Sunday, December 30, 2007

Treasured Truths

I am a baby boomer. To those of you raised in saner times, you must wonder why we boomers chose to rebel when we reached young adulthood. After all, how DOES one explain Woodstock or be-ins or the great bra barbeques of the late sixties?
It all goes back to important truths our parents taught us as children. Some of them were amusing, most were confusing and all have the stamp of mid-America in the 1950s and 60s. Unfortunately for my parents and for me, I was one of those kids who never quite “got” the point of their exhortations and now, looking back, they make me smile.

For example, a precept learned at my father’s knee concerned the evils of communism. As I understood it at age five, communism was a disease that you could catch if you talked with someone who had it. It was akin to small pox, polio and measles. As a child used to vaccinations and sugar cube doses, I expected a shot would be forthcoming.

I was willing to accept without question the idea that ‘America is the best country in the world’ until I realized that the people who said that had never been to any other countries. Since I was a simple minded kid, I couldn’t understand the use of the word ‘best’ without a basis for comparison. My relatives scowled and suggested that I take their word for it.

They gave me the same answer when I questioned the oft-discussed notion that people from other countries smell. Okay, I could accept that. Throughout my grade school years, I imagined that Germans smelled like German chocolate, Swedes smelled like Swedish meatballs and Italians smelled like spaghetti. Does that mean Martians smell like Mars bars?

At age seven, religion was very confusing to me. As best as I could make out, God was an insecure and jealous old man with a very long beard who was afraid that I might like someone else better. I found his pushy attitude annoying and resolved to stay clear of all old men thereby stunning my Sunday school teacher and embarrassing my mother.

Like many men of his generation, my father had strong feelings about gender. No daughter of his was going to work or wear black patent shoes or go swimming in two piece bathing suits. It was unladylike to take shop or physics, but home economics and typing was okay. A wife should be physically weaker than her husband or risk being considered a dyke, whatever that was. If a female is raped, it’s her own damned fault -- and of course, a girl should never be too smart.
By fourteen, I was overwhelmed with dozens of inexplicable prohibitions aimed at keeping me pure and dull so that some man would want to marry me -- whether that was what I wanted didn’t seem to matter.

My mother had a list of issues too. First off, all little girls wanted to be Miss America. My apathy on that question was an unforgivable lapse of girlish protocol. Dancing lessons were appropriate but baseball and band were too ‘boyish’. Other womanly precepts were: never, ever leave the house without drawing on your eyebrows, don’t let anyone see you with curlers in your hair and make sure that your nipples don’t show through your blouse. (Nipples showing through blouses were one of the reasons that rape was the girl’s fault since men cannot control themselves when they see them.) This led me to believe that breasts were powerful weapons in the war between the sexes -- one of the few ideas gleaned from those days that has proven to be useful.

Drugs had their own mystique. Marijuana drove you mad but you had a God-given right to smoke cigarettes anywhere you wanted. “Diet” pills got you up and “Nerve” pills took you down. “Hard” drugs led you straight to hell. One had to be especially wary of dope fiends as they were akin to communists and talking to them meant you might “catch” a taste for heroin.

Booze was bad but beer was manly. Women could sip white wine while holding their noses and pretending not to like it. Martinis were for city folk. Highballs, like sex, were for medicinal purposes only. Drinking in general was another reason why rape was the woman’s fault.

Old maids went to college to find a husband. They took things like English and Library Sciences. Engineering, medical school and architecture were out of the question. Women couldn’t wear slacks on campus unless they were also wearing a raincoat. Presumably, this was because men couldn’t control themselves if they saw our thighs either. This led me to eye men with a modicum of suspicion lest they run amok at any moment.

The corporate world was no less confusing. Some companies hired only unmarried women. When you acquired a husband, you lost your job. Other employers let you work until your first pregnancy, but you had to leave before you started ‘showing’. No matter what position a woman applied for, she was compelled to take a typing test. Only prissy men could type unless they were in the military and prissy men weren’t allowed in the military.

Other unquestioned truths were: only white protestant men could be president, General Motors would never knowingly make a bad vehicle, and it doesn’t matter how smart or well-educated you are, the person who yells the loudest wins the argument.

By the time I grew up, I knew many of these precepts were bunk. After all, I listened to a fair amount of rock n roll in my youth and the devil didn’t come visiting. I stopped wearing raincoats over my jeans many moons ago and no one has lost control and ravaged me. However, as I moved into chubby middle-age, I realized my dad was right about one thing. Two piece swimsuits ARE a bad idea.

Every time I hear Meatloaf sing this song, I can't help but think of those crazy, corny, funny days of my youth. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, December 28, 2007


I’m an easy going person.

Really. Ask anyone.

Ask my husband. Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea. He’d probably tell you about the time I went out on the deck to see fireworks – and he came out behind me and closed the screen door. Only, I didn’t realize he’d closed the screen door – and I turned around and walked right through it – and I fell on my face and bumped my nose – and I knocked over a chair setting just inside the dinette and it toppled over on top of me. After I stopped seeing stars, I couldn’t stop laughing – but I was mad as hell. The thing of it was – I wasn’t mad at him, but I wanted to be. And he made it worse by being all lovey-dovey one minute – and laughing at me the next. While he was picking me up off the floor, I tried to come up with a reasonable reason why it was all his fault – but there was really no way to make that fly, but then I remembered the time he rolled up the car window on my fingers and maintained that it was my fault – and just thinking about that really ticked me off – and the only excuse he had when I accused him of finger mashing was that it took place thirty years ago. Sheesh. Men really are from Mars.

So don’t ask him.

Maybe ask my kids. I didn’t mess them up too badly. At least, I don’t think so. At least, they are kind enough to pretend to be half-way normal when they are around me – and they probably don’t remember the ax story anyway.

Now that I think about it, that was my husband Johnny’s fault too. Our daughter Carmel was four and our son Nate was a baby. Johnny had to go to Germany for business. Right off the bat, that didn’t sit well with me. Not because he was going – but because I couldn’t go too. I never did like being left behind. Anyway, so I admit to being a little cranky that morning. Mostly cause we all had to get up early to take him to the airport. You could say good-bye at the gate back then – so the three of us stood at the window waving as Johnny’s plane took off – for two weeks – with the keys to our house in Johnny’s pocket.

Of course, I didn’t realize this problem until I got home – and it was raining – and the garage was full of other stuff. I left the kids in the car in the driveway while I tried to jimmy open the front door – but as anyone who knows me will tell you, I can’t open anything.

Carmel wound down the Volvo window. “I got to pee pee, Mommy.”

“Hold on, sweetheart. We’ll be inside in a minute.”

“Why don’t you just open the door?”

The little darling was so logical. “Cause Daddy took the key with him to Germany.”

“That silly.” She rolled the window back up.

By this time, I was wet to the bone. I looked around the yard for a rock to smash a window – but decided against it when I realized that I had less money in our checking account than the price of a broken window.

That left the garage. I could open the garage door with the garage door opener – and as luck would have it, the door between the garage and the basement was unlocked. The only remaining problem was that the door at the top of the basement stairs – the one into the kitchen and the rest of the house was locked.

I went back to the car. In the first trip, I carried in my purse and the diaper bag and the baby carrier. In the second trip, I brought in the kids. Holding Carmel’s hand, I stood in the basement at the foot of the stairs with Nate on my hip.

Nate took his thumb out of his mouth and giggled.

“Mommy, I got to pee pee!” Carmel tugged on my shirt.

Hmmm. I looked around the basement. There weren’t any tools or implements of destruction in my line of sight. I thought about Johnny sitting on the plane headed for Germany. He was probably sipping champagne served by voluptuous young flight attendants. He was probably just opening that new novel and relaxing back into the cushions.


There didn’t seem to be anything to do but live in the basement for two weeks. The good news was that’s where the washer and dryer resided. The bad news was that there was no bathroom down there – and it was dark and scary at night. Nope, my only option was to knock down the door between basement and kitchen.

I sat Nate down on the floor. He looked up at me. His face crinkled and his lower lip quivered.

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I’ll get us in.”

“Stay here, I told Carmel.”

There were twenty-three steps. Not much space between the bottom of the stairs and the wall. Pretty hard to get up much speed, but I gave it a try anyway.

I backed up to make room for a running start – but it’s pretty hard to get up much steam when you are running up stairs. I hit the door with my shoulder like I’d seen movie and television “he-men” do numerous times.

I bounced off the door and staggered backwards down several steps.

“OWWWWWW!” I yelled but what I really meant was ‘@#$%#$%^#$%#$%’

“MOMMY!” Carmel screamed.

“I’m fine. It’s okay.” I sat down on the top step and counted the pretty birdies circling around my head.

Once the pain in my shoulder subsided, I got mad. Really mad. I stood up and rattled the door knob. Knowing that that was a stupid thing to do made me even madder. I stomped down the stairs and out into the garage.

That’s when I saw it. It was long and mean and it gleamed in the dusty light filtering in through the open garage door. I picked it the ax and it felt good in my hands.

“MOMMY!” Carmel’s eyes got bigger when I came into the basement lugging the monstrous weapon.

I glared at her. She wasn’t buying the “It’s okay” line anymore anyway. She grabbed my right leg and held on tight. Nate held up his arms and sobbed.

I gritted my teeth and tried to cover my rage with my best Mommy-face. It didn’t fool either kid – Nate wailed and Carmel’s little fingers dug into my thigh. “Okay,” I growled. “We’ll do it together.”

I put the baby into his carrier and slipped him onto my back. He responded by grabbing onto my ponytail with both sticky hands. I grabbed the ax and stormed up the steps. Carmel was right behind me. The area was restricted – and I did have two little ones, both of them screaming – but I took that door DOWN. In fact, the first swing felt so good that I threw in five or six more blows for good measure.

After it was all over, a warm serenity came over me. Carmel scurried to the bathroom. I changed Nate and washed his face. I made us French Toast. As we sat down to lunch, with the splintered door lying on the kitchen floor, I smiled at my children.

Carmel smiled back as I cut her French Toast. “You sure are a crazy mommy, Mommy.”

I beamed at her. Her Mama wasn’t raising no dumb kids.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sometimes ...

It's hard to say "I love you." I don't know why. Perhaps because relationships are complicated -- and because those words are charged with so much emotion. Perhaps because giving is so much harder than taking. Perhaps because it drains away energy if the words are not returned.

What we feel for spouses, parents, children, friends and others who move us whether they know it or not often remains unsaid. Maybe love is just being there. Who knows?

Thank you is easier -- it doesn't have to be as gut wrenching. We can pass it off with a quick smile and move on to the next activity without reflecting on how we are all so interconnected. Scientists who explore the unknown, doctors who focus on repairing bodies and those special people who try to mend broken souls make our lives better -- yet we seldom know their names. It's the same for those who sacrifice their saftey for ours like soliders, policemen and firefighters.

In the early 80s, I was married and a mother. I was going to engineering school -- and I was still trying to make sense out of my troubled relationship with my father who had died in 1976. I was years away from understanding the dynamics of my own life, let alone his.

A tune, written and performed by a stranger, struck me and I listened to it over and over again. I picked it out on my guitar -- and hummed it as I was driving. I sang it in the shower -- and after the last note, I cried in the shower. It didn't give me peace -- but it gave me many hours of reflection.

In the end, I decided to treasure those around me for who they are -- not for what I wanted them to be. Easy enough for some, but a life changing event for me.

Tonight, when I heard that Dan Fogelberg died, I wanted to thank him -- but it was too late. I never knew him but he touched me once long ago. Thank you, Dan.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Daughters and Sons

My daughter Carmel is an old soul. That means she was born smarter than me. She never cried as she slipped into this world. She just looked around the delivery room as if to say, “So this is it, eh? Good deal.”

On the other hand, my son Nate is a new soul. That means I have to prove everything to him. He took one look at the doctor who delivered him and bawled in dismay. However, a few seconds later, he decided that women were a-okay and charmed the nurse who gave him his first shampoo by peeing on her smock.

When Carmel was a baby, I poured honey on her hands, set her in a playpen and handed her a tissue. Figuring out how to throw it away kept her busy long enough for me to do the dinner dishes.

When Nate was a baby, he’d eat the tissue, lick the honey off his fingers and scream for more before I got the table cleared.

Carmel did everything early – whether I was ready for it or not. A reasonable child, she potty-trained herself in exchange for ruffled panties and a sock monkey.

Nate felt that time was on his side -- and that since he knew where I hid the candy in a vase on top of the refrigerator, hitting the leaf I tossed into the john wasn’t worth a green M&M.

I could point to an electrical outlet and say, “Don’t touch, Carmel. It’ll hurt the baby.” She’d accept my judgment on the matter and make a wide berth around the threatening wall fixture.

I never dared point anything out to Nate. If I did, he’d say, “Oh yeah?”, lick his finger and stick it into the socket just to see if my warnings were genuine or bogus.

When Carmel was eighteen-months-old, we had guests for dinner. Around seven, I put her to bed in her pink, fuzzy-fleeced sleeper. Forty-minutes later, when the party retired to the living room with Grand Marnier, she was standing stark-naked on the staircase with an enormous “0 1” drawn on her tummy in magic marker. “Hi,” she said posing with a hand on one hip and the other over her head. “I’m the number ten.”

When Nate was about two, we were alerted to trouble by beeping horns and telephone calls an hour after we put him to bed. Following a trail of Yoda-jammies, t-shirt and jockey shorts to the edge of the driveway, we found him dancing around in the buff – waving at cars driven by women, throwing rocks at joggers and trying to pee on a leaf in the middle of the street.

Carmel was a golden child who crawled into my lap one day and observed, “I like going to Pammie’s house because her mom is always baking cookies – but I like coming home because you are always laughing. After rewarding the little darling with a new sock monkey, I spent a few minutes adjusting my mother-of-the-year tiara and humming “Lady Madonna”.

When Nate was in kindergarten, the teacher called me to complain that my curly-headed son brought a copy of “Penthouse” to school for show and tell. Mortified, I asked him why. He told me he wanted the other kids to see the “beautiful ladies.” After grounding his father for poor magazine-collection-hiding skills and demanding the first of what turned out to be many father-son discussions, I sought solace in a package of oreos and a half-gallon of milk. (This was in my pre-tiramisu period.)

As they grew up, so did I. When Carmel went out driving in her new car and couldn’t find her way home until 2 A.M., I turned into my father – pacing the floor, worrying -- but when she burst through the door filled with the exhilaration of her great adventure, I rejoiced that she was safe – and that she was resourceful and independent. When Nate sobbed with frustration over a sprained ankle during track season, I grieved with him – and when he broke the school long-jump record anyway, I wept too – for his determination and courage.

And then – suddenly -- they were grown.

The nuns taught me that a mother’s role is to mold the minds of her children. That’s because they didn’t HAVE any children.

These beautiful people entrusted to me were amazing in their own right from the very beginning. They molded themselves. I was just a protective, loving bystander perfecting the act of letting go.

Flippin the Bird

"Flippin the Bird" is true. I swear. When I was a kid, there were lots of terms in common usuage that I didn't 'get.' Thing like "Don't get your knickers tangled" or "my dogs are barkin'" left me scratching my head since I had no idea what 'knickers' were and there wasn't a dog in sight.
Enjoy Kathe Gogolewski's wonderful artwork.
Click to hear "Flippin the Bird"

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Last Present

This Shriek is about my Grandfather who died on Mother's Day, 1962 when I was 13 years old. Illustrated by Kathe Gogolewski's marvelous artwork, I hope you'll enjoy hearing me read "The Last Present" from my latest book For Shrieking Out Loud!
Just click on the Title of this post to download the podcast.

Double Click to see larger version of slideshow