Thursday, May 19, 2016

Oh, Youth...

It's funny to come across ancient writings and see the folly of youthful ideas and understandings. I'm talking about me, of course, and the essay below. I dug out some old 3.5 floppies a few months back and have been slowly poring through them to see what treasures I could unearth. To my surprise, there are some.

This was an interesting one to come across because I have been musing on "getting old" and I remember the night that it happened. Naturally, I'm writing about it, so stay tuned to this spot and it will show up here eventually. Meanwhile, here's a #TBT for your general amusement!

Cindy Eastman circa 1995 

Zen and the Art of Aging
May 8, 1997

            When did I get so old!?  There was a time when I was the youngest in any given group; work, school, social gatherings.   After I gave birth to my daughter, I was still  the youngest mother at the play group, the kindergarten orientations, the birthday parties.  I remember the day I met the new youngest mom - riding a bumpy school bus accompanying our kindergarten children on a field trip to the high school Vo-Ag building to see cows and pigs.  I don’t remember how the subject of age came up, I certainly didn’t initiate it, but my new friend said her birthday was in September and she would be, like, 12 and there I sat quite familiar with my 30’s.  Fine, no problem, that’s great.  I think I got older after I had my second child.  I began to hang out at new play groups and birthday parties with women whose toddlers my son’s age were their first children.  I already had an elementary school-aged daughter.   Where are all those people who were older than me?  Dead?

            Getting older never really bothered me much.  I enjoyed turning thirty because I felt like a grown up.  My mother told me she always liked age 33 because that’s how old Jesus was when he died - a reference I wasn’t sure how to take.  My (younger) brother set  most of his life goals for age 35 - if he didn’t reach one, he just moved it up a year.  No big deal.  My sister has never  cared one way or the other about age - she is the youngest and my brother and I  are always older.  My family dynamic doesn’t include age-related expectations, so I don’t  feel any pre-ordained failure associated with reaching a particular age.   For me, 34 sounded exciting because I read somewhere that I would at last reach my sexual peak.  Ironically,  34 is the age I decided to get divorced -  unfortunate timing on my part.   All in all, the aging process seemed chronologically suitable and I didn’t give it too much thought.  Until now.

            Here I am, at the brink of 40 and I can’t shake the image of a very precarious cliff at whose edge I am standing, blindfolded.   Since I spent most of my 30’s doing the divorce two-step ( two steps forward, two steps back - it’s absurd) I have arrived at this place feeling as if I should have accomplished bigger things, figured out more answers or at least have had the experience of buying a new car.   There aren’t too many regrets.   I have a couple, like my divorce lawyers, but nothing else I can’t justify given a couple of minutes.  There are a few worries that consume me occasionally, but they are situations that I can’t do anything about, like being a single parent.  Am I doing a good job, providing enough guidance?  Teenagers were meant to have two parents in residence - if only to have someone there to watch your back.  But it’s not like I’m going to remarry just to provide a relief parent, so I cross my fingers and hope my parenting is fair and just.  According to my 16 year old, it almost never is.  

            With all the wandering around my mind does, the only straw I can grasp is to keep heading in the direction I’ve chosen.  And I did choose this path.  Nobody forced me to leave college, get divorced or pass up better jobs so I could stay home with my kids.  I did those things on my own with all the wisdom - or lack thereof - each accumulated year imbued.  I suppose the ensuing life is exactly what  I deserve.  I never have enough money, I haven’t been on a plane in 10 years, I’m losing my memory and the gray keeps coming, despite annual attempts at “enhancing” it.  ( I seem to find myself in the hair color aisle every year around my birthday)  On the plus side, I am raising my kids in person, I’m not stressed out about where to hide my money from the government and if someone runs into my ‘84 Subaru in the parking lot - who cares? 

            Forty will be tough, I already know that.  I should start preparing now, save my pennies for a magnum of champagne and read lots of books on how satisfying it is to meet these milestones head on and alone.  I’m pretty sure I can talk myself into anything, if I can remember to.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Books of Life

I wrote a short email to my friend after learning that she and her husband had recently found out he has brain cancer. Her equally brief response held all the confusion and helplessness such a discovery brings. She said: “If you could quickly write a book that explains how a wife is supposed to accept this that would be great.” A grimacing smiley face followed.

I wished I could. This particular situation has not happened to me in my life, but other similarly tragic or unfair things have. Most recently, my ex-husband died suddenly and I am without a manual to tell me how to act. Sad? Nostalgic? I just don’t know. When it happened, I needed a book to tell me when to cry, where to pitch in, when to hang back. I fumbled around the best I could and still have trouble managing my emotions almost three months later.

How, then, does one attend to a tragic turn of events? Some people live a life of faith with a benevolent god and lean heavily on the understanding that some things are “meant to be.” It’s all part of a plan or heavenly will and the strength to deal with it springs from that faith. I have never been able to believe like that, but I am glad for those who can. In fact I marvel at it; for me it’s like watching someone bring beauty to a canvas out of a palette of paints or glide effortlessly across ice on two thin little blades. It’s an admirable gift, but it’s not my gift. Believing that all my grief will be taken care of once I enter heaven doesn’t help me out in the day-to-day dealings with tragedy and sadness.

Everyone deals with terrible and threatening events in their own particular way. After about twenty years together, my husband Angelo and I have reached a place in our relationship that finally looks like it might last. To say we have suffered our ups and downs doesn’t do justice to the earnest effort we’ve exerted in making our marriage work. Due to the tons of baggage that often accompany a second marriage, there were times when I wasn’t sure we would make it. Then, a trip to Italy transformed Angelo's outlook and the last six months have been a startling and surprising difference in the way we manage our relationship.  We always thought we were making it work, making sense of our relationship. But, now it’s different in ways that neither of us even dreamed it could be. We are experiencing our marriage, our relationship, in the way each of us always worked toward. We wonder how in the world we could have spent the last twenty years letting it exist the other way. If we dwell too much on that loss, it could be detrimental, but it can be difficult not to be angry or even resentful of all that lost time.

One of the ways that helped me make sense of it, though, was to remember a quote from the movie Shadowlands, the story of the relationship between CS Lewis (Jack) and Joy Davidman. Towards the end of the movie, after Joy’s diagnosis of cancer, Jack and Joy are talking about how they will deal with her death. She wants to talk about it now; he reassures her he will be able to handle it when the time comes. But she wants more than that; it can be “better than that.” She says, “the pain then is part of the happiness now. That's the deal.” She was looking ahead, to her eventual decline and death--culminating in asking the unanswerable question: why?

There is no answer, really, no reasons to explain terrible things. There is no reason why children get beaten to death, earthquakes ravage towns, families go homeless or husbands get brain cancer.  My own issue seems small compared to what others deal with, the pain others endure, but for me, right now, it’s pain in my life. Because I am lamenting our squandered years (and probably because of my ex-husband’s recent death) I am experiencing a high level of vigilance about Angelo's health and well-being. When he didn’t text me for three hours one afternoon after he set off on his eagerly awaited trip to IKEA, I imagined him lying by the side of the road, victim of a car accident. He was fine...just excited to be at IKEA. I am so afraid that the happiness we are enjoying will be taken away. But if I let fear help me make sense of what our life is like now, it will only be me who is taking away this chance we have.

And so we make meaning of our lives. With all the tools and skills and feelings and understanding that exist in our body and in our being right this minute. Whether or not that includes God or the Universe or another higher power or infinite energy, we decide how our life makes sense. It was silly of me to imagine Angelo dying by the side of the road, absurd and unreasonable. But I let a little of that in for just a minute because, for me, it is like Joy’s quote. She was anticipating the pain to come and acknowledging that pain would allow the happiness they were experiencing now to be meaningful. For me and Angelo, the time we wasted is painful, but it is in the past and it is part of what we are experiencing now. The happiness now is part of the pain then.

I don’t think we are meant to “accept” loss and tragedy. They come into our lives both suddenly and with advance warning. They wreck everything in sight and thrash about without prejudice--loss and tragedy impact everyone, no one is immune or safe from it. It’s unfair. I believe the only protection is love, however that manifests in each individual’s life, and the meaning we give to each of our experiences. How could it ever make sense that we lose someone we love so much? It doesn’t. Humans make sense, arbitrary phenomena does not.

If I could write a book for my friend, I would want to fill it with real things she could do to deal with this unimaginable blow. A recipe for coping, with actual ingredients and steps to follow. Instructions, helpful tips and time-honored strategies that will walk her through every minute of fear, vulnerability and sorrow. But, that book isn’t written by others--it is ours alone to write. How could I tell her what to do? The truth is, she will know what to do. Her fear will turn into courage and her sadness will turn into strength. She already has her book. We all do.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

That's What Friends Are For

Supposedly, Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield first used the word 'etiquette' in its modern meaning

Facebook is a big deal and everyone from your mother’s boarding school roommate in 1946 to the former student who now sells you your weekly Malbec at the local liquor store has a profile. What began as a printed directory (a university “face book”) for college students to get to know each other at the start of the academic year is now a worldwide multibillion-dollar social media business, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg. (My son, kind of an old-fashioned guy, still won’t friend me because I’m not a college student.)

In keeping with a multibillion-dollar business, Facebook has a seven-page Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to which to adhere. There is a separate webpage to cover Data information and collection and yet another for Community standards, i.e; how to report harassment, dangerous organizations or criminal activity. But nowhere is there any mention of etiquette. I suppose I’ll have to do it.

1. When you see a picture of an adorable baby or a puppy cuddling a kitten, the correct response is “Awww...” not “Awe.”  If the baby is eating the kitten, you may be in awe, but even then it is not the appropriate comment. Try, “Sweet Mother of God, keep that stuff off of Facebook!”

2.  Facebook is for your personal use and not a forum for all the people in the world who disagree with you. It is, however,  a very public forum and you and you alone are in control of that. This means that if you post your opinion, someone, probably a “friend” is going to come along and comment on it. If you enjoy such banter, post away. If you don’t want such nonsense mucking up your perfectly reasonable observations on politics, women’s issues or religion adjust your privacy settings accordingly. That’s what they’re there for and that’s what makes your Facebook page personal.

3. Back to the personal use thing: I once posted an announcement about a contest I had lost, but that I was happy to have been a part of it. One of my “friends” came along and added a comment that she had won the very same contest! I thought it was a little tacky, to say the least. I’ve seen this over and over again--people jumping on someone else’s bandwagon to promote their own good fortune. Good for you if you are finding success. But that’s what your Facebook page is for; don’t blab it all over all your friends’ pages. Really. Have some class.

4. And speaking of minding your own business, there’s nothing more irritating than being a part of a conversation thread about, say, your community’s conservation efforts and having two or more participants begin a whole other conversation about their vacation plans. Or their mother-in-law’s hiatal hernia surgery or any other off-topic subject. Again, this is what your own page is for, or better yet--pick up the phone and call, text or email them personally. We community minded sort aren’t really interested in poor Mildred’s reaction to anesthesia. Seriously. 

5. One of the great things (or creepy things depending on who’s looking) is being able to see all the beautiful and stunning pictures people post of their new homes, their exotic vacations, or their adorable grandchildren. It’s one of the things I love about Facebook because it has allowed me to reconnect with many family members and old friends. I especially love seeing that all my former high school classmates look as old as I do. (Most of them, there are a couple of women I am definitely going to stay away from when the cameras come out. They are stunning.)  I enjoy clicking through four or five pics of sandy beaches, beautiful blue eyes peeping out from an Easter bonnet or a family sitting down to a sumptuous meal at Christmas or Passover. What I don’t enjoy are a hundred of these pictures. Sometimes there is a little +97 in a box to indicate what you’re getting yourself in for, but I guess sometimes miss it. There I am, twenty minutes later, still looking at your damn beach house. I get it. You’re lucky. Put your camera down.

So, there you have it . . . a few guidelines on decorum and good manners to help everyone continue to be friends on Facebook. I’m sure other issues will come up from time to time and I promise you I will bring them to your attention.

I just want to be a good friend. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

It's only human

A pissoir with three stalls, Paris, ca.1865
I was talking to a couple of women the other day, who I will not identify because we were talking about peeing. The topic was where and if you can “go.” (For the purposes of this essay, we’ll just use the word “go” to differentiate from simply peeing. I’m polite that way.)

Anyway, I said that I can go anywhere--public, private--if there’s a seat with a hole in it I probably won’t have a problem . . . suspicious smells and flimsy locks notwithstanding. But even the lack of a lock won’t stop me if I really have to go. Holding the door closed or securing it with my purse strap usually does the trick. The other two ladies did not share my comfort level with this process. One of them said she could pee in most bathrooms but that’s it. The other one said she just saves it all up for home. I pictured myself knocking down pets and small children on my way to the bathroom if I tried waiting all day.

Maybe when I was younger and had to work in offices where there was a constant stream (pun intended) of bathroom users going in and out of the facilities, I might have been more private about my functions. As I’ve gotten older, the concern that others might know I’m peeing has waned to the point of being almost non-existent. I go in, attend to business, wash my hands and leave. I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings or to who else is in there because their business is not my business. Only recently have I become aware of others in the public bathrooms and that is because some people apparently can’t put down their cell phones even when they are peeing. The first time it happened, hearing another woman talking in one of the stalls, made me a little curious because I couldn’t imagine how two people could fit into that little stall and what were they doing in there anyway? Until I realized the woman was on the phone. That’s gross on so many levels, not to mention having to be the person on the other end, listening to what you can clearly hear. Nobody call me while they’re peeing, please.

But, here’s why I’m talking about this most basic of human functions: It’s a basic function. It’s not a political function or a social function. It’s a basic human function. If you’re a human, you have to go to the bathroom. Just ask Abraham Maslow. Maslow identified a hierarchy of human needs that have to be addressed in order for a person to thrive and grow. On the very first level, before anything else can take place, are the basic needs: Breathing, water, food, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. Basic. That means everyone has to do it and nobody should be able to tell anyone else how to do it. That’s why we have bathrooms in our homes and out in public and everyone knows what to do when they get there.

The so-called bathroom bills that have stirred the latest pot of fear and controversy are discriminatory and dangerous and not in the way you think. Chances are pretty good that if you are worried about your son or daughter, you’ve been listening to some fear-mongers. Most of the people I know go to the bathroom like I do; with little in mind but to pee, wash their hands and leave. This includes the people I know who are transgender. To deny any person this basic human right is, in my opinion, outside of legislation.

Will there be the occasional ass/headline chaser who tries to create fear and panic by spreading stories about the dangers of “letting” people use the bathroom? Of course. That’s because asses live among us in every corner of American life. People act out of anxiety and ignorance because they don’t bother to find out about the other humans with whom we live alongside. It’s scary out there sometimes. I know this. But bathrooms aren’t what we should be scared of.  There are plenty of things we can turn our attention to before we start worrying who is using the bathroom. (And who are the guys writing these bills, anyway? I think I’m more worried about them.) Besides, if you’re that concerned about bathrooms, you can always hold it until you get home.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My Erma entry

Probably either "Clean the gutters" or "the house needs painting"

If there's one thing you can say about me, it's that I can be persistent. (Never mind those other things right now...) I have entered the Erma Bombeck Writing contest the last three times it's been held and each time I have failed to win, place or show. But I have my own blog, don't I? Without further ado, I submit to you my 2016 entry...

Honey Do
You know how ancient cave paintings are assumed to be some meaningful representation of Neanderthal life? A symbolic, historic creation, most likely illustrated by a caveman elder or chief?  I don’t believe it. I think the artists behind all those drawings were cave women. And I think those drawings are the first Honey-Do lists.

That’s right, the age-old Honey-Do List. As in, “Honey, do this. Honey, do that.” That stick figure chasing a wolf? It’s not hunting--this clearly translates as, “Take the dog out.” Images of boar and mastodon etched in stone supposedly for “hunting magic”? Nope. “Pick up dinner on the way home.” And I’m pretty sure the human figures depicted balancing large red discs in their hands is Neanderthal for “Put the dishes away.”

The Honey-Do list placement has to be strategic. (It’s probably why they first appeared on the walls.) If my list isn’t positioned prominently on the fridge, the things I need my husband to do rarely get crossed off. Unless the season changes . . . no sense installing screens in December. Make it too obvious, say, taped to the rear view mirror in the car and you’re being obnoxious. Leave it helpfully on the counter next to the birthday card he has to sign for his mother and it wasn’t noticeable enough: He would have checked the list, but he couldn’t find it.

Even everyday tasks require supervision. On one day alone I returned the kitchen scissors to the knife block after my husband used them to cut duct tape; vacuumed up tortilla chip crumbs from in front of the couch where he sits to check his email; replenished the ice tray after he filled his water bottle; retrieved his hat from the bathroom and returned it to the “hat and glove” basket--purchased specifically for keeping track of hats and gloves, and signed and mailed the aforementioned birthday card. He went off to get a haircut with barely a backward glance at the chaos left in his wake. Was he raised in a cave?

Then there are the days my husband doesn’t seem to need a list at all. One night, he picked up take-out from my favorite Thai restaurant (which I ordered), took the dog out for a walk in the cold winter evening (after I found the leash), and put the dishes away (once I washed them). Afterward, as he “watched” the 11 o’clock news, I covered him with a blanket and joined him on the couch. “Thanks, honey,” he mumbled sleepily, reaching for my hand, “I love you.”
He can get to the rest of the list later.

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Conversation with Myself

Based on a true story.

It was a rainy and cool Sunday that promised a lazy morning in comfies and nothing more strenuous than possibly a few passes at the laundry pile. Literally hours stretched before me to do . . . what? 
“I don’t know what to do,” I mused aloud.

“Yes, you do.” The disembodied voice came from just behind my left ear. I turned to see who was bothering me. (I didn’t turn fast . . . I was reasonably certain no one was in the house besides me and Angelo.) Disembodied or not, the voice had a point. I did know what to do. I could write, I could read. I could catch up on email. All productive activities that required my attention. However, I was leaning towards earning another level or two in Hungry Babies. (Don’t ask.)

Then, that voice again.
“You’re some writer. Didn’t I see an event on iCal that actually says “Writing” for today?”
That sounded like a challenge. I don’t care who had the gall to interrupt my Sunday morning; a challenge must be met with self-assurance. 

“Well, yes, but, because of my schedule, my writing times are flexible. I move them around to fit in when I can.”


Clearly, what I was hearing was the voice of my inner, nagging critic and she decided to make an appearance and butt in on my indecisiveness this morning. Apparently she thought she could goad me into doing something more industrious than catching up on the news from my daily Skimm email. Voice identified, I was pretty certain I could hold my own in this verbal contretemps.

“I haven’t had breakfast yet. Angelo is going to build a fire and I was going to read…”

“How much breakfast do you need? And Angelo can build a fire while you write...he doesn’t need your help.”

Why don’t inner voices sleep in on Sundays?

“Alright, alright. Fine,” I said. (I drew the line at acknowledging she was right.)

“Who are you talking to?” asked Angelo, heading towards the fireplace with an armful of kindling.

“No one important,” I said. (Ha! Take that, inner critic!)  I pulled my laptop out of my work bag and booted it up.

It turns out, it was a great morning for sitting in front of a fire and catching up on writing. Not responding to email or reading the thriller I was 100 pages away from finishing or even wasting an hour on the silly game I originally downloaded for Luca. Actual, satisfying, long overdue writing. My inner critic is always making me second-guess myself, in just about everything I do: parenting, grandparenting, finances, clothes, potato chips (I usually win that one). I should spend more time listening, though, because, isn’t my inner critic essentially a combination of my own intuition and learned lessons?  That’s the last thing I’ll tell her, though. Like she needs any more encouragement.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Luca the Brave

Sure kids! Go play right down there by the road!
In case you missed it, I have a grandson. Luca is wonderfully smart and capable. He’s articulate, with an amazing ability to problem-solve and process information and he gets along well with others. And we’ve barely let him out of our sight for more than a minute for all of his four and a half years. Until last night.

There’s no need to worry . . . he wasn’t lost. And honestly, he has spent some time out of our sight; he plays in his room or goes to the bathroom without even one pair of eyes on him. Twice in his young life, he and his parents lived with Angelo and me, so that meant, at the very least, one of at least four adults was always aware of his whereabouts. And at the most...all four of us had eyes on his every move. Hostages don’t get that kind of attention.

But, he does need attention, so last night, when Daddy was at work and Mommy needed to get some grocery shopping done, Papa and I got to “watch” Luca. We had plans--there was a magic show at the church right down the street. After a quick dinner of apple slices and chicken nuggets (for him...our more adult dinner would be later. Think wine and cheese) we got our coats and walked to the show. It was as one might expect:  Hordes of kids hopped up on Keebler cookies and lemonade cheered and jumped at the magician’s tricks. Luca sat with us, also slightly hopped up on a couple of fudge-striped cookies and the one brownie I let him have. When the show was over, he was ready to roll...and we nearly ran back home.  About five feet from the edge of his yard, he looked at me and said, “Gramma. You go this way and I’ll go that way.” The door we use is at the back of the house, so he was suggesting that I head around this side of the house and he would go around that side. Meaning he would continue on down the sidewalk, walk up the driveway and go to the back door. By himself.

His little face exuded so much confidence that I said, “Okay. See you in a few!” And off he went, strutting self-assuredly in the direction of the driveway.
“Where is he going?” asked Angelo.
“Around back,” I told him and I turned and raced towards the back of the house. In the 5 seconds it took me to get there, I imagined 14 horrific scenarios where this hadn’t been a good idea. I reached the stones of the back patio and I continued check on Luca’s progress. But, before I could get a foot further,  there he came...same confident stride, hands in his pockets, looking as if walking up the driveway alone was something he did every day. I backed up a little so he couldn’t tell I was about to come looking for him. I walked toward the door to unlock it as if I had just gotten there myself.

“Good job, Lu,” I said, opening the door and letting him in. Right behind us came an anxious Papa. He had followed a distance...up the driveway. “Is he here?” he asked and looked quite relieved when he saw him already in the kitchen, taking off his coat and shoes and putting them in the closet. When relating the story later, to Mommy and Daddy, he added each time, “and it was dark!” He was so proud of himself.

It made me think of a time when I was about six years old. It’s a fuzzy memory, but it goes something like this: Some terrible transgression had been committed against me, probably involving my siblings.  I was either sent to my room or I stormed off there. At some point I decided I should run away from the unfairness of it all and I packed up my little red suitcase and snuck out the front door of my house. I made it outside without discovery, which was too bad, because my plan probably didn’t include “after I get outside...”  I ended up sitting on my suitcase in the small space between the garage and the house. I don’t know how long I sat there--it seemed like hours. All I remember is that no one came looking for me. The memory dims at that point; I don’t remember going back inside, whether or not anyone noticed or if I simply snuck back upstairs and unpacked.

How different that is from our vigilance with Luca. And not only him, but with most kids today. Yes, there are greater concerns about leaving our kids to their own “devices” but how do they discover their independence? Luca was confident and so proud at his success, I wonder how often we deny our kids that important, self-esteem-building feeling. I used to walk the half a mile to my elementary school. My own kids used to walk to the library from our Main Street apartment, also about a half a mile. Now, I felt like letting Luca walk up the driveway alone was bordering on negligent. Of course, he’s four. But I think I’m going to let him do it again.