Awkward holiday moment No. 256


Photo by MZ

What does one say when the family unit is gathered around the Christmas tree, after having finished a meal, and the matriarch unexpectedly hauls out a circa-1975 Barbie doll trunk and opens it?

Perhaps one keeps quiet for a moment as memories flood the brain. Not recollections of childhood innocence, but those of a more devious time in the teen years, when cynicism, dark humor and expansion of one’s knowledge base beyond the home’s borders prompted some tomfoolery.

Maybe the matriarch recently discovered the trunk, roused it from its dark repose in the closet, and placed it near the wrapped gifts, envisioning squeals of delight upon its discovery.

So when the Pandora’s Box is unhinged and the  “La Cage Aux Folles” tableaux contained within bursts forth in all its pink, flaming glory, how should one react? Play dumb? Blame it on the resident teenager who last played with the dolls? What to say about Ken slathered in lipstick and eyeshadow? Forced into flowered bras and tank tops stuffed to create the feminine form? Should you, like the dolls, adopt a don’t-ask, don’t tell policy?

How does one maintain a poker face when the dolls are plucked from their “Brokeback Mountain” moment to be turned, poked and sniffed like produce for inspection? How does one refrain from bursting out in laughter when the general commentary of “Well, you really had some fun with these, didn’t you?” hangs in the air like clouds of expelled cigarette smoke?

Perhaps there is a moment when the truth is evident, that they are not what they appear to be, that perhaps saving tricked-out dolls for the grandchildren was not such a wise plan.

But the announcement of coffee and pie trumps this moment and it passes into oblivion.The cross-dressing, pre-op transsexual Kens are sent  back to their Castro District. The pink trunk is thrust toward its rightful owner with the order that it find a new home.

What’s in your closet?

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By Sun Dazed via Creative Commons

“You must do everything that frightens you, JR. Everything. I’m not talking about risking your life, but everything else. Think about fear, decide right now how you’re going to deal with fear, because fear is going to be the great issue of your life, I promise you. Fear will be the fuel for all your success, and the root cause of all your failures, and the underlying dilemma in every story you tell yourself about yourself. And the only chance you’ll have against fear?  Follow it. Steer by it. Don’t think of fear as the villain. Think of fear as your guide, your pathfinder — your Natty Bumppo.”
From “The Tender Bar: A Memoir” by J.R. Moehringer

I’m reading “Tender Bar” as part of a book club series. Maybe you’ve already read it since it came out in 2005.  It’s a memoir about a boy who grew up fatherless and all the colorful characters in and around a Long Island neighborhood bar who played stand-ins for the role.

I came upon the passage above and stopped. I watched the words leap off the page like a swarm of fruit flies rise off a blackened banana. Like the pesky insects, the words buzzed around my head. No amount of hand waving sent them away. I had an issue to chew on for a few days: Fear.

After Moehringer’s words settled back onto the page, I decided that they might have been of use to me some years ago. It’s quite possible someone did say something like that to me. If nothing else, one thing I know now is that you can stuff words into a young person’s head, but you cannot prevent them from seeping out the other end.

I’m curious what happens next in this young boy’s life. I know where he ends up. But the choices made along the way, the decision to pick the high road over the low road, the dangerous trail over the sidewalk, these are the things that sometimes make the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and Happy Meal prize.

What do you do about your fear?

'I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together'


Photo by MZ

I’m not sure what Christmas means to me anymore.
To my children it’s a wonderful time of year filled with wishes and cookies and Santa Claus and sparkly things.
To me, it’s a Dickensian mix of shadows cloaked in chains, bacchanalia, sprigs of holly and Tiny Tim’s enduring hope. Christmas music, particularly Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” and Vince Guaraldi’s  “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” wet my eyes and stir memories of childhood innocence.

In my mind’s eye, Christmas is a room aglow with flickering candles, a crackling log burning in the fireplace and a sparkling tree. It’s waking up to sunlight bouncing off a fresh layer of snow.
In reality, it’s a time when triggers of past hurts and traumas lay ahead of me like a minefield. Tonight, as my family baked cookies and wrapped gifts, I recalled my own family’s Christmas Eve tradition: Midnight Mass. After a heavy meal, gift opening and merry-making brought about largely by excessive alcohol intake, we’d while away the hours until it was time to slip on coats, step into boots and stumble in the station wagon for a quick, dicey ride to St. Something or Other. You had to stay awake for Midnight Mass but there was no rule about staying sober. Just ask the fence.
And thats where the happy memories fade and shape-shift into darker times. That’s where the shadows live.

I don’t want to give up Christmas. My inner world has shifted away from these early constructs. But I need to live in the outer world, too. I just need to make peace with those ghosts of the past.
In spite of my efforts to simplify the present, to make the holiday something meaningful on my terms, much of it really is beyond my control. Whether or not I embrace the religious aspect of the day, it’s a cultural institution and a seasonal rite.

With that in mind, to all of my wonderful blog friends, thank you for this community.

Thank you for making me laugh and making me cry.
Thank you for sharing a slice of your life with me. Thank you for taking an interest in my world.

Some of you are local and maybe I’ve met you a time or two or we’ve become friends.
Some of you are far away and I hope to someday meet you in real life.
Some of you have had a tough year. I wish you well in 2010 and will continue to follow along on your journey.
Some of you lead lives I’ll never know but am fascinated to observe from afar.
Some of you I’ve followed from the beginning. Some of you I’ve just discovered.
No matter what we celebrate or how we choose to do it, we have something in common.
I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together ….(Lennon and McCartney)

Jolly ChristmaKwanzaHanukkah!

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The things we do for love/PROMPTuesday


By Kokopinto via Creative Commons

I recently discovered San Diego Momma and I’m glad I did. She does some great things on her blog, including PROMPTuesday. Today is my first time participating. Today’s prompt: “What’s the grossest thing you ever did for somebody because you loved him/her/it?”

After the initial phone call, the mad scramble to pull myself together and drive 30 miles to the hospital without getting into a car accident,
After the agonizing delay as we waited for the whole family to assemble in that little room pastoral care guided us to — the one with the muted lighting, the pleasant paintings and the nice chairs,
After someone figured out where my mother was and summoned her to the hospital,
After the ER doctor came in, flipped open one of those metal folders and rustled a bunch of papers, then gave it to us straight up, no bull,
After we all reacted in our own ways: hysteria, sobs, stoic sniffs, dabbed at eyes and noses with tissues and walked silently to an empty room to look at his form and say: “Yup, that’s him. There’s been no mix-up here,”
After all that, when everyone decided what they’d do next: the funeral home, the church, the suit to the cleaners, we left the hospital and I drove the 20 blocks to my parents’ house through a downpour of tears. When I got there it was empty. I set down my purse and walked to the living room, to where my father had died.

I stood over that spot and tried to process the last two hours of my life. The first thing I saw was an open medic bag left behind by a forgetful EMT. I snapped it shut and set it by the front entrance. What I wanted to do was grab that collection of plastic and metal and glass and hurl it at the wall, and watch as its useless contents shattered and scattered on the hardwood floor.
I returned to the spot, a rug of amber and burgundy patterned fabric my parents had purchased in Turkey a month earlier. The just-developed pictures of the two-week vacation were tucked in a nearby envelope. I’m sure there was a story attached to the procurement of this rug, something about a bazaar and bartering and haggling. The usual. That story was dead with my father.

That night, the rug and I wrote a new story. Because what was on that rug and the hardwood underneath was the second thing I saw when I walked in the room. I saw it and decided my mother should not come home to it.  She should not know of it, ever. So, that rug and I revised history by erasing the secrets it held. We wove the tale using a bucket of hot, soapy water and spray disinfectant and hydrogen peroxide.  We kept the secret of what’s left behind when someone dies not-so-peacefully on their own floor surrounded by helpless bystanders who don’t know what to do and those who do know what to do but cannot change the course of events unfolding.

Out of love I cleaned that mess. I straightened the askew lampshade, smoothed the afghan on the couch, restacked the logs by the fireplace that had toppled in some not-yet-explained struggle and carried the dirty bucket to the basement. I washed the secret from the bucket and rags. I scrubbed the story from my hands.

I did all that and then I went home.

Driving Miss Crazy


By quinn anya via Creative Commons

I base many of my parenting decisions today on things I did as a teenager.

That is why my almost-16-year-old lives in a box in the basement.

Well, not yet. Soon. She’s going on her first big night out with another teenager in a car. Alone.

I’m worried. I sound like my mother did in 1980 when a cute guy with his own car asked me out and she said “NO!” just as she did on every previous occasion when a member of the opposite sex expressed interest in me.

Yes, you read that correctly. My mother would not let me date. I don’t think my father was against the idea. But due to the economy at the time he was working nights or out-of-town or something that made him unavailable for day-to-day parenting decisions. So, I developed dating loopholes: I spent a lot of time at “the library” and “the movie theater” and at “Dora’s house” (not her real name). Dora and I had a deal: Our whole friendship was based on lying for each other so we could go out with our boyfriends. Every few months we’d actually have to make an appearance at one another’s house just to keep things legit.


I’d say I was going to see “Alien” or  “The Blues Brothers.” Except, not really. I’d read the synopsis in the newspaper, memorize it, then head to a dive bar  in Detroit that let in underage suburbanite kids with small brains and fat wallets to hear eardrum- shredding bands. I hated that I wasn’t allowed to officially date. I hated the sticky web of lies I’d spun. It was hard to keep all the stories straight.

Eventually I decided to take a stand and declare that I had a boyfriend. Mom was not happy. Still, I kept up the relationship and eventually she acquiesced. She had loopholes of her own. She eavesdropped on phone calls. (There were no cell phones back then.) She took the phone off the hook so I couldn’t make late-night calls. (There was no Facebook, IM, MySpace or e-mail back then.) She intercepted letters and searched my room while I was at school.

I do not want to be that kind of mother to my Girl from the West. I know my mother did it all out of worry and fear of the unknown. (We had teen pregnancy back then and something called V.D.)

That kind of parenting creates liars and sneaks. So far, I feel my Girl has been as honest with me as is possible for a teenager. I know she’s not telling me everything but I feel I have some kind of handle on her comings and goings. Mostly, it’s because I am directly connected to those comings and goings.

But, with the impending arrival of  driver’s licenses as she and her friends each reach their 16th birthdays,  a world of worry opens up.

What about the other teenagers out there? How honest are they? How mature? Are they practiced liars who fool their unwitting parents?  Are they on drugs? Will they drink and drive? There is so much to consider, to worry about with a child who is almost an adult. Cars carry with them a multitude of dangers, some involving a vehicle in motion; some pertain to cars at rest.

It doesn’t take much to think back to the irresponsible, recklessness of most of my peers when they had that piece of plastic in their wallets and what new levels of stupidity it propelled us into. I think of the dead man’s curve that claimed the life of a 17-year-old classmate on July Fourth, when he took his eyes off the road to toss a firecracker out the car window and ended up hugging an oak with his engine block. I think of the guy I was scheduled to go on a date with had he not been broadsided and killed on his way home from a Detroit Tiger’s game. Dead at 20. All this occurred in our sleepy suburb along the lake, where a traffic jam might be six Cadillacs lined up by the valet parking shed at the country club. My girl will be traversing some of the busiest stretches of road in our area.

So I worry. It does no good. I cannot control all the forces the universe, even with my super-deluxe magic wand. I can’t really lock her away in the basement. (Damned social welfare agency and their rules.)

My guide is this: If she’s not doing any of the stuff I was doing, or only one-tenth of it, we’re good.

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Denial Twist


"It Might Get Loud" movie still via

I hope my husband is happy.

He thinks that I’d dump him for Jack White, that I’d run away to live in the hills of Tennessee with the former furniture upholsterer turned guitar god with the penchant for dressing like a dandy, channeling Delta Blues musicians and crafting guitars out of wood, a nail, a glass bottle and wire.*

Good thing Jack White only has eyes for tall, leggy, doe-eyed redheads or maybe I’d have a chance. *ahem*

Seriously. Several times, by happy accident, I’ve stood elbow-to-shoulder with the man and trust me, his attention was elsewhere. My husband has never let me forget those evenings. Not that I could. It was thrilling to be able to just share the same floor space with someone of such talent. Back then he was just a local guy drinking a beer and sucking on a cigarette at a popular dive bar. Honestly,  my favorite memory is second-row seats at a Raconteurs concert positioned directly in line with Jack White as he did that thing that he does. I don’t know Jack White, the person. He is a stranger to me. I do know Jack White, the musician and performer. I don’t want a date; I want concert tickets.

I don’t know what to do around “celebrities” of any sort. Even when I was a reporter, I’d skip those assignments in favor of interviewing an everyday Joe or Jane.  Years ago at a David Bowie concert, I stood in a concert T-shirt line next to familiar young man who turned out to be Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings. I didn’t realize it  until I’d left the concert venue. My friends were jealous, pumping me for details.  I didn’t have any to share since I just assumed it was a guy from high school.


Via Hockey

Before the White Stripes went on hiatus, it was kind of an inside joke that I was president of the local chapter of their fan club.

So it was with deep embarrassment that I learned last weekend, at a children’s birthday party for god’s sake, that he was named musician of the millennium or something like that. I went home and looked it up. Here’s what I found:

Their fourth album, Elephant, was named No. 7 on a list of most influential albums of the decade.

Jack White was declared the rock and roll musician of the decade.

I know. Lists, schmists. Everyone and their brother is going to compile these lists as we slip from the aughts to the teens. And what do I know of the caliber of the Guardian U.K.? Even the White Stripes’ and affiliated Web sites have failed to make note of these honors, so I’m not sure what to make of them myself.

While I’m thrilled that Jack is getting the attention, acclaim and respect I’ve felt he’s deserved all along, I’m rather embarrassed that I had to hear about this from a fair-weather fan over cake and ice cream. I hope my husband is happy; it’s obvious I have more pressing matters on my mind than the latest Jack White news.

Perhaps, if my spouse would stop this foolishness for a moment, he’d realize I’m thinking about him.

(Little does he know he’s getting a guitar for Christmas. That, and a pair of red and white pants.)

*I dated my share of out-there artsy types who did things like drive Hearses, dress like people from different eras, wear make-up, and get in character for their art. They always ended up embarrassing and frustrating me.

Postcards of justification


By Howieluvzu via Creative Commons

To: Sibling in town for the holidays

From: Your stressed-out sister

Re: Our lack of any quality time together other than over pre-Thanksgiving dinner cocktails and post-dinner mumblings between pie and coffee

Relationships are a two-way street. While you are the out-of-towner, remember it is your vacation time and not mine. You happened to visit during a time of absolute chaos. Not only did I face a huge project deadline, but also a major holiday, two family get-togethers for which I had to cook food,  and ongoing volunteer commitments. I know this is hard for you to understand, that you accuse me of having “excuses.”  I don’t think of work, a home and a family as “excuses.” But, seeing as you choose to keep your life as commitment-free as possible, at least allow for the possibility that the world does not revolve around you. Perhaps some advance notice of your visit would have allowed me to carve out time, schedule a babysitter or at least warn you of my crazybusy life right now.  So, stop with the damned guilt trip. It’s so ’70s.

To: My dear, sweet daughters

From: Your well-meaning mother

Re: My lack of attention

There is nothing more cutting to the bone than mommy guilt. It was my painful awareness of your various needs that drove me to take on work that now keeps me from paying the attention to which you have grown accustomed. I’ve slacked on nightly bedtime reading sessions, have left you unattended with scissors (Spunky’s whiskers will grow back), forgotten to pick you up from school, and let the Halloween pumpkins blacken and implode on the front porch. In my effort to be everything to everyone I ended up being nothing to anyone. In the future, when you are speaking of me to your therapist, please refrain from using too much profanity.

To: My adoring husband of almost 10 years who somehow still loves me

From: Ice machine with frayed cord

Re: Our poor, neglected relationship

When a stay-at-home mom feels guilty for not contributing to the household bottom line, when she feels it is partly her fault for the bottom line’s disintegration due to the fact that she outright quit a job that most certainly would have dumped her butt on the unemployment line within a year anyway, but then at least she would have collected unemployment rather than be told repeatedly that “quitting a job does not qualify you for any sort of sympathy or assistance” and could feel less guilty about not helping out. (I don’t think that was a sentence.) When she decided to try to restore that contribution she realized the only job she knew how to do was housed in a shack built on stilts over quicksand and –hello! it’s gone forever. So she came up with a different way that maybe helps out a little but now she’s the one needing help because she gets no sleep and is an irrational witch half the time and deliriously distracted the other half.

To: My two faithful readers

From: Determined-but-frustrated blogger

Re: Lack of posts

Thank you for sticking around, stopping by once in a while and commenting. It is greatly appreciated. I wish I could be the wind beneath your wings, the fire in your furnace, the hot knife to slice your butter. As much as it would seem the logical thing to do, I won’t quit this blog. I maintain it now for the same reasons I started it. I’m stubborn like that.

Weather inside is frightful


By Bearn via Creative Commons

It is almost impossible to fathom how I earned that little black and white NaBloPoMo badge down on the right sidebar of this blog. That widget means I posted every day for a month in November 2008. Thirty posts in 30 days. I posted seven times this November.

Does it matter? My philosophy is post as often as you have something quality to share. That is now at odds with the conventional wisdom that in order for a blog to matter it must have traffic and be findable by search engines. My blog is now in competition with other things in my life. Where it once filled a void, it’s now moved near the bottom of my to-do list.

I’ve taken on quite a bit in the last few months. I’ve committed to things that are for the greater good. Except sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I’m being crushed under the weight of responsibility and promises and commitments. I am determined to find a way to make it all work. There are other unfathomables right now:

I heard on the radio today callers bragging how they maybe worked three hours on Cyber Monday, devoting the rest of the paid work day to Christmas shopping online or gabbing on social media sites. I had a hard time swallowing this information given the number of people out of work right now, the number of people just in the last few weeks who’ve either lost medical coverage, had one of their utilities shut off or were forced to leave family and friends for a less-than-stellar job out of the state.

In some ways, the very idea of a day set aside for the pursuit of spending money is almost beyond my grasp. This will be our second Christmas under very tight budgetary constraints. Last year we were caught off guard and I was devastated. This year, I know how it will be and almost welcome it as an opportunity to put the holidays in proper perspective. I long for a simple, meaningful holiday that reflects the true nature of the season.

On the subject of jobs and tight budgets, we had a strange spectacle in our town that barely registered on most people’s radar screens but for those in the know, it was a seismic jolt. It’s unfathomable to me how two people can blow into our town  and convince another group of people, many of whom were the best and brightest in their field, to join what sounded like a fool’s errand.

Over the last few months I listened as former colleagues and friends wrestled with their decision to jump on board or walk away from this crazy scheme. Part of me — my heart, my pride — was sad and angry that I was not among those hand-picked to be a part of this wild idea. Another part — my gut — told me that to listen to these promises, to throw caution out the window was something I’d walked away from three years ago. I would not, could not go back to what I suspected would be more of the same.

In the end, those of us who stood back with our doubts and concerns watched the worst-case scenario play out. We felt for those who ultimately were duped or blinded by a crazy hope and desire to get back that which is lost. It’s one thing to hear the king is dead. It’s another to touch his rotting corpse.

While I survived the first round of the holiday season, I’m not sure I came out in one piece. The amount of anxiety that preceded this week was self-imposed for the most part in preparation for what I imagined to be a very stressful few days. I know I overindulged in food and drink in an effort to keep my mouth occupied and out of trouble and my vision blurred enough to avoid reality.

But damn you, Facebook, and your photo tagging that blasts though the fog of denial and thrusts the truth in my face.