Dancing with my neuroses

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I am not much of a fan of reality TV. Aside from the A&E offerings,  Intervention, Hoarders and Obsessed, I switch away. So I was puzzled somewhat when I read that Bristol Palin is among the latest selections for Dancing with the Stars. Since I don’t watch the show, I don’t know if she is supposed to be “the star” or the person who learns the moves with the dancer who is the “star.”  Is that even right?

If I know anything about any show on TV, it’s because I’m subjected to four screens full of it three nights weekly at the gym. So while I may not know one episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, I know who they are and that poor Bruce Jenner carries the family jewels around in a berry basket.

Back to Bristol Palin. What are her qualifications for this role? Are any needed beyond being tabloid fodder? Let’s see: She is a young woman who had a child out of wedlock. Her marriage to the baby daddy was on and then it was off and then it was on and then it was off. Oh, and she happens to be the daughter of a vice presidential candidate who quit her elected post to write books and work on her plan to conquer the world. I suppose that’s more than enough qualification for being on a reality show. After all, her mother’s qualifications to be one heartbeat away from running the free world were about as shaky. Just my opinion. I’m thinking the 2012 election year will feature a Dancing with the Candidates segment. It’s really the true test of leadership.

The whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing really is true. Consider this story: I had this beautiful piece of yard art, one of those metal garden stakes topped with a series of glass balls artfully coiled in copper.  It stood tall and proud over a triangular-shaped lily bed along my driveway.

It lasted one month before a thief plucked it from my garden. I happened to mention it in passing to my neighbors, who then felt responsible somehow since they were house sitting for us when it happened. Immediately I felt terrible. I had no intention of making them feel responsible. I was merely kvetching about petty thievery in the neighborhood.  A few days later they came over with a replacement. Not as nice as the original, but as a good will gesture, I poked it into the same lily bed.

Not one day went by in the last three years that I didn’t check that lily bed. (See above interest in show Obsessed.) Every day I peered around the fence to see if it was there. Every day. I was aware of how neurotic that felt.  That it remained in place for so long made me think the first theft was an isolated incident. Not so. Two weeks ago it disappeared just like that. I checked up and down the block to make sure it wasn’t pulled for some makeshift sword fight or thrown around as part of some late-night tomfoolery.

I’m thinking I expended so much energy worrying about a cheap piece of metal and glass that the universe felt obligated to relieve me of this burden.

Finally, it’s a good thing school starts in a few days. This has been the most taxing summer ever with kids at home. A good part of it is due to the unrelenting heat and humidity, which has been the highest on record. Another part is due to budget constraints and our wish to have a nice family vacation. In order to pull it off, we opted out of scheduled activities for the girls this summer. No day camps or sleep away camp or swimming lessons or enrichment programs. It was just me vs. them here all summer. Read that again, slowly. Imagine it. If nothing else, it confirmed without a doubt that I would never, ever be a homeschooling parent. Ever.

No wonder the recycling bin is so heavy with wine bottles each trash day.

That is all. Happy Labor Day.

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Peg Bundy would be proud

I try.

I really do try to offer healthful food to my children. But sometimes  when we are away from home, such as last night’s tailgate party fundraiser and Detroit Tigers baseball game, its hopeless. Since we do not eat meat and the dinner offerings were hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches, we opted for empty buns. I went to the condiment stand to get a plate full of leaf lettuce, tomatoes, onions and cheese to make meatless sandwiches. When I returned to the table, I learned that what I had on my plate did not stand a chance against the DayGlo crunchy goodness of cheese puffs.

Tonight, we are having Tangwiches.

Color me confused

Anyone up for a game of "Goodfellas?"

THE SCENE:
Somewhere past the pink and purple castle, just around the bend from the horse barn, a stretch limousine stuffed to the doors with Fisher Price Little People rounds a corner on two wheels. All the passengers roll and tumble around on the plastic seats. Except one doll. The brown-faced, afro-haired woman doll in a shocking pink dress stuffed in the trunk of the limousine. She tumbles onto the pink rag rug. The pink party car speeds down the hallway toward the staircase, oblivious of its missing passenger.

THE CONVERSATION:
Girl from the East : (picking up the doll and holding it at eye level): I don’t like this doll, momma.
MZ: Why?
Girl from the East: Because her face is brown and I don’t like brown faces.
MZ: (Stunned into silence for a moment) What? Why?
Girl from the East: I just don’t.
MZ: But you have friends who have brown faces. You like them, don’t you?
Girl from the East: Uh-huh. I just don’t like the doll’s black hair.
MZ: But you have black hair. You like your black hair, right?
Girl from the East: Uh-huh.
MZ: So, if you have friends with brown faces and you have black hair, why don’t you like this doll? She’s wearing a pink dress.You love pink. (At this point I detect a shrill note in my voice, even though I am trying to regulate the volume.)
Girl from the East: I just don’t like the shape of her hair.
MZ: (Naming two girls she plays with) have hair in this shape and you like them, right?
Girl from the East: (Names the two girls) are my friends.
MZ: Yes. They are your friends. That means you like them. They have brown faces. They have that shape of hair.
Girl from the East: (picks up the doll again and stuffs it back into the trunk.) Well, I just don’t like this doll.
MZ: *Sigh*

THE DILEMMA:
Feeling I’ve gone too far, probed too deeply, I end the conversation. But, I don’t let it go. Perhaps Girl from the East is merely telling me she does not like the color brown in general and particularly doesn’t like it when it’s on her dolls. Perhaps she doesn’t like the molded plastic afro design, which resembles a helmet more than a hairstyle. But deep inside me, a cold knot twists as I fear the seeds of racism and prejudice are germinating. What is feeding this? All this time I’ve worried about how others might react to her skin tone or eye shape and here she is making her own judgments.

Orwell visits the play room: All Little People are created equal. But some Little People are more equal than others.

THE BACKGROUND:
I watched this show on  CNN last week about a study on children and racism.  I’m sure this is why her simple comment sounded alarm bells inside my head. The study had kids looking at cartoon drawings of children with faces in every shade, from the darkest of brown to the palest of white.  Children were asked specific questions and asked to point to the cartoon characters to identify which one was the smartest, the dumbest, the good one, the bad one and so on. Can you guess the outcomes? The message seemed to be that parental influence and media feed these beliefs.

MY DENIAL:
We are not that kind of home. We are not that kind of family. We have friends of all colors and stripes. We live in a community that embraces diversity. Heck, we are a diverse family ourselves. Girl from the East does not watch network or cable programmed TV. She watches DVDs of PBS and Nickelodeon shows such as “Dora,” where skin shades are varied from one character to the next. She watches “Yo Gabba Gabba” where faces are green and pink and one-eyed and pimply like cucumbers.

THE CONCLUSION
I have no answers. While my heart hurts that she said this so innocently, I also realize that I may be running her simple judgments about colors and textures through my complicated adult filters. So far, both of my girls have friends of all backgrounds and colors and have never exhibited racist speech or behavior. Sure, they’ve made observations and asked questions. We always teach that if we must judge at all, judge a person on his or her character. Ah, but the world is a complicated, dark and fuzzy place.

Time will tell more about this story.

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Man, this explains a lot

“You were a man in your past life,” said the psychic as she gently let go of my upturned palms, which she’d lightly traced with her finger, noting how many marriages I’ve had, the length of each one, how many children and what gender. “You chose to be female this time and you enjoy it, but you identify more with your previous form.”

Yes! I knew it!

I sat up straighter and taller in the upholstered chair as I considered her words. I caught myself absent-mindedly smoothing my skirt, twirling the rings on my fingers, touching my hair. Then I folded my hands in my lap, my female wide-hipped and big-thighed lap. And I thought: Do I enjoy this form? I hadn’t thought so, really. Ever since puberty, when hormones stole my boyish body and left me this pear-shaped suit, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable, self-conscious and not-quite-up-to-standard.  I worked hard for years to minimize the curves, but they would not smooth out. Is it my past-life male body that I miss?

I visited a psychic for the first time last week. One of the moms in my school social circle hosted an afternoon cocktail party/psychic reading/playdate thingie at her house. How could I say no to this? While I’ve never booked a private reading with a psychic, a group setting gave me the perfect excuse to satisfy my curiosity.

Being somewhat skeptical, I sat on the back yard patio and nursed a drink, letting all the other women go before me. Finally, it was my turn. Hesitantly I entered the cool house and found my way to the darkened living room. I realized I was a little tipsy. How would I keep a poker face, keep unnecessary information from spilling out of my mouth?

The woman seated across from me looked like one of my mother’s friends. Absent were any head scarves or crystal balls or other props I imagined. She was a sharply dressed older lady with warm eyes who instantly set me at ease. She waited for me to get comfortable in my chair. We sat in silence for a few moments. Then, she asked for my hands. She held them in hers and closed her eyes. Then she opened then, turned my hands palm side up, and began tracing the lines.

I don’t know how she knew that I was on marriage No. 2 or that I had two daughters. (Good guesses? Twice?) I don’t know how she had Girl from the West pegged to a T. To a T. She also knew things about Husband No. 1 and Husband No. 2 that could be good guesses but were rather specific to each man’s personality. She even predicted that I would be making a big move in two years — to the West. Although she envisioned me standing by an ocean rather than in the mountains.

But the line about me being a man in a past life or two? That floored me.

See, I am not a man trapped in a woman’s body. I’m not a closeted lesbian.  But I’ve always felt …. less than feminine and very reluctant to embrace or flaunt my womanliness. I’ve written before that I don’t have a sister and I’ve only had a few close female friends in my life. On the other hand, since childhood, I’ve always gravitated to boys and men and strike up fast friendships with men. I am infinitely more comfortable around men.

I won’t even go into how one whole summer the neighbor across the street thought I was a boy.

I’m not a women-only group joiner. I don’t go to the ladies room in a pack.  I am not into shopping. I  own less than a dozen shoes.  In many ways, whatever the majority of women are into or like, I’ll be the one or among the few who does not.

On the other hand, I’m not some uber-athlete who didn’t play with dolls when I was a child. I’m not really handy with tools or home repair projects. I’m not a gear head. Plenty of folks have me pegged as super feminine and are surprised to learn I love the outdoors and rough camping. They think because I wear eye makeup and jewelry and heels in the city, that my bare feet haven’t walked on the forest floor, or that I’ve never backpacked in the backcountry of Montana.

I’m not crazy about the belching, farting, spitting on the streets part of men. But I do appreciate the to-the-point way men talk and resolve their problems. Even if it means coming to blows, at least it’s settled. Is there anything worse than the protracted agony of the Mean Girls treatment? Ever since my first Brownie Girl Scouts meeting, I’ve hated girl politics.

The psychic didn’t have much more to say about the life I’m living right now, other than things will improve once I make my big move. Right now I need to focus on what I’m meant to be doing: taking care of Girl from the East.

Do I believe all of this? I don’t know. Did I just write a whole post using gender stereotypes. You bet I did.

But, I can’t help wondering what kind of man I was in a past life.

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Tightrope

Photo by KevinT3141 via Creative Commons

I walked the tightrope for 24 hours, balanced between two undesirable outcomes: the sharp rocks of grief and despair on one side and a bubbling lava pit of anger and frustration on the other.

“We haven’t heard from (insert name of family member) in five days,” my mother said to me over the phone.

Family Member, or FM, left his home state on a Wednesday. His trip included a brief stopover in a state somewhere halfway between Point A and Point B. Between Wednesday and Monday, I called FM and left a voice mail message.

That I hadn’t heard from him didn’t give me pause. He can be like that. Plans are always lightly written in pencil.

But my mother thought something was wrong.

“It’s not like FM to be so silent on the road,” she said. “FM usually keeps in touch if there are delays.” I took her word for it. I heard the concern in the spaces between her words. I felt the tightness in her voice become a tightness in my throat.

I considered the situation: A person traveling alone across the country doesn’t show up on his arrival date. No one who has called FM has been able to reach him. Voice messages have not been returned.  I discussed these concerns with my husband and a close friend. What to do? We are not talking about a teenager or even a young adult. This is a middle-aged man who’s been trekking around the continent alone for decades. This is a person who has a history of disappearing and living off the grid on occasion.

I also considered two recent deaths of people we know who were about the same age. The most recent case involved a single man who lived alone. Through circumstances we may never know, he somehow became entangled in live electrical lines that had fallen in his back yard. The crazy part? He was an electrician. He would have known better than to pick up a live wire. Or, maybe because he was an expert he was overconfident. Either way, these tragedies played through my mind as I considered FM’s lifestyle.

Even veteran solo travelers and outdoorsmen and women run into serious trouble. To ignore our concerns meant precious time would be lost if something had happened.

Suddenly this thing took on a life of its own. Other family members and friends became involved. Two relatives made a drive to the family cottage to see if he was there. Calls were made to the state police and to his hometown police department. The more calls we made and received, the more this thing felt like a situation.

I walked the tightrope. Were we inviting trouble by flirting with its possibilities?

  • He’s fine. This is typical behavior. My mother worries so much about FM. I needed to ease her fears. Taking action felt empowering.
  • He’s an inconsiderate jerk, self-absorbed, probably met some hot young thing at a campground and has lost all sense of time and propriety.
  • He’s dead in a ravine.
  • He’s been robbed and beaten by roving criminals.
  • He’s at home watching movies.

I started thinking about the last time we saw each other, our parting words, if we were kind to each other.

The next day, as I worked my way across the taut line, sending dark thoughts to the background and focusing on the day ahead,  my cell phone buzzed.

“He’s OK,” my mother announced.

The outcome? FM’s phone service was spotty to nonexistent during his travels. Oh, and he decided to stay a few extra days at his stopping point. By his calculations he is only one day late. He is upset and embarrassed that we called the police. He thinks we overreacted, created drama.

Maybe. We had the best of intentions.

As for us, the worry warts? We are on FM’s shit list right now.  Likewise, FM is on our list, too. We think what he did was totally insensitive. One phone call could have prevented all of this. I know it’s tough to find a phone if you don’t have a cell service. But, it can be done. You ask. You offer to pay for the call. You get a roll of quarters and pump them into a pay phone.

In 24 hours I cycled from the brink of grief to a frustration so profound I had to disconnect myself from the remainder of FM’s visit.

How in this life do we balance caring enough about others to make sure they’re OK with respecting personal space and independence?

It’s a thin line.

Aurora made me do it

Photo by Jaredmoo via Creative Commons

It’s after 1 a.m. and I’m semi-lost. I’m also very sleepy and considering blowing through every red light in this shady town so I can escape its tricky streets that keep landing me in the same intersection. At the last red light, a low-rider packed with trouble and pulsating loud music pulled alongside my family wagon, confirmed this as a questionable, if not outright irresponsible, parenting moment.  I willed us, a car of two women and one young child, invisible.

How did I get here? Driving in circles through the maze of one-way streets in this downtrodden burg? How is it I’m watching the contents of several nightclubs spew onto the streets while keeping a peripheral eye on the vagrants weaving along the  curbs instead of gazing at the heavens above for signs of magic? I glance in the rear-view mirror to see my four-year-old slumped in her car seat, her bowed lips slightly parted in deep sleep.  What are my children doing out on the streets when they should be home in their beds?

Aurora  borealis made me do it.

That’s right.

It started out so innocently. A radio report that afternoon promised a rare view of the northern lights in Michigan. Solar flares and all the other magical stuff that goes into aurora borealis meant I could show my children something special on an otherwise boring weeknight.

I hatched the plan quickly: We’d go around 11:30 p.m. and just head north out of the city. I’d drive until I could see more than two stars.  I had a quarter tank of gas, my water bottle, my digital camera, my cell phone and my keys. Left behind: my wallet and my common sense. I drove with my window down and every so often gazed upward to see if I could see anything glowy or shimmery. That was my whole plan. It was the plan of a 12-year-old child.

See, some of it is based on the last time I answered the call of the hypnotic northern lights. I lived in what once were the outer suburbs. It was easy to drive an hour to a purely unpolluted night sky. Ten years ago I moved close to the city center. I’m lucky if I see ursa major in the sky on a clear night.

I love the northern lights. I love them so much, I lose all common sense to view them. I’ve only seen them four times in my life, which is probably more than most folks who live below the 45th parallel can claim. My husband has never witnessed their otherworldly beauty. Neither have my children.

My first sighting was as a college student.  I stumbled out of the student newspaper office well after midnight, red-eyed and wired on caffeine. I don’t know what made me look upward, but when I did, I had to rub my eyes and slap my cheeks a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating on this brisk night. I knew northern lights were awe-inspiring, but I had no idea how much so until I stood in that empty  parking lot staring at the sky. Within minutes, other newspaper staff members joined me. We found a bench nearby and sat, shivering, watching what looked like giant celestial curtains puffing in the breeze.

Over the next decade I saw them three more times: in the outer suburbs of Detroit and twice while camping in northwest Michigan.  Each time the display was bigger, more colorful and dramatic than the last.

I react to the northern lights the way some people do to seeing the face of Jesus on a potato chip or when alphabet soup inadvertently spells your future spouse’s name. I am moved. Moved to stupidity.

I can’t help it. I realize that piling my children into the car in the wee hours of morning without a plan, with less than a quarter tank of gas, and ending up turned around in a dangerous town was not one of my shining parental moments.

Eventually I found the right road to get us home.

When we pulled into the garage and the automatic door rolled down, thereby restoring us to a sense of safety, a let out a heavy sigh. Relieved we’d made it home. Embarrassed that my promises of magic were duds. Annoyed that an hour’s worth of driving didn’t get me any farther away from the urban sprawl and light pollution. Disappointed as hell that I didn’t get to see those celestial curtains blowing in the breeze.

Mentally, I'm still on vacation…

… and part of it is due to my obsession with this strange cloud formation we encountered in central Missouri. In all my travels I have never seen this type of cloud. While it looks menacing and otherworldly, it isn’t always dangerous. It depends.

We came upon this mass at the end of a hot and sunny day exploring a portion of the Missouri Ozarks, a densly forested area of low mountains. As we worked our way northeast toward St. Louis the topography opened up to the plains and presented a stunning view of  this massive dome. As we drew closer and then slipped underneath it, we were both thrilled and agitated.

We are veteran road trippers through the nation’s broad and flat central states. We’ve witnessed a number of strong storms and violent weather. I recall my father outrunning a tornado in Kansas back in the mid-1970s. Although we only saw the rotating skies overhead and never witnessed the funnel or touchdown, we followed the course of the storm by way of a crackling AM radio broadcast. My only other memory of that afternoon was a stop at an ice cream stand where we had cones and my dad took a long pull on a bottle of bourbon.

Memories of that day as well as how clouds look in the Michigan skies when tornado sirens roar to life had my heart jumping and my fingers dancing on the car radio scan buttons. I switched to the Weather Band, fully expecting to hear the staccato squawks of the Emergency Broadcast System. Nothing. We were puzzled. How could something so daunting be so uneventful? We checked Weather Bug, a cell phone app, and saw a large storm cell on radar moving northeast of us but we never encountered anything more than moderate rainfall.  Later,  I did a little Internet sleuthing and learned it was a shelf cloud, which is attached to the leading edge of a large thunderstorm. Based on all the YouTube uploads, I’m not the only person to be fascinated and fooled by this weather phenomenon.

This is the first sighting of the cloud, which looks like a space craft.

Almost under the cloud. Camera in one hand, the other scanning radio stations for a weather report. No warnings. No big deal.

Another view as we moved under the cloud

Under the cloud. The wisps descending earthward resemble funnel clouds, but they are not a threat.

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