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Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year: A Few Words of Advice for 2013

Dear 2013,

I know that's it's your first official day on the job, and that you're probably up to your elbows in it as you and your staff set up your new offices. I hope that the move in wasn't too taxing, especially since we all know that 2012 had a nasty habit of leaving a mess behind (fiscal cliff, anyone??). And while I don't wish to speak ill of someone not here to defend themselves, let me be frank - there's a lot of us around here who are glad to see 2012 go. Look, I'm not a gossip, but, personally, I think that 2012 had a bad attitude. He was difficult to work with, uncooperative, and moody as hell. Don't get me wrong! 2012 could be nice...sometimes. But, it never lasted for very long, and soon, he'd have one of his epic temper tantrums, and, oh boy, you just wished you could skip ahead and get to 2013!

Which leads me to my next point - watch your back 2013. Look, there are a lot of people around here who say they want to be your friend. On December 31st, they'll raise their glasses and toast to you. For the first month, they'll even say things like, "Happy New Year," like they're wishing you well. But, no one will ever ask you if YOU'RE happy, 2013. And the next time December 31st rolls around, those same people who praised you in the beginning will curse you. Think this can't happen to you?? Just take a look at 2012. Yes, that gnarled, withered old man, limping along with a cane, with the scraggly beard and the tired, sad eyes - he started out young and spry, just like you, with the dewy skin and the bright, innocent eyes of a happy baby. So do your best, 2013, but prepare yourself. There are going to be people who will say that they can't wait for you to be over. A lot of people are going to compare you to 2012, and there are even some who thought they were smart enough to predict how you'd turn out. Try not to listen to them. Every year that has gone before you leaves with some regret, some secret or not-so-secret thing left undone. My advice? Don't worry about it - it'll keep until the New Year:)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Moving Furniture

On the night before my dad's funeral, Hurricane Sandy came ashore, with furious wind gusts and drenching rains. After the worst of the storm had passed, my husband and I went around the house assessing the damage, starting in the basement where we had taken shelter, and working our way upstairs, where we spotted water damage in the two guest rooms that lied underneath our dormer windows. It was 2am, but we quickly went into action, removing all of the contents of both rooms into the hallway and into our bedroom. One room had become a dumping ground for contents from the bachelorette pad that I had before we were married, as well as all of the odds and ends from past vacations, including dusty guide books and maps, and old music scores and photography books. I laughed at the absurdity of it all - emptying out a room I'd scarecly paid attention to on the eve of my father's funeral, but it all made sense, somehow.

I'd often taken to moving furniture around. From the time I was a little girl, I often felt the need for spacial realignment. I started out small, relocating the white quilted hamper that held my grandmother's crocheted handiwork, and my stuffed animal collection, from just behind my bedroom door to a spot in front of the window. This move would, of course, necessitate the move of my rocking chair away from the window and into the corner to the right of the window. And, because the bed and the dresser were stationary in my space plan, that meant that the rocking chair, which had been facing the side of the bed when it was in front of the window, would now have to face the door, which was a perfect diagonal.

By the time I got to college, my dorm room reconfiguration seemed to coincide with midterms and finals, and it continued at that pace through graduate school, with some additional turns after a couple of bad break-ups (heck, it beat gulping down a pint of ice cream:). After grad school, my need for space reconfiguration was synced to the seasons, and since I was living in a large studio apartment with hardwood floors, it was like conducting my life in a black box theatre where I was the cast, crew, director, and stage manager. Every time my parents would visit, they'd remark about what was different, and lend their own suggestions for future furniture remixes.

When I got married and moved into our home, I found out that not everyone likes coming home to a completely altered space. There are people in this world who, apparently, like things to stay in their place. Oh, I tried - boy, did I try! But, all that it got me was a sore back and the realization that married people furniture is far heavier than single lady furniture! It also got me into endless discussions as to why the furniture needed to be moved in the first place. Apparently, my answer - "because I felt like moving it" - was not acceptable, nor did it meet the rigorous standards of logic set forth by my husband, but it does follow the standard for emotional logic.

Moving things around changes so much - it's like walking into a new space, or making fresh discoveries about the space in which you live for 365 days of the year. When I would come back to my apartment after a day of moving around the furniture, it was like seeing my home anew, like stepping off of the plane in a new country. But, there is also something much deeper at play. Moving a chair from the window to the wall is creativity on a small scale. It is creativity that is, literally, bounded by the walls of the room. This is creativity with rules, with mental training wheels, and I had, over the years, become too scared to perform even this minimally risky task.  Standing there, in the hallway on the night before Dad's funeral, I was moving furniture and I was smiling that in the midst of losing Dad, that somehow, through some divine intervention, my father had helped me find a piece of myself that I had buried.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Good Grief?

I am tired. More tired than I have ever been in my life. In the weeks since my father's death, I have attempted to drag my family through the holiday minefield. Thanksgiving dinner had the feel of a second funeral with all of us doing our best to give a stiff upper lip at a generic restaurant buffet. Black Friday was packed with an outing to see Christmas decorations, along with a birthday luncheon for Mom, and a Christmas tree lighting. The past few weekends have been a red and green blur, with field trips to Christmas concerts, holiday parties, and more Christmas lights. My young nephews enjoy the spectacle, and we indulge them with  cookies and candy and promises of more, more, more. But, if I said that I was doing all of this just for my nephews, and just for my family, I'd be lying. In the midst of grief, I want to dig into life until I'm up to my elbows in it. I want endless days filled with noise because the quiet and the dark are just too much right now.

But, still, I'm tired. So maybe it's time that I let myself grieve. Even now, at this inconvenient time - when it would be easier to swill some eggnog, put on my Christmas sweater and get with the program. Maybe it's OK to sleep a little longer and sit out a few holiday parties. Maybe it's cool to NOT feel like Christmas shopping and maybe I can be forgiven for not having my Christmas cards signed, sealed, and delivered before Christmas Day. Maybe it's alright to be still and to face all of the fear and the pain and the doubt that grief brings to the surface. In grief, life and death come face to face with one another, and while dwelling on this fact can destroy you, denying this fact will exhaust you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Of Loss and Pound Cake

I woke up this morning as if from a dream. Things looked the same, on the surface, but it was as if they had been tampered with, moved around, and then put back in place. It has been two weeks since my dad's death and nothing feels the same, so I went to the grocery store. The grocery store has always been my oasis - my place of zen. The grocery store is routine. It's "normal," awash in harsh florescent light, wide aisles, and that punch of fresh-fruit funk as the automatic doors slide open ushering you inside.

I strolled around, listless, starting in HBA (that's health and beauty aids for the unschooled:), and after sizing up the season's newest hand soap scents, I made for the frozen food  cases and that most comforting of comfort foods, a Sara Lee Butter Pound Cake. I've been a Sara Lee Butter Pound Cake aficionado for decades, starting in elementary school when Mom would buy one for the holiday dessert. The buttery goodness started with that top layer of shiny crust, once you uncrimped the foil, pulling back the cardboard paper, and then the protective rectangle of wax paper.  The actual interior of the cake was OK - a bit dry - but it was really the handmaiden to that top crust. And while the top crust was the main attraction, it had a very attractive co-star in what I can only describe as the dense, buttery residue left at the bottom of the Sara Lee Butter Pound Cake tin. These weren't your ordinary cake crumbs - no, these had been molded into a wondrous lining and it could only be removed by spoon (or knife, but this always managed to destroy the tin).

I took my pound cake home and began my ritual today, only, something was off, way off. I uncrimped the foil and began pulling up the cardboard cover, but there was a problem. My top layer of shiny cake crust was gone. The super-dense, dry cake interior that had given me so much comfort during college finals, grad school break-ups, and wedding-planning anxiety, had been replaced by a spongy, springy mess. I spat it out and looked dejectedly at the box, wondering how I had been betrayed by such an old friend as Sara Lee. My cake looked the same but it was strange and different, and all without my knowledge or consent.

I was angry! Yes, over a piece of cake, but so much more. Dad's death has been the death of the life I knew - the life where I have two parents, alive, and just a phone call/text message/email/car ride away, and the comfort that provided to me. And while my life may look the same on the surface, right now, at the core of me, there is heartache and grief.

And while you could say that it's just a piece of cake and not the end of the world, it IS an end.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Ain't Misbehavin' or How Cancer Made a Good Girl Go Bad

I've always been a good girl. At least that's what people used to tell me. As a little girl, I was unfailingly polite, speaking only when spoken to, and doing what my parents told me to do. In school, I was the student who got good grades (actually, I got great grades!), who didn't talk/pass notes/fall asleep during class, and who did her homework without parental prompting. I went to bed at my bedtime, and was dressed and ready for school in the morning. Books were my constant companion, as were a series of spiral, college-ruled notebooks into which I poured all manner of short stories and illustrations during car trips or any other time when, as the good girl, I was expected to be quiet and entertain myself.

As the good girl, I worked hard, but accepted whatever fate had in store for me - no questions asked. If someone stepped ahead of me in line, while I might have cursed them inside, outside, I was a sea of tranquility, patiently waiting, a hard smile on my face. If a waiter placed an undercooked steak in front of me, well I just ate the bits that looked the most well-done - no need in embarrassing the waitstaff and the kitchen! Long line at the Post Office - no worries, I'll just read the New York Times on my PDA while I'm waiting.

Being a good girl meant that I was always on my best behavior, but being polite doesn't always mean being honest. And when a truth like cancer enters your life, being a good girl doesn't seem so important, because, let's be honest, cancer is a nasty little bitch whose face I want to slap every time I see her - no offense. She has brought my dad to his knees in agony, and made him scream in pain while doctors poke and prod at him. For the past month, she has ripped a hole in the blue sky that was my family. And she  has forced me to act in ways that no good girl should - questioning authority, demanding more time, more attention, more options. In short, I may have surrendered my title as good girl, but I am becoming something more, someone different - a good daughter and a good woman.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cast-Offs: The Strange World of the Married without Children

Last year about this time I wrote of the common misconceptions made about those who have not conceived, whether by chance or by choice. The response to that piece has been and continues to be overwhelming - from both friends and family who are squarely on the baby bandwagon, and those who for various reasons are not. The discussions reached a fever pitch this year with the release of Jennifer Westfeldt's motion picture, "Friends with Kids,"a relationship piece that put the breeding wars front and center. This year also marked my tenth wedding anniversary and my fortieth birthday, two milestone events that force an appraisal of your life whether you want to or not. Well, I'm happy to report that the state of our union is good, very good, except for the one thing that's missing - our friends!

What? You thought I was going to say a child, didn't you? But, no, we've got plenty of children - nephews and the children of our friends who have become like our nieces and nephews, thus significantly expanding the kiddie pool. We have friends who have successfully adopted, and others who are still waiting, but hopeful. And there are even friends who've been paid surprise visits by the Stork, well after they had given away the last of the onesies and forgotten how to work the breast pump. It would seem our life is teeming with children, but not our friends.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, we get to experience the daily highs and lows of our friends and their families. We see happy babies on bouncies, 8-year-olds in their baseball uniforms, and a tutu or two on precious little ballerinas. We hear about scouting trips and epic Girl Scout Cookie sales figures to rival Mrs. Fields. Our more tech-savvy friends get us breaking news live Tweets from the scene of paint-peeling toddler temper tantrums and showdowns in the Babies R Us parking lot with suv-driving SOBs who almost mow them down while they and their little one are attempting to walk to their car. But that's all we get.

Somewhere between labor and delivery to high school graduation (and sometimes beyond), we got cast aside. Now, to be fair, it's been well-documented that parenting comes with all sorts of trade-offs and compromises - time, sleep, you know the drill, and I know the drill because I hear about it...a lot. My husband and I would be the super-understanding couple when our new-parent friends would cancel plans/not call/not invite us to their children's birthday parties. "No problem," we'd reply, "Of course it's ok." The problem, though, is that once your friends go from new-parent to just parent, the excuses don't stop, and soon, your parent-friends are friends with other parents and not you.

There was one parent couple who were always busy with their kids' merciless, and bottomless, schedule of team sport practices, games, recitals, sleepovers, camping trips, etc, ad nauseum. If we wanted to see them, we had to contact them months in advance, and even then, those plans could be changed on a dime if there was a last-minute scheduling oversight or the sniffles. We issued our standard, "no problem," but then we found out that our superbusy parent friends were apparently NOT too busy for the parents of their children's classmates/teammates. We felt betrayed, like a jealous lover thrown over for some shiny, new thing. These were our friends, in whom we confided our thoughts and feelings, with whom we'd shared meals and memories, and to whom we'd given an abundance of benefit of the doubt.  We had been moved from the A-list to the D-list on the friendship scale!

I know this isn't high school, but it certainly has the stink of high school where friendships are based on the "are you like me" index. I may not know the name of a good lactation consultant, but is that the ONLY thing two people can discuss?

So what are my options? Well, there aren't as many as you would imagine. While we do know couples who are child-less and child-free, most keep their schedules chock-a-block full, with every moment budgeted for work, volunteering, and travel. These couples are the ones who chair church committees and tirelessly perform community service (non-court ordered, I should add!!). They are on the boards of nonprofits and sing in community choirs. They have annual theatre subscriptions and love attending concerts by the local symphony orchestra, and, odds are that they've eaten at that hip new restaurant well before Yelp/Urbanspoon/Zagat has rated it. The reasons for the packed dancecard vary - for most it's a genuine interest in new experiences, but for some, there's a bit of wanting to avoid looking like they're bored or unhappy waiting for their parent-friends to call. Whatever the case, apparently our public relations masterplan has worked, because our parent-friends believe that they're doing us a favor by not calling!

Think about this, when that rare parent-friend does call or email (unprompted), what's the the thing they all say within the first 60 seconds/10 words? Is it something like "Wow, you guys are so busy!"?? 

Don't fall for it - it's a trap!

Implied in that statement is this: We would call you more often, but we figured since you're so busy it wouldn't matter if we called, so we don't. Get it?? It's YOUR fault that your parent-friends aren't calling. But it's not your fault, they simply don't want to be your friends anymore.

Sounds harsh? Well, it's time for some tough love. As selfless and sacrificing as parents are called to be in their role of unpaid caregiver, parenting is an extremely selfish endeavor. Parents move heaven and earth for their children and their family unit. Whatever resource they have - of time, effort, money, etc. - is used up in the service of their individual family. If there is a remainder, it must be fed back to the family unit. Society expects this, hell, society demands this. The definition of a "good parent" leaves no margin for friendships that don't do double-duty. If you're a good parent, you expose your children to numerous opportunities for enrichment - sports, music, nature, art, foreign languages, religious instruction. So you develop friendships of survival and convenience with the other moms and dads whose children are also involved in the same sports, music, nature, art, foreign language, religious instruction enrichment opportunities as your children. It's not long before the mom who your child carpools with after softball practice becomes your friend, and soon you're both sitting in the stands, swapping recipes and exchanging thoughts on the latest gossip surrounding the new ball field upgrade. And while it's great that you're making friends with a fellow traveler on your parenthood path, you're also leaving behind a friend, and a new cast-off is born. And worst of all is that you justify it by saying to yourself, "well, she's SO busy all the time, I'm sure she's got lots to do."

Here's the thing - a packed to-do list can't replace a friendship that's taken years to develop and nurture.

So what can be done? Maybe we need to go a bit "old school" with our notions of parenting and friendship. Growing up, my mom's closest friends were a mix of single, married without children, and empty-nester. When Mom wanted to see her friends, she'd pack us in the car and over to their homes we would go. My sister and I would sit reading a book or watching TV while Mom caught up with her friends. These women became my Aunties and they've remained important in my mom's life as well as the life of our family. Their enduring friendship is the model for my own friendships where the line of demarcation is not drawn at the car-seat, well, at least not by me.

I'm just saying.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Did Bias Kill Trayvon Martin?

Growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, I lived a life of relative security among a community of people who were brown like me. My neighborhood was African American, and the Catholic school I attended, which was run by black nuns, had a student body comprised of only black children. And while we ventured into Washington, DC frequently to visit family and friends, and for Mom's visit to her hairdresser, we seemed always to be in a part of town inhabited only by other black people. For a time, the only white faces I saw were at the grocery store or on television, or on those occasions when we'd visit Mom's job or the museums on the National Mall.

And then it all changed.

It was a family trip down to Birmingham, Alabama to attend my Godfather's wedding. Dozens of my extended family made the trip down south and we took a block of rooms at a hotel downtown. It was an adventure, but on one afternoon, that adventure turned into something ominous when the hotel manager called with some disturbing news - the KKK were having a rally in downtown Birmingham, not too far from our hotel, and the manager thought that for our own good we might just want to stay indoors. Mom quickly gathered all of the adult family members and for the first time in my life I saw fear in Mom's eyes, and something else that I couldn't name at that time, but that I can now some 35 years later - anger. Mom was angry that after all she had done to shield her little girls from racism, here it was, breaking in, in the guise of faceless, hooded men in white sheets. After all that she had done to protect my sister and I, here we were, forced to sit in a hotel room and pray that the terror would pass.

It's a natural instinct to try to protect your children from hurt and harm and danger. But what about those threats of a more insidious nature? What about the threat of bias?

Bias is one of those words that's been given a black eye. In the 1990's, gender bias was a cause celeb, with women rallying to stamp it out in the workplace and on college campuses. Gender bias owed a lot to its immediate predecessor, media bias, which had been the subject of countless journalism school courses and public opinion polls in the 1980's. By the time we made it to the 2000's, though, bias was starting to lose its edge. It was being reduced to a fad, a relic of the politically-correct that was being used to attack free speech and subvert the so-called natural order of things. Bias lawsuits are notoriously difficult to pursue if you're the plaintiff because of the legal standards one must meet to prove their case, including direct evidence of discrimination, such as letters, memos, and notes showing a pattern of bias. Without them, bias cases turn into my word against yours.

Bias is defined as "A particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question; prejudice."
A particular tendency or inclination?

It sounds harmless, almost, but it's not. While DISCRIMINATION is a hard word of intentional action with very clear cut legal ramifications, bias seems its vague relative. A particular tendency. But with the murder of Trayvon Martin, there should be no doubt of the awful power of bias. If discrimination is the engine, then bias is the fuel. All week,  as varying accounts of George Zimmerman have started to emerge- law enforcement wannabe, trusted neighbor, racist vigilante - I've been most curious about two particular facts that have been trotted out by friends of Zimmerman: that Zimmerman is Hispanic and that he has black relatives. Neither of these facts negates bias. I've had white friends who wouldn't think of dating someone black. The fact of our friendship doesn't absolve them of bias. I have black male relatives who think that women shouldn't earn as much as men. The fact of their blackness doesn't absolve them of bias.

A fascinating study is currently being conducted called Project Implicit. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard, along with Dr. Brian Nosek and Dr. Tony Greenwald devised the project in order to uncover the implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unable or unwilling to admit. Through a series of online questions called Implicit Association Tests (IATs), you can see patterns of implicit bias in your own thoughts and attitudes. It makes you wonder if that song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the musical, "Avenue Q", is true and if we have something more to fear than some hatemongering men in white hoods and white sheets. 

So did bias kill Trayvon Martin? Was it bias that made Zimmerman suspect that a young black boy was up to no good? Was it bias that made Zimmerman reach for his gun? If it had been a 14-year old hoodie-wearing white girl lost and looking for her house that night would we be talking about this? 

I'm just saying.