, glowing dream/That your fears seemed to hide, deep insiiiiiiiide your mind...What a feelin'! I have rhythm now!"

Oh, huh, bwah? You back now? Are we ready to move on?

Okay, so my point was something about suckwadage--the cruelty of it all, the injustice of being "developed" when everyone else was still turning cartwheels in their Garanimals--some sort of blather like that, right?

In all truth, there was actually a deeper cruelty in my late elementary years, and it proved that my character had yet to catch up to my body's maturity. You see, one day I had the chance to join The Club of the Going Togethers. And I froze. For so long, my greatest dream had been to be going with someone because, for the love of Dancing with the Stars, it was what everyone was doing. If only someone, anyone, would ask me to go steady, then all my long years of existence would be validated and take on new meaning.

On that day, out of the blue, geeky, pencil-necked Robert Clark (in the class photo: front row, middle, striped shirt) suddenly leaned over during math time and whispered furtively, "Do you want to go with me?"

And I tell you, I froze. There was no "Um, sure" at the ready, no "gosh, yea" to be squeaked out. Rather, my internal monologue went something like "Ah, cripes, not you, Robert Clark. When this whole going with someone deal has played out in my mind, it's not you who's doing the asking. It's someone, you know, taller--someone who can match me at tetherball, even. At the very least, it's someone who likes the Hardy Boys or has a ten-speed. It's never been you."

Paralyzed with shock and dismay, I tossed out the clever rejoinder of "Huh?" I may have even gestured toward my ear with the international "I can't seem to hear right now" sign.

So the brave, kind lad asked again, a little louder.

At this point, I did a very eleven-year-old thing: I crudely seized the opportunity for power, to feel myself moved up a tier in the social hierarchy on someone else's shoulders; I looked him in the eye, wrinkled my brow in disgust, and, smirking, shook my head, silently telegraphing a vehement "No way, loser" his direction.

Needless to say, he never asked again, even though that night I rethought my hasty reaction and prayed for the fabled Second Chance. Good for him: he didn't give it. Nor did anyone else in the sixth grade--or the seventh, or eighth--give me even a first.

Even though I know better now, I still like to think they were just afeared of The Boobies.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Neither Hero Nor Saint"

In 1906, my maternal grandfather picked up a typewriter and threw it at the principal of his high school. He was 14.

Shortly thereafter, he left his hometown in southern Minnesota and made his way to Montana, where he found work as a "hired hand"--a cowboy, in more romantic terms. With the help of his horse, Pickles, my grandpa Julian roped, herded, sang, and ultimately homesteaded a plot of land outside of Wolf Point.

And then, in 1917, he followed the call of war, leaving Montana for training in Washington state and ultimately service on the battlefields of Europe. There, family lore has it, his eagerness and quick feet earned him a job delivering messages on the front lines; his proximity to constant explosions resulted in diminished hearing, something that plagued him the rest of his life.

At the close of World War I, Julian returned to Montana and his homestead, until family obligations (taking care of his mother after his father's death) pulled him back to Minnesota. With his days as a cowboy and a soldier behind him, the rest of my grandfather's life must have felt anticlimactic. Certainly, he married. He fathered five children during the Depression and the early days of World War II. He became a rural mail carrier.

He also became an alcoholic, one who used a leather strap and his fists on his wife and children in his fits of rage. He taught them capitulation, powerlessness, and patterns of passive/agressiveness that still play out, generations later.

As a grandfather, he was kind. I remember sitting on his lap, reading the comics with him; I remember having to yell my words to him to be heard. I remember his fondness for me. Even more clearly, I remember some years later being fifteen, at a party, and catching a whiff of whisky. My knees buckled with the rapid, sensory memory of "Grandpa."

When I was eight, he was found dead in the kitchen, having outlived my grandmother (she, a decade younger than he, had passed away a year before; my mother and aunt can never forgive themselves for always believing that she would get some "good" years, some "free" years after his death...for surely he would die first--but then he didn't). At his time of death, he was in his pajamas, and there was a bottle of whisky on the floor next to him.

More profoundly than these stock details, squirrelled away in my memory, I remember my mother's tears, the trauma in her voice, as she told me about the time her dad's drunken rage reached a new height. He not only went after the kids, but he tore after their mother, chasing her and hitting her with a broom, until he finally turned over the dining room hutch. My mother fled the house, hoping to find help for her mother from the neighbors, who were good friends. As my sobbing mother hammered on their door, she saw them looking out the window at her and then retreating, closing the curtains and willfully turning a blind eye to the violence and chaos next door. In that moment, a certain faith--in community, in neighborliness, in the willingness to stand up for what was right--shriveled inside my mom. And back at home, the rage continued, unabated.

Such is it, therefore, that when I think of my grandfather, I remember him in his full human complexity, through his adventures, his work, his service, his kindness, his temper, his fallibility.

On this national day of rememberance, I don't need to vaunt my grandfather as a hero. I don't commend him for his "sacrifice" of military service--although I think it was a valid career choice for those years of his life, one that counts as a contribution (in the same way that I think that my sister, who has taught the academically-unprepared kids of inner city gangbangers, contributes to making a difference...or the nurse who sang to my newborn as she danced him down the corridor to me for a feeding on his first night of life made a difference...or the undiluted passion of Paul Wellstone made a difference).

But the truth is that my grandpa Julian was just a man, one who created momentum in his life through a violent act, who was trained into the violent ways of a bloody war, and who then used a convergence of tendency and training to elicit a flinch, a cowering, a hand held up to shield a blow.

As I look at all the flags hung so high on this Memorial Day, I think, with a perverse kind of affection, of whisky and bombs and poker and loudly-told stories and jokes. He is in my memory, this grandfather of mine.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"The New Joy of...Cooking"

There's no better way to challenge the loyalty of one's readership than to post a recipe.

I could, therefore, entitle this post something Sally Fieldlian like, "You DO like me, right? You WILL come back, even though I'm posting a recipe? I promise it will be just this once, and I won't weep hysterically and wipe my snot on your shoulder, if only you promise to return one day, when the recipes have gone away."

But the asparagus furor that arose out of my last post made me want to provide some specifics about one of the backbones of my springtime diet: nearly-broiled asparagus. If you, too, love that green stuff so fervently that even the funky urine odor an hour after eating it doesn't dissuade you, then this recipe is for you.

First, you're going to need a baking sheet, the kind of big ole rectangular pan you could hit Simon Cowell in the chest with terrifically hard and then take away imprints of his chest hair tufts for posterity. Now, this pan doesn't have to be huge-huge (damage can be done to Cowell even with a moderate-sized pan), but you want it big enough that it could double as a clown shoe in a pinch.

Then you're going to need at least a pound of asparagus--because, really, who eats less than that? And to tell you true, if you live in the Land of the Wild Jocelyn, you'd do well to start out with at least two pounds. Some fine folks, home after a long day's work at The Company, standing in the kitchen with good posture, wearing a tailored suit, might look at the stack of stalks and think, "Oh, good, we've enough for the whole family. Lovely." Here in our household of unemployment, slouching and t-shirts, though, we are realists and know there ain't no way the yowling kids are going to eat, willingly, this particular green food (since it doesn't say "Shrek" on it), so the prep-chant goes: "Screw their nutrition. More for us!"

Your next step will be therapeutic, as there is snapping involved--from tempers to stalks. Pick up each stalk and, as you did as a child with your Barbies (when witnessing adults would mutter, "Hem, er, Dahmer. Jeffrey Dahmer?"), hold each stalk by its "legs" and then, at the natural breaking point, snap off its "head." Remember when you decapitated your Skipper doll and never again found her noggin? That's what I'm talkin' about. Indeed, each stalk can be gently and steadily bent--violent movements are not actually necessary--until it hits the point of breakage. A man named Peter did just such work on my heart when I was in my early 30's. The stalk, or the Jocelyn, hardly needs to realized what's happening to it, until the moment of irrevocable and devastating impact.

Okay, now it's Artistic Expression time. Discard the tough ends that you've just broken off (if you have an enemy, perhaps named Peter, put them in his pillowcase while he's away on a trip to Vegas for two weeks) and then artfully arrange the lovely asparagus heads/bodies on the baking sheet. I sometimes do a hatchmark dealie, wherein I line up four spears and then lay a fifth across it diagonally; this also helps Groom and me keep a running tally of how many spears there are, so fisticuffs don't ensue at mealtime. But you go crazy; get creative; make a portrait of your grandmother riding a unicycle out of the stuff.

Somewhere in the middle of all this fun, you can turn on the oven to, honest to Emeril, 500 bangin' degrees. If you have a smoke detector in the house, this would be a good time to go take the batteries out. I'll wait.

No, seriously. Go do it. The smoke is going to be hack-worthy.

Okay. So you've got them babies on the pan. Now you need to take out some of your really expensive ultra-extra-non-Paris-Hilton-but-rather-still-a-virgin olive oil and, placing a finger over the opening (there are more, really crude, Paris Hilton jokes here, but I'll spare you. Just think "finger" and "opening." Yes, my work here is done), drizzle it over all the spears. Or you can just use your cheap, years-old streetwalker olive oil. Whatever you've got.

Now comes the philosophical section of the recipe: what is life without spice? Life, and food, are significantly diminished without it, all the less for their bleak, uninterrupted sameness. Translation: add some salt and pepper. If you have any character at all, make it freshly-ground pepper, not just pre-ground flakes from a can. Splurge, honey, and buy some peppercorns. You are so worth it.

Hang on. We're ready to rock. Open the oven, slam in the pan of goodies, close the oven, lean back against the kitchen counter, and pick up your beer again. If you use a timer, set it for five minutes. If you don't use a timer, then sing the "ABC" song about 7 times. Or once through the extended dance remix of "Tainted Love" would work.

After five minutes, put on a big ole silicon oven mitt and a gas mask (or, at the least, safety goggles) and open up the oven. Reach in like the hero you are and shake that baking sheet--hokey pokey all those stalks so that their left feet and right arms are in a big tangle. I watched my kids play Twister the other day, and it was pretty much the same--limbs everywhere; all I know is that this step involves some sort of analogy to a kids' game. So go ahead and liken this process to, em, Clue Junior, and then close the door and back away slowly, reaching around blindly for your beer as you wipe the smoke out of your eyes.

Set the timer for another five minutes, or sing "Stairway to Heaven" while musing about how poorly all those formerly-hot classic rock stars have aged. Ah, Robert Plant, we hardly know ye.

After the final chorus, or when the beeper goes off, put on all your gear again, and head in to the inferno one final time for The Extraction.

Toss the pan onto the countertop or the burners of your stove. Head to the fridge and take out some feta cheese. There are no substitutions here, so don't even try to sprinkle some cheddar on the Holy Stalks. Jesus Marimba, could you not plan ahead for once in your life and have actually bought the feta? Presuming you want to stay on my good side, you'll just have the damn feta and won't dither about in front of the cheese drawer, trying to find something to fool me with. And this is no time to get distracted by those old tupperware containers on the back of the shelf. Yes, that is mold you see; yes, those are the refried beans you opened when Clinton was still in the White--and the dog--house. But there's piping asparagus awaiting you, so hop to!

Plate your half of the spears, angling for one or two extra when your friend/spouse/partner isn't looking ("Hey, check out that, er, UPS truck backing up to the neighbors' garage! Why are they filling it with all their electronic equipment? Could it be a heist? Maybe you need to do something..."). Crumble the feta, liberally (always the best approach, in cooking, morals, and politics), all over your spears.

Set the timer again, this time for two minutes. Or hum "Hit Me, Baby, One More Time." See if you can beat my record and eat your entire plateful in that time.

By the way, asparagus fangs hanging out at the buzzer DO still qualify as "eaten."

I've also heard of people eating their food in a leisurely fashion. Suit yourself, ya delicate little poncey poodle. The rest of us will just sink our heads into the feedbag and make some indelicate chomping noises for awhile here.

Monday, May 21, 2007

"Nine Plus a Spare (agus)"

Some weeks back, my good pal Dorky Dad (whom, in the weirdness that is Bloggerworld, I wouldn't know if I ran over with my scooter in front of the Dairy Queen, but whom I nevertheless dote upon) tagged me for the most straightforward meme ever. No "tell us your top five brushes with the law"; no "from least to most important, rank the international issues that make you wince"; no "if you had a million dollars, what kind of house would you build" kind of stuff to this meme. Jehosephat, no.

This meme is mercifully simple and pretty much allows the tagee to reveal or exclude--mental photo of me: quivering with the power--just about anything. The meme is this, in the shell of a nut: tell us ten things about yourself.

Honey, I do this before 8 a.m. to strangers passing by the fire hydrant outside my house. Ten things about me? The workers at my favorite Caribou Coffee could tell you ten things about me in the time it takes them to make a skinny hazelnut latte (large, that is; if you ordered a medium, they could probably only squeak out Eight Points of Jocelyn Trivia before adding the final dollop of foam).

I'm hardly shy when it comes to personal disclosure.

Which may be why people blush so much in my presence.

Is it wrong that I greet the mail carrier with "Kee-ripes, but I'm bloated today"?

Or that I toss off a quick, "Hey, so I've actually been legally blind since the age of 7. I still thank Ben Franklin for those bifocals!" to my son's preschool teacher as I hang up his backpack?

Surely, my lack of boundaries might be why patrons of the Barnes & Noble shimmy backwards, discomfited, when I edge up to them and randomly start an unsolicited sentence with "...and so when I was 35, my mom divorced my dad. Yea, after 40 years of marriage. And the next morning, after she had the papers served on him, she went and got a nose job. She was 67! You feel me?" C'mon, without an opener like that, how else could I pave the way for a new friendship, made right there in the self-help section?

So, hmmm, jes' to mess with you, let's call this meme "Ten Things About Jocelyn, Nine of Which are True, and One of Which Only Is in Her Dreams." You can try to ferret out the lie, and more power to you with that.

1) I only saw STAR WARS because my dad told me to. I was ten in 1977, and he came up to me one day and suggested, "I've been hearing a lot about this movie--sounds like a good one for you kids." So I went to it, and my recollections of that seminal film, even a day later, went along the lines of "It was in space or something, and they shot some stuff. At the start, these words scrolled backwards, kind of, across the screen at the start, and I got all dizzy. Oh, and there was a desert planet with some robot things on it. One of them beeped a lot."

2) I sometimes think the only thing that could lure me to abandoning chocolate is asparagus. I set a timer tonight for two minutes and managed to eat seventeen broiled-with-feta-on-top asparagus spears by the time the beeper went off. Admittedly, two were still hanging out of my mouth like fangs at the end, but my point was made.

3) I can still sing all the lyrics to Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" without missing a word. If you don't know who Rick Springfield is, do the words "Dr. Noah Drake" help clear things up? If the answer is still no, I'm not sure you and I can ever really, really take it to the next level.

4) I once ran out of gas in the middle of Wyoming, where there are three gas stations, and had to walk along the highway until two scruballs stopped their pick-up to offer me a ride. Wanting my parents to one day see me again, I refused their offer but handed them a twenty-dollar bill and threw myself on their gas-retrieving mercy. Ten minutes they were back, and they only asked me once as they helped me refuel if I would like to play miniature golf with them later in Casper.

5) When I was 24, I started dating a 40-year-old. We were together for six years. He was really into tai chi and owned a Nordic Trak. We grilled a lot of chicken together, and for one spate, we both got addicted to playing Wolfenstein and Duke Nukem. I mean, my stars, but that first-person shooter business knocked the liberal arts education right out of me!

6) I reached my adult height in fourth grade. My breasts grew along with my legs.

No, I did not just type that my breasts grew on my legs. That would be freakish. Read more slowly, ya skimmer.

7) I am not a high school graduate (no GED either), yet I am a graduate school graduate.

8) I lived in Denmark with a host family for the summer before my senior year of high school--in the home of a single mother with three young boys. Every time I would draw a bath and slowly ease in, a pounding would start on the bathroom door, followed, in Danish, by the words, "I have to pee! I have to pee!"

9) I once had a pixie cut that, in my deluded mind, made me look like Pat Benatar having love on a battlefield. When I added in a skirt that looked like it had dishtowels hanging from it and a pair of those fingerless gloves from "We Belong," the look was complete.

10) When I volunteer in my daughter's first-grade class, I play a little internal game called "What Will Their Futures Hold?" with all the Girl's classmates. I'm pretty sure I'm right about that brassy Audrey, in particular, who will be--I soothsay--pregnant in ten years. It probably wouldn't be right of me to pull her mother aside, though, to pass on that prediction, right? Even though it might be helpful to have a heads-up and all.

Mostly true, plus one lie.

Thanks for the tag, Dorky Dad. I'll be sure to run you over accidentally on my scooter next time I'm in your neck of Minnesota.

Note to self: buy Vespa.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Junior's Cause/Effect Essay"

I take my evening beverage very seriously. Once the sun begins its descent, I start the long unwind to bedtime with a beer or glass of wine. Lest you despair that I'm in a rut, do know that I've recently seen the wisdom of adding vodka to the repertoire. I mean, really, can a stool stand on only two legs? It takes three, right? Let's just call vodka, in our special buddy-buddy bloggerspeak, "Jocelyn's Third Leg." You have my permission to use that in your posts (for example: "I had the kind of cottonmouth that morning, during the Long Walk of Shame back to my apartment, that only comes from having swallowed copious amounts of Jocelyn's Third Leg the night before...").

Generally, then, when I'm tucking the kids in, it's with drink in hand. Since I don't wear a watch, it's only fair that I get my choice of alternate accessory, right? I tote my beer bottle with all the ease of a red-plaid Swatch on the wrist, truth be told. To up the bling factor of my favorite accessory, I'm considering inventing a Cocktail Hip-Holster, studded with rhinestones [patent pending].

In lieu of Holster, though, I currently just use Hand. Hand holds the bottle while I help the kids with flossing, brushing, getting into jammies. Hand is a well-balanced, reliable individual; Hand is my righthand man, metaphorically...but not literally, as I tend to grip with the left.

There is no better testament to the kind of devoted mother I am than the fact that I do order Hand to set down the beer or wine when it's time for us (Hand and me) to climb onto the kids' beds and read If You Take a Mouse to School or Sideways Tales from Wayside School. See, I have this annoying moral dictate that if I ever spill the Gewurtztraminer on the dinosaur sheets, I'll have to--frick--change them before letting the kid sleep on them. And I do so hate heaving my bulk towards the linen closet. So Hand leaves the drink on the vanity whilst I read.

Last week, there was a night when I had a glimpse into the long-term consequences of Hand's habits. The Wee Niblet, naked and therefore rightfully giddy, took a notion to play "Monster" as we prepped for bed. My assigned role was to be Da Monster, snarling and gesturing as wildly as a full beer bottle would allow, dashing around after the nekkid lad. Up and down the hall he ran, shrieking with mock fear, as I quasimodoed after him, fully engaged in simultaneous kid carousing and beer protection.

As is my wont, however, I had some meta-discourse going in my noggin as I thrashed to and fro on the Persian rug, gnashing my rotting and smelly Monster teeth. I began imagining how Niblet's freshman composition essays might read in fifteen years, when he one day taps into his personal experiences to support some larger point:

"What I recall best from my early years was my mother--a monster of a woman--chasing me around the house, as I fled from her, naked and terrorized; so clearly, I still remember how she roared at me to get to bed, her omnipresent beer in hand (always the priority), even when she tackled me to the floor in a fearsome rage."

His hard-knock life story might just win him an A, moreso than any "...and my family was really nice, and we ate a lot of chicken and sometimes yogurt too, and I liked my tricycle with the little bell on it" narrative ever could. As a teacher of freshman composition, I know this. We are suckers for adversity overcome.

So a high five to you, Hand, for your role in getting the Niblet into graduate school one day. Keep on tipping those bottles and glasses for the cause of Higher Education.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Mother Lucker"

I am a total Scroogey McHoliday Hater. In the last few years, I've accepted that this darkness lies within my soul. Christmas? Do we have to? Thanksgiving? I'd rather have drumsticks nailed through my eyelids. Easter? Could we roll that rock back in front of the cave, if it means I don't have to hide plastic eggs 2,000 years later?

Yup, I'm a serious holiday wet blanket. I put the "hate" in LaborHate Day.

Here's my two-pronged beef (is that like a Texas Longhorn?) with holidays:

1) I find ritual and tradition somewhat taxing. As part of my Myers-Briggsian ENFPedness, I don't want things to always be the same. I don't want to know that in seven months I will be compelled to string colorful lights and hang ornaments. Nor do I like the foreknowledge that, even ten years from now, people will be setting off fireworks on the 4th of July, and for the two freaking weeks before and after it. I just don't want the same thing to happen at the same time each day or year. Surprise me. If it's the last Thursday in November, could I please just go to a movie?

Fortunately, Groom is in step with this thinking. He was totally up for us leaving the country and heading, with great speed, towards Canada last 4th of July. We unpatriotic sods spent our nation's Independence Day in the Thunder Bay mall, letting Girl get her ears pierced. Now *that*, as I watched her brave face determined not to let tears fall, felt like something...neither more or less than fireworks, but something that would happen only that once in that one place.

And last Christmas, some of you might remember that we beat a hasty exit from the bulk of the plodding celebrations by heading for the borders of Guatemala and visting my sister. I loved riding the train around the outside of the Houston airport on Christmas day, during our layover. I loved my kids not caring where they were or what they were doing on that randomly-assigned holiday. We'll never ride that train on Christmas again, so it was awesome.

For sure, if there is a holiday looming, I pretty much just want to pack some bags and practice my line-dancing Sidestep. I avoid lots of small talk that way, too. If I jump country, I never have to assure Loony Aunt Bev, while she puts marshmallows on top of the yams, "Oh, my, yes, but your new wig looks absolutely realistic. And I love those French tips, too" when, in fact, her hair looks like a pile of Michael Chiklis' laundry and her nails like can openers.

2) My other gripe about holidays is the well-ballyhooed over-marketing that surrounds them. Any genuine sentiment seems so buried under Hallmark cards and half-price candy that I become a real pisser (but, man, can I ever fake a smile for the camera) about literally or figuratively buying into another Target-sponsored celebration of manufactured feelings.

If Telefora can make a buck off of it, I generally find it to be a tiring bag of wank.


All of this said, however, I also know myself well enough--am frank enough about my best friend, one Ms. Self-Interest--that I would think Mother's Day would be an exception to my holiday peevishness. I mean, a whole holiday about ME, to celebrate ME, to stroke ME for either having pushed a pink thing out or having one cut out and then hanging around to make sure it eats carrots every now and then and has a lint-free belly button? How could I not revel in such a day?

Indeed, Mother's Day is my truest test of Holiday Hatred. And I actually, weirdly, pass this "test," in that I find Mother's Day, like Valentine's Day and all such Daze, to be a bunch of sound and fury over me just doing what I am already committed to doing. In other words, I feel the love all the time, every day, so can't that be gratifying enough? Do I really have to expect someone to spend $2.75 on a pre-written card? (When signed at the bottom with a simple "Love, XXXX," such a card ends up feeling, as one of my good friends notes, like a freeze-dried hug.)

Yup, I can be a serious beotch about this holiday business.

But then my kids trooped in this morning, carrying the gifts their teachers (mothers themselves, eager to carry on a cultural beatification of that role) had them make in class. The Niblet had made a handprinted tile,

and I figured at the very least it's good to have his fingerprints on record.

Even better, the whole lot of them were carrying a warm coffee cake and big bowls of strawberries and pineapple. Bonus points to the crowd for good food! Feel free to do that any day, not just Mother's Day, for the love of Martha Stewart.

Then, as I dug my fork into the cinnamon/walnut cake, first-grader Girl approached me (teensy gold balls adorning her pierced ears) and proudly, excitedly, gave me her gift in a magic-markered paper bag: she had painted the heart box that you see at the start of this post, and inside of it was the Tool of My Conversion, a letter to me, written with the gift of her emerging literacy.

"Dear Mom--

Have a good time. You are kind to me. I love being with you. My favriate part is when you stay home with me. The places I like to go best with you are the park, the pool, and walks. When you go to work, I miss you. I love makeing treats with you. When ever you play outside with me I like you pushing me on the swing. When you push me in the stroller wile your running cause I like showing you wear to go also when we take walks I still like showing you wear to go.

When we go to the park I like when you chase me and play in the field. Whenever you play games with me I always win. I love when you hug and kiss me. When you run with me and I always beet you. I just like being with you. When you cook with me my favrite things to cook are brownies, cookies, cake, pie, and cupcakes. When I do swimming you always say I did good.


Love, Girl"

Sure, her note buffets me with the stark truths that:

a) kids are, ahem, damaged when their mothers work outside of the home;

b) she is seven and can beat me at any game or running race (seriously, I'm not one of those Self-Esteemer Pushers who loses on purpose so Girl can, in ten years, have the confidence to say "no" when her friends pressure her to shoplift; I'm okay with her learning that losing is part of daily life...except I'm too lame to beat her at anything);

c) she has a strong compulsion, already, to tell me where to go


d) I have passed on my "sugar is the true meth" attitude towards life to the puir wee gel

However, beyond that, it's a love letter, one that might never have been written, if not for the damned holiday. After rubbing my fingers over the lines a few times, I refolded the note laboriously and placed it back in the heart-shaped box, where it will sit on my dresser forJocelynmore.

After my eyes stopped leaking, we all went outside, where the goodness gifts kept coming; the Fam had planted some fuschia and bleeding heart--my favorites!--in our new garden space,

and every time, for the next four months, that I walk by them, I will be reminded to cease my grumbling and appreciate the pure, bare, lovely simplicity that can lurk behind the pomposity of a holiday.

Thus, it is with only the tiniest bit of eye-rolling that I wish All Who Nurture a

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"The Student"

What I love the most about teaching at a community college, which is what I do, is that the education we offer provides under-prepared students with a new type of focus and motivation. We also provide cheaper credits to students who don't want to undertake lifetime student-loan-repayment programs. Because we're accessible and low rent, mos' def, we teach an amazing cross-section of students in the community college, from returning vets, fresh off the deserts of Iraq, to recovering meth addicts, to former-stay-at-home mothers of five who are finally having their turn, to high school students who are taking advantage of Minnesota's post-secondary schooling option.

And with 150 or so of such people in my classes every semester, 'tain't never dull. But even when I get overwhelmed (as I am this week, the last week of classes, when research papers, persuasive essays, portfolios, etc. are flying with great force towards my gradebook), I always have an appreciation for my students' efforts to get themselves to college. They may not do it well, and they may not do it for the right reasons, but every now and then, the education sneaks up on them--GOTCHA-- and reorients their lives.

This was evident in an excerpt from an email sent to me by one of my students a couple of years ago. This particular student, raised in a household of fear by an alcoholic mother, has earned her way through two years of college by working at a variety of jobs, the most lucrative of which is exotic dancing. Her life story is heartrending, littered with abuse, abandonment, rape, and bipolar disorder…yet she is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful students I have ever taught. When I received this email late one night, I thought she was just sending me a copy of her posting to the online discussion about a Barbara Ehrenreich essay we had read (an excerpt from her book Nickled and Dimed). However, this student, then working at Goodwill, was feeling frustrated with the way the online discussion was going (students were adopting a "if you don't like working at Wal-Mart, just quit and get another job" stance), so she sent me this email to open her history and hammer home to me how transformative a college education can be:

I just wanted to share with you that I bought Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickled and Dimed, On (Not) Getting By in America. I identified with her experience so much it was a little scary, except of course that my slave-wage jobs were not research for a book and I was working to survive and did not start out with a car or any back up money…It will certainly be fun to leave it on the breakroom table at work. Although Goodwill purports to be one of the largest employers of former welfare recipients, I would actually make more money working for Wal-Mart, but I won’t because my manager at Goodwill is a nice crazy, older lady who is pretty easy to get along with and even though sifting through donations is often dirty and hazardous work, it’s kind of like looking for buried treasure, or at least that’s how I like to be optimistic about it. Goodwill also denies its employees full-time status in order to dodge giving them health benefits. I was disappointed to learn that even though I only make $6 an hour, have no benefits, and only work 20 hrs a week I am now denied almost all healthcare from MNCare because I am single, have no dependents, and my Goowill job puts me at 75% above the poverty line. I found this hard to believe until I read Nickled and Dimed, now I am more motivated than ever to pursue my dream job, and will at least more gratefully suffer through 10 more years of poverty than I previously have. I was really discouraged before, after reading her book I realize I am actually much better off than most people even though I too worked full-time at one point and lived in my car. It’s not a matter of people being lazy anymore so much as it is working ‘til exhaustion and still having nothing, easy to become disillusioned with the American dream, I am fortunate that I have found a way to go to college at all…I’m glad it was one of our assignments to have read part of this book, and I just wish that some of the more fortunate people…could live a month in a low-wage employee’s shoes, their feet would be very sore and their eyes would be more open…

This email humbled me and took me back to a very thoughtful place, in terms of what I do in the classroom. Sure, I get annoyed with students and their hectoring me about grades. Sure, I'm going a bit crazy this week--I never realized when I was in college that my professors weren't just lolling about in their offices, eating hard candies out of a bag kept in their top drawers, playing Corridor Crash in their rolling chairs but, in fact, were overwhelmed and stressed out and edgy, too, as they ate their hard candies and played their rolling chair games. And sure, I pretty much wish most of my students were more consistently committed to their work.

Then again, if they're not living in their cars, or are finding post-rape counseling, or have just moved out from an abusive boyfriend, maybe there's a place in my teaching for an attitude of "Okay, so this week, you missed an assignment, skipped class, lied to my face, and then turned in a crappy paper. Yet I couldn't be more delighted with you. Because you're doing what you can. You're putting one foot in front of the other. You're bruise-free; you're talking about the cruelty instead of passing it on; you have a bed. This week, my inconsistent student, you are in college, and if anything's ever going to make a lasting change for you, this is it. Come on in and give me more of your distracted, stumbling prose. We can work with it."

And with that, I'm off now to grade my 124th terribly-written paper of the week. Of course, each piece of dreck has

its own story

and, therefore,

its own worth and charm.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


My good friend Susan Lucci, having suffered an awe-inducing number of losses in the Daytime Emmys (okay, so she won once...just enough to keep her contract-renewal negotiations interesting) is multi-talented. Or perhaps she's greedy. All I know is that, in recent years, she's resorted to hawking a variety of beauty products to supplement her household's soap-operatic coffers. Without her line of QVC hair products, I fear her children would never have been able to attend college. But still, despite her healthy cash flow, does she ever call and invite me to Tavern on the Green?

The bitch.

No matter what she's pushing, though, Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Roy Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick Montgomery does it with great panache. She may be diminutive, but her passion--along with her big melon--fill the television screen and make viewers want to buy, buy, buy.

Indeed, whatever she's selling, it is always






So you can imagine my goosebumps some weeks back when I was a privileged late-night viewer of her new infomercial for Youthful Essence, a ground-breaking micro-derm abrasion system, available to me, if I ordered within the next 20 minutes, for a single-installment payment of $39.95.

I sat, rapt, on the futon couch in front of my television. The children slept. My groom slept. But Susan, she is the star that twinkles through the night. If not for her 'round-the-clock efforts, I might never have known that there is layer-upon-layer of dead skin on my face, each deposit of misbegotten skin cells holding me back from greater life achievements. If only I would take the plunge and purchase the emminently-affordable and completely-painless system, my pores...and my soul...could undergo an envigorating sloughing that would open them to a wondrous new world, a brighter future.

In case I had my doubts, Susan also had a roundtable discussion with several of her closest friends (I'm pretty sure she left me a message, asking me to participate, too, but our answering machine went on the blink a few months ago, so I must have missed it). Former All My Children colleagues, themselves devotees of the the miraculous opportunities afforded by home microderm abrasion, were more than happy to sit with La Lucci and attest to the heretofore-unbeheld powers of small crystals (mined by intrepid elves) which, when applied to the face and decolletage no more than twice a week, can restore the skin to adolescent dewiness. I only wondered momentarily, therefore, why--if their skin looks so good--the camera lens for the infomercial had been rubbed with Vaseline, the lighting was gently and purposefully "atmospheric," and they all had been Botoxed to the point that their foreheads could express no emotion. Could it be...might it have been..that the Youthful Essence didn't completely change their outer (and therefore inner) selves?

Banish the thought. They all wore their spaghetti-strapped blouses with confidence and held their lacquered faces high. And of course their visible essences of youth were entirely attributable to this astonishing product, brought to them only through their association with the Size Zero bobblehead that is Ms. Lucci.

I was lucky that night, and not just because I stumbled across their enthusiastic testimonials. Nae, I was lucky because I got off without making a frantic phone call to 1-800-ROUGHUPMYSKINSOITLOOKSPERTY and tossing 40 bucks towards a new birkhin for Susan. Because I am fundamentally pragmatic, I took a moment to gaze into the mirror, as I headed towards the telephone, to check my need for exfoliation. Fortunately, doing this helped me remember that all the ice-coating salt that is poured onto the streets during the wintery months has, of late, been airborne in the gusty spring breezes, and so my skin has been sufficiently pelted and invigorated. I don't look a day over 27 (+ 13).

The phone stayed in its cradle.

However, to imply that Susan's vigorous endorsement of concerted renewal left me untouched would be misleading. All of Susan's best work, from the time her character drove a forklift to her acceptance of her soap daughter's sexual orientation as a lesbian, is inspirational (I work weekends in a warehouse now, moving pallets, and my seven-year-old Girl must grow up and love a woman, for I am spilling over with anticipatory tolerance).

Specifically, the inspiration I took from Youthful Essence was had nothing to do with my skin. Rather, it was this: it is time to peel back the layers of our 95-year-old house and return it to its original glow. To that end, last weekend saw several layers of linoleum lifted off the kitchen floor, a process that put our feet back on the very hardwood boards treaded by the house's first pre-influenza, pre-World War I inhabitants:

And, in a slightly-more-toxic abrasion (but beauty is so worth the risk), we have started the laborious process of restoring the original woodwork. Check back with us in ten years to see how it has turned out:

So thank you, you Best Actress in a Daytime Drama winner, for reminding me of one of life's greatest lessons: everything shines a little brighter once those pesky superficial layers are scrubbed into oblivion.

Just don't tell the writers of your show, okay? Because then they might start aiming for genuine depth, and I just couldn't bear it if I had to believe your next marriage might endure.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


(photo: Sonja Wolter)

Spring is reclining upon Northern Minnesota with unaccustomed ease. Normally, our Spring takes months to really settle in; indeed, for weeks, we get buffeted about by a variety of snowstorms, mudslides, and occasional peeps of sun, which has us all wearing swimsuits accessorized by puddle boots and ear muffs. But this year, I can hardly believe we had thirteen inches of snow fall upon us a mere few weeks ago, so completely has it all disappeared.

(Thus was our tire swing during Easter week)

In fact, we've had such a stretch of warm, sunny days that I have had to hiss, throw up my cape for protection, and retire to my casket early some days. As a pasty heat-curmudgeon, I'm already missing the snow and would welcome an announcement that another three inches might fall tomorrow.

At this news, some people would be hollering "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO" like Marlon Brando chewing up the scenery with his "STELLLLLLLA" in Streetcar Named Desire. I, however, am perverse about snow and, at the prediction of an imminent blizzard, would find my feet tapping out a happy syncopation of "It's okay/I don't care/I'll just wear/fleece underwear."

Yup, some of us just like snow. Compared to my pal, Sonja, though, I am a snow dilettante. A Minnesota native, Sonja has taken her Cold Fever to new lows: she's done several tours at posts in Antarctica, and last year she was part of a four-woman crew stationed, quite remotely, in Greenland.

While such isolated polar adventures afford endless chances for wacky and creative entertainment, such as using welding equipment to make each other Christmas gifts out of refuse, there is actual serious purpose to Sonja's sojourns. In Greenland, she did science stuff, and that's as deep as I'm going to go because typing "science stuff" pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the natural world. That, and I know herpetologists study snakes (shout out to Miss Frizzle and her Magic School Bus!). But that's all I've got.

When in Greenland, Sonja and her cohorts took measurements of a variety of things, from their tempers to snowpack, as is evidenced in this photo of Sonja measuring snow depth in what they call the "bamboo forest":

By the way, she's a babe, inn't she? She can "measure my pack" any day.

So here I sit, safely watching the springtime leeks sprinkle across the muddy trails, cursing the deer for eating our tulips, mourning the season finale of 30 ROCK, while Sonja, well, she puts my snowcrazies to shame. Back in the States, she readjusts to the hectic life of traffic and reality tv, with her frostbitten nose and amputated toes, plotting her next sojourn to

a remote outpost,

someplace colder than the Jimmy Hoffa case,

a place where the pressures of the real world recede into continual darkness

a quiet spot free of the overwhelmage of humanity.

Sounds like Alec Baldwin's next cocktail party, eh?